Saturday, August 13, 2011

Spoilers Suck

Scott D. Parker

What kind of world to we live in when a man dressed up like a bat gets all of my press?
--Jack Nicholson as The Joker in “Batman” (1989)

I’m a Batman freak, plain and simple. He’s always been my favorite superhero. As a kid, I watched the TV show from the 1960s, then segued into the 1970s animated version from Filmation. Actually bought the DVD of the cartoons this summer and enjoyed them again. The 1980s saw the mature Batman which led to the 1990s animated series. There was also some movies, some good, some not so good. The 2000s brought to us a seemingly dichotomy: excellent, dark, moody live-action films and a whimsical animated version that hearkens back to the silly days of the 1960s.

The thing that is always good about following a character through the ages is the surprise element. I remember in the spring of 1989, I actually bought a ticket to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” just because the Batman trailer ran ahead of it. I scoured movie magazines like Starlog for official images from the production, pouring over them in loving detail much the way I did with “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980. But for every photo and story in a magazine I found, the glorious revelation of the film stayed tantalizingly out of reach. There was only one way to find out what happened: watch the movie.

Except for the novelization. If you can believe it, the book was published ahead of the film. For many a Batman geek who couldn’t wait for the movie, all you had to do was read the book. In those pages was the story of the first, true live-action Batman film, in all the detail save one: the medium. Batman the movie was something to behold, not something to be read. You read the novelization after you’ve seen the film to set those images in stone. For all the description the author used to describe Jack Nicholson’s Joker, seeing the man in the makeup was so much better. Seeing Michael Keaton do his thing in costume was magnificent. As a writer, I hate to say it but those images were better than a thousand words.

I read that novelization early and ruined the surprise of the film. I thought I was being cool to know ahead of time all the plot points, to be able to lean over, tap my dad’s shoulder, and say “That’s not how they did it in the book.” The book?! It was a freaking novelization! There was no book. Unlike, say, Lord of the Rings, the Batman novelization was an expanded script. What the heck was I thinking? Better question: who was I trying to impress?

Cut to 2007 and 2008 and the lead-up to “The Dark Knight.” We all knew what Christian Bale looked like in the Bat-armor. All eyes were on another Joker. And, in a case of a textbook rollout of anticipation, the filmmakers fed us with little teases and glimpses until the trailers hit. And then the images in Empire magazine. Again, I poured over the photos and watched the trailer over and over. It was intoxicating. And I couldn’t wait for the movie to see how it all played out. Sure, there were a few grainy images that popped up on the Internet of Heath Ledger in costume. Sure, I looked at a few of them, but nothing compared to the official images, released when Christopher Nolan wanted them released.

Things are changing with this last Nolan Bat-flick, The Dark Knight Rises. This Bat-franchise is so money that the entire city of Pittsburgh is proclaiming loudly and proudly that Batman 3 is filming in their city. They should be rightly excited, true, but do they have to have news stories about it all the time? There was a time back last month where many of the SF sites I read posted images of the filming, of Bale in costume reading the script, of Tom Hardy in his Bane costume. In fact, just now, I googled the movie’s title to verify Hardy’s name. I saw a headline that summed up my feelings right now: “Dark Knight Rises”: What Hasn’t Been Spoiled Yet? BTW, I didn’t read the article.

What am I getting at? Am I just a grumpy dude not in tune with the way things are now? No, I don’t think so. I like the revelations of things to be delivered in the way the creators want, not spoon-fed or spoiled by a grainy TMZ photo or a spycam. Is our desire to *know* trump the gentle grace of waiting and watching? I’ve even had to cancel on of my “Castle” twitter feeds because the title of the tweet was, in itself, a spoiler...even thought the word "spoiler" was in the title. Sheesh.

It’s the beauty of being an author: you have complete and utter control of your work. If you want to provide excepts, go ahead. If you want your readers to learn about your story in the manner you want, get them to buy the book. It’s the only way. And the most satisfying way.

Am I the only one who wants to watch a movie in a theater and just see what happens?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Hate Reading?

By Russel D McLean

Its big news for many people that there’s a Facebook page called “I hate reading”. They are not in fact referring to the town (although I’m sure Reading has many lovely features and is in itself undeserving of such scorn; I’ve never been there so I couldn’t tell you one way or the rather), but rather to the act of translating words on a page (or on a screen) into some sensible form of communication. Which is ironic given that Facebook has an awful lot of text in the form of updates (many of which are of course illegible, usually from the people who sign up to such pages) and so forth.

Of course this news has shocked so many in the publishing industry confirming once again that most of us live in a bubble. Ask any non-bestselling writer who’s done one of those trial-by-fire daytime book signings, or even any bookseller on the front line, and they will tell you that every day people go into bookshops simply to proclaim how much they hate reading or how much books are a waste of time. They do this with a strange degree of pride, wearing the hate or at the very least the disinterest like a medal of honour. It has always happened. It will continue to happen. Because much of the time these people are unclear what reading is about.

There are many reasons for this, and much of that has to do with the culture of reading in the first place. When we tell people that reading is good they ask, why? The first and most common response is one of “self improvement”, as though reading makes us somehow “better”. People quote statistics about how people who are somehow smarter or more inclined to make it in life.
And of course this makes not a jot of difference to those who “hate reading” because ten to one* it was precisely this attitude that made them “hate reading” in the first place. After all it’s the one you hear constantly in school, which is probably the place where you first realised you “hate reading” due to being presented with inappropriate texts in inappropriate contexts**, and so why is hearing it now going to make any difference?

There are other things too. Cliches like “the book is always better than the film,” that again can make people feel alienated*** and even a little stupid that the only reaction they have left is one that involves lashing out.

And let’s not start on the often pompous and self-involved “coverage” that books get on TV. If I see one more celeb fawning over a supposed “classic” and talking about how it improved them I might scream. Let them be honest. Let them say, “Actually, I rather enjoy curling up with a good bonkbuster because goddamn the story’s great and the sex gets me a little steamy” or even something as simple and enthusiastic as Ali Karim’s far-too-brief appearance on World Book Night saying how much he enjoyed the baddies getting biffed.

There are always going to be people who for one reason or another claim to “hate” books. Now I believe that we can still find them the right book and the right way into reading, but making them feel dumb or excluded – as we often do, even unintentionally – is not the way to do it.
Look, I’m not offering answers here. Just some random thoughts, many slightly disconnected. And I’m also saying that a facebook page dedicated to “hating reading” is a natural development. The same as there’s probably an “I hate custard” page out there or something similiarly idiotic****. I think it’s a sad thing, of course, when people claim to hate reading. But I’m not living in a bubble and I’m not surprised by it.

Maybe one day the right book will bring them back into the fold. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. As one person pointed out, quite rationally, chances are if you added up all the fans of thriller titles alone in the world, they would overwhelmingly outnumber the relative minority (even if it does seem large number when glanced at) who have signed up to this facebook page.

And besides, when was the last time you even checked what Facebook pages you’d been signed up to just because someone you knew invited you?

(and speaking of Facebook, here’s a blatant plug - - go like the spanky Russel D McLean fanpage and prove to the world that you really do like reading!)

*statistic taken from the office of I Needed To Make Up A Statistic So I Nicked A Cliché

**I was lucky in that I most had pretty inspiring English teachers who encouraged me to read
what I enjoy.

***I’ve mentioned this in previous blog posts I’m sure that often the film is just “different” and
that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

****I’m already late on this and don’t have the time to do the research.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Last Run, By Greg Rucka

By Jay Stringer

I'm still without a laptop, as anyone on my twitter feed will have noticed. About the only benefit of not having my machine is that I've been catching up on some reading. It's easy to forget how enjoyable it is simply to sit and read a book for a weekend.

The Last Run is a spy novel from novelist and comic book writer Greg Rucka. It came out late last year, but it's only now I've started to catch up with my reading list. It worked out for the best, because reading this with no distractions allowed me both to sink into it and to see how quickly I got through it. Once I started, I needed to finish.

But first, I'm going to infuriate you by not talking about the book.

Cable/Sky TV came to my home in the mid 90's. Our family got it for the sole reason that my dad wanted to watch the re-runs of DOCTOR WHO on UK GOLD every Sunday (and listeners to our podcast will already have heard the outcome of that.) What this meant was that I saw a lot of bad TV shows buried away on the afternoon schedules, both when I was supposed to be at school and when I wasn't.

I caught the terrible 80's remake of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. I caught the well intentioned SWAMP THING and some terrible spy action show that I think was based on ACTION MAN. Then, one day, I caught myself watching some strange, taught, riveting spy drama. The characters were well drawn, the dialogue was decent and the plotting was tense. I'd just been on a John LeCarre kick, and already blasted through Ian Fleming, and the show seemed to perfect blend of the two; it was the intelligence, character and realism of LeCarre married to the tight plotting of Fleming. I gathered from the title card at the commercial break that the show was called THE SANDBAGGERS. In the days before the Internet, I had no way of finding out more, and nobody I spoke to seemed to remember the show. But at the same time every day for a couple of months I got to see some damn fine British TV.

Years later I would learn that the first episode I saw was THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP, which is pretty much the peak of the show. It's ending haunted me for years, and kept the show alive somewhere in my memory, but once it's run was finished I never saw any repeats, never saw mention of it, and slowly it started to fade.

Flash forward. Early 2000's. I'm flicking through indie trade paperbacks in one of my local comic shops, and I pick up one called QUEEN & COUNTRY. It had a woman looking all moody in a trench coat on the cover, and was written by Greg Rucka, who's work I'd enjoyed in Batman comics. And then, in the foreword, Warren Ellis noted that the book was influenced by THE SANDBAGGERS. Bang. Done. Sale.

QUEEN & COUNTRY, I soon learned, was a fucking fantastic comic. The influence of THE SANDBAGGERS was there to see if you knew the show, but not in a way that got in the way of the story. It had a voice all of it's own, and some very compelling characters. The two 'stars' of the book were Tara Chace, a female secret agent, and Paul Crocker, the scheming head of operations for SIS. On and off, across about seven years, we got to see the adventures of Chace, as she ran around the world drinking, arguing, and getting shot at. This was perfectly balanced by the corridor warfare of Crocker as he fought against his bosses, his rivals, and the ever impending evil of bureaucracy.

Towards the end of the comics run, Rucka decided to explore the characters in a different format, and we got the first two QUEEN & COUNTRY novels. Which brings me to THE LAST RUN, the third novel.

And with all that exposition out of the way, you can now draw breath.

If you're new to the series, you're fine, you can still read this book and enjoy the hell out of it. There's nothing important to the book that you can't pick up in the book. Get it and dive right in. If you're an established fan, this story brings a lot of story arcs to a very satisfying close. This could be the end of the story, equally it could be the end of the first act of a bigger story, both would work.

Tara Chace is Minder One. The easy description is to say she's the "real world James Bond," but I don't really want to go there. Chace is a complex, wounded and very well written female protagonist, who just happens to be one of the best secret agents in the world. There is nothing glamorous about the life of a minder. They are blunt instruments. Firefighters. They are the pit bulls that are kept on a leash in the hallways of SIS, to be sent off at short notice to solve a crisis. They don't tend to live very long, but real danger to a spy in this world is not a gun, or a bomb, or a hollowed out volcano. It's the machinations of politicians, the whims of a cabinet under secretary, or the public relations concerns of a government. These are the things that are likely to leave a spy stranded, or dead, or inconvenient.

Chace had been a Minder for a decade. She's the best there is. But she's battle-worn and tired. She's nursing any number of injuries and, even worse for a spy, she has a baby daughter. Life is getting in the way. She decides she wants out, wants to push information across a desk and live something closer to a normal life, but the game chooses when you get to stop playing it.

A crisis brews in Iran, a decades old sleeper agent has woken up, and the British government won't accept anything less than their very best agent being sent in, even if she's not fit for the job.

What follows is a fast paced ride spy thriller, like LeCarre stripped down and speeded up. Things go wrong, things go right, then things go very wrong. And for Crocker, he has the fight of his career; how to balance his duty to the agent in the field with his duty to Queen & Country.

As a fan of Rucka's work, I can see changes in his writing. He still has the stripped back Hammett-esque prose, but he seems to be playing with a few extra words, trying to play with his established voice and shift gears a little. It's always interesting to see a writer trying new tricks, and he's pulled it off, not straying too far from what works whilst still shaking things up.

A minor quibble I've had with all three books is that they start with 'pre-operational briefings.' I understand why. In bringing an established comic book series across to novels, I can see that Rucka and the publishers would be concerned about filling in new readers on the back story. But I don't think they were necessary. I think all three books work just as well without them, and I would argue there's nothing in them that couldn't have been fitted organically into the story. But that's just a small issue, and I don't want to distract from telling you to buy this book.

Buy this one, or by all three, either way you'll have a great time. And if you are worried about the continuity, don't worry, I'll make it easy for you.

If you want to read the whole thing, start to finish, you can blast through the three collected volumes of the comic. All but the final story are set before the novels. I would recommend holding off on that final story until you've read the first novel, but that's the only bump in the road.

After reading the comics, you can then go straight ahead and pick up A GENTLEMANS GAME. It's the first novel and was chillingly prescient, dealing with a terrorist attack on the London underground.

The second book, PRIVATE WARS, really saw Rucka playing with things that perhaps couldn't have been done with the comic, and saw the characters really grow into their new format.

And then, of course, there' the cracking third book, THE LAST RUN, which brings everything to a dark and grisly head.

And I'm sure Greg Rucka wouldn't begrudge me a chance to also pimp THE SANDBAGGERS. It's just been given a shiny new release. It's a big outlay for a show you've never seen, but it's well worth it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The international Three-Day Novel Contest

John McFetridge

About ten years ago I was working on various movie sets in Toronto, usually in the ‘locations department’ which means getting there before anyone else and prepping things – putting out garbage cans, setting up signs to direct people to ‘extras holding’ – and then staying after everyone else has gone and taking down all the signs, emptying the garbage cans and trying to get everything back to the same condition it was before the crew arrived.

I was writing screenplays at the time, how cliche is that? I was also trying to write short stories but mostly I was quitting writing. I quit writing the way people give up smoking, I’d stop for a while and tell everyone I’d stopped and be a pain in the ass and then I’d start up again. Like a lot of people who quit smoking I was very successful at quitting writing – I did it many, many times.

This time when I quit I was about halfway through a short story that was set on a movie set. I told people I was quitting writing and one of the other crew members, Scott Albert, (he was either a driver or a PA at the time) asked to see my short story in progress.

Then Scott had an idea. There’s this thing called The International Three-Day Novel Competition every Labour Day weekend and he asked if I’d be interested in entering. I said yes, thinking it would be my three-day binge to say farewell to writing.

The rules say novels can be prepped before Labour Day (it’s really an honour system) so Scott and I made up a movie shoot, Life and Death in Little Italy, and scheduled it like a real movie, named the director and the movie stars and put in the ‘big events’ like the day the director gets fired, the day the movie star doesn’t show up and so on, and then over the Labour Day week-end we each wrote short stories about “below the line” crew members working on the movie. (a movie’s budget is divided into “above the line” expenses which are producers, director and movie stars and “below the line” expenses which are equipment rental, studios, locations and the rest of the crew.)

We called the book Below the Line, wrote it in the three days and submitted it to the contest.

We didn’t win, but we did have a first draft which is really the point of the contest. So then we followed the usual route, we sent query letters and sample chapters to a bunch of publishers and a few wanted to see the whole manuscript and then one, Signature Editions, wanted to publish the book. It came out in 2003 and it may be available as an e-book by the end of this year. Right now it's only available as a paperback.

The experience of having that book published was so good, I decided to try and write another novel and that became Dirty Sweet. And I’ve only quit writing three or four times since then.

So, Labour Day is coming up in a few weeks and there’s still time to register for The International Three-Day Novel Contest.

I have been kicking around the idea of a "Three-Day Crime Novel Contest," and I wondwr if there would be any interest in that?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The End

I've been talking a bit about the ending of LOST lately. It keeps coming up, as I reminisce with friends about old shows we used to love to talk about and speculate about.

And I keep thinking about the ending. And how disappointed I was in it. I loved nearly all of the show... even the first hour and fifteen minutes of the finale. I felt the creators were going to do it, were going to get it done.

And then, the last fifteen minutes completely invalidated a part of the show for me. It's just an opinion. I don't hate the creators for their ending. It was their ending, and they should stand by it. There are some people who love it, and it is their right to.

But it gets me thinking about writers and their endings. Endings are hard. They need to have an emotional impact, they need to be full of tension and excitement and they need to be satisfying. And they need to hold true that has come before it.

Those are high stakes.

When I write, I rarely have an ending in mind. I follow the characters, see where it takes me and hope the ending comes about organically. And with each of my novels, the ending has been revised several times until I got to something that fit.

But it stuns me when most writers say they have an ending in mind when they start. When I start I'm still learning the characters and what they want. The ending can't come until I know that.

The creators of LOST said they had their ending in mind--the final shot--when they started. I believed that, but I don't know that you can be beholden to that.

Endings are hard.

Ending this blog post is hard.

I think GET SHORTY said it best.

What do you look for in an ending? Can an ending completely invalidate a story for you? Can it completely redeem a story for you? What are some of the best and/or worst endings you've read?

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Writer's Moral Responsibility?

Unless you live under a rock and communicate with smoke signals, you've probably heard that Amy Winehouse died. Now, I couldn't name a single song by Winehouse to save my life. Not until she died.

I mean, I'd certainly heard her name, but it was always associated with scandal. I knew she was a singer. That was the extent of it.

Now, I could tell you the name of at least one song: Rehab. And that's the song that prompts this post, because in the wake of Winehouse's death at the age of 27, there were a lot of people commenting on her death, the reasons she died so young, and what, if anything, could have been done to save her from her path to self-destruction.

One commentator went so far as to state that it was not only a mistake to give Winehouse a Grammy for Rehab, but that she might still be alive if she hadn't won the coveted prize.

Her most famous song may have been about substance abuse, but it mocked urges and demands to enter a rehab facility for her addiction problems. Then, in 2008, 24 years old and in the midst of story after story about her drug abuse, Amy Winehouse won Grammy Awards for best record of the year, best song of the year and best new artist of the year

With those awards, a message was sent: Mock addiction, create a rallying cry for those in its grip, blow your life up in every aspect other than financial success and name recognition, and you will be rewarded with the industry's gold medals. Today, at age 27, she is dead. The cause of death is unknown, but drugs took a toll on her life even if they did not they cause her death.
We, of course, do not know what will become of Winehouse's artistic legacy: Her singing talent was compared to Billie Holiday's, and there was a lot of talent in her. But her industry should take a lesson from her short life and early death and create a legacy of it -- or at least learn something from it.

A good place to start learning the lesson is the Grammy Awards nominating committee. Did they have any problem or pause whatsoever in emptying their cabinet of awards for such a song or such a character?

Did one judge say: "Wait, I think we might be sending the wrong message here"? Or, rather, did they do everything they could to get her to the Grammy Awards even after she was barred from entering the United States? The answer is the latter -- and she appeared for her awards by video feed from Great Britain.

It now looks like Amy Winehouse joins the sad list of other talented entertainers whose lives were cut down by drug abuse. Citing the drug-fueled deaths of other troubled musicians at the same age, some are speculating there is something special, or ominous, about the age of 27. But change the age by just a few years, and you still have too much evidence of too much talent cut too short by substance abuse. From Heath Ledger to Brittany Murphy to River Phoenix to Andy Gibb to Elvis Presley, the list just goes on and on. Age is not the problem; drug abuse is.

In light of Winehouse's death, it is my hope that there is a lot of introspection in the entertainment industry and that the producers and Grammy heads are asking themselves how they might take the problems and plights of the falling star in front of them more seriously, seeing the performer more as a person and less as a royalty check.

Now, I have to admit, my reaction to this piece surprised me. I mean, I've been known to claim the moral high ground a time or two. And the idea of Winehouse's song is appalling to me. Mocking rehabilitation, mocking the efforts of those who try to get people help so that they can live free from addiction? Yeah, there's probably a reason I don't know Winehouse's music - it's of no interest to me.

But when it comes to giving awards, is that the consideration?


As authors, we're entertainers. Some of us may write more obvious entertainment, and some of us may write things we hope inspire people to think about serious matters at times. But in determining the best book of the year, or best song, or album or short story or movie, our primary focus can't be on the message.

It's when we get sidetracked on secondary issues that we lose focus on the real issue; great writing. I don't know that I would have agreed if I'd watched the Grammy Awards the year Winehouse won, but that doesn't matter either. What matters is that the committee should use the criteria for evaluating the music, and determine the best contender in each category. The awards weren't set up with the stated objective of making a moral statement or setting a certain type of example.

I have a cousin (third) who's an award-winning songwriter, and some might think this song he co-wrote and won awards for isn't the best example, either. I think it's a great song, and deserving of the awards it won. The writing's superb, and it does its job; it entertains.

Whatever moral responsibility we have, I think is for us to determine. And I don't think it's write to put that burden on organizations. What's next - reviewers? Amy Winehouse expressed a sentiment in her song. It may not be one I can relate to or agree with, but she gave people a chance to see where she was coming from, and she made it clear where she was at. And at the very least, her family should in time be able to live with the knowledge that you can't help someone who doesn't want to be saved. Winehouse's fate was of her own choosing, and if she hadn't won those awards, it probably wouldn't have made a difference.

Agree? Disagree?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The care and feeding of a writer

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Being a writer means you have to be an independent worker. You have to self-motivate. You have to be willing to ignore the lure of social media or solitaire on your computer and get work done. While there are lots of people involved in turning a manuscript into a book, a writer works alone to create that book. There is no one sitting next to you that makes you log in your time.

Self-motivation is important as a writer. The best self-motivators feel compelled to sit at their computers every day and log a certain amount of words or pages in. Which is awesome. However, writers often forget that while getting pages done is important, so it taking care of themselves.

So here are a few things that writers need to remember to add to the check list along with all those pages written and words typed. (And yes, I am writing this now because I tend to forget to do these things and need a swift kick in the rear.)

1. Get enough rest – writers have to write when they have the time. For me, this is often at night after the tot is in bed. Too often, I am up until 1a.m. letting my fingers do the walking. My body can handle doing this once in a while, but every night for weeks mean running myself down. If your body is tired, your mind will be tired, too. Writing tired can mean writing sloppy. Take the time to get some sleep so you don’t have to do twice the amount of work on the editing end.

2. Eat well – this is kind of like the sleep thing. Writers have to sit for hours on end in front of the computer which requires energy and stamina. It is easy to say “It’s not like I’m running a marathon” and reach for the bag of potato chips, but remember you are running your own kind of marathon. A novel takes weeks and months to create. You need to keep up your enthusiasm and energy for the project in order to reach THE END. A body fueled only by crap won’t be up to the challenge.

3. Read – This one gets me every time. Every writer I know started out as a voracious reader. Before getting published, I used to read between 150-200 books a year. Now I’m lucky if I read 40 or 50, but I make sure to take the time in between projects to read because it reminds me of my passion for the written word. It also keeps me looking at voice, character arcs and pacing in new and interesting ways. Reading will help you remember why you love this business when you are ready to kick the business in the ass.

4. Get away from the computer screen – Writers, performers, musicians and artists are inspired by the world around them. In order to find that inspiration, you actually need to get out in the world and roll around in it. Take the time to enjoy family outings, take walks around the neighborhood and experience the world around you in between getting those words on the page. You’ll be a happier person and a better writer for it.

5. Give yourself permission to take time off – I’m struggling with this one right now, but I’m working on it. Yes, writers need to write, and when I’m writing a project I write 7 days a week. No one can keep up that pace day in and day out. Take a break between projects to recharge. Take time off on the weekends to regroup. Like any job, you need to take vacations (and this means more than an hour or two here or there) to really get away from work. After a week or a month or even a summer you will better remember and appreciate the reason you write. And don’t we all do better when we are doing something we love?