Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Oppression of the To Be Read Pile

Scott D. Parker

I know y'all've seen those Geico insurance ads where a person is doing one thing (like shooting baskets) and something flies in from off-screen (like another basketball). The person looks over and he sees a wad of cash with eye balls. The tag line is something like "This the money you could be saving with Geico." What's let unspoken is the cash wad's insistence that you drop whatever you may be doing and pay attention to it, even if you're happily doing something else.

I don't know about y'all but the To Be Read stack of books can be equally as oppressive. There's just so many good books being published that I want to read them all. There are also a ton of authors--both published and unpublished--that I want to support. And I buy books, less than I used to, but I still buy them. And they go on the To Be Read Shelf.

Please tell me I'm not the only one who has a To Be Read Shelf. I used to be quite obsessive in the way I arranged my bookshelves. For whatever reason, my desire to see my books in a particular order on the shelf thankfully passed away. Now, my books are haphazardly arranged on purpose. (No, I don't go out of my way to make them haphazard. I just put them wherever I want to at the time.) It gives me a bit of spontaneity when I examine my bookshelves and see something I haven't seen in awhile.

What has survived is the To Be Read Shelf. It's a single shelf where I stack all the books I want to read next. Right now, I've got at least half my Hard Case Crime books there (around twenty or so). My A. A. Fair books (half dozen) sit next to my comic trade paperbacks while some of my SF/F material look on. It's a full shelf and I'm not even listing everything (I'm at work and can't see the shelf).

Let's get one thing straight: I want to read every, single book on that shelf and all the other shelves in my writing room (let's not count my library for now). But every time I select a book to read, that TBR Shelf stares at me, tempting me to drop whatever book I'm reading and pick up something else. Then, there's the obvious psychological factor. I've already got so many books on that shelf that, theoretically, I should cease buying newer things until I have read all the existing books on the shelf. It can be daunting, depressing, and oppressive. And, as the stack grows larger and larger, the more oppressive the pile becomes. Eventually, reading starts to become less fun and more of a chore.

My wife, on the other hand, is wonderfully blissful when it comes to her reading. She has no TBR pile or shelf. Now, granted, she's not a writer and doesn't obsess over books like we do. Still, her reading habit goes something like this: she finds an author she likes (currently, Margaret Coel) and literally reads everything there is. She did this with Patricia Cornwell, too. She always has something to read but there's no TBR stack. She's free from constraints and oppression. Some days, I envy her freedom.

Thus, I've come to a personal conclusion. There's a way to shake up my reading process and make things fresh again: kill the TBR shelf. I'm going to rearrange my shelves and disperse all the books I want to read throughout all my shelves. That way, I'll have to hunt for the books I want and might stumble onto something I've forgotten for awhile. This is summer time. It's a season to read fun books and, by extension, to have fun reading again.

So, am I the only one whose TBR Shelf/Pile feels like an schoolmarm tapping her toe, making reading more of a chore than a fun activity?

Friday, May 21, 2010

(Literary) Fight Club

By Russel D McLean

So here we go again. And before we start, let me state straight up that I am not about to pass judgement on any writer's output or value, but I am going to try and tear down an ongoing literary slanging match that is, in my opinion, becoming increasingly harmful to both sides.

For those who haven't been keeping up, it seems that bestselling thriller writer Lee Child has either made a horrific faux-pas or, worse, he genuinely believes that literary writers “know in their heart that we could write their books but they could not write our books.”

It’s the kind of quote that, even from its alleged context (a TV debate on literary vs genre, precisely the argument that's beginning to get me down) sounds childish, petulant and plain baiting.

Reading the full quote, things start out nicely. Child claims that since his and Ian McEwan’s books were released at the same time (Child's latest is 61 HOURS, Ian McEwan's is SOLAR), the media were trying to set up some kind of grudge match. Child asks “why should I be worried about Iain McEwan’s books?” which is a fair enough question. And, I assumed, was going to go down the “look, we’re aiming for two vastly different sectors of the market, like asking whether John Woo should be worried by the latest Judd Apatow flick” kind of response.

But no, he goes for the previously mentioned statement and proceeds to make crime and thriller writers sound particularly full of themselves in the worst possible way. In the same kind of way that many literary writers have sounded when claiming that thriller and crime writers don't need to work as hard at what they do and that we're all about formula.

It doesn't help that Child picked a peculiarly poor example when it came to McEwan because, let’s face facts, McEwan sells by the boatload even though his output is less frequent than Childs. McEwan also has five movies adaptions to Child’s zero. And yet Child makes the case – however indirectly – that McEwan should somehow be jealous of him?

Here are the publishers stats on Child (as reiterated across the proofs of 61 hours): one book by Child is sold in the world every second. But does this really mean anything? Do those sales make him better or more talented than McEwan?

Here’s the thing: I’m getting fed up of the literary/genre debate. From both sides. I do believe that certain literary types have stereotyped genre as being empty of brain and purpose (which is true in some cases) while some of us genre writers have come to regard literary as so much empty posturing with only the appearance of intelligence (again, true in some cases).

However, in amongst all this mud slinging we’re forgetting an important thing:

None of it matters.

No, seriously. Because we’re all in the same damn boat, us authors of fiction. Every kind of fiction is intended to have a different effect upon the audience. Hence, McEwan’s books are attempting to induce very different emotions and reactions than a Child thriller. But they share many common features, and come from a similar spring of inspiration and creation.

So why can’t the two co-exist? Literary and genre side by side, proud to be fictional?

Why do they have to be in competition at all?

And as to Child’s later assertion that why wouldn’t a starving literary writer write a “bestseller” in the vein of Child, or even just a crime novel, let me point out from experience that many crime writers are also starving and believe me, if we could hit on that magic and very lucky formula for bestsellerdom (which McEwan has as equally as Child, despite the protestations of Child) we would be doing it. Its not like we – or our literary equivalents – are saying, “Tell you what, we’re going to write an inadequate book that’s not going to sell”. Because all writing is about connecting with an audience, and the widest audience possible. Yes, literary writers may talk less about money and audience and more about art and theme, but when you think about what sales mean you’re connecting with an audience, so money and connection to readers are concepts which have to be linked.

I’m speaking here as a man more likely to pick up a crime thriller than a literary novel, but that’s not to say that literary novels are all without merit or that all crime novels are brilliant (in fact there are many, many shitty crime novels and some translucently wondrous literary novels as well as brilliance in nearly all genres). I think – I believe – that a good book is a good book, and one that connects with an audience will do so no matter who has written it or for what reason. Maybe I’m naïve, but I honestly wish any writer – yes, even James Patterson and Dan Brown – well in what they do because, even if I don’t approve of it, clearly their work is connecting with someone somewhere. And, frankly, getting bogged down in genre wars, in macho-bullshit posturing over whose work is more important or enduring, over whether or not a literary novel could be “written in three weeks” or any number of these petty arguments, distracts us from what’s really important: writing books for readers like ourselves, books that connect with readers, that slip into people's lives, that make them say, for whatever reason, "I am glad to have read that".

In the end, it doesn’t matter what you write. Or even how big your audience is. If we all wrote the same kind of books, then the world, believe me, would be a poorer place.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


by Dave White


Take a deeeeeeeeeeeeeeep breath.

Are you a published author? Are you someone who wants to be a published author? Do you have an idea, a concept, an outline, fifty typed pages? Do you know every in and out of the publishing world, the promotional ideas, and what you're going to do when you get that book deal?


Forget it all. Take all that stuff about a changing world and put in your back pocket and save it for later.


Write the book.

Bury your head in the sand. Forget what all the blogs are talking about (EVEN THIS ONE) and write you book. Write the best damn book you can. Revise it until your eyes bleed. Revise until your fingers are numb.

Worry about what's in the book. Are you writing what you want to read? Good.

What gets lost in all these blogs on the publishing industry that writers read is the book itself. It is so easy to put the cart before the horse. Yeah, when you HAVE A BOOK DONE you want to figure out the best way to get it in front of an audience. You want to know if there are going to be publishers out there to put it in front of readers.

But remember, at this stage of the game, YOU DON'T EVEN HAVE A FINISHED BOOK. You have an idea, some pages, and a "favorite places" list full of blog posts.

Write your book. Enjoy the process.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010


John McFetridge

Do you remember when Hill Street Blues was first on TV? It was a revelation in many ways but one of the big things about it was the way it blended what I’d call soap opera elements with police procedural and moral dilemmas.

I’m thinking about an early episode in which a couple of guys broke into a church, stole things and raped and murdered a nun. They were caught, but there was no evidence beyond the possession of the stolen items.

Joyce Davenport, the public aid lawyer represented them and wanted to make a deal. An angry mob gathered around the police station. Captain Furillo demanded a full confession.

Joyce refused and said there was no way they’d get a conviction for the murder with the evidence they had so they’d plead to a lesser charge.

Furillo said, okay, you’re right, we won’t get a conviction on the murder with the evidence we have and we’re not interested in the lesser charge. Your clients are free to go.

And Joyce freaked and said the mob outside would rip them apart and Furillo said, yeah, well, if they confess to the murder they get to stay safe in a jail cell. Joyce said he was using the threat of a lynching to extort a murder confession and Furillo said, damned right I am.

I had all kinds of mixed feelings about that. The cops have to play by the rules but the bad guys have to be caught. He was extorting a confession. Was he going too far in breaking the rules? If he was so certain these guys were guilty couldn’t he get more evidence legally? The show didn’t offer any easy answers.

The next day one of my co-workers asked if I’d seen Hill Street Blues and I said, yeah, and she said, “Do you think Frank will get back together with Fay?”
I said, “What?” No idea what she was talking about until I remembered that throughout the episode Captain Furillo’s ex-wife, Fay, was in the precinct and when he had the fight with his girlfriend, Joyce Davenport, he and Fay shared a very understanding look.

At the time, angry young man that I was, I dismissed this soap opera aspect (and my co-worker) as silly and unnecessary, something network TV was forced to stoop to for ratings.

And later I realized (once again) how wrong I was.

The advertising industry on Mad Men, the mafia wars on The Sopranos, the backroom politics on The Good Wife – they’re only ever half a story. Without the soap opera elements, without Don and Betty, Tony and Carmela and Alicia and Peter those shows just don’t have the emotional depth to be interesting week after week.

The question, “Will their marriage survive?” hangs over every episode. It’s the drama version of, “Will they get it on?” the sexual tension that so many comedies are built around.

This is probably incredibly obvious to you, but I’m a little slow on the uptake.

Crime fiction has had a few famous couples as well, like Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man and Spenser and Susan Silverman and MacMillan and Wife and Hart to Hart on TV (and I’m sure lots and lots more, please feel free to inform me in the comments), though it never really felt like any of those marriages were in trouble (and I haven't read all the Spenser's, did they ever get married?).

Noir fiction, though, usually has the loner male and the femme fatale we just can’t trust. And it usually ends badly. Really bad for her and mostly bad for him.

Are there any couples that stay together in noir?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Ballad Of The Typewriter And The Flying Elephant

By Jay Stringer

Habits. Crutches. Excuses. We’ve al got them.

Little superstitions that we rely on for our creative spark, or rituals that we need to go through before we feel settled enough to put words on a page.

I’ve often laughed at them. I know someone who makes a big deal of setting up a “writing space” in any new home. I always thought that was stupid. I mean, all that time spent setting up a writing space could be time spent writing, right?

I tried having a space. When we first moved into our current flat I adopted a corner of the kitchen, set up the desk with paper, pens and my laptop. Later I added a printer. But then I found that I didn’t write there; I wrote on the floor, I wrote on the bed, I wrote in the bath. More often than not I write where I’m sat right now, with my laptop perched on the arm of the sofa and my feet tucked beneath me.

I don’t need a set physical writing space, because the work is in my head. I can open up and start writing wherever I feel in the mood.

Chandler famously became dependent on alcohol. Now, anyone who becomes dependent on alcohol has far more pressing problems that whether or not they’ve convinced themselves they need the booze to write. But all of that aside, there are famous tales of him being locked away in a room with liquor and no food in order to get one last film script out of him. Sure, he didn’t really need the alcohol to get the writing done, but I’ll lay you a heavy bet that script wouldn’t have been finished if the booze had been taken away.

Cormac McCarthy wrote almost all of his novels (so far) on the same typewriter. Dumbo had a magic feather – and I thought I’d seen everything until I saw an elephant write.

But I’m a very superstitious person, and I found out this week that I do have habits. I’ve developed a few things that control how much writing I do.

Recently it has become clear that I may be lactose intolerant. Those of you who know me will know how hard this would hit me; I’m a man who places tea and coffee on an equal footing with oxygen. In the last few days I’m slowly getting used to the taste of soya milk. But for that first week, it was disgusting. I missed my milk, and so I stopped drinking tea and coffee. And with a deadline looming on (insert reference to secret project here) I found that I was struggling. Big time.

I wasn’t struggling for ideas. The story was in my head, I could look at it, feel it and touch it. But I couldn’t get it down on the page because I didn’t have a cup of warm tea in my hand.

Pathetic, right?

So once this latest round of hard work is out of the way, I’ll be doing a detox. I’ll be hunting out each and every stupid writing superstition that I’ve gathered and chucking them out.

How about you? What habits have you got? What excuses have you developed to not write?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Reasons to Believe

By Steve Weddle

Somewhere in this house is a Polaroid of me and Spider-Man. I met him at a mall in Shreveport, Louisiana around the time I was watching him on TV. I don't recall there having been any big crime spree there that he needed to take care of, but perhaps he'd already finished off the bad guys. (I do remember a comic featuring Spidey and the Dallas Cowboys, so perhaps he stopped by Shreveport while he was in the area.) He was nice, didn't talk much, and signed the photo for me. Turns out, I was his best pal.

Batman and Superman might have been SuperFriends, but they didn't hold too much interest for me. I was a Marvel kind of guy.

You could count on a couple of ads in comics back in the late 70s and early 80s. One of them offered prizes if you sold a bunch of crap to people in your neighborhood. Another one was for 1,000 army men. Or maybe a million. And then there was the one from Mile High Comics. One hundred comics for $25. They listed what was available and you could put a mark in the box and mail it in or call them. That's what I wanted for my birthday. One hundred comics. So I had to select which comics I wanted. Spider-Man. Avengers. Every New Defenders they had. Doctor Strange.

Since Mile High Comics was in Denver and we weren't, my dad took the list to work and called it in. A couple of funny things happened. One: They didn't have every comic I wanted. I don't remember the percentage, but I ended up with a handful of Beta Ray Bill Thors, She-Hulks, and West Coast Avengers. The second funny thing: My dad's boss kept walking by his office door wondering why my dad was cupping his hand over the phone and whispering, "How about 'Defenders' number 83? No, OK. 'Avengers' 212? That one? OK. Good."

Spider-Man was the crime fiction I grew up on. The troubled good guy fighting impossible odds, getting in way over his head and getting whupped.

So I got my 100 comic books sent right to my door when I was a kid. I kept them in a box under my bed, worked through a run of 'Defenders,' even those with that dork Namor in them. I found stuff I'd never thought of reading -- hating some, loving some.

I miss those days of surprise, when anything was possible and you'd wait a whole month for the next story, the next issue.

As a grown-up, you get shots at this, though.

Tyrus Books offers a subscription program. Every month or so, you'd be getting a new gem of crime fiction right to your door. Kinda like the Book-of-the-Month Club, only cool.

Dumpy little thrift shops. Sure, used books stores have folks who know their stuff and everything well organized. Sometimes, though, this makes it kinda easy and takes the fun out. I don't know what the Beta Ray Bill version of a crime novel would be, but imagine those shelves back in the corner of the thrift shop, back near the NordicTrack. For a dollar, you walk out with five paperbacks -- a few Elmore Leonards, a Laurie R. King, and some Grisham for your mom.

Pre-Orders online. The anticipation is fantastic, isn't it? Release date. Oh, I'm getting it early. Sweet. My wife loves Mr. N. DeMille's John Corey novels and had her pre-order for Wildfire in six months before she got it. I'd read and enjoyed the character, too, so we were counting down the weeks.

Subscriptions. Surprises. Some synonym for "anticipation" that starts with 's.'

What makes reading cool for you? What is it you like about the world of reading? Series detectives? Author signings? Do you have a Polaroid proving you're Lee Child's best pal?

Sunday, May 16, 2010


I'm writing this as the Tigers and Red Sox go into the 13th inning and as you read this tomorrow Spenser and I will be watching the finale of that series live. This whole week I've been trying to put the thoughts in my head together to write something about why baseball seems to be a more literary sport than any of the others. There's been some great novels, and short stories, and anthologies (and lots of films) about baseball, and much of the best sports non-fiction has the old bats and balls as it's subject. But the thoughts never gelled and its a subject I thought deserved more than my last minute ramblings. Which got me thinking about walking the tightrope as a writer.

You can call it procrastination, and I'll freely admit its' one of my great weaknesses in writing and in life, but man, I've pulled some great stuff out at the last minute and, as tonight, when I try and put something together over time it more often than night dies on the vice. So you're all kind of like the audience at a trapeze show. Sometimes you get death defying antics and last minute flashes of greatness, but once in while you witness a guy choking and hitting the ground.

So let me open it up for comments. What's your tight rope? Is there an area in your writing or in your life where you always seem to be running on the edge of failure but can also pull out some good stuff?

P.S. (Go Brennan Bosch)