Saturday, July 3, 2010

Re-reading books: Why?

Scott D. Parker

I'm an NPR geek. When America's birthday rolls around, the hosts and reporters of NPR team up to read the Declaration of Independence. As a historian, I get as big a thrill by Independence Day as I do about few other things. Each year, I enjoy marveling at our great experiment, how it's evolved, and how, despite flaws, we keep tinkering the machinery, fine tuning the engine that makes us all free.

When I hear the Declaration read aloud (or when I re-read it silently), a swirl of emotions run through me: pride, happiness, awe, wonderment, solemnity. I've gotten to the point where I stopped reading the Declaration at any time during the year, reserving for the first week of July the special feelings I get when I read the document.

I got to thinking about re-reading books in recent days. I'm in a science fiction book club (four members) and we each take turns picking a book for the month. Starting in July, we've all agreed to select a favorite book* and re-read it (or, in the case of a book picked by someone else, read it for the first time). When we agreed, I didn't realize that I would happen upon a roadblock: I don't want to re-read most books I read.

Pondering this, I started to list out reasons why. The most obvious reason is that I don't have enough time in this life to read all the books I want. When I die, the TBR stack will not be empty. Thus, why waste time re-reading something when there's another volume waiting to be opened for the first time? That's a huge driving force for me and one that usually wins any argument.

But there's a different part that also wins arguments. Surely I am not alone in investing in a book a certain level of emotionality (is that a word?) on books. (And this is a big reason why ebooks, for all the convenience, will never, truly kill the printed word.) For books that really strike a chord with me, I can remember all the details of my life that were then current when I read said book. Most of the time, those memories are a time capsule and I don't want to disturb them. Believe me, I've cracked a time capsule open before and the results usually don't measure up to the original reading. Thus, the entire experience is, for me, tainted.

In a few, rare times, when I re-read a book, the second go-round is purely for craft. I did this most recently (i.e., 2002) with Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River." But, this happens infrequently.

Oh, and most of this discussion applies to fiction books. I re-read non-fiction whenever necessary.

Do you re-read books? If so, why? Am I the only one who attaches a certainly level of emotion to a book? And, if so, does the second reading stand up to the first?

*Since I'm restricted--obviously--to SF for this book club, the last SF book that truly blew me away was Dan Simmons's Hyperion. I just read it last year and don't feel the need to re-read it. I'm more interested in its sequel. Thus, I'll likely pick a favorite book that, ironically, I never finished reading back in 1995: Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. Then again, I might just pick a Star Wars book. Who the heck knows. If it were open to mystery fiction, the choices would be much, much easier: Dawn Patrol, Money Shot, Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity, The Shadow of the Wind.

Friday, July 2, 2010

"Well correct me if I'm wrong, gentlemen, but would you agree that we have been passing through the sea of time?"

This week, I turned thirty. Some of you, you’ll be thinking, God, he’s young. You’ll maybe wonder why this is weird for me. Or maybe you’ll remember that, too. This feeling that suddenly you’re not entirely as young as you think you are.

When I started out writing, the plan was this:

First novel in late teens/early twenties (Looking at some of the rejection letters, I think I actually came pretty damn close).

Steady career by mid twenties, full time writing by maybe twenty seven.

Writing full time (and probably acting on the side – yeah, you didn’t know I almost did the while drama school thing, did ya?*) by thirty. With my own house. And no damn money worries.

Okay, it didn’t quite turn out like that. But I think it’s a pretty modest dream (except for the acting thing, where I was likely to be playing The Doctor by now, not that whippersnapper Matt Smith**). And I think it was closer to achievable than most. So how well did I do?

Well, I was first paid to be published at 24 with my sub to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I’m still awe-struck and grateful for the opportunity. And to have been published several times since then, too, is just the icing on that cake. I was published previous to this, but these were unpaid and so in terms of the dream, this is where it first started. But I wasn’t actually published in novel form till late twenties.


This is still a remarkable achievement, and I’d have to say to my teenage self that it was better to have waited. I think the 8 years on the plan gave me a huge advantage because it allowed me to experience life. Now that sounds like a cliché, but the heart of all writing is emotional honesty and I think that when I was a teenager I was too wrapped in figuring who I was to be able to empathise honestly with my characters. So, yeah, I’m glad the plan was held back.

And I’m glad, too, that I got to find other things at uni. Leaving behind English and doing philosophy worked wonders for me. Opened me up to other ways of thinking. And allowed me to interact with people. Which is actually a pretty important part of any writer’s research. More so than anything technical, I’d argue.

Part time and full time retail jobs were always part of the plan in a way. Because I had always instinctively known that a writer needs to be part of the world. And as much socialising as you get in uni, let’s be honest, students don’t live anything close to “real” lives most of the time (or was that just me?).

So things didn’t go according to plan. And I’m 30 and not yet indepently wealthy, still supporting myself with a day job. But you know what, I’ve had a blast, and I’m still having a blast.

And even though I noticed some grey hairs in my beard the other day it’s not that old either. In fact, I think despite my plans as a teenager, I think the really exciting part’s just around the corner…

*The reason I gave it up was twofold: 1) I was always more comfortable with a less in-yer-face creative process and so writing came more naturally to me and 2) I found most drama students irritatingly extroverted.

**Of course, I couldn’t be the doc and have a beard. And anyway Smith owns the part. Mind you, with the beard I could play the Master. I can do evil.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

What Are You Doing Here?

It's the Thursday before the 4th of July and you're reading Do Some Damage?

Leave work early. Throw a Bratwurst on the grill. Have a beer, or several. No? Stuck at work? Can't leave for the shore until tomorrow?

Okay, fine. Lemme try to wrangle up a post for ya:

I'm a teacher. I've mentioned that several times before. One of the perks of being a teacher is summer vacation. Some teachers get shore houses. Some teachers teach summer school. Some veg.

Me? Well, for the last few years, I take these two months and see what it's like to be a full time author.

Let me tell you something: My guess is full time authors don't shower.

Besides that, it's an interesting life. I find I'm not in as much of a hurry to meet goals (unless there's a deadline). Usually, I get home from work and go through my routine.

Now, I have time to really focus on what I'm working on. The summer time is great for revising. I can really think about the part I'm editing and where it comes up again. What I have to add. I have more time to read and re-read passages and find out how they work or tick. Or take my fantastic agent's notes on the piece and get them to work.

I'm not hurried.

Right now, I'm not revising. I'm drafting. For the last month, while working, I was writing every day, but I was having trouble figuring out more than just who the characters are. It would be my goal to get them talking to each other and see what they wanted to talk about. I knew the barest bones of the story, and that helped guide the conversations, but I was really busy trying to figure out who they were.

Now, I'm pretty sure I know them, so I'm getting to the point where I'm having them do stuff. More than just talk. The plot is moving ahead. The gears in my own brain are functioning only on the story (oh, and the upcoming wedding), so there's less clutter. I can work out parts of the story and really get the action to happen.
I don't know if that's because I have more time to work or because I'm deeper into the book, but either way the time helps.

So, how do I spend my summer vacation?


But I'm done writing for the day, so I'm going to head outside with my copy of So Cold the River and do something else every writer should do.


Happy Holiday Weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Judge Slapped for Bias in Pot Case

John McFetridge

(please note: it's been a hectic week and I was unable to put together a new blog post so I'm reposting something that was on my personal blog last year. I did a reading at the public library last year and many of the people there had great questions. One man said that he found my books made the crime situation look a little hopeless and asked if I had any ideas to cut down on crime in Toronto. I said, "Hey buddy, I need there to be a lot of crime to write these books." No, really what I said was I had no idea but maybe a place to start to lower the amount of crime in our streets was to make fewer things illegal. Then this judge said what he said and well, it turned into a blog post)

Judge Slapped for Bias in Pot Case

He's right, but does that matter?

This is the kind of story that makes the background for my books. While sentencing a man convicted of running a marijuana grow op, the judge rejected a federal prosecutor's argument that a jail term was necessary to discourage people from getting involved in the drug trade.

"What's your basis for saying that?" the judge pressed. "Because nobody has been deterred. People have been going to jail for drug offences for – for a couple of generations now and the drug – the drug plague is worse than it ever was."

Allen questioned why, when a form of sentencing "doesn't work," he would try it again and again.

"Isn't that a form of insanity?" he asked.

And then the judge said what I've been writing about for three books now:

All society is really doing by prohibiting the production and consumption of marijuana is "giving the Hells Angels several billion dollars worth of income every year," Allen said.

Of course, I try to just present the criminal world as I see it. I try hard not to moralize or make my books too didactic. I have no answers to the "drug plague" as the judge called it, but if he's right about this part:

... the chances of a Dutch teen smoking marijuana – which is available at their local coffee shop – are substantially lower than the likelihood of an American teenager using the drug, he said.

It might be worth looking into.

A few years ago a teenager told me that he and his friends smoked dope because it was easier to get for them than beer. This kid claimed it was because stores that sold beer and alcohol (privately owned or government owned - I've lived in places with each system and there's little difference) didn't want to risk the fine and the criminal charge for selling to them but the drug dealer they bought from was already committing a criminal offense, so he didn't care.

To me there's no doubt that the drug trade supplies organized crime with a huge amount of capital and like all capitalists they reinvest that money and try to 'grow' their business into other areas.

And for now, it's all material for me.

And there's no shortage of material.

The Toronto Star article about the judge is here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Film Review -1 Day

I've been hearing about the film 1 DAY for some time now. On the surface, it pushes many of my buttons; It's set and filmed in the Midlands, uses local actors and deals with the gang warfare and gun culture that's gone ignore by the national media.

So controversial was the film that several cinema chains refused to show it in the Midlands. The filmmakers made claims of the police shutting down cinema's halfway through screenings and intimidating the chains into dropping the film. Whether that is the truth or guerrilla marketing doesn't really matter, all that matters is whether the film is any good.

I'll get to that.

I've talked before about my passion for bringing the region to some national attention. I could probably get where i want to be quicker by setting my stories in London or Glasgow, but that's not what i write for. There is a whole region that is being ignored, so i watched this film wanting it to be great. I'm also hungry for some filmmakers to make some real social films set in the region -and many other regions of Britain for that matter- and to use local talent as much as possible. There are problems there, a whole world that we're told doesn't exist in Britain.

I also like films that take risks, a film that tries something new is a film that is contributing to the language of cinema. 1 DAY certainly tries something new. It's a musical, a hip-hop crime drama, half the time showing an attempt at a gritty edged urban drama, half the time breaking out into backbeats and dance moves.

So if it pushes so many of my buttons, and takes a few interesting risks, does it work?

Not really. But I'm glad i watched it, and i think I'll watch it again.

the plot is fairly simple; Flash, a local drug dealer, has lost 500k of someone else's money. He's on the run from the angry owner of the cash, a rival gang and three woman who've mothered his children. In fact, the plot itself doesn't really have much life to it, it moves along far to predictably.

There is plenty here to like (if you're me, anyway.) It's filmed on location, and showcases many places i recognise. Seeing the aerial shots of the city reminds us that there are large and interesting cityscape's outside of London. The actors or all local, for better and for worse. Whilst it's nice to hear real regional accents instead of the ones that actors from elsewhere put on, there's also a lack of any real gravitas. Whilst the smaller parts in the film are given a flavour and a depth for being played by local people, it would have helped to have something a little extra in the leading roles. The leading man is fine, but the film doesn't protect him by hiding his rawness or his weaknesses.

I would say that if you're going to take the route of local casting for main roles, then the writing needs to be top notch to help balance things out. I think this would be my main criticism of the film; the writing is not strong enough. The songs are not as lyrically complex or insightful as hip hop can, and should, be and I've already mentioned the weak plotting. The dialogue is in bad need of an edit; much of it may well have been improvised by the inexperienced actors, but then this should be fixed and tightened in the edit. There is too much moralising, too many people having monologues on how tough life is in the game. Don't tell us, show us.

Aside from the problem of 'show don't tell,' the film also struggles with a lot of the things we've discussed on here; It rambles, it doesn't get to the point and it doesn't leave out the bits that people tend to skip.

But i don't want to sound so negative on a film that deserves a hell of a lot of credit for what it does get right. The directing is good; there are some nice visual touches and the right amount of restrained flair. The film looks like a million pounds, even if it cost half that amount. It's a very bold film, and one that is probably too ambitious. It falls short of that ambition, but I'd rather have a film like this on my shelf than any number of billion dollar Transformers Vs The Munchkins From Mars soulless epics.

In fact, many of the things I've identified as weaknesses add to the character of the film. It's rough around the edges, but i think I'll enjoy giving it another try.

Monday, June 28, 2010

How to Save Soccer

By Steve Weddle

Most Mondays I devote this space to saying something about crime fiction, hoping the tens of people who read what I write are interested.

Today, however, I devote my triple-ish digit IQs to solving the problem of soccer. Because, as I've learned the past few weeks, the world must figure out how to make Americans like kickball. I have solved the problem, thanks to my wife's genius. Yes, world: You're welcome.

My lovely bride and I were watching the World Cups Kickball Tournament this weekend when she explained to my why kickball hasn't caught on here in the states.

"The whole foreigners in shorts thing," I suggested.

That wasn't it.

"No blue line for offsides?"


"The dives and fake injuries and prima donna play?"

Not so much.

My wife nodded towards the teevee. "The commercials."

"What commercials?"

"Exactly. Our sports are full of commercials. Soccer doesn't have them."

And that's absolutely spot on. How can the teevee stations make any money when they can't break every seven minutes for three minutes worth of commercials about light beer and soft peters?

In throwball, you've got built-in stops. Imagine if soccer broke each time they changed possession. Heck, in throwball, the teevee people won't even let the QB get the ball until you get through another one of those commercials about old people sitting in bathtubs and watching the sun go down. (I'm not sure he needs pills for his soft peter as much as a change of location.) Imagine if they went to commercial each time Ronaldo lost the ball by hotdogging, diving, or taking an ill-advised shot. Ronaldo loses the ball. Cue the Slap Chop guy.

In baseball, a sport made for teevee (except, you know, for the sleeping viewers), you've got breaks each half-inning. And each pitching change, which, if you're watching a Tony Larussa game, happens more often that a herpes outbreak on an MTV reality show.

Hockey is split into thirds instead of halves, with the occasional breaks thrown in when Joey Kocur breaks someone's head. (Haven't watched in a while.)

And golf goes to commercial whenever Tiger isn't addressing his balls. (I'm tired. Write your own joke for that one.)

So as long as soccer refuses to take a commercial break every five minutes or so, it'll never catch on in the US of A. Most people here get their games on the teevee, unlike in Foreignland when each petrol station seems to have its own Football Club United. We used to have the same sort of thing 50 years ago here in the states with baseball teams. You can drive through the east-coast country side, for example, and still see backstops from that era. Cool stuff. But if it ain't televised here in the states, it ain't important. The opposite is also true, as we have learned that "being famous" is its own profession.

So soccer, you need more commercials. You need to be like the National Football League here in America, our most popular sport. Instead of having two 45-minute halves of non-stop action, take a cue from the National Football League.

In a three-and-a-half hour professional football game, you've only got ELEVEN minutes of action. That's eleven minutes of action up against about an hour of commercials. And this is why it is so popular. The teevee people have a stake in it. The beer companies want you to watch. The soft peter people want you to be excited about their pills.

When I watch a soccer match, I'm focussed on the game itself. The players. The movement of the ball across the pitch. A striker sneaking in down the side. I'm invested in the game. Only the game. I'm not thinking about how my truck is old or how thirsty I am or that I need to fill my belly with pizza. Why in the hell would the corporate overlords of the US of A get behind soccer? For that little rectangle next to the time in the top of my teevee? A sponsorship deal? Are you kidding?

The companies that broadcast the games are the companies that are trying to sell you a new truck or a cure for what ails ya. They own the radio stations with the SportsTalk programming. It's in their interest to get you interest in their interests.

People have to make money off of the sport in order for it to succeed. And the way the NFL and MLB and whoever else makes money is through commercials. Until soccer does something about this, corporate America will never find it useful. If the big businesses can find a way to put Smiling Bob or the Slap Chop in front of you every few minutes -- and not a just logo on a jersey, DC United -- then soccer will succeed in America.

Football is something to hold your interest between commercials. Same as that 30 minute sitcom that's really 19-20 minutes of show and 10 minutes of commercials.

C'mon, Soccer. Wake up. As my wife said, "Commercials." Yup. That is what will save soccer here in America. And hurry up because I'm ready to buy me a jersey.

Believe me, more commercials for lite beer and soft peter pills is the answer. Then soccer will be all over the teevee and you won't be so hard up for some scoring.

Wait until you hear about my idea to save fiction publishing. Two words: Product Placement.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Yeah, about that post today...

Honestly, I'm quite surprised it took me this long to finally blow a day I was supposed to post. I thought I'd done it a couple of weeks ago, but forgot I'd agreed with Joelle to swap so she could do her Sophie Littlefield post(go buy both her books, they are all kinds of swell). But I've been crazy busy this week with my wife's birthday and my sister's wedding and this short screenplay I'm writing that turns out to be almost as hard as a full length one, and my brain just shut down on me.

It makes you wonder how I manage to walk out of the house every day wearing pants, doesn't it?

So Dave had his bachelor party yesterday and I suppose I could try to find some parallel between that and my missing post, but it seems a bit forced. And even though I may drop the ball every once in a while, when I do get around to posting I don't want it to be forced. I do have SOME standards. And mocking Dave requires my highest standards.

So maybe I'll use this to fill in some of the shading on a post from over at my personal blog. On that blog my posts about writing aren't as witty and thought out as the ones over here and trend way toward the obnoxious and downright depressing. So over there I'm going to focus more on my personal life and over here will be more of my writing thoughts. And let me be clear, by writing, I mean just that. Skill, craft, ideas, that sort of thing. There's a lot of talk other places about publishing and e-books and all of that. I've found I can't really think about any of that in depth because it freezes me up and gives me nightmares and tics and other things my wife finds annoying. Hopefully these changes will result in a modest veneer of balance in my life and if not, well it should at least be fun to watch me self-destruct.