Saturday, February 12, 2011

On Distinctions and What's Really Important

Scott D. Parker

"Do you know what the difference between a saxophone and a lawnmower?" my college band director asked all of us sax players one day. "Vibrato."

We all chuckled, mostly, and then reminded ourselves that at least we didn't play the French horn. I mean, really, you know the difference between a French horn and a Scud missile? The Scud's more accurate.

More chuckles. Then the slew of "How many trumpet players does it take to screw in a light bulb" jokes. We band geeks have a ton of internal band jokes that we laugh at and no one else gets.

I thought of this the other day when I polled my fellow DSDers on a simple question: What, if any, are the differences between a traditional mystery and a cozy? If you've been reading my recent posts, you'll remember my reading and writing interests are changing (or, rather, expanding to encompass more types of stories).

While I got some good feedback, Jay raised a separate, but important, question: Do we keep talking about all of these distinctions because they're real and important, or are they real and important because we keep talking about them?

It's a natural inclination. We mystery readers like mystery books so we gravitate towards others with the same interests. We create societies, we create awards to bestow, and we have in jokes. So do the SF folks. And the romance group. And so on for just about every group in the world. It helps us feel good that we fellows who like what we like.

What about Jay's question? Does the talking about the distinctions between cozies and noir and traditional mysteries and police procedurals and hard-boiled PI stories make them real and important or are they important because we talk about them?

TV Show of the Week: "Harry's Law" I watched the first two episodes last night and I have to say that I always enjoy watching David E. Kelly character pontificate in court. And I still miss "Boston Legal."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying...

By Russel D McLean

Today, returning from Edinburgh after attending the launch of Tony Black’s excellent new novel, TRUTH LIES BLEEDING, I found myself stuck for an hour or so in a small town waiting for the next train. I took a walk around and found myself in the local bookshop. A bookshop even locals don’t seem to know exists.

I find this strange. I know people in this small town, people who are avid readers, and they are completely unaware that this shop exists. Many of them have lamented the lack of a local bookstore – citing a long remembered indy that closed down in the early nineties when the owners retired – and do not seem to have noticed that this store has existed in their town centre for… well, a long time apparently.

The store itself is not large but it has the potential to be one of those little hidden away places you delight in discovering. But it suffers from huge problems. A lack of local publicity. And the frankly appalling stock management. I have been in this bookstore before and every time have noticed the same trends; a distinct lack of interest in local authors (of which there are a fair few, although even those advertised outside are not clearly in stock) and a shelving system that seems to be based along the lines of “lets throw it on and see what happens.” I’m not event going to mention the “feature table” that was just random books thrown on with some balanced on plastic displays. Not a shred of passion evident. Not a jot of local personality. Not only that, but to the best of my knowledge the store has no internet presence, either. And one can talk about the perils of the internet until they’re blue in the face, but the fact is you need some kind of presence on there. Not neccesarily a store front, but a presence, something that lets people know who and where you are and why they should come to you if they are in the local area.

During my recent tour of the states, the best indies I visited had much in common: they thrived on knowledge, enthusiasm and a welcoming atmosphere. They were well organised (even if they initially looked chaotic) and most of them thrived on local atmosphere. And events. Offering something chain stores and the internet could not; a chance to meet authors. This local bookstore has shrugged when presented with authors from the area in the past (Even when customers have asked for authors from the local area, they’ve been met with a shrug and a “I haven’t heard of them. What, they were in the local paper? Why would I read that?” response). In short, they were good at what they do. They were on the ball. They were part of the local community. They were supportive of authors.

This bookstore is none of these things, and it depressed me to see. In the current climate, I think that while ebooks offer a challenge to print, they are not – and some people are going to disagree with me on this – going to entirely replace them. I think that physical bookstores; by offering more than a place where one goes to buy books, by offering a hub and a face to face community* where readers can engage both each other and, yes, authors. Oh, I’m a believer in good author events, in that unique physical interaction and in the fact that a personally signed book is genuinely worth something that is immeasurable in money terms.

Yes, e-books are here to stay and probably at cheap prices that will appeal to mass buyers. But physical books and bookstores need to up their game to stay relevant. They may never have the dominance they once enjoyed (and I believe that is a shame) but they need to remain as the bastion of the joy of books and written-word storytelling, as the people who know whereof the talk, the people you go to, the people you who genuinely love what they are selling. You should want to walk in because they can offer you the kind of discussion that cannot be had with Amazon’s “recommend” system and because they can offer you a uniquely human and direct link to their product.

*at last year’s Bouchercon I was struck by toastmaster Eddie Muller talking about how face to face interaction encourages romance in the world. My interpretation of what he said was that he meant not just lovey-dovey romance, but that genuinely exciting feeling that comes with real interaction - - something that online forums cannot replicate entirely, despite presenting the illusion thereof and despite having an undeniable place in modern society.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Some Doings

So, thanks to the kind people at Needle Magazine--coughandweddlecough--I'm going to be putting almost all the old Jackson Donne stories up for the Kindle. Here's the link to check out the official announcement.

The intro was written by one of my favorite writers, Mr. Ray Banks. And Weddle got on me to write an afterword for the anthology. Here's a taste:

“Closure” is when it all clicked.

I didn’t realize it then—probably didn’t even realize it completely until I started looking over the stories for this collection. But that’s where it all started to come together for both Jackson Donne as a character and me as a writer.

What’s funny is, the story almost didn’t see the light of day. I wrote it for myself, just as a way to deal with 9/11. Like most, I had a lot rolling around in my head and I just needed to get it out. It sat on my hard drive for probably three months, before I finally showed it to someone, and finally sent it to an editor.

Before that story, Donne was just another PI. Vaguely self-destructive, but beyond that not too much to him. A regular old tough guy. But after Donne sees what another person who lost of loved one went through, he starts to change. Wake up.

I realized that the stories needed to be more about Donne, the character. They couldn’t be about Donne solving the case. They had to be about how the case affected him. “Get Miles Away” had to do with Donne trying to date again. Simple, but not really.

The anthology should be released next week. So for Valentine's Day... fall in love with Mr. Donne all over again.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Six Degrees of Cop Shows

John McFetridge

Monday night I watched the premiere of a new cop show called The Chicago Code. One review I read said that it, “wasn’t a game changer,” but was still pretty good.

Most reviews have been pretty good.

I was interetsed because it covers a lot of the same territory we tried to cover on The Bridge – the complicated stuff about police corruption, politics and how hard it can be to “work the streets.” This appraoch naturally leads to longer story arcs, more serialization and, inevitably, comparisons to The Wire.

So, I was watching The Chicago Code and I was very jealous that they had such a big budget and were able to dig into longer story arcs but there was something missing, something I liked about The Wire that I didn’t see here but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I was sure it was also missing on The Bridge and most (all) other cop shows.

And then it hit me.

All the characters are either cops or criminals.

Well, of course, it’s a cop show, that’s what they’re about.


But just crime? My favourite season of The Wire is Season Two – the dock workers. For a lot of reasons, but mostly because those are guys I know well and can relate to. My father was in a union (an installer for the phone company) that was slowly bled dry by the company switching to sub-contractors. I really don’t know if that’s right or wrong in the big picture, I can only see it from my perspective where a lot of social stability and long-term planning that comes from a steady (but let’s be honest, small) paycheck disappeared and a lot of scrambling and insecurity ate away at the working class culture I grew up in.

Of course the dock workers were wrong to get into bed with drug smugglers to try and raise the money to bribe the politicians to get the harbour dredged so the newer, bigger ships could be unloaded there and they could keep their jobs. But I understood their motivations and their feelings that in the big picture what they were doing was small and wouldn’t really make much difference and there we are again, back to The Big Chill and have you ever gone a week without a justification?

But then a woman’s body was found in the harbour and eleven more died in a container on the dock and watching Frank Sobotka get crushed under the guilt was some powerful TV. At times I forgot The Wire was a cop show at all.

(as I was writing this I watched the trailer for Season Two, posted below, and the tag line is Bunk saying, “It’s all about self-preservation, Jimmy.” That’s a nice, clear statement of the season’s theme)

Other people I know prefer the seasons set in the school or the newspaper or “the corners,” but what everyone who likes the show appreciates about it is the big canvas on which it was painted.

The Wire was a game changer because it wasn’t about cops solving crimes, it was about a whole city dealing with a whole city’s problems. There were cops and criminals and politicians, as there are on The Chicago Code, but there were also a lot of people who were just caught up in events – that whole six degrees of seperation.

Bringing in the larger picture is also something that Southland has been pretty good at, though I haven’t seen any episodes of the current season because it’s now on some weird pay-TV channel out of western Canada that I have to pay a lot more for. Oh well, someday on DVD, I’m sure.

So, The Chicago Code is a network show and is trying to move into this ‘bigger canvas’ territory and I’m going to keep watching and hope it gets the freedom from the network to do that. Because if my experience is anything to go by that writer’s room is getting flooded with notes that say things like, “wrap up the story by the end of the episode,” and “have fewer characters,” and “do we really need so many sub-plots?”

And maybe my favourite note, “This needs stronger act outs (which means cliffhangers before every commercial break or viewers wil lose interest) and the beginning of each act needs to be a quick summation of what happened in the last act (because networks seem to think viewers can’t remember what they saw two minutes ago).”

And I wonder if any network note has ever asked what the theme of the season will be?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Guest Blog- The Tony Black Invasion

By Tony Black

Regular readers of DSD might have caught my handle here before - thanks to Jay and Russel (cheers lads)- but for those of you more used to reading about the antics of my booze-soaked 'sleuth' (using the term cautiously, as he's a far better alky than a PI) Gus Dury, then my latest book will, likely as not, leave you as confused and addled, as, er, Gus.

TRUTH LIES BLEEDING is a police procedural. Yes, 'fuck-me-drunk' as Gus might say. I never thought I'd see the day myself. It's what my publishers describe as a move away from my 'moody noir'. And they're not wrong.

I was never that much of a fan of the police procedural - outside of Derek Raymond's Factory novels (I know, not typical of the form) and some of the better examples from the Scottish big hitters - but for some reason, some urge or other, I found myself taking to the idea of giving it a go.

I have a good mate in Edinburgh who is always one of my first readers and he persuaded me, just about, that I'd been giving Lothian and Borders finest a hard time in the Dury novels. I couldn't see it; argued blind I wasn't, but the seed was sewn.

In a previous life I was a hack reporter: I reviewed nightclubs; covered courts and had contacts on the force. Some of the tales were mind-boggling ... utterly unpublishable, though. When I look back now, I think I can safely say that I was storing up that police info'. Who was it said that nothing in a writer's life was wasted ...

But as far as protagonists go, they're polar opposites.

If Dury was a result of brushing shoulders with camel-coated nightclub bosses putting heavy threats out for 'favourable reviews', then Detective Inspector Rob Brennan came from the opposite side of the tracks.

Rob is no Gus.

Where Gus is perpetually three-sheets to the wind, Rob is almost T-total. My new DI is a family man; he has a teenage daughter and another on the way - don't think that makes him a square-peg, though - the one on the way is to his mistress, the force psychologist.

Rob is recently back from psych' leave, still reeling from the senseless killing of his only brother - something which he seems to think he could have presented if he was a better copper, a better man - when he is asked to investigate the brutal killing and dismembering of a young girl, roughly the same age as his own daughter.

Rob digs into the case and discovers the victim, who turned up in an Edinburgh dumpster, had recently given birth herself. If that doesn't shock him enough, his fragile frame of mind is given a further jolt when it is evident no-one knows where the child is.

As a media-frenzy gets underway, Rob tracks down the victim's parents to a sleepy Scottish town - the mystery of what she was doing in Edinburgh now becomes even more complicated as an ambitious father and his ties to a convicted paedophile come into play.

It's not a story for the faint-hearted, I have to say.

In my Gus Dury series I delved into hardcore criminality with people-smuggling and teenage prostitution, dog-fighting and gang wars. But in TRUTH LIES BLEEDING I got into even darker territory: the international sale of infants to paedophile rings.

Revealing any more of the book's twists and turns at this stage will only spoil it for those of you who might want to pick up a copy, so I'll leave it at that. Oh, but I should probably add that's it's a bit grislier than you'll be used to from me ... you've been warned!

Ÿ TRUTH LIES BLEEDING is published by Preface/Random House on Feb 3. For more information visit:

Monday, February 7, 2011

Guest Post: The Life Cycle of the Small Fish in the Big Pond

Don't miss our chat with LATE RAIN author, Lynn Kostoff here

Guest Post
By Eric Beetner and JB Kohl co-authors of Borrowed Trouble
Eric: We have a publisher, Second Wind. They are, contrary to most stories of the publishing industry, the nicest bunch of gentle southern folk you’d ever care to meet. So none of this is a complaint. We’re published and we’re grateful. There are quite a few great mystery books on our imprint. You should check them out.
Here’s the thing though – you gotta go find them. If I don’t tell you about them, or our books, you’d never find them. There’s a reason the publisher’s motto is “The best authors you haven’t read, yet!” Welcome to the world of independent publishing. 
Again, not a complaint, just the facts of the biz when you swim in the kiddie pool. We’re not self-published – that scarlet letter of the book world that, if you ask me, is quickly losing its kryptonite power over book sales – but there are times when it feels like we do so much on our own that we’re self-everything else.
Indie publishing is a tough racket. You have to be a writer, publicist, art director, new media consultant and car salesman. Quite often Writer falls to the back of the line.
It becomes doubly hard when you don’t particularly like shilling your wares like a snake oil salesman to all who will listen. I truly believe in our books, both of them One Too Many Blows To The Head and the brand new one, Borrowed Trouble. (Snake oil sales tip – mention the product often) I’ve put myself out there more than I’m comfortable with simply because I truly think I’m selling a quality product here. And meeting readers and other writers while being out and about at conferences and such is pretty damn cool, I will say. I’m just lousy at closing the sale. I’m much more likely to tell someone about the new Victor Gischler book or, “Hey did you see Dope is back in print,” than to shove our own book on someone’s hand.
I’ll say this, it makes every single sale very special when you meet the readers who are buying your books or hear of a bookseller who recommended your book to someone in Italy (as happened to us once).
Jennifer: Gotta go find them is right. I remember doing the queries for One Too Many Blows To The Head and when I found these guys I wasn't sure if we should even submit. Our book seemed a little to edgy for this particular publishing house. The one who reviewed our book indicated in his comments that this wasn't the sort of book he'd ever read, but he felt there was an audience out there for it. 
Okay, great . . . so how does a writer published with a small indie press go about getting an audience? I agree with you, Eric, it's hard. A lot of it is by peddling on the internet . . . web site, blog, e-mail. As a writer you don't want to be out there to the point of nauseating your potential readers, but you also want to let them know there's a new book out and it's one worth reading. 
I used to spend a lot of time on MySpace, back when it was still a viable use of my time, and there were writers on there that plugged their stuff to the point of irritation. It got to be so I viewed any e-mail from them in the same way I viewed a telemarketing call during dinner. It was annoying. I no longer cared if they had anything worth reading because I just wanted them to go away. Forever. 
But take a blog, or a book signing, or a web site – someplace I can voluntarily go to check things out and I'm there. I want to know what's been written and where and when I can get it. I love to read blogs by other writers because they usually write about what they're reading and so many recommendations come to me through word of mouth. I buy my books based on reviews and recommendations from family and friends. But that brings up still another issue: how do family and friends find out about a book if there's no way for them to find out it's there. 
And while we're on the subject, what's the sound of one hand clapping?
EB: Well, that gets to the heart of why being on a bestseller list is a perpetual motion machine. People who don’t know what to read next go look at the NYT top ten and pick from that and look no further. I don’t blame them. Most people don’t have time to find out about the thousands of books that come out each year. 
The thing that has been fascinating for me in our experience has been how being on a small press lets us do more to have control over our book. For example, we’ve done our own covers for both books. I sucked a friend into painting the One Too Many Blows To The Head cover which we added all the type and layout to, then I sent you, what, five different designs to choose from for Borrowed Trouble and we created that entirely ourselves (plus one tiny image I pilfered from an old pulp magazine from the 40s.) Would St. Martin’s Minotaur let us do that? I doubt it. The good news is we’ve gotten many compliments on the artwork which is nice because bad cover art is a dead giveaway for a small press. 
We created our own book trailers, which I could do for free since I am a TV editor by trade. If we had to pay for one I wouldn’t do it. I think they can be a waste of time and money and there are more bad trailers out there than bad covers. I like ours thought.
This stop off at Do Some Damage is just one of many we are doing in our “blog tour”, surely a phrase that didn’t exist even two or three years ago. But it’s all about finding as many ways to get out there as you can. 
One surprising thing I have found is that most authors I talk to, even those on the big boys, are always wanting more promotion. They do the same tricks we do to get noticed. This is not an indie press vs. large press problem anymore. If you want your book to get noticed you have to be out there actively promoting it. 
I agree with you though that you don’t want it to seem like that’s all you do. Hopefully we can get away with it for this month since it is our book release month. I’ll go back to Facebook updates about my kids on March 1st, I promise.
One thing I feel a little dirty about flogging is our “story” of having never met. I will say, though, that I see it as a marketing tool in our toolbox. If we can get a little human interest that gets people to notice the book it sure beats moving to Sweden and dying just to push the old Amazon sales ranking. 
And your question about one hand clapping? That’s the sound of an author with no support system. I feel so grateful that we seem to have a cascading applause of goodwill out there. Part of it is based on good writing, part of it based on being good people and dealing with good people which the crime fiction community is full of. The crime/mystery community is the absolute best place for small press authors, I think. No one looks down on us because we’re not in hardcover at every Walmart in America.
Jennifer: One of my favorite things about our publisher, Second Wind, is that they have a brick and mortar bookstore in Winston-Salem (called Barnhill's) where they carry titles from small presses. The store is located in what I'd classify an art district in the center of the city, filled with eclectic shops run by local artists. There's such an appreciation of one another's work down there--whether the artist is a painter, a writer, a clothier, a sculptor, or a collector searching for something new. And I have to confess, when I travel, I always look for bookstores, and I always look for the ones off the beaten path, run by people who do it because they love it and not because it's a paycheck. It's these little places that carry obscure titles printed in limited runs where you can actually meet some of the great authors who appreciate what it is to have an audience. As a writer I'm always looking for inspiration but as a reader I'm always looking for a good book. Unfortunately, independent bookstores are few and far between and you really have to be looking for one in order to find it. 
I guess that leads me to another thought--and that is that the writing world, when you get down to it, is sort of small. We tend to brush up against one another in cyberspace periodically and read each other's blogs and work, etc. It's the voices of other writers I tend to listen to when I'm wondering what I should read next. Of course I listen to readers too. . . I mean of course I read the reviews on Amazon . . . but seriously, I'd much rather know what people who write the same sort of stuff I write are reading. I think that's a seriously viable form of publicity in and of itself. If you can impress your peers then you've got talent regardless of whether or not you're on NYT bestsellers list. And that has to be worth a little something. 
Eric: At Bouchercon this past year Eddie Muller said to me that it was, “Writers selling to other writers.” And it’s true that the most avid readers I know (aside from my sister) are other authors. 
In the end I doubt there is a writer in the world who is satisfied with his or her book sales or profile in the literary world. Being entirely responsible for your own marketing and promotion is a daunting task that can suck some of the fun out of writing. It only takes one positive Amazon review or one mention on a blog to boost me back up though. Having people drive out of their way to come to a signing is incredible. Having booksellers I respect give me the time out of their busy schedules is amazing. It’s what we have to do – dive into the deep end and keep treading water until you can hopefully start to ride a current of word of mouth and good reviews to bigger sales numbers. 
I’m going to go ahead a beat the metaphor to death here and say that I’m more than happy to be swimming alongside so many writers I like and respect and who I consider friends. I’ll do my best to be out there shilling your works alongside my own. For us small press folks we are our own best allies – sometimes the only ones we get.
So here’s to the independents. The no-promo-budget, not-in-stock-at-Borders, scraping-for-each-Twitter-mention among us. We do it because we love books, we love words and we love writers. We won’t stop just because it’s hard. 
We encourage you to check out our book Borrowed Trouble, even urge you to start with the first book, One Too Many Blows To The Head. Trust us. The snake oil we’re selling really works.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Everyone shouldn't be published

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Why is it wrong to say that everyone shouldn’t be published? Yeah – that question is already sending some of you to your refrigerator to procure vegetable missiles. And while I might have to duck and cover, I will say that I don’t believe that everyone who writes and seeks publication should actually achieve it.

Should everyone be an accountant?

Does everyone have the ability to be a neurosurgeon or a rocket scientist?

Trust me when I say you don’t want me playing with sharp objects near your brain or doing whatever mathematical equations are necessary to launch people into space. Does that mean I suck at science or math? No. No it doesn’t. But it does mean that some people are better than me at it and I’m glad they’re the one in charge of keeping satellites in orbit.

Could I have applied myself and become a fabulous doctor or a ground breaking scientist? Yes – although all the studying in the world might not have helped me reach the fabulous or ground breaking parts. But yes – I could have spent years and years in school studying the principles and then years and years in internships and residencies and in a variety of jobs to learn the skills I needed to learn.

But I didn’t and so I will never crack open a skull (unless it is on the page) and I’ll never get high on rocket fuel fumes.

When I decided to sit down at my computer and type, I did so because I wanted to see if I could tell a story from beginning to end. And I did. Once I did that, I decided I wanted to learn better ways to write a story. I worked with other writers to learn about the craft of writing. I read lots of books in the genres I wanted to write in to see how the authors I liked best sculpted their words. And I worked hard to find my own voice….as crazy and wacky as it sometimes is. And even after years of work I knew that I might not ever be published because there are only so many books publishers will buy and mine might never be one that fits what they are looking for.

Would not being published mean I was a bad writer? No. Great writers go unpublished all the time. That’s just the way the business works. And I was okay with knowing that. In fact, just knowing that made me work harder to make my own writing stronger. I never wanted to publish the books myself (even though many do and they are very happy with that choice) because I wanted all or nothing. I wanted to get an agent, be edited by an editor and go through ever step that the authors I have loved for years went through. And if that had never happened I would have been at peace with it. I would never have thought less of myself for trying or curse the fates.

Publishing is what it is. A tough business.

And yet, for some reason saying the words “Everyone who writes shouldn’t be published” gets a lot of people pissed off and ready to do battle.

Being published takes hard work and even still you might come up short. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. The current trend to self-publish (and I’m talking full novels here not short story collections that are best sold directly to the author’s fan base by the author themselves) seems to perpetuate the thought process that all people who type on their computer should call themselves published authors. I can’t help thinking this is wrong. The new trend of writing a book and sticking it up on Amazon almost immediately after hitting "THE END" gives writers permission to skip steps in learning the craft and the business that would make them a better writer. They don’t have to go through the painstaking editing that might be required to get the book to the next level. They don’t have to worry about making sure every word is necessary. They don’t…

They just don’t.

Those steps are important. And I’m not saying that there aren’t books out there that have gone through these steps and for some reason or another didn’t get traditionally published. And I’m not saying that there aren’t reasons that one might want to self-publish a book. (Those short story collections are great reasons to venture into this arena.) But everyone who writes – traditionally published authors included – should never skip the steps that make their writing better. And if you are willing to skip those steps then you shouldn’t be published.

I’m not saying any of this to be mean or rain on anyone’s parade. In fact, I want to do just the opposite. I want every writer striving for traditional publication to keep working toward that goal. Keep writing, revising and submitting. Will you find an editor or agent if you do this? Not necessarily, but your chances are better. The more you do this, the more lottery tickets you buy in the publishing raffle. And one day, when you least expect it, your number might be called. And if not – then you will be proud of your efforts.