Saturday, November 21, 2009
The Allure of Writing Longhand
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)
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”.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.