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.