Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Lessons and the Fun of Acting

Scott D. Parker

Based on my experience, it might be a good idea for all writers to try their hand at acting.

On a lark, I volunteered to be in my church's play. I attend one of the larger churches here in Houston, so we've got a stage, lighting and sound system, the works. The play itself consists of twenty or so vignettes dealing with family relations, church relations, and how they can be funny, somber, and heart wrenching.

I'm in two scenes. The first involves a young married couple where the wife catches the husband looking at another woman. He tries to convince her that the reason he fell into the planter was not that was eyeing another lady, but that his contacts were out of place. The problem: he's wearing glasses. The second has me playing the husband of a seasoned--not elderly--married couple while they are driving somewhere on vacation. I think y'all can figure this on out on your own. Man, woman, driving, directions...

This is my first time to do something like this. First, we had rehearsals with the scripts in our hands. Next, we had to memorize our lines and rehearse using props. I made recordings of me reading both parts (you'd love my soft, "womanly" voice) and loaded the MP3s on my iPod and practice while biking. Yes, I get funny looks. As of this week, we are rehearsing on stage with the lights, mics, and sound. It's a whole different experience for me, but I'm really digging it.

Here's where the writer part of me started to churn over thoughts. I started putting myself in the shoes of these two men. What would I do? How might my reactions be different than someone else's? Gradually, I started trying different things with my voice. The driving husband, according to my director, needs to start out over-the-top angry but then come down at the end. Thus, I read the lines in a really angry voice. While I do most of the lines this way, I've toned down some of the vitriol. It just felt better that way. But the process was fascinating, especially as the two actresses and I started reacting--body language, tone, voice pitch, etc.--to each other. The collaborative nature of this experiment made the entire experience that much more fun.

An interesting aspect of these two scenes is what do I do while the two, separate actresses are saying their lines to my characters. In the grand and glorious tradition of our craft, I had to show, not tell. Literally. I have started rolling my eyes, doing things with my face and body, walking towards or away from the other actress, all in an attempt to convey that character's thought without actually telling them. That, my friends, might be the most fun part of this entire thing. Sure, I enjoy saying my lines, especially the funny ones. But getting across a thought through an action is priceless.

I still get butterflies in my stomach each time I rehearse. And, come next weekend, when I actually get some eye liner, a live mic, and a hall full of spectators, them there butterflies* are going to be like a hurricane in my gut. But here's a little secret: I can't wait for it to get here, and I'm going to miss it when we're done.

Ah, but I do have my writing. And I'll get to carry with me some lessons from acting that will improve my writing. One of which is to understand that a story needs numerous drafts. This is obvious not only for the typo type stuff, but for the experimentation. Too often, I get One Idea in my head and I'm too fearful of changing it because It Has To Be This Way. This acting thing has changed that mindset a bit.

And, I need to have more fun in my writing. Period.

Anyone also do some acting? How has it influenced your writing?

*Speaking of butterflies, do y'all ever get butterflies or a similar feeling in your stomach when you're writing? I have. Sometimes, it just that unexplainable feeling you get when you are on that writing high. In my first novel, there's a part where all the characters are putting everything together. I get those butterflies every time I read those pages and I even got them when I first wrote those chapters. That's when I knew I had something special.

TV Show of the Week: American Horror Story. I've become immune to most horror stuff and I don't like the slasher/torture porn stuff like "Saw". I prefer my horror to be creepy and supernatural. I'm really digging this show mainly because of the mystery behind it. And how about those opening credits. Talk about eerie.

Concert of the Week: Fabian Almazan Trio and String Quartet, Live at the Village Vanguard. I had never heard of this gifted pianist and composer before NPR Music uploaded this concert. Man, you talk about some sublime pieces of music. Almazan's tickling of the keys is like some sort of ethereal musical mist trickling down through the trees. The other two member of the trio--Linda Oh on bass and Henry Cole on drums--accent Almazan's compositions, but never overpower the majesty of the music. When it's just the three of them playing, the music often possesses a hurried frenzy that never overwhelms you. That he has a string quartet--one of my favorite types of ensembles--with him is mere icing on the cake. When all seven musicians play, it is not a traditional type jazz thing where you have a theme and everyone takes a turn at improvising. Yes, it's still jazz in structure and language, but it's also somewhere out of the 19th Century tradition of the tone poem where the listener is transported to some other place by the music but isn't necessarily required to follow all the themes.

The concert is available on NPR Music. Almazan's first album, Personalities, is available digitally now. The CD comes out in November. I haven't purchased the CD yet as I'm too mesmerized by this live show.

Tweet of the Week 1:

Whoa!-- @jonathansfrakes in on Twitter? WHY DIDN'T ANYBODY TEL ME?! Number One-engage.

-- Nathan Fillion

Tweet of the Week 2:

"The Thing" is a prequel to "The Thing" which is a remake of "The Thing" which is about a monster that duplicates itself.

--DanaJGould as retweeted by Roger Ebert

Friday, October 14, 2011

SHADOWS RISING - The Extended McLean Cut (Part 2)

By Russel D McLean

Okay, I promised you eighties and nineties, as per my choices for movies from the SHADOWS RISING panel at Bouchercon, and here we are. Yes, we have two films from the 90’s and only one from the 80’s, but again it was one of those areas where I had to do a lot of pruning. And let me remind you that its not just about my personal favourites, but more about movies we thought people at the panel had to see to get the full spectrum of crime movies. Which is a pretty difficult task all told.
Anyway, again here’s my three movies and a little blurb about why I chose each one.
And yes, my Sacred Cow I’d Love To Gore came from the eighties, but we’ll talk about that later.

Midnight Run

“Is that Moron Number One? Yeah, lemme speak to moron number two.”

“Smoking or non smoking?” “Take a wild fucking guess.”

“Hey, I got two words for you: shut the fuck up.”

Witty, exciting and plain under-rated, Midnight Run is my ultimate comfort movie. De-Niro’s effortless performance as a grouchy bounty hunter is perfectly complemented by Grodin’s turn as the accountant who pulled a scam on the mob and is now being called back as a witness. Together, they eschew that often elusive chemistry that buddy movies strive for, and that’s just one of the reasons to love this movie.

Throw in a brilliant supporting cast including the always reliable Dennis Farina and the under-used Yaphett Koto, and you have the ideal “action comedy” in a way that pretenders like the Lethal Weapon movies can only dream of. I come back to this movie at least once a year, and just let the script wash over me.

Shallow Grave

An odd choice for me in a way, but one I had to make as we were talking essential crime movies, and I felt I had to give some love to the low budget scots thriller that made a name for Ewan McGregor and director Danny Boyle who would later go on to bigger budget films like Sunshine and The Beach. But for me, Shallow Grave is pretty much perfect as a simple, dark little fable about three people and a bagful of money. Its kind of the Scottish answer to movies like A SIMPLE PLAN, and what I love about it is that it’s a crime thriller with no police, no procedural elements or anything like that. It’s a tale about temptation and greed and the fragility of friendship. And then there’s a brilliantly unhinged performance from Christopher Ecclestone.

It’s not a gamechanging movie, but its tight, its well handled and it launched the career of someone who would become a major movie star (McGregor). Not only that but I felt it would offer something a little different from what the rest of my panellists would select. I also think its perhaps the purest film Danny Boyle would make. While others would have higher budgets, there’s something in the nourish simplicity of the movie that makes you think of something like the Coen’s Blood Simple. I also think its been sadly overlooked in the shadow of many of Boyle’s later movies (Trainspotting, Sunshine, 127 Hours etc).

LA Confidential
How can one ignore LA Confidential? A film that managed the impossible by bringing James Ellroy’s novel to the screen in a tonally accurate and comprehensible fashion (to see how badly it can all go wrong just watch The Black Dahlia). It also has a cast performing at the top of their game and a top notch 1940’s soundtrack.

It’s a story about corruption in the LAPD in the forties and the three men who decide to stand up against the established order. Right from the start, with Danny DeVito’s tabloid editor giving an overview of 1940’s LA, the dream and the reality, you know you’re in for something special. It is pretty much a perfect movie. It never gives in to the temptation to go over the top, and yet there’s a real sense of danger and fear that permeates the frame. And while credit must be given to Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey for their electrifying performances, James Cromwell really stands out as he wipes every fond memory of Arthur Hoggett, the farmer from kids movie Babe in which he starred four years earlier.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Southern Gods- John Hornor Jacobs

By Jay Stringer

First up, a couple of important facts for you to memorise, there will be a test later;

1. JHJ and I have the same agent, which I guess is one of them "conflict of interest" type things, and which almost made me hold off from writing the review.

2. That's irrelevant, because the book is awesome.

"Awesome" is not a word I'm using lightly here. If you type definition awesome into google, then you'll probably get taken to Paul Westerberg's Wiki page. But below that will be various dictionary links that will tell you that awesome describes something that is wonderful, impressive and sometimes frightening.

Here's the bit off the back;

"A Memphis DJ hires recent World War II veteran Bull Ingram to find Ramblin' John Hastur, a mysterious bluesman whose dark, driving music - broadcast at ever-shifting frequencies by a phantom radio station- is said to make living men insane and dead men rise."

That was already enough to interest me in the story, but it doesn't cover the half of it of it. First we get a very dark and bloody detour that sets the tone for the book, strange shadowy things moving at the edge of forests, whispering dark deals to anyone who'll listen. The prologue of the book set's it's stall out strong; this is the voice of the story, and you want to read it.

When we first meet Ingram, he reminds me of a character from another time, another kind of book. He's a Dashiell Hammett character who has somehow wandered into a Lovecraft nightmare. Both brutish and boyish at the same time, he went off to the war to find a purpose but came back without one. If he provides the strength and the drive to push the story along, it's the other characters we meet along the way who really fill in the heart. There's Sarah, the young mother who is fleeing the the slow burning horror of a family-gone-wrong without realising she's running towards a much quicker way of dying.. She packs her bags and her daughter and leaves her husband behind to head home, back to the farm she grew up on and it's big old house full of secrets. Her daughter, Franny, fills the story with it's energy and light, bouncing around the farm land with her two friends, Fisk and Lenora. And then there's Alice, the woman that Sarah wishes she could be, who runs the farm and dishes out love and advice.

The story is built very effectively on mood and suspense, a creeping sense of horror that is the subtext of every chapter and keeps building. But that can only last for so long, but JHJ isn't a writer to pull punches, and when it's time for all hell to break loose, he follows through where many other authors will try to bait and switch.

There are blink-and-you-miss-it references here to some horror touchstones, from Captain Howdy's real name, to the big bad of Lovecraft, and each one is a clear signpost of the impending doom hanging over the story. JHJ is clearly a writer who understands what makes horror tick, because he scared the crap out of me and he did it without clowns, spiders or my credit card bill. There's something here for everyone, but if you're a parent, this book is really gunning for you. It knows what you're scared of.

This is the month when everyone is going to be pushing horror movies on you, when the stores are filled with plastic costumes for your kids to dress up in, and folk start either keeping chocolate by their door or pretending not to be in for the whole month.

But Southern Gods isn't any of that. It's not modern horror with it's rules and roleplaying, it's not wacky costumes, and it doesn't turn horrible beasts into things that glow in sunlight and romance teenagers. It's a book that understands that bad things need to happen to good people, and that all of us are defined by our fears in some way. You'll find yourselves stopping and scratching your heads, this can't be the work of a debut writer, surely? Not with such a firm grip on plot and character, not with such a strong voice? Not unless he's been making any deals with dark forces that step out of the woods...

I have the audio book to get through, perfect for a long train journey I'm making next week. I'll let you know how that goes, but it was important to read the book first.

Kickstart This

By Jay Stringer

I'm doing another double header this week. There'll be another post out a little later on, pointing you in the direction of a great book. First though, a quick mention for something that's not come out yet.

There's a kickstarter project running for a comic book called "Sparrow & Crowe- The Demoniac of Los Angeles." It's from Dave Accampo -friend of DSD- and two other talented fellas. I could write about why it's a good project to help out, or what the story is about, but they've already done it. So until later, I'll leave you with Dave, Jeremy and Jared.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Paneling for Writers

By Steve Weddle

So tomorrow I'll be moderating a panel at the Virginia Literary Festival's Mystery Day at the Library of Virginia.

The topic is "Amateurs vs Professionals" with the authors are JB Stanley/Ellery Adams, Andy Straka, and Jan Neuharth.

I want to do a great job, of course. I want to give the authors the best shot at sharing their work with the audience, at talking about what it is they want to discuss. These panels are a great opportunity for writers and readers to connect.

So I asked some pals for discussion/question ideas. Here's some of what I got:

> Where do your ideas come from? (Hahaha. That will KILL!)

> How do you respond to the criticism of your latest book, that it was the "grossest case of racism and homophobia written in the last 100 years," according to the Des Moines Register? (Don't worry about making this up. No one reads the DMR anymore so they won't know it's fake.)

> How much money do you make as a writer?

> If you were forced to read a novel by one of the other panelists or have a finger cut off, which would it be? And which finger would you choose?

> Not counting your spouse, how many people have you slept with?

> Were you sad when NEEDLE magazine rejected your story?

> My blog posts on DSD always suck. Would you like to guest post next week?

> Can I get you all to blurb my next book? It's about a cat.

> Not counting me, who in this room do you find the most attractive?

> What do you think your books need to make them more readable?

> Ebooks. Am I right?


As you can see, I can't use any of these questions. I have a list of about ten questions for each author and some general questions.

So I'm asking you folks -- if you're sitting in the audience of a mystery writer panel, what kind of questions to you want asked? If you're a panelist, what do you want to talk about?

If you've ever been to or on a writing panel, what's the best question you've ever heard?

I'll pick a winner or draw a winner or something. You win the newest issue of NEEDLE, which features Art Taylor (fellow panelist tomorrow), Gil Brewer, Holly West, and many more. Check it out.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I Don't Wanna Talk About It...

I'm kinda tired.

Kinda burnt out.

I don't want to talk about the state of publishing much anymore. Yes, it's changing, but too slowly for some. We get it.

I don't wanna talk about self-publishing. I did it with my book and it's been working for me, but I still want a publisher with my next book. It is what it is.

But what gets me is the hand wringing. The shouting from the top step that the sky is falling. Books are going to be diluted. Gatekeepers are horrible. Too many typos. Blah blah blah blah.

I try to stay away from it. Seriously. I'm starting to tire of publishing news. Really. It's the same things blogged and re-blogged and blogged again.

Like Sandra, I'm feeling nostalgic. I miss the old days.

I miss the days when I didn't know anything about the publishing industry. I miss the days when I only cared about my books and my stories.

So get this... tonight I finished the 3rd draft of my next book. It needs another major draft, but it's almost there.

I'm psyched.

I don't miss this feeling.

And I wanna shout it from the skies.

Monday, October 10, 2011

It Sucks To Be A Fire Hydrant In A Pissing Contest

Yes, authors have been in an uproar lately. Over self publishing.

It doesn't feel like that should come as a surprise, but Chuck Wendig's rant gave birth to a phrase:

(Don't put) the publishing cart before the storytelling horse.

I agree. And I'm going to take a slight detour here, and admit I've been feeling a bit nostalgic lately, a bit disconnected. I remember the good ol' days, when a lot of friends had blogs, and it was easy to keep in touch, and have a sense of connectedness. Now, most of the blogs I frequented once upon a time are gone - my solo blog included - and active discussion on the existing author blogs isn't what it used to be, either.

But there's something else I remember from back then, when I first started blogging. There were a lot of blogs that dispensed writing advice. And writers were almost always clearly on one side of the publishing line. They were either traditional, or they were self published.

Technology changed, and that line between the two camps started to blur. And, as more writers got on board with self publishing for Kindle, the stigma of self publishing eroded. Authors who once railed against the folly of self publishing uploaded their backlists, short story collections and even original manuscripts.

The rise of viable self publishing and borderline legitimacy coincided with a decline in blogging, and writers who were blogging started talking more and more about e-publishing, and how to succeed.

Although it may not have occurred in the way the naysayers who linked self publishing with the demise of quality writing predicted, the rise of self publishing does seem to have coincided with a significant decline in discussion about the craft of writing.

Now, back when I first started blogging, there were a lot of blogs where people dispensed writing advice. In some respects, it was a bad thing, because sometimes it was a case of the blind leading the blind. People with no publishing credits to their name would set up shop and dispense advice and build a flock of followers ready to drink the Kool Aid. Heaven help anyone who came along and questioned the adviser, or their advice.

I have mixed feelings about the shift in focus, because I am glad that I see fewer of those blogs. Then again, perhaps I'm just not looking hard enough.

I also appreciate that there's a time and place for advice on the business side of publishing and writing, and I have benefited from some posts about e-publishing.

I am also concerned by the fact that there seems to be a lot less interest in the craft of quality writing.

Having said that, I'm still left to wonder how we regulate quality. Just considering my own work, the same book that has six five star reviews and six four star reviews also has two one star reviews on Amazon. Your mileage may vary. There have been books others have loved that I've loathed.

My latest title, Harvest of Ruins, was recently pegged by Charlie Stella as my best to date. This is a book that's reduced reviewers to tears and brought me some of my greatest compliments, lags far behind all my other titles in sales.

What can I conclude? I don't have enough information to make any definite conclusions, but I am wondering about a lot of things. I wonder if readers feel more confident with my other titles because they were traditionally published first. I wonder how much the number of reviews on Amazon translate into sales. I wonder if it matters that you write a great book, because the only real force for sales is word of mouth. I mean, The DaVinci Code outsold every single work by Dennis Lehane, so quality writing doesn't always translate into popularity or sales. As I recall, The Bridges of Madison County was a NY Times Bestseller. Making the list only means you're popular; it doesn't mean you're a good writer.

And that's the rub. We've all known that. A book may sell phenomenally well, but that doesn't mean the writing is great. It doesn't even mean the writing is good.

There are some things about being a great writer, and a great storyteller, that you can't really teach. A writer either has the instincts and the aptitude that enables them to develop as a writer, or they don't. So many people want the shortcut to success, and so many writers are blind to their own mistakes and weaknesses. I think that's the real fear I'm left with. I'm not afraid of someone self publishing. I'm concerned that people don't take the time to let their work breathe and go back with fresh eyes, and really take advice and feedback to heart so that they can grow.

It's our fast food microwave culture. We don't want to wait, we don't want to put in effort. We want what we want and we want it now.

Part of me thinks that the reason so many people have shifted focus to sales and marketing and succeeding in e-publishing, is because selling successfully is concrete, while much of the art of writing is subjective, and you either have talent or you don't.

The question is, where do we go from here? How do we raise the level of discourse and foster useful discussions about writing? Is it even appropriate? I always feel that if I'm just writing about writing, I'm excluding the readers from my posts.

And that leaves me as lost as ever when I sit down to think about what I want to share here. What do you guys think? What should we be talking about?

PS: Happy Thanksgiving, my fellow Canadians.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The pitfalls of online communication

by: Joelle Charbonneau

The internet is a cool thing. With a click of the button and a little maneuvering of a mouse we can travel the blogosphere, Facebook, twitter, send pictures to our friend and family and order everything from bacon scented candles to push-up bras without getting out of our holey pajamas or brushing out teeth. Nifty, right? Never before have we been so connected. And yet I would offer the hypothesis that never before have we been so disconnected.


In all the convenience of tweets, e-mails and blog comments, we’ve forgotten how to communicate. Sure we relate information but I’m not talking about facts and figures. I’m talking about true communication. With only a computer screen sitting on the table in front of you, it is easy to forget that there are people – REAL people – sitting on the other side of the screen reading what you type. People with real lives and real feelings who might interpret the tone of your words in the wrong way. It is easy to pretend that the people reading your comments understand where you’re coming front. Heck, they should know when you are joking, right?


Because those people can’t see you. They can’t see your tired eyes or the laughter in your voice. Those are tried and true methods of communication that don’t exist online. People online can only see your words. And trust me when I say that those words matter. Words have a tone to them. Word choice means everything in conveying the correct tone. In face to face conversations, people use tone of voice, posture and facial expressions to convey the meaning behind their words. And I would say that when engaged in a face to face conversation, most people take more time and care with their word choices. (Not all people, because we all have those friends or relatives who never think before they speak – you know who they are!)

The internet makes it easy to brush people and their opinions off. The lack of human contact makes it easy to forget that there are more than avatars sitting behind that computer screen. And on a bad day, or even a good one, it is easy to forget to choose words carefully when making a point.

As writers we know that words matter. We sit behind our keyboards and ponder what our characters will say, how they will say it and how their words will impact the reader. We know that word choice is key. Changing a word in a sentence can alter whether a character is mildly annoyed or whether he is going to grab a baseball bat and start wailing away. We choose our words carefully because to do anything less would be to belittle our work.

Word choice changes the tone of your message and tone matters.

No matter what you want to believe – tone really does matter.

And on the internet it matters even more because we don’t have facial and physical cues to help put words in context. Every day I am struck by the things I see on Facebook, twitter and on blogs and wonder – why would anyone post that? Don’t they know how that comes across? I’ve hidden or unfriended people on Facebook that I know and like in real life because their posts lack the care and attention that they take when speaking to people in face to face conversation. I want to keep liking them, so I opt to not read their posts. And don’t get me started on the people who are only on social media for self-promotion. That’s another big ball of wax that I don’t even want to start rolling downhill. But anyone who has seen the type of posts I am talking about will know that the tone of them can grate.

Don’t by any stretch think this is me saying that I always choose the right words. Trust me when I say I have my good and bad days just like everyone else. I know I don’t always get it right. But I do understand that what I say online matters and how I say it – well, I would contend that it matters more. Think of it this way - you might be brilliant. You might know how to secure world peace for centuries to come. You’re awesome. Still, no matter how brilliant your ideas and how sound your facts, if your word choice and the tone you use are off-putting, well, no one will care. So much for world peace.

This week has been an interesting one in the world of blogging writers. If you’ve followed the discourse on Chuck Wendig’s blogpost - - you’ll know he talked about tone. Unfortunately, I think his point was almost lost in the haze of debate about self-publishing and traditional publishing. Which is a shame because his point about tone was more than valid. It should serve as a call to all authors online who are pursuing publication in any manner they see fit. It should also serve as a reminder to anyone – writer or not – that while it feels as if you are alone while typing those words on Facebook, an e-mail or anywhere online – you aren’t. And if you want people to listen to your message, whatever it might be, choose your words with care. Because—hell—I want world peace!