Saturday, December 10, 2011

What Would Watson Do?

Scott D. Parker

Just last month, I read and enjoyed Anthony Horowitz's Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk. As is my usual practice, I read no reviews prior to finishing the novel. When I did read the reviews, I was struck with the preponderance of a single word: pastiche. Interestingly, that word didn't enter my brain during my own reading (actually listening) of the book, but, perhaps, it should have.

In my own review of the book, I commented on how well Horowitz did in capturing the spirit, vocabulary, and feel of John Watson's writing. As I read the book, I ceased thinking it was Horowitz writing the book, but that it was Watson's (nee Doyle) pen that wrote the words.

Isn't that the definition of pastiche? That you forget the original author as you read the newer book? That the modern author has so completely assumed the style of the former that you think it's the former's own words? My next question was this: is this style of writing relegated only to Holmes stories?

This past summer, I read the newest James Bond novel by Jeffrey Deaver. I don't remember seeing reviewers commenting that it was a pastiche of Ian Fleming. Carte Blanche was a Deaver novel written about Fleming's creation, but with a modern sensibility, a complete reboot, to be honest. If you want a Bond-novel pastiche, that's more along the lines of 2008's Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks, which was written to be a pseudo-sequel to the last Fleming novel.

While I haven't read but the first in the series, the late Robert B. Parker's main detective, Spencer, will live on in future novels written by future authors. This was the announcement by the publisher and I can't help but wonder if the authors selected will be instructed to maintain the Robert Parker style versus their own idiosyncratic stylings.

Why do we do this? Why do we pigeon-hole authors, their characters, and their writing styles to a certain, compartmentalized segment of the literary world? Is it, for example, that we prefer Holmes to live in Victorian times and sound like Victorian English because "that's just the way it's supposed to be"? When you start to think along these lines, a certain amount of imaginary pairings start to form in your heads. What would a Holmes novel sound like if Hammett was the author? How about a Spencer novel written by P. D. James? A Perry Mason book written by Michael Chabon? Heck, what if Doyle himself wrote a Continental Op tale?

In music, these kinds of pairings spark one-off, crossover experiments. Metallica integrated an orchestra with their songs and, arguably, are better for it. Brian Setzer rearranged classical standards to be performed by his big band and the results are fantastic. Just this year, the Ebene String Quartet issued "Fiction", their album of jazz and rock songs reconceived as a string quartet. If you listen to the Turtle Island String Quartet's version of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, you will find a wonderfully new appreciation of the sax man's work. To me, these kinds of albums spark new interests in both the original version and the new.

So why are experiments like this not the norm in literature? Are we so conditioned to having Holmes and Watson always live in 189- that we don't want them to sound like the pulp heroes of the 1930s? Are we so worried that if Spencer starred in a story that "sounded like" Agatha Christie wrote it that we'd throw the book across the room?

What do you think?

Song of the Week:

Brian Setzer Orchestra's "The Nutcracker Suite" Well, since I mentioned it, here it is, in all of its jazzy glory.

Tweet of the Week:

That ABC edits Charlie Brown Christmas to make room for commercials basically proves the point of the show.

--Scott D. Parker

Yes, I'm quoting myself. Every year, I look forward to watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special. I'm old fashioned enough to prefer watching it on TV--commercials and all; remember when Dolly Madison did the ads?--to make it more of an event rather than something you can watch any time (or dozens of times) on a DVD. I know it so well that, each year, I get chagrined at the edits and cuts ABC makes in favor of (a) more commercials and (b) to account for the original 32-minute running time. That basically defeats the point of the entire message, right? It's ironic that Charlie Brown (in 1965) and the Grinch (in 1966) basically said all that needs be said about this most wonderful time of the year...over forty years ago.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Oh the weather outside is frightful...

By Russel D McLean

Hey - wanna win some signed stuff from Russel? Go here and for a little bit of work you could get his lovely scrawl on some printed paper.

Someone asked me recently what my favourite Christmas movie was. I think they expected me to say “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and yes, I think that’s a great movie, but there’s one film that’s become very much a part of the festive season for me…

Last year, I got very excited when the DCA (Dundee Contemporary Arts) decided to make its special Christmas screening DIE HARD. Yes, the Bruce Willis film. The one with the sequels that got progressively worse until finally we had an incomprehensible showdown between a jet plane and a truck (seriously) at the climax of an already incomprehensible mess of sound and fury (but bonus points for using The Creedence on the soundtrack).

But the original DIE HARD remains one of my go-to Christmas movies.

Christmas movie?

Oh, yes.

See, DIE HARD may have guns and explosions and that really painful moment with Bruce Willis stepping barefoot on its glass, but at its heart it’s a hopeful and optimistic movie. After all, John MacLane is just a guy who wants to get his family back together at Christmas. He wants to make up with his wife and see his kids. He’s not looking for trouble and even when he does find it, the thing at the forefront of his mind is keeping his family safe.

And that’s why he’s such a great character. He’s no real superhero. He’s just a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time trying to do what he thinks is the right thing.

And there’s something kind of nice about that.

Of course, it helps that McClane is a New York Cop and a proficient shot. It helps that he’s tougher than the average guy. And it really helps that he’s pretty inventive (in the first film, some improvising with explosives and an office chair creates some real fireworks).

The film is just great fun from the go. The humour is spot on (if sometimes a little obvious), and the bad guys’ motivations are pretty clear (Even with the misdirection – they’re thieves and not terrorists – we are clear at all times as to their goals and methods) and of course there’s Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, possibly the suavest bad guy of all time. With his sarcastic smile and his clipped accent, Gruber is the ultimate in cool bad guys. Not too far over the top, but just nicely pantomimeish – so evil he’s fun.

By the end of the film, we find ourselves rooting for John to get his wife back, defeat the bad guys and ride off into the sunset. And its spoiling very little to say that’s exactly what happens. Those final few moments, as “Let It Snow” swells on the sountrack and the camera pans over the carnage that has ensued are somehow among the most enjoyable moments in cinema. Die Hard isn’t just a great action movie. It’s a feel good movie with blood and swearing. It’s a life-affirming flick where quite a few people die.

And its just great fun.

And no Christmas is complete without it.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Books Of The Year

By Jay Stringer

Hey hey.

I wanted to keep this simple this week. There's a lot of negative news stories out there about the publishing industry at the moment; bookstores going under, plagiarism, the never ending debate over pricing, the lovely kindle fire, the terrible kindle fire.

We're into the second week of December. I know, scary, right? Buy someone a book for the holidays. Buy several people a book for the holidays. Honestly? I don't care what format, for what device or at what price. Just buy people books, written by authors, and make that the centre of the debate.

So, with that in mind, I'm throwing it over to you guys. Let's out together a reading list in the comments. What have been the best books of 2011? What authors do you want others to read? What books should we be talking about here at DSD?

Just before you get to posting, here's a bit of house cleaning. I guested again on the Fuzzy Typewriter podcast, this time to discuss When The Sacred Ginmill Closes, by (and we can say this now) friend of DSD, Mr Lawrence Block. It was great to chat about one of my favourite crime novels, and to hear what Paul, Caroline and Dave had to say about it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Investigating a Decent Price for eBooks: Guest Post

So last week Monica Valentinelli mentioned my e-book pricing/reading post. Turns out, she's given this topic a good deal of thought, based on this wacky notiong of "experience." So I thought it would be nice for her to swing by and share her genius and experience with us. She's an author and game designer whose work can be found here

In addition to her own writing, she's edited HAUNTED, a book you'll want to check out.


By Monica Valentinelli

There are three types of e-book pricing discussions you'll often encounter on the web. The first is from the reader's perspective and deals with what someone is willing to pay for versus what a particular item is worth. In other words, statements that say eBook prices should *all* be can be translated to I would like to be priced at X amount because that's what I think it should be. Nathan Bransford has taken some reader polls about e-book pricing; you can read the shifting changes here.

The second strain is from hands-on experience, usually from authors and small press publishers who are dealing with small business concerns. Pricing is an experiment, and rightly so, for many of these folks are venturing into eCommerce territory above and beyond crafting a good tale. Three articles that come to mind are from Tobias Buckell, who wrote about selling Tides from the New World, Jim Hines, who blogged about selling Goldfish Dreams, and my own when I talked about The Queen of Crows: a One Year Retrospective. (Although I'm an author and game designer, I've been in eCommerce and online marketing for several years for my day job.)

The third discussion is nebulous at best and can often be described as economic theory infused with concerns about piracy. For the sake of streamlining this discussion, I'm not going to dive into the differences between a textbook and practical experience.

Now that you have some background, I'm going to briefly touch on why current e-book pricing is akin to walking into an M.C. Escher painting.

Unlike the products you buy in a physical store, with eCommerce you can change the price on-the-fly, discuss it, and watch its immediate effect on traffic and sales. You can, as an eCommerce retailer, get up-to-the-minute stats on who visited your website and improve the customer's experience. That's the Amazon,, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble side of the story. Publishers (Yes, authors who self-publish are included in this) are at the mercy of whatever those retailers do. Some, like Amazon, are more aggressive than others. (Disclaimer: I'm currently doing some eCommerce consulting for the site) is almost the opposite and offers tools for direct e-mail marketing to customers. Each retailer takes a portion of the sale and has specific requirements for formatting; Smashwords is different from Amazon, for example.

In addition to the fees taken, there are other things that happen outside of the author or publisher's control like market share, on-site promotions, internal ranking algorithms for sales, etc.

All of these things combined affect how an e-book is presented to a potential customer influenced by the age of the release and demand. New books typically sell better than old books. You may have seen authors who publish through traditional houses request that their readers buy a new book from the same store in the same week. This is part of the reason why. Improved sales rankings directly affect a book's visibility in a retail store, whether it's online or not.

Price is only one consideration when offering a product online. There are other factors including: popularity of genre, visibility of name/platform, cover art, description, and presentation. Nascent authors typically (unless you're lightning in a bottle) don't sell as well as established authors because they don't have the existing readership to support their sales. Even then, established authors now-a-days would have to throw some marketing behind their other books to ensure that their readers know they exist in the first place.

I feel getting readers is, more than anything, where introductory pricing discussions come into play. Pricing a book at ninety-nine cents is a way to encourage new readers to buy into a series or an author's work, provided a) there's more work to buy and b) the reader reads the story and c) reviews or talks about it. By its nature, ninety-nine cent pricing demands a high volume of sales to be profitable.

Rounding up to a dollar, let's say you need/want to make a hundred dollars on your twenty-thousand word e-book. (Ignoring cover art, time to write, formatting, etc.) To make a hundred dollars, you have to look at your margin. With most sites, you'll make seventy cents a copy. Wow, sounds like a lot, right? Okay, well you'd need to sell approximately 143 copies to make that profit. Now price your e-book at $2. Your margin is $1.40. So now you need to sell significantly less copies to make the same amount of money. What's the benefit of pricing your e-book at a dollar more? You can always lower the price to be on sale at ninety-nine cents.

Is a hundred dollars a reasonable profit for a novella? Well, if we calculate the value of your book using five cent a pro word rates, then your 20K novella is $1,000. Suddenly, you need to sell significantly more copies of your e-book to hit $1,000. Mind you, that does not include cover art, editing, marketing, formatting, etc. When all is said and done, I suggest running a cost analysis on what you put into a book versus how much you're making. Then take a look at indirect impacts to determine whether or not it was worth it. Having that information can help influence your decisions about pricing, too.

Books still have a high production value in the sense that authors don't wake up and puke out a polished 100,000 word novel in a day (or even a 20,000 word novella). The challenge, of course, is that the reader doesn't see the effort that goes into it. They see the file size (considerably less than a photo or a movie), the cover, or the hook. They buy based on an emotion. What you're selling the reader, in my opinion, is a mini-vacation. If they prefer Neil Gaiman's vacation to the one you're offering, then guess what? They'll not only buy his vacation instead of yours, chances are they'll pay more for it, too.

Right now, traditional publishers may skew pricing in favor of more popular authors primarily because readers will pay more to get their stories. In other words: projected volume comes into play. When you think about the number of copies you can sell versus what you will sell, then the conversation changes. Some authors are totally fine selling less copies but making more money. Others are going for the numbers and the introductory prices hoping that'll boost their other book sales.

In the end, pricing discussions comes down to what you want to get out of your particular book and why you're offering it for sale in the first place. Readers will have a tough time navigating the exponentially greater number of books being sold every year. Authors who foray into self-publishing will experiment as new formats, e-readers, and eCommerce sites become available.

Even then, even with all these discussions, e-books are still very new. On the big publishing side? Check out this article where e-books account for less than twenty-five percent of an individual publisher's sales. It will take at least five to ten years for the market to sort itself out. The trick will be to figure out how you, as a reader or as an author, will find your niche while the eCommerce sites try to figure out theirs.

About Monica Valentinelli

Monica is an author and game designer who lurks in the dark. By day, she's the Marketing Director for Steve Jackson Games and John Kovalic's business manager. By night, she pens short stories, novellas, and hobby games. For more about Monica and her published works, visit

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Homeland is a TV Drama on Showtime--probably fall/winter's best new show. It follows two main characters.... Claire Danes plays a troubled CIA agent who believes and American soldier has been turned by Al Qaeda and will soon attack the States.

Damian Lewis plays that soldier. The early episodes really play the is he or isn't he a terrorist angle, but then bears down into a dark character study about what it's like to return to the United States after being a POW for 8 years. Lewis' character really brings the twists and turns to the show and seeing what he's going to do week in and week out keep dragging me back in.

The action scenes are brief and tense, and this week's climax had me sitting up, trying to get a closer shot of what was going to happen. The show is rarely predictable, and even when it looked like it was about to take a disappointing turn toward the every day TV drama, the show managed to right itself in the next episode.

The scene-stealer for me, however, is Mandy Patankin, who plays a Dane's curmudgeon mentor. His dry deliver and serious manner are a pleasure to watch.

If you have Showtime, but aren't watching this show, you need to track it down.

Anyone else seen it? Thoughts?

Monday, December 5, 2011

In Praise of the Short Story

Did you know that May is national Short Story month. I didn't. In 2007 Dan Wickett, drafting off of the idea of National Poetry Month, decided that the short story should have one. Neither did I. But I'm confused. The crime fiction community has always been an early adopter and started using online zines as a means to publish fiction damn near 15 years ago. In my opinion the crime short fiction continues to be one of the, if not the most, vibrant of all the other online fiction communities, even as other have been finally catching up with the idea of online publications. So *if* crime fiction has the most vibrant online short fiction scene and *if* there is a short story month then how come our community (and the zines we publish) aren't included in this endeavor? I don't know, but we should be.

So why do I love (and sometimes hate) the short story?

One of the most daring acts of reading is found in reading the short story. As readers (and consumers) we have some built in motions that we go through before making a purchase. Sometimes we aren't even aware of them. A cover caches your eye; the author's bio is read, blurbs can even be read or glanced at. Perhaps most important of all is the synopsis. The reader of long fiction constructs a safety net under their reading experience the moment they read the synopsis because at that moment they have some idea of what they are getting into.

A lot of these subconscious trappings of the reading experience are so ingrained they aren't even noticed. But the short story, and by extension the single author short story collection, strips a lot of these trappings away leaving only the title, author's name and the story itself. In many respects it's the purest form of reading. Even with an author you've read before or at a publication you've read before there are few expectations brought to the reading experience. It's a bit like stepping off the ledge, you simply begin the story and that's it. There are very few guideposts as to what you'll be reading. It may be one of the greatest acts of literary trust out there.

Which, to me, is part of the reason short story collections aren't read as widely as they should be. It's hard to to get a reader to close their eyes and make that leap.

So, should we make a concerted, community wide effort to participate in Short Story Month next year? Why do *you* like the short story? And, what/who are some of your favorite stories and authors?

I've started a new blog that will begin posting new content in 2012 that will promote the short story all year. It's called Short Story 365. Check it out and consider participating.

Also, Spinetingler will now be publishing weekly flash fiction.

Currently reading: REAMDE by Neal Stephenson; Hill Country by R Thomas Brown; Trigger Man by Jim Ray Daniels

Currently Listening: J Roddy Walston & The Business

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Life intrusions

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Writing takes discipline. You have to put your butt in the seat and fill the pages with words. If you don’t do it, no one else will. And since more often than not a writer is self-employed, there isn’t a boss looking over your shoulder threatening to make you work late if you don’t get that day’s job done. Writing requires a personality that can sit down, self-motivate and type day after day until the story is done.

When I’m writing, I always set a daily goal. Sometimes I hit the goal. Some days I miss it. But regardless of whether I hit the goal or not, I make sure that each and every day I write.

Unfortunately, sometimes no matter how disciplined the writer or how dedicated one is to the project at hand life intrudes. This week life intruded for me. Monday night, I got a call from my mother telling me that a man who watched me grow from my childhood self into an adult woman died unexpectedly. Not that death is ever expected, but still. This man wasn’t sick. He showed no signs of being anything other than vital and healthy and strong. One minute he was laughing with his family. The next he was gone leaving a whole in our hearts that can never be filled.

So this week, despite the desire to sit down and write I found myself unable to put words on the page. I cried with his family. I looked through pictures. I attended his wake and his funeral and shared the memory and impact of his life with those who loved him.

Some times life intrudes on our desire to be productive. We might not like it, but it is important for us to recognize when we can and cannot write. This week, life kicked me and this man’s friends and family in the ass. We all fell down, got up and did what we had to do to get through. The road in front of his family is long and hard. I know what they feel and will take as much time as needed away from my own work to make sure they have the support they need to survive. And tomorrow I will start writing again because it is what I do—what I have to do—what he was so proud of me for. And while the holidays will take time away from the work we all want to do, I cannot stress enough that we should all give life permission to intrude. Our families, our friends and the memories we make every day are the reasons we all can do what we do.