Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Writing Road Less Traveled

Scott D. Parker

You ever make a choice that seems really weird but you give it a go just to see what happens?

So I'm writing this book here in Houston and, like I wrote last week, I was wondering if some chapters from a previous book could be used in this new one. Turns out the answer is a resounding yes. With a few tweaks, here and there, it should do nicely.

In order to have all the various chapters in one place, I dragged the older chapters into Scrivener and set them up in order that they fall in the new story. Have to say that, when I did an initial compilation, it was mighty gratifying to see the word count jump upwards by 25,000.

I had a problem, however. The old text was written in first person POV, the new stuff in third. And some of the characteristics of some of the characters were different than I now wanted them. And some of the minor details needed some nips and tucks. So I arrived at a fork in the road, one I had experienced before: continue ahead writing new chapters or halt forward progress and fix the old words now.

When I wrote my first book, I was well into Act III of my story when my two primary reviewers asked a simple question: Hey, Scott, what are the villains in your story doing while Harry Truman and his partner are galavanting around solving a mystery? I knew perfectly well what they were doing, and I spelled it out for them. They just grinned and told me to put all that in the book. I stopped writing Act III to go back and fill in the holes.

I've decided, at this precarious stage of this current book, to do the opposite. I've been making copious notes on things I know I need to fix, but leaving the fixing for later. I want to get to "The End" first but making major changes. Then, with the entire book complete, I can tweak what needs tweaking. Moreover, if there are things that I think need changing now, perhaps it'll be in line with the story later. It's a scary decision, but I'm actually looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

For all of y'all who face(d) a similar crossroads, what was your choice?

Event of the Week: Noir Night 2011 at Houston's Murder by the Book. I got to meet Megan Abbott, Sara Gran, and see Duane Swierczynski again. Had a great time. Look for a write-up soon.

Friday, July 8, 2011


Yes, the post is late today. Blame a slightly dodgy internet connection. But better late than never, right?
By Russel D McLean

Some days the words won’t come.

Some days all you want to do is turn off the machine and walk away. Or put down the pen.

Whatever, the way you write is your choice.

Some people call that urge to walk, “writers block”.

I say there’s no such thing. Not really. But the mind is, if you’ll forgive a mild cliché*, a muscle. And like any muscle, sometimes it gets tired or fatigued. Often through overuse. Sometimes through just doing the same thing over and over again.

It happens to us all.

Someone asked me what I do when I feel I can’t get going on a fiction project. “What is your one tip to get moving again?”

It was one my dad gave me, actually. I think he might have read it in an old Writer’s Digest, back in the days when J Michael Straczynski was chronicling the development of some wee TV show called Babylon 5 he was touting to studios and Nancy Kress was writing some of the most common-sense and downright useful columns on writing fiction I ever read.

Maybe it was one of them who had the idea. Maybe it was someone else.

Anyway, the advice was this:

Go switch on the TV.

Really. Go switch it on. Any channel will do.

Write down the first line of dialogue you hear.

Turn off the TV.

Go back to the desk. That dialogue is your starting point. Take it from there. With your own characters. Your own people.

Write the scene that flows from that dialogue.

Why does this exercise work? I think because it gets your brain warmed up again. Allows it to take a new and refreshing tack. Stops it from cramping up.

I rarely use the scene that I wind up with. Most of the time I abandon it halfway through because, out of the back of my head, comes the solution for the other work that I’ve been searching for. Maybe it’s as simple as a distraction technique. That whole thing where if you focus on something else then the answer to your first problem simply presents itself.
Or maybe it’s like I said, sometimes you need to warm up your mind same as any other muscle.

Whatever the case, that’s what does it for me. And you never know, it could be of some help to you, too.

*of course, every so often, only a cliché will do. But please use them sparingly. Or you’ll wind up like me…

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Right now, I am sunbathing in Mexico.

Okay, not really. Right now I'm sitting on my couch right after downing a shot of Jamison.

It's one of those timey-wimey things... go with it.

You see, as you're reading this article, it's likely I'm poolside in Cabo San Lucas reading and catching a tan. (I have a beard right now, so I'm going to have a silly tan when I get home.)

But as I'm writing this, I'm about 8 hours away from flying to Cabo. I've done a shot of Jamison. (Or is it two shots? Meh, just read on.)

I hate to fly. No, that's not right. It's not just hate. It's a horrible, terrible, nearly paralyzing fear of flying. When I was a kid, I had a really bad flight--turbulence and people puking--and then I let too much time pass between the next flight (10 years) and then the next flight again (11 years). That developed into my mind into a massive fear.

Yeah, pretty paralyzing. Ask Jason Pinter, he's the first person I flew with as I as an adult.

Anyway, when I was writing Witness to Death, that fear has just started to manifest itself into panic attacks and shots. To deal with it, I did the only thing I knew to do... write about it.

It's the old write what you know trope. I knew I was afraid of flying. I knew what fear was. Total, paralyzing, gripping fear. So, I twisted it a bit. I made the main character of WITNESS afraid of the water.

It was easy to write about the fear feeling, but water fit with the story. That's writing what you know. I know the chest pressure, the shaking, the absolute FUCK NO, I'M NOT DOING THAT feeling. It was just a matter of translating that fear into my writing.

Read the book, I think I did a good job, but I'd love to know how you felt about it.

But fear is the same. Whether it's water, or flying, or public speaking... the symptoms are the same.


What are you fears?

I made my wife promise we'd pay for the wi-fi so I could check your comments, so make sure you leave them.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm heading to the pool bar for a shot of tequila... and a cerveza.

Wait, I'm flying on Saturday? A cerveza or 7...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Pilot Episodes

John McFetridge

A little while ago I was hired to co-write the pilot episode for a possible new TV show. We were given a lot of instructions so, of course, some are contradictory and I was wondering what people like in a pilot episode.

I’ve been looking at a lot of pilots and I have to admit I’m surprised how much of the future storylines show up in the very first episode. Take The X-Files for example, you get the whole thing about Mulder’s sister being abducted, the cigarette smoking man, Scully agreeing to secretly report back to Mulder’s bosses and the mystery around who exactly those bosses are. And a single case investiation.

In the Hill Street Blues pilot pretty much every character is introduced and it even looks like Hill and Renko are killed (apparently at least Renko was supposed to die but that was changed and the phone call Captain Furillo receives at the end of the pilot was rewritten).

A couple of years ago the pilot episode of Southland introduced what felt like a dozen main characters.

The pilot for Justified stays very close to the short story “Fire in the Hole” and still manages to set up a series of completely (or mostly) new stories.

So, what are some of your favourite pilot episodes and why?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Summer Reading List: Extreme Rambling

By Jay Stringer

There are certain themes we always seem to return to on crime fiction blogs. We talk about social writing, about books that give us a sense of time and place, and about the ways people justify their dark or violent actions.

So this week I'm recommending something that's both totally different and yet, also, totally at home here.

Mark Thomas must tick a lot of boxes when he fills in the occupation section of a tax return. He's an author, a television host, a political commentator and an activist. He has worked with a number of charities and was a founder member of the campaign against the Ilisu dam.

Where I came in on all of this is that he started out as a stand-up comedian, and that's still probably his favourite box to tick. Stand-up was one of my first loves. Back when I knew I wanted to create things and put my words out there, but before I found that my voice worked best in prose, one of the things I failed most at was standing up in front of people and being funny.

I had the timing and the basic idea of how to structure a gag, but I had nothing to say.

I know people often have an in built reaction to wince or turn away when they hear someone described as a political songwriter or a political comedian. I have the same reaction to a degree. But what I learned along the way is that my tastes for social stories aren't limited to fiction. I like songwriters, filmmakers and comedians to have a point, and to have a way of capturing the stories of the haves and the have-nots. None of us like to be preached at, or told who to vote for, but deep down I think there is something very rewarding about performers and storytellers who can show us the issues that are at the heart of the matter.

Mark Thomas does this for me. Sometimes he goes further, sometimes he does tread dangerously close to crossing from social into political. But as he has gotten older, and gotten better at his craft, I think he's learned to pitch the balance the right way. His live acts show someone with a voice and an eye for the telling detail that would lead to great social fiction. Sure, he can still go on a ten minute rant about a governments latest policy, but he can then hit you off guard with some small moment of detail or insight into how people are being affected, and why it's important to them.

His most recent stage show was a two hour recounting of how he took one of the most British ideas imaginable -a countryside ramble- and combined it with an exploration of the tension between Israel and Palestine by walking the middle east. Israel is in the process of building a wall around the Palestinian territory, and Thomas set out to talk to people on both sides and to try and find some sense out of the mess.

The show was filled with some huge belly laughs, but also moments of stunned silence. I can think of few people labelled "comedians" who can produce a deep and profound silence in the crowd as part of the act. One minute he would be giving us a history lesson, the next he would be jumping into character as one of the many people he met along the way, from a fully dressed up mime being teargassed at a demonstration, to an ex Israeli soldier who begins handing out leaflets on the humans right acts of the Israeli Israeli soldiers in the middle of a protest. He talks to people on the Israel side of the wall who lost loved ones to suicide bombers when there was no wall, he talks to families on the Palestine side who's lives are suffering as a result of the wall going up. We saw school children whose school is on the opposite side of the barrier to their homes, who have a daily walk through a tunnel filled with sewerage. In one instance he talks to a home owner whose house straddles the new border, with his bathroom in Israel and his bedroom in Palestine. And, yes, he's expected to get a permit to cross the border.

I had tears in my eyes of both joy and horror during the show, and wondered if he could pull off the same trick in the book.

Extreme Rambling came out a few months ago from Ebury and if you're down with the cool kids you can load it onto your kindle. Because, you know, we always needed a way to make travel books more portable. It's part travel journal, part comedy, part social document. Looming across each page are some huge issues, thorny questions of race, religion, democracy and freedom. Issues that I couldn't do justice to in this blog. But the impressive feat in his writing is that these themes never overwhelm us. The book remains focused and grounded in the people, rather than the politics. We get to meet a far more varied and complicated cast than he could put into the stage show. People young and old, on both sides of the wall, who each have their own stories to tell. He captures moments of joy and despair, and bundles them all up into a comedic and spirited narrative. It doesn't have the same extremes of emotion as the stage show. The different format, by it's very nature, leads to a more consistent tone, a slower and more introspective look at the same topics.

What struck me about the book, as apposed to the show, was how much crossover there was with the issues we discuss in our blogs. As I said right at the top, we tend to talk about setting, and social issues, and complex characters, and Thomas gives us exactly that. if this book was set in Detroit, or D.C., or London, and looked at street gangs, we'd be talking about a crime masterpiece. We'd be talking about the spiritual successor to The Corner or calling it "Pelecanos with belly laughs."

As it is, though, it's a touching and troubling story across the middle east, so we call it a political book and shrug our shoulders. If you're looking for something to read over the summer, and are sick of being told that summer means you should switch off your brains and read something forgettable, than pick this up.

And hell, if you want the summer blockbuster pitch, it's got explosions. It's got riots. It's got tear gas, despots, brushes with the law and more illegal acts than a night out at Eton. It's travel writing for revolutionaries, but comes armed with a Kendal mint cake rather than an AK47 and swaps anarchy for a nice warm flask of tea.

Next week I'll be suggesting something for your kindles, nooks, crannies, and other electronic devices.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Because you hate happiness, that's why

By Steve Weddle

The first rule of noir is that the protag starts off completely screwed. In an absolute horrible jam. And then things get worse. (For more Rules of Noir, check out DeadEndFollies.)

We all know this, right? Yeah.

So I was a little surprised when a friend of mine (You don't know him. He lives in Tribeca. (Though he calls it "TriBeCa," further explaining why he'll never sell anything other than his kidney (which I still think he got cheated on.).))

He was griping because he has two noir novels out on submission and no one is buying. He likes the books. His agent likes the books. But no one wants them.

See, he thinks it's "The Market." He thinks his writing is too good for being on one of the front cardboard shelves at Barnes and Noble. His defense is "Man, people are idiots. No wonder I can't sell this novel."

In the past month or so, I've see plenty of tweets and posts and status updates about how disheartening things are these days. Hell, I think I've said the same thing twenty times this weekend.

The complaints aren't uncommon:

People only want authors they know.
People don't want challenging reads.
People only want young adult fiction.

Heck, even Michael Dirda of the Washington Post suggested that authors only be allowed on the NYT Best Seller list once, kind of like you can only be on C-Span's "Booknotes" once. What? I'm the only one who watches "Booknotes"? Damn, I hate you people.

Look, if you think Janet Evanovich and James Patterson are keeping you out of the Publisher's Marketplace announcements, you're nuttier than my Uncle Didemus. (He was born with an extra testicle. Guess it's only funny if you knew him.)

If you think people don't want challenging reads, then you haven't been seeing the same books I've seen. I could give you a list of great challenging reads, but this is a week of GRILLING EXTRAVAGANZA and the charcoals are calling. So, you know, let's stay focused here. Maybe, if anyone visits the internet today and sees this, someone can list some challenging reads. I dig recent Haruki Murakami, but still want to dig into the new David Foster Wallace.

So why does no one want to read your noir series about a twice-divorced, alcoholic cop with a horrible, dark secret in his past now struggling with a chance for redemption?

Because you're a sick asshole, that's why.

OK. Maybe it's because your book stinks. I don't know. I've read the books my pal in Tribeca wrote, and they're pretty cool. But they ain't gonna outsell Harry Potter or Percy Jackson.

You want to look at "The Market"? Alright.

Who reads books? People with jobs. People who hate their jobs. Hate their bosses. People who work their butts off all day long, sitting in cubicles, talking to people they wouldn't share a drink with -- all day long. Five days a week. Traffic. Crappy lunches. Sodas. Energy drinks. Damn it, the network is down again. People for whom "Three-Day Weekend" is a phrase that brings immense happiness. These people are getting their asses handed to them all day. Are they going to complain? With the economy like this? No, you're just going to take it. And you're going to buy your lottery tickets on the way home and hope your spouse found a five-dollar bill in the laundry. You know who else lives like this? Harry Potter. Luke Skywalker. Percy Jackson. Maybe those Twilight kids. Maybe those kids in the Hunger Games. (I haven't read/seen all of that because my kids aren't old enough.)

Harry, Percy and Luke have rough lives. Harry lives with his family, but they're mean to him. His parents are dead and, oh, you know all this? OK. Well, this Percy Jackson kid? Same thing. His step-dad is mean to him and his mom. Luke Skywalker? His mean Uncle Owen wants him to go to town and get an engine part when all he wants to do is race worfs with the cylons. So they're having bad days, too. Bad lives. Just like the people who read these books and watch these movies. And you know what, these losers win. A secret wizard. A secret demi-god. A secret home for Midi-chlorians.

There is a secret beauty inside them all. And it is so beautiful in its beautifulness. See. They're not really losers. See, they're special. That's why everyone was mean to them. That's why the boss expects you to work twice as hard for half the pay. When Hagrid comes over and brings you your magic wand, dude, you are totes going to go all Pirate Jenny on their asses.

When people are losers in their lives, they don't want to read about losers. They want hope. They want to be able to see someone else in a crappier life overcome the odds and succeed. It's why Pretty Woman was made. What? She's a hooker with a horse-face. And now she gets to go shopping with a rich man. Wow. What a feel-good movie. (h/t Bongwater)

People like to have hope. Whether it's Percy Jackson or Luke Skywalker. Whether it's YA or MGD. This is why grown-ups I see are reading these books. Because they want hope. A new hope, like the Skywalker kid.

And that's why your noir novel won't sell a million copies. Look at the top best sellers. Hell, people even love to read about a person overcoming great odds when that person is a damned horse. Better yet, a half-horse.

So, if you want to sell your book, fill it with hope. Have the detective find redemption by risking his life to save Rachel McAdams. See, he thought he was nobody, when in fact, he's the lost son of K'targ and has been implanted with the Stones of Cth'ar'gla. And he has to do this questy thing and there's this bad guy to stop him. And he has to give up something he loves to save the planet. Maybe it's a locket his mother gave him just before she died. And he realizes it has healing powers, and he has to use it to save Rachel McAdams and he does it because he is full of beautiful.

That's what people need. They need a book they can look forward to reading when they get home. A book of hope. A book where the loser turns out to be a secret prince or princess, right?

If you want to sell a book, write one like that. Most people don't like to be depressed.

I'm reminded of a line from an Ann Beattie story: "You'd be depressed too, if you felt the way I do."

So I said to my Tribeca friend, if you want to sell a million books, don't depress people. I mean, you'd think I wouldn't have to tell him this.

He said, "But I don't want to write those stories."

"What do you want to write?"

"I want to keep writing this series. Or at least some of these stories. I like this world I'm making."

"You want to sell a million books or write the ones you like?"

"Yeah, can't I do both?"

"Well, you could try to write the 'After THIS TERRIBLE THING HAPPENS, the protag must overcome THIS BIG OBSTACLE in order to save THIS REALLY BIG IMPORTANT THING' book."

"Yeah, that's what I've written," he said to me.

"I know, but he doesn't save the really big important thing."

"Yeah. I don't want him to save the thing. That's the whole point."

"Well, what if I make him a half-minotaur alcoholic detective?"

"I think minotaurs are already half-human."

"Oh. You sure?"

"Pretty sure?"


"Hey, how about you write it with the ending you want, but make it the first of new series?"


"Well, even if you end with him losing, there's still hope in the next book?"

"Hey, that's nice."

"Yeah. It's why people get up and go to work in the morning without having a drink. They have hope."

"Lucky bastards."

Sunday, July 3, 2011

It's a fine, fine life. Or not.

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Being an actor, a writer or any kind of artist really sucks. I mean it. Published. Unpublished. Paid performer, musician, artist or unpaid. It all sucks. Whether you are making a living at your chosen art form or having to work three jobs in order to pursue your dream – being an artist is hard, hard work. When my voice students tell me that they want to be a professional performer, I tell them all the reasons why it sucks – the uncertainty of a paycheck, the blows to your ego, the fierce competition day in and day out, etc... etc… etc… And if they still say there is nothing else they want to do, well, then I roll up my sleeves and help them do it. But I always keep the reality of the difficult nature of the business in front of them.

No matter how talented you are at writing, no matter how hard you work to perfect your craft and your story telling – there is no guarantee that you will make it as a writer. And while you are working to perfect your voice and your skills there aren’t any tests or measurements you can take to definitively demonstrate your improvement. Yeah – that really sucks.

In school they teach you something. You learn it to the best of your ability. You take a test and you pass or fail based on the hard work you do. In most day jobs you often have reachable benchmarks to measure your success. Did you hit your sales targets? Did you finish the project by your deadline? Did you learn to use the new computer software or teach Moby Dick to your class of high schoolers? Those are measurable goals. You can put a grade after each one to tell you how well you did.

With writing success isn’t so easy to define. There is nothing measurable other than the number of words and pages that you create – and even then there is nothing to tell you if they are good pages. Yes – and editor, an agent or a fellow writer might give you their opinion, but that opinion is just that. An opinion. Art is subjective. What one loves, another will not understand and a third will hate.

Yep – we are all crazy to be in this business.

A writer, a performer, an artist cannot measure success by publishing contracts and jobs. If you do that you are just setting yourself up for unhappiness. You won’t sell every book. You won’t land every role in a show. You won’t get great reviews every time you put your work in front of the public. Those things can’t define who you are. If they do – you might as well hang it up now.

Performer, writers and all artists have to have an inner self-confidence that says “I’ve created something and I am proud of it” in order to survive. This isn’t arrogance – that is something VERY different. That is something that says your way is right and the rest of the world is wrong if they don’t see it. No, I am talking about a quiet sense of certainty that you have strived for your best and that no matter what happens you will not regret the time and effort you put into any project. Because, like I said last week, writing (or performing, or the creation of any art) needs to be for you. If you do it because you are compelled to – you won’t be sorry. If you are looking for measurable success and your name in lights – go find a therapist. Trust me. You’ll need one.