Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Voice of Reason - Yeah Right!

I was charged when asked to be part of the Do Some Damage gang. Really stoked. These guys were awesome. I loved the blog. I admired the writers. I felt like I had been asked to sit with the cool kids at lunch. Then I started thinking - these are fabulous crime fiction writers. The kind of guys who turn over rocks and shed light on what lies beneath. Social commentary, deep dark shadows and really cool stuff comes to the surface of their stories. They write Crime Fiction with a capital C. And me...well, I write crime fiction...small c. I'm not deep and dark and filled with social commentary. I'm just - fun.


Yeah! I worried that my membership card was going to be revoked as soon as they remembered that I was a bit…well…um…different. I really want to be that cool noir writer or a page turning thriller chick. I want to be the one that makes you think about bigger issues. I do! When I started writing for real – not that practice book that made me realize I might like to write – I tried writing those stories. Only, the more I wrote, the more my voice got lighter and wackier. I couldn’t help it.

Yep. I just invoked the V word. Voice. It is that thing that makes one writer’s work sound completely different from another’s. Voice is one of those strange things that either happens or it doesn’t…kind of like growing breasts. (Sorry guys…but you added a girl to the blog. The B word has just come into play.) Yeah, you can always go to some fancy doctor and have him add a bit more to mix, but when push comes to shove, they aren’t real. Voice has to be genuine and it can’t be forced. And you can’t try to sound like the next Greg Iles…I tried because 24 Hours was a book I couldn’t put down. It sucked me in, held me tight and made me gnaw at my fingernails until the last page. But, no matter what I did, I sounded like a writer who was trying to mimic a NY Times Bestseller.

Double Crap!

You can’t steal a voice. And you can’t just snap your fingers and make one magically appear. It takes writing. Lots and lots of writing. Some people find their voice in their first manuscript. I hate those people…and I say that with all the love and admiration in my heart. Others writers find their voice lurking in book number two. I found in book number five – the first mystery and the first 1st person POV writing I’d ever attempted. Suddenly, my voice was loud and clear and kind of wacky. I wasn’t sure what to do with that. I mean, I liked it. I was having a blast writing whatever strange thing came into my head, but it wasn’t what I had ever intended to write when I started this strange and mythical journey into the publishing world. But it was what I was and I went with it. The more I wrote the stronger that new voice got.

So a strong voice is good – right? Well, that depends on your point of view. A strong voice brings both good and bad with it. Good because it’ll hit people over the head and make them notice you. That sounds great, right? Well, not always. A strong voice will always get an equally strong reaction, but that reaction might not be a good one. A voice that one editor passionately loves tends to be a voice that another editor hates. And readers will react the same way. I think a strong voice is a fabulous thing to behold. Strong voices create strong reactions, which as a writer is what we all hope for. Love our voice or hate our voice – we want you to remember our voice.

So before these guys realize that they have a zany writer on their hands and kick me out of the club, tell me: Who did you try to mimic when you started writing and what does your voice sound like now?


The Pixar film, Ratatouille, is one of my favorites from that studio. There's a line in there that always struck me as ironic and funny. When food critic Anton Ego arrives at the restaurant wanting to be dazzled by the new chef, he says this to the waiter:
After reading a lot of overheated puffery about your new cook, you know what I'm craving? A little perspective. That's it. I'd like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?
I thought of that line last weekend when I watched the original Star Wars trilogy with my son. He had never seen the films and I am geek enough to insist that they be watched in release order, thank you very much. Thus, over two weekends, I watched Star Wars (none of this A New Hope crap), The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi and I started thinking about perspective.

I am part of the Star Wars Generation. That is, life and outlook and play before Star Wars (1977) was different after seeing the film than before it. Entire worlds were created in the minds of young people (and older ones, too). The language of Star Wars pervades the modern vocabulary. I was so hoping that my boy would get to experience Darth Vader’s famous line the correct way: by watching the movie.

Here’s the thing: I’m now forty one, an adult, a writer, a creator. It’s difficult to recapture all the nuances of childhood because my perspective has changed. My adult self gets in the way. With the original trilogy, however, all the main stages of my perspective can be relived. When I watch the first film, my writer self is largely subsumed in my childhood self. I’m still a kid watching it for the first time, still thrilled at the exploits of our heroes and I almost always get those goosebumps when Luke blows up the Death Star. The Empire Strikes Back is the movie that just flat-out great. It was my first sequel but the themes of that show (loyalty, love, courage in defeat) spoke to my adolescent self. Now, as an adult, I can see just how well made and well written it is. Don’t get me started with Return of the Jedi. All the fun I had back in 1983 is largely gone because I can’t get past all the problems I see now that I know better.

Since this is a mystery fiction blog, I would have liked to have used a famous crime story to make this point. Alas, I’m a late comer to the mystery field and I’m still too busy reading this stuff (and everything else) for the first time to bother re-reading anything. But I know a lot of y’all out there have re-read favorite books at different stages of your lives. For those books to which you keep returning, why do you, considering your perspective has changed? For those books that have changed over time and you have stopped re-reading, did you change or has the book changed?

Friday, February 12, 2010

We Are Not Alone

By Russel D McLean

Writing is something that is done – for me, at least – in solitude. My dear friend, Rebecca, gets very fed up with people saying to her, “You know a writer? Isn’t he an exciting person?” In fact she gets so fed with people saying this to her that she now has a catch-all response:

“You want to know the truth? Russel spends all day* sitting in front of a computer in a dressing gown and slippers that could walk around on their own, swearing to himself and occasionally tapping things on a keyboard.”

And it’s a joke, but its also quite true – the life of a writer is hardly glitz and glamour. The movies make us look like tormented geniuses and the montages of writing make it seem like such a natural and smooth and terrifically momentum-fuelled process that, you know, there’s something pretty sexy about it – particularly since writing seems to be a process of doing things out in the real world while doing a voice over.

But more often than not, we’re just people, sitting in a room thinking, “what the hell do I write next?”

I mention this because one of the most important things to have around you as a writer is a support network. Often this can be a spouse or partner. I don’t really, at this time, have anyone like that. But I do have friends. And my mum and dad, who have been very supportive of my choice to try and write for a living (even if mum dissaproves of some of my swearing!). I have very good friends both within and without the writing community. And all of these people are hugely important to me. For one thing, they force me out of the house to occasionally interact with the real world. This is a good thing because, given my personality, I could quite easily sit in this tatty dressing gown and squelch in these slippers and not notice the apocalypse occurring in the world outside so intent would I be on trying to perfect a piece of work that I never really see as finished**

And that’s the thing: a writer – even a pulpy writer like myself – needs to engage with the world. To be part of it. You cannot write in isolation. Stuck inside all day with those voices in your head? You’d go mad. Well, I certainly would.

So my friends – both those that write and those that don’t – provide a necessary relief. They are my connection to the real world. They keep grounded. And they keep me sane. And some of them even ensure that I remember to wear clothes when I leave the deepest, darkest shadows of my abode.

Because of these people – because of their support – I feel like perhaps they make me a better writer. Not by offering advice or assisting professionally (although some of them do) but by simply being my friends, by being there to arse around with or talk to.

So while the act of writing is by necessity a solitary activity (even when you’re writing in tandem, I think there is some element of solitude that must come between collaborators, but then I’ve never really collaborated, so what do I know?) I do believe that any book owes its genesis as much to those around the writer as it does to the writer themselves. Not in a direct fashion, perhaps, but without the support network that friends, family and colleagues provide, I don’t know how anyone could do this crazy gig and come out the other side with anything like their best work.

In short, this week’s post is dedicated to those people in my life. I think you all know who you are.

I just want to say thank you.

*Not entirely true – I do occasionally get dressed and go to a day job.
**Perhaps that’s another post – but here’s why deadlines are important for someone like me: I can never see a work as finished until they pry it from my cold dead, keyboard. There’s always something else in the text I could be fiddling with.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different

by Dave White

Scott Parker often talks about his experience reading Shutter Island. He says when he sat down with it, he expected Mystic River Part 2. He wanted Lehane to give him another version of the same book. (And now, he says, he can't wait to read SI again. I think he's gonna love it, knowing what he's been reading recently.)

I've been thinking a lot about his statement though. Being disappointed in a book because you expected the same type of book as the one that came before it. I used to be the same way. I could read several Ross MacDonald or Robert B. Parker books in a row and not get tired of them.

Now, I look for something different.

I love that Lehane went out and stretched his writing muscles to give us a private eye series, then a small town Greek Tragedy, then a gothic horror novel, then a huge historical melodrama. I could sit here and argue that all his novel fall into crime fiction somehow, they are all tied to the genre, but they're like balloons tethered to the same banister--each string leads to the same place, but at the end of each you'll find a different color.

Anytime I email Duane Swierczynski that I'm about to start one of his books, he writes back something along the lines of "Just so you know, it's NOTHING like the last one." (By the way, his forthcoming novel EXPIRATION DATE is fantastic. I just received and ARC.)

That's one of my favorite things about Duane's books, much like Lehane. I never know what I'm gonna get. I could get a spy novel that makes Pepperidge farm cookies frightening. Or a book about a sexy blonde who poisons a drink. But each goes off in a different direction.

You want something new from an author. You don't want to read the same book over and over again. If you like that, then you also want to be able to recognize who the killer is by page 50.

But I like most of my writers to stretch their writing muscles. I want to do that too. Even in a series, I often don't want to see the characters going through the same thing over and over again (certain characters aside).

The book I'm working on now is different. There are things in it that I've never done before. It's surprised me at times as well. It has been hell on my writing muscles. What I have planned after this book is even more different.

(Also, if you want to see something really different, you can read about Band Bashes at my own blog. See? I can stretch my muscles.)

Just like the authors I love.

And each time I start, I'm excited to see something new happen.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

It's a Crime

John McFetridge

It seems crime fiction is either a murder mystery or a hiest.

But there are lots of crimes. Sometimes I go to this site: to keep up on the current black market. I’m always amazed what’s moving up and down this chart – gives whole new meaning to being number five with a bullet (ha, sorry about that).

But really, counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs are number three, ahead of cocaine and opium and heroin and meth and everything except marijuana (oooh, imagine if that was taxed and sold like alcohol)? Even black market prescription drugs are ahead of all the other drugs.

Animal and wildlife smuggling at $20 billion? Illegal fishing at $16.5 billion?
Fifteen billion dollars in illegal logging? There’s got to be a crime novel in renegade loggers. How do you smuggle logs? Do you hide them in giant bongs?

And the patriot in me is proud to see little Canada #5 in black market countries, ahead of the UK, Mexico, Spain, Germany – ahead of Russia.

We’re not even going to be #5 at the winter Olympics in Vancouver next week.

Of course, as long as we win gold in hockey we don’t really care about anything else. And the Olympics haven’t been fun since they stopped allowing guys like Eddie the Eagle to compete.

Of course the last winter Olympics in Canada may be mostly famous for the Jamaican bobsled team and the movie Cool Runnings. A couple of Olympics later in Lillehammer, Norway the Jamaican bobsled team finished ahead of the United States, Russia, France and Italy (but still, Jamaica is nowhere to be seen on the black market list).

More recently the Jamaican bobsled team took a bit of a hit when one the best brakemen in the world, Lascelles Brown, was poached by Canada where he has won an Olympic silver medal and a Gold at the World Championships.

Would that be too weird for fiction, Canada poaching a bobsledder from Jamaica? Is that weirder than renegade loggers?

So, while I'm watching the Olympics next week, what kind of crimes would you like to see more of in crime novels?

What's the strangest crime you've ever put into a story or a novel?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Further On Down The Road

By Jay Stringer

I finally saw The Road at the weekend. I didn’t hold off for any particular reason, I wasn’t to scared to see it, or too precious of the book. Timing just didn’t allow it until now.

That said, I’ve made no secret recently that I am ‘over’ film adaptations. I don’t need them. But still, sometimes you want to take a chance. Especially for a book that moved you.

I first read The Road in proof. I was the only McCarthy fan in the bookshop, and the rep remembered me and saved a copy. In fact, if I remember the timing right, it was one of my leaving presents. There was nothing spectacular about the copy –some proofs are wonderful editions, better than the books themselves, some are pretty basic. This one was the exact definition of basic; blank white cover, no hooptedoodle, a few quotes on the back, and straight in to the sparse prose.

And in a masterstroke, it suited the book perfectly. The official version was nice enough, it had a dark looking picture of some trees and the title was shiny and silver. If you like that sort of thing. But in truth, the edition I’ve always held to be the true version of the book was the proof copy.

McCarthy’s prose has always held something special for me. I wouldn’t want to imitate it, and I couldn’t if I tried. But his voice speaks to something very basic in me, this is one of the perfect distillations of fiction.

The book itself wastes no time. There’s no messing, no set up, and no epic oblivion. We just get straight into the core of the story;

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.

Books don’t need to worry about establishing shots, whereas the language of film seems to demand them. So the film does start with establishing what the world was like ‘before’. At first, I thought this was pointless. I mean, we know what the world was like before, because we live in it. I’m reminded of when DC comics killed Superman and the storyline that followed was called ‘World Without A Superman’. Which, I remember thinking, was a world I already knew all about.

So anyway, the film opens with idyllic scenery, a loving couple, a home. And then some unexplained shit storm goes down outside and we hit the ‘present’ like a slap of cold water to the face; the man and his boy, starving and travelling.

It’s a different choice, a different telling of the same story. The film uses a different framing device to the book. In the book the man dreams of dark things, like the monster near the beginning, and has the occasional flashback to his wife. In the film, his dreams are all full of his wife, and sunshine, and then the creeping darkness that takes her away. We feel the pain of it, of the husband who insists they survive simply for the sake of surviving; he has no rationale, no rhyme or reason for his survival. It’s just instinct. It’s what he needs to do. His wife, she sees the world differently after everything ends. And The man’s inability to save her from her own demons, and Viggo Mortenson’s quiet acting, can break your heart if you let it.

I remember how much the book moved me that first time. I actually remember getting in trouble at work because I sat and read half of it in one sitting on the shop floor when I had a million other things to do –chief of which was ‘work’. But the story, and its soul, wouldn’t let me go. And as soon as I finished it, I wanted to talk to people about it. I wanted to talk about the powerful message of hope and survival, of the incredible love story at its core, and the love of life that I found in its pages. But every conversation I had went the other way. It was a dark book, a hopeless book, a depressing book. I just didn’t see that, and not for the first time I found myself wondering if I lacked the ability to actually understand books.

But it seems that everyone involved with the film got the same idea I did, and tried to put it onto the screen. They’ve tried to lift out the things that I saw, the things that kept me returning to the story, and made them the heart of the film. It’s not always successful. There are a few bits that just don’t work, the boy’s questioning of his fathers use of a gun, whilst well done and important later in the film, feels forced the first time it happens.

But throughout, the hope and the love shine through. Yes, the man feels like he’s running on empty. He becomes a husk of who he used to be and, in his will to protect his son, starts to become the monster that he’s taught his son to fear. His choices become questionable, and left to his own devices he would have lost himself. But he’s not left to his own devices, he has passed on the best of himself to his son, taught him the difference between right and wrong, and given him the moral compass that keeps the both of them going. For me, this is the most realistic kind of hope, the most necessary; it’s not a feel-good sentiment that relies in jingoism or speeches, it’s a simple drive to keep moving. Always keep going. Because, as the man says to his boy, “you don’t know what might be down the road.”

And throughout it all, there’s a very real sense that none of the crap matters. The world has ended, the race has gone cannibal, and the two characters are seeing horrors every day. But for the man, none of that matters as he has one very pure and very simple vision. His boy. As he says, “the boy is my warrant. If he is not the word of god, then god never spoke.

And hidden away in that wonderful line, only slightly changed from the book, is the heart of the film. Every scene of Viggo washing his son, or feeding him, or reading to him. Every moment of happiness, such as a beetle taking flight, or the child’s first can of coke, these are celebrations of life. Of the things we can overlook because our world hasn’t ended. We are all like the man in the book, who sometimes forgets to be on the lookout.

In seeing the child kick the empty coke can, as every one of us has done at some point, and seeing his child-like drawings (after the apocalypse what would a child draw? Blackness.) We are reminded what it is that the father is fighting to preserve. And this is offset against the moments when he teaches his son how to kill himself, when he reinforces to him that someday it might be important. Control your own fate, because you can’t control anything else.

The acting is great. Truly great. Viggo is one of my favourite actors, he does the very thing that the academy likes to overlook. He acts. There’s nothing showy or flashy, there’s no laboured worthiness or shouty-Pacinoism. He simply turns up, finds the character and quietly nails it. He manages to turn a piano into an instrument of heartbreak without a word, then return to it a moment later and make the same instrument into an object of healing and remembrance.

And this performance is probably more remarkable than any of his others for the fact that it never lets up. Much like one of the other great performances of my lifetime, Ray Winstone in Nil By Mouth, Viggo never gets a moment to switch off. He has to be ‘on’ for the entire duration of the film. Ever single scene centres on the story he's telling with hi eyes, and his stillness and his motion.

Is it a perfect film? No, by no means. Perfect films don’t really exist, especially when it comes to adaptations. But it is a film that has the right idea. It knows that film is a different language to prose. The filmmakers wisely digested the book word for word, then re-told it. And, in doing so, they remained remarkably close to the story, and completely faithful to the characters. They managed to make a film of heart and soul from a book that was, to me at least, all about those two qualities.

Monday, February 8, 2010

What price ebooks?

By Steve Weddle

My pal Lein Shory and I have been chatting for the past, let’s call it 88 years just for a nice round number, about ebooks.

The recent announcement from Apple about its iPad and the kerfluffle between MacMillan and Amazon following that announcement, just offers more examples of this here fancy brave new world we aren’t ready for.

Shory uses the new ebook advances to argue that size no longer matters.

Which makes sense, of course. Reading the paperback of Infinite Jest or Battlefield Earth can be difficult – for many different reasons. But one of those reasons is the binding. Break the spine of a 1,200 paperback and see how well it holds up the next time you take it in the toilet.

Publishers will continue to play with content and delivery as we move further and further away from cave wall drawings towards holographic pages streaming from your sunglasses while you ride along on your jetpack.

Still, one of the problems folks have with ebooks is the lock-down-ability the seller has. Remember when Amazon took 1984 off people's Kindles last year? Now Apple is getting all grumpy about allowing Stanza ebook reader to work via USB connector.

Buying an ebook doesn't give you a copy of the ebook. You are purchasing the permission to look at a certain file on a certain device (or devices, depending) under certain conditions. Sure, some readers allow you to "loan" out a book to a friend for a couple of weeks. But you don't own the book.

And there's really no alternative to the used book store. I can't imagine buying a "used" ebook.

All of that brings us back to the current kerfluffle: what price ebooks? The Atlantic has a nice piece about pricing -- taking a look at fixed costs and the price elasticity of demand.

Like publishers themselves apparently, these wise guys are using the wrong cost figures. To calculate the cost of a copy, they're loading on fixed "pre-production" costs like the editor's salary and the publisher's rent. They're including the marketing budget. But these are fixedcosts. They don't change when you produce another copy. They may be important when deciding whether to publish a book at all, but once the money has been spent they're irrelevant to what you charge for a given copy. Optimal pricing should be based on the marginal cost of that incremental copy. Cover that incremental cost, and selling one more copy is profitable. The common intuition that e-books should be cheap reflects this basic microeconomics: Producing and delivering another e-copy costs next to nothing. (from The Atlantic)

As Lein Shory has pointed out at length, you pay 99 cents for an mp3 of the latest Avett Brothers tune, but you'll listen to that over and over. What price ebooks? What price short stories?

Would you pay $15 for an ebook that you can't loan to someone when you're done? Would you pay $4.99 for a short story you'll only read once or twice?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Give Me Audience, Friends

By Bryon Quertermous

The invitation to join this blog couldn't have come at a better time. I was in the middle of an identity crisis of sorts blog-wise. I've been at this game in some form or another since December of 2006 and it's done some great things for me and my career. But lately, I've been wondering where to go next. And a lot of that question has to do with audience.

When I started, the audience was easy to identify. I'd started going to conferences and meeting people online through email and there was about five or six people who had blogs that I liked to follow and comment on and they were complaining that they never had a place to return fire. So I began recounting my adventures in finishing my second novel, developing my hand at short fiction, and my dating trials. The audience was small but loyal and I was having a blast.

Then a funny thing started happening. People I didn't know started commenting on my blog. They were coming from links at online journals publishing my fiction or through google searches from people who heard my name at a conference or something and wanted to find out more. Agents began sending me emails asking what I was working on and famous to semi-famous authors sent me emails telling me how much they liked my work. It was an intoxicating time and I started to believe I was actually an author.

But then, even as my short story stock began to soar, my novel career went stagnant. I couldn't finish a second book, I hated everything I wrote, I was blindsided by marriage and kids and real life, and so I shut things down for a bit. I emerged to an online world different than the one I left, populated by blogs, like this one, full of people I had never heard of. And they were good. Too fucking good for me.

I started the blog again though, because it's something I enjoy doing. I've never been short of blog ideas, but lately I haven't posted many of them and I figured out the reason why. I hadn't deifined my new audience. There are remnant of the old crown who still follow the blog, but most of them keep up with me through email or Twitter or Facebook. I haven't published any fiction online, aside from a couple of flash fiction pieces, in more than two years so there's no traffic coming from that end. And I guess I still don't have an answer to that question and it's what I'll probably be working through it in my posts here.

In the beginning you can probably expect many posts related to writing because it's what I like to read and write about. I'm a student of writing advice and many of my characters are writers so it's what I know best. I'm sure as I get to know you all and feel comfortable I'll let my guard down, and possible my pants, and show you the real me.

So get out while you can, really, would be the point of this.