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?