Saturday, March 27, 2010
What is Reading?
Scott D. Parker
There is nothing I like more than leaving the movie theater with a copy of the movie in my back pocket. When I listen to music, the touch of it is so much a part of the experience. Oh, and I always carry a pocket knife so I can carve out a chunk of a Picasso I saw at the museum and take it home with me, the better to remember my time viewing the great master’s work.
Preposterous? Absolutely. You can’t touch music. It’s invisible. You can’t put a movie in your back pocket. It has to be experienced. You can’t cut up art for your own collection. It has to be seen.
Then why all this hand wringing over reading books on electronic devices? Reading is just as invisible, when you get down to it, as listening to music, watching a movie, or viewing art. But there is one thing that differentiates reading from other artistic endeavors. That answer, in a bit. First, a few thoughts.
MP3s created a paradigm shift in the way many folks—myself included—get their music. I’m old enough to remember LPs, cassettes, and CDs. For me, once I figured out that I could record my LPs on a cassette, I was able to have copies of an album in two places: LP for home and cassette for the car. Plus, I could put the tunes in whatever order I wanted to (and, believe me, I obsessed over mix tapes). When CDs showed up, same thing. Then, we got CD players in cars and I took the CDs with me wherever I’d go. Now, with MP3s, I can carry my iPod around everywhere and always have my tunes with me.
Slowly, over time, I began to realize that once I ripped my CDs into my Mac, I no longer needed the CDs. Now, granted, I didn’t get a lot of album liner notes with MP3s. I can distinctly remember sitting in my room thirty years ago listening to a new album and pouring over the liner notes. Initially, MP3 albums didn’t have liner notes, not until record companies started making them available as PDFs. But I could still find what I was looking for on the artists’ websites. My CD collection went from a prominent display in jewel cases to CD-and-book storage in binders (jewel cases stored in the garage to conserve space). Now, with my collection over 90% in my Mac, I don’t even pull out my binders. I’m to the point now where I get annoyed if an artist releases a CD with bonus features that are available only if you buy the CD. My paradigm has changed and I don’t think I’ll be going back.
I had this blog half written by the time I arrived home today and found the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly on the kitchen table. In his latest column, Stephen King wrote about the Kindle and reading gadgets. (How cool is this timing?) but there’s a money quote that gets to the heart of why e-reading has yet to catch fire and why there is, in King’s words, “customer resistance.”
“There are lost of advantages to the electronic devices--portability, instant buyer gratification, nice big type for aging eyes like mine--but there’s a troubling lightness to the content as well. A not-thereness.”
On this point, I’m going to have to disagree. When I listen to music, I don’t have to touch anything. In fact, I can’t, unless I’m playing my own instrument. When I see a movie, I don’t touch anything. The film is up on the screen. It’s there, but it isn’t. Television’s the same way. Art is somewhat different. You actually can stand and gaze at the art, displayed in front of you.
Lou Anders is the editor of Pyr Books, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of Prometheus Books. In interviews, he has said that he reads most of the manuscripts he receives on his iPhone. Anders made an interesting statement in a recent podcast (#852) of the Agony Column. He’d like to see a selling model where you buy the hardcover physical book and get a digital copy as a bonus. When I e-mailed him and asked him why, he said that this method would allow collectors like him to get the best of both worlds: a beautiful book for the shelf and a digital version to read. (I highly recommend that episode because Anders and the host, Rick Kleffel, talk e-reading to a greater extent.)
The thing is, reading with books is the only artistic activity where you touch the thing you are consuming. Reading--holding the book, smelling it, feeling its pages as your turn them, looking at the cover art and author photo, scanning the list of other books, perusing any ads in the back, annotating--is something very special. At the end of a book, however, it’s still something you’ve experienced. It’s only in your memory and your brain. Does the medium by which the words entered your noggin really that crucial? And, if you really are honest with yourself, there’s a strong likelihood that you already consume more electronic text via your web browsing experience than you do with paper anyway. Perhaps paper is the way some people escape the ever-present e-World.
As of now, I don’t have a smartphone or a fancy electronic reader. I read books and articles on my old Palm Pilot Zire 31 using Ereader. If there’s a news article I want to read but don’t have time, I convert the text into a pdb file and read it on the Palm. Fictionwise.com sells e-copies (cheaper) of the major fiction magazines for mystery and SF. For public domain things like Sherlock Holmes that are available on Project Gutenberg, I convert those files, too. The stories are still the same words, just pixelated. I’ve seen how text is displayed on iPhones and it’s stunning. I’m getting an iPod Touch sometime soon and plan on making it my primary reading device. And, yes, I’ll be wanting an iPad. The irony about electronic readers for me is this: books are the perfect medium to convey information. They do one thing perfectly. I, like many other people, want our e-reader to be multitaskers. I wonder why (but that’s a question for another blog).
I’ve come to a realization: while I still love (and will always love) books, I want my reading paradigm to change.
Friday, March 26, 2010
"Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot..."
By Russel D McLean
Forgive me for waxing lyrical, but as is always the case when I am coming to the end of a redraft, I have been reading comics. And, yeah, they ain’t just for kids, they’re a valid form of storytelling. Deal with it.
I was always a Batman kid.
I loved Spiderman, sure. And Superman was momentarily distracting. But it was Batman that did it for me every time.
I don’t know why. And as much as I remember the 60’s TV show (which was on permanent re-run during Saturday morning 80’s TV when I grew up), it is only as a blur of noise and sound. The details escape me. But watching it now, I know it isn’t my Batman. The camp, day-glo thing never worked for the character. How could it, when the essence of the character is tragedy?
Of course, that’s perhaps the joy of Bats – he is open to a myriad of interpretations. But there was always a specific style of Batman comics that drew me in:
I still have my first Batman Annual, which opens with a Joker story by Denny O’Neil. I remember it opening with an escape attempt from Arkham and Batman getting his ass handed to him only to be rescued by Two Face. I’d never seen Two Face before and remembering being intrigued as to why a guy who helped Bats was in Arkham. Took me years to figure it out. But much of that story stuck with me. As the plot unfolds, Batman is infected with a derivative of the Joker Gas that means he will laugh himself to death in 48 hours. He cannot control himself. But the sad truth is that he only laughs at morbid things. His own death is what’s giving him the giggles. This was my first introduction to the darker side of the Dark Knight. There was no Robin in the annual, and the Batman was a grim crusader, but fascinating to me. Perhaps because he was everything I was not.
He was strong. He was smart.
But he was always flawed.
He was a superhero gripped by anger, and something in that spoke to me. I was not an angry child, but I was a child who probably knew his own flaws and weaknesses and Batman was the same in his way. But he battled past his own weaknesses to become something greater.
That was my role model.
Superman didn’t earn anything.
Spidey was too cocksure.
Batman had his doubts – like me – and yet he still battled on.
As I grew older, the darker side of Bats fascinated me more and more. I didn’t know it then, but if you had a noir comic character, then it was the Batman. His was a life of tragedy. Not just for the man himself, but those around him. I remember reading the storyline where new Robin, Tim Drake, loses his mother. It was a brutal and brilliant arc that drove home the point that the superhero gig was not all battling bad guys. Tim had come into Batman’s life looking for adventure. But there was a cost to be had, and that was his mother’s life and his father’s well-being.*
When Batman failed – as he has often done – it was always something that really got to me.
Even he could make mistakes. It was a revelation.
I remember reading the KnightFall storyline** week by week in the UK collected editions of the Batman comics, with a horrible feeling in my gut as we progressed towards an inevitable climax. There was a scene where, shortly after dispatching serial Killer Zsasz, the Batman hides in the alcove or a roof, and issues a silent scream to the night.
He is in pain.
He is exhausted.
He has allowed his anger to get the better of him.
And he still will not give in.
He is the ultimate noir hero. He knows pain and suffering, was born in tragedy, and yet he retains a sense of morality that is in absolute juxtaposition to everything he knows. He must know that he is one man against a tide of filth and corruption and yet he persists.
A special kind of idiocy?
Or something far more complex?
(and, yes, he often puts a child in danger, but let’s just skip the question of Robin, shall we?)
I don’t know why I am drawn to these kinds of characters. The lone hero, the one man who cannot make a difference but still tries, the hero who could just as easily be a bad guy if he allowed himself one moment of weakness. He is a hero who is imperfect, who sometimes makes the wrong choices (if for the right reasons), who gets beaten, broken and battered, who has allowed villains to escape and friends to die. He is, to me, a believable hero in a world that
Let’s put it this way, if you’re a noir reader, chances are you are or you were (and should still be) a Batman fan. He is the one character I return to again and again. Yes, he has had his rough spots (I was never a fan of the whole Cataclysm storyline, but maybe that’s because it signalled the end of one of my favourite writing/art teams on the books, Doug Moenech and Kelly Jones who gave the books a supernatural/Gothic twist of the most beautiful kind), but at his finest Batman delivers a hyper-stylised kind of noir in the comic book world. He is comics’ answer to Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, Lew Archer. His world is a dark and twisted reflection of our own. And, yes, there have been, down the years, rocket ships and superhero insanity – things that are inevitable given the nature of comic writing’s history – but at his finest, Batman is pure noir, and that, for me, has always been the appeal of the character. He is about moral choices, walking the line between vigilante and hero, and one man’s attempt to uphold his own morality in a universe that has none.
*And it was all Batman’s fault, from what I remember.
**where Batman’s back was broken by a criminal named Bane.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
I recently did something I've never done before.
I took a novel I was 70 pages into writing and started it over. I didn't hate what I had written earlier, and I didn't lose the file. In fact, I think it has a great premise, but it was lacking something in those first pages.
And, I think I know what it is.
In opening drafts, I often find myself following a formula. Characters fall into the old tricks of the genre and the story, while it has it's moments, ends up being same old same old. I know what a thriller is SUPPOSED to look like and when I hit a road block, I take the easy way out.
Often, I tried to edit and re-write that out of my drafts in subsequent rewrites.
But this novel, the original one, I was hitting EVERY beat. And it felt forced. I would write myself into a corner and another corner and another corner, to the point where I stopped writing it.
I hate when that happens, too. I feel less and less like a writer, and my focus goes elsewhere (though I do get tense, as I wrote a few weeks ago).
So I had to jumpstart things.
So I started over. I got some new inspiration, looked at a character differently, and am going to try again.
It's slow going right now, but we'll see how it turns out.
Have you ever started a novel over? Reading one or writing one?
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Approaching the Material
A long time ago I read a true crime book about some kids who killed one of their group and the “brilliant” detective who tracked down them and brought them to justice.
But as I read the book I couldn’t help but feel there was a much bigger story here not being told – these kids had been abandonded by their poor, uneducated parents, they’d been living pretty much on their own in squats and on the street and then an older version of themselves showed up with drugs and some vague ideas about Satanism. He got them into prostitution, the paranoia increased and eventually they killed one of their group.
Frankly it didn’t seem like it took much detecting to catch the kids and then dumping them in prison didn’t seem like much justice. But the book was written as though the detective was tracking Ted Bundy or Pablo Escobar.
I think it was reading crime fiction that tipped me to this idea that there was more going on, that the characters weren’t simply “brilliant cop” and “evil murderer.”
And it made me think about the way crime fiction approaches the material, the context and the effects we’re after as writers. Different writers would look at that material and see entirely different stories. We can write about the cops, we can write about the bad guys, we can write about innocent people caught in the middle and about innocent people who take up one side or the other.
Maybe it was Elmore Leonard’s Swag that first got me thinking past the first paragraph of those newspaper stories that said things like, “Grocery Store Robbed, Shots Fired,” and got me wondering who would rob a grocery store? Where they go after that? How would they get caught?
And that was probably the book that first showed me that crime fiction didn't have to have a detectibve (cop or private eye) as the main character.
So, which crime fictions writers have influenced the way you see crime and justice?
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
I Will Stab You In The Face With Antlers
I told this story a little while back on terribleminds, but it bears repeating here:
“It was winter time. Not far from the holidays, if I recall. We were coming back from K-Mart, and a car full of seriously pissed-off dudes were riding the bumper behind us. Flipping us off, revving the engine, all that. In the Dirty Harry or Death Wish movies, they would handily be referred to as ‘punks.’ They kept following us. Off the main roads and onto back roads. My father, cold as an icicle, started concocting The Plan. He had no weapons in the truck, as it was a new truck. What he did have was a series of antlers rescued from the whitetail deer we raised. The Plan was, he’d pull fast into the driveway. If these punks came in right behind us, wanting to start some shit, he’d hold them off with the antlers while I went to the front door — just inside the front door was a little .410 shotgun for popping squirrels and starlings. We turned onto our road, and the car did not follow. They were saved that day, I guess, from antler stabbings and a face full of squirrel shot.”
Let’s be clear. Violence is what we do.
Not literally, of course. We are not the violent ones, oh no. It’s our characters. Those mad bastards. It’s them! It’s always them. Stabbing each other. Shooting one another. All that jaw-shattering and knee-breaking and throat-collapsing. It’s not the author’s fault our characters are violent. If it was up to us, it’d be flowers and fluffy lambs. It’d be boxes of chocolate instead of boxes for corpses.
... ehh, okay, no.
Hot dang, I love me some creative violence! Woo! Gets the blood pumping. Ah, but what I really think is slicker than goose shit on a glass window is creative violence featuring improvised weapons.
Jason Bourne, for instance. In the films, he whups up on poor fools with books, magazines, pens, electrical cords. The world is his weapon. Or what about the nail gun in Lethal Weapon 2? What about when the Stath (oy, Jason Statham) kicks dudes asses with a fire hose in The Transporter? Or a knitting needle in Michael Myers’ eye (that would be slasher film Michael Myers, not Austin Powers). Or LPs winged at the heads of zombies in Shaun of the Dead.
In some of the game books I’ve developed (Armory, Hunter: The Vigil) we have rules for using improvised or found weapons: Board with a nail in it! Broken bottle! Chainsaw! Power augur!
The list goes on and on.
To quote Ani DiFranco, “Every tool is weapon if you hold it right.”
So, let’s talk about it.
What are some of your favorite “improvised weapon” scenes from books, film, video games, whatever? Hell, come up with some new ones. Dazzle us with your disturbed minds. You know you want to. It’ll make you feel good. All the cool kids are doing it.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Interview with JT Ellison
JT Ellison interview with Steve Weddle from Steve Weddle on Vimeo.
By Steve Weddle
On Saturday, March 20, JT Ellison and I sat down in Charlottesville, VA -- at a hotel bar with excellent service -- to talk about her book, THE COLD ROOM.
HE CAN ONLY TRULY LOVE HER ONCE HER HEART STOPS
Homicide Detective Taylor Jackson thinks she's seen it all in Nashville—from the Southern Strangler to the Snow White Killer. But she's never seen anything as perverse as the Conductor. Once his victim is captured, he contains her in a glass coffin, slowly starving her to death. Only then does he give in to his attraction.
When he's finished, he creatively disposes of the body by reenacting scenes from famous paintings. And it seems similar macabre works are being displayed in Europe. Taylor teams up with her fiancé, FBI profiler Dr. John Baldwin, and a New Scotland Yard detective named James "Memphis" Highsmythe, a haunted man who only has eyes for Taylor, to put an end to the Conductor's art collection.
Has the killer gone international with his craft? Or are there dueling artists, competing to create the ultimate masterpiece?
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Getting It Done
I'm sitting now about 18 months into my life with children and I think it's time to reflect on how things are going. One of my biggest fears is that my writing would stall and fail after kids came along. But looking at it now, I'm quite pleased. Since Spenser was born in 2008 here is what I've completed:
-30k of 75k words to finish the first draft of my third novel
-A second draft of that novel
-A complete first draft of my fourth novel at 70k words
-20k of new words in a second draft of that novel
-5k word short story to be published this summer in Plots With Guns
-1k word flash story for my beginning of the year challenge
-700 word flash story for Dan O'Shea's airport challenge
-800 word flash story for Steve Weddle's Walmart challenge
-A 3k word short story for the Do Some Damage anthology
Now, if that was all I'd accomplished in my writing career to this point I could be happy, but that I've managed to do it in less than 2 years with two kids in the house pleases me greatly. Now I'm looking to challenge myself. Against my own advice, which I've spewed numerous places, I'm putting a hold on revisions on the new book to work on something else. And not just any old thing. I'm working on something at an almost unmarketable length (novella) and in a field I'm notoriously lacking in skill (traditional mystery).
I want to enter the Nero Wolfe Society Black Orchid Novella Award. The winner gets $1000 and publication in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, plus gets to accept their award at the Nero Wolfe banquet in New York City. I've not been able to get back to New York City since I've been married and would like to. And as sad as it is to say, that's the main reason I want to enter this contest. Which isn't as odd as it seems. I've used writing to fund and justify my travel for several years now, and hope as my career progresses and I begin to sell more things, my travel will increase with my income. But for now, I scan airfare and hotel prices for NYC and use it to fuel those days when the writing doesn't want to come.
Update: This sounded even more self-congratulatory than I planned because I forgot to mention the main reason I was writing it. At the beginning of the year Dave White and John Rector both wrote things that made me smile about productivity. Dave had a great blog post about how much he hates people who approach him and tell him how much they would like to write a novel if only they had the time. Then John Rector tweeted a New Year's Resolution that he would try not to punch anyone without kids who claimed they didn't have time to write. So I wrote this to show that if a guy like me, with little kids, a day job, and the attention span of a hopped up toddler can find the time to do this, anyone can.