Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ebooks, Price Points and..Oh...I Just Fell Asleep

By Jay Stringer

There's been a spate of quality posts on DSD of late. My partners in crime have been setting a really high standard in crime fiction blogging. The sponsors have had a word in my shell-like, and I'm here to lower the bar.

You guys all remember Seinfeld, right? That show about nothing? And one of my all time favourite stand-up comedians, Stewart Lee, has made a career out of nothing. And, in that rich vein, today's blog is pretty much about nothing. It's about my lack of an opinion.

It seems not a week can go by without the ebook pricing can of worms being opened. I reckon by now Dave will have added it to his list of blogging cliches (time for an updated list, I think) or for someone to declare print dead, and long live the ebook. Then the next week, the ebooks are just kinda okay and news of prints demise has been greatly exaggerated.

Then we're our own gatekeepers, and the following week we're not. To be honest, the only gatekeeper I'm interested in discussing is the herald of Gozer the Gozerian.

Do we price our books at 0.99? Do we price them at 3.99? Call me soppy, or an idealist, but I don't think we devalue our art by pricing it at 0.99, I think we devalue it by constantly talking price.

I'm not a car dealer, I'm a writer.

Two of the highest grossing films of all time are Avatar and The Dark Knight. But I don't care about money, all I care about is that one of them engaged and entertained me, and the other was poopy.

We're like the local theatres supported by arts grants who, upon threat of the grants being taken away, join the argument on financial grounds. Look at the art and the artists we've developed, they say, and look at where they've gone on to make money and help the local economy. Or, Look at all the playwrights and authors who've been supported, and look how many copies of their work have been sold. Whenever we defend the BBC from government cut backs we invariably trot out, look how much money it generates for the economy. Joining the debate on that level is an instant loss, in my eyes. I want these grant-supported theatres to say, look at that thing we did with the monkey and the balloon, it had no commercial value, but it was art. I want the BBC to say, Who cares what we put back into the economy, we make good shit that people like.

I'm not trying to drop anything on anyone here. I mean, many colleagues in this big crime writing club have given me great arguments on all the different sides of the debates. There are people out there making good livings from their chosen way of doing it, and there are others out there struggling to do so.

But the amount of time all of these issues takes up in my brain is about the same time I spend thinking about the flight velocity of a sparrow, or dwelling on the fact that we can be wiped out at any second by an asteroid.

I've had work published in three ebook anthologies so far -with a fourth on the way- and one in a print anthology. They've each been at different price points. The amount of time I've put into thinking about the prices? None.

What I will say, to touch on the edges of the pricing debate, is that so far I've earned more money -and reached more readers- through a story I initially gave away for free, than I have done from any that have been charged for at point of first publication.

Some people out there write full time for a living, so I can understand them entering the conversation on those terms. But it's not for me. I have a day job that takes up 35-50 hours a week. Aside from the powerful need to eat and have a roof over my head, the other benefit is that I can sit and write what I want to write. I honestly can't see any other point in giving so much time to writing, If i wasn't getting to write what I wanted, there wouldn't be any emotional investment.

I have an agent who can help me work on getting my writing to new readers, and in getting some financial reward that will allow me to spend more time writing. Because that's where it would be for me -not writing to make money, but making money to write.

I sent my agent an email recently on the topic of yet another website discussion about ebooks, gatekeepers and the fate of publishing. I think my exact words in my email were, "stuff will happen, or it won't, I don't know, I want to write."

Ebooks are pretty nifty, I like them, and it seems increasing amounts of people do. Let people charge whatever they want. The market has a way, ultimately, of dictating the prices on anything.

Seems to me that the publishing industry has been making things up on the fly ever since it first began. It's faced more game-changing revolutions than I've had warm dinners (and my belly is an achievement.) The one thing I'm sure of, is that as long as there is money in the world, there will be publishers figuring out how to get some of it. But that's as far as I'm going to go into having any kind of expert opinion on the matter.

You know what does take up brain space? I've had stories go out into the world in the past that I wasn't fully happy with, work that I rushed or never quite got. There has been fiction out there with my name on that was not good enough. That bugs me. That's likely to keep me awake at night, as is the development of my next project, or the fact that I haven't started a new novel in quite a while.

Price point? Not a moments thought.

It's looking like I'll have a collection of my own hitting the digital shelves soon. A collection of the 8 or so short stories that I'm most proud of. At that point I'll give price point a moments thought. The moment that it takes to speak to someone and agree a price. Then I'll be back to writing again.

I'm sure that ebooks and the fate of publishing will sort themselves out regardless of what I think or write on the subject.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Do You See What I See?

I had a dream the other night that Laura Lippman tried to kill me. That's about as noir as it gets, when someone as nice and warm as Laura could be a villain. I mean, if you can't trust Laura, you better live with your back to a wall.

At the time, it just seemed like one of those bizarre things, born out of a combination of odd thoughts that included driving through Federal Hill, talking to someone about The Wire, and the sobering reality we've had to deal with at school, with one of our students recently being shot and killed. Under normal circumstances, I'd prefer not to have my two lives collide on the blog here. But this will be relevant later, and that's why I am including the link.

Now, I wonder if the dream might have been a bit of a premonition, because days later, I find myself writing a blog post on a topic I hadn't even considered a week ago, and referencing a comment Laura made at Bouchercon Baltimore almost three years ago.

This is off of memory, from three years ago, but this is what I remember. Laura was on a panel, and someone in the audience asked why there aren't any black crime fiction authors. Laura was quick to point out that she was surprised the person hadn't seen Gary Phillips that weekend.

In no way do I intend to single Laura out or pick on her for a comment that, in the context it was made, was reasonable. The reality is, her panel wasn't on that subject in particular, nor was there time to dissect the issue in any way that would do credit to it... and unless I'm completely off my rocker, I believe Laura went on to say that. It was just one of those things that came up that someone needed to graciously sidestep, under the circumstances.

So, it is not that the issue wasn't discussed then and there that has me referencing the incident.

It's really, the fact that we never seem to go on to actually have that discussion as a community. In the context of the situation, Laura did what I do so often. She pulled out one random example to disprove an absolute.

But the reality is, attend Bouchercon, attend Harrogate, attend Bloody Words or any other mystery convention, and the overwhelming majority of those attending form a monochromatic crowd.

That being said, like Laura's panel at Bouchercon, the purpose of my post is also not to talk about where our black or Asian crime fiction authors are.

What's really on my mind is the issue of criticism and its validity within any given community, and the question of what responsibility we, as writers, have for the stories we tell.

I love it when Brian tells me he's done something on Spinetingler that's generated a huge controversy, and spawned blog posts and comments by the dozens. Specifically, I love that if there's any fall-out from the controversy, he gets to wear the egg and take the blame, and I can step in as editor-in-chief and appear reasonable and mature while I clean up his mess.

Or not. ;)

The other day when Brian told me that a post on Spinetingler had yielded dozens of comments, with no end in site, I suddenly became aware of the fact that a review of a short story was causing a huge controversy.

The review in question is Benjamin Whitmer's review of a James Reasoner story in DANGEROUS GROUND, a collection of Western Noir stories published by Cemetery Dance.

Whitmer explains, in a lengthy commentary, why he feels the story in question follows the format of an Indian-hater story, and why he takes issue with the story Reasoner wrote.

Now, many of us know James (if not in person, then online and through his writings and our interactions with him, and I'm a huge fan and have great admiration for James). And many of us also know of Ben Whitmer. He knocked my husband's socks off with Pike and won a Spinetingler Award. In fact, I do believe when Brian mentions Ben, there's a touch of reverence in his tone. At least, as much as is possible for a lapsed Catholic evolutionist to muster, but in the same way that I have a dedicated Rankin section in our library, I can imagine a future where Whitmer's works become top shelf works.

We love both authors, and I'm not interested in taking sides. Part of the reason is that I don't believe there are sides to take. Whitmer has acknowledged in the comments what Brian and I already knew - that James and Ben have been in touch. Nobody's asking for the post to be removed. The main people involved here have conducted themselves with class and everyone's fine.

While I have read Whitmer's lengthy analysis, I have not read the short story he's writing about, and that was deliberate. I did not want this blog post to be misconstrued as being about James, or his story. If it's about any part of the controversy, then it's about the comments that have appeared and the way some have reacted to Whitmer's review.

but… what? Something you like to read, or watch or play, is called racist! Or misogynistic! Or homophobic! Or all of the above! This will not do. No. Being associated, even remotely, with racism or sexism is just not on. It’s the worst insult in the world. You can’t cope. Time to get out of this bind. Do you–
a) shrug, accept that it’s possible to enjoy something while acknowledging its problematic aspects, and move on

b) enter berserk asshat mode because you are a fan of this thing and by god you will defend it, and its creator, to the VERY DEATH

c) enter berserk asshat mode because if something you enjoy is called racist/sexist/homophobic/etc then that’s just like you are being called all those nasty, horrible names personally! This must not stand, and by god you will defend yourself, and this thing you like, to the VERY DEATH

If you pick b or c, congratulations! I will hereafter refer to you as sack of shit.

I do believe that we have a responsibility, as writers, to consider what we write. We can't dismiss everything as simply art. If I were to write a story today about an African-American president being caught in some sort of political scandal, it would almost certainly be interpreted as a political commentary on President Obama, even if that wasn't my intention. (I mean, I define courage in the county where I live.)

Whatever we write, however, it can be framed by its time and every single piece of art created is interpreted through pre-existing filters that people bring with them.

I feel fairly confident that people who are gay are more likely to pick up on homophobic slurs than I am. I actually tutor students taking writing diplomas, and one of the assignments in the business writing course involves re-writing various statements, to remove bias. One of these sentences refers to a 'Jewish fire'. I had to look up what that was, and I've had other students admit they had no idea what the term meant.

Jewish students know, though.

We all bring our own filters to what we read, and that affects how we interpret things. Sometimes, it greatly discolors and distorts everything, far beyond reasonable criticism.

Other times, we're dead on the money.

That's why I included the link to the story about the student at my school that was shot and killed. It makes me sick to read the comments people have posted. The blatant racism and discrimination that's reflected by those comments is disgusting.

But this is the world we live in. We afford people anonymity on the web, so they speak without censor or concern for respect, or evidence of their assertions. And it's too easy in a city like Baltimore to dismiss this type of crime because of the reputation the city has.

What kills me is that people don't see the wonderful city that I see. Sure, Baltimore has its faults. Every single place on earth does. But I have spent the majority of the last two years working with students in Cherry Hill. And although I work with special needs students who have unique challenges, the student body at large embraces and accepts them as their own. When I walk into Southside, students hold the door for me, talk to me, and I enter a community. When a boy put his hands on me elsewhere in the city and hurt me, it was the students from Cherry Hill who stepped up to send a message, that nobody was going to hurt me again. Protected. Cared for. One of the community.

A community where I've never been met with racism or discrimination. A community where people reach into their pockets and help others out. A community where people sat silent in the halls, after we learned of the shooting, and young men had tears in their eyes and young women wept.

Marcus always said hi to us when we walked by him in the halls. 'Hi' in Cherry Hill might sound more like, "S'up," but it's a greeting all the same.

There is never any joy to be found in the tragic, violent death of a young person, ever. Unless you're a racist. And I don't even need to qualify my statement with referencing the fact that he was an athlete. Someone who was working on making a better future for himself and his family.

Marcus was a human being. And anyone who thinks a 19-year-old is beyond redemption because of where they live or the color of their skin or who they're related to is a racist, and no better than an Indian-hater.

But I must admit, perhaps today, if I read a story about some young person being killed, with any kind of inference that they deserved it because they were born of a certain ethnicity, in a certain place, and maybe even were related to people who'd made some bad choices… Maybe if I read a story like that today, I'd be pretty offended.

I have a filter. And there are raw emotions at work. And the comments left on a news story about a student prove the existence of racism in our society.

As an author, I have to acknowledge that there should be a separation between myself and the characters that I write, and that the story needs to create that separation. That's part of my job, and that's why I'm not too fond the idea of authors creating protagonists that are thinly disguised incarnations of themselves. If you admit your protagonist is based off of yourself, and then your protagonist makes racist statements, readers have a right to connect those dots.

Authors also have a responsibility to justify the content of the story and make sure it's relevant to the story being told. If offhanded, racial remarks are made throughout and have nothing to do with the story being told whatsoever, then people are going to wonder about the author and the author's views.

Same if the author has women being mutilated for no reason that's even connected to the main story.

Can I write a story about a Native American who spurns acts of kindness and slaughters countless whites in his quest for revenge without being racist, or an Indian-hater? Absolutely. The key is in justifying within the story why it is that the character refused forgiveness and was unable to make a different choice, and it needs to center on the character rather than his ethnicity.

And that's the subtlety of it all. Sometimes, as authors, we intend to convey things that we don't actually put on the page. And sometimes, as authors, we have to own some responsibility for that.

Like I said, I'm not taking sides about who's right in the Whitmer-Reasoner debate. I wanted this post to be about something bigger than that, and that is our fundamental obligation to consider the impact of our story, how it may be interpreted, and whether we've done our job to ensure the story is interpreted in the way we intended it to be.

I want people to realize that racism and bias and sexism… discrimination in all forms... exists. To deny that reality is ridiculous. As writers, if our works are grounded in the "real" world in any respect, we have some degree of responsibility to acknowledge that and be sure our stories don't perpetuate stereotypes or biases we don't intend for them to convey.

As Brian once said on Twitter, "If all the women in your novel are a) hot b) fuckable c) in to the protag d) all or some of the above. Then your book has a woman problem."

And if every male character I write thinks with his dick and spends all his time trying to get into some woman's pants, I have a problem writing men.

You can't write and only ask for people to love you. You have to acknowledge that some may love you, and others may loathe you. If I'm driving in my car and Wintersleep comes on, I have the right to turn it up. And someone else has the right to turn the radio off.

I think racist attitudes are pretty dangerous, but when we circle the wagons defensively and refuse to even have the discussion about discrimination, racism, sexism, the biases of our society and how that may shape our fiction and our community… That's even worse.

At Dachau concentration camp, there's a twisted metal memorial outside. It isn't until you get closer that you realize the metal is in the shape of bones and bodies, piled on top of each other. And in multiple languages read the words, "Never Again."

I watched the Berlin Wall come down, and nobody I knew felt it more than my German friend, Susie, because she had lived with the repercussions of WWII in a way that none of us North Americans had.

As a Canadian, I never fully comprehended the depth of the scars of slavery on the United States and how they still affect generations of people until I married an American and spent time living south of the Mason Dixon line.

It's unfair of me to completely dismiss an intelligently and respectfully offered opinion with no consideration of the potential validity of the perspective offered. I may still come away believing the person wrong, but knee-jerk defensiveness is part of what prevents us as a society from moving past our prejudices.

As writers of crime fiction, I would expect us to be more aware of how the ills of society hurt us all.

Or are those that say people read crime as safe wish-fulfillment/fantasy because we're all just one blow-out away from going postal closer to the truth than I'd like to believe?

And, in other news...

Spinetingler expands in June with the launch of a press. More information to come at spinetinglermag.com

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The America Idol Publishing Effect

by: Joelle Charbonneau

American Idol is now going into its 11th season. While I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually watched an entire episode of the show, I admit that I’ve been paying attention to the impact it has had on the performing community. I’m a performer. I sing. I act. To not admit that American Idol has an impact on the music and theater industry is to bury ones head in the sand.

When American Idol launched the country went wild over the contestants. Every member of the top 10 received offers for recording contracts, Broadway gigs, movies and guest star appearances on popular TV shows. And heck, you didn’t need to be in the top 10 to get noticed. Just having AMERICAN IDOL Top 30 contestant after your name was enough to get high-powered managers and studio heads to pick up the phone. SCORE! That trend continued with season 2 and the American Idol craze kept fans glued to their television screens. More Broadway and touring contracts. More TV sitcom appearances. Season 3 and 4 the trend continued. If you had American Idol contestant after your name, you were guaranteed attention – attention theater performers and musicians that had been struggling for years couldn’t get.

So it isn’t surprising that professional musicians and music theater performers started attending Idol auditions in droves. They weren’t interested in winning the whole shebang – although they wouldn’t have turned down the adulation. They wanted the American Idol Finalist title to help get them noticed. Hell – all sorts of Idol contestants were headlining Broadway shows not because they were the most talented choice, but because they were a name that the public understood. American Idol had become the greatest platform for music and theater of all time.

There were 30 contestants on air that first season. 36 that are listed on the website from season 2. All in all there are now over 300 performers that can claim the tagline of American Idol final contestant. And most of them can no longer get anyone to answer their phone calls.

Why? Because the novelty has worn off. The platform has become commonplace and doesn’t sell tickets at the Broadway box office the way it once did. American Idol still racks in the ratings, but beyond that, the American Idol tag doesn’t open up doors the way it once did.

So why am I talking about this? More than once on this blog we’ve talked about self-publishing. We’ve talked price point, quality, the fact that it is right for some and not for others. Hey – self-publishing and more specific E-self-publishing has become a way of life for a lot of authors. Some authors have made careers in the past couple of years out of telling other authors that traditional publishing is for the weak and the stupid and that the only way to be in charge of your own career is to self-publish. They say it is the only way to really make money. Those E-self-publishing giants are the Season 1-3 American Idol contestants. They are the ones that have garnered huge notice. They are the ones beating the drums. They have blogs and speaking engagements that help other authors follow in their path. They have been yelling about revolution. They are the ones that – (drum roll please) - have in recent weeks and months bailed from self-publishing.

In the last two plus weeks, Amazon has announced they are opening their own TRADITIONAL publishing house complete with acquisition editors. They plan on offering both electronic and print versions of their books. They are paying advances and royalties. And many of the American Idol E-publishing giants of the early seasons are getting on this new ride.

Why? Well, I guess only they can answer that. But I have only to look at American Idol to see that their platform – electronic-E-self-publishing author – is one that they now share with thousands and thousands of other authors. So now they have created a new platform – traditionally published Amazon authors. Yes – self-published and traditionally published alike will still be published by Amazon, but who do you think will get more notice? Which authors do you think Amazon will be touting? Who will have doors opened to them and which authors will be stuck thinking they have broken through the barriers only to find that no one cares?

As far as I can tell – Amazon has just created a new reality show. (Kind of like the new show THE VOICE) While the old show might not lose popularity, the contestants are just a means to an end. They’ll make money off of that horse until it can’t run any more. And why not? They don’t have to lift a finger to make that money. But I’m betting they lift more than a finger for this new adventure and for the stars that made their self-publishing venture the hit of the nation.

What does that mean for publishing as a whole or for those out there who are self-publishing via Amazon now? Hell if I know. But I do know that those who have rode that now very crowded platform to great heights are getting off and climbing onto another ride. It’ll be interesting to see where it takes them.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

War Comics for Memorial Day

(This is Memorial Weekend in the US, a time where we remember all the real life heroes that have secured our freedom and liberty. I know our non-US readers have similar holidays. As such, I'm reprinting a review I did about one of my favorite comic book anthologies. As a kid, I loved war comics. It was only when I grew up and became a historian that I learned the true nature of war. My generation never had to discover the answer to the question "What would I do if I went to war?" Previous generations--and the current generation--answered that question. Because they went, I can live the life I do. Because they found the answer, I am free. And to them, I give my heartfelt and eternal thanks.)

Flash: World War II lasts forty years! The war ends in a whimper in the 1980s!

Those headlines are not true, of course, but you could believe it if you only read the war-related titles from DC Comics. And some of the finest are collected in 1979’s “America At War: The Best of DC War Comics,” edited by Michael Uslan. What’s ironic is that this anthology emerged at the twilight of the great war comics. Just a few years after its publication, the comics this anthology touts would fade to memory.

Uslan offers a nice introduction giving a brief history of war comics from DC. He points out that in 1939, DC published a new book, All-American Comics, that featured Hop Harrigan, America’s Ace of the Airway and Red, White, and Blue. What’s fascinating is that the cover and lead story featured the original Green Lantern. The editors at DC didn’t know if the books would sell if outright war characters graced the covers. They soon found their answer. Harrigan became an instant hit, eventually spawning his own radio show.

Even in the early years of World War II when America was not at war, we knew who the enemies were: the Germans and the Japanese. And the stories and featured characters—Blackhawk, The Boy Commandos, etc.—started fighting America’s true enemies rather than spies on the home front. But after V-J and V-E day, in real life, our soldiers returned home. In the comics world, they kept fighting. And, in 1952, DC issued its first all-war title, Our Army at War. Its success spawned more and more, eventually giving birth to Sgt. Rock of Easy Company, Gravedigger, The Haunted Tank, and the Unknown Soldier. Even through the divisive Vietnam years, war comics thrived mainly, I think, because they focused on the “good war” of WWII and, occasionally, Korea.

Uslan highlights many of these characters in his nice anthology. He makes his apologies in the forward stating that he’d selected nearly 600 pages of war comics that he had to edit down to 250. That must have been agonizing. As such, we get mere tastes of these titles and characters, enough to whet our appetite and cause those who like this material to seek out and find old issues or reprint editions.

The book is divided into decades, starting with the 1940s and ending in the 1970s. The 1940s offerings showcase Blackhawk and his origin story (he was a crack pilot who was shot down over Poland only to discover his family had perished), the Boy Commandos (created by Jack Kirby), Hop Harrigan, and a couple of Superman stories. The funniest piece here is the day Superman failed his Army physical. Originally published as a newspaper comic strip, Clark Kent is the perfect candidate for a soldier except he flubs his eye test. You see, his X-Ray vision caused him to read the chart in the next room, not the room in which he currently stood. Humorous. Later the same year (1943), however, in the comic book version of Superman, Kent goes undercover in the Army Air Force to dispel the rumor that the training program is too timid. It’s subtle propaganda but propaganda nonetheless.

The 1950s is where the real action begins. And there was no hero larger in DC war comics than Sgt. Rock. Uslan doesn’t include Rock’s first appearance. Rather, he includes the first time artist Joe Kubert illustrated one of Rock’s stories. Kubert is one of the best artists out there and his take on Rock and other war comics are all but definitive. In this issue, a new member joins Easy Co. and questions why Rock is called “Rock.” One answer is this: “’Cause that what he is. ‘Cause when the goin’ gets so rugged that only a rock could stand, he stands.” On a different level is Gunner and Sarge in the Pacific. This story has Gunner temporarily blinded and, with the help of a “seeing eye dog,” takes out a tank and saves Sarge. We jump back to Europe and follow an adventure with Mademoiselle Marie of the French Resistance. It’s during the 1950s where my favorite war-comic illustrated word—the words like “Pow” and “Bang” to denote some action—comes into its own: “Budda budda” is the written method to characterize machine gun fire. Heck, I still make that sound.

The stories from the 1960s demonstrate a wider range of creativity and, frankly, bizarreness. Uslan includes the first Haunted Tank story. In this one, the ghost of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart watches over a light tank commanded by one of his descendants, Jeb Stuart. At key moments in his battles, the ghost Stuart renders aid to the tank commander Stuart, usually with a happy ending. The key is that Jeb Stuart is the only one who can hear the ghost. Enemy Ace does a 180-degree turn, spotlighting a World War I German flying ace instead of the usual American characters. “What the Color of Your Blood” is a 1965 Sgt. Rock tale that speaks to the civil rights movement of the time. Having been captured by Nazis, a black American soldier fights a white Nazi with the Nazi trying to force Jackie (Robinson?) to say that his blood was black. Only in the end, when Jackie offers his own blood in a transfusion to save the German’s life does the Nazi man see the color of Jackie’s blood. Uslan includes one story from the 1960s—where a PT boat comes face to face with dinosaurs (yeah, really)—that would eventually become Weird War Tales. We get one Vietnam-era story from 1966 before the nature of the war changed. It’s a straight-up tale featuring Capt. Hunter.

Tellingly, there is a break in the chronology from 1966 to 1971, the height of the Vietnam-era protests. Uslan’s first 1970s story is “The Glory Boys,” a Civil War-era story that speaks directly at the less-heroic and tragic nature of war. By 1971, the horrific stories to emerge from Vietnam—My Lai, the mentality that our soldiers had to destroy the town to save it—spilled into Sgt. Rock stories. In “Head Count,” a soldier named Johnny Doe loves to kill, and forces Rock to an agonizing choice. The last panel includes two things. A closing quote from Rock and a little seal that states “Make war no more.” Rock’s last line of dialogue echoes the sentiments of that seal: “Was Johnny Doe a murderer—or a hero? That’s one question each of you will have to decide for yourselves.” Lastly, Uslan includes one of the best war titles from DC, an Unknown Soldier story. An American soldier, whose face is so severely burned that he goes around with bandages on his head, becomes an indispensable spy specializing in disguise and stealth. In “8,000 to One,” the Unknown Soldier infiltrates the Gestapo in order to sabotage the Nazi plans to transport 8,000 Jews to a concentration camp. The Unknown Soldier must confront the inequities of war that force men to choose one life over another.

As I mentioned earlier, in the 1980s, the war comics just withered and died. The last issue of the Unknown Soldier hit the newsstands in October 1982. The following summer, Weird War Tales—which showcased one of the coolest creations in the 1980s, the Creature Commandos (think Frankenstein, Dracula, a werewolf, and a robot fighting the Nazis)—ceased publication. G.I. Combat, the only war title to get DC’s Dollar-sized issue treatment, lasted until March 1987. As you would expect, Sgt. Rock outlasted them all until, in July 1988, he, too, faded into history.

The irony in the death of war comics is that they died when new found realism invaded the superhero comics. With The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Watchmen (1986-87), and others, comics and graphic novels became less the entertainment of the young and more an art form equal to novels. This type of medium would seem to have been a suitable outlet for more adult war stories. You could have even tagged the books with a “Intended for Mature Audiences” label like the one-off issue of Weird War Tales in 1998. And, yet, it hasn’t come to pass. I just wonder why it happened.

In recent years, Sgt. Rock, Blackhawk, Enemy Ace, the Unknown Soldier, and others are getting the archive treatment from DC so we’ll have nice hardbound versions to keep and re-read. But if you want a nice anthology that you can dip into and read a little bit of everything, you can’t go wrong with Michael Uslan’s “America at War.”

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Spirit of Fuck That

By Charlie Williams

I am writing this on my way home from my New York BEA trip. That may sound vaguely jet-setting, until you hear that I am on the final leg - sat on a dirty train in the West Midlands. The fact is, I forgot about this guest blog slot until now. Yes, it was me who suggested doing it and yes, I should think myself lucky that Russell agreed to step aside for the day. But hey, I'm putting my hands up. What with this and that and the exertions and diversions of travel, and the fact that I was reading Jack Ketchum's OFF SEASON (signed by the man
himself only a couple of days ago - yay!) on the plane, DSD just slipped my mind. But here I am, flagging and jet-lagging and feeling kind of trippy with sleep deprivation, but still writing this.

Is that dedication to the cause or what?

Actually, no, I don't think it is. When I was standing on the station platform back there and I remembered that DSD was depending on me (sort of), it wasn’t some kind of sense of noir duty that made me root my laptop out of my luggage, it was more the whiff of a challenge. Don’t be stupid, I could hear my sensible side saying. You’re exhausted. You haven’t even thought of what you could write. You’re in the Birmingham New Street Station, FFS – the spiritual home of non-inspiration. Face it, Charlie, whatever you come up with for DSD is going to be SHITE. So do the honest thing: tell Russell you can’t possibly do it, then go to bed. OK, Sensible Side, you’ve said your piece. Very eloquent, etc. But do you know what I say?

Fuck that.

You heard that right, people. And before you go and defend Captain Sensible, remember this: it was him who tried to

Tell those NASA guys that flying to the moon would be far too dangerous, that they should employ this guy called Kubrick to stage the whole thing instead. It was Capt. Sensible who said to a beleaguered Winston Churchill, “Nice speech, Winst. Not bad for a first draft. But take my advice – leave out the bit about
fighting them on the beaches, eh? You know what Brits are like - one sight of sand and they’ll be pissed out of their minds, sunburnt to fuck and dancing to Agadoo.” It was Capt. Sensible who tried to dissuade Scott when he struck out for the North Pole. And was he right?

OK, so maybe he had a point with Scott, but not in the other cases. No! You know where we’d be if NASA and Churchill had heeded his words? Living in a global Nazi state, that’s where. And with ZERO lunar colonies. Wait...

The Spirit of Fuck That says I’m not going to listen your words of caution. It says I’m going to go ahead and implement this ostensibly insane idea anyway, because it’s my idea and not yours and it excites me. The Spirit of Fuck That gives Capt. Sensible the finger and says watch me, el Sensio. Watch me pull it off.

I’m going off on one here. What I was trying to say, in my unfocused way, was that every writer worth any amount of salt needs to have a bit of that spirit. I don’t like trashing the genre I love, but I’m going to come right out and say that 80% of it is shit. 80%? I’m being optimistic, right? The crime shelves of our bookshops (the ones I go into anyway) are groaning with stuff that often sells well but is just plain bland. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just the crabby guy who is always looking for what isn’t there any more – something brilliant that will startle me with its style and disposition, while powering me through a story of such noirness that I feel like I’m on a shopping trolley in the Express aisle through hell. I’m imagining the kind of impact that Jim Thompson had on readers who had their eyes open back in the day. Or the outrage that Erskine Caldwell kicked up with Tobacco Road and The Bastard. Both those guys were masters of their craft, but they also had the balls to plough right on
through when they hit the bits that another writer would step back from. And I know I’m not looking for something that’s gone, because every now and then I’ll see it. Commercial success or no, people can still make an impact on this genre. And those people have the Spirit of Fuck That.

Train ride over. I’m home. Time to get my head down.

And rant in my sleep.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Price Wars or Why My Book Costs 99 Cents

Damn it. I'm wading back into the Kindle argument again.

I wasn't going to talk about this, but I've seen it a lot on Twitter in the past few weeks, so I figured--since I have stake in this, I might as well make my thoughts known.

Basically it's the new price war for authors who are putting their books up on Kindle. Do you want to go 2.99 or .99?

Now the argument I've seen from people sort of in the publishing world on Twitter is: You need to value your work. Price it at 2.99, because it's worth at least that. By pricing your book at any less than 2.99, you are devaluing your work. You're showing the world you're not proud of it and you're not confident in it.

I think that's what they're saying.

Here's where I disagree. Supply and demand. And what I want to get out of having my books up on the Kindle.

There is a major influx of writers sticking their books up on Kindle. They're trying to get find readers. And, guess what? A lot of them are posting their books for .99 cents.

I want to find an audience. I want to find readers. That's my first goal. To get readers.

So, I'm going to keep my book posted at 99 cents. For a while the book was the number 1 New Release for Hard Boiled Kindle Books. I was really happy about that. More readers.

So, in my opinion, I'd rather price my book at .99 and reach AS MANY PEOPLE as possible while at the same time making some money--not a lot, but enough to buy some beer. Maybe fill my gas tank.

I'm not looking to get rich quick.

But the feedback I've gotten. That's been awesome. I'm getting readers again. I've heard from people who've said they were going to pick up my other two novels because they liked WITNESS TO DEATH so much. And those are priced at 9.99. I have 8 wonderful reviews online and more in my email box.

Think of me like a drug dealer. First one's... almost... free. Check it out.

Then see if you want to check out the others.

That's why I price my book at .99. I want readers. I want people to enjoy my work. If enough people do, I'll be very happy.

And I'll probably pull in some cash too. But my side of the story isn't as much about money. It's about finding people to read the books. If people keep finding my stuff, the money'll come.

Feel free to disagree in the comments.



On your Kindle US.

On your Nook.

Or your Kindle UK.

But if you like those... then give the rest a shot.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


John McFetridge

It means, “the erection of hairs on the skin due to cold, fear or excitement,” according to the dictionary feature of my iPad. I had to look it up as I was reading Stephen King’s Under the Dome . At first it seemed odd that I’d have to look up a fancy word for goosebumps in a Stephen King novel, usually he’s a master at getting across so much with the use of simple, everyday words, but after reading forty or fifty novels of his I don’t mind interrupting one for a trip to the dictionary. I know I’ll be right back to the book.

Most people I know have a Stephen King story about how they were affected by his books. Here’s mine.

It was the late 70’s and I was working as a night shift security guard in an office building in downtown Calgary. There were so many construction cranes in Calgary then people called them the official city bird. Almost everyday someone said, “This will be a great city when it’s finished.” The place was in such a hurry that the office building I worked in wasn’t even finished, half of the fourteen stories were still under construction, but the other half were already in use.

All I had to do was sit in the lobby from 11:00 pm to 7:00 am. I had a little desk, a chair and a phone. I guess if someone smashed the windows looking out onto 4th Street S.W. I was supposed to phone someone. And once a night I had to do my rounds; ride the elevator to the top floor, look around and then walk down the stairs, stopping to take a look around on each floor. Simple enough, and even kind of fun. The top couple of floors were finished and I could sit behind the big desk of what I figured must have been the president of the company and look out to the great view of the city and the Rocky Mountains to the west. I really liked the view of the city because there were so many buildings under construction that looked like giant skeletons of buildings. You could see right through one to another.

And the floors that were still under construction were just huge empty rooms with wires coming out of the ceiling and tools and equipment strewn on the floor wherever the workers seemed to drop them at the end of their shifts.

So, of course, for most of the night I just sat at my little desk in the lobby and read books.

One night I started to read The Stand.

A car crashes at a gas station in rural Texas and before I knew it there I was with Larry Underwood crawling over dead bodies and crashed cars trying to make it through the Lincoln Tunnel in the dark.

By the time I took my first look up out of the book it was a couple hours past the time I was supposed to do my rounds so I rushed to the elevator, rode to the top floor, walked down the hall, saw my reflection in the window, freaked out, ran back to the elevator in a panic and got in. But I didn’t push a button so the elevator didn’t move. Then, you know, I laughed at how silly I was for being so scared and pushed the button to open the door and walked back out onto the empty fourteenth floor.

But then I decided the fourteenth floor was probably just fine, and certainly the thirteenth was, too, so I went to the elevator and rode down to the twelfth floor where the elevator doors opened and I stepped out into the shadows of the dark unfinished room – wires hanging form the ceiling, tools scattered on the floor, some kind of scaffolding – and all around the outside walls the windows looked out on a city that had clearly been destroyed. The buildings all looked bombed out, skeletons of buildings, the streets were empty, no cars, no people, nothing.

And there were no sounds, the whole place was silent; the twelfth floor, the building, the city – for all I knew the whole world. I was in the middle of The Stand.

Holy crap, talk about horripiliation – all over my goddam body.

Then behind me the elevator door closed.

And let’s just say I took the stairs back to the lobby. In a bit of a hurry.

I grabbed The Stand and slammed it into the desk drawer and swore I’d never to look at it again.

Of course, a few minutes later I just had to get the book out and start reading it again. I had to know what happened next.

But I never did do rounds of the building again. I got fired a few months later for letting a homeless guy sleep on the couch of the company on the third floor and forgetting about him when I left in the morning, but that’s a different story.

What’s your Stephen King story?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

More on Violence in Crime Fiction

Jay Stringer's computer hates him, so we're going with an ENCORE EDITION -- this one playing off Steve's post yesterday about Writing Violence.

By Jay Stringer

I wrote a few weeks ago about violence in crime fiction. At the time, I was looking more at the difference, if there is one, between male and female writers. But I want to return to expand on a different point. I like to get into an idea and dig around.

Violence is key to crime fiction. It really is. There are a number of different branches within the crime family, the cosy, the mystery, the crime, the noir, and the yadda yadda. Something that unites them is that they would all have some form of violent act in there, somewhere. And what separates them is how that is dealt with.

It might not be extreme violence, and it may not be on screen, but it’s there. Five minutes before Miss Marple walked into the room and saw the local doctor lying dead on the floor, someone hit the poor quack over the head with a vase.

Something I’ve often found with crime fiction is that too many writers are more interested in the act itself than the consequences.The physical rather than the emotional. I touched on this aspect again a while back when I talked about grief.

I read two books recently that really impressed me with their handling of violence. The first was Hell To Pay by George Pelecanos. There is a lot of violence in and around the edges of that story, but very little of it is really described. There’s a horrific event about halfway through the book, and it is touched upon. But Pelecanos invested much more time into showing the aftermath. We see the funeral; we see the family’s grief. We see the shockwaves that go through the community and then the speed with which modern life forgets. It was an act that we didn’t really need to see, our brains are well capable of detailing it, but what we did need was all that followed. In fact, for those of you who've read the book, think abck to that incident and even as it was happening, Pelecanos took us inside the mind of one of the victims to show us a simple and heartbreaking last wish.

Likewise near the end of the novel the main character stops an act of violence, something that was about to happen ‘off screen’, and this simple moment carried a lot more weight than it might have in the hands of another writer. The character got into the emotions of the scene, and thought through the consequences that would have followed, and intervened.

I find that kind of writing far better than any number of grisly descriptions of murder or autopsy.

The other book I’m thinking of is The Lost Sister by our very own Russel D Mclean. There is a lot of violence in there; we know this because we don’t see it. We see the blood and the pain that follows. We see the weight that the violence leaves behind rather than the weight that went into the punch. Naturally I won’t go into spoilers here, but there was a key scene where something important happened, and rather than show the act Russel chose to show the aftermath. I was really struck by that decision, largely because it showed that sometimes the best thing a writer can do is not write.

It can be far more effective sometimes to leave a scene rather than to explore it.

There’s a camera move in the film Dr No which has always stuck with me. James Bond is about to be beaten up by some of the henchmen, and as they start hitting him the camera drifts away to focus on something else. We hear the violence but we don’t see it. Now, in terms of the film this may have been to do with ratings. But a trick that might have grown out of compromise became one of the most effective parts of the film.

In this month’s issue of Detective comics, written by Greg Rucka, there is another such moment. The scene shifts from the usual third person P.O.V to first person, so that the reader is seeing things through the eyes of the main character as she and her family are kidnapped. The thing is, the main character has a bag over her head, so all we can ‘see’ is the sound of her mother and sister begging for their lives. We hear, rather than see, the violence. We feel the lump at the pit of our stomach as her family fall silent following gunshots, and then we are left with the mess as the bag is pulled from our eyes.

Rucka, and the artist J.H.Williams could have chosen to show the act in graphic detail. But they decided that showing the aftermath would have a far bigger impact, and it does.

And so it is with crime fiction. Do I need a detailed description of a woman being raped, or the places a snake can be fitted into? Do I need to see or read an autopsy, the cold clinical examination of a corpse or a victim? Do I need to know what sound a madman makes as he kills someone? Nope.

I need to know what the affect is. I need to know what makes this act of violence important, and that is measured by the wake that it leaves.

And so that’s where I find myself as both a writer and a reader. Don’t try and impress me with your hyper-violence. I don’t care if you can blow something up in slow motion, describe the trajectory of a bullet, or prove to me that you’ve done a ton of research on anatomy.
I just want to know that you understand the emotions behind what you’re doing. And I want to see how people deal with the mess that’s left behind.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from all of this as a writer is that sometimes what you don’t write is far more important.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Writing Violence

By Steve Weddle

Exciting. Necessary. Tense.

A good fight scene in crime fiction is tough to beat. One guy takes a swing, the other ducks. A fist full of rolled up quarters into the Adam's apple. A knee to the chin. The tearing sound a jaw makes in novels.

I was working on a story recently in which the main character finds a couple of jackasses logging on his grandmother's property. I don't know how it is where you're from, but around my neck of the woods that's liable to get you killed. Of course, dudes with chainsaws tend to think they're pretty tough. Here's where I was:

“No problem, pal. Mind telling me who the fuck you think you are?” He ripped the chainsaw chord and it smoked and squealed in that high-pitched sound you get when you cross a motorcycle with a farm pig.
He walked towards me and I turned back to my truck. He laughed, said “That’s what I thought, faggot.” Then the other guy laughed. Then I reached under the tarp in the bed of my truck and pulled out an axe handle.
“Just so there’s no confusion,” I said, “that was me being nice a minute ago.”
The guy with the chainsaw took too long closing the ground between us, so I stepped his way. I didn’t have a whole lot of experience fighting against chainsaws, but it looked damned heavy to try to move around like he was doing. He lifted it about shoulder-high coming at me and I spun around like I was winding up to send one over the fence. Then I popped his right knee with the axe handle. He went down and the chainsaw didn’t kill either one of us, just fell blade-up, then flopped away like a headless chicken. He yelled at me and I’d gone from being gay to being a mother fucker. Didn’t need him biting my ankles as his pal came towards me, so I put a steel toe into his mouth and felt his teeth slide up into his head.
The other guy pulled a little pop gun from his back pocket. I stepped in close, held his gun arm under my armpit and put the back of my head up through his jaw. I pushed him down and pulled his arm out of socket. Then I put my heel on his shoulder and spun his arm around in the socket until he got tired of kicking


That was fun. I've never been attacked with a chainsaw, but I'm fairly convinced it would make an awkward melee weapon. Sure, it's loud and scary and all, but it's designed for a set purpose and is weighted in a certain way. If you've never worked a chainsaw, you might not know what I'm talking about. But it doesn't provide for mobility or flexibility. I'm not talking about the kind you need an extension cord for so that you can trim off a couple of limbs in back yard, thereby protecting your satellite dish before the oncoming ice storm. I'm talkin them big, heavy frackers real mean and women use to destroy a forest, er, make money for a landowner.

Of course, I'm sure you can write scenes in which chainsaws are great brawling weapons. Only takes one well places spin of the chain to turn a fighter into flank steak.

But here we're talking an all-out onslaught on the senses. No Holds Barred. Throat punches and ice picks to the eyeballs.

Which is just the idea Benjamin Percy and Aaron Gwyn take up in the recent POETS AMPERSAND WRITERS magazine. Their stated thesis (hello, ENGL 101 students) is this: "While explicit cruelty has its place in literature, violence may be more cunningly crafted by allowing the reader to wander into the dark corners of his own mind."

They make particular use of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in which the bad guy takes people off in the darkness to kill them. Joyce Carol Oates. Cormac McCarthy.

The article contrasts the work of those writers with authors such as Chuck Palahniuk and Brett Easton Ellis -- "a special kind of CGI meant to sour your stomach." A Michael Bay film in which those experiencing the story say "What great special effects...marveling at the way computers can create the illusion of a casino exploding."

Their article is pertinent and persuasive, shining a light on the type of books I've been reading, the stories I've been telling.

I'd encourage you to track down the May/June issue of the magazine for that article alone. (Also a nice article on writing contests in there.)

The idea Percy and Gwyn really do a nice job kicking around is whether violence works better in the story when the author fills the page with blood or lets the reader imagine the violence, moving the overt horror from the ink on the page to the reader's own imagined darkness?

So what do you think? Does overt violence in a book add or take away from the story? Do you enjoy reading a good fight scene? Is a knuckle-buster in Bucksnort, TN bar just special effects? Would some stories have been better off with the violence left off the page? Would some have been better with more overt violence on the page, more choreographed fights?

And, in case anyone gives a damn, here's how I'd revised the logging story. Nice when you decide to go one way and then read an article making an article in your favor.

“You lost, pal?” he asked me. The other one leaned his elbow out of his truck’s window and looked back my way.
“No,” I said. “Mind telling me who gave you permission to cut back here?”
“No problem, pal. Mind telling me who the fuck you think you are?” He ripped the chainsaw chord and it smoked and squealed in that high-pitched sound you get when you cross a motorcycle with a farm pig.
He walked towards me and I turned back to my truck. He laughed, said “That’s what I thought, faggot.” Then the other guy laughed.
“Just so there’s no confusion,” I said, pulling an axe handle from under the tarp in my truck bed. “That was me being nice a minute ago.”
At the church's homecoming picnic the next day, I walked to the end of the table, put down the tray of deviled eggs, minus the three I’d just swallowed. Then I went to have a chat with the pastor's wife.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

It's the end of the world....or not

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Despite all the hype, the rapture didn’t happen. The world is still spinning. Which mean I have to start thinking about gearing up for my next release.

I find the pre-release process to be both exciting and scary. Last week, I finished proofing the typeset pages of SKATING OVER THE LINE, which was lots of fun. For those who haven’t been through the process, this is the last step in which I the author can make any changes before the publisher waves his magic wand and turns the pages into a real life book. Yippee.

This is only the second time I’ve had to go through this step and each time I held my breath hoping to God I’d still like the book after I was done reading it. So far, so good. Although, I am well and truly baffled as to how so many typos that weren’t in my word document version of the book (I know this because I am anal enough to go back and look) ended up in the typeset version. Something tells me this mystery is a lot like the sock going missing in the dryer and will never be solved.

Now that the pages have been proofed and the corrections sent back to my publisher, it is time for me to start working on pre-release publicity and all that entails. EEEK! So, I now am embarking on setting up a blog tour, getting copy ready for some advertising opportunities and scheduling signings and conference appearances. (Now do you see why the end of the world was looking so attractive?)

So, I am now asking for your help. Tell me – what are your favorite blogs to read about new books? Do giveaways and other novelties draw your attention? Do short stories in magazines grab your notice and make you want to pick up the author’s longer fiction? In short – tell me what you think I should be doing to get the word out about my books. And if the rapture folks got the date wrong for the end of the world and it ends before I respond to your comment – thanks for the help! I really appreciate it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Read and Let Read

Scott D. Parker

I'm almost to the end of my first season of American Idol. After nine years of not bothering to watch nor even caring that I didn't, my wife and I jumped in to the Idol bandwagon with both feet. I've watched all the episodes, read the recaps at Entertainment Weekly and MSNBC, joined the Facebook page, and dang near downloaded a couple of tunes (Casey Abrams's Nature Boy, James Durbin's Will You Still Love Me, and Haley Reinhart's House of the Rising Sun being my favorite performances of the season). Ironically, I never voted. Didn't feel like exposing all of my Facebook friends to the Idol coffers.

We viewers have been blessed with a number of contestants that perform widely varying styles. Jazz, soul, rock and roll, country, gospel, and good old fashioned pop. As fun as it is for me to hear these different types of music--as they naturally follow my own eclectic tastes--I've marveled at how far some of singers reached. Who would have thought the self-professed "jazz head" Casey would reach the final six? How about soulful Hailey who just bowed out this week?

As I read through the comments on the multiple pages, one thing I noticed is, unfortunately, not all that surprising. There's a serious amount of vitriol among the Idol faithful. Followers of rocker James don't like country crooners Scotty McCreery or Lauren Alaina. The country fans hated the growly Haley and Casey. The multitude that enjoyed Pia Toscano's brand of singing discounted the gospel singing of Jacob Lusk. I'm not talking mere "I don't prefer this type of singing" type talk. There's some serious middle-school, only-children-can-be-this-hateful stuff going on here. I can't really understand it. Well, I do. We're human, and we like to make silos and shoot missiles at other things.

The folks in the mystery community are different, at least that's my impression. We have a big tent in here, room enough for everyone. We've got readers who loved hard-boiled action tales and would never, ever read a cozy. We've got traditional mysteryists who think the modern noir stuff is just too violent. We've got everyone. But I don't really hear hurtful bombs lobbed at the other parties. Many of us read different sub-genres of the mystery and crime fiction family, but not all. And it's my impression that even the most devoted follower of one sub-genre doesn't usually take pot shots at another.

Live and let live, or, rather, read and let read.

Why, do you suppose, we're like this? Are we different than the American Idol fandom? What makes us mysteryists accept other genres within our field without resorting to name-calling?

Movie of the Week: Tangled. Watched this for the first time last night with the family. Just about the funniest movie I've seen in a long time. It pretty much had it all. Loved the singing as it's been a few years since Disney did the full-on "Animated Broadway" thing. The horse, Maximus, just about stole the show. Where's the animated short featuring him?

Friday, May 20, 2011


By Russel D McLean

Steven Moffat – the exec producer of Doctor Who – has recently hit out at the “fans” who post spoilers to the internet. In a rather great rant, he talks about those who work to obtain twists and turns of upcoming stories and post them out on the internet.

“So to have some twit who came to a press launch, write up a story in the worst, most ham-fisted English you can imagine, and put it on the internet [is heartbreaking].”

Absolutely. Moffat’s spot on here. I am not a spoiler-phobe, and won’t cry if someone accidentally tells me something but I do prefer to be surprised and shocked and carried along by a story. Especially a new story. Part of the fun I’ve had with Moffat’s own show has been in private discussions with other fans speculating over big game plans we can see developing in the show and how we think things are going to turn out. I haven’t had this much fun since I used to watch Babylon 5, a show which again depended on shock and surprise to pull the viewer along its narrative arc. Part of the joy of the show was the speculation and uncertainty, of trying to second guess the plot and the characters, and of often being completely wrong.

I understand that a culture has developed where people’s impatience and need for instant gratification has resulted in the need to seek out “spoilers”, but in the end I think this is what leads to much of the “grumpiness” of fandom. The foreknowledge of what is happening means that we are not surprised by a narrative in the way we might be otherwise. The shock of an emotional narrative development we didn’t see coming is diminished when we expect it. Thus, “Luke I am your father” doesn’t have that impact if you already know that the Dark Sith Lord is Luke’s daddy. Or imagine what it was to see that second Star Trek movie and have no clue that Spoke was going to sacrifice himself at the end.

To return to Who for a moment, when the series first returned in ’05, we knew in short order that the new Doctor played by Christopher Eccleston was leaving. The official announcement, as I remember it, was that he would do the Christmas special and then leave after that. So when we came to the final show of that season, I settled in knowing it was his last but thinking he’d be around for at least some of the Christmas special. Lucky I’d avoided spoilers that week because the shock of his regeneration at the end of the show really got me. “Hang on”, I said, “I didn’t expect… oh bloody hell, he’s going to die, yup and he’s… he’s regenerating.” It was impossible to hide the fact a new Doc was on his way, but the producers cleverly tried to avoid us knowing the exact details of how and when it would happen, thus creating a climax that really pulled in the unsuspecting viewer.

Stories rely on surprise on the audience not being forewarned. And yes, they should be about more than simple shocks* but I love the delight that comes from seeing a story for the first time and having – literally – no idea of what’s around the corner.

Tonight, for example, I watched the final episode of the 3rd series of the incredible French cop series, SPIRAL (also known as ENGRENAGES) with no clue as to how it would end. My friends who had already seen it respected my need for the narrative, knowing how much the impact of the show would rely on not knowing certain details. And trust me folks, I was on the edge of my seat, because there’s something pure in the being swept along by a narrative with no expectations or knowledge of how it will turn out.

So preach on, Mr Moffat, about the joy of narrative surprise and about how these eejits are spoiling the joy of audience engagement with narrative. Spoilers are a horrific thing, an impediment to one’s ability to truly interact with a story. And those who spread them with intent – as compared to those who accidentally give something away, those who innocently forget what they’re saying – are indeed, Moffat says, indulging in a form of vandalism.

*The Sixth Sense, for example, doesn’t exist much beyond that twist – repeat viewings don’t reveal much more other than the trickery that stopped you seeing the truth first time around

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Exploding Bus

It started with an exploding bus.

No, wait... it started before then. About a year before then. One of the teachers I worked with knew I was writing a book. And she wanted in. Begged and pleaded--okay, asked once. When I got to a situation where I needed a name for a character--one I thought was going to be minor--I plugged it in.

The character ended up being a major one.

Once I signed a book deal for WHEN ONE MAN DIES and a sequel, people started coming out of the woodwork. They wanted to be in the book. It was constant. Everyone wanted a role... and comedically enough, they all wanted to die.

I had about 15 people ask to be murder victims.

And I was going to do it... I was going to put them all in the book.

And kill them off.

The question was how. How do you kill off fifteen people and not turn it into a teenage horror comedy with more snark than heart? And for a minute, I thought I had it.

I was going to blow up a bus. And then print the passenger list. Of course one of the victims would be an important character and the rest innocent people I knew. It was a great idea, I thought. Fun for me and my friends. Believable for the audience too.

Except I couldn't come up with a reason why I should blow up a bus. It didn't fit the book.

So, since then, I've been sneaking in names of my friends as character names. My friends, co-workers, and family love it. They get a kick out of it.

The rest of you have no idea. Each of my books has people I know in it. And it helps with characterization too. I give some of the traits of my friends to the characters in the book. Helps give them believable quirks.

And believe me, my friends are quirky.

So, my question is this, knowing that I do this... knowing that a lot of other authors probably do it as well, will you now find it distracting? Will you try to figure out who's named after a real person and who's completely fictional?

I know I don't.



Want to talk WITNESS spoilers? Comment here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dumbing Downer

John McFetridge

Saw this great quote from Kurt Sutter, the creator and showrunner of Sons of Anarchy:

"Stop making decisions based on research data, and hire development executives with degrees in art, literature, and theater instead of marketing, business, and law. If people followed those two rules, TV would be a fuckload better."

And this one from Roger Ebert:

"As the leadership of many studios is taken from creators and assigned to marketers, nothing is harder to get financed than an original idea, or easier than a retread. The urge to repeat success can be found even in the content of modern trailers, which often seem to be about the same upbeat film. Even The Beaver, with Mel Gibson battling mental illness, is made to look like a hopeful comedy with a cute stuffed animal."

Now that speaks to every writer, for sure, but I want to add, “Let’s not be so quick to try and give these research data-reading marketers exactly what they want.”

Sure, that’s easy to say, and I did spend a lot of yesterday in a development meeting at a Canadian network telling them exactly how we can make this cop show different from every other cop show while still being similar enough not to scare off an audience.

And sure, I believe we’ll try to do that but there will be a lot of compromises along the way – we all know that even if we don’t say it out loud.

Because I also saw this yesterday:

"Comedies are the hardest thing to do," says Gary Carr of Targetcast. Even ‘30 Rock,’ a survivor on the NBC schedule, "goes over most people's heads. It's not doing that well."

This is from a guy buying advertising on the major networks. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of 30 Rock but I don’t think that’s because it’s going over my head. I just don’t find it that funny. I really like Tina Fey and I’m pretty sure I’m getting all the jokes, they just don’t make me laugh. Maybe I’m just too old for this show but I find that there’s too much silly and I really don’t care about the characters and their problems. I do like The Big Bang Theory, though I’m pretty sure some of that actually is going over my head.

Which brings me back to books. Yes, publishing isn’t perfect but at least there’s no one buying advertising for your book saying that it’s going over people’s heads. All of the editors I have dealt with so far have been creative people with degrees in literature. Sure, they have to deal with the business people and accountants but it’s a far cry from the movie and TV biz.

And there are the small publishers and self-published books which have the potential to be purely art-driven.

But we have to write them. It still comes down to that most cliche of advice, “Write the book you want to read.”

Lately when I look at a self-published e-book I wonder, is this something I could get from a publisher? And if it is then I’m not that interested – but if it isn’t, if it’s something unlikely to be published by one of the big five, say a short story collection or a novella or some really experimental fiction or something really genre mixing, or, more and more these days, something that sounds “ordinary” like small town cops without any superpowers – then I’m more interested.

Maybe all these TV networks and ad buyers are right, maybe the stories really do need to be dumbed down in order to find an audience, but I doubt it. So, I’m glad there are now other ways to get those kinds of stories out there.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dumbing Down

By Jay Stringer

You're all fans of Doctor Who, right? No? Well stick around anyway. I'm not going to try and change your mind, but I am using the show to get at something I think is important. The first three paragraphs might bore you a bit though.

Quick history lesson. Doctor Who came back to our screens in 2005. After so long away, it was by no means sure that a modern audience would embrace the show. Show runner Russel T Davies chose to resolve this by making the show very loud and zany, with a tendency towards action and flashing things and a very friendly Doctor. I'm not going to attack those choices. They weren't for me, but along the way Davies slipped in a few healthy dashes of darker, scarier and more intelligent episodes that kept me coming back.

Doctor Who for me was always about the Molotov cocktail of fear and excitement. It was where generations of children got to test-drive horror, death, and aliens. My lasting memory of the show from my childhood is a scene where some vampire-type monsters came up out of the sea and stalked up the beach towards their victim. It scared seven shades of shit out of me, but I loved it.

Current show runner Steven Moffat clearly has similar memories. When he took over last year, he talked of retooling the show into a dark fairytale. His vision meshes almost totally with what I want. Now, I can accept that his vision of the show isn't for everyone tastes, but its a very flexible show. There's been a prevailing style for five years that wasn't to my tastes, and after Moffat's era there will be a new era. There are as many different and valid takes on the Doctor as there are for Batman. If you don't like one version, wait around patiently, another will be along.

There is a worrying movement gathering pace in the media. I've seen it in all of the major British newspapers and now in a few magazines as well. And it's one that makes me spit feathers, I warn you.

This article is the clearest example. It says that the show is too dark. That it's too scary and too challenging for kids. Not just Doctor Who, it evokes something else later on, but lets take things one at a time. The writer says that her favourite episodes are the dark ones. The challenging, character driven ones. But that all a child wants is some farting and some death rays.


I also call "missing the whole damned point."

Okay, look. A farting alien? Hell, I'm 30 and I still find that amusing. But that's just the dressing. What this argument is essentially saying is, "I like the ones wot I am clever enough to get, innit, but the little people? They is dumb, they wants the farting and the pull-my-finger." Okay, not quite like that, because they have sub-editors to do the hard work and at DSD we just have the squirrels in the rafters that laugh at us and throw grammar at our heads.

This is talking down to children in such an unbelievable way, that the only possible outcome is for people to swallow it whole and accept it as truth. Because that's how it seems to work.

Check this quote out;

"So who should he try to please? It was a tough one, especially as TV reviewers are generally not, as you might imagine, eight-year-olds, but rather the group that likes intricate plot lines and emotional character arcs more than flatulent aliens."

Because all that the children can relate to is the flatulent aliens. Yes. They're not engaged by intricate plot, emotions, character arcs or story. No child has ever been gripped by a story and then asked, but what happens next?


Well, you can, sure. But it makes you a crap writer and it makes them a bored child. It's such a shame that we've never had children's entertainment that backs up my argument. We've never had intelligent, gripping, plotted drama that's dressed up with a few beasties and funny noises. We've never had TOY STORY or UP. We never had THE HOBBIT or Roald Dahl. We never had fairy tales, or ghost stories. My argument would be far easier to make if only we had some long running show, some sci-fi/fantasy/drama/comedy/horror show that had been engaging children of all ages since 1963.....

Children like farting. They like flashing noises and silly monsters. We all do. But that's the grammar, that's the little parcels of light and humour along the way. You entertain a child by stimulating their imagination. By letting them in on something that feels like it's maybe a year or two above them, that they shouldn't be seeing. You ask questions of them and challenge them and scare them and excite them, and you wrap it all up in something that ultimately cannot hurt them. And for the moments when they're scared, you're there to offer your shoulder to hide behind, or to talk to them about their fear, to discuss things with them so that they learn how to hold a conversation.

Not all children want or need to be engaged this way, naturally. But I'll make a different generalisation here. When we're all asked why we write I'm sure we can struggle, and think, and each come up with slightly different answers. But when talking to other writers, something that tends to ring true for the majority is that we can all remember something that excited and engaged us as a child. Might not always be books -my major influences are music and comics- but there will be something buried away there that was a little too old for us, a little too adult, dark or thrilling. Something that made our young minds turn over, and that has had our young minds turning over ever since.

I read WATCHMEN between the ages of 6 and 7. Well, not all of it. This was in the days before I got trade paperback collections, and the comics that I got tended to be what adults would get for me based on the covers or based on the characters I liked. They never flicked through the pages to see what was inside (that came a couple years later, when my mum saw me reading Gotham By Gaslight and freaked.) But I was reading possibly the greatest, most challenging and most adult superhero comic of all time. And 24 years later I'm a writer. How about that?

Did I understand everything? Hell no. I don't understand it all now. Each time I re-read it I pick up on something new. The truly adult themes went flying over my head. They didn't upset me because I didn't know to look for them. Just as now, in Doctor Who, the darkest or raunchiest themes would go flying over my head because I wouldn't know to be looking for them. But man, was I hooked.

The whole article -the whole growing movement- is a value judgement.

It's drawing lines in the sand, saying that this is allowed to be intelligent and dramatic, but that isn't. She says that adults have had plenty of shows to be entertained with, like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, so we should leave Doctor Who to the kids. I've never gotten this 'drawing a line in the sand' thing. These things that I like are allowed to be clever, other things aren't.

The article even ends with the line,

"So, come on, grown-ups; let's leave kids' shows to the kids."

How can a line be so loaded and yet so hollow at the same time? Firstly, if Doctor Who was merely a "kids show" it would be on around 4pm on a weekday or on a Saturday morning. No, it's in the prime-time family slot on a Saturday evening. It sits between a game-show and the national lottery. It's family drama. It's meant for the whole family to sit and enjoy, and discuss and engage. Secondly, who is to say that a "kids show" can't be challenging, exciting and full of plot?

Here's my thing, here's what I think is the deep dark secret at the heart of all this; It's not about dumbing it down for the children, it's about dumbing it down for the adults.

Children will engage. Children will marvel. Children will fantasise and whoop and gasp and jump and then make up their own adventures. But the adults? Pfft. They don't want to be challenged. They don't want to engage. They want to sit brainless in front of a screen for 60 minutes, between a mindless game-show and their one in a billion chance at winning the lottery.

Explosions, one-liners and funny aliens they can handle. But plot? Questions? Time-Travel? Shit, next thing we'll be asking them to explain things to their children. What this movement is hiding is not that the children can't find something to engage with in plot, character and emotion. It's that parents can be damned lazy about explaining these things to them. Perhaps because they, themselves, don't get the plot.

See, adults, it's not nice being generalised, is it?

I'm reminded of a friend's incredulity when I got angry over Transformers 2. "What were you expecting from a film about giant robots?" He asked, "Plot and character?" I answered that at least one of those was my minimum expectation of any story.

The laziness of these value judgements is exposed later in the article, when the gears shift to comic books.

"superhero movies, which are now expected to be meaning-laden explorations of midlife crises (Iron Man), family guilt (Spider-man) or loss (Batman). There was some surprise from reviewers that Thor, a film about a "space viking with a magic hammer", was aimed at younger audiences. Chipman's theory is that marketing men, mindful of the spending power of adult comic-book fans, have sought to soothe us with these gritty reboots."

Okay. Lets forget for a moment that Thor and his Magic Hammer date back a couple thousand years through myth and religion. Aside from that, I think the article makes a fine point. I think it is ridiculous that these modern film makers pretend that Batman's story is about loss. Clearly, they travelled back in time to 1939 and needlessly added in the bit about Bruce Wayne's parents getting killed in front of him. They did it just to sell a few T shirts in the modern day and allow filmmakers to subvert a jolly kids character with some dark issues.

These same people no doubt went back in time and forced in the bit about Tony Stark being an alcoholic arms dealer who struggles to come to terms with responsibility and the demon in the bottle. And that thing about Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man because he was guilty over the death of his uncle? They just put that there so that the marketing men could sell T Shirts to adults. How dare they subvert something thats meant to be silly and empty and for kids.

Bull. Shit.

If people want to continue to trot out ill-informed opinions over comic books, then the least I would expect is for them to read one first. Why is it that people still use the term "comic book" as a description for cheap or tacky writing? These people haven't read one. It's value judgements again.

"No, no, they say, liking cars that turn into robots isn't embarrassing, because look! Here are some metaphors"

Aha. That would be a call back. See, why would anybody want to read, watch or engage with a story written with this kind of approach in mind? Shouldn't we expect from all stories that there was, you know, something going on? When did it become okay to start looking down on things? When did it become okay to dumb down? When did people in glass houses start throwing stones?

Never, ever, write down to an audience. It just cheapens your story. Write the best story you can, and challenge the audience to raise their game. Along the way you might inspire a few minds, young and old. You might create some future writers, you might rekindle excitement in a few jaded adults. You might get to scare the crap out of a few people.

But what you will get is a damned good story.

The rest will take care of itself.