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Dragon Tattoo and see what all the hubbub is about but a question lodged itself in my brain: Is the conventional wisdom outdated?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?