Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Franzen Gets It Wrong

By Steve Weddle

Speaking at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, [Jonathan] Franzen argued that e-books, such as Amazon’s Kindle, can never have the magic of the printed page. -- from the UK Telegraph

Best-selling author Jonathan Franzen has been rather silly in his attack on ebooks. Let's take a look at his argument, with his points from the Telegraph article.

“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it's pretty good technology.”

You ever try to read a page you’ve spilled water on? I have. Doesn’t usually work.

As with most of his complaints, Mr. Franzen seems confused about how ebooks work. Yes, it’s called an “e-book,” and I think I understand part of where Mr. Franzen’s confusion comes from. He seems to be under the impression the book itself will “short out,” much as his cassette player would if doused with a can of New Coke.

If I spilled water on my Kindle and it stopped working, I could still read my book. I could read the file on my computer. On my phone. On my wife’s Kindle. When my new Kindle arrives in a day, I could pick up where I left off. The bookmarks and notes, like the ebook itself, exist on my local device, sure. But they also exist on Amazon’s servers and on any other device I’ve loaded them onto.

Mr. Franzen says that he loves the “American paperback edition of FREEDOM.” Leave that out in the rain and you can’t read the book. Leave your Kindle or Nook out in the rain and you still can. The book isn’t ruined at all.

Sure, a Kindle is expensive – the same as about two hardbacks of Franzen’s FREEDOM. Don’t leave it out in the rain.

“I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.”

I, too, am a “serious reader.” I have a very serious chair in the library of my home. I sit in the chair, listening to Dvorak and drinking my dark coffee from my serious Keurig brewer. And I have checked the files loaded on my Kindle. I have looked at the PDF of this Telegraph article every five minutes for the past two hours.

So far, the file has not changed. If the files on Mr. Franzen’s ereader have been changing themselves, I would suggest he return the reader to Amazon. They have fantastic customer service. In fact, they’re quite serious about it.

“Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”

Yes, books can change, I suppose. But this is not simply a paper vs. screen issue. In 2010, for example, 80,000 copies of a book called FREEDOM by a Mr. J. Franzen were pulped because of numerous errors. Sometimes, these things happen. Sometimes printing the book on paper might cause problems.

The publishers have made the rare decision to pulp the remaining books at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. A spokesman for Fourth Estate, the HarperCollins imprint that publishes Franzen in Britain, said: 'The error was minor - the odd word, spelling, punctuation, that sort of thing.  'Jonathan has spent 10 years writing this book, so obviously he wants every word to be as it was when he left his computer. But he understands that it's just one of those things.'  -- from UK Mail

Consider the logistics of pulping 80,000 books. Consider the tens of thousands of pounds in cost. Then consider updating the file on your Kindle or Nook with the corrected file.

 “The Great Gatsby was last updated in 1924. You don’t need it to be refreshed, do you?”

No. I do not. I wonder what copy of THE GREAT GATSBY Mr. Franzen has downloaded and read. Perhaps he stumbled into one of those mash-ups. I can understand there'd be a problem if someone had accidentally purchased one of those Jane Austen fighting the werewolf books. GATSBY AND GHOULS, perhaps.

As I mentioned earlier, you can easily return the ebook to Amazon. In fact, as soon as you purchase an ebook on your device, a message that allows you to either immediately read the book or immediately cancel the book appears.

Perhaps it is unfair to ask Mr. Franzen to be an expert on technology. As the article in the Telegraph notes, Franzen “famously cuts off all connection to the internet when he is writing.”

I admit that I have read as much of Mr. Franzen’s writing as he has of mine, which is none at all. Therefore, I can’t with confidence judge whether his self-exile has improved his prose. I am aware that he has sold millions of books, much as Nicholas Sparks and James Patterson have done. So he must be doing something that is working for him.

I am also aware that Mr. Franzen’s own books are available as ebooks, which seems an odd choice for someone who so dislikes them. Perhaps the opportunity for selling millions of books has some advantages.


Perhaps most telling in the Telegraph article is the closing section:

Critics have pointed to the absence of religion in Franzen’s novels and he explained: “I don’t believe in a God who’s sitting in some undisclosed location at a switchboard receiving and answering prayers.

Interesting that Mr. Franzen thinks that God communicates via a switchboard. Also interesting that Mr. Franzen’s comments were reported by a newspaper called the Telegraph.

Switchboards. Telegraphs. Rocket books. What’s more important to most readers is the story, not the delivery mechanism. A $10 pdf of Franzen’s writing is just as much his story as is that same pdf in a bound volume, stitched and trimmed and shipped for $30.

Whether people are reading their literature on Kindles or Nooks or paper or phones or rolled-up scrolls penned by priests, a “literature-crazed” person would do well to remember that the play’s the thing, not the stage.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Dads Aren't Second Class Parents and Boys Aren't Second Class Readers

Over the weekend I read an article in Parenting Magazine that pissed me off. As a quick aside I think it's funny that I read the actual article in the actual magazine and only later discovered that my anger wasn't alone and that it developed organically. But I digress...

The part of the article that pissed me off was a small part of an otherwise bland article but it *was* a part that sent off alarm bells.

I mentioned the article on Twitter on Saturday morning and much to my amazement I wasn't the only one who noticed the article.

So first let's get to the article.

The article appeared in Parenting Magazine. CNN ran it on their site. The comments section blew up. And Jezebel picked up on the story.

The article was called "The New Playdate Playbook" by Senior Editor Deborah Skolnik. Here is the offending passage:

The Sitch: You've accepted a sleepover invite for your daughter, not realizing that only her pal's divorced dad will be home. You're not OK with it. What to do?

The Solution: "Call and say 'I'm sorry, and this is about me and not you, but I just don't feel comfortable with a man supervising an overnighter,' " says Paone. Offer to host the girls at your place instead, if you can, or ask to turn the sleepover into a "late-over," where your daughter stays only till bedtime. In the future, always ask who'll be on duty before you say yes to a sleepover.

Oh, where to start.

First of all why would you accept a playdate and not know the familial situation (never ever “sitch”). Second why is the father in the example stigmatized with “divorced dad?" Why isn't he a single dad? You've essentially agreed to a sleep over having only dealt with the dad beforehand or you've dealt with his girlfriend or wife or significant other and are now changing the rules of the game. Or, worse yet, you've accepted an invite from his ex-wife and are caught off guard about something you should have known about.

Third of all What the Fuck?!

Really Deborah and fictitious mom. Really. Dad's aren't to be trusted with little girls is what your saying. How about saying this instead. Get the fuck over it. Men are parents too and increasingly they are the caregivers I might add.

Look, I've been a single Dad and was one for years. I sat on the floor with my daughter watching Saturday morning cartoons teaching myself how to braid and do other hair styles. I've played Barbie and I've played war.

Because when it comes to the line of demarcation between traditional fathers and the kind I'm trying to be, it always comes down to the hair. We've all seen little girls out with Dad, and their hair just looks crazy, almost as if they just rolled out of bed. There are pieces sticking out everywhere, there aren't any barrettes, and, if there are, they're just kind of stuck on there. And, as a community, we say, "Yep, she's out with Dad," as if that's an excuse for the little girl to look like some kind of nut.

If I had a dollar for every time I would take the kids out to the store when they were little and a woman said to me “Oh, is it Daddy's day out” in a cloying and condescending tone of voice I would be a rich man.

Here's the thing, I've also been the one to comfort and teach. I've been the one who dealt with middle of the night sickness. I've taught how to read and laughed over the simple joy of Sponge Bob in the morning.

Women don't have a monopoly on the parenting game any longer, and they shouldn't. Dad's are in the game too. Things need to change.

The advice to the mother should have been. "What the hell is wrong with you accepting an invite to a house you don't know anything about and you should have your damn head examined for your sexist attitudes." Plus, I can braid like a motherfucker too.

In addition to the many things I would call myself I am a parent and I take that responsibility very seriously. One of the things that I've noticed as a parent is that boys are being left behind and left out.

Earlier this week I watched a TED talk given by Charr Chellman called “Gaming to Re-Engage Boys in Learning”. It's a short talk that highlights some of the many issues but doesn't get in to the meat of solutions. First you've got to know the problem before you can start to solve it.

In her talk Chellman points out some of the systemic and institutionalized rules and policies that are effectively eradicating behaviors in boys that would largely be considered “normal” and creating an environment where they are being left behind.

One of the things that I want to focus on right now is this quote from the talk:

“Another way that zero tolerance lives itself out is in the writing of boys. In a lot of classrooms today you're not allowed to write about anything that's violent. You're not allowed to write about anything that has to do with video games -- these topics are banned. Boy comes home from school, and he says, "I hate writing." "Why do you hate writing, son? What's wrong with writing?" "Now I have to write what she tells me to write." "Okay, what is she telling you to write?" "Poems. I have to write poems. And little moments in my life. I don't want to write that stuff." "All right. Well, what do you want to write? What do you want to write about?" "I want to write about video games. I want to write about leveling-up. I want to write about this really interesting world. I want to write about a tornado that comes into our house and blows all the windows out and ruins all the furniture and kills everybody." "All right. Okay." You tell a teacher that, and they'll ask you, in all seriousness, "Should we send this child to the psychologist?" And the answer is no, he's just a boy. He's just a little boy. It's not okay to write these kinds of things in classrooms today.”

I have two children that are elementary school age. One of the biggest things that I have noticed over the years is that there aren't any male teachers or administrators. The only males in the building are the janitor and the gym teacher. What kind of message are we sending to our boys with this very obvious signal? Many of our educational problems with boys would likely be solved with this one very simple addition. We need more male teachers for our young children in general but our young boys specifically.

But the bias of the article from Parenting Magazine carries over and there is a tendency to view male caregivers as inferior at best or pedophiles at worst.

A great companion to this is Philip Zimbardo's talk, “The Demise of Guys?” wherein he tells us that:

Boys' brains are being digitally rewired in a totally new way for change, novelty, excitement and constant arousal. That means they're totally out of sync in traditional classes, which are analog, static, interactively passive. They're also totally out of sync in romantic relationships, which build gradually and subtly.

There is a widespread problem hiding in plain site.

So my son spent a couple of hours this weekend at the dining room table hard at work. His finished product was some illustrations and a story synopsis that he plans on fleshing out in to a bigger story.

It's awesome and it's pure “boy”.

“Another immortal planet will collide with earth. But...We need the undead to stop it. If we fail a fatal war will end all forms of life. Two brothers and their 16 friends are up against 68 million werewolves, corpses and vampires. The skeleton key necklace could end their world not ours. What will be needed is a sacrifice. A risky sacrifice that will end their world...or ours.“

If we look at what boys want to write then we get a glimpse into the kinds of books that they want to read. Because boys aren't reading and most YA sales are girls and adults. Folks, if you want boys to buy books then write books they want to read.

My son, in all of his 10 year old wisdom, is more than happy to tell people what he wants to read. He wants lots of fights. Lots of monsters. And it should be “action-y”. Boys don't want romance, or a moral, or a lot of exposition or narrative. They want more action.

I remember one time asking Duane Swierczynski if he had ever considered writing YA. One because our kids are near the same age and two because his writing style for adults would be perfect for boys.

Look, I could go on and on but there's no action in that. The bottom line is that everything is connected. What happens here affects what happens there and nothing takes place in a vacuum. As crime fiction fans we know this. That's why we like reading about how a killer is made, or the after effects of a crime, or any number of things. Sloganeering is popular these days. Reducing something to a simplistic shadow of it's reality and complexity and nuance are shunned.

If we continue to dismiss the legitimate roles of men in our society, we're conditioning the men of tomorrow to expect to be excluded and discriminated against, to be overlooked in classrooms and in family matters. How can we complain about boys being hyper and addicted to video games when we exclude them, by failing to engage their interests, provide suitable role models and lowering their expectations for legitimacy and acceptance within society?

As my wife would put it, "I'm tired of people lowering their standards for boys because of their gender, and I'm tired of a society that claims Dads have equal rights to Moms, yet overwhelming denies Dads joint custody, or an equal share... a society that assumes every man is evil and forgets the Casey Anthonys and Susan Smiths.

Consider this:

"In the United States, women commit only two crimes as frequently as men. The first is shoplifting. The second is the murder of their own children."

We need to work harder, all of us.

Currently reading: From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet by Patrick Michael Finn; El Gavilan by Craig McDonald; Brit Grit Too

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Finishing what you start

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Almost everyone I know loves to begin a new project. Whether it is a novel, a short story, knitting a scarf or building some cool new thing for the house – beginnings are exciting. Everything is bright and new and shiny. Kind of like a new toy on Christmas Day. There are endless possibilities as you imagine the fun you will have.

Beginnings are awesome.

Too bad beginnings can’t last forever. But they don’t and the bright and new and shiny wears off and you are left with something that no longer feels like fun. Instead, it feels like work.

Whether you are a third of the way through knitting a sweater, rebuilding a car engine or writing your manuscript—getting past the point where the activity feels like work can be tough. This is probably why so many people talk about wanting to write a book or knit a blanket, but never have a finished product to show anyone. They get distracted by an exciting new idea or a nifty knitting pattern and suddenly they have ditched the old one so they can have the “new toy” feeling again.

When new writers ask me what I think is the most important step they can take to becoming a published author my answer is always the same. Finish a book. It doesn’t matter if you realize halfway through that your midget werewolf, time travel, erotic mystery is not what the market is looking for. I don’t care if you say that you’ve realized your story has a huge hole in it. I don’t care about any of the reasons you have for not finishing the book. You need to keep going and finish the damn book!

Why finish something that won’t have a chance in hell of selling? Because finishing a project teaches you something very important. It teaches you that you actually can finish..

Why is that important? I mean, if the book will never sell, who cares. It doesn’t matter that you’ve finished the book. Right?


I know lots of aspiring authors who have been typing furiously for years and have never gotten to THE END. And while they keep blaming the story or the lack of time to write or the worry that the market isn’t going to want to buy what they are writing – they are just making excuses. With every new beginning comes the bright and shiny new toy moment. But for those that have never finished what they have begun that bright and shiny moment is laced with fear and uncertainty.

Uncertainty because you have never finished a project.

Fear that you never will.

Trust me when I say the first book I wrote will NEVER see the light of day. It sucked. Oh – there were good moments in it. It would be hard to write that many words without a few gems in the bunch. But I hadn’t a clue how to really construct a story. I didn’t have a feel for pacing or for keeping a scene focused. Face it—I didn’t have a flippin’ clue. The only thing I did right was I finished the sucker. All 134,000 words of it. (Yeah – now you can see why that book had problems…right?)

But that book taught me something very important. It taught me that I could sit down every day and fill the pages with words. Even though the story was less than perfect, it had a beginning, middle and most important it had an end. I learned that I could finish a book. Which meant when I started the next project, I KNEW that project would have an end, too.

I currently have two books on the shelves of your local bookstore with eight more under contract—only 3 of which are written. If I hadn’t proven over and over again to myself that I could reach the end of those as yet unwritten books I would be cowering under my bed. Instead, I sit at the computer every day and know that I will reach THE END of all of those books not just because I have to, but because I have proven to myself that I can.

We all like to talk about voice and sentence structure, pacing and characters, but so often we forget the most important milestone of a writer’s life is finishing that first book and banishing the fear. And when you are fearless, anything is possible.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Book Review: The Gentlemen's Hour

Scott D. Parker

(Jay's sick, I'm without time enough to write a decent post. So, I present to y'all, a review of one of my favorite books I read last year. Back next week with new stuff.)

Remember the thrill of first love? That inexplicable, special something deep down in the pit of your stomach that feels like it's left earth's gravity and is caroming off into outer space? It happens with your significant other or spouse, but it also happens with books, too. The first time you discover an author, the special ways the prose is styled, the particular nuance of storytelling, it's magical. That's how I felt when I read Don Winslow's 2008 book, The Dawn Patrol. It was, by far, the best book I read that year and, had The Dark Knight not premiered in July of that year, Winslow's book would have been the best thing I consumed all year.

Finally, three long years later, the sequel arrives. The Gentlemen's Hour does exactly what a sequel is supposed to do: return you to the place you discovered, to the fictional people with whom you have a bond, in prose that breathes life into nonexistent folks. Boone Daniels is a man's man, the kind of guy someone like me pines to emulate but knows, in reality, could never be. He likes to surf with his friends. That's kind of about it. Whereas Anthony Bourdain has the mantra "I write, I travel, I eat, and I'm hungry for more," Boone Daniels would probably say "I surf, with my friends, and watch the sunset, what more do I need?" He's a PI only so far as to keep the lights on and pay for food. As bohemian as that sounds, it's not a lifestyle to be admired.

Which is why he basically takes almost any job that comes his way, seeing as he doesn't have a line of potential customers outside his door. Unfortunately for Daniels, the job that comes his way is with the defense attorney for Corey Blasingame. You see, Blasingame stands accused of killing one Kelly Kuhio, the absolute zen master of surfdom in SoCal, the kind of man all sides admire. This doesn't sit well with Boone's core group of friends: Hang Twelve, Hide Tide, Dave the Love God, and Johnny Banzai. They all think Corey should just be lynched. As does the rest of the SoCal surfing community. Heck, Johnny, a San Diego cop, was the detective on Blasingame's case, so any headway Boone can make on the case, he has to take on Johnny and take him down a peg or two. Not a good way to keep your friends.

Then there's Petra Hall. Hot British chick, lawyer for Blasingame's attorney, uppity, and definitely not a surfer. She's basically the one main female character in a book populated by macho men, so she has to hold her own. She and Boone have a thing, but neither knows precisely what it is. Sunny Day, the one female surfer from The Dawn Patrol, is absent from this one save for a scene. For most of the book, Petra and Boone struggle with determining what, if anything, they have together. There's the professional sides of both of them, and then there's that magnetism where opposites attract.

As you can imagine, the deeper Boone digs into the case, the deeper the fractures become among the Dawn Patrol. Friendship hang by a thread and loyalties are questioned. I'm not as versed in PI literature as other people are, but I know enough to know that many PIs are loners. Not Boone. He relies on his friends and hates to pursue this case. But he does it because that's what the dead Kuhio would want him to do. It's almost as if Kuhio is the Obi Wan Kenobi to Boone's Luke Skywalker.

For as powerful a writer as Winslow is, as completely as he controls the pace, the prose, and the scope of this book, if you don't have a good ending, the entire book could be tarnished. Have no fear. He delivers an ending that completely satisfied all that I wanted in this book. And he does it in a language so "of the area" that it makes me want to hope on a board and surf...even though I can't surf. Winslow's sense of place is that palpable.

The number one problem most of us have with sequels (or series titles) is the sameness of it all. Meh, we might say, I've seen that before. Or, whatever, there was just too much. Not so with The Gentlemen's Hour. Here, we have character progression in Boone, but his core remains the same. He still possesses that which we fell in love with back in The Dawn Patrol, but this is clearly not The Dawn Patrol II. That's what makes a good sequel.

To quoth the sage of surfdom, it was epic macking crunchy.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Open Minds

By Russel D McLean (aged 31 and-a-half physically, but still only about 18 in his own head)

The other day I had the fortune of bumping into Alex Scarrow (Not to be confused with Simon Scarrow although I believe they are brothers). Scarrow is the author several adult thrillers, but where he has found real success is in writing for the YA/Teen market. He’s not one of those who jumped a bandwagon (I’m becoming increasingly annoyed with the cynical practice of writing younger versions of established adult protagonists or giving them an unexpected nephew etc and just writing the same book with slightly different linguistic tics) but seems to have been genuinely been excited by the prospect of writing for that market. In the same way that the brilliant Kevin Wignall has whole heartedly thrown himself into becoming KJ Wignall (and in doing so has charmed all the children’s booksellers that I know even if they’ve never met him).
I have no particular plans to write a YA novel (although I have an idea noodling around that I think would be great fun to write) but writing for that age group seems to be intensely more satisfying than writing for adults for one very simple reason:

Young people are not conservative.

What does that mean? It means that younger readers are open to new styles and opposing views. It means that they can get excited by story and not worry about whether it fits genre expectations (or that it doesn’t). It means that they seem to care more about whether the story actually grabs them than whether they think the story will. It’s not about what they expect. It’s about what they actually get.

I have a rule in my reading: it’s that I try to demand the same things I do now from a book as a writer that I did when I was a reader. In fact when I read a book, even if it’s for review or if it’s to check a section or two out for a close friend, then I do it with my reader head on first. Why?

One established author once told me they found it difficult to read books with the same joy they once did because “everything changes when you’re published”. Really? Does it? I don’t see why and I don’t see how. What made you a good writer was being a good reader (we’ll get to why you have to read to write another day - - that’s another issue that’s been banging around my noggin of late) and if you lose one you lose the other. Because in the end who are we writing for but readers?

In the same way I don’t see why we have to demand a dreary predictability in our reading as we get older. Sure, we can deal with more adult themes and ideas than when we’re younger and our own views might be less black and white (although I suspect in many cases its actually more so). What essentially changes about us in those years that we can’t get past what we expect? What makes us conservative and builds up these tiny little prejudices in our reading mind?

I won’t read crime.

I won’t read literature.

I won’t read non-fiction.

I won’t read horror.

We tell ourselves little stories as to why we won’t read these specific kinds of books. But the truth is that we don’t always have a reason and that we’re missing out on some great books by closing off parts of our minds to the experiences outside of narrow genre limitations.

Younger readers don’t have these pre-conceptions. And as such writers often feel freed up to do things with genre and storytelling they would never otherwise be able to get away with.

And it’s clear that adult readers feel trapped, too, judging by the numbers of them going straight to YA literature and the amount of crossover works that have appeared in recent years (Boy In The Striped Pyjamas would have been hailed as too depressing if it was an adult book as would Before I Die, while of course Harry Potter is seen as safe fantasy because it was written for kids, as ostensibly was Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy). In the end, I think adult readers, publishers and writers need to find their inner YA reader again and create adult books that deal with issues, that aren’t afraid to take chances with convention and that can shock, excite and surprise. Books that are written not for demographics but for the author’s inner reader, that ask the reader to put aside their own prejudices and take a chance at seeing the world through very different eyes. In short, we need to forget that we’re supposed to have learned everything by the time we become adults and accept that the joy of reading we has as YA and child readers – the joy of discovering new ways of thinking, new ways of engaging and new points of view we might never have otherwise come across – isn’t something we necessarily need to jettison. Life doesn’t stop when we become adults. We do not become set in stone. We should still be open to new ideas and entertainments that are greater than mere distraction through the familiar.

We should remember and foster our inner young adult. Even when writing and reading adult fiction.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

From The Vault; Writers Block And Other Urban Myths

by Jay Stringer

I'm blogging from a sick bed today, so I'm taking the easy way out and reposting something. I found it interesting to read though; it was my first post on DSD, way back in those crazy days of yore (2009), and my voice has changed a bit since then. Still, it's still an argument that I stand by, and one that always seems to annoy people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about writer’s block lately. I was recently asked for some advice on how to deal with it. I did manage to give a practical tip, but I'll leave that for the end.

Writer's block, in my opinion, is nothing more than a bogeyman to scare us at night. William Goldman believes in it, and I tend to go with what he says, but in this instance I’m not so sure.

Okay, perspective check; Goldman is an award winning writer. I’m a guy on a street corner, shouting ideas from a soapbox. I’ll let you decide who to believe, okay?

I see there being three kinds of problem that get labeled as writer's block:

The first kind seems to be an epic affliction. It’s the sort of illness that can only be suffered by very loud and angst-ridden people, who want to share their everyday drama with the world. It seems somehow both noir and arty at the same time. It can cause a writer to go decades –or in some instances half a century- between books. Now, this first kind seems very romantic. You can imagine Raymond Chandler being able to describe this kind of block in very writerly prose.

But myth buster time – is this an affliction, or simply a lack of ideas? Just because everybody has a novel in them, doesn’t mean that we should all be able to crank things out on a yearly basis. Sometimes we just don’t have anything to say, and it seems a peculiar thing to turn this into a great dramatic affliction. Let's face it, the vast majority of people in the world go their entire lives without feeling the urge to write a full-length novel, and yet they don’t go around stressing about being blocked.

The second kind, and the one I have most discussed with people, seems a very specific thing. There’s a deadline looming and the words won’t come, or chapter thirteen just doesn’t want to start. Maybe there’s an action scene that won’t make its way from your head onto the page, or no matter how you try, you cannot make the third paragraph flow. Douglas Adams called it “staring at the page until your forehead bleeds.”

There’s no drama here, though. Not that I can see. No great affliction. This isn’t writer’s block, this is writing. Your brain needs time to work these things out.

Maybe it’s just that I’m a different kind of writer, maybe the above issues are very real concerns for people who work in a different way. For me, I’m very comfortable with the fact that sometimes I may go awhile without setting words on the page. In that time, I may not sit and type, but I’ll be taking a lot of long walks, or way too many showers in a day. Maybe I’ll be re-wiring my guitar or learning a new recipe. Most likely I’ve just found a very interesting crack on the wall to stare at for a few weeks.

This is all writing. It’s giving the cogs in your brain time to spin, time to let things fall into place. I can’t find the exact quote, but I’ll paraphrase as best I can. When William Goldman was asked how long it had taken him to write Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, he answered “It took me a fortnight to write the script, but I’d been thinking about it for six years.

Is there a third kind? Well, there’s always the issue of deadlines. And sometimes nothing can stop you working better than a deadline. Especially if you have the newest version of Football Manager. But this third version is to be expected, really. If you’re forcing yourself to do something unnatural –to force out the work before it’s ready- of course you’re going to struggle. So again, no drama, no mystery, no affliction.

So far I’ve found three versions of writer’s block. The first and the third one seem to spring out of not paying any heed to the second one. And the second one is not block at all. So I think it’s a myth. A romantic idea we’ve sold ourselves.

But what do I know? I’ve not even got a book out yet. I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts; maybe someone has a story they could share about struggling with it?

I do have one piece of practical advice to offer before I wrap up, something that I’ve found useful:Leave your brain wanting more.

Never finish the chapter you’re on. When you’re reaching the end of the day, or morning, or whenever it is you sit and write, stop early. Step back from the computer halfway through a scene, maybe even halfway through a sentence.

That way, when you sit down for the next session, you already know what happens next. You already know how the sentence ends, and you can simply start typing without the worry of a blank page ahead of you.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Zack Taylor is back

Dale T. Phillips is today's guest. The tournament chess player and former JEOPARDY contestant is an indie author who lives in New England and has studied with Stephen King.

So I hear there's some new guy on the block. Name of Zack Taylor. Wasn't there a U.S. president with that name?

Long ago, yeah. This guy ain't no president, though. I hear he did a little hard time.

What for?

Busted up a Fed that leaned on him too hard. He wasn't dirty, but they thought he knew something. He was a bodyguard for some mob guy. But get this-- he doesn't like guns.

A bodyguard without a gun? 

Yeah, some kind of martial arts expert. Didn't last too long in that job, though. Been a drifter, bouncer, that kind of thing.

What's his story?

Had some trouble in his past, never got over it, never settled down. Then someone killed his friend. Bad mistake. Everyone thought it was suicide but this guy. He left everything behind and went up to Maine to find out what happened.

Did he?

Hell yeah, but he tore everything up doing it. Guy's like a bull in a china shop. Got the crap beat out of him, almost got killed a few times, ran into some bikers, a real mess. Just keeps going until he gets answers, doesn't care who he pisses off. Even breaks the law to find out what he needs to.

Sounds dangerous.

Yeah, you never know when he's going off the rails. Funny thing, most of the time I hear he's a nice enough guy, even if he is a bit of a smartass. Reads a lot, keeps to himself. Get him mad, though, and watch out.

What's he like when he's drunk?

Heard he don't drink. Almost boozed himself to death when he was young, so he never touches it.

So where is he now?

Stayed in Maine. Even got himself a new girlfriend up there. I guess she's got him into some trouble again, though. Some cousin of hers accused of murder. Whole town thinks she's guilty.

Somebody better watch out.

You can say that again...


Hey there. I'm Dale T. Phillips, and those two guys were talking about the protagonist of my new mystery series. Last year, Zack Taylor made his debut in "A Memory of Grief," and is now back in "A Fall From Grace," now having the official launch. Both were released by Briona Glen Publishing, a small startup publisher. The third book in the series, "A Shadow on the Wall." is due out later this year.

Since I'm a big fan of John D. MacDonald's, this series was influenced by his work, especially the Travis McGee series. McGee was not a professional lawman, but a man with certain skills who helped out people troubled by dangerous predators. In the evolution of my own book's character and the place, a series came to be. It's got a tough-guy aura, so fans of Robert B. Parker's Spenser should enjoy it as well. Writing pros who've read the series like it, and the response has been terrific.

But why no guns? Well, I've read too many books where the hero gets into bad trouble, and whips out a gun for an instant solution. Life's a little more complex than that, and I wanted a protagonist that would have to think and fight his way out of trouble. And he does that. A lot. More interesting to write, too.

Maine's a different kind of place (Stephen King has proven that) and there are a lot of stories to tell. After spending too much time in places like Miami and Vegas, Zack comes to like the laid-back lifestyle, but even in Vacationland, he keeps finding trouble.

I've published over 20 stories, including mystery and crime tales in Crime & Suspense, Big Pulp, Short.Story-Me! and Over My Dead Body. I've collected five of them into an ebook (Crooked Paths) out on Smashwords.

Being an independent means we have to find readers the hard way. I'm inviting you to sample the work first, which you can do on Amazon and Smashwords, links below. You can also hear chapter 1 of "A Memory of Grief," which I've recorded as an audio file and is available on my website: www.daletphillips.com

Lots more information on the site as well, with a link to my other works and writing blog, and an article on Stephen King I wrote-- I had him for a writing teacher, back in Maine. I've got special pages on the site for writers, with recommended reading, good links, and other writers of note. Drop on by.

A Memory of Grief
Amazon    Barnes and Noble
Smashwords ebook in all formats (no e-reader required, PDF and browser also available):
A Fall From Grace
Amazon         Smashwords

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Wallowing

Yep, you can tell by the title, I'm going to do some wallowing.

I don't really feel like a writer anymore. Besides occasionally kvetching about grammar on this blog and covering Rutgers basketball over here, I've hardly written a word since October.

It's not for lack of trying.

In mid-September, I moved. I'm between houses right now, stuck in a bedroom, barely balancing my laptop on my knee trying to get some writing done. I've been doing that since we moved. And each day I open my manuscript--I'm in the middle of revisions--and stare at it.

Sometimes I change a sentence. Some times I cut out words. I've made chapters better. But I can't get any momentum. I can't focus on it.

I've thought about ditching the revisions and starting something new. I have plenty of ideas. But here's the thing... the idea for this project? It's kind of been my dream project. It's an idea I've had for years. And I never thought I was mature enough to write it. Now I'm 3 and a quarter drafts in and I'm completely frozen.

Part of it is because there's something wrong with the ms and I haven't figured out what that is.

The other part is definitely my surroundings. I can't focus on anything. I've barely read any books in the past 5 months either. Just the ones I've reviewed here (and that should tell you how good they were.)

And even worse, I feel guilty. Each time someone talks about writing on Twitter, I get mad at myself. Each time I try to inspire myself and fail... I get embarrassed.

I need to get out of this funk.

I just haven't figured out how yet.

Until then... I'll wallow.

Which doesn't help... I know it.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Bad Books & Bad Blood

Author Adrian McKinty recently started a fire on the web with his post explaining why most crime novels are bad.

Why Are Most Crime Novels Bad? Because they are part of a series. And books in a series eventually run of steam. The author runs out of ideas and begins recycling old plots and old concepts and he or she doesn't really care because they know the books will sell. Publishers and bookshops love series because people buy them without thinking. And then read them without thinking. It's very rare that series titles retain quality after say book 5 or 6. They've almost certainly lost credibility by that stage because no character could possibly go through that much and not have a nervous breakdown (although clever authors include the nervous breakdown as part of the plot.)

The post prompted over a hundred comments - and for someone who generally gets two or three, that's pretty impressive - and running commentary on Twitter and other social media sites, with various authors taking exception to his comments.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the crime fiction community, things got heated in a discussion over the recent announcement of Edgar nominations.

Someone on SMFS did the math, and it turns out that only 2/5 of the Best Novel nominations went to female authors. Shocking. Absolutely shocking. Please insert my extremely-shocked-face emoticon here. Only 1/5 of the Best First Novel nominations went to female authors, and in the paperback category, it's also 1/5.


Here's the thing. None of this is news. Ironically, Jay had a great post just the other day about sexism, which had nothing to do with the Edgar Awards, but the first thing that sprang to my mind was the controversy a few years ago over different awards, with charges of sexism being cast against the organizations and the judges.

In fact, my husband Brian can't post a 'best of' list without someone telling him he's anti-woman.

The reason these things become the catalyst for arguments that last hundreds of comments, with points being made for days on end, is because some people are just looking for an excuse to take offense.

I mean, really, we're going to be upset because Adrian thinks that one of the problems in the crime fiction genre is the popularity of series books? The thing is, most of what Adrian said sounds rather familiar, going back to interviews several years ago. What does Dennis Lehane think about series characters and books?

*Dave: Now that you're two books out from the Kenzie and Gennaro series, do
you think you'll ever go back?*

Lehane: If they knock on the door, I will welcome them in with open arms because they bought my first house. That's true, and I'm very touched by how they went out into the world and became, in a bizarre sense, something beyond me. They spread in a way I never could have. So I'd love to bring them back, but I also said that I would never write about them unless they told me to. I won't plug them into a plot. And I do like the idea of leaving the stage on a high note. I think any series is going to run down, and you don't know where the tipping point is. But any series is going to wear out its welcome.

They haven't knocked. I see them, and whenever I picture them they're in some hotel room in the Caribbean, for some reason, and the phone rings. One of them says, "Don't pick it up. It's him." Because I beat the hell out of them. I beat the living shit out of those characters—psychologically, physically, emotionally. I think if they want to stay away, they deserve to stay away. If they knock on the door really hard some day, I will go right to the typewriter because I'd love to go back for one more, but I won't
plug them in and have them take a cruise where the chef gets killed and only Patrick and Angie can solve it. That sort of Hart to Hart shit, I don't want to go near it.

*Dave: It's true about the impact a long-running series can have, not just in literature—the most obvious example would be a television series. People get attached to it. They live with the characters over a significant period of time. But whereas your readers will wait for each new book, then devour it in a few days, you're working with these characters for years, every day.

Lehane: Also, I think TV series are a great example. I have a five-year rule on dramatic TV series: I will put it to anyone to name one dramatic TV show that didn't drop right off the cliff after the fifth year. Hill Street Blues went to shit. Homicide: Life on the Street, which was just about the greatest TV show ever, went to hell. You run out of storylines. Then what you do is you start putting the characters into personal situations. ER —the doctors are stuck in El Salvador. A very special episode of...

I think of The X-Files. I was an X-Files fanatic. Somebody said, "What did you think of the last episode?" I said, "Well, I stopped watching it for two years, and the last episode showed me exactly why I did." She's gonna get pregnant? You run out of things to say.

I wrote five books, and in the fifth book I noticed one of my characters— probably the most popular character I've ever created, Bubba Rogowski— in the fifth book, he started getting cute. Just a little bit. And I felt myself doing it. I knew that people loved him and they wanted to know a little more about him. I look back at him and I just go, He's exactly what I said I'd never make him. It's just hinted at in the fifth book; it's not all the way, but it's there.

That has a lot to do with it. Step off the stage. Nobody wanted to see Michael Jordan play with the Wizards. Nobody wanted to see Joe Montana go out with Kansas City. I don't really want to see Emmitt Smith play for whoever the hell he's going to play for next year. I felt that way about these characters. If they want to come back for one more hurrah, and it's the right book, I'm all in favor. But if they just want to stay away, I'm all for it.

Were you satisfied with the finale to X-Files, or do you think it was a let down?*

Sucked beyond suckdom. They should have ended the show when it was great, probably two years before they did. I could say that, however, about most great TV shows--Homicide, Hill Street Blues, ER, even Seinfeld--they should have ended *at least* 2 years before they did. And the same goes for book series. And again, that's why I'm so determined not to write a Patrick and Angie book unless it comes 100% from the heart, because the law of diminishing returns is very much at work in cases like these.

*Drood: What does this tendency to take on danger say about Patrick?s longevity?*

DL: I?ve probably used the warrior model a bit too much when it comes to Patrick, so his longevity prospects aren?t real good if he keeps getting ass-whupped at his current pace. And so, again, that speaks to the problems of keeping a series fresh, because sooner or later you run into questions of believability that are even louder than the ones you start out with when you decide to write a book in which your private eye character engages in actions which few real life private investigators have ever had to deal with. I mean, poor Patrick, his worst enemy isn?t himself or some deranged murderer, it's me.

*Drood: Will you continue the Kenzie/Gennaro series?*

DL: I think Spade and Marlowe remain icons because they didn?t wear out their welcome. Would Chandler be Chandler if he?d written 18 Marlowe books? I don?t know, but I wonder. Maybe Chandler could have sustained the level of quality, but the issue is more whether I can. And I have my doubts about that. The only artsy, metaphysical aspect of my approach to writing is that I can only write about characters when they come knocking on the door and tell me to. Patrick and Angie stopped knocking after Prayers for Rain. If they come knocking again, I?ll open the door and welcome them in with open arms because, well, they paid for my house and I?m exceedingly grateful. But if they don?t, then I?ll be content to let them live happily ever after without my dropping another case-from-hell in their laps. They deserve that.

And I know from your interview with Karen that that was a conscious thing, because two years ago you were saying that maybe it was time to do something else.*

Yes. I was beginning to write Mystic River when I had the interview with Karen. But yeah: I think there's a finite number in any series. You never hear people say: Oh, the 15th is the best. You never hear that. There's a point where a series has to end. I don't think I've reached that point, but I reached a point where it needed a break. And I do think that the number is rapidly approaching: whatever that magic number is, where it's going to be time.

*Do you have plans for a sixth Kenzie book?*

Yeah, they're loose plans. I'm not sure what will be my next book. I haven't decided yet.... I'm at a point now where it might be judicious to take a bit of a break. I've done five books, [and my characters] have been beat up a lot; they've had a lot of big cases. You want to ground these books in as much realism as you can. Because what's inherent in the whole genre is that it's unrealistic: Private eyes don't do that sort of stuff.

Those are quotes pulled from various interviews with Lehane, who clearly has reservations about series characters, and maintaining a series beyond its shelf life.


The thing is, people read for different reasons. Some read for the writing. Some read for the story. Some read for the author.

And some read for the characters, and those readers want their series books. Sometimes, the most daunting thing about reading a book is that I have to learn a new landscape. I have to learn the setting, the characters, the writing style, and I could spend a fair bit of time trying to get into a novel and not like it. I love returning to a strong series, because I know what I'm getting. I am reading it because it's familiar, and comfortable, and because I'm spending time with a character I do care about. So sue me. I like some series books.

That said, I've stopped reading a lot of series. I recently picked up again with a series I'd read before, and read the latest, and felt it was fundamentally flawed. There was a critical action by one of the protagonists that I did not believe was consistent with their character. That's the risk with a series. As someone who's written three books with the same characters, I feel I know a little about the unique challenges of writing more than one book with the same characters, and in addition to the plotting and storytelling and character development, you have to say anchored in what came before, enough for there to be believability and consistency.

No, it's not easy. It's a different challenge than writing a standalone, but a challenge nonetheless.

I don't wholly agree with Adrian, or wholly disagree with him. Well, I disagree about an ideal world being where only first novels are published. I shudder with horror at the thought of that, actually. But that's okay, because I still like Adrian and I'll still read his books, even if he's wrong about this. ;) (WINK WINK, before someone yells at me because they took that too seriously.)

Personally, I think there are so many bad books because the publishing industry produces a lot of crap, both inside and outside the crime fiction genre. Editors don't have the time and budgets to do thorough edits, writers are pushing ahead of themselves to be published without taking the time for revisions and learning to write is less and less of a priority. I'd like to have a nickel for every person who told me they wanted to be a bestselling author, and then refused to do edits on their work while demonstrating they don't know how to use punctuation, never mind spell.

As for sexism and all that crap, what's quality is subjective. I've been a judge for a major award, and it was a waste of my time, truly. In a panel of three judges, not one of my top 10 titles picked in the category made the short list, while many of the titles that did were on the bottom of my picks from the books I was sent.

I don't want to see men, or women, nominated just because of their gender. I want judges to be able to read with blinders to all of that crap, and not think about the publisher/editor/agent/author/gender/subgenre and just find the best books.

And I have to accept that what they consider to be the best may not match my list for the year.

I'd rather authors and writers spend more time dealing with other issues of sexism in their writing. The Guardian had a recent article, crowning the five most pathetic female characters in film. I'm not a bra-burner, and my problem sometimes with the push for equality is that some people take it too far and want more than what the other side has, but when I stop and think about how women are portrayed so often in film and on TV, I have to admit, we have a long way to go.

If all the women in your novel are a) hot b) fuckable c) in to the protag d) all or some of the above... your book has a woman problem. ~ my husband

When people go off on a tirade about sexism in awards, they always talk about how few female authors are nominated.

They never talk about how badly women have been portrayed in the books that made the list.

And it's all those horrible, truly sexist, stereotypical portrayals that make the great female characters stand out that much more.

I do believe Adrian knows I think he's an amazing writer, hugely underrated, and to be honest if I were to take offense at nomination lists my list of issues would have to include questioning why he hasn't received more critical acclaim. So I don't completely agree with him. So what. I don't completely disagree, either. He has a point, and even as I type this blog post I find myself feeling frustrated with a sense of having had parts of this conversation before, with the awareness that the argument over the awards is almost an annual tradition.

I really thought we should consider going Oscar and having Best Male Novel and Best Female Novel so that people would shut the fuck up about it already.

Except then they'd be offended by the inference that women can't compete with men.

Would you like something to really be offended by?

At the end of the day, if people don't want to read Adrian's work because he's not the biggest fan of series books, it's really their loss, because he's pretty fucking brilliant.

What I have to say to all the people taking offense out there, over people who don't like series books and people who don't like the nomination lists for awards, is this: Get over it.

Coming up with a list of exceptions about series doesn't make some of Adrian's points less valid. Coming up with examples of great books be female writers who didn't get nominated this year doesn't make the judges sexist.

For every series that's stayed strong, there are more that have faltered along the way. And for every great novel written by a woman this past year, there are works by men who also didn't see their name on the short list.

For me, I'm going to go back to the manuscript, and whether it's a series book or a standalone I'm going to push myself to make it be the strongest work it can be, to show growth over prior works, and at the end of the day, I want to produce a book I'm proud of. Believe me, not even my agent is as hard to please as I am when it comes to my manuscripts. Real validation comes from the response of readers, and at the end of the day, given a choice between having readers or having award nominations, it's the readers I'll pick every single time.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Schizophrenic writer wanted

by: Joelle Charbonneau

This is one of those weeks. The husband is out of town for a trade show. College auditions are approaching for some students. The tot is sick. My grandmother is in the hospital. A snow storm hit Chicago yesterday making things a little scary out on the roads and I’m racing to finish a manuscript. Which of course means this is the week that two sets of revision letters arrived. One was for MURDER FOR CHOIR which hits shelves on July 3rd. The other was for THE TESTING, my post-apocalyptic young adult novel that will make its appearance in the spring of 2013.

Now, I love revisions. I happily dove into the revisions on MURDER FOR CHOIR and had them out the door in lightning speed enjoying every minute of the revisions. (Yeah – go ahead and throw things. I’m betting I can duck faster than you can throw.) Fun, quick revisions are great, but I also I love revisions that challenge me to think harder, go deeper and work like mad to make the story the best it can be. So, I was totally stoked when I got a revision letter from my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that does that. They are the kind of revisions that scare the hell out of me when I first read them and then challenge my brain to work overtime. I’m having trouble sleeping because I have all sorts of great ideas rolling around in my head. Only—I can’t work on it yet.

Why, you ask? Well, I have about 4 or 5 chapters left of the current book I’m working on, END ME A TENOR. Why does that make a difference you ask? Well, if I keep to schedule, I should be typing THE END on the last page sometime in the next 10-14 days. Because of the family issues I’ve been dealing with, I’ll admit that getting this book done was a struggle. While it hasn’t taken me all that much longer to write (I started the first page near the end of October) it feels like it has taken years. I want to climb the last stretch of the mountain, plant my flag at the top and do a happy dance celebrating the completion of this round.

Of course, I could write on END ME A TENOR during the tot’s nap time and then work on revisions at night. In fact, I ache to do this. Only, there’s an even bigger issue.

My mystery voice is punchy and a little off the wall.

My YA voice is dark, taught and a bit plaintive. (At least, I think so…who knows what the critics will say.)

While some people excel at writing two projects at the same time, I’m mostly a tunnel vision kind of girl. I affix my eyes to the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how small, and step by step work in a single-minded fashion until I get there. Aside from page proofs and copy edits, nothing interrupts that hike to the finish line. And while this week I was able to edit MURDER FOR CHOIR while also writing on END ME A TENOR, I was able to do so only because they were the same voice. There was no transition. No worry that one would bleed into the next. Last year, I made an attempt to write the opening to THE TESTING while I was writing the beginning of SKATING UNDER THE WIRE. Um…not such a good idea. Every time I sat down I had to work hard to keep my mind in the correct tense. It took twice as long for me to get that day’s work on the page. The minute I decided to focus on one project things fell into place. The first three chapters of Rebecca Robbins 4 were finished and polished in about 9 days. I then turned to THE TESTING and watched my fingers fly.

So I will wait. I will remember that while other people can write on two projects, and in two distinctly different voices, at the same time I am not one of those people. I have to stick with what works for me.

But of course, I am curious to know what works for you. Can you work on two projects at once? Are the voices similar? Or are you like me who looks at longing with that second project knowing no matter how much you might want to play, doing so will only make things more difficult?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Reading With a "Pencil"

Scott D. Parker

It's amazing how technology can change the way you read.

I'm not sure when I started reading fiction books with a pencil in my hand. When it comes to non-fiction, it's a given that I read with a pencil or a highlighter to mark important passages and write notes to help me remember things that strike my fancy. Ditto for Bible reading. It became extremely important during graduate school and having to learn all the minutiae of history.

Fiction is a different animal. I read fiction for fun. Natch. But the more I write, the more that I realize that published books are the curricula of the School of Fiction Writing. Yes, it's obvious, but I'm someone who sometimes has to have Obvious Things hit me over the head before I see it. Moreover, I'm a relative latecomer to this mystery genre, so every new book I have read in the past decade usually contains some nugget from which I can learn.

It started slowly, with me making notes that I'd need for the review I planned to write. Soon, it migrated to notes as well as highlighting. Depending on the novel, outright annotation emerged. All of the annotations, understandably, happened on paper. These were the years before the e-book explosion, before the iPod, before the Nook, before the Kindle. After I finished a book, I could skim the pages, see my annotations, and remember the things I liked about the novel. And that book lived in one place: the bookshelf. If I wanted to look up a note, I needed to go to the bookshelf.

Now I have an iPod and a Nook Touch. I have the Nook app, the Kindle app, the Stanza app, and the iBook app. Given these new tools, new expectations emerged.

If I'm carrying around an iPod, I should be able to bring up my annotations wherever I am because, frankly, we're in the age of instant access and that's what we want. Does it really make a difference? No, but it's become important to me. I should be able to highlight good passages of prose as easy as I would if I were reading the paper book. I should be able to write a quick note with own thoughts as easy as if I had a pencil in my hand. And, most important for me: I should be able to extract those annotations out of the e-book.

Of all these apps listed above, I have found that iBooks works the best for me. No, I'm not an Apple fan boy. Up until iBooks upped its capabilities, Stanza was my go-to reading app. Now, iBooks is my go-to app. The highlighting is super simple. Heck, you can ever have different colors if you want. And it's fast, as fast as a pencil on paper. Notes are easy to insert and write. I can, within ten seconds, highlight some lines, write a quick note, and get back to reading. And, while you cannot sync the annotations via a separate file through iTunes, you can email yourself all the notes. It's a really good, usable reading app.

And, armed with iBooks, I now have a new favorite way to read a book: listen to the audio version with my iPod handy, loaded with the ebook. I get he story told to me while I can do other things and annotate along the way. It's a great way to read.

Do y'all have a favorite, non-traditional way to read?

Song of the Week: Bruce Springsteen's "We Take Care of Our Own" Yeah, as if I was not going to pick this song. To my ears, it's got a nice flavor of the Human Touch/Lucky Town era, my first new Springsteen albums after I "discovered" him. Fellow DSDer puts it bit more cleverly: "[The song] is like a fight between 1992 Bruce and unreleased '78 Bruce." Springsteen tends to neglect these songs in concert, but I still like those records. And I'm very much looking forward to the new record. Best thing about Springsteen: on one day, there is literally no news. The next day, you've got a new song, new album, and new tour.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fact Or Fantasy?

By Jay Stringer

I'm tugging at another thread that's way above my level today. I've been thinking of them sexalism issues again. I've written before about my feelings when writers accuse other writers of things like misogyny in interviews (coughGrantMorrisoncough) because it can be a cheap and nasty gimmick.

We've also talked on DSD before of the responsibility of dealing with racial issues (if memory serves, it was a great post from Sandra that kick started that conversation.) But I've noticed that terms like sexism and misogyny get thrown around a lot on the net at the moment, particularly in the days following popular television shows.

Quite recently there was a bit of a storm -largely an internet one, until The Guardian newspaper picked it up in print- about the first episode of Sherlock's second season. Now, I know the show hasn't aired in the U.S., so I'll avoid saying much more than that, but I couldn't sit on the issue until it turns up over there. What I will say, is that a lot of people raised questions about the decisions the writer, Steven Moffat, made about a woman in the show.

There was one post on the subject in particular that was a well measured and intelligent approach to the questions raised, and if you don't mind having the episode spoiled, you can click on over.

I certainly don't belittle the questions raised by the whole affair. In the specific instance of that episode, I can understand why people were concerned with the decisions made. I draw the line at making any personal assumptions of the writer, but I do understand why people had issues.

On the whole though, I often find myself concerned with the tone and the aim of the Internet criticism that seems to whip up so easily.

I wonder if people often fail to draw a distinction between then world they want to live in and the world we actually live in. Or that they have expectations that writers should deal with the former rather than the latter.

There are many, many poor representations of women in fiction, be it prose, films, TV or comics. But I also think there are people who don't actually want honest representations, they want fantasy. They want Buffy. They want myth. I enjoyed Buffy as much as the next teenager in the 90's. And often, when I go back and catch part of an old episode, I still find much to admire in the craft, the dialogue, the plot structure and the many bold, brave choices that the show took. It was very well made television. But the character herself is not a particularly brave bit of writing, in my opinion. I'm not interested in the super-powered ass-kicking "girl power" female characters any more than the shallow, cardboard Mary sue of the past. Neither version moves the argument forward.

I know some people simply want escapism from fiction, they want the fantasy of a better version of our world. But I also want social fiction. I want honest fiction. I want to read stories that treat me as an adult, and that face up to the fact that some groups of people get a shittier deal than others. Women get a raw deal. Immigrants, foreigners, children, the working class, the disabled, all of these people get the bad end of the shit-shovel, and they get it right from the get go, and to the benefit of people who are paler, taller, older, healthier or more male.

I don't see the benefit in fiction that hides from that. We don't have to like it, but we do have to be willing to show it. And I worry that, as the vocal minorities become more vocal, and less tactful, we will start to see writers scared of being honest in their fiction, for fear of being tagged.

Lets take the treatment of Steven Moffat as a example. There are my people who've articulated their issues without needed to resort to easy labels or making value judgements of the writer. But there are also people who want to make personal accusations, without any reproach or restraint, and these are the ones that tend to be loudest. The Guardian article itself, I felt, was crossing that line, and Moffat himself was clearly upset at the tome of comments being thrown his way.

I'm sure Moffat would welcome the fact that he writes popular (screen) fiction, that is seen by millions, and that encourages discussion of such serious issues. But can't we keep that discussion on a constructive level? A public figure might get followed around for years by a word that gets associated to them in Internet searches, and we should think twice before playing a part in that process.

Here's where the self interest comes in. As a writer, I take the representation of my characters very seriously. I work hard at trying to be as accurate as I can when I write a woman, or an immigrant, or someone who's politics are the opposite of my own. I don't always get it right, because none of us do. It's a constant struggle for all of us. And it's a challenge, to get out of our comfort zones and to stay out.

But with that honesty comes a trust. If we're putting in the hard work to try and get these things right, and to try and be accurate when capturing the worlds views of racism and sexism, I think readers and critics need to give writers the room to try a few things. Otherwise, why try anything?

Just today I was working on edits for the second book in my crime trilogy. The book takes on some big themes or gender, sex and race. At the moment I'm handling some of them more effectively than others, and the aim is to get the balance right by the end of the draft(s). It's on ongoing process, and one where you need to be willing to get things wrong on the road to getting them right. I was writing a scene today where a Muslim woman talked to a white male about her identity and views on mixed marriage. And I decided several times that I would probably be best served to simply delete the scene rather than risk looking like an idiot. But i want to keep fighting for the scene, for the characters, and for the story.

What we need is for writers to try and write real women and real men. Sometimes that means creating someone who is inspirational, sometimes it means creating someone who is cowardly, violent or needy. Often it means creating someone who is all of those things.

I get worried at the agenda of some the the people making these arguments. In talking of "better role models" and of the kind of characters they want to see, I again question whether they're wanting reality or fantasy. Writing the bold, strong, tough-as-a-man woman is the easiest thing in the world, but I don't see any art in it.

Perhaps I'm in the minority. Maybe most people come to fiction just looking to see a fantasy version of themselves cast back at them, like the best fun-house mirror ever.

There's going to be a level of personal taste in that, it's down to each of us where we draw the line. My personal line in the sand is character. I'm writing socially driven pulp, crime fiction that is a heightened reflection of the area I grew up in. I need to capture that immigrants often get treated like shit, or that women get manipulated by the system, or that we're failing whole generations of children. Where I try to earn the room to show that is in trying to give the characters some life. The first two books in the series are very much about how people get manipulated, objectified and traded, but I hope to at least make these people seem interesting along the way.

Writers need to be given the room to be honest. Sometimes that honesty hurts. Sometimes they (I, we) don't pull it off, and it's fair to talk about those times. As long as the conversation is open, honest and balanced, we can keep the issue moving forward. But let's play fair about it, eh?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Always Be Connecting

By Johannes Climacus

Who are you trying to sell your book to? If you think you’re trying to sell your book to your “readers” then you’re a damned moron.

You wrote your book and now you're sending it out to People In The Industry. Good on ya, mate. Here’s a test to see who you want to buy the damn thing. Look in the email. Yeah, up there above where it says “Subject Line.” See where it says “TO:”? That’s who you want to buy the thing. Probably. Unless that person is trying to sell it to someone else. And, of course, unless that one is trying to sell it to someone else and so on. But you have to sell it to that one person. Let your editor sell it to the sales force and the sales force sell it to the buyer for the bookstore and the salesperson at the bookstore show it to someone in the store who goes home and orders it off Amazon. You don't need to worry about that. You just have to sell it to the one person in your "TO:" field up there. 

If you’re trying to land an agent or an editor, you pretty much need to do two things. One: write a decent book. Presuming you’ve already done that, you’ll need to do one other thing: make them want to buy the book. That’s it. A two-step process. 

Now, what makes people want to buy the book? Look, there’s a shitload of good books out there. Sure, you like to think that the cream will float to the top, but you know what else floats? A big old turd. You want your floating cream separated from everyone else’s floating turd. You have to connect with the buyer, whatever you’re selling.

I was in sales for a long fucking time. That Gary Ross guy says ABC stands for “always be closing.” Well, that guy's a moron. Stands for “always be connecting.” You connect, you sell. Simple as that. When I was selling crap, one minute I’d be a huge Vince Ferragamo fan. That afternoon, nobody could hold the jock of Kenny Stabler. The hell did I care? My job was 1. to sell widgets and 2. get from one end of the day to the other without getting blackout drunk. And the key to selling was and always will be connecting. (Someday I'll tell you the story of running into the woman playing Vanessa in 'Corvette Summer.' I think she took a liking to me, but I lost track of her.)

These days connecting is super-damn easy. You floating turds don’t know how easy it is. I’d have to scope out a site, look in the parking lot for the guy’s car and bumper stickers, talk to some nudge of a secretary. Take people to lunch. Talk to them. All the while I'm trying to memorize the names of his kids while he's throwing back a couple martinis on my account and I'm drinking perri-flippin-aye and sweating through a 10-year-old wool suit. All you people have to do is hit the internet. Google. Facebook.

I’ll show you how to do this.

Let’s say you’re sending your book out to an agent or an editor. Pick one or two, maybe three tops. Before you send your precious jewel off, track down the MyFace page of your target. Oh, she likes Bob Marley songs? Well, damn, Einstein, go grab a Marley quote and slap it up on your wall. Stay away from the pot references, though. Just to be safe.  

Now let’s look at your next target. Books. Authors. Run through the list of authors this person likes. Maybe people this author represents. Then track those authors down on MyFace. Send a few of them friend requests. Most authors on MyFace are so competitive that they're just trying to get to 5,000 friends so they can do the old “I’m too popular and must create a FAN PAGE!!” Help them and yourself out at the same time. Friend that jackhole. Then when the editor or agent sees your names together, that’s gotta help. Or just say you like MURDER BY LANTERNLIGHT or whatever crap book your target also likes.

The key is to make connections. Like what your target likes. Unless you’re submitting to a Nickelback fan. Nickelback sucks.

You have to remember, the world is full of books that are just like yours. Oh, I'm sure you're convinced you have a precious flower unlike anyone else's. You know what you share with every other writer out there? The same thought. All writers think their book is the cream and not the turd. They believe in it. Why? Maybe because their friends told them so. Maybe they're in one of those writing groups in which everyone says nice things hoping to have their own works loved. Or maybe it turns out your book really is good. (Hell, I don't know. I haven't read your book. I'm too busy suing Jeremy Thomasson for the crap job he did on my ebook covers.)

So if you want your book to stand out from big pile of slush floating around out there, make a connection with your target. If the editor or agent likes you, they might give your book just a wee bit more attention.

Think about the times you've picked up a book because the author is from your hometown. Or has your first name. Or seemed like your kind of person on that local talk show. You connect with authors, don't you? You'll read the next Lee Child before you know what the plot is, won't you? Stand in line for the next Stephen King? As a reader, you're relying on connecting to these authors. Make sure you use this to your advantage. Connect with the agents and editors. You think Vince Ferragamo got to be the greatest California QB in the 70s without working his butt off? Or Stabler? Oh, you're from San Diego? I meant Dan Fouts. Go Bolts.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Jim Winter Stops By

It's round 3 of guest bloggery as Jim Winter stops by to shill his latest e-release Northcoast Shakedown, er... I mean Northcoast....wait a second...Yeah... Northcoast Shakedown.

So what is Northcoast Shakedown? Isn’t that some book that came out from some penny-ante Baltimore area press that went under about five minutes before the sequel came out?

Yes, it is, and yes, it’s back.

In a nutshell, it’s about Nick Kepler, a Cleveland area insurance investigator who’s scored free office space and secretarial help from his former employers at TTG Insurance. We meet Nick actually in the middle of the action with a dead hooker and a rising star in local politics. Always start with a bang, and Sandy Lapinsky’s morning started off with just that. Back up a few days, and we learn Nick’s life would be a lot easier if 1.) he never picked up his phone on the way out to nab a worker comp cheat and 2.) told a TTG exec what he could do with his job reference for a cheating spouse case. From there, it gets complicated.

There’s sex, drugs, some rock and roll in the background, and little bedroom gunplay that doesn’t end well.

Nick was what I saw as one of the first Gen X PI’s. Others came out around the same time, including our own Dave White’s Jackson Donne. Only Dave liked to torture Jackson more than I wanted to torture Nick. I had a multi-book arc in which I send Nick to Hell, then take my sweet time bringing him back. Dave pretty much destroyed Donne in one book and dragged him kicking and screaming back in the second. (I liked that second book quite nicely, actually.)

But one of the things Dave and I used to talk about was our respective settings. Dave wrote in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I, of course, wrote about Cleveland. While Northcoast was in its polishing stage, I paid Dave a visit during a trip to New York City, and we, along with fellow writer Pat Lambe, did the Jackson Donne Tour of New Brunswick.

There’s something about a city that makes this type of story work in a way it doesn’t with other types of fiction. For instance, much is made of how chick lit used to be almost a creature of Manhattan. Come to Cincy during the warm weather. Look me up. I’ll take you to Mt. Adams or Hyde Park on a Sunday morning, and I swear to God, it’s every episode of Sex and the City you never wanted to see.

You could conceivably transplant a PI character from his environs, but it seldom works. I couldn’t watch Eight Million Ways to Die because, the Dude Jeff Bridges may be, when he starts out as an LA County deputy sheriff, the show’s over. Similarly, I tried to like the Robert Mitchum remake of The Big Sleep, but let’s be honest. Philip Marlowe is not an overweight Yank in London pushing sixty. (Didn’t help the movie was done by the same outfit that did Space:1999.)

No, Nick is definitely Cleveland. His is a generation that saw lifetime employment at GM and US Steel and Goodyear slip away before high school. He and his North Coast compadres spent the late eighties and early nineties listening to Led Zeppelin and lusting after Detroit muscle cars from the post-Woodstock era. But of course, those days are gone for him and everyone else. It’s not the city he grew up in, but it has that same gritty, roll-up-your-sleeves vibe you still see in Chicago.

So Nick is a creature of his environment. I toyed with sending him to Chicago or New Orleans, but it wouldn’t work. I love Chicago, and New Orleans holds a lot of promise for good storytelling, but they’re not for Nick.

Unlike his creator, who very nearly moved to Chicago before meeting his lovely bride a few years ago, Nick can never leave Cleveland. Or if he does, the story will be in him going back.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Crimes of Free Speech?

With almost any right, there is a delicate balance, a dividing line between the sanctity of the right, and the crime of abusing that right.

If you want to find out if people really believe in free speech, say something outrageous and offensive and see how many of them defend your right to say it. Recently, many Americans took serious offense to this:

Personally, I find the offense only makes the whole thing more amusing. Maybe I just get the humor because I'm Canadian, but Brian was the one who saw the video first and passed it on to me, and every American friend I've sent it to thought it was hysterical.

Maybe my friends are just more enlightened. Or maybe they all truly believe in free speech.

However, I did find myself on the other side of the line recently on an issue that sparked a bit of debate in our house.

It turns out that in Calgary, some might argue that abuse of free speech equals obstructing justice.

It's easy to talk about freedom of speech, when you're not the one speaking to a funeral director.

That's the grim reality for two families -- making plans to buy coffins and say goodbye, less than 24 hours after the horror of an alleged drunk-driving wreck scarred their lives.

Two dead 20-year-olds, in what Calgary police say was a high-speed collision involving alcohol and a red light -- a light the suspected drunk driver missed, moments before her car slammed into a Mercedes.

The 25-year-old at the wheel lived, while her passenger and the innocent stranger driving the other car were killed.

What do these tragedies have to do with free speech?

It turns out that some people have created twitter accounts and are taking advantage of social media sites to inform the public about Checkstop locations so that drivers who've been drinking can avoid being caught by the police.

"It's freedom of speech. No one can tell me I can't do something if I don't feel like doing it, and that's the freedom of the Internet."

So says Aaron Pratt, one of a handful of social media regulars at the eye of a moral tempest involving drunk driving and the freedom to type whatever you like online.

Local government and police are not happy about the growing trend, and I don't think we've heard the last of this.

When I mentioned this article to Brian, he defended the right of free speech. I disagree, in this case. Whether or not the courts may ultimately agree with him or me has yet to be seen, but there are many instances in which the right of free speech is subjected to greater concerns. If a person threatens to assassinate the president, or goes into a crowded theater and yells, "Bomb!" they can try to hide behind the right of free speech all they like, but that won't help them in court.

When I read the article about the Checkstop tweeters, I wondered how these drunk drivers could actually read the tweets and register that they should take a different route. I wondered if anyone could prove in any of the cases mentioned that the drunk drivers, or their passengers, had read the Checkstop tweets.

I wondered about the motives. Why would a person go to the trouble of locating Checkstops and broadcasting that information through social media? Does their motivation limit or increase their responsibility for anything that happens as a result of sharing that information?

And then I thought about how many crimes go unreported, how many witnesses don't come forward and how many people endure abuse because people opt for their own convenience instead of standing up for someone else, and I found myself wondering why it is people have so much energy when it comes to helping others evade the law, but are nowhere to be found when people need help.

Today, of all days, is a day we should celebrate the right to free speech. It's a day we pay tribute to a man who literally did change the world.

But at the same time, I think we have to stop using our rights as justification for irresponsible behavior.