Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Fiction Chain and ABW

by Scott D. Parker

For the new year, I decided to be Jerry Seinfeld.

No, not really, but I did decide to try something he used to do. As a young comic, Seinfeld knew he needed write everyday in order to get his voice. To reward himself with a visual cue, he purchased a calendar with all the days of the entire year. If he writes on a day, he puts a red “X” on the date. Repeat. After a week, you have a string of seven X’s. The days rolled on and so did the X’s. Soon, he had visual incentive not to skip a day, even if he wanted to because he didn’t want to break the chain.

Okay, I thought just after the new year, why not? It’s a gimmick, really, like most everything we writers do to trick out minds. I started on 4 January and wrote. I made a simple choice: I count fiction. Blogs and other non-fiction don’t count. Period. Fiction equals new content. For fourteen days straight, I wrote fiction. I had two stories going in my head and was preparing them both. Boy, it was intoxicating. I got to where I’d bow out of playing a game or something because I hadn’t “made a link today.” I didn’t want to break the fiction chain. It was great fun, too. Nor was I surprised with the amount of content I was creating. (More on that come 1 February on my blog.)

The third week of January showed the flaw in my effort. I finished Story #1 on a Sunday. I hadn’t mapped everything out for Story #2. The day job got to me that day and I didn’t have my lunch writing hour. Sure, I wrote a “CSI: Miami” recap that night but not fiction. Thus, no “X.” Don’t laugh but it killed me. I wrote the word “blog” on that day but, really, it’s a cheat. Come lunch time on Tuesday, it was so easy to break out the laptop and start writing. I wanted to start the chain again.

When it came time to edit the stories, I decided that editing fiction counted since I was still creating new lines and sentences and working fiction. As Story #1 was submitted and the first draft of Story #2 was completed, I again ran into a problem: what to write next? Thus, a chain was broken. Leading me to my corollary to my Fiction Chain: ABW.

ABW stands for Always Be Writing. That’s my short hand for always, always, have something on which I can write every single day. Some days it may be editing. But I told myself never to let a day arrive where I’m between projects. Thus, on my wall now, a large sheet (18-in. x 48-in.) of paper is taped. It is titled “Story Ideas” and I write them all there. If I’m at a loss, I look up. Simple as that.

This one little trick has allowed me to produce more fiction in twenty-two days (started on 4 January, only blogged on two days, suffered a setback on one day and didn’t produce) than I did all of last year. One Month! It’s a gimmick but it works for me. Every month in 2010 might not be like January’s output but it’s amazing how fast stories pile up when you write every day.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Talk Talk

By Russel D McLean

The Nerd of Noir is the man of a thousand swears, but despite how that may make him appear to some people (hello, mother!), he’s a savvy guy. Not just because he gave a nice review to one of me books lately* but because he genuinely seems to have a brain underneath that beautifully coiffed hair of his.

That review pointed out one thing in particular about THE GOOD SON that no one else in the world seems to have picked up on:

McNee initially does what no fucking private eye ever seems to do in novels – he used a fucking phone. Instead of traipsing off to London a million fucking miles away (like any other private eye character since Marlowe would do), McNee makes some calls, figures some shit out from the comfort of his office. Instead of a thousand scenes of McNee going from one shady bar or one shit-hole flat to another at who knows how much of an expense, McNee gets practical about it and just calls up contacts. It may not initially seem like a big thing, but think about it. It’s kind of a revelation.

A revelation indeed. But it didn’t seem to me to be one at the time. While I had grown up on novels that relied on those scenes, I am also a product of a world that has started to rely more and for immediate information and I knew that any decent investigator wouldn’t waste his time going to the scene when he could easily get what he needed from his armchair. Or at least lay the groundwork for a speedier investigation.

Is this hampering the idea of the traditional plot? Is this killing crime fiction that things just aren’t so difficult on our protagonists any more?

No, I don’t think so. As anyone who’s read the book will tell you, McNee doesn’t just sit on his arse the whole time (and besides, what if he did? Never did Nero Wolfe any harm…), but his approach opens up a whole new set of complications and has repercussions that would have been very different if he’d done that whole “traipsing down to London” nonsense. I also think it sets him up as a man of his time; a man who can use the modern world. And this is important because I think many protagonists in crime fiction can feel removed from the world they clearly live in due to such simple things as not using a phone properly or refusing to look at the internet (again, McNee’s browsing of a website provides much information on one important character in the book).

I think that if crime fiction is to move forward, it has to embrace the modern world in a natural way and adjust its expectations and clichés accordingly. Yes, there is the worry about characters constantly being in touch or not being isolated when the killer’s coming, but there are ways and means around such things that can be dramatically more terrifying than the old because characters would be reliant on such communication and technology. There is also the question – and its one at the centre of Steve Mosby’s chilling Cry For Help – over who is at the other end of a phone?

Can you really trust a text?

Yes, I think the modern world will kill some clichés, some standard tropes, some long-held ideas of genre fiction. I think it will make wrters consider new ways – consciously or not – to treat old situations.

And, truly, I believe that’s a good thing.

*In the grand and brand new issue of Crime Factory, available if you clicky-click the beautiful link

Thursday, January 28, 2010

And that's the end!

by Dave White

Just finished another draft of my next novel.

Like literally, just hit save, and closed the Word doc.

And I'm exhausted.

It always surprises me how tiring writing is. Sometimes, after an extremely trying writing day, I feel like I've run three miles. And my brain doesn't compute this, exactly. It thinks about what I did during the day and tells me, "You lazy bum, you just sat on the couch all day."

But writing really is exhausting. Think of the mental work you have to put in. First you have to make sure the plot is clicking. Then you have to make sure everyone doing everything within their character (okay, one and two are interchangable). Then you have to make sure the way you're telling the story works. Your word choice has to be smooth. Your tone has to fit what you're trying to say. You have to show, not tell. You have to be grammatically coorect.

And if you aren't you better be fitting a perfect style.

A lot goes on with each keystroke.

So, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to keep this post kinda short and go hit the sack for the evening.

Night, folks!

(Though, if you haven't had enough of me, you can check out my thoughts on house hunting over at my personal blog.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Beginning of a New World

I used to love album covers. Back in the early seventies some friends and I drove from Montreal to Plattsburgh, New York, to buy Alice Cooper’s School’s Out album because the Canadian version didn’t include the panties. Yeah, that’s right, the vinyl record was wrapped in a pair of pink panties.

For years I had both posters from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on my wall. The only way to get the posters was to buy the album.

I used to buy records at Dutchie’s Record Cave on Stanley Street in Montreal and ride the bus home studying the album cover.

One wall in my first student apartment had been painted in what I thought was a pretty good attempt at Roger Dean, Yes-style cover art. I can’t remember which album cover it was, but I do remember it was the one with Astral Traveller and Sweet Dreams.

I haven’t bought new music in quite a while but last week I went online and bought, of all things, the Peter Framton album, Fingerprints, an instrumental that came out in 2006.

I have no idea what the cover art looks like, or even if there is any, but Frampton is just as good a guitarist as he was when that got lost in his pop music fame.

So, for me anyway, the covers are gone, the giveaway posters are gone and sadly, the giveaway panties are gone, but the music is still here.

And that’s kind of my segue to books and specifically e-books.

This is in part inspired by Tess Gerritson’s, The End of the World as We Know It? blog post, because while that may be true, the new world might not be so bad.

All the reports that mention Ms. Gerriton's blog refer to her as, “bestselling author Tess Gerritson,” and that’s great for her, but there are a lot of writers like me who know we’ll never be bestselling authors. I don’t know, was James Crumley ever a bestseller? Even George V. Higgins had a lot of success with The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but I think a lot of his other books are out of print. I’ve been tracking down books by those guys and a few others lately and it’s been tough. I’ve been using Abebooks and looking all over online for used copies because a lot of the books I’m looking for aren’t even in print anymore.

There are thousands of books like The Super Summer of Jamie McBride which are out of print and yet Amazon or Abebooks will sell me a used copy. The author, or his or her estate, gets no money from that sale. If it was an e-book, always in print, he might get a quarter. Okay, so it’s not much but you never know, over years it may add up.

For a writer like me that matters. I’m not worried about having a bestseller, I’m worried about people who want to buy my book being able to find a copy.

When I started writing I dreamed about having huge bestsellers, being as popular as Ian Flemming or Robert Ludlum. Then as I got older that changed. First it turned into a sort of hazy dream about being a kind of drunken genuis, hanging out in bars and, well, that one was always kind of vague and never really made sense.

But then I hit on my current dream, the one that’s stuck with me the longest:

I dream about being able to make as much money as a writer as I would as a school teacher.

A quick look online tells me teachers make about fifty grand. Okay, let’s say I make a buck a book (averaged out between hardcover, trade, mass market and e-book) so I’ll need to sell 50,000 books a year.

Wow. Okay, have to look into that drunken genius thing again...

All right, all right, with print runs less then five thousand it's unlikely I'll ever sell fifty thousand copies of a book. Right now I have publishing deals in Canada and the USA, so I'll need a deal in the UK and Australia and everywhere else people speak English (I don't expect to ever sell English books in non-English speaking countries, imagine how much a special order import would cost) and I'll have to get translation deals. So far I haven't been able to get a foreign deal and one of the main reasons given is that my books haven't sold enough copies in English. An Italian publisher, for example, would have to buy the rights to the book, pay a translator, design a new cover, print up a lot of copies, do some marketing and promotion, ship books to bookstores and hope to sell enough copies to make a little profit.

There's no way that's gonna happen.

But with e-books, always available around the world, I might sell enough to make as much money as a substitute teacher.

And that's a chance I'm willing to take even if it means some books will be pirated. Right now some books are shoplifted, some are damaged in shipping and sent back and some are simply returned unsold. Lots of books are given away free as ARCs. Who pays for those?

Yes, it may be easy for me, lucky to sell a thousand copies of a book, to say I'm willing to risk having a few pirated, that's a lot different from a bestselling author who sells 100,000 copies and has 20,000 copies pirated. What about the twenty grand extra they might have made (I still think most people who download illegal won't buy legally)? I don't know about that.

These days it seems there's an awful lot being written about the publishing "industry" in every newspaper at the same time all those papers are cutting back on their book review sections.

Maybe when the fad of e-books and e-readers and book pirating passes we can go back to talking about books. Newspapers will be available on e-readers and you never know, they might bring back book reviews.

Most of us will never be Pink Floyd. We’ll be lucky to be Wishbone Ash.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Knowledge Adds, Wisdom Lets Slide

By Jay Stringer

Nothing goes to plan. Ever. Not one thing.

Okay, maybe that one time with that safety deposit box and……Ignore that.

I know a lot of writers plan things out, to varying degrees. Some have detailed maps of where they’re going, flowcharts and diagrams, walls and desks cluttered with post-it notes. So far, and please let there be time to change and improve, that’s just not me.

Nothing goes to plan.

Example one; This blog. To take you behind the scenes of how we plan these things –on the rare occasions that planning applies to what I do here- Russel and myself had many chats about how to make a DSD presence for Tony Black. Plan A involved an interview, to be done in advance, which I didn’t do. Plan B involved a podcast interview. And, dutifully, the night before we both attended Tony’s book launch, I laid out my laptop back next to my recording equipment to take with me the following day. And I did remember to take the bag. Just not the stuff that was meant to be in it. Russel saved the day, as his Friday report of the launch more than covered the fact that, frankly, to work with me is often to work on your own. My brain has other things to do, like catch dinosaurs, and build rocket ships.

I’m thinking of this because a friend recently asked me for a few bits of writing advice. And as I tried to make it sound like I knew what I was talking about, I realised I'm the last person to ask.

I’m currently at work on the second draft of my second book. Now the first, as I’ve said before, was sorta written by accident. I had a vague idea, one that would be told in first person by a bartender and really didn’t have the legs to go past the first plot twist, and I sat down to write a short story. And I wrote. And I wrote. And sometime later, climbing out of the cave and wiping the hair and cobwebs from my eyes, I had a 75,000 word short story.

And boy was it a mess.

I showed it to a few people, who’s opinions I have come to trust. And they said, “Boy, this is a mess.” But I’d done it, and I was proud of it so I worked on. I drafted and hacked and sliced. I took in advice and criticism. I started to feel like I knew what the book was going to be. I made the mistake of having a plan. Then somewhere between the first and second draft, I realised that the central character had nothing to do with the story, and that the most interesting guy was someone else in the bar that night. So the first person narrative got a brain transplant. Then somewhere between drafts two and three, I realised that all the stuff that I really wanted to write, the stuff I was finding interesting, was happening ‘off screen’ to other people, so I abandoned the main plot for a different one. And then a few other characters turned up somewhere along the way, and a few other vanished, and hey presto I had a book that seemed to move at a decent speed, be about things that interested me, and have characters I wanted to return to.

So to write a book i had to firstly accidentally write a different book, with different characters and a different plot.

Starting the second (or should that be third?) book, I decided I needed a plan. I would learn from the process of the first one. First and foremost, i would actually intend to write a book. That one small step seemed to make so many things make more sense. I decided I needed to know where the story was going, and who was in it. But then, well…..nothing ever goes to plan. The first draft was difficult for those around me. Endless questions, agonising, and general attempts at making myself out to be the last of the great moody artists. And then, in a fraction of the time if the first one, a first draft was born.

Super Agent read it, gave me plenty of notes and ideas to work with, and I set about the second draft. And, having all the experiences of the first book, and a pretty concise first draft of the second, I thought the process would involve less dramatic changes this time round. But I’m knee deep into it, and characters keep telling me I’ve got them wrong, and other motivations keep cropping up that change the meaning of scenes, and some of my favourite bits of writing have already bitten the dust.

Thing is, I don’t think I’d have it any other way. I’m so used to flying by the seat of my pants that I’ve learned to trust it. I think my instincts are better than my plans, and by feelings are better than my ambitions. Watching me write is like watching me cook; there’s a lot of chopping and mess, there’s very little in the way of recipe, and there’s a lot of strange smells. But some of what comes out is tasty. I’m not sure I have it in me to go the more controlled route; I wouldn’t know what to do with a flowchart or a recipe.

How about you, are you a planner or a chancer?

BONUS COMPETITION!!! just for a bit of fun. First person to identify where the title of today's blog comes from will get a mix cd. It'll be made by be, so don't get too excited.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Of stories and factories

By Steve Weddle

You know those BEST AMERICAN whatever books that come out each year? Aren’t they great? Sometimes I get them right when they come out. Sometimes I get them the following year when they go “Bargain Priced.” I was just working through the 2000 version of Best American Mystery Stories. Donald Westlake edited that one, which had some Shel Silverstein and Dennis Lehane in it. Stories from The Chattahoochee [more fun to say than spell] Review, The Oxford American, The Greensboro Review and other mags join work from AHMM and EQMM. This morning I was reading sweet action from Scott Wolven in the 2008 version edited by George Pelecanos. The 2008 edition also has stories by Kyle Minor, Alice Munro, James Lee Burke, Scott Phillips, S.J. Rozan and a ton of other talented folks.

So that’s the post today. Just wanted to say what I was reading. But while you’re here, let’s think about this for a second. I’m looking at print books that collect stories from print mags. Great stuff, yeah.

Not that long ago, if you wanted to read great short stories, you had to live near a bookstore. Or a library. Or have some subscriptions to the magazines that published quality short fiction. But now, we got quality stuff coming out our ears around here. Yeah, yeah. Good writing is dead. There’ll never be another Faulkner. Anyone can publish now. Blah. Blah.

Shaddup with that nonsense. This ain’t like poetry, folks. Writing fiction is hard work. And folks are publishing it all over the place. And now we’ve become our own collectors of good writing.

OK. I use Google Reader to sort through the blogs I wanna read. Mixed in with the blogs that tell me of Dave White’s suggestions for the Rutgers basketball team or what Jay Stringer thinks of the Wolves’ chances to avoid relegation, I’ve got some pretty fantastic fiction blogs. But it’s not just the straight blogs. We’ve got mags and zines and whatever else you want floating out there.

Today, Monday, the fantastic CRIMEFACTORY launches, featuring a couple of us DSD guys who sneaked in among some top-shelf quality. Head over and check it out. The site is great and the zine, all pdf-ed up, is a marvel of coolness, all retro-noired for your pleasure.

And that’s not all. Let’s use the DSD crew for a test case. Take a look at Dave White’s stories. His first two novels were about Jackson Donne. And you know where you could have seen Donne before the books? Over at ThrillingDetective. Yup. Short stories online. Russel D. McLean has stuff at ThrillingDetective, as well as plenty of other stops. And Scott D. Parker, Jay Stringer, and I have some of our best stuff over at Beat to a Pulp. Online shorts. Just a handful of examples. And look at what John McFetridge has done. He’s collected some of his stories in pdf form for you to download and read. That link over there on the right that says ‘Flash.’ Yeah, that’s it. And as for Mike Knowles, heck, I’m reading his GRINDER on my iPod touch since my local bookstore didn't have it. So I went clicky-click and had it from the amazons in a second. In other words, we’re all out here in various places online. And that’s not to take a damn thing away from print. That’s just giving more options.

Other top sites such as Plots with Guns, ThugLit, A Twist of Noir, The Feral Pages, and so many more (Yeah, I'm sure I forgot your favorite. Tell me about it in the comments.) publish great short stories. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Flash Fiction. And Jay and I talked about it on the podcast. But going back through these BEST books the day before CRIMEFACTORY launches, just shows how much quality there is. This isn’t a matter of e-zines killing off the dead tree magazines.

This is about messing up my To Be Read pile. Let's focus on what's important here, folks: My reading pile. I not only have mags such as Mystery Scene and Crime Spree to read, plus short story collections and estimated nine inches deep – now I have to add CRIMEFACTORY and all these other great online collections to the pile. Thanks Keith, Cameron, and Liam for giving me more for my TBR pile – and another excuse to ignore the laundry pile.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Another Giant Gone

by Mike Knowles

Every name on the top two shelves of my bookcase now belongs to a dead man. Stark, Spillane, McBain, and now Parker. I should add that my books are arranged by coolness, not alphabetical order.

Hearing about Robert Parker’s death was a blow. When I began reading crime fiction, Parker’s Spenser was one of the first heroes I encountered. I remember being in awe after I read The Promised land. I also remember the excitement of finding out there were a ton more of the books. That feeling is still one of the best feelings I can think of. The moment you put down an awesome book and find out there are a bunch more just waiting to be read. I keep chasing that high, but as I get older it happens less and less.

When I look at the bookshelf, I wonder who will pick up the mantle of my heroes. But really no one has picked up the torch from these writers. Who, right now, is on track to write twenty or thirty best sellers? The names on the top shelves of my book case were a rare breed. They wrote book after book about the same characters and nothing ever really got stale. Even though Parker kept pulling jobs that went wrong, Mike Hammer kept killing people and avoiding committing to Velda, and Spenser kept solving cases without making a lot of money and putting up with more violence than any one man should be able to the stories never got old.

Some people just expect writers to be able to do that. To just sit back in an office chair with a laptop and fire off a best seller. I wonder if these people think that baseball players can just hit one out of the park whenever they want to. Because make no mistake about it, writing good fiction for twenty years straight is not an everyday skill. That kind of skill is what separates someone like me playing hockey from the way Gretzky played hockey. Sure we both played the same sport, but there were vastly different results. Gretzky’s skills made him a phenom while the way I applied those skills made me a public embarrassment.

Plenty of people like to say they like to think they have a novel in them. They say a novel, not twenty. Twenty is crazy. Twenty is impossible. The guys on my bookshelf did it. Stark and McBain wrote over 100.

I had been waiting to read the last Spenser book for a little while now, and it will have to wait a little longer. I’m going to read Robert B. Parker all the way through again. I’m going to try and recapture that feeling I get too little. And I’m going to remember that a giant has passed leaving huge deep footprints to follow.