Saturday, July 17, 2010

Clearing Away the Smoke

Scott D. Parker

When I write short material, I don’t outline. I start with a scene in my head and write it down. From there, the ideas just flow, one after the other, like fireworks on the Fourth. In short stories, as when watching fireworks, there is rarely time to suffer the dud firework (read: idea), the one that merely blooms with a minimal amount of smoke, fire, and sound. It doesn’t matter that it still probably took someone just as long to pack said firework back in China. It’s what happens in the sky (and on the page) that matters and, frankly, some fireworks are just better than others.

Long-form writing is a different animal entirely. As your typical fireworks show presses on, unless there’s a breeze hundreds of feet in the air, the sky gets clogged with smoke. I’ve seen fireworks displays where a brisk wind carries the smokey echo of one firework away while its siblings ignite and make their own afterbirth. Other times, it’s like a smokey morass. Without any wind, the smoke just hangs in the air, refusing to budge an inch. Naturally, all subsequent fireworks must fight to be seen--hearing is never an issue--and the end result can be a muddled mess, especially the well-choreographed ending. What was supposed to be a bright, shining display of patriotic explosives timed to the “1812 Overture” (when did our Independence Day inherit a musical piece written by a Russian during the time of the czars?) turns into something resembling Louisiana gumbo: you know all ingredients are in there, you just can’t see them.

You know the feeling you get when you get the spark of an idea and you can’t wait to get it out of your head and onto paper? It’s a feeling only creative types have, I think. As soon as I have that spark, more often than not, I start wondering about all the specifics. Frankly, I get bogged down in the specifics. Then, I start to doubt. Never a good thing. Basically, my brain is both the colorful explosions that are the fireworks and the smoke that obscures them.

I’ve been in that mode for a month or so now. I’m a planner when it comes to writing a book. It worked right the first time I tried it. Thus, I’ve convinced myself that, for me, outlining is the way to go, especially since going the other way--just write, dude, and see how it turns out--never panned out. It also helps me plan my time. Since I have a limited amount of time to write, I like to spend it writing, not thinking about writing. As such, I spend more time planning to write than I do writing. Often times, as with my current story, there is no breeze wafting in the air to clear the smoke away so I can clearly see what I’m doing. I hear the sounds of various ideas exploding amid the smoke and, every now and then, I see a sparkle or two. But it’s still murky.

What happened this week was blessed: a breeze kicked up. It blew away some of the smoke, clearing the sky for me. I can’t say I’m completely ready to put prose to pixel but I’m close. I’ve been doubting for a long time. Now, I’m excited. I know I’m on to something. That, my friends, is priceless.

Do y’all have those moments, both doubting ones and the sublime ones, that grace us as we live our creative lives? Share some stories. I’d like to hear them.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"Well I'm all broken up over that man's rights..."

By Russel D McLean

I recently started renting movies again. Thanks to local emporium’s poor selection. I kinda stopped a few years ago and started buying cheaply from secondhand stores and sales, but space concerns and money concerns overtook me to the point where I joined one of those rental-by-post outfits, and let me say I’m digging the rental game.

Which is a long winded way of getting to the point that I’ve been catching up on old movies I never saw first time around.

Like Dirty Harry.

Yeah, that Dirty Harry.

Yeah, I never saw it before.

I think part of it was the feeling that I had seen it. Harry Callaghan has become a part of pop culture, and we all think we know him even if we’ve never seen the film. One way or another we’ve heard that famous speech about how the Magnum’s the most powerful handgun in the world and it could blow your head clean off… but do we really understand it out of context of the movie?

Because I’ll tell you…

Dirty Harry took me by surprise.

Its no wonder its been taken so deeply into pop consciousness; Dirty Harry is a tight, clever tale of a cop on the edge. And sure, its clichéd, but the feeling you get watching it is that this is probably the film that invented the damn clichés. And a lot of that is down to Clint Eastwood, who is absolutely convincing here. With a minimum of dialogue, you sense his loathing for what he’s seen on his streets and his desire to do something right. He’s an avenging angel, but he’s not always right, and as much as you cheer him on, you can see the other side to the equation; that this is a dangerous man, one step away from the killers he stops.

Eastwood owns the role. Truly. As I mentioned, Harry is underwritten, but Eastwood convinces you utterly in a part that could very easily have been utterly one dimensional. Not that there’s a deep soul here, but there’s more going on than could otherwise have been the case.

Although you do have to wonder how the film would have turned out if Harry had been played by Frank Sinatra.

Easwtood aside, the film’s plot is fairly light (psycho killer holds city to ransom, something which paralleled the Zodiac killer as explicitly stated in David Fincher’s Zodiac where the cops attend a screening of Dirty Harry) but the atmosphere is brilliantly gritty. That 70’s vibe makes the whole thing come to life with a down and dirty realism that would never have got near the picture if it was made today. In fact, there’s a tough, hardboiled edge to the whole thing that skirts moral questions a film like this would never be allowed to ask now with such stars and prominence in release. And then there’s the fact its all muscle. No fat. No wasted moments. Everything you need to know is in there. There are no distractions. Like its central character, the movies goes straight to the point. No messing around. And it works. Dear God, it works.

I know that four sequels were release, but to be honest, Dirty Harry tells exactly the story it needs to. There is no need for any more. On its own, Dirty Harry is a damn close to perfect little hardboiled thriller. The ending provides a kind of closure (maybe not the kind you want) that renders any attempt to follow on superfluous.

Of course, they did follow on.

I just don’t know that I need to see what they did.

And that speech?

That .44 magnum speech?

You hear it twice.

And boy, you really wonder how lucky you are the second time around.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Books I Love

I've written about this before, but I get into reading streaks. Sometimes I read a ton of books in a row where I get to page 50 and I put it down. Sometimes I get on a streak where I read like 8 good books in a row and I'm not going to make a bad choice.

I'm on a good streak right now. Here are four books I've read recently that I loved:

A COOL BREEZE ON THE UNDERGROUND (Don Winslow): Coming soon from Busted Flush Press! I I blurbed this book recently, and I mean every word I say! A great PI novel, with a smooth voice. Just a lot of fun. I tore through this book in a few days, and I don't read that fast anymore.

61 HOURS (Lee Child): I have a good history with the Reacher novels. DIE TRYING may remain my favorite, along with GONE TOMORROW, which has got me too freaked out to get on the subway. 61 HOURS is another good one. Reacher ends up in a small town trying to protect a woman who may testify in a trial. The plot of this book whizzes along, taking the reader with it. And the end is a pure cliffhanger. Great summer read.

SAVAGES (Don Winslow): Two Winslow books in this close a stretch? Yes. SAVAGES is that good. A novel about two drug dealers and their girlfriend who get too far in. That's the easy summary of this book, but it has to be read to be believed. The style is the draw here, with quick wit, scenes written as a screenplay. Winslow does his best to emulate and pass some of the modern crime writers and does. If this is not his best book, it's damn close.

SO COLD THE RIVER (Michael Koryta): A lot of people are saying this is a huge departure for Koryta. I disagree. Not a PI novel, but definitely crime. The twist is Koryta takes the "sins of the past" and puts a supernatural twist on it. Definitely a book worth reading and a step up for, Michael. His best novel, hands down. Go out and read this.

THE DEPUTY (Victor Gischler): I'm only 70 pages into this book, but the voice is compelling. I haven't been able to put this down, which is killing me, because I have my own writing to do. Can't wait to see what happens next. Here's Weddle's review.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


review by
John McFetridge

So, no questions about The Bridge? Well, according to the ratings, no one watched it. Saturday night at 8:00, I’m glad people weren’t home watching TV.

But I’m behind on assignments and didn’t manage a blog post for this week, so I’m going to post this review I did last year for The Toronto Star of the book, McMafia by Misha Glenny:

The next time someone tells you they believe in open markets, deregulation and globalization, tell them to read Misha Glenny’s McMafia, an account of the author’s travels though organized crime syndicates in every corner of the world.

Organized crime has been around forever, of course, but Glenny makes an effective case for its becoming a global force when two things happened; the fall of communism and the deregulation of international financial markets.

Communism may have been the perfect breeding ground for organized crime – and Glenny does a good job of detailing the corruption of secret police forces and government officials – it’s the deregulation and globalization of markets that really accelerated the crime rates.

Most countries in the former Soviet bloc were prepared for the fall of the Berlin Wall before the west saw it coming. In Bulgaria, for example, the Communist Party passed Decree 56 which overnight allowed for the creation of private enterprises, known as joint-stock companies. “Many in the party, still hard-liners, were shocked by this development, as it looked like the thin edge of a capitalist wedge. But the state security services, which habitually subordinated ideology to the love of power, took it in their stride.”

In this period of tremendous upheaval and uncertainty, with outbreaks of nationalist violence throughout the region, the west imposed economic sanctions which in the Balkans left the states bankrupt, the secret police, police, military (Yugoslavia had the 4th largest in the world), virtually all state employees unemployed and the people dependent on black market goods to survive which Glenny shows with personal stories of filling his car with black-market gas and buying smuggled cigarettes. Every state in the region, fearing for its very life in the era of ‘ethnic cleansing’ smuggled in weapons and the smugglers, with no real political ideals, became rich and powerful.

From here the author travels the world showing how organized crime syndicates followed similar routes to power and wealth.

There is a depressingly similar tone to each of the stories, repeated on every continent in the world, as government mismanagement, official hypocrisy and greed eventually win out over everything else. And Canada is not immune, of course.

In the chapter, “Buddies,” Glenny visits the enormous dope growing industry in BC and again makes the connection between a government policy decision and the opening of a door for organized crime. When the Americans imposed a 27% tariff on softwood lumber it pretty much wiped out the Canadian industry. Glenny claims that, “Many of those who once worked in the traditional industries have moved into marijuana,” and he may well be right, though I’ve heard different versions involving more seasoned criminals driving the industry. The bigger problem seems to be the world isn’t quite mature enough to accept that some people have a glass of wine or beer and some people smoke a joint. With such huge demand, someone’s going to supply. What prohibition did for gangsters in thirties, the war on drugs is doing for organized criminals now.

He understands Canada well and how the resentment towards the US and yet the almost total interdependence and he mentions DEA agents working quite freely in Canada, but there’s no mention of Marc Emery, Canada’s Prince of Pot, arrested in Nova Scotia and facing deportation to the US, though no charges have been laid in Canada where his business was run legally.

Glenny points out how, “Cannabis is influencing attitudes in Washington towards Canada,” by pointing out the US government’s outrage when Canada entertained the idea of decriminalizing the possession of less than fifteen grams of weed. No one seems concerned with what a huge boon this would be to organized crime as the supply of the dope would still be handled by criminals – giving them an enormous amount of capital to use for other criminal activities. The UN estimates that 70% of the income generated by organized crime comes from drugs – cannabis is by far the most popular illegal drug in the world.

A common theme in the book is how American (or western) policy changes (such as the softwood lumber tariff in Canada, deregulated financial markets or economic sanctions in the Balkans) lead to an easy justification of criminal activity – they increased our poverty, so we’ll steal from them.

The book ends in China, where at least 25% of the goods shipped out are counterfeit and many of these actually made in Korea. Asked if they care about this, a Chinese official tells Glenny, “Two hundred years ago people from England came to Shanghai. They were not your fabled English Gentlemen, they were pirates. Just as the British pirates came and raped our shores, so there may be pirates out there with the Chinese traders of the present day. But when the market reaches a certain scale, the worst practices will fall away and something that demands regulation and an adequate regulatory mechanism will emerge.”

Glenny does a great job of showing how the human costs of crime are always close to the surface – there are victims everywhere. This is not some glamorous Hollywood view of organized crime. It’s dirty, mean and vicious. It leaves nothing but crushed souls in its wake.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tony Black

By Jay Stringer

Both Russel and I have mentioned Tony Black before. We've had a few near misses with Tony here at DSD, our schedules have never quite worked out but you'll see more of him on here at some point, I'm sure.

"I'd been rolling about on a corpse. I had the blood of a dead man all over my hands."

He's one of the strongest voices in the UK crime scene at the moment, and it's a voice that gets clearer and more precise with each book. Tony writes with blunt force, creating dark and brutal stories that still manage to crack a gallous smile.

He's come to my attention for his Gus Dury series, four books set in the darker side of Edinburgh. Gus is something of a newspaper hack and, in Black's words, "a reluctant PI and enthusiastic alcoholic." Gus has many problems on the page, his job, his love, his drink, but he has one main problem; Tony Black. Tony doesn't half love putting the guy through the grinder, and it makes for good reading.

The first book was PAYING FOR IT. A story of murder, prostitution and gangsters. The second book (GUTTED) was where I jumped on, and it grabs you straight away with it's eviscerated corpses, dog fights and police cover-ups. LOSS is the fourth book in the series, and was released in paperback earlier this month. It reminds us of one of the oldest truths in crime fiction; there's nowt can fuck you up like family.Gus seems to have sorted himself out, like a battered old dog that has found a new home. But if it all seems to good to be true, that's because he was merely experiencing the eye of the storm, and things get rocky again when his brother turns up dead.

After all that, does Gus get a break? Well, you'll have to read the new book to find out. LONG TIME DEAD was released this month. But why don't I shut up and let Tony tell you about it, eh?

Next up for Tony is a standalone police procedural called TRUTH LIES BLEEDING. And if the fact that Gus is absent from the next book doesn't make you want to know what happens in LONG TIME DEAD, well, you need your head looking.

What's next for me? I'm off again for two weeks to wander the earth like Cain. Cleaning up after me here at DSD will be one of my favourite British writers. Some say he is also Britain's most feared cage fighter. Some say he taught Evil Knievel how to turn left at a red light and taught Ric Flair how to go coast to coast. Some also say he has the entirety of SHOEDOG scratched into his back in Indian ink. Who is he? Wait and see.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Debut Novel Tips from Jamie Freveletti

Big Weekend News: Congratulations to today's guest blogger, Jamie Freveletti, whose debut was just named Best First Novel at the ITW (International Thriller Writers) Awards Banquet.

Guest Post from Jamie Freveletti

I’ve been asked by “Do Some Damage” to guest blog. Thank you!

My second book, Running Dark, just launched, so my first year as a published author has ended. I see that Joelle’s first year is about to start (congratulations!) so if I may, let me give some tips.


My deal was a two-book deal, so I was now under contract to write a second. My idea for Running Dark involved Somali pirates taking over a cruise liner. When I started with this premise, the pirates had yet to become the force they are now in the Gulf of Aden. So picture this, I’m in New York meeting with my brand new publisher and when they ask “What’s the second going to be about?” I say “Somali pirates taking over a cruise liner.” I am met with silence. Then a polite, “Pirates? Like Jack Sparrow?” I hastened to explain that I’d read about one event in 2005 when some pirates had shot rocket propelled grenades at a cruise ship. They took out two staterooms and had the guests hitting the deck, but no one was hurt and the ship got away. To their credit, they let me run with it. The pirates took their first oil tanker when I was 60,000 words in and I no longer had to explain the concept of Somali pirates.

Running Dark is garnering good reviews and everyone loves the concept. I couldn’t have created this book unless I kept writing the second in the forefront of my mind. Start writing your second right away. You’ll find that launching the first can be an overwhelming experience, but the second is what a career is made of.


My publisher (Harpercollins /Morrow) did not wish me to tour. In fact, they seemed to shudder at the idea of a debut author touring, a reaction that I didn’t thoroughly appreciate at the time. They emphasized regional signings in areas where I could generate enough attendees to make the launch worthwhile. They were concerned that as a debut author I wouldn’t manage to do this in locations that I had no contacts, few or no one would show and both me, and more importantly, the bookseller, would be disappointed. Did I tour? Yep! Was it worth it? I think so. Did lots of people come to see me speak? Not always. Touring as a debut author is an interesting experience. I’ve flown one thousand miles and then driven thirty minutes to a store that has three people waiting to hear me speak. In fact, for a signing in LA not one person appeared because they’d closed the street for a “Public Enemies” premiere. I couldn’t compete with Johnny Depp. Still, the bookseller had warned me, asked me to come anyway, and handed me sixty preordered books to sign.

Touring gets you to meet the booksellers, and this is why you’re doing it. If you can afford it, tour. (And this year, HC planned the bulk of my tour across the country).


I go to New York at least once, but usually two or three times a year. Once is during “Thrillerfest” an industry conference put on by the International Thriller Writers. The other trips are business or friend related (I used to live there). On every trip I make a point to have a drink or dinner with my editor, agent, and take a run through Central Park with my marketing director, also a runner. New York is the center of the publishing industry. Many of the biggest players are there, and you should be, too.


I have an outstanding publicist, free, through the house. She does the heavy lifting in a lot of areas. But after I decided to tour, I hired my own local publicist to help plan. (Dana Kaye of Kaye Publicity). She interacts well with NY, and helps me with the myriad of details that arise when a book is launching. If you can afford it, hire a PR person at a reasonable cost. Your New York publicist has sixty files on her desk and probably would welcome the help.


Writers are under intense pressure to sell. I debuted during the biggest economic downturn in forty years. Readers that used to buy a hardcover without thinking, no longer did. Libraries saw a surge in business, as these readers, unwilling to give up their beloved books but no longer able to pay for them, utilized the free service. Established authors saw fifty percent declines in sales. Many writers have taken the “you must sell” mantra too literally, and they have turned themselves into marketers, which chews up their time and relegates the actual writing of the second to a back burner. Don’t do this. Yes, I realize that if you don’t sell the first you may not get to the second, but if necessary you can sell the second under a pseudonym, leaving the first--and your poor numbers-- behind. Search for balance. I know one writer who has tried just about everything you can imagine to market. While I think he’s sold more books than he would have otherwise, he has remained solidly midlist. If marketing automatically turned one into a New York Times bestseller, he would be one right now. Take a lesson. Keep writing in the forefront of your day.


Writing as a career is great. I’ve worked a lot harder jobs. Being a lawyer is intellectually stimulating and lucrative, but the days are long, (and the nights, and the weekends). Cocktail waitressing can be lucrative, but boring. Candle making, one of my first jobs, was hot, dangerous when the wax poured on us, and cemented my desire to go to college. Only the toughest survived that job, and I wasn’t one of them.

Writing is a strange alchemy of imagination and hard work, but I love it, and I hope to be doing it for a long time to come. My publisher just picked up books three and four and so I’m employed for a while.

Thank you to every reader who made it possible.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Questions of Character

As I write this it's a little after 11pm Saturday night and I'm downtown Ann Arbor killing time before heading over to see a midnight showing of TAXI DRIVER, one of my favorite movies. It's odd, when I was single and lived down here I never made it to any of these midnight movies, but now, married and living on the outskirts here I am. I'm also at the Starbucks where I used to go when I absolutely needed to finish something because it used to be the only joint in town without free wireless access. Alas, it's finally succumbed.

So what am I working on? Well I'm glad you asked. I'm working on revisions for MURDER BOY of course...sort of. While I'm not generating any new prose, per say, I'm generating many pages about the characters in the novel. Because, you see, while I know the story, and thought I knew the characters, I do not know what really makes them tick. I recently got the manuscript back from an agent who was nice enough to send me about 2 pages of what was wrong with it. For some that might be heartbreaking, for me it was educational. What the letter basically boiled down to though was you characters, who we don't really get to know, go around doing things that don't seem to mean anything to them.

This was a bit of a shock to me because one common in all of the other agent letters I've received for other novels was that I had a knack for creating cool characters. But those were all first person novels, which is my natural storytelling voice, and lends itself better to fully developing a character. So of course I went back and tried writing MURDER BOY in first person and failed miserably. This is a story that needs to be told in third person and it needs to be told in multiple viewpoints. This agent did point to a couple of characters she thought were interesting, and I agreed. So instead of the 10 or so characters I tried to cram into the previous drafts, I want to focus just on a core of 4-5. So I went back and started from scratch. The first 15 pages came easy, they were about my main character, I already know what makes him tick, he's me, mostly. But then I switched to the viewpoint of the antagonist and froze up.

While this guy had some neat character quirks and I knew what his goals and motivations were story-wise, I had no idea what made him tick. I had no idea how he would react in the various scenarios he's thrust into over the course of the novel. I needed to know where he came from. What made him who he was and, most importantly, what kind of cell phone he used. Yes, believe it or not, that's the piece of information I've struggled most over regarding my antagonist, his choice of cell phone. But as I ran the various options through my head I realized a person's choice of cell phone can say HUGE things about that person as a character. Are they contract or buy-the-minute sorts? Basic phone or all the bells and whistles. BlackBerry, iPhone, or Droid. I thought more about this than I ever could have imagined, but by the end of it I had some very keen insights into this character. And, more importantly, I had a way into his opening scene. Now, instead of a cliched scene of a bounty hunter spying on someone, I open with him at one of those high pressure cell phone kiosks trying to decide what sort of cell phone he's going to buy.

SO tell me, folks, as a writer, how do you make your characters tick? How much do you need to know about them before you start writing? And for the readers, how much do you like to see about a character on the page? If an author posts interviews and character studies and such on their website do you like to know back story and all of that or do you only care about what's happening to them immediately in the story?