Saturday, January 9, 2010

Lessons from Arthur Conan Doyle

I make no bones about it: I am in the middle of a Sherlock Holmes mood. I've seen the movie (loved it; my take in this week's podcast), read all four novels (A Study in Scarlet; The Sign of Four; The Hound of the Baskervilles; The Valley of Fear), read a graphic novel (my take) and now am working my way through the short stories, re-reading some and reading (for the first time) others. I find that when a mood strikes me, I just ride the wave and think very little of it. I'm enjoying myself. Who cares.

In reading the four novels back-to-back, some of Conan Doyle's stylistic choices can easily be seen. They are simple rules, really, but ones that jumped out at me. I'd like to share three.


While Holmes had fifty-six short adventures, he has four novel-length ones. The first two novels are also the first two times Holmes made his literary appearance. How does the twenty-seven-year-old author handle pacing?

Not bad. In the first novel, A Study in Scarlet, there is a fair amount of sitting a talking. Conan Doyle is making his case for the existence of Holmes and, thus, treats readers to a lecture in the form of dialogue. As the novels progressed, the pacing increased. One thing Conan Doyle stopped doing is having his characters sit and do nothing but talk. Sure, the same information is being presented but the characters are moving. They might be in the carriage with Mary Marstan traveling to meet her mysterious visitor. Watson and Sir Henry Baskerville walk and talk. The end result is that you get the information dump Conan Doyle needs you to have but in a fashion that's deceptive. It's a trait picked up by other authors, Edgar Rice Burroughs, to name a classic example, and James Reasoner, to name a modern one. I marveled at how Reasoner had hero Gabriel Hunt and various other character talk about stuff whilst driving away from the bad guys. It speeds up the inevitable info dumps. We'll leave to another post info dumps in general.


If you read an Elmore Leonard book or Ken Bruen story, you'll notice something. Or, rather, you may not. These writers give but there barest amount of description. Leonard has said more than once that he uses his characters dialogue to flesh out their physical descriptions. It works, too. You don't really need to know what Carl Webster look like in "The Hot Kid." A few descriptors are provided and then Carl does the rest, with his actions and his speech.

Not so with Conan Doyle. While he may be panned by the literati as a hack, the man could spin some glorious descriptions. And he does it in few words. When Watson first sees the moors in "The Hound of the Baskervilles," Conan Doyle writes that the granite rock rose above the ground like foaming waves flecked with white cotton. You can see it now, in your head, right?

I was really struck with the importance of description when Watson went to visit Laura Lyons in "Baskervilles." In one paragraph, Watson walks in a describes the room. Now, having done that, I can pretty much make out what Lyons looks like without any physical description. However, Conan Doyle gives us some, a complete paragraph's worth, before Watson gets to utter his first word. In the first few seconds, I got irritated. Just get on with the story! But, the paragraph won me over to the point where I noted its importance. Leonard's got his way of writing. I'm not sure I'm in his camp.

Leave the Hero in the Story

By reading all four novels within a three-week span, I realized that Conan Doyle wrote "A Study in Scarlet" twice. Not really, but the structure of "Scarlet" and that of "The Valley of Fear" are almost identical. The first half of the book has Holmes and Watson doing their thing. The second half of the book has completely different characters and, in the case of "Valley," a completely different tone. Frankly, I hated it. How can you have your hero not in the book. "The Sign of Four" rectifies the problem by having Holmes and Watson present when the culprit tells his extensive back story. This allows Holmes to interject from time to time, giving us, the reader, a better in-the-moment feeling.

Baskervilles is a different matter. As pretty much everyone knows who has read the book (SPOILER ahead if you haven't and want to), Holmes disappears for the middle third of the book. There's a perfectly good reason for it and Watson has a chance to shine. To be honest, Baskervilles works so well within the structure Conan Doyle created that it left me with the feeling that Watson, not Holmes, is the real hero of the book. Intriguing.

These are just a few things I noticed while reading the Holmes novels. I'm sure, as I wade through the short stories, others will arise. If, and when, they do, I'll let you know. Unless, that is, y'all are getting tired of Sherlock Holmes All The Time. To date, I'm not. I'm having a blast.

Friday, January 8, 2010

An Epic Search for Truth

By Russel D McLean

Warning: today’s post contains no crime or writing tips. But it does have comic books. So that’s gotta count for something, yeah?

Some of you will be aware – and others will only be discovering this for the first time – that I studied philosophy at university, to the point where I very nearly went for a PhD*.

Now, these days I don’t keep nearly as much of an eye on philosophy as I once did, but I still retain the curiosity and fully believe that philosophy as a discipline is infinitely more useful than many people – including some philosophers – might believe.

Which is why I snapped up Logicomix when it came into the dayjob the other day.

Logicomix – if you haven’t heard of it – is a brilliant idea. A retelling of the life of Bertrand Russell that takes into account the lives and passions of other famous logicians from the same period including pulp-fiction enthusiast and front line soldier Ludwig Wittgenstein (much of his most famous work, the Tractatus, was conceived of in the trenches of WWI). It’s a tricksy telling, using the comic’s creators as a greek chorus and trying up the thematics of Greek tragedy into the lives of these brilliant, but often troubled men; a balance between biography and trying to understand the importance of their work.

And it was important work, because without philosophy – and without mathematics**, which formed the basis of the much of these great men’s work – we would be unable to make sense of the world around us, of the way in which we live our lives. There are beautiful moments that make real-world sense of such abstract concepts as signs and signifiers which seemed even more relevant to me now as a creator of fiction, someone who uses stand-ins for real life on a regular basis.

But what is incredible about Logicomix to me is that it does its dual job of biography and introduction to philosophy in a way that would put many more scholarly works to shame. And yes, the real life moments have certainly been dramatised and shifted (Russell’s meetings with Frege, for example, almost certainly did not happen) but they provide an emotional framework that allows us to make sense of the philosophy, to understand in a way that may not have been obvious before.

That it is able to achieve this at all, I believe, is due to the form in which it chooses to tell its story. Such a tricksy and layered narrative would have been dense and uncomfortable in pure prose, and what Logicomix does – and in an exceptional manner – is show the way that comic storytelling can be used to direct and clear effect while still maintaining an intelligent and deep subtext. Simply put, if you wanted an argument for intelligent and mature comic narrative, Logicomix is it.

And who knows, it might even persuade people who thought philosophy to be dull or unrelated to their world to look a little more closely at the discipline and understand how it might relate to them, to the way they see and experience the world. In short, Logicomix is one of the most original and inspiring books I have read in a long time, and a massive argument for those of us who have long known that comic and sequential art storytelling can be about far more than thrills and spectacle; that the form can tell many stories in ways that normal prose cannot even hope to replicate.

*why didn’t I? Cost, mainly. And the fact that I’d already started to be seduced by the crime fiction, where, more often than not, the drink was cheaper.

**Logicomix uses the term Mathematics more often than it does philosophy, but I was introduced to the work of Russell, Wittgenstein et al from a philosophical perspective, which was perhaps the best way to come to them as before then I truly believed I hated mathematics. But since the work of these logicians was one of the aspects of my courses that came to interest me most, I have since had to rethink that hatred…

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Who Do You Wanna Be

by Dave White

"I wanna be Don Mattingly!"

"Well, then I can be Dave Winfield!"

Remember playing baseball when you were a kid? You always wanted to be the best player, and you wanted to pretend you were the best player on your favorite pro team.

Sometimes, when I'm cruising the crime blogs or reading blurbs, I see a mention of what a person wants to be.

I want to be Dennis Lehane.

The next Michael Connelly!

Something along those lines.

I don't get why that's an author's goal. I don't get why they want to be someone else.

I wish my name could be said in the same breath as those the authors I mentioned above. But I do not want to be them. My goal is to be Dave White. I want to have books that resonate on their own. I want to be my own man. I'm not out to try and write like someone else. I'm trying to write like me.

I want to be the best I can be. And I tend to like authors who strike out on their own.

If you're an aspiring writer, you should want to be the best you CAN be. Don't try to be Lee Child. Don't try to be Lehane or Crumley or Lippman or anyone else. Be yourself. Write the book you want to read.

Odds are that's going to make you put out something that hasn't been done before. You're going to have a voice. You're going to look at scenes from a different angle.

It's okay to have idols, mentors, and inspirations... but at some point people leave those behind and strike out on their own.

At some point you have to be yourself. And, if you ask me what my goal is as a writer, that is what I want to be.

Dave White.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Setimental Journey

John McFetridge

I’m a sentimental guy. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

In fiction I think sentiment, like a laugh, has to be earned. You have to feel it.

Years ago George Lucas said it was easy to make a movie audience cry; show them a puppy, then kill the puppy.

But as you move away from killing puppies sentiment gets a lot tougher, as George certainly knows.

Last week there was an article in the National Post newspaper in Canada by Robert Fulford about this kind of thing. He was complaining that Up in the Air is getting too much praise (I haven’t seen the movie).

Fulford said that Up in the Air was a “concensus movie” like Terms of Endearment, Dances With Wolves and Titanic and that these kinds of movies, “stand as monuments to the cinema of reassurance, glib and complacent, so heart-warming that they choke off every possibility of authentic feeling... that has always been a major source of Hollywood success.”

Fulford also mentions the book, Up in the Air, by Walter Kirn and points out the different professions of the main character in the book and the movie. In the book he’s a business coach doing “Brand Reconstruction,” trying to rescue a chain of Mexican restaurants that’s been wrecked by an E. Coli outbreak in its spiced meat, but that’s too pro-business for Hollywood. The giant multi-nationals that make Hollywood movies only ever make anti-business movies (glib, complacent, reassuring, heart-warming anti-business movies) .

But Fulford offers one line from the book that made me go online and buy it. The female lead is described in the book as having reached the age, “when working women first taste success and realize they’ve been conned.”

That line rings true to me and the people I know and it’s an uncomfortable truth, not reassuring or heart-warming at all.

The opposite of what Fulford says Up in the Air the movie does: “The movie congratulates all of us on the superior emotional wisdom we presumably brought to the theatre, then sends us home thinking exactly what we thought when we arrived.”
When I was younger people talked about writing as something that would, “make people think,” and I don’t think they meant, “make people think what they already thought was right,” but that does seem to be most writing. Well, it’s hard to write anything, let alone anything that might be uncomfortable.

These days every kind of superior emotional wisdom is being reassured from the most cynical to the most pollyanna. You think people are greedy and selfish beyond all repair and the human race is doomed? There’s a whole section over here. You think you’re different from everyone else, if only they’d see that? We got ‘em right here. It’s all the terrorists fault, here you go, no wait, it’s because the west destroyed their lives – whatever you want, we got it.

I’m old enough to remember when All in the Family first aired and people freaked out – often because they really did have some Archie Bunker in them. Or maybe because they had a little more Meathead in them and it suddenly looked silly (looking back on it now I can see where Meathead had more in common with Archie than he wanted to admit and I’m not surprised at the current state of my boomer generation).

Bob Dylan has been mentioned on this blog a few times and there’s another guy who wrote some uncomfortable truths, some lines that weren’t very reassuring and didn’t congratulate us on our superior emotional wisdom. In the middle of the peace and love and everyone is beautiful era people were singing along with the words, “You got a lotta nerve/To say you got a helping hand to lend/You just want to be on/The side that's winning,” and “When you know as well as me/You'd rather see me paralyzed.”

Wow, paralyzed. Not, “never see me again,” no, “see me paralyzed.”

So, maybe this is why I’ve always been drawn to the pulps and the stuff on the margins, the stuff not trying to be “concensus.” I like the stories that show me characters and doesn’t try to manipulate me into liking them too much, stories that earn the sentimentality.

A good example of what I mean are the stories in the Wal-Mart I Love You flash fiction challenge. Those stories were filled with sentiment and were heartfelt but they didn’t go for easy morals, no “puppy killing.” When the challenge was first announced with the website The People of Wal-Mart as an inspiration I probably wasn’t alone worrying that the tsories would be making fun of the weirdos in those pictures.

I shouldn’t have been worried. If there’s one genre in the writing world these days that earns its sentiment it’s crime fiction.

On the other hand, I do worry about the future of books sometimes. As usual, The Onion nails it:

Adults Go Wild Over Latest In Children's Picture Book Series

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Lights, Camera, Dissatisfaction

By Jay Stringer

Mike wrote recently about film adaptations. Well, okay, it was a blog he was stuck with thanks to the evil genius Weddle. Since that blog inspired this one, I’ll let them fight over who gets the credit.

Film versions, who needs ‘em, eh?

Well, we all do, it seems. But Why? Being a paid up card carrying geek, I spent a lot of my life so far talking about film adaptations; dream casting, the scripts I’d write, what Tim Burton messed up, who was the best Marlowe….the list goes on.

It seems to be an important aspect of literature, both comics and novels, to keep one eye on the silver screen.

I think last year was a watershed for me. I’ll take you back a little farther to make the point though, about 18 months ago I was talking to friend who shared my love of the comic book opus WATCHMEN. “I’m so nervous about the film,” he said, “what if they mess it up?”

I realised for the first time that I wasn’t nervous about the film. Moreover, I wasn’t particularly excited. I didn’t feel the brining need to see the book adapted into a film like so many of my friends seemed to. And it takes us back to that quote that always gets given to whichever 40’s author is cool at any given moment, that the filmmakers cannot damage the book, because “it’s right there on the shelf.” I had my WATCHMEN. It was perfect in its true form and I didn’t need it in any other.

Then the film came and went and did nothing to change my mind. I still have the story in it’s natural, perfect form, full of subtlety and craft and intelligence. I don’t need a two-dimensional film version, any more than I need a novelisation or a concept album.

I’m still not totally immune. I saw THE DARK KNIGHT in the theatres as many times as the rest of you. I was drawn into the fun of SHERLOCK HOLMES this week. I love to be knocked out by the occasional concept album adaptation. But I’m not obsessed with the concept like I once was. I don’t indulge in dream casting. I don’t look at the books on my shelf hoping they someday get taken seriously as films. Because I already have the stories the way they are meant to be. I’m past stressing over who gets cast in GREEN LANTERN or how badly Clive Owen would butcher Marlowe.

A book is a book. A comic is a comic. An album is an album. So why is it hard wired into us to want a film version?

From the point of view of the writer, there is a very practical reason, the chance to put a little extra food on the table. So that’s understandable.

But for the rest of us? Where does this come from?

Is it because Cinema was such an important cultural language in the twentieth century? If that’s the answer, what’s next? And what will films want to be adapted into in the years to come?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Flash, Holmes, Podcast

By Steve Weddle

Jay Stringer and I just hung up -- or 'clicked off' (What do we say anymore? And why do we still say 'dial' a phone number when we just press buttons in the post-rotary days?) -- from the Skypes for our second DSD podcast.

The iTunes shoppe page for the podcast is here. You can download individual episodes or subscribe to the whole run. The second show will be up mid-week after Jay works his evil magic to make me sound like an over-caffeinated lemur.

Future episodes will include publishing news of the week, interviews, reviews, and audio stories.

In this second episode, John McFetridge reads his short story "Santa in a Red Dress."

Jay and I discuss blogs worth reading, the Sherlock Holmes movie (along with a review from Scott D. Parker), and flash fiction. I have a few thoughts about flash fiction and I'd like to know what you think.

1. Flash Fiction owes its popularity to the fact that most people can't follow a single thought for more than thirty seconds. Or eight seconds. Like in that movie where the dude is a rodeo rider and rapper. Or maybe that was EIGHT MILES. Something. Eight something. Eight Days a Week. Beatles. Rock Band. Hey, the Wii is open. Time for a quick bike ride around Wii island.

2. Flash Fiction works much better on the Innerwebs than it does in print. As Jay and I were discussing on the podcast, when his grandpa and I were growing up, we read ink-on-paper magazines. You might have heard about a shepherd boy who threw a rock and cracked open jars full of old copies of LIFE and US WEEKLY. Now flash fiction challenges such as this one and this one and this one allow readers and writers to get glimpses of talent they didn't know existed. When we relied on print mags for our fiction, the flash fiction might have gotten lost between stories, if you could find it at all. A 400-page collection of 200 flash pieces? Not likely.

3. Flash Fiction is much easier to find now. I remember some collections of flash fiction that I used when I taught literature. You could give it to the college students and start a good discussion on character and setting and so forth. Very helpful, since you could read the piece in class and not have to rely on college students actually having done the work. We only had a few choices back when I was teaching. The monks took a long time to illustrate the scrolls scrolls we used. Now, using the community I mentioned above in Idiotic Point The First, finding flash fiction is easier.

4. OK. Let's think about this one for a second. You put a story up on the Innerwebs, chances are you aren't going to get paid $10,000 for it. I remember reading something Garrison Keillor wrote about a story he'd done in The New Yorker, a story had gotten him $10,000 or so. Most online magazines now are run by folks who love what they do and love the stories they work with. They're not doing this for the money, because, well, there ain't none. And the print mags? Did another one die today? I didn't check. So we rely on the online magazines to provide us with great fiction. The writers don't get paid. The editors don't get paid. So, from a writer's point of view, if you're trying to get noticed and share some of your work, does it make sense to spend your time writing a 7,000-word story for one magazine or writing 10 stories of 700 words for various sites? Personally, it depends on what the story is. I've got longer stuff out there because that what it takes to tell the story. I've got shorter stuff out there because I wanted to have fun with something and maybe try out something new. A new character. A wacky idea. Take a chance, you know? But do you think writers are spending more time writing flash because they don't want to spend their "free time" -- time off from paid jobs, doing something for which they don't get paid -- writing for free? Dunno. Maybe some folks work like this.

5. Flash Fiction is great for writers because you can focus on a particular scene or character in something under 1,000 words. You get that done, maybe it's a chapter in a novel. Maybe it's a character study for a novella. Flash Fiction helps writers test out a new voice or fresh idea, as I mentioned a second ago (I remind you because the TV news tells me you have a short attention span. Remember? I already mentioned that.) and, wait, where was I? Oh, yeah. So you take this little, tight piece you've worked on and build it into something more, something bigger. Like you've made an appetizer and want to work it into a larger meal. Or you've painted your study and now want to carry that color scheme throughout the rest of the house.

So what do you think about Flash Fiction? What purpose does it serve? Do you think writers waste their time on these smaller pieces? Or do you think this helps readers and writers?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Walk It Off

by Mike Knowles

I mentioned before about how every book I have ever written has started out in a blue notebook that I bought at Walmart. My first book was in a blue notebook and after I found out I had to write two more I went back and cleaned the place out. The book is perfect for writing. It isn’t bound with those metal rings that get all bent and flat when you carry it around in a bag (or, in my case, a satchel or man purse). There are around 360 pages in the book so I never run out of room. And, it can go anywhere. Firing up my laptop to write requires far more stuff to carry and the setup wastes what little time I have. When I finish writing in the blue book, I start typing. This is where the first of many edits get done. So far it has been a good system. The blue notebook has never failed me–that is until a few weeks back.

I don’t think the blue notebook has any special powers, I am just a creature of habit (If you don’t know that already, you must have missed the crazy adherence to using a blue notebook in the previous paragraph. You must be scrolling down screen for someone else’s blog. I recommend McFetridge–if you’re going to blow me off at least do it for another Canadian). I eat the same breakfast, snack, lunch, and dinner pretty much everyday. I walk my dog twice a day at the exact same time. I work out on a very specific schedule. And I write twice a day everyday in a blue notebook. When I am on task, I get about 2, 000 words done in a day. For the kind of books I write, it means a book can be done in super rough form in about a month.

Since October I have been writing in a blue notebook twice a day everyday, but, as it stands, there is no book. I gave up in early December.

It all started with an idea I had in my head for a while that I wanted to turn into a book. In the summer, I started researching like a fiend. Unfortunately, the topic I chose was something that didn’t exactly make research easy. I read dozens of books, spent countless hours on the internet, I even found other non-fiction writers to give me some first hand information.

With the research done, I started writing. I thought about the book constantly. I put the time in everyday. Nothing changed from the way I wrote other books, except of course that NOTHING CAME OUT! I sat everyday for hours and sometimes only got 250 words to show for it. I kept researching and trying to push forward. I refused to admit defeat. I applied a sort of literary "Walk it off" perspective. I wouldn’t let the lack of ideas stop me from staying in the game. But in December, the game was called.

The book ended for a few reasons:

1.The book was based on a good idea, but an idea isn’t enough. An idea should be a link in a chain, but if you’re not careful it can end up being a rope just long enough to hang yourself. Some ideas don’t have a full length book in them. No matter how hard you try, you can’t stretch one idea. Dinner can be the same way. If I’m hungry and I come up with the idea that Mexican would be good, there needs to be more to it than that. Without other ideas expanding my initial thought, I’ll end up eating plan tortilla’s while I stand over the counter (it’s happened more than once).

2. The book was supposed to span twenty years. I like stories like that, but to write them you have to keep in mind the difference in the two time periods. Life in the 80's is nothing like life today. For instance, in the eighties my dad had hair now not so much. It donned on me at about 15, 000 words that there were a bunch of anomalies in the story, and there were plenty of nights spent fixing all of my mistakes.

3. The final reason is simple. One night, I suddenly realized that the story I was writing sounded so good to me because it was exactly like a book I loved that became a movie I loved. All of the scribbles in the blue notebook felt suddenly unoriginal and that shook me loose. There was no more walking it off. Game over.

Now you may be saying to yourself. What was the book on? What was the book he felt like he was copying. I’m not saying. The reason is simple. There is an off chance the blue notebook is still going to work. I may be able to come back to it in a year or two and turn it into something.

And that right there is how deep the idea of walking it off is burned into me. Even when I say I gave up, I don’t mean it. The game has to start again sometime.