Saturday, May 8, 2010
Scott D. Parker
(Note: This is not meant to be a pity party on my behalf. I’m just calling things as I see them.)
What do you do when you think everything you write sucks?
Let’s get the bad news out of the way. I’ve nary written a non-blog-related creative word in a couple of months.
Well, the day job has drained all the creative marrow out of me. Hate to say that since I fancy myself a fiction writer but it’s the truth. In the six years I’ve been at my present company, I have never worked as hard as I did this past March and April, to say nothing of this past week. I’m a guy who can get all his work done in the 9-to-5 workday and go home without a care until the following day. These past weeks, I’ve had to take my laptop home multiple times just to keep up. It was rough. But I got through it, much to my employer’s happiness.
That’s not the entire story. For most of March, I was consumed with reading. Not multiple books, mind you, one single book: China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. To say that it blew my mind is an understatement. It’s an incomparable piece of fiction that is almost a genre unto itself. The story took a hold of me and didn’t let go. I had to know what came next and how Mieville was going to challenge my vocabulary with his prose stylings. I consider it a milestone reading experience.
What Perdido Street Station (and Neil Gaiman’s first Sandman story earlier this year) did was shake the foundations of my writing. It didn’t make me doubt I *could* be a writer. I am one. The challenge was what *type* of writer am I. That is, what style suits my particular talents. Then again, a voice in my head makes me wonder if I even have the talent.
The internet community is riff with writers who write one style or genre of story. They do it wonderfully and their stories are always fun to read and enjoyable. My problem is that I like so many styles and genres. My juices get flowing when I read crime, mystery, SF, fantasy, adventure, western, historical, and, in very small doses, romance. I get scatterbrained when it comes to what I want to write. I want to write it all. But I start doubting myself, my ideas. I spread myself too thin. Then I start doubting not my ability to write a story or novel, but to write one readers want to read. And I’m the first reader and the ideas I’m coming up with suck.
Now, veteran writers--those who have written a lot of words--probably have had similar doubts as I have. Moreover, they probably did the obvious course of action: write in a bunch of different genres to determine which genre best suits their writing skills. That’s probably where I am now. But it gets me hamstrung. No sooner do I try out a romancey mystery than I want to jump into a SF adventure. This change of focus usually happens in the middle of a story of one style.
All this whining is just that: whining. Pure and simple. As a professional tech writer, I have to juggle projects. I can’t stop writing one manual in favor of another because then both would be behind schedule. Similarly, as much as I would like to write that SF story while writing the mystery, if I divide my attention too much, neither story gets done. Again, it’s a fundamental edict but I’m just laying it out for my own edification.
Perdido Street Station’s strength was so great that my other reading also wilted in the face of such a magnificent novel. After I finished the book, I was a little spent. This kind of thing happens to me when a book lands on my TBR pile and utterly changes the way I think about writing and reading. In fact, it took me weeks to figure out what to read next.
The problem with reading a book like Perdido Street Station is that doubt creeps in. In his blog, Anthony Bourdain wrote that authors shouldn’t read great books during the composition process because of the damage to one’s own writing ability. I scoffed at the assertion, thinking that good books foster more good books. The more I thought about it, however, a certainty began to creep into my head. Maybe Bourdain is right. But to follow that rule means you have to stop reading altogether when you’re writing (for how else can you guard yourself from stumbling upon a truly great novel from your TBR pile). And that runs counter to Stephen King’s rule of thumb for writers: read a lot and write a lot.
I also won’t stop reading. How can I? It’s in my blood. I might tailor my reading to the style of story I’m writing. Run through the Gabriel Hunt books while I write about my railroad detective Calvin Carter. Read a mystery while I write one. This isn’t hard. In fact, it may be something other writers already do.
On his blog, James Reasoner ruminated about overloading (overdosing?) on fiction. Ironic from a fiction writer and me, a guy who wants to do it. But I think the answer is yes, and it bleeds into writing, too. Almost makes me want to stop blogging for awhile. Or stop reading. Or just stop writing.
I’m a big fan of symbols and imagery. The tagline of my SF/F blog, SF-Safari, is this: “Rediscovering the lost civilization of literary science fiction & fantasy and all the menagerie along the way...” In my writing now, I’m searching for that one story that’ll kick everything back into overdrive. Heck, there’s a part of me that is convinced it’ll never be found. That’s what scares me. That, for whatever reason, my current drought of anything creative will not end.
What do you do when you think everything you write sucks?
Friday, May 7, 2010
I always find the question difficult, when people ask, “what book had the most profound effect upon your life” because I can never point to just one. It’s a kind of cumulative thing, I think. There was no one “eureka” moment for me, but a slow, gradual realisation that stories and storytelling somehow mattered to me.
However, I was recently asked a variant on this question that I found much easier, and perhaps in its own way revealing:
What books did you read as a child?
There are three distinct phases of my reading that stand out in my head. All of them, strangely, to do with series fiction rather than individual books.
The first phase that stands out is the one my mum didn’t like:
The Target novelisations of Doctor Who. I read these before I watched the show. And I loved them. They were simple adaptations with house style rhythms and repetitions. The TARDIS would always appear – no matter the author – with a “wheezing, groaning sound” and the fourth doctor was always a “bohemian” fellow. I think I loved these books because they really appealed to my imagination. I always had a weakness for stories that took place in outer space or other realities, so the Who books had a strong appeal. They were, in retrospect, filled with clichés and some very dodgy writing, but the ideas clearly appealed to me, even if my mum refused to buy them new for me – they would have to be secondhand or from the library. That was the rule. And I know why she did it. She wanted me to read other books as well.
And read other books, I did. Books like:
The Three Investigators.
Having just watched a bizarre and beautiful documentary about Alfred Hitchcock the other night, I am in the perfect frame of mind to think about the Three Investigators. After all, in those early books the Investigators worked for the great director himself. Or so the books claimed. I think it was one of those terrible moments of impending adulthood when I realised that Hitchcock himself did *not* write the introductions to the books. Something that still mildly distresses me to this day.
I also remember when I was reading the Three Investigators series that a lot of folks told me to read The Hardy Boys. I tried and failed. One of things that always sticks in my head clearly about the Three Investigators books was that the characters were very real in a way that the Hardy’s were not. The Hardy’s were wish fulfilment, impossibly lucky and gifted chaps, where the Investigators were more like me and my friends. They were flawed, a little eccentric and prone to improvising their way out of situations. The idea of their junkyards headquarters was also hugely appealing.
Its funny, because when I was a teen I was heavily into SF and this coloured my perception of my early reading for a while; it felt as though I had alwayus read SF. But the more I look back at what I was reading when I was younger, the more I see that the crime genre was what interested me because not only did I dig the Investigators, later on came
The Diamond Brothers.
These days, Anthony Horowitz is better known for his Alex Rider books. I don’t know the books, but I know they’re popular. For me, Horowitz will always be the creator of The Diamond Brothers; a London based detective duo comprising of Tim “world’s worst investigator” Diamond and his infinitely smarter younger brother, Nick.
The first of the books I read was South by Southeast; a superb parody that takes into account Hitchcock among numerous other sources. Later, watching Hitchock’s North by Northwest as a grown-up(ish) I began to appreciate all the touches Horowitz put into his novel, right down to the train sequence (unlike Cary Grant, however, poor Tim Diamond has his younger brother handcuffed to him throughout his entire attempt to charm the mysterious blonde they meet on the train) and the far more famous crop dusting scene.
I read the book again a few years ago, when I found it back at my parent’s house and was pleased to admit I found it every bit as funny as an adult, perhaps because this time I knew where Horowitz was coming from and got more of a subtext to the gags than I had before. And, of course, The Falcon’s Maltesers was my first introduction to Hammet long before I knew who he was, while Public Enemy Number Two (from what I remember, it was the only one I didn’t own, but borrowed many times from the library) was a pitch perfect gangster parody.
So, yes, while my first “adult” fiction-love tended to be for SF, I can see that even as a kid, it was the crime stories that got me excited. And does it say something that one of my favourite Who books was The Talons of Weng Chiang, a very deliberate homage to Sherlock Holmes?
When I first said I wanted to write, my dad said he could see me writing crime novels. I laughed, thinking at the time that I was going to be the next Philip K Dick, but when I look back on what I read as a child, and relate it to what I read now, what I write now, I can see that he was right on the money.
As he tends to be most of the time.
Thursday, May 6, 2010
That was the day WHEN ONE MAN DIES was published. One of the best days of my life. I remember getting photo messages from friends, having people at work throw a party for me (Yeah, with a cake and cleavers, I kid you not.) I went to Barnes and Noble and then got kicked out (SERIOUSLY) because I was taking a picture of my book.
It was great.
I was also in the midst of writing another Jackson Donne novel... one that I was having a TON of fun with. The next ten months were a blast too.
I love bantering back and forth with my agent and my editor. We really felt we had something with THE EVIL THAT MEN DO. Sure, revision was frustrating, but I felt the novel getting better each time I re-wrote it.
That novel came out and it kicked off some great moments as well. I got recognized at a Pearl Jam concert in Boston and was told my book rocked. I flew for the first time in 13 years to Houston for a book signing. (Jason Pinter thought I was going to puke on the plane.)
Yeah, writing a novel is all it's cracked up to be.
At times. But there are also lows.
It took me over two years to write another novel. I got bogged down in revisions and plot ideas and character motivations. It was hard work.
I'm not with the same publisher anymore.
I've been researching terrorism and have completely freaked myself out. Seriously. I woke up in the middle of the night during a thunderstorm thinking we were being attacked.
I've suffered some harsh rejections and bad reviews.
And there were times I wanted to put my head through the computer screen thinking I'd never get the book done.
There are days where it feels like nothing is ever going to work out.
But now the book is done. And I truly feel it's the best thing I've written.
I have hope again. Looking forward to some more highs.
I'm not giving up anytime soon.
SPECIAL THANKS: Victor Gischler gave me the idea for this post. The Deputy is available now!
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Years ago I worked as a location scout on movies shooting in Toronto. I worked on one called First Degree with Rob Lowe, and on The Protector with Frank Zagarino and Matthias Hues I got promoted from location scout to writer. That may not happen very often, but it was a low budget movie and the script called for all kinds of expensive locations. So, I’d find a location the movie could afford and rewrite the scene to fit it. By the end of production, I’d written enough of the movie to get credit for it.
Or maybe the blame for it, depending on how you want to look at it.
Then, a few years ago I had an idea for a private eye. I thought driving around town with a camera looking for locations could lead to driving around town following people having affairs and taking pictures of them. Of course, that’s not what the novel would be about, that’s what the character would say he did on his other cases.
But this case would be different, he’d get hired to find a missing person or find some evidence from an old crime and get sucked into investigating it, or... something.
So, I started writing the book. And one day I mentioned it to a friend of mine and he said, “Oh yeah, Jeffery Deaver has a series about a location scout solving mysteries.”
And I said, “WTF?”
So I went and looked it up and sure enough, there it was, “Shallow Graves: A Location Scout Mystery Series.”
Series, how many are there?
Turns out there are three “Location Scout” mysteries; Shallow Graves, Bloody River Blues and Hell’s Kitchen , that now have Jeffery Deaver in big letters on the cover and underneath that in small letters, “written as William Jefferies.”
Has everything been done?”
Of course, it really doesn’t matter that everything’s been done, every writer has to put their own spin on it, give it their own voice. After all, no one’s going to say, “I was going to write a private eye novel about an ex-cop who drinks too much but I found out it’s been done.”
No, you make it your own.
So, someday I may write a mystery novel about a location scout. Or, maybe I’ll try out the character in a short story and try to sell it to EQMM or AHMM. They pay, right?
Oh well, if they don't buy it I can always post it online somewhere.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
(I don’t know what Hoo Ha means, but lets just roll with it, okay?)
1.Writers make the time.
That’s what we’ve said on this blog more than once. It’s a little bit of tough love that needs to be dished out. If you want to be a writer, you’ll find the time. And while other people complain that they would be writers “if only they had the time,” you’ll be busy writing.
It’s simple. Very simple. But that doesn’t make it easy. Usually it comes down to sacrifices. There are only 24 hours in a day –until mad scientist Russel D McLean perfects that machine of his- and a few things have to fall by the wayside.
It’s different for everybody. Some people, either through profession or by supportive family, are able to write full time. I envy these people, but I don’t doubt for a minute that they have to let things fall too. There’s still only 24 hours in a day for them. Me? I write AND work full time, as do most people these days I suspect.
Sometimes it might be that you have to lose touch with TV, or sports. It might mean not getting to spend evenings sleeping next to your partner, or maybe not seeing as much of your kids as you’d like. Or staying in at night at the weekends.
Whatever it is, we all have them, these little choices that add up to enough time to get the writing done.
I just wanted to take a minute or so to talk about one of the things I miss the most. In order to fit on most of the things I love doing, and the people I love to be with, I’ve noticed that one thing gets left behind more than anything else. And boy, do I miss it.
I love reading. Hell, if you’re a writer, chances are good that you’re a reader too, right? Growing up I managed to find a way to obsess over pretty much everything. My family never ceased to be amazed just how much I could throw myself into things; comic books, novels, television, films and music. I became one of those walking encyclopaedias of useless information. I couldn’t tell you what trigonometry was, but I could tell you what year Batman first appeared or how many goals Steve Bull scored in the 1988-89 season.
The only thing that I’ve always seemed immune to was gaming. I’ve owned game systems, from the old Amstrad CPC-464, to a Sega Master System and Mega Drive. Hell, I even owned a Playstation (just don’t ask me to remember which one.) But for some reason, I never really connected with it all. And as the games have become more involved, more immersive and more epic, I’ve become less and less interested. And it’s not snobbery. I don’t look down on them, I’m happy to watch my friends playing and having a good time. It just doesn’t engage me. (Well, aside from the legend of Stringer VS. Football Manger, but that’s a different thing.)
And I’ve been thinking about this because, all around me friends and work colleagues spend their free time playing games and talking about what they’ve unlocked and what level they’re on. Hell, I know work colleagues go home from a day at work and spend the night talking to each other in this cyber world whilst shooting goblins or German soldiers or something. And for me, I’ve realised, by “gaming” has always been “reading.” That’s what I do. I’ll go home from work, pick up a comic or a book, and drift off into another place.
Except that right now I don’t.
I have many interesting things underway, so this isn’t me moaning and claiming that my life is insufferable. I’ve got two novels under my belt, I’m about to start a third. I co-present a pod cast, I do this weekly blog and I have two secret projects that you’ll be hearing more about soon. I’m not lacking for things to enjoy and sink my teeth into.
At the same time, I have a book that I’m really enjoying, that I cant get past halfway through because I can’t give it the time it needs. I have an unread pile of books that’s threatening to take over my bookshelves, and I’ve stopped buying monthly comics because I don’t have the time to keep up to date on them. I picked up the first two volumes of the new STARMAN omnibus last year. It was an important comic at an important time for me, and DC are now reissuing the whole series in beautiful hardbacks. They’ve sat on my shelf unopened.
Late last year I injured my back and took a week’s holiday from the day job. I spent the week taking long walks and then laying on my back, reading. I got through whole books in a day, and had nothing to do but start on the next one. I’m already starting to think that I need to book some time off both the day job and the night job again this year to do the same, just spend some quality time with my stack of books. And maybe those STARMAN hardbacks….
So how about you guys? Lets all pull up a chair and have a rant. What is it that you most miss?
2. You need some YOUNG JUNIUS in your life.
You guys know Seth Harwood, right? Of course you do. Everywhere I turn on the net, I find that Seth’s been there first. Been there, done that, and recorded the podcast.
The fella is a real example to the rest of us. I mean, he makes me look fat and lazy. Well, okay, that’s not hard. But imagine for a second that it was, right? The point is, he’s the guy who gets out there and does the hard work that many of us don’t. And he backs it up with great writing.
(It’s actually the other way around; he backs up his great writing with hard work)
Seth’s new book, YOUNG JUNIUS, will be released in a special edition format in October, but the pre-orders start this Wednesday. CINCO DE JUNIUS. It’s going to be a gorgeous looking thing, a hardback with an embossed and a good old-fashioned cloth binding. Remember when hardbacks used to be referred to as cloth? Hells yeah. Seth and Tyrus are teaming up to try something new, to release a special edition of a book in advance of the regular edition. And you know, if you pre-order it you can also get Seth to write you a personal message. Anything you want, he’ll do it. If you want him to write, “Jay Stringer is awesome,” he will.
I’m just saying.
Head on over to Seth’s site from noon tomorrow and pre-order YOUNG JUNIUS. Hell, if you put in the promo code DAMAGE you’ll get 3.00 off the cover price. You see what we did? We pointed you in the direction of a great book and then told you how to get some money off it.
Monday, May 3, 2010
THE DEPUTY is a return ("Don't call it a comeback") to crime fiction from the author who brought you GUN MONKEYS. Victor Gischler's fantastic 2010 novel starts off with a dead body and things go downhill quickly for the deputy ordered to keep an eye on the corpse.
Toby Sawyer ends up in a world of hurt. Not from catching his manhood in his zipper. Not from the trouble with his wife. Not from the dirt and blood all over his face. Not from the face-scratching he gets from a hellcat. And not from the housefire, shootouts, and attack dog. No. Toby Sawyer has to get diapers back to his girlfriend, who's watching his infant son. Heck, a crazy goth chick like that headed to college would screw that one up something awful.
But, uh, yeah. There's that other stuff, too.
Let's be upfront with this. I don't write reviews. Other people do fantastic work reviewing works. The kind of reviews that make me want to read the book. Or not. Like those big mofos in the NY Review of Books. You know, where they say they're reviewing four books on the Boer War or some stuff like that. I mean, yeah, I've heard of it, but what the hell, right? I don't know what the Boer War is. The jokes are great, but, hell if I know what happened. But then I see some review in the NY Review of Books and it has a cool picture of some dude with an awesome mustache and he's standing in front of some wall-size map and then I'm thinking, well hell yeah. Let's see what that's about. And before I can get up again to pee, I've read a review of three dull-ass books and one great biography all having to do with the Boer War. And I just feel like someone has told me some great stories and filled my head with important junk I should have already known. I mean, those reviews are great.
I don't do that.
I text someone and say, "holy frackin hell the deputy is frackin great." That's my review of books I love. Sometimes, someone texts back, "yeah?" and I'll respond "what i just say dumb mofo?" That's about the extent of it.
One thing I hate about book reviews is having plot points spoiled. Of course, how are you supposed to be specific in your review of a book without giving something away? If you give away something on page 50, is that bad? Only 10 pages allowed? And if not specific, then what? How often can I say "balls-out pace"?
So I can't give you a history of the Boer War. I knew some stuff once, but I've forgotten it.
THE DEPUTY, though, I can tell you about. Because I just finished it. In one sitting. I even carried it into the bathroom when I had to pee because there was some active stuff going on. (You ever try to hold a book open on the sink while you're doing your tinkle business? Next Gischler book I'm reading outside.)
OK. So the story. Toby Sawyer is an idiot. I'm sorry, but he is. He's kinda stuck in a trailer park with a dumb wife and a baby son. He loves the kid, but the wife. Feh. She watches reality shows all day. So, yeah. Not so much with that one. But Toby is trying to get his stuff together. He's on part-time with the sheriff's office and trying to get on full-time. A young punk from the local Hatfields or McCoys is found shot to death -- nine bullet holes. Toby is supposed to watch the body while the other cops go investigate and the coroner makes his way there. Toby goes into the local diner for a second and when he comes out, the body is gone. So now his future is shot to hell.
He's not really interested in finding the body. He's interested in just making it all go away, in waking up from a bad dream. One second he's crawling out the window of his college-bound girlfriend and the next he's getting chased like he's Dennis Weaver. And then he's on the run. And he has no idea why. Soon enough, not only is his life at stake -- but so is that of his baby son.
Crooked cops. Smugglers. Nasty locals. This 249-page book is so full of characters, sometimes it feels like that Thomas Mann book where he builds up the family to tear them down. And sometimes this one feels like a long short story, with action that you feel as if you're reading a short story -- all flesh and shotguns and chases.
I read this in one fell-swoop between lunch and dinner on Sunday. Which pisses me off. I should have just read a few chapters each day, so that I could enjoy it for longer.
Ah, well. As they say in the book: "What's a man supposed to do? How does a man know?"
This is what noir is: that rough, bloody adrenaline rush that makes you remember why you read books in the first place.
Buy. This. Book.
UPDATE: $3.57 at Amazon on Aug 12, 2013
Sunday, May 2, 2010
In the recent kerfuffle over payment for fiction, one of the frequent arguments for submitting to online zines that don't pay was the lack of outlets that publish hardcore and dark crime fiction. I was one of the loudest voices saying this. But again, wrong. Now I'm happy I started reading and publishing online. I've had some nice success and made some good friends. But if we're looking at this as a professional game, we've got to look at the professional markets. So any doubters out there, need to hear it from the editors mouth. This is from Ellery Queen editor Janet Hutchins March 2010 Editor's Letter:
A magazine that has flourished for as long as EQMM has thanks to its longtime subscribers owes the expectations of those readers great respect. But as our culture has shifted toward more open portrayal of sexuality and violence in film, television, and novels, the expectation some EQMM readers have that the magazine will entirely avoid explicit treatment of those subjects—and the accompanying use of profanity—has become more difficult to meet.
I say that not because there aren’t enough stories available that wouldn’t offend, but because our readers also expect from us the best that’s being produced in the genre, and the direction the culture as a whole takes is where you find some of its best writers.
Whenever I receive a chastising letter from a reader over a sexually explicit scene or vulgar term, it seems invariably to begin with a reminder that a truly good writer doesn’t need such descriptions, or such language, in order to achieve the desired effect. Sometimes the correspondant will reference great writers of the past to illustrate the point. But that really misses the point. I recall once asking one of our contributors if we could tone down some of the potentially offensive language in a story and she replied that although she didn’t use profanity in her own speech she felt compelled, as a serious writer, to accurately represent the current American vernacular. A contemporary writer can’t always avoid being explicit or profane and still create a realistic scene, because the society being depicted doesn’t recognize the same restraints it did fifty or even fifteen years ago. And since there’s no longer a clear line between “literary” fiction (which generally strives for very realistic portrayal of speech and action) and entertainment or genre fiction, I think this tension between what the story may demand from a literary standpoint and what some readers expect to find in our magazine is sure to persist.
Of course, there’s an awful lot of really bad writing that hides beneath offensive language and gratuitous detailing of sexual or violent acts—writing that gives the impression the author doesn’t think he or she will gain entrance to the club without it. I sympathize entirely with readers who want to make sure that sort of thing stays out of our pages. But at the same time, since EQMM has always aimed to publish the best the genre has to offer, we hope all of our readers will understand that we don’t want to have to automatically reject a good story by a good writer because it contains an essential but explicit sexual or violent image or language. I brought back the Black Mask department a couple of years ago partly so that we could feature some of the darker, more realistic work in the field. We’ve had very little feedback as to whether readers like the department (and what we’re doing in general).
Even she acknowledges the lack of feedback regarding their darker publishing offerings. I like best her point that a leading crime magazine needs to reflect the diversity of not only the times in which it's published but the variety of the offering in that field. The current issue not only has a story from a collection published by a University press, but a story in present tense! So do the genre and it's short fiction flag bearers a favor and check out an issue of EQ or AH.