Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sophisticated Reading

Scott D. Parker

What do Superman and Agatha Christie have in common? Nostalgia.

I recently read my first ever Christie novel, And Then There Were None. Loved it. I followed that up with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Appreciated it. Likely not her best book, but good nonetheless. I can easily see the thread running from Sherlock Holmes and Christie's work.

On another recent reading front, purely out of the blue (heh), I got myself a Superman hankering. As a die-hard Batman fan, Supes rarely does it for me anymore. I re-read Alan Moore's excellent 1986 story, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" This title was the swan-song of the Silver Age Superman with all of his different color Kryptonites and weirdo monsters attacking him. I grew up during the tail end of this run and it's still the one I gravitate towards.

In reading these separate works, I simultaneously got nostalgic for old comics and for a time in which I never lived. Strange feeling that.

What got me pondering deep questions were the stories I read after those I just mentioned. After Moore's Superman story, I read Grant Morrison's superb take on the Man of Steel, "All-Star Superman," (2005-08). It was modern and fresh take on a classic character, the best comic I've read in a long, long time. My current novel--J. T. Ellison's So Close the Hand of Death--is a marvel of a story, with a believably nuanced lead character and a dandy of a plot. It's as far from Christie's type of story as you can get and still be in the mystery genre. The stories of Morrison and Ellison are both sophisticated, told in a modern, sophisticated style.

Back in the 1930s, the Christie novels were among the best detective stories being published. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Superman tales were among the most memorable. But, in reading them in 2011 as an adult, I can see their flaws. I choose to overlook their faults and channel back to an earlier self and and earlier read. I can tell the good things that have come from sophisticated writing.

And it makes me wonder what readers of 2070 will think about the stuff we're reading now. Because I think it's pretty dang good.

Do y'all have fondly-remembered things you still read on occasion that you have to "turn back your mental clock" and overlook some of the warts you can now see since you are a modern, sophisticated reader?

App of the Week: Angry Birds Rio! What more need be said?

Congrats of the Week: DSD's own Steve Weddle got himself nominated for the 2011 Spinetingler Award: Best Short Story on the Web, for his story, "Hold You."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Russel D. McLean and Jay Stringer Get Lost

Looking for Russel today? Well, you've found him. He and Jay Stringer chat about -- among other things -- Russel's fantastic THE LOST SISTER, now available stateside.

Listen to the chat here in the warm tones of an m4a file. Enjoyz

UPDATE: MP3 file here.

Buy the book here or here or here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Seth Harwood visits Jay Stringer: YOUNG JUNIUS

Seth Harwood and Jay Stringer chat it up. Check out the book: YOUNG JUNIUS


You can get the FREE podcast by

1. Right-clicking on the title up there at the top (or, if you have one of those Apple computers, whatever you people do)

2. Visiting the iTunes music store (where you can subscribe)


3. Visiting the Feedburner page


4. Click here

When the Women Come Out to Dance

Elmore Leonard reading his short story "When the Women Come Out to Dance" at Butler University in Indianapolis as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers series on December, 5, 2010:

This story is the "title track" of a book of short stories that was published in 2002. The collection includes "Fire in the Hole," the story that the current TV show Justified is based on (the character Raylan Givens also appeared in the novels Pronto and Riding the Rap) and a four page story called "Hanging Out at the Buena Vista" that's always made me think of Raymond Carver's short stories.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

California, Ray Banks

By Jay Stringer

"If I get to California, before I lose my mind,
I'll lay my burden on you for one last time."
Jeff Klein

California is everything we've come to expect from Ray Banks. It's taught, funny, human and deliciously fucked-up.

A novella can be a tricky thing. As a writer, it can lead to either rushing a story, or padding it out when it ran out of steam several thousand words earlier.

But, when you get the right story for the right length, a novella can become a perfect punch to the gut. A great novella can deliver just the right dose of character and story to suck you in without throwing in the kitchen sink to keep you hooked. What Banks does here is exactly what he does best; he gets in, he tells the story, he gets out. No messing, but plenty of mess.

Shuggie Boyle is fresh out of prison, and he's hell bent on doing things right this time. He avoids getting in fights, he counts to ten when he can feel his temper going, and he goes out of his way not to split your head open with a bottle. He's all about the long term goals these days. That's what he was taught in prison. Give yourself something to aim for, and all the small problems will sort themselves out. Whether Shuggie misses the point in what he's been told to do, or whether the people telling him missed the point in what he needed, that's up to you; point is, it's not going well. He sets his sights on the big dream. He's going to get to California, USA, after a brief stop off in California, Scotland.

And he's not going to Falkirk to settle old scores. He's not looking to hurt anybody or outstay his welcome. He just wants to pick up something that's his, and then get out of the way. Out to where the skies are blue and the wine is fresh. Or clear. Or whatever it is that wine is supposed to be.

The truth is that Shuggie knows only slightly less about California and wine than I do, and I know nothing. But ambition, ego and delusion make for great copy. If Icarus hadn't flown too close to the sun we wouldn't have had a story. Shuggie is Scottish, and doesn't know what the sun looks like, let alone how to aim for it, so he has to settle for a few vineyards.

And if you think I'm dropping in Greek myth just for shits and giggles think again. Banks has cultivated his own brand of Noir over the past few years, one that pits the ego and self-delusion of modern tragedy against the overbearing sense of fate and destiny from Greek and Roman storytelling. And the real essence of noir often lies in that battle, in my opinion. No matter how much Shuggie tells himself he can change, there's nothing he can do about the fact that the world doesn't want him to. He's stuck in repeat, he just doesn't know it. Banks' other character, Cal Innes, had a similar battle, and a large part of the tragedy came in Cal's eventual realisation of his place in the grand scheme.

There is a lot to admire here from a craft point of view. Faced with very little amount of time to set scene and character, Banks manages to rely on using the right amount of small detail to do both. He didn't have the luxury of letting us get to know Shuggie over the course of 60-70,000 words, so he gives us just enough to get a total grip on the character now. Shuggie spends a lot of time thinking about the way his Granda behaved, and possibly measuring himself against that ideal. He also drops in a few telling references to cinema, through both New Jack City and Sam Peckinpah. If a character has those as his reference points on male behaviour, then he's going to look to go down in the messiest way possible even if there's a much safer answer.

To go into anymore detail would be to spill the beans on what happens. What I will say is that it's not all grim and bleak. As we have come to expect, there is some nice fast dialogue and a wicked dark sense of humour. You'll laugh both with Shuggie and at him, and you'll wince each time events take a violent turn. The story doesn't let up and, if you're not careful, you'll get sucked in and pulled along in one sitting.

While I'm raving about the book it's only fair I take a moment to praise the publisher. Five Leaves Press has built up a great head of steam with british crime fiction. Not only have they been home to two PI novels from our own Russel D McLean, but they have established the Crime Express series of novellas, of which California is the latest. Each novella in the line is a tight little bundle of dark crime goodness, and look out for reviews of some of the newest additions on here in future. Amidst all the furore that's broken out online about ebooks and price-points, lets not lose sight of the fact there are publishers out there who are doing interesting things with print, and they need to be praised and supported.

So, yes, anyway. Book. Go buy it. It'll knock you out.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Come Sail Away


Come closer.

That's it. Just lean in a little bit more. Wait.

Are you sure you're alone?

Just take a quick peek.... No, I won't talk louder. This is going to be our little secret.

It's just us?

Okay. Lean over. Let me whisper in your ear. Ready?

I'm sick of formulaic $h!t.

And it's all Brian's fault.

The other day, we were driving home and a song came on the radio. One Brian wanted to hear. We were close to the house, so he ended up driving around for a while so that he could make it to that moment. You know the one. That identifiable moment in a song when it kicks into high gear and grabs you.

Man, I love it when a song does that for me. Starts off slow, quiet. Lures you in, gets you inside it, and then BAM! It has you by the throat and won't let go. And I bet every single person reading this can think of a song like that, a song that gets them every time. For Brian, it was Come Sail Away. For me, King of Pain.

Amongst others. The more subtle touch of L'Affaire Dumoutier...

Who can deny the brilliant execution of Copperhead Road?

Or the execution of The Rising?

As we drove around just so that Brian could hear the song kick into high gear, it got me thinking, and it got me thinking about formula, predictability, and ultimately, writing.

Yes, there are limits to how we can approach telling a story, but why is it every blurb or review seems to suggest the action starts word 1, page 1, and doesn't let up until the end? Why, especially in crime fiction, is there so much pressure on that opening line of the book? Grab your reader in 30 seconds, or you won't get a chance to grab them at all?

Is everyone reading crime afflicted with ADHD?

Hey, I really don't mean to be too flip about that. Outside of writing, most of my adult life has been spent working with students who have ADHD, amongst other challenges. But I think that's what doubly frustrates me when it comes to the writing. No, I don't think a book should be completely boring and pointless and spend page upon page meandering to nowhere at the beginning...

But is the idea of heating steadily to a boil really such a bad thing?

Sandra Seamans and I seemed to be having the similar thoughts.

I adore those writers, too. I want to get something in my hands that's fresh. All too often, I think new writers are under the wrong pressure, to define themselves by having a character with some quirk or distinction that's going to set them apart. It's becoming more of the same. Got to be an alcoholic or a pill popper or a narcoleptic or suffering from a chronic skin fungus...

When was the last time you read a book with a protagonist who actually sounded kind of, you know, normal? When was the last time you read about a main character who got along with his mother, or liked something normal, like sports, or actually took a day off? Is it possible to present such a character in a compelling story that doesn't have to follow the Three Act Structure?

Several years ago, I took a creative writing diploma. I now tutor aspiring writers for the same school. As a student, I eventually learned that I had to throw some of the curriculum advice out the window and do things my own way. I realized that they had to teach us to pre-plot novels, because you can. Teaching someone to write by the seat of their pants? Almost impossible.

Here's how it happened. I'd started a manuscript. I was feeling pretty good about it. My tutor had nothing but good things to say. I'd done what I was told, outlined it, and written the opening chapters. I was about 90 pages along when I moved.

And lost the outline. And got discouraged. And convinced myself the manuscript wasn't worth finishing.

It was almost a year before I went back to the pages I'd written, and had to admit that they were pretty good. Why shouldn't I finish the book?

No outline.

Okay. So I went to the text of what I'd written, and decided to figure things out as I went along. I have no idea what I originally intended the story to be, who was guilty of what and how it all unfolded, but I finished it.

My first finished manuscript. (Because there's another that's about three pages from being done that actually predates this, but remains unfinished to this day.)

Then I edited it. And edited some more. And kept tweaking. I added a whole subplot on the third draft.

I've been thinking about that first finished manuscript a lot lately, because I recently regained my rights to the book. Yes, it was my first published book. It won a writing contest, placed in another international competition, and enabled me (after countless rejections) to finally land an agent and a bigger publisher.

When I started going over the manuscript a few weeks ago to reformat it for Kindle release, I went through all the usual thoughts authors have when they read an earlier work. What was I thinking? That's a bit wordy.

I also had some other thoughts, about the fact that I'd featured two protagonists who were genuinely decent people. Real. The kind of people who really could live next door, and you'd like them if they did. They're... normal.

But I don't think they're boring, and while the book may not start off with a cop chasing a perp down a dark alley with a gun, or the discovery of a body, or an assault, I think that's a good thing.

It starts off different. Subtle. Quiet. It starts off with a bit of bass before it lets loose on the drums.

Every time I sit down to write, I try to push myself to do something different. Even if I only change one thing in my approach to the character or the storytelling, my goal is to never grow complacent. I'm sick of having next to nothing to watch on TV because it's predictable, and I'm tired of formulaic books.

And now that SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES is legally free and clear and back in my hands, I can admit I'm proud of my debut. Sure, I wish I knew some of the writing tricks I know now back when I was writing it, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a book that's unlike anything I was reading at the time, and stands on its own, with two protagonists I'm hoping to spend more time with again very soon.

Within the next few days, SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES should be live and available of Amazon's Kindle story for 99 cents. I'm in the home stretch, hoping to catch any technical formatting glitches first, but will update my website as soon as the book's available. Look for more information Friday when I guest blog here.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The art of getting noticed

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Okay, it is awards season time. Or in many cases, it is award nomination season. People who subscribe to magazines, go to conferences and belong to any number of other groups are being asked to nominate their favorite books of 2010. Lots of genres be it crime fiction, romance, women's fiction, young adult etc... Lot of chances for authors to be recognized for their work.

In theory, I love the idea of awards. In theory, people read lots of books and then nominate their absolute favorite ones for said awards. Would I like to be nominated for an award? Would other members of this blog? Sure. Lots of authors I know if a variety of genres would love to make the short lists. Who the heck wouldn’t? But I am having a serious problem with the not so subtle, but trying to look subtle, campaigning going on for spots on nominating ballots. I am seeing tweet after tweet and blog post after blog post and one face book message after another which all amounts to shaking hands and kissing babies in order to get someone’s vote. People are setting their hair on fire trying to get noticed and I’m getting ready to douse them with a very large bucket of water.

Is this really what it takes to get nominated?

God, I hope not. But a very sad part of me that was terrible at going around asking my classmates for signatures when running for the seventh grade student council is pretty sure that these tactics work. Authors doing very public “You like me? You really, really like me enough to nominate me?” messages to their friends on social media forums in hopes that other people will see the message and decide to add their book to the list of nominees will probably see their efforts pay off. The authors that are not so good at those tactics will fall by the wayside. The funny thing is the authors that are being up front and honest about it don’t bother me at all. If you tweet saying that your short story in X publication can be considered for nomination, chances are I will check out your story and think about nominating you. But if you are going to try to be subtle and tell me you can’t believe that lots of people are nominating your book for X award, I’m going to chuck a shoe at my computer screen.

Maybe this all bothers me so much because a small, naïve part of me that wants these awards to really mean something more than being a personal popularity and political strategy contest. Last year I wrote a post asking if awards matter. Most people said they only mattered to publishers, which might be true. Maybe we as authors are so desperate to capture our publisher’s wandering attention that we feel the need to set our hair on fire and jump up and down asking people to love us. Maybe that is why self-publishing is so appealing to so many.

God only knows. All I know is that I’m going to grit my teeth for the next couple weeks and wait for the campaigning to pass. Of course, I might be the only one bothered by it. Maybe I’m just out of sorts this week. What do you think? Are the authors you tweet or facebook with asking for your vote? How do you feel about all of this?