Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Opposite of Writer's Block

Scott D. Parker

What is the opposite of writer’s block? And, after you define it, what do you call it?

Writer’s block is when a writer stares at a blank page and doesn’t know what to write. Nothing comes to the mind, nothing comes out on paper, and, in the end, the writer is stuck.

The opposite of writer’s block is when a writer stares at a blank page and sees too many things. Everything comes to mind, everything is a fork in the road of a character, there are too many ideas. As soon as the writer gets an idea, this Opposite of Writer’s Block takes hold. Okay, says the writer, my character robs a bank. How? This one, simple question can create dozens of ideas, any one or two of which are good. Let’s say the writer picks the third one, a really good idea. Then what? This fork in the character’s road is a choice. The writer chooses “left” and writes away, but he never quite gives up on “right” and starts pondering the story if he had chosen “right” instead of “left.”

I think you see the dilemma. In no time, the writer is creating alternate universes for his characters, dozens of choices, multitudes of twists and turns, all the while he isn’t making prose. Or, if he is, he’s not making progress.

Now, some of you would say Just pick something and go with it. That’s sound advice. But what about all those forks in the road?

The opposite of writer’s block. What is it called? Because there are times when I suffer from it. I want to name my ailment so I can start curing it.

NOTE: Tomorrow, Do Some Damage is a year old. I have to say I've really enjoyed meeting new readers and carrying on conversations about writing, mystery fiction, and whatever else. We've all had a blast and I hope you, our Readers, have enjoyed the trip as much as we have. Here's to a great sophomore year!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Not Expecting the Unexpected

By Russel D McLean

I recently heard of those blunt but interesting questions asked of a writer by a reader. To put it in context, it was at an event organise by the convener who wanted to “promote writers whose books deserved more attention”. An honourable goal, and done in the form of a book club to ensure that those present did indeed read the books.

And it worked, I think. The people present responded well to the books and the writers.

But one question at the end intrigued me:

“Why aren’t your books getting more attention?”

A question that’s easy to ask and not so easy to answer.

From a reader’s point of view, it seems cut and dried. The books are out there. Surely the strong will survive and the weak perish. The good books will endure. The bad ones will die.

That is not always the case, however, as was shown by these two writers whose sales were not in line with their level of skill (although still, in both cases, fairly respectable).

But how do you answer that question?

There are so many factors at work in whether a book succeeds or fails. A great deal is due to timing and luck. The right book at the right time can take off. The right book at the wrong time can tank.

And then there’s visibility. Hard as it is to believe, most publishers don’t have limitless marketing. Just because you see certain books everywhere doesn’t mean they are the best. It means they are the safest bet at the time. Everything else is a “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” style of campaign. Some books barely get into shops because buyers aren’t made aware of them. Some books are sent out to reviewers far too late or not at all. Many are jacketed poorly or presented in the wrong light.

And nearly all of these factors are outside the author’s control. The only author I know who has near enough direct control of marketing his books is James Patterson. That’s why he’s everywhere; he has huge influence over publisher’s marketing of his titles.

But not everyone has that influence.

Some authors have a marketing budget of zero. And if no one sees your product or if its in the wrong place, how is anyone going to discover it? Word of mouth is powerful but scattershot.

It’s a tough old business out there, but readers can do their bit to help. By experimenting. By taking a chance on the authors without the advertising. Laying aside pre-conceptions and taking a chance on a book that looks interesting even it its not plastered all over the bookshop or the train station or the local supermarket. Don’t wait for marketing permission to try something. Dip a toe into the waters of the unexpected. You might get a very pleasant surprise.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


I'm prone to distraction. My mind gets caught up on something and it freezes me up. Often, this is a good thing. The distraction is something writing related, figuring out a plot point or something a character needs to do. I write it down and I can get back to doing whatever it was I was doing.

However, sometimes there are distractions that keep me from writing.

And I am in the middle of one right now.

You see, I'm getting married a week from Saturday. And the planning is taking up a lot of time. So I'm sitting at just over 39,000 words in my manuscript and I've frozen up a bit. Most of what I have written this week has been crap.

And a lot of what I've blogged on here the last few weeks. (Go ahead, say it... You're writing crap now, Dave? How is that different from anything else you've done on DSD?)

I'm trying to keep my routine. Go to the gym, then write, then lunch, but it's not working. I've spent too much time on the phone. Too much running around.

I'm excited to get married, and I know in 3 weeks, the writing will really pick up again.

But for right now, I'm a little frozen.

So after tomorrow, I'm gonna be off from the blog for two weeks. Joelle will be handling Thursday duties for me.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How Many Hammers Are Enough?

by John McFetridge

Recently I was at a meeting pitching a TV show and the exec on the other side of the table questioned the industry I had set the show in and said, “Look at Mad Men, the advertising industry is so interesting and never been done before.” Okay, so we’re leaving out Bewitched and Thirtysomething, but more importantly (to me), I thought, “That’s backwards, Mad Men isn’t about the advertising industry, it’s set in the advertising industry because the whole show is about the imposter syndrome and advertising is the perfect venue to deal with that.”

I’ve come a long way, though, because I didn’t say that out loud. But it did make me realize that either we think the idea of a central theme is too obvious to discuss, or it’s something only writers worry about.

Most of us have felt a little imposter syndrome and can relate. Most of us have probably felt at some point that we aren't really the person some peope think we are (I'm not a loser, no matter what my mother-in-law thinks).

Mad Men tkes that to an extreme. Don Draper has a secret past. The image he presents to the world isn’t really him – the advertising industry is the prefect place to investigate that as it presents an image of products to the world. Every character in the show deals with this kind of self-doubt and the feeling that they have to present an image to the world that they may not feel is really them. In one episode a guy who has a breakdown and leaves the company says, “If I don’t go into that office tomorrow, who am I?” In fact, there’s a line like that in pretty much every episode – I just watched, “The Gypsy and the Hobo” from season three and it ends with Don and Betty taking the kids out trick or treating on Halloween and ends with a man at his door saying, “A gypsy and a hobo,” and then looking at Don and Betty and saying, “And who are you supposed to be?”

Season three ended with Don and Betty getting divorced and Don starting a new agency – out on his own, not knowing who he is, again. Creating himself all over, again.

The premiere for season four opened with the line, ”Who is Don Draper?” And then the episode turned on the fact he didn’t give the answer the reporter wanted, or could work with. Every episode we find out a little more about the characters, and they find out more about themselves.

And then the real fun starts – what are they going to do with that new information? Will they try and bury it deep within themselves? That’ll make for even more fun when it inevitably explodes to the surface later. Or, will it explode into something right now?

This is why I like Mad Men, it’s a “big idea” show that doesn’t let its big idea get in the way. And least not for me. Some people have said it’s too, “On the nose,” that it’s hitting us over the head with a hammer, with a bag of hammers.

And that’s the tough question for me when I write, how many hammers are enough?

It makes me wonder if I’ve worked hard enough to get these kinds of things into my own writing – the big ideas to make it worthwhile to read but not so much that it gets in the way.

Sometimes I feel if I'm working with these kinds of big ideas and I just get into ‘the zone,’ then a lot of it will be instinct and connections will be made (Matthew Weiner claims he writes Mad Men by instinct). Or maybe that’s what happens when I get obsessed with something. Or maybe I just see connections where there aren’t really any (is that the definition of insanity? Well, writer, insane person, it’s a fine line).

But I do think it’s important to start with a big idea, with “something to say,” I guess. Even something simple, something that’s been said a lot before. The Imposter Syndrome has been talked about for a long time, there have been movies and TV shows and books with characters who have secret pasts and show how coping with that manifests itself in all kinds of ways (you could probably also make a claim that Tony Soprano, in the last show Matthew Weiner wrote for, suffered from a form of the imposter syndrome, feeling that he was born into a lifestyle that wasn’t the right one for him but he lived it anyway).

Of course, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, right? And sometimes writing is a lot simpler than that.

Which brings me to my own writing.

A couple years ago our own Bryon Quertermous edited Demolition Magazine online and he was nice enough to publish one of my short stories, Grow House. Now, Smashwords has made it so easy even I could figure out how to give it away as an e-book. Just click here and choose your format.

The “big idea” in Grow House (such that it is) is stated on the first page:

Steve Barrett had been back from Afghanistan two weeks when he got back to stealing cars, this one a brand new BMW X5, leather interior, V8. What he did was, he stood around the parking lot of the Vaughn Mills Mall in north Toronto until some woman pulled in driving it and he followed her inside. Then he gave a couple of teenagers fifty bucks to steal her purse and while she was giving the mall security guard shit for half an hour, Steve drove the car to a garage on Dufferin owned by a biker named Danny Mac who gave him ten grand cash.

It was the same kind of independent thinking the army sent him home for showing. What the fuck did they expect him to do in Canada?

So, it’s about “independent thinking.” All the characers have some plan or scheme that doesn’t go well.

Not exactly a big idea like the imposter syndrome, but I hope you like it anyway.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Eventful Writer

(This is my second and last post for DSD. Just wanted to add that it's been a blast, and I may be looking for ways to incapacitate Stringer for longer next time. I also wanted to say how proud I am of myself for writing a whole post about Harrogate and not mentioning Russel's fancy man. Aw, hell.)

Spent last Saturday down in Harrogate for the (deep breath) Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2010. It was originally supposed to be a fleeting visit - basically the panel and then offski - but we ended up staying a little longer thanks to some fine company and another panel that caught my attention. Otherwise, I have to admit, I have something of a love/hate relationship with events. See, like the vast majority of other people what have written books an’ that, I have a day job and, like a vast majority of people what have day jobs an’ that, relish the idea of spending my free time as I wish. Now “as I wish” normally means “spending time with my wife”. It can also mean “getting some writing done”.

What it very rarely means is “being a writer”.

For me, “being a writer” is the least comfortable part of this whole business, because the simple fact of the matter is I don’t really consider myself that way - not in an arena any wider than our spare bedroom, anyway. I don’t make my living from writing, I don’t hang out with creative types that often, and nobody at my day job knows about this secondary “career”. It’s an existence that’s worked out pretty well so far, except for those occasions that demand a public appearance. Then I spend most of my time waiting for the tap on the shoulder and a request that I not make a scene as I’m escorted from the premises. I suppose this is some throwback to my early events, typified by empty rooms and piles of books that need to be signed so they can’t be sent back to the publisher. Little old ladies who come for the free wine and stay for the moral superiority. Stock signings that require identification before they’ll believe you are who you say you are. Convention signings without books. Convention signings with books that nobody wants. Holes in convention conversation where people look around for someone who’ll benefit their career more than you, the general awkwardness of being at a school reunion and getting stuck with the lad who used to eat stuff for money. And then the horrible realisation that the lad pities you.

I could go on, but you get the picture. The idea of travelling across the country only to feel like shit gets old really quickly, especially when you’re doing it on your own time. It’s taken me five books and a word from my missus to call it a day and ditch this ridiculous obligation to show up for everything I’m invited to. I dare say I’ve missed out some sterling opportunities to sell books, but then one of the few benefits of having a day job is that bills still get paid regardless of how much I sell. And while it doesn’t change some of the minor irritations about even the best events - and I’d definitely call Harrogate one of the best - it certainly puts those irritations in perspective and makes the whole experience a lot more enjoyable.

So there we see it, under Ray’s Advice For New Writers (Abridged), the same refrain: Do What You’re Comfortable With. Because for all the marketing gurus telling me I should be out there with the sell-sell-sell and network-network-network, I reckon the key factor in any event should be enjoyability, otherwise you’re (most likely) paying for the privilege of wasting your spare time in misery in front of a crowd of people who’ve never heard of you and, because of your lacklustre performance, probably won’t do much to change that fact. So no more readings - quite apart from the fact that I don’t like watching authors read from their books, the turnout for one of my solo shows would be embarrassing. No more stock signing unless it’s an in-and-out - sitting at a table in the middle of a bookshop getting stared at is even more embarrassing.

And much more time to write, which is infinitely preferable to being a writer.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Kindle Problem

By Steve Weddle

“You know the big problem you’re going to have with your Kindle?” my wife asked me the other day.
I’d just finished ALREADY DEAD by Charlie Huston. Dang, what a nice book. I had to explain to people what I was reading. “Yeah, it’s a vampire book but it’s got great characters and all this plot and these factions and such cool science-tech stuff and it creates this world” etc, etc. The kind of talk in which people only hear the first part, then hang on to something there and don’t hear anything else you say. You know, like if you came home and said, “Yeah, honey, I was naked in a room with her, but it was because my clothes burned off while I was carrying the handicapped kids out of the burning orphanage” etc, etc.

So, anyway, one of the nice things about the Kindle is that people don’t see the cover. “Hey, Weddle. You make fun of vampire books. Now you’re reading one? Haha. You’re an asshat.”

When the Kindle first came out, some paper, let’s say it was the NY Times, did a story about how the uber-skanky romance novels were increasing in sales figures by a gazillion percent because folks could hide what they were reading.

Yeah, what you’re doing is reading in private, much more so than if you had that paperback with naked people and fat-fonted titles proclaiming your genre love. Ashamed to read “Star Wars: Attack of the Dark Sith Demon Spy Prophecy”? Read it on the Kindle. Penthouse letters? On the Kindle.
Which, sorta ties in to what my wife was saying about the problem I was going to have with my Kindle.

I’d had the Kindle for a couple of weeks when she’d mentioned that, but I’d been reading on the Kindle app for much longer. On my iPod Touch and on the new Blackberry. Nice little app with tons of books available. I’d read ebooks for years on the Palm Pilots and then the Zire and then the Palm Treo. So I knew a little something about reading ebooks.

The downside of the Kindle, and in almost all ebooks, is that you can’t pass them along when you’re done, as my wife had pointed out.
When I’m done with a book, I tell people how awesome it is. Unless it’s crap, of course. Then I tell them that.

I’ve loaned out GUN MONKEYS probably eight times. I doubt I’ll ever see my copy of WINDUP BIRD CHRONICLES, again. When the HOGDOGGIN hardback was accidentally $6 at Amazon, I picked up a few copies to hand off to folks. JT Ellison. Charlie Huston. If you come to my house (please don’t) you won’t know how much I love these books, because they’re not in our library. They’re out. I loan out a Nathan Singer book, then someone buys a couple more of his and sends one my way. Book sharing. A great way to learn about new-to-you authors.

And a big shortcoming on ebooks.

Amazon makes a big deal about how you can “share” your ebook among six devices. Uh, yeah, if they’re all your devices. If I own a Kindle and an iPod Touch and a Blackberry, which I do, I can read the same book on all three, syncing up wherever I leave off. That’s great, but it ain’t book sharing.
As is often the case, my wife is right. (Though, I think I should point out that last summer when she said I would break my fool neck if I tried to clean the gutters again in the same haphazard manner I devote to all my homeowner chores, well, I didn’t. So there. In absolutely no culture, past, present or future, is a broken elbow the same as a broken neck. So there’s one. It’s like 2,372 to 1, but still, it’s something.) So my wife is correct in seeing early on how much this is going to bug the hell out of me.
So when I read a book I like, I have to buy it for someone and mail it to them. Which, as my wife pointed out, is probably a good business model for Amazon.

A $20 hardback brand new can be passed around and resold used and account for at least seven or eight readers. An ebook is for one reader.

So, yeah, the Kindle is absolutely great for reading books.

Turns out, it’s pretty damn smart for selling books, too.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Man Behind The Curtain

I had one post all ready to go, but then I got the chance to go see INCEPTION last night and knew something good would come of that for this, so here we go. I'm still processing it a bit, but for a complex movie, the filmmakers did a great job of keeping us in the loop and making it easy to understand. We always knew what the goals were, what would happen if they didn't meet the goal, and why they were doing it.

And that's the thing that I want to talk about today. I hear a lot of writers say they can't enjoy books or movies anymore because they're always looking to see how it was done and that takes away the magic. But I disagree. As writers, we get to experience an extra layer of enjoyment with a film like INCEPTION because we know how hard something like that is to pull off. I imagine it's like an architect who can enjoy the outer beauty of a building but also appreciate how it was built and how it met the basic requirements of a building. Or mechanic who can appreciate the outer beauty of a a car, but also appreciate how beautiful the Corvette is but also how they were able to get so many cup holders in such a small car.

I've been studying screenwriting a story theory a lot lately to give me some structure in my revisions and it's been fascinating to say the least. But it makes you realize that even a movie as cool and original as INCEPTION is rooted is the most basic of storytelling forms and is built on the same structure as almost any other movie. So the cool part is seeing how they incorporate the required scenes and character moments into the story.

For me, where character motivations were one of the main problems in my previous drafts, understanding story structure is vital to making them come alive. It sounds simplistic but the plot should come out of the characters and the characters should come out of the plot.

So for the audience: if you're a reader, do you like to think about how a story is put together or do you feel that spoils the magic? And for the writers, how conscious are you of traditional storytelling structure when writing your novels?