Saturday, December 12, 2009
Friday, December 11, 2009
In 2004, my first professionally published short story appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. It’s a story that still makes me proud. One scene in particular, set in a nightclub (loosely based on the downstairs at the Student’s Union) still feels very real to me when I look back over it.
It was the beginning of what could be loosely termed a “series” of short stories centred around Private Investigator Sam Bryson. Sam was a man with his own morals that set him apart from the police force on which he had once served. He left in circumstances that were never fully explained and still had a contact on the force in the form of Sandy Griggs, a copper with a strange past whose own experience with domestic abuse as a child made him very hard on a particular type of criminal. Sam’s centre in life was his girlfriend, Ros, a philosophy lecturer at the university who hailed from the US. Ros covered two bases as a character – one, she maintained Bryson’s moral centre and, two, she explained why he had a more American idiom to the way he spoke than most other characters. This was my insurance since at the time I was reading so much US crime fic that the slang and speech patterns had started to bleed over into my own writing.
Somewhere around 2006 I got my first agent.
I said I wanted to write a novel with Sam at the centre.
They said: “Give us someone new. Not someone with all this backstory.”
If I’m honest, this response irritated me. I didn’t see why they wanted me to drop this character who many readers had received well. I liked him. I liked him a lot.
So what was my response?
You want a character who has to build his life, I’ll give you him.
So I stripped Sam of his name. And all his support network. Took away everything he had earned and looked at what was left.
He became McNee*. A man with no first name. So I took that away from him. I took away his support in the force, making him an outcast (by choice, you could say) and then I took away his support in the real world by killing off the love of his life.
What emerged came from the same basic archetype as Bryson but was darker, harder and I think more believable. His reasons for leaving the force suddenly became concrete. His antipathy towards his former colleagues was understandable given the new circumstances in which this archetype found himself.
And then my agent and I parted company.
I didn’t know what to do. But I had this character and this manuscript. And I liked them. If I was honest, I had grown to love McNee more than I had Bryson because McNee’s pain felt more honest and real to me than Bryson’s ever had.
But still the idea of Bryson lingered at the back of my mind. I was still writing short stories about him, and figured that I had to pass the torch somehow. I did this as indirectly as possible, with McNee having “blink and you’ll miss it” cameo in one of the last Bryson stories published, and a few hints about “the other guy” who used to work out of McNee’s offices in the first few chapters of THE GOOD SON.
I admit I’ve always wanted to explore more in-depth what happened to Bryson, what soured him on the PI gig, made him leave. I always had an end point in mind, after all. I always do. After all, regular readers of this blog will know how I feel about series.
And maybe one day I will tell that story. But until then, despite my initial misgivings I’m glad to have got to know McNee over the course of what is now two novels. In my mind, he is the more realistic of the pair, the more believable, and probably the more noir as well. There is something about him that is, I think, genuinely human.
But, of course, my American friends – many of whom will already know Sam Bryson, especially if they subscribe to the wondrous Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine – now have the chance to judge the new boy as THE GOOD SON hits their shores this week. He’s already had Sam’s approval. I hope he’ll have yours.
*For the first draft, his name was McRae until I realised that fellow Scot and bearded God Stuart MacBride had already taken this name for his protagonist.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
During about a six month stretch in late '01, early '02, I read IT, MISERY, THE SHINING, THE DARK HALF, THE GREEN MILE, ON WRITING, BAG OF BONES and probably a few others. And all of them were great. Each had moments that really struck me, whether it's his comments on writing in MISERY and THE DARK HALF or his utmost creepy moments in IT and THE SHINING.
Very rarely am I freaked out reading a book. King has been able to do that to me several times.
In the last month, I tried to read THE STAND.
And I couldn't finish it.
And it made me think about what freaks me out in a book. And for the most part, it's the little things. Whether it's Pennywise in the sewer in IT or a father turned bad in THE SHINING, the small horrors scare me the most.
I think it's because the little things seem plausible. I can imagine someone snapping at a moments notice and trying to kill a family. I can actually imagine someone grabbing a person's leg through a sewer grate. Those details stick with me.
In fact, I was compelled by the first 300 pages of the THE STAND. I believed in the Captain Trips' superflu. But beyond that the book started to get too big for me. I couldn't find a way to ground myself in the book. There weren't many characters I could believe in.
If characters are scared of real things, if the characters believe in these things, so can I. But in THE STAND it was all beyond me. I'm not much into fantasy.
I want to feel the fear of the characters. I want to feel my own fear. When it's something completely made up, I lose interest.
So, what about you? What scares you in books?
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
These days I feel like we’re living in a golden age of crime fiction – there’s so much of it and it’s so good.
I remember all too well in the 70’s and early 80’s when all we had was Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard.
Now, it’s great to be a reader of crime fiction but as a writer one thing we hear a lot is that everything’s been done before. How to keep it fresh?
I like stories that use real events as a jumping off point to imagaine what led up to the pivotal moment.
Fiction has always done this, of course; James Ellroy and his own mother’s murder (and the Black Dhalia case and many other Hollywood crimes of the 50’s), Richard Price took the story of a woman who claimed her kids were abducted when she was carjacked and wrote a fantastic novel, Freedomland, and Elmore Leonard sat in with Squad Seven – the homicide detectives – in Detroit and wrote a great article about it for Detroit Magazine and also quite a few excellent crime novels.
With so many books and TV shows set in the world of crime and investigation these days there’s bound to be some overlap. How many times have we seen the same ‘ripped from the headlines’ story show up as a Law and Order and a CSI and a Cold Case?
One of the saddest things about late twentieth century life for me was realizing that there are so many similar serial killers there really are only a couple of profiles repeated over and over – and the victims are almost always children or young women. It gets us angry to think about it, but there’s not much to say. So many writers try to make these conventions ‘fresh’ because there’s no depth to the characters, no insight to bring to the stories. There was nothing in Ted Bundy’s life that wasn’t in a million other guys’ lives, nothing we could have changed, no rule or law or even social convention that would have made a difference to him.
We always run the risk of simply exploiting these tragedies.
So how do we tell the same stories in new ways? (I think as long as these things go on in our world literature is still one of the best ways to try and understand).
For myself I prefer stories that stay as true to what really happens in our world as possible. The writer puts it in a meaningful context in a unique voice.
Here’s what got me thinking about this:
This week I saw an episode of Flashpoint that has a very similar climactic scene to one we have in an episode of the TV show I work on, The Bridge. And it’s a scene that’s been done in lots of other shows and books and movies.
There’s a bad guy (really bad, a serial killer on Flashpoint and a guy who’s killed some cops on The Bridge) who isn’t remorseful at all and there’s a cop who has gone bad (been driven to the brink by injustice and more concern for the rights of the bad guy than any compassion for the victims, something like that) and is going to kill the bad guy.
Other cops show up and there’s a stand-off.
It’s good vs. evil, it’s civilized people vs. barbarians.
Yes, the bad guy is bad, but we don’t execute him without a trial in a public square. We have laws and procedures. People have given their lives to protect those laws, they’re what make us civilized. It isn’t some other bad guy threatening to kill him, it’s officers of the state, people we’ve trained and entrusted with our security and the upholding of our laws and institutions (on Flashpoint they made it personal – the ‘bad’ cop was the sister of one of the killer’s victims. We made it a little personal on The Bridge, too, the ‘bad’ cop was the long-time partner of the cop the bad guy killed. And the cop who went bad was a widower who had pretty much joined the family of the cop who was killed).
So what happens?
Do the “good” cops shoot the “bad” cop or let him shoot the bad guy?
I don’t think it matters how many times it’s been done before or how much you want to make this situation different, new or fresh, or whatever you want.
I also don’t think your personal political views matter, or what you wish would happen.
What matters, to me, is what would really happen in that situation with the characters that you created and put there.
And what happens in the Flashpoint ending is very different than what happens in The Bridge ending.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
“I could kill him. It would be easy.”
Those are the opening lines from THE GOOD SON by our very own Russel D McLean, which is released stateside today. As far as opening lines go, I’d say they’re pretty much up there. And yes, he’s a member of the team, but so what? Doesn’t change the fact that the books are damn good.
I remember not knowing what to expect when I first started TGS, in all honesty. I knew his agent, who is a man of great taste and also a fine editor, so the book came with a pedigree. Bu you never know what to expect until you try.
Pretty soon -within about ten seconds of reading that opening- I wasn’t worried about what to expect anymore. I was too busy reading the book.
Something I noticed early on about Russel is that he has a touch of the Lawrence Block and John Mcfet about him; his pages are so easy to read that you stop noticing that you’re doing it. You know what I mean; some books you’re checking your watch every other paragraph, or scratching your bum, or thinking of that kettle you just boiled. But with writers like these, you don’t notice the things going on around you. Reading one line is an unspoken commitment that you’re going to read the first ten chapters. Then, well, why stop there?
The other thing is that he doesn’t get caught up in what he’s writing. There’s no self conscious awkwardness of trying to bend his hometown or its people to fit into genre conventions. There’s no knowing pause as it becomes clear that this is a PI story set in Scotland, no first date fumbling on the doorstep.
He. Just. Gets.On.With.It.
And it’s suprising how many authors don’t do that. Many like to pause, to dawdle, or to let the reader know that they’re aware of the trappings and flaws of whatever style of story they’re writing. No, just sit and get on with telling the story.
Russel joined Ray Banks and myself in a chat about the british PI a while back, so I wont go over old ground, but do check that out. Instead I’ll just talk about the book. It centres around our protagonist, J Mcnee. He’s a moody and isolated Dundonian PI. He has anger issues and a good way with wit. He has some of the key ingredients of being a PI; he manages to say just enough to get himself smacked around or shot at, but not so much that we get to figure him out. At the same time, he’s not just a standard driven detective type. Many of his flaws are more to do with the modern British male than any genre cliché; yes he’s alienated and rebellious, but a lot of it seems to draw from a simple social awkwardness. He’s not the tortured soul of Hamlet or Bruce Wayne, and he’s not the drunken philosopher of Marlowe or Scudder. Much more than that, he seems to simply be a modern man who’s not always sure of how to behave around others.
Even his nickname in the book helps to conjure up a play on the ideas of masculinity and manners. He is called Steed after the character played by Patrick Macnee in The Avengers. The image that evokes for most is of a deliberately overdone gentlemen, the hat, the umbrella, the manners and the heart of steel. There was an earlier version of Steed, in the shows first season; a shadowy figure, untrusted and lonely. Where was I going with this…..
Anyway, back to McNee.
There is still an element of tragedy that drives McNee, and it’s at the core of what works with this book. It’s a story about grief. Be it McNee trying to come to terms with loss, or a farmer trying to deal with his brothers apparent suicide. The book shows that grief is a far more complicated and damaging thing than any level of violence.
Russel’s second book, THE LOST SISTER, was released in the UK this year. It starts differently to the first. In many ways, it’s more low key;
“He doesn’t waste a moment. Lets go of the axe….”
The first book starts with a gun, and the impending gunshot. An instant explosive kick start to a story. The second starts with violence, but one of a more personal, brutal, and confident manner. This is a writer stepping it up and taking full control of his characters and world. I’ve mentioned before how impressed I was with the handling of violence in this second book, the control that Russel demonstrated in knowing what not to show, and in knowing that he could make it work.
The second book sort of does what it says on the cover in many ways. It features a lost sister. But that’s just scratching the surface. It looks at thorny issues of love, trust and domestic violence. And it took me by surprise a number of times, I love it when a book genuinely doesn’t go the way you think it will. There are twists and turns to the relationships, and nobody ends the story in remotely the same emotional state that they started it. Somehow, it felt like The Empire Strikes Back, with its revelations and emotional betrayals, so I can’t wait to see where the characters go from here.
Monday, December 7, 2009
I showed up late to being a soccer fan. I grew up in the South, where pigskin football rules, so soccer was just foreigners in shorts kicking and diving. Most of that was pretty much a non-starter in these here parts, fella.
(NOT ME: Hey, you gonna be writin about soccer, fancy boy? I thought you said "Sock her." This here's a crime fiction blog, sissy.
ME: Um. Sorry. We're gonna get there.)
I started watching Premier League games, but didn’t have a rooting interest. In terms we can all understand, I liked the genre, but didn’t have a favorite character or author. So I could pick anyone I wanted. Kinda like walking into the bookstore after you’ve convinced everyone to give you cash for your birthday.
So I browsed around the league. I couldn’t pick Manchester United for the same reason you couldn’t pick the Chicago Bulls in the 90s or the Dallas Cowboys of the 80s. I mean, you don’t just go for the NYT #1 bestseller, right? You gotta find your team, someone you can pull for. As Mike mentioned yesterday and Russel added – you gotta find your own people, the folks who speak to you.
I also came late to being a hockey fan. (Foreigners in shorts PLUS ice skates. I mean, c’mon. Try selling that in a bar in Texarkana. The Arkansas side, I mean, not those namby-pamby dilettantes on the Texas side.) I started watching with a dude from Michigan, who introduced me to the Dead Wings. My guy was Dino Ciccarelli, a scrapper with a brutal backstory who hung out in front of the net, took sticks to the back of the head, and terrorized goalies. He never won a Stanley Cup, but it sure as hell wasn’t for lack of trying.
Watching soccer I started pulling for another scrappy guy, Gilberto of Arsenal. He wasn’t the greatest player, but he was a great midfielder with some fancy moves and a brutal backstory. He had to quit soccer in his teens to work in a factory. He didn’t really get back into soccer until his 20s. And he worked hard when he did, standing out for Brazil and Arsenal. No, he wasn’t the greatest player. But he was up there in the conversation.
So those were the two teams I picked as an adult when I had the whole store to choose from – Arsenal and the Dead Wings. The Wings weren’t great, but they were good. They lost in the playoffs every year. (I mean, it’s hockey. Everybody makes the playoffs. Except the Islanders. They stink.) Eventually they won the Cup while I was a fan, a year after Ciccarelli left for Tampa Bay. Oddly enough, Tampa Bay won the Cup after Ciccarelli left. Hunh. Weird. And the Arsenal Gunners are one of the top teams, but have spent the last few years not getting it done, falling to Manchester United and Chelsea and other top teams.
But Arsenal is my team. Oh, they were my second pick. I probably should have mentioned this a second ago since this is pretty much my point. OK. My first pick was Fulham. Yeah, I know. Fulham, right? I dunno. I just saw a couple of games and thought they looked scrappy. But they kept losing. And losing. And bumping around being relegated. Then what am I supposed to do? Watch the Champions League? I don’t even think I get that channel.
No. I don’t mind having a team that loses big games. But I gotta have hope. I have to believe in my team. They have to fight and scrap and make me believe they can win. They have to fight their way up. I can’t root for Manchester United or Chelsea because they dominate. They’re the best. I can’t root for the team that starts out the winner. And I can’t root for the team with no chance of winning. I just can’t. I have to root with hope, with pride, hanging on the edge of the couch with each nutmeg and through ball I see.
Which brings us back to crime fiction. (Thanks for waiting. Need another drink? Hello? Hello?) I don’t want to spoil any of it by naming the book, but I read a novel recently in which the main character needs a car. So he sleeps with a Hollywood hottie and she gives him a car. I know, right? But it totally works in the book because of the context, because the character doesn’t start out a winner. And he’s not a loser.
He’s a guy who has abilities, but who finds himself in way over his head. We’ve talked about these sorts of characters before, right? He’s a pretty ordinary guy asked to do extraordinary things. And maybe he can. But maybe he can’t. And that’s the character I like.
I don’t want to read a book where some Manchester United private eye just hires everything done by using the best stuff he can find. The Man U PI would just peel some cash off his roll and buy an assault team to retrieve the MacGuffin. Oh, and I don’t want the Fulham PI either. She’d just go to the bar to get some info, make a good show of it for a bit, then trip on her way to the can and crack her skull open.
I gotta root for the Arsenal PI, the Gunner. The guy who was maybe expected to do better than he has, who’s been a bit of a disappointment for a bit, kinda underachieving. But he doesn’t give up. He’s scrappy. Sure, he’s a bit of a frickin idiot sometimes and kicks it into his own goal, but he keeps at it eventually makes his own luck. I can root for a team like that, for that kind of character.
Heck, I can even root for a character who has been a loser for decades, but who doesn’t give up and keeps at it, then gets a couple of good breaks and finishes by drinking champagne out of the Vince Lombardi MacGuffin. Geaux Saints.
Have you read someone who wins too much or not enough for your liking?
Have you had to add small wins or small losses to a character you've written to make things believable?
Sunday, December 6, 2009
I had a great interview with this week with a guy from The Satellite, the Mohawk College Newspaper. He found out about me through this blog and we got in touch. While we were talking, we touched upon how I got started and the more I thought about it afterward I realized it was mostly from guerrilla tactics. The dictionary says that guerrilla’s are members of an irregular, group operating in small bands in occupied territory. I think this description fits me pretty well.
To start with, it doesn’t get more irregular than writing hardboiled crime fiction in 2009. People reading this will know of plenty of writer’s who do, but go down to any book shop and look for one of them on the shelves. You know 9 times out of 10 you had to order all of your hardboiled stuff on line. And why did you have to do this? Because it is irregular. Cool, but irregular.
I’ve been fighting in occupied territory for a little while now and it has been hard to crack the mainstream. With Generals like James Patterson, Colonels like Robert. B. Parker, and Lieutenants such as the Twilight lady, I find my attacks on success have been superficial. But what progress I make as I shoot from the trees comes from the help of others like me. Crime writers, I have found, are simply put the coolest s.o.b.’s around. I have rarely encountered a crime writer who wasn’t willing to help me out in some way for no other reason than to see me do better.
When I needed to get blurbs for my first and second book, I contacted everyone myself. The publisher didn’t rely on a huge list of contacts that could be coerced into giving me a good sentence to put on the cover. I had to track down people I respected and ask them to read my book. Think about your day. How busy you are. How many things you still have on your to do list. Now imagine you get an e-mail from a Canadian guy asking you to read a book that isn’t even on the shelves yet. How many people are really going to take it seriously? I would have thought none, but guys like John McFetridge, Allan Guthrie, Thomas Perry, Victor Gischler, and Ken Bruen (still makes me woozy) all agreed to help me out. In my war to sell books, these guys are responsible for putting weapons in my hands. I have been able to get my foot in a lot of doors with the help these wonderful men and it’s a debt I can never repay.
This blog is just another tactic. Seven writers needed a voice so we organized and made our own underground news network (I use we loosely because I had little to do with the organization, I was invited to the party by Guthrie. But someone did do some organizing somewhere and they stupidly let me in). Everyday one of seven writers contributes information that furthers our agenda and combats the status quo. We’re sort of like the A-Team only with pens and laptops instead of a van.
While Stephen King invades cities and sells out auditoriums to do his book readings, I come out of the jungle and attack stealthily in the night. Sometimes no one even knows the reading took place until it was too late. Occasionally, no one ever even knows it happened. My attacks do not appear to make sense, nor do they stop my enemy, but that is because they are a part of a bigger plan. One by one I will convert people and turn them into guerrilla’s in my war. They will convert others, and one day Steven King will be slamming his fist down onto a table while screaming into his speaker phone, “What do you mean my signing is postponed. Who is this Mike Knowles?... Oh, the Grinder guy. I love that book.”
Viva la revolution.