Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Stages of a Writer's Life

Scott D. Parker

For any writer out there who has completed a story, you know the thrill of typing that last period on the last sentence of the last page of a story. It's pretty darn exciting. For any writer who has ever finished a novel, the feeling is even more exhilarating. The day I completed my first book, I was on cloud nine. I felt as if I was on the tallest mountain on earth. I was grinning ear-to-ear and pretty much told everyone within shouting distance that I, Scott Parker, had actually completed a novel. Too bad I didn't speak Spanish or the lawn guys outside my office building would have been told about my awesome book.

The same is true when you see something you’ve written in published form, be it electronic or paper. Last year, when my story landed within the electronic walls of Beat to a Pulp, I again visited cloud nine. It was a great week here at the Parker household since that was also the same week my wife was one of the artists featured on the HGTV program “That’s Clever.” Cut to this year with our own Do Some Damage anthology, Terminal Damage, and the feeling repeated itself.

When you have a new product or a complete project, it’s had for a writer to shut up about it. When you’re in a drought, you pray that no one asks you the dreaded question: What are you working on nowadays?

I did not have a good writing year in 2010 and I’ve only myself to blame. I’ve known it for a long time, but I was always able to push it away and justify any excuse in my mind. After all, if it’s a mental conversation, no one but me, myself, and I hear it.

Over the Thanksgiving break, we joined my wife’s extended family in Louisiana. It was the first time I’d seen many of these folks for six to ten years. A long time. I met cousins who hadn’t been born the last time I was in Louisiana. Since most of the readers of the family know I’m a writer, the dreaded question reared its ugly head...more than once.

Standing there, face to face with another person, having to explain away a bad non-writing year, well, it sucks. The feelings generated inside made me feel small, stupid, and almost worthless. All the weirdo justifications I’ve told myself I went ahead and said out loud, and they sounded so inane to the ear. All those good feelings--the ones you experience when you finish a story--seemed so, so far away.

For anything (everything?) in life, you can’t just experience good things. Frankly, that’s boring and monotonous. You have to experience the bad, the dark valley, to know what the mountain feels like. But many of the things you experience are outside of your control.

Not so writing. You control when you write and when you don’t. You own it all. Excuses can only go so far. After awhile, its a choice not to write. And, to be brutally honest, for the most part this year, I’ve chosen not to write. It’s a sucky feeling when I realized it over the Thanksgiving break.

And it’s one I won’t forget in 2011. In fact, it’s already driving me nuts that I wasted so much time doing nothing this year. Joelle, in her column last week, wrote that we need to give ourselves permission not to write. I agree. But I will add an addendum: when you’ve blown off writing, own that, too. Don’t blame anything or anyone else. Blame yourself. I know I do.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"I need one million dollars by nine o'clock tonight or I'll be left to die in this coffin..."

By Russel D McLean

I have to say this, I wasn’t a fan of Ryan Reynolds. Sure he could be passable when he wanted (Amityville Horror, one of the few partway decent performances in the otherwise appalling Smokin’ Aces) but on the whole crap like Van Wilder: Party Liaison and Just Friends* just made me turn the other way. And lets not mention his turn as "Deadpool" in Wolverine So you can imagine I wasn’t so sure about going to see Buried.

After all, it was billed as basically an hour and a half of Ryan Reynolds.


In a box.

But that was what intrigued me, too. Although CSI had done the whole “buried alive” thing for Quentin Tarrantino’s two-part extravaganza several years ago, that story had ventured beyond the coffin. Here we, the audience, were to be stuck with Reynolds for the duration of the movie.

It could be more torture than I was ready to imagine.

Or it could be wonderful.

Because the idea really appealed. Never leaving the coffin? That was going to stretch the director and the writers to the limit. After all, how much room is there in a coffin for a cast?

True, they gave Reynolds a cellphone so we hear other people, but all our reactions, all our information comes from Reynolds.

Which is why I was blown away by the movie.

The man holds it. He really does. Selling the isolation and the fear,. Reynolds has a great deal to do through the course of the film and runs the risk of selling only one note. But surprisingly he creates a multi-layered character, often more in his physical and facial reactions than anything else. We’re feeling the pain as he struggles to get a bag left for him at the bottom of the box, which is too small to allow him proper turning space. We get the fear when other creatures start to break into the box. When he realises that he running out of air. And we feel the connection when he tries to phone his wife.

But there’s humour here, too. Of the blackest variety. As Reynolds attempt to find someone to pay the ransom to let him out of the box (he’s being held as a prisoner of war by insurgents, it seems) he struggles to get anyone to believe him. And as he struggles to find someone to help him, he can see the insanity in all the red tape when all he wants is to be let out of the box. He is, after all innocent. Right?

The witty script tends to play with audience perceptions, and the twists and turns come fast as we come to realise certain truths along with Reynolds. At one point, the small audience in the cinema was holding back unconfortable during a memorable talk with Reynold’s US employers that twists and turns on itself in a way many of us, I suspect, related to on a less dramatic level.

But of course, one has to wonder, how this works as a film. If we’re constricted to a box, how can the film be visually interesting?

What about lighting?

Camera angles?

Don’t worry, because the direction is visually smart and snappy. At once natural and stylised. The lighting comes from cell phones, malfunctioning flashlights and green phosphorus. We see what Reynold’s character sees except for a couple of smart shots that serve to remind us how trapped Reynolds is in his situation. The camera breaks the fourth wall for a moment, and you see the box and the darkness, realising how utterly alone it is inside. When the lights go out, we experience a black screen and the sound of Reynold’s harried breathing is unsettling in the extreme. How would it work at home? I don’t know, but in the cinema, you are as trapped as the man in the box, and this only serves to intensify the situation.

As for action, there is a surprising amount of it packed into the confines of a coffin. The movie never allows you become complacent. The danger is real. The danger is unexpected. Its about more than just an air supply, and the shocks come faster as the movie moves to its climax.

At just under an hour and a half, the movie is the perfect length. And leaves you wondering until the last few moments just how things are going to turn out. As we left the cinema that evening, our small but absorbed audience walked in silence, only breathing when they got outside into the fresh air and then dissolving into chatter about the movie and what happened.

*where he was stretched in his acting by being forced to wear a fat suit

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Myth is Wrong; People Read More Now

People are reading more now than they did years ago.

Now authors, publishers, and booksellers will probably tell you that isn't true. No one reads anymore, they say. But, wait, hear me out, it's true. These days people read articles, manuals, texts, message boards, emails, blogs, hilarious Twitter posts, lists, Facebook statuses (stati?), signs and books. People can understand what they're saying in each. Internet language is different than short hand, is different than text speak, is different than a sentence in books.

Think about that. It's almost as if people who read now can read several different languages and process most of it. But people don't read anymore.

I have friends who never read when they were kids reading a ton now. When you go to the beach, on a bus, or on a vacation, there are people reading everywhere.

But people don't read anymore.

No, the problem isn't people reading. The problem is people read slower, and therefore don't buy as many books.

When I was in college, I didn't have cable TV. I didn't have video games for the first two years I was in college either. I had studying, I had parties, I had work, and I had crime fiction novels. I used to read two to three books a week.

Now, I'm lucky if I read a book every two weeks.

Consider this, it used to be authors had to compete with TV. Now they have to compete with the internet, TV, video games, and cell phones. People have less time to read. And they want to read what they enjoy.

That's a very small window.

So, what can we--as authors--do? Write better books, of course. You have to connect with your audience. Stephanie Myer, Stieg Larsson, JK Rowling, and Nicholas Sparks all were able to tap a nerve in a large audience. They connected. They were able to get their audience to forget about all the other stuff, and just read their books. Even for a little while.

At the same time, authors, you need to write what you want to write. Don't try to hit the market, because you don't what the market is going to be. Vampires and Zombies are hot now. In a year, who knows, maybe ketchup and mustard romances will be all the rage. Write what you know, and write what you enjoy.

And what can we--as readers--do? Read a book you enjoy? Tell someone about it. Suggest it. Lend it to another person to read, especially if the author has a backlist. Buy books, and give books as gifts. People will read, and they usually trust a friend's suggestion.

And what can publishers do? This is tricky. Clearly everyone wants to publish the next Larsson, the next Rowling. You could shoot for that, true. But you could also go the cable TV route, and consider that more and more entertainment is becoming a niche world. There's so much out there that there isn't going to be a HUGE audience for much of anything. Publish the books you like, and promote them to the right audience. Advertise in those niche magazines. Got a horror series? Advertise during THE WALKING DEAD comics. Don't be afraid to publish small books. If they're good, they'll find an audience. And who knows? Maybe one of those books you think will be small will turn out to be huge. Word of mouth goes a long way.

I really believe the world is smarter now than it was fifty years ago. I also think people are afraid of change. Do people read less now? No, they read more.

They just divide their reading up into many different mediums.

Publishing needs to be the medium that grabs their attention. Book is still our most traditional form of entertainment.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Do You Think Like a Criminal?

John McFetridge

The opening voice-over on the show Castle says, "There are two kinds of folks who sit around thinking about how to kill people, psychopaths and mystery writers," but there are a lot more crimes than murder in crime fiction and we writers have to think about those, too.

A while ago I came across a story about some drug dealers who were tipped to the police because the money counting machines in their apartment were so loud they kept the neighbours up all night.

So, as I was researching money counters (which, by the way, now say how quiet and fast they are on their webpages) I came across this video clip on YouTube explaining how the money counting app for iPhones works:

Makes perfect sense to me, this is an app for drug dealers (or hookers) making a lot of cash deals and then making payments to their, um, "bosses," in parked cars and nightclub bathrooms and alleys - in a hurry so they aren't seen together by the cops or even by other criminals.

And then I read the comments and noticed that other people don't think like criminals. They commented that the counting app was off by two bills and that it couldn't differenciate between bills.

I quickly wrote a scene into the novel I'm working on that shows the money counting app in action, but then I wondered, is it good to think like a criminal all the time?

Castle fnishes his voice over with, "I'm the kind that pays better," and that may be true between psycopaths and mystery writers, but when it comes to writers of other kinds of crimes, that's not usually true.

I'm never going to need the money counting app for my iPhone

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Leaving The Dump

The Third Draft Problem

By Jay Stringer

Weddle's post yesterday was well timed.

I just finished the third draft of book 2, and the dump was one of the key battles in this draft. My first manuscript, OLD GOLD (under submission right now, plug plug) was a novel written by accident. I started writing a short story, and then kept going until I had a moody hardboiled mess of around 80,000 words. There was never a plan for it to be a novel, so all of the lessons I learned on that first one were about editing and re-structuring. Between the first and second drafts I changed the protagonist; in draft the first it was a barman, in draft the second I realised that one of the customers at the bar was far more interesting. Then I hacked and I chopped and I rewrote. I took advice and I honed and I cried and occasionally I wet the bet. (wait, did I say that out loud?) But at the end of it I had a tight little novel that I'm proud of.

But for the second book I found a whole new heap of problems. This was the first time I'd actually planned to write a book. How the hell do you do that? Well, if you're me, you don't. You know what themes you want to wrestle with, you know what happens in the first line, and you have a pretty clear idea of where you want it to end. Sit and type. Wait for the characters to start bossing you around. It's all fairly simple. (simple and easy are two different things.)

The first lesson I learned was that the first draft of the second book was exactly the same process as the first draft of the previous one. The only difference was the editing of the first one had clearly honed my voice somewhat, because straight off the bat I used about 20,000 fewer words. I had learned to get to the point. (I know that you might be finding that hard to believe right now.)

So the new process has gone something like this.

DRAFT ONE- Throw a load of words onto a page and try and find a good ending for it all.

DRAFT TWO- Take out as much of the crap as I can, and find my characters amidst all the sludge.

DRAFT THREE- Okay bub, the easy part is done. Now you gotta make this into a story. You got your plot and your characters, but now they gotta work together.

So somewhere in the second draft I figured out which characters needed to drive the story, and what their stake in the whole thing was. For the third draft I had to make sure that the characters and the plot were serving each other. Because if you know what happens, why it happens and who it happens to then you're on the road to having a story.

Which is where Weddle's dumping ground comes into it.

Fir the third draft I gave myself a rule. I am not in the book.

These are my characters. They are my words and they form a story I want to tell. Each little bit of the book's DNA has me in it. But aside from all that, I had to make sure I wasn't talking directly to the reader.

To follow that rule meant getting pretty hard on myself. If information needed to be put across, then it needed to be put across by a characters words or actions. One sub plot I'll dangle out there is that a character in the book has a drug problem. But, see, he has a problem, so he's not going to tell the reader about it. He's sneaky like that. And it's not really going to come up in conversation, because that would be contrived. So how the hell to let the audience know?

The answer was the scary part; trust. I show the character taking pills. I let him say it's medication. But then I also show that he won't let anyone else in the book see him take them, and I know the reader will pick up on it if they want to. And if they don't want to, hell, they still have a plot to enjoy.

One of the characters has fallen for one of the other characters, but doesn't realise it. That's a fun piece of information to try and get across when your main tool -your character- is being stupid. Again, I just decided to only show the things that it made sense to show.

The hard part of the rule was that there was a lot of information that I couldn't get across without stepping into the narrative. If it failed the test, it got stripped out of the book.

The dump takes on a few interesting added dimensions when it's the second book in a closely knit series. You need to give the reader information about what has happened in the previous book, without giving away too much. And that's a fine balance to try and find.

For instance, in book 2 I could tell you that Timmy fell down the stairs 9 months previously. You needed to know that to understand why he has a limp, a drug problem and a fear of stairs. But I didn't need to tell you that he was pushed down the stairs by the serial killing elf from Pluto. That way, if you go back and read the first one you have an idea of what happens at some point, but not why or how. You're still going to choke on your squash when you find out that his best friend, an elf from Pluto, is the serial killer.

So it's not just judging how and where to dump the information, it's judging which bits of information you need to dump more than once. Somewhere in the first 50 pages of every Matt Scudder novel he tells us about the girl that he accidentally killed. Was it always needed?

There was a time when every single Batman story would tell us that his parents were brutally slain and that cowards are a superstitious and cowardly lot. Did that always have a bearing on why he was about to punch the Joker in the face? No, not really.

But sometimes it did.

Sometimes we needed to know that lonely alcoholic Matt Scudder once accidentally killed a girl, and lit a candle for her every night. Sometimes we needed to know that Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents being killed. Sometimes the character and the story demanded that we know.

And these are all parts of the fun battle with the dump that I've been having. Not just how to get the information across, but also which information needs to be there.

And once you've fought those battles, and you're climbing free of the dumping ground and leaving it behind, there's one more hurdle for the second book to clear. The damned ending.

This might be a trilogy, it might be a quartet. Truth is, I won't know until I've nailed the first draft of the third book. But either way, book 2 has a problem. It's the middle of the story. It's building directly on what happened before, and it's leading directly to what follows.

But the book needs to stand. It has to be a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It has to satisfy. As much love as we all throw at The Empire Strikes Back, and as much as that ending might have blown our minds when we were kids, it does a lousy job of standing on it's own as a story. It's just a couple of hours of middle, with some cool fight scenes and one of Harrison Fords finest moments.

But for my tastes, and for what I want to do with these books, I would be doing a disservice to the book and the readers if I pulled something like that. So the challenge was, how to fashion a beginning, a middle, and an end from what is all the middle of a larger story? How to serve the reader who only reads book 2 just as much as I serve the one who reads all three?

I know how I did it, but that's a post for another time. For now, all of these are just a few of the challenges that I'm labelling The Third Draft Problem. (That is, until I have to write a fourth.)

But what good examples can you think of writers who've managed to serve both sets of readers? Which books have stood just as well alone as they do when put in their place with the larger story?

And who wants to call me a jackass for taking my latest shot at Star Wars?

Monday, December 6, 2010

To The Dump

By Steve Weddle

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: Today at the DSD Goodreads group, we get to discussing Benjamin Whitmer's PIKE. Please join in the discussion:


Something all writers fight with. Yeah, sometimes it's the what. What's the story about. What's the angle? The conflict. Sometimes it's the where, the setting. Urban. Smell of asphalt and smog, whatever the hell. The who, the characters. The villains. A believable protag. The alcoholic cop with the ex-wife and the bad thing in his past. The when. Maybe a period piece. Set it back when you grew up. Gives it some flavor, but you don't have to work too hard on the research.

But what about the where and when in the story to put all the whats? Right? The dreaded information dump.

I can't stand that crap, you know? Maybe it's just small stuff. The character who walks past a mirror, then stops to brush back her long, dark hair. Oh, phew. She's got long, dark hair. Good to know.

Or maybe the info dump concerns something bigger. Maybe you get that from another character:
Tony walked into the sports bar, waved "hello" to Mick.
"Well, if it isn't Anthony Pagliope. Haven't seen you since nine years ago when your father ran off with all that money from the big bad guy who is still at large. Then your father died leaving you with this huge 300-page mess to clean up so that your family name can be restored and your mother can be peaceful when she dies of cancer. What brings you back to this town?"

And the stuff about the neighborhood, because setting is important. Geez, do these people in novels have some friggin amazing memories, right?
Tony walked down the street where Mrs. Mahoney used to live with her dogs. Walking by, Tony thought of the time he helped Mrs. Mahoney nurse a sick puppy that had been struck by a car, thus showing Tony's generous nature and making the reader root for him. Tony handed a bag of turkey to a crippled orphan and walked on.

The problem for the writer is having all this stuff you have to manage. The reader has to care about the characters. The characters have to be in danger. In conflict. So, the writer has to make you care about the character while the character is getting hit in the face with a cricket bat. Dude, this ain't easy.

See, this backstory is the tough stuff. You have to keep things moving along in the story while reaching back and bringing forward stuff that makes your character worth caring about. Often it's that redemption crap. You know: she screwed up something in the past and now has to make things right? But, I mean, she didn't screw up too badly. Maybe she fell in with the wrong crowd even though her mother had warned her. Then some bad junk went down. Right? She couldn't have gone out one night drinking Boone's Farm and then set fire to an orphanage. You have to care about the person. So maybe something bad happened. Maybe she did something bad. Just not too bad. And the writer has to convey that, give the reader all that information and shape the reader's thoughts about it. How are you supposed to feel when you find out that the protag robbed a church for drug money? Maybe she was on her way to give the money back when the cops caught her. She serves some time and while she's in prison, her mom dies. Boohoo. Well, maybe that's bad but not too bad. So the writer has to get all this backstory to the reader, has to dump all this information. And where? Early enough so that you care about the protag, but not so early that it hinders the almighty "flow" of whatever crap you're writing.

Of course, it doesn't have to be the protag's backstory. It can be any character's. And maybe you get it in a dream. He has these terrible dreams about what's gone wrong in his life. Or maybe he's going to a shrink. Heck, that'll open things up.

The character's face. The setting. The backstory. Have you ever been hung up -- as reader or writer -- on the information dump? Got any words of wisdom for the rest of us?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Short Subjects

As I'm working on this blog post at the local Starbucks, I find it ironic that I used to come to this same Starbucks not too long ago when I needed to escape the internet and get writing done. Now I've canceled the internet at home and Starbucks has made their internet free and here we here, the world keeps turning. One of the things I should be working on is the next post for The Flash Fiction Offensive but I just can't get my ass in gear for it. They've been very good to me and they deserve better, but it's been a rough week for me personally and, well, I'm starting to remember why I got out of the fiction editing game back when. This, along with the impending flash fiction challenge here at DSD, along with some interesting news at the Mulholland Books site has me thinking about the future of short fiction on the web.

Mulholland has already made a great name for themselves in the crime fiction community before their first title even releases. Part of this is the high caliber of projects they've announced including work from some of my favorite writers like Duane Swierczynski, Lawrence Block, and Charlie Huston. But they've also set themselves up as a community forum for all things crime fiction related. The core of this community has been thoughtful essays ranging in subject from the definition of noir fiction to a discussion of human rights in Europe. These essays are passed around through blogs and Twitter and Facebook and has other authors, myself included, salivating at the thought of being invited to submit one. Along with these essays they've also posted the occasional short story.

Now they've made the move to expand this section and it's the announcement that has me thinking about the future of short fiction. Since my beginnings in the online short fiction world I've been convinced that the only way for crime fiction to truly offer a major paying online alternative to Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines was to have an journal associated with a publisher. You see this in science fiction to various degrees with Subterranean Press and Tor.comand back around the days of the first Internet explosion in 2001 Random House sponsored an online journal called Bold Type. But there's never been anything like it for crime fiction. Until now. Mulholland has teamed up with Popcorn Fiction, a short story site originally created to promote the short fiction of screenwriters and speed their translation to the big screen. I would assume that with the new arrangement, we will see more Mulholland contributors in addition to screenwriters.

On one hand this is great. More new short fiction from great writers and the potential for some long-overdue professional recognition of online short fiction. But as of right now, there doesn't seem to be any plans to open the site for submissions beyond screenwriters and Mulholland authors. This leaves me room to plot. I'd like to see another site step up and offer an original fiction section open to submissions from all writers. The two publishers that pop immediately to mind are Minotaur Books--as their sister publisher runs the previously mentioned Tyrus Books because they've exhibited a forward-thinking strategy willing to explore non-traditional publicity solutions.

It would seem to make quite a bit of sense for the publisher. Even paying a professional rate of .05 to .10 a word for a few short stories a month would get them wonderful, targeted exposure for less than the cost of a full page ad in a major newspaper or magazine. And as we've all seen, the online fiction community is very loyal and would be more likely to buy books from a publisher they saw as a contributor to the larger community rather than a giant soulless entity.

What are your thoughts. As a writer, would you like to see more of these publisher-backed short fiction outlets pop up. And for the readers out there: If a publisher back a short fiction site you were fond of, would that inspire you to buy more of their books?