Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reverential Treatment

Scott D. Parker

Earlier this week, my wife and I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Jane Goodall. The Wortham Center here in Houston was sold out, but there were a few empty seats. Maybe it was traffic?

Anyway, after the first two gentlemen spoke, out walks Ms. Goodall. This thin, 77-year-old woman was dressed all in black with a nice, fuscha shawl draped around her shoulders, her long, gray hair pulled back in the customary pony tail. There was a palpable excitement in the air and we all sat enraptured during her 70-minute speech.

After a short Q&A, she exited to the main foyer of the Wortham. This is a huge space, stories tall, and we patrons did the thing all of us likely really came for: to stand in line to get her autograph and a quick snapshot. By the time we got out of the auditorium, we were about third from the end. (Mental note, Scott: Q&A isn't that big a deal. Do what the others did and get in line at that point.) For an hour or so, we stood in line, chatted with those around us. I got to hear stories of how Goodall has affected each person's lives.

All during this waiting, Ms. Goodall sat on a stool, signed everything put in front of her, and posed for the official photographer to snap pictures. I've been to author signings so this part is nothing new. I noticed something I haven't seen at an author event: a good number of the people meeting this remarkable woman--perhaps for the first and only time--touched her, mostly on the shoulder or arm.

What is it about this woman that makes people want to touch her? I don't ever remember feeling the urge to touch the authors I've met. Well, I've shook the hands of each, but that's more of a professional acknowledgement. This was like a form of worship, if you want the truth.

I know we humans can become a fan (fanatical) of a particular movie, book, author, actor, singer, etc. It can border on obsession (says the guy who memorized the number of the trash compactor from "Star Wars" when he was 10 and has never forgotten it). I don't get the sense that we readers and writers worship fellow authors, even if we happen to meet someone like Stephen King or Nora Roberts. Is it, perhaps, because we do what they do, that is create stories? Sure, not as successfully, but still, it's the same basic thing. Is there a loss of mystique when we can replicate what famous people do? Perhaps that's why we get tongue-tied when we meet folks like presidents or activists like Goodall rather than authors.

What do you think? Is there no mystique to writing? Or is it that we fiction writers don't necessarily do the kinds of things that make people want to turn out to see us talk, sign books, and touch our shoulders?

App of the Week: Angry Birds Seasons: Shamrock Edition. I updated my favorite game app for my iPod Touch and found many of these new levels strangely difficult. But I powered through them.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Lost in The USA

By Russel D McLean

In just under a week (in four days time!) THE LOST SISTER is going to hit the US market. I’m in the final stages of organising a blog tour which is going to probably kill me, if only because I’ll be writing about a different aspect of the book or writing and reading every day. I’m dreading the entire thing and yet I’m extremely excited. Unlike my physical tour last year there’s no real chance to re-use material that worked before because, well, some of the audience may have come across it already (not that I did repeat any material – well, maybe some that was relevant and my dad’s gag about when God Created Scotland which accidentally opened the tour and became a running skit throughout). I hope you’ll follow me, of course, as I hop from blog to blog like a bearded gazelle. Some will be US blogs, some will be respectable blogs, some will be from far flung places like Glasgow but all have been very generous in opening up their doors.

The hope of course is to touch new readers. To bring people on board. Its tough to know how directly these things work. When you do a physical event you can correlate the book sales at the time to the effectiveness of your appearance. Its not rocket science. But how do you know all the people who bought on Amazon one day did so cos of a blog tour? Or if they went to their local bricks and mortar to find the book?

God only knows.

But I’m still going to do this. Because I kind of enjoy trying new things out and seeing what I can and can’t do. I love doing physical events that are different (I’ve now done two “careers fairs” about being a writer which are not – despite what some people may think – about selling my books as much as they are about telling people the truth about what my day to day job entails, and I happen to dig doing book groups who are not always the same kind of people I get at signing and talking events). In short, for the most part, I enjoy the promotion as long as I can do it on my own terms. I’m not a hard seller. Its not in me to be that guy. In fact nothing puts me off an author more than the continual and constant hawking of themselves. I tend to seek out guys and gals who talk about their work in a meaningful and entertaining way or who can make a connection to other things in life, be they other writers or influences or whatever. But the whole “buy me, buy me I’m great” thing has never been my scene.

That said, seriously, I hope that people buy the book…

Thursday, March 10, 2011

History (and Crime Fiction) in the Making

The world is changing around us. History is happening in Wisconsin right now. In fact, the Smithsonian sent a curator to collect the pieces of this history that's occurring. People are documenting this history on Facebook, on Twitter, on all types of social media.

And one of those other places this will be documented is in crime fiction.

Crime fiction is nearly always the first entertainment medium to use a piece of history in their works.

I remember in the early 2000s when Jim Fusilli's A WELL-KNOWN SECRET debuted. It was one of the first books to comment on New York City post 9/11. It was a heart breaking read, as it documented how the citizens of Tribeca were handling the tragedy.

Many crime fiction novels are also focusing on how the war in the Middle East is affecting soldiers. Reading about this fictional characters can put on a face on what we can only see on the news. We get into the heads of these characters and, hopefully, get a feel for what people who go through this are thinking.

And, heck, even Duane Swierczynski's upcoming FUN & GAMES is pre-dating the entire strange Randy Quaid-hitman situation.

Crime novels are our social conscience. They take what is happening around us and give it context, give it a theme, give it a story and a voice. The best crime fiction carries us through the days we are living while also entertaining us.

And right now, once again, history is unfolding around us. Make no mistake, this is happening in Wisconsin. Then it's going to happen in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana... New Jersey...

So, crime fiction writers are usually ahead of the curve on these things. And the battle over education has been simmering for sometime. Ten years? More? Sooner or later some crime fiction writer is going to jump all over it.

Maybe he or she already has, and I just haven't read it yet.

Or maybe I just gave myself an idea....

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Montreal – City of Ice and Snow and... Oppressive Heat?

John McFetridge

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Montreal-set crime novel The Main by Trevanian for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books. I was interested in it because a few weeks earlier Gerard Saylor had written (actually talked about in a YouTube clip) the books City of Ice and Ice Lake, a couple of Montreal-set crime novels by John Farrow (the pen name of Trevor Ferguson).

What I noticed about all three of those books is that they are set in the winter and there’s a lot of complaining about the cold. Well, I grew up in Montreal and there’s no doubt it’s cold in the winter.

But it’s really hot and unbearably humid in the summer.

And now a small press, Vehicule, has reissued a couple of Montreal-set private eye novels written in the early 50’s by David Montrose (Charles Ross Graham) and the first one, The Crime on Cote Des Neiges, takes place in August and there’s a lot of complaining about the oppessive heat:

“I couldn’t sleep.

“Maybe because of the heat. It was hotter than hell. It was hotter than a fundamentalist thinks hell is. It was hotter than it had ever been before anywhere else in the world. It was almost as hot as it had been in Montreal last August.”

I can safely say that Montreal is that hot in August.

But I wonder why the summer heat doesn’t seem to be what books set in the city now feature? I wonder if David Montrose was writing with the idea that the readers knew the city and that more recent books have been written with an eye to a much larger market (really here we Canadians mean the US market) that doesn’t know the city that well?

When we choose a setting to write about do we just naturally use the features most well-known outside of that setting?

The first fiction I wrote set in Montreal (well, outside of a private eye novel I wrote in the early 80’s that’s safely stored in my basement in a locked safe) used the fact that Jackie Robinson played his first year of otherwise all-white baseball for the Montreal Royals in 1946 – the year before he joined the Dodgers.

But that may be something about Montreal that’s not nearly as well-known outside the city as I thought it was.

Anyway, my story Barbotte has been online for a while and it takes place in the summer in Montreal.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Young Junius, Seth Harwood

By Jay Stringer

I sat down with Mr Seth Harwood over the weekend for a great chat about his career and his latest book, YOUNG JUNIUS. We recorded the whole thing, so you'll get to hear it soon in the DSD podcast. I prepared for the chat by reading back through the book, and It reminded me that I never put up a full review.

YOUNG JUNIUS delves into the backstory of a character from Harwood's first book, JACK WAKES UP, but don't think of it simply as a prequel. It stands on its own as a confident, muscular and tightly plotted story.

the book rests on the broad shoulders of Junius, caught with one foot in childhood and the other in a turf war. When his brother is gunned down he sets out to find out who owes him blood. But don't be fooled, there may be a body and a murder investigation, but this is no by-the-numbers whodunit. This is about life on the street, where everything is 'part of the game' and everyone's playing an angle.

Don't tell anyone, but the book is really more of an exploration on the escalation of violence, and of the endless cycle that takes in and spits out the people of the Rindge towers. Everything and nothing happens for a reason here, and the murder mystery element is used in a tasty and subversive way to pull us into the deeper issues at play.

Dont let all my fancy talk of "deeper issues," scare you away, though. If what you're looking for is good dialogue, strong characters and a hell of a lot of shooting, then Harwood's got you covered there, too. There are some very confidently handled set pieces, and an extremely tense finale that's as bold and bloody as a Peckinpah western.

Even as the plot hurtles along at breakneck speed, Harwood knows that the trick to making this whole thing work is to take the time to look left and right, to let the reader see the small details and character moments that make a story tick. Whether it's Junius' first experience of holding a gun, or the drug dealer who's willing to gun down anyone in his path, but who wants to keep his dog out of harms way. We also get some interesting female characters, which I still feel is always worth pointing out in a crime novel, who are far more than the token ass kicking cut-out's that we're often given as interesting.

The projects themselves take on life and character in the book, as we get to see all the different sides in the turf war. The story never stops to tell us who is right or wrong, and never talks down to us by moralising on the issues at hand.

If the comparisons to Richard Price's work seem obvious, they're meant as high praise. YOUNG JUNIUS is infused with the same spirit as CLOCKERS and LUSH LIFE, but it moves to a pace and a rhythm all of it's own, never losing sight of the ending that the characters are hurtling towards, and never giving them a way out of the mess.

If you've read JACK WAKES UP, then you already know about Harwood's style and swagger. It's taken up a notch here as a very strong next step in his writing. If you haven't ready any of his work yet, then there's nothing to lose by diving straight in here with YOUNG JUNIUS.

As I said right at the start, you'll be able to hear us talk about the book soon in the podcast. Why not pick up a copy so that you're ready for the discussion? We'll give you sone time to read it.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Character Transformations

By Sandra Ruttan

If it wasn't for the fact that I'm too old to get down on my knees, I think the events of last Tuesday's episode of Biggest Loser would have had me banging my head against the floor.

Actually, I take that back. It's the events after the show, on Twitter, that had me completely baffled. (And before you dismiss this as a post about reality shows, I'm bringing this around to writing, so bear with me.)

Okay, so I watch Biggest Loser. And Survivor. And American Idol. I am fascinated, on multiple levels. By the willingness people have to completely expose themselves to the world in pursuit of a goal, whatever that may be. The $1,000,000 prize might be enough to entice most of us to try Survivor if we had the chance. If I tried out for American Idol I'd probably be in their audition bombs special, so we'll forget about that.

But this is my first time watching Biggest Loser, and it's a whole different story watching that show. It's really hard to view it as a competition, and we don't see the same type of strategizing and manipulation that you see on other "reality" shows.

At least, not most of the time.

This season, BL has been comprised of couples. Friends, husband-wife, father-daughter, mother-daughter, twin brothers, and there are two sisters in there as well. And in the midst of all these pairs, the show welcomed their heaviest contestant ever, in the form of Arthur.

Now, what's been interesting with this show is that nobody seems to wish ill of anyone else. Since the pairs were split into two teams which competed against each other to lose the most weight each week, having your team succeed in their weight loss goals was important. If a team doesn't win the weigh-in, then (unless there's immunity) they have to vote someone out and send them home.

And early on, the eliminations were almost easy. The twin brothers deliberately blew off the weight loss on the show and gained weight so they'd be sent home. It ticked off their trainers and their teammates, and me, too, because there were other people who wanted to be on the show and didn't make it. These two got on and quickly quit, but they didn't have the decency to just outright quit the game and walk away. They forced everyone to put them through it. And after the first brother went home and the second brother was partnered with another person, he got her to gain weight as well so that their team would lose the weigh-in because he wanted to leave.

Talk about selfish. The people on this show, for them, food is like alcohol. They have a real problem with their weight, and for some of these people learning to control their weight and be healthy really is a matter of life and death, so I was completely offended by the idea that anyone would persuade someone else to gain weight just because they wanted to go home.

So it should come as no surprise that I wasn't too happy with the black team a few weeks ago.

There were going to be two eliminations. One would be by vote. The other would be by red line. The person who lost the least amount of weight that week would be automatically eliminated.

One of the mother's on the black team seemed to instigate a team meeting to conspire together about how to save Arthur. Since the team felt Arthur was at the greatest risk of going home, some felt they should make sure he wouldn't be the one to shed the fewest pounds. Arthur's dad actually got pretty upset about the whole thing, because he felt pressured to throw the weigh-in so that Arthur could stay. After all, both of the mothers were saying they'd throw the weigh-in to make sure their daughters would stay. Shouldn't Arthur's dad do the same for him? And then one of the sisters threw a hissy fit and stomped off.

It was actually one of the very rare behind-the-scenes moments where you saw a team fighting.

Meanwhile, over on the red team, nobody was talking about throwing the competition. One of the dads, Moses, was quite worried about his daughter because she'd already lost a good bit of weight, and she was one of the smaller contestants. It's harder for the smaller contestants to pull a big number and lose a lot. So Moses woke her up extra-early every morning and they did an extra workout together every day and really pushed hard.

And at the weigh-in, they put up some great numbers. Neither came close to elimination. The red team won the weigh-in, easily.

The black team lost, with one of the mothers gaining quite a few pounds. And then, there was the vote.

And the team sent Arthur's father home.

The whole thing was so upsetting. It was really too bad those mothers didn't have the same confidence in their daughters that Moses did. Oh, I understand why they did what they did, but they could have made a better choice for everyone, themselves included.

But it was the episode from this past week that led to the twitter comments that had me stunned.

chimp_phil Phil Kirwin
@Ali_Sweeney @MyTrainerBob @JillianMichaels Just watched#BL11. #Reds have shown no class sending Arthur home! Kick their asses #Blacks!
Me too. I felt general they are not as respectful...RT @irunlikeagurl Disappointed in the Red Team this episode #BL11shame on them
Disappointed in the Red Team this episode #BL11 shame on them
fattack Lady FaFa
Regardless the red team are horrible creatures. Good luck @ArthurBL11 - you SHOW them!!! you can do it! #bl11
bluedani01 Danielle
The Red Team has shown themselves for what they really are. I hope they watch this back and are disgusted. I know I am.#BiggestLoser #BL11
bluedani01 Danielle
Justin, go fuck yourself. You disgust me in so many ways I can't even say. #BiggestLoser #BL11
niicoletraceyy nicole whelan
Just watched this weeks episode of #BL11 not impressed, at all. BS elimination!!!
And it goes on and on and on.
Why did this have me pulling my hair out?
Several weeks ago, the couples faced a temptation. They were locked in a room with all their favorite foods. Fried chicken. Mac 'n' cheese. Pizza. Monkey Break. Geez, I'm making myself hungry just typing it up. The couples that ate the most calories got to pick who left their team for the week and went with the other team. Couple after couple walked into that room and resisted the urge to eat.
And then Arthur and his dad went in. Dad wasn't tempted at all. Arthur was concerned about leaving their fate in someone else's hands. Dad said it didn't matter, if they went with the other team for the week they were going to do the same thing they were doing where they were - train and work out and lose weight. Yeah, Arthur's dad got it.
But Arthur had to be in control, so he ate. He was the only person out of all the couples who ate.
Then there was the Valentine's challenge. There was an opportunity for whoever ate the most, again, to move players onto different teams.
And who do you think ate the most?
In both cases, Arthur was single-handedly responsible for switching teams for other players. His decision in one case directly contributed to the elimination of a contestant who otherwise would still be there. And in the other case, he blatantly stated he'd switched the teams so that he could bring a weaker player onto his team so that if his team lost weigh-in he wouldn't get voted off.
Arthur's been the only person who's really played BL the way you see people scheme on shows like Survivor. But he's big and needy and cries, so all the women on the black team have adopted him.
And apparently, so has America. Now, don't get me wrong. There are things about Arthur I like, too, and he definitely needed the assistance of the show to help him lose weight.
However at the end of the day, it's a show, and a game, and you can't ask people who have exposed themselves to the world via TV, people who've shown off their love handles and then some as they've been weighed in, people who've been that vulnerable because their weight is such an issue and they're so desperate to do something about it, to just walk away for someone else.
But that isn't the real point here. What this all got me thinking about was why people cared so much about Arthur. A few weeks ago, I'd been ready to throttle him. Week after week, Arthur had pulled some pretty low numbers at the weigh-ins, which suggested he hadn't really embraced the program. He had the odd better week, but at his weight his rate of loss should have been higher. Several contestants who'd weighed less had already lost more than 100 pounds, while Arthur was eating to ensure control in temptation challenges and first he sent the strongest players on his team to the other team, and then he did it again to bring on weaker players so that someone else would do worse than him on the weigh-in.
And yet you need to look no further than twitter to be convinced that Arthur has developed a following, and I was also choking back tears as Arthur went home.
What Arthur reminded me of is the fact that flawed characters are often more compelling. This is often true in fiction. We can actually buy in to the idea that they're going to change, and that's often what we become more interested in. People love the idea of change. Whole TV shows and book series have built an audience on the Will they, won't they? question alone.
Imagine how boring a show or book would be if nobody changed anything in their life ever because everything was perfect.
Now, meanwhile, over on Survivor, Russel has been regarded as one of the most evil people ever to play the game, but I'm so ticked that he was voted off. Oh, his lying tribe probably thought they were protecting themselves and making the smart move, but damn. Watching Russel lie, cheat, steal and fight with other players was entertainment. Nobody tunes in for group hugs and campfire songs. They watch to see what he'll do next.
Frankly, without a villain, the show is dull. And without someone you feel needs to change, and want to believe in, really want to see succeed, BL is just a show. Don't get me wrong. I'll be watching to the very end, and I like the red team, and there's really only one player that I can't stand. It's almost more of a family feeling, wanting to tune in and see these people succeed.
But for a lot of people, it seems if the black team gets eliminated and only reds are left, they might not stick around. It's the power of connection with your audience, and it's also the desire to see a successful transformation that drives that show.
I think writers can learn a lot from these types of shows. About conflict, drama, tension, and what it really is that makes people connect with someone. Some of our most loved characters in our genre have obvious flaws; Jack Taylor's an alcoholic, as is Rebus (and I suppose if I were to list the alcoholic protagonists in crime fiction we'd be here for quite a while).
Here's the conclusion I've drawn about character development. External conflict is one thing, but if your character has no internal conflict, they will become static. And that's why Arthur tugged so many heartstrings. He was still working it out, and we could all see his needs. He was wrestling with his demons.
He handled his elimination with a class that put him in a league of his own. For the first time, Arthur wasn't the one everyone else was protecting. He stood up and took it like a man, and didn't point fingers or lay blame at anyone. He was gracious and grateful.
In that moment, he became a leader and, as Ali Sweeney said, an inspiration to us all.
If you could create a character people cared about half as much as they cared about Arthur, you'd have a multi-book deal and TV series to follow. Never underestimate what you can learn from watching how people respond to others.
This week, from the #onlyinCanada file: Man dies after igloo collapses.
And a teaser of things to come...
Back when I was starting out in the mystery genre, I deliberately set out to write about protagonists who were fundamentally decent people. I wanted to know if it was possible to make them as interesting as characters who were obviously flawed. Could I create two good characters people would want to spend time with, and leave the readers wanting more?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

It takes a village

by: Joelle Charbonneau

I had a couple different ideas for my blog post this week. Then I read Frank Bill’s post from yesterday about the road to his publication and I changed my mind. The post is a wonderful story about how it took only 2 weeks to sell his book, but years and years to get to the point where he could be allowed to take that step.

It got me thinking about the practice of writing. When I first sat down at the computer I believed that writing was a solitary practice – me, my computer and my imagination. Did I think I’d get to The End? I had no idea. I was writing for me and me alone.

And yet – writers are never alone.

I am only a writer because I was a reader first. Every book that I read influences my writing no matter if I say “Wow, I wish I could write like that.” or “Yikes, how did that book get published?” Each book that I have read has impacted me as a writer. All of those authors have taken my writing journey with me whether they wanted to or not.

My family and friends have taken the journey, too. My husband, mother and mother-in-law were all big cheerleaders in my quest to finish my first novel. They even read it. (Poor them!) However, everyone I have come in contact with, whether they are aware of my writing or not, is sitting there with me when my fingers touch the keyboard. Writers are observers by nature. We have to be in order to create characters that feel real and three dimensional. Who else are we going to use for inspiration if not the people we come in contact with?

Once I discovered my passion for writing, I then sought out other writers. This journey would not be as fulfilling, and it would be a whole lot more frustrating if not for them. I’ve met countless writers in person and even more online. So many have become amazing friends. Whenever I find myself sitting in front of a blank screen worrying if what I am writing is good enough or if the story is working, their support keeps me going. Even if they don’t know it. Sometimes all it takes is logging onto twitter and listening to other writers talking about their own work to help me know I am not alone in my frustration or in my celebrations.

On top of that there are the agents and editors, the PR staff and the marketing teams that are all working to help all writers both published and unpublished. They write blogs, the judge contests, they attend conferences and sometimes they even talk on the phone. And of course there are your friends and family again as well as librarians, book sellers and book bloggers that you hope will spread the news about your book so that your words get read. And the readers…those wonderful, fabulous, faceless people that we imagined reading the story from the moment we first typed THE END.

All these people are taking my writing journey with me and I am so glad to have them. Yes - writing is about you and the page. Yes – only you can put your butt in the seat and fill the pages. Only you can chapter by chapter take the journey to the best words you’ll ever type – THE END. But on the days where the end seems so far away, it is good to remember that there is a village of support surrounding you when you wonder what you are supposed to type next.