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.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Get in shape

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Time to get in shape.

It’s a new year. Not surprising, I’m hearing lots of people say that they want to get in shape this year. They want to lose weight, eat better and all in all feel healthier. I’m all for that. Being healthy is an important part of being happy. And trust me when I say I’m a huge fan of happiness.

When most people make their resolution, they often put a huge number on their goal to a thinner, happier self. 30 lbs. 45 lbs. Even 60 lbs. They make a huge long term goal that seems horribly difficult to achieve—especially in the beginning. Because the finish line to that goal is so far in the distance, it is hard for the goal maker to celebrate the small victories of 1 lb here and 2 lbs there. Because they aren’t celebrating those steps on the way to crossing the finish line, they are more apt to drop out of the race before the first month of the year is done.

So why am I talking about this? Well, I often hear writers say their resolution for the new year is to “finish a manuscript”. Is this an admirable goal? Hell yes. But it is a BIG goal. This is the equivalent to “I am going to lose 50 lbs this year” type of goal. It is easy to be enthusiastic about the goal when the year begins and by the end of the first month feel let down because reaching the goal is taking longer than expected. That’s when trouble sets in. It’s at this point that many writers stop sitting down at their desks with enthusiasm. They tell themselves they need a break to really work out the plot of the story. Many go back and rewrite what they already have written. Others come up with a bright and shiny new idea that they think is way better than the first and embark on that project with the same gusto as they with the old. In short—the book never gets done.

So, here’s the deal. For anyone that has set a large goal for themselves this brand new year– do me a favor and break that goal down into manageable chunks. If you are losing weight – go for a pound a week. If you want to eat better, don’t cut everything you love out of your diet. Trim a bit and go from there. Set yourself up to succeed.

As for writers who want to finish a book this year—try this instead. I am challenging all writers to the 100 words 100 day challenge. Get up tomorrow and write at least 100 words on your story. You can write more if you want, but you have to write at least 100. No editing. Just writing. Then get up the next day and write 100 more. Do this for 100 days. If you skip a day, you go back to day one and start all over again. 100 words. 100 days. No skipped days. No excuses. No apologies. No giving up.

Why 100 words a day? Because no matter how busy your work and personal schedule gets, I promise you can manage that amount every single day. And guess what? When you flex your writing muscles every day they get stronger. Like any diet or workout plan, the first couple days are the toughest. The words won’t come as fast. The story will struggle. But you KNOW you can write 100 words, so you’ll do it. The more you flex your writer muscles on this story, the easier those 100 words a day will be. Heck, it might turn into 500 or 1000 words a day. By the time those 100 days are over you might be halfway done with the book or even close to THE END. A manageable goal that you can reach every day means you have a shot of actually finishing your ultimate goal much sooner than you might think. You just have to take the plunge and do it.

So, let’s all make this the year of achieving our goals, no matter what they are. Deal?

And for those writers who are interested on taking the 100 words, 100 days challenge – let me know! I’d love to check in with you during the challenge to see how you are doing.