Saturday, August 28, 2010

Charles Dickens and His Wax Tablet

Scott D. Parker

Picture this: Charles Dickens has writer’s block. He can’t quite work out what new tragedy he can inflict upon Esther Summerson. He’s stuck. So he puts down his pen and moves his ink bottle off his desk. He stands up and, from a top shelf, pulls down a wax-covered writing tablet, the kind the Romans used. Sharpening the stylus, old Boz sits down and starts writing the next chapter of Bleak House on wax.

Think that’s how it happened? Yeah, I don’t think so, either. But I sometimes wonder, judging by the habits of modern writers and extrapolating backwards, if that’s how it might’ve gone.

What am I saying? Only this: in all the discourse about writing in this modern age, many folks choose to use older technology to get their writing complete. David McCullough famously uses a 1940s-era manual typewriter for all the books he’s written. Jonathan Franzen, in the cover story of Time last week, notes that he writes on an old laptop whose ethernet port has been superglued shut, thus never allowing that computer to access the internet. Even me, when I find myself writing during vacations, I take pen and paper rather than laptop.


McCullough has said that he likes the slowness of non-digital technology. It allows him to think through his prose and the structure of his books. I agree with him. When I break out the pen and ink, often my ideas gush through my brain and my hand can’t keep up. On those non-laptop vacations (that’s a rule I put in place, not imposed by any family member), I long for the keyboard and speed of my typing. Writing longhand is, often, too slow for me. Ironically, when I find myself stuck in a particular passage, instead of forging ahead on the laptop, I start writing longhand. The log jam breaks and I keep on moving, back on the laptop. Makes me want to study the nature of writer’s brains and see if there’s some thousand-year evolution of neurons and the imagination that has been forged and that we, in the digital age, are attempting to melt and reforge into something new.

As funny as it is to imagine Dickens writing on wax or papyrus or hieroglyphics, I can’t help but ask the obvious question: given a chance do you think Dickens (or any writer pre-twentieth century writer) would have used a laptop and a word processor?

I have my answer, but I’ll let y’all start…

Friday, August 27, 2010

"She Made a Beautiful Corpse"

By Russel D McLean

Those of you who know me know that I have a weakness for old painted pulp covers. Several bookshelves are dedicated to my favourites, but this week I decided to bring out some examples of these works of art to show you. Many of these were originally used as covers back when Crime Scene Scotland was a monthly ezine. Rooting through old files brought back memories of where I found these books, and some of the questions and thoughts they brought up. So enjoy a small peek at my covers. I'll maybe scan some more another week. This is only the tip of the iceberg, and a reminder of how cover art used to be a truly individual thing.

The Corpse in the Corner Saloon was bought in the book room at my first Bouchercon (Chicago).

One of the things I love about it, more than the gorgeous painted cover, is the fact that it also came with a map of the crime scene. Its my understanding that a lot of Dell books did this at one time, and it is a fantastic idea.

The second cover here, A Date With Death, was again bought on a trip to the states. This time, I was in New York back when I was considering attending NYU as a philosophy graduate. In the end, of course, I elected for Bristol which had a better course and then dropped out of philosophy altogether due to the costs involved. Anyway, this one has a very special place in my heart and I love the strapline: "She made a beautiful corpse".

I love my Ross McDonald books. So when my dad found this Spanish edition of one of McDonald's books (I'm actually not sure which one this is - anyone care to enlighten me?) I was delighted. Its a very simple but effective cover, and while not down to my usual pulp styles has pride of place in my bookcase.

The Books of Master Crimes was bought back in the days when I tried my hand at bookselling. Its one of my intial stock that I have left. And all because I love the cover. This one's a magazine anthology, and again its that painted cover that gets me every time.

Dark Crusade is another oddity in my collection. Its got he babe, the guy in the tenchcoat and of course the communist espionage. But can anyone solve this mystery from the back cover for me? Apparently Grant Holmes "is the psuedonym of a well-known American detective story writer who has written this hard-driving thriller on the strength of his own experiences at the head of an allied bueaur of intelligence and counter-intelligence in England and on the continent during the last war." Can anyone source me the real identity of this writer? You'll get the DSD equivalent of a no-prize, and you know those have gotta be coveted.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Observe The Two Week Rule

There is so much going on in publishing right now that's kind of beyond me.

Jonathan Franzen, Adrew Wylie, TIME, the NEW YORK TIMES, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Prince Poppycock, and e-books. I get bits and pieces of these stories, but I never seem to understand the whole story. I follow people on Twitter and get 140 characters of information, but I'm never drawn to find out more.

Probably should, but here's the thing about controversies.

I don't really care.


Because they go away. They all go away.

In a week or two, we'll be talking about something else. Someone will say something that will be blown out of proportion, the bloggers will jump all over it, and we'll have a new controversy.

It's so junior high.

It gives everyone something to talk about, but rarely does something change. How is Barnes and Noble being sold going to change a consumer's life? Unless all the bookstores shut down, it's not. Teens with no place to go will still show up, browse Stephanie Myer and buy a latte.

Jonathan Franzen is going to sell a million bazillion copies.

Authors and fans are going to bitch about negative reviews.

I have a saying in my classroom.... "The Two Week Rule."

Anytime there's a controversy, I tell my students to observe the two week rule. That means, whatever is being talked about... whoever got in trouble, got dumped, or fell in front of everyone... will be forgotten about in two weeks. Because within the next two weeks someone else will be dumped, get in trouble or trip and fall in front of everyone.

So don't sweat it.

Move on.

But we can't, because everyone wants their say.

And I can't, because I don't follow any of it.

I'm so jealous of you gossip savvy types.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rubicon - anybody watching?

John McFetridge

So, is anybody watching the new show on AMC, Rubicon?

I've seen every episode so far and I'm not sure how I feel about it yet. It keeps me intereted enough to tune in every week and I like the feel of it, but I can't tell if there's any substance to the style.

It's got a very old school vibe - very little technology; a few cell phone and the odd computer, but these are "data analysts" who pick up big folders of papers in the morning to go over and who find international secret communications in newspaper crossword puzzles - not a website in site.

So far what seems to be a major plot point revolves around a, "go code" being hidden in crossword puzzles spread over many international newspapers. And in the show we always see print editions of the papers, no one reads the online editions. I kept picturing the spy in Beruit looking all over the city for the Herald Tribune.

But for an old guy like me the low-tech approach is kind of fun. When I first saw the show was about these data analysts I thought, "Oh yeah, that's what Robert Redford did in Three Days of the Condor." Until the shooting started five minutes in and he ran off with Faye Dunaway.

That movie was based on the book Six Days of the Condor.

Sometimes Rubicon feels like Endless Days of the Condor.

But still, I keep watching.

What about you, anybody watching?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lush Life -Richard Price

By Jumpin' Jay Stringer

I love it when a plan comes together. And by plan, I mean accident. I'd been wanting to find a book to read while we were in New York. I like to have something at the side of the bed so that, after a days exploring, I can key into an authors work and let that story become part of the memory. I also like to pick up local crime fiction books wherever I go, because they're far better than tourist guides or travel maps. They let you get to know a place.

The trouble with New York was that I'd already read all the books that I came across, and it was looking like it would be a wash out. Then our new friend, Josh, took us on a walking tour of the lower east, showing us the city in a way we wouldn't have seen it otherwise, and over into Brooklyn.

As we explored, we came upon a street stall selling second hand books. And there was a wonderful QP edition of LUSH LIFE, by Richard Price. It was a story set in the very neighbourhood we had just explored. Flicking through the opening pages I saw mention of Katz's Deli and, ho shit, I'd been standing outside that just a couple of hours before. This felt like a book that was somehow real to me, even if it was in some shallow tourist way.

The story in some ways reminded me of Lawrence Block's SMALL TOWN. Though it took me a while to figure out why, because they have little in common. I figured it out only this week, as i sat to try and write about LUSH LIFE. Block had written his story as a love letter of sorts to New York. An epic twisted tale of a serial killer and the many lives he touched, SMALL TOWN drew a lot of controversy when it was released. It dealt in a very different social sphere to LUSH LIFE, Blocks book dealt with art dealers, writers and politicians. But through the book he showed how every life in New York can overlap, in some way, even for a second. He showed that it was a major city, but "a small town when it rains."

LUSH LIFE exists in the modern lower east side. It shows us a world that has as many different cultures thrown into a few small streets as you could possibly get, and none of the choose to interact. Each culture stick to its own, and the all do their best to ignore the hip kids, the wandering students and wannabes that have come to belong there as much as anyone else.

Each of these lives can co-exist without ever running afoul of each other, without ever knowing each other, until two of them rub together for a brief moment. Two young black kids from the projects cross paths with three drunks from the hipster scene. There is a gun shot, and then the lower east becomes a very small town.

The spine of the story is the Police investigation into the crime, with the two central cops acting as tour guides for us through all the different lives and cultures that are touched upon. Built around this investigation are the lives of people like Eric Cash, who came to the city as a hot young thing and now realises that there is no pot of gold, that this is his life. There is Ike Marcus, a hot young thing who looks to be spared the years of heart break that Eric has lived through, and Tristan, a young projects kid with no chances to escape a life he didn't choose.

The book is brilliant. It's a tale of race, politics, love, loss and desperation. If you can't find what you're after in this book, then you're not looking hard enough.
But forget all of that for a moment. All of it. You know what really makes this book work? What really gives it soul?


For all that crime fiction deals with poverty, death and violence, it seems to shy away from dealing with grief. It piles on the guilt, sure, but not the grief. I can count on one hand the authors who really tackle this head on in any meaningful way. Reed Farrel Coleman does it, our very own Russel D McLean does it, but it's a pretty short list beyond that.

With LUSH LIFE, Richard Price takes a long hard look at grief. He shows us a father who falls apart at the loss of his son, who will spend the rest of his life waiting for the moment his son walks down the driveway and says it was all a joke. We see a cop grieving for a family life he managed to lose, and Eric Cash mourning a life that he'll never have. We see the way some people can twist it, use it for their own benefit, while others can becomes trapped and defined by it, never to escape. The emotion hands over the book, pulling it up above all the competition.

So, Richard Price I guess i should apologise. I bough this book second hand. On the flip side sir, you've written a fucking amazing book.

Monday, August 23, 2010

These are the days, Mr Bacon

By Steve Weddle

As the Philip Glass song goes, "These are the days, my friend."

The folks at Tyrus know it:

We all know it.

Sure, if you're a writer, Janet Evanovich has probably taken all your money, but who cares?

You remember a million years ago when James Joyce would publish his books out of Shakespeare and Company? Now that was an indie press. Small press runs. Word of mouth. Buy some whiskey for a writer and you're hanging out all night? The more things change...

So the publishing world is collapsing. Alright. TV is still killing radio. The internet has shut down all newspapers. According to Wired magazine's website, the web is dead. Er, yeah.

Here's where we are now. Writers can interact more directly with the readers. Good for some, crap for others. Don't want to interact with your readers? Fine. Stay off twitter. Move to the woods, grow old writing letters to teenage girls and drinking your own pee. Fine.

But if you want to interact, you can. If you want to muck about, you can.

I'd wager the "publishing world" or "writing world" or whathaveya is much more open today. If I want to contact a writer I admire, I search online and within 10 seconds I'm emailing the author. (Sorry, Richard Powers. And yes, I understand what your attorney said. Though, you know, seriously, if I could just explain how you and I think exactly alike, you know, like how I totally get what you're trying to do, you know, then I think you'd understand.)

So on Saturday night, the folks at Tyrus start spreading the word about Bill Cameron. The next day Bill posts pix of himself eating pig. Honestly, can you imagine Hemingway tweeting from a fishing spot? I'm sure there's been a goofy Hemingway tweet meme already, but that's kinda the point, ain't it? This community of readers and writers. Not just the book readings in which you go to a bookstore, sit down for a bit and listen, then get a book signed and leave. No, you can interact with some of your favorites. I dunno, I just think that's pretty cool.

And you can get things done over the internet, the sort of thing you never could have accomplished 10 years ago.

The summer issue of NEEDLE just came out and you find out right away how people enjoy your story. Sites such as DBK have even started looking at short stories only. Can you imagine a magazine coming out that reviews short stories? Me neither. The lead-time would be a killer. Online works, though.

This issue of NEEDLE includes work from Ray Banks, Nolan Knight, John Stickney, Frank Bill, Julie Summerell, Nigel Bird, Sarah Weinman, Allan Leverone, Chris F. Holm, David Cranmer, Stephen Blackmoore and Mike Sheeter.

And Mike Sheeter was just featured over at Jedidiah Ayres's web site. And, in addition to having a fantastic novella in the first issue of Needle, Ayres has a stellar piece in PWG. And PWG is run by Neil Smith, who had some great work published by Bleak House Books, whose brains went on to form Tyrus Books, the folks who said how cool these days are.

Five degrees of Kevin Bacon, nothing. Oh, and speaking of Bacon, that's exactly what started this whole thing off in the first place. Tyrus Books asking what Bill Cameron had stuffed his face with. And readers responded. Because that's what readers do. They read. They respond. But these are great days, my friend. Because writers are responding, too. 


Tell ya what, share an online connection about how cool these days are and I'll draw names and send someone a copy of NEEDLE's summer issue. Deal?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Flavor of the month

by: Joelle Charbonneau

I’m not a reader who loves jumping on the bandwagon of whatever hot new book is on the list. It took me until book four to break down and start reading Harry Potter. I admit I was glad I did, but most of the time I don’t feel that same happiness at devoting my time to what everyone else is reading.

Case in point: I picked up a book a few months ago that has racked up lots of award nominations. Everyone was talking about how fabulous it was so when I saw it on the discount shelf I decided to add it to my TBR pile. You have to remember that my TBR pile is enormous and keeps growing, so it took me a while to finally get around to reading the book. I cracked it open and after ten pages wanted to put it down.

But I didn’t.

People had nominated it for awards – lots of awards. I kept reading waiting to discover the reason(s) why. The point of view shifted almost every other paragraph which made it hard to follow whose thoughts I was reading. The killer seemed obvious. The descriptions were lovely, but no more so than other books I’d read. I assumed that the payoff at the end – the solution to the mystery – was going to be sensational. That I was going to be amazed at how the pieces fit together to form a picture I never saw coming. I flipped the pages waiting for a huge payoff.

It never came.

I was disappointed. In fact, I felt cheated. I shouldn’t have. There’s a reason I don’t normally read the ‘flavor of the month’. This would be it.

As a soon-to-be-published author, I seem to find myself paying attention to award nominations in ways I'd never done in the past. The question is, does anyone else really care about these awards? Do you find yourself reading a book because everyone else is doing it? Or do you like to be the one setting the trends? And if you don’t like to follow the crowd, at what point do you break down and decide to see what all the fuss is about?