Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fall TV – More 60’s

John McFetridge

We may have to wait until January for our Mad Men fix, but there are at least a couple of other TV shows starting this fall that will take us back to the 60’s; The Playboy Club and Pan Am. Interestingly, both are sort of crime fiction.

The Playboy Club is described as, “the early ‘60s, and the legendary Playboy Club in Chicago is the door to all of your fantasies — and the key is the most sought-after status symbol of its kind. Inside the seductive world of the bunny, the epitome of beauty and service, the clientele rubs shoulders with the decade’s biggest mobsters, politicos and entertainers. Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian, “CSI: Miami”) is one of the city’s top attorneys and the ultimate playboy, rubbing elbows with everyone in the city’s power structure. With mysterious ties to the mob, Nick comes to the aid of Maureen (Amber Heard, “Zombieland”), the stunning and innocent new bunny who accidentally kills the leader of the Bianchi crime family.”

Just when we’re told that period drama AND mob stories are out of fashion, we get both in one show.

I think the timing is just off for me. When I turned eighteen (late 70’s) the Playboy club seemed so old fashioned and phony. Far from the “door to all my fantasies,” it seemed like the place where has-been comedians made bad jokes about women who clearly didn’t want to be there.

Over the summer I managed to get my hands on the pilot script for Pan Am and right away I saw where with good CGI it’ll have some fantastic looking scenes; there’s a helicopter ride across Manhattan, scenes in European cities and even a Cuban rescue. There’s a lot packed into the pilot episode (at least the script), including a spy story.

Likely both shows will have scenes of women being measured and weighed and being reprimanded if they’re too “heavy.” I know Pan Am has such a scene in the script (and I think I’ve seen it in the promos, “Are you wearing your girdle?”) and it might be impossible for The Playboy Club to avoid.

This all seems like a kind of candy-coated nostalgia, but who knows, maybe both shows will be terrific. What I like to take from this is, don’t take advice about what’s ‘in’ seriously and just write what you want – period, mob, spy, whatever.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Getting There

It's a weird thing.

I've been banging away at this second draft of my novel for what feels like forever. I knew my first draft was a complete mess (as it should be), that I didn't know my characters well enough yet, there wasn't enough tension, and all the motivations didn't work well.

And, to me, knowing that is half the battle. I know where the problems are, and fixing them, while keeping the same skeleton, can be a problem. What makes these characters--which were originally just chess pieces--do what they do? What is coming off as false in the novel? What rings hollow?

And this book, well, this book has been a bitch.

Characters didn't feel realistic. Motivations felt like they'd been done before and some were way to complicated. In my head, the set-up was really simple. On paper, it was like I vomited ideas.

And, so, I started to bang away at the revisions. I started cutting, like I was pulling trees out at their roots. Characters became different, but better. More real.

But it felt mucky. I threw every trick in the book at the novel. Combining characters, cutting whole characters, eliminating ideas, outlining my revisions. But each day I tried to get closer to the ending. It's been hard. Blood from a stone hard.

But today I looked up and I was... at the biggest plot twist in the book. I was at the start of the 3rd act. I was... getting there.

And that felt really good.

I'm not done yet. Not yet.

But I'm getting there.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Generating Character Names in Fiction

By Steve Weddle

Cal Innes. Matt Scudder. Billy Lafitte. Angel Dare. Ray Dudgeon.

How do you come up with character names?

One way is to combine names of people you know. Kieran Holm. Sabrina O'Shea. Julie Donovan. Pop Culture Monkey.

Another way is to figure out when you character was born and hit the webernet. For example, if your character was born in the 1960s, you could hit the SSA's popular names for the 60s and come up with "Marc." But what about a last name?

You can always hit the Random Name Generator for some fun. Roxie Coltharp? Erik Altom? Florintina Abershams? Well, OK.

How memorable do you want the name to be? Steve? Dave? Jay? John? Scott? Sandra? Or something a little less ordinary. Joelle? Or Russel with just the one "l"?

If your story takes place in 1850s New England, you'll want to dig in a particular place, of course.

I'm working on some stories that take place round about now down in southwest Arkansas and northwest Louisiana. Where I grew up. Where my people are.

I'm fortunate in many ways, one of those is that I know who my people are. We're talking back centuries. See, Grandpa Micajah was born around 1725. My kinfolk have pieced together a substantial amount of genealogical information.

I have, in my possession, a hardback book of a couple hundred pages of everyone on my mom's side I'm related to. Yeah, pretty much every damn person. From Verdie Holt in Idabel to David Toms on the 18th green. I know that my uncle Aubrey went by "Pete" and that Cleo was called "Preacher." Emma Sue was buried at the Falcon Cemetery and Faye moved off the Bethel and had a mess of young 'uns.

Since the stories I'm writing now take place in this community, I essentially have thousands of character names just waiting for me to use. Averdale. Buck. Delsie. And last names, too. Vandiver. Cates. Lacewell. Most folks would probably come up with some clever way to use all of these names. Maybe they'd create their own random name generator.

Here's what I did. I wrote down a list of first names in one column and last names in another. Then, when I need a name, I pull from each. Who cuts hair in back of Mr. Womack's? Why, that's Mertis Boushank, it is. What son of a bitch was it that shot Hubert Buckner back in aught-three? Why, that was Obadiah Stokes. And the bitch was Viola Stokes.

This works because I'm working one place and I have a fantastic resource. When I need to pull a name from ye olden dayse, say the 1840s, I just thumb around to some folks who were born around then and I've got some names. Major Hugh. Monroe Jefferson. And then I can pull last names from anywhere in the book or -- more likely -- use the name of whatever family they fit with. I'm not sure I know anyone named Pribble, but in my stories, they're a nasty, brutish lot.

So that's how I came up with names for this latest collection, a set of stories taking place mostly in Columbia County, Arkansas, mostly about now.

How do you come up with your names? Or what are some cool names in stories, the kind of names that seem perfect for the characters?
Later today, I'll grab a name from the comments and send that person a copy of SOUTHERN GODS by John Hornor Jacobs. That sound cool?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Great expectations

by: Joelle Charbonneau

More often than not, I choose not to read books that are given a lot of hype. Maybe it’s my contrary nature – I tend to avoid being one of the people that goes along with the crowd. I still haven’t read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and it took me several years before I cracked the cover of the first Harry Potter book. (I admit that I have since read and enjoyed each and every one!)

A few months ago, a new book in a genre I have decided to dabble writing in was released with a great deal of fanfare. My husband knew I was experimenting in this genre and bought me this much hyped book. It wasn’t until last weekend, when I was done putting the final touching on my own manuscript, that I cracked the cover of the book and started to read.

Before I started writing, I read every book from coover to cover. Nowadays, my TBR pile is so immense that I find myself being much pickier. If the story doesn’t grab me in the first 30 pages, I put the book down and move on. In this case, the combination of hype and my own experimentation of the genre had me turning the pages waiting for the story to pull me in long past the point where I would have normally given up. I waited for the thriller aspects of the book I'd seen reviewed to begin.

It never did.

After almost 500 pages of reading, I reached the end of the book feeling unsatisfied with almost every level of the storytelling. The worldbuilding felt superficial. The character grown was either non-existent or rushed and the climax of the book felt tacked on and unimportant. And come to think of it, I’m not really sure I could define the main plot of the book.

So why the hype?

Got me. But this debut novel has racked up US sales, will soon be released in dozens of languages and has even sold the film rights. Now, I’ve read books I haven’t loved before – a few of them were hyped more than this one. Perhaps it is my fledgling attempt at the genre that has made me feel so dissatisfied with my reaction to this one. And I have to wonder if I'm the only one. So tell me - have you had this happen to you? Have you cracked the cover on a book the rest of the world loved only to find you hated it? Have you wondered whether anyone else read the same book you did? Did you ever go back and reread it later just in case you were wrong? And if you have read a book that didn’t live up to the hype, did you tell people that you didn’t like it or did you keep silent and assume you were the only one?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Seven-Course Storytelling or A La Carte?

Scott D. Parker

What do Harry Potter and Donald Draper have in common?

I've been catching up on "Mad Men" these past couple of weeks. Last year, in the show's fourth season, I decided to sample "Man Men" and see what all the hubbub was about. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but realized I was probably missing a lot of context. So, my wife and I have been blazing through the first three seasons this month. Marvelous storytelling, to be sure, and the historian part of me revels in the period details. Heck, we've kept going and are now re-watching season 4 now that we know the whole story.

It was in watching the first few episode of season 4 again that I realized something crucial to Man Men's storytelling: the show doesn't bother to fill in the gaps. This became crystal clear to me while re-watching season 4 and seeing conversations I saw last year but with new eyes. When Don references his trip to California to a new character, he just says it. There aren't any slow-mo flashback scenes to bring new viewers up-to-speed. You either knew the reference and smiled or you didn't and moved on. Frankly, last year, when I watched season 4 the first time, I had to ask a friend for some background. It helped, but what helped more was watching seasons 1 through 3.

The Harry Potter films are the same way. If you think the movie "Serenity"--the feature film based on TV's "Firefly"--was, in essence a thank-you card for fans of the TV show, you might see the Harry Potter films as the ultimate reward to fans of the book. In the week leading up to this summer's last movie, my wife and I re-watched (a lot of that, huh?) films 2-7.1. We've read the books so we know what's in store for us as we watch each film. But there isn't a recap at the beginning of each film. You're just supposed to know what's going on. The editing of the final film--broken into two parts--was abrupt. Part One just ended and Part Two almost literally picked up right where the first one left off. Again, that's okay, for folks "in the know," as we don't necessarily want to be bothered by needless recaps.

What about the rest of the people? As fantastic as the Harry Potter films are, one they started being made, you pretty much had to catch up. I doubt any newcomer just up and decided to watch Movie #5. Well, they could have, but they'd be lost. Mad Men is a little less like that, but I'm getting a whole lot of new meaning in scenes and lines of dialogue now that I know the whole story.

Building a mythology for a TV show or movie series is like building a silo. It separates us from other people. You're either a fan of the exploits of Don Draper or he just that guy Jon Hamm plays in that TV show. You either know what a Muggle is or you don't. I'm perfectly fine with building silos. It's a good way to interact with others and enjoy yourself. But is it limiting?

Mad Men gained two new fans with my wife and I because of good storytelling and production values. Last year, we knew we were missing stuff, but the episodes were good so we just went with the flow. We joined the Mad Men silo, are proud members, and think the writing is above average in almost every category.

But I also like my mainstream network shows, too. There's something nice about the a la carte nature of shows like "Castle," "CSI: Miami," or "Monk" that's different than the seven-course-meal nature of shows in which there is a set mythology. The a la carte show may have a backstory, but it'll either be explained or it's not really that important.

Here's my main question about these different types of shows and the writing therein: which is better? Which wins awards?

It it any wonder that Man Men consistently wins the outstanding drama awards? Is it any wonder why people think "The Wire" is almost the best cop show TV ever produced? Silo shows, like Mad Men and Harry Potter, by cutting themselves off from traditional mainstream-type storytelling, produce more expansive canvases. Without the limitations of network rules or, in the book world, reader expectations set by brand-name authors, silo stories flourish with genuine, in-depth characterizations and story arcs.

What do you think?

Video of the Week: OK Go doing "The Muppet Show Theme" I love the Muppets and was really jazzed to discover that there is a tribute album out now called "The Green Album." OK GO gets the nod to do the opening track and, while the version is trippy (and far from my favorite track on the album), the video is pretty darn entertaining. Give it a look.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rewriting History

By Russel D McLean

I recently read Shaft, the novel by Ernest Tidyman that of course would also become one of the coolest films ever made.

Shaft is actually a well-written novel, a real fast mover, and just an entertaining read. But one part in particular suck out like a sore thumb. The blatant and rather distaseteful homophobia that sneaks through the novel. At one point, Shaft notices a “queer” checking him out. He gives the guy a wink and says he’ll be at a place in Central Park about one am. The other guy nods excitedly and Shaft leaves the coffee house where he’s been using the phone hoping that the gay man knows karate so that he’ll last ten minutes or so against those muggers. Yeah, he’s setting the guy up just for looking at him funny.

It’s a strange moment in the book, and jarring to someone of my generation. But after reaching the end of the sequence I remembered when the book was written and the prevailing attitudes of the time and place. I accepted it was part of the book’s contemporaneous nature and moved on.

But others might not.

It made me think about the guys who want to remove That Word from Huckleberry Finn or the talk about removing some of the more dated and racist jokes from early episodes of Sitcoms of the seventies.


Its all about context. Viewing these things with the knowledge that they are historical documents and that time has moved on, you come to gain an understanding about where and when they were written. Your unease at the references allows you to reflect on why these words and ideas are offensive or unsettling.

But what about the children, I hear you cry.

You know what, you can talk openly and frankly to the children about how times have changed and how such ideas are no longer acceptable. You can help your children to understand how times change, how people are capable of change and how society is different now.
I don’t believe its right to change documents as they were written to reflect modern attitudes and ideas. I believe it is better to place the documents in context, to debate, engage with and understand why they say what they say, why they use the ideas and the words that they do.

Because otherwise we are rewriting history, forgetting the past.

And you know what they say about those who forget the past…

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Controversy Sells

By Jay Stringer

In which there is some offensive language, and for once, it's not coming from me.

I've compared publishing to pro-wrestling on here before. It's not the most accurate comparison in the world, but it's closer than it has any right to be. Where I really compare them is in marketing. Controversy sells. Just ask Val McDermid and Ian Rankin. Ask Eisler. Konrath. Ask Alan Moore. There's nothing better when you have something to sell than to stick your head above the parapet, give some soundbite of controversy, then retreat. No sooner is DC pushing a Green Lantern storyline across it's whole line, then Alan Moore is giving an interview pointing out that the story is inspired by stuff he wrote 20 years ago, and the news cycle goes a-spinning, and books both old and new get sold, and everyone goes home happy. I suspect writers like Geoff Johns, deep down, are no more upset over being name checked by Alan Moore than some modern wrestler is about Rick Flair or Hulk Hogan talking them down in public. Because it gets the names and the work out there.

It is pro wrestling.

And I'm not knocking it, because it works. You wait till I have my book deal, I'll be giving interviews where I say that Professor Steve Weddle told me he stole his beard from Conan O'Brien, or that me and Dave White are now locked in a silent feud because he didn't cast me in his latest book. And it might not end me up on the NYT best sellers list, but if I use the right words, and mention the right people, then it'll get me enough google hits and news pickups to buy me a few cups of coffee.

Writers do this all the time, and I enjoy watching the game. Sometimes I'll play along, sometimes I'll stand and laugh, but I rarely let any of it sink in past the most superficial layers.

But something nagged at me this week. I started off bemused, then I got angry, then I moved on to the def con 5 of modern life- blogging.

Grant Morrison is a damn good writer. He's written many of the most creative and exciting comics of the past three decades. He can be guilty of following the idea rather than the story, and drifting into a dead end, but when he gets it right, he gets it very right. He's also been to the school of Alan Moore marketing, because he's getting better and better at the packaged controversy. He can give interviews filled with 'frank' and 'honest' views that also, miraculously, happen to contain the right words and phrases to chum the water and create a feeding frenzy. It's a skill. An art. Chuck Wending could probably blog on the 25 things you need to know about marketing the Alan Moore way, and it would be amazing.

Grants been giving a few interviews of late, because he has a book to sell. So as I was reading his latest, with Rolling Stone, I was chuckling along as he ticked each box.

You want something where I compare Superman to socialism? Check. You want a sound byte about the death of the comics industry? Check. Want some fuel onto the fire of a feud with Mark Millar? Checkity-Check.

But then he goes and starts throwing around the concepts of misogyny and rape. And somewhere deep down you're thinking, is Jay really going to blog today about the subjects of misogyny and rape? Well, kinda. Here's some of the relevant extracts from the interview, then I'll try and explain whats pulling my bass string around my gut. I'm going to quote a bigger chunk than usual, just to give the words some context. (And here's where the offensive language creeps in, be warned.)

You were very kind to Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis in Supergods.
I was trying to be kind because I like Brad Meltzer. He's a nice guy. I have a lot of interesting conversations with him so I tried to focus on what I thought was good about it and there was actually quite a lot when I read it again. The first time I read it I was kind of outraged. I thought this was just… why? What the fuck is this, really? It wasn't even normal. It was outrageous. It was preposterous because of the Elongated Man with his arms wrapped several times around the corpse of his wife. I thought something is broken here. Something has gone so wrong in this image.

That plotline faced a lot of criticism, in part because people saw it as misogynistic.
It's hard to tell because most men try to avoid misogyny, really they do, in this world we live in today. It's hard for me to believe that a shy bespectacled college graduate like Brad Meltzer who's a novelist and a father is a really setting out to be weirdly misogynistic. But unfortunately when you're looking at this beloved character who's obviously been ass-raped on the Justice League satellite, even saying it kind of takes you to that dot dot dot where you don't know what else to say.

Maybe it's for the best that DC Comics is starting over now.
But I don't know. There's been lots of things, the sexism in DC because it's mostly men who work in these places. Nobody should be trying to say we're taking up a specifically anti-woman stance. I think it would be ignorance or stupidity or some God knows what. I was reading some Alan Moore Marvelman for some reason today. I found one in the back there and I couldn't believe. I pick it up and there are fucking two rapes in it and I suddenly think how many times has somebody been raped in an Alan Moore story? And I couldn't find a single one where someone wasn't raped except for Tom Strong, which I believe was a pastiche. We know Alan Moore isn't a misogynist but fuck, he's obsessed with rape. I managed to do thirty years in comics without any rape!

Okay, there's a whole can of worms here, and I'm not really worthy enough to open it. Much like my many visits to the head-teachers office, we're going to take this one grumble at a time.

Is there misogyny in writing? Hell yes. We've all seen it. We've all, hopefully, been repulsed by it. Some folks are going to be more perceptive of it that others, but we all know that we've come across it. And there are added layers in comics because it's a visual medium. It's not just the writing of poorly chosen words, it's also the drawing of poorly chosen pictures. There's an unacceptable litany of misogyny in the history of super hero comics. But surely you have to pick the right fights, tackle the actual problems, rather than simply name check a few that help you get some press attention?

Also, and this is a theme we've discussed on DSD before when dealing with race and racism, it's surely vital to draw a line between when a writer is covering a misogynist subject matter as a necessary part of character/plot, and when a writer is being misogynist. And in the quotes above, he's doing a very awkward and delicate dance of calling a few folks on it without wanting to be seen to be doing it. He's the guy saying, "I don't wanna call a guy misogynist, but.." And if you're going to go down that road, lets make sure you're going down the right road.

Lets take the first one first. His comments are aimed at Brad Meltzer, and his 2004 story, Identity Crisis. It was a Justice League story, featuring all the shiny nice super heroes you'll remember from Saturday morning cartoons, and it was highly controversial for adding in some dark sexual elements to the storyline. The story starts with the death of a female character, Sue Dibny, and then follows a murder mystery of sorts that leads in some dark places. It's revealed that, at some point in the past, Sue was raped by the villain Doctor Light. To deal with this, the heroes all agreed to use their powers to alter the villains mind, to wipe his memory and alter his personality. Batman, being the all round swell guy that he is, refused to go along with this, and so his colleagues -the good guys- invaded his mind too, wiping his memory of the event so that they can carry out their plan.

Now, the rape itself was horrible. It was a nasty, nasty moment. And it was supposed to be. That surely is the right reaction of such an act. Also, the fact that this was yet another story kicked off with a dead woman doesn't always sit easily. If you're going to use that as a catalyst for a story, you need to make sure you're doing in for the right reasons, and that your story is good enough to earn it. Did Identity Crisis earn it? I don't know. I wasn't quite sure what I thought of it at the time. I wasn't completely sold that the story needed to be told, or that those acts needed to be depicted. At the same time, the story itself was using them to ask some interesting allegorical questions. As much as we could spend a whole blog discussing the vile act that's depicted aimed towards a woman, we could also dedicate a lot of time to the issues about the mind wiping. Heroes decide to punish a criminal by changing who he is. They do the same to one of the good guys, all in the idea that the end justifies the means. It's a story that depicts acts of mental invasion that are counterpoints to the physical acts that kicked off the story, and it's really asking, are these acts justified?

6 years later and I've never felt the need to re-read that story. But then, I don't feel the need to jump into bed and crack open the spine on The Killer Inside Me or The black Dahlia. But they were great and challenging books. Is Identity Crisis deserving of being compared to those books? Not really, and as I said, I've never fully digested whether or not I thought the story worked. But I could see what it was aiming for, and I could see why it thought it earned the use of those nasty moments, and that in itself is enough for me to hold back from making accusations of the writer.

Next up, Alan Moore. Now, Moore is something of an easy target for comic writers wanting to make waves. He makes enough of his own 'pro wrestling marketing' comments to set himself up for a fall. But -and I stand to be corrected here- he talks about the work, about the quality of the stories and the abilities of the writers. He takes swipes at what he perceives (or what his marketing persona perceives) as a tired old industry peddling thirty year old ideas. And as much as these comments earn the ire of the Internet, they are a world removed from calling someones morality into question or saying they are "obsessed with rape." Shit, those of us here at DSD, and many of you who read and have shared your work with us, write some dark dark things. And we'll take criticism of our abilities and our work on the chin. But to make accusations about our character?

Alan Moore is one of my biggest influences. So I've read all of the work that Morrison is referring to. You know what? There's been some rape in there along the way. But looking back over, say, the forty year career of a crime novelist or screenwriter, you'll find a few instances of the same thing, mixed in with many other dark deeds. But do we simply hide behind statistics, or do we give the writer the benefit of context and story? Morrison doesn't make it clear which Miracleman issue he's referring too, and I don't have my (coughdigitalcough) copies to hand to sift through. But I can give an example of his writing in another well known story, WATCHMEN. It's a remarkable piece of fiction, and it has a horrible rape scene in it. If you've seen the film, then you've seen a version of that scene. It's uncomfortable and nasty in the film, but then, the whole film is uncomfortable and nasty, so put it to one side while we talk about Moore's work.

Sally Jupiter spurns the advances of Eddie "The Comedian" Blake, so he brutally attacks and proceeds to sexually assault her. He is caught in the act by one of the other male characters. Again, it's a nasty scene, and again, it's supposed to be. As a man kicks and punches a woman, we see the image of an ape in the background, the connection is clear, this is a man acting like an animal. We see the pain caused to the woman, and there's nothing glorifying about it, we are repulsed. When he is stopped, when another character intervenes, we then see two men fighting, making the other connection, sex and violence, men trying to impose themselves. And in the next moment, after Eddie has been chased off, we see the 'hero' of the moment unable or unwilling to offer any sympathy or condolence. He tells Sally, "for gods sake, cover yourself," showing that he is as caught up in the underlying issues of identity and power as Eddie. It's a well written, well drawn, powerful scene. It repels us in the way that it should, and it reveals elements of character in the way that earns it's use.

Why am I going into such detail about the scene? Well, first I think it's important to judge a writers intentions by actually reading the context, to see how the act was used, and why. Does it tell us anything about the characters? Was there a way to get the same effect without using such a charged concept? Are we seeing the character at work, or is this direct from the mind of the writer?

And the other reason is because of what Morrison says near the end of the extract I quoted. "We know Alan Moore isn't a misogynist but fuck, he's obsessed with rape. I managed to do thirty years in comics without any rape." Again, "I'm not saying he's misogynist but..." Why phrase it that way, or even in anywhere near that context, other than to get away with sliding in a dig while saying that you're doing the exact opposite?

Man, that Moore guy, he's weird, look at all the nasty shit he's written. I've never written anything like that. Especially since he takes such umbrage at a "beloved character being ass-raped," as he so considerately puts it. Except, as it happens, there is a comic in the attic at my parents where Grant Morrison depicted Dan Dare being held down by soldiers while a Mekon did a nasty thing to him from behind. In Downing Street. In front of the colluding Prime Minister. Cut to a picture of Big Ben in what looks like a condom, and the Mekon saying, "Think of England, Colonel Dare, it's more than England ever did for you." After the act, Dare even feebly thanks the Mekon for humiliating him.

Twenty years on and Morrison probably wouldn't write that scene. Twenty years on and I don't find it anywhere near as edgy and deep as I thought it was back then. Now I find it uncomfortable and nasty. Now I find that he's using a horrible act for political effect. He's showing Dan Dare, one of the leading symbols of British comics and an establishment figure, being violated by the state. Twenty years on, we've all changed. But you give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Or you try to. That's what he deserves, right? The benefit of context and story, before you start making accusations?

And sure, an act of male on male violation isn't misogyny, but I feel the point remains the same. It's still about depicting that act, an act of taking someone's choice, someone's space and identity, and using it to please yourself or make a point. So how is it then, that it's okay for Morrison to depict such a horrible act in 1990, to make a symbolic point about the icons and politics of the day, but that it's not okay for Alan More to depict the act in 1986, in a moment that revealed character and plot? It's not okay for Brad Meltzer to depict the act in 2005, in a story that is trying (if not succeeding) to raise valid moral questions?

Within the last couple of weeks, I had a strong reaction to an episode of a TV show. A woman is brought into the episode as an authority figure, it seemed, simply to walk around the set while a male character makes vile sexual comments about her, before he shoots her twice, takes her authority away, and then incinerates her. And I'm not playing those things up for effect, they're exactly what happened. And I was pushed away by this. I felt that the story didn't earn it. I felt there was something nasty at the heart of it, but not a valid nasty, not something that had been earned. My initial reaction was to talk to people about the misogyny of the story, about what it said about the writer. Then I found out the episode was written by a woman and, while that doesn't meant it can't have been misogynist, it made me think twice. It gave me enough pause to make sure that I didn't go shouting about it, or making any public accusations. I've spent time since then trying to decide whether what I was reacting to was an abhorrent underlying message, or whether it was simply bad writing.

Because that's surely the basic point, right? The quality of the writing. Good writing earns the use of dark and nasty deeds. Bad writing hides behind the use of dark and nasty deeds.

Here's where my anger is coming from; Rape, Mysogyny, exploitation, violence against women (or violence against any victim, frankly) are difficult issues. they are complex issues. They're not something that can be done justice in a Rolling Stone interview any more than they can be done justice in a ranty blog by a crime writer. These themes are the bread and butter of crime fiction, and they are issues that any responsible, self-respecting writer thinks long and hard about before tackling. As writers, we write about a world where characters say racist things, a world where women are victimised, and where children are abandoned. And we have to be honest about these things. Honest enough to over them, whilst also honest enough to make sure we're covering them the right way.

There are still too many inappropriate representations of each of these things in the mainstream media. There are still battles to be fought there.

Do we fight these battles by having a considered debate? By letting good writing and brave writers nudge us toward these issues? OR do we simply toss them around in thinly veiled jabs at other writers to sell our books? And as writers, don't we have a responsibility to our colleagues to treat them with the same respect we'd want? A responsibility to give them the support they need to examine dark themes, without fear of being singled out?

As much as these issues are probably too big for a Thursday morning article on a website, I also think they're too big to casually toss out in the middle of a promo interview. If Morrison really believes in the issues, and really believes that these writers need to be called on them, then surely there's a better way to do it, and a greater conversation to be had. Alternatively, he doesn't really believe it, and is simply using such sensitive issues and such tactless comments to sell his book.

Maybe there are some places that pro wrestling shouldn't go.

I'd be interested to hear your views on those questions, and on where you draw the line. Are there any acts that you don't think a writer should depict? And what do you think a writer needs to do in order to earn the use of those acts in a story? And after I've taken my soap box to shout some negatives, I'd be interested to hear some positives; which writers do you think are best at earning the use of terrible acts? Which writers have done their dark subject matter justice through good writing?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Writing is a Solitary Pursiut, er, Pursuit

John McFetridge

This week I’m going over the final copy edits on my novel, Tumblin’ Dice (and just to continue Dave’s post from yesteray, to be published March 1st, 2012. Here’s a little more about it and here’s the Amazon page .

If you’ve read any of my books you know it’s not an easy job for a copy editor. I try to let the characters tell the story and, like me, many of them have only a loose grasp of grammar and punctuation (it turns out I have no idea when to use a dash and only a vague idea what a comma is for). Sometimes I think the mistakes work well to get across the voice and the feel of what I’m after and sometimes they’re just mistakes. The copy editor can’t know which is which so she has to mark them all – five, six, ten per page. I’ve worked hard over the years to improve my spelling (and spell check sure helps) but sometimes the copy editor catches things like the “Northern Lights Theatre” is actually spelled “Theater” and the Ram’s Head Live in Baltimore is actually spelled “Rams Head Live” with no apostrophy (even, as the copy editor noted, “if it kills me”). She even corrected my mixing up the porn stars Bree Olson and Bobbi Starr in the Scooby Doo parody.

And this is just the copy editing after I’ve had meetings with my editor and gone over the entire manuscript and followed (some of) his suggestions.

And this after my “first readers” read the manuscript and gave some very good suggestions.

And this is after I first proposed the book to the publisher and we talked about what direction it would take, how closely it might be tied to the previous books and what characters might be in it and I followed a lot of his advice.

And this is after I bored my wife for months talking about, “this idea for a book about a rock band from the 70’s who get back together and play the casino circuit.”

So, while the sitting down and writing is solitary (and now that I’m a grumpy old man that means no music, no internet, no distractions at all), the production of a book could have a credit list very similar to that of a movie or TV show. When my first book was published I joked that I didn’t want to have an acknowledgement page because I’d either have to leave so many people out or it would be as long as the book itself.

A long time ago I took courses in Creative Writing at Concordia University and for a while I was in a writers’ group.

So, for me, writing has always been a pretty social activity. What about you, are you in a writers’ group? Do you have people who read and critique your work? How social is writing for you these days?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Have Some Fun With It

I've noticed a little trend with Twitter.

Okay, it's a big trend.

Well, it's like a tidal wave of trends without a hashtag for said trend.

Wellll, let's hashtag it anyway. #hashtaglesswritertrend

It's the fact that people with books out do one of two things... they either over post the link to that Kindle, Amazon, Indiebound, Borders (okay, not Borders... really... have you been reading the news? I tried to slip that one by you), or Barnes and Noble site that has their book on it. "BUUUYYYY my book," they say. "Come on, people, let's sell some books today."

And it's all they do.

Then there's this guy... the "I'm not going to do that guy." The passive aggresive, my book is out today, I'm going to post a link to it and then pretend like I never did and not really care if anyone buys it even though I care more than you know. I'll retweet every mention of me and hope it catches on that way.

(I'm a little of both of these people on Twitter, btw, I am not innocent in all of this. Well, I'm kind of innocent. All right, I'm just a plain hypocrite... I do these things all the time).

But I'm here to say something... It's time we have a little fun being an author. It's time to stop taking ourselves so seriously and remember that "HOLY CRAP, I HAVE A FUCKING BOOK OUT THERE!"

Be excited. It's okay. Something good happens to you, shout it from the rooftops. Tell people, hire a skywriter and let your town know about it. Be excited. I don't know about you, but if someone out there isn't excited about their own book, then guess what? Neither am I.

Don't be too cool for school about this. Let your freak flag fly.

At the same time, you don't have to be all self-promo all the time. It can't just be a link to your book. It has to be a link to good reviews. A quote from an email you got from a fan.

Sell your movie rights? Tell us!

Listen. You're human. Writing a book and getting it published is a big deal. Fans understand this. We've been beaten down by too many people telling us selling ourselves is a BAD thing. It's not. Not if you do it right.

Have fun with it. Celebrate your good stuff.

BE EXCITED!!!!!!!!!!!ZOMG!!!!!!!!!

Let me tell you a story:

I was in Boston seeing a concert right around the time my 2nd book came out. As my buddy and I were grabbing a beer, a woman stopped me. In Boston. At a concert. And she said, "I'm sorry, are you Dave White?"

I said, "Yes."

She said, "Your book rocked."

She wasn't star struck. I was. I made her take a picture with me. I got all... giggly. I was excited. I texted my friends and family. I know I blogged about it. Not sure if I had Twitter then, but if I did... I definitely tweeted it.


And that's okay.

You want to shout about the big deals, we're all going to be happy for you. Have fun. It's a book. If you're reading this site, it's like a mystery book.

But don't be boring. Don't tweet links, and don't try to downplay it. Act like you KNOW you have something special on your hands.

Because, you know what? You do.

So, show us.

Shout--USE CAPITAL LETTERS--your good news in the comments below.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Generation of Guinea Pigs

Amongst all the other post secondary certifications I have, I have a Teacher Assistant Diploma. I'm officially qualified to work as an aide (1:1 aide, therapy aide, paraeducator... the titles keep changing but the role is the same) and have worked in a number of preschools, elementary schools, middle schools and even high school.

My nerd fact is that I can do MSA Algebra is my head. The last math teacher I worked with just gave me the papers to mark when we were doing practice tests for review.

When I was studying in college, towards the completion of the diploma program, one of my instructors (who was from New Orleans) talked about why she was an atrocious speller. She grew up in the generation when educators decided that they wouldn't put heavy emphasis on correct spelling. The catchphrase was 'inventive spelling'.

The problem is, when you've grown up with one of these ridiculous new philosophies at work in your education, you're stuck with the results. Educational philosophy shifted, and perhaps some common sense was restored.

But for a generation of students, they struggle in the workplace because they have a difficult time spelling, and it impedes their ability to produce anything in writing for work purposes.

Now, I'm not saying I'm a hardliner, and think that points should be deducted from all papers and essays for every misspelled word. Before someone jumps on me, I'd like to point out that there is a time and place for such philosophies. Particularly if you, like me, spend most of your time working with students with diagnosed learning disabilities. In the work I do, it's often critical that I move the goal posts.

But what I want to touch on is something larger. Schools trying out all kinds of new strategies in order to deal with budget cuts. A few months ago, my best friend told me that her kids' school district had realized that if they extended the school day by just a handful of minutes each day, they cut could several days out of the calendar, and the cost savings of having schools closed more days per year were in the millions.

Five or six extra minutes per day...

What does anyone really think a student learns in a handful of minutes?

I mean, think about the last time you went to some work-related seminar. Were you tuning out 30% of the way through it? Or did you feel you learned material right up until the end? In most cases, it's repetitive. Most of my required annual classes ended early, because the material is either known or it isn't. The divide happens. Test for those ready and the ones who aren't quite there get assistance as they work through the unit.

I'm not going to delve deeply into my thoughts on the problems with education. However, I am going to toss this out as food for thought. If we want to continue to grow readers in this country, a quality education is an important component. Nothing troubles me more than my own personal experience. The kids aren't learning much about grammar, and forming conclusions is definitely not emphasized. Bry's grade 2 teacher really hit the nail on the head when she said Bry could read well beyond her age level, but she didn't comprehend what she was reading. And we've found that to be true. She can spell a lot of words, but doesn't know what they mean.

Unfortunately, getting teachers who can make that kind of astute assessment are few and far between, and while educators play with new philosophies and test out their new ideas, it's the kids in the system who will suffer the consequences if the ideas they're adopting and implementing are bad ones.

As authors, we should all be concerned about how this impacts future generations of potential readers who might not have their skills developed sufficiently, or be turned off of reading altogether.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Things that make me go "hmmm".

by Joelle Charbonneau

Maybe redheads are just suspicious by nature. It could be genetic. Or maybe I just like poking things with a stick. Whatever the reason, over the past week and a half I’ve been watching a few developments over at Amazon with a critical eye.

About 11 or 12 days ago, everyone in the Amazon buying universe got an e-mail announcing their new Kindle Cloud Reader. Not being an e-reading girl, I admit I don’t understand all the cool new features that this gadget is providing. But Amazon must think it is pretty awesome because they have gotten the word out about it in a huge way. I’ve seen tweet after tweet, stories in PW and Publishers Lunch and all sorts of other advertising about it. When Amazon thinks they have a winner, they send marching bands down Main Street and have skywriters streak the message across the sky.

So, perhaps that is why I’m looking sideways at another recent move Amazon made just a day or two after the Cloud Reader announcement. This move was made without fanfare. No e-mail blasts. No marching bands whipping up excitement. Just a quiet shift on the website which has moved all self-published e-books into a new category – Kindle Indie Publishing.

Once again, I will admit I’m not an e-reader, so I can’t really say how this move affects a reader searching for new titles. But this shift on the website looks a little suspicious to me. For years, Amazon has been telling authors to ditch the traditionally published route and self-publish their books. That the authors who chose to self-publish are equally important to them as the ones that are traditionally published. And yet, as of a few days ago, Amazon has rounded up those “Indie” authors and put them in a category separate from the traditionally published authors.

I know Amazon is telling authors this is a good thing. That this will help readers and authors alike. Maybe it will, but the skeptic in me can’t help seeing this move as Amazon creating its own personal ghetto. Ok, I’m probably going to get lynched using that word, but it’s the only one I can come up with that fits. This new Kindle Indie Store rounded up and separated self-published titles from all the others. It tells the reader that for good or ill, these titles are different.

The cynic in me can’t help wondering at the timing of this move. Amazon will soon be launching the first titles in their fiction imprints. These are titles that they have shelled out money for. Their editorial, artistic and marketing staffs has put huge time and effort into these titles. Amazon want them to be stocked on bookshelves along side the traditionally published books they have encouraged “indie authors” to shake their heads at. So, it wouldn’t surprise me that they want to distinguish these new imprint titles on the virtual shelves as well.

I’m hoping the cynic in me is wrong. That this move really is good for the “indie” authors. Lots of my friends have gone that route and I would hate to see them shoved to the side by Amazon in favor of the newer, cooler kids on the block. But anytime Amazon (or anyone for that matter) makes a move without a major announcement, I just have to say “hmmmm”.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Reading/Writing Scales

Scott D. Parker

As writers, we are told the two basic tenants of our vocation: read and lot and write a lot. So what does it mean when you find yourself reading more than you write?

I've always liked to keep the reading and writing balanced. Make sure I get my writing done before the evening, I tell myself, and that will allow me to read without guilt. Heh. Writing that last word, "guilt," is a funny thing. I don't believe in guilty pleasures. If something brings you pleasure, then it should not be considered guilty. Thus, I embrace "CSI: Miami," "Project Runway," KISS, and old comic books with open arms.

That twinge of guilt gets to me sometimes when I don't have a productive writing day. Or, truth be told, when I don't have a writing day. In dealing with some stuff this month, I've unfortunately trended to reading more than I write. School starts again on Monday and my nice, quiet schedule of writing in the two-hours ahead of 8:00 am is vanishing. It was a good summer, although I didn't get all that I wanted to do complete. This past week, instead of writing, I've been reading. In the past two weeks, I've blazed through the two John Lange books from Hard Case Crime (Grave Descend and Zero Cool), Don Winslow's The Gentlemen's Hour, Gerald So's ebook, Stones, and started in on the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. And it's been a blast.

But does the more reading/less writing trend mean I'm not a writer? Not really (I hope). I learn from everything I read and am exposed to. Heck, my wife and I are playing catch up with "Mad Men." We've gone through the first two seasons and, as of last night, are three episodes into season three. This is a fantastic show, and I've learned some good stuff about writing and pacing. The pacing in the Lange books is pretty darn swift. I found myself taking note of structure and style that, while forty years old, can still be applied to my own stuff. Winslow is a crafty storyteller, jumping in and out of character POVs in a way that I just don't do but, perhaps, should. So's C. J. Stone stories are so evocative of the 1930s that it led me to a question: do you think the adventurers of the 1930s knew they were living in a seemingly special time?

I don't believe in guilty pleasures. I happily turn my brain off when I see movies or watch television. But I *am* learning, no matter what I'm doing. True, it's not making prose, but the reading is rewiring my brain, connecting synapses in new ways. And, when I sit down and write, I find that I'm trying new things or that something I considered a bit off is now in line.

I guess I go through phases where one side of the reading/writing scale tips up or down. Not a bad thing, the gentle swaying of the scale's momentum. Like the character's in Winslow's book who live to surf, I just ride the wave I'm given.

Song of the Week/Month/Summer: "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" by Creedence Clearwater Revivial. I honestly never knew this song until Casey Abrams, a contestant on American Idol, sang it. I loved his version, and then sought out the original. I've been in a late 60s, early 70s music vibe this summer and this is my favorite song. (The other one is "These Eyes" by The Guess Who.) I listen to it at least once a day. I even found the guitar tabs and can now play it. The only problem: I sing not well. But I still belt it out. Y'all know this one?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

My Latest Last Chance

By Jay Stringer

This week completes a trilogy of sorts. Me blogging about not having a laptop. Today I'm writing this from my very own shiny macbook after it's returned from the hospital. As long as it holds up, then we'll have some more podcasts for you again soon, and I'll be catching up on all the work that's been missed.

But first, I have a few thoughts to get out there. And this one is pretty much writing itself as I think aloud. To quote Ed Hamell, "got a whole lotta things running round my head."

I wrote awhile back about my decision to take a few careful steps back from the Internet. I wondered what would happen, and whether a net presence was as helpful for writers as we all think. You know what? I found not only that I became better at choosing when to speak, but also that people were more interested when I did. In the first few days after my laptop died, I started to tweet more regularly again, and people commented, "good to see you back."I picked up more followers while I was holding back, and got retweeted more often. It seems that not talking is as important as talking.

What strikes me is that we all know this already. We know from our writing that what we choose to leave out is as important as what we choose to put on the page. When it comes to marketing ourselves, though, we go a different route. Why not simply apply the same rules that we write by to the way we out ourselves out there. Less is more. Show, don't tell. Leave things out. Kill your favourite scenes.

Lurking on twitter really rammed home certain things. What is this obsession with writers deciding to tell us they #amwriting? I would have thought that simple fact was obvious by the fact that you've made text appear on a computer screen. Would you have a character stating things so obvious to a reader? No. So why are you doing it? Every day I'm seeing updates. "Today I've written 3k words, OMG." Why? People really don't need to know, "Holy shizbits, today i typed and typed until I saw the face of the baby Jesus on the screen." And this isn't just me shooting down others. If this is a meeting of tweetaholics anonymous then I'm raising my hand. Today I tweeted my progress on a particular chapter.

Why? Why? Why?

I don't see car salesman going on and saying, "hoooboy, sold three and a half cars today #amselling." Dinner ladies don't have a #amservingdumplings. Maybe the world would be a better place if the porn industry was on their telling us they #amscrewing.

And maybe all of these people are on there. Maybe I'm just not seeing these things.

But writers, here's my thing; People don't care what you are writing. They care what you have written. Stop looking for a round of applause at the fact that you've put one word in front of another, and come back to us when you've put a beginning, a middle and an end into a workable order and have a story to sell.

The other thing I discovered during my period of #amnotwriting is that people on the twitters? They like to shout. And they want to shout at you. More than once I've stopped following someone based on an outburst on twitter, and I'm sure far more often than that people have stopped following me when my political views or social leanings have become more apparent. This very week I saw another side of a writer I'd had great respect for, and my interest in the work has suffered.

In an ideal world we could always separate the person and their views from their work. And every time I sit down to write, I work hard to try and remove myself and my ideals from my characters. But if we can't hold back from letting these things spill over into our public ramblings, are we really selling ourselves?

Or maybe people want that. What do you say? Do you prefer to know whether a writer/actor/journalist shares your views before you pick up their work? Is that part of you decision making, and if so, how much would you say it affects your choices?

It seems to me that the more you think about what you say, the more you approach your web presence as you would your prose, the more likely you are to attract and keep readers. The more you give in to the dark side, and shoot lasers from your hands into the keyboard, the more damage you're going to do.

So that's my new rule, and one that I think would go a long way. Take all of the rules you've learned about writing fiction, and apply them to everything you do on the net.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Zero Cool Summer Reading

John McFetridge

This week I'm on vacation in Sandra Ruttan's old stomping ground of the Muskoka region of Ontario. I'm having a great time but I wish I could be in Belfast tomorrow at the No Alibis bookstore to hear Declan Burke and Adrian McKinty read fom their newest novels, Absolute Zero Cool and Falling Glass. Both books are terrific and...

Well, here, if you haven't already click on over to Declan's blog and read all about it and then buy the books.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

There's Some Stuff You Should Buy

Lots of cool stuff came out this week, and I want to make sure you know about it:

The Chaos We Know and e-book anthology by good ol' Keith Rawson.

Pulp Ink an e-Book anthology featuring stories by Al Guthrie and Chris F Holm to name a few.

250 Things You Should Know About Writing by the best writing blogger there is: Chuck Wendig.

Southern Gods, a novel by John Hornor Jacobs


Stones by Gerald So.

Check 'em out. You'll get more out of these pieces than you would have if I had blabbed about what's on my mind this week.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Traveling Through The Dark

By Steve Weddle

So the other day we got a little internet chatter going about some poems.

I was talking to someone about the short piece I wrote for the D*CKED anthology, which should be out any day now. Then I had that nagging oven-left-on feeling. Turns out, William Stafford's poem "Traveling through the Dark" probably had some impact on my story. Here, let me get out of the way for a second.
Traveling through the Dark By William Stafford

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

William Stafford, “Traveling Through the Dark” from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1998).
Awesome, right?

First, let me be perfectly clear here. I realize someone is likely to say, "Weddle, I knew William Stafford. I taught with William Stafford. Weddle, you're no William Stafford." Yeah. I got that. Second, if the estates of these poets I'm going to mention have a problem with my quoting their poems, I'll fix the problem. Third, what the hell was I going on about?

Four of my eleven "followers" on Twitter thought this sounded like a cool poem. And ain't it, though? When I taught college, we'd go over this one for at least a day, talking about the images, the sounds, the rhythm -- all the things that make this exact ending unavoidable. I had a discussion once in which I compared this one to Seamus Heaney's "Mid-Term Break."

Aside from the car accident aspect of each, these poems have a similar build to closing, an inevitable waltz across the cliff's edge. I suppose it wasn't until recently I'd begun to consider these poems in a (forgive me) "noir light."

I'd prefer to present a few poems here rather than peel each one apart until nothing remains, if that's all right with you folks.

In the Twitter discussion last week, I mentioned a couple other poems. One has one of the most beautiful, rhythmic openings I've ever encountered in contemporary American poetry.
That year of the cloud, when my marriage failed,
I slept in a chair, by the flagstone hearth,
fighting my sleep,
and one night saw a Hessian soldier
stand at attention there in full
regalia, till his head broke into flames.
-- from "River Road" by Stanley Kunitz
This one, too, builds to something unavoidable, though something more internalized than the other two poems, I think. And this seems key to successful noir. Whether you have mob shoot-outs or back-alley knifings or Cthulu-crawling riverboats, the inner pain has to be of more consequence than the pain to your innards. When the narrator is walking through the woods, cataloging each "mud-puddled nursling" against "the deep litter of the years" then you'd best pay attention.

Andrew Hudgins's poem "Praying Drunk" reminds me of a Raymond Carver short story. Not any story in particular, just the Platonic ideal of Carver story. Maybe someone telling a story at a party where two middle-aged couples are getting drunk around a table.

When I was twelve, I’d ride my bike
out to the dump and shoot the rats. It’s hard
to kill your rats, our Father. You have to use
a hollow point and hit them solidly.
A leg is not enough. The rat won’t pause.
Yeep! Yeep! it screams, and scrabbles, three-legged, back
into the trash, and I would feel a little bad
to kill something that wants to live
more savagely than I do, even if
it’s just a rat.

Noir becomes successful when it fires on a number of cylinders--humor and horror, fear and farce. Seems to me that all these poems succeed because they do what the best noir does -- give you a little hope and then beat punch you in the throat with that hope. I'm thinking in particular of Ray Banks, Christa Faust, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Donald Ray Pollock, John Hornor Jacobs, Dennis Lehane, Lawrence Block, Sarah Grann, and a handful of others. If you're in the mood to cruise around the internet, library or bookstore for poems, you might also check out Anne Sexton, Stephen Dunn, and Laura Kasischke.

Whether you're dealing with the noir fiction on the Noircon tables or the poetry anthologies in the college classroom, there's a similar type of understanding that comes from traveling through the dark.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Where the heck did summer go?

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Okay, I know that you hear people say this all the time, but HOLY CRAP where did summer go? I mean, just the other day I was writing a blog post about summer goals and suddenly September is right around the corner. What the heck happened?

The good news for me is that I’ve managed to hit all of my summer goals and the coming of fall means really awesome stuff. The most exciting of which is my toddler’s first encounter with school. Pre-school starts in a couple of weeks, which means twice a week I get 2 ½ hours of free time in my mornings. YAY! There’s also a bunch of library author events, Bouchercon (which is you haven’t registered to go – do it! It is awesome.), and the release of SKATING OVER THE LINE.

Yeah – cool stuff is coming in the fall, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready for the summer to be over yet. I still have a to-do list a mile long and a TBR pile that is getting larger by the day. If someone can figure out a way to expand summer to last until I get through both of those, I’m willing to pay. I can even pay in homemade baked goods if you’d like.

But since I fear there is no way to stop the passage of time and the fast approaching fall months, I’d like all of you to take a moment to tell me what you are looking forward to this fall. Are you going on a fabulous vacation that will make all your friends drool with envy? Is there a book hitting shelves that you are dying to get your hands on? Do YOU have a book or a story launching in the next couple of months that you want to tell everyone about? If you have a horn to toot, this is the place to let it fly. Give me the rundown on what you are most looking forward to during the upcoming fall months. Perhaps with enough cool stuff approaching, I won’t be sad when the end of summer arrives.

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?