Monday, April 30, 2012

HISHE: Sons of Anarchy Season 3...

... or where I brazenly, and perhaps foolishly, re-write season three of Sons of Anarchy

I just finished watching seasons 1-3 of Sons of Anarchy.  It's now one of my favorite shows and I'm looking forward to watching Season 4.  Season 1 starts of wobbly and, as far as a crime fiction story goes, a little conventional.  It finds its legs after a couple of episodes and gets stronger by the end of the season.  Season 2 builds on the strengths of season 1 and gives the viewer a great season of television. None of this is to say that the first two seasons are perfect, but they are damn good. 

Then there is season 3.  There are a lot of viewers who dislike season 3 for various reasons.  More on that in a minute.

A couple of thought trains collided for me.  First,  I enjoy the pieces that How It Should Have Ended do, some more then others to be fair, but they are a fun extension of my middle school arguments about whether Bruce Lee could beat Darth Vader and what would happen if you used a nuclear bomb on a vampire.  Second, I liked the ideas that Belated Media put forth about The Phantom Menace and how it could have been streamlined to make a better movie.  Not all of the ideas work but overall I appreciate what they did. 

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Third, after exchanging some editorial notes one of the Snubnose authors thanked me but in truth I was just connecting some dots based on what was already there. It just needed a fresh pair of eyes to get that final polish. 

I want to explore the disconnect between the season 3 that I watched and the season 3 in my mind.  I don't know what you would call this: a review, a re-write, a critique, a polish, editorial notes, fan fiction.  But I'm going to do it anyway. 

Here's what I would have done with season 3 of Sons of Anarchy to make it better.  I tried as much as possible to use what was there.  I also haven't seen season 4 but I have looked at some of the information on it. 

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-No Lem (or Kozik, or whatever the hell his name is) - I wouldn't have introduced this character.  First, he doesn't look like a biker.  He looks too pretty (even with that neck tat) standing among that grisly cast.  You wanted to throw a Shield alum some work, great, but not this part.  The feud between Lem and Tig is kind of stupid when you finally learn its origins. He ultimately drags down the existing cast that we have come to love.

-Hale - Hale shouldn't have died.  The Hale/Tara/Jax triangle was a great mirror with the Unser/Gemma/Clay triangle.  They complimented each other nicely.  Especially since we started to see Hale work with Jax and the club on a limited basis.  Seeing Hale slowly come to grips with the "devil you know" component of town life and law enforcement was interesting.  There was more to be done with this character, his relationships with other characters, and his relationship with the town.

-Opie - I think over the course of the third season it's time for Opie's role to be more defined.  He's a quiet character and I'm not suggesting that he suddenly become more verbose and the center of action.  But, it's just a matter of connecting some of the dots.  He is Jax's oldest friend; his quiet nature makes him an observer; he is there for Jax.  Right now I would say that he should be one part Bobby and one part Tig for Jax.  The get shit done guy and the one who sees clearly for Jax when Jax can't.  Moving forward Jax will need that and there's no one in the club who he trusts more. 

-Tara: Here's the bottom line with Tara.  Even though the internal timeline of the show up to this point is shorter then the external timeline of the air dates and the viewer watching the episodes the external timeline is perhaps more important.  So with the third season of the show it's time to treat Tara differently as a character and mark her movement into the club life and some of their affairs.  The next couple of sections will be about Tara.

-Tara and Tara and Jax- I'm not a big fan of the break up then get back together aspect of Jax and Tara's relationship this season.  On one hand he's hurting and pushing people away from him but on the other Tara has proven she's in at this point so it's time for everyone (including herself) to stop treating her like a fence-sitter.  Again, it's just a matter of connecting the dots that are already there.  When the club comes to get Jax from the house early in the season Clay has nothing but good words for her ("You really stepped up").  In season 2 when she was treating Bobby he said he was "in good hands".  Also, and this may sound trite and obvious, but she has a nickname (Doc). A lot of the club members have nicknames (Tig, Happy, Opie, Half Sack, Piney, Chibs) or go by shortened versions of their names (Clay, Jax).  It's just one of the many ways that club members self identify and identify one another so it is no small thing that Tara has a nickname too.      

Additionally, most women in and around the club fall into two categories: the crow eater and the old lady.  Tara is an old lady but she also has another role within the club, she is their doctor.  She can have doubts sometimes, she can have moments of clarity about her life ("I'm your old lady") but lets stop pretending she's not a part of the club.  Her being a woman but not just an old lady flips the script on pre-defined gender roles in the club and lets her have more power and respect above and beyond even that of her mentor, Gemma.

Since Jax is still hurting he can still push her away but have her stand her ground, in words and in action, by fighting for her family, her man and her life.  When Jax tells her she should go she tells him no, she's not leaving her home.  When Jax is away in Ireland she holds the fort down with Tig because she understands her responsibility to the club.  This also plays into larger show themes that protecting the club is the most important thing.

Before going to Ireland Jax breaks up with Tara one last time, doesn't go home that night, and fucks Ima the porn star.  The next morning Tara goes to the clubhouse and walk in on the two of them.  Tara leaves in a huff. Ima thinks she's won.  Jax kicks Ima out.  Lyla confronts and slaps Ima and Tara sees this.  With what I've said about how Tara should be above here's how the scene should have went down. 

Tara goes to the clubhouse and walks in on Ima and Jax. Instead of storming out Tara walks over to where Ima is standing and punches her in the gut. Ima doubles over, Tara grabs her by the hair and drags Ima out of the room, down the hall, and through the clubhouse with Jax shouting after her the whole time.  Lyla and Opie see this.  Opie makes an attempt to stop Tara and momentarily succeeds.  But Lyla joins in and puts the boots to Ima and drags her to the clubhouse door.  Tara breaks free of Opie and re-enters the fray.  Both Lyla and Tara drag Ima out of the clubhouse, down the driveway and kicks her into the street with a final kicking and spitting.  You end the scene with Jax getting in Tara's face and saying "what the hell did you do that for" and Tara responding calmly "you aren't getting rid of me that easy" then walking to her car, getting in and driving away.

Again, it's all about connecting the dots that are already there.  Tara shooting up Ima's car foreshadows this act of violence and Gemma attacking Cherry with the skateboard foreshadows this violence.  Additionally, there is a hierarchy to the women.  Think about it, Gemma is in the number one spot and Tara is in the number two spot (and being groomed for the top spot).  But no other club member has an old lady so Lyla, by default, is number three.  Even this is foreshadowed earlier in the series.  When the club gathers all the loved ones at the clubhouse before going to war it's Gemma, Tara and Lyla, arms around each other, that make the visual tableau as the men ride off.  Even though it's never explicitly stated, Lyla knows she is the number three old lady.  With Gemma out of pocket both Tara and Lyla step up and get shit done.

From what I understand of Ima's appearance in season 4 it would need some tweaking but not much.  This theoretical season 3 beat down could have dovetailed nicely with the Ima events in season 4.

-Tig & Tara - While the club is away Tig is the main club member left behind.  It should be up to Tig & Tara to hold down the home front.  While doing so they could have some nice interactions where they talk about her increased role in the club.  Tig is protective of Gemma but it also wouldn't be a stretch to say that he is protective of some of the other old lady's, IE: Tara.  Imagine a scene where the two of them are out, Tig leaves momentarily and some strange dude comes up to her and is hitting on her and won't leave her alone.  Tig comes back and Tara tells him to take care of this asshole and he does. This would further solidify her place in the club and show her comfort level in getting one of the guys to do something for her.  Further, Tig actually doing it would be his acknowledgement  of her place in the club. 

-Tara's kidnapping - A couple of things should happen with this sub-plot.  First, in my season 3 Hale is still alive.  I'd like to see more of a collaborative effort between the club and Hale and Unser in trying to find her.  I believe that the club consists of men of action so the whole elaborate plan to try and meet the kidnapper's demands by arranging Alvarez's "death" for 24 hours is a bit ludicrous.  These guys would be beating the streets looking for her.  Their blind and wild action would also add an element of danger because Tara and her kidnappers could be anywhere and would counter balance the more considered approach that Hale and Unser would take. 

Inside the house Tara would still shank her one kidnapper. The administrator would be allowed to go but she would be instructed to go to Teller Morrow to tell the club where Tara is at.  Salazar and Tara would be in a tense stand-off and at some point he would get the upper hand and put the boots to her.  Tig, Hale and Unser would find her bleeding out. She would be taken to the hospital and would have a threatened miscarriage. 

The change would do a couple of things.  It would allow the action to be more streamlined, action packed, suspenseful and tense.  Also it would shave off the part of the existing sub-plot that don't make sense (letting the administrator go but staying behind) and are in place only to serve later reveals. 

-Ireland - I'm not a big fan of the Ireland portion of the season.  It wasn't bad it just wasn't great.  Also, we knew the boys were going to wind up there so the constant plot machinations to keep them from getting there felt artificial and external and you could see the beams of the story.  For example Bobby's previously unheard of ex-wife who just happens to be married to a bounty hunter who can give them intel on Abel's location that turns out to be false anyway.  Plot wise it's a giant cul-de-sac with new characters and Sutter and crew are better then that.  With that said I'm going to mostly leave that arc in place. 

But. I think there is a better way to handle keeping the Sons from reaching Ireland until a certain point in the series arc.

The bounty hunter guy should feed the intel to the Sons much sooner about Cameron and Abel being in Vancouver and the Sons SHOULD ACTUALLY GO THERE. 

Here's the deal Motorcycle gangs are HUGE in Canada.  They are one of the biggest, if not the biggest, organized crime group in Canada.  To not send the boys there and utilize all of that history was, in my opinion, a huge missed opportunity. 

Instead of having artificial reasons to prevent the Sons from leaving for Ireland have them go to Vancouver instead and get involved in an ongoing conflict/war instead. It is a plot development that could last a few episodes and wouldn't feel forced because the Sons would feel/be obligated to support their Canadian brothers.  Then they get fed the Irish intel then they go to Ireland. 

As a side note, in the off chance there are some plans for future story arcs to take the club to Canada and someone associated with the show reads this, there is a crime writer whose wheelhouse is organized crime in Canada including biker gangs who has screenwriting experience as well.  His name in <a href="">John McFetridge</a>. Hire him.

-The double cross - The double cross at the end leaves the viewer feeling a little cheated. On one hand it's a little thrilling wondering just what in the hell is going on but there isn't single hint of a scene where Jax tells the club his plan.  This weakens the plot development.  Especially since re-watching the season doesn't answer the question.  So one little scene would work.

-Unser - The biggest change I would have made to the double cross plot is Unser's role.  Clay gave him what felt like a final send off. The removal of his badge and service weapon and the picking up of his personal weapon felt like final acts.  Instead of catching a punch he should have eaten his gun on the side of the road. It would have made the whole thing more plausible.  I love the Unser character  and Dayton Callie but with his cancer eating away at him anyway and the way of life that he worked so hard to protect slipping away and the enormity of the actions that he was allowing to happen in that moment  it would have been an epic end of third season death that would have been rivaled only by Stringer Bell's.  The story demanded a pound of flesh and he should have paid it.  Imagine how heartbreaking the scene would have been if Unser said his goodbyes, told Opie to tell Gemma he said goodbye and then shot himself with Opie and Piney watching.  There is an certain over-the-top quality to the way the double cross unfolds. This scene would have given the whole affair a beating heart. 


So that's it.  My thoughts on making the third season of Sons of Anarchy tighter and stronger.  I'm not the only one who thought the season was problematic so sound off and tell me what you think  of SoA, of my plan for the 3rd season, and what changes you would have made.  Or did you love it just the way it is (after all it does have a 4 1/2 star out of 5 rating with 180 reviews over at Amazon).

[And yes, I realize that this was a fairly geeky thing to do.]

Currently Reading: Submissions; Dime Detective by Randy Chandler

Currently Listening: Boys and Girls by Alabama Shakes

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The care and feeding of a writer

by: Joelle Charbonneau

While you read this, I will be doing the conferencing thing.  Malice Domestic is this weekend where all things traditional and cozy mystery will be celebrated by readers and authors alike.  There will be editors there (the Berkley editors take their authors to a pretty awesome steak dinner) and agents in attendance (yes – the fabulous Stacia Decker will be lurking in the bar).  All in all, it will be a weekend filled with talking about the thing we all have in common – books.

Conferences are great since you get to network and sign books and all that jazz.  Panels are typically a great deal of fun and discussing your characters and your upcoming work is all sensational business stuff.  But I would say that while these adventures are important for an author’s career, they are more important for an author’s soul.

As writers, we spend lots of time in front of the computer screen – alone.  Ok—some people would say that we aren’t technically alone since we are spending time with the people and scenarios in our head.  But really…no matter how many imaginary friends you have or how often they talk to you, writing is not a team sport.  You sit and write and you do it solo.  But writers need to get out and experience the world.  We need to observe people and place and social events in order to create realistic feeling situations on the page.  And more important – we need to be with other people that understand the pressures of writing.

Complaining about deadlines, yammering about the most horrid rejection you’ve ever received and just talking about every day stuff with other people whose feet are set on the same path is important.  Sharing those experiences on this blog, on twitter, and facebook are good, but there is nothing like being with other people who are part of the same community.  Who understand the joy of a great writing day or the agony of a terrible one without explanation.  While food and coffee feed an author’s body, it is the coming together of like minds with like purpose that feed an author’s soul.  And that is a wonderful thing.  

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Why is Everyone Always So Tired

Scott D. Parker

When's the last time you read about a fresh face in a mystery story? I don't mean fresh as in brand-new to the ever-growing number of mystery novels. I'm talking about the characters themselves. Let me explan.

In many--many!--mystery and crime stories, the main character seems to always be a wise, old veteran. And, more often than not, it's a he who has seen it all, done it all, and is currently bored with it all. The trope is tried and true, and most readers just eat it up. Heck, even I do.

Science fiction has its fair share of seen it all/done it all heroes, but it also possesses the newbie, the freshman if you will. Think of Luke Skywalker. He didn't know a thing, and it was left up to nearly every other character (including the seen it all/done it all Han Solo) to show him the wider world in which he lived. In SF, the freshman is the gateway to the new, imagined world.

There are mystery examples of "Luke Skywalker" too. Take Castle. He's a newbie to official police procedures being schooled by the veteran Beckett. Same with Monk and his assistants, and any number of other examples.

Why is the seen it all/done it all trope so effective? Is it, perhaps, that we are the newbies and the weary narrator/protagonist is our guide? Might it be difficult to have a freshman protagonist to show us "freshmen" readers the ropes? How might that work? Come on: I know they are out there, and I know y'all know it.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Superheroes can sometimes be the same way. As much as I love Batman--still my favorite--he is almost the quintessential been there/done that guy. There isn't anything he hasn't already experienced, planned for, or guessed at. Which is why the current storyline is the new "Batman" comic is so good.

The Court of Owls is, basically, a secret society that has operated in Gotham for decades. And it is something Batman never saw before. The writer--Scott Snyder--has even gone so far as to add nuances and new twists on the classic Batman origin story. Batman's vulnerability to this group has made this new series very interesting again.

It's a new take on an old character. Tomorrow, for those of us in America, the second season of BBC's "Sherlock" starts. Talk about a breath of fresh air! This series is splendid. It's been a long year over here that finally ends tomorrow.

Which brings up another question: are there any established characters who could use an update? Are there any characters that should never be reworked?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Talk Talk- A Post From The Vault

Russel is away this week doing awesome doings and plotting awesome plots. Until he returns next week with more content than you can throw a bloated stoat at, we decided to bring you a post from the vault. Something I mentioned in my post last week was that Russel put a telephone into his detectives hand, and how fresh that was. I tracked back and found Russel talking about this very thing himself....

The Nerd of Noir is the man of a thousand swears, but despite how that may make him appear to some people (hello, mother!), he’s a savvy guy. Not just because he gave a nice review to one of me books lately* but because he genuinely seems to have a brain underneath that beautifully coiffed hair of his.

That review pointed out one thing in particular about THE GOOD SON that no one else in the world seems to have picked up on:

McNee initially does what no fucking private eye ever seems to do in novels – he used a fucking phone. Instead of traipsing off to London a million fucking miles away (like any other private eye character since Marlowe would do), McNee makes some calls, figures some shit out from the comfort of his office. Instead of a thousand scenes of McNee going from one shady bar or one shit-hole flat to another at who knows how much of an expense, McNee gets practical about it and just calls up contacts. It may not initially seem like a big thing, but think about it. It’s kind of a revelation.

A revelation indeed. But it didn’t seem to me to be one at the time. While I had grown up on novels that relied on those scenes, I am also a product of a world that has started to rely more and for immediate information and I knew that any decent investigator wouldn’t waste his time going to the scene when he could easily get what he needed from his armchair. Or at least lay the groundwork for a speedier investigation.

Is this hampering the idea of the traditional plot? Is this killing crime fiction that things just aren’t so difficult on our protagonists any more?

No, I don’t think so. As anyone who’s read the book will tell you, McNee doesn’t just sit on his arse the whole time (and besides, what if he did? Never did Nero Wolfe any harm…), but his approach opens up a whole new set of complications and has repercussions that would have been very different if he’d done that whole “traipsing down to London” nonsense. I also think it sets him up as a man of his time; a man who can use the modern world. And this is important because I think many protagonists in crime fiction can feel removed from the world they clearly live in due to such simple things as not using a phone properly or refusing to look at the internet (again, McNee’s browsing of a website provides much information on one important character in the book).

I think that if crime fiction is to move forward, it has to embrace the modern world in a natural way and adjust its expectations and clichés accordingly. Yes, there is the worry about characters constantly being in touch or not being isolated when the killer’s coming, but there are ways and means around such things that can be dramatically more terrifying than the old because characters would be reliant on such communication and technology. There is also the question – and its one at the centre of Steve Mosby’s chilling Cry For Help – over who is at the other end of a phone?

Can you really trust a text?

Yes, I think the modern world will kill some clichés, some standard tropes, some long-held ideas of genre fiction. I think it will make wrters consider new ways – consciously or not – to treat old situations.

And, truly, I believe that’s a good thing.

*In the grand and brand new issue of Crime Factory, available if you clicky-click the beautiful link

Thursday, April 26, 2012


By Jay Stringer

"Do you believe in the Devil?"
"Which one?"

Our regular reader will know I've been having my issues with comic-books this year. A lot of things have taken the shine off them for me. So it was really fun to find a book that I could simply sit, read, and have a blast with, and that's exactly what I got with SPARROW AND CROWE: THE DEMONIAC OF LOS ANGELES.

You might remember a while back I posted a link to a kickstarter campaign for a comic book. If you don't remember, just click on this here link and you can then pretend that you did, and I won't tell anybody. The  project in question was a mini-series, and a prequel of sorts to the long running audio-drama Wormwood, that you can still get totally for free at Itunes. But I only mention the connection so that you've got more things to check out; you don;t have to be familiar with the series to pick up the comic.

The story centres around Doctor Xander Crowe, who is an occult detective and also something of a prominent psychologist (just don't let him ask you about your relationship with your father.) He has a haunted past, and a few evil hand issues, but he's out and about in L.A. trying to make a living through exorcism. There would be plenty of easy touchstone references to make here, from John Constantine to Harry Dresden, but with Crowe it feels like the creative team are looking a little deeper and tapping into the same sources that inspired those two characters. There's more Phillip Marlowe in Crow than Constantine. There is something in his characterisation that reminds me specifically of the Marlowe played by Elliot Gould in Altman's The long Goodbye. In that movie Gould played the character as having each foot in a different world; one in the source material and the 40's, the other in the amoral seventies. And Crowe here feels like he's spanning more than one world, floating above the realities of everyday modern life without really managing to commit to them.

The script smartly avoids a lot of the pitfalls that can hamstring new comic writers. Often in a writers early work you'll see too many words on the page, and an inability to get out of the way of the artist. But the writers, Dave Accampo and Jeremy Rogers have recognised this, and the writing is kept tight and sparse, allowing the scenes to flow. There's a level of craft here that's way ahead of where these guys should be, playing with structure enough to fit in a few neat jokes that wouldn't be possible without a strong understanding of how a comic page works. There are a few rough edges here and there, naturally enough, but to be this far into the learning curve already leaves me no doubt that the storytelling will only get stronger as the series progresses.

The art itself is fresh and fun. I've not seen anything from Jared Souza before this project, but again we're looking at someone with a good eye for storytelling. A comic book artist only has 4-8 pictures per page and they need to choose the right still images to create a moving story in your mind. That might sound like stating the obvious, but it's surprising how many artists fail this test. Sure, they can cross hatch, and sketch, and shade, they can capture a photo reference in all it's finer detail, but sometimes they simply can't tell a story. Souza's style bears more of a European -almost Tin Tin- looseness, which draws a clear line between itself and the cleaner house styles of bog companies like Marvel and DC. It's clear and to the point, and it keeps you moving from panel to panel. The finest example of this is the final two pages of the issue, where the scripting, layout and art all combine to perfectly set up and reveal the hook ending. As with the writing, I can't wait to see where Souza's art changes as the series progresses.

What's the book actually about? Well, that would be telling. But you do get demons, mobsters, jokes to make Rockford proud and more than a little blood.

I'm wary of the way people often pitch independent comics. We're told we should support them because they're independent. I'd rather ask you to support SPARROW & CROWE: THE DEMONIAC OF LOS ANGELES because it's good. Go and pick it up.

Except,'s the catch. The comic comes out in July. It won't be on the shelves yet.

Then why the hell are you telling us this now, Stringer?

The comics market works in what they've called "the direct market." Stores order from a catalogue (Diamond) months in a advance, and from these pre-orders the publishers will work out how many copies to print. (Sometimes the larger publishers will also play a bit crafty, and will base their public sales figures on the number of Diamond pre-orders sold to stores, rather than the number of copies the stores will sell. So when you see a spike in sales around Batman comics every time a movie comes out, often what you're seeing is the spike in educated guesses from retailers rather than customers) But in these harsh times, retailers often pick what they know will sell -costumes and explosions- and skim other parts of the catalogue. So, S&C is in the catalogue right now. The stores will be placing their orders over the next few weeks. If you want to support an interesting comic and good bunch of guys, go into your local store and ask for it. Hell, you can even do their work for them, you can ask them to order item MAY121179 which is in the Hermes Press section.  Job done.

You can sign up to Jay's mailing list here. Giveaway's -aka FREE STUFF- start in May.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Honored to have Holly West swing by today. First, let me remind you that you can get a free gift if you grab Dan O'Shea's lovely Old School collection. I'm offering up Dan's reading of my "Champion" story if you'll grab his shorts. Details here.

Now, on to Diary of Bedlam. I'll admit that I don't read a ton of historical mysteries, but if more of them were like this one, I damn sure would. Folks who like Tasha Alexander's work are going to love this book from Holly West. Her novel really nails the historical and the fiction -- the period work is spot-on and the mystery-telling has great momentum. Diary Of Bedlam is one of my favorites from the last couple of years. I sincerely hope all of you get a chance to read this one soon. I also hope Holly keeps these books going. -- Steve



By Holly West

I started writing my first novel, Diary of Bedlam, in June 2008, the summer I turned 40. I don’t remember thinking “I’m gonna be 40, life is passing me by, I gotta write a novel NOW.” I’d simply reached a point where I was ready. Good thing, too, because if I’d have known then it was going to take me nearly four years to write a novel (and still not be published), I might never have started.

I’ve reached a pivotal stage in the life of Diary of Bedlam--I’m officially querying agents. It’s actually the second round of querying for this novel, but really, whose counting?

When Steve Weddle asked me to write a WHAT I’VE LEARNED guest post for Do Some Damage, I accepted the challenge with enthusiasm. After four years, I must’ve learned something, right?

Here is the itemized list:

1) I am an obscenely talented writer.
2) I’m a no-talent hack.

Depending upon the status of my agent search, one or the other of these realizations will strike without warning, sometimes alternating by the half-hour.

It is maddening.

Like any writer I struggled between these extremes throughout the writing of Diary of Bedlam. It’s kind of a natural part of the process. During the worst times I wanted to quit, but I’d already revealed I was writing Diary of Bedlam on Facebook and Twitter and we all know what’s posted on the Internet stays on the Internet. There was no turning back, so I got used to the self-doubt and forged ahead.

But nothing activates the talent/no talent switch like querying.

My best advice for combating this soul-sucking state is write a few short stories and submit them to various outlets, like Needle magazine or Shotgun Honey. Getting accepted by your peers really helps to bolster your confidence. Keep writing, keep submitting. Hone those skills.

3) Joining Twitter was the best thing I’ve done for my writing career.

About this, I do not joke. Virtually every opportunity I’ve had with regard to writing has come about due to Twitter, or more accurately, people I’ve met on Twitter.

For example, I’ve had four agents contact me via Twitter asking me to submit my manuscript after seeing my profile (which is essentially just a link to my query letter).

At first, my only goal was to learn about the publishing industry and I followed every writer/publisher/agent/editor I could find. I did a lot of listening and a little interacting. It didn’t take long to become a part of the community, but the key here is creating relationships—not just promoting your latest book.

4) Just because an agent asks for more material doesn’t mean they’re about to sign you.

I’ve had a great response to my query letter, with a 35%-40% request rate for fulls or partials. The first time this happened the agent responded to my query within 24 hours and asked to see the full manuscript. With my brilliance thus confirmed, I expected an offer of representation would be forthcoming. She replied a few days later with an email saying she hadn’t connected with my protagonist and was therefore passing on the project.

I’m not gonna lie. I shed a few tears.

Then it happened again and again and I realized that a request for more material doesn’t constitute a marriage proposal. It’s just a request for more material.

5) Hope actually does spring eternal.

It’s tough not to get bogged down by the numbers. Agents report receiving two hundred or more queries per week and only end up signing two or three new clients a year. And honestly, I don’t even know the numbers when it comes to actually getting published. I don’t want to know, the same way I don’t want to know what a hotdog is made of.

The thing is, throughout the writing of Diary of Bedlam, I’ve met a whole lot of aspiring authors just like me who are now published. And let’s not forget that agents are out there actively looking for us—they need us as much as we need them. Yeah, I know it doesn’t always feel that way but it’s true. Just because the numbers err in their favor doesn’t mean they aren’t genuinely interested in finding their next big client.

That just might be me (or you. But hopefully me).

Thanks to Steve Weddle and the rest of the Do Some Damage crew for letting me visit!

Bio: Holly West lives, reads, and writes in Southern California. Her short fiction has appeared in NEEDLE: A Magazine of Noir and Shotgun Honey. She recently completed her first novel, Diary of Bedlam, and is currently seeking representation. Find her online at

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Shoehorner, The NameDropper and the Troll

If you've been around the blogosphere long enough, you'll have seen all the different types of formulaic commenters that remark on the different threads below.  Here are a few of my favorites:

The Shoehorner:  This guy or gal will get their web address and book title into anything they comment on.  You know they have sat at the computer thinking about the different ways to make his comment not seem like self-promo.  But it always seem hack. Example:  I love pottery too!  On my blog (, I wrote a post while sitting next to a piece of pottery.  Also, in my novel SEVERAL THOUSAND PEOPLE DIE, one of the first victim's favorite movie scenes is that famous scene from GHOST.  Weird, right?

The It's All About Me Gal/Guy:  This person is a close relative of The Shoehorner.  He or she can never comment on a topic without twisting it to be about themselves.  Yesterday I sat around and thought about writing a scene where an Irish midget sneaks into MI5 and steals government secreats.  (Blog post actually about favorite pizza places.)

The NameDropper:  Need I explain?  The other day I had dinner with Bill Bradley, who told me I write like Laura Lippman on speed and vodka.  I figure he's right, because once Joe Lieberman said Stephen King should outline like I do.  

The Disagree-er:  This person is tricky, because a blog post often is suppose to inspire debate in the comments.  But the problem with this one is, the blog author is NEVER. EVER.  RIGHT.  In fact the commenter doesn't even couch their comments with "maybe" or "I respect your point."  Usually, they go to extraordinary lengths just to be contrary.  No.  No.  No. NONONONONONONO.  In page 17 of the the 1978 edition of The Big Sleep Philip Marlowe says words.  And those words are descriptive.  Descriptive words should TELL you something.  Not show you something.  Show don't tell is the biggest lie in writing.  You have to tell everything.  Every author tells.  And that's just how it is.

The Troll:  Everyone knows the anonymous troll.  You suck.  Your blog sucks.  Your work is stupid.  Stop posting.  

Any others I missed?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Entertain me..

By Russel D McLean

Today is World Book Night.

Yeah, who knew?

I’ll be out there hosting a pub quiz on behalf of Million for a Morgue, while other book events will be happening up and down the country (I think its happening in the US as well although I am not aware of the penetration to the public consciousness there), as people give out free copies of 25 publicly voted books.

It’s a great idea, although some might say its one with a few flaws. Not that I’m here to talk about those today, because I’d rather we had a flawed idea to get people reading than none at all. And having already seen changes in the approach from last year, I can see that the organisers are looking to adapt and try to improve year upon year. This can only be a good thing.

My major concern with people who talk about reading is that it is often seen as “self-improving” or “a good thing to do” rather than a fun thing to do. People who will readily discuss movies and TV shows in depth are afraid of discussing books in case they somehow seem stupid. Which is odd given that a great many books currently published are dumber than TV shows like THE WIRE or DEADWOOD or JUSTIFIED*.

Here’s the thing: you should read because you love stories. Its just another delivery method. There’s nothing challenging about it. Sure, you might need to change the way you use your senses, but in the end, the mechanics of storytelling are exactly what you’re used to with TV or film. The stories are still good. You don’t need to worry about what other people think about what you’re reading in the same you generally don’t worry about what people think about the films or TV shows you watch. Believe me, there’s a book – and generally more than one – out there for everyone. Find the ones you enjoy. Search in the same way you would for films or TV. You don’t like a book, you put it down and find something else that’s more up your alley.

The people who do the most harm to books are the people who talk about reading like it’s a duty. This usually starts in childhood, of course, when we’re told to “stop watching TV and do something smarter like read a book”. The idea of reading being harder than other forms of storytelling is as much about societal attitudes as anything else.

Waterstones right now have a leaflet out for parents talking about reading to their kids. The booklet is written in part by Julia Donaldson. In one part that struck me, she talks about how you shouldn’t make out that books are improving or in some way more “valuable” than other kinds of entertainment. And that’s right. Because books – fiction books, at any rate – are just another delivery method for stories and entertainment. Whether we read them on a screen or on paper, they’re no more challenging than any other form of entertainment. And the more we read, the less challenging books will seem, the more we’ll come to welcome the more complex works, because our brains will not be resistant to the preconceived ideas.

World Book Night is a great idea. If you’re a Giver, one of those handing out free books, I applaud you. But please don’t tell those you talk to that the book will “improve” them. Just tell them its entertaining, that it’ll make them laugh, it’ll make them cry, and they’re going to have a ball reading it. Because I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons you’re giving that book away is because it did exactly that to you.

*Yes, that one’s based on a series of books. But its it’s own beast.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Happily Ever After

by: Joelle Charbonneau
This weekend I attended the wedding of a former student of mine.  (Does that make me feel old – yes!  But that’s a different post for another time.)  The bride looked stunning!  She had an old Hollywood glam style that took everyone’s breath away.  The ceremony was lovely.  There was lots of laughter.  More sighs.  A few wistful tears.  A perfect way to start their Happily Ever After.
Which got me thinking about writing.  I know – big surprise, right?  Happily Ever After is a big theme in so many books.  I mean romance is all about two people finding Happily Ever After.  In many mystery series, the characters from book to book are often looking for the illusive thing that will give them a Happily Ever After – whether a relationship, career satisfaction or redemption.
It’s interesting that so much fiction is about either getting to Happily Ever After or coming out of it.  Which I supposed makes sense.  When everyone is happy there is no conflict.  Conflict starts when people are struggling to find that illusive happiness.  It also begins when characters start looking for the next big thing after what was supposed to fulfill them does not meet their expectations.
While Happily Ever After isn’t typically associated with crime fiction, I would suggest that deep inside the best crime fiction characters is a desire for that fairy tale ending.  How many characters are looking for the big score that will finally balance the scales and give them the chance to be happy?  How many are jealous of that thing everyone else seems to have that they can’t seem to find?  Readers identify with that need to find happiness no matter what genre that quest appears in.  Let’s face it—the best stories are filled with conflict.  Tracking down the one thing that will make your life complete is never an easy road to navigate.  But watching the couple exchange their vows this weekend makes me realize why so many stories are filled with the search for Happily Ever After.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Paradigm Shift at the Bookstore?

Scott D. Parker

I experienced something interesting this week and I'd like to share it today. But first, you must know two bits of background.

Like every reader here, I love books. I love the feel, the smell, and the look of them. I love cracking the covers to see what type of font the publishers have used. The covers, especially the best of them, can hook me with barely a glance (as good covers are supposed to do).

Naturally, with all this paper love, bookstores are like a candy store for bibliophiles. (Yeah, Mr. Obvious) Here's a part of my psyche where I might be different. One of my favorite tables at any Barnes and Noble store is the trade paperback one. Here, last year's important books find a new home, often with extra content--like DVD extras--in the back. The recent editions of Michael Chabon's books follow this pattern. Additionally, the lure of trade paperbacks tug at that something indefinable within me, that part of me that knows I need to put down the sixth Tarzan novel and pick up something weightier. It's irrational, to be sure, but it's there. Lastly, when I see these books, I visualize myself reading them, either on my deck, in my library, or in a reading chair. There's a certain sense of emotional attachment that is planted in me, and it gestates and grows. The downside of this is that might have trouble, sometime in the future, of parting with a particular book. The upside is that all of that emotional stuff can become so tied in with the book that I have a stronger love for a particular book.

That's how I used to be and, partly, still am. But a strange something happened when I visited a Barnes and Noble this week. But, to understand this, you must know the other bit of background: I now own an iPad. I've had a Nook for nearly a year, an iPod Touch for two, and a Palm Pilot before that. I've been reading e-books for longer than they've been all the rage they are now. It's great to have some reading material on hand when standing in line at the grocery store.

Reading on the iPad, however, is another thing altogether. Man, this thing is gorgeous! And, yes, the size of the viewing area is a major factor in its gorgeousness. I have all the main reading apps--iBooks, Nook, Kindle--and loaded all--and I mean all--of the books I am reading. Throw in the awesome comic reading app, Comic Zeal, and this device is now my primary reading medium.

So, there I was, in Barnes and Noble with my wife and I walked by the trade paperback table. There they were. Just waiting for me to pick them up and read, flip through, get hooked, and buy. There were some titles that I'd like, too. But that old urge, that old feeling I used to get was absent. You see, I had the iPad at home. Perhaps my emotional attachment is there now.  Likely it is (I've only had it two weeks) but it just might be the game changer in terms of reading for me. For comics, it is, hands down. I have read more comics in the last fourteen days than I have in months.

For books, however, I'm thinking  that a large chunk of my reading paradigm is changing. It already has for music. With my most recent purchase, I opted for the ebook over the paper book. Perhaps that says it all. Who knows. All I know is that I visited a Barnes and Noble and experienced something new and the absence of something else.

Tweets of the Week:

I've been reading A. Lee Martinez's blog posts for awhile and recently completed his newest novel, Emperor Mollusk vs. the Sinister Brain (my first of his). I'm already reading another: The Automatic Detective. The best word I can use to describe Martinez's stories is "glee." He must have it when he writes because his tales are just so much fun. Martinez is always good for some pretty nifty tweets, and three struck me this week. I am in a fallow period with my writing, but his insight hit home for me. I present them here, all together.

I've been hemming and hawing on this particular chapter, but sitting down and writing it is really all it took.

95 percent of writing is writing. It's both incredibly obvious and often overlooked. Write your damn story and it will get written.

Talk about writing your story, outline, plot, character sketches, etc., that's all busy work. It feels like writing, but it isn't writing.

Album of the Week: Vijay Iyer Trio - Historicity (2009)

I just got this album a few days ago and I'm still discovering all of its nuances and melodies, but it is a stunning piece of jazz music. I'm rarely a piano trio kinds of guy (piano, bass, drums), but this one has circled my radar since it came out. I'm glad I finally picked it up. His original compositions are deep and intricate, but I particularly enjoyed his rendition of "Somewhere." Mainly, I liked it as a kind of rosetta stone for his style. I know the melody and seeing how he breaks it down, rearranges it, and puts it all back together is enabling me to get inside his own material. I'm not always a huge fan of working at listening to music, but this one is different. I'm enjoying the challenge.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

At The Tone, Leave Your Name And Message....

By Jay Stringer

I think studio execs clearly read DSD. Just this week, in that 'Hollywood' that they have now, somebody read Dave's post on Tuesday and said, "hey, shit, they're talking about PI's, somebody get me a PI." Then, after an inevitable comedy mixup involving a seance, Charlie Chaplin, and some pastry, they found they were very short on ideas.

So then they read the comments section, and the exec shouted, "they're discussing whether the PI genre is stuck in the past. Somebody get me an old one." And they wheeled out their beta max hooked up to some cathode tubes and decided that Jim Rockford would be their saviour.

Rejoice. Or not.

Here's a few things I should get off my chest. Firstly, I love PI fiction. I love the idea of it. I love the tradition of it. I love some of the shining lights of it. Many of the finest books I've ever read have been ones that would loosely, one way or another, fit into the PI genre. also, I've written a book that would, loosely, one way or another, fit into the PI genre. I don't choose to discuss it in those terms, and the protagonist wouldn't really feel comfortable hearing it labelled that way, but there's no mistaking that the PI genre is in OLD GOLD's ancestry.

As much as I enjoy the genre, I never really feel the need to get too much into debating it's relevance or health. I'd rather discuss character, plot, all of that jazz and leave other folks to decide which label to put around the story. I think often times discussing crime in terms like "PI," "Gangster," "Mystery," is to do a disservice to the writers and characters. Which isn't aimed as a jab at those who do like to return to the topic often, it's just simply not the aspect of the conversation that really interests me. But in light of Hollywood stealing our ideas, I did think it was worth revisiting a few aspects of the case.

I'm a big fan of Rockford. It's one of my favourite TV shows of all time. It's very much of it's time, and many aspects of it haven't aged well, but it was written with wit, made with love, and is an important touchstone in the development of the PI. When I'm judging good PI characters, I tend not to compare them to Chandler, Spade, Archer or Spenser. The Mount Rushmore that I let characters stand or fall by is carved of Jim Rockford and Matt Scudder.

But I'm not inclined to take a hatchet to news that Vince Vaughan is to play Rockford in a movie. It doesn't offend me in any deep way, and my blood doesn't boil at the thought of someone else playing my man. Let them do it. Let them use an existing property to let some committee of screenwriters get a few paychecks, and let the films inevitable moderate success spawn a new generation of people willing to examine the show with fresh eyes. A common denominator when I tell people of my age or younger how much I love the show is a smirk. Many people find it quaint or funny, because it's been stuck in afternoon rerun mode for most of our lives, just another show that old people watch at 3pm. If the film comes out and gives the property a degree of hip or cool, even if it's in some silly "ironic" way, then that's no bad thing. New fans are new fans.

And as far as the casting goes, I think this is a role that Vince Vaughan could do very well. He doesn't quite have the easy-going charm of Garner, but he can do chatty underdog and will slip very well into a pair of cheap shows in a sea front trailer. Nathan Fillion is someone who could do Garner quite well, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan could probably bring the beat-up charm.

So if the existence of the film project doesn't offend me, and the casting feels like a decent choice, then why am I writing about this?

Well, because it frustrates the hell out of me.Especially in light of the (interesting) conversation Dave started on Tuesday. One of the central questions was why are PI's stuck in the past? Is it the writers or the readers? One of the simplest but most refreshing things about Russel D Mclean's THE GOOD SON was that he was willing to put a telephone in his PI's hand. In Britain PI's are more relevant than ever with the tabloid phone hacking scandal, yet we often seem slow to drag the fictional version up with the times. One of the key elements of Rockford was that he was the PI for the time. The makers examined the tropes and cliches and either updated them, inverted them or disposed of them. They took the idea of the PI and decided what really made him tick and what really was relevant, and in doing that they created one of the greats.

It seems to me that if you want to honour the memory and meaning of The Rockford Files, you do it by not remaking The Rockford Files. Not out of any sense of fanboy angst, but because the whole point of the show was to do something new with the PI. Give us something new, give a writer a chance to craft something lasting. There have been shows that have tried. Terriers had a crack at the modern PI. Angel and The Dresden Files played around with the concept by putting traditional PI tropes into a different genre. I haven't seen Veronica Mars, but people keep telling me I should, and that it was a fresh and fun PI show. Going back longer than that we had Moonlighting and Remington Steele, which showed the with and freshness of Rockford in different ways (and to varying success) whilst playing around with the PI.

On the big screen, where Rockford is now headed, we've had some interesting examinations of the concept. The film Twilight (the Paul Newman one, not the glitter sexy time vampire shite) was very interesting. Gone, Baby, Gone remains one of my favourite films of the past decade for playing around with the PI and applying some stylised realism to the screen.

I just get the feeling that each and every one of these projects, even the ones that maybe lacked in quality, honoured the original spirit of Rockford far more than any Rockford remake can. And that makes me sad. That makes me look back on Dave's questions from Tuesday and wonder, who is it that's stuck in the past? Why can't we ever seem to break free of it?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

No Pulitzer for Fiction: Columbia University Hates Books

By Steve Weddle

You may have heard that the Pulitzer for Fiction goes to nobody.

Je dispose d'un triste.

Folks, some of the best times we've had together on the internet is when we're arguing about a thing and it expands into all these other things. That's what I'll miss most this year. That's what the Pulitzer people have taken away from me. (By the way, in the 1970s, the board failed to give a fiction award three times.)

Here's how it happens, I think. The Pulitzer jurors recommend a few books to the Pulitzer board. Then the Pulitzer board agrees on a winner.

Of course, I'm not the only one with a sadz. Pulitzer fiction juror Susan Larson said that she and the two other jurors were wicked pissed [paraphrased] that the Pulitzer board crapped the bed on this one.

Three books were nominated:
Nominated as finalists in this category were: "Train Dreams," by Denis Johnson, a novella about a day laborer in the old American West, bearing witness to terrors and glories with compassionate, heartbreaking calm; "Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell, an adventure tale about an eccentric family adrift in its failing alligator-wrestling theme park, told by a 13-year-old heroine wise beyond her years; and "The Pale King," by the late David Foster Wallace, a posthumously completed novel, animated by grand ambition, that explores boredom and bureaucracy in the American workplace.

I've read Johnson (Pulitzer finalist in 2008) and DFW, though not those books. Johnson's JESUS' SON is one of the greatest books written and, at 120 pages or so, rivals James Salter's LAST NIGHT in pound-for-pound awesomeness. And, thought I've read probably seven or eight reviews about SWAMPLANDIA! that have convinced me it's a must-read thing of beauty, I haven't gotten around to it. (I hope Karen Russell doesn't not take this personally, because I haven't gotten around to many, many things.)

I was most interested in the selection of the DFW book, if you must know. He hanged himself dead before he finished it. I completely enjoyed his non-fiction (tennis, cruise ships, lobsters), but have never been able to find his fiction as appealing. As an undergraduate, I told a professor that I didn't like some novel or another and he said that my dislike of the book said more about me than it did about the novel. The same probably applies here. The choice of the unfinished and posthumous PALE KING had the feel of one of those awards given late in a career to some actor who made an OK movie last year, but had been shut out for his earlier, much better  movies forty years ago. Or perhaps it was more a James Dean-type Oscar.

Again, I haven't read PALE KING. I've read pieces that appeared in the NEW YORKER. Perhaps the unfinished novel was a fine choice. And perhaps TRAIN DREAMS, though being a novella, was fabulous. The Denis Johnson I've read has been. And perhaps, despite the punctuation in its title, SWAMPLANDIA! was even better than the reviews made it out to be.

But what tends to happen when winners are announced is that there's a focal point for people. They talk about why that book was a great choice. They talk about why that book was a terrible choice. GOON SQUAD was much-discussed after its selection -- as were many other books folks thought should have one.

We could be discussing books. We could be making lists of "TEN BETTER CHOICES FOR THE PULITZER." We could have been pointing readers to fabulous works they should have heard of, but that the Pulitzer overlooked.

We could, and should, be taking about Bonnie Jo Campbell and Jesmyn Ward and Alan Heathcock and a hundred other authors.

What this non-selection has done is take away the focus on the books, on the reading.

Instead, the decision by the board to award nothing has placed the focus on the emptiness, taking away what could have been a great time for these books, for those of us who love reading.

But maybe the board is too political now. Maybe they try to balance selections to be politically correct. Maybe they're too wizened and out-of-touch and can no longer see the beauty in fiction. Or maybe they think that with all the prizes and all the blogs and sites, I don't know, maybe they think that awarding the Pulitzer to the year's best of work of fiction is no longer something that matters.

Perhaps this says less about us and more about the Pulitzers.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The PI

I've been thinking a lot about the PI series lately.

The PI should be hitting another level of popularity among readers. I mean, they're some of the most technologically advanced crime fighters out there. (Crime fighters or, ya know, people who hang out outside seedy hotels and wait for people to do bad things so they can take pictures of them.) They used to lug around a ton of equipment to listen in on conversations and take pictures and pee in jars while they waited.

Now most of that (minus the peeing) can be done on an iPhone and strong MacBook. And, as far as I can tell, tech is really popular these days.

But there's a problem. I'm seeing fewer and fewer PI books available these days. The ones that are are standard series that have been around for awhile. I have two thoughts on this:

1) The public's consciousness of the PI is stuck in the past. They haven't thought about how PIs have moved ahead technologically and advanced the profession, thereby leading to all knew story options. The public still views the guy in the trenchcoat, lighting a cigarette on a rainy street. That's what they want. When they don't get it, they're disappointed. When they do get it, they complain it something they've seen before.

2) Everyone has an iPhone or MacBook. It's nothing new. Spy stories are popular because they take you to a world you don't normally see. But PIs use technology that's available to everyone. Nothing new, nothing to surprise the reader.

I have no idea if these are anywhere near the truth, but it's thoughts like this that go through my head on a warm Monday night.

What do you think?

Are they new PI series out there I should be checking out?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Why I decided to publish Herniated Roots by Richard Thomas

Herniated Roots is the fifth story in the Speedloader anthology.

There were a couple of things that drew me to this story. First there was the writing, which was so finely rendered that it added a different tonal feel to the anthology while remaining just as dark as the other stories. There is a depressing air to the protag and the story that is present from the start but slowly envelopes the reader by the end. It also reminded me, in some ways, of Leaving Las Vegas.

At it's heart lies a simple question to ask but a difficult one to answer, If you are walled off from everyone and everything are you really living? It's like that line in Good Will Hunting "Well at least I played a hand".

This was the most heavily edited story of the anthology. Originally the story a longer ending section. We ultimately decided to cut that part. Part of the cut section would eventually find its way to well known online flash fiction site. Did we make the right decision? Track down that story and let me know.

The bottom line is that Richard Thomas can write his ass off and has a great imagination (as his novel shows) and that is why I decided to publish Herniated Roots. His forthcoming collection of crime stories will blow some hair back.

Currently Reading: Immobility by Brian Evenson, Scoundrels, Scarla by BC Furtney and submissions. Which leads me to...

Current Editorial Pet Peeve: Perceived threat versus actual threat. Your protag thinks something is going to happen so he makes a move. Why not actually have something happen to facilitate the next stage of your plot movement.

Currently Listening: I heard the first three tracks off of the new Father John Misty album, Fear Fun and can't stop listening to the songs that are available. Here is one of them:

Also, thatnks to Craig McDonald on twitter I heard this haunting track and now want to listen to the whole album. Bible Noir!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Making a List and Checking It Twice

Today, I'm excited to have novelist Linda Rodriguez visit us. I met Linda a year ago at Malice Domestic and she has become a great friend. Her Malice Domestic winning mystery EVERY LAST SECRET hits shelves on April 24th! Check it out! Trust me--you won't be sorry. In the meantime, please welcome her to DSD with open arms.

Take it away, Linda!

I’m a big believer in using all the help technology and professional writing books and programs can give me in writing. I’ve tried using all kinds of workbooks, charts, and forms in working on a novel. I’m even exploring Scrivener-type software programs for use in writing my next book. I’m hardly on the cutting edge, but I’m also not one of the “if it was good enough for Hemingway, it’s good enough for me” types. Still, sometimes we look around and find simple everyday solutions to our problems, and it would be silly not to take advantage of them.

One of the most useful tools I’ve found in writing a novel is the simple, old-fashioned list. If you’re like me, you use lists to remind you what you need to do during the day, what you need to pack for a trip, what you need to buy at the grocery store, and dozens of other mundane projects, large and small. It’s easy to assume we need something more sophisticated for this complex novel (for novels are all more or less complex) that we’re trying to hold in our heads and build on paper. However, I’ve discovered that simple lists can help in several ways with making that story in our head a reality in print.

First of all, I keep running character and place lists. I write a mystery series. When I wrote the first book, Every Last Secret, I was creating all the characters from scratch, as well as all the places in my fictional town. I wrote personality and appearance sketches for each character, but in addition, I made a list of each character as s/he appeared with a few words to note key characteristics. I did the same for places in my made-up town. This meant I could look up the full name of walk-on characters easily when I needed to much later in the book. It meant that I could easily look up the important details of the buildings on the campus and the shops on the town square as my protagonist, Skeet Bannion, walked past them or into them.

These lists tripled in value when I started the second book in the series and now the third. No one will have brown eyes in the first novel and baby-blues in one of the later books. Old Central, the 19th century castle-like mansion on the Chouteau University campus, will not morph into a 1960s Bauhaus box of a building.

Next, when I’m plotting ahead, simple lists come to my aid again. I’m a combination of outliner and follow-the-writing plotter. I like to know where the next 25-50 pages are going, plotwise—or to think I do, at least. I do this by making a list of questions that I need to answer about the book. In the beginning, I have lots of questions. The answer to only one or two may give me enough to start the next several days’ writing. I stole the idea of asking myself questions and answering them in writing from Sue Grafton. She posts to her website journals that she keeps while writing each novel, and in these, she often asks and answers these types of questions. I took it a bit further by trying to make long lists of questions that needed to be answered, which often, in turn, add more questions to the list when they are answered.

Answering the questions tells me where the story wants to go, but these lists also help me keep the subplots straight and make sure they tie in directly to the main plot, and they keep me from overlooking some detail or element that will create a plot hole or other disruption for the reader. These questions can vary from broad ones, such as “What is the book’s theme?” and “How can I ratchet up the excitement and stakes in Act II?” to more detailed, such as “What clue does Skeet get from this interview?” and “What’s on Andrew’s desk?” Such question lists come in handy during revision, as well.

During revision, I make yet another kind of simple list. As I’m reading the manuscript straight through in hard copy, I write down a list of questions as I go. I notice a weak spot and ask myself, “How can I let the reader know how much Jake meant to Skeet, as well as Karen?,” “Should I have Skeet attend Tina’s autopsy?,” and all too often, “Reads competent enough, but where’s the magic?”

After going through my lists of hundreds of big to tiny fixes and changes to make, and either making them (most) or listing by scene where in the book to make the fix (for major issues), I sit down to wrestle with 5-15 major problems from almost but not quite minor to huge and complex. This final list is my guideline through the swamps of revision. The issues on this list require changes that thread throughout part or all of the book. Trying to do them all at once or even to keep them in my mind all at the same time would bog me down—perhaps forever. Listing them and working my way one item at a time through that list helps me to keep my focus even while dealing with very complex situations that must be woven in and out through the length of the novel.

In short, simple lists make the complex task of writing a novel doable for me. What about you? Do you use lists in your writing? Are there other tools you use for keeping track and keeping focused as you plot, write, and revise?

Linda Rodriguez’s novel, Every Last Secret, won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition and will be released April 24. She blogs about books and writers at, reads and writes everything, even poetry, and she spends too much time on Twitter as @rodriguez_linda. Every Last Secret can be pre-ordered at

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bookstores and The Random Chat: An Appreciation

Scott D. Parker

One of the more enjoyable reads this week was one from James Reasoner. On Wednesday, he blogged his final installment of Favorite Bookstores series. In this post, “Hometown Favorites,” he waxed nostalgic about the places at which he bought books and comics in his youth. While his history wasn’t mine, he tweaked a nerve.

For me, my hometown is Houston, Texas, the city in which I still live. My book world revolved around Westwood Mall, and the two chains—B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. They were at either end of the mall, almost as far away from each other as possible. Perhaps that was a contractual thing, I don’t know. My parents are readers and just about every time we’d visit the mall, we’d step into one or both bookstores. Naturally, I’d usually find something I thought I needed. With Star Wars, The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, and KISS around, it wasn’t too difficult. The key for me getting something was embodied in a single question I’d ask of my parents: “Did you find anything?” If the answer was yes, I got to get something. If not, then I’d have to bargain or walk away empty-handed. Either way, unless it was a YA book, my parents would inspect that which I thought I needed and make a ruling.

Comics were a different story. I started reading comics in the latter days of the comic book spinner rack, located at just about any convenience store or grocery store. Almost as soon as I entered the sliding doors, I’d peel away from my mom and lavish my attention on the racks. In a cringe-worthy move to comic book collectors (of which I am not, at least not in the investment sense), I’d bend all the titles back and flip them upward, scanning the titles and stopping on one that interested me. There was also the “bagged” collections, where Marvel, DC, or Harvey would package three random titles together for one price. I got pretty adept at forcing the plastic back to reveal the middle book. Also, back in those days, before comics became an investment, you could find boxes of old comics at antique stores or flea markets. Plop down a few dollars and you could walk away with hours of enjoyment. Often, I’d have only one part of a larger story, but that proved not to be a bad thing as I’d finish the tales myself.

Then, one day, I discovered Roy’s Comic Shop. All they sold were comics. I didn’t know the word “nirvana” but I knew I had hit the mother lode. They had back issues! I could finally find the conclusion to stories I had read and re-read for years. It was a special, mostly weekly treat to visit my grandparents and return to Roy’s.

It was during this time (later elementary, early middle school) where I stopped being quiet in these kinds of stores, especially Roy’s. I’d ask questions about certain books. I wasn’t yet into knowing authors, but I knew artists, and I’d poll the dudes who worked at Roy’s for information on other titles drawn by certain artists. Jim Aparo was my first favorite artist, and I particularly enjoyed his lean, lithe Batman. Gradually, as I expanded my reading of SF and other books, I’d talk with other folks at Roy’s, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and the many used bookstores my parents frequented. In those years of discovery and learning about the larger world of reading, I had many guides.

Even though Mr. Reasoner and I grew up I different times and cities, we share a common experience: the stores we used to frequent are now gone. Roy’s moved away (Third Planet took its place and, thankfully, is still in business), Westwood Mall ceased being a retail space, and most of the used bookstores around southwest Houston closed. The big book chain of Barnes and Noble is now the default seller of books in Houston. Nothing wrong with that because they have most everything I need, but the diversity is lost. So, too, is the human contact. Where the guys at Roy’s would recognize me each week, there’s no longer that common community that Mr. Reasoner experience in his small town and I experienced at the same few stores in my youth. You have to go to smaller, independent bookstores now—like Houston’ splendid Murder by the Book where I still am greeted by name—to get that human interaction. Sure, you have to make an effort to travel to a store like this, but isn’t it worth the effort.

Many of these thoughts occurred to me in the minutes while I was reading Mr. Reasoner’s piece. Another thought also occurred to me: e-readers diminish direct human contact. I am an e-reader enthusiast (I’m one week with my new iPad and I am loving its reading capabilities) and you just can’t beat the offerings you can get electronically. Back in the day, if you were interested in the John Carter books, you were limited by that which you could find in bookstores. It also caused you to read books out of order. Intrigued by the new John Carter movie in 2012? Any number of sites has all eleven Burroughs books nicely listed, in order, mind you, and ready for you to download. Heard about Twilight, The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Stephanie Plum, Eve Dallas, or Spencer? No problem. All the information you want is literally at your fingertips. More information that you really wanted to know, truth be told. And you can have that data instantly, without talking or even communicating to another human soul.

Can you learn that which you want to know? More than likely, and within seconds. Might you have learned just a little bit more had you engaged in a discussion at a bookstore with another patron about the very same subject? Absolutely.

Let’s be fair: there are innumerable online places where book fans can communicate. I’ve been to them and I’ll visit more in the future. But there’s something about a random chat with a fellow book lover that’s special. Even now, I can easily remember an impromptu discussion of time travel based on Back to the Future with three of my friends and a fellow SF reader back in 1985. That spontaneity is what book stores give you, and it used to be more prominent back in the day.

Think I need to get back to Third Planet or Murder by the Book soon. I need to start a random conversation.