Saturday, February 27, 2010

Once Upon a Time...

by Scott D. Parker

"Once upon a time" are words rarely seen in crime and mystery fiction. Why?

All mystery and crime fiction is just that, fiction. It's make believe. It can have its roots in reality (McBain's 87th Precinct and Cornwell's Scarpetta's novels, to name two) but authors still spin the threads that make the yarns we love to read. This reality we all crave (why?) often takes the form of stories ripped from the headlines. When the man flew his small plane into the IRS building in Austin last week, I can bet you that dozens of writers crafted their own versions as to why he did it. That's make believe, isn't it? Then why don't we start our crime tales with "Once upon a time?"

When readers and listeners hear that phrase, they expect a story. We mystery writers don't have a problem with that. Perhaps, then, it's the magical connotations associated with "Once upon a time." There is a sizeable group of readers of mystery fiction who don't like magic, vampires, fantasy, or fairy tales getting in the way of a good mystery. Maybe it's because they like their stories to feel "real." If that's the case, just read non-fiction. As a historian, I can attest that history is alive with plots and stories of things any agent would reject with words like "This could never happen." Thing is, we slurp up those stories of ordinary human tragedy and triumph like patrons in a soup kitchen. Be honest now: who didn't feel a twinge when Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette performed only days after her mother's passing. Yeah, that's a bad movie-of-the-week in any other situation, but, on Tuesday, at the Olympics, it was fantastic.

So, what keeps "Once upon a time" from opening all our stories? One possible explanation comes from the crime fiction itself. Crime fiction has, over time, evolved from stories involving over-the-top heroes and villains (I'm looking at you Gardner, Grant, Robeson, Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, etc.) to narratives examining the social conditions from which crime emerges. "The Wire" is one of the most compelling pieces of crime drama I've ever seen. The reality of that show is what gives it the edge over many other things. Thing is, stuff like this really happens, all the time, in cities across America and the world. It's in the headlines and the television news. Maybe the reason we like reality in our fiction is because we can get closure with a fictionalized version of a true story whereas, in real life, we rarely earn our answers.

Which brings me back to "Once upon a time." Is this phrase not the key that unlocks the world of the imagination, even if the world is a high-tech thriller, a space fantasy, a romance novel, a historical mystery, or a piece of crime fiction about the inner city of Washington? Or is it that we can't hear famous narrators like Sam Spade say it even though it's the invisible words printed on every page one? Or is "Once upon a time" strictly the province of children's literature, the type of story adults slough off like dead skin once they reach a certain age? I hope not. There’s a reason stories featuring Cinderella, Goldilocks, Frodo Baggins, Sam Spade, Luke Skywalker, The Cat in the Hat, Scarlet O’Hara, and Scout Finch stay with us. It’s the magic of the tale. It’s the magic of “Once upon a time.”

Friday, February 26, 2010

The 12 Step Plan

By Russel D McLean

Its one of the few times I’m gonna do this. I don’t like giving advice because, hell, I feel like I’m only getting my start in this gig too, and who the hell am I to tell you anything?

But the inbox has been getting more and more requests lately from folks who want to know “how do I become a published author?”

I don’t know the answers, really. Just go for it, is about as good as I can get. But maybe I do have some ideas about you can improve your chances, some guidelines, you might say. Mostly about attitude and expectation, because I’m not (yet) gonna tell you how to write. That’s a personal journey, and I don’t know if I can make blanket statements about it. (although if you want writing advice about structure etc, here's Wee Billy Shakespeare's 10 Rules O' Writing as told to Declan Burke) But in the meantime…

Call this the McLean twelve step plan. It does not come with any guarantees, but most of this worked for me. When I finally figured it out. Your mileage may vary. But then that's the nature of this crazy business we call writering, right?

Oh, and before we begin, I should warn Dave White up front that I might just be using footnotes.

Step 1) You gotta remember that you are not a prodigy.

You’re not gonna write that masterpiece right off the bat. You will have to serve time as an indentured wannabe. If you haven't already followed one of Mr White's links from the other week, then listen to this wise lady (who breaks one of my cardinal writing rules by overusing one word, but she’s talking to you and when you’re talking, you can get away with some things that are unforgiveable on the page*). And understand it took your humble beardy hero somewhere around sixteen years to get where he is now (I started taking everything very seriously at around fourteen).

Step 2) Don’t think you can buy your way into the business. There are no quick fixes.

Here it is: Anyone who pays to be published is a sucker. I’m sorry, but what other kind of job do you pay other people to employ you? A publisher’s that impressed by your work, they’ll be paying you.

And, yes, some folks have done well with self publishing. But those folks went all out and didn’t go through some half-arsed vanity press paying through the nose for half-arsed, ugly product. They took the hard road, and often for reasons other than the, “I’m taking my ball and going home” reasons so many head to the vanity presses. And trust me when I say they are the HUGE exception rather than the rule, and that many of them face even harder trials after publication, especially with trade reviews and some bookstores. Yes, some people can do it, but they are so lucky, the odds are pretty much incalculable.

Look, there are reasons why the industry needs gatekeepers, and I hate to break it to you but you may not be ready for publication right away. And no amount of money thrown at vanity publishers is gonna change that.

Step 3) Listen to criticism. Especially from folks who might just know what they’re talking about.

I know its tough, but when an editor says something, listen to them. Sure, some of its bullshit, but most of it actually turns out to be useful. These ladies and gents tend to know what they’re talking about**, so take what they say and think really hard about it.

Step 4) Write.

I know it sounds obvious, but as I once heard some corny American talk-show host say, “You gotta do to get it.” You want to be taken seriously as a writer, put in the hours. Put in the sweat. If its tough, you know you’re doing it right.

Step 5) Read

Yawn, yawn, I know.

This is the one you hear all the time, but if you ain’t reading other people’s work, why the hell would you expect anyone to read what you write? Add to that, you’ll start to get an idea of how this writing business works – its all about connection with the reader. When you know how you read, you can start to figure out how you write. And, yes, TV shows and movies can also help with story structure etc if you approach them in the right way. Matter of fact, I learned a lot about structure watching movies. But even though I advocate the usage, love and assimilation of other media, listen to me when I say, YOU STILL GOTTA READ.

Step 6) Remain humble in all things

The best writers I have met tend to be the ones who have a sense of humility, who know and understand their limits… and then work to exceed them. They do not blow their own trumpet, constantly tell everyone how they are the best damn writer in the world and everyone else can kiss their arse***. This humility will come in handy later when you realise that not everyone in the world is going to love you or your books. In fact, I’d recommend a sense of humour, too. Laugh at yourself. A lot. Trust me, it’ll make things easier in the long term.

Step 7) Redraft. And when you done that, redraft again.

Writing is rewriting.

Deal with it.

Step 8) Make the time.

If you’re going to constantly moan about not starting that big book because of lack of time, don’t bother. Now, we all get caught up in things. I am currently behind on a big project because of the way real life has intruded. But I’m still writing. Every day. Now, you don’t have to write every day, but if you don’t write on at least a good percentage of them, what’s the point? Its like signing up to a gym to lose that mass from your stomach and then whining when you don’t lose the weight after not actually going to the gym****

Step 9) Be true to who you are.

The wondrous Joelle said it best in her first post: you can’t fake your voice or your style, so don’t try. Be comfortable with who you are as a writer. This may take some time, but when it happens, oh you’ll know it and you’ll feel the benefits.

Step 10) Love what you do

While maintaining that humility about yourself I mentioned earlier, you also have to be excited about what you write. Love your words. Love your stories. You characters. Genuine enthusiasm always shines through.

Step 11) Writer’s block? Sod that.

The words not coming? Don’t whinge about writing block. Just get off your arse and write something. Anything. Even, say, a 12 step plan for those who would foolishly try and follow your chosen career path. There’s a reason journalists make good fiction writers. Reporters can’t piss about waiting for the muse to strike, to slightly misquote the very wise Tony Black.

Step 12) Get yourself an agent. A good one. They’re easy to find, although hard to court.

Agents are invaluable. I’ve said that before. Now I’ll say it again. But trust me when I say that you need to be wary when choosing an agent. Look at their client list. Look at their records. If they’re legit, likelihood is they’ll have a website with much of this information free to view. You’ll see the books they’ve sold and the people they work with, and this’ll help you work out if they might be a good match. And if they ask for money up front… run like buggery.

So, there it is. My 12 step plan. There are no guarantees, but maybe some of this will help you... or dissuade you from ever asking me for advice again...

And if that 12 step plan ain't enough for you, howsabout this one from D-Wayne and Larry Love?

*According to one independent source, I used the word “homage” on the night of THE LOST SISTER launch at least thirty times – what can I say, I found a good gag and I stuck with it.
** Except for the plainly cruel rejections – like my famous, crumpled, battered “my kids didn’t like it either” letter that still earns me a good laugh every so often.
***Well, maybe James Ellroy might make such grand statements. But he’s Ellroy and exists on a very different plane from the rest of us mortals.
****there may be some biography here. Or not.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What I'm Curious About

by Dave White

I'm often curious about other writer's process. As a writer, I always wanted to know what each and every writer did at each step of their own writing process. When I was in college I used to scour the internet for interviews with my favorite writers. I used to hope they'd talk--in specifics--about their process.

They never did.

Of course, that's because most casual readers aren't interested in the process. They don't want to know how the book is put together, just that it is together and what it's about. Often, however, the writers in the interviews would leave enough process nuggets (giggle) that you could figure out some of their writing process.

Did they outline? Yes.

Did they know the ending in advance? Yes.

How did they revise? I don't revise. Or, I revise as I'm going along. Or, I writer 487 drafts.

All very interesting.

But there is one moment that I'm still not sure about. Especially for the non-outliners.

When a writer starts a new book. That first day of writing, when they sit down at the computer, what do they do?

Do they immediately start with the first line of the book and go from there? Do they write the moment they have in their head and go back and forth depending? Or do they just jot notes down and don't start writing for a few days?

Writers very rarely talk about it.

Me? I usually just start right in. Sometimes what I write first gets cut or shuffled around, but when I sit down to start a new book, the scene I write is usually what I envision as the first scene in the book. And I try to go from there.

What about you guys?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Good Good Wife

John McFetridge

When I first saw ads for The Good Wife I didn’t want to like it.

Partly because it was taking up a valuable CBS timeslot I was hoping the show I was working on, The Bridge, would get and partly because The Good Wife looked like a quickie, ripped-from-the-headlines mess the marketing department came up with.

As usual, I was wrong. The Good Wife is a very good show on the strength of its very strong writing.

If you haven’t seen it, the show is, to quote the official CBS website, “a drama starring Emmy Award winner Julianna Margulies as a wife and mother who boldly assumes full responsibility for her family and re-enters the workforce after her husband's very public sex and political corruption scandal lands him in jail.”

So for a hard-boiled, noir kind of guy like me that’s pretty much every turn-off imaginable. And then, to make matters worse, the job she returns to is as an entry-level lawyer with a big, corporate law firm – about the least interesting, least sympathetic job I can think of, but one TV shows keep doing over and over.

Here, though, the stresses of the job are used to develop the character of the good wife, Alicia, and dig a little deeper. First of all there’s the long hours required for the job. Child care is provided by Alicia’s mother-in-law, a nice complication and another good character as she doesn’t believe her son is guilty of anything, or that if he is certainly Alicia must be to blame somehow. Oh, she never says she thinks Alicia is to blame but those looks and pauses and lack of eye contact between two women who’ve spent time in the same family, involved with the same man in different ways, dealing with the kids – it’s really very good.

At work Alicia is among many first year lawyers and they won’t all get hired on full-time. The other lawyers ar all young, ambitious, well-off and well-educated. Well, have you ever been in a big corporate law firm’s office? Seemed right to me. So Alicia, with two teenage kids at home and a husband in jail is at a bit of a disadvantage. The situation is ripe for cliché but so far the show avoids them with good characterization.

A big issue when writing a TV show these days is episodic vs season-long arc. This came up all the time on The Bridge. The writers want to do season-long arcs and really dig into the characters and situations but the network wants stories that wrap up each episode. CBS told us they wanted it to be episodic but then as the notes started to come in for the scripts they’d be asking for more things that tied into previous episodes.

Everybody must get these notes because these days every show has some longer arcs.

But The Good Wife is a master class in how to write an episodic network series with a season-long arc.

Each episode is its own mystery. And not always a murder mystery, last week’s (not last night's which was a repeat) was about an arson in a science lab, one episode was about an insurance fraud and one was about judicial corruption. Tough stories to make compelling drama, but The Good Wife does it with very good mystery conventions of finding clues and piecing together the puzzle. There was even a murder-mystery story that involved a writer whose wife had a good job and made a lot more money than he did. I can say that a lot of the emotions in that show sure rang true.

And then there’s the longer story arc of the husband’s “sex and political corruption scandal.” First of all there’s the effect it has on the family and then there’s the part where he admits the sex scandal part but denies the corruption and is trying to get a new trial.

The shows ties all this together very well by having the two teenaged kids sneaking around like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys digging up evidence that their dad is telling the truth about being framed for the political scandal.

There’s just enough of this longer mystery to keep me interested week after week but not so many hanging threads that I get frustrated. The weekly mystery being tied up so well helps a lot.

Aspiring TV writers are usually required to write an episode of a current show, a “spec,” as a sample of their work to show producers that they can take on the voice and style of the show. I have a feeling there will be a lot of spec scripts of The Good Wife written this year. It’s a good show to use because the raw material of good characters is already there and it would be a great way to show how you can write a one episode mystery and develop characters. Of course, at the same time it would also reveal any writing weaknesses because the raw material is so good.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

DSD Flash Challenge

By Jay Stringer

Behind the scenes here at DSD towers, we send out some strange emails. Seriously, to join us is to prepare yourself for some long and confused rambling on films, short story collections and the price of butter in Marrakesh.

But when you’ve got McFet in the team, chomping on a cigar and saying “I love it when a plan comes together,” there is always the occasional gem. He asked about recession fiction, and whether we could think of recent examples of crime fiction that dealt with the issue.

Interesting question.

Naturally I didn’t have an answer.

I do wonder how folks feel the last few years have changed the way they read or write. Does a global collapse make you search out novels that try to make sense of it all? Does it make you want to write something that looks as those who fell and those who got away with it?

It makes me think of the Joker’s comments in THE DARK KNIGHT;

when the chips are down, these uh, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.

Thinking on it, there’s a whole can of worms to be opened there. If there’s a type of fiction that comes ready prepared to explore what ‘honest’ people do when the lights are out or the chips are down, it’s crime. It could also be said that crime explores the gap, the distinction between the rich and the poor, and the sometimes fragile walls that separate them. If the past three years has done anything for fiction, it’s provided far more fuel for that type of story.

On the other hand, it could be said that the subject matter of crime fiction is recession proof; many of the stories are already dealing with people in deprived situations. It’s already about grabbing social mobility with a fist and the pointy end of a gun. In that regard, crime fiction has long been waiting for the world to catch up.

And this element is timeless. It was as true a century ago as it is today.

This is a meaty subject to get into, and one that I’m sure all of you could write about far better than me. So here’s the thing, short and sweet this week. I believe if there’s a subject worth discussing, it’s a subject worth writing fiction about.

So this here is a DSD flash fiction challenge. And I’m giving you plenty of run up time on this; lets call the deadline Tuesday, April 6th. Just after we’ve all enjoyed the Easter weekend, that seems somehow fitting.

Let’s have your recession stories. The usual flash rules apply, length no more than 800-900 words (I’m looking at you, Weddle). Write about anything and everything, as long as it’s tied into the theme.

You can send your stories to us to put up here on the day, or you can just run them on your own blog and link to us.

Who’s in?

Monday, February 22, 2010

That there book-learnin

By Steve Weddle

A dude doing color commentary for the Olympic ski-jumping Saturday night was explaining why the athletes looked like six-foot-tall jockeys: “Fat don’t fly.”

Dick Francis died recently.

People who have never been to Chicago could probably recommend a good place for a drink if they’ve read a Sean Chercover novel.

So here’s the thing. Everyone wants to be able to play the piano or the guitar, but fewer people want to learn. People want to be karate masters, but don't want to get out of bed before the sun just so they can run ten miles.

They want to have done stuff more than they want to do stuff. People want to know stuff, but they don't wanna learn stuff.

I spent many hours, feet folded under me on hardwood floors, watching my sensei punch, kick, twist, turn, blah, blah, blah. I spent many hours working on center-of-gravity stuff, finding that little bit of extra power hiding in a hip turn, chanting "block-counter" over and over until I forgot about it.

When the dude said "Fat don't fly" about the ski jumping, I started writing a story. The "in-my-head" kind of story that never finds paper. A murder mystery at a ski jump school. Why? Because, c'mon. Ski jump school. How cool would that be? Do you know anything about ski jump schools? I don't. And you know what? It would be wicked cool to find out, especially if I found out while reading a novel.

Dick Francis taught more people about horse racing than [insert name of famous horse racing person here] ever did. I am not sure of the exact number of horse-racing novels he wrote, but I think it was something around seventeen million. And when you read something like that, you feel like you're learning something. Like watching a documentary on TV. "I'm not wasting my time. I'm learning about medieval castles while I fall asleep."

And Chercover's Chicago? Laura Lippman's Baltimore? James Lee Burke's south Louisiana? Sometimes you're reading a travel book wrapped around a murder.

You know all that hippie crap about how literature teaches us the something-something about the human condition? Or the soul? Yeah. Hokum. Part of what makes a great crime fiction book, for me, is getting the non-fiction hidden in the fiction. You know, like hiding your dog's heart worm pill in a piece of cheese?

The books in which you learn something. Books with place or occupation or culture. Part of why we read, according to some documentary I saw, is for escapism. To live another life for a few hundred pages. Sure, sounds like mumbo-jumbo to me, too. But Professor Egghead might be right about it.

I really dig seeing how a person does his or her job. My wife likes those reality shows about jobs -- fashion or cooking or catching fish. You ever see that Ice Road Truckers? Or the one with those folks who cut down trees? It's great to see how other people do their jobs. You feel as if you're learning something, connecting, y'know? Like, hey, I know a little bit, a very little bit, about trucking supplies over a frozen lake to over-worked Canadians.

To me, this is different than those period pieces they turn into movies. The "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to fall in love in one of those pretty dresses and go to a fancy dance and live in a house with bedpans and die of dysentery and leeches" kind of stories. I'm talking about the stories where you learn about someone's occupation, someone's professional culture. Someone's world. Someone's life. Where you're pulled into the world of a prison guard or a Chicago PI or a jockey or an Olympic skier. You're being pulled into someone else's world and watching lives fall apart and maybe, just maybe, get pieced back together. And isn't that what good fiction is always about?


Do you find non-fiction in the fiction you read?

Do you research other occupations for your characters?

Does reading about someone's job in crime fiction bug you or is that something you enjoy?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Funny Ha Ha or Funny Because It's Not You

By Bryon Quertermous
It's come to my attention that some people (cough cough Joelle cough) don't know what a laugh riot I am. Send a woman one or two stories with suicidal strippers and murderous sales people and she jumps to conclusions. But as I looked back through my last few published short stories, I started to realize girlfriend might not be as off her mark as I thought. That's some dark shit. And even the funny stuff is only funny in the way watching somebody's pants fall off while they try to escape certain death from acid and gunfire is funny. So why was I under the impression outsiders should think I was funny? Well, I shouldn't and now is time to change that.

And this is an important thing for me to correct, because I think my humor is one of the things that set me apart from others mining the same noir-tinged field as myself. And the next project I'll be working on when I'm done with my current novel is going to be a humorous project and those tend to work better, I've heard, when they're funny. The whole subject of that next project is an important one, but it also requires an entire blog post of it's own so in my own whorey version of cross-promotion check out my personal blog tomorrow for behind the scenes info on what you can expect next from me.

But for right now, let's talk about funny. I remember once reading a book on comedy writing for television and coming to a couple of conclusions. First, you catch teach comedy writing. The only reason that book worked for me, was it helped put names to comedy tricks I already knew and were using (like circular jokes) but couldn't articulate. Once I was aware of what was actual comedic technique and what was my own raw instinct, I could work on trying to hone my skill. Sadly, the only place I ever used that was on one TV sitcom script for FRIENDS and half a sitcom script for FRASIER. Even now looking back at these scripts, both written when I was 20, they hold up better than I ever would have expected they would.

After that though, I moved on to short stories and then to novels that relied more on humor as a side effect than as a plot device. My two biggest influences in this were Robert B. Parker and Dave Barry. They made humor look effortless. It was off the cuff and natural, not choreographed and perfect like all of the sitcoms I'd seen. Any time I tried to read a "humerous" mystery I ended up abandoning it a short way in because it seemed so contrived or forced. I've always liked a nice mix of humor and darkness. That's why my favorite type of humor is extreme, over the top satire. The kind of humor that takes a little thing and blows it up so huge that you can't help but laugh. Victor Gischler is one of the best we have in the crime field at this. Carl Haissaan as well. The only way that guy has been able to get so far without sounding like a preachy condescending asshole is because he puts his strongest opinions in the mouths of boobs and buffoons.

The biggest theme I think I can draw from all of my humor choices, matches with my use of humor in real life. I'm not as bad as I used to be, but I'm still that guy who uses humor to disarm awkward situations or break the ice. So my favorite humor in fiction comes from dark places, or dark people trying to maintain their humanity. I love gallows humor. I remember reading David Simon's non-fiction masterwork HOMICIDE: A YEAR ON THE KILLING STREETS and absolutely cracking up at the opening scene which has two homicide cops joking about fixing a leaky hole in the head of a recent murder victim.

So about you DSDers? What do you find funny? Why? How do you use humor?

And seriously, check out my blog tomorrow to find out why humor is so important to what I'm working on next and why those sitcom scripts are so important.