Monday, January 31, 2011

And Two Make Trouble

By Steve Weddle


Our own Dave White has a short story collection out in February, coming to you from Needle Publishing. Deets here

The Do Some Damage book group over at GoodReads starts up a discussion of Lynn Kostoff's LATE RAIN (Tyrus Books) this month. Deets here


Novel writing is a pain in the ass, and not just from the sitting at the kitchen table all day.
You get an idea, you work on it. You work on it some more. You work on other stuff. You come back to it. All the time it's in the back of your head, like that chip the NSA implants in you at birth so they can control your thoughts.
You see something on the news. Damn, that's gotta go in the novel. Your wife tells you about something that happened to her at work. Bam. In the novel. You get into an argument with the auto repair guy because you know how much a friggin water pump costs and you woulda put it in your own damn self but this stupid little engine in this stupid little foreign car is in the way and you have to take half of the damn thing apart just so you can get to the friggin water pump and so you take it down to the guy who has done good work for you before and you tell him what you need done and you bring him the damn water pump that you've already bought and now he wants to hassle you over some crap you know is complete bullshit. And you want to tell him how he's sure as hell going in the novel. Assface.
So you're always working on it.
I finished it.
The novel. 
The second novel with Alex Jackson. Only, here's the weird part -- this novel also has Oscar Martello in it. I know, right? Two of my characters from different sides of the aisle meeting. It's weird. Like if Han Solo and Riker would meet. 
RIKER: Captain, I didn't have a chance. Han shot first.

Weird, wild stuff, as Johnny Carson would have said. (Kids, ask your grandparents.) The tone has to bridge between the two worlds, right? You see Oscar Martello through the eyes of Alex Jackson

So, um, yeah. The post I was going to write discussing the hermeneutics of phenomenology in the post-modern era had to go on hold while I worked some revisions.
Instead, I thought you might like a little fiction excerpt from the new novel.
Which part?
Why, the part where Oscar and Alex have a little trouble.


I walked in to Hardwick's and saw Jay serving drinks to three men. The lights were up, giving the place the feel of a restaurant. Two of the guys I didn’t recognize. One was Asian, shaped like an upside-down pyramid. Black t-shirt, khakis. One was, I’m not sure what he was. Eastern European, maybe. Like Dolph Lundgren, only a little bigger. Cowboys’ jersey. Jeans. Snake-skin boots. The third was dressed in a dark suit, white shirt. No tie. He stood, walked towards me as I came in.
“Wasn’t sure I was going to see you again,” he said.
“What can I say, Mr. Martello? I’m a trouble-maker.”
He didn’t smile.  “You should probably move along.”
“I just wanted to see Mr. Hardwick.”
“I believe he’s busy considering his options,” Martello said. “Contemplating his future.”
“I can wait.” I sat down at a table next to theirs.
The Asian guy moved towards me, but Martello waved him off, sat down next to me.
“Alex Jackson,” he said, catching me off-guard by using my first and last names. “Listen closely.” He waited until I looked at him. “I had my own plan for dealing with this situation. Clean. Final.” He was looking right into my eyes. His eyes. No color inside the white. Just a sphere of darkness. I couldn’t swallow. I wanted to swallow. The fluid building up in the back of my mouth. I couldn’t swallow. I couldn’t breathe. “I don’t like for there to be any loose ends.” He moved his hands slowly to his jacket, twisted his hand and suddenly was holding a blade, a curve of bright steel in front of him. “I appreciate having troublesome matters completely severed. Cautery is a skill, you understand. Acquired over years of practice. A steady hand. The power to burn. But it isn’t precise. You cauterize the wound, burn it closed, but you leave blisters, scars. You seal the wound, sure, but at what cost? The wound is still there, a scar perhaps as much trouble as the original problem. Much better to make a clean slice of it. Do you understand what I’m telling you?” I nodded as quietly as I could, and he continued. “But Lou said you were Jackson’s kid. Said you were a reasonable guy. I believe what he tells me. And I trust Lou, do you understand?” I nodded again, then he leaned against my ear and whispered, “Don’t make Lou Malone look like an asshole.”


More Oscar Martello and more Alex Jackson

Any of your favorite characters (writing or reading) ever meet up? Not to get all "that's what she said" but was it as weird for you as it was for me?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Warning: Unabashed, Sloppy Fandom Follows

The Edgar Award Nominations were announced last week, and I couldn't help but notice how personal the Best Novel category is for me this year. First, the nominations themselves couldn't have come at a better time. It seems like the buzz of ebook this and ebook that has gotten very loud lately and can sometimes be very overwhelming. So it was nice to be reminded that, for right now at least, books, glorious paper books, are still king and we are still a part of a vibrant mystery community producing vibrant, relevant work.

Now three of the Best Novel authors mean more to me than the others. Steve Hamilton, Harlan Coben, and Laura Lippman all started around the same time and have gone very different, yet successful ways that I think illuminate the breadth and potential of our field. Back in the mid to late 90s, when this trio was getting started and getting noticed, was when I was started to explore the field more. Coming from Science Fiction and Fantasy, I had exhausted the backlists of the authors who first drew me into the field--Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, and Robert Crais-- and was ready to see what else was out there.

The first of the three that I met was Harlan Coben. He was a regular visitor to Aunt Agatha's bookstore in Ann Arbor and even the local library near me. I found his books the way I did many others back then, scrolling through the Edgar nominee list, an noticed he'd been nominated and won several times. Since he was still new at the time, and the Internet wasn't the huge thing it is now, he was very accessible by email (an AOL address which oddly enough was the same provider as Steve and Laura initially) and we sent a few messages back and forth. fast forward to 2001 and I'm working in editorial at Bantam Dell just as Harlan is having a breakout year with his standalone TELL NOONE. He came into the office when he hit the NY Times Bestseller list and knew who I was. He still sees me and says hi at conferences though we don't email anymore.

Next came Steve Hamilton. Also, a regular visitor to Aunt Agatha's as he's from Michigan. Again, I found him due to his Edgar and Shamus nod for Best First Novel. He also had an AOL address and was very accessible, etc. I was also able to play basketball with him at my first Bouchercon in Toronto in 2004. He did some great work in his Alex McKnight series, then wrote a standalone I didn't much care for, then he wrote the book he's nominated for this year: THE LOCK ARTIST. This is one of the best crime novels of the new decade and I'm disappointed it hasn't made a bigger splash than it has.

Then there's Laura. She's the one I talk to most often, yet it's rarely about mystery books or publishing. We first started communicating through my blog as I chronicled a musical theater class I was taking and my crush on one of the girls in the class. Since then we've found a mutual interest in discussing books about writers and Dave White. Her book TO THE POWER OF THREE is still my favorite of hers, followed closely by, of course, her book about a writer, LIFE SENTENCES. This is also why it pains me to admit I haven't even read yet the book she's nominated for this year, I'D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE. It's on my desk, but was actually supplanted by a book she blurbed, NEXT by James Hynes. It's next up though, I swear. But even that her blurb would hold sway over readers of a non-crime novel is quite cool.

All three of these have come quite far since their first books. Laura and Harlan slogged through the paperback original trenches and Steve is still in the middle of the slog, I believe. I'm very excited to see what all three have is store for us as readers, for the genre, and for humanity.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Readings, They Are a'Changing

Scott D. Parker

What do you do when you see change coming? Do you silo yourself within your existing infrastructure, making sure the ramparts are safe from The Outside? Do you peek outside, wondering what the strange new thing might be, curious, but cautious? Or do you throw open the floodgates and let forth the flood of newness, willingly succumbing to the outside influence?

No, I’m not talking about the happenings in the Middle East and Africa, although those events are much more important than what I’ll be writing about today. I’m talking about reading habits and, by extension, writing habits. What do you do when you realize that the types of books (movies and TV, too) you consume show signs of changing?

I’ve been mulling that question over for a few weeks, starting late last year. Unlike a major milestone, I cannot pinpoint the moment things began to change. Only later do I realize that they are. Yes, I’m using the present tense because this is a flux time where I don’t know the ending.

If you look at my bookshelves here in my writing room--shelves culled from a larger collection now in storage--you’ll find a pretty consistent theme: SF, hard-boiled fiction, with some good noir thrown in for spice. Every book in storage is a book I’ve read. The remainder, the ones visible to me everyday, are the ones I haven’t read and want to and to which I will get around.

Someday. Right now, I just don’t want to read them. At least, not in the past couple of months. Their spines stare at me, but I don’t respond. Other books and television shows, however, have called, and I’ve answered.

Television’s a nice, visual example. My favorite shows on TV are “Castle,” “CSI: Miami,” and whatever is playing on Masterpiece Mystery/Contemporary. Common elements to these shows is a lower level of violence shown and little, if any, language issues. One of the things American network television has to do is captivate an audience for an hour without the overt use of violence and language. As much as Kate Beckett or Horatio Caine want to talk like the cops in “The Wire,” they can’t. Instead, the writers have to rely on other elements of a story to keep viewers engaged. The British do this kind of thing exceptionally well. The current Masterpiece Contemporary program is part 1 (of 2) of “Place of Execution,” a film based on a Val McDermid novel that is exceptional in its complexity of story and lack of visual violence. In one scene, officers find photos that are so bad, half of the men can’t look. Given the modern de-sensitivity to violence, some filmmakers would show the images, either as stills or as hazy flashbacks, replete with blood and whatever else those images were supposed to show.

The *not* showing is important. I’ve realized the obvious in recent weeks: my favorite TV shows focus not on the easy violence but of the crucial points of a good story. The same is true for some of the books I’ve read (and am reading). The second Richard Castle book, Naked Heat, is an excellent mystery story with nary a bit a foul language and very little violence. And, yet, it’s a page turner. I flew through it so fast and effortlessly that I did something I rarely (and loathe) to do: I re-read it, taking note of structure and pace.

Naked Heat was a darn good mystery. Another good mystery is fellow Do Some Damage scribe Joelle Charbonneau’s debut novel, Skating Around the Law*. It’s such a fun romp that it made me wonder why I overlook an entire section of mystery fiction. While the book doesn’t fall within the strict definition of a cozy, it’s clear that Joelle’s book isn’t a nihilistic noiry tale like many of us (including myself) enjoy. My latest book from New Mystery Reader is a full-blooded cozy while the third book I’m reading is a traditional mystery set in France. Couple that with the current book my SF book club is reading--a tiresome bore with death and destruction that I’ll probably won’t finish--and I’m questioning the types of stories I like to consume.

Right now, some of y’all are saying that I’m just getting old and my tastes are changing. That’s an argument I’ll grant you. At the end of the day, what will likely happen is that these new-to-me types of stories will become assimilated into the broader scope of my reading landscape. Besides, I’m the type of person who used to watch the latest episode of “Monk” and then follow it up with a full DVD of “The Wire.”

All of this pondering raises another question to go along with the ones I posed earlier: do you ever get tired of definitions? British crime dramas are “traditional mysteries” and, while some are defined as cozy (Miss Marple) others are not (Foyle’s War), they both have the same limited use of violence and language. You ask a group of ten writers the definition of “noir” and you’ll get ten answers. Our definitions of story types can probably be reduced to marketing terms, the better to sell books. I’m cool with that.

It goes without saying that this change in reading habit has also changed the types of stories my mind sees and that I write. That, however, is another post.

Of the questions I posed earlier, I think I have my own, personal answer. I’ve opened the door, curious and intrigued to see what’s out there.

What do you do when your reading habits change?

*Check my personal blog this Wednesday where I’ll be reviewing Joelle’s book for Barry Summy’s monthly Book Review Club.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Fannish Boy (or the story of a review website)

By Russel D McLean

“So whaddaya wanna call it?”

I remember shrugging. I remember we’d discussed all kinds of things. Right down to buying an old-school looking telephone, decking the place out like an Eye’s office. It would have been cool.

It would have been my bookshop.

Yeah, for those who don’t know my sordid past, there was a point I thought about opening my own store. A specialist crime store. Because, at the time, the only competition was down in London (that would have been Maxin Jakabowski’s MURDER ONE, then) and I thought I had the drive to do it. So we were really going for it. Had digs picked out, had a website designed (just not the space) and all sorts.

And we were talking about the name.

“The Crime Scene,” said my friend, Becky. And that was the one that stuck. The one we went out to buy the webspace for. Except we couldn’t get it. What we got was crimescescotland*. I worked on the design, got the shopfront built online and then…

The project fell apart. I couldn’t do it. I’m not a numbers man, and I think you need to be on some level if you’re going to run a business. So I was stuck with the webspace. What was I going to do?

That was around the time Anthony Neil Smith was doing PLOTS WITH GUNS and ezines were all the rage. Like the old fanzines I used to read when I was younger, these were online and on the screen and they were about short fiction and new writers. They were often rough around the edges, but they were exciting. And you know what, I wanted a piece of that. So I put up some short stories on the webspace. Some written by friends. Some by me under a pseudonym (one day I may reveal all). It was a bit of a laugh. But it began to grow. And suddenly we were getting real submissions. The site was a labour of love and at the time (I was a student again by then, so I had free time) it was a blur of editing – yes, we did edit the stories, sometimes quite brutally – and reviewing. And I loved it.

The site slowed down, of course, when I got full time employment. And then a few years back we became reviews only and switched to blogger to cut the costs (you can find the new site at and started keeping regular reviews going. Well I say “we” and by then it was truly, “I”. We have had some guest reviews, of course, and author interviews are always fun, but its mostly been me finding time to review that has kept things going.

I realised recently that I hadn’t been doing it for a while. And I was considering maybe just closing shop entirely. But I couldn’t. While I’m a published writer, at heart I’m still that fanboy who wants to rant and rave about the books he loves (and sometimes the books he doesn’t) and I realised that what I’ve been missing recently is the opportunity to do that. So I started writing reviews. And you know what, I’m loving it again. As a writer, doing reviews can be a useful exercise in the way that it makes you look at other writer’s books. It forces you to use the reader part of your brain which I think a great many writers have forgotten about or have suppressed. You start to look at your own work differently. Reviewing is a great thing for writers to do, especially in an honest fashion.

Anyway, today has been all about relaunching Crime Scene Scotland for me and so I couldn’t not write about it here on Do Some Damage. It started as a labour of love, a way for me to spread my fanboy enthusiasm for the genre. And it remains that way, too, even if it is on a less regular basis…

So stop on by the website. Follow us on twitter @CrimeSceneScot. Come and join the fun. You know you want to…

*the webspace is no longer owned by me, just so you know

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Guest Post: Anthony Neil Smith

Thanks to the DO SOME DAMAGE gang for letting me really rip it up. Take some action, go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble to pick it up today for only .99! After Feb. 4th, the price goes up to 2.99, so get it now. Like looting during a hurricane, folks! Grab all you can carry!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

First I Like It

Then I Decide If It's Good

John McFetridge

A few days ago I was picking up some books in my favourite Toronto bookstore, Sleuth of Baker Street (which, happily, isn’t closing but is moving to a new location very near the current location) and I was talking with one of the owners about books, of course. What we’ve read recently that we really liked, what was disappointing and why.

Well, not really why.

As we talked I started to realize that whatever reasons we were giving for liking or not liking a book were afterthoughts – intellectual justifications we’d come up with later for how we reacted emotionally to the books.

Or maybe it was just me, I don’t know.

But I’ve started to feel that all the reasons I claim to have for saying this book is better than that one are really rather pointless. There’s almost nothing to say beyond, “I like it,” or “I don’t like it.”

Sometimes it just all seems like a justification. Remember that Jeff Goldblum line in The Big Chill? A justification is more important than sex – have you ever gone a week without a justification?

But so what?

There are lot of books to help us read and write – everything from the highest of highbrow “literary theory” to how to write a mystery that sells books. Now, I haven’t read very many of these, but I did sit through enough classes at university to get a BA in english lit and looking back I don’t think I can remember one time when a professor said, “I really like this book.” The whole thing now seems like an excersize in sucking all the joy out of literature by trying to turn it into something quantifiable, measurable with some kind of ranking system.

I used to think I needed to figure out why I liked something because that would somehow help me write something I liked but now I’m not so sure.

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Song Is You?

By Jay Stringer

I have a question.

I was at a house party over the weekend for a relatives birthday. It's possibly the first time I've been to one of these things without drinking, and that makes it quite interesting at 3AM when drunk people are holding important intellectual conversations with you.

One did get me thinking. We were talking about rap music. Or the hippity hop. Or whatever the cool people are ironically mis-labelling it these days. We both agreed with the basic idea that there's some great stuff and some not so great stuff, as with any music, and that there was some that we just couldn't identify with.

We both agreed that sometimes the language can tune us out, that there's an edge of misogyny and greed to the bad stuff that leaves us cold. But then I got to thinking about those things. I love me some Pelecanos, as I've been prone to say on here, and he's written some very greedy and misogynistic characters. He gets away with it because he's a novelist and he's being true to the story and the characters rather than his own beliefs. We will follow the writer on that journey because we can see what he's doing. And I singled his name out just to make the point, but the same is true of many great writers.

We accept it of novelists. We sometimes accept it of filmmakers and actors (not always though, it's a rocky road.) But do we treat musicians differently?

We couldn't quite get our heads round that question. Each time we picked a side, we thought of an example that seemed to prove the opposite.

It was suggested to me that music is different. That a Novel gives us 80,000 words to find the context and the other points of view, but a song is only three minutes and it hits you straight away. But does that really make it any different? Is there anything that Tom Waits fails to get across to us in the 3:20 of What's He Building? that he could have better expressed with another 80,000 words? We get the full story. The difference is that a book can reveal itself to you in one reading while a song will do its magic over repeat listening.

The Mercy Seat can spend five minutes lying to you, then hit you with a parting shot of the truth, and have as much effect as a whole novel from the point of view of the unreliable narrator.

So, if there is a difference between music and prose, is it one that we bring to the table, rather than one inherent in the format itself? And do we treat different emotions differently?

For instance, we accept that Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. We know that Bruce Springsteen was never strapped into an electric chair for a string of murders and offered up the excuse,"I guess there's just a meanness in this world." We'll go with them on these flights of violent fancy because the songs tell us something, and make us feel something.

But are there acts or emotions that we're not willing to let a singer get away with?

Can we follow Springsteen, Cash, Waits and Cave on these flights of violent fancy because they represent something that we can keep at a distance? We're not all murderers and cold blooded killers. Sure, the job of the crime writers is to tap into the darker side and to make people face up to the idea that we're all capable of these things deep down. But at the same time, there is still a protective seal. There's still that element of tourism that comes with it.

But to face up to other issues gets more problematic. Writers and readers can be uncomfortable when dealing with racism, sexism, and other similar issues. Good writers again get away with it in longform because we see the merit in what's being explored. But do we give the same to songs?

Is a song about a misogynist or racist going to be written off as misogynistic or racist? Is the songwriter going to be charged with something in the way a novelist wouldn't? I'm sure we all encounter these issues all to often out in the real world. Whether it be at work, or a family member, or a friend. Someone who suddenly states an opinion that can't help but make you look at them a different way. Or even those dark moments when you realise that some of these issues have a few roots and leaves buried away in you somewhere, and that it's your own brain and judgement that helps you keep them down. We are all capable of sexism or racism just as we are with the more "glamorous" acts of crime fiction, but we encounter the former far more in our real lives, and this can make them more uncomfortable to explore.

If a song uses language we don't like, and talks about issues we don't like, should we go with the gut reaction of not listening, or should we treat it like a challenging novel and listen closer? Should we see what the use of these words and ideas is saying?

Paul Westerberg has a song that is filled with sexist language, and on first listen people have commented to me that it's misogynist. On repeated listens it becomes clear that the song is asking us to look at the attitudes of the man that's being sung about. Wilco had a song a few years back that was a breezy lilting little pop song, that then ends with the cold statement, "she begs me not to hit her."

Singing along to those songs can sometimes be a far more difficult proposition to belting out a line about shooting a man in Reno.

So the same question applies there. Is there a difference? Should there be a difference? And is it one that we bring to the table, or that is inherent in the different formats?

And just before I duck out of here, a quick plug. The folks over at the deceptionists have released episode 3 of the podcast. I'm enjoying it. Give it a try.

Monday, January 24, 2011

What Color Is Your Font?

By Steve Weddle

What color is your website? Is it dark? If it is dark, you need to write dark fiction.

Do you use a Hotmail account? AOL? Then the protagonist of your thriller needs to be a computer n00b.

More importantly: What font do you use on your postcards? You do have postcards, don't you? And a mailing list?

See, what's important in selling books is branding.

Says so right here: Branding: The Secret to Selling More Books. The nice, helpful Penny Sansevieri -- CEO of something called "Author Marketing Experts, Inc." says that it is important to keep a consistent brand. Like Kleenex. Like Charmin toilet paper. Like Preparation H. Like Janet Evanovich.

Here is what the article says about branding product:

"Regardless of whether you are fiction or non-fiction, a brand is a brand. Think Nora Roberts or Dan Brown, both of these authors are brands. Their messaging is consistent and their packaging uniform. The audience is told in word, color and image exactly what they are going to get...."

See. Your writing is your product. And you are the spokesperson for that product. And why shouldn't you be? You do readings. Signings. You blog. And your brand needs to match up. You must have "consistent marketing materials," the article says. Your "leave behinds" have to match. Your bookmarks and postcards have to of a similar look -- color, font. The article preaches time and again -- do not confuse your readers. Let them know "exactly what they are going to get."

This is the way to move product, people. Whether you are selling your twenty-book series or your eleven stand-alones, the lemmings must know which cliff is yours.

Think about what makes you buy a book. It's the postcards, right? The bookmarks left behind at the signings? You know, that's how most of the books on my shelves were bought. I saw a catchy postcard near the register at the bookstore and said, "Damn. Look at that postcard. That's the same font I saw on a bookmark last week. That author must tell a damn good story."

But that's not all. What is the most important part of all this? The. Most. Important. Think about it. C'mon, you can do it. Some of you are writers. You probably already know this. Here. Let me step aside so the marketing person can tell you what is the most important part:

An author's website is the single most important piece of your brand. Yes, your book is important, but before a reader gets there they will often find your website first.

There you go. The author's website. I must admit, it wasn't the postcards that first drew me to Cormac McCarthy. It wasn't the bookmarks that made me pick up Dennis Lehane's newest novel. No. I went to their websites. I saw how professionally they were put together, how they used top-notch fonts, and I knew that I was dealing with talented writers.

Some readers may rely on word-of-mouth. Some on good reviews from trusted sources. Some readers might thumb through a few pages of a book to look at the writing before they decide whether to shell out $10 for the product in front of them.

Remember what is most important. Fonts. Color choices. Consistent "leave behinds."

As the article says:
A brand not only shows consistency but it shows you're serious about what you're doing; and if you show you're serious, your readers will take you seriously, too.

And if you want more than anything to move product, you need to devote yourself to your brand.

If you want to be serious about "being A Writer," then sure, spend your time writing. Editing. Revising. Whatever you think it means to "be A Writer" is different than moving product. Here, we're talking about moving product. Selling books. As the article at Huffington Post suggests, branding isn't about being a better writer. Branding is about selling, which is what Penny Sansevieri's business is about. And who wants to sell fewer books, right?

And, all kidding aside, these are really two different things. No, screw you. They aren't "two parts to a writer's life." They're two different things. If you want to argue that branding is part of a writer's life, then screw you. Seriously. I am not kidding. Screw. You.

I'm not trying to play semantic games here, but maybe it's part of an author's life. Maybe "An Author" is someone who writes for a few hours in the morning, then answers emails, then talks to a radio station eight states away about his/her new book, then has lunch at the club, then works on updating his website, then spends a couple hours editing some earlier work. Then dinner. Then a talk at the public service group two counties away about whatever it is you're building for your platform. Maybe there's animal abuse in your book, and it's important to you, so you want to talk to these folks about that aspect of your book. OK. Maybe you sell a few books, too. Great. You're building your audience. You're whatevering your platform. You're strengthening your brand.

But you're not writing.

You think Cormac McCarthy spent three seconds on his website last year? You think he even knows he HAS a website? Franzen? Hell, no.

You want to stand out? You think you're going to stand out from all the other self-promoters because your postcards have a nicer font?


Because your platform reaches more people?


You want to stand out as a writer, then write the ass-kickingest book you can write. When you're done, write a better one.

If you're worried about being popular, then study branding. Listen to everything the marketing people you. Spend your days on the forums and the boards and let people know how much you love puppies.

Look. I do this, too. Maybe we all do this. I'm not arguing at all that "branding" in and of itself is a bad thing.

I'm saying I've never bought a book based on a brand. Sure, the marketing people might tell you that the best branding works in the background. That I didn't even know I bought MYSTIC RIVER because of the branding. You know why I bought MYSTIC RIVER? Because friends I trust told me it was good. Because I read SHUTTER ISLAND and thought it was great. Why did my friends love it? The writing. The. Writing.

Think of an author you love. No. Love. OK. Now think about that author's website. Her postcards. His "leave behinds."

See, a writer writes. And that's what keeps me coming back to books. Not postcards. Not email blasts. Are they important to the brand? Sure.

So maybe the marketing people say this: "Of course you have to have a great book. We're talking about how to brand the book after it's written. How to market it consistently with the message the publisher wants to associate with this imprint."

Look, marketing is great. Important. Necessary. But if you tell me the most important thing is an author's website, well, then you and I probably aren't reading the same books.

As writers, we can all get caught up in this "marketing" talk, so much that we spend more time on that than on the writing.

See, if we would all just focus on the writing, we'd have more bookstores selling out of Daniel Woodrell, Tom Franklin, Dennis Tafoya, Patricia Highsmith, Reed Farrel Coleman, Hilary Davidson, Benjamin Whitmer, Lynn Kostoff, Chris F. Holm, Bill Cameron, and JT Ellison. We'd have more quality on the shelves. We'd have more people excited about reading.

Maybe, just maybe, we'd have fewer layoffs in the industry. We'd have fewer "Death of Publishing" stories.

Maybe, if we focused on the writing instead of the branding, we'd have fewer bookstores closing.

What color is your font, Borders?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

It's all in your point of view

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Growing up, I wasn’t a writer. Oh, I could write (my mother will tell you I wrote really well, because that is what Moms do) – but my dream was to sing and dance on stage. It never entered my mind that I could or should write a book. Which in retrospect is funny because I read all the time. I’m not joking about the all the time part. My friends from my grade and high school years can tell you I always had a non-school book at the ready. Next to singing, reading was my favorite hobby. Still is.

As a reader, I never really thought much about point of view. Sure, I understood the concept, but as I read I never thought about the point of view the story was told in. The story was written in the point of view it was supposed to be written in. End of discussion.

Or is it?

Point of view can make or break a great story idea. Should you use first person or third person? (I’m told there are novels out there in second person, but I can’t say that I’ve read any that didn’t involve choosing my own adventure. Have you?) The point of view a story is told in can change everything. I started writing in third person because a great number of books I read are in third. After several manuscripts in third, I switched to first. This was not a conscious decision either. It just kind of happened. I opened up my computer, started typing and realized – huh, this is in first person. Cool!

Both points of view have pros and cons. In third, the reader gets to see the story unfold from multiple points of view. The writer can also give the reader information that the main character is not privy to. This automatically ups the tension and the pacing. Awesome, right?

But like all good things, third person has drawbacks – at least for me. Third person sometimes gives my story too many options. With so many character points of view to choose from, it’s easy to lose track of whose story I’m telling. Also, the word choice in third person can make the point of view almost omniscient which distances the reader.

In first person, I get to tell the story from only one point of view. That eliminates pesky decisions about changing into another character’s point of view! It also allows me to look deeper into a character’s head. Yay!

Alas, this point of view also has pitfalls. Because first person is telling the story through one character’s eyes, the reader receives only the information that the main character has. Yep – challenging. On top of that, it’s easy to fall into the trap of starting ever sentence with the word “I” which makes a character feel self-centered. Sigh!

So what is a writer to do?

I decided to write in both. No, not in the same story. I admit that while there are books that mesh first person and third person in between the same covers, I am not one who can perform such a feat. However, I have learned really important things about my own writing from practicing with both sets of points of view. First person helps me go deep into a character’s head. Third person shows me every character needs to have their own personality and way of looking at a scene. I try to keep the lessons of both in my head no matter what POV my story is in.

What do you think? Do you favor one point of view over another when you write? If so, do you stick with one point of view while writing or do you sometimes switch just to see where the story will go or if it can be told better?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Etudes for Writing?

Scott D. Parker

Here we go again: another week, another essay about possible links between music and writing. But first, a golf reference.

I don’t get to play golf much. When I do, I adore the four hours or so to play my neighborhood course out in west Houston. The last time I played, my wife and I paired with a senior citizen originally from England. He was pretty good while I had the occasional duff, slice, and wet golf ball. At one point during the match, I lamented how, when I only get to play a few times a year, there’s really no incentive to go out to the driving range and hit a bucket of balls. Our English gentleman enlightened me with the way he practices his golf game: by playing golf. He said that the price difference between a bucket of balls at the driving range and a discounted 18-hole game of golf is so negligible that he prefers to just play the game.

That little piece of advice came back to me this week as I was contemplating the etude. In music, etudes are pieces of music ostensibly designed for study and practice. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the etude--particularly the piano etude--became not only something to study, but a piece to perform. Not sure Chopin would have agreed with it, but but then he probably would have been blown away by a synthesizer, too.

As I was listening to Philip Glass’s CD of etudes, I started wondering about writing etudes. Or, for the lack of a better term, writing lessons. Do we need them? Do they exist? Do they help? On Thursday, Dave mentioned that he’s stuck in his writing. Yesterday, Russell touched on how a writer feels when the words don’t flow. The bookstore shelves are lined with scores of books that purport to teach a person how to write. And, in those tomes, are writing lessons. The selections I’ve seen are, frankly, somewhat tepid. One might be “Write a paragraph based on the word “orange.” Another might be “Write a scene of dialogue between a man and his butcher.” Like hitting a bunch of golf balls at the driving range, after about twelve of them, you want to start aiming at something more substantial than a hundred-yard marker. Chuck the writing lesson book and just write a story.

Writing etudes, writing lessons, do they help?

On a larger sense, you could make an argument that short stories are the etudes of writers while novels are the concertos and symphonies. Am I stretching the metaphor too far? Probably, but I’m discovering that, as I creep out of the morass of my own blockage, every little paragraph and page of prose helps. The thing is, however, I’m working on something bigger. I’m not just writing prose to practice. I’m writing prose to create something larger: stories and a novel.

The prose is the practice. In that sense, perhaps, everything we write is an etude, even a first novel.

What do y’all think?

Movie of the Week: House of Sand

Not to be confused with The House of Sand and Fog, "House of Sand" is a Brazilian film starring Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres, a real-life mother/daughter team playing a fictional mother and daughter. Set in the barren desert of Lençóis Maranhenses in northeast Brazil, the movie follows the lives of pregnant Áurea and her aged mother as they are, through tragedy, left stranded in the middle of nowhere. It’s 1910. Nuance is a characteristic of few American films, but this one has it in spades. The passage of time is only hinted at through the vehicles we see. And, in a wonderful touch, well, hang on. I can’t spoil the coolest thing about the movie. Let’s just say that the two lead actresses must have really loved working on this magnificently subtle yet wonderful film that speaks to loyalty, love, devotion, and perseverance. Click on the link above and check out the trailer. You'll also get a glimpse of the stark beauty of this, to me, heretofore unknown part of Brazil.

Friday, January 21, 2011

There are Days

By Russel D McLean

There are days you want to throw in the towel.

You know writing isn't digging ditches. But its tough in a different way. If you take it seriously, you're worried the whole time about the reception your writing's going to get, if your agent/editor/reader is being honest with you, if you are finally going to be found out for the talentless fake you are.

There are days you think,

The critics are right.

I've lost it.

I can't go on.

Seriously. Because you take your craft seriously. Because you sweat over each and every word and you know - you just know - when something's wrong, when something isn't working. And you worry that you can't set it right.

There are days.

And you come close. If it wasn't for your compulsive streak you might even do it, throw in that towel, go and start digging those ditches because at least you see results from your sweat and worry and those results are physical, tangible, clearly seen by all.

There are days.

There are days when someone says something. And that sweat and worry you've had lift, even if for a moment. You think, this person means what they say. This person gets it.

There are days when you're flying high on the rhythm and the writer and reader parts of your brain are singing together in harmony and you think, this is why I do it. This feeling here.

There are days when complete strangers send you a letter, unasked for, to say that you touched them in some way with those words you sweated over. You gave them a moment of joy or even one of thought and reflection (and boy, are those moments the ones that make you want to scream with joy even if you can't quite believe it, think the letter writer must have you confused with someone else).

There are days when you see tangible proof that people are out there and people are reading your work. Not because they have an obligation to do so but because they want to.

There are days.

And those days make the darker ones seem somehow worthwhile. There are days that make you forget the reasons you thought about throwing in the towel.

And on those days.

You smile.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I am stuck

I am so stuck right now.

I've been staring at this empty blog box, trying to force myself into blogging something. Hate it when this happens.

I thought about writing about Snooki and her bestseller done. But, really, what is there to say? Who didn't see this coming?

I thought about talking about the first thing I say to my class in September when I start teaching. (It's "I hate to fly"), but I wasn't really sure where to go with it after that.

You see, there are only a few times where I'll readily admit to writer's block, and right now is one of them. I'm stuck on what I have to blog about. I'm stuck on exactly how I'm going to revise. I'm stuck on just about everything.

And it's not because I have no ideas, it's because I have too many. I want to read several books--A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, THE ACCIDENTAL BILLIONARES, and SATORI. There's a lot of TV I want to watch... college basketball, BEING HUMAN, and LIGHTS OUT. And I have a ton of stories I want to write.

And I can't focus on them. I can't focus on one thing. I'm focusing on nothing. I'm scatterbrained.

And until this passes, writing, blogging, concentrating, is going to be really tough.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

So, Jay Wants a Fued

John McFetridge

The thing is, I’ve had the flu the last couple of days (which wouldn’t be such a big deal but my wife’s had a much worse case), so I’m not really up to it. However this gives me a chance to write a very brief intro and then post something I’ve already written while I lay in bed with one of those comedy water bottles on my head.

So, in crime fiction the biggest fued is cozy vs. noir, isn’t it? Okay, maybe that’s right after what is noir but I don’t have anything for that.

For cozy vs. noir, though, I have this flash fiction I wrote a couple of years ago for the challenge, “Pass It On” by Patti Abbott, Gerald So and the Mystery Dawg as explained by Patti:

“Write the first paragraph of a story, send it to me by January 20th (2009 – I had to look it up, that seems so long ago). I will stir the pot and send it back out to another writer. Write a 750 (or so) word story using it.”

Maybe there’s a flash chellenge in Jay’s desire for a fued somewhere, but I can’t figure it out in my present fever-driven delusions.

But here’s my Cozy/Noir:

The first time George Heartwell e-mailed the writer, Margaret Roberts, on June 22nd, he suffered all morning. He re-read the letter over and over and wished to hell he hadn't ever done such a stupid thing. Christ, what was she going to think?

Well, she was going to think she was being blackmailed, sure, but what would she think of the writing?

“There are cameras everywhere, Margaret, in phones, in pens, in computers - some even look like cameras. There was one on the eleventh floor of the Lord Baltimore Radisson at Bouchercon.”

He wanted it to be the fewest words possible, noir style, none of that purple prose like her cozies. Her bestselling-around-the-world cozies.

Now here it was almost winter and George was driving highway 21, looking for the entrance to a closed provincial park for his meeting with Margaret. They’d gone back and forth for months, she’d answered his email with a simple, “What do you want?”

That surprised him, he’d expected a denial or some excuses, some convoluted story about it being a misunderstanding, how there was nothing going on really, but she got right to the point. Not very cozie-like at all.

She must’ve read his hardboiled flash fiction online.

Back then George’d wanted to get her help with agents and publishers but she pointed out their writing didn’t really have anything in common, people would suspect something was going on between them if she started showing his work around – her husband would find that suspicious for sure.

So he settled for money and Margaret asked him to meet her at the Ipperwash Provincial Park on Lake Huron. It had been closed since a group of Native protestors took it over claiming it was on native lane – it probably was for all George knew – and Margaret and her husband lived in an old farmhouse somewhere nearby.

He’d expected more trouble getting into the park but he just drove in like Margaret told him in her email. Typical Canada, there was a sign that said, “Closed,” but no locked gate or anything. He drove a few miles through the woods until he came to the Park Store, the building boarded up and falling apart. The parking lot was surrounded by trees, the perfect location for a drop. Well, not perfect like it would have been in one of George’s books, some back alley all gritty and dark, or a massage parlour.

George parked and waited. He had a copy of Margaret`s latest book with him and he thumbed through it. The author photo was pretty good, she looked great for a woman a little over fifty and he liked the first page; a woman walking her dogs comes across a guy who committed suicide in his car, attatched a vacuum hose to the exhaust pipe with tape and ran it through the trunk.

Everyone bought the suicice except the woman walking her dogs. George couldn’t believe these cozies, amateur sleuths, the woman was a professional dog walker and now she’s investigating a homicide. Who buys this crap?

He was well into the book when a dog barked and he almost had a heart attack.

There was Margaret Roberts, walking out of the woods behind two dogs, a big German Sheperd and some small fluffy thing. Maybe that photo wasn’t retouched, she looked good.

George got out of his car and said, hey. Margaret nodded at him, said, hello, as she was opening the black bag she had over her shoulder. It was the bag from Bouchercon, the Charmed to Death logo in white, the bracelet with the little charms, the skull and the gun and the switchblade.

She took out a thermos and asked George if he’d like some tea. He said no and Margaret said, “How about a little Bushmills then?”

“Sure, why not.”

Margaret poured a little into the thermos lid and handed it to George. He drank and coughed a little and said, “Very good.” Then he said, “Do you have my money?”

“Get right to the point why don’t you?”

George drank the rest of the Bushmills and Margaret poured him some more, saying, “Don’t you think it’s beautiful out here?

George said, “I guess,” and Margaret said, “Not like one of your hardboiled stories, of course, but like a cozie.”


“I suppose people get blackmailed in hardboiled stories all the time?”

George said, yeah they do. He couldn’t believe this chick, hadn’t she ever read Hammet? Or even Robert B. Parker?

“People sometimes get blackmailed in cozies,” Margaret said. “But do you know what happens more often?” She was looking right at him now but going out of focus, saying, that’s right, “They get poisoned.”

George’s knees started to give way and he was falling over, his face hitting the gravel hard but he was already numb.

He could see Margaret getting something out of the black Charmed to Death bag, a vacuum cleaner hose and a roll of tape.

She said, “Not everyone gets published George, it’s no reason to kill yourself.”

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Hello, My Name Is Inigo Montoya

By Jay Stringer

It seem's the more I grow up, the more the world seems like professional wrestling. Everybody has to have a feud and a gimmick. Some safe way of putting themselves over with the crowd.

Some of my clearest childhood memories involve wrestling. In that age when you kinda sorta know that it aint 'real,' but your hear wants to believe in it. Before you realise that the fakery of the whole thing is kinda the point, like a film or a play. But I remember some classic feuds.

I remember 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper feuding with Brett 'The Hitman' Hart. The two went back and forth with well timed moves, two of the great workers of their day. The finale of the match saw Hart knocked to the floor and Piper stood over him with the ring announcers bell, deciding whether to hit his friend on the back of the head. As the crowd screamed one way or another, Piper hesitated and turned to listen to what they were telling him, choosing not to use it, and then wound up losing the match. The much younger version of me totally bough into that, the mini-morality play of the match, the inner turmoil of the villain-with-a-good-heart, the whole thing.

There were bigger matches, sure. The big meaty guys, the Hogans and the Warriors, but I wasn't interested in them. Looking back I know even then I was into the craftsmen, the story tellers.

When I started to analyse these things, it was that storytelling that I focused on first; The in-ring narrative, the plucky loser, the bad guy, the come back, the beat down, the cheating, etc. But more latterly I noticed the other side of it all. The work that went in outside of the ring, building the feuds, building up the stars and the training the crowd to spend money.

If you have a villain, then the crowd already hate him. All they want to see is him get his ass kicked. So you make him keep winning. You keep the story going and the hatred building. You bring some younger guy up through the ranks, maybe he gets his ass handed to him a few times, maybe the bad guy cheats him out of a few wins. Then, when the crowd are popping and firing and -most importantly paying- you let the young guy win.

It's called 'putting him over,' and the bad guy is the crucial part. He trains the hero, works with him, sets up all his punch lines and shows him how to work a crowd.

Or maybe you have to best friends, a tag team or a long standing partnership. Then you introduce a third factor, like a title belt, or a woman, and pretty soon all hell breaks loose. Maybe one of them steals the woman. Maybe one of them gets kicked through a glass window. You get the crowd baying to see them go at it, then you keep them apart for as long as you can. Until, again, the right money moment.

There's a very precise science to it. Again, it's story telling. It's bringing the pot to the boil, just like any writer does.

But years down the road, when those feuds and those matches are a distant memory, I can't help but notice how the same basic premise never goes away.

Take the infamous Val McDermid Vs Ian Rankin fun of a few years back. One fine day Ms McDermid gives an interview in the press where she reacted to comments made by Mr Rankin about female crime writers. And the press ran with with, and headlines expanded, and the internet exploded. Never mind the fact that Rankin's comments had been made some time before Ms McDermid reacted to them in the press, or that she happened to have a book out and marketing to do. The issue came u again the following summer, around the time that Rankin himself was making public appearances and needed a little press.

Bit got press coverage from the whole thing, both probably got to have the titles of a few of their books mentioned in mainstream newspapers. Both probably sold a few extra books.

And they're both friends.

Once a year Alan Moore sticks his head out of his Northampton castle to take a shot across the bow of the comic book industry. He talks about how the current creators aren't as good as him. He talks of how the big companies are creatively bankrupt (and since the most recent outburst comes after DC comics announced they're writing a sequel to his 1986 classic WATCHMEN, rather than creating something to equal that classic, you can see a little of his point.) But along the way he names a few names. Last year it was the turn of the Green Lantern series to get his treatment. He stated that the current storyline written by Geoff Johns was a poor imitation of ideas Moore had come up with 20 years prior.

And each time he says something, the internet loses it's shit. Creators blog about it. Interviews are given to rebut his comments. Column inches are filled. All the while, people seem to ignore the game at play. Writers who perhaps haven't crossed over into the mass media get a little extra coverage -Jason Aaron managed it this time around- and titles that are deserving of a few extra readers get a publicity boost -Green Lantern, Scalped, Etc. Moore himself gets plenty of news coverage out of it all and his classic titles get trotted out again, as if they weren't already on a few thousand Amazon wish lists.

And a few extra books sell. A few people become a little more famous. And the world keeps turning.

So, here we are folks. You want to get ahead in publishing? You need a feud. You need someone to put you over.

Sod all that 'hard work' malarky, and forget the rewrites; What I need is a feud, who's with me?

Monday, January 17, 2011

More about $ less about E

Note: Thanks to Steve Weddle for covering while my kids were all snotty all over my keyboard.

I had a more detailed and long winded post about this topic, but when it comes down to it, I have a simple point that can stand on it's own without my own blathering messing it up. Neil Smith has talked about this several times, most recently in a series of tweets about independent bookstores. This whole e-book revolution comes down to two issues:

1)Books are too hard to find
2)Book are too damned expensive.

Back when I was first examining this whole e-book explosion, particularly the popularity of Kindle self-publishing, I spent a lot of time in the forums and Kindle blogs and found that the main reason people went to e-books was not any overriding problem with the standard paper version, but rather the siren song of the $9.99 book. I know the economics of publishing are complicated, some by there own doing, some by necessity, but $25 is too much for a book and nothing is going to change that.

I still pay it once in a while, usually when I'm attending a signing at my local mystery bookstore Aunt Agatha's, but the bulk of my book acquiring has come through Borders (as a Borders Rewards member I routinely get coupons for 44% off of any book) or more increasingly, the public library. Michigan has a great interlibrary system and I don't think there's a book I've wanted that I haven't been able to get somehow through the library. And I don't really feel bad about it because these aren't lost hardcover sales. If these books weren't available through the library, odds are very good I wouldn't buy them.

So Neil said, and I agree, that the best book technology is still the mass market paperback and I wish publishers and reviewers would get over the stupid stigma of it all and work them to their full potential. A great many of my favorite authors (and current bestsellers) started off as mass market originals which is the only way I would have ever discovered them. It's a cheap technology, portable, and easy to share.

So what are your thoughts? Am I missing something here?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Zen and the Art of Book Browsing

By Steve Weddle

If you're like me and my pal Clark, then you enjoy browsing.

Here's what Saturdays are like at the Weddle cabin. We head into town for some Chinese food and bookstore trips.

This weekend, I grabbed some Tom Franklin, Haruki Murakami, and Lawrence Block. The rest of the family came out empty-handed.

And here's how this happens. I went in looking just to look. Everyone else was looking for something in particular. A certain series. A certain author.

This is one of those used bookstores in which the people are nice, polite, and completely overwhelmed. Not unhelpful so much as unable to provide help. Maybe that's the same thing. I'll never know because no one knew where the dictionaries were.

You ask for a certain author. Rick Riordan. Harry Harrison. Sally Jenkins.

Nice Bookselling Person: "Hmm. I think we had something."

Me: "Ah, OK. Where could I find the Riordan."

NBP: "You looking for a certain series?"

Me: "Percy Jackson."

NBP: That's over in the corner with the children's books.

Me: Sure. That's where I looked. I was having a tough time. How are they organized.

NBP: The children's books are in that corner.

Me: Yeah. I got that whole "in the corner" part. But they're just kinda piled up. I thought they might be in alphabetical order.

NBP: Hahaha. Yeah. That would be great. We haven't had time to get to that.

Me: Ah, sure. Well, do you have a section where I might find a book on organizing? I was thinking of getting it for this business-woman I just met.

NBP: Back in the far corner with the self-help. Should be a couple of boxes marked self-help.


Lucky for me, though, I wasn't looking for anything. So I found some great books. Which is an experience that the Kindle has kinda ruined for me. I don't go into stores as often, and when I do, sometimes I figure I'll just download the book onto my Kindle and read it there. Though I still buy more than my fair share of dead-tree books. If you've seen my shelves, you know this. I browse. I buy.

And if you have an ereader, you know how painful browsing the online stores is if you do it from your device. I try not to do that. Slow. Cumbersome. Tougher to navigate than a family funeral when you're three drinks in and thought the deceased was a bit of an asshole.

Online, though. That's crazy.

Here's how ebook shopping is killing my browsing in stores.

I had an agenda set up for bookstore shopping--@bookstore. A little list, via GTD. So when someone would say something cool about a book, I'd make a note in that list. Then when I was in a bookstore, I'd go to that list and look at the book. Then I'd buy the book and add it to the pile I'd never get to.

I love the walking through bookstores. I love the picking up of books. The moving around the aisles. Talking to bookstore people who are organized and knowledgeable. Taking a few books to a comfy chair and deciding which one to buy with my birthday money.

I'd thought many folks like this. Maybe they don't. Maybe they like the browsing, but not the buying. Maybe that's why The Mystery Bookstore is shutting down.

Online browsing is much different. Someone says "check out Tom Franklin" and I hit the Googles, the Amazons, the IndieBound. I ask on Twitter. I keep an eye open on the blogs I follow. I email. I ask around. I read some reviews. I read the author's wikipedia page. Sometimes I hit the author's own web site or twitter feed. Sometimes to disastrous results.

Then I can add the author to my book list or click an online bookstore if I want a physical book. Or just download the mofo right to my Kindle and start reading.

My lovely bride says she'd prefer to shop in the bookstore because she likes to thumb through the book, read the first pages, see what she thinks.

I like the idea of downloading the first chapter and reading that to decide whether I want to read the rest of the book. I want to browse around the internet and see if the author seems like a nice person. Because I don't care how good the book is. What I want to do is pretend that the author and I could play cribbage together and be good friends. I kid, but one of the big reasons people buy books is because they think the author is a nice person. Check out this study (pdf) from the Sisters In Crime people.

Another goofy piece from that study is what people who responded said would get to buy more books. Better novels? Would two Dennis Lehane books this year do it? Would more collections of short stories? A novella bouncing off of a novel? What would be the top reason folks would buy more books? I know, more time in the week. If you got an extra day in the weekend, you'd read more, right? Er, no. Not better books. Not more books. Not more better books. Not more time. The number one thing that would make people buy more books. Lower prices!! You know, like socks.

What would make me buy more books is this -- the ability to find more books that I like. How can I do that? I can do that in your poorly organized store if I have time. I can do that on the internet if I have time. I can do that by word-of-mouth if you're helpful.

Years ago, I'd wander around a bookstore browsing books, reading blurbs and first pages. Now I wander around the internet, reading reviews and first chapters before deciding whether to order or download the book.

So I came home this weekend with three book I hadn't read. I'll start one soon, though. In a bit. I just downloaded the NYT Book Review to my Kindle. Wonder what looks good today.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why Don't Writers Get to Make Album Cuts?

Scott D. Parker

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” has a couple. Genesis, The Black Keys, Radiohead, and Diana Krall have a few. KISS has them all over the place. And, yes (sigh), I’ll even admit that Chicago and Bruce Springsteen have a few.

What am I talking about? Album cuts. Those throwaway songs musicians create whose sole purpose is to fill out an otherwise anemic album. Don’t get me wrong: these album cuts have passionate fans. If you dig deep into the fandom of any particular musical act--especially one that has a long career--you will find those folks who so very much want their favorite band to play the random, obscure song from the third LP back when there were such a thing as LPs.

But, at the time, the artists are looking at a roster of five great tunes they know will make it big on the radio. If they release five songs, that’s an EP. They can’t get away with that. They need to release a LP, a long playing album, charge more, and make lots more money.

Take “Thriller” for example. It’s staggering to realize that seven(!) tracks made it to the radio, all of which went to the top 10. If a song was released as a single from that LP, it did well. Little does the casual listener realize that there are nine tracks on the album. Can anyone name either song?

Didn’t think so.

How does this link up with writing? Simple. Why do musicians get to bloat their output and writers don’t?

Or do they?

Writers can’t simply create a sub-thread just for the heck of it. Think about it: imagine “Mystic River” with a subplot involving the daily life of the batboy at Fenway Park or “The Da Vinci Code” with a cameo by Langdon’s graduate assistant. The simple fact with a book is that the author can’t insert anything that isn’t cogent to the plot. Even the most bloated novel has to stick to the point.

I’ll grant you that some authors suffer from Research-itis. This is a common malady where, simply because in the course of research for a book the author learned a fact, he feels compelled to “share” with his readers this little nugget even if it doesn’t apply to the plot. Michael Crichton, for all of his bravado with fast-paced plots, dumped a ton of information on the reader. I remember reading his books and seeing lots of white space on a page. Cool. Dialogue and action. Then, after a page turn, there’d be wall-to-wall text. Great. Here comes the lecture. But, even if we skip over the lecture parts, the information is probably germane to the story. Thus, to me, it falls out of the realm of “album cut.”

What do you think? Are we writers allowed, in some form or fashion, to have album cuts in our books?

Drink of the Week: Hot Dr. Pepper
Winter finally hit here in Houston. We had temperatures in the upper 20s and lower 30s. That’s serious down here. And what better way to warm up the insides than hot Dr. Pepper. Don’t screw up your face. Give it a go. The official Dr. Pepper website has the simple recipe: DP and lemon and a heat source. It’s better than you might think.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Joe Gores

By Russel D McLean

I wish I could have a more cheerful post after the start of 2011, but I couldn’t just avoid the fact that this week crime writer Joe Gores died. I only read two Gores books in my life – and I have some more on my list – but to me he will always be the man who wrote HAMMETT. Shortly after I started digging crime fiction and in particular those old hardboiled books by Hammett and Chandler, my dad pressed a book into my hands. Told me I had to read it.

The books was HAMMETT by Joe Gores. I wasn’t sure. It was one of those books that melded fact with fiction, that took a real life figure and put them in the midst of fictional events. Not in an Ellroy kind of way – no one except Ellroy could do that – but in the way of an entertaining thriller that took its inspiration from some kind of reality. It sounded a little trite, if I’m honest, but my dad was so enthusiastic I cracked the spine. And discovered an incredible novel. If it wasn’t true, I wished it was. I loved Hammett as written by Gores, the hardboiled detective who still tried to make a living as a pulp writer. It should have felt false, even though it was true, and yet Gores pulled off the enviable trick of making you want to believe that it was all true, even the bits that had to be fiction.

Hammett was a perfect book, and I still have that copy on my book shelves. Over a decade and a half since dad “loaned” it to me. So if he’s reading this, I guess he’ll be coming up to reclaim it sometime soon…

But Gores proved to me what an incredible talent he was a couple of years ago with the release in 2009 of SPADE AND ARCHER. This “prequel” to Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON should have stunk of parody and been a book that was surplus to requirements. There was no way anyone should have been able to capture Hammett’s voice and yet still ensure the book felt written for a modern market.

When the name Gores was attached, I should have had more faith. It was a blinder of a novel that at once recalled Hammett’s style and yet felt evolved from there, as thought Hammett himself had continued writing and evolving his style. It was an engaging and brilliant novel with enough of a wink at the legacy of the original book to satisfy, but never allowed itself to tip over into parody.

Gores was an enormous talent. For those two books alone he should be remembered.
The little I have learned of Gorres over this past week has been intriguing and astounding. Like Hammett, Gorres, it seems, was a private eye in younger days which perhaps explains his affinity to Hammett, the two of them having this connection. It also explains the level of conviction that ran through his work. The books felt real, felt accurate perhaps because they were so and not just in terms of procedure but of emotion, too.

If you haven’t read Gores I beseech you to seek out his work. In particular HAMMETT or SPADE AND ARCHER. He was a major talent and his work should, and I believe will, be remembered.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Myth of 1,000 Words

One of the things you see a lot of, when you read author interviews, is how they all write 1,000 words every day.

That's true.

Sort of.

I believe most authors, when drafting, strive for 1,000 words per day. I know I do. Sometimes I get there, sometimes I fall well short, sometimes I go over. But the average is 1,000 words. And that's a success.

But when I get to revision, that's where it gets interesting. Maybe other writers can enlighten me, but I doubt most authors write 1,000 words a day when revising. For me, revising is scattershot.

Write a character sketch here. Outline a scene here. Cut 3,000 words here. Add 50. That's four days of successful revising for me, sometimes. I don't ever have a word goal when I'm revising.

I just want to move forward. Sometimes I get 2 steps forward only to go 3 back the next day.

So, yeah, writing 1,000 words a day is key--when you're drafting. But when you're revising, all bets are off.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Leaving Out The Hard Part

John McFetridge

Over the Christmas holidays I spent some very good times with my wife’s family in rural Ontario and I had a good talk about writing with my brother-in-law. He’s a United Church Minister and he writes (and delivers) a very good sermon.

In an offhand way he said, “You’ve got to hide the hard part in the middle.”

I asked him what he meant and he explained it’s all that stuff that people need to hear but don’t want to, all that stuff about sacrifice, and personal responsibility and doing what we all know we need to do – even if it’s hard. Maybe especially if it’s hard.

And I thought that’s true of any kind of creative writing. You need the hard part, but you do have to hide it a little.

Good examples, I think of dealing with the hard part, are shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood.

You can like the characters in those shows, you can laugh with them and even hope that things go well for them but the shows never let you forget that they’re sociopaths – dangerous anti-social people who have gone too far to be redeemed (my brother-in-law may disagree with that ;).

On The Sopranos I always liked Paulie. The loyal soldier, the straight-shooter (literally and figuratively) the old friend. He did seem like a guy who would be fun to hang out with – except he’s a dangerous sociopath. He robbed an old lady, a friend of his mother’s and he killed her. Outside a restaurant a waiter came after him compaining about a lousy tip and he killed him. These aren’t other ‘soldiers,’ these aren’t other people ‘in the game.’ They’re victims of Paulie’s selfishness, greed and survival instincts.

But leaving out that side of Paulie would be leaving out the hard part, the part that makes me uncomfortable when I laugh along with him on other situations. Leaving that stuff out would let me, the viewer, off the hook too easy.

I had a couple of paragraphs in here about how I couldn’t get into the movies of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith because I feel those guys leave out the hard parts, but that would just sound like sour grapes.

Maybe they do deal with the hard parts well enough or maybe it’s not even that important to put in the hard parts. Can stories – especially crime fiction - be fun and violent and pretty much consequence-free?

I don’t know. I just know writing the hard part is hard.

Even for those of us who love writing as much as this guy.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

We Make Our Own Movies

By Jay Stringer


Couple things up front today. Firstly i'd like to take another chance to thank everyone who took part in the flash fiction challenge. It was a great collection of stories. Some of them were from established 'friends of the site' and some were from first time callers, but they all added up to something fresh and interesting over the holiday season.

Don't worry, we haven't forgotten the FREE STUFF. That's what we'll be sorting out at the next DSD tree house meeting, and you'll be hearing more about it soon.

Second up I'd like to point you in the direction of a new podcast involving another friend of the site (See all these friends? Sheeesh. It's like I was never arrested.) Paul Montgomery is part of a rotating panel of writers over at the deceptionists, and the show is now on its second episode.
They're still feeling out the shows shape and form, but what more do you need to know than it involves four very different writers coming together to discuss the craft. Click on over and check it out. Ask for babs.

(I did the Babs joke twice in 2010. How many times will I drop it into 2011?)

Aaaaaaand while I'm talking podcasts, I listened to an interview with David Seidler about The Kings Speech. I haven't seen the film yet to comment on it's quality, but the interview was a great listen. Mr Seidler has a fascinating story to tell about how he came to write the story, about living with a stutter, and about writing in general. It was filled with the kind of details that make my writers brain start whirring and clicking with questions and ideas, and now I need to tackle a character with a speech impediment this year just to explore that mind set and the effects it can have on your life.

Okay, It's clobberin' time.

(And yes, by 'clobberin' I may also mean 'swearing.')

Some days you just want to play nice and have intelligent conversations. Those days are fun and all, but on the better days something is stuck in your paw and you want to tell the world. Whilst listening to the interview with Mr Seidler I scanned back through the list of previous podcasts. I noticed one that I'd forgotten about, for the film NEVER LET ME GO. Again, a very interesting interview, full of questions about exposition and character and structure. One thing in particular though gave me a nervous tick.

The producer of the film is quite a famous novelist. He had a very big hit a while back and I think everybody and their mum has read it, and seen the film adaptation starring mr grumpy face DiCaprio. This is all a long way round of saying I don't think it would be fair to name Alex Garland here. One of the questions he's asked during the interview is if he'll write more novels and he says, no, he only wrote novels because he couldn't make movies, and now he can make movies.

I guess the pragmatic thing is to say, well done. It would be to recognise that he saw books as a means to an end, and he got where he wanted to be, so it worked out for him. Sure, there's logic in that.

And maybe I'm the only one who's back goes up at this kind of thinking.

It's not just a novel thing either. As a comic-book fan I see plenty of people cashing in -there are a couple of high profile examples- and producing a comic simply by way of getting a film deal. They're easy to spot; some high concept idea that's wafer thin, one or two issues of a series or mini series appear, then it all goes silent while they work on the megabucks movie.

It all seems to flow in the one direction. There are people who write books in order to write films. There are people who write comics in order to write films. There are probably people who write parking tickets in order to write films.

I get that we all have mortgages or bills to pay. And, shit, that ransom isn't going to raise itself. But is money all it's about, or is there some deeper issue that drives the race toward the screen?

Just to be clear, obviously I'm not against movies. I love movies. I'm the guy who writes love letters to Raiders Of The Lost Ark and quotes Chinatown like a bible. In the DSD tree house i'm often throwing around screenplay ideas with other folks back here, and looking at what ideas we could make work. I was a film student, and someday I'd like to take another crack at writing one. But if you want to write a movie, here's my brainwave suggestion; Write a damn screenplay.

Maybe it'll sell and you'll make millions. Maybe it'll sell and never get made. Maybe it won't sell and you'll have a brand new draught excluder and that wonderful mixed feeling of achievement and shame. But you'll have done it.

Each different medium has it's own craft. They all have some common ground, sure, but one shouldn't be the convenient stepping stone to another. Something I've been working on with a couple of friends is a pitch that could be a TV show, it could be a novel, it could be a film, it could be a series of ebooks. Part of the fun from my end is getting knee deep in the story and the character and seeing all the different forms it could take, and which one fits the story better. There's also the thrill of this new age, of finding if there's a new way of telling a story to add to the list, of modern technology is blurring the lines between the old boundaries. But it's about the story, and it's about the craft.

The world keeps opening up new avenues. In the modern age there's no reason that anybody should stick to one medium like a monk, we can try a bit of everything. But again surely it should always be about the story first? And none of the different branches of this big ol' media tree should be any better than any other.

Except that we have a world that does just that. If you want something to be successful, you need to have it be a film. Unless hollywood points its golden finger in your direction then you just aint it.

And again, to be clear, I'm not railing against adaptations. I don't always see the point in them, but I also thing that If a writer has worked hard on their story and written the best comic/novel/parking ticket that they can, then there's nothing wrong with letting someone turn that into the best movie that they can. Because you've already done the work, and because you'll keep on doing the work.

And you can move between the two. Both Richard Price and George Pelecanos have shifted gears a few times between the different formats, and they've enriched their work because of it. Would pre-Hollywood Price have written CLOCKERS or LUSH LIFE? Would Pelecanos have delivered a novel as brilliant as DRAMA CITY if he hadn't spent some time wiring it up? And yet it's also key to notice that they came back and did those works.

If you have a film in you, write a screenplay. If you have a novel in you, write a manuscript. If you have an album in you, go on a reality TV show. But don't treat one as a convenient route to another. Don't decide to slum it in one simply to abandon it when it's served a purpose.

If you have a story, then find out which format that story needs to be told in, and go for it. In the words of Randall Graves, "don't pine for one but fuck the other."