Saturday, April 30, 2011

Entry "Drugs" for New Mystery Readers

Scott D. Parker

There's been talk around here recently about preaching to the choir. That is, we mystery bloggers and readers, we talk amongst ourselves, we get passionate about books and authors, we attend conventions, and all sorts of other things. When I read The Sherlockian by Graham Moore, one of the co-stars comments on the nature of the Baker Street Irregulars and their particular kind of fandom. As a member of the Star Wars Generation, I have no room to point fingers.

Are we normal? Are we out of the mainstream?

This question arose for me this week when one of my favorite American Idol contestants, Casey Abrams, was voted off. For those who don't know or care (which was me the previous nine seasons), Abrams is a very talented multi-instrumentalist who has been compared to Norah Jones by one of the judges. The mainstream public would rarely buy a jazz album, but, somehow, Jones's debut rocked the charts. It's one of those moments when I think "Now, other people can hear the type of music I like." I knew Abrams was not going to win this particular contest because he's just not mainstream enough. However, when you heard the judges and other industry people talk about him, it made you realize that people in the music business know their type of talent when they see it. To them, it makes no difference if America "gets it" or not.

As I said, I knew Abrams was never going to win American Idol (personally, I'm pulling for hard rocker James Durbin), but I was thrilled to see him go as far as he did and show the viewers his style of music. If a few more people out there decide to browse the jazz or blues section of the iTunes music store, Abrams has done a good deed.

We mystery folk silo ourselves within our own particular kingdom. We bestow awards that enhance the nature of what we do. I like that and believe it is necessary for the sustainability of the mystery genre. We each have our favorite author and easily share it with other mystery readers. But, chances are, we may not share that book with a friend who is more mainstream, a friend who browses for mystery novels at the grocery store. I think you know which authors I'm referring to: Patterson, Coben, Connelly, Cornwell, Roberts/Robb.

Now, I wrote those names from my memory and there some in this readership that don't like some of these authors because they are mainstream. Fair enough, but I'll counter with a simple question: why? Why is it bad that Patterson churns out thrillers like nobody else? Why is it bad that J.D. Robb does her things but (based on the one I've read) doesn't get the SF part right? Is it just a good story? And isn't that enough?

How many times have you recommended The Da Vinci Code to someone? I thoroughly enjoyed the ride that book gave me. The writer part of me tore it apart, but, then, I'm a writer and that's the curse/gift I have. It' still a good book.

Here's the thing the SF/Fantasy community does alot: make a list of entry-level books. The SFF community knows that a reader just showing interest in science fiction isn't going to pick up Dune, The Lord of the Rings, or just about anything by Stephen Baxter. They are going to start with their favorite Star Trek book, follow it up with a classic by Asimov or Bradbury, and then, and only then, suggest something mind-blowing like China Mieville or Paolo Bacigalupi. You see, the SF devotee eases a newbie into the genre until the hook is set.

How might you do that for the mystery genre?

Quote of the Week: "No matter how good you may think you are at something the only true path to honestly calling yourself a professional is time, patience, and an unwavering knowledge and precision within your craft. It doesnít matter how many toys you have around to manipulate your images." -- John Carey (from a blog post entitled "When Less is More is More Than Less" (via Minimal Mac)

In this day and age, we have so much stuff. And we writers sometimes thing we need a lot of stuff to create our stories. It's something I've struggled with, and this quote, while ostensibly relating to Mr. Carey's photography, applies to us writers, too.

Friday, April 29, 2011


By Russel D McLean

Yes, this post is late today - - Russel's internet gave out for a few hours last night. But he's back up and running this morning.

Interesting story heard from an author recently about titles. The author in question had submitted a book his publisher loved. It had a great title, too. But the publisher nixed the title for something pretty generic and standard (something that could be the title of any one of fifty thrillers and that was so literal, my teeth ached from laughing about it). However, as the author pointed out, if the title sold the book, he was all for it. Even if he thought it was a bloody dull title himself.

Which does bring into question the idea of titles. Effective titles, too. They’re tough, perhaps one of the toughest parts of a book. You can tell a good title instantly. And you can smell a hurried or bad one a mile away.

A good title has to act as a book’s first impression. It’s the first time you’re laying eyes on this potential next read. You’re eyeing them up. You’re looking for a reason to accept or reject. A title can do this easily. And for so many reasons. Different titles work for different people. One of the questions I have been asked by people is why titles change for the US market so frequently. For example Stuart MacBride’s BROKEN SKIN became BLOODSHOT for the US market. Why? God only knows, but I bet there was a reason behind it to do with culture. And it has to be better than the reason Ian Rankin’s FLESHMARKET CLOSE (the name of a real street) became FLESHMARKET ALLEY.

But of course such things are often out of an author’s control. While certain online reviews in certain online bookshops may bemoan “why do authors do this?” because they’ve bought the same book twice because of different titles, they’d do well to bear in mind that its often a publisher’s decision and that often its not taken lightly.

I remember Michael Robotham’s THE DROWNING MAN came out under the title LOST back in the mists of time. Why change the title? Well, as soon as the book came out, a television show started airing that was sweeping the world like an almighty juggernaut. It was called LOST and it could not have been more different than Robotham’s brilliant thriller. The decision for the change was obvious and necessary. In the bookstore I was working in at the time, I remember fielding a lot of questions about “is that , like, the book of the TV show?”

I’ve only been subject to a proposed change in title once (well, twice, but adding the word “The”
to a book that was called LOST SISTER was not that much of a trauma). It was a short story called JIMMY’S WAY. Not the greatest title, I have to admit now. And I have to admit that the editors at Thrilling Detective were spot on retitling the story A MATTER OF HONOUR.

Titles are vital, I believe. And they’re tough, too. An ideal title is original, memorable and should forever be associated with that story. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. Multiple authors sometimes end up with the same title. Sometimes a title doesn’t reflect the work. Sometimes they fail to attract the right readership. They’re a balancing act.

But when they’re right, they can really help a book’s chances of being picked up, cracked open and read.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Grammar is Important... Just not as important as you think

Okay. I'll go back on what I said last week. I'm a hypocrite. Here comes the lecture:

"Kids don't even know how to write a sentence these days. I know it. I can see when they start working for me out of college."

There it is in a nutshell. A person's argument about the state of education. Education must suck because kids can't write a sentence these days.

I'm going to disagree with anyone who's said that.

First off, if a sentence is written so poorly you can't tell what they said, why are you interviewing, or even hiring, these people?

Meanwhile, I see it every day in my classes. Kids can write sentences. They sit down, they have an idea, they put it on paper. Rarely does a kid sit there and not write anything because they can't do it. They can write a sentence. They can put a thought on paper.

Here's what the person who says the quote that opens this blog post means though. That sentence isn't grammatically correct. There are typos.

And here's where I say it.

People who nitpick grammar and typos as a way to negate what someone says is taking the easy way out.

Grammar is not as important as thought. Grammar is there to help transmit thought, but must of us are smart and we can still see what someone means if the grammar is slightly off. If there's a mispelling, you can still figure things out. Usually, there's context.

Want an example? Okay.

"I don't want to change Mommy."


"I don't want to change, Mommy."

Means two different things, doesn't it? You're all uppity right now. Ready to give me an example like this.

Well guess what. Rarely is that going to be the only sentence in the piece. You're going to have more to go on to figure it out. Something that follows it up, like:

"Well too bad, Sally. What you're wearing is completely inappropriate for church."

Wow. I guess now you can figure out which one was correct, can't you?

See, people who nitpick grammar don't want to go deeper. They don't want think deeply about what a person is saying and either criticize or agree with the thought. They just want a simple reason to be able to write the person off.

Like just looking at test scores to analyze a teacher's ability.

I once said people take typos too seriously. Spelling mistakes are the least of my worries. When I said that a person responded, "It amazes me that someone in education can be so anti-intelligence."

I was incensed. I am not anti-intelligence. In fact, the person who said that is anti-intelligence. I want people to think about their writing. I want people to find meaning in what they say. I want people to get thoughts on paper, to think about what they're talking about and say something smart about it.

You want to make a spelling mistake? You want to misplace a comma? Fine. I'll figure it out.

When we teach writing, we go from from fluency, to clarity, ^to stamina^ to correctness.

You correct last. The importance is the thought and getting it on paper. The rest comes in revision and editing.

Does a mistake take people out of the writing? Yes. But you can get right back in it.

Am I saying a paper should be riddled with typos and errors in grammar? No. It would be unreadable.

But most kids going into the work force have a basic knowledge of grammar and usage. They can write a sentence. It's tough to be 100 percent right 100 percent of the time... in anything. Especially in the internet--"I can look that up right now and prove you wrong"--era.

It's up to you to think about what they're saying more than how they're saying it. But that's not what people in power often want. They don't want people to think. They don't want people to criticize and/or create. They want them to be able to do the simple technical things.

Do what the man says, do it right and don't think too much about it.

That's why grammar is so important to these people. It's rules. And when you break the rules, what you say becomes invalid.

At least to them.

People who don't want to think.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An Old-Fashioned Love-In

John McFetridge

Dave White said, don’t lecture me, tell me what you love and why. Good advice.

I love the movies of John Sayles. I love his novels and short stories, too.

The first John Sayles movie I saw was Return of the Seacacus Seven at a film festival in Montreal in 1980. The IMDB describes it as the film that inspired The Big Chill, though “inspired” wasn’t the word used at the time.

But yes, both films are about college friends from the 60’s who get together for a reunion about ten years later.

There are some odd differences, though. The characters in The Big Chill get together for a funeral – one of their friends has committed suicide. Depressing. Otherwise the characters are quite successful; a TV star, a guy who owns a chain of shoe stores, a writer for People magazine, doctors, lawyers – the usual Hollywood stuff. And they have problems. Deep, emotional, personal problems. And music, lots of Motown, lots of 60’s hits.

The reunion of the Seacacus Seven is an annual event (the single guy here, the singer-songwriter who isn’t a success at all complains about not ever getting a bed and he’s told, “You get a steady woman, you can kiss the linoleum goodbye,” – it’s a small house) “celebrating” the time they were all arrested in New Jersey on their way to a protest in Washington and spent the weekend in jail in Seacacus. Now they’re high school teachers and social workers and they work in community theatre and probably listen to NPR and donate enough to PBS to get those tote bags. None of them drive European sports cars. And they haven’t given up on their 60’s ideals, they’ve just matured and joined the “real world” as people do and adapted those ideals.

Besides the fact that in the Chill the people are all successful and have a lot of money (except the guy who killed himself and the guy who can’t have sex anymore, but I don’t think we’re supposed to make any connections there) one of the most striking differences between the two movies for me is the treatment of the “outsider.” In the Chill one of the women has married some rich guy and lives in the suburbs (so, of course, she’s miserable) and he’s not liked by the rest of the group. He doesn’t understand their “ideals” and why they’re upset they didn’t live up to them more, or something, and he goes home. Then the rest can really party.

In the Seacacus Seven one of the women brings a guy no one has ever met before and she’s worried they won’t like him. She’s gone to work for a senator and she’s worried that her boyfriend’s more “conservative” views (I put that in quotes because I think today the guy would be called a Marxist ;) will alienate her old friends.

But they’re her old friends and they love her and they accept the new guy and joke around with him and chide him about his views but they listen to what he has to say and the only thing that really matters to them is that he loves their friend and she’ll be happy with him.

Oh what a naive days they were, ha ha.

But as this is a blog about crime fiction, the John Sayles movie I wanted to talk about was City of Hope. Many of John Sayles’ movies have crime – or really corruption – as a central theme and in many ways City of Hope, released in 1991, is the precursor to The Wire, a story of the decay of the American city, the alienation of the underclass and the complicated and corrupt politics that infect everything.

And, like I was talking about last week, it’s not so much about the lone hero as it is about how people work in groups and form communities.

Here, Greg Smith explains it all better than I can (a little too academic, maybe, but still). I’ll just quote a little:

More than any other contemporary American director (with the possible exception of Robert Altman), John Sayles consistently experiments with making films about groups.The maker of “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” “Matewan,” “Eight Men Out,” “Lone Star,” and “Sunshine State” explores how to tell stories where heroes and villains are deeply rooted in their communities, not isolated from them. For Sayles, community is not just a backdrop for action; it is the stuff of everyday drama and everyday politics.

Sayles also attempts an even more difficult juggling act: telling a story with multiple protagonists, each one crucial to the narrative’s completion. In the commercial cinema (a medium whose structures are geared around telling stories about individuals), an auteur must necessarily rethink and reform basic narrative principles in order to deal with the intersecting desires of multiple protagonists.To do so may also require reinventing the visual strategies of storytelling, as Sayles does in perhaps his most narratively complicated film, “City of Hope,” a film with over 50 speaking parts and dozens of key players. “City of Hope” creates an urban environment in which people with only passing familiarity with each other may have profound effects on each other’s lives.

See, it’s The Wire.

Smith also compares Seacacus Seven and The Big Chill and goes on to compare City of Hope to another Lawrence Kasdan film, Grand Canyon, pointing out, “Both films (each released in 1991) deal with the fragility of human connections, given the declining state of race relations in American cities, and both follow a number of characters (Grand Canyon has six prominent ones) who accidentally bump into each other. But Grand Canyon is centered around Mack (Kevin Kline), the figure whose missteps provide an (assumedly) white middle class audience with an entree into the darker urban environment.”

All this talk of individuals and community isn’t something we often hear coming out of Hollywood or even out of much crime fiction. Maybe it’s an American thing. I saw an article this week called, “We're #1 -- Ten Depressing Ways America Is Exceptional,” and it is a little depressing but for those of us outside of America trying to figure out America can often become an obsession.

The part that struck me was, “When Harris pollsters asked US citizens aged 18 and older what it means to be an American the answers surprised no one. Nearly 60 percent used the word freedom. The second most common word was patriotism. Only 4 percent mentioned the word community.”

So that might explain why things like The Wire, and the the films of John Sayles may not be as popular in America as they seem to be outside of America.

But maybe that’s changing.

Okay, so this turned into more of a lecture than I wanted, and certainly more than Dave wanted.

Tell me what you love – the films of John Sayles.

And why – gotta be that exploration of community, where heroes and villains are deeply rooted in their communities, not isolated from them.

City of Hope is available from Netflix and iTunes and there are probably DVD copies hanging around and I think I have an old VHS copy if anyone wants that. Worth seeing.

I couldn’t find the trailer for City of Hope online, so here’s a clip of John Sayles talking about creating character details and then paring them away:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Voting Season

By Jay Stringer

I have a quick call out to DSD readers. If you've listened to our podcast episode on crime comics, or if you follow some of the other podcasts I've plugged in the past, then you'll be familiar with the voice of Paul Montgomery. In addition to podcasting, he's a staff writer over at Ifanboy, and is a mighty fine fiction writer who I may talk into sending us some prose someday.

Just this past weekend he had me on his main podcast, Fuzzy Typewriter, to talk about the new season of Doctor Who, and he's been very generous in the time he gave to our crime show, and to the numerous mentions he's given DSD in his shows and on twitter.

Why am I waffling on, you may ask, and why do I smell of fish?

Well the fish thing is a mystery even to me. But as for the waffling, I think we could help Paul out and it'd be a nice way to extend this DSD community of ours.

Neil Gaiman has set up a contest for the upcoming audiobook of AMERICAN GODS. The winner of the contest gets a speaking part in the new production. The contestants have submitted an audio file of themselves reading from the book, and the winner will be chosen by Gaiman from the top 20 entries.

You need to register before voting, but I've done it myself and it only takes a few seconds. You can then vote once, or vote every day. Any and all would be appreciated.

Paul's entry is here, and you can vote here.


Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

By Jay Stringer

This is one of those 'clip show' type entries into DSD canon. I posted this story once before on my defunct noir blog. It's the end of a bank holiday weekend over here and I've been doing about a million things. Thought I'd kick back and show you an older story of mine. My voice has moved past this point, and there are things I'm tempted to change. But it's fun to look back. In fact, that's sneaking some merit into this; a good way to remind yourself sometimes of how much you've learned is to look back at old work.

Some days you just can't lift that imaginary pen, and you feel like you have no talent. Pull out a story you wrote a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. Chances are, you'll find something in it that you really like, and find inspiration from it. You'll also probably find a lot of bits that you would do differently now, and that reminds you how much progress you've made.

Try it.

Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before.

Paul had long gotten out of the habit of looking up every time a customer walked in through the door. The novelty soon wears off, and you come to the realisation that Angelina Jolie isn’t going to walk in and smile. The top ten of the FBI’s most wanted is not going to take at seat at the bar and order a whiskey.
So the stranger was at the bar before Paul paid him any mind.

“A shot, please,” the guy spoke in an accent free voice.
He was smoking a cigarette and sat slumped forward on his stool.
“Problems?” Said Paul.
“You could say that. I’m the Devil.”
Paul took that in his stride. You heard everything working in a bar. Once, a guy told him he was Mickey Mouse in a previous life. The major supposition there being that Mickey was dead.
“Cool,”said Paul, “Can you turn me some water into wine, I mean if its no trouble.”
“No. That was Jesus.”
“Okay then, a lesser miracle, can you get Wolves promoted?”
“I’m really not about miracles, i'm more into the dammed.”
“Oh, you’re a punk then?”
“Yeah, I was the very first.”
“Okay, you’re the Devil then, for the sake of argument, what’s wrong?”
The Devil finished his drink and took a long drag on his cigarette.
“I’m just feeling a bit, I don’t know, down.”
“Isn’t that the point? Being down?”
“Funny. You’re very funny. Case in point though. I’m feeling misunderstood.”
“You’re the Devil, and you feel misunderstood.”
“I’m not a bad guy.”
“And I bet you hate that. Being an okay kind of guy totally fucks with your job, I suppose.”
“Not really. It I was never really a bad guy, that was never the idea. It started with original sin, and went downhill from there.”
“No kidding, that’s just what the Bible says too.”
“No, no. Be grateful. I’m branded as evil simply because I’m the only honest voice you’ll ever hear. I gave you people choice.”
“Get over yourself. You gave us an apple.”
“Don’t push me Paul, I know what you did in the summer of 1989, just a bit of extra cash, maybe, but it stains.”
Realising he’d never told this guy his name, Paul decided maybe it was best to find something else to do, something else that involves standing two feet further down the bar.
He walked away and began loading the dishwasher, one eye on the television, sky sports news updating the evenings European cup results. The Devil didn’t take the hint, and didn’t seem to see the extra two feet’s distance as an obstacle to conversation.
“You see, the problem inherent in the whole system is you guys.”
“Well, Demons, they are generally inclined to do bad things. And the Angels, they are generally required to do good things. But you want something really evil doing, something that was truly born in the dark heart of madness, you need a human. Humans can come up with things I could never dream of.”
“You mean Like Hitler?”
“No, I mean like Walt Disney. That mouse is fucking evil. There’s something in his eyes, it gives me the creeps’.
“But I thought Mickey was dead.”
“The mouse isn’t dead. He’s just sitting and watching. He’s waiting.”
“Have you thought about talking to God about this little mid-life crisis?”
“Seriously, you ever tried talking to her? There’s not a lot of two way conversation goes on there.”
“Not even for you?”
“Especially not for me, she hates me. It’s a thing.”
“Well, you did lead a rebellion.”
“No I fucking didn’t. That’s just all her friends talking for her, giving me a bad name. What I did, I cheated on her.”
“You and God were a couple?”
“Too fucking right we were. Then, well, in the days before, there was nothing to do, really, and there were all these seraphim floating round, and looking all angelic…”
“You cheated on god?”
“And boy have I paid for it. I’m stuck down here with you lot, who are far worse than I ever was. And you know what? She created you in my image. Damned to spend eternity surrounded with copies of myself, to be reminded what a shit I am.”
“So that’s it. The whole thing. The hole point to life, for us, is a break up”
“And doesn’t that explain a lot for you? Your whole constant feeling of missing something. The slight uneasy notion that you are really just a bit of a shit?”
“You’ve got an answer for everything, haven’t you? Some witty line for all occasions.”
“That’s the point, of course I have.”
“That’s impossible. Not every question can be answered, can’t be done.”
“I’m living proof.”
“I tell you, I can come up with a question you can’t answer, I bet you.”
“Yeah, sure, why not.”
“You know my price.”
The devil pulled out another cigarette, already lit.
“I can do it, no hassle”
“I mean, think about it first, I’ve heard everything.”
“No, lets do it, I bet you, and when I win, you’ll make it so I own this bar.”
“That’s it? All of time and space, all of creation, all the money in the world, and the sum total of your ambition is to own this bar?”
“Not even, like cbgb’s? studio 54? The viper room?”
“Nah, this place will do me”.
They shook hands.
Paul noting how the Devils palm was warm.
“Okay, here we go. You ready?”
“I can’t wait.”
Paul cleared his throat. “Why?”
“Is that your question? Seriously?”
“Yeah.” Paul not feeling so good now.
“I mean, when I said ‘i’ve heard everything’, that included debated with sixth form students and drunks underneath the expressway."
Paul dried a glass.
The force of his grip almost enough to shatter it.
The devil stood up of his stool and blew smoke in Paul’s face.
“The answer you’re looking for,” he said with a scary smile. “Is ‘Why not?’”
He downed another dink.
He winked at Paul.
“Thanks, I’m feeling a lot better.” He said, “And I’ll see you later.”

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Mistake of John Rector

By Steve Weddle

Imagine the horror that author John Rector felt this week.

Not too long ago, he was on top of the world, ma. His two novels have been well received. His newest novel, THE COLD KISS, published by one of The Big Six New York publishers, was named to Suspense Magazine's 'Best of 2010' list and has been optioned for one of those Hollywood movies. His novel before that, THE GROVE, was so popular as an indie publication that it got the AmazonEncore treatment in re-release. And last fall he got to sit within robe-touching distance of yours truly. Rector had it all.

Then last week someone on the internet pointed out what a failure he has become. Where did it all go wrong?

Is it the writing? No. According to the posting, he has "very good books."

Did he fall prey to alcoholism? Drugs? Does he lock himself in his hotel room to work on novel edits while I'm keeping him a seat warm at the bar and texting him and calling him to come back down and hang out? And how did the internet even find out about that?

Maybe it's even worse. Did he commit the cardinal sin of crime fiction writers? Did he go an entire week without tweeting about bacon?

No. It's worse.

Allow me to quote from the blog post that explains The Failure of John Rector:
There’s no other way to put it – Signing a book deal was a huge mistake. John Rector could have been a Top 100 Kindle Store Author.
Oh. My. Gracious.

He signed a book deal? With a publisher? What in the name of Wendy Everly was he thinking?

According to the post, Rector was On The Charts at the Amazon website. He was on his way to being able to see his name in the TOP 100 Kindle authors. And yet, he chose to sign THE COLD KISS over to Macmillan/Forge. How could he have made such a mistake? As the post author elaborates in the comments:
The very act of signing up with a Publisher is the equivalent of saying – I’m going to focus less on readers.
Yes. That is exactly what it is saying. Not long ago, John Rector would spend his time and energy writing a novel. Then he would upload it for the Kindle. Now he has signed with a Publisher. Which clearly shows that he doesn't care about the readers. Um, I'm not sure how that follows, exactly. But I read it on the internet. From what I've seen, publishers of books do tend to focus on the readers of those books. And the last I heard, Rector was still writing. And editing.

What's interesting to me isn't making fun of that post (well, maybe a teensy-weensy bit). Rather, what interests me is how we define success. And how others try to define it for us.

For the author of that blog post pointing to Rector's 'mistake,' success is clearly being a "Top 100 Kindle Store Author." William Shakespeare is a Top 100 on the Kindle list, probably because he offers his books for free. James Patterson, whose books aren't free, is also a Top 100 Kindle Store Author, meaning he is successful.

Let me check THE WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK, our DSD Book Group read. Hmm. Seems that Dennis Tafoya's excellent novel is #135,270 Paid in Kindle Store. Damn. Poor guy. And I liked that book, too.

Dennis Lehane's MOONLIGHT MILE? 1,090.
And speaking of Noircon:
Laura Lippman's GIRL IN THE GREEN RAINCOAT? 4,473.
George Pelecanos's SHAME THE DEVIL? 12,883.
And speaking of Do Some Damage, how about Friend of the Blog Brad Parks. He won the Shamus and the Nero for the same book, right? Let's see how his newest is doing.

Oh. My Gracious.

And here I thought these people were successful authors.

I suppose John Rector will just have to console himself with the thought that some pretty damn good career-novelists have made the same 'mistake' he did.

Let's see if I have this right -- If you sign the deal with The Publisher, then you don't focus on the readers and you fall down the Kindle Top Authors list.


As I understand it, when you sign with Macmillan or Penguin or FSG to print your book, one of the things they do, and I'm no expert here, but one of the things they do is that they, under most circumstances, print your book. Which means people sell them in stores. And, again, I'm not an expert in anything but mediocre whiskey and quantum mechanics, this means that those sales do not count in your Kindle sales.

So it seems odd to me to judge an author by Kindle sales when that author's books are available a thousand other places. Rector's books are available in print and he's selling fewer Kindle copies. Seems to me like that is sorta how it's supposed to happen.

It's kinda like using the Gran Turismo video game as proof that the Ferrari 458 Italia is a better-selling automobile than the Honda Accord.

Not that THE COLD KISS is a Honda Accord. Hell, Rector's writing is more like a tricked-out herse, corpse-full and flame-spewing.

So it seems to me that if you want to list authors who sell on the Kindle, well, make a list. But being on that list isn't a measure of success for most authors. Or it isn't the only one.

Rector's "mistake" would be publishing a book that doesn't kick as much ass as his first two have. That would mean he's no longer focused on the readers. Not being on the Top 100 Kindle Authors list just means he isn't focused on that list. Other than that, it doesn't mean much.

Unless you're the kind of person who judges the quality of an author by whether he/she is on a list. In that case, the list probably means a great deal to you. Too bad the books themselves don't.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Finding inspiration in the holidays

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Because I am the Sunday blogger, a fair number of my posts fall on holidays. Holidays in my house are always an adventure – especially now that I have a toddler. Most people think that kids love holidays for the candy and presents. Mine won’t eat the candy and is tends to be content to play with the first present he opens. We have to con him into opening the rest. The one thing the tot really loves is seeing family.

Family is a funny thing. Because you don’t get to choose the people you are related to, the holidays can force you to spend time with people you don’t get along with. Add to the mix the stress that often comes with the holidays and sometimes the family adventures can be a powder keg ready to explode.

Not good for sanity.

Great for fiction. Especially crime fiction.

Think about it. There are lots of sharp knives used to carve the turkey and slice the leg of lamb. Take a stressed out member of the family who is down on his luck, add great-aunt Edna’s loud, abrasive personality and her need to criticize everyone around here and bang – you have a chance for an explosive crime fiction scene. Russel posted on Friday about how crime fiction explores people in extreme situations. He’s right. And how much more extreme can you get than the stressful holidays surrounded by people that know exactly which button will push you over the edge?

So to celebrate the Easter holiday, feel free to post here a scenario for a holiday related crime. (And if it is one you envisioned acting out today – we won’t tell anyone!)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Finding a Favorite Stick

Scott D. Parker

Yesterday, my family and I took a trek through some trails near my Houston home. Whenever I go for a hike, I always find that special companion with which to share my journey: a stick. This one wasn't a tall walking stick, my preference, really. It was short, about twelve inches long, thin, and weather beaten, all the bark gone. It fit in my right hand, with a little knot that separated my index and middle fingers. In some respects, it made me imagine a sword handle, a thin foil at the end of the thing and me the Musketeer. Throughout my walking, my hand learned the feel of the stick, becoming familiar with its shape, texture, and how best it fit into my hand. The wood become comfortable. By the end, when I neared my car, this inanimate object seemed like a part of me.

Then, as much as I loved holding that particular stick, I threw it away and left it in the woods. Next time, I'll find another one.

We're all readers here. We love books and the stories within them. We find a favorite author and devour everything he or she has written. If its a particular series, the joy we get when reading the latest exploits of the central character is like that stick I carried yesterday. It's comfortable. It's familiar. We love it.

But do you ever throw away the author?

Earlier this week, NPR Music ran a survey about bands with whom listeners have fallen out of love. You know what they're talking about. A band you absolutely loved, Loved, LOVED and bought anything and everything they ever put out. One day, however, something changed. Perhaps they did, perhaps you did. Nonetheless, you stopped listening to that band. You moved on.

Anyone ever move on from an author? Stephen King is one for me. I used to read everything he wrote and everything that was written about him. Somehow, gradually, I just stopped reading his stuff. My wife recently read--and loved--Under the Dome but it doesn't ring any bells for me. I will certainly watch the Dark Tower movies, however. Along the way, I've picked up new authors and I'm really digging them.

There are some, of course, that I picked up sometime in the past and they're still with me--Conan Doyle, Dickens, Burroughs--and I can't imagine I'll ever throw them aside.

Y'all ever pick up and discard authors?

Drink of the Week: Sun Tea. Now that it's 90 (!) in Houston in April (!), I can again brew sun tea. It's my absolute favorite drink for hot days. Sweetened, of course. Brew up a gallon. It tastes and smells like childhood.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Why Fiction?

By Russel D McLean

There’s always the one guy. Usually at a party. The one who overhears that I’m a writer (I try not to bring the subject up myself, if I’m honest) and says, “What do you write?” The one who, when I tell him I write crime fiction says, “I don’t read fiction. Who has time for that?”

I wouldn’t mind if he stopped there. But he usually doesn’t (and believe me when I say its usually a man and he’s usually desperate to tell me all about what he does for a living which actually makes my life sound rather exciting even if all I really do is swear at a computer screen most of the day). Usually he goes on to explain how one learns nothing from fiction (and he’s desperate to tell me its not just genre fiction like I write, its any fiction). How there’s no point to it. Its an indulgence and really what does anyone get out of reading?

Today’s post is for That Guy.

Because I really don’t want to say it to his face.*

Because he won’t listen. And it doesn’t matter what I say, he’s made up his mind.

But, at the risk of lecturing** I think I need to get this off my chest. I think I need to talk about the value I think fiction – any fiction – has in our society.

Because fiction – not writing it, but reading it – is more essential than one might realise. And not just because it’s sometimes a fun way of slipping learning into life. After all, everything I know about jail I learned from reading STONE CITY and everything I know about New York I learned from Lawrence Block and Charlie Stella. And by God I’ve never been to Louisiana, but James Lee Burke makes me believe I have. And let’s not get started on the fact that watching The Sopranos**** taught me to be a better cook.

But all of that’s neither here nor there. That Guy would argue sure, but a guide book or cookery book would probably be a lot more accurate.

So then what’s the point?

The point is that fiction, at its heart, is about emotional narrative. Fiction is about people dealing with situations. Fiction is a way for the reader to see the world through other eyes, to react to someone else’s story. To figure out the world.

Fiction removes us from reality. But not in that negative, lazy way that so many people think it does. No, fiction allows to step back from life and start to examine it in an indirect way. It can clarify our lives in unexpected ways. Fiction allows to ask questions of character and situation in a safe environment and take the answers to those questions and apply them to reality. Fiction – reading fiction – is a kind of therapy, I suppose. It is not an escape from the world so much as a way of dealing with it.

Crime fiction is of course the perfect example. By examining people in extreme situations, we can engage in a dialogue with the text about a number of issues that may affect us in real life. How to deal with loss, betrayal, anger, hatred. Reading is not a one way street. Whether we accept it or not the way we interact with stories has an effect on us when in our daily lives, in our thoughts and attitudes. Sometimes its subtle. Sometimes it’s a clear and definite thing. Look at how many people were affected, for example, by Catcher in the Rye.

Fiction, in whatever form we can get it, is essential to our lives. It allows us to figure the world, to look at it from another angle.

And if nothing else, it’s just plain fun to read.

With thanks to Rachel Marsh for stepping at the last moment when I realised I couldn’t write last week’s post.

*Can I also point out That Guy is many guys and I haven’t run into them recently, thank goodness, but then I haven’t been to many parties recently…

**Sorry, Dave White***

***Also, sorry for the footnotes… I know you hate those.

****Yes, its television but its still a form of fiction. Deal with it. And, yes, Ralphie was spot on about mixing the spaghetti with the gravy for thirty seconds before serving…

Thursday, April 21, 2011

You know what? Talk to me, don't lecture me

I don't really read blogs anymore.

I mean, I pick and choose, here and there. But pretty much I don't read crime fiction blogs anymore. You see, I overdosed on it. Made myself sick. Got too worked up.

And because of that, I got a new perspective on things. And here's what I know.

Blogs... they don't work for what you think they're working for. Mr. Stringer's got it nailed and he beat me to the punch. If you're talking about promotion and how to promote and what's a good way to promote... you're not going to promote.

You're going to get a bunch of people on your blog who think they can learn something from you and go away. They're not going to buy your book.

Same goes with writing advice. Just posting some advice like this is the end all be all of writing is wrong. And yeah, I know I'm guilty of it sometimes too. But again... I'll figure out my own way how to write a sex scene. Don't tell me.

No, the best way to run a blog is the same way to use Facebook and Twitter. Make it a community. Talk about what you love.

I love when Jay Stringer goes off on Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's one of my favorite movies too. One of my favorite writers, and good friend, Duane Swierczynski is so good at this as well. Without his blog, I'd never have found Hickey and Boggs. Or half the books I actually do check out.

A good blog is like a friend who loves something. They should be able to get your into it as well. Talk about stuff and debate it with you.

Not lecture.

And there are wayyyyyy too many lecturers out there right now. Well, in my opinion.

Right? Thoughts? Am I wrong?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Myth of Depth and Caring

John McFetridge

Brian Lindenmuth tipped me to a blog called Et tu, Mr. Destructo and the post about the new cop show, The Chicago Code called, “The Myth of Depth and Caring.” It’s well-worth reading.

The argument is that The Chicago Code is a bad show because, “It boils over with caring, a constant churning sincerity that refuses to stop declaring itself. While it is nowhere close to the unintentionally hilarious earnestness of Law & Order: SVU, it easily dwarfs that show in its commitment to constant self-affirmation and re-affirmation.”

It’s true.

The blog also points out that, “Eighteen years ago, NBC aired the first episode of Homicide: Life on the Street and, by rights, should have created a sea change in the structure of police procedurals. It explored a conceit fundamental to police station houses, one amply demonstrated in David Simon's non-fiction book, on which it was based, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. The conceit was this: caring is mostly a myth. Yes, granted, there are cops out there who want to bust bad guys because they want to make a difference, clean up the city, bring solace to victims, etc. But by and large, cops are like people in any other job.”

Well, not exactly like any other job. The governor of Wisconsin knew that cops are more important for his plans than teachers or nurses and needed to be exempted. I don’t know about the US, but in Canada no cop has ever been laid off, they’ve never been downsized, the cops have never lost any benefits (medical, drug plans, etc.,) and their pensions are safe.

It’s actually a pretty good job. And lots of cops are very, very good at the job.

So how come on TV it’s always a crappy job and the only cops who are any good at it are damaged people with lousy personal lives and broken families and for whom it’s always personal?

Partly, I think it’s because we’re still stuck on the lone hero trope. Even though cops are the only group whose collective bargaining seems to be important, we still can’t see them as members of an effective team. We don’t see police work as being like football with a really good offensive line, good receivers, running backs and a decent QB all working together for the same goal – TV police work is... well, tennis or golf, I guess, but some weird tennis or golf where even your own coach doesn’t like you much.

The Chicago Code is by the same guy who made The Shield and it serves pretty much the same audience – the only audience TV networks seem to think exists for cop shows. People who don’t see any gray areas, have no faith in the system or in their fellow citizens, people who, for some reason, feel it’s okay for the hero to break all the rules as though that can somehow happen in isolation and have no real consequences.

I guess there isn’t much overlap between the people who like a really good football game - and can see how the team that plays best together always beats the team with the couple of superstars who don’t get along with the other players - and people who like cop shows.

I wonder if literature, storytelling and entertainment have something to do with this. I’m working on a cop show right now and the network notes are already all about making the heroes fight the system, stacking the odds against them and making the stories personal. The cops need to “care” about catching particular bad guys, not because they’re professionals who take pride in their work and want to do a good job, but because it’s personal. The opposite is never brought up, the idea that if that cop’s mother hadn’t been murdered in some awful way, she wouldn’t care about crime or be interested in police work or catching bad guys or anything like that.

Et tu, Mr. Destructo mentioned Homicide and then, inevitably, that leads to The Wire and he says, “And while there were and are thousands of bozos who love The Wire because "Omar rules—Omar comin', y'all!" the heart of the fanbase celebrates it for its Dickensian scope, its testament to the corrosion of the American dream, its humanizing of the underclass, its indictment of the drug war. Meanwhile, you could refresh chat threads on TV message boards and watch the post-rate explode as Shield fans squeed and ooohed like 'shipper fangirls whenever Vic Mackey used precious, precious guns or did something vicariously ‘badass.’”

(I had to look up “shipper,” but luckily there’s a Wikipedia entry that explains it as being, “derived from the word relationship, is the belief that two fictional characters, typically from the same series, are in a relationship, or have romantic feelings that could potentially lead to a relationship. It is considered a general term for fans' emotional and/or intellectual involvement with the ongoing development of romance in a work of fiction. Though technically applicable to any such involvement, it refers chiefly to various related social dynamics observable on the Internet, and is seldom used outside of that context.”)

Do we move too quickly to satisfy those people on the message boards looking for “badass” cops full of self-affirming “caring”? Do we leave out any, “testaments to the corrosion of the American dream,” any “humanizing of the underclass,” any “indictment of the drug war,” too easily? Do we look at complicated social situations and find the easiest, most immediately emotionally satisfying ways to tell the story, even when we know we’re being dishonest with the material?

Or is that just me?

I remember leaving the movie Pulp Fiction and going to the washroom and overhearing seventeen year old boys going on and on about how “cool” it was and trying to talk like Samuel L. Jackson and using words like, “bitch” (they had to contain themselves from using the word “nigger,” knowing just enough to not let that one slip out) and motherfucker. They were giddy with excitement but I was too old for Pulp Fiction. Raised on Dasiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard and even Robert B. Parker, I was the age these kids were when Taxi Driver came out and it never made me want to talk like Travis Bickle. Oh sure, some guys stood in front of the mirror and said, “You talking to me?” over and over but they always knew Travis Bickle was crazy – and doomed. And part of a bigger society that was going through some, as we said at the time, “real shit.” Taxi Driver didn’t play out of time sequence so that we could walk out of the theatre looking at an alive Travis Bickle. No, there was no walking out of that theatre giddy.

Does this refusal to look at context or any larger issues trap us in an endless cycle of “personal” stories with no greater meaning? Does that even matter?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Preaching To The Choir

By Jay Stringer

I don't think about marketing all that often. I've written about my aversion on here before. It's not a lack of confidence, it's simply that I don't want to get sucked into doing that at the cost of my writing. But there are important issues that will jump into my head, set up camp, and start a picket line in front of my attention span.

One of these is 'preaching to the choir.'

I've been bugging everybody with it. My agent. Friends. Co-writers. That guy who lives in the back of my fridge. I called up a woman who was my teacher when I was six years old, just so that I could whisper "preaching to the choir" at her and then hung up. Creepy, I know, but these things need to be done.

I was talking to some of my favourite British writers last week and found out that they're having similar thoughts. Well, not about the old lady thing, I can't back that one up with facts.

Here's my basic question;

What do we do, as writers, to expand beyond preaching to the choir?

8 of us come here to blog about crime fiction. We have a blast. We enjoy writing the site and engaging with readers, just as we hope you folks out there enjoy coming to the site and engaging with us. The christmas noir in particular showed us how many people out there are not only enjoying the site, but are willing to get up and show it. So none of this is an attempt at biting the hand that feeds.

The online crime fiction community is a wonderful thing. It's full of some of the most friendly and supportive people on the net. Just look around at all the various crime blogs, ezines and message boards, and you'll see this community coming out in force, commenting, supporting, reviewing and buying.

But where do we find the new readers from? And can we sustain ourselves as writers in this modern age by relying on the already established community?

Lets take a look at comic books.

Once upon a time (cue music) comics were sold in their millions on news stands. Mothers, fathers, uncles, kids, total strangers who wanted to win your affection; all of these people could and did pick up comics as they went about their daily lives. They could be impulse buys, purchases of convenience, but they were out there on the news stands and thousands of new readers were sucked in. It's cigarettes and drugs, baby. But then the direct market was created. It was hailed as revolutionary, hailed as the decision that would take comics into the new age. They vanished off news stands and were sold direct to specialist comic stores.

And then the industry started to die.

Some comic stores are brilliant. In fact, the majority of comic stores I've been to on both sides of the Atlantic have been filled with helpful people who want to talk about the product with passion. (special mentions here to Nostalgia & Comics in Birmingham, England, and to St Marks Comics and Jim Hanley's Universe both in Manhattan.) But the very idea of going in a comic book store is intimidating to a lot of people. Parents aren't always sure they should let their kids go in, and parents themselves might not want to go in and get lost amidst all the thousands of titles, or to ask at the counter for fear of getting laughed at HIGH FIDELITY style.

The very act of sending the product direct and only to these places limited the market. The industry was now preaching to the choir. You could sell comics to people who already bought comics. To get in new readers? that was alchemy. In the early 1990's there were a few titles that reached the magic number of selling a million copies, now the bestsellers tend to be between 20-80,000. And this is an industry with a leg up. Marvel, Sony, Warner Brothers and Paramount have been releasing billion dollar blockbusters based on these characters for years. There are toys, cartoons, video games and lunch boxes. But the sad thing is that The Dark Knight didn't save the industry. Iron Man didn't save the industry. The new readers aren't flocking into the niche stores to buy new comics. And those that are coming across are going on Amazon and buying trade paperback collections of the classic stories from ten, twenty, thirty years ago.

Everyone who was cool when I was a teenager was watching Batman: The Animated Series. But a generation later talking to these cool people is likely to get you, "Well everything I know about Batman comes from the cartoon." Because the cartoon was their version of Batman. Just like the films. Like the toys. Like the lunch boxes.

Where does the industry get new readers?

Am I saying that crime fiction is in that trouble? Nah. Not nearly. We've not gone down that direct market blind alley.Crime specialist bookshops are wonderful places, but they're essentially there to cater to geeks like us, and they're not the only place for a generation of readers to buy crime books.

But the fences are there. In the general bookshop itself it's already a case of preaching to the choir as far as the people willing to walk into the section marked 'crime.' It's at the front of store that we find the casual readers, the new readers, and they're at the whim of whichever books are on promotion unless there's a great bookseller around to leave blocks of cheese that lead to the sections.

On sites like AMAZON the key is to get your title onto that bit that says, "other people who bought this title also bought..." But the trick is to get onto that list in the first place.

We all, writers and readers, need to be expanding our net, widening the conversation. But how do we do that?

When my book comes out, it may well have some great blurb from some great crime writers. But does this help? As much as I love reading the likes of Bruen, Rankin and Pelecanos, I don't think I'll pick up a book and think, "well I was gonna spend my money on food, but if these guys say I need to read this book..."

Those if us in the crime fiction community already have our tastes, we already know how to tell if we want to pick up a book, and we know whose opinions we trust. That's what this whole net community is about. The blurb isn't really going to make a difference -unless you guys tell me otherwise.

Ian Rankin is a mighty fine writer and I don't for a minute mean to say anything else. At the same time, how much of his Uk-dominance is down to the fine content of his books, and how much is down to the fact that the national newspapers give decent coverage to his new titles. Big reviews. Press. National radio. National TV. People who weren't even sitting there thinking, "what book will I buy this month" are suddenly sitting there thinking, "they tell me that Rankin book is good to buy."

So lets take the principles of social media. Let's get out there and expand. Find people who aren't going to walk over the section in the book marked "crime," or who may not even be in the bookshop in the first place.

I give SCALPED regular love on here, and you should all be reading it by now. It's the best comic on the stands. It's a noir-tinted crime drama of addiction, betrayal and duty, all centred around an angry young man from an ethnic minority. Which, incidentally, is pretty close to the pitch for my debut novel, OLD GOLD. Scalped sells bout 11,000 copies a month. You can bet I'll be nagging Jason Aaron for a blurb. My story is set in the midlands, which is the stomping ground of film director Shane Meadows. Hell, why not.

Why aren't we out there chasing blurb from the guys who make the million dollar crime movies, or the actors who play sexy mobsters on TV?

What could a Ray Banks novel do with some blurb from Billy Bragg or Ken Loach. What would benefit our own Russel Danger McLean more, a blurb from a top British writer, or a blurb from Dundee's very own Brian Cox? Which is more likely to get someone of similar leaning or tastes from another 'community' to think, "well, I'll give this guy a go."

So that's whats picketing my brain at the moment.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sometimes, Life Doesn't Give Second Chances

By Sandra Ruttan

The school the kids attend has a vision: be a safe and nurturing learning community focusing on academic excellence, open communication, and the needs of all the students and staff.

It's on the home page of their website.

They also have a mission, which is also on the home page of their website. To prepare successful students who think strategically, demonstrate the 4 R's, and strive for academic excellence.

Sounds excellent, doesn't it? Except that they have a punctuation error in the mission. Rs isn't possessive, it's plural, so the apostrophe shouldn't be there.

The four Rs. Respect. Responsibility. Be Ready. Re-think.

Sounds catchy, doesn't it? It isn't just the politicians who know how to coin a soundbite and develop what amounts to a campaign slogan. We're a society that's all about glossy deception, while few pay attention to the lack of substance beneath the surface.

Yes, I have some harsh words for the school right now. There are a number of issues that have come up over the past few years, including a substitute teacher striking a student - her own son - in Child ZZ's class. And this past fall a boy in the same child's class brought a knife to school. It's really reassuring when the kids haven't even reached an age with double digits. I mean, we don't live in the city. The kids go to school in the county. The whole reason is to avoid the types of problems that plague city schools.

I'm going to focus on one recent incident. One of my stepchildren was supposed to remain after school for a club. Permission had been granted, child had been signed up, and I was to pick them up at a specific time at the school for dismissal of club.

The school's been extremely rigid about student dismissal this year. Although last year the kids could ride the bus home or to our sitter's (different bus) per our instructions, changing buses and arrangements hasn't been allowed this year. Even when their mother had to work and needed the kids to come to our house, the school wouldn't allow them on the bus.

Which would leave them waiting at the school for nobody to pick them up.

And so I had to leave work early, because in their infinite wisdom, parent pick-up and the arrival and departure of all those cars happens before they start letting buses leave now. It used to be after.

So when we agreed to the after school club, we clearly understood the pick-up time and the arrangements and the school's policy for dismissal. I grew up at a time when they didn't check names off of lists for buses and there wasn't any such thing as first or second bus wave. Now, they don't let the kids leave until someone with authorized ID picks them up from parent pick-up, or they've been placed on the bus they're assigned to.

Yes, we thought we understood the procedures. Until the day our child didn't stay for club and just left the school.

What makes matters worse is that said child did not do this without school knowledge. The homeroom teacher, also one of the club teachers, saw our child and reminded them about the club.

This is where I'll interject with the fact that the homeroom teacher should always know of a change in dismissal for a child. The office communicates with them to ensure the child goes where they're supposed to go when they leave. Last year, we emailed the teachers any time after school arrangements changed. This year, that open communication the school says it strives for? Yeah, not so much.

No parent had changed our child's arrangements. But when our child said they weren't staying for club, our child was allowed to leave school with no parental notification.

The problem? I was expecting to pick up the child from school an hour later.

An hour.

And the school let our child leave on a bus on a day our child wasn't supposed to be on the bus, with no parental authorization, or parental notification.

Imagine this was an only child. Imagine I'd picked the other child up from parent pick-up. Imagine we were out running errands. Imagine I didn't leave a key out, because I didn't expect anyone to need it.

Imagine the bus was in an accident, or someone snatched our child from our driveway because our child was left standing outside because they were supposed to be at the school. Placed in a club and entrusted to the care of the school for a full hour after regular dismissal.

It isn't hard for us crime fiction fans to start to imagine all the things that could have gone so horribly wrong.

As it is, none of those things happened. Thankfully, our child is safe.

None of that changes the fact that we were upset with the school for how this was handled, and we had a right to be concerned.

But our concern about the lapse in procedure that day, regarding our child, is nothing compared to how I feel about the school's response to our concerns.

We played it cool. Sent a simple email, outlining what we understood had happened, and asked what could be done to make sure it didn't happen again. Didn't ask for a head on a platter. Didn't point fingers and say anyone was incompetent.

The response? Basically, thanks for bringing this to my attention and I've asked the homeroom teacher to be in touch, take care.


Really concerned. Really focused on open communication, and actually answering our question about how we could be sure this wouldn't happen again.

Then it got better. The homeroom teacher scrawled a note in the child's school agenda and first claimed the didn't know our child was leaving on the bus, then said they saw our child leave for the bus but didn't know our child didn't have permission to leave on the bus.

If the homeroom teacher doesn't know, it's pretty disconcerting. Who should know? The kindergarten teacher? The cafeteria staff? No. I'd expect the teacher of the classroom the children are dismissed from... their homeroom teacher.

Another follow-up with the school was issued, detailing our disappointment about how this whole situation was handled.

And still, we did not receive an answer to our original question.

And since we couldn't trust that the school would ensure proper dismissal of club children, our child was taken out of after-school club.

Because we need to know. Because if I didn't show up here and something happened to our child, you better believe I'd be investigated.

Which is why I think the school should be accountable as well.

I do firmly believe that, but the thing I keep coming back to, above all else, is their vision and their mission, and the four Rs.

Respect. Responsibility. Be Ready. Re-think.

The absolute failure of the school to offer a sincere and genuine apology shows their lack of respect for our children, us, and our concerns for the safety of our children.

Thing is, I've worked for a lot of schools and programs with children over the years, and sometimes lapses in procedure happen. They aren't malicious, and they aren't even necessarily unprofessional. My first concern is not necessarily that there was a lapse; it's that we acknowledge what went wrong so that we can determine how to fix the problem and keep it from happening again.

And, you know, in my opinion, that's part of taking responsibility.

How can I expect the school to guide children to take responsibility when they refuse to take responsibility themselves?

Clearly, whatever happened that afternoon with our child was something they weren't ready for, and their reluctance to address our concerns professionally suggests they haven't rethought how they're ensuring the safety of their students, or how to address legitimate parent concerns.

My conclusion is that the school has failed to model the 4 Rs they list as one of the three key components of their mission.

The glossy surface looks good.

But beneath the surface, it's a different picture.

And that's part of the reason I keep coming back to crime fiction. Because in this world there are so many who will exploit our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities, and will cut right through the façade we hide our truths behind, and rip our lives apart in the process. So many people go through every day and get lucky - lucky because the bus wasn't in an accident, lucky because they did leave a key outside. Lucky because a trustworthy neighbor saw to the needs of their child...

That's something I remember from my own childhood, when my mother was in a car accident. Mrs. Zorich, coming out to the bus when it stopped at our home and making us feel safe and secure until my mom was able to come home.

Can you tell my anger still burns hot over this? And it's a few weeks old now. But as someone who's worked in a professional capacity with children for over a decade, I am appalled. There's nothing I take more seriously than safety, as anyone who's worked with me knows. And that doesn't mean I don't let my kids climb trees. It means I expect them to use common sense when they do it and learn how to do things properly so that they won't be hurt.

Something my stepson once said about me. I'm fine with anything as long as it's safe.

Not quite, but I appreciate the sentiment. He gets I'm anal about safety.

We got lucky. But our luck doesn't mean that the school was right, or that this issue should be ignored, and one day, when my rage over the response of the school has subsided I already have the opening scene for a story that will, and should, strike fear into the heart of every parent.

The way this incident still strikes fear in my heart.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Practice makes perfect? Maybe not.

by: Joelle Charbonneau

The more I write, the better I get at the craft of writing. That makes sense, right? Practice makes perfect. However, maybe it is just me, but I’ve also found that the more I write the harder it is for me to discern whether or not the story is any good.

I just completed my 9th manuscript. The first 4 will never see the light of day, which is a good thing. Some should never be read by anyone. Others are in genres I really have no interest in writing in again. They were great practice, but I don’t really want readers to flip through the pages. Four of the other books are either published or under contract. This most recent one is not. Is it good enough to be? I really don’t know.

When I started writing, I assumed that my ability to judge my skill level would improve. And on some level that is true. I am much better at judging the pacing of a scene, or crafting quick dialogue and choosing my words carefully to create the setting. But somewhere along the line I lost the ability to judge my own story. I can tell you if the individual pieces work, but no matter how much time passes, I can’t seem to make a judgment on whether the overall story comes together.

I felt this way when revising my 8th manuscript – MURDER FOR CHOIR – and was terrified when I sent it to my agent. I thought I had too much going on in the book and that she was going to tell me it sucked. Every day that passed between sending it to her and hearing the verdict made me chew my nails and even more certain that the book was terrible. Turns out she loved it. Several editors felt the same way.

Yay! The book sold fast.

Crap! I learned that I no longer have a clue if what I am writing is any good.

Now here I am revising my 9th book trying not to despair at my lack of ability to see the forest through the trees. Do I think the idea for the story is good? Yes. Am I doing it justice? The hell if I know.

So, I guess my question is this – do you ever have trouble gauging the quality of your own work? If so, can you tell me how you get through it because at the moment I can use all the help I can get.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Finding "The End"

Scott D. Parker

I did something this week that I have not done in a long time: I wrote "The End" on a story.

Long-time readers might remember me discussing my feeble explanations to my extended family last Thanksgiving when I had to explain "what was I working on". The year 2010 was not a good year for me writing-wise, and I have been working hard to turn that around in 2011. One of the things that has been hanging over my head is a collaboration I'm working on with another writer.

Let me clarify "Hanging over my head." I have thoroughly enjoyed this project and I've learned something about my character (literary as well as myself) that I didn't know. It's just that when it came time to write, the words didn't flow as freely as I would have liked. Or expected, to be honest. I had this grand vision of myself blazing away through multiple stories at a time, maintaining a high word count/day, and just being this prolific machine. Some of my own past personal success has inadvertently led to a part of my writing brain to think that this is easy work. It isn't, a point made all to clear to me throughout my lengthy and unprofessional struggle to "get it right the first time."

My part of the project had gone so long that I had forgotten my original ideas. You see, I'm a note taker and a planner when it comes to stories. So, naturally, I thought I'd wing it with this one. Wrong choice. I should have blocked out my scenes and then I would have made more steady progress instead of the fits and starts I ended up doing.

It's also taught me some personal lessons. Among them is this obvious little nugget: Do not let rejections get under my skin. It's a natural course of this profession to be rejected. Everyone gets rejected. Get over it.

Through all of my self-imposed struggles, my writing partner stuck by me. I'm thankful for his patience and his faith in the project. And getting to "The End"--something our own Joelle Charbonneau recently reached as well--is a thrill. To be honest, I had forgotten the feeling. We writers are a curious bunch. The mere act of writing two special words can send us to cloud nine. Weird that.

But it also supercharges us, or, at least, me. Finally getting past that sisyphian hurdle was a marvel. It was the little thing that made me remember why I write in the first place.

Joy. Joy at at story told well (to me). Joy at reaching the end. Ain't nothing like it in the world. It has made me already start another tale because I don't want to go too long without experiencing "The End" again.

Song of the Week: John Renbourn's "Palermo Snow." Never heard of him until NPR put up this song on Thursday. He's a guitarist from the early 1960s, says the write-up of this tune. He is new to me, but I've listened to this song at least 10 times since I first heard it. That he pairs his finger-picking guitar with a clarinet makes me even more curious to discover more of his music.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Importance of Editing

Guest post by
Rachel Marsh

Today’s post is about the importance of editing. Editing can entail re-writing sentences so that they exactly convey the intended tone. Sometimes, paragraphs and chapters are shifted or cut in hopes of creating a bigger element of suspense. And, in the worst of times, entire novels are rewritten so that they in no way resemble the original.

So, like a copyeditor hunting for typos and grammatical errors, let’s play the “spot what’s wrong with this post” game. Figured it out yet? Yup, I’m not Russel McLean. Not beardy enough, and – as much as I wish I were – I’m not Scottish enough. Also, for the record, I’m not man enough to be Russel.

I ran into Mr. McLean few days ago when I was out promoting a course I’m teaching for ShortbreadStories. The course is a “How to edit your work” sort of dig, so he and I got to talking about the editing process: rewriting one’s own work is tricky, but editing someone else’s is even trickier. Quickly the discussion turned to commiserations, and we began trading “I edited someone’s piece for a publication and they were so unhappy with the changes they threatened to sell my kidneys on the black market” stories.

Personally, I think neither Russel nor I are bad editors; in fact, I think we’re fairly conscientious editors who respectively work to bring out the best in a story while still maintaining the author’s voice. Not an easy task. Unfortunately, not everyone sees the importance of the editorial process, or, more aptly, they do not see the benefits of having their work edited by someone else.

Which is where I come in. Russel has asked that I use his Friday post to give my opinion on the importance of editing. Before moving to the UK, I was a freelance cultural journalist (fancy way of saying art and theatre critic) and an editor for several entertainment magazines in the US; additionally, I was the editor of New Writing Dundee for three years. As you may imagine, I’ve had my share of pieces edited, and I’ve worked on an exhausting number of stories – both fiction and non-fiction – and what I’ve found is that editing occurs on several levels.

Returning to the “spot what’s wrong with this post” game, a lot of editing is down to three things. The first is simply correcting things that are “wrong”, such as typos, misspellings and malapropisms. Second, there are rules to follow: avoid adverbs, cut unnecessary words, and don’t use the same word within a few sentences of each other. And, the third element of an initial edit is checking for continuity. Often, especially in longer pieces, a writer may provide a character trait, but by the end of the story the writer forgets about that trait and accidentally includes a contradiction. For example, a character may start off as a bearded crime writer living in Dundee and by the end turn into a leggy, sexy, blond woman living in Fife (yes, I do flatter myself).

While this first round of edits is important, an editor’s most difficult task lies not in “rules based” aspects of editing such as grammar, punctuation or continuity, but in more subjective concepts of writing such as flow, pacing, and story management. Changes that lie in these forms can be argued for and against, and it is these types of editorial amendments that cause rifts between authors and editors.

One particular example comes to mind. Early in my New Writing Dundee days, I desperately wanted to include a story but felt that the beginning slightly dragged. The story was well written and the concept was interesting, and I believed that the first few paragraphs were unnecessary and without them the reader could jump straight into the thick of the piece. I edited the story by cutting the first two paragraphs, and sent it the author unaware of the hailstorm of insults that I would receive in return. No matter how I explained my thought processes, s/he (I shall not name pronouns in fear of outing this individual) felt dejected by my edit. In the end, I offered to publish the piece as it originally stood, but evidently the mere suggestion of edits was too much to bear and s/he pulled the story from the publication. A result which was unfortunate for everyone involved.

As I write this I can almost hear the naysayers in the bloggosphere: “But I worked on my piece for hours/days/months/years, and I got it exactly how I like it,” “I meant for it to be that way,” and “It’s my story and you don’t know what I’m trying to say.” To a certain extent, these are valid replies. If a writer has…

1. Gotten a friend with a good eye for mistakes to read over it
2. Workshopped it with like-minded authors for feedback
3. Put the piece away for a while before returning to edit

…then that author could argue for the piece to remain untouched. However, a writer must still keep an open mind. The editor of a publication knows the market, has probably edited more stories than the average author writes, and can see your work in a fresh way. And, most importantly, the editor is a reader, and ultimately you want a reader to walk away satisfied. Remember, the writing process brings joy to the author, while the editing process brings joy to the reader. Therefore, it’s simply best to keep an open mind when facing edits to your work.

I don’t know if this post has been what Russel wanted when he asked me to contribute to Do Some Damage, and, to be honest, I feel a little uneasy. What if I’m preaching to the converted? What if the readers all have good relationships with their editors, and I’m just whistling in the wind? (Sorry for the mixed metaphors.)

Because, I love a little self-imposed hypocrisy and irony, I’m hoping that this piece goes on editing onto the website unedited by anyone’s eyes other than my own. I have not had a friend look over this piece, I have not had it workshopped, and I have not put the post away for a while before returning to it. I now say that you, the loyal followers of Do Some Damage, are welcome to edit the post. Find my typos, inconsistencies and misspellings. Should my train of thought have gone into a different direction? Are some of the paragraphs too long or two short? Or, possibly, you don’t really care. No matter what happens to this post from here, I just want to say thanks for letting me step in and have a little rant about editing.

PS-For some excellent Do Some Damage tips on revision and editing revisit Joelle Charbonneau’s post “The Devil is in the Details”. She summarises the essence of self-editing perfectly.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Hero Rises

As Jay so nicely pointed out, and I hinted at last week, I'm kind of binging on Doctor Who episodes. I started with the Moffat ones, but I've moved on to other episodes, giving me something to watch while the Yankees constantly get rained out.

I still stand by what I said, following Moffat around, but there's something compelling about the Who character. Something I find compelling in a lot of my fiction, be it comics, TV, movies, or novels.

It's the moment where the hero's been beaten down so badly that you don't expect him to get up. He can't possibly win. He's out. The bad guy's won.

And then, the music swells, the camera focuses on something near by, something in the hero's POV and he figures it all out.

And gets back up and wins.

I love that moment. I love seeing people get back up. I think because in life we see people get down so much, we see them face horrible odds and often it's hard to get back up. But our heroes do it.

Jack Reacher always figures it out at the right moment.

Dennis Lehane loves to put Kenzie through the ringer.

That moment when hope it lost, everyone's given up, except the hero.

It's such a neat bit. The audience usually loves it too. The heart gets pumping. A smile crosses their faces. Because you know it's coming. And when it does, the audience applauds.

Evils been vanquished.

The bad things in life are gone.

All is right with the world.

And that's what Doctor Who, even the really bad episodes, do so well. They put Who and the world through the ringer.

But he always figures it out.

And wins.

The best fiction has that moment in it too.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


John McFetridge

This week I'm way behind on some deadlines. Well, truth be told, when it comes to the novel I'm working on I'm more than a year behind deadline. I just missed another deadline that would have seen the book published this fall so now I'm working on the next deadline that will bring the book out next February. Or March.

And I'm getting very close to finished.

It started out as a piece of flash fiction about a reunited rock band playing a casino and then another flash fiction and then I thought I could turn it into a novel. We'll know for sure in about three weeks.

In the meantime, here's the first chapter:

The High had been back together and on the road for a couple of months playing mostly casinos when the lead singer, Cliff Moore, got the idea to start robbing them. Not the casinos so much, the shylocks working them.

It was two in the morning, they’d played the Northern Lights Theatre at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee, nostalgia show with Grand Funk and Eddie Money, and Cliff was in a minivan in the parking lot getting a blowjob. Out the van window he saw the bass player, Barry Nemeth, walking between parked cars, looking around like somebody might be following him and putting a wad of cash in his jacket pocket. Cliff said, “What the fuck,” and the soccer mom looked up at him and said, you don’t like it, and Cliff said, no, it’s good, honey, “Really good, I’m almost there.” When he finished, he signed another autograph, the mom saying the first time she saw The High was in Madison, must have been seventy-eight or seventy-nine, her and her friends still in high school sneaking into the show at the University of Wisconsin. She said, “It was you guys and Styx, remember? I had a crush on you ever since.”

Cliff caught up to Barry standing outside the tour bus having a smoke and asked him about the money, when did he have time to get into the casino, and Barry said, no, he didn’t win it, he stole it.

Cliff said, “You mugged somebody,” and Barry said, fuck no, “The money’s from a shylock. Come on,” and got on the bus. Cliff started to follow, felt a hand on his arm and looked around to see two very hot chicks, had to be teenagers, but maybe legal, looked exactly the same; long blonde hair, tight jeans, low cut tees, like twins, same serious look on their faces and he said, “Hey ladies, looking for some fun?”

One of the girls said, “No, we’re looking for our mom, she was talking to you before.”

Ritchie came up then, squeezed between the girls, shaking his head at Cliff, saying, “At least they’re not looking for their grandma,” and Cliff said, “Fuck you.”

On the bus Cliff walked past Ritchie and sat down beside Barry, saying, “What’re you talking about, shylocks?”

They were settled in then, heading to Niagara Falls, going to open for the Doobie Brothers and Barry said, “You know, loan sharks working the casinos.”

Cliff said, “They work for the casinos?” and Barry said, no, “They don’t work for the casinos, they work at them. They cash cheques.”

“We don’t get paid by cheque,” Cliff said, “it’s direct deposit.”

“They buy jewellery, cars, whatever. Usually the same guy sells the speed and meth.”

“So how’d you get the money?”

“This guy, I sold him a microphone,” and Cliff said, shit, “Now you have no mike,” and Barry said it was one of Grand Funk’s, “So the drummer doesn’t sing back-up, so what?”

Ritchie walked down the aisle then, going into the bathroom right behind Barry and Cliff and Dale, the drummer, sitting across the aisle beside his wife Jackie said, “You take one of your monster dumps in there, you fucking hot bag it,” and Jackie said, “Dale, please.”

She looked across the aisle at Cliff and Barry and said, “What is it happens to you guys, you get on the road and you’re teenagers again?”

Cliff said, “Again?” pointing at Dale, saying, “He ever poke you as much as that iPod,” and Jackie rolled her eyes and looked away. She and Dale married nearly thirty years, she was the only wife left on the bus. Dale said, “Do not stink up this fucking bus, there’s bags in there.”

Now Cliff was whispering but nobody was listening anyway, saying, “They fired a roadie, it was you? How much you get?”

Barry said he got two hundred for the mike, five hundred for the Stratocaster he lifted from Eddie Money – guy never played it anyway -- and a hundred and fifty for the back-up singer’s leather boots back at the Northern Lights Casino in Minnesota. Cliff said, shit, “That chick was so pissed off, man, that was a catfight, she went after the black one hard.”

Cliff was looking right at Barry now and he said, “All this time we haven’t seen each other, it’s like I don’t even know you anymore.”

Barry said, yeah.

Cliff said, “They always have the cash to pay you, just like that?”

“Shit, these guys are mobile fucking pawn shops, they buy anything. They buy cars, it’s all cash, people take it right back into the casino.”

“Full service business.”

Barry said, you know it. “This guy tonight, he probably had twenty, thirty grand on him. I’d like to get my hands on that,” and Cliff said, what do you want to do, sell them the bus? But that’s when he had the idea.

Ritchie came out of the bathroom, dropped a plastic grocery bag in the aisle between Cliff and Jackie, and said, “Here, you want it so bad,” and kept going back to his seat behind the driver.

Jackie said, “Oh for Christ sake,” making a face like he dropped it in her lap and Dale reached past her, grabbed the bag, opened the window and threw it out in one motion, saying, “I’m not riding in a stinking bus.”

Cliff said to Barry, “Twenty grand? You think so?”

“Remember that hockey player’s brother, guy on the Red Wings, got picked up at the casino in Detroit, loan sharking?”

Cliff said, yeah, vaguely, he remembered something about betting on games, too, wasn’t the brother a goalie? “Wasn’t he tied to the Saints of Hell, the motorcycle gang?”

“Probably. Gotta be tied to somebody to work the casino. They picked him up, it was on the news, him and his girlfriend, had forty-five grand in cash on them, a pile of jewellery they’d bought, government cheques they cashed.”

Cliff said, shit.

Barry said if they could get their hands on a big money item it would make the tour worthwhile and Cliff said, “This whole reunion thing was your idea, you think I wanted to get back on the fucking bus, ride with these assholes?”

Barry said, no, “You wanted to keep selling yuppies million dollar fucking bungalows in Toronto, bust your hump seven days a week, suck up to everybody in sight, hoping they don’t do the deal with their brother-in-law.”

Cliff didn’t say anything but he thought, yeah, the real estate was getting tough. Tough to get a listing, tough to keep a client, working eighteen hour days, always on call, working every minute of long weekends. He was ready when Barry called with this idea of putting The High back together, heading out on the road.

Cliff said, “Maybe you don’t have to sell them anything,” and Barry said, what do you mean? Cliff said he had an idea, but wait a minute and he went in the bathroom.

There was a plastic bag full of other plastic bags in the little sink and Cliff got one out and stretched it over the toilet seat thinking it was just like all the dog owners in his neighbourhood back home, always carrying bags, always ready to pick up the shit. Won’t give the homeless guy in front of the Tim Hortons a dime for the newspaper he’s trying to sell, but they get on their knees to pick up dog shit.

He started to undo his belt and thought, no, really just need to take a leak, this is just nerves, butterflies, but bad ones, worse than getting up on stage ever felt, and then realized, well, you start thinking about ripping off connected guys in casinos, it’s got to give you some nerves.

Gives you a rush, too, though. Cliff pulled the bag off the toilet and started pissing, thinking, yeah, add twenty grand to what they were getting for a night on stage, putting the band back together starts to look like a great idea.