Since we met last Saturday, I have continued plugging away with my current book. And I've learned a couple of valuable, personal lessons that I'm going to pass on.
Writing in the Morning
I don't know about your day job, but mine, as a technical writer, consumes a good deal of my brain on a daily basis. The excellent SF writer, Ted Chiang, is/was a tech writer and he said once that being a tech writer is not a conducive way to get the imagination flowing. I'll concur. Thus, my morning writing--before I started my day job--was fantastic. It was out of the way and over by 8am.
Cut to the day this past week where I decided I'd write at night. Ugh. After a day spent doing technical stuff, my head was fuzzy and cluttered. Could not focus. My own problem? Yeah. Could have I have persevered? Yeah. I wrote a paltry amount of words, counted the day good, and went to bed. Next morning, "bright" and early, I'm up and writing. Lesson learned.
Fingers on the Keys
I'm an outliner. Or, rather, I'm the guy who prefers to write in scenes, on index cards, and then write per scene. It's an excellent way of experiencing the story. On the one hand, I get to sit down with a pile of index cards and a pen and just go through the tale. I write down the scenes as they appear. By the end of the exercise, I have either the entire story laid out, or, at least, a good chunk by which I can start writing.
On this book, so far, I have a skeletal outline. I know the murky outlines of the story, but not the details. Thus, more than once, I've found myself with the moment of "What's next?" Thus, I sit at the keyboard and ponder. Wrong move (for me). I start pondering threads and, most annoyingly, how I could "better" write the scenes I've already written.
My cure for this? Keep my fingers on the keyboard. They will want to start typing and they should. I remove my fingers from the keys, I slow down.(No way! Really?!)
So, for me, I work best with an outline and my fingers on the keyboard. Are there neat little tricks y'all do?
Book of the Week: Carte Blanche by Jeffrey Deaver. I've waited a long time for this book and, so far (chapter 11 at this writing), I'm enjoying the heck out of it. Deaver seamlessly blends things from the Fleming novels (the lock of dark hair that falls onto Bond's forehead is still described as a "comma of hair") as well as from the films (Bill Tanner, played by Michael Kitchen, in the Brosnan films, is here). And the story, so far, reads very much like Fleming in that Bond isn't always out kicking ass, but he's in the office doing research. Well done
I am of a generation that grew up with computer games. I remember convincing my parents that buying a Spectrum +2 was the ideal learning tool, when all I wanted was to play Manic Miner. I remember spending hours learning how to program simple adventure games because… well, I’m really not sure why but it seemed a great idea at the time.
These days, of course, I’m a bit more out of touch than most. I am a casual gamer. I don’t like punishing difficulty levels. I like smooth games that reward you while offering a feeling of challenge. I also like games that work to involve you in their world. The best games tell stories, at their heart. Which is why I loved adventure games; they were not just about challenges but about story and character.
My favourite game of the past few years is BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM which had the perfect difficulty level settings and managed to provide gameplay, plot and action in one. It was literally like being able to control the comic books you read as a kid. Hugely exciting and brilliantly done. It was remarkable to play a game that was so immersive, with nothing to pull you out of the experience and none of the usual amateurish attempts at “acting” or “scripting” that seem to be pumped out in so many mainstream games.
Which is a roundabout way of me setting up to talk LA NOIRE, the latest from Rockstar Games (who, I am led to believe had their humble origins here in Dundee) which places you slap bang in the midst of a 1940’s LA playing a police detective in the LAPD who’s not only about to try and solve some heinous crimes, but may just get involved a giant conspiracy that will rock the city to its core.
Oh, and you’ll solve the Black Dahlia case, too.
What strikes immediately about LA Noire is the detail of the game design. The fashions, the feel of the city, everything is note perfect, as much loving recreation as homeage. And yes an element of cliché comes into play, but its so loving, its very welcome indeed.
Gameplay is intriguing and deceptively simple. Most games go for the action and given Rockatr’s background with free-roaming “sandbox” games where you can waste hours between plot points and for casual gamers (like me) this eventually becomes frustrating as you trudge from one place on the map to another with sometimes very little idea as to what you’re doing or why. LA NOIRE is plot based, and you will be guided, but since the plot and acting are so good you won’t care. Much of the time you will drive (mostly obeying the rules of the road, and loving the chance to take in some of that period detail) to designated crime scenes. Upon arrival you’ll search for clues (the controller buzzes when you near one), evaluate their usefulness and use them to build a picture of what happened. You’ll interrogate suspects. Accuse someone of lying and you’ll have to rely on that chain of evidence you’ve been building to show precisely why they’re lying. Doubt them and you’ll be basing your attitude on how you read a suspect’s body language and tone.
Yeah, you read that right. There’s a reason I love this game, and its because they got some real actors and real scripts to work in the game. Because the advancewment on the player is linked directly to how believeable the actors are. Blow your reading of a suspects body language and they’ll give you bad information. And bad information can lead to your boss chewing you out when you screw up a case. Trust me when I say that the chewing out is not pretty and you’ll be wincing when it happens.
LA Noire, according to its creators is roughly equivalent to two series of a TV drama. That’s about right, and accordingly the game is divided into episode-like cases. You’ll work through four detective desks until the final twists and all your skills will be honed and tested by each desk.
Its great fun, and to add to the action, you will spend time shooting, chasing down and generally kicking the crap out of bad guys as the game varies its mechanics to stop you getting bored with the same puzzles over and over.
One action sequence early on impresses, taking place on a massive movie set that’s in danger of collapsing. By the end I was gasping for breath and utterly delighted.
To be fair, after the showstopping finale to your time on homicide, the game seems to slow for a while to the point that I worried about it picking up. But those middle act blues don’t last long and soon you’re caught up again. Because, boss, it’s the story that matters here and as with any good noir book or film, you’re hooked on the characters and place –invested in them.
Which leads to some small problems. A late last act POV switcheroo almost derails the game completely and would never be allowed in a book or movie unless the editors were idiots. But the bravado of the project and the ultimate necessity of this switch more than make up for it. And one puzzle in particular harks back to the free-roaming boredom of GTA etc. But all of these are petty complaints.
With a cast nicked direct from MAD MEN and other quality dramas (you’ll start to say… “isn’t that?” whenever someone appears in game) and a script that’s boldly confident and well above the usual slapdash cuscenes, LA NOIRE is like no other game played before. Its gradient difficulty level means that it might be too easy for veteran gamers, but for someone like me its perfectly pitched. I died more than once but never did I want to take the Xbox and chuck it out the window.
If you’re a crime fan and have a console that’ll play this, go buy LA NOIRE, now. If you don’t have a console find somehow who does, let them buy it and then find a way for them to allow you to spend time along in their living room pretending to be a 1940’s homicide detective.
It's the end of the school year, which means I'm really busy and don't have much time to blog this week. I'll get back to it next week. In the meantime, since it's the end of the school year, I wanted to repost an old post of mine... and old to my middle school teachers:
Middle school is where you start to grow up. Sixth, seventh and eighth grade are those hormonal years where you don't understand your own body, you don't understand the world around you, and yet you think you're the coolest thing on earth.
Or you have no confidence whatsoever.
My middle school years weren't any different from that, but I had some really great teachers to help guide me through those years.
I remember learning about developing your own photographs, real hands on stuff. And learning about how to build something from scratch, where you're given a task (build something that will roll ten feet and pop a balloon--using a mousetrap), and you have to come up with a way to complete.
I learned about failure. The balloon didn't pop. Not having the right notebook for a notebook check.
But when failure came, teachers were there to guide me through it. One teacher, right after failing me gave me a new notebook and a guideline of how to pass next time.
And, when the most tragic of events happened--a student in our 8th grade class died--our teachers were there to guide us through.
The day after his death, our teachers were there to talk with us. To help us with our grief. They allowed students to write poems, to discuss their feelings, to hug if it was needed.
And weeks later, when the students went to City Hall to plead for a walkway over the highway where the student died, the teachers watched. They didn't need to say anything. Didn't need to acknowledge it.
But one cut out the news article the next day. Posted it on her bulletin board and just wrote next to it... "I'm proud of you!"
And it was the right amount of care and the right amount of guidance.
Years later, that same teacher gave me the best advice about teaching 8th Grade. She wasn't even talking to me when she said it.
"Sometimes you just want to tell them to act their age," she said. "Then you realize... they are."
There’s a story about Margaret Atwood at a party and a man asks her what she does for a living (the most common question asked at parties in Toronto, I’ve discovered) and when she tells him she’s a writer he says he’s a doctor but he’s thinking he may write a book when he retires. Ms. Atwood then tells him, “That’s so funny, I’m thinking of taking up brain surgery when I retire from writing.”
But the truth is those of us who’ve spent years of our lives trying to be writers do have to admit that sometimes people come along with another successful career and write terrific books.
I thought of this last week when I was asked to introduce the writers at the ECW Evening of Crime and Mystery at the Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore and I realized they were all successful in other professions; medical, legal (law and order) and academia (Mike Knowles thanked me for including him in academia and explained that he teaches 8th grade and his class had gone for ice cream that day).
One of the authors was Toronto Police officer Brent Pilkey, reading from his first novel, Lethal Rage.
The book is the story of a young (but not rookie) cop new to Toronto’s downtown, 51 Division as it’s called, and pulls no punches when it comes to the people -- and crime – in the neighbourhood. This is the same neighbourhood in which the TV show I worked on, The Bridge took place, and like that show, Lethal Rage travels to both sides of the metaphoric bridge. As Pilkey says, “You could go from a neighbour dispute in Rosedale where people are arguing about sharing a driveway with a Lexus and a Jaguar, to going downtown and dealing with a homeless person who just overdosed on who knows what.”
The blurb says:
Filled with drugs, prostitution, and crime, this mystery explores the unglamorous life of a street cop in the rough-and-tumble 51 Division. Jack Warren, a young officer who enters the dangerous downtown streets after working in a virtually crime-free area, is immediately thrown into a brutal war against a crack-cocaine dealer intent on taking over the city’s drug trade. Jack soon discovers that no one is safe from the dealer’s quest for domination when the war turns horrifically personal. Working with the division’s elite major-crime unit, Jack learns there is an imperceptible yet enormous difference between the law and justice—and being a police officer and surviving in the 51.
There was a little controversy before the book was published when Constable Pilkey was told that if it was published he would face disciplinary action. At first the police department said, “The staging of locations and events may be viewed by individuals resident in the area as disparaging and disrespectful, including suggestions of differential policing in the area.” But then, as this article points out, the police department decided not to try and stop the publication, “We have to be alert to people's rights -- to people's freedom -- under the law and in this case we believe it was right to reverse the decision and that’s why we did it.”
And the book is certainly full of cops casually referring to the drug dealers and drug users in all kinds of pejorative ways. Ha, look at that, I just used the word pejorative and now I’m going to say that if there’s one thing I have to complain about this book it’s the sometimes too writerly way the prose is composed. Yeah, the cops call people names but the grammar is almost always correct and the narration around that dialogue is always very proper. Maybe that’s the perfect way to get across the real feel of Toronto, this old-time proper city, more Orange than the Orange Lodge, as it was said for years and now with the new grit and grime emerging. The style can leave you a little distanced from the characters on the street and that may be the point.
Or maybe it’s just the sign of a slightly cautious first novel.
Whatever it is, it leaves you wanting more, so luckily the second book in the series, Savage Rage will be out this fall.
One more thing. We've been talking about the new DSD collection, Collateral Damage and I wanted to explain why my story is called Pulp Life - episode one. It has nothing to do with Star Wars.
The story began its life as the pilot script for a TV show I was pitching last year, what I hoped would be a half hour cable comedy-drama like Weeds or Entourage. It's the story of a crime fiction writer helping an ex-con write a memoir.
The first part of the story is up on my blog, here, and I have a couple more episodes in script form which I may also adapt into short stories.
You saw the news that we have another collection out, right? You didn't? Damn, you must be blind. Wait, you can't be blind, you're reading this......
...Whatever. Just in case; our collection Collateral Damage Is on sale now. Each story is themed around the topic of Fathers Day. From the buzz of a New Jersey wedding reception, to the cold mean streets of Dundee, we got you covered.
One of the initial plans when we started DSD was to talk a little behind the scenes of writing. So I thought I'd tease you all today with the opening of my story from the collection, then tease you a little more telling you what it was about.
"I think I'm pregnant."
How do you respond to that?
I offered my wife another salted peanut. We were in our local and someone was murdering a 60's country song on acoustic guitar. A special level of hell is reserved for open mic nights. There's only so much Oasis and Rod Stewart I can take without becoming homicidal.
But what had Laura said?
"I'm late. It's been three weeks."
"Are you sure? You eat a lot of fibre, maybe you're just, you know, bunged up."
Not the best thing to say.
She stood up and left. I turned back to the music to hear about someones sex being on fire.
The house was dark and quiet when I got home. I found my mobile phone in the living room.
It was never very mobile.
I'd missed several calls from my best friend, Terry Becker. I could already hear him complaining about it tomorrow. He'd not left any messages, though, so we both failed at the whole phone thing.
I climbed the stairs and stood for a long time in the bedroom doorway. Laura was taking in the slow, peaceful breaths of deep sleep. I watched her for awhile until it started to feel creepy. Then I turned around and headed into the spare room, the one that we'd talked about setting aside as a nursery. It was big and empty, and I realised how much it was going to take for me to fill it.
My throat closed in and my heart climbed up a few inches.
I swallowed it all down and went to bed.
"Ground control to Major Tom."
I lifted my head off the car window. I'd been staring at the scenery as we drove, watching it fly past out of view. Somewhere between Wolverhampton and Bloxwich I'd drifted off into another world.
I turned to smile at Becker, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as he drove.
He took his eyes off the road long enough to shoot me a look, "you okay?"
I shrugged and looked back out the window. His car was very new and very blue, and something about that was annoying me. I decided maybe it was the smell. I'd never liked the smell of new.
Or maybe it was his CD player. He was offending me with some jazz shite.
Every few months he'd go through a new phase, trying to prove that he was a middle class white man with a brain. He'd buy some new CDs and learn a few new recipes. A few times he'd dragged me along to foreign film festivals at the Electric Cinema in the city.
So far he had missed the point of;
When he'd picked me up that morning he'd asked if I'd ever seen a film called Sholay and I didn't think the world was ready for his Bollywood phase. He worked so hard at being something that he wasn't.
Maybe that's why we were best friends.
"Laura thinks she might be pregnant," I looked over at him, watching his eyes jump a little. "She told me last night. She's missed her period."
"Is she sure? Maybe she's just-"
"Don't go there."
He smiled. "You should be happy, it's exciting, yeah?"
I turned back to the window. There were smudge marks on the glass from my hair, and just for a moment it gave the car some character.
"You're not him, you know." Becker's eyes were on the road but his voice was on my past. "You don't have to be your father."
I smiled thinly and nodded.
I couldn't think of anything in the world I was less suited for than fatherhood.
And, as we pulled onto Fishley Farm, I couldn't think of anywhere in the world I less wanted to be.
So there's a taster for you. The main character of the story is also the protagonist of my two manuscripts, Eoin Miller. By the time I come to him in the books, his life has already gone through some major changes. This was a chance to look at him at a different time in his life, when he should have had everything going for him, and see how he dealt with it.
Part of the fun is writing a self absorbed character in first person and finding ways to get across information to the reader that the character doesn't want to give, and I think the opening above does that. We see Miller through the way he treats and judges those closest to him.
The story itself took me an age. I had the story, but I couldn't write it. I had some big big themes running round in my head, filtered from news stories about Gypsy camp evictions like Dale Farm, and from reading a book about the Israel/Palestine wall. Big burning issues that can suffocate a writer.
It wasn't until I remembered that I had some characters I wanted to write about, and that they would have some interesting interactions with each other, that I started to push past theme and find story again.
So I'm proud of my story, Fathers Day, and of the collection. The DSD crew have each stamped their own style and flavour onto the anthology. Check it out.
ANNOUNCEMENT: Spinetingler Magazine is pleased to announce the launch of Snubnose Press, an e-publisher of crime fiction.
Spinetingler Magazine has been publishing new and emerging writers since 2005. Building from that foundation Snubnose Press will seek to publish only the best in short crime fiction. With the traditional publishing market contracting, Snubnose Press will fill this gap by publishing original anthologies, novellas and short novels.
Visit Snubnose Press at http://snubnosepress.wordpress.com/
The debut title of Snubnose Press is an anthology of six original short stories called Speedloader. Upcoming releases will include short story collections by Patti Abbott and Sandra Seamans, with more titles to be announced over the summer.
From the trenches of WWI to the abandoned row homes of Baltimore; from a rural charnel house to the Texas-Mexican border, these six stories explore the dark heart of crime fiction today.
Speedloader features stories of…
…revenge that will challenge you to a game of uncle that you may not win and will haunt those who are able to finish it. …clashing motives on the Texas Mexico border. …a slide into an alcoholic haze. …a struggle with the weight of a personal choice when confronted with the sins of the past. …getting caught up in actions far beyond one’s control. …small crimes covered up and lost amidst larger forces.
Speedloader is six stories slammed home and ready to kill.
With all new, original stories from Richard Thomas, Nik Korpon, Nigel Bird, newcomer WD County and Spinetingler Award winners Matthew C Funk and Jonathan Woods.
Visit Snubnose Press at http://snubnosepress.wordpress.com/
Please pass this information along to others and feel free to post this information publicly. Brian and Sandra are available for questions.
CONTACT: Brian Lindenmuth or Sandra Ruttan: firstname.lastname@example.org
A few months ago, I was about 1/2 of the way through writing a manuscript when I got an idea for another story. I hate when that happens. Here I was knee deep in South Side Chicago gang violence and a new light bulb flickered on. A light bulb I couldn’t ignore. I knew it was a story I wanted to write, but I’m one of those writers who can’t write two projects at the same time. I suck at it. So, I told myself I’d shelve the idea and continue to write my thriller. Only, the opening of the new story beckoned – probably because it was once again in a genre I hadn’t written in before. Something bright and new and shiny – and something I had no idea if I could write. The new project requires a lot of fantasy world building something I had always said I admired but never wanted to attempt. What’s a girl to do?
I did what I never do. I opened up a new file and started writing. Oh – I knew I wasn’t going to write much. Just a few pages. Just the beginning. Just enough to see if I could even hope to create the world I saw in my head. To make sure I didn’t get confused about which manuscript I was working on, I decided to write in a different font than I usually type in – Times New Roman. Normally, I wrote in Courier New. For a few days I alternated between the two manuscripts. Once I had satisfied myself that I might have hope of pulling off the world building in the new book, I shelved it and marched to THE END of the thriller.
Now I’m back working on the new project. I think it might be good. Chances are I’ll change my mind about that before too long. However, the one thing I haven’t changed is the font. And I have no idea why. I like writing in Courier New because it makes me feel ultra productive. If I write 1000 words in Courier New I know I have written about 5-6 pages. In Times New Roman I’m lucky if that same word count covers 3 ½ pages. Yeah – it’s the same number of words – the same productivity, and yet the differential is driving me nuts.
Which is ridiculous, right? The font I write in shouldn’t make me feel better or worse about my writing. The fact it does kind of ticks me off – so I haven’t changed the font. I’m determined to overcome.
Yeah – I’m stubborn. Let’s blame it on my hair and move on.
The thing is my love/hate relationship with my writing font made me wonder if any other writers have fonts out there they HAVE to write in. Do you feel most comfortable in a specific font or does it not matter to you? Am I the only one that seems to have this hang-up? If so, I think I might go get therapy. (After I finish writing this book - without giving in.)