Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I Done Got Serious

By Jay Stringer

I sat here to write about the authors voice. I was going to discuss to what extent an author should remove their own voice from the work, and especially things like dialogue, to let the characters and story do the talking. I've realised lately that I'm becoming quite stringent in this, that I can defiantly be said to be part of a 'school of thought', which in itself can be quite restrictive. I see it as bad writing to let your own voice intrude over that of the characters. So maybe that's a debate for another day.

As I sat down I watched a BBC program looking into corruption within FIFA, the worlds governing body of Soccer, and the billion dollar decisions that they make. It's a weighty issue, and one worthy of serious treatment.

The show itself was not really the best example of this. It was half an hour of a man running round in a dirty mac shouting questions at men in limousines. Funnily enough, none of them were prepared to answer. It was very thin, as far as journalism goes, and raised plenty of issues that it failed to deal with.

One of the questions that it brought to mind is what happened to journalism? When did 'investigative journalism' go from dealing with such important issues to convincing us that 'public interest' is served by knowing who a football is sleeping with. Maybe this is always what journalism was, and the better moments that we think of were all simply happy mistakes. Once again, that's probably an issue for another time.

No, what the show got me thinking of was morality.

The plot itself would make a cracking novel. A high powered organisation who tend to get tax exemption in any country they operate in, who make billion dollar decisions is locked boardrooms and who may or may not be corrupt. No accountability. No rules. No audits.

Its gold for a crime fiction writer. And as I watched the show I realised two things. Firstly that very point about what an entertaining issue this would be to explore in a novel, film or short story. Secondly, I realised that the show was meant to be eliciting a reaction of anger or shock in me.

There are not the things we are meant to be entertained by.

Back in my younger days, before a few high-profile deaths made me fall out of love with the whole thing, i was a fan of pro-wrestling. Sure, it's fake. But that's like saying theatre is fake. It's good old fashioned story telling and can be as compelling as any other medium when done right. Go watch Shawn Michaels VS Bret Hart last for an hour, or Eddie Guerrero in just about any match, and tell me that's not story telling of the highest order.

Thing is, there's a morality gap. Part of what turned me off to the point that I've not watched it in years was the list of casualties. As the bodies started stacking up we couldn't help but notice the corruption, the drug addictions and the loneliness that stalk the 'sport' from behind the curtain. Again, these are all issues that we love to read and write about, but seeing them played out in real life can cause a different reaction. For example, the tragedy of Chris Benoit and his family. On the one hand, it's the writers instinct to want to know what lead to such a thing, to know what the context was and how people can get into that situation. But there's another reaction, the one that the great many people probably feel, which is to be appalled and to make moral judgements. I'm sure I'm not alone amongst folks out there that my own reactions were a mix of both.

The other part of that morality gap is the story they tell in the ring. Eddie Guerrero played a cheat. Whether he was the face or the heel he would give the audience a knowing wink and then find some way to cheat for the win. And the crowd would cheer or boo, and either way they loved it. But on the flip side, when I'm watching my football team play, I hate cheating. Whether it's one of my own or the opposition, I can't stand to see cheating on the field. I see it as an embarrassment to the sport and to the match that I'm watching.

So how do we square that, morally?

As a writer my stock-in-trade is to try and remove moral judgements from my work. I aim to write crime fiction with a bit of a social edge, and to try and look at the characters and the situations free of any overriding moral judgements. In the book I'm writing right now, I have a supporting character who has opinions on race that are a million years removed from mine, but I have a responsibility to treat him just the same as a character who I might agree with. I have to keep my own judgement out of the way. And I think I'm getting pretty good at that. I think that the better I get at writing, the better I get at managing to see many sides of an issue, and can make public arguments that sometimes seem in defence of what could seem indefensible. I can often be the guy in the room making a case to defend the murderer, the love-rat or the corrupt politician in the daily news story. And it's often not because I believe in the case i'm making, rather that my brain wants to test it out.

As writers we become moral chameleons.

Recently McFet was asking questions in the same ballpark. He showed a clip of a real serial killer confessing to his crimes. And hidden away in there again is the morality gap. We write about these things, we enjoy these things on some level, and we research them often. But when faced with a real example, do we question ourselves?

Is that what the whole thing is? An act of questioning ourselves, testing ourselves?

I don't mean to place writing on a pedestal here as some mystic art. Reading is about many of the same things, and we're all readers above all else. But for the reading side of things, there's an element of tourism. We can pick up a book, spend a day, or a week, or a month exploring some dark land, and then come out and put the book down. To take that same thing on as a writer means to live in the heads of these characters. To spend months or years with these things floating around in our heads. Is it still tourism, or is it something else?

Do we explore these issues to challenge that 'moral gap' and see if we can shift the borders, or do we do it to reinforce what we already think?

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Essential Nature of Setting

By Steve Weddle

I slid my chair back from the table, the screech a scream in the empty house. Took the plate to the sink, raked the burned chunks into the disposal. Ran some water until everything washed down the stainless steel drain. Wiped the plate with a dishtowel and set the plate back on the counter for breakfast. 

Pulled my phone from my shirt pocket, scrolled back through the missed calls. Settled. Highlighted the one. Clicked. Would you like to dial this number?

I set the phone down on the island without responding, then walked to the back windows, looking out over the ravine. The clumps of bushes grown together, killing each other. Honeysuckle choking through everything. Scrub pine never getting tall enough to be worth a damn. A handful of oaks, broken limbs, reaching for the sunlight, growing apart.


A few thoughts about setting in not one damn bit of order.

Setting is something you can do as well in first-person as in third-person, I think. So many things you can't. Like that trick third-person writers use when they end a chapter with the hero in jeopardy, then focus the next chapter on someone else. Tough to do that in first-person novels. But setting, well, we're on some of the same footing there. In fact, in first-person, what the narrator chooses to focus on could tell you something. In the example above, if I'm writing that in first-person and the narrator is an astrologer, what sees out the back window is a damn sight different than what a birdwatcher would notice. They're not looking at the same sky, at all. (In that opening scene up there, if I'd made the person a horticulturalist, maybe he would have known the names of some of the other trees. I don't, so there you go.)

First-person setting is like much else in first-person books in that what's there and what's missing both tell you much about the narrator. What he or she chooses to see.

I just finished PIKE by Benjamin Whitmer (our first book in our new DSD book group here) and am thinking about his setting, a rural area near Cincinnati and the city itself. And the various areas throughout. Whitmer does a great job with setting, from the towers in the city to the blown-off mountaintops in deer-hunting country. It's not so much that you feel as if you're there. I've been there. The thing is, you feel as if the characters are there. And that's what matters. No offense intended towards the fine people of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, but tonight I don't give two shits about going to Cincinnati. I'm sure the people are real nice and hospitable and all, but those aren't the people I care about. I care about the people in the book. I care about what happens to them and why it matters. I care about how they see the world. And I care about their world. And, and this is where setting really matters, I care about what they care about in their world.

If the character in a book I'm reading wants to stop and tell me the history of a place, well, a couple of things could be in play. One, the author could be a craptacular hack just trying to drop in all the research he's done when he surfs the internet. Or, as in PIKE and in Hilary Davidson's THE DAMAGE DONE and in Dennis Lehane's MYSTIC RIVER --my recent reads-- the setting could tell you more about the characters than any mention of a maroon and gold scarf could. What they see, what they don't see, and how they process it, that's what matters.

Setting doesn't have to be the town at all. You don't have to know Spokane from Abilene to be able to write a convincing setting. And no amount of Google's Street View is going to correct for the fact that your characters are big, fat phony heads.

Setting is the world around your character. No, that's not quite right. What the hell am I trying to say? Setting is the soul of your character, spread out like a blanket across the world. Your character is having a tough time of it? Then he sees broken tree limbs. Your narrator's full of hope? Then she sees the fallen tree limbs and thinks about the new life all that fungus and crap down there is going to create.

Or it's the exact opposite. A setting in contrast to the narrator. A piece of the world that separates instead of pulls together. Here, I'll make up another one so maybe I can explain this thing better.

The hospital cafeteria had thinned out pretty good since I'd been here three nights ago. Seven dollar sandwiches. Four buck pizza slices. They would have delivered food to me, one of the nurses had told me. Wheeled up whenever I wanted. I wouldn't have had to leave Gillian's bedside at all. I could have sat there, eating slices of Christmas ham off a plastic tray while people around us prayed about how thankful they were to have had her here for six years. That six years of Gillian was a gift from God.  Stupid bullshit like that. That God missed her and wanted her back. God's shining star. God's little angel. Like these cardboard angels with praying hands and halos, cutout centerpieces for every table. The table against the wall with the man and woman holding hands, her leaning into his shoulder and crying. The table with a couple of men passing photos of some newborn back and forth. Looks like a ballplayer, one of them says. Damn right, the other grins. Still, I need to eat, the family counselor said. Like I didn't know about eating. Like I hadn't fed Gillian when she was a baby. Like I hadn't fed her the last seven-and-a-half months and watched her fade away. Like I can't feed myself, sitting here at this empty table. A cardboard angel on every God damned one.

The setting isn't the town or the river or the exact color of the door across from the parking garage. It doesn't have to be the stingy smell of French Quarter piss or floating dust and grime in a Soho construction site that ruins a freshly dry-cleaned suit.

Setting is that part of your characters, that essence that spreads out when they walk across a room, when they open their eyes to daylight. Setting is the part of the writing that doesn't do a damn thing except tell you exactly who the characters are. Setting is the halo around the cardboard angel.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Holiday Writing – Bah Humbug!

by: Joelle Charbonneau

'Tis the season for shopping, baking, wrapping and singing. Well, it’s always the season for singing for me, but you get the point. The holidays are here and I love celebrating them with family and friends.

Unfortunately, the holiday fun also brings with it writing frustrations. The time I normally have set aside during the day for writing is now filled with baking gingerbread houses and wrapping presents. And now that my son is almost 3 – he wants to help, which makes everything take longer.

When I first started writing, I decided I didn’t need to write during the holidays. I would tinker a bit with whatever story I was working on the week after Thanksgiving and then I would put it away until after the New Year. With everything else going on, this seemed like a good plan. Besides, I was doing this for fun. It wasn’t like a job or anything. Until last year. Once my agent sold my manuscript, I decided that if I really wanted to make this writing thing into a career, I had to give writing during the holidays a shot. I had about 10,000 words to finish on my work in progress. Normally I write about 25,000-30,000 words in a month. 10,000 should be no problem right?


The book didn’t get finished until after the New Year. Yes, I got some writing done, but I struggled with finding time to write every day. If there is one thing I know about me, the writer, is that I need to write every day. When I don’t write every day it takes twice as long for me to write anything. So each day I forced myself to get at least one or two paragraphs written. If I was lucky, I would manage a whole page. I limped along forcing myself to try to write, feeling the ending so close and yet so far away.

Not fun.

As frustrated as I was with the process of writing during the holidays, I was glad I forced myself to do it. It taught me a couple of important things that I am going to use to help me keep sane while writing during this holiday season.

1) Finish a project before the holiday season arrives. This might not be possible, but if it is - do it! The desire to get to THE END can sometimes be all-consuming. Which means not getting to THE END leads to huge frustration. The holidays are already stressful enough, no matter how enjoyable. I will type THE END on my current WIP in the next day or so. Trust me when I say after last year's holiday writing drought I busted my butt to get it done before I started decking the halls.

2) Try to schedule your writing so you begin a new project during the holiday months. Beginnings are filled with enthusiasm and optimism. It is much easier to begin a new project during this time of year for me and for many other writers I know. That’s the time when the writing feels more playful and less focused. When the calendar year flips, you then have a solid base to start seriously building on.

3) Give yourself permission to take a day, a week or several weeks off from writing. Not writing can be frustrating, especially if you are trying hard to get pages done and things keep getting in the way. For me the best way to alleviate the frustration is to give myself permission to not write. This sounds simplistic, but the sheer act of choosing not to write instead of being forced not to write can make all the difference in the world. Choosing to take the day off means you’ll enjoy whatever task, party or family adventure the day has in store as opposed to anger at being separated from your keyboard. (I’ve been there and done that – zero fun. Trust me.) The one thing I have learned is that when I give myself permission to take a day off, the story is free to work out pesky little details in the back of my brain without me being aware of it. That’s a win-win all the way around.

I’m sure there are lots of other great tips for writing during the holidays. I have a feeling Steve Weddle has a bunch that involve eating lots of cookies. Feel free to share them with all of us. I know this year I will be making another attempt to type lots of pages while jingling my bells. That combo means I’ll need all the help I can get.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

On First Chapters and Conventional Wisdom

Scott D. Parker

Last weekend, while on my first Cub Scout camp in thirty years, I got to talking with one of the fellow fathers. Naturally, I asked him the question I ask of most people: what are you reading. He said that he was about halfway through the first Stieg Larsson book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. His partial review was this: I've heard that the first book is a bit hard to get through, but the last two just fly by.

Later that night, intrigued, I opened the ebook of Dragon Tattoo on my iPod and began reading the prologue. We not-yet-published authors have a simple mantra drilled into our heads from just about any source: you have to hook the reader on page one or, at least, chapter one. If the reader isn't vested, the reader will put down the book and move on.

I have to admit that the prologue, while interesting, wasn't gripping. In an article I read this past week, I learned that Mr. Larsson wasn't sure folks would want to read his books. I can't help but wonder if it's because he knew his opening didn't follow the "conventional wisdom."

In the one novel I've written to date, I intentionally went for the slow burn. I started slow and built up to the big action climax. There were times when I was writing chapters, knowing full well what was coming, and I had butterflies in my stomach as I wrote the words. My dad has given me a pretty succinct review of my book: If we could only get someone to read the whole thing, they can see how good it is. That is, if they can just get past the boring parts, they can read the good, action parts.

I'm sure Mr. Larsson's book is good. How else would 46 million folks devour this trilogy. I'm just curious how he seemed to have bucked the conventional wisdom and started the book in a slow, non-gripping manner.

I'm going to persevere with Dragon Tattoo and see what all the hubbub is about but a question lodged itself in my brain: Is the conventional wisdom outdated? Can authors build a story slowly, trusting the reader to stick with it?

(Apologies to all for missing last Saturday. I had day job difficulties [lost one; had to find another] and that consumed most of my attention. Oh, and prepping for a camp out.)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Book to film (or whichever way you want to play it)

By Russel D McLean

Watching the movie adaptation of Ken Bruen’s London Boulevard, I found myself thinking about the language of cinema, and the expectations of movie adaptations of books. Many people talk about how “the book is always better than the movie” and in some cases they are right. In other cases by better they mean “different.”

One of my favourite book to movie adaptations is Blade Runner, adapted from Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. But the film is not the book. In fact it is nowhere close. Starting from the same basic premise – human androids illegally on the loose in a future US city – Blade Runner inverts so many of the themes and ideas of the original book, running its ideas in parallel to the original text. Character and thematic changes abound so that by the end of the movie, our sympathies lie somewhere in contrast to the end of the novel. But none of that matters because the movie – in its own right – is a marvellous work. The book has served as an inspiration, a jumping off point.

And why not?

Books are not movies.

Movies are not books.

Would we really want to see precisely the same story playing before our eyes?

Could they work the same way?

James Ellroy’s LA Confidential was often termed “unfilmable”. And indeed it would have been had one remained faithful to the text. But by softening up characters and by removing so much internal angst from the narrative, the movie was a different and yet equally satisfying beast with its own take on roughly the same action as the novel. It became an entity in and of itself and was thus regarded as a powerful film regardless of whether one had read the novel.

Books and movies tell different types of stories. They have different forms of narrative tricks to pull us in. What works in one will not necessarily work in the other. How was one to match James Ellroy’s powerful and unique voice in filming confidential? There was no cinematic equivalent meaning the film makers had to find their own voice; and that meant they had to tell a story that diverged from the source.

When approaching a film, even one adapted from a book, the question should not be, does it match the book? Does it reflect my own imaginings of what occurred? No, the question should be, is this a film in its own right? How does this work as a cinematic production? Is it clear what is happening without knowing the original text?

The fact is that storytelling is storytelling and some stories require the right kind of storytelling to work. The most disastrous adaptations often have complete fidelity to the text and thus lose the power of the tricks of prose storytelling while failing to take advantage of the unique nature of cinematic narrative. And it can work the other way round, too.

The right form for the right story.

And no matter what the fools say, if you got to deviate from the source material to take full advantage of your chosen narrative form, then you must do it. In the end, it’s not about fidelity to one thing or the other. It’s about telling the right story in the right way.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Post Year 2

Since I'm the Thursday writer, I invariably get the Thanksgiving post few people in the States read. So I'm going to go brief and give you the things I'm thankful for this year . . .

-My wife. She's supportive of my writing habit, smiles, and loves me.

-My family. Same reason.

-My agent. I don't think Al enough. He is a great source of advice, help, counseling, and really believes in my work.

-Having the time to write. Without it, I wouldn't be on this blog.

-The DSD crew. A really great group of guys, with a ton of energy and an endless source of ideas.

-You, the fans. Both of Do Some Damage and my own. Really thankful there are people out there who like what we're doing.

-Just being alive. Really underrated thing to be thankful for.

What are you guys thankful for?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

DSD Book Club

by John McFetridge

Someone here at DSD had the idea to set up a site where we could have ongoing discussion about books and authors, rather than move to a new topic each day (if you think it’s a great idea it was me, if you think it’s a stupid idea it was Weddle).

And a few clicks later, the Do Some Damage GoodReads Group was born. Please have a look and consider joining. And we'll draw a name from the list of members next Wednesday to receive a FREE copy of the DSD airport terror collection, TERMINAL DAMAGE, available as a multi-format ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. So sign up for the club and you're automatically entered into the drawing for the FREE ebook.

I’ve never been in a book club, but I like the idea.

When my first novel came out I was spending a lot of time in the schoolyard dropping off and picking up my kids and talking to the other parents. I wasn’t the only dad, but it was mostly moms, and when the book came out some of them were in a book club and decided to read and discuss Dirty Sweet and asked me if I’d attend. Now, if you’ve read the book you know that one of the main characters is a guy who runs an internet porn company so as you’ve probably already guessed, a half a dozen nice women and I sat around all evening talking internet porn. Also, as you’ve probably guessed, I was the one who knew the least about it.

So, let’s see what happens with this book club. Right now we’re talking about starting with Pike by Benjamin Whitmer.

Luther - Just Another Cop Show?

By Jay Stringer

I've copped to a few weaknesses and prejudices before. Chief amongst them would British crime drama's centred around brooding maverick cops. Does the world really need another?

So when the BBC's Luther aired over here I have it a miss. I heard rave reviews, but they were often from people whose opinion's I didn't trust. So the show sailed by and we never sat down in each others company.

But the word of mouth continued to build. It soon turned out that even people who shared many of my views on British TV found time to throw a little praise at the show. And after hearing Paul from fuzzy typewriter gushing about it on our last podcast recording, I decided to put my own issues to one side and give it a go.

Much of the ground the show treads on during it's first episode is familiar territory. There's a troubled cop, who's genius is only matched by his capacity for destruction. There's the boss who keeps offering him fresh chances, the harassed looking best best friend who keeps pulling him back from the edge. So far, so by-the-numbers.

The writing and directing raises it up a few notches. It's well crafted and it pulls you in. But for a while it couldn't pull me all the way in. I couldn't get past the fact that we've seen a lot of this done before, even though the show was doing it very well.

By halfway through the six-episode run I was getting a bit jaded with the serial-killer-of-the-week format. The show never fully committed to it, and I couldn't figure out why. What I mean is with each episode we would get introduced to a fresh psychopath, and a quality actor capable of running a million miles with that character, but each week the ending would be a rush-job, a sprint to the finish in the last ten minutes in order to get to the next episode.

At first I didn't notice the things that were coming together in the background; the interesting relationship between Luther and the murderous Alice. The moral double standards that were constantly being exposed, and the very, very quiet acting of Steven Mackintosh.

Then in the last two episodes it all comes together, and boy is it worth it. But I'll get to that in a minute.

First I want to talk about three of the actors.

Idris Elba will be known to most of the people reading this. He will forever be the man who stole my name and dreamed a little too big in Baltimore. Of the two, i still say Stringer Bell is his best work, but I really enjoyed what he did with John Luther.

As I said before, the role itself is a well worn trope. It could almost be a thankless task, a mere vanity project for an actor who wants to wear a leather jacket and seem edgy without having to do anything new. But Elba manages to dig into the cliche and bring us out an interesting character. He reminds us that these types of characters used to hold our imaginations for a reason; they're brilliant, brash and damned compelling. Often these shows never leave us in any doubt that we should be rooting for the main man, we should always be backing his plays. But here even the audience is challenged by some of the decisions he makes.

Part of his back story is that he may have allowed a man to fall to his not-quite-death. We see enough of what happened to make up our own minds about whether or not he crossed the line, but the show refuses to give a definitive answer one way or another (Arguably this changes in the final episode, depending on your reading of it.) A fault I found with the Ian Rankin novel A Question Of Blood was that it set up something similar but then went to lengths to exonerate Rebus before the story was finished. Leave us guessing, please. Let us do the work.

I mentioned the quiet acting of Steven Mackintosh. It's easy to miss the work that he's putting in. Essentially for much of the season he's playing an anchoring role, allowing Elba to go off on his wild lunges. But what he's also doing here is giving Luther a solid base, a gravitational pull, and when that relationship changes later in the series the audience feels the ground move beneath their feet.

Finally, Ruth Wilson gets to have a lot of fun as Alice Morgan. We first see her as a cold blooded murderer, one clever enough to get away with it. But as the weeks roll on, we grow to like as does John Luther, and her character is key to the shifting morality of the show. We are challenged even as we watch. We like her, but she's a killer. At some points we route for her, what does this say about us?

Okay, back to the last two episodes.

I know the show has been airing in the US recently, and I don't know where you guys are up to. So if you want to check out here and come back in a few weeks, now is your chance.

If I was getting bored of the serial-killer-of-the-week format that was troubling the shows early episodes, I can't help but feel it was because I'd walked into the trap. The writer was setting us all up for something different, and was going about it very methodically. Each week a different double standard was exposed. Each week the killer bounced of a different part of Luther's troubled psyche -and a different part of our own- to lay groundwork.

The penultimate episode tells us things are changing straight away. We're presented with a kidnapping case, very different to the format we'd seen in the previous episodes. And yet, for all the heavy lifting that goes into setting up that plot, It's one big swerve. It's the first 90 minutes of Fight Club, before Ed Norton tells us to fasten our seat belts. And by the time the big ending hits, the whole show has turned on its head.

Just another cop show? Hardly.

The final episode is a fun thriller, It plays with time, and suspence and it uses it's characters brilliantly. Every decision means something, every mistake has us wincing at its outcome. And the morality gets more and more interesting. Bringing the whole point of the series to a head, we see the teaming up of a human rights lawyer, a sociopathic killer and a troubled cop. Each of them has had to give up something of themselves in order to make that decision, each of them has had to step onto the other side of the line that had been drawn way back in the first episode.

Can they come back from those decisions? I can't wait to find out.

So, was I right about Luthor? Was it just another cop show?

I don't think so. I just think it wanted us to think that. I dared us to think that, so that it could hit us over the head when it changed course. Really interesting TV.

Monday, November 22, 2010

I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours

By Steve Weddle

Seeing as how I ain't out to impress nobody, I don't mind saying I haven't read everything.

This makes some people jealous. The other day I said I was reading MYSTIC RIVER by Dennis Lehane. A number of pals, including Dave White, twatted, "Holy crap crackers. You're so lucky. Your first time? Wow. So jealous."

Other folks get wacky. I said I'd that I'd started reading LEATHER MAIDEN from Joe R. Lansdale. "Holy crap crackers, Weddle. You've never read Lansdale? You're a suck excuse for a person."

And other people get helpful. I said I'd gotten some Ian Rankin. Folks twatted suggestions of what to read next, what order to do stuff, that sort of thing.

See, the thing is, the world is full of books I haven't read. And authors I haven't read. Sure, I've read a handful of Charlie Huston. I've read stacks of James Lee Burke. But I'd wager the entire freezer bag of cash I was going to hand over to one of my congressmen that I've read more English major books than crime fiction. I know. This makes me a terrible person. Believe me, it ain't the only thing that does that.

Somerset Maugham. Graham Greene. Richard Powers. Hurston. Faulkner. Wright. Mansfield. Joyce. Chopin. And that's not even going back to talking about those really, really dead writers.

The shelves of crime fiction continue to populate themselves with awesomeness. And I'm reading stuff that's not even out yet. From ARCs slipped my way to WIPs emailed and loaded onto the Kindle, I could go the rest of my life without reading another published book from the store.

So when I take a trip to the bookstore, I'm thrilled to find some Ken Bruen I haven't read. And I don't mind saying that SANCTUARY will be my first Bruen. Yeah, I know. I'm a terrible person. Fine.

I've read SHUTTER ISLAND and MYSTIC RIVER by Lehane, and then the dude goes and puts a new book out. I'm so far behind.

But it isn't just the books I haven't read. I'm eager to dive into Laura Lippman's new one after seeing her chat with Craig Ferguson about it.

No, this is about authors I haven't read. Lansdale. Bruen. And so many, many others. I felt bad when I ran off three Charlie Huston books in a row. I thought maybe I should leave him alone for a bit and pick up someone else.

LEATHER MAIDEN by Lansdale is great. Maybe I'll check out the Hap and Leonard books after that. or maybe I'll see what Rankin's Rebus is all about. Or maybe the Lippman. Heck, there's still that Walter Mosley I bought and haven't started.

How about you? Any authors you're dying to start reading? C'mon, don't be embarrassed. I won't tell.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Going Both Ways?

First a bit of self promotion, then some commentary because who am I to let any opportunity for commentary pass us by? Some of you may already be aware, but I am the editor of a swank little joint on the web called The Flash Fiction Offensive. It's sponsored by Out Of The Gutter magazine and scratches a particular itch of mine that I've been missing since my days editing Demolition. It's less trouble and allows me to concentrate on the things I enjoy most—editing and developing stories and writers—without all of the other crap associated with running a journal. So go and check it out and if it gets your giddy in a bubble maybe you'll even want to submit.

Now, to the commentary. Prior to attempting my first novel I worked for a year in New York City as an editorial assistant with Random House. This opened my eyes in many ways and was directly responsible for me finally getting my butt in gear to finish my first novel. Since then, I think that and other experiences I've had on the other side of the submission desk have given me a leg up in the submission and networking process. There are others of course. Jason Pinter and Al Guthrie come immediately to mind as guys who have had success on both sides of the editorial desk and I'm wondering what others think of this.

Are there any writers out there who have thought about taking a gig editing or reading submissions or whatever to give them an advantage in submissions or just to try and be a more understanding writer? I know some others here at DSD come from journalism backgrounds, but I'm talking good old-fashioned traditional publishing.

And from the other direction, would you ever want an editor or an agent who was also a writer? I'm kind of torn on that myself. I think they would certainly bring a more understanding ear and eye to the table, but I'd always worry that I'd be dumped if they're writing career ever really took off. How about you?

Friday, November 19, 2010


By Russel D McLean

You know, I didn’t like author X’s last book.”

“Was it a bad book?” I asked, surprised, because I loved author X and had adored their last book.

“Nah,” my friend said. “Not that. Just… it wasn’t a book I thought they were going to write.”

“They surprised you?”


“And you didn’t like that?”


Stuart MacBride has returned to the world of blogging over here. Its been a long leave of absence, and he’s been sorely missed (at least by me, and I’m sure by many thousands more readers with taste and a beautifully black sense of humour). But he’s talking about risks upon his return.

Like the risk he’s taking writing a standalone.

The risk he already took writing – cue deep intake of shocked breath – a science fiction novel!

A risk?


I don’t know if I’m an odd breed as a reader, but I hate being able to second guess a writer. The best authors in my mind are the ones who continue to surprise me. The ones who have always gained my respect are the ones who take risks. Not the ones who do it right every time – I think its terribly unfair to expect authors to hit it out the park every time, when we expect actors, directors and even musicians to have a couple duds and wrong moves over the course of a career* - but the ones who try and stretch themselves and by extension their audience.

See, I don’t want to get bored.

I read to be surprised. Provoked. Excited. Intrigued.

How can that happen if an author does the same schtick book in and book out?

Two of my favourite writers of the moment are George Pelecanos and Don Winslow. Both authors keep shifting gears if not every book then every two or three. You can’t predict entirely what they’ll do next and even when you think you have a handle on what they’re doing, they pull something out of the box to surprise you.

Don Winslow is a very special case in point. Shifting gears near every novel, giving you books as diverse as Power of the Dog and Death and Life of Bobby Z**, books which take you on unexpected journeys, to themes and ideas you hadn’t considered before.

Hell, it doesn’t have to be so mind altering. MacBride’s change of genre was a wonderful move, something that rocked his audience a little because – just like the first time they read him – they didn’t know what to expect. I don’t understand why that unnerves some readers. To me, it’s a way of keeping the relationship between author and reader alive. Sure, we like to think we know what we’re getting, but really we love it when we’re surprised.

As a reader, I want to be taken places I’d never have considered. I don’t want to re-visit old ground. I want to be surprised, amazed and uncertain.

I want my books to be unpredictable. I want my authors unafraid to experiment and stretch and have fun.

And I’m sure they want to be able to do the same.

*Go on, make yer cheap jokes here
**A prime example of a book that didn’t work for this reader, but which I appreciated because he was trying to stretch himself as a writer.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Terminal Damage: From the DSD Crew

I know you expect more from me, but if you're not on Twitter or Facebook, I just wanted to get this out there:

The Do Some Damage Anthology, TERMINAL DAMAGE, is available now for your e-readers! It's only .99 cents!

Get it here for your Kindle: Amazon Link.

Or for your Nook, Sony E-Reader, or other thing-a-ma-bob: Smashwords>

Or for you UK folks: Amazon UK.

Wait... what's that? No e-reader? Email any one of us (i.e. me... davewhitenovels at yahoo dot com) and we'll work something out.

And what's it about? Well it's a bunch of linked short stories set in an airport. I'll let the cover do the talkin':

Imagine the worst day of your life. Now imagine that day in an airport. The eight authors of DoSomeDamage.com bring together eight stories of murder and mayhem in these linked stories -- tied together by a single, horrible visit to the airport.

From the grandfather in Joelle Charbonneau's SKATING AROUND THE LAW to a team of thugs from Jay Stringer, the stories here show what happens when all hell breaks loose on the concourse.

In addition to Charbonneau and Stringer, the collection boasts stories from John McFetridge (LET IT RIDE, DIRTY SWEET), Dave White (WHEN ONE MAN DIES, THE EVIL THAT MEN DO), Russel D. McLean (THE LOST SISTER, THE GOOD SON), Byron Quertermous (A LOAD OF QUERTERMOUS), Scott D. Parker (ROUND ONE), and Steve Weddle (NEEDLE Magazine).

And lookout for some upcoming promos . . . too.

Thanks for reading us!!!!!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bad Guys

John McFetridge

On the weekend the family went to see the movie Unstoppable and enjoyed it quite a bit. Oh sure, you can be cynical about how much it was really “inspired” by a true story and how you just know Denzel Washington is going to save the day and the new Captain Kirk is going to get to talk to his estranged wife again and how it’s a weirdly accurate comparison for Rosario Dawson to make, “A missile the size of the Chrysler Building,” as if we all know off hand how tall every building is – but I decided to go and try to have a good time and I did.

It’s really my kind of movie. I love the characters and the setting, blue collar guys in blue collar towns. There’s a minor character in it, a guy named Ned who’s a welder (“lead welder,” he points out) with a pony tail and a beard and a wallet on a chain and a jean jacket who is just the right amount excited by the idea of a “coaster.” After the movie I said to my wife that Ned, like Winston Churchill, felt his whole life was in preparation for this moment. I’ve worked with a lot of Neds in my life and as annoyingly know-it-all as they can sometimes be, I like them.

So anyway, one commenter on a website, snarky as they often are, said, “But is it Die Hard on a train?!?”

Yeah, everything became, “Die Hard on a... something,” for a while because we can so easily accept the idea that bad guys steal money. And they’ll kill as many people as they need to without a care in order to steal the money. Even if they seem to be spending enough money to live on happily for the rest of their lives while taking this life and death risk to steal the money, we accept it. It’s what bad gus do. And, apparently, there can never be enough money.

But no, this isn’t Die Hard on a train because in Unstoppable there’s no bad guy. No terrorists have taken over the train, no evil corporation’s greed has left the train yard understaffed, no corrupt union has interfered too much. Just a couple of guys are a little lazy, a little overconfident and they make a small mistake. And it gets compounded.

I found the script very well-written, especially in the way the characters were developed and the way it didn’t take any cheap, easy ways out setting up “bad guys,” as easy targets for emotional manipulation. Sure, the new Captain Kirk only has his job because his family includes a few union stewards (Entertainment Weekly magazine referred to his “blue blood family” which is pretty funny when we’re talking about some railway workers in rural Pennsylvania) and the company president has to make a decision that includes taking into account the effects on stock values but neither “side” in this is a Snidely Whiplash, moustache twirling, insane laughing bad guy.

And then this morning there was an article in the newspaper here that really got me thinking about bad guys, and how we create them for fiction and how we decide what they’re going to do in our stories.

The headline is, “Terrorists put psychiatric evaluations to the test.”

Because we can easily accept that Hans Gruber and his “Eurotrash” gang could take over a building (or, yes, a cruise ship or a bus a phone booth or whatever else gets taken over in all those Die Hards on a... somethings) if they are, as Hans said, not just simple thieves, but “Exceptional thieves.”

Really, as long as they’re some kind of thieves, we understand them.

Even if they’re millionaire thieves, we understand they’ll want to risk their lives (and kill a bunch of people) for more money.

But if the “bad guys” aren’t just out to steal money, that puts the psychiatric tests to the test.

The story behind the article is the case of what we in Canada have taken to calling the Toronto 18, a bunch of young men who were plotting a terrorist attack on some institutions in Canada. Apparently the fact that these planned attacks weren’t going to be secretly about extorting millions of dollars and safe passage to Afghanistan has us all stumped.

The article says, “The base rate for this kind of activity is so low, so uncommon, that it’s difficult to hypothesize about how you would predict relapse.”

As if we can ever “predict relapse.”

Back to fiction. It’s really too bad that the phrase, “What’s my motivation,” has become nothing more than a punchline, because a character’s motivations really are important. And it seems that maybe we fall back on the, “I want money,” motivation too easily.

Interestingly there’s another article in the same paper today about the UK government looking to somehow measure well-being, so that they can have a “greater focus on well-being rather than wealth.”

So maybe we are starting to look a little deeper t our relationship to money and how big a motivator it really is. Maybe we need to to do that with our fiction as well.

Unless, of course, you’re Bobby Fuller and you can say it as great as, “I needed money because I had none, I fought the law and the law won.”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Gentleman's Hour

By Jay Stringer

This week I want to talk about a book by Don Winslow. But first a small matter of housekeeping. As the Weddle alluded to yesterday, our very own collection of short stories is coming out this week. It's already available via the UK amazon and the US amazon, and we'll keep you posted as it hits other stores.

It contains a story by each of us, and each is themed around the crazy hoopla that can go down in an airport. Some are loosely linked through theme or setting, others are directly linked through characters, actions or settings. Think of it as a concept album -there is a larger story there if you want it.

We enjoyed putting this together, and we'd love to do another so please go buy a copy and spread the word.

Anyway, on with the show.

I'm a recent convert to Don Winslow, through the world of Boone Daniels and his Dawn Patrol. I wrote a review of the first book over at Stringerville a few weeks back. The short version is 'loved it'. (The longer version would be 'i really loved it.')

I was drawn into this SoCal world that I've never known or seen, by the collection of surf bums, cops, hookers and criminals. Most of all I was drawn in by the way Winslow structured the book. 

Like the novels' running motif of the wave, the story starts slow and subtle, before it begins to build to a crescendo of water and violence that won't let you go. As soon as I finished the book I wanted to read more, and I hunted down (Do imagine; an epic quest across many deserts and battles with a multitude of legendary beasties in order to win the heart of the fair book. Don't imagine; I clicked a button on a website and it was delivered to me.)

The follow up is called The Gentleman's Hour. Everything about the book is structured again very cleverly. The name The Gentleman's Hour comes from the hour of surf that follows The Dawn Patrol, when the older and more connected surfers come out to play. Likewise the plot follows Boone Daniels as he struggles over whether or not it's time for him to graduate from the Patrol to the Hour, and whether his old friendships can endure. He's going through something of a mid-surf crisis.

If the first novel was one wave, picking up pace and speed, then the sequel is more like a stretch of choppy water. Things change, people get mixed up and old ties get broken. In many ways TGH feels more like a 'mystery novel' than the first book. It has more of a structured mystery plot, with twists, turns and red herrings. This too seems to follow on the theme of graduation.

Whereas the first book took on illegal activities that happened beneath the noses of the law and local community -the grime beneath the glossy surface- TGH looks at the institutionalised corruption that maintains that glossy surface. It steps off the beach and into boardrooms, businesses and bedrooms. Everybody is using everybody else, and it's all nicely fucked up.

The dawn patrol themselves are slowly drifting apart; Sunny Day is now a world-traveller, Johnny B is giving serious though to his career and Boone can see a choice looming between his girlfriends ambition and his own lack thereof.

There are far more layers to peel away second time around, and overall it feels like a far more ambitious book. It takes the brave step of forcing the 'hero' to question his own beliefs, and that is sadly all too rare in PI fiction.

I had a blast reading the book. It was both tight and ambitious in all the right places, and it built upon the characters from the first book. None of them start book 2 in quite the same place they ended book 1, and each of them is in a different place again by the end of it all. That's good character progression, and I hope there is a third story on the horizon so that I can see where this all leads.

Even for a book that I loved so much, I do have a few constructive criticisms. There's often a gap between ambition and success, and in some areas I think the book struggled with it's grand intentions. The Dawn Patrol never faltered in delivering a ripping great story, it knew when to be complex and when t go for the gut. Perhaps in the final third of TGH there is one too many twists, a little too much effort to mark it out as a mystery novel. There is also a rousing emotional (and physical) contest near the end that doesn't quite feel earned, as much fun as that scene is on it's own. I would wonder -unusually for me- if the book perhaps needed an extra ten pages to let the final third breathe a little more.

But really, these are minor quibbles and I only raise them to qualify what otherwise is a love letter; Go and get these books.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ebooks: A Whole New Playing Field

By Steve Weddle

Yesterday, Joelle Charbonneau took a look at the books that pass through the gates of the publishing industry versus those that go straight to the reader. Her insightful post is here.

Joelle, whose delightful debut novel was published by Minotaur (a Macmillan imprint), was using the recent Amazon pedophile ebook horror as a jumping-off point. And, speaking of Joelle's publisher, the Weddles picked up a number of Macmillan/Minotaur titles at the bookfair this weekend. Duane Swierczynski. Ken Bruen. Ian Rankin. How cool is that? I love these folks. Heck, I think the only book I got that wasn't from Minotaur was a Steven Brust novel on Tor. Hooray for Minotaur.

Joelle's argument about having editors and publishers help select what goes to market is a solid argument. I'm glad Big Publishing decides what goes to market, how many are printed, and how they are distributed. If not for that, I wouldn't have been able to get 32 books for about $30 yesterday. All hail the marketplace.

I picked up a handful of Scott Wolven books at a bookfair this year. Some copies of John McFetridge's Dirty Sweet, too.  And some Jim Thompson. And a ton of those fancy re-issues of Nabokov that Vintage did. You know, the ones with the expensive, pretty covers.

And if I'd wanted to build a bridge from here to Terabithia with copies of Franzen's new literary masterpiece, I could have done so at the bookfair for right around nine dollars.

Having so many books available from big publishers is great.

I'm not here to bury Caesar; I'm here to say that Brutus guy has some cool ideas, too.

Check out Chris F. Holm's fantastic short story collection, 8 Pounds. Chris took his award-winning and published stories, edited them for the Kindle format, got a gorgeous cover from John Hornor Jacobs, and started selling that ebook on Amazon for 99 cents. The book contains the Spinetingler-Award-winning "Seven Days of Rain," Derringer-Award finalist "The Big Score," and "The World Behind," which originally appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. You can't do that with big publishers. Why? Because Traditional Publishing tells us that short story collections don't sell. Except, you know, they do. Because I buy them when available -- as 99 cent downloads. And you buy them. Chris has been selling the Kindle collection pretty well as word of mouth keeps them moving. And he doesn't have to pay to print 10,000. Or have them stored in a warehouse. Or have them shipped to a bookfair in nine months to sell for a dollar each.

How about Discount Noir, a collection Patti Abbott and I put together with stories from more than 40 fantastic authors? Flash pieces about blood and murder in a big discount store. No big publisher wants that. A book of 45,000 words? That's tough to move off the shelves. Unless there are no shelves.

Traditional publishing works great for many things. I was in a bookstore last week just walking around, not planning to buy anything, and picked up Daniel Woodrell's Tomato Red. Without the physical store, I probably never would have run across the copy. But, dang, what a good book. Hooray for Busted Flush Press. And hooray for traditional publishing

Ink on paper works great. That's one reason we started Needle: A Magazine of Noir. Because the physical book is still a wonderful thing. And the big houses and the independent publishers know how to make this work.

But, you know, once we decided on the national level that all our citizens needed to be able to read and write, we pretty much opened things up for self-publishing. Everyone writes.

Just ask Charles Bukowski:
course. everybody
he has plenty of time and a
postoffice box in town
and he drives there 3 or 4 times a day
looking and hoping for accepted

Everybody writes and everyone can put out ebooks. Fine. Everyone can make pizza, too. Doesn't mean I wouldn't rather have pizza from Vinny's than that crappy canned-sauce spread on canned-dough crap you and your kids made for "together time" last weekend.

The point is this -- Having ebooks as an option seems pretty cool to me, especially for those collections that traditional publishing doesn't want to handle. This allows us a Chris F. Holm collection. Discount Noir.  A really cool sperm-bank-thieving collection from our own Byron Quertermous. And John McFetridge's own excellent collection of stories here. (pdf download)

Are ebooks the solution? Heck, I'm not sure what the problem is. Ebooks aren't the reason all those people got fired when Dan Brown's new book was late. The problem there was that publishing is set up for the next bestseller, not the mid-list authors. This isn't news to anyone. This is How It Works, you know? If I'm the next bestseller, that's how the damn thing should work.

But the other way it works now is this -- if Chris F. Holm wants to collect his stories, now he has a way. He can do that himself, relying on the quality of the work, the prior periodical publication of those stories, and word of mouth. And that works out just fine.

Traditional publishing is great for so many things, but we're in a time now in which ebooks offer us options that we have to be ready for, another outlet for books traditional publishing isn't interested in.

Oh, one more thing. The Do Some Damage collection of airport stories is available this week -- for Kindle over at Amazon. The book is called TERMINAL DAMAGE and you might be able to find it here. I uploaded this ebook on Sunday and it will take until Monday to become available. Which seems like a long time, you know, in the ebook world.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pitchforks and Torches

by: Joelle Charbonneau

This week Amazon came under attack for a book that was self-published under their on-line publishing program. If you're on twitter or Facebook, you've probably heard about it. People clamored for Amazon to remove the book because of the content. I’m not one for banning books. I think that's a slippery slope whose navigation causes more damage than good. However, in this instance, even I was ready to get out a pitchfork and torch. I didn’t think I would ever go there, but I learned that a how-to pedophilia guide will cause that kind of reaction. Go fig.

Since the bru-ha-ha began, the book has been removed from Amazon, but not before a brave reviewer decided to read and post her thoughts on the book. Her review is a thoughtful attempt at objectivity about a book whose subject is inflammatory and unsettling. I applaud her ability to do so and thank her for reading the book to help me better form my own opinion.

However, after reading the review, I realized that this book is a symptom of a bigger problem. Everyone in the publishing universe is talking about the rise of e-books and how they are the wave of the future. I don’t dispute this – although you will probably have to pry paper books out of my cold, dead hands before I switch to reading on a screen. I like paper. I can’t help it. Still, this book, despite its horrific content shows why self-published e-books have a long way to go. Amazon allows anyone to upload their books onto the site and publish them. That sounds great in theory. No need to be rejected by publishers or agents and no need to share the profits. Type THE END on your book, format the sucker and get it out there so the reading public can discover you.


Or not.

The thing is, too many books, like the one called into question this week, are not ready to be published. In traditional publishing, the editors and agents act as screeners. They do their best to ensure a book has correct spelling and a readable sentence structure. Are mediocre or bad books published despite these gatekeepers’ best efforts? You betcha. But someone has done their upmost to make sure the book is professionally produced no matter what the content.

That isn’t the case on Amazon. Yes, an author can hire a freelance editor to go over their work before publishing, but how many of them do? I’ve looked at a number of excerpts and free reads that have been self-published. Some are interesting and well-crafted. Unfortunately, at least half of the ones I have seen, like this week’s How-To Guide, have terrible spelling and grammar. A new author is going to have not only a harder time getting noticed amongst the large quantities of books on Amazon, these poorly crafted and nearly unedited books are going to make it harder for the electronic book reader to take a risk on a new author.

The NY Times this week announced that starting next year they will begin publishing an e-book best seller list. What do you want to bet the same names who appear on the Hardcover or Paperback lists will appear on the e-book list? In this economic climate, readers are being careful with their money. If they have tried an Amazon self-published book with poor spelling or grammar, how likely do you think they will be to try another one? I’m betting they won’t unless given a darn good reason.

So I guess what I am saying is that I’m not a believer of the Amazon model – yet. (Yeah – I’m betting a bunch of folks are going to get out their pitchfork and torches and come after me now. That’s okay. I have my sneakers on and can run fast.) The lack of gatekeepers means more authors can be “published” but until the reading public can trust the quality of those books, the ones who will really be cashing in are the authors who are part of the traditionally publishing model.

What do you think? Do you think a new author has a chance to be noticed in the glut of books listed on Amazon and if yes – how do they get noticed? Do you plunk down your money on unknown authors (and not ones you’ve met on twitter or Facebook – but true unknowns)? If so, why?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Cutman" by Christa Faust

Scott D. Parker

When I discovered Christa Faust back in 2008 with her excellent novel Money Shot, I started looking for other things she had written. Lo and behold I found that I already had a Faust-penned short story in A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, edited by Megan Abbott, published by Busted Flush Press. Judging an author by one book or story can be tricky. You only get a pattern the more you read. And, upon reading two stories by Faust, all I’ve got to say is watch out, brother, she’ll slay you with her words as soon as look at you.

A cutman is the guy at the side of a boxing ring whose sole job is to stop fighters from bleeding. Except that the Cutman in Faust’s story is a woman. But not just any woman. She is a self-described “big, ugly dyke” but she does her job well. And men respect her for it.

But not all men. Santiago Diaz, a fighter, doesn’t give the nameless Cutman a second look. He’s the boyfriend of the girl—Mia “Tinkerbell” Ortega—the Cutman loves and wants to be with. When Mia ends up in the hospital, suffering from injuries sustained in a “car accident” or “a fall,” the Cutman knows the truth. And knows who to blame. That’s when she decides to kill Diaz.

Like all good short stories, the ending is not what you see coming. Or, perhaps, you do, if you’ve got a twisted mind. Well, a lot of us do and we’re drunk on stories in books, TV, and film that ram the formulaic down our throats and tell us it’s something new. I’ll admit that I saw part of the ending coming, or rather, as I was reading the story, I thought “Wouldn’t it be interesting if this happened?” It did. Still, the story gives me a punch in the face when it happened.

If you listen to Faust in interviews, you’ll get an honest, blue-collar vibe from her: she’s just a storyteller, a 9-to-5er who bangs out prose like other people mine coal or work a diner. But she’s gifted, especially with short, powerful sentences that can evoke a feeling in you that other authors need a paragraph or more to do. Here’s her narrator describing the boxing hall: “The raw, animal sound of the crowd. The fighters’ wordless language of grunts and heavy breath and the dull slap of leather against flesh. The smell of sweat under hot lights.” This isn’t Madison Square Garden. This is something old, beat-up, somewhat dingy where rules might be tossed if the price is right.

Stories, whether novels or short stories, need that killer opening line to reel us in and make us read the story. “Cutman” has two. The first line sets the hook: “Just because I’m a cutman, doesn’t mean I’m a man.” Okay, that’s intriguing, and, for folks like me, I needed to keep reading just to figure out what a cutman actually was. But then Faust reels me in with this sentence: “I guess you heard about what happened with Mia?” Okay, if you didn’t already have me, now I’m really there.

But I was already there. Faust has a way with prose that is not just workmanlike. Her characters sing with authenticity. She’s good. And I’ll read anything she writes. You should, too.

Friday, November 12, 2010

"Its good to talk..."

By Russel D McLean

Last Saturday, Fife Libraries hosted a Reader’s Day. Now an annual event, they invite readers to come and mix with authors for a full day of discussion on books. In the morning, the readers split into groups with an assigned author to talk about a book that means a great deal to the author. In the afternoon, they talk to the author about the author’s own work.

It’s a great day, mixed in with panel discussions, quizzes and all kinds of other fun stuff.

But I wanted, today, to talk about my morning session, in which I sat in a room full of Fife’s finest readers to talk Race, Responsibility and A Psychopath Named Mouse as we discussed Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress.

I chose the book because for my money it was one of the first to open my eyes about what crime fiction could really do. It talked about a time and a place that was alien to me and did so in a way that seemed utterly natural and so completely involving that it never once felt like I was “learning” anything. And it talked about issues I had been lucky to avoid, but which I soon understood upon completing the book, or at least felt I had been exposed to.

I chose the book because I had a feeling maybe some of the readers in Glenrothes, Fife, might have the same experiences.

And they didn’t disappoint.

It was interesting to note that only one person in the room was already a convert, and that only one other person admitted they wanted to read Mosley before I put him on the list. Everyone else had been unsure what to expect.

But they all loved the book. And not just because the person who chose the book was in the room. These guys had all gone deep into the text, coming out with opinions and ideas about the book that really got discussion going. The matter of responsibility came up, particularly around the character of Mouse, who everyone felt was more than just the “psycho sidekick” and who toyed wonderfully with their emotions. Charming one minute, and repulsively amoral the next, one woman said she didn’t like him at all, but was so interested to know more about who he was and where he came from, which is why she was so torn when he got away with some terrible things in the novel.

We talked about entering another person’s shoes. How to us, Easy Rawlins lived in world we didn’t know, but by seeing through his eyes we came to understand that world and talk about issues of equality and tolerance. How it wasn’t just about race, but about money and power. How the book was as much about class as anything else, that we could relate parts of Easy’s world to things we knew much closer to home.

In other words, we talked about the book. And we made connections between each other in that room. What happened was that a disparate group of people shared ideas and talked about how a book perhaps changed the way they thought of things or opened them to ideas they hadn’t considered.

I talked a lot when on tour about how bookshops and libraries are more than places of commerce. They are about community. They are places where people come to talk and discuss and debate. Not anonymously or across distance but face to face. Person to person.

The reading of books is a solitary activity in one sense, but the true joy comes in the dissection and discussion of a tale. In the back and forth of ideas and opinions. Its what I love about touring, why I think bookstores and libraries are marvellous places when run with such ideas in mind. In the end its about ideas and reactions. Reading books is an ongoing conversation that starts between reader and text and evolves long beyond that from reader to reader, constantly changing, refining, redefining. I dread to think what the world will be like if this conversation ever ends.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Winter's Bone (Live Blog)

This is one of my old favorite tricks. I'm going to liveblog my comments while watching Winter's Bone. Now, I've never read the book or any Woodrell, so I have no idea what's in store.

Of course, since I'm doing this Wednesday night and you'll be reading it Thursday morning, it won't exactly be "live," but you get the point. Now, if these damn unskippable trailers at the beginning of Netflix would end, we could get going....Here there be spoilers.

8:00 pm: Here we go. Kids on trampolines... so noir. I think they had a panel on it at NoirCon this year.

8:04: First gun sighting. It's ROTC though, so that doesn't count, right?

8:06: Now there's an ax. I am sure this is going to be bloody.

8:10: Stakes meet main character. Main character . . . stakes.

8:14: Thank God I'm not a child of the ADD generation, otherwise my attention would be slipping because of all this whispering.

8:22: This girl's dad has some crappy friends. Also, they don't believe in painting their walls.

8:25: Don't know why I keep forgetting the main character's name. Each scene starts with her introducing herself as "Rhee."

8:28: Throughout this movie Rhee has been offered coke, weed, meth, and a mysterious liquid in a thermos cup. The latter is the most frightening. Did you see the woman who offered it?

8:29: She's also been grabbed and pushed twice so far. Her response "GET OFF ME!" Did not fight back. Nothing funny here, just summarizing.

8:34: Oooh, teaching kids how to shoot rifles. More noir than trampolines? Debatable.

8:36 Hey! Musical interlude. The old lady band!

8:40: Waiting for the characters to break into a 4 hour conversation on what noir is... but whisper it.

8:47: Drugs drugs drugs drugs.... shot of the sky...

8:53: OOOOOH girl just took a thermos cup of liquid to the face. AWESOME.

9:01 Sorry, this movie is pretty compelling...


9:08: A military man talking someone out of being in the military? Any recruiter I've ever met is annoying as all git out trying to get you TO join up.


9:16: Awesome scene right there. "Is this gonna be our time?"

9:24: Don't DO IT!!!


9:27 Please pardon me, I'm still mid-ew.

9:32: Musical interlude #3? Yeah, it appears so.

9:34: What I've learned about Noir. Chickens, trampolines, banjos, and children.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Upbeat Noir?

John McFetridge

Is that an oxymoron? Does noir have to be a downer? Certainly for anything to be treated as ‘serious” these days it needs to be downbeat, depressive, even defeatist.

Pretty much every serious TV show from the past ten years has been a downer; Tony Soprano was in therapy (was he suffering from depression?), no one was ever happy on The Wire, Breaking Bad is about a guy with lung cancer getting ready to die, Rome, Deadwood (wow, Deadwood, could you be more of a downer?), Boardwalk Empire, Treme, Mad Men, Rubicon – all these shows do is mope around. They’re pathologically depressed.

Is it the zietgiest these days?

It’s taking me back to my youth in the 70’s, back when every movie seemed to end on a down note. At the time Pauline Kael said it was the result of Hollywood being unable to tell stories about the war in Vietnam – war movies were Audie Murphy and John Wayne and the triumphs of the allies.

I have a slightly different theory that says after World War Two there was a fear of a new world being created in which the “common” people might actually have a say and the powerful laid a “beat down” on them. Oh, it wasn’t just a beating, it was a carrot and a stick – the carrot was a good economy and a house in suburbs and the stick was enforced conformity and no complaining allowed (even if you were the wrong colour or you were a single mother or someone else who wasn’t getting any carrots).

A good example, I think, is the movie The Best Years of our Lives which was released in 1946 and actually feels more like a post-Vietnam movie, all those guys with post-trauamatic stress not being able to do their old jobs, especially now that their bosses are the guys who didn’t go to war, or having only one arm and not being able to work. It swept the Academy Awards but a year later the HUAC trials started up again, ten Hollywood writers went to jail, thousands of people lost their jobs and were blacklisted and movies were no longer critical of any aspect of post-war life and certainly no one had any trouble adjusting to life in the suburbs where it was all happy days all the time. The Peter Seeger song, “Now That It’s All Over” explains the era quite well, I think, with the lines, “There’s plenty of men struttin’ around/That’ll have to be put back down.”

And then TV emerged as the dominant medium and a production code was voluntarily adopted by the networks (or forced on them by advertisers, reports vary ;) that not only required Rob and Laura Petrie to sleep in single beds and wouldn’t allow Lucille Ball to be “pregnant,” but also required all crimes to be solved, all cops to be good guys and all bad guys to be completely bad – born that way. Oh yeah, homosexuals had to die in the end.

By the 70’s the damage was done (or the code was a success, if you prefer) and the post-war world looked a lot like the pre-war world – individual wealth was always good and unions were always bad. The political spectrum started in the middle and moved to varying degrees of the right. The carrot wasn’t needed so much, the economy took its first downturn and even the stick wasn’t needed so much, happiness didn’t have to be enforced and the production code (remember it was voluntary) slipped away.

And the movies started to have downer endings.

So what’s going on today? How come all these characters are depressed or dysfunctional?

I can understand the cops, I guess, having to fight this seemingly endless, losing battle with crime but why are the criminals so depressed?

Is it because they aren’t sociopaths and even they wish the world was in better shape?

Is it just cyclical? Star Wars pretty much ended the bleak 70’s downer endings movies and started up the happy endings again, have we just passed into the next cycle, the depressive TV show?

Does this trend have anything to do with the world at large? Is it even a trend?

What do you think?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bored Of Edukation

By Jay Stringer

After yesterdays great post from the Weddle, I was tempted to change my plan. I thought maybe I should make you all jealous of how I spent my weekend, but I realised that lying in bed and shouting at the passing seagulls is not a very glamorous existence.

So, back to plan A.

Over on my own site I've been running a few pieces on living with dyslexia. Being such a big comic book geek, I like the occasional crossover, so I'm finishing the series here at DSD. In the first two entries I talked about some of the every-day problems that I can encounter, as well as a few early indicators to look out for in a child. Today I want to look more about the positive side.

I wouldn't trade it for the world.

At the end of my last piece I said that the only job I've found so far that suits the way my brain works is to be a writer. First I want to expand that a little bit; it's being a story teller. When I was a film student there were a great many things I sucked at. I couldn't direct my way out of a paper bag, my acting was appalling, and my time-keeping was non-existent. The one thing I did really well was editing. I could sit in that booth and piece together a story from raw footage quicker -and at the time I liked to think- better than anyone else. Moving all of those pieces of the story around on the screen, cutting, stretching, stealing. Remembering two lines of dialogue that we had in one piece of footage that would fix the problem with had with a scene five minutes further on, editing the ending so that I knew what the beginning had to be like. These were all things that just felt natural to my 3-d brain. A story has a shape, a structure and a feel, and it felt very organic to me.

Back to the writing. It might sound crazy. How can someone who struggles so much with words say that writing is his best fit?

Something that gets overlooked -and often destructively so- is the big difference between writing and spelling.

Spelling is just a hang up. It's a set of rules and guidelines about how we should contain our ideas on the page. If we include grammar in that, then it becomes even more restrictive. At the risk of offending a few people, it becomes even more anal retentive. These rules are constantly changing. Spelling is as relative as Einstein's time. It varies from country to country, generation to generation. The rules that people try to enforce these days bares little in common with the writings of Chaucer, but the spoken word still has a lot in common with the old fella.

So these things change, and yet people get beaten into trying to conform to one thing or another. You know the surest way to make sure a dyslexic child doesn't progress? Try and force him into those rules. Hell, I still can't say the alphabet, and I couldn't explain grammar to you if my life depended on it.

But writing is different, just as with my extended example of video editing. It's taking a block of text, or a blank page, and arranging patterns around until it looks right, until those patterns click together in a way that is telling a story, and has an ebb and flow, a rhythm. It's 3D mapping; taking the structure and flipping it, spinning it, chopping it. Beating on it until it's the right shape.

Writing is about meaning, story, voices and memories. And these are all things that a dyslexic brain is naturally attuned to.

Back when I was being diagnosed, the psychologist showed me a painting of a tree-house. I was allowed to look at it for a short amount of time before it was taken away, then I was asked questions about it. Now short term memory can be a bit of a problem, because we access information in a different way. Many of the questions I was being asked were making me feel stupid, because I simply couldn't remember the answers. But then she asked me one that wasn't about remembering unimportant facts and details. Is there anybody in the tree-house? She asked. Yes, I said. How do you know? Because there was no ladder hanging down from the door. Someone must have already climbed up and pulled the ladder in after them.

Of course, straight after giving me the chance to feel clever like that, she then went and asked me to say the months of the year in reverse order. Secretly I think she only did it to laugh at me.

Einstein was dyslexic. A man who couldn't even find his way home managed to change the way we see the universe. The theory of relativity is so simple and so obvious that it takes someone with a different view of the world to come along and see it.

I think I'm a better story-teller because the written word is like a second language to me. My mother and grandfather filled my head with stories and songs when I was young, so I had an understanding of structure, pacing and character from a very early age. At an age when other kids might have been starting to fill their heads with the rules of the language game, I was pre-occupied with images and stories. Later I learned to read through comic books, I was getting to grips with narrative more than rules. And then like a novelist who won't let facts get in the way of a good story, I came to the written word unwilling to let English get in the way of what I wanted to say.

(Which didn't lead to good grades, but that's another story.)

I have another example of how dyslexia helps me as a writer, but you'll need to bear with me for another tangent.

I've picked up a reputation as an adult for having a good sense of direction. Generally I can find my way anywhere on foot, and I never get lost. That last part is not really true. I'm lost all the time but it's the way that I do it that counts. As a child I was known for having no sense of direction. I could get lost on the way from the living room to the bathroom. This is another trait quite common in dyslexics (I mentioned Einstein earlier. Google 'Einstein red door,' for a laugh.)

What I realised as I grew up was that I had a way around my problems with direction. It seemed to me that everyone else could handle sequences and facts. Their brains could work in MS DOS, and there was a logical progression to information that meant they could also find their way where they wanted to go. It was simple; turn here, then here, then turn left, then turn right. Job done.

I couldn't do that. I would lose track of the sequence by the second or third turn. My brain was a desktop window, it filed information differently, and the key was to use visual cheats. Now, this could be the way everybody does it, I don't know, but it didn't seem that way as a child. I couldn't think in terms of a flat map on a piece of paper, because that had no relevance to me finding where I wanted to go in the real world. So I started 3D mapping. Everywhere I go, every time I walk past a street, or into a room, or get off the bus, my mind is adding to my 3d map. Each street is added in and connected up to the last one that I saw. I'm always seeing not where i am, but where i am in relation to everything else, and so I can give the impression of never being lost. That's also why I found Manhattan so easy to navigate so quickly. Once you get your head around the fact that the centre is a grid, and then add in the bits around that off the grid, you always know where you are on the island. That's what I'm doing all the time.

Now, how the hell does that long winded crap relate to writing?

Okay, I did promise, so here goes.

I've said before that I'm one of the 'seat of the pants' writers. I don't plan things out and I don't use much in the way of notes. But the truth isn't really that simple. As with the video editing, as with arranging shapes on a page, and as with my sense of direction, my brain is always building the story. As I walk down each page and turn every chapter, the model of the story in my head expands. So I always know exactly where I am in the narrative, and have a pretty solid idea of what's behind the next door.

So across the 3 pieces -one today at DSD and two over on my site- I've tried to show a little of my side of things. I've probably not done it justice; I couldn't explain how my brain works anymore than anybody else could explain theres. It's like Elvis Costello dancing about architecture, it just don't work.

But one thing I hope I have gotten across is that you'll rarely hear me complaining about it. And that's because dyslexia rules. I wouldn't have it any other way.