Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Voice on the Radio

Two of my passions are history and the spoken word. While these things occasionally link up with crime fiction, today’s post won’t be one of them. Here’s your free pass to leave now, if you choose.

Even though I’m a child of television, I love radio. Not just for the music, mind you, but for all the spoken word programming over the years. I adore old time radio programs, with their “visual” storytelling in a non-visual medium. I also love old time radio news programs. Hearing Edward R. Murrow describe the London blitz is sobering enough. You listen to Murrow's broadcast, you realize that pictures were just not needed when he told you how it was.

As an teen in the early 1980s, I became aware of my world through television, books, and, increasingly over the years, through radio news. I’m an NPR junkie. Once I discovered KUHF here in Houston--likely because of the “Star Wars” radio dramatizations (does everything hearken back to Star Wars?)--I was hooked. The news I got from NPR was more in-depth than the network news and it allowed for journalists to channel their inner Murrow as they described the things that they saw but we could not. It's one of my favorite things about radio news, the creative, storytelling aspect. I got to know the voices of the NPR hosts and could identify them within seconds. They became friends and trusted sources of opinion beyond my own.

One of those voices fell silent yesterday. I only knew Daniel Schorr as one of NPR’s senior news analysts. I never knew him from television. His nearly seventy years of experience lent gravitas to topics he discussed. I grew to appreciate his take on the news and found myself making time to listen to him, even if his segment was the only part of a newscast I heard. His Saturday morning discussions with host Scott Simon was a highlight of the week for me. (Plus, he said my name every week and I could almost imagine he was talking to me.) I knew what time of the broadcast they talked and tuned in (if I already wasn’t). Once NPR posted their programs on the internet, I’d seek out Schorr’s take on whatever topic in which I was interested.

For many a citizen, Walter Cronkite was the most trusted voice in America. Again, I am too young for that. If push came to shove, I’d have to say that Tom Brokaw was that guy for me, at least growing up. But Schorr’s voice was something else entirely. It had weight. It had authority. It had occasionally bouts of whimsy, as Schorr, at times, seems to be living his greatest dream come true.

That voice is now gone. I’m just thankful for the many years I got to listen to it. Saturday mornings just won’t be the same.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Million Dollar Riot

By Sean Black

Intro by Russel D McLean

I'm fairly harsh on my action thrillers. Its the rare one that combines truly gripping writing with a believable and exciting plot. But a few people manage it well, including the delightfully dangerous Zoe Sharp and the terrifyingly talented Brett Battles.
Now I can add a new name to my Top Action Thriller Writers List (tm): Sean Black. His debut, LOCKDOWN (out now in paperback!) was one of those books I simply devoured upon first read. His hero, Ryan Lock, could seriously kickthe arses of both the Jack's (yeah, I'm talking both Bauer and Reacher) without breaking a sweat. In short, these books are the perfect burst of adrenaline. And they're bloody well written, too. One of the things that interested me most about Sean as an author was his dedication to research. Unlike many authors, he doesn't thrust that research in your face, but its there and it informs the action of his novels in a subtle and convincing way. So I was delighted when Sean - yeah, we can call him Sean; DSD's a lovely, informal blog - agreed to guest blog for me while I'm away at Harrogate, talking about some of the incredibly intensive and practical research he did for his second novel, DEADLOCK.

And let me just add that DEADLOCK - I had the honour of reading an advance copy thanks to the lovely folks at Transworld - is a brilliant thriller, with a very nice central conceit as it sends Ryan Lock undercover to protect a federal witness in a maxiumum security prison.

But enough from me. Here's the man himself:

Thanks to Russel for lending me his usual Friday spot. This week sees the publication of the second book in the Ryan Lock series. The book is called DEADLOCK and it sees Lock going undercover inside Pelican Bay Supermax Prison in California where he has one week to keep a leading member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang alive until he takes the stand to testify against his former compadres.

To research the first book in the series, which was also my debut, I underwent an intensive three and a half week bodyguard training course in the UK and Eastern Europe. Living in barracks with over a dozen other men, as well as the rigors of learning the close protection game, took me well outside my comfort zone. DEADLOCK would take me even further outside those boundaries.

In January, 2009, after an extended period of negotiation with the California Department of Corrections, I arrived at Pelican Bay. The statistics surrounding this institution tell you all you need to know about the environment I was entering.

The Bay holds three and a half thousand men. Somewhere between seventy five and eighty percent of those men are serving sentences of life without possibility of parole. It has no death row, that's at San Quentin, but it does have a Secure Housing Unit which is home to around twelve hundred men who are locked down for twenty three out of twenty four hours.

I was already aware of the prison's no hostages policy before I drove the seven hours north from San Francisco. My permission to visit was granted at the last moment. I was told not to, under any circumstances, wear anything blue in colour. The inmates wear blue and so it would be an escape risk for me to wear it. Also, if there was an incident on the yard, sometimes live rounds are fired, so it was important for me to be visible. I promptly went out and bought the reddest shirt I could find.

Part of the reason for the hesitation in allowing me access was that the week before there had been a riot on the main yard. Riots are not infrequent at Pelican Bay. Racial tensions, powerful prison gangs, and a healthy commerce in all range of goods and services conspire to create a lively atmosphere among men who are especially articulate with their fists and spend large amounts of time either working out or fashioning makeshift weapons.

This time the flash point had been a white inmate who on the outside was a member of the Crips, which is a predominantly African-American street gang. On arrival he had been advised to associate not with his fellow gang members but with other white inmates. As I was told by a guard, as far as the white inmates are concerned a white man who associates with black men 'is lower than a child molester' in the prison pecking order.

Having ignored some well meaning advice, the end result was inevitable and they showed me the footage. There is no pavement dancing as a prelude to an attack on the yard; no veiled threat; not even a succession of body language signals. There is only brute and brutal violence, swift and without warning. Violence on the yard doesn't so much break out as descend.

There was an almost comedic pause in the first few seconds after the young Crip was attacked. You could almost hear the wheels of his African American compatriots turning over. He was one of their own and yet he was other. Finally, they piled in to aid their fallen brother and it descended into a scene from Braveheart with tear gas taking the place of a misty moor.

Then came the puff of dust. Tiny. Barely perceptible. The first gunshot from the tower signaling that playtime was over, the point had been made, and now it was time for everyone to kiss the dirt or face the consequences.

On New Years Day, 2000, thirteen inmates at Pelican Bay were shot during a major riot. Miraculously, only one inmate died. It took a hundred and twenty guards a full half hour to stop the violence. But as I walked the yard one statistic was pressed upon me by my guide. The medical bill had been a million bucks.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sometimes I Wanna Be Ignorant

Maybe a year and a half ago--two years?--I went on a self-induced blog hiatus.

Not writing blogs, but reading them. The publishing ones anyway. Right now publishing is changing a ton, that's clear.

And I was getting bogged down in it. I wasn't getting enough writing done, I wasn't thinking enough about the book I was working on. I was spending the day bouncing from new blog post to new blog post, while waiting for inspiration to strike.

And it never did.

So finally, I just stopped reading. It was freeing. I didn't know the trends in publishing--or at least they weren't readily apparent to me. I didn't need to think as much about the Kindle or e-Book publishing.

All I needed to think about was my book. And that was good.


Because I wrote the book I wanted to. I didn't write a book to fit into a trend or a genre. I didn't worry about how I was going to promote the book--BECAUSE IT WASN'T DONE.

It's better to be somewhat ignorant. You can do what you want. You aren't influenced.

Learn about the biz later.

Write now. It's worked for me.

But I want to hear from the peanut gallery. How do you feel? Do you need to know everything before you write? Or would you rather know nothing about publishing?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Change of Plans

John McFetridge

My post this week was going to be about this Saturday's episode of The Bridge on CBS, "The Unguarded Moment," which I co-wrote with Dannis Koromilas but I heard today that the show has been canclled and no further epiodes will air. I'm not sure if the episodes will be available on the CBS website or iTunes.

So, while it would have been a lot easy to make sense of my mess of a post if there was an episode of the show to go along with it, here it is anyway:

The Bridge was my first experience writing for TV and it was a creatively ambitious show – it wasn’t a police procedural with a murder victim in the opening scene and an arrest just before the end credits (or, usually, just before the final ironic insight from the lead detective) but rather it was (or was originally to have been) about the inner workings of a big city police department, the politics, ambitions, compromises, corruption -- all these challenges faced from the point of view of a beat cop who gets elected union president.

This point of view opened up all kinds of new areas for a cop show to dig into and for mainstream networks like CBS and CTV that would make them a little... well, let’s say nervous.

And there were a lot of bumps on the road. The set-up lends itself best to a serialization but CBS wanted as episodic a show as possible. This led to a lot of rewriting and changes from the original plan.

“The Unguarded Moment” (the title is from a song by Dannis’s favourite band, The Church),

was written to be episode eleven or twelve out of thirteen but CTV aired it fourth and CBS had it scheduled to be fourth (these numbers are a little confusing because at first a two-hour TV movie was made and then the series was commissioned and the movie was split into two one-hour episodes – with a few new scenes added to make the split work better -- but then both networks ran them back-to-back as a single episode) probably because it was one of the most stand-alone episodes.

Or at least it was one of the ones it was easiest to rewrite into a stand-alone.

A restaurant owner fed up landering money for a drug dealer stages a robbery that goes wrong when a cop is shot. It becomes a hostage taking and our hero, Frank Leo, takes charge.

Sounds simple, but it went through many, many rewrites.

In the first incarnation, the bad guys bringing the money to be laundered were SWAT cops (connected to the larger corrupt police conspiracy that was played down when the show became more episodic) who stole it from big-time drug dealers and the restaurant owner, a woman named Cassandra in our draft, was in over head with these guys (we tried to imply an uneasy history here) and wanted out – but she wanted to keep the million dollars so she staged the robbery so she could at least stall the bad cops while she took off to Cypress. It gets even more complicated when those SWAT guys are at the hostage-taking and just want to burst in and kill everyone so they can keep their secret and get their money back.

Frank, of course, suspects all is not what it seems and has to save the injured cop being held hostage and root out the bad SWAT guys – who may even come after him.

But by episode ten we’d had an awful lot of bad cops on The Bridge so it was decided that we wouldn’t have any in this episode. And we wanted the episode to be more stand-alone. The robbery is still staged, though to be honest, when the gentleman drug dealer (now no longer the SWAT guys) comes in and says he only deals with hash because with hard drugs you have to deal with people with, “bad attitudes and guns,” I’m not sure why the restaurant owner (now named Ella St. George) doesn’t just say, “well, okay, thanks for the money,” and get on the plane to Cypress.

Anyway, there’s a staged robbery, an injured cop being held hostage by some bad guys and Frank Leo negotiating to get him out.

And I’ve heard a rumour that the ending of the CBS version is very different from the ending of the version aired on CTV last March.

(well, now I guess we may never know what that alternate ending was.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"In the long run, we're all dead anyway ..."

So Stringer’s buggered off to get married and celebrate another year of breathing, and as a result won’t be able to struggle up to the pulpit for a couple of weeks. Also, the bloke he was talking about last week – y’know, the human book daredevil wrestler fella – well, he got a touch of hay fever (apparently there’s too much rape in the air or something) and couldn’t make it. Anyway, thanks to those photos I have of Stringer’s half-hour spree in the marmoset enclosure at Barcelona Zoo, I managed to wangle the spot instead.
And I’ll tell you right off the bat, I had some dynamite for you. Get this, I was all set to blog about blogging (how enormously fucking meta of me), and how I’m wary of it, and how I’ve lurched from one blog platform to another – started with Blogger, went to Typepad, then Wordpress and now I’m messing with Tumblr – only to find that, despite posting stuff on a semi-regular basis, my biggest hits came from the semi-literate fuckwits wanting to know if Wrong Turn was based on a true story. And then I was all about how the Internet despises context, and how an online personal history comes in the form of sound bites wrapped up in persona, and how that relates to marketing yourself as a writer. At one point I got deep, started throwing philosophical questions into the mix, stuff that was going to blow your minds and make you come together and proclaim me your new king and shower me with candy and beer. Seriously. You would've been building shrines to me.
And then, just when I was about to get it all typed up and posted, Harvey Pekar died.
Yeah, thanks, Harv. I had ‘em showering me with candy and beer there.
Anyway, I’ve not noticed much of a reaction to Pekar’s death, other than the main news sources, and that’s a shame. If you’re not familiar with his work, I’d urge you to pick up any copy or collected trade of American Splendor that you can get your hands on. A particular favourite of mine is 1994’s Our Cancer Year – it, amongst others provided the basis for the 2003 movie American Splendor (for those of you in the UK, it’s on Film4 on Saturday 24th), which is certainly one of the finest, if not the finest comic book adaptations of all time.

Now Pekar isn't crime fiction. In fact, he’s barely fiction. And I have to say, that’s more important to me than any genre considerations, because Pekar was one of that rare breed: the honest voice. He eschewed fashion and told personal stories without recourse to the sex-crazed juvenilia that marred many early “comix”. Despite having no particular drawing skills to speak of, and with little in the way of early enthusiasm for the medium (thinking it “kid’s stuff”), he still believed wholeheartedly in its potential. According to Pekar, the only thing limiting comics was those who produced them, the publishers and writers and artists who insisted on pigeonholing themselves by creating books solely for kids. And he stuck to his guns throughout his thirty-plus year career, asking for nothing but a couple of bucks every now and then to keep himself and the comics going.
Now that might not mean a lot, especially in an age defined by popular culture's relentless "re-imagination" of itself as an autotuned and primary-coloured karaoke. In this climate, the concept of originality takes a back seat to that of branding, and honest, down-at-heel voices have trouble making themselves heard above the cacophony of shite. The quotidian concerns of a file clerk at the VA hospital seem too personal, not likely to hit a wide enough target audience.
This is not to say, however, that all the original voices have gone with Pekar's passing. If anything, the Internet has given further opportunity for these voices to be heard. So instead of me whinging on about the same old rubbish, how's about we take the opportunity to really recommend those voices that have meant something to us over the years, the ones with an honesty that might not always make them easy to take, but which make them even less easy to forget.
Let's hear it. The comments are open.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Magical Kingdom of Ideas

By Steve Weddle

Where do your ideas come from? Why, from Walt Disney World, of course.

We were on line at Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Café waiting for, well, let's call it "food." We had the dining plan and had eaten some good food in the park. We'd eat more good food later in the trip. Just not at Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Café. I ate before I visited the toilet, so it wasn't the site of a couple of short curlies on the urinal lip that turned my stomach. Heck, it wasn't even the two boogers and what I assume was half a scab down there in the pee drain. No, the food was just kinda lousy. Which was a rarity in the park. But the vile bathroom wasn't where a decent noir idea began burbling. No. That was on line waiting for the food.

We were in front of a few teenage boys. I'm guessing two were brothers and one was a friend. The older brother on my right was saying to the younger brother: "You know nothing about how to inflict pain on the human body." I slid my daughter to my left. The younger brother allowed as to how he might just punch the older brother in the throat. They had short, curly hair. If I'd seen them after my visit to the toilet, I'd have thought of them as "dickheads" and grinned. I hadn't, so I'm grinning about it now, as I write it and think of it. Because that's how these here fancy ideas work.

So the older brother shows that he's not impressed. By his younger brother? You kidding me? Pshaw and all that. No, the younger brother can't cause the older brother any pain, which the older brother explains. "A chop to my throat?" He laughed. A big "ha" laugh, as if he were in some high school play reading his lines. "Ha. My neck is all muscle, kid. You know nothing about pain." Neither of them did, really. Not the kind that you wake up with. The kind you limp along with for a few days before you go to the doctor. The kind you look up on the internet during lunch. The kind you worry about until it's too late. The kind you don't want to tell your wife about because you don't want her to worry. What if it's nothing? What if it's something? No, neither of them knew anything about pain.

Our Disney food was ready, so I left Tweedledee and Tweedledumb talking about inflicting pain on the human body.

Of course, I thought about putting a quick elbow into the older boy's nose, pushing off with my leg, turning my hip, shoving cartilage back into his skull cavity, watching him raise his hands to his face to try to hold the blood in. Because that's what people do when they're punched in the faces. They grab their faces and try to hold on. When you feel pain, when you're punched right in the nose, you try to keep it together. That's the lesson you learn when you're hit. Keep it together. There's another round of violence coming.

But I didn't punch the kid. They have rules about that. Laws, I think they're called. And I had my family with me at the happiest place on Earth.

But those boys could have gone out after lunch and tried something. They were stupid like I was at that age. A different kind of stupid than I am now. They could have tried sneaking in somewhere and gotten into trouble. Some silly little thing that grew into a violent stain that spread among more and more people. No, there wasn't any chance at all that I was going to "inflict pain" on a teenager, but I was going to think about it. I was going to take that one little thing and move it somewhere else. A series of "what ifs" running through my head.

Stopping at a Valero for gas, I met a woman at the counter who must have been remarkably good looking before the meth. What happens if these boys run into her? A couple of weeks ago on a "World's Mostest Dumbest Criminals" show, some old guy used a pocket knife to try to rob a convenience store. The cash register woman chased him out with a broom handle. Put those kids in that situation. The older kid trying to impress the younger ones with his talk of "inflicting pain" and then having them doubt him. Egg him on. Peer pressure. Pretty quickly they're trying to rob the store and the woman chases them out with a broom handle. Fight. Struggle. Someone dies. By the end, whoever is left now understands how to inflict pain, how pain moves. How pain isn't just a broken nose. How pain is a thing, a wicked, evil thing always just in reach, a darkness outside your bedroom window. All you have to do is open the window a crack.

You can get noir ideas from the weirdest places these days.

No, those kids at Disney World probably didn't know anything about how to inflict pain on the human body.

But the day was young.

They'd learn.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The wonderful world of promotion – not.

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Content and copy edits have been done. A cover has been designed. First pass pages have been checked and jacket copy has been approved. Advance reader copies have been created. In a few weeks, the manuscript that once only existed in my computer will actually arrive at my door and be held in my hands. From here on out, there is nothing I can do to change the content of the book so I should be able to kick back and relax, right?


Thing is, as Jamie Freveletti mentioned in her guest post earlier this week, authors are expected to go out and promote their book. Yikes. Not that I shrink from promotion. I’ve had to do the promo thing a number of times during my performing career. Heck, one Christmas morning I was at a television station at 6 a.m. so I could get into costume and makeup and sing high Cs for the holiday audience. Getting up in front of people and performing like a trained monkey is something I do best. (Yep…I just set myself up for a lot of banana and opposable thumb jokes…have at it.) The thing is, as I’ve been looking over PR options, I have to wonder – does any of it really work?

I am a huge reader. I buy dozens, sometimes hundreds of books in a year. (Yes Mom, I know the library would let me check them out for free – but I love them.) Looking at all the books in my house, I realize that I am the person I’m trying to market my book to. The problem is, I’ve never bought a book solely based on an ad, a tweet, an interview or a guest blog post. Yikes. Those are all things that we as authors are supposed to be doing to make our books successful.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that most of my new-to-me author purchases are based on trusted recommendations, the occasional newspaper review or because I thumbed through the book in a bookstore. Crap. People have to have read your book in order to recommend it. Major newspapers don’t spend much time reviewing the unknown newbie and bookstores often need to see proof that your book has had some commercial success before they stock it.

Yep. The law of averages says if everyone I the book buying world is like me – I’m screwed. Then again, maybe I’m not. How do you find the books you read? Does any of this online or social media marketing work for you? If so, please share. I could use all the help I can get.