Saturday, October 9, 2010

Russel McLean at Murder by the Book

Scott D. Parker

It can be a little strange when you see a black and white photograph come to life in full color, but that's what happened last night in Houston. We writers here at Do Some Damage have been doing this group blog thing for a little over a year now. We've had lots of e-mail conversations, and, yet, most of us have yet to meet face to face. Thus, the only images we have of each other are the pictures over there on the left. Had you been a fly (or mosquito) on the wall yesterday, you would have been able to see me and Russel McLean give each other the quick once-over, making sure the living, moving person in front of us was who we thought it was.

An intimate, but exuberant crowd met Russel McLean on his first trip to Murder by the Book last night. This was the second official stop on Russel's Getting Lost in America Tour after Minneapolis on Thursday. He will be in Los Angeles for the weekend before jetting out to Poisoned Pen bookstore in Arizona, and then onto Bouchercon in San Francisco later next week.

Wearing a camel-colored blazer over black pants and a black shirt, Russel told me ahead of time the book signing that he feared no one would show up. I suspect that's the greatest panic for any author on his first book tour. Late in the evening, one of the folks getting their book signed asked him if he felt weird being on the other side of the signing table. For those of y'all not in the know, Russel's day job back home is as a bookseller. The joking and snarkiness completely left him when he said, in all honesty, that it was definitely a different feeling. Well, I think it's safe to write that if word gets out about how entertaining Russel is at book events, he should start getting used to being behind the table. Actually, come to think of it, he should book two gigs per city: a bookstore and comedy clubs.

Russel's Scottish accent was a fun topic with which to start the event. He joked that he had forgotten his translation cards back in Scotland, them being too big for his suitcase. Strangely enough, when he prompted the audience for a volunteer to come up to the front and translate his speech via interpretive dance, he had no takers. I couldn't do it. I didn't have the right footwear.

Without notes of any kind, Russel talked about his current town (city?) of Dundee and how it played a major role in the creation of his first two novels, The Good Son and The Lost Sister. After the first slip of foul language, Russel apologized, citing the numerous colorful words in his novels. That started a running gag about trying to see if certain groups of people (Citizens Against Foul Language, John Travolta Fans) would get incensed enough to get up and walk out. Hey, we're Houstonians. We hear that stuff in rush hour. Don't bother us none. Actually, when it comes to crisp language in books, Russel said that he knew he'd written a good book when his mother read the novel and it upset her.

As a bookseller--that being a person who sells physical books with paper and ink--Russel had the type of reaction anyone has when first entering Murder by the Book: awe. It's a fantastic store with fantastic folks working there. And Russel's passion for books is palpable. He name-dropped numerous authors he likes and talks up back home, not the least of whom was fellow author (and current agent) Allan Guthrie. The audience last night wasn't shy so there was a lot of back and forth among us. It's one of the best things about attending book signing: we all love books and don't need to spend time talking about something. You can just hear Russel say that classic American crime fiction like Chandler and Ross MacDonald were major influences and the rest of us nod in agreement.

Bouchercon is in San Francisco next week. Having attended more than one Bouchercon, Russel said that SF called to him. He had to answer the call. In a surprise revelation last night, he let us know that another SF used to call him. Science Fiction. Crime fiction is Russel's second genre in which he's written novels. Being a SF geek myself, I asked him how he came to crime fiction from SF. He had written a Doctor Who tie-in novel (rejected) and another SF novel (rejected) before his dad passed him an Elmore Leonard novel. Once Leonard got in his veins, Russel said, he made the obvious conclusion: how about I give crime fiction a go. We readers can count our blessings that he did.

It was a thrill to meet Russel last night and to join in a full celebration of his two novels, mystery fiction, and the joy of reading. I'm already looking forward to his next book...and tour.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Guest Post -Characters, Goals, Conflicts and Catalysts

While Russel sets out in search of the mysterious cities of gold, we're taking the chance to get a few different voices onto DSD. This week we welcome John Rector. John's a long time friend of DSD, ever since we first started talking about setting up the site we've been looking for way to work with him, and we're glad to have him. John is the author of two books, THE COLD KISS, released this past summer (with a firm DSD seal of approval) and THE GROVE will be out in the U.S. in november.

Characters, Goals, Conflicts and Catalysts
My first novel, THE COLD KISS, was released this past summer, and I got the opportunity to travel around the country to discuss the book with readers, booksellers, and friends. The Q&Q events were a blast, and what I loved most about them was meeting new writers.
After you’re published, the talk among other writers seems to shift away from craft and starts focusing on things like sales, contracts, publishers, etc. That’s fine, and to be expected since money is involved, but I still love to talk craft, and if you get me going, it’s hard to shut me up.
The first signing I did for THE COLD KISS was at a Barnes and Noble in Omaha Nebraska. One of the people there was a college student who’d read THE COLD KISS the night before. She told me it’d kept her up all night because she had to know what was going to happen. For a writer, this is one of the best compliments you can get, and I was flattered. Then she hit me with this question.
“How did you do that?”
My mind went blank.
I looked out at the crowd and everyone was staring at me, silent, waiting for an answer. I stumbled through, telling her about the weeks I’d spent outlining novels that I’d loved, how I’d take them apart scene by scene to see how they worked. I wanted to know how Stephen King made a fire hose in a hallway of an old hotel seem so terrifying, or how Ira Levin built plots so seamless and so tight that you didn’t see where he was taking you until you were there. I wanted to know why I got chills up my spine when I read certain lines from James M. Cain, or Ross Macdonald, or Charles Bukowski. I told her I spent so much time studying the writers who mattered most to me that I probably couldn’t help but get better.
Practice, hard work, etc.
It wasn’t the best answer because I believe all unpublished writers who are serious about the craft, and who have the same overwhelming obsession to publish as I did, work hard. They know practice and hard work is what it takes. They might not be crazy enough to outline a stack of other people’s books, but hey, we all travel our own path. My way isn’t necessarily your way.
Out of all the questions I was asked this summer, that one stuck with me. Since then, each time I’ve seen a review of THE COLD KISS, or heard someone say they couldn’t put the book down, I’ve thought about my answer to her question.
How do you pull someone into a story and keep them there?
I began to realize that what it came down to was nothing more than a few basic points of fiction writing. And since DSD has been all about advice lately, I thought I’d do my part and throw out a couple of my favorite elements of good fiction writing for any new writers who might be interested.
Like I said, we all learn in our own way, but to me, the following four elements are what good fiction is built on and should be the foundation of every story. Write them well, and you can’t go wrong.
I’ll keep this simple and brief.
A character Your narrator, your protagonist, the main focus of your story. This is the person who has the most to lose or the most to gain in your story. When you start writing, you don’t have to know everything about him, so throw out those character-building sheets you found in that how-to-write fiction book and discover your characters as you go. They will be revealed through their actions, and characters take action for only one reason… To achieve a goal.
A Goal This is what your character wants, and they must feel like achieving it is the most important thing in the world. The actions they take to achieve this goal will open them up, build their character, and show you and the reader who they are. But whatever you do, don’t let them sit by and wait for their goal to come to them, make them get up and go after it, make them fight every step of the way. And remember, the fight can’t be easy.
A conflict This is the obstacle that stands between your character and their goal. Whatever it is, a person, an element, etc… the obstacle has to be just as determined to prevent the protagonist from achieving the goal, as the protagonist is desperate to achieve it. In other words, don’t have your antagonist bring a knife to a gunfight. You can (and probably should) have your protagonist bring a knife to a gunfight, but never the other way around. Never make it easy for your characters, ever.
A good thing to keep in mind is that when you get to the end of a scene or chapter, things must be worse for your protagonist than they were before the scene started. You must test their resolve to achieve their goal every chance you get.
A catalyst This is one of the most important pieces you need when writing fiction. Simply put, the catalyst is the element in your story that prevents your character from looking at the obstacle between him and his goal and saying, “Fuck this, I don’t want it that bad. I’m going home to watch LOST.”
The catalyst is the element of your story that forces your character to stay in the game and see it through to the end. It takes away their choice to run when things get tough.
When I wrote THE COLD KISS, I used the blizzard that traps my characters in a rundown motel as the initial catalyst. They physically can’t escape. I ended up using more than one catalyst in that book, but the blizzard was the big one, and it loomed over the rest.
Your catalyst can be anything, physical, mental, emotional, whatever, as long as its believable and keeps your characters on stage while you turn up the heat and make them suffer.
The last thing you want your reader to do is close the book and say, “Why didn’t they just walk away.”
-John Rector

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Workin' on some writin'

Just keep swimming.

When my novels first showed up on shelves, I got interviewed by a couple of local newspapers. One question they loved to ask was "You're a teacher, how do you have time to write?"

My standard answer was: I leave work around 3:30 and write until I hit 1,000 words. That's kind of a lie. I mean, it sounded good, it made me look good, and I always shot for 1000 words.

But it didn't always happen.

My real answer is I leave at 3:30 and write what I can. Some days it's 250 words. Some days it's 1,500. Today it was 640 and I stopped in the middle of a scene.

Listen, teaching is tough and mentally draining. Sometimes my brain just won't function enough to get me through a scene. Sometimes life gets in the way. I mean, it probably evens out 1,000 words a day in the long run, but it's never exactly 1,000 words.

But what I do love is when I'm teaching writing and something I say or a kid says or a colleague says in class something and it sets off that spark. When I have a moment of clarity about the piece I'm working on.

That happened the other day. I can't really remember what I was talking about in class, but a word I said sparked something. That afternoon, I got home and was really productive. The words flowed out of my fingers, I had a definite end point of the chapter in mind.

And the last sentence I wrote gave me chills.

And that's the fun of writing and teaching. You never know where the inspiration is going to come from.

And sometimes it doesn't come, but at least I get words down. At least I keep the forward motion.

It reminds me of that Dorrie from FINDING NEMO.

Just keep swimming.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Episodic Serial

John McFetridge

Earlier this week on her blog, Patti Abbott asked for, “One Suggestion For Improving TV Shows,” and offered her own; stop having a scene with each major cast member on your show each week that utilizes their one major character trait.

An excellent suggestion. And one of the commenters, Randy Johnson, pointed out that most shows don’t have any real character development because when they’re shown in syndication it’s sometimes out of order and they need to stand-alone. I guess it’s the same for series novels.

Except in many novel series these days there are huge events that change everything.

I mentioned in my review of Giles Blunt’s latest book that the wife of the main character dies in book number three. On the weekend I read a review of the fifth book in Louise Penny’s series and found out that one of the characters I really liked in the first three books (the gay owner of the B&B) is the murderer in book four. If you read these series out of order they’ll still be really good books but your impressions of the characters will be different than if you read the books in order.

My one season in a TV writers’ room isn’t much experience but what the hell, I’m going to make some sweeping statements anyway; this episodic vs. serial approach comes up everyday but no one really believes it.

On The Bridge we were told the show had to be episodic, each episode had to be completely close-ended and stand alone.

Then we’d get notes like, “We like the Russian mobster, can you use him again?”

The answer, of course, is yes, we’d love to develop that character some more so we put him in the next script. And then the note would come back that we’ll have to explain who he is, so we can’t really develop the character because every time he shows up we’re starting from scratch.

At the moment I can’t think of a truly episodic show – just degrees of serialization. And it seems the longer a show runs, the more serialized it becomes.

So I wonder, why can’t we just admit that’s the way it’s going and start there?

Does anyone prefer more episodic shows or stand-alone novels?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Exposition? Like Climbing Everest? That Kind Of Exposition?

By Jay Stringer

It seems like it's advice week here at DSD, so I thought I'd wade in with something that's playing on my mind this week. Not that anybody should listen to my advice. Hell, I was the guy telling Warner Brothers to hire Will Ferrell to make the new Superman film. Instead they went with some dude who made a film about watching men, and some other film about naked men fighting in grease.

So if Warners' don't listen to me, there's no reason that you should.

But I'm here today to talk about one of the greatest villains of our time. A character so vile that he appeared in all three Austin Powers movies. Yes, him. Mr Basil Exposition.

The dude is evil, I'm tellin' ya.

No sooner are you sat at your writing station typing away, feeling good about writing the great American word, then Mr Exposition comes and craps all over the page. Prose that should be singing started to stink. Words that should be clean start to mumble. The chapter starts to sink, and it drags the whole start of the book with it.

In no time, you're left with the smoking wreckage of what used to be a laptop and the cracked plaster of what used to be a wall. You are somewhere in the corner, with your pants over your head, trying to turn your internal monologue into internal dialogue.

So how to fix these problems? No, really, tell me, how? I know a few tricks that work for me, but afterwards I'll be interested to hear what works for you.

These tricks work for me and I tentatively suggest there may be something in here that works for you. I also suggest that I will be stating the obvious, because that's what good writing advice always boils down to; shit that you probably already know, if you cut yourself a break and take the pants off your head.

So let me start with the step I have to take before I can slay exposition.

Embrace Exposition.

If you listen to the right kind of advice, they will suggest to you that putting exposition on a page is akin to putting barbecue sauce on a baby. But writing advice always comes down to one thing. It's always about writing well. Sure, Elmore Leonards '10 Rules Of Writing' are great rules. I stick by them as much as I can. But buried away in those rules is the simple idea; "If you can do something well, then to hell with the rules." Lets look at another rule. Never use voiceover in a movie. Hell, has nobody ever seen Goodfellas??

So first and foremost, if you got it, flaunt it. If you can do chunks exposition on a page like nobody else, then go for it. Exposition is not the enemy. Bad writing is the enemy.

We need it during a first draft. That first pass is not the book that the world will see. Hell, it's probably not even the draft that your agent or editor will see. It's the draft that your brain needs to see. That process of throwing 80,000 words onto a page so that you can then go back and turn them into a novel. The plot is not quite formed, the characters are not yet at their devious best. So if you need to throw leaden exposition onto the page to get from A to B, then have at it, and sing while you work, because you is writing. And exposition is important.

Why is exposition so important? Well, Wikipedia, the all-father, has this to say; "The purpose of exposition is to provide some background and inform the readers about the plot, character, setting, and theme.." So, you know, it's that whole story telling thing. It's really just the knack of telling the reader what they need to know, and learning to leave out everything else. So like writers block, the trick is to embrace exposition. To tackle it head on and figure out how to make it work for you.

Dialogue, Dialogue, Dialogue.

All writers have their own crutches. Mine is dialogue. I can do it. Not always very well, and it's all to easy to fall into the trap of writing something that's snappy for the sake of being snappy. Yes, Tarantino, I'm looking at you. If the audience knows it's good dialogue, then it's not good dialogue. Anyway. Point is, if I'm in a whole I know I can use dialogue to get me out of it.

And its true that a lot of exposition anxiety can be resolved through dialogue. You've got your characters at your disposal, you might as well use them. Look at McFet, or Leonard. Look at the Fletch books, which were a huge influence on me for awhile. Characters explain stuff to each other. They debate and discuss. The author is there in the background, somewhere.

But here lies a trap. You have to hold yourself to realism when it comes to dialogue. Two characters who both know something are very unlikely to bring it up in conversation simply for the sake of it. You need to either find a natural way for the information to seep into the dialogue, or find a different way altogether. I love The West Wing as much as the next bod, but Josh was only there for exposition. It was his job to wander through the script telling Donna (the audience) what was going on. If you're Aaron Sorkin, then you can maybe pull it off. If you're anyone else, find another way.

Here are the two things I'm finding key to my writing process at the moment; Honesty and Movement.


Writers need to be damn hard on themselves. It's tempting to treasure every word that you put onto the page. It's your art. It's your jelly baby. It's your rosebud. It's also potentially your enemy. I walk away every now and then, have a drink or a shower, and then come back to the page on a mission to beat the crap out of what I just wrote. Strip away at it, question every word, make everything that's on the page have to earn its place.

The funny thing is, even once every word has justified it's place, the story can still suck. Because now that the words are right, the order might be wrong.


I'm cheating here. I see this as two different things, but I'm too lazy to come up with separate titles. The first element is editing. Moving the pieces of the puzzle around. Even after you've done everything else,the dialogue, editing and honesty, you still need to drop a chunk of exposition into the middle of a chapter. And you worry that the readers will spot it a mile off. They probably will, they're a clever bunch. But I find that if I keep moving all the pieces of the chapter around, eventually I find the right shape, and most of what's left falls into place.

And the second part of movement is my simplest, and my current favourite trick. If in doubt, if ever I'm stuck on a chapter with anything at all, I'll start with a movement. (Oi, Weddle, stop snickering.)

If I have to drop in one of those bits of exposition? I'll earn it first. And it can be simple. A character can walk into a room. He can park his car. He can lie on his bed. Any kind of movement, no matter how small, seems to work some magic trick with the readers brain. It gets the story moving.

And it's not just me. I've taken a look around at some other books.

First a couple from our favourite scary man, Allan Guthrie. The opening of his first book, Two Way Split, goes like this;

"Four months and twenty-two days after he stopped taking his medication, Robin Greaves dragged the chair out from under the desk and sat down opposite the private investigator."

Now, that's not the biggest opening ever. No cars were blown up. But it's an opening with a simple trick to it, and it's one that makes you want to read more. It has some fairly big bits of exposition wrapped up in it; it has medication, it has a time frame, it has two character introductions and it tells you roughly what genre of story we're dealing with. But what is the magic trick, if my theory holds any water here? It's the moving of the chair and the sitting down. A simple act of movement right at the top of a chapter (and the book.) By the time you've read this opening, you know a hell of a lot, and you're buying into a scene of two people talking, which will probably be full of exposition. Job done.

Here's another Guthrie, from Savage Night;

"When he opened his sitting room door, the last thing Fraser Savage expected to see was a corpse."

Now you might cry foul here. You might tell me it's the corpse that draws your attention. And yes, you're right. But what is it that eases you into that steady climb of reading the sentence? I'm sure it's the small, simple movement. Something active at the top of the page that gets our brain into gear. Something as simple as opening a door.

And it can get even simpler than that. Here's the opening line from (what I think could be) the best crime novel of the past five years, Drama City, by Pelecanos;

"Lorenzo Brown opened his eyes. He stared at a cracked plaster ceiling and cleared his head. Lorenzo was not in a cot but in a clean, full-size bed. In an apartment with doors that opened and shut when he wanted them too. A place where he could walk free."

Hey, did you see that? A guy opened his eyes. Nothing to it. But you sure read the rest of that paragraph without feeling it, right? And hidden in there is a ton of exposition. It doesn't tell you about his past, it tells you about his present. But that informs all that you need to know about where he's been. And by the end of that extract, you can feel the freedom in his movement. And that freedom will carry you through the rest of the chapter, laced with this kind of exposition. And once you've read that chapter? Hell, might as well read the book, right?

So those are my tricks. Dialogue, Honesty, and lots of little movements. That's how I get around the exposition trap. And I didn't end up at Drama City by accident. When I first started to think about this part of my writing, I re-read that opening and made it my bible. Just look again at how much Pelecanos tells us in that paragraph, and how easy it seems. I can only imagine the sweat that goes into an opening like that.

So, those are my ticks, and that is my gold standard.

What are yours?

Monday, October 4, 2010

5ive for Writing

By Steve Weddle

Don't listen to Jay Stringer. He says "writers' block" is bunk. (I'm going with plural possessive on that one, as I think if it exists, it exists for more than just me.)

Jay's point was more complicated and nuanced, of course, but I don't have time for that.

As writers, we get stuck. We end up headed down some path running too fast to trip over roots, then the phone rings and we have to stop. Or we get stuck. Or it rains for four days non-stop and floods your basement because the damned vapor wrap behind the siding is goofy and you suddenly have new priorities. Or you took one too many glasses of "writing lubricant" and end up typing in some odd version of Esperanto.

So you're stuck. Blocked. Whatevs.

Debut author Hilary Davidson (THE DAMAGE DONE) said she's been known to get to that spot and write something along the lines of "Chapter Seventeen: Dan gets home to find that Roger has broken in and stolen Francine's locket, which he then tries to sell to Becky." (BONUS: Listen HERE to Hilary being smart and me being a dork -- an mp3 snippet from our upcoming DSD podcast interview thing.)

So there's one way to break the writers's block. And I've heard some others. So let's share. Oh, crap. Number these things to make the reading easier. OK. Hang on.

1. Write a placeholder chapter

Write explanation for placeholder chapter here and then go on to the next idea.

2. Kill someone.

Yeah, I probably should have saved this for the fifth one, because, seriously, where do you go from there? But that's what I've tried to do. If you get stuck, get rid of something. Add some conflict. Honestly, until your novel is finished, it completely sucks. When it's done, maybe it sucks less. But while you're writing it, don't be afraid to mess some stuff up. I mean, I'm not saying I know what the heck I'm doing. I'm just numbering some ideas to make it sound like I have something worth paying attention to. If you're stuck somewhere, toss in a hand grenade. What have you got to lose? If you had something to lose, you wouldn't be stuck.

3.  Never end your writing session at the end of a chapter/paragraph/sentence.

I stole this from somewhere and I'd link you back there, but I forgot who suggested this. The idea was to stop writing in the middle of a sentence. That way when you pick up the next day, you're just moving along in the middle of things and less likely to get stuck. I can't do that. I wouldn't be able to sleep if I didn't wrap things up.

4. Ink on paper

If you get stuck 20,000 words in or 50,000 or wherever, then maybe you need to print out some pages and read. Maybe you find something printed out that you can use. Foreshadowing. A clue you'd dropped and then forgot about. Reading and re-reading not only kills your soul, it also means you miss stuff. It's kinda like having the same person write a story and proof it.  You made the mistake once, so you're likely to gloss over it again. Having another set of eyes helps. Having another way to interface with your writing is pretty good, too.

5. Aw, crackers. I promised you five.

OK. Maybe you can come up with a fifth trick to break writers' block. Maybe I'll think of one later. So help me think of some ways. And while you're doing that, check out the cover that John Hornor Jacobs did for the DSD collection: TERMINAL DAMAGE -- which will be available laster this month. Seriously, you need a cover? Send cash to Mr. Jacobs.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


by: Joelle Charbonneau

I will admit that I am not lurking behind my computer as you read this. This post was written last Monday because on Tuesday I hit the road to celebrate the release of my first published novel, SKATING AOUND THE LAW. If all has gone according to plan, on this Sunday I am now in Green Bay, WI. And if I’m really lucky, I still have enough energy to enjoy the fun.

Everyone keeps asking me if I am exciting about the book being out. The obvious answer is yes. Years of writing followed by hundreds of rejections make this a moment to be celebrated. The one thing I wonder is if the reality of having a book on the shelves will live up to the anticipation that has built over the past 15 months since receiving my contract. So often, the blockbuster movie that I’m excited to see doesn’t live up to the hype. Or the really fabulous vacation that I counted the days for is just okay when I get to my destination.

Surely you’ve had those adventures.

Some people plan weddings or events for years. Over that time they have built up the event so big that it can never come close to meeting expectations. So while I write this, I have a lot of neurotic fears mixed with a great deal of happiness. I hope the book will connect with the readers that pick it up. I hope that I won’t be sitting alone at events twiddling my thumbs. More important, I hope my anticipation hasn’t created an expectation that reality cannot live up to.

What much anticipated events lived up to your expectations? Your first kiss? Your wedding? Your first story being read by a person other than your mother? And if some of these didn’t live up to the hype, why not?