Saturday, March 10, 2012

Mythology in Mysteries: Myth or Reality?

Scott D. Parker

I am neck deep in the imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Yesterday, I finished the fourth book in ERB’s Mars books, Thuvia, Maid of Mars, and am happily amazed at the mythology he created for his Barsoom, usually on the fly. Over the course of these books, ERB tells of the history, the races, and the culture of the inhabitants of the red planet. In just about every aspect of the definition of the word, he created a mythology.

Mythology. The word alone evokes visions of Greek gods and mortals traipsing about in loin clothes, swords in hands, fighting and solving riddles. In modern pop culture, it has also come to mean the inner workings of a body of work. TV shows like “Lost” and “Firefly” have an inner mythology as do books like the Twilight series, Harry Potter, Sookie Stackhouse (presumably since I’ve not read any), to say nothing of the obvious examples of Star Trek and Star Wars.

There’s an obvious theme present in the above examples: they all contain some sort of science fictional, fantasy, or paranormal component. Like the Greek and Roman versions of mythology, these examples have supernatural creatures or aliens or spaceships. Does the word “mythology” require such aspects?

Take the non-supernatural stories usually associated with mysteries. “Castle,” “CSI: Miami,” and “The Wire” contain their own versions of a common history among the characters. The same is true for long-running series featuring Marlowe, McGee, Poirot, Holmes, and Spencer.

But is it “mythology”? Does a set of characters and shared history constitute a mythology? Or does one need a monster to have a mythology?

Album of the Week: Duh Category

Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball. Very good album I'm still learning. Yet nothing on the record tops the chill-inducing emergence of Clarence Clemons's saxophone in "Land of Hope and Dreams." It is both ethereal and eulogistic. Clemons had the unique ability to put more emotional resonance into a single note than many other sax players attempt with a blizzard of tones. I have loved this song for its effortless blend of realism and spirituality since I first heard it back in 1999, but this version, for what it represents for Clemons, Springsteen, the E Street Band, and, indeed, all of us pretty much makes this my definitive version.

Album of the Week: Non-duh Category

Andrew Bird's Break It Yourself. Completely different type of album by a man I only learned about in 2009. I took the advice of the NPR guys and listened to this one with my good headphones. There is a lot of things going on and it's a pleasure to hear the nuances of the songs. It is one of those rare modern records where you just want to sit and listen to it. Weird concept, huh? Just like it used to be. Early standouts: "Eyeoneye," for its catchy chorus and, yes, whistling. "Near Death Experience" for its unexpected lyrics: "And we'll dance like cancer survivors, like the prognosis was 'you should have died.'"

Friday, March 9, 2012

How to Be an Author's Dream

By Russel D McLean

(a response to “How to be an independent bookseller’s dream)

A few months ago, this article cropped up on the web, pulling ire from certain quarters for its allegedly patronising attitude to authors. On some levels, much of what it has to say is good - - basically, if you’re doing a signing at a bookstore, don’t be a dick about it. On other levels, some of it is more than a little patronising (the stuff about not reading too long is in part right, but it all depends on the author).

But the line that gets me is the one about booksellers being “very powerful people” on the night of the event because, while that should be true, some of them do not in any way use this “power” for good. In fact some of them abuse this power and still retain a horrific attitude towards the authors who, after all, are the reasons people come to the store in the first place.

Let me start by saying that I've been horrifically lucky in that ninety nine percent of my signings have been in bookstores with passionate staff, organised events programs and a real passion for the industry. And let me also that having had experience in the retail end myself, I know exactly what I do for visiting authors, and that I have seen things from the other side, both good and bad. But this is a reaction to a whole series of poorly organised events I've been to lately by stores who really should know better (and I've been as a member of the public, none of them knew I was an author).

I’ve witnessed some appallingly handled events recently by stores with allegedly good reputations. At these events, turnout has been poor and the booksellers have moaned about “internet competition” and “dwindling buyers” without even considering that part of the reason could be they are utterly failing to get proactive and, to use the vernacular of the theatre, get those bums in seats.

Let’s start with the basics:

You have a website. Put your events on it. Like, in advance. Like, in time. Sell the event to the masses. Tweet about it. The week before. The day before. On the day. It doesn’t take effort.
You have a window. You have (occasionally) showcards from the publishers. It might help to put those in your window and not hide them round the side of a desk where no one can see them. Because if your public can see there’s an event, they might just come. And even if the publishers fail to do that, hell, maybe you could create some posters of your own. You have a computer, yes? You can create a little document with words on that you can stick in the window?

You might also want to print off flyers in advance, find a tame journalist on your local paper, maybe even work with other appropriate local businesses to cross promote in some fashion. Just because you have an event does not mean people will come. They have to know you are doing the event first. And they won’t know that by osmosis or even just by being regular customers. Hell, get a word or two in the local papers and you might just bring new customers to the store. Okay, this might be above and beyond but in this climate, every little effort helps.

Which brings me to the other point. Tell your regular customers that an author is coming. Tell your not so regular customers. If someone’s buying a similar book, stick one of those flyers in their bags or talk to them about it. No one’s going to know if you don’t talk to them. Hell, your shop is about books. The point of coming to a store and not shopping online is to join in the literary conversation, to feel like you’re having that goddamn human contact. Being a bookseller is very different to other kinds of retail. You’ve got to be a little bit of a showperson. You’ve got to connect with your customers (and at the same time, of course, you have to know when to leave them alone).

If you do events regularly try and keep the formats and times similar so that people can plan around them.

Remember, you’re offering something the internet can’t - - actual contact with an author. A direct and unique kind of access. If you don’t shout about it, no one’s going to know and no one’s going to come to your store. Yes the author, too, should be shouting about it, but its your store. You are ultimately responsible for the business. So you’d better get off your arse and do something.

And when the author does come to speak, you might want to give them a little intro before they begin, maybe give those custombers who came in just for that author a reason to come back.

It’s insane and it sounds like teaching granny to suck eggs, but over and over I see certain bookstores failing to do any of the above. An author I went to see recently was mortified when the store in question had no sign at all of their presence and when the staff simply shrugged their shoulders upon the author’s arrival. And this was a shop that had booked the author over a month in advance and asked them to come overseas to do the gig. On their own dime.

If you have done your absolute best and still no one has turned up, it helps to apologise to the author. They came all the way to your store when they could have gone to that Big Box across the road or just not bothered at all and signed copies at the publisher’s warehouse to go straight out to some internet company who don’t do the human contact thing at all. Little things help.

Like saying, “Well, if you could still sign some copies, we’ll do our best to handsell them. People like signed copies and it’ll help us get a trickle effect so that while you didn’t sell any tonight, we’ll sell them for you in the coming days.” Or even, if the author’s fine with it, getting them to do their thing for the staff, who should still be interested being that they work in a bookstore and our industry should be run by outright passion (combined with business sense). I did this in LA when absolutely no one came to the store where I was signing, even by accident, and it was a great dry run for more successful subsequent events.

And I can already hear certain people asking “why should we apologise to authors?” The answer’s simple: they are your trump card. Amazon isn’t able to offer direct contact. You are. And authors talk, so if word gets around that you aren’t too interested in being at least civil, then pretty soon that trump card’s back in the deck and your hand’s worth nothing*

I’ve seen this from both sides. Having spent many years in retail and many years as an author, I know the pitfalls that can befall either side. But I have recently noticed certain bookstores not pulling their weight. Relying on the mere fact that they are open to draw crowds for book events or expecting the author to click their fingers and pull in sales. It doesn’t work like that. It can’t work like that.

In conclusion, booksellers - as the original article states quite clearly - are powerful people to authors, but equally authors are powerful people to booksellers. Without authors there are no books. Without books, booksellers have nothing to sell. We need each other. Neither one of us is more or less “necessary”. So yeah, authors should be nice to booksellers, but equally booksellers need to do their jobs and be nice to authors.

Because otherwise, from either side, what the hell is the point?

*Can I admit at this point I don’t play cards, so apologies for the poor metaphor.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What's In A Description?

Jay Stringer

I've been thinking a lot on character descriptions lately. As we work through the copy edits for my first book, and fresh eyes are examining the text, I'm seeing just how few physical descriptions I give to people.

If I mention their physicality at all, it will be vague; the way their smile turns, a particular look that they give with their eyes. The rest of my descriptions will be about their attitude, or their accent, maybe how their hands move as they talk. After that, it's all dialogue. I let them talk and talk, and wait for that to create something.

For me as a writer, I guess I like to lead the reader down a certain route, but make them do the work in terms of creating a physical image in their heads. I tend to feel that if the reader has done more of that work, whether they realise it or not, they will be more invested in those characters.

But not everyone sees it that way, and looking around at the fiction on my shelf there is a wide variety. Some authors want to give you every little detail as they create their character, to take someone that's fully formed in their head already and implant him/her in yours. I see this approach more with thrillers and action stories, books where descriptions overall are more important, maybe this follows through in the authors mind. For instance, I read some of the Gabriel Hunt books recently, and they tend far more toward physical descriptions, right down to cleft jaws, but they are also books that have to describe weapons and long actions scenes, so it's more about consistency.

In crime I often see more of a middle ground. Lawrence Block, for instance, would often give us a physical description of each of the supporting cast in the Matt Scudder books, but rarely gave us anything of Scudder himself.

I've been reading HURT MACHINE by Reed Farrel Coleman, and he's given us very little of Moe Prager over the years, though again the supporting cast are very well etched. We chatted with Reed on our podcast a while back -you'll find the episode in the itunes archive- and he told us this was deliberate. He has a firm idea of Moe in his head, and who would play him in a movie, but it's for the reader to form their own impression.

As we've worked through the copy edit, I've moved more toward that "middle ground" of description, where I'm giving you more for the supporting cast, but still leaving enough of a black hole that you as the reader have to do the rest of the work and, hopefully, get more invested as a result.

But how about you, as writers and readers, how much or how little description do you like on your page?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Series Characters: Guest Post from Hilary Davidson

By Hilary Davidson

First, thanks to my friend Steve Weddle for letting me loose on DSD today. I promised him I wouldn’t break anything, but that was only to get him to stop hovering. You know how he is.

Actually, you do know how he is, by which I mean kind and generous to fellow writers. He asked me to stop by because my second novel, THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, came out a couple of weeks ago. It’s the follow-up to THE DAMAGE DONE, and it picks up three months after the first book ends. Both novels feature Lily Moore, travel writer and accidental sleuth. I’m on tour now, and one question that keeps coming up at events is about how hard it was for me to pick up from where I’d left off, especially since THE DAMAGE DONE read like a standalone and left Lily in a very dark place at the end.

The truth is, I always intended to write several books about Lily. A big part of the reason why is that I couldn’t imagine putting Lily through the hell she goes through in THE DAMAGE DONE without following up with her later. At the beginning of THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, she’s still shell-shocked and grieving deeply. Her best friend, Jesse, has conned her into coming to Peru with him — since they both work in travel, it’s a business trip for them — and she’s sleepwalking through it, dragging her ghosts after her. At Machu Picchu, she can’t appreciate the beauty of the stone city without thinking about death. When they find a dying woman at the bottom of an Inca staircase, it’s as if the dark thoughts in Lily’s head have taken on a physical form. But later, as she hunts for the woman’s traveling companion, and discovers a trail of dead and missing women behind him, she becomes determined to get justice.

Writing the second book with Lily forced me to confront an ongoing debate about series characters and whether or not they should change. At my first Thrillerfest in 2009, Lee Child made an argument for writing a protagonist who never changes, one who goes from book to book as essentially the same person. He said that readers, when they love a character, just want to see more of that character, not an evolution that changes him.

At the time, I couldn’t have disagreed more. I love series characters who evolve over the course of several books, as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch does, and as Spenser in Robert B. Parker’s early novels did. When I think of a character who remains the same from book to book, I think of Nancy Drew.

It was only when I was in the middle of writing THE NEXT ONE TO FALL that I started to reconsider that position. There are so many obvious ways in which Lily changes over the course of that book that I had to stop to consider what hadn’t changed about her. I also wanted to parse out the temporary changes — grief, at the start of the new book, has made her listless and passive, which is entirely unlike the Lily in the first book… and quite unlike the one in the rest of THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, who starts to come back to life as she goes after justice for the dead and missing female victims.

I realized that many of the changes aren’t so much to Lily’s character as to her perspective. When Lily encounters the sister of one of victim, who is hunting for her missing sister in Peru, it breaks her heart on one level, because it reminds her of her own search for her sister. At the same time, this woman drives Lily mad because of her stubbornness and her reckless behavior — not entirely unlike Lily’s own in THE DAMAGE DONE.

In so many ways, Lily is the same. She’s still a woman haunted by her family history, one who has classic Hollywood movies running up against verses by Edgar Allan Poe in her head, one who uses modern technology to listen to Frank Sinatra songs, one who just can’t let things go. The bad-girl side that was suppressed in the first book comes out in the second, but it was always there, lurking beneath her smooth veneer before it cracked. Even her desire for justice, which gets ever more powerful in THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, contains an echo from the first book: Lily didn’t find justice then, so she’s damned sure she’ll get it now.


Get your own copy of THE NEXT ONE TO FALL

Monday, March 5, 2012

Why I decided to publish You Dirty Rat by Nigel Bird

For a few months now I've been thinking about writing a series of short essays or blog posts that explain why I decided to publish each of the stories and books that Snubnose has published so far. I will start off with the individual stories in Speedloader then move on to the other titles in the order that we published them. I'll run them here at Do Some Damage then post them at the Snubnose site.


Nigel Bird is one of the finest writers currently working in the crime short fiction scene. His fiction comes from a different place then a lot of the other fiction coming out of the zines. He is also one of my favorite writers in the crime short fiction scene so inviting him to participate in the Speedloader anthology was a no-brainer.

Nigel's writing style is often filled with short, staccato sentences and short paragraphs. It's a deceptive style because each of those sentences and paragraphs are concentrated bursts. He is able to fill each line with great weight and import.

Nigel is able to cut right to the core of his characters and scenes so there is never a wasted word and every story is the right length.

"You Dirty Rat" is a story of the horrors of war and of the ways that small men will use war as a cover for their own failings and the ramifications of such acts of cowardice.

And that is why I decided to publish "You Dirty Rat".

Currently listening: I Wasn't Built for a Life Like This by Caleb Stine.

Currently reading: The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Are you and your manuscript ready for submission?

by: Joelle Charbonneau

There is a question that I get asked pretty frequently by aspiring authors.

“When do I know my work is good enough to submit?”

Ha! Fun question. Unfortunately, there isn’t a really good answer to that question. I mean, that’s kind of like asking “When do I know if I’m in love?” You know you’re in love when you feel it. I guess Dr. Phil or Cosmo might have some kind of cool questionnaire to fill out to make sure, but knowing you are in love is a gut feeling. Kind of like figuring out if your story is ready for the submission world. Although, the idea of a questionnaire is kind of fun. I mean, wouldn’t that be great if there was a check list you could go through to make totally sure you and your manuscript are ready for the submission process? So, with that in mind, and in honor of Chuck Wendig who loves lists, here is 15 ways an author can know a manuscript is ready for submission. (Yeah – Chuck would have come up with 25, but I’m not as cool as he is. So maybe he’ll find another 10 to add to the list.)

1. The manuscript is finished. Yes, that’s right sports fans. You need a beginning, a middle and an end. Two out of three won’t cut it. I don’t care that it takes agents and editors months and months to read a submission. Don’t submit the beginning now and get around to writing the end while you’re waiting or them to fawn over your brilliance. Do that and you’re going to be waiting a hell of a long time. You might have that kind of time to kill. I do not.

2. The manuscript length fits genre parameters. Yes, I know your novel is special. It requires 200,000 words to fully develop the characters and the fifteen storylines that eventually converge into one ending. But if you are writing genre fiction I’m fairy certain that particular word count is going to get you a lot of head shaking and not much else. No one is going to get excited about a story that is over twice as long as the genre conventions. Yes, there are exceptions to the rules. A book can be a little longer or a little shorter, but unless you’re Stephen King no one is going to offer you a contract on a book that defies the genre standards. Do your homework. And if you start telling me you need every one of those 200,000 words and not a single one can be cut—well, let’s just say I’m probably not going to believe you.

3. You’ve proofed your book. No typos should be a given. And yes, this is easier said than done because while word processing programs are fabulous, they look for words that aren’t in the dictionary. They aren’t going to find the words that are spelled correctly, but aren’t the word you were looking for. Only you can find those. A typo won’t sink your manuscript, but a bunch of them is a sign of a sloppy writer. You don’t want to be a sloppy writer.

4. Your book is not printed on pink, scented paper. While Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods makes the whole pink scented resume seem like a brilliant idea, it isn’t. And you probably think I’m joking about this, but people do it. They print queries (yes, some places still want printed queries although I haven’t a flippin’ clue why) on floral, colored, scented paper. Now often the scented part is an accident. Smokers might not realize that the cigarette they have been enjoying while stuffing their query envelopes has been preserved in the envelope for the agent or editor to enjoy. I’ve heard dozens of stories about animal hairs, smoke, crumbs and other tidbits being added to queries to give them that personal touch. This is a personal touch you do not want. Trust me!

5. You’ve opened the book with a fabulous hook. Remember that agents and editors get a lot of submission. Thousands of them during the course of a year. You don’t get to hope they read far enough to get to the good part. The first line better be the good part. And the line after that. And the one after that. You have to hook them fast and then pull them into your story. If you find yourself saying “if only they read X scene” you know you aren’t ready for submission. Because that scene should be your first scene.

6. You’ve cut your prologue. Nope, I’m not kidding. You know that prologue you think is brilliant and you love. Cut it. Honest! I’m not being mean. While I know you poured your heart and soul into that prologue, I can promise you now that agents and editors aren’t going to read it. Most industry professionals I’ve talked to say that when sample pages come with a prologue, they skip the prologue and turn to chapter 1. 99.9% of all prologues get axed. And the ones that survive are typically the NY Times Bestsellers who are basically allowed to do whatever the hell they want because…well, they’re a NY Time Bestselling author. When you get to be a NY Time Bestseller, you can have a prologue, too. I promise. Until then—put it under your pillow so you can cherish the memories.

7. Your first chapter ends on a fabulous, page turning hook. You know those authors that you love to curse out because they kept you up all night reading when you should have been getting sleep. You want to be one of those people. If your characters go to sleep at the end of a chapter, your reader will probably remember that they are supposed to get rest and put the book down. End the first chapter in a great hook and the reader will flip the page with you and suffer at work for it the next day.

8. All your chapters end on a fabulous, page turning hook. See above. Don’t settle for a mediocre chapter hook. Make them all rock.

9. You don’t have more than one point of view per scene. Okay, this one might annoy some people, but I really think this is an important rule for authors breaking into the biz. One point of view in a scene is pretty standard. Are there authors out there who use multiple points of view in their scenes. Yes. These are those same authors who get to use prologues. They’ve been at this a really long time and get to break the rules. Unfortunately, you have to follow the rules for a while until you’ve earned the right to break them. Sorry!

10. You’re manuscript starts in action. If you start with “It was a dark and stormy night.” you’re going to be in trouble. Pick a scene where the main character has something at stake. Put them in a situation with conflict. This will pull the reader in and at the same time allow the reader to really learn about your main character. The best way to get to know someone is to see how they respond to difficulties.

11. You’ve cut the boring parts. A favorite NY Times Bestseller that I know loves to talk about cutting the boring parts. Anything that slows down the plot or the pacing no matter how lovely the writing needs to go. Sorry!

12. The plot resolves in a logical way. For some reason a lot of manuscripts I’ve seen feel like they use Monty Python’s Holy Grail as inspiration for their ending. The plot is racing along and then the author realizes the book is 100,000 words and they need and ending fast. So BAM – they end the book. The killer is revealed. The love story is resolved. Only there wasn’t a build up to either. The ending comes out of nowhere. While a book that is too long is bad, so is a book that cuts corners to ensure it isn’t too long. Nothing is more depressing for a reader than an unsatisfying ending. Give us a payoff worthy of all the words that came before.

13. You’ve done your homework. This means you’ve actually figured out who your target audience is for your book and you have a list of appropriate editors and agents to submit to. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your work is, if you don’t send it to the right people you’re hosed.

14. You’re prepared for rejection. No, I’m not being doom and gloom by assuming you’re going to get rejected. Rejection happens. It doesn’t matter how high up the publishing ladder you go – you are going to get rejected. And when you’re on the bottom rung (and I know that rung because I hung out on it for a really long time) rejection is almost a guarantee. Just because your manuscript is brilliant doesn’t mean the editor or agent you’ve submitted to will have space on their list for it. Sometimes you need to knock on a bunch of doors before someone opens one. Sure, we all hear stories of the person who got an agent on their first query and landed a publishing deal a week later. That could happen to do, but you need to assume it won’t. If you go into the process with realistic expectations you’ll be a happier person. Trust me on this!

15. You are ready to begin the next project – because every book you write makes you a better writer. When that agent or editor comes knocking, you want to be able to show them you are a pro.

If you have answered yes to all all of the above - have at it. And good luck! Remember that publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. Everything from queries to manuscript submissions to the book landing on the shelves takes time.