Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Slice of Pie

Scott D. Parker

You ever wonder why "The Wire" aired on HBO? Can you even imagine that show as a mainstream network television program? Nah, me neither. But here's the thing: I enjoy both.

I'm no expert, but The Wire seems to be the closest thing to real police work done on film. This past week, in doing research for my current book, I interviewed an HPD officer. I mentioned The Wire. Sure, he'd seen it and confirmed, in his opinion, that it was pretty close to the real thing. I asked him about jurisdictional tension--with HPD and among other organizations--and he pretty much confirmed what you see on TV: different departments get into a pissing contest at the drop of a hat.

For as engrossing as The Wire is, writing a novel or filming a TV show or movie that shows actual police as it's really done would be bo-ring. The officer kind of agreed with that, too, as I laid out my ideas for my story. Thus, you have to make cop stories filled with tension and excitement. Naturally, you veer off from the real to the fictional, from true sensibilities to the mainstream.

Is that a bad thing? I say no. A. Lee Martinez, SF author, wrote a piece yesterday in which he said that superhero comic books could learn a thing or two from superhero movies. The movies, Martinez wrote, have to appeal to a mainstream audience while the comics need only appeal to the "choir," er, comic book readers. It's rare when a comic book makes the mainstream news. It's usually for big events--death of a character (Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man)--or something like the upcoming relaunch of the DC titles. The general public might buy the one issue, but they likely won't return the following month. Why? I think comics have become too niche.

Same is true for crime stories, print and otherwise. The Wire, for all its accolades, is a rare tale that is true to its source material and beloved by critics. There are a lot of viewers who liked the show, but, of all the folks I know, only two have seen it. I don't think it's a good mainstream type show. It's niche.

There's nothing wrong with mainstream if you know what it is. The Wire was brilliant. My favorite TV show now? "Castle." The finale last season had me riveted. Same for "CSI: Miami." I enjoyed "Body of Proof" and "Harry's Law" and will return for a new season. The original "CSI" is getting a face lift by way of Ted Danson. I watched CSI from the get-go, but faded away last season. I didn't like the turn the show took. Wasn't to my liking. Now, with Danson, I'll give it another look. Some folks are grumbling that CSI is getting too light. Hey. That may be what is necessary to get more viewers.

I enjoy mainstream shows. How, might you ask? I turn off my brain. True, I'll comment on something if it's really egregious or predict a plot point a half hour ahead of time, but I try not to do that too much. My wife prefers it that way. It ruins the enjoyment of what's being presented: a nice slice of mainstream pie.

We writers get our ideas from all over the place. And we truly never turn our writer brains off completely. But said brains get in the way sometimes. Yes, David Caruso delivering his lines is cheesy. Yes, James Patterson's books tend to be the same kind of story over and over again (so I've heard). But that's the way mainstream is. We can accept it, or just get mad at it. The problem with getting mad is that we become more niche.

Does anyone else want a slice of pie?

Book of the Week: The Gentlemen's Hour by Don Winslow. I just started this sequel to The Dawn Patrol (my favorite book from 2008) and am immediately loving it. The lingo, the vibe of Southern California permeates every word in this book, and it makes me want to return to San Diego. That's out of the cards, but a return to the companionship of Boone Daniels and his buddies is money.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"Hey, you look like a fat man on a horse, Georgie!"

By Russel D McLean

Its been a while since I’ve talked movies, or at least movies that are new to me. And certainly, CUTTER’S WAY qualifies in that department. Despite being filmed in 1981, its one of those movies that appears to have gained cult status while utterly passing me by. And it’s only because the Dundee Contemporary Arts Cinema decided to show an old print that I ever even knew of its existence.

Which is a shame because CUTTER’S WAY – based on the novel CUTTER AND BONE by Newton Thornburg – is one of those movies I think should be rightly considered a classic of noir cinema rather than the cult curiosity it seems to have become.

It’s the story of two men – one a man drifting through life with no real plan or ambition, and the other an embittered, crippled veteran looking desperately for one last chance to play the hero – who become obsessed with finding a murderer after one of them is called as a potential witness even though he see nothing of importance to the police investigation.

The film itself unravels slowly, almost languorously, with long, slow shots and an air of understated realism that feels unusual in a film of its period. After all, the eighties were the beginnings of the big Blockbusters and the slam-bang summer movies, but CUTTER’S WAY is determined to take its sweet time in telling its story. Even the murder that kickstarts the plot seems relegated to the background of a shot; a barely in focus foot sticking from a rubbish bin that the audience barely notices, and that Jeff Bridges manages to ignore completely until the police come knocking on his door to pull him in as a potential witness.

That idea of the not-seen and the unnoticed plays throughout the film as our perceptions are constantly thwarted and played with. As Cutter and Bone begin to realise that they might have an idea who the murderer is, we begin to question their certainty, to ask ourself whether what we’re seeing is really what we’re seeing. Are we watching two men unravel a mystery? Or are we watching them play more and more into their own paranoid delusions, desperate for some excitement, some vindication to their lives? The idea of unreality, of delusion, is pressed even more into the mind by the strange, haunting musical riffs that play softly through the film, creating an otherworldly feel in a film that looks otherwise almost like a documentary.

By the end of the movie – with its brilliant final frame – you’ll be questioning what you saw, what was really happening during the movie. A lesser film would let us believe the narrative of Cutter himself; the crazy, conspiracy-fuelled narrative that leads to some very dark places. But this is no ordinary film, and CUTTER’S WAY constantly underscores what we might expect to happen. While it is clear from both John Heard and Jeff Bridges’ astounding performances that they believe what is happening, that they think they know the truth, we are forced to question their reliability until ultimately nothing is clear.

With Heard’s incredible performance at its centre, and Bridges providing a more than solid foil, CUTTER’S WAY is really a two man show; a noir version of the classic double act. Their relationship forms the world around them, and it is a strangely seductive world in its way.

If you haven’t seen CUTTER’S WAY, and if you want a movie that’s going to stay with you long after the credits have finished, leaving you with questions you’re not sure you want answers to, and memories of characters who will linger in your mind, then seek out CUTTER’S WAY. Trust me, you’re not going to be disappointed.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Part Man, Part Machine. All Writer.

By Jay Stringer

I've talked about writing habits before. Remember how I always like to say I don't have to many set routines? I don't need to write at a certain desk, or a certain time of day. I don't need to waste time making sure my chair is at the right angle, or that my desk lamp is positioned just so.

I always pride myself that I don't give myself a million reasons not to write, and that I don't have routines or habits that would make that any easier.

But I've found out I do have something.

My laptop died at the weekend. Okay, it didn't die. It didn't cough and then write out a last will and testament. No priest turned up to deliver last rites. I never got down on my knees and screamed up at a camera in the sky whilst holding my dead machine in my arms.

But it got very sick. It's in for treatment right now. And, for reasons I won't bore you with, I'm balanced on a knife edge right now between it being a problem I can afford to have fixed, and a problem that means I have to give up on it.

And it wasn't until facing that choice that I realised what a big thing it would be.

Our lives can change in funny ways. When I was a tot, my Mum couldn't drive. Very early on I was used to the idea of walking everywhere, or getting public transport, or getting a lift. I think that's an education that's stood me in good stead. I've moved from England to Scotland, fine through several jobs and several large life changes, and never once needed a car. As Bob Dylan once sang, "I can walk any time around the block."

But my Mum, being one of those crazy parent people, decided she should learn to drive. And she did. Got a licence, and a car, and soon I got used to us driving everywhere that we needed to go. I remember about ten or twelve years ago, she was involved in a major accident, sideswiped by a drunk driver. She was fine, but her car was finished. And in the time it took for insurance to sort it out, in the time she didn't have a car, she seemed trapped at home, a driver without a car.

That made me even more determined not to car a car, aside from the fact that I can't tell left from right and have no attention span. But it also showed me the way machines can change our lives.

Coming up on a week now without my laptop, and I've been feeling that same trap. The driver without a car, the writer without a laptop.

There are solutions. I'm blogging right now from my wife's machine. I've been keeping an eye on twitter and emails from my phone. I can even do a little writing on my phone. But I'm limping. I'm not getting things done. And the thought that I might have to write my laptop off has made me realise that, shit, this could go on.

Why not simply write by hand? That's the logical question, and I'm sure you're asking it.

Well, I can. A bit. I can write snatches of conversations. I can write notes, suggestions and a few edit ideas. But the dyslexia demon that I write about sometimes means It's not really something I would want to do for a full novel, such as the one I'm halfway through a second draft on right now.

Looking back, I realise that having my own computer marked a sea change in my writing. I'd always been a writer in one form or another. From drawing comic books, to writing short stories, and then writing jokes and songs. I'd always been doing it. But it wasn't until I had a computer of my own that I really started to branch out, that my stories began to get long and more ambitious. Then, freed from handwriting and linear thinking, I leaped straight to writing screenplays, longer fiction and, not too much later, a novel.

So the thought of going back to that? Not so very much appealing.

But more, It's shown me things about how I write, and how I think about my writing.

There's the old saying that we'll all be familiar with, that writing is all about rewriting. And in my case, that pretty much defines me. As I'm typing the fifth line, I'm also thinking about how I can change the first line. I need to be able to go back mid sentence and correct something I've already done. I know some writers leave these things until later drafts, but I'm doing it constantly.

And there's no better way to do that than with a computer. Likewise, I need to see my current chapter in context with the rest of the story. I need to be able to scroll about. To jump to print view. To see the flow and shape of my words on the page, and the chapters in the story. I'm sat here right now with my notebook open. And there's notes I've been making all day about my current project. There are bits of conversation, notes about structure and what needs to happen. All in all, I probably have enough notes on these pages to equate to a whole chapter. But it doesn't feel like achieving anything. It's not loading words into the story itself and filling up a few more blank pages. I can't see the chapter in context of the ever growing story.

In short, I don't feel like I'm getting anything done this week, and it's making me cranky.

I figure in my case that the computer doesn't change the way I write, so much as it allows me to write the way I need to. But I can't help but notice how my writing habits have changed in the 10-12 years that I've had computers of my own.

How has technology changed the way you write? And what do you think you'd find about your writing process if the machines went away?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Please Sir, May I Write Another?

John McFetridge

There’s been some talk on this blog about validation and its importance to writers.

I may have come through the other side of this issue, having signed two contracts with ‘Big Six’ publishers and been dropped by both. So, even if I wanted that kind of validation I’m not going to get it and anything I have to say about the subject is really just sour grapes.

I can tell myself the good news is that by taking that issue off the table I can just write for myself and write the kinds of books and stories I want to write and not have to worry about pleasing anyone but myself. And there’s some truth to that. In fact, I think there’s a whole lot of truth to that but I certainly understand that someone might laugh dismissively at me trying to convince myself that it’s “better this way.”

Lately I’ve been spending more time writing for TV than writing novels and it’s all about pleasing someone else. The good news, I guess, is that there’s validation every step of the way. But, wow, there are a lot of steps along the way.

Right now I’m involved in the developing of a cop show. One of the producers of the last show I worked on pitched it to the network as, “The difficulties of the personal lives of narcotics cops,” and the network liked that and I was hired (along with a co-writer) to write the pilot.

But it’s not like writing a novel, I didn’t sit down and start writing scenes. I didn’t have a theme that I wanted to explore – how do people stay professional (and sane) doing a job that not many people believe is making any difference? Recently I read a report from some American think-tank that said the ‘war on drugs’ has cost more than World War I and II and Vietnam combined and yet drugs are far more easily available, and cheaper and higher quality, in every single state than they were when the ‘war’ started.

At first I thought, wow, this is really write what you know, doing a job that makes no difference to anyone, that no one really notices – that sure sounds like writing books.

But hold on, this is a network show, not cable, so right away we’re told we need to be more positive. The show will have to be episodic, each story wrapped up each week, and not serialized like The Wire or Breaking Bad. We’re told to think about it like a murder-mystery show, like Castle, but instead of solving a murder each week our cops solve a drug crime.

And we don’t start by writing a script, we start with a “story area” a little bit longer than the “TV Guide logline” but not much. Our first attempt was, “When a young Hollywood star dies of a drug overdose while filming in Toronto the team runs into politics while investigating drugs on movie sets.” That was okayed, terrific validation there, and we wrote an outline – pretty much a description of every scene in the show without dialogue, about 15 pages.

Then there was a shake-up at the network and the development guy was fired and a new person took over and she didn’t like the movie star angle, she said that the audience wouldn’t relate to a beautiful, rich, star and the victim needed to be someone else. So, less validation there. And the whole movie set stuff was out. And she told us, maybe there shouldn’t be so much about the cops’ home lives. Even though that was the main thrust of the pitch the network had bought a month earlier.

So, the producer got to work and we were told to keep the home life stuff but make most of the cops younger. Not rookies on the police force but new to narcotics. So maybe the home life stuff would be less about marriage and raising kids and a little more about dating.

And the producer pitched another story area, one based more on things that have actually happened in Toronto (although drugs on movie sets do, shockingly, happen in Toronto). So now the story is about a few senior narcotics cops getting arrested by the feds and a bunch of younger, less experienced cops have to step up before they’re actually ready.

So, we write another outline and hope it gets validated.

And all through this I’m thinking how much I miss just sitting down and writing scenes for a book, putting in whatever I think should come next.

A friend of mine who works in the movie business said to me recently, “I’m so tired of asking permission to do anything.”

A lot of writers hope for the big publishing deal so they can quit their day jobs. One thing we never worry about is that we’ll end up doing some kind of writing that’s a day job and we’ll still have to steal time for our “real” writing.

I don’t know, it really seems to me that there’s no other way than to write for yourself and whatever happens with the finished product – a big publisher gives you tons of money or a small publisher gives you enough for a nice dinner, or if you publish it yourself or if you just keep it in a drawer somewhere – you need to be happy with it yourself.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Comfort Zone

I'm in a reading slump.

I often get in these when I'm deep into a writing stretch, and I'm having a pretty good writing stretch right now. In the mornings I'm revising the novel I'm working on. In the afternoon, I've started a brand new manuscript.

But as I'm writing, I'm finding crime fiction isn't holding my attention. It's not that I hate crime fiction... I LOVE IT. But what's odd is even authors I can't put down--right now, I can put them down.

But that's a good thing.

It means I'm branching out with my reading. In my attempt to find new things to read, I've discovered Neil Gaiman, GRR Martin, comics I would have tried before, and some other fantasy/sci-fi novels who've caught my attention.

It's always good to read outside your comfort zone. So, for once, I'm not frustrated by a reading slump. I'm looking forward to coming out of it and checking out some new authors.

So... questions... Can you read during a time period when you're deep into your writing?

How often do you try to read outside your comfort zone?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Validation: Forbidding Mourning

By Steve Weddle

Joelle's post this weekend -- VALIDATION -- opens up some great lines of discussion.

I completely agree with Joelle that some folks feel validated from a book contract.

I also agree that writers need validation, otherwise they'd never put ink to paper, pixels to pad.

Though Joelle hasn't argued that a Big Six Contract is the only form of validation, others have -- implicitly, if not explicitly.

I think this is horrifically myopic.

First of all, you have validation of the marketplace.

Let's say you get a great from a Big Six Publisher. Super cool. Twitter congrats all around. You might get great reviews and sellout your first six printings.


You might not sell too well, despite good reviews. Heck, maybe they printed up 20,000 copies of the first and it only sold 10,000. Which, you know, holy crap. 10,000 is a boatload. Not an aircraft-carrier load, of course, but still. Then when you turn in the second manuscript to your editor, maybe the publisher doesn't spend too much money promoting you. So you have a debut book that sold poorly and a second book that sold even fewer copies. So then you're an author whose sales are tracking downward. As Mike Dexter says to Amanada Beckett in CAN'T HARDLY WAIT: "Who's gonna want you now?" Good luck selling your third book to someone.


Everyone loves your first book. I know this guy whose first book sold out in its first printing. Hot damn. So he goes to the local chain store wondering why they won't stock his book. Or more than one copy of his book. Or put him on one of those cardboard kiosks in the middle of the store. They tell him, "You only sold 5,000 copies of your first book." He says, "I know. That's all they printed. I sold out." And the store tells him, "You only sold 5,000 copies." And he says, "I sold out." And on and on. He didn't get on the cardboard kiosks or premium placement elsewhere. He did manage to get them to buy more copies as he kept going in on Tuesdays and buying his own book.


Your book sells to a Big Six Publisher and the editor leaves, your book is orphaned, and you don't get the promotion, the love you signed on for.


On and on and on.

Cards on the table for a second. Joelle has quite a few book deals right now. Right now she and John Hornor Jacobs are collecting book deals like those orange kids on that Jersey show are collecting STDs. I don't have a book contract and I don't have a manuscript making the rounds right.

I'm not about to argue that a book deal doesn't offer validation. But you know what else offers validation? Sales.

Yeah, you've got a great shot once a publisher takes on your great book, but you don't need a deal with a New York City Publisher to sell your book. What's changed? Plenty, but the main thing: distribution.

You don't need an editor to sell your book to a committee that sells your book to the publisher that sells your book to a sales team that sells your book to a book store manager who sells your book to a reader. Now you can sell your book to the reader. And make more money per sale when you do it.

You aren't validated by a contract that comes in the mail. You're validated by a fracking check that comes in the mail.

Selling your book to a committee at a publisher is great. That means a group of people thinks they can make money off your book. Heck, it could also mean that they really love your book.

Usually, if they love your book but don't think they can make money off of it, they're not going to make you an offer. Why would they? Publishers make money when they sell books, not when they love them. Sometimes the two are one and the same, but it doesn't matter to sales.

But now with the ability for you to distribute your own book to thousands at a time, readers can still read your book.

This isn't for everyone, of course. Some folks want/need that Big Six Deal. And then you've got folks who would rather have a deal with a small press. More attention, people who seem to really love your book. You've got tons of options if you want A Deal. Heck, some small presses run manuscript contests with a guaranteed deal. Some of them want submissions directly from authors instead of from agents.

So you can still get validated by a publisher even if that publisher isn't in New York City.

Of course, you've always go the validation of writing something that kicks ass.

You know that feeling that you get when you Figure It Out? That thing that was bugging you. You catch that epiphany while you're staring out the window at your idiot neighbor's dumb fence? Yeah. That's validation.

Or when you send your manuscript out to your beta readers and they love it.

Or when you give a reading and the twenty-seven people in attendance give you a standing ovation.

Or when someone tweets that she just read a story of yours on the web and everyone needs to read it.?

Or when Purple Mountain Review Quarterly Journal decides to send you $300 for your story.

Or when you win the Clive J. Wigley Award for Best Debut Fiction.

Or the folks in Michigan decide to give you a writing grant from the arts council.

Or you get a scholarship to that writers' retreat in the hills of Vermont.

I dunno, but it seems to me you can get your writing validated by many ways these days and you no longer have to rely on what a committee in New York City thinks.

Is there a hierarchy of validation? How does we organize that? A small press deal, a Big Six deal, a top ten ranking on Amazon, a quarterly check from Nook for $3,000, a webstory retweet?

Maybe you're writing because you like to build worlds. Maybe you're writing because you like to tell stories. Maybe you want money. Maybe you want sales. Maybe you want readers. Maybe you want validation.

But just as a contract with The Big Six is no longer the only way to get published, no longer the only way to distribute your book, and no longer the only way to make money on that book, I'd argue that a contract with The Big Six is no longer the only way to validate your writing.

If you want to win the pinewood derby race, then look at what cars are winning and build one like that. If you want to be published, then look at what's being published and write that. If that's what validates you, then you don't want to write a book that was too "cutting edge" for mainstream. Of course, you can always spend a few years getting rejected by The Big Six and then put the book out on Kindle and Nook and sell it as "too cutting edge" if you want. Folks do that all the time. It doesn't really have to be cutting edge. (These pills are TOO CUTTING EDGE for the FDA's approval, so I'm selling them to you out of the back of my van for the low, low price of $4.99 a bottle.)

But if you're writing because you love to write, because it's What You Do, then find whatever validation makes you keep writing. See, whether it's love from The Big Six (and by "love," of course, I mean that they have voted in favor of your current project being able to turn a profit) or a small press or blog hits or online publication or whatever -- the important reason to get your writing validated is to keep you writing.

It doesn't have to be The Big Deal from a NYC publisher.

It doesn't have to be a mantle of awards or Kindle sales.

But the validation you aim for has to work for you -- and it has to keep you working at 5 a.m. when you're wondering why the hell you set the alarm clock and then you remember that you wanted to get up and have a fresh look at that motel room scene because you were so tired last night but it's the only time the house is quiet and the only time you can write and so what if you went through seven cups of coffee yesterday because it's not like seven cups of coffee has ever killed anyone but damn it to all hell you're really going to have to get up if you want to rework that scene because it's almost there and it's so close and you think you know what it needs because while you slept your brain told you That Thing that you needed but now you're starting to forget what it is so you'll get up and you'll run downstairs and you'll start typing because that's what you do after all because it doesn't matter if you get an email from a publisher or a call from your agent because what you do is you get up at frackin five damn o'clock in the morning because this isn't about anyone else it's about you and your story and then you start writing and it flows and the pieces fall together and hot damn now we're going to town and how fantastic and glorious is it when all the pieces start falling together and everything starts to fit and make sense because that is why we do this. Because that is your validation. That is all you need.

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?