Saturday, December 3, 2011

Let It Snow

Scott D. Parker

I don't know about you but sometimes when I hear the term "writer's block," I literally picture a large cube made out of stone, usually granite. The sides are smooth and shiny, machined to perfection. When you get up close, you can almost hear the solidness of it, a mute amount of laughter. And, in your had, is a small chisel.

"Now," says the message, "create something."

There are times in my writing life when the feat is so daunting that I don't even start. I think some folks consider writer's block to be the absence of ideas. What about the plethora of ideas, but that they are so many and varied that you get nothing accomplished?

A problem I deal with is one of starting. I know plenty of folks who start books and get a third of the way in and then lay it aside. The block I sometimes face is the one that prevents me from even starting. I have ideas and I germinate them in my brain. I'm working on a new Calvin Carter story and it's exciting. But I haven't put pen to paper. Why? The fear of starting.

Weird, huh?

We just finished November and the NaNoWriMo challenge. I did not participate but now, I'm wondering if I should have. The biggest benefit of doing NaNoWroMo is the exercise the writing muscle gets. With 50,000 words to create in 30 days, that works out to 1,667 words a day. And therein lies that giant stone cube, aka the oppressive Word Count.

Word count can, in my mind, act as a kind of writer's block. If you were to sit down at your computer each day during November and you *have* to write 1,667 words, it can be daunting. And, frankly, you will probably end up writing crap to to get to the word count. On the other hand, you're exercising the writing muscle.

Still, the word count can be like that great granite cube. It's just sitting there, staring at you. But you have that chisel and you take a whack at it. And, lo and behold, a sliver of granite flies off the cube. It's a first step to breaking down that granite cube.

That's why I tend to like the snowflake method of writing. It's not that website that has you start with a main idea and the expand on it. I'm talking about snowflake in terms of word count. I would like to be able to bust out 1,667 words a day or more, but sometimes, I can only manage 500. But I've written 500 new words and I'm moving forward.

Yes, I know this isn't rocket science and y'all've heard this kind of thing a thousand times, but it's hit home with me in recent days. I get so fixated on writing a thousand words a day or some such random number when what I should actually be focused on isn't the word count but the tale. I've come to realize that if I just work on the story, the word count will take care of itself. I want the blizzard to whoosh down and dump two feet of snow on me (or thousands of word). Maybe, perhaps, I'm the gentle snowfall kind of guy. Five hundred words here, 200 there, a 1,000 somewhere down the line. All these numbers add up, I need to keep reminding myself. The end will come when it's there. Just keep the snow falling. Or that chisel in your hand.

Song of the Week: "River" by Robert Downey, Jr. Now that Thanksgiving is over, the Christmas music is out at our house. I have a set routine: I always listen to Chicago's 2003 What's It Going To Be Santa CD first, from front to back. After that, everything can come out of the box. I love spinning my Brian Setzer CDs and chilling to Chris Botti's holiday CD. But one song I always long to hear is this Joni Mitchell-penned tune as sung by Downey when he was on the TV show "Ally McBeal." That season was the best and it was the first time I truly saw how gifted Downey was as an actor. This tune has a special, melancholic vibe to it that is perfect for the adult that I am in this time of year. While I can grin from ear to ear while listening to Chicago or Setzer, it's "River" that tugs the heartstrings. And not just one in particular. The longing expressed in these lyrics is for Christmases past. I don't pine for them and wish I were young. I'm an eternal optimist and I see each day and each year as the best one I've ever lived. But a loving tenderness for all that I've seen and experienced seeps through me as I listen to this song. Another one that speaks directly to this longing is Faith Hill's "Where Are You Christmas?" Is there a song like that for you?

Tweet of the Week I:

Sometimes, as men, it's nice to just sit around and talk about our hair.

-- Nathan Fillion

Tweet of the Week II:

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.

-- C. S. Lewis

Friday, December 2, 2011

Sick Transit Gloria

By Russel D McLean

“I think crime writers are very sick people.”

Thus spake a commenter on this article on Patricia Cornwell. Let’s leave aside whether one likes or dislikes Cornwell’s works* and think about this commenter.

“…very sick people.”


“Once one has had even a glimpse of a wicked deed as words on a page, it stays put in the imagination- the torment is transmitted by a third party, crime writers spread about their material- it is the canker (sic) of warped minds.”

Which sounds like a bad thing. And maybe it is to a degree. In reality no one wants to confront the worst that humanity has to offer. Yet myself and other crime writers (or worse, horror writers) do so all the time. We distill terrible acts and place them on the page in the name of entertainment.

What the bloody hell is wrong with us?

Well, let’s leave aside the fact that our readers are clearly worse because they want more of the same and right now, please. And let’s think about entertainment.

The Greeks were clearly as sick – maybe more so – as any modern crime writer. Their tragedies were built on buckets of gore. Oedipus Rex is clearly the work of a screwed up mind. Yet it is a classic of literature. Even Shakespeare - - he wrote Titus Andronicus, where incest, cannibalism and a thousand other atrocities are depicted, and of course Hamlet where just about everybody dies**

Drama – at its heart – is conflict. And conflict is not pretty. It never has been. It never will be. I can accept that certain people don’t want to be reminded of ugly truths in this world – and in fact, at times, even I can’t take it and want to escape from such things – but the principle of entertainment is not merely diversion. Fiction and drama are our ways of coping with the world. By dealing with something in a fictional narrative we are excising it, in a sense. By confronting darkness on some level we process our reaction to it in a safe environment.

Fiction without conflict, without some essential darkness, is worthless. Even in the lightest of comedies, there is conflict and loss and struggle, even if it is over seemingly inane stakes. The fact is, however, that crime fiction and other dark forms of writing allow the reader and the writer to make sense of those things in the world that may otherwise be senseless. A person cannot cope with life by running away from that which makes them uncomfortable.
Good fiction – whether we see it as harmless “entertainment” or not – is always about making some sense of life. To be effective in doing this, sometimes that means going to places that we may find unsettling, confronting parts of ourselves and others we might otherwise run away from. There is no sickness or “canker” in admitting that people do bad things. There is more sickness in denying this, perhaps, in pretending that the world is all sweetness and life.

Not that I propose for an instant all fiction should be a bleak and soul-destroying gaze into the absolute depths of human suffering.

Far from it.

As in all things, I believe in balance. Sometimes I’ll want to be reassured and reminded that things can work out for the best, that there is good in people. Sometimes I’ll want to try and work out why people behave in the terrible ways they sometimes do.

Fiction can and should tackle both these extremes and everything in between.

Fiction should – no matter if it does it by subtext, by text, even by accident – make us think. Even if that thought is merely, “This is/isn’t how I want to live my life”

If it doesn’t do that and if it doesn’t strike a balance, then I wonder, what the point would be of it at all.

*For what its worth I think her first four or five books utterly revolutionised the crime fiction scene and were in and of themselves very good examples of the new genre. After that, well, I found the series lost its rhythms. But clearly hundreds of thousands of readers disagree. And mu opinion's just one drop in the ocean.
**There was originally a joke here that was based on the fact my brain was tired and utterly misremembered the plot of Hamlet. Which just goes to show that even your beardy hero slips up every once in a while***
***There was also a third foot note which is the one Ray Banks refers to.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

French Twist

I've written a few stories featuring Joe Pepper and Cal Gibson. The first was The Goldfish Heist, which was originally published by the Scotsman but can also be found in an old DSD post. The second story was The Tin Foil Heist, which is collected in Discount Noir, available through Untreed Reads. After a month of us talking craft here at DSD, I was toying with the idea of writing one more craft post. I asked for a few suggestions on twitter but, as is often the case with craft talk, I didn't really feel I was the guy qualified to be taking on some of the suggestions. So I thought I'd go to the other end of the tunnel, and give out some free fiction. So here's another short tale starring the Abbot and Costello of Glasgow crime.

French Twist

“I think I’m gonna move to Paris.”


“Yeah, you know how you wanna move to New York? Well I want Paris.”

“When did this happen?”

“Last night. I was watching TV? I thought, hey, that looks nice.”

“What were you watching?”


“Right. You’ve never even been to Paris. You don’t know anything about France.”

“I like Garlic Bread.”

“Garlic bread? You’re talking about moving to Paris, not to Pizza Hut. What will you do over there?”

“My Da’ knows this guy over there, Claude or Pierre, something French-”

“-Good to see you’re picking up the lingo-”

“-Shut it. Anyway. Da’ knows this guy, he’ll sort me out a job as a cleaner.”

“You’re moving to Paris to be a cleaner?”

“Not like mops and dishes and shite, it’s like a code, a hitman, see? Like what Baz does for Da’ except, you know, in French.”

“I know what a cleaner is, bawbag, I hired Baz, remember? But nobody actually calls them cleaners.”

“Right? What do they call them?”


“Oh, right, yeah. But they probably have a different name for them in France, right?”

“Yes, they’ll call them something French.”

“Do you speak any? French, I mean?”

“No, see, that’s my plan. If I don’t speak the language, then if the Polis lift me, they can’t interrogate me.”


“But I need to learn a little, I guess. Stuff like toilet and sex, aye? And, hey, I want a catchphrase too, like that guy in Pulp Fiction. Something cool to say just before I do it, something to remember me by.”

“They’ll be dead, Cal. They won’t be remembering you to their pals.”

“Oh yeah. Baws. I’d got that one worked out an’ everything.”

“Okay, hit me with it, go on. What’s your French hitman catchphrase?”

“Je’Mapelle Vengeance.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ebooks bought, never read

By Steve Weddle

I tend to disagree with Dave White out of sheer reflex. I find it saves times if I’m not certain of my position on a given topic. So when Dave started arguing last week that 99-cent ebooks are great because they provide many new readers, my immediate response was to argue with him. Which turned out to be the right decision.

A few months ago, on Twitter, a few of us were trying to figure out what the ratio is for ebooks bought to  ebooks read and how that ratio varies depending on price. (I dislike the term “price point” because I think the word “point” in that usage is unnecessary.)

I have, as of this writing, 482 file in my Kindle archive. That does not count the books that people have sent me – ARCs, drafts, etc.

From discussing this with folks, the answer seems to be that the ratio of ebooks bought to ebooks bought and then read is much higher as the price of the book increases.

If you want to make your own graphs and charts, I’ll wait.

Let’s take the example of the couch on the curb.

My friends Alice and Jake were trying to get rid of a couch. They put it on the curb for the trash folks to pick up, but it was too big. After a week or so, Jake put a sign on the couch that said “For Sale: $50.” The couch was gone by morning. Here endeth the anecdote.

You put a price on something, you create perceived value.

I’ve been in sales and I can tell you, buyers want value more than they want cheap. Do you ever wonder why the TV commercials for mail-order junk finish by telling you to order now and you’ll get an extra set of Super Sonic Ear Pokers for just a dollar more? Because they’ve already shown you the value of the Ear Pokers. They’re $19.99. Heck, maybe the second set is free. (Just pay separate shipping and handling.)

They’ve created the perceived value.

If you saw Super Sonic Ear Pokers in a box outside the grocery story with a sign that said “Free,” how inclined would you be to try out a pair?

Let’s take a look at the argument Dave was making yesterday: “If a book is priced inexpensively, more people are going to buy it.”

Say we’re able to sell books in two parallel universes. Everything is equal, except on Earth One the debut novel Building Romance by Ima Noob is $14 on Kindle, while on Earth Two the same novel is 99 cents.

Will more people purchase the book on Earth One or Earth Two? My guess is that more people would purchase the book for 99 cents than for $14. Where I disagree with Dave’s argument is here: I think the percentage of people who bought the book and read the book will be greater on Earth One.

In the past month or two, I’ve purchased a couple dozen ebooks for 99 cents or free. I’ve purchased two ebooks for $14. I’ve read both of the $14 ebooks. I have read seven of the others.

For me, a 99-cent ebook is usually a purchase of impulse or support. Hey, my pal Ima Noob has  a new book out. It’s 99 cents. One-click that sucker. I’ll read it when I get around to it.

Of course, this isn’t how I purchase all the 99-centers. For example, Chris F. Holm’s 8 Pounds was a 99-cent purchase. As a new author on the Kindle, his idea was to grab new readers. And that’s exactly what happened. Soon enough, he inked a deal with Angry Robot for his next two novels.

And there are bytes and bytes of 99-centers I’ve bought and read right away—just not most of them.
The argument for the 99-cent price of an ebook is that an author is likely to attract more “casual readers” than if the book were priced at, say, $5.99.

If you want a casual reader, then maybe this is the way to go.

But go to WalMart tonight. Look at the big cardboard box of $4.99 DVDs in the middle of the aisle. People dig through there looking for a bargain, not a good movie.

Read the Amazon reviews of 99-cent books. “This one was only 99 cents, so I thought I’d try it. Totally worth it.”

As Dave said yesterday: “I know this because people who don't worry about following writers and just bought a Kindle come to me asking for suggestions for 99 cent authors.”

They’re looking for a bargain. They care about the purchase, not the read.

For many – not all, but many -- as soon as that click is done, so is their interest. What they wanted was a cheap book. They’ve gotten it.

Many of them won’t read it.

But let’s consider those who do read it – who picked up the book because it was cheap.

The addition question to ask is “What does that reader do next?”

Does that reader hunt down your $12.99 ebook and purchase it, sending you $10 in the process? Or does the reader who found your bargain book scroll through the “Customers who bought this item also bought this item” section for another “good deal”?

Let’s be clear here: I’ve read many, many fantastic authors through free or 99-cent ebooks. Edward Grainger. Chris Holm. Neil Smith. Al Guthrie. Dani Amore. Malachi Stone. Victor Gischler. Nigel Bird. Josh Stallings. Ray Banks. On and on and on. Even our own Dave White and Sandra Ruttan. John McFetridge. Far too many to name.

You want to sell your book for 99 cents or $14.99, what the hell do I care?

If you have six books in a series and want to price the first one at 99 cents to get folks interested, more power to you.

When you offer folks a bargain price for your ebook, you’ll get folks who are looking for bargains. Not all of these folks care about a good book.

But maybe some of them will find a 99-cent bargain, read it, fall in love, and buy up everything that author has.

And I understand the thought that giving away your work or charging an “impulse-buy” price for it means more people will download your book. I’m just not convinced that most of those people will then read it.

You want people to download your book, charge 99 cents.

If you want people to value your book, then write something amazing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Young Writers and Price Points

I annoyed Steve Weddle over the weekend saying that the idea that a reader is more likely to buy and not read a .99 cent book is false. I have bought plenty of books that were higher priced and never read them. It's the luck of the draw, I said.

And I stand by that.

People buy books for a bunch of reasons: the cover looks cool, the plot sounds great, someone recommended an author to them. After they buy that book, it's up to them whether or not they read it and when they decide to read it. I don't think price point plays into that as much as other reasons.

But I will say this... a cheaper price point helps a new writer. If a book is priced inexpensively, more people are going to buy it. If more people buy it, the odds are better that more people are going to read that book. If a book is priced at 17.99 on the Kindle for a first time author, fewer people are going to be willing to try out that book and that new author. Therefore, more readers.

As far as the 99 cent price point, writers like to complain that's lowering the price of art... or something to that effect. Readers don't care. Honestly, put yourself in a reader's point of view. A casual reader. Not someone who combs the blogs and Twitter follow their favorite writers. Just someone who picks up a few books a month on a whim.

Do you think they consider that the price of "art" is being degenegrated (or whatever the argument is)?


They care they get a good yarn. A good read.

I know this because people who don't worry about following writers and just bought a Kindle come to me asking for suggestions for 99 cent authors. They love trying someone new, because it's affordable.

Cheaper sells more. And if more people buy your book, the odds are more people will read your book.

Indie booksellers are starting to adopt to this too. They are selling ebooks at inexpensive prices... the e-pub generation--it's going to help a lot of writers get a bigger audience..

Monday, November 28, 2011

Voice vs Tone

During the discussion on tone last week, I read posts and kept quiet. I didn't always agree, but what I was looking for was the right way to illustrate the distinction between voice and tone.

I think Joelle summed it up brilliantly yesterday, and that means I don't have much to add. However, I did find something that illustrated the difference between voice and tone, to me, that I think may help some who are undecided about the distinction.

As I discussed last week, I was raised on country music. I still listen to a fair bit of country, and I like a lot of country songs.

I'm also aware that in order to succeed in country music - like almost anything - there's a need for a certain image. My awareness of this doesn't change the fact that it's taken me a long time to warm up to the band Sugarland.

The reason? Jennifer Nettles.

I don't want it to sound personal, but the reason had to do with feeling conflicted about the emphasized twang in her singing.

My first exposure to Jennifer Nettles that I recall was her duet with Bon Jovi.

I've heard her in interviews as well, and again, the southern twang is barely noticeable.

But with Sugarland? It's pretty obvious, and seems to be emphasized.

Don't get me wrong - there are some Sugarland songs I do like. But the inflection in her voice, as well as the overall emphasis of her songs with Sugarland vs other work emphasis the difference between voice and tone. Her voice is her voice. Tone is what she emphasizes with her voice depending on the type of work she's doing, or who's interviewing her.

I don't see tone and voice as the same thing. As Joelle, and Steve said: Voice is the writing style unique to the author. Tone is the color and attitude of those words.

I couldn't say it any better than that.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Fine Whine

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Ha! Okay, I technically don’t mean that kind of whine, but since I am the cleanup hitter on the tone discussion, the tone of this post might very well sound like I am whining. I mean you’ve already heard 6 incredibly articulate writers discuss their thoughts on tone. They’ve talked about attitude and about not being tone deaf. (Heck, Russell’s post even had footnotes!) How is a girl supposed to compete with that kind of brilliance? (See, I’m whining!)

I’ve only been writing for a short number of years, but in that time I’ve found that a lot of writers confuse voice and tone. Voice is the writing style unique to the author. Tone is the color and attitude of those words. (Yeah, I’m stealing Steve’s word. Sue me!) Think of it this way – tone is like wine. (The drinking stuff, not the petulant stomping around that I might have to do if this post doesn’t work out the way I intended.) You can pick up five different bottles of Pino Grigio at the store. They are all made with the same types of grapes. Kind of like noir mysteries are all part of the same genre. They have all been fermented in a similar manner just as all stories in the same genre have a formula that works best for the story telling. And yet they are have subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) differences. The tone is unique to each vintage just as the tone to each story is unique and appropriate for that story.

One wine might have a slightly more oak flavor. Another might have a tinge of sweetness. Another might have undertones of apple or pear. The tone changes the flavor of the wine. It changes the way the person drinking the wine enjoys it. Just as the tone of a story changes the way the reader feels about the characters and the story.

Here is an example of similar scenarios (discovering a dead body) that have two different tones even though they are written in the exact same voice–mine.

Everything was quiet as I walked through the door that led to the back of the theater. The houselights were dark, but the work lights illuminated the grand piano on the stage. The lid was up on the piano, making it hard to tell if someone was seated behind it.

I walked down the steps toward the stage. Sure enough. I could see feet. Someone was sitting at the piano. I climbed up the escape stairs, walked around the piano, and felt the world tilt on its axis.

A backstage door slammed and echoed in the theater. On a normal day, the sound might have made me jump. Only, my feet were rooted to the floor. Slouched over the piano, head resting on the keys, was North Shore High’s choir director, Greg Lucas. A microphone sat on the piano keys a few inches from Greg’s mouth. I doubted he’d be speaking into the microphone any time soon seeing as how the microphone’s cord was wrapped tightly around his throat. (From MURDER FOR CHOIR to be released July 3rd from Berkley Prime Crime)

And now for something completely different….

Michelle led Ricco down the hall to the stairway. There was a small elevator next to the stairwell, but Michelle started climbing steps instead of pushing the call button. Emily had no problem with it, but Michelle hated using the thing. It creaked and moaned as it inched along at an incredibly slow pace. Thank God Emily lived on the third floor. Three flights of stairs she could handle.

She saw Ricco eye the elevator, but he didn’t complain as he silently climbed the flights of stairs next to her. When they reached the third floor, she hurried down the dingy maroon carpeted hallway to Emily’s apartment, the last one on the left.
Five steps from the door, she gasped and her heart kicked hard against her chest. Years of working in the ER had honed her senses to recognize certain sounds and smells. This smell was the most familiar of all of them.


“Emily’s hurt.” Michelle raced to the door and turned the handle again and again. Locked. Every time but still she kept turning it. The smell of blood was stronger here. Tears burned the back of her eyes and her throat. She had to get to Emily. “Can you get us inside?”

Ricco shook his head. “Mrs. O’Donnell said she was getting her keys. We gotta wait for her. The cops wouldn’t want us to screw with the door or the lock. They’ll be evidence.”

She wanted to scream. He was so calm, so cool and unfeeling behind his sunglasses. He should know that evidence and pissing off the police were the last things she cared about. She was about to tell him that when she heard a ding down at the end of the hall. The elevator had arrived and with it a limping Mrs. O’Donnell and her keys.

“Sorry it took me a couple of minutes to get up here. Chester darted under my feet and I stubbed my toe on the end table. Hurts like hell, but I don’t think I broke anything. Emily isn’t answering the door?”

The last was more of a statement than a question, but Michelle shook her head anyway. “Something’s wrong inside. I...” How to explain that she could smell the blood before she saw it? That she knew there had to be a lot of it. She couldn’t and she prayed to God she was wrong. “Can you open the door so I can make sure she isn’t hurt? If she’s not home I can leave a note telling her to call me.”
Mrs. O’Donnell hurried over to the door while fumbling for her keys. “Make sure you tell her to stop by my place and so I can see her for myself. After what Mark did...” The door swung open and Mrs. O’Donnell gave a shriek before sagging against the doorframe.

The smell of blood hit Michelle square in the face as she ran through the doorway, through the tiny foyer, and into the living room where Emily lay sprawled on the floor. “Call 911,” she yelled as she knelt down on the sticky wet floor. Somewhere she must have registered seeing the streaks on the light blue walls, the beige Berber carpet and the white couches, but none of that seemed as important as helping Emily – although deep in her heart she knew there would be no help. There were knife wounds on her arms and chest along with dozens of abrasions and contusions. Her left leg was bent at an unnatural angle and her face… Michelle swallowed hard. Emily’s face was almost unrecognizable. Someone had beat her – badly. Nurses see the signs of death all the time, but sometimes there was a miracle. Not often, but sometimes. Michelle was desperate that this be one of those times. (From Inadvertent Witness which is waiting to be read by my fabulous agent who has received way too many books from me in the last year.)

The tone of the first is lighter. Kind of a sweet, almost bubbly flavor. The other is darker. Perhaps has more woodsy vibe. Both are the same type of grape. The same wine. And yet…because of the tone there is a world of difference.