Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Scooby Doo Syndrome

Scott D. Parker

How do you explain the often idiot choices of network television executives to a none year old? Easy. Use Scooby Doo.

My boy has a serious Scooby Doo love right now. With the DVDs we can get from the library, On Demand, the DVDs he got for Christmas, and the ones still playing on TV, there's a constant stream of Doo at our house. Naturally, the boy asks the obvious question: how come all five members of Mystery Inc. Are not in all the different versions of the show? Perceptive lad.

Big fancy answer: because the vicissitudes of a fickle public causes network execs to overanalyze the ratings and make the decision that Something Has To Change.

Short, truthful answer: Because once a formula is successful, it's mimicked by just about everybody else until the original source becomes a cliche so much that it is the one that's changed to catch up with those other shows whose very existence is owned to the original show.

You know what I mean, right? Scooby Doo debuts in 1969 and is a hit. Josie and the Pussycats, Speed Buggy, and others follow. After a few years, SD drops in the ratings because while it was the original, it now appears a cliche compared to all the other pretenders. So what's the executives' natural response? They changed the original by bringing in Special Guest Stars. Now, don't get me wrong: it's kinda cool to see the Mystery Inc. gang teaming up with Batman and Robin, Laurel and Hardy, and their doppelgangers, Josie and the Pussy Cats. But, after awhile, it, too, turned stale. Enter Scrappy-Doo. Exit Fred. And, well, things just went downhill from there.

Here's the irony with the modern versions of the Scooby Doo movies and TV shows: somewhere along the road, the network executives realized that the initial idea didn't need to be tweaked. Thus, you get throwback cartoons with all the modern sensibilities but original concept is firmly in place. The late and lamented "Tom and Jerry Tales" had this concept in spades.

And the fans cheered this nostalgic return to form.

Our mystery and crime entertainment is not immune to this fickle change in attitude. It's everywhere. Let's take "CSI" for example. The CSI shows burst onto the scene to great ratings. If it ain't broke, the executives don't change a thing. Perhaps they've learned their lesson. Until rating start to slide and people complain that it's the same show week in and week out. What's wrong? Quick! Get a new cast member! Stat! Then, just like Fred, original cast members start to leave. The first thing viewers do? Complain that it's not like it used to be. What? But I thought...?

We not-yet-published authors--and the rest of authordom, to be honest--fall into the Scooby Doo trap, too. We chase trends and try to fix things that are not broken. Tell me: how many books are out there about vampires? I don't know, but I've read few of them. But you know there are a good number of authors who bang out novels and stories to try and capture the vampiric zeitgeist. Only many of then will arrive to the party too late. They'll be left standing on the outside looking in, reams of manuscripts crumpled at their feet.

In my own ideas and imaginings, I've tried my best to steer clear of writing something That People Will Love. More than one (all?) writing coach sums up the process of starting a project: write something you would want to read. Recently, my mother gave me a story idea. I liked it, and started running with it. Soon, however, the story started shifting into something more along the lines of what I like. That's natural, you know. Her original concept probably would sell more books. But that's not what drives me to write. And, heck, I'm the writer. I have to entertain myself first.

I appreciate the opening paragraph of Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction:

The first person you should think of pleasing, in writing a book, is yourself. If you can amuse yourself for the length of time it takes to write a book, the publishers and the readers can and will come later.

I'd like to think so. Do you?

Songs of the Week: American Idol contestants

My wife and I are Idol newbies. This is our first season to watch, and we're digging not only the incredible talent on stage, but the honesty and humility that Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez are bringing to the show. Highlight of this week:
  • Jacon Lusk - "God Bless the Child" - This will blow you away.
  • Tim Halperin & Julie Zorrilla - "Something" - Remember: these are amateurs, they just don't act like it. I wanted the entire song.
  • Casey Abrams - "Georgia On My Mind" - My personal favorite of the bunch, so unique. It's probably the jazz that gets me.

Friday, February 25, 2011

SUB SUB SUB GENRES (a twitter-sourced topic)

By Russel D McLean

I have a thing against the phrase “tartan noir”. Truly, it rankles with me even if I have occasionally used it in my “other” job as shorthand, I think it’s a pretty odd description to use for a genre that is far more than noir - - in fact, Scottish crime may include some of the maost varied writers and styles to ever be gathered from one particular country (running the gamut from MC Beaton through to, yes, Irvine Welsh who has strayed into the crime genre whether he wants to admit it or not).

So when Audrey (also known as Oddmonstr, for reasons I couldn’t possibly tell you) asked me on twitter to write about,

The new sub-sub-sub-genre splitting of noir: geographic noir, discount noir, cat noir, dog noir...

My thoughts turned to how I feel about the tartan noir tag and how sometimes I think we can get caught up in trying to compartmentalise writing when really, we should just be enjoying it. After all, I think its useful to distinguish genre to a certain degree and within genre there are always going to be subset genres because, well, that’s the way it works and the way the human brain naturally tries to rationalise the world. But sometimes we can go too far so that things become ridiculous. Especially when much of the time we have trouble enough defining the larger edges of a genre. Noir is a particularly good example because no two writers – even those considered noir writers – can agree on what exactly noir is (often other than defining what its not*).

It’s a very personal thing and that just makes any sub genre splitting even more insane.
That said much of the splitting is done in the name of marketing. Akashic’s “geographic” noir is a great hook for a fine series of anthologies**and of course I’m proud to have contributed to the second volume of Geezer noir in Damn Near Dead 2 – an anthology you must and shall read right now. Simply by adding X noir to a title you get an immediate feel for what a piece of work should be like.

That said, I think it can all get a bit much and pretty soon we’re going to get round to a suggestion I once heard from the author John Rickards of “Toff Noir”*** Which leads me to wonder whether all this sub sub sub splitting of a genre can lead to the impact of the genre’s overall tag being somehow diminished.

And in the end, as we struggle to categorise and contain a story with a genre, a sub genre, a sub sub genre and so forth, I have to wonder if we being to lose sight of what is important in the first place:

The story.

Because I don’t care about your genre. I don’t care about your sub genre. I just care if you sweep me away, make me care, make me feel, make me believe in your story.

This week's post was written at the suggestion of a follower on twitter. It was fun to think about something unexpected. So tell you what, let's do this again for next week. If you're on twitter, tweet your suggested topic/question for next week's column @russeldmclean with the hashtag #surprisefriday and I'll get one of my fellow DSDers to pick the winner out of a hat before I write the next column.

*I can’t stop thinking of my favourite ever definition of “cat” as being “not a dog.” Which I’m pretty sure is a Blackadder gag but feel free to correct me if its not.

**although one can still make the argument for exactly how many of the stories are actually “noir”.

***I say, Jeeves, that fellow’s skull just exploded when I blasted him at point blank range with the blunderbuss!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Spreading Rumors

I love rumors.

Really, I do. My favorite part of baseball season--after the playoffs--is hot stove rumors. I love hearing who the Yankees might acquire and how the Red Sox might counteract that. I'm a huge college basketball fan, and I follow recruiting pretty closely. There are a lot of rumors that travel through that world too. Who might commit, what team is cheating (no, not Rutgers), what player is leaning a certain way?

I love movie rumors too. I check out sites like Ain't It Cool and Dark Horizons, looking for new movie trailers and photos taken by spies with silly fake names. But these rumors get me excited. I want to see the movie. I want to watch my teams play. I dig to find out more.

I think authors need to do the same things. Rumors need to be let out for the fans to see, especially if you're established. Think of the uproar and excitement that was let out when we all heard Dennis Lehane might be writing a new Kenzie/Gennaro novel. Or the rumor that never panned out: he was writing something called MISSING DELORES. That book never panned out, but it got my imagination going.

Writers now have so many tools at their finger tips. There is Twitter, Facebook, and who knows what other things to get your message across. And too often all we get are word counts or something really mundane like "writing about killing today." Or even my awful status update that I "need to write today."

Who cares?

If you're going to talk about your writing, shouldn't you make it pique someone's interest? How much cooler would it be if Russel McLean tweeted that he'd was "writing today about melting the dome in the Capitol Building." Let me tell you something, I'd probably spend the rest of the afternoon combing the internet for more information. He'd probably also get an harassing email from me too. Or if Jason Pinter tweeted he was writing a scene about the beheading of a Canadian figure skater? That'd get me looking around the 'net too.

Boy would they have my interest. Let something go. Make it cool, and vague, and mysterious.

I understand things get cut in revision. Things change. Books don't pan out. But Missing Delores never happened, and I still wanted to know more about Shutter Island. Fans understand.

But it can only help to get the reader's attention long before the book comes out.


Check out my e-book More Sinned Against and find out if two thugs can make it out of an Atlantic City hotel room alive. Or will their blood be splattered all over a couch?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Crowd Sourcing

John McFetridge

A little self-indulgence today (yeah, I know, what makes today any different ;).

Although I’m not quite finished the novel I’m working on – only a few months past the deadline now – I can see the end of the tunnel and I’m pretty sure I’ll be there in the next couple of weeks.

And then I’ll immediately start thinking about what to write next.

Well, that’s not entirely true, I’ve been thinking about what to write next for a while. I’ve been pitching TV series (serieses? Seriei? It’s like a drug, working on The Bridge was like that friendly stranger when I was a teenager) but I will always think of books first. Books offer so much more freedom to the writer, you can write whatever you want, no budget restrictions so you can have as many characters, locations, and expensive set-pieces as you want, no censorship (well, no censorship that would affect what I write – adults involved in sex and violence), no specific length requirements and no networks, sponsors, producers, directors and stars to please.

Which, of course, is also the problem.

I’ve mentioned before that a TV writer I worked with (Peter Mohan, great guy) said that writing episodic TV is like writing Haiku. Sure, there’s a strict structure but that can be a terrific starting point.

And then last week someone asked to do an interview with me and one of the questions mentioned a flash fiction I wrote called, “Who’s Angie Dickenson?” and I remebered I once thought about expanding that into a novel.

I thought maybe I should ask people if they’d like to see that? Maybe offer a few flash fictions and a few new ideas and ask which one people would like to see turned into a novel?

So, this is a kind of pre-crowd sourcing, a little crowd sourcing to see if crowd sourcing would be a good idea.

I know I’m supposed to have some idea that I’m driven by, some idea that I just can’t stop thinking about until I write it down (like getting a song in your head and only listening to it will set you free) but I’ve been wondering about the changes in writing and publishing and although e-books and self-publishing get the most press the ability for writers to interact with readers really is at a new level and hasn’t been discussed much.

So, what do you think, would a poll with a few ideas be worthwhile?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Writing For Fun And Profit

By Jay Stringer

A change is as good as a rest, and other cliches.

It's good to change things up. I've written on here my views on mythical writers block, and it boils down to this - follow your brain. Just before Christmas I turned in the latest draft of my second book to worlds best agent. I was on a roll, and brimming with ideas for the third book. I jumped headlong into writing it, and asking myself questions; Would this be the final book in the series? Would all the pieces tie up? would I learn to spell?

I got three chapters in and wrote a great mini-cliffhanger, one that would leave the reader asking, what the hell is going on? And then....I didn't know what was going on. So I turned to some of my favourite writing techniques -

I stared at the wall
I rode my bike
I pretended to own a dog and go for long walks

There comes a time when your imaginary dog is tuckered out, and you've had as many showers as you can have in a day without shrinking, when you have to accept that your brain is not ready. It's still picking away at the problem, letting all the pieces fall into different places and seeing how the picture looks. At that point you can PANIC BECAUSE YOU HAVE WRITERS BLOCK or you can follow your brain and go work on something else.

I really don't see writers block as a brick wall. I see it as the door to a safe, or a magic eye puzzle. Just wait, play around with the combination, and it'll come when it's ready.

So I turned to project B. The stand alone, and one that I was putting great pressure on myself to write. This is a story that's been kicking around in my head for awhile and I always intended to tackle it four or five manuscripts in, when I would be in a better position to take on the structure. I was coming to it ahead of schedule, but I had a few ideas for it and I took a running jump. Sent worlds best agent regular (well, my version of regular, which tends to be faster than an ice age,) updates about the research, the structure, the title (because thats the important part, kids.) And then once again, I hit that fake-brick-wall.

That book is closer to being ready for me to tackle, but it still wasn't quite there.

Step three, stop pressuring myself into writing anything and catch up on some reading. I started into my epic TBR pile. And then hit the wall again.

Readers block? WTF.

I looked back on what I'd been reading. And for longer than I realised I had been reading crime. Normally I keep an eye on my pile and keep things changing, keep things fresh. But somehow I'd let that slip, and my brain was yelling at me to change things. I couldn't read or write crime because I was sinking in it.

So, change as good as a rested cliche, or something like that.

I re-read a couple of old adventure books, and that loosened something, then I binged on comics, and that loosened something further. Then I sat down to write, and boy was that loose.

Everything I'd been writing for the previous year had been with the knowledge that I was going to be sending it to worlds best agent, or submitting to a magazine/ezine, or sending them to Professor Weddle and saying, squeal at that, piggy.

I never write for an audience. I write for myself. But even then you'll find pressures creep in and styles change, you're writing something that you know others will read.

I went back to square one. I have a pulp adventure character, someone I mucked around with a few years back in some very bad stories. But action and adventure play to my weaknesses as a writer, and they're a good chance to play with some other things that obsess over, like structure and character.

So with myself as the only intended audience, I gave myself a month off from writing to sit and write. And two months later I'm still there, in the closing stages of what threatens to be a novel. And it's still probably not something I'll be looking to publish, but it's been a great experience. A writing holiday.

The next episode of the DSD podcast will be out very soon, featuring Mr Tony Black, Russel and my own self. Keep an eye on that feed. And if you're thinking, yeah, all of this talking is good, but when do we get to hear you chat with Mr Seth Harwood? Well, that one's coming soon too.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Too Late For The Reader Revolution?

HOUSEKEEPING: Today we are joined for the first time by our alternate-Mondays blogger, Sandra Ruttan. Most of you already know Sandra as editor-in-chief of Spinetingler Mag and a fantastic writer. Joelle has picked up the opening left by Bryon Quetermous, who retired from DSD a few weeks ago.
The schedule change is that Joelle is now on every Sunday, while Sandra and Steve will alternate on Mondays.
We are so pleased to have Sandra join the team. If you don't know why we're thrilled, you soon will.

By Sandra Ruttan

I just read the breaking news, that the second-largest city in Libya is in the hands of protesters. Let's see, we've had Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt... and the revolutions continue. Will it be Yemen or Bahrain, or is it possible Libya's Gadhafi will be the next dictator to fall?

The West has been talking about corruption and suppression of human rights in some of these countries for decades, but what came of it? Nothing. No, nothing happens until some young man goes and lights himself on fire, starting a new trend and effectively becoming a champion of democracy throughout the Middle East.

You see, sometimes, it isn't what you say. It's who says it. Those people couldn't hear it from The West. Our interests clouded their ability to appreciate the truth of whatever we said.

No, sometimes, you need to hear from someone you know is on your side.

So, as an author, an editor, a reviewer and a champion of the crime fiction genre, I'm here today to strike a match and start a fire that just might possibly shake the foundations of the publishing industry.

You see, we've heard it from the romance writers. And we've heard it from the, ahem, literary authors. But I stand here today, as one of your own, prepared to embrace a dark truth we've attempted to deny until now because we couldn't accept it from outside our circle.

We can't handle the truth.

Oh, we talk the good talk. Of course we don't want to embrace stereotypes. We want fresh, original, compelling characters that smack of reality...


Well, maybe. Just as long as we aren't talking about characters from Canada. Check out this map of organized crime from around the globe, and the creators have perpetuated the popular myth that there's no crime in Canada.

People, this is a devastating lie that's threatening American society. While you picture nice Canadians in Mountie uniforms eating toffee by the fire and singing Kumbaya, the reality couldn't be farther from the truth. On any given day the news is filled with exploding pipelines, escaped murderers, and blood-spattered walls at homicide scenes, and the recent revelation that crime costs Canada an average $1B per year.

The good news is, Canadian crime fiction that features amateur sleuths and quirky characters who accidentally solve crimes is as popular as ever, so someone's sure to draw inspiration from the entirely believable news story about two men in Calgary trying to steal a Zamboni.

Unfortunately, the nicey-nice image Canada has is so pervasive, it's corrupted the crime fiction community. That's why I am going to finally break the news to John McFetridge fans world-wide. The riveting action, the bombs, the drug deals, the murders and general mayhem that fill the pages between the snippets of steamy sex in John's books is getting the ax and John's next book is going to be erotica.

Okay, so this isn't going to shake publishing to its core. I probably won't even succeed in irritating the Canadian Tourism Commission. But I do wonder if I should let go of writing about Canada and embrace my new home in the US.

And I wonder if we can help John come up with a title for his new book. ;)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Writing something different.

by: Joelle Charbonneau

If you read this blog you probably know that I don’t write dark crime fiction. I’m one of the light and funny mystery writers on the DSD team. The Rebecca Robbins mystery series has a hat wearing ex-circus camel and a sexually frisky grandfather bopping through the pages. The newest series that was bought last month by Berkley Prime Crime (Murder For Choir) has an angry poodle and a lot of singing and dancing in the story. I write funny – right? As a writer that’s who I am.

Or maybe not.

Because I’m a little a head of my writing schedule on the Skating books and don’t need to have book 2 of the new series into my editor until the middle of next year I’m working on a different project. Something a little darker that was inspired by my stint on a gang murder jury last year. I’m almost 200 pages into the book and I still don’t know what I think about it. Part of me wonders if I have the chops to write something that isn’t funny. I admit that it is really odd for me to read something that I’ve written which sounds like me, but isn’t silly or even mildly amusing. The fear that I’m writing I’m not supposed to write is strong. My desire to write the story is stronger. So I write. And I worry.

Everyone says that once you break into publishing you are supposed to brand yourself. You’re not supposed to write funny mysteries and thrillers. How will the reader know what to expect when they crack open the cover of your book if you do more than one thing? And yet here I am writing a third person book featuring the south side of Chicago gangs. Am I crazy? You tell me.

Oh – and in case you think I’m making this up to have something to blog about - here is the first scene.

Inadvertent Witness

Witnessing a murder was easy compared to this. Dozens of eyes studied Michelle as she shifted on the hard, wooden seat in front of them. They were seated in four rows of cushioned chairs – all facing hers. The back of her neck dripped with sweat despite the glacial air-conditioning of the ornate courtroom. Her heart raced as if she had something to fear. Maybe she did. While death was an inevitable part of her chosen profession, answering questions that might send a man to prison was not. Why one was worse than the other she wasn’t sure.

“Please state your name and the general area in which you live for the Grand Jury,” Assistant District Attorney, Brad Winkler smiled like they were old friends. He was a big man clothed in an even bigger beige suit with a voice that sounded a lot like chalk squeaking across a blackboard.

She took a deep breath. “My name is Michelle Bowden. I live in a northwest suburb of Chicago.” Giving an exact address or town was something she’d been cautioned against – just in case.

The district attorney’s big smile said he was pleased Michelle had remembered. “Where were you on the afternoon of May 25th?”

“I spent the afternoon at the hospital visiting a former coworker at Advocate Trinity Hospital.” There was no need to mention that the coworker was actually admitted to, instead of working at, the hospital with a collapsed lung courtesy of her husband. Emily’s marital problems had nothing to do with this.

“What time did you leave the hospital?”

“Around 4 p.m. I’d meant to leave before traffic started to build, but I lost track of the time.” An older woman three rows back nodded with a smile. Michelle smiled back glad to know she wasn’t the only one who habitually lost track of time.

“Then where did you go?”

“I meant to go home, but I took a wrong turn and got lost.” Her cheeks burned. The jurors probably thought she sounded like the typical blonde. On a normal day she had great directional sense. She never got lost when visiting my patients, not even the direst of medical emergencies. But Emily’s almost unrecognizable face had followed her from the hospital to her car. A good twenty minutes passed before she realized she was in the wrong part of town.

Assistant district attorney Winkler didn’t seem to notice Michelle’s embarrassment. He just fired another question. “Did you stop to ask for directions?”

“I did,” although she’d changed her mind. Even with the sun shining, walking across the street to the convenience store felt dangerous. She’d felt like a wimp.

“Where were you when you stopped to ask for directions?”

“I was on South Cottage Grove Avenue between 75th and 76th streets.”

“And did you see anything unusual when you were parked at that location?”

Swallowing hard, she nodded.

“Could you please answer out loud so the court reporter can record your answer?”

“Sorry. Yes.” The dark-haired woman sitting hunched over her white typing pad clicked the keys to record the answer.

“What did you see?”

Neglected buildings housing as many businesses as empty spaces. Graffiti covered brick walls. A gang of African American and Latino-looking men giving each other hand signs across the street from where she’d pulled over.
“I saw a man in a light blue shirt run in front of where my car was parked. He crossed the street and approached a group of men standing on the sidewalk in front of a sandwich shop.” For a minute it looked like he was joining his friends. A couple of guys even smiled at him. Then they stopped smiling.

“What next?”

“The man pulled out a gun and aimed it at another man wearing a white and green sweatshirt.”

“Did the man in the sweatshirt say anything?”

“I don’t know. I was too far away to hear.” But not so far that she couldn’t see the fear that spread across his face. Michelle gripped the arms of her chair as the memory of her own fear raced back. “The man in the sweatshirt ran behind a black and silver Mercedes that was parked on that side of the street. The guy with the gun chased after him.”

“Did you see what happened next?”

A brown-haired man in a gray suit leaned forward in his chair. Excitement widened his eyes. Michelle didn’t feel his enthusiasm for the details. In fact, her stomach clenched and her mouth tasted of metal, as she said, “The man in the sweatshirt ran around to the front of the Mercedes and tripped. He fell on the hood of the car.” His dark brown skin gleamed against the outline of the silver car as he turned over and opened his mouth to say something to the gunman. Only he never got to. “The man with the gun stood in front of the car and pulled the trigger three times. He then ran southbound down the sidewalk and disappeared.”

He never saw the man in the sweatshirt slide down the hood of the silver Mercedes, leaving a streak of red glistening in the sun. But she did.