Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Long And The Short Of It

by: Joelle Charbonneau

When I was asked to join the DSD gang (and for those keeping score - they haven't revoked my membership card yet, so I guess it is okay to use boob references), I was also presented with an interesting opportunity. The group asked me to contribute a short airport fiction piece to be included in the upcoming DSD collection, Terminal Damage. Yikes! Short fiction!! A friend of mind who had been bugging me to write some short fiction was delighted. I was terrified.

Yeah, I know. I write 80,000 or more word novels....300 plus pages. So, why the angst?

Well, first of all, I don't read a lot of short fiction. (This is where I duck while all of you throw decomposing vegetables.) It's not that I dislike short fiction. I don't. In fact, I like short fiction. The problem is that when I get to the end of great works of short fiction I'm disappointed that the story is over. If I like the characters, I want the ride to last a lot longer. So, I tend to read novels more than short stories. I'm just weird that way.

Second, while I might not be as well-read in short fiction as my DSD counterparts, I've read enough short fiction to know that it takes a specific skill set. In 3000-6000 words (sometimes less as in the flash fiction challenge Jay just threw down) you have to capture your audience, give them characters to identify with and create a compelling plot that ties up by the end in a satisfying way. Not an easy feat. In fact, it's damn hard. So hard that when months ago a friend suggested I give the short fiction thing a whack, I made lots of excuses not to do it. I was busy finishing book three. I had Christmas presents to buy. The dog scarfed down my computer.

However, when presented with the unexpected challenge by the DSD boys, I wasn't about to let my respectful fear of the genre stop me. That would be, well, girly of me. So, I put on my big girl pants, opened up my computer and gave it a go. And yes....had a blast doing it. I'm glad that I didn't let fear keep me cowering under the bed next to my cat...oops...did I say the dog ate the computer? Oh well. The point is, in the months and years ahead, I plan on taking this genre out for a few more rides and hopefully improve my abilities to conceive short and concise, yet interesting and entertaining stories. But I'm going to need some help. Before I take the plunge again, I need to do some reading. Feel free to point clueless, yet earnest, me in the right direction. Who are your favorite short story writers, magazines and anthologies? What are the stories you love and that I need to read to show me how this genre is supposed to be done? (Feel free to plug yourself or shamelessly flatter my DSD friends.)

And to all you writers out there - do you like writing short stories? If so, why? And what challenges do you find while writing in this abbreviated genre?

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.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

We Are the World and Losing Our Voice

Sometimes I don’t want a Big Mac.

The greatest thing about chain stores is that you know exactly what you’re going to get every time you walk in the door. Whether you are in Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, London, or Moscow, a Big Mac is a Big Mac. It’s still my favorite burger from a fast food franchise. And there hardly is a place anywhere in America or the world where you can’t see the golden arches. It’s comforting, to some degree. But it also can get monotonous. Since every suburb has a Mickey D’s, a Chili’s, an Applebee’s, etc., it genericizes the American landscape. Gone are many of the local burger joints. Yeah, it’s just the way of business but it’s still sad that it’s more difficult to find a unique burger joint. My wife calls it Generic America, the amalgamation of different elements into a pangea of commonality. I go for the combo word: GenerAmerica.

Last weekend, when I heard the new version of “We Are the World,” I come to the conclusion that, to some extent, the same thing has happened in our music.

The original version, released in the spring of 1985, was a milestone in the lives of many a teenager, like myself. All that talent, in one room, singing an immediately memorable chorus, it was (and still is) magical. I can remember there was a time where the song was simulcasted across multiple radio stations, including the classical station here in Houston. Who’d have thought Willie Nelson and Mozart would be heard on the same station?

We are the World: 25 for Haiti” was recorded a few weeks ago by many of today’s famous singers. The catastrophe that prompted the remake was the earthquake in Haiti. The new version is good and I very much appreciate and enjoy the rap section added in. My biggest criticism of the effort is that it tried to mimic too closely the original. When Cyndi Lauper does her thing in the original, it was unique and thrilling. When Celine Dion sings the same part, it comes across as karaoke (despite her very powerful and beautiful voice; she’s the only one who could have done it).

Here’s my observation: Back in 1985, I *heard* the original before I saw the video but I could identify every single vocalist. Not so the new one. I realized, as I watched the video for 25 for Haiti, I *needed* the video to identify the singers. Sure, some I know and can identify them right off the bat: Streisand, Jennifer Nettles, Josh Groban, LL Cool J, Adam Levine. But the others, to my ears, sounded similar to each other. As good as Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige are, I can’t tell them apart. Yeah, I know that Kenny Loggins and James Ingram (original) sound pretty darn close but the new version doesn’t have a Springsteen, a Steve Perry, a Bob Dylan, a Tina Turner to take a vocal cue and soar.

It got me to wondering: have we lost our uniqueness? In the age of globalization and mass music, have we created a generic voice?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Cover Stories

By Russel D McLean

I’ve talked about this before on me main blog, but again I’m thinking about covers. Following my reading recently of Barry Eisler’s “open letter” to his French publishers (and all publishers) I’ve found myself thinking about covers. And its true that covers affect the way I think about a book.

One of my favourite series of covers, as anyone whose heard me wax lyrical on the subject will know, was the sequence of covers that Serpent’s Tail did the early books of George Pelecanos. Indeed, it was the cover of the sublime King Suckerman that persuaded me to get into Pelecanos in the first place.

The immediately recognisable reminded me just a little of the old Elmore Leonard covers I used to buy my dad when I was a kid. They were two tone, simple designs, and absolutely striking. Strange as it sounds, one of my main memories is me and mum trying to decide which Leonard to buy him based on the colours of the covers (we couldn’t have told you the titles – I was too young and mum, well, she wasn’t a Leonard reader). I’ll be honest with you, much as I love Leonard’s books, the covers have never really been as striking since.

I love the idea of branding in that sense. Not every Leonard book is the same inside, but outside you knew you were getting a Leonard. Same with Pelecanos – an author who, despite some hiccups, has generally had his own branding from the brilliance of Serpent’s Tail through to the simple “crime tape” tagging of a couple of years back to the stark white and blue covers that predominate his current incarnation. And I couldn’t go without mentioning the old Richard Stark covers – the ones with the bullet hole in the front and the tagline: “A novel of violence”. Everything you need to know, believe me.

I also love the whole-series branding that is happening in the Hard Case Crime Line-up. Not every cover painting stands equal (some I like less than others), but again you are hard pressed* to mistake them for anything else.

Interesting aside note – I managed to grab an early copy of one of HCC’s first books – Allan Guthrie’s excellent Two Way Split – which was actually part of print run that was somehow damaged. The cover wore easily, cracked and peeled. But the strange thing is that given the nature of the HCC design, this really looked right and the edition now stands proud among the real old pulps that clutter my bookshelf, looking like it belongs, like it was truly part of the era it is echoing.

But I digress. And to return to covers, let’s boil it down like this: I like strong images. I like an uncluttered feel. I like something original. Something that says: this is what’s going on. So in one sense, myself and Mr Eisler agree on that: a cover should not only be strong, it should vibe what’s inside the book.

Where we disagree of course, is over his choice of cover preference. While Eisler prefers his UK covers, I find them overly busy and muddy. The French cover – while, perhaps, not capturing the mis-en-scene of an Eisler novel, is less cluttered and more clear to my eyes. Which goes to show that sometimes, cover art is in the eye of the beholder.

So how would one convey an action cover well?

I do like the cover to Sean Black’s recent thriller, Lock Down. The cover is busy and explosive, but the focus is on the title and the central explosion, unlike the Eisler covers where the eye is not drawn to any one thing in particular (other than the title, but beyond that? I just see a morass of colours).

One of the best covers I’ve seen in ages plopped its way into my inbox recently – the cover for the upcoming Busted Flush anthology, Damn Near Dead 2. It’s an absolute doozy, and conveys precisely the tone of the anthology while managing to stand out from the crowd effectively. In fact, I’d say that as BF are continuing, their covers are getting better and better. Simple, clear and effective. Not branded in an HCC sense but perfectly adapted to their authors.

And I think that’s the key – so many covers fail to create a proper sense of the book inside through sloppy design or inappropriate imagery. There is more to cover design than you might believe, even if so many houses seem to believe that copying another author’s style may be the key (step forward the Da Vinci Code Rip Offs and the Lee Child Alikes, please). Those that get it right create mini masterpieces. Does it tell you anything that I have a collection of old paperbacks collected not for the stories inside, but for the love of the covers, of the moods and ideas they represent?

And, of course, inkeeping with this week’s theme, I give unto you the cover of a book by a guy who’s a hell of a writer… oh, yes, we warned you it was McFetridge week here at DSD…

*was that a pun? It was nearly a pun.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


by Dave White

I'm on Winter Break this week. I'm taking it easy and relaxing, hoping we don't get too much snow. (Got two inches or so on Monday, but nothing really since.) But since I've been home, I've had a lot of time to catch up on my reading about reading... and books.

So I'm gonna link you to 'em, and give you some really cool stuff to read:

First off, you know about John's Let It Ride. It came out this week. Check it out.

Another great article: Jason Pinter writes about why this is the most exciting era for book lovers.

Sarah Weinman wrote a great review of a book called The Poisoner's Handbook.

Congrats to the 2010 Hammett Nominees!

Can Fred save his job? (Sorry, just thought I'd sneak that one in here.

And finally, Maureen Johnson, professional writer talks about daring to suck and getting an agent.

Okay, I'm going back to being lazy.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dirty Sweet Words

By Jay Stringer

(Pulled a bit of a switch on you again this week, eh? What can I say. We’re sneaky like that.)

So, you’ve heard McFet’s latest book SWAP was released -after being processed through the babel fish for those of us who don’t speak Canadian- as LET IT RIDE in all good U.S. bookstores yesterday (that’s me making with the funny again) and to the online outlets such as the amazons.

If only there were some way you could link to things on a website.

With the new book hitting shelves, I thought I’d continue the theme and take a look back at his first two, Dirty Sweet and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. There are song references in both of those titles, for those keeping score at home.

I’ve been trying to think of the best way to start for the past week, and failing each time. Then Joelle gave me the answer with her debut DSD post on Sunday; voice.

John’s books have plots. Very good ones. And I’ll get to them in a minute. But the plots are not what made me pick up another of his books as soon as I’d finished my first one. It was that vital element, the thing that separates your favorite authors from the rest; voice.

Voice is a tricky sell in fiction. Especially if your tastes match mine, and you want your author to be as close to invisible as possible. You don’t want their opinions their sarcasm or their accent getting in the way. You don’t want their worldview beating you round the head, even if it’s a view you agree with. What you’ll find in a John McFetridge book is that perfect balance. The characters do the talking, the plot does the moving and the book does the reading. You’re never in doubt who the author is, but he never steps in to talk to you.

I know the easy trick is to mention Elmore Leonard, but I don’t really see it the way the other reviews do. It’s not really there in the dialogue, and, okay, it’s urban crime so yes there are crossovers. But where it does hold true for me is in the same way it holds true of any number of top writers; The work is addictive. So I could also reference folks like Lawrence Block, Scott Phillips or Charles Willeford. You wouldn’t really say these guys write alike, but they all have that same power in their writing, that same Laid back confidence. When you start reading the first line, you won’t be aware of time passing until you’re a few chapters in, and by that point you know this is a book you want to finish.

And I better mention the dialogue. This is probably something that’ll make one of Dave White’s hit lists one day. Every reviewer wants to tell you how their guy has the sharpest, crispest, most believable dialogue. There was a meeting about it somewhere, I think, and it was made into law. I don’t know, DSD don’t get invited to those meetings.

So all that aside, what am I going to tell you about the dialogue in these books? Well, I wasn’t aware of reading ‘dialogue’. I wasn’t hit with crispness, sharpness, or realism. All I noticed was that these characters could talk, and I never for a moment doubted that they would say those things. It just flows, and never waves at you to look how cool it is. That set a new standard for me to try and aim for. In fact, it was one that stopped me writing for a little while. I started a couple of projects straight after finishing Everybody Knows.. and found myself writing in McFets voice and not mine.

Now that was a good trick.

Okay, the books themselves. First up is Dirty Sweet. If William Goldman had written a Toronto crime script instead of a western, it may have been something like this. It’s got a Russian criminal who secretly wants to be a businessman. A Canadian businesswoman who secretly wants to be a criminal, and a guy who makes porn who…well…he doesn’t really know what he wants to be.

It’s not giving away anything that has been mentioned on this site before to say that the story starts when the woman, Roxanne Keyes, witnesses a major crime that involves the Russian, Boris. And rather than report him to the cops, she decides to see how she can make money out of it. This has been a running theme in the books so far, and one true of all cities; everyone’s just looking for ways to make a buck. To try and find an angle, she hooks up with Vince, who runs an Internet porn company. He might not know what he wants to be, but he thinks maybe he’ll find the answer somewhere beneath Roxanne’s skirt. So the three of them enter into the game, circling each other, and being circled by the cops, waiting for one of them to figure out the perfect scam.

The following book isn’t a direct sequel. But what it does to is expand the same world. All of these stories are taking place in the same city, the characters move round each other; they probably drink at some of the same places. It reminds me of the old school marvel universe, in the days before publishers wanted to take money from you through crossovers, they just let the characters all hang out in the same space.

So Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere both expands on the first book and also ignores it, in all the right ways. Many of the cops who were supporting characters in the first book step up here to carry the book. A gang war that was bubbling away in the background of Dirty Sweet picks up apace, and a major investigation by the RCMP bridges the two. But none of that is important to reading the book, they’re just fun easter eggs. The book starts with a dead body –to say anymore than that would ruin one of the best openings I’ve read in ages- and the follows both the cops and the criminals as they plot coups, murder and profit.

There is the same sort of game as in the first book, with a bunch of people circling each other waiting to find the right way to make some money, but it plays out in a fresh way. I’ve seen a few comparisons to The Wire and, though they’re doing different things, I think I can see that comparison. This is a crime novel that’s not so much telling you a single story as it is giving you a bit of a city, showing how things work and how the pieces are put into place. You come out of it not wanting to know more about a couple of characters, but wanting to know more about everyone, about the whole city and where all of the political maneuvering leads to next.

Let It Ride I’ll be with me in a couple of days, and I’m looking forward to it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Let It Ride

John McFetridge

As my friend Declan Burke says, "All three regular readers," of the blog will know, today marks the publication of Let It Ride in the USA and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone.

When my first novel was coming out the publisher asked me if I wanted to put in some acknowledgements and I said, of course, and started to make a list. Very quickly I realized the list was going o be as long as the book. We all know it takes a lot of people to make a movie or a TV show, we see all the names in the credits and now I realize that for me it takes justas mny to write a book.

My family, my friends, co-workers, friends I've made online but never met in person -- I've been helped by so many people, given support in so many different ways by so many people.

So to everyone, I say thank you.

And we'd like to give away a copy here at Do Some Damage. So, if you leave a comment we'll put all the names in a hat and pick one out.

And if you're curious about the book, here's a little something from Chapter One:

The on-ramp to the Gardiner Expressway was closed; a fire truck, an ambulance, and a cop car blocking the way, and uniformed men and women from all of them standing around smoking.

McKeon popped the siren a couple times and flashed the headlights to clear a path in the traffic and pulled right up to the ramp on Lake Shore, under the expressway.

One of the uniformed cops, a guy in his fifties, said, “McKeon, you’re going to love this.”

She was already out of the car walking towards the scene saying, “I am?”

The uniform, Dixon, said oh yeah, this is a good one.

“Guy was driving up the ramp, see?” The car, a brand- new Dodge 300 with the big front grille and the little windows making it look like a thirties gangster car, had gotten halfway up the ramp, stopped, and rolled back, turning sharply so its back end was against the left side and its front end against the right, blocking the road.

Dixon said, “And pow, somebody shoots him in the head.”

Closer now, McKeon and Price could see the passenger window covered in blood splatter and the driver’s head flopped onto the steering wheel.

McKeon saw the woman’s body, waist up on the passenger seat, the rest of her on the floor, like she was kneeling and slid off, as Dixon was saying, “Then they popped the chick.”

Price said, “Holy shit.”

Dixon was laughing. “You know it, detective.”

McKeon walked around to where the driver’s side door was open and said, “His pants are down.”

“And,” Dixon said, “get a load of her outfit, love the fishnets. Getting a little road head, eh, couldn’t wait to get to the room.”

Another uniform cop standing beside the car, younger than Dixon but otherwise looked just the same, said, “Or getting his money’s worth on the way.”

McKeon said to Price, “Great.” She looked at the uniforms. “What’s the id say?”

“No idea.”

“You sure they’re dead?”

“VSA, detective, that’s what the pros tell us.” He pointed to the firemen and ambulance guys leaning against their rigs drinking coffee. Vital Signs Absent.

McKeon said, You’re really working hard tonight, and the younger uniform said, Hey, it’s a crime scene, detective.

“Once they said they were dead we didn’t want to disturb anything.”

McKeon said, “Right,” and leaned into the car. She didn’t see a gun anywhere, but thought, you never know.

She picked up the woman’s white leather purse from the floor of the car, had to pull it out from under the woman’s butt, miniskirt slid up, nothing on underneath but a garter belt. Close up like this McKeon saw the woman was older than she thought, had to be mid to late forties, in good shape, showing off a very nice body in her miniskirt and expensive silk top, push-up bra, little leather boots, at least five-inch spike heels.

McKeon stood up, opened the purse, and said, “Jesus Christ.”

Price, walking back from checking the computer in the unmarked, looked over her shoulder and said, “Yeah, that’s it, registered to a Michael Lowrie, Mississauga.”

McKeon, looking at the driver’s licence from the purse, said, “Sandra Lowrie. Wife?”

“Looks like it. Guy’s got no record, nothing outstanding, not even a parking ticket.”


The tech guys arrived and went right to work. McKeon — it was her turn, she was the lead, what they called the major case manager, trying to make it sound like a normal day at the office—watched them get started. She said, Hey, to Cruickshank, the senior guy, and let him do his job.

Then she flipped through the wallet. Credit cards, video store card, library card, pictures of the kids.

McKeon said, “Oh shit.” Two kids, teenagers, a boy and a girl, and another girl, maybe six. Pictures taken on a beach somewhere, the five of them. Then a couple more pictures on a ski hill.

McKeon said, “Domestic? Murder-suicide? Kills her, then himself?”

Price said, “No man would kill his wife while she’s doing that.”

“Yeah.” McKeon looked around at the line of cars inching along Lake Shore, looking for the next on-ramp, all the people straining to see the crime scene. “And I don’t see a gun.”

Cruickshank, the tech guy, said, “Sorry to disappoint, detectives, but the shots were fired from outside the car.”

Price said, Come on now, Shanks, “You know we can make the evidence say anything we want.”

Cruickshank kept taking pictures, walking around the car, saying, “Right, forgot about that, detective.”

Price walked up and down the ramp, the few feet from the car with the victims in it to the police car. He stopped and said, “So they come up the ramp here, heading out for the suburbs, someone comes alongside and pops them. Why?”

McKeon asked Dixon and the other uniform about witnesses, and they both shrugged.

Dixon said, “Kids called it in,” pointing to an SUV at the bottom of the ramp. “Said it was like this when they got here.”

Price said, “This is one of the busiest streets in the city, ramp to one of the busiest expressways. No one saw it happen?”

“No one who stuck around. We got here like a minute after they called it in.”
“You were so close? I don’t see a Tim Hortons around here.”

“What can I say, we’re good.”

McKeon said, “Look, people live under this express-way, someone must have seen something.”

Dixon said, “Nada, detective.”

McKeon said, “Ask again.”

When he was gone McKeon said, “Road rage?”

“There’s some traffic cameras around here, we’ll see what we can find.” Price shook his head. “But it doesn’t look like there’s any damage other than hitting the wall
after the shooting.”

“So,” McKeon said, “guy’s driving home, the wife’s going down on him, and somebody kills them?”

“Maybe it’s personal, affair or something.”

“Happened pretty fast, guy knew what he was doing. Doesn’t look like he wasted any shots.”

“How do we know it’s a guy?”

McKeon said, “Shit, the kids. I’d like to keep the details out of it.”

Price said, Yeah? “What are the chances?” He motioned to where Dixon was standing beside a van with a tv station logo all over it, some kind of Action News.


Price said, okay, first thing, get the scene cleared up.

“And we better go see the kids.”

McKeon said yeah. Then she said, “What about Anjilvel’s thing?”

“What about it?”

“You want to do anything about it?”

Price had the passenger door to their car open and he said, Slow down. “Let’s just have one big giant crappy thing on our plates at a time.”

McKeon said, “Okay, sure. If that’s all you want.”

• • •

So, thanks again everybody, I really appreciate the support.

And here's a trailer for the book. This is the Ambassador Bridge to Canada:

Monday, February 15, 2010

Neighbo(u)rly Suggestions

By Steve Weddle

If you’re like me, Valentine’s Day means your neighbors went away to one of those bed and breakfasts for the weekend and asked you to watch their dog and you ended up finding some cash hidden in their liquor cabinet. So you have some money to spend and need a spot for it.

OK. Assuming you already bought the Kindle version of CrimeFactoryfor a buck, you’ve still got some cash.

First, lemme give you a freebie. (Hahahaha. Shaddup.) Over at theTuesdays with Tyrus podcast, Alison Janssen chatted up Victor Gischler. Two great tastes, right? (You got your chocolate on my bacon. You got your bacon on my chocolate.) They chat about his new book THE DEPUTY coming out soon, as well as The Masters, BSG, and the Saints.

Speaking of new books (How do we do that now? “Typing of new books”?) have I reminded you recently that John McFetridge’s LET IT RIDE comes out TOMORROW, FEB 16? Head over to your favourite (Hahaha. The “u” because he’s from Canada.) bookstoure and get a copy. Probably cost you about $15. A bargain of a great story about cops and crime and Canada. McFet’s book is a story of place, a story of people who get caught up in things bigger than they are, things that bang them around and won’t let go. Kinda how you’ll feel when you’re reading the book. If you want a taste of the story, check out the last couple of DSD podcasts in which McFet reads pieces of the book. As Ken Bruen said, “McFetridge channels Elmore Leonard at the height of his powers, with dialogue Quentin Tarantino would kill for.” I wouldn't lie to you about this. If you've been diggin John's posts here on Wednesdays, you know what a clever guy and top-notch writer he is. Go buy his book. This is how you tell the world you enjoy this kind of writing -- by buying it and reading it and telling people how great it is. Wanna know why they put that generic crap at the front of the bookstore and you have to special order McFet? Because people buy that generic crap. So let's help McFet sell out his first printing. (Seriously, how cool would that be?) Buy a copy and tell a friend. (Or, if you're like me, just write McFet's website addy on the edge of your soapbox.)

And if you’re looking for another good read, you should pick up ONE TOO MANY BLOWS TO THE HEADfrom Eric Beetner and JB Kohl. Megan Abbott put it better than I can when she said simply that the book “feels like a long-lost pulp you find in a favorite bookstore.” Kinda like an old Hard Case book. Lunch counters. Boxing. Kansas City in 1939. If you like your books quick and brutal, you’ll dig this one. Check this out: “A blood vessel had burst in her eye and it bloomed red on one half, making the tiny sliver of white the only thing on her body that wasn’t black or blue.” I don’t want to spoil any of it, but there are plenty of crooked players, cops and boxers, slugging their way through this quick read. Oh, and there's some good David and Bathsheba stuff in there, too.

But it ain’t all novels around these parts. There’s poems in them thar hills. Gerald So and company have put together the next installment in THE LINEUP, a collection of crime poems. This go-round features Patricia Abbott, Reed Farrel Coleman, Anne Frasier and many others wrapping verse around a steel pipe. From police ride-alongs to damp basements, this one has you covered. Oh, and it’ll give you even more reasons to stay out of airport bathrooms. Or airports, at least.

Speaking of which, the Do Some Damage short fiction is coming together, folks. We themed it up with some airport trouble. Our original title was THE DAMAGE DONE, but Hilary Davidson threatened to throat punch each one of us for stealing her book’s title (Fall 2010) so we’re going with TERMINAL DAMAGE, or something along those lines. We’ll have that for you in the next little bit.

And while we’re going all round-up style today, I should mention that my recent reads include two Reacher books from Lee Childs. Seriously, why didn’t you people tell me? These are good books. And Jay Stringer sent me FLETCH with a fairly strongly worded limerick suggested that I should read it. So I did. Nothing like the Chevy Chase movie. Great book in a whole different way than the movie. Oh, and this Sean Chercover dude can write. TRIGGER CITY is fantastic, a great follow-up to the first Ray Dudgeon book.

And finally, JT Ellison’s next Taylor Jackon book, THE COLD ROOM, is hitting shelves in your area. Do yourself a favor and grab this one.

OK. I’m sure I’ve missed some great stuff you should spend your money on, but our neighbors also had liquor in their liquor cabinet. Something called “Famous Grouse,” which sounds like ground-up bird, but smells delightful. So, you’ll have to take over here for a bit. What other books should folks be buying?

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.