Sunday, July 31, 2011


by: Joelle Charbonneau

So – here at DSD we have talked about reviews and how they are just one person’s opinion. We talk about agents, editors and rejection. There has been more than one conversation about self-publishing e-books and how the industry is changing. We are a full service shop when it comes to writing chat. We don’t pull our punches. We say what we think. Sometimes it gets us in trouble. Sometimes not. Today – well, I’m probably headed for trouble. But I’m a red head. I can’t help myself.

Last week I finished another novel. This was not a contracted novel. It wasn’t even close to the same genre I am publishing in now. I had an idea for this book and I decided to try my hand at writing it even though I doubted whether or not I could master the world building and the voice necessary for the task. Had this been three years ago, I would never have attempted writing this story. Heck, even a year ago I would have probably filed it in the “interesting idea that some day I might want to think about” file. I wouldn’t have had the confidence in myself as a writer to take a leap of faith and give it a go.

Being published is a lot like being a professional performer. Some days you find validation from the powers that be and some days you are kicked to the curb. I can’t tell you how I felt after landing my first professional theatrical job. Someone wanted to pay me to sing and dance on the stage! All the rejections I received up until that moment faded away because someone said yes. Did I know I was a good performer before then? Sure. I had a resume of high school and college shows to prove it. I had confidence in my abilities. But landing my first professional show made me feel validated. Being able to call myself a professional paid actress/singer and list that credit on my resume strengthened my confidence no matter how many rejections (and there were too many to count) I received.

Rightly or wrongly, landing my first professional publishing contract gave me that same kind of validation. I believed in my writing before that contract. Hell, if I didn’t I wouldn’t have sent it out to agents or editors in the first place. But as much as I believed in myself, learning that someone else in the industry (who was willing to pay me) thought my writing had merit was a huge boost. A boost that strengthened my confidence enough for me to put aside my doubts about my ability to write in this new genre. I’m glad it did.

But I got to thinking. In our discussions about e-self-publishing (or indie or whatever we want to call it) we’ve talked about pricing and quality and about the brave new world that has opened up in front of authors. But so many of the e-self-published authors I know, some who have racked up hundreds and often thousands of sales, don’t seem to shake the nagging sense of self-doubt at never receiving a traditional publishing contract. They never walked into the theater and had the director give them the validation that they were good enough. A lot of truly talented singers and actors I know never got that moment of validation. They performed in a few smalls show, eventually took a better day job and drifted away from the industry always wondering what might have been. In this brave new world of publishing, I wonder if we’ll see many of the independently e-published authors do the same.

I’m not saying e-self-pubbing is bad. Far from it. I think it gives lots of opportunities for books that don’t fit into traditional genres and story collections that deserve to be read. But I wonder about the authors who (like me – because I freely admit I am neurotic) need validation beyond reader reviews and Amazon numbers. Will they keep writing? Or will they like so many of the performers I know change course and always look back wondering what might have been?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

All a-Twitter

Scott D. Parker

I started tweeting this week. I’ve had my Twitter account for a while, but found little use in it until now. Ironically, this 21st Century technology is being used to promote stories about the 19th. Western Fictioneers have a new anthology out and I’ve got a story in it. In group discussions, we were figuring out the best ways to promote the new book and Twitter naturally came up. I logged back in and muddled around.

Dang, if it isn’t pretty informative. And fun.

My only problem is the character limitation. 140? Heck, I have introductory clauses that run longer than that.

Anyway, it’s quite easy to see the power of Twitter. Some of the power comes in the form of general information. I follow Nathan Fillion (of Castle and Firefly fame) and he tweets and retweets. One of his messages was from Molly Quinn, the actress who plays his daughter on Castle. She linked to a YouTube collection of videos from the Castle panel at Comic-con last week. For someone like me who didn’t have a chance to go, it was nice to see and hear all the discussion from the panelists and the audience.

The thing is I could have searched for it daily until it popped up online. But, via Twitter and following folks/stars/authors whose work I like, the information came to me. I didn’t have to lift a finger. That’s pretty awesome.

Then there’s the obvious other power of Twitter: getting out the message. That’s what we Western Fictioneers are doing with the new anthology. Every now and then, you could have a gift dropped in your lap. Most of us are not as famous as, say, Nathan Fillion or Lawrence Block. When you look at their Twitter home pages, you see that there are scores more people following them than they themselves follow. But, like a rock in a still lake, they can cause many ripples.

Block tweeted this week that he was reading David Cranmer’s new collection featuring his western heroes Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles. Now, I know that David’s a good salesman and does some good promotion, but I can imagine the spike his ebook took on Amazon after Block revealed his reading choice. The power of Twitter. It’s real, and I am only now becoming aware of it.

I know this isn't rocket science, the power of Twitter, but I'm just now noticing it. Guess I'm late to the party. Still, only 140 characters?

BTW, you can follow Do Some Damage here: @DoSomeDamage. Most of us here have accounts. Log in, start twittering, and let us know what you’re reading. BTW, you should be reading Duane Swierczynski’s Fun and Games because it is the monthly selection of DSD’s little book club: I’ve read it and will be giving my review on Wednesday as part of Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club.

Comic of the Week: Batman: Knight of Vengeance #2. This summer, DC is running their Flashpoint story line as (I think) a lead-in to the revamping of all 52 titles in their line. In this alt-history, Barry Allen’s Flash somehow lands in another timeline where things are very different. Many of the heroes we know and love are not present or are altered. Batman is one of the altered ones. His identity is revealed at the end of Flashpoint #1.

There are several spin-off series that flesh out some other aspects of this altered world. One of them is Batman: Knight of Vengeance. It’s written by Brian Azzarello and that alone should be enough to get you to the comic store today. That he teams up with his 100 Bullets alumnus, Eduardo Russo, is even better. It’s amazing what these guys have packed into the first two of three issues. It’s always fun to see characters that we know in other situations. But the bombshell—and I’m not using that word lightly—they dropped on the last page of issue #2 was huge. My mouth literally dropped open and I think I swore.

The Flashpoint series may not be to everyone’s tastes, but this Batman: Knight of Vengeance is one to treasure.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Guest Post: FEAR (by Thomas Kaufman)

(not by) Russel D McLean

Continuing a small, hand-picked guest run here on Fridays at DSD, please welcome another of the pantheon of PI writers to the stage. Thomas Kaufman came to my attention a couple years back with his debut, DRINK THE TEA which introduced the world to Willis Gidney, a crook turned investigator with a cool story behind his name and a natty patter that endears him not just to other characters but to readers as well. In fact, readers were taken enough with Gidney that he's returned in a second novel, STEAL THE SHOW.

Kaufman's not just a talented author, though. Oh, no, he's also an Emmy award winner for his work as a cameraman and director. His work on TV cop documentaries must have helped him to at least some degree on his new career as a crime writer who was nominated by the ITW for best first crime novel. If you want to know more, I'd say go check out the man's website. But make sure you come back and see why today he's decided to talk to Do Some Damage about The Fear...


By Thomas Kaufman

Russel, thanks for letting me guest blog, and also for leaving space in the driveway.

If I may, I'd like to begin today's guest blog with a question for the writers:

What scares the shit out of you?

And let's forget about phobias for a moment, okay? That means no bats, spiders, snakes, vampires, werewolves, tsunamis, or the taxman.

No, I'm talking about something universal, a fear so pervasive that would send chills down the spine of any artist.

A recent study found that most people find their biggest fear is public speaking. Number one! Scarier than death, right? As Seinfeld put it, at a funeral most people would rather be in the casket than give the eulogy.

But why? What makes public speaking so scary? I think it goes to the heart of our biggest fear, which we experience with any kind of performance – including writing a book.
Okay, ready? The biggest fear we have is (drum roll please)

People Will laugh at Me

When you examine the fears of a writer (or any artist, for that matter), you might think the worst someone could do is hate what you do. Or react indifferently. But laughter? Ouch.

This is something we're hard-wired to react to. Example: a person walks past a group of people, maybe three of four, and they spontaneously laugh as that person goes by. Now, it could be someone in the group just told a punch line, but a part of us may think they're laughing at us.

I'm telling you, it's everywhere.

And I think we writers are a bit more susceptible to this kind of fear than most folks, for the simple reason that we put ourselves out there. Let's face it, it takes some ego to write a story and then place it where virtually anyone can read it. The safe thing? Put your manuscript in the desk drawer. That way, no one can criticize it or deride what you've done.

But then there's not much point to writing in the first place. We want the work out there, and we want people to like it. So we're taking this chance.

What we must remember is that the people we respect won't laugh. They may love what we do; they may hate it; but they'll at least see that we've done our best, given it our best shot. Maybe they have helpful criticism. Maybe they're over the moon and plan to tell everyone they meet about your book. But laugh at you? Not bloody likely.

The other thing is that, when you look at the people who got laughed at, you'll see that rejection didn't stop them. So someone laughs. So what? You're still here, doing what you want to do.

When Brian Epstein decided to go to the major recording labels in England, they all rejected the Beatles. This bears repeating: Every single record label in England rejected the Beatles.

When George Lucas pitched STAR WARS, he was turned down by every major Hollywood studio. Did he fold his tent and steal away?

Now, if you happen to be writing something you yourself think is schlock, if it's just a pot-boiler that doesn't interest you, that's a different matter. But if your writing has meaning for you, something that you enjoy, if it 's like the books you like to read, then so what if someone laughs? You weren't writing to please them specifically. And not everyone is going to understand, or even like, what you've written.

But if you still fear the laughter of those who read your stuff, there is one cure-all: self-confidence, the knowledge that what you're writing is good. And that kind of confidence comes with age. So if someone laughs, let 'em. You'll still be here.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Names Out Of A Hat

By Jay Stringer

Had an interesting chat with Joelle over the twitters this week. Or was it last week? It was some point this year I'm sure. Or last.

Anyway, we had a chat.

I've been working on the latest draft of my adventure novel. I'm loving how far it's taking me from what regular readers will know of as 'my patch,' and is a world away from the crime fiction I usually write. It's been a blast, but it also brings with it new ways of writing, new challenges.

In my crime fiction names are easy. Firstly, I usually hear a characters voice long before I get round to describing what they look like or what they do, and somehow names seem to follow on easily from that approach. I also tend to use footballers names, if I'm looking for a stop gap that's a simple one to use, and there are plenty of those to adapt and play with. The other thing that stems from my stories set in the midlands is that I'm often fictionalising people and places that I know, a lot of the people in my first two crime books are almost real. I've maybe swapped a few letters around, or taken two people that I know and swapped their names, so a character has the name of one person but the background of another.

Naming has never been an issue.

But with my adventure story I'm writing a different way. I'm having a go at planning out my act structures, I'm looking at plot with a capital P, and I know what roles need filling. Sometimes I'll have a person's role before I have their character. It's not a way I would like to write all the time, but it's fun as part of the yin yang bouncing that brain does between two different projects, and it keeps things fresh.

The problem is, I keep tripping up over names. My protagonist is set in stone. I know her name, I know her character, I know her. The rest of the cast can be a bit fluid, they change names, they change roles, they move around on the board while I look for just the right combination.

For instance, one character is my take on a certain kind of film and pulp staple, a lovable rogue, the Han Solo or Jim Rockford. And so to help me find the characters voice, and to make it different from a similar character I had just written in a much harsher light for my 'realistic' crime fiction, I cast an actor in my head, and then I named the character after one of that actor's most famous roles.

It was an interesting exercise, and one that gave me the characters voice straight away. I now know how he talks, what facial expressions he pulls, what his sense of humour is. But the name had to go. It was too obvious, too on the nose.

Joelle talked about using facebook. But I don't think that quite works for me. Whilst use real people and real names as inspiration in my crime fiction, I find it holds me back in this other style. For the first draft I named a character after a friend of mine, but then I found that, when writing dialogue, I kept getting stuck n the trap of, would my friend say this and forgetting that it should be would my character say this. I was simply writing the guy I knew. So, it was working exactly the same way as using the actor, but it was holding the character back instead of letting him find his feet.

So, how about you guys? What tricks do you use for naming your people, and how does that help you find out who they are?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

2012: Rabbits and the Happy Apocalypse on Shortwave Radio

A Pleasant End of The World Story

John McFetridge

A buddy of mine, Roy Berger, has a new book out on Kindle. It’s not crime fiction, it’s post-apocalyptic – but it is about a guy who owned a bookstore so I figure it's not too much of a stretch to plug it on this blog.

Thre are a lot of post-apocalyptic books out these days but what I really like about Roy’s is the voice. The narrator is clearly going insane and holding on just enough. Sometimes he’s desperate but sometimes he makes jokes. He’s very human.

And there are no zombies.

Roy says, “Within the genre of apocalyptic writing, dismal and dire are often twinned with disaster. I didn't want to write something with people eating babies and drinking sewer water. I was tired of gun blasting zombies and the knights of utter bleak darkness. I wondered if there was such a thing as a Canadian approach? Could it be upbeat? Could it be a whopper of a tale? Could it appeal to the post-modern delinquent man within me? It had to be story driven, never ending. How to bring in contemporary elements, how to cope with science, logic and reason? Could people be influenced to be less dependent? Is there room for a laugh here?”

Here are a few excerpts:

By noon I'd settled on a nice farm. It was a fine white flagstone century farm house with a long gravel driveway. I was attracted to the place in the beginning by its old fashioned independence. The architecture had not gone to waste. The stone walls were straight up. The front door was aligned with magnetic north. The well water was good and the kitchen featured an indoor hand pump. There were a few out buildings and the forest and bush started near by. It was set back from the road and the frontage had a few big trees shading a large pond. I drove the van around to the back. I shouted through a megaphone from the van while approaching the place. The only reaction was a flock of birds that held their breath. I took that castle as my own...

We (him and the dogs) piled in and backed out of the driveway. Shotgun on the dash. Machine gun on the passenger seat. Thirty-two in my side holster. A knife here and there. I was a modern man now. I almost forgot and went back to the living room and picked up a five pound sledge hammer. It was my key to the city. My spear of destiny...

Finally Spring. There was a day in March. I stood on the back veranda feeling a breath of warmth and looked at the blue sky. My throat got stiff. The back of my eyes hurt. I sobbed. I cried. I fell to one knee, holding my gut and crying in great embarrassing sorrow. I stayed that way for a while, rocking back and forth.

In June, no one remembered my birthday, no card, no cake, no present. It didn't matter. I didn't care.

I was in the mood. Time. I stood at the upper bedroom window, felt the handle of the pistol and took aim at the mailbox. I hesitated. The little red flag handle had been down since the last time the owners cleared the box and the mail stopped moving. Certainly since I'd been shooting at it. Now it was different. My trigger finger relaxed. In the last couple of days, since I'd noticed, the flag had been moved to the Up position. That meant mail was delivered. I don't know when the tradition was started. They just did it that way in the rural areas. It was a courtesy so the homeowner didn't have to trek to the roadside on a guess. The rural mail man simply flipped the flag up if he deposited mail and you pushed it back down after retrieving your mail.

I stood there – pistol dangling in my left hand. The other by my side. I flicked my eyes back and forth up and down the road and fields to see if I could observe a bunch of kids playing a practical joke, all giggling in a cluster behind the old crab apple tree. Or maybe the panel falling off a truck and a bunch of glad handing, reality television show executives would come out laughing and hand me a huge fat cheque. I looked around. A squirrel ran halfway up a tree. I looked back at the mail box. If I squinted I could see the white background of something in the box. The flag was still up.

I think this book has an incredibly strong and unique voice. Certainly worth checking out, available for the Kindle here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Death of Jackson Donne

Okay, Jackson Donne's not really dead (no matter Duane Swierczynski's best wishes), but he is resting.

When authors take breaks with their series, they often say the character's voice has gone away. They can't find it anymore. I always thought that was bunk. The character is always there, and there are often new challenges for him or her.

You want to try something else? That's fine. Try something else. But don't tell us the character's voice has gone away. That just writer mumbo jumbo.

Annnnnndddd then I finished THE EVIL THAT MEN DO.

And Jackson Donne's voice went away.

I think it has to do with the ending of EVIL. Donne is left in a place where he's never been before. Upbeat.

There are fewer challenges for him personally. I've tried to shoehorn him into a few stories, but they've fizzled out. Donne is getting older, doing the college thing, and trying to distance himself from being a PI.

But that doesn't mean he can't come back. There are plenty of open-ended ideas that came up in WHEN ONE MAN DIES and THE EVIL THAT MEN DO that could come back and haunt Donne at some point in the future.

But not yet.

What do you writers think? Can a characters voice just go away?

And readers... do you want a series to continue or would you rather a writer takes a break here or there?

Monday, July 25, 2011

You Know You're An Author When You're Getting Screwed

A few days ago, I saw a blog post titled Harlequin Screws Authors. In recent months, that's been the mantra. Boycott Dorchester. MWA Delists Harlequin.

We all know I could go on and on, but that isn't the point.

To be honest, it means shit to me if a publisher gets delisted. Why? Because if I'm already in a contract with them, all the delisting does is hurt me. To break a publishing contract - even with a publisher that's fallen into disrepute - will pretty much kill your career as an author, if you're trying to get signed the traditional way.

It's not a good idea.

The reality is that if you're an author who finds your publisher suddenly falling out of favor and making some shifty moves, you're really just screwed. Like so many Dorchester authors who were first screwed out of their royalties, what followed was being screwed out of legitimacy. No longer eligible for memberships in some organizations, or eligible for award consideration.

And I don't see anyone hiring a lawyer for the authors who still don't have their rights back, or lobbying for better contract terms being mandated in the boilerplate contracts about reversion of rights to authors when publishers stop paying them.

Somehow, the books I wrote that were completely 'legitimate' award contenders and reputable at the time they were published stopped being 'legit' and reputable. And the call to boycott a publisher hurts me, because the end result is that I lose readers.

Now, I'm not saying this because I want to pick a fight with anyone. That isn't my intent. It just that sometimes, it seems like people don't comprehend that the authors aren't the ones who are being helped by these actions. They're being hurt more than anyone.

Enter Amazon, the new favored friend of authors. Particularly unpublished authors who were tired of getting rejection letter after rejection letter, and found an easy, affordable shortcut to being "published".

Don't get me wrong. I was so concerned about the stigma of self-publishing I was resistant, even when long-standing opponents of self-publishing started putting their backlists on Amazon.

And then I took the plunge myself. I got my rights to my first published novel back, and after a few tweaks, put the book up on Amazon.

And you know what? In early August, I will have sold enough copies to earn more than I did for my advance from a New York publisher for WHAT BURNS WITHIN. It's entirely possible that within the first year of being on Amazon, if the sales maintain, SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES will earn more than WHAT BURNS WITHIN, THE FRAILTY OF FLESH and LULLABY FOR THE NAMELESS did from NY publishing deals.

The success of SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES motivated me to put HARVEST OF RUINS on Amazon as well.

I'm thankful for Amazon and the e-publishing revolution. It's enabled me to reach a wider audience and gain new readers, while at the same time actually seeing some return for my work.

But that doesn't mean I think Amazon is perfect.

Consider this. If you price your book at 99 cents on Amazon, you get 35% royalties. Or $0.35 per book you sell.

And Amazon covers the 'delivery' charge for the book out of the $0.64 they take.

What that means is that Amazon covers their costs, including delivery, for $0.64 per book.

However, they don't allow authors to take a bigger royalty unless they price their book at $2.99. At $2.99, the 70% royalty to authors is $2.09 per copy sold.

Which means Amazon is getting $0.90 per book.

More than they got off the 99 cent book.

And they do charge a delivery charge now. So they're getting even more.

But what really gets me is the fact that all the books priced between $0.99 and $2.98 are left at the 35% royalty rate.

That means when I sell a book for $1.99, I get 70 cents. Amazon gets $1.29, which is more than double the amount they need to cover their costs.

It isn't fair to compare Amazon to a publisher, either. Publishers invest in editing, handle the formatting, printing, uploading, distribution arrangements, accounting and cover design, and theoretically should help promote your book.

All Amazon does is let your book be sold, and pay you your cut.

And when I had a publisher, I had an editor. Hell, I also had an agent in the mix. If there was a problem with a book, I had people I could contact. You know, I knew their names. I had phone numbers.

Amazon? It's a machine. I'm a number in their system, and that's all.

Authors are screwed by publishers every day. I won't deny that, and I won't downplay it, either. However, I have to admit I find it annoying when people praise Amazon like it's treating authors so wonderfully, and contrast Amazon to the publishers they're thumbing their noses at.

Amazon has enabled me to reach new readers, a much wider audience, and to earn a respectable amount of money for my books. I am grateful for that, and excited about this option, but that's all it is, and it's always been clear to me that Amazon is in business to make money, not for the love of books. If it was to their advantage to stop self-publishing authors tomorrow, I'd be back to square 1, searching for a new publisher.

We need to stop comparing apples and pancakes when we talk about publishing. And we also need to be more pragmatic, and understand the business side of the equation.

And readers? If you really want to see prices kept reasonable, you need to hope that Amazon creates a new royalty bracket, one that lets authors earn 50% royalties for e-books priced between $1.19 and $2.98. Anyone with an e-book in that price range might not be getting screwed by a publisher, but they are still being screwed by their vendor.

It isn't a perfect world, and I know that change won't happen overnight, but the organization that will push for these types of changes that actually help authors is the one worth joining.

It's easy to strike a name off a list when they don't measure up; it's much harder to actually lobby and bring about constructive change.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Eating my peas

by: Joelle Charbonneau

President Obama made a statement this week that captured my attention. I’m not going to quote the statement, but the gist of it was that it was time for America to eat our peas. He was referring to the whole debt ceiling debacle and no I don’t plan on debating the merits of the politics behind it here. Needless to say, I am certain we all have our own political opinions and there are better forums to debate them. However, I bring up the statement because the words “eat our peas” and the idea that sometimes people have to put on their big kid pants and do things they don’t want to do got my attention.

Now, I personally like peas, especially raw ones right out of the garden, but I get the point. In fact, this week more than any other I really get the point. I’m been working on this manuscript for the past two months. It’s one that is out of my comfort zone, but I have pushed myself to write it and more important I’ve pushed myself to really set goals for writing it. I’m aware that I have several books under contract that need to be written and I want to make sure that I can hit my writing goals in order to meet those contractual obligations.

Anyway, last Monday I started writing the final section of the book. YAY! I was tearing along typing lots of words and late on Monday night my gut told me something was off. But I wasn’t ready to listen. I chugged along on Tuesday and logged even more words. Wednesday same story. I watched the page count and word count rise and could feel myself getting closer and closer to THE END.

Only, it felt wrong.

Have you ever had that experience? Where the story just didn’t click for you? Up until that point everything was firing on all cylinders. Yes, there are things that I need to clean up in the editing phase, but the foundation and the main character and plot points were all clicking. And then they weren’t.

Now, the next part should be a no brainer. Just go back to where the story stopped clicking and start over. My mind told me that is what I needed to do, but deleting the 6,600 words that I’d written since that point felt like failure. Worse yet, it put me behind on my goals. So I spent several hours trying to figure out how to fix those words. To no avail. After much agonizing, I finally decided it was time to eat my peas, delete the crap and get back to telling the story the way it needed to be told.

Sometimes as writers we are so concerned with page count and word count and all the measures of a story reaching completion that we shove aside our concerns about the story until after the story has been told. We wait until the editing phase to fix the problems. Often that shoving to the side is a good thing otherwise we might pick the details apart so much that we never get to THE END. However, this week has taught me that a writer has to listen to their gut when it tells them the story has gone off the rails. That’s the time you do the grown up writer thing, eat your peas, and get the story back on track no matter how much you might hate to do it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The History of Mystery by Max Allan Collins

Scott D. Parker

For folks like me, without the complete knowledge of mystery and crime fiction imprinted on our DNA or who came late to the mystery party, Max Allan Collins is a godsend. He has written The History of Mystery, a nice non-fiction book that traces the origins of crime fiction from the late 1800s until the 2000s. It's a large book, coming in at almost 12 inches square. That's perfect for what this book does best: present old paperback covers and movie art in a large canvas.

Starting with Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, Collins discusses how the Pinkerton Detective Agency's real exploits gave rise to the dime novels in the 1890s and 1900s. When I read this book, I didn't realize Nick Carter was such an old character. There is, of course, an entire chapter on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes (natch) until you hit pay dirt: The Pulp Fiction Chapter. Here you've got gorgeous covers of the 1920s and 1930s: True Detective, Argosy, Detective Story Magazine, and, of course, Black Mask. All the main pulp characters are here: The Shadow, The Phantom Detective, The Spider, The Avenger, and others. As a reader, I drooled over all the livid covers of these great magazines. As a writer, I wised they were still being printed.

Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner each get their own sections. Cool and Lam even got an entire two-page spread complete with an original cover from Top of the Heap, the Cool and Lam story reprinted by Hard Case Crime.

Mystery comics are represented here. Besides the obvious Batman and Dick Tracy, there is Perry Mason (seriously?), The Saint, and Collins' own Ms. Tree, among others. Agatha Christie opens a two chapter section on cozier stories, including folks like Father Brown, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, and the books of John Dickson Carr. Charlie Chan lands here as does Lillian Jackson Brown's Cat stories.

Once you hit the 1950s and 1960s, this is where paperback characters (Mike Hammer, Shell Scott, etc.) and those wonderfully lurid paperback covers take over. Again, drool commences. The ends with a section on TV detectives (Rockford, Harry-O, Magnum, and Jessica Fletcher) and some modern authors (Estleman, Francis).

All in all, if you want a nice, short (under 200pp) book with lots of fabulous covers and rare artwork, this is a good book to have. It's a coffee table book. Buy it and just set it out as a conversation piece. You'll likely find a whole lot of other people who love this stuff, too.

Comics of the Week: DC's RetroActive 1970s. In a nice addition to throwback summer comics (think DC's Wednesday's Comics from two years ago, a gorgeous piece of neo-nostalgia), the company is putting out a series of one-shots with a particular decade as a theme. Along with the above-the-title tagline, "RetroActive," DC included the logo of said decade (70s, 80s, and 90s) as well as the then-logo of the title character. This week was the 1970s, and we got stories about the Flash, Batman, and Wonder Woman, complete in her white mod suit. Each book has a new story, written in the old style, and a reprinted story from the era. For all the sophistication of modern comic storytelling, there's just something fun about this old stuff.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Guest Post: PRETTY BOY FLAWED (by Lawrence Block)

(not by) Russel D McLean

I remember my dad giving me a book. This was when I was first getting into crime fiction. The book he handed to me was called 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE. "You'll love it," he said. "Its part of a whole series about a detective in New York." I was, admittedly, a little skeptical, already beginning to realise how certain crime novels could start to blend into each other. Then he said: "But while the crime's intriguing, really the whole series is about New York itself. And alcoholism." I was intrigued enough to look. And I was glad I did, because the Matthew Scudder books have been a huge influence on my own work and I remain, to this day, a fervent fan of the works of one Mr Lawrence Block.

Which brings me to today's guest post. I'm in Harrogate just now, living it up with the UK crime brigade, and so I thought I'd try and arrange a guest post. I didn't in a million years reckon that I'd be able to bag one of my favourite eye-writers to do it. But somehow, ladies and gentlemen, we have managed to procure for you a true legend of the crime writing world to do some damage this Friday. Of course, the man himself has admitted this post is not without its flaws, but I guess you're just going to have to read on to see what he means. So, ladies and gentlemen, without any further pre-amble (as I write this I'm late for my lift to Harrogate), I give you, Mr Lawrence Block:


By Lawrence Block

Critics and reviewers like to point out that the characters I write about have flaws. It’s not hard to see what they’re getting at. Matthew Scudder, the narrator and protagonist of seventeen novels to date, begins as a good two-fisted drinker, and by the fifth book he’s in the grip of full-blown alcoholism.

He sobers up, and not a moment too soon, but not getting plastered doesn’t make him a plaster saint. He’s had a few girlfriends over the years, though I have to say I was bemused when one reviewer spoke disparagingly of Scudder’s womanizing. Now that’s a hard enough word to use in any circumstances without sounding like a perfect twit, but I was appalled to hear it applied to Scudder. If I had to guess, I’d say that the lad who wrote those lines hasn’t been getting much.

Still, it’s true that the man cheated on his call girl girlfriend, Elaine, with his winsome widowed client, Lisa. Then he married the one and went on seeing the other. That’s a pretty serious flaw. And it seems to me there was something else, but what was it?

Oh, right. His best friend is a career criminal. And sometimes, when the law doesn’t appear to work as he thinks it should, he’s not above taking it into his own hands. A couple of times he’s killed people, and it hasn’t always been in self-defense, or in the heat of battle.

Or consider Bernie Rhodenbarr. He’s a nice enough fellow, literate and personable. Old ladies and dogs take to him, and he runs a secondhand bookstore, for heaven’s sake, and he’s even got a stubtailed cat named Raffles. You’d be glad to have him over for dinner, but afterward you’d count your spoons.

Because, see, the habit he can’t seem to break is one of letting himself into other people’s houses and stealing their things. He knows a lot about art and collectibles, and part of his knowledge includes where to sell it without having to furnish proof of ownership. He’s a burglar, for God’s sake, and he’s been one for ten books already, and if that’s not a flaw, what is?

Well, how about killing strangers for a living? That’s what Keller does. He’s been in four books so far, and the body count is really getting up there. Aside from that, he’s a pretty decent fellow, a sort of Urban Lonely Guy of assassins.

He winds up being a guilty pleasure for a lot of readers, who like him more than they think they should. Women in particular are crazy about Keller, and are ready to take him by the arm and pick out drapes, and names for their kids. Some of them try telling themselves that he only kills people who deserve it, but that’s not true at all. Hey, he’d kill you if somebody paid him to. (Well, not you, but that other lady over there. He’d never kill you.)

So it’s not as though I’m arguing that my protagonists are perfect beings, that they’ve built up enough good karma in countless reincarnations to be subsumed into the next world and absorbed into the infinite goodness of the universe. I don’t rule it out, but it strikes me as unlikely.

But does that make them flawed?

I’ll tell you, I don’t much care for that word. It suggests that they’d be much better off without these flaws, and we’d be better off ourselves for knowing them. Why, if only they managed to overcome these flaws, then they’d be perfect. And wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Matt’s already come a long ways, now that he’s given up the drink and made an honest woman of Elaine. And he hasn’t been catting around on her lately, or if he has he’s kept it to himself, so at least we don’t have to know about it. Now if only he could stop hanging out with that reprobate Mick Ballou. . .

And Keller. Why, all he has to do is fine another way to make a living. He’s a stamp collector, so why doesn’t he give up homicide for hire and set up shop as a dealer in rare stamps? It may seem like a tame life in comparison to his old profession, but there ought to be enough drama and excitement in the life of a professional philatelist to keep readers turning those pages.

And Bernie. He keeps telling us he knows stealing stuff is reprehensible and he yearns to give it up. Well, duh, what are you waiting for, Bern? Give it up! Run the bookstore. Go straight home after work instead of boozing it up at the Bum Rap with your pal Carolyn. And who knows, if you can set a good example by giving up burglary, maybe she’ll see the error of her ways and give up being a lesbian. I mean, the two of you could get married, you could have kids, you could move to Armonk and run the book business over the Internet. You’ll love it in the suburbs. All that fresh air, all those healthy people—you know what? It wouldn’t surprise me if Raffles the cat grows his tail back. Who’s to say it couldn’t happen?

Oh, I exaggerate, do I? After the publication of Bernie’s fourth adventure, The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, I got a copy in the mail from a disgruntled reader. “This is my last Burglar book,” the accompanying note advised me. “I find it unacceptable that, after four books, a presumably intelligent hero would not have grown enough to renounce his criminal ways and reform.”

Now I’m not generally quick to take umbrage, but there was an abundance of umbrage there for the taking, and I helped myself to a double armful of the stuff. “You mucking foron,” I wrote, approximately. “Either way it’s your last Burglar book, because if Bernie reforms the series is done.”

And who on earth wants to read about a perfect person? I haven’t come across too many in real life, but they turn up all too often in fiction, always doing the right thing, always taking the right path, always putting the needs of others ahead of their own. Empty suits is what they are, empty suits of armor. And untarnished in the bargain.

I don’t want to read about them. And I certainly don’t want to write about them, and couldn’t if I did. Because I wouldn’t know how.

But I still don’t like that word.


It makes my peeps sound defective. Like they’re somehow less than. Like there’s something wrong with them. Like they need fixing.

The hell with that.

Fortunately, there’s a better word. I had to get away from readers and writers to find it. So I went up to West Forty-seventh Street and walked amongst jewelers, and there I learned what the call the wee imperfection within a gemstone.

They call it an inclusion.

An inclusion! Isn’t that better? Isn’t it, like, tons better? Damn right it is. My characters don’t have flaws or blemishes or defects. They have inclusions.

They’re not missing anything. No, they’ve got something extra, something that puts them a step ahead of those flawless perfect nobody-home cardboard heroes.

They’ve got inclusions They’ve got what the other guys have, and more. Something additional. Something included.

Makes me proud of them, looking at ’em that way. Makes me want to sit down right now and start writing something about one of them. I’m not sure which one I’ll pick, and I might strike out in a new direction and embark on an adventure with a brand-new character. But if I do, I know one thing about him from the jump.

He’ll be a man with inclusions.


Lawrence Block’s most recent book is A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, a novel about Matthew Scudder, Man of Inclusions. In September Hard Case Crime will bring out as its first-ever hardcover original GETTING OFF, a novel of sex and violence, by Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson. Its heroine is an endearing young woman whose mission in life is to pick up men, go home with them, enjoy great and fulfilling sex with them…and then kill them. Some might say she has issues. LB says she’s got inclusions, and he loves her just the way she is.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Summer Reading List: Two Way Split

By Jay Stringer

I like to think I have my finger on the pulse. That's why today I'm reviewing a debut book by a hot Scottish talent. And don't just take my word for it, this book was chosen as Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year. In fact, the book won the award on this very day.

In 2007.

Finger. Pulse.

But no. Really. See, Two Way Split, by Allan Guthrie, has just hit the kindle. You can get it straight to your device right now for 0.99 of your pounds, or for 1.59 of your shiny dollars. Go ahead and read it, I'll wait right here.
Robin Greaves is an armed robber whose professionalism is put to the test when he discovers his wife has been sleeping with a fellow gang member. Robin plans the ultimate revenge, but things go from bad to worse when the gang bungles a post office robbery, leaving carnage in their wake. Suddenly they are stalked by the police, sleazy private eyes, and a cold-blooded killer who may be the only one not looking for a cut of the money…

As our two long time readers will know, I'm already a fan of Guthrie's work. To read one of his novels, or novellas, is to read a story that has an evil glint in it's eye and knows where you live. He has a talent for making you laugh and recoil at the same time, and that always keeps me coming back for more.

There's plenty to explore here for the long term fan. Like listening to the first demo recordings of your favourite band, it's the chance to see what has changed and what has been distilled. there's the same cracking dialogue, and the same glee in throwing together the mundane and the abnormal. There are the early signs of themes that have run throughout his work, such as family and trust, and knowing the exact right moment to end the story.

But this isn't a nostalgia trip I'm going on here. What struck me about the book was what a great primer it was for a first time reader, and what a lean and controlled book it was for a debut author. And, as much fun as it was to see how how his writing has changed, it was even more enjoyable to see how much he got right first time.

Two Way Split has one of my favourite opening lines, one that I've looked at many times when I've been struggling to get a story going;

"Four months and twenty-two days after he stopped taking his medication, Robin Greaves dragged the chair out from under the desk and sat down opposite the private investigator."

And there you go, you're into the story. It's not a line that's bursting to tell you the plot of the book, or to pull any fancy tricks. It doesn't even swear at you, which seems to be a popular trick. What it does, straight away, is give you an understanding of one of the main characters and the clear sense that somethings about to go wrong. It sets a clock ticking on the story without needing to blow anything up. That's classy writing.

He repeats the trick a couple of pages later, when introducing the character of Pearce;

"Winter in Scotland was far to cold to walk around bare-chested. That's why Pearce wore a t-shirt."

In two lines we have character, location and time. That, folks, is how it's done. More than any of his subsequent releases, there's something to these opening lines that reminds me of the clarity and rhythm of the first Parker novel, The Hunter, and of another good opening line;

"When the fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell."

Stark is an interesting comparison point, because I'm always tempted to liken Guthrie's Pearce to Stark's Parker. But each time I think about it, I realise that their differences are more striking than their similarities. Pearce is only ever interested in the quiet life. He wants to live and let live, but he's not very good at it. He doesn't ask to get caught up in a stick up. All he wants to do is visit his mum, then maybe go home and listen to show tunes. Pearce is not so much an anti-hero as an anti-protagonist, hoping not to get caught up in another mess.

The real drive of the narrative comes from it's other main character, Greaves. In those opening lines we know that he's stopped taking his medication and that he's meeting with a private investigator. That's already telling us that he's in at least two different shades of bad. Then we find out that his wife is sleeping with his business partner, and that the three of them are planning to knock over a post office together. I'm not giving anything away in saying that the robbery goes wrong, because that's only the beginning. This isn't a story that attempts to keep a lot of plates spinning in the air, it's one that throws them all up at once and asks how loud the smash will be when they fall.

You wouldn't want to be around when all of these plot elements collide, but you will want to read about it.

If James M Cain wrote a heist story set in Scotland, the result would read a lot like Two Way Split. It's a book that sets the fuse on page one and then runs like hell, and you won't find a better debut crime novel. And did I mention that it ends in the perfect place? Oh, I did? Well, that's because it does. Keep an eye on this Guthrie fella, I think he might be a talent.

You can buy the book right now, here and here, and check Allan Guthrie's ebook blog here.

And you definitely want to check back here at DSD tomorrow. Trust me on that one.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Neighbourhood Crime

John McFetridge

A couple weeks ago my good friend Randy McIlwaine took me on a walking tour of his old neighbourhood of Point St. Charles in Montreal. Wikipedia describes the Point as, “ of Canada's first industrial slums,” and says that today it is still, “...considered the heart of Irish Montreal, with street names like Rue Saint-Patrick, Rue d'Hibernia, Place Dublin, and Rue des Irlandais testifying to its heritage.” There’s also Rue de Coleraine and for some strange reason Fortune Avenue and Rue de Paris.

When my grandparents arrived in Montreal from Northern Ireland in 1922 they settled across the Lachine Canal in Ville Emard, a mostly French and Italian neighbourhood. I have no idea why they didn’t settle in the Irish neighbourhood.

What I really noticed walking around the Point was how cut off it still feels from the rest of Montreal. It’s bordered by train yards and the Lachine Canal and, until recently, you even had to go through the Wellington Tunnel when leaving the Point. But more than the physical borders, the Point is a self-contained neighbourhood that hasn’t changed much. It’s still mostly Irish and there are still no chain businesses; no McDonalds or 7-11s or Starbucks or even Tim Hortons.

And that self-containedness of the Point figures in a true crime book I read recently, Montreal’s Irish Mafia by D’Arcy O’Connor and Miranda O’Connor.

According to the book, the Irish mob in Montreal, usually referred to as the West-End Gang, wasn’t a closed-off, hierarchal mob, it was more a loose organization of crooks who knew one another and worked together when they needed to. And they weren’t all Irish – the Canadian mosaic at its finest, I guess.

But the port of Montreal (world’s largest inland port), according to reports, has been controlled for years by Irish guys from the Point. And, according to Wikipedia (where would we be without the Wiki?), “Police estimate that over a 15 year span from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, the gang trafficked more than 40 tons of cocaine and 300 tons of hashish, with an estimated street value of $150 billion.” Montreal was also the port of entry for the heroin in the famous ‘French Connection,’ ring.

Some of the old factories along the canal have been turned into condos but otherwise there really isn't much gentrification going on in the Point.

Probably every city has a neighbourhood like this and there’s probably some crime fiction set in most of them. Any favourites?

One more thing. My buddy Randy who gave me the tour is a cartoonist and has a book available for Kindle, Breaking the Scorn Barrier that’s very funny.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Top Five Crime Novels

Was looking through my old blog the other day and came across this post from 2007. I'm sure the list has changed since then (ok, it actually hasn't too much. Just might add a book or two), but it's an interesting list to check out, so I thought I'd share. What are some of you faves?

t's the summer. What better time for a list? I've been thinking about this lately because I'm thinking about the authors whose quality I strive for. So here you go.

In no particular order.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane: The ending of this book is what did it for me. Yeah, the twist you can see coming for at least a hundred pages, but the chapter after that is HAUNTING. It's stuck with me for over 4 years. I remember reading it on my couch in my parents' basement, finishing it and just sitting there creeped out. What a book.

Every Secret Thing by Laura Lippman: This book is a book that I was just enthralled by. I read this book while I was student teaching in Paterson, and just going out to my car on my lunch break. I would sit there--barely eating--and just fly through this book for 40 minutes a day. I couldn't put this book down. Some of the best characters I've ever read.

Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski: The fact that this book was pushed back until the summer of '08 is very disappointing. I read the book in manuscript form and was just taken with it. I remember waking up in the morning and not being able to wait to get to my computer to continue it. An action packed, horror filled, funny book, it's simply amazing. Once this book is released it should be at the top of your TBR list.

Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker: One of the best PI novels I've ever read. Before Hawk, before the Susan Silverman relationship really bubbled over, Spenser takes on a case of blackmail involving the Boston Red Sox. Again, the ending, showing Spenser ability to be brutal when he's left with no other options.

L. A. Requiem by Robert Crais: He's written better (and worse) books since, but this was the novel that showed me what could be done in a PI novel today. It didn't have to be the PI just talking to random odd characters and then solving the case. It could be a fast paced thriller and at the same time get into the hearts of it's characters and finally tear them apart. A brilliant, risky novel.

HONORABLE MENTION: The Drowning Pool by Ross MacDonald: The first Lew Archer book I'd ever read (I'd seen Harper) gave me a hint of what the PI novel was really all about. The creepy child and hint of incest. The few actions scenes... including the memorable scene where the book gets it's literal title (there's a metaphorical one too)... I raced through this one and immediately went out and read most of the rest of MacDonald's books.

Your favorites?

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Resolution Conundrum

HOUSEKEEPING: Today starts the DSD Book Group discussion on FUN AND GAMES. Stop by and start your own thread or join an ongoing discussion.

By Steve Weddle

Holy Hell, am I tired of these pat endings in crime fiction -- particularly mysteries.

It's the resolution that bugs me. That little epilogue thrown up at the end where you get some Shakespearean double wedding and every loose end is tied up like a noose.

I should probably explain. I've been laid up with some sort of bubonic curse of a cold for a week (Don't you dare say "summer colds are the worst." I swear, I'm making a list and when I can stand upright for more that thirty seconds, everyone who has said that to me is going to get an elbow to the larynx.) I've had to forgo my normal self-medication routine of pills and Bushmills (Pills and Bushmills gimme the thrills and the chills, hoorah!!) and hand myself entirely over to Dr. Nyquil. So the incoherent rages that my psychiatrists and I have come to, what's the right word?, respect are now learning to fight their way through the five-times-a-day doses of doxylamine succinate. So, you know, bear with me.

As I mentioned on Joelle's post about focus, I've been working for months on a collection of stories. And I've decided that I don't like the way most stories end. See, they resolve. I'm thinking I hate that. You know, like you come to the end of this 5,000 word story and it's all pacing and tension and character development and then at the end you want to see the main character resolve the situation by Making The Bad Guys Pay or Finding The Lost Child. Or you learn who was pulling the strings. Or who was to blame for the banking disaster. Or you finally get the explanation for The Hero's Pain. It's like there's this feeling that everything must come to an end when you get to the last period. The reader must feel closure. The reader must know why things happened as they did.

Well, you know what? Fuck you. You don't get to know everything, asshole.

You don't get to see the hero get the girl. You don't get that closing that doubles back on something in the opening that ties it all together. Hell no. Sometimes the story just ends. You paid 99 cents for a collection and you're upset that a story didn't tie up everything like a shiny box of plastic crap on your tenth birthday? Too bad. Here's a nickel refund, champ.

Recently, when I twatted something about disliking pat endings, TommySalami linked up this great article on Chekhov's endings.

Here's the part I really dig:
Chekhov sometimes omits climaxes in order to make the reader have an epiphany his protagonist fails to have.  A character may reach a “dead end,” in short, but the reader continues the journey in the character’s stead.  I suspect that behind this kind of ending, which we find most frequently in Chekhov’s later work, is the belief that an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.
Now, look. Comparing me as a writer to Anton Pavlovich Chekhov is like comparing, um, someone is who isn't so great at something to someone who fricking created the thing. (See what I mean. Totes QED and all, right?)

But I think that's what really bugs me the most. I mean, heck, I'm sure I've dug stories -- novels or shorts -- that tie everything up in a bow. Maybe it isn't a deal breaker. But where I think we start to fail as writers is when we forget that someone will be reading the story we're writing. I think it borders on a lack of respect for the reader, sort of saying "Here, let me explain this to you in small words." Maybe this works for some stories. Maybe some readers are idiots. Maybe they appreciate having everything handed to them so that they can close the book and think about how nice that was and then move on to mowing the yard or sorting coupons for Hamburger Helper.

But resolution is for sissies. The stories I'm really liking these days are those that are more open-ended, those that don't resolve that last chord.

I've been reading through THE NEW YORKER STORIES from Ann Beattie. She and Raymond Carver are often mentioned together as some sort of kindred souls. The endings of her stories are much like the various endings in Chekhov's. They end -- but they don't always resolve. And that is where the power lies. The reader isn't handed closure. The reader is more involved. More is asked of the reader when the ending is unresolved.

And, at the end of the page, that's what I want. I don't want a contained, compact experience that ends when I move on. I want a story that grabs hold of me for thousands of words, gnaws deeply into whatever is left of my soul, and won't let me move on. Anyone else?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tunnel Vision

by: Joelle Charbonneau

What kind of writer are you? Are you the kind that starts several different projects before finally settling on one that you want to take to the end? Are you the kind that needs to write more than one project at once? Maybe you like writing short stories in between chapters of a novel to keep your perspective fresh.

I’m a writer with tunnel vision. I start a project and I need to get to the end of it before I can begin another. Sometimes I have an idea for a new project that I jot down a few ideas for before I put it to the side, but I always put it to the side. Because there is a story that I am telling and until I get to the end I feel incomplete. I need to get to the end.

Right now I’m 73,000 words into the new WIP. The end is in sight. Maybe a week to ten days left of writing before I get there. Which means I’m ignoring almost everything else on my to-do list to get to closer to THE END. Nap time with the tot never seems long enough. Going out to have fun seems like a chore. I pray that my editor doesn’t send edits for MURDER FOR CHOIR to me until after I am finished because I don’t want the distraction.

Yeah – I’m sick. I need some kind of vaccination against this driving need to finish this book. But I can’t help myself. I want to finish. Then I want to get to reading the whole thing and find out if it is any good.

Which makes me wonder if I’m the only one with this kind of drive when THE END is in sight. What kind of writer are you? What is your process as you write the novel and as you start to approach THE END? Do you creep toward the final pages dragging out the enjoyment of the process or do you barrel straight ahead? And once you are done finishing a book or a story – how do you celebrate the event?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Outside Listener

Scott D. Parker

Two things dominated this week: the sound of screeching tires and Harry Potter. First, the tires.

The Outside Listener

We writers live with the voices in our heads all the time. Like the president and his aides or Hollywood stars and their entourages, after a time, the voices in our heads become an echo chamber. Everything we write and dream up is good. Call that over confidence. Conversely, everything we write is bad. Call that writer's block.

So, every once in awhile, it's good to get the voices heard by others, make sure the wonderfully complicated plot that those voices assure is perfectly fine really is. Or, at least, in the ballpark. That's where the outside listener comes in. My wife served as that sounding board for me this week with my current book. I've blocked out the first half of the book on index cards and pinned those cards up on a cardboard stand used for science fairs. Then, with a notepad and pencil, and, keeping all the complicated back story out and presenting just the tale as my detectives will experience it, I started my presentation.

One must have thick skin to survive graduate school. One must also have thick skin when presenting a gestating story. Because, let's be honest, if your first listener cannot follow your story, the future agent/editor/reader won't either.

I hoped for the best: "Wonderful story, honey. Please finish the planning so I can read it!" What I got was this: "Good start, but that Act I bombshell you think is so substantial, sorry, honey, but I just don't get it. And what do I care if that character does that?"

Like a good pitch man, I rallied and threw the stumbling block back at her: how might you fix it? She made a suggestion. One, simple suggestion. And, while a portion of what I had mapped out crumbled, a whole other section was built. It was a brilliant suggestion that will likely win over reader's minds.

The tires screeched on my current book this week, but I didn't fly off the cliff. I found a new road just up the way. I hadn't seen it before because some brush was in the way. I've cleared the brush and now I'm on a new, subtly different road. Collaboration can be fun. Sometimes, it's crucial.

What do you do to get the voices out of your head?

Harry Potter

By the time many of your read this, I will be sitting in a theater watching the last Harry Potter movie. Starting last weekend, when we noticed that ABC Family ran the first five movies in a row, my wife and I started re-watching the films to prepare ourselves for this finale. Well, we missed "Sorcerer's Stone" (AKA #1), but we've seen it enough to know it pretty well.

Experiencing these tales--cinematically, yes, I know, but I have my reasons for doing it this way--one per night, the beauty and magnitude and artistry of J. K. Rowling's stories emerge. They suck you in. This being a mystery blog, I could discuss the mysteries featured in all the films. Rowling could write a good whodunit, considering she kept the final piece of each puzzle a secret until the very end. I love music, so I could certainly write how, as the themes got darker and the characters aged, John Williams's simple, youthful theme evolved over the course of the movies. I could even write how the intricate plot, woven over seven books (eight movies) is as tight and self-contained as one can get. To quote Ron Weasley, it's brilliant.

Plot only gets you so far. It's the characters that matter. Simple, cliched statement, but it's true. If audiences don't care about Harry, Ron, Hermoinie, and the rest, no one watches. But viewers do care, and they get intoxicated in these glorious coming-of-age tales wrapped in mystery, magic, and mayhem.

I'm not ashamed to say that I cried when I read the last book in 2007. I'm pretty sure I'll be shedding a tear today, too, not just for the characters and the closing of their saga, but of a magical time in pop culture. I am a member of the Star Wars Generation and would not trade it for anything. But I have to think that the youngsters who were a member of the Harry Potter Generation, who literally grew up with Harry in a way I could not with Luke Skywalker, have a special bond with these books and movies. I wonder if, when they walk out of the theaters this weekend, they will feel grown up, that a major part of their childhood has ended. It wasn't my childhood, but I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

And it's one I might get to live again. You see, also this week, I went in the garage, found my copies of the Potter books, and put them on my son's bookshelf...

Movie of the Week: Really? Do you have to ask?

Friday, July 15, 2011


By Russel D McLean

I’ve been reading a lot again recently. There’s been a lot of travelling back and forth for me to various places, so I’ve been using the time to catch up on reading and get more reviews done etc. Many of the books I’ve read recently have had preposterous and possibly insane plots. The majority, to be fair of them worked. But one didn’t. And while I know with that one, my opinion is likely to be a minority (the author is hugely popular), I’ve been tryng to pinpoint why it didn’t work while the others did.

And I’ve realised it’s because I felt the whole time like that author was bending over backwards to make his plot sound plausible. He dotted every t. Crossed every i.*He explained every double cross, made sure we knew precisely why something was happening. And precisely how it was happening.

And you know what?

I got bored.

I’ve got a tract I run on occasionally where I talk about how movies and TV are actually a purer kind of storytelling than most novels. Why? Because they have little choice but to tell their tales through action and conflict because that’s all they’ve got. Can you imagine the director suddenly walking into shot to explain the precise mechanics of the gun that Arnie’s using to mow down thousands of bad guys? Talking you through the history of the weapon, the kind of guys that use it, all that shite? It would kill the action and yet so many thriller writers do this every day, and its no wonder I quit reading because, guess what, I’m interested in the goddamn story and the characters and I’m willing to trust that what you’re doing is at least plausible in the real world.
“Yeah,” says research author, “But if you don’t put that in you’ll have the gun nuts decrying your innacurate use of a weapon.”

Bollocks. Put in only the information you need and it doesn’t matter. Make it plausible, ensure your scene is possible and let the mechanics take care of themselves. Yes, it does matter if you click the safety on a model of gun that doesn’t have a safety, but that’s simply solved by taking away the action of flicking the safety not explaining to me why the damn gun doesn’t have a switch in excruciating detail.

Because in the grand scheme of things, what matters in a story are narrative and emotion. The rest is window dressing. And yes films have a huge amount going on in the background that has been researched, designed and created in perfect detail, but the fact is that all of these details are on screen for less than a second and what the viewer is really watching is the central actor and their journey.

But that’s going slightly off my original point, which was the author intervening to explain every plot point and not just those technical aspects, but the exact and detailed reasons why everything happened (and stuffing it all in close to the conclusion, too: something that really bugs me).

Trust your readers.

They’ll fill in more gaps than you think. And if you feel you have to bolster your twists with a thousand words of explanation that put every piece of the puzzle in place for the hard of thinking, maybe your twist isn’t actually working. Maybe you don’t have the confidence in it that you think you do. Maybe you haven’t laid the groundwork for it early enough in the novel if you have to explain it all in that last fifty pages. At the very least spread out those revelations. Spoon feed the reader slowly. Don't choke them with ludicrously large portions of exposition (that could easily be delivered through action rather than authorial intervention or worse authorial intervention posing as character's dialogue).

Trust your story.

Trust your characters.

Trust your readers.

Here endeth the rant.

*or whichever way round that goes

Thursday, July 14, 2011

That Damn Cork Board

By Jay Stringer

This week was going to continue my Summer Reading List series with an ebook. But a slight snafu ("slight" is such a relative term) means I'll continue that next week.

Something that every blogger writes about at some point is their habits. Usually we'll do it at the start of a project, when we're procrastinating, and pretend to be assessing our approach to find some new deep insight. It's amazing how deep we'll burrow into pointless things when we have something to be getting on with.

I have a pretty big project that I'm limbering up for. A fourth novel, and one that would be pushing myself in a new way. Rather than sit around staring at the wall, or trying to find further distractions to avoid the issue, I decided to warm up by writing a novella.

Now, I have previous in this. Folks may remember at the start of the year I talked about writing something different to let off steam. That quickly turned into another novel (a very short one) and a first draft is sat on my imaginary shelf waiting for it's revenge. So I have a previous history of productive procrastination. I'm good at trusting my brain, and following it where it wants to go.

One thing I've been itching to do is to try out some different software. And that's where the fun and the swearing started.

Writers are creatures of habit. We each have our own foibles and methods. What I realised was that my main method was a lack of method. I don't need to sit in a certain place. I'm not fussed whether it's loud or quiet. I don't have a writing desk, or a preferred time of day. My only set habit is to sit with a blank page and move the cursor around until the page is less blank.

As much as we have fun slagging of microsoft for burning the coffee and stealing the milk, it did okay with Word. It's a pretty basic piece of kit. It's a blank page with a toolbar at the top, and can be customised to make it very details or very sparse. You sit and type, and nothing else matters.

My first full length novel, Old Gold, started as a short story that kept going. It's chapters existing in many forms, in notebooks, on beer mats, as text messages saved on a phone, or as notes on the back of my hand. Ultimately it took form in Word. The second book I attempted, Runaway Town, was a more controlled affair. It started and finished with a cursor blinking on that blank page on my laptop. A few drafts, a few reboots, a few printed hard copies with doodled notes in the margins, but it started and ended on that screen.

All the while, folks on the twittertubes are talking about this app called Scrivener. It did all this amazing stuff. Like, it had a cork board, or something. My kitchen has a cork board, but I don't feel the need to tell the twittertubes about it. But folks raved, and I decided to give it a go.

So ready to write a novella, I opened Scrivener and flexed my fingers ready to move that cursor around and stop a page being blank. The following conversation may not have happened, but it also kinda might have;

Scrivener-What kind of template would you like?

Me-Eh? What? I want a blank page. See i have this thing I like to say about a blank page and-

-Sure, very funny, but what kind of project is it?

-What do you mean? It's like a writer type project. I say 'like' because I never can be sure...

-But what is it? Is it a book with parts, or with chapters? How many scenes are there in each chapter? What is your expected word count? Do you have character maps?

-But the fun of writing is getting to find out all of these things over the next few days

-Nuh uh. Fun? What do you think this is?

-Okay, you wait right there. I'll go and start this project on that blank page I have over there, the Word document. Once I got a few answers for you, we'll talk again.

-Have I shown you my cork board?

And I did just that, I went and typed into a blank page somewhere else for awhile. I didn't want to have to sit and set up the whole system before getting to write. Dammit Jim, I'm a crime writer, not a computer programmer. I also don't need to make sure that I have the right amount of pens on my desk, or that my coffee cup is sat in the right place, or that the lamp is angled just so.

In The Dark Knight the Joker states that he's a man of simple tastes. He likes dynamite, knives and gasoline. I realise now that I'm a man of simple tastes too. My pallet might not lean toward agents of fiery destruction, but I just want a blank page and as few rules as possible. Give me a word document and a blinking cursor, or a notebook and a pen.

It seemed to me in that early exchange that Scrivener and me were just not meant to be.

I mean, I guess I could see the attraction. I could see why people would want to sit down at the start of a project and set up the system, just as I can see why people like to set their desk up the right way, or have their research on index cards. But it's not the way I work.

All of the things that Scrivener was asking me were distractions from what I'd loaded up the software to achieve. If I wanted to lay out ideas on a cork board then you know what I'd do? I'd lay my ideas out on an actual cork board. Computers can do many wonderful things, but I don't see the need for that. All it's doing is taking jobs away from actual cork boards. Who thinks of them, eh?

And other things that the software does, that gets it rave reviews, is the ability to move chapters around, and to customise the running order of your story. But you know what else does that? Just about everything else. Shuffling blocks of text around, copying, pasting and flat out rewriting -these are a vital part of how I work. I don't want that made any easier. We don't need to reinvent the wheel, and I don't really think we need to reinvent the art of filling up a blank page.

So I went and wrote the first couple thousand words in Word and then copied it into Scrivener, and then all was well with the world. I'm halfway through the novella now. Halfway through my first real attempt at using Scrivener. Have my impressions changed?

I've settled into a groove with it, True. And I'm sure if I were to use it for a second project I would get through the setting up phase much quicker. I'd have less distractions from writing, and a much firmer grasp of the software.

But still, at the halfway point, I'm not sure there'll be a second time.

The project started life in Word. Once my draft in Scrivener is finished, I'll be converting it to a Word document to send it to my agent. When I get notes back, and write a second draft, guess which software that will be done with? It seems I spent half my time trying to make Scrivener act more like Word, and then the other half worrying how it will look when I transfer it from one format to the other.

There's time yet. Maybe I'll get to the end of the first draft and be converted. Maybe it'll all fall into place.

But for right now I can't escape a simple idea. I'm too busy writing to worry about apps that are meant to aid writing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pulp Life #2

John McFetridge

Recently here at DSD we published our second anthology, Collateral Damage (and chances are as soon as we can come up with another clever title with the word, “damage” in it we’ll publish another one) and all the stories had some reference to Father’s Day.

Well, all the stories except mine.

I’m going to use the lame excuse of, “too busy.” The story I did submit, Pulp Life was an adaptation of a TV script I wrote, the pilot episode for a show I was trying to sell last year that didn’t sell. But I still like the characters – the poor-selling crime fiction writer Danny and the ex-con, but still active criminal, Angelo, and I like some of the other episode ideas I had so I’m going to write them up as short stories.

Lately I’ve been spending more time working on TV writing than on novels or short stories and, of course, there are similarities and differences. One of the differences that at first seems a little stifling but turned out to be quite liberating is the structure of the TV show. We’ve been asked to use the “teaser/4 act structure.” We have a 3-5 page opening, the “find the body” scene from Law and Order right up to the clever quip from the cop and off to the credits. Then four acts of about equal length.

The other common structure for TV shows these days seems to be The Good Wife approach of the teaser and first act combined so the opening credits don’t show up till about the 10-15 minute mark.

So, I’ve been looking at TV shows and trying to break then down and analyze them by structure and plotting and that has inevitably led to breaking them down by theme and that gave me something for Danny from Pulp Life to try and explain to Angelo.

If you haven’t read episode one in Collateral Damage (and really, it’s a buck, come on, for the whole collection) the set up is pretty simple; Danny has had three crime novels published to okay reviews and very poor sales so his agent sets him up as a ghostwriter for Angelo who’s just gotten out of prison and is writing a memoir. Except Angelo isn’t finished with his life of crime and Danny is helping him more with that than with the book.

So, here’s a little piece of episode #2 of Pulp Life.

Danny got to Angelo’s apartment, the top floor of a house just off College Street, had to be sixteen hundred a month, pushed the doorbell, heard Angelo say, come on in and climbed the steps thinking how does a guy get out of jail and right away have a better place to live than I’ve been able to find in this city in ten years?

And walking into the living room and seeing Angelo on the big leather recliner looking at the 63-inch flatscreen Danny remembered, oh yeah, life o’ crime. Just like he was watching, Christopher Moltisano’s nose looking crazy big on the huge TV and Danny said, “D-Girl, a good one.”

Angelo said, yeah, “Have a seat,” and Danny did on the other recliner, and then he said, “Shit gets real.”

Angelo said, “What?”

“The first scene in this episode, in the bar in Manhatten, the D Girl, the redhead, and Christopher’s cousin, Christopher and Adrianna show up?”


“So, the guys at the next table bump into her, the redhead, almost spills her drink, Christopher looks pissed off.”

“He wants to bang her, the redhead, the whattayacallit?”

“D Girl, development, all the movie companies have them, they’re all great looking, sexy glasses.”

“The way you like ‘em.”

Danny said, yeah, and then he said, “Then it happens again, the guy bumps her again and Christopher gets up.”

“Yeah, Ade is pissed he’s going to make a scene.”

“Right,” Danny said, “but he doesn’t, even after the guy says something about why doesn’t he go back through the tunnel to Jersey.”

Angelo said, “Yeah, but Christopher just says something to the guy, quiet, just him and the guy,” Angelo nodding, knowing what that’s like.

“And it goes from just talking in a bar, joking around,” Danny said, “to being real.”

“Yeah,” Angelo said, “this shit is real.”

“Then that’s what every scene in this episode is about.”

Danny was watching the TV but Angelo was looking at him and he said, “I thought it was about Christopher fucking the very, very hot redhead.”

“Yeah, and it’s all fun and games in that scene,” Danny said, “a good scene in the hotel, she’s wearing the towel, very hot, until they remember she’s dating Christopher’s cousin and then this shit gets real.”

Angelo let out a sound, a kind of a loud huh, like he was suprised and then he said, “Yeah, that’s right.”

Danny said, yup, “That’s the theme of the episode, crossing over from shit we talk about to this shit is real.”

“The whole episode?”

“Yeah, of course. Look, you’ve got the stuf about making the mob movie, for the D Girl and Jon Favreau it’s just shit they talk about but when they want to put in the story Christopher told them about the guy taking the transvestite out to the parking lot to make out—“

“That was a funny story and that shit happens a lot more than you think.”

Danny said, I’m sure it does, “But for Christopher that’s when the shit gets real and he freaks out, telling them they can’t use the scene, people will know it came from him.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right.”

“And when Carmela wants to get her neighbour to get her sister to write a letter of recommendation to get Meadow into Georgetown.”

Angelo said, “Yeah,” and Danny could see him paying attention, thinking about this stuff so he kept going, saying, “The sisters get together and the other one says she isn’t going to write a letter to get a gangster’s daughter into her school it’s just shit they talk about, joking around.”

“Yeah,” Angelo said, “but then Carm goes to see the sister.”

“Takes her some kind food she made.”

“And the sister says, you threatening me?”

“And Carmela doesn’t say, no, of course not, she looks right at her and says, what threat?”

Angelo laughed and shook his head and said, yeah, “That’s a fucken threat if I ever heard one,” and Danny didn’t say anything, thinking that Angelo knew threats, but then he said, “And so it goes from shit we talk about to something real.”

“And here,” Angelo said, pointing at the flat screen, “Christopher comes to Tony’s house for AJ’s birthday—“

“Not birthday,” Danny said, “it’s AJ’s confirmation.”

“Whatever, it’s a party.”

“Yeah, but it’s important, confirmation is a big deal, it’s also a crossing over, going from kid’s stuff to this shit being real.”

Angelo leaned way back in the recliner and looked at Danny and said, “Holy shit,” and Danny shrugged.

Then Angelo said, “And Tony gives Christopher the speech.”

“Gives him ten minutes to decide if he’s going to keep fucking around with screenplays and Hollywood—“

“Shit he talks about.”

“Or if he’s going to dedicate himself, every second of every day to this.”

Angelo laughed loud, actually slapped his fucking leg and said, “This shit is real!”

Danny waited a few second and then said, yeah, “And then there’s all the stuff about Christopher proposing to Adrianna, that shit finally getting real.”

Now Angelo was leaning back as far as he could, the recliner practically coming off the floor, and looking at Danny from as much of a distance as he could and he said, “Holy fuck, you’re right, they put all that in there on purpose, didn’t they,” and Danny said, yeah, “Of course.”

“And you saw it all?”

“It’s good writing, it’s the development of the theme, it’s why we love The Sopranos.”

“Yeah, that and the way they kill the rats and all the hot chicks get naked.”

“Yeah,” Danny said, “that, too.”

“So, do all shows have that, the whattayacallit?”

“Development of the theme? The good ones do, Mad Men, it’s why it wins all the Emmys.”

“See,” Angelo said, “again I thought it was cause of the very, very hot redhead.”

“Yeah, that’s a good thing to have, too,” Danny said and he was thinking maybe his books needed more hot redheads. Couldn’t hurt.

Then Angelo said, “Okay, so this book we’re working on, what’s the theme?”

Danny said, “What?”

Angelo was sstill looking right at him and now he just shrugged, waiting for an answer, and Danny said, well, “This book isn’t fiction, it’s a memoir, this is stuff that really happened, it’s your actual life.”

“Yeah, sure, but we’re picking what stories go in, like on The Sopranos they picked the scene in the bar and the scene with Carmela and the sister and Tony and Christopher at the end, at the confirmation like you said, not a birthday, that was for a reason.”


“So, shouldn’t we have a theme, too, wouldn’t that make it a btter book?”

“Yeah, sure, but that would be the theme of your life.”

“So, what’s that?”

Danny said, “I don’t know.”

Angelo was nodding then, thinking about it and then he said, “And it would be the same kind of shit in every scene?”

“Not the same things happening, but the same meaning.”

“Yeah, I got that.”

“Okay,” Danny said, “and yeah, each scene would develop the theme a little more, add to the whole, you know?”

“Yeah,” Angelo said, “Yeah,” and he was still nodding and looking to get lost in thought and he said, “I’m going to think on this theme stuff,” and Danny said, okay good, “You do that, but right now I got us a boat, we can go dump Marco.”

That snapped Angelo out of it and he smiled big and said, “All right, you are getting good at this.”

And they headed out of the apartment with Danny thinking that couldn’t possibly be the theme of his life, could it?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Vacation Reads

It's Dave, taking over the Tuesday posting slot because Jay has... I don't know... a job or something.

Anyway, I'm back safe and sound from Cabo, and as I like to do, I'll recap my vacation reads.

AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman: Simply one of the best books I've ever read. Gaiman mixes crime, fantasy, romance and horror together for a fantastic book about immigrants bringing their gods to America. There's more to it than that, but you have to read it for yourself if you haven't already. It's funny, charming, full of emotion. Just a well done modern classic.

GAME OF THRONES by George RR Martin: I gave up on the TV show two episodes in and wanted nothing to do with the novel. But a friend of mine let me borrow it and insisted I'd love it. And you know what? I was pleasantly surprised. There are a ton of characters, and it's hard to keep track of them all. The writing, however, is smooth and compelling. When I was done, I wish I had brought the second novel with me as well. I'll be starting that soon.

CARTE BLANCHE by Jeffery Deaver: The newest Bond novel. I don't have much to say about it. It's an entertaining novel in it's own right. I've read all the Fleming novels and seen the movies multiple times. This felt like Deaver went out of his way to modernize the Fleming Bond, but it was missing something for me. I loved the twists and turns and the action, however. Finished it in a day.

Also started GOOD OMENS, but am not anywhere deep enough to give my thoughts yet.

I also scanned what others around the pool were reading. When we were on our honeymoon last year, I noticed a ton of "THE GIRL WITH THE---" series. This year, there didn't seem to be one popular book. A lot of airport paperbacks, and some non fiction.

Not many e-readers around either, which I found surprising.

Is there a BIG BOOK out this summer?