Monday, November 30, 2009

Flash Fiction Challenge

Something a little diffferent on Do Some Damage today. Three of us are taking part in the Flash Fiction Challenge, "Wal-Mart: I Love You."

Before we get to the stories, I'd like to thank Patti Abbott, Gerald So and the Mystery Dawg, Aldo Calcagno for running these challenges. This is the third one I've taken part in (Steve and Jay are Flash virgins) and they're a lot of fun.

This challenge was simple - write a flash fiction that has something to do with Wal-Mart. Some of us used the website People of Wal-Mart for inspiration.

EDIT, October 23, 2010.

In the comments on this post Peter Rozovsky (of Detectives Beyond Borders fame) suggested that someone put all these stories between covers and sell them at Wal-Mart. Well, not exactly, "between covers," but Patti Abbott and Steve Weddle did collect all the stories and Untreed Reads is making the collection available as an e-book, Discount Noir.

The book is available for Kindle from Amazon, from Smashwords, from the Untreed Reads site and from many other online retailers.

It's a terrific collection, over 4o stories from some of the finest crime writers working today (and one from me) all in one place. I bought my copy from Smashwords and it looks great and reads well. Taken together, these 40+ stories tell a much bigger story about a moment in time then anyone could have predicted when the challenge was issued.

And I don't think this will be unique to this collection. I think this is just the beginning of where "cloud writing" can go in the future.

So now that the stories are collected in an anthology, we've taken them down from the blog. But really, go buy the collection, it's worth it.

Code Adam

By Steve Weddle

You just don't have the kind of day I was having and not kill someone.

Available as part of the Discount Noir collection here

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thank You?

By Mike Knowles

I think Roger Ebert figured it out a while ago. A simple thumbs up or thumbs down. With Ebert, I never had any doubt about what his opinion was. He either liked it or hated it. And in those instances where his socks were really blown off, it was common to hear thumbs way up. I can even get behind the movie reviewers on Yahoo who use letter grades (that may be because I’m a teacher, but it’s also because everyone understands A+).

A recent review of Grinder got me thinking about reviews. The review is from the Globe and Mail.

This is the second outing for Knowles – the first was Darwin's Nightmare – and his antihero, Wilson, is back, gone from his haunts in Hamilton and safely in hiding in B.C. He promised his old boss to get off the grid, and he has kept that promise. But then a man comes hunting for him – a man with a gun and a woman in the trunk of his car.

Knowles is working hard to take Wilson into the world of characters like Lee Child's Jack Reacher. He hasn't made it there yet, but there's hope. He's a good atmospheric writer and he has the lingo down, but it takes more than 178 pages to get into the kind of tough guy he's building. Book three may be the breakout.

When I saw this, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I think it’s positive, I don’t specifically see a negative. There is a mention of Jack Reacher which is cool–I like him and so do others (a bazillion copies sold can’t be wrong). And the reviewer says I have the lingo down–another plus. But then there are the last two sentences. I’m not sure what to make of those.

When I see a review like this, I wonder what the purpose is. Is the review a critique on my work, or a guide to prospective consumers. I think it is the former in this case, but it should be both. I read this review a bunch of times and tried to figure out the recommendation. If it will take more than 178 pages to get into the "tough guy" I’m building, should people start reading now? Should they wait for book three (which is done and awesome by the way)?

What if I reviewed my wife’s cooking this way?

This is the fourth meal of the week–penne with meatballs–and the wife is back with another salute to the cuisine of Italy. The meatballs are back from the freezer and Mrs. Knowles teams them up with the pasta from the box that was not quite finished last week.

The wife is working hard to take penne and meatballs into the world of chefs like Mario Batali and Lydia Bastianich. She hasn’t made it there yet, but there’s hope. She makes good sauce and can make the pasta al dente, but it takes more than a single serving of pasta to get into the kind of meal she’s building. Sunday’s lasagna may be the breakout.

So, who wants to eat at my house on Sunday? It could be the breakout.

I just hate being confused, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. If I was reading this review about someone else’s book, I wouldn’t know what to make of it. Maybe the reviewer didn’t know what to make of Grinder, but if that was the case he should of just said so instead of leaving the reader to inference it.

I think movie reviewers have it right. And in that spirit, I’m giving Grinder thumbs up and an A+ (it’s my blog and I can do what I want).

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Two Thoughts from the Space-Time Continuum

It’s Thanksgiving weekend and, frankly, I ain’t got a lot going on except football (Longhorns already won; time for the Texans to bump off Indy), shopping, and writing. Oh, and a little movie watching.

I convinced my wife to watch “Star Trek” on DVD. I saw it opening day back in May and have been anticipating seeing it again once it landed on DVD. In the Age of Complete Convenience For Everything You Might Remotely Want*, Blockbuster had loads of copies and I rented one. We saw it again tonight (Friday) and it led me to a statement and a question.

Reboots Are Not All Bad

I don’t know how many die-hard Trekkies lamented the events of the latest Star Trek movie. In one fell swoop, director J. J. Abrams wiped out all that we knew and created something new (nice rhyming, huh?). We had critics griping that there’s only one Kirk and Shatner is the one to play him. Ditto Spock, McCoy, and all the rest. It sure is loud, all that lamenting and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

I did not count myself among the lamenters. As I wrote on my blog, I consider Star Trek my favorite movie. After initially being ambivalent about the film based on the first trailer, I came around quite swiftly and ended up loving the film more than I expected. Yes, they changed a lot--everything?--but one thing survived: the spirit of Star Trek lives in the new movie and among the new cast.

The same thing will be said about the new Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. Critics are already lambasting the film, the director, the action-adventure aspect of the film, and, of course, the casting of Downey. But, like the Star Trek film, I can tell that the spirit of the source material lives in the movie. Sure, Downey’s no Jeremy Brett (my choice for a definitive Holmes) but, then, neither was Michael Caine.

I think it’s okay that every generation updates certain classic characters and I can’t think of any character or situation that is so sacrosanct as to automatically preclude updating (or a reboot). Can you? And who here is really, Really looking forward to seeing the new Sherlock Holmes movie?

What Is It With Young Men?

Again, with the new Star Trek film, young James Kirk is a genius rebel who grew up without a father and uses self-destructive behavior to hide his anger and guilt. All of this happens, of course, until Someone Else talks to them and motivates them to rise and become the man they were born to be.

How many friggin times have we seen this? The list is virtually endless: Star Wars, Top Gun, Star Trek, Batman Begins, A Few Good Men, Good Will Hunting, etc. There are the older stories and myths most of which don’t come to mind because I’m just not that up-to-date with my Greek and Roman myths (but I know they are there).

Which leads me to the question I posed to my wife last night and I now throw out to you: Are there any stories like this with young women as the protagonist, the one who must rise up and become the woman she was born to be? None come to mind and I’m honestly wondering if there are any. I know there must be so, please, enlighten me.

*Age of Complete Convenience For Everything You Might Remotely Want -- My family and I drove around Houston on Thursday, visiting family, eating, and playing a Wii for the first time. Thirty years ago, when it came to Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day, there was *nothing* open. Period. If you didn’t get something by the eve before, you were out of luck until the day after said holiday.

Not anymore. I noticed Cracker Barrel was open. Kroger was open. Walgreens and CVS were open (do they ever close?). Other places whose names escape me were open. And don’t even get me started on this “Open at 4am” crap.

When, in the last thirty-odd years, did it become important that we, as a society, must not be put out and have to wait for something just because a store was closed?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Sequels, Series and Neccesity

By Russel D McLean

Stephen King the other day mentioned that he had an idea for a sequel to “The Shining” which would deal with a grown up Danny Torrance, in his forties, helping old folks cross over and betting on the horses. Now, in some ways it might make for an interesting book, but I for one ain’t so sure.*

Sometimes you just need to let an idea go. Sometimes you don’t need to know “what happened next”. You know everything that you need to know.

I get it, I do, and I know it’s what fuels the “series” market, this need to know what happened next to beloved characters, but honestly I don’t think we always need to know. I think sometimes we’re better off not knowing. Or just figuring it out in our own heads.

Now, I loved The Shining, but I don’t give a toss what happened to Danny forty years later. For a start, forty years later he ain’t gonna be that same wee lad whose dad went mental and who had to face shape-shifting bushes, killer wasps and some bloody weird spooks hanging around the Overlook Hotel. He’s going to be an entirely different person and not one that I’m sure I want to know, particularly, at least in the sense that I’d know he was also that terrified wee kid. Now, maybe I could take a return to the Overlook, but honestly I just don’t want to know what happened to any of the folks we met there first time around. Far as I’m concerned, their story was done and dusted, and in the way that King tells his germ for the story, I don’t see why it couldn’t just be some other guy with some cool psychic powers he was writing about.

Here’s the thing; some characters just need to be around for one story. Or maybe a few more if they cry out for it. I’m not against sequels. Just against ones that feel redundant (and boy, there are a lot of those around). I’m not even against series (Technically I’m writing one), but I am against those that outstay their welcome and their relevance.

I always admired the chutzpah of British writer Ray Banks who created a character that lasted over four books. And then he put him away. No fooling. And that’s cool, because he told the stories that needed to be told with that character. I’m a fan of sequences in fiction, but not necessarily of series, which I think can often play themselves into the ground or, even worse, start repeating after a while. There is at least one top-selling writer I can think of whose more recent books I have started skipping over because, while I have fun with them, I know exactly what’s going to happen and have no fear that everything will turn out right in the end. I mean this guy is now writing the same damn novel every time and while that’s cool and a bit of “fast food for the brain”, it is beginning to really irk me because I’m a reader who doesn’t want to know what happens next, who wants the unexpected and occasionally the unwanted if it makes for a good and unpredictable reading experience.

I couldn’t go this far without mentioning George Pelecanos, of course, who tends to drop series after three or four books, ultimately creating some of the most memorable characters you’ll ever read. Despite a cameo in a later novel, I’m glad he left Nick Stefanos behind and I think he was right to drop off the Strange Investigations books where he did because, man, those stories said what they needed to say and said it well. Just because some characters were still living does not mean that I want to follow them to death.

Maybe its because I have some kind of literary commitment issues. Or maybe its an extension of my need for brevity and clarity in writing which has previously been applied to the length of novels. I don’t know, but I don’t always see the need for sequels unless they advance the themes and/or characters in some way that feels natural and pertinent. Its one of the reasons I talk about McNee only lasting a certain number of books, because I wonder just how long I can evolve the character before he starts repeating himself. I still remember the crushing disappointment of the day I realised one of my favourite series characters had quit evolving, had started standing still, had resorted to cheap tricks to keep me interested.

And I wished that his story had ended one book earlier. Knew that if it had, the sequence of books as stood would have been perfect.

*it should also be noted that King hasn’t fully “committed” to writing “Doctor Sleep” as he tentatively titled the novel. But it serves as a nice jumping off point for me here.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


by Dave White

Here's what everyone at DSD is thankful for:

John McFetridge:" I'm thankful for the community. The way we Canadians and Brits and Scots and Americans and Irish and Australians (maybe I've gone too far?) can 'talk' to each other everyday - writers, readers, all of us.

Really, this whole internet thing would be a waste of time without us."

Jay Stringer: "I reckon thankful for an agent who beleives in my work, good supportive friends and the community at large who are all way nicer than their dark moody crime image will allow.

And Wolverhampton Wanderers. I'm allways thankful for them, and they've had books written about them so it counts."

Russel MacLean is thankful for our agent Allan Guthrie, saying: "...he is indeed a man to be thankful for. Even if he does keep insisting that I should have made McNee a transexual, one-legged dward. From the future."

Steve Weddle: "Thankful to work with the world's best agent, write with you super talented guys, and read along with our community of clever commenters."

Scott Parker: "I'm thankful for the publication of my first short story at Beat to a Pulp and to David and Elaine who thought my story worthy enough.

I'm thankful that Charles Ardai saw a market niche in the publishing industry that needed to be filled and created Gabriel Hunt and hired top-notch talent to pen his adventures.

I'm thankful that established companies like DC Comics took a gamble and published Wednesday's Comics, an old-school throwback to the days when comics were a bit more simple but no less entertaining.

I'm thankful that I got invited to join Do Some Damage and to participate in great conversations with six great authors."

Mike Knowles: "My agent, the dashing Al Guthrie, puts up with way too many of my questions and gives me nothing but literary gold in return. It's a good symbiotic relationship."

And me? Dave White is thankful for his agent, who is patient beyond belief, the editors I've had who've helped me out with my books, and for all the fans who've read those books. I really appreciate all the help I've gotten in this industry. Everyone has been super supportive.

And of course... All the members of DSD thank Steve Weddle for getting this idea together.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Big Themes

John McFetridge

In the last couple of weeks I saw two stage plays and read two novels. The plays were “big theme” stories. Rock and Roll by Tom Stoppard was about the Czeck Republic emerging from communism, it takes place between 1968 and 1993 and has a lot to say about totalitarianism and freedom and spirit – and Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys.

Stuff Happens by David Hare is the story of the Bush Administration and how they got into Iraq. It has all the big players in it; Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Blair, Rice, Powell – Saddam isn’t in it but there are a few lines from an Iraqi refuge and a Palestinian. Big geopolitic ideas discussed.

The novels weren’t about such big events. George V, Higgins’ Cogan’s Game is about, well, a lot of things. It starts out with two very small time crooks who get out of jail and talk to another guy they met in jail – a small-time operator himself – about robbing a big-money card game. Not movie-style, multi-million dollar big money, but fifty grand – big money to these guys.

Like Higgins’ other Boston novels, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Digger’s Game, the book is almost all dialogue, it’s just like being in the room or the car or on the bus with these guys and listening to them talk. Sometimes it’s frustrating – they aren’t the brightest guys – but mostly you understand where they’re coming from and what they want. And it’s always small stuff.

Old City Hall is kind of a big sweeping story that covers a lot of the same ground as my novels, the whole “multicultural Toronto,” but it takes place in much nicer places than my books. It’s a traditional murder mystery, a woman is found dead in the first chapter and then lots of characters piece together what really happened to her. It’s really a very personal tragedy, and quite self-contained.

Elmore Leonard has said that he doesn’t know what the themes are in his books until Scott Frank adapts them into screenplays and shows him, but that’s just Elmore poking the academics and big-time critics who can’t tell the difference between genre and literature but think they can.

I use theme as a crutch. When I’m writing a book and I hit a snag, or when I get into what Linwood Barclay so accurately calls the, “mushy middle,” I write a scene that may not advance the plot, but does explore the theme. Sometimes those scenes even stay in the book, but even if they get cut they’ve helped keep the momentum going and helped me work out the theme a little more myself.

But I don’t want the theme to overtake the action. I like big theme stories like Rock and Roll and Stuff Happens but they both kept the story moving and were very enertaining, They both had plenty of jokes – dark, twisted jokes, maybe, but the auidiences still laughed.

In Dirty Sweet the theme is opportunity – how some people see it everywhere and others don’t see it anywhere. Okay, not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but complicated enough for me.

Right now I’m at the mushy middle of the book I’m working on and I’m writing a lot of stuff that may not make it past the final edit, but it is helping me get a real handle on the theme.

So, how much do you think about theme? When you write and when you read?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

You couldn't make this up

By Jay Stringer

I’ve been thinking about responsibility. And trust me, this is not something I do often.

The term can be a bit strange when applied to fiction. Where does an author’s responsibility lie? Certainly to the story. Surely above and beyond all else. But does it end there? Well, some would say to the reader. Whether its someone paying hard earned cash or someone reading for free on the Internet, there is a degree to which the author has a responsibility to them.

Writers of non-fiction have a responsibility to the subject they’re writing about, to the real people, events and facts. They have to serve history and context. Fiction sometimes gets a free pass, but should it?

David Peace wrote The Dammed United about Brian Clough’s short reign as manager of Leeds. It’s certainly a driven book, it takes you along with it. It deserves a lot of the accolades that have been thrown at it but, by the same token, perhaps some of the criticism too? Peace fictionalised the lives of real people, some of whom are still alive. Many of the deceased ‘characters’, most high profile of which was Clough himself, have families left behind who stand to be hurt or moved by depictions of their loved ones.

Peace’s portrayals of many of the characters were very strong; they were driven, angry and complex. Clough was shown to have many flaws and vices amongst his genius. He was portrayed as insecure, foul mouthed and alcoholic. The legend of Brian Clough allows for each of those interpretations to be true. But the reality of a man and his private life is something only his family can know. But Peace himself has never claimed to be writing a biography. He’s used the ‘fiction defence’ a few times, something which is used to free the book from a need to stick to the facts. This has angered and upset a few people in equal measure.

Is he right? Is he wrong? I’m not the guy with any answers, just a blog full of questions.

I recently watched a long talk between David Simon and Charlie Brooker. Simon tells a story of how his reality-based fiction crossed back into reality. While spending a year shadowing a homicide unit, he encountered many bizarre stories. He recycled the basic premise of one particular murder into a script for the television show Homicide: Life On The Street. What he hadn’t thought of was that as that episode aired a young woman would be watching an hour of fiction on television and realising the story was based on the death of her parent. The Wire itself draws largely from real people, though the show is fiction. Anyone who has read The Corner will recognise people, names and events that later showed up in the show. And it has also been said by both David Simon and Ed Burns that their show actually held back; it didn't really show things as they are because that would be a bit too harsh, a bit to far.

That’s both a very uncomfortable and very interesting place for fiction to go, but is it the responsibility of the writer to measure these things?

I’ve been reading through a true-crime book, originally called Leadbelly but now often re-titled Underbelly. It has been adapted into one of the most critically acclaimed Australian TV shows of recent years, a reality based crime drama looking at the Melbourne drug wars. Whilst it was tearing up the ratings charts and garnering critical acclaim, it was also banned in some parts of Australia because the content was too close to the bone, and in some cases because people featured in it were still on trial. Now, this almost has the opposite defence to David Peace; it’s basically non-fiction. At the same rime, it’s an adapted work. It’s a serialised drama and the only real line between that and The Wire is that its events are still recent, its characters are still, in some cases, walking the streets.

Where does the responsibility lie there? Do the storytellers have to show thought for the people whose names and likenesses they are using in the name of entertainment? How about the lawyer Zarah Garde-Wilson who, whilst a TV show portrays her as involved with killers and drug barons, was trying to piece her reputation and career back together?

In both of the books I have been working on recently, there are a lot of elements of realism involved. I use them to wrap around a total fiction, but there are names, references and people mixed in there who informed my views of the area I grew up in. There is a character mentioned briefly in the first book who is someone I actually knew at university, in the second I originally had him die ‘off screen’ in a casual reference, but felt a responsibility to handle things better. Now in the case of my silly self imposed problems, the answer is simple; if it gets in the way of the story, take it out. Job done, no fuss. I avoid the issue with my own writing, or have done so far, by carefully judging when to throw in a dose of reality and when to simply use the McFet rule of MSU (make shit up)

But with so much of modern crime fiction having one foot in reality, where does the writers responsibility lie? Is the term ‘fiction’ a free pass to invent and adapt even if you’re using real people? Or does the use of reality, if you decide to use it to such a large extent, demand to be treated correctly?

Totally unrelated; Look out soon for a lengthy interview with Scott Phillips, author of classics like The Ice Harvest and The Walkaway. In fact, go read them and prepare. Or re-read them, if they're on your shelf.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Black Friday and a Piña Colada

All night long
We would sing that stupid song
And every word we sang
I knew was true

By Steve Weddle

If you're like an estimated 89% of the world population (my estimate, having been out with you people in this mess), you'll be parking in medians and knocking over neighbors as you race for the latest hamster with buggy eyes this Friday.

The day after Thanksgiving has been known as Black Friday ever since Bagsecg the Viking was killed in 871 near Oxfordshire while shopping for TecmoBowl for the original Nintendo.

You don't need to visit the mall this year. Yes, I know how much you like the Orange Juliuses, er, Julii, and buying three Hallmark cards so that you can get the dancing polar bear, but do that some other time. This week, I got ya covered.

In fact, those dudes over there in the right rail have you covered. Mike Knowles, John McFetridge, and Russel D. McLean have each had books come out in the last couple months. What timing, right? Just as you're getting to know these dudes better, they come out with books for you to buy for the holidays. Truly, the world revolves around you. But that's not all. Dave White has a couple of books you need to have -- or need to give as gifts. Why? Because his new one will be out soon.

And speaking of new ones, Jay Stringer's book is fantastic and the work Scott D. Parker is doing is amazing. So let's make a shopping list, shall we?

I've had the privilege of reading two of John McFetridge's books -- DIRTY SWEET and SWAP. McFet, as he's known around the DoSomeDamage compound, started off in a great spot and continues to grow. He writes about Toronto as if it were the crime capital of the world. Heck, it might be. So much goes on here, with these crazy people just one little deal away from hitting it big. Cops and criminals alike get caught up in bad decisions. These are fantastic reads. But don't take my word for it. Check out what the BCS folks say. Or these folks, who say SWAP "might well serve as an eye-opener to McFetridge’s Canadian readers.

You can even check out a collection of McFet's stories up there in the right rail where it says FLASH. SWAP is available in Canada. In a couple of months it will be called LET IT RIDE and will be available in the US of A. If you're a fan of third person stories in which a bunch of people and their stories come together -- or don't -- you'll love these books. Heck, if you like good books, you'll like these. I sure as heck did.

Our other Canadian DSDer is Mike Knowles, whose second book, GRINDER, just came out. If the catalog copy doesn't get you ordering the book, something could be wrong you.

Two years ago Wilson left his old boss alive in exchange for a clean slate, keeping up his end of the bargain and staying off the grid. Then, thousands of miles from the city he once escaped, a man comes calling on Wilson with a gun in hand and a woman in his trunk. Wilson is pulled back into his old life as a "grinder" to work under the radar to quietly find out who is responsible for a dangerous mobster's missing nephews--and this time all bets are off.

And you'll need to hurry up. Word has it that Mike's next Wilson book is due out next year. If you like your crime fiction dark and messy, this is the book for you. Mike has a great way of filling the page with violence and fear and never losing site of the character and narrative. GRINDER is on my TBR pile right, waiting for me to finish THE LOST SISTER, by Russel D. McLean.

THE LOST SISTER is a great follow-up to THE GOOD SON. In this new one, Scottish Private Eye J McNee returns and gets caught up in all sorts of craziness, looking for a missing girl. He faces personal and professional challenges, the likes of which would break most people. There's a good deal of "place" in these books, atmosphere and surroundings that help develop a character who gets more complex with each chapter -- just like the mystery he's unraveling. You'll love it.

Which brings us to an oldie but a goodie. Dave White (I don't mean he's old, despite the fact that he just turned 30.) has been writing Jackson Donne stories for years. You can go back and catch up on the shorts over here. Like McFet's FLASH up there, these are free looks at some solid work. Once you read those stories, you'll want to grab WHEN ONE MAN DIES, the story of Donne, a former junkie cop, who is trying to do a favor and look into a friend's death. He probably should have just flown to Hawaii instead. It doesn't go well for him. When you finish that one, you'll want to get the next one. And I hear there's a third one coming out in the next year or two, which would be great.

OK. So I've given you some choices of books to read and to give as gifts.

SWAP if you're in Canada. DIRTY SWEET if you're not. Then LET IT RIDE in the new year. That's McFet. For Mike, send folks a copy of GRINDER and let them be afraid of you. You could go back and get DARWIN's NIGHTMARE, too.

THE LOST SISTER and THE GOOD SON by Russel are great reads with plenty of mystery and nuance.

And Dave's Jackson Donne work is another good bet. Russel and Dave have the PI books here, while McFet and Mike really look at Canada's underbelly. Like most underbellies, this one ain't pretty.

In the next year or so, you should be able to read Jay Stringer's OLD GOLD. Jay's got a way of building characters quickly and then developing them through the book. Here's an example I'm probably not supposed to share with you:

“You let him threaten you?”
She gave me that Bacall look again, and somehow everything I’d said seemed foolish.
“Do I look like I’d let someone actually hit me?”
She didn’t.

I love that part. Man, I can't wait to see this one on the shelves.

And speaking of future works, Scott D. Parker has a couple of projects that I hope he blogs about soon. He's a master of the sci-fi, western, and the mystery. When he gets his book together, you're gonna hear about it everywhere.

OK. That give you enough to shop for this holiday season? Glad to help. Now make with the clicky-click and get ordering.

If you've read some of these, what did you think? If not, what the heck is wrong with ya?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Started off a blog ended up a kind of rant (I think)

by Mike Knowles

I had an interesting experience last Sunday at the gym. It was one of those things, that as a writer, almost never happens for me. Let me preface what I am about to write with the admission that I am conversation eavesdropper. I admit it. If I hear two people talking and the subject matter or their diction is interesting, I will focus on them like I’m trying to bend a spoon with my mind. Usually I get street lingo I didn’t know, or a bit of ethnic slang. Sunday I got a big serving of racism.

I’m not a racist by any means, and that has actually shown itself to be a problem for me more than once. I don’t mean that I think there needs to be more racism in the world; it has just been hard for me to write a character who has those feelings because I don’t. Writing racism is hard, because it’s hard to get into a racists head. I can write women, kids, criminals, and cops pretty well, but racism has always been tough for me. It's not like writing mean or angry (those I can do). Racism is a lot different and harder to get a hold on. I think this might be because racism doesn’t really exist. It’s not it’s own thing; it’s a hybrid of concepts like brunch. It gains meaning and identity as a sum of its parts. Racism is really a mix of crazy and stupid. Case in point—the gym.

I was finishing my workout and there were two men beside me having a conversation. Already you should know that these two are douche’s because they’re at the gym to talk to each other, but that is another post for another Sunday. So I’m lifting, and I hear Racist # 1 say, “So I tell my kids, I don’t care how nice they look, or how big they smile. They’re not your friends. They’re not. They’re just not. My wife thinks I’m brainwashing them, but she don’t know how they are.”

My ears picked up and I suddenly began working out on autopilot. I don’t even know if the weights moved for the next three minutes.

Racist #2 leaned in close and mumbled something. I was worried that he had the common sense to chide his friend about his caveman views.

Racist #1 eased my fears. Whatever his friend said spurred him on. “They’re at my kid’s school. I don't know how we keep letting them into the country, but they get in; probably from The States. I don’t know how they afford it. But they’re there. And, you know what? They want to wear those hoods all day long. My kid can't wear a hat in school, but they can wear those things? C'mon ”

I was up to speed after that. Racist #1 didn’t like Muslims.

He went on. “They say it’s their right to wear those hoods, and if the school don’t let ‘em they get offended. What about me? I’m offended all the time by them. Who cares about me?”

Racist #2 had something quiet to say about the hoods which I can only assume are hijabs (I may be wrong, I'm not fluent in dummy).

Racist #2 then saw me staring in the mirror and he nodded towards his friend. Both men looked in my direction and I laughed at them. I put the weights down and left them to argue over who gets to be Grand Dragon. If you're going to ask why I didn't start a ruckus it's because I am a strong believer in free speech, even the bad kind. Even racists should have the right to spout off (sucks but true).

The argument was great because it was everything I thought it would be when I pictured racism in my head. There was no real reason for hating the Muslim kids who went to the same school as the children of Racist #1. There was no common sense behind it. But for the sake of argument, let's pull what we can from the man's words to make sure.

Apparently the people in question can't be trusted no matter how much they smile. I'm guessing this, at its core, has some relation to 9/11. Most of the simple minded racism I come across is rooted in this event. The man who shot up Fort Hood didn't do the Muslim community any favors either mind you. But it seems that 9/11 reinvigorated the concept of water cooler racism. I’ve noticed that after 2001 there are pockets of the community who’ve decided there’s a green light for hate speech in public so long as you aim it at the Middle East. So if we follow the logic of Racist #1, the blood shed on 9/11 makes others who share some element of the faith perverted to achieve the attack part of the conspiracy. It doesn't matter if the people he hates smile and treat him well, he's sure that he knows their real agenda even if everyone else doesn't.

Racist #1's paranoia about a hidden agenda is a side effect of the crazy and stupid that comprises racism. I've seen Racist #1 around for years and he's been a loud talker forever. I know where he works, what he drives, even how much his clothes cost. In terms of social standing, he occupies the spot of stupid upper middle class white guy. His ancestors have been in the country just long enough for him to forget that his family were once immigrants and whatever place they emigrated from has its own share of blood that has been spilled. Racist #1 is self-involved and has strong feelings of entitlement. With those feelings comes a feeling of irrational persecution. He feels that his social standing is constantly under attack from all sides from upwardly mobile immigrants. He thinks that there are people out there who are committed to knocking him off his perch. He doesn't see it as something that can be shared—apparently the upper middle class is already cramped like the back seat of a Chevette. So Racist #1 feels he is doing a public service when he speaks out in public. He doesn't see the irony in trying to keep the spot he attained on the backs of people who were once just like the people he is trashing while he holds a dumbbell.

The method in which Racist #1 trashes the Muslims is a window into the stupid and crazy that has taken the wheel in his head. He uses words like "they" because he doesn't really know who he hates; he just knows he hates "them" and that seems to be enough for him. He questions the intentions of ethnically different people even though according to him the people he warns his kids about have been nothing but nice. Racist #1 also questions how "they" afford to send "their" kids to the same school as his own brood. This is the most telling part for me. Immigrant kids attending the same fancy private school as his upper middle class white kid’s means the pressure is on for Racist #1. The immigrants he hates so much have already equalized their children with his own by sending them to the same school. So, in response, he attacks the religious freedoms of the children and speculates on the legitimacy of the source of their tuition. He can't let anyone catch up to his lead so he resorts to cheap shots and speculation. This proves there is zero rationale for his feelings. If there really was something to protect himself from he would easily be able to articulate what it was. Think about if you tried to call the cops to tell them that “they” are out there and "they" are trying to harm your way of life. Imagine how fast a squad car would show up and figure out who would eventually be leaving in it.

The reason I am writing about this racism and its lack of a coherent underlying thought is because I've had an editor tell me that the racism I tried to portray in a story didn't seem to have much behind it. Experiences like the one I had at the gym make me want to say, "Yeah you're right, it doesn't because real racism has nothing behind it. It's thinking gone wrong." Racism is just irrational paranoia with no real reasoning applied or needed.

But it is not all bad, there is the use of the words of Racist #1 as material of course. I'm going to go green with the hate and use every bit of the racism I heard. I will be like the natives I learned about it grade school who used every part of the buffalo down to the intestines. I am going to absorb everything I heard and reappropriate it. Don't be surprised if you hear Racist #1 in a book down the road. And don't be surprised if Racist #1 doesn't make it to the end in one piece.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Allure of Writing Longhand

It’s safe to assume that if Thomas Jefferson had a laptop, we’d never have seen the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. If Charles Dickens had a novel-writing program like Scrivener, we’d likely have more Dickens books to read and, possibly, the actual ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. If Erle Stanley Gardner had any of the speech-recognition software available to him, he’d likely have dictated his Perry Mason novels directly into his computer rather than his dictaphone. And I don’t want to even consider how many more Doc Savage novels Lester Dent could have written if he had a Mac considering he wrote a novel a month for years with only a typewriter.

Technology and the advent of the personal computer and word processing programs have flat-out made it easier to write. We have software programs that put our words in the exact, proper format. We have devices that enable us to enter words in a variety of ways not just the keyboard. Heck, we have authors in Japan who write their cellphone novels...on cellphones.

With all of this technology, then, why do so many of us writers cherish writing longhand? This month, I’m lugging my PowerBook everywhere I go so that I’ll have it with me and I can write whenever the mood--or time--strikes. It’s a fun habit, I’ll admit, and I’m doing it because I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this month. It’s the fastest way to get words down.

Honestly, however, if the self-imposed word count deadline was not staring me in the face, I’d write many of my pieces of fiction in longhand first and transfer to a software program later. I’ve done it in the past and I enjoy that first “edit” as I type in the words I wrote. The completed, transcribed material is tighter and better once I give it that first edit.

Back to the question at hand: why do folks enjoy writing longhand? I enjoy the simplicity, the minimal aspect of writing with pen and paper. The slower speed allows me to ponder the next word for a few more milliseconds than I get to when typing. I often longhand write the better word rather than the first word that enters my brain. As I’m blazing away at NaNoWriMo, I’m not editing but I am making mental notes, knowing I’ll go back and fix up sentences later. With slower, handwriting, I’d likely pick the better word from the get-go.

I love the scratch, scratch of pen nib on paper. There’s a quote from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: “Scratching is what you do when you can’t wait for the thunderbolt to hit you.” She’s referring to improvisation in being creative. The funny thing is for us writers, we can actually scratch.

There’s an ironic answer to my question: writer’s choose to write longhand in order to get us in the mind of our writing forebears. We like to think our ink-stained fingers get us closer to Dickens or Poe or Doyle. The irony is, had they been able to use our technology, Mr. Dickens, Poe, or Doyle would have chucked their ink stands and pens without thinking twice.

How do you like to write? If you write longhand, why?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Flashback: Super Size Me (Or Not)

By Russel D McLean

Note: This column (which has been slightly edited) originally appeared at Repeat Offenders, a column written by Russel that was supposed to be published monthly on the site At Central Booking but sadly only lasted two entries.

Russel is exceedingly busy this week, so we have flashed back to this entry from 2008 on the length of novels (with some minor edits for pacing and taking into account price changes in books)

This week, I figured on talking about size. Yeah, its an issue all novelists have to deal with. After all, there’s often a great deal of comparison goes on when these writist types get together. It becomes a matter of pride, you know.

Oftentimes, a minimum length is written into a contract before an author signs it. Some people get lucky. My contract is based around a short novel, so I have a nice low minimum count. Others have started out writing an epic debut novel and are only expected to write novels of equal length or greater. I’ve heard some writers have minimums of 140,000 words. Sometimes greater.

That’s a big book.

I remember reading the introduction to Philip K Dick’s masterwork of SF, Dr Bloodmoney where it was claimed to be the longest book Dick ever wrote – a bloody epic by his standards – at a mere slip of 80,000 words. These days, I see a lot of guidelines claiming 80,000 to be a “minimum”.


Oh, yes.

It’s enough to make you cry. Now, I get it, the idea that paying £7.99 for a book that’s half the size of the one just beside it looks like a false economy, but as with many other goods, its not about how much you get but what you get. I find a large percentage of readers who buy only larger books are the same ones who grumble about “a decline in quality” from certain writers, how they're "straying from the story" or "waffling".

Its a strange double standard.

Let me tell you a story about Don Winslow. A genius of a writer. Seriously, one of the great modern noir masters. Had me hooked from California Fire and Life, one of the earliest crime novels I remember out and out loving.

So, a customer comes into the shop where I was working at the time and says he’s read about this book called, Power of the Dog. It’s a Don Winslow book. The longest, I believe, the man has written. It’s a bloody epic. Hundreds of pages. Tens of years described in staccato, Ellroy-esque prose style. Goddamn, it’s a wonderful book. Big, yes, but absolutely justified in that length. So my customer buys it both from my fawning and from the review that made him come into the store in the first place. And he comes back, weeks later, saying, “Gimme me more of that Winslow.”

I serve up, Fire and Life and Winter of Frankie Machine. The customer looks at them and says, “I won’t buy them.”

Automatic response: “They don’t appeal?”

“No. They’re too short.” He demonstrates with thumb and forefinger, says, “I won’t buy books thinner than this. I just don’t think it justifies the expense.”

Which, to me, is a ludicrous argument. I mean he is, of course, entitled to believe this, but wouldn’t he rather have a short book he loved he loved than a long book that became a slog?

Of course, maybe I’m every bit as bad. I have this thing where I tend to give long books less consideration. Anything over 300 pages better be pretty damn good to get my attention. Better have fireworks going on when I reach the point where my attention starts to slip, or else I just can’t keep going. I’ve not started some books for years because of their length, its true. And I've felt bad about that because, yeah, I have missed on some great reads.

Am I some kind of reverse lengthist?

I hope not.

Some of my favourite books are big. But justified, not written that way purely for market reasons. Like Stephen King's It, which I truly believe is his finest work and one that keeps me coming back time and again. Or the aforementioned Power of the Dog. Anything by James Ellroy. Even the first two books in Kim Stanely Robinson's Mars trilogy (Red Mars and Green Mars) kept me going, but number three (Blue Mars) began to lose the pacing.

And, dear God, I cannot stand Lord of the Rings. I figure it was the book that probably set me against superflous storytelling in the first place.

In the end I believe, wholeheartedly, that a book is as long as it needs to be. I believe that many books can be cut in half and still be equally – if not more – enthralling. I believe that a novel needs to be necessary in and of itself, meaning its only as long or as short as required without someone arbitrarily imposing those lengths. Writers should be writing the best damn book possible, not fighting to meet inflated word counts.

Its a tough call, of course. I know many people who claim that LoTR is justifable in its eye-numbing length and who would claim that Dick stopped writing just when his stories got interesting. But that's a discussion for another time, exactly how we figure a book is the right size.

You see,

I believe in short books and long books.

Just as long as they’re the best damn books they can be.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Recent Reads

by Dave White

I've been on a really good book reading streak lately, so I figured I'd do a quick blog about it here.

1) Michael Connelly's 9 DRAGONS: This is the best Harry Bosch novel in years. When Harry's daughter is kidnapped in Hong Kong, Bosch goes after her. Connelly's always been good at reshuffling the deck for his series hero and he does it again here. An exciting and heart breaking read.

2) Stuart Neville's THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST (or THE TWELVE): What a debut novel! Neville tells a suspenseful tale about a hitman who sees the ghosts of the men and women he killed. Not only did this book have me racing through the pages, but it's also a great look at modern Ireland and how the country is changing.

3) James Ellroy's THE COLD SIX THOUSAND: The second part of Ellroy's Underworld trilogy. I had a lot of trouble with American Tabloid mostly because I didn't know the history so well when I read it. This book is just as dense, just as suspenseful and just as compelling. Even though I had to read it with Wikipedia open, I had a helluva time with it. Great book.

4) Charlie Huston's HALF THE BLOOD OF BROOKLYN: Joe Pitt. Need I say more? I doubt it. Love Huston's work!

Right now I'm in the middle of THE STAND. Yeah, it's a long one.

Sorry for the short post this week folks. But my next post will be on Thanksgiving, when I'm sure everyone will be reading. Looking forward to that one!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Writing and Balance

John McFetridge

Years ago I worked as a counsellor in a warehouse that employed “handicapped” people. Most of the people working there had grown up in group homes (most were labelled autistic) but a few were former street people and we knew very little about their backgrounds. One of the women I worked with, Joan, would sometimes get a dreamy look on her face and say, “You shouldn’t do heroin, heroin is bad,” and I’d agree with her and say, “That’s right, Joan, you shouldn’t do heroin,” and she’d say, no, you shouldn’t. And then after a pause she’d say, “It sure passes the day, though.”

Writing is a lot like heroin.

It can be terribly addictive and ruin lives. But it can also give you higher highs than almost anything else.

With writing, though, I think you can find a balance. I don’t think you can do that with heroin.

Some of this, of couse, is in response to Declan’s post last week. But it is something I’ve been thinking about and fighting with for thirty years.

In that time I have quit writing many times, but like a weak junkie I always come back.

I’ve quit other things in my life and never looked back. I used to play golf. I liked it well enough. There was a good social aspect to it, getting together with some friends, and in every round there was the, “one that keeps you coming back,” the one drive right down the middle of the fairway or the approach that actually landed on the green and rolled towards the cup. And then there were the 109 other shots that didn’t go anywhere near where they were supposed to.

For a long time writing was like that for me. I’d get a sentence or two and think they sounded right and then whole bunch more sentences that didn’t ring true (I read recently that kids don’t really get sarcasm until they’re around twelve and now I think that when I was able to write a sarcastic line and not have to follow it with, “He said sarcastically,” was when I started to feel I was on the right track).

But over years of frustration I often tried to write the kind of stories I thought would sell. I flirted with a little success. I wrote a private eye novel in the mid-80’s when I was influenced by Robert B. Parker. It got all the way to a couple of agents and one was even seriously interested but finally passed because she said the writing wasn’t literary enough to be a hardcover and it wasn’t hardboiled enough for paperback. I heard that same thing many more times.

I got sidetracked into writing screenplays, a venture I realize now was all about writing in a way you think will sell. You get advice, you get notes and you and follow them instead of following those couple of sentences you think are right (screenplays are tough because it’s expected you’ll write “sarcastic” over the dialogue. It should be a tip-off that the scene isn’t getting across the right information if you have to explain it like that but I’ve seen directors and actors at auditions put the weirdest emphasis on things so with screenplays, just use the shorthand).

So I went back to writing novels but this time I didn’t even think about selling them. This time I just wanted to get down the lines in a way that me happy. And that finally worked. I’ve managed to get a couple of novels published but I still don’t make more than minimum wage. I often think I made the wrong decision. Or really, the same wrong decision fifteen times in the last thirty years.

But that’s the balance I’ve found.

I tell myself it’s okay because at least I’m not doing heroin.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My name is Chooch. I don’t know what you’ve heard...

By Jay Stringer

Mike’s post on Sunday got me thinking about crime fiction set to music. There are a few specific albums I’ve had in mind to write about for a while now, but some of them pretty predictable so I always hold off.

Does the world need another thousand-word love letter to Nebraska?

One album that doesn’t get talked about often enough, and it a personal favourite of mine, is very much a crime novel. More accurately, it’s probably more of an anthology of interlocking narratives and character studies that all revolve around the same seedy night in (probably) New York.

It’s Choochtown, by Hamell on Trial. All cards on the table here; I have written about this album online before. In fact, when Patti recently invited me to contribute to her forgotten books, I almost cheated and wrote about this album.

Hamell has said he’d been reading a lot of Elmore Leonard before recording this album, and it does sound like a crime writer picked up a guitar and let loose. The sound is jagged and fast. It’s not rock, it’s not folk, and it’s not punk. It’s definitely not hip-hop, and if you called it a concept album it would probably kick your teeth in. Whatever it is, it manages to combine almost all of the things I love in music into a taught, angry little album.

It starts off with a confrontation; the narrator talks (possibly from beyond the grave) and dismisses everyone in the room with a foul-mouthed tirade that lasts just over a minute. Its serves as the perfect lead in to the world of the album, but also as a last chance to turn away warning the listener. It’s daring you to give up on it.

Once past that, things kick off. We dive head first into a night at the Toddle House diner on the night a junkie named Bobby causes a scene. Hamell gives us characters in few lines;

“I don’t want to be here, when Bobby gets clear, and he gives you that weird eye, I think I better say goodbye.”

And listen carefully during this song. At first it seems a fun, frenetic put down of a loser. But in the background there’s stuff happening. As you learn though the rest of the album, there’s a guy locked in the freezer. There’s a drug deal gone wrong. There’s a PI working a case and a love struck musician. This album reveals itself over time and repeated listens; it’s actually telling the same story from several different points of view. Watch out for the key names that get dropped; Joe, McCluskey, Chooch, Bobby.

In some songs, the links are made obvious. The character Chooch is mentioned in one song, then narrates another. He also gets cameos in other songs, including an appearance ‘on the run’ that took me way too long to notice. He gains and loses money. In one song you meet a girl and then in a later song you meet the boyfriend. Any time you hear mention of someone in one song, chances are they get to speak their mind later -or earlier- on the album.

There are guys losing their hearts and minds over women, and people making dumb mistakes in the name of money or sex. And it is full of classic noir lines;

“She was brilliantly doomed, I got a kick how he loved her”

There’s an atmospheric PI narrative, driven by an insistent acoustic guitar and a melancholy trumpet. It slowly reveals a story of unrequited love mixed up in the murder of a drug dealer (perhaps the corpse who opened the album?) and a bartender. Its taught, and a great testament to its craft is that you can read the lyrics as a short story in their own right.

“His ashes, Cyn? Did you cut ‘em with strychnine? She wasn’t hiding nothing, when her eyes met mine.”

One of the darker moments of humour comes off the track Joe Brush, which tells the story of a musician driven half insane by a girlfriend. In a fit of heart broken rage, while ‘he thought about what’s near and dear and he remembered Van Gough’s ear,’ Joe mails his playing finger to his girl.

“She’d like to give the finger to Joe, but she moved to San Francisco with some money from an inheritance, and Joe now plays a mean slide guitar”

Of course, if you listen a little closer to the album, you know Susan didn’t get an inheritance. Hanging around in the background of all the songs is a drug deal gone wrong, though we’re left to piece the details together ourselves. The only real clue to the overall narrative is a track called Shout Outs, In which Hamell portrays a late night DJ letting many of the albums characters call in and leave messages.

Oh, and did I mention the partying? There is a lot of that.

"Oh we are gonna party, when Judy gets back from the rehab. She aint gonna know. She might not even be invited”

And at certain points in the narrative, Hamell speaks to us directly, giving us a Rod Sterling-like assessment of the state of affairs. This leads to one of my favourite moments;

“The discerning listener figures this is too good to be true. Joe’s gonna mess it up….he did. Could be the Garden of Eden, could be original sin, could be the cocaine or bourbon; this aint no judgement call.”

The worst thing about all of this? I looked the album up as I wrote this, to make sure it was still available. I found the cruel reminder that this came out nine years ago. This album that makes me remember drunken nights with friends, trying to play along to the songs, and being very young, came out nearly a decade ago. Where does the time go?

Enough of that. Check this album out. It’s coming up on a time when people are starting to compile ‘best of the decade’ lists, and this album still has time to sneak into a few more.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Research Methods

By Steve Weddle

Most of this story is true.

As a graduate student in Kansas, I took a class called “Research Methods,” a semester’s work largely outdated when “Google” became a verb.

Back in the dark ages, we would stumble among hefty hardbacks from the Modern Language Association of America, indexing the publication information of scholarly articles. You’d find out the where and when of the article you thought you needed. Then you’d search the library for a while until you were convinced that they didn’t carry that article. Then you went to the research desk and the nice person there helped you fill out a slip of paper requesting the article. Then they would attach that slip of paper to carrier prairie dogs (CPDs) that would travel across the Midwest attempting to locate a library with the article. If you were fortunate, within a month or so you would receive a letter in the mail saying that a copy of the article had been located and would be mailed to your university within 10 business days. Then your library would mail you a letter informing you that the article had arrived and that you had 24 hours to pick it up or it would be destroyed to make room for large hardbacks indexing article information.

The need for a research class was as clear as the methods weren’t.
One of the first in-class tasks was to go to the library, find the answers to some assigned questions, then return to class with the answers and call numbers. I got to the lobby after most of my classmates because I’d slowed down for a couple of back-and-forths of Frisbee following someone’s errant throw. I got to the lobby alone and looked around.

I needed to know what was in the seal of Johns Hopkins. I had a vague idea of where to look in the stacks, but never made it past the lobby. Instead, I walked over to the pay phone and called information. Pretty soon, I was talking to a helpful woman at Johns Hopkins, wrote down the answer, and moved on to the next question -- something about the largest Indian reservation in America. Or the smallest. I called information again and asked for something about Indian affairs in Washington, D.C. A few more calls like those and I’d finished. None of my classmates had come back through the lobby, so I folded up the scrap of paper with the answers and went back outside to play Frisbee until they were done.

When we got back to class, I started to realize that maybe I hadn’t exactly completed the assignment in a way that would provide me a passing grade.

The professor asked for my answers. I gave him the answers.

He asked for the call numbers. I gave him the numbers I’d called. In 30 years of giving the same assignment, he said, he’d never had that kind of result.

Why run from book to book when the answer was inside the phone? I dunno. People do weird stuff.

The National Geographic folks are promoting a show. “We wanted to know whether Amazon headshrinkers still exist. So we went to the Amazon.” Uh, why’d you do that? Google broke?

Thanks to the innerwebs, you could hole up in Salinger’s bunker and write about a trip to the Amazon where you encounter a German-speaking hermaphrodite with a love for 14th century Chinese history and a rare skin disease. But how convincing would it be?

My first novel, LOST AND FOUND, has a couple of scenes in Murrell’s restaurant in Shreveport, Louisiana. As an undergrad, I’d spent more time there than anywhere, but I couldn’t remember what the cups were like. The coffee cups. Those heavy mugs? Cup and saucer? Short little wide cups with a green stripe? I looked on the innerwebs and couldn’t find the answer. Checked a Facebook group. Sent a couple of emails. So I called the restaurant. I picked what I hoped was a slow time. A waitress answered. The phone call couldn’t have been more awkward if I’d been asking her to the prom.
I got my answer, but it didn’t sound quite right. Were those the same cups they used when I was there? Or when the story takes place? We did our best to figure it out.

I also needed to know how long it takes to get from one part of town to the other, a trip I’d made many times, but many years ago. Google Maps helped. Street View was amazing. When did they put that gas station there? It used to be a house. And I remember that house. Some band had played there. When was that? Hey, I can totally use that in my book.

Phone calls and Googling have changed the way writers research. I wouldn’t consider using those tools to research a place I had never been -- though I suspect some writers do that. For me, using them to remember, to brush up, to shake ideas loose – that works great.

What research methods do you use to write? Isn't Google's Street View the coolest thing since "Adam-12"?

And when you read, can you tell when a writer has never been to a certain place? Does that bother you?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hip Hop and Crime Novels

by Mike Knowles

I’ve seen Bob Dylan end up in one of our blogs on this site more than once. I’m pretty sure he’s a big favorite with a good number of the Do Some Damage boys. To be honest, I don’t get him. I’ve tried more than once, but he never sounds good to me. And whenever I see a little window linking a blog to Bob Dylan, I always think it seems out of place. Hip Hop seems like it should show up with crime fiction more often than Bob Dylan.

Number 1:

Let’s start with the obvious, crime fiction and hip hop share content. Hip Hop references guns, sex, drugs, crime on a very regular basis. Crime fiction uses these elements as its bread and butter. We have violent anti-heroes who rob banks and armoured cars, we have drunken private detectives who spend their days in the gutter, we have femme fatales who lead protagonists to their doom. Sometimes someone gets creative and we get everything at once.

An often heard argument is that Hip Hop is gratuitous in its depictions, so are crime novels. Many of the hard boiled and pulp works of the seventies are as violent and degrading to women as any NWA track. In fact, I think 50 Cent could learn a few things from Mike Hammer.

Think about the depictions of Hip Hop artists in the media. Many are standing with scantily clad women or are holding huge guns. Now think of the covers of some of your favorite books. If you’re like me there are some scary similarities.

Number 2:

Hip Hop artists collaborate with each other on albums so do crime writers. It is not uncommon for two crime writers to team up and create a book together. Ken Bruen has done this with Jason Starr several times for Hard Case Crime and every time I am blown away with their work. I don’t know of many other genres who do things like this. And if it does happen, I don’t think it happens as much as it does with crime fiction.

Number 3:

Hip Hop is known for freestyling. Rappers get together and create tracks off the cuff. This type of speedy work is something most crime writers can relate to. Think about how many people are taking part in the November writing month challenge. People are trying to get 50,000 words down in a month and a lot of us will do it. I didn’t join in because my usual speed is 2, 000 words a day and I don’t have the time to push myself any harder. I could write more if I didn’t have to work, but I’m happy with my schedule so I don’t try to screw with it. Many of the Crime icons are notorious for writing fast. Duane Swierczynski has blogged about many different crime writers like MacDonald, Marlowe, and Spillane who chugged out books in sometimes as little as a week. If we aren’t freestyling, than what are we doing?

Number 4:

Hip Hop doesn’t get a lot of mainstream respect neither do crime writers. Tons of people will argue that Hip Hop isn't really music. Similarly, I don’t think my mother, let alone my peers, considers what I do to be real writing. She tells me that she likes my books, but she doesn’t. Every pat on the back is coupled with a jab.

Standard Mom Responses:

“It was good, but did it have to be so violent?”

“You are a good writer, Mike. Really good. I mean it. I do. Seriously, I liked it. It’s not like the other books I read, but it was still pretty good.

“I can’t believe you came from me. How could you write such things?”

A lot of our books don’t win huge prizes. Some fiction writers won’t even use their real name on their attempts at crime and mystery fiction. Think about that for a second. We’re all writers who love to write. Part of writing is selling books, if you can’t sell them no one will publish them. Yet there are successful writers who use aliases to publish mystery and crime fiction. They don't want the following they have built up with their previous work involved in the marketing of a book that fits into a different genre. It makes no sense to me at all. If I put out a Romance novel you can be damn sure my name would still be on it because I wrote it and I'm allowed to be sensitive if I want. I’m sure some writers would have an artsy fartsy response about the name change, but it seems like they don’t want the stink of crime fiction to taint their respectability.

If you’ve been dumb enough to answer the question, “What are you reading these days?” you know the blank looks your friends give you is a sign of the lack of mainstream recognition crime writing gets. Hardly anyone ever knows who I’m talking about when I tell them what I like, but if I said Da Vinci Code, we’d all be on the same page. I used to get this with Lehane before Mystic River. Now everyone thinks they found him first.

My publisher told me once that mystery and sci-fi make the money to publish the artsy books that win awards. Crime fiction is like a dirty little secret; it sells the most, but no one ever wants to talk about it in the mainstream. I don’t care what anyone says, there is no way whatever is on Oprah’s book club is as good as Bruen, or Stark, or MacDonald.

For some reason Hip Hop has a spot in my heart that just won’t go away. The more I write the more I respect the clever language and constant evolution. So enough with the Dylan for one day. Here’s some Jay-Z.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Doc Savage and Uncomplicated Heroism

by Scott D. Parker

I’ve been thinking a lot about heroes recently, super heroes specifically. The comics industry lives and dies by heroes. The early pulp era had their share as well. I’ve been reading “The Land of Terror,” the second Doc Savage novel. Published in April 1933, this novel is darker than the debut book. Doc actually takes out some of the bad guys and doesn’t give it a second thought. I’ve read that this story is among the darkest of all the Savage novels Lester Dent wrote.

The thing that strikes me about Doc is his infallibility. Simply put, the man can do no wrong. He has his Fabulous Five (Monk, Ham, Renny, Long Tom, and Johnny) and Dent describes these guys as without peer in their respective area of expertise. Doc exceeds them all. Like Tarzan, Doc Savage is incorruptible and he shies away from the ladies. If he was a cowboy, he’d wear a white hat. You never have to worry if Doc will do the right thing. His word is good all across the globe. If Doc Savage is on the case, the public can breath easier. If you’re up to no good and Doc’s after you, winning is not an option for you. Plain and simple, Doc will prevail. He uncomplicated in his goodness.

Nowadays, all our heroes are all complicated and they wear gray hats. Hell, some of them wear the black hats. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of heroes and, frankly, they are interesting to read and follow. But where did the true-blue heroes go? Where are the heroes who, when they walk on stage, you don’t have to wonder what they’ll do?

More importantly, what happened to them? I’m pondering this question and one of the things I come up with is war. World War II, with all of its carnage and violence, spawned numerous literary creations, the hard-boiled, violent detective novels of writers like Mickey Spillane being but one example. Could a genuine hero like Doc Savage survive the war? Part of me thinks not. His magazine was cancelled just four years after V-E Day. Did our world become so complicated that an uncomplicated hero no longer fit in it?

I don’t have the answer although I think war and the violence of war is a factor. For those of you who wonder about things like this, what’s your take on uncomplicated heroes in a complicated world? Are there any out there now, on TV, in books, movies, or comics? If so, who are they? If not, why? Maybe we can think about this together.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pissholes in the snow."

Michael Caine’s latest movie, Harry Brown, is, according to the man himself, about the kind of man that Jack Carter might have been if he survived to a ripe old age.

I have no idea whether the film is any good or not, but it has done is get me thinking about Get Carter, one of the best damn crime flicks you’re ever likely to watch. And more surprising because of Caine.

It’s easy to forget sometimes just how damn good Michael Caine is. He’s so recognisable for being himself and he’s done so many bad movies that when he comes back at you with an incredible performance, you just sit there open mouthed.

Get Carter is one of those performances. It is literally iconic. You watch Caine and you think, “That man is cool.” And he is. In the best sense of the word. There is no posing for Carter. He exists and he does what he does. He is the UK equivalent of a man like Parker in the way that Caine plays him. His eyes are ice-cold, his expression unchanging and his determination absolute. Nothing will stand in his way.

What brought home the absolute brilliance of Caine’s performance was going to see Get Carter on stage at the Fringe a couple of years back. It was a good show, but what was interesting was to see how the lead interpreted the character of Jack Carter. On stage, he was bluster and anger and sheer rage. This character was heading towards his own doom. He was out of control. He created his own troubles and you could see it in every move he made.

It was a great and affecting performance, but what works so well with Caine is that you just don’t know what he’s going to do next or how he’s going to react. He is unreadable. All you know is that you don’t want to be on the wrong side of him. Say the wrong thing and there will be no warning. He will strike back. Fast, deadly and brutal. Beneath that cool exterior, the rage that the stage projected is bubbling up and threatening to explode, but Caine’s Carter keeps it so reeled in that when it is unleashed, you – and those around Carter – are shocked and horrified.

But it is interesting to think about the different ways in which characters are interpreted – not just in film, but in the minds of readers – and how that affects their actions. The Carter on stage went through a very similar (with some minor variations) journey to the character of Carter on film. And yet the emphasis was very different. The conclusions drawn were different. The Carter on stage was a thug, a loudmouth, a man filled with anger. The Carter on film is a bastard, through and through, self centred and yet curiously indifferent to the world around him if it stays out of his way. Were it not for the fact that his family are affected by the machinations of local criminal elements, Carter would just shrug his shoulders and walk on his way. He wouldn’t hurt anyone, wouldn’t even notice them. There is a beautiful scene where a fella Carter knows has been beat to shit. Its Carter’s fault. Carter offers some money to the fella because, well, its in part Carter’s fault this happened. The fella moans about his girlfriend is coming down from Liverpool, and what’s she gonna think when she sees him like this?

Caine, dismissvely throw the money, says, “Here, go get yourself a course in Karate” and walks. He doesn’t care. He’s giving the guy money because its Carter’s fault and he knows you have to take responsibility. But in his cold heart, he truly does not give a shit.

Carter is one of my favourite on screen tough guys. Truly, he’s the real deal. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Get Carter is probably one of the most perfect British crime movies ever made. Not a false step in there.

And one of the coolest opening themes you’ll ever hear:

PS – you’ll notice I didn’t mention the Stallone interpretation of this character. There’s a very good reason for that. But if you want me to explain it, you’ll just hear a lot of bad-tempered swear words…

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dirty Bits

by Dave White... well, sort of.

Sometimes I think he's making fun of me. Just a month or so after I spend an entire blog post teasing people blogging about writing a sex scene, my buddy Bryon Quetermous emails me asking if he can guest blog here.

And since I'm all out of controversial topics at the moment, I agreed to let him.

And what does he give me?

A blog about sex scenes.

The universe hates me.


It pains me to admit that many of you out there may not know who I am.
Sure I'm no Stephen King, but there was a time where I blogged a lot,
published a lot of short stories online, and even had a hand in
publishing several of the fellows on the sidebar there through a
website I ran called DEMOLITION. But then I got married, had a couple
of kids, and suffered one of the worst bouts of writer's block I've
ever had. So I shut down the blog and DEMOLITION and stopped writing
short stories and basically disappeared.

Well I'm back and looking for new readers
( This blog seemed as good a bridge as
any from my past life to the present so I appreciate the indulgence.
My post today is part discussion, part advice, and part shamless

Occasionally Dave White and I will chat about blogs and some of the
topics that seem to always pop up in them. Two of the biggies are
always writing sex scenes and e-publishing vs. traditional publishing.
I'd like to touch on both of those topics today, but hopefully in a
less clichéd context. One of the hallmarks of my old blog self was a
healthy (and sometimes over indulgent) sense of the truth in my life.
I wrote about everything, including my love life. I wrote about dates
and crushes and misfires and unrequited love among my posts about
murder, mayhem, and musical theater. And they were some of my most
popular posts. But since I've been married that's fallen off. I don’t
have crushes, or dates, or misfires really, or at least none that I'm
willing to admit publicly. But the funny thing is, I seem to find
myself writing more about sex.

It started with an invitation to contribute to UNCAGE ME, the
follow-up anthology to the collection of dirty stories EXPLETIVE
DELETED edited by Jen Jordan. For this story I wanted to really let my
nasty side fly. So in the middle of the story I had the most explicit
sex scene I've ever written. And I didn’t need anybody to tell me how
to do it. Sadly, I didn’t use my imagination I just wrote from real
life. And it's received some raves from people who have read it. The
next two short stories I wrote after that both ended up having
explicit sex scenes in them as well, also drawn from real life. Now
obviously, I will run dry quite soon based on my limited experience,
but it was an interesting revelation about what I'm capable of.

This also led me to looking into the erotica publishing field as a
possible outlet for some of this stuff. What I found is one of the
most profitable and technologically advanced segments of the
publishing industry. I found publishers that mix print with electronic
publishing seamlessly. There were tiny publishers with amazing
distribution and dear god, the money. Publishers, writers, readers,
everybody is winning. It's the first time I've felt excited about the
state of publishing in a long time. I've got to believe crime fiction
will come around to this stuff eventually. But until then, I think
it's good for writers to be exposed outside of their standard genre


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Waterloo

John McFetridge

This week I’m giving a reading at the Princess theatre in Waterloo, sponsored by Words Worth books, with Linwood Barclay and Robert Rotenberg. I’ve met both guys a few times and it should be fun.

Linwood Barclay was a columnist for the Toronto Star newspaper and wrote some non-fiction books, one a memoir called Last Resort about growing up at the summer resort his parents ran in Ontario, a political satire called Mike Harris Made me East My Dog (Harris was the very right-wing premiere of Ontario for eight years that felt like eighty) and Father Knows Zilch, about, well, the title says it all.

Linwood also wrote the Zack Walker series (Bad Move, Bad Guys, Lone Wolf and Stone Rain), which I really like. Zack Walker is a sci fi novelist who lives in the suburbs with his wife and kids and gets involved in murder mysteries. I like the attention to detail in the sci fi stuff (Star Trek models play an important plot point), the humour, the mysteries but most of all the family dynamic. In some ways these books are like the TV series Castle and come to think of it, they’d make a great TV series.

But then Linwood wrote a stand-alone thriller. I guess that’s the plan for just about everyone writing a first person detective series these days and I guess the reason why is because of what happened to Linwood: No Time For Goodbye was a huge, freakin’ international hit. USA, Canada, the UK, lots of countries I’ve never even heard of.

It’s a really good book. A teenage girl wakes up one morning to find her family has disappeared.

So, the flip side to the story we hear too often about the teenager going missing. From there the action picks up years later with the girl now grown and telling her story to a reality TV show. It’s smart and clever and like the Zack Walker books the family dynamic is the best part.

What’s weird is that Linwood has followed up that high-concept thriller with two more books in as many years that are just as good (clearly Linwood is buying the beers on our little outing here), Too Close to Home and the new one, Fear the Worst.

Robert Rotenberg was also involved in journalism as the editor of Passion, the english magazine of Paris and also T.O. The Magazine of Toronto. He was also a criminal lawyer in Toronto and all these experiences come into play in his debut novel, Old City Hall.

Old City Hall came out around the same time as my novel Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and covers some of the same ground in Toronto (physically and thematically) and I’m not bitter at all that Old City Hall was universally acclaimed, a huge hit in hardcover and paperback in Canada and the USA and lots of other countries and has been sold to a bigtime producer to be turned into a TV series.

Not bitter at all.

Really, I just want to tell all those people (lots and lots of people) who bought Old City Hall that Everybody Knows... would make a nice accompaniment.

They do have a lot in common. Both books start with a dead body on the top floor. In Everybody Knows... the body comes falling off the roof onto the hood of a car in Parkdale and in Old City Hall the body is in the bathtub of a penthouse condo on the lake. Of course, the police get involved. Both books have a Jewish homicide detective which may or may not have to do with the fact that until he retired recently one of the Toronto police homicide detectives we saw on TV a lot was a Jewish guy. In Old City Hall it’s Ari Greene, a single guy who’s taking care of his widowed father, a Holocasut survivor, and in Everybody Knows... it’s Teddy Levine, a married guy I based loosely on an old friend of mine, Allan Levine (hey, at least I changed his first name).

Both books are ensemble stories with big casts that get into lots of different neighbourhoods in Toronto and Old City Hall even gets out of the city up to a ski hill and small towns. Robert’s experience as a criminal lawyer comes through in big and small ways. There’s a little thing I really liked where a cop meets with a guy who’s been planted as the cellmate of the suspected murderer to see if the guy will talk. When it’s time for the plant to return to jail he stubs out his half-smoked cigarette and slips it another another smoke into his sock. There’s great stuff like that all through the book.

In my introduction before the reading I’m going to say that when I started to write novels I didn’t realize I was writing crime novels – I was just writing about what was going on in my city. My books don’t have clues, there isn’t a single crime (much less a single murder) that drives the story and there isn’t much justice served in the end.

I was always worried that my books would fall through the cracks, niether fish nor fowl, that kind of thing, so I’ve been thrilled with the acceptance from the “mystery community” and I’m very happy to be sharing the bill with these guys.

Check 'em out:

Linwood Barclay

Robert Rotenberg

And if you're anywhere near Waterloo, Ontario then Words Worth Books looks pretty good.

One last thing. It's Remembrance Day in Canada and some other countries and Veterans Day in the USA. I'm going to take a couple of minutes at 11:00 to reflect. My Dad was in the Canadian navy from 1938-45, serving mostly on Corvettes taking convoys across the north Atlantic. He didn't talk about it much, told a few funny stories if the occasion called for it like the time he was constipated for days and guys on the ship had a betting line for when he'd, "get over it," but he didn't say much about the boat getting torpedoed out from under him, spending the night hanging onto debris and then a month in the hospital in Glasgow with pneumonia. One of his jobs during the war was dropping depth charges on U-Boats and it's trite to say he never got over the taking of lives, but he never did. My Dad died in 1985 at 65 and I have no doubt his service took years off his life.

It's also somewhat fitting that this day of Remembrance is happening around the same time we're seeing so much attention given to the 20th Anniversay of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I know my Dad would have been pretty happy to see that, and maybe especially to see Lech Walesa there for the celebrations. My Dad was also in a union for a long time (42 years) and he had a tremendous amount of respect for Walesa and the Solidarity movement.