Saturday, May 12, 2012

Where Did All the Yarn Go?

Through a chance post on the internet while reading about Erle Stanley Gardner, I learned about this book: Secrets of the World's Best-Selling Author: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner by Francis and Roberta Fugate. The title pretty much tells you all you need to know about the subject of this book. It turns out that Gardner's papers are housed at the Ransom Center at my alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin. TheFugates  waded into the 36 million documents to extract just how it was that Gardner did what he did: write 80 Perry Mason books, 29 Cool and Lam novels, and millions of words of pulp fiction.

Among all of the notebooks on plotting were the correspondence between Gardner and his editors. Over and over again, Gardner would refer to his stories as "yarns." It got me to thinking: why did that term first get applied to pulp fiction and why, in the years since its heyday, the term is rarely, if ever, used.

I looked up the definition of "yarn" and got a couple:

"an elaborate narrative of real or fictional events."
"a story told by a colorful character"

So, if these definitions are basically true, what does that tell us about Gardner thought about the types of stories he wrote? He's not necessarily a colorful character. The Mason stories are told in third person. The Cool and Lam tales are told by Donald Lam and I'd characterize them as yarns, to be sure. I wonder if Gardner kept thinking of his novels as longer versions of all those pulp stories he wrote back in the 1920s. Maybe so. I know that lots of the writers back then used the same term.

So why do we now think of out modern short stories and novels as yarns?

One possibility is realism. As the decades have progressed and the readers and writers have both become more sophisticated, new realism has creeped into our stories. Where once writers were restricted in how they described violence, now, no restrictions exist. Readers know a whole lot more then they used to, and the call for more real details--be it Tom Clancy or Patricia Cornwell--continues and we writers comply.

A corollary idea is this: with the drive to be more real, have we lost the yearning for a yarn? Have we lost the desire for an over-the-top story? Do our automatic triggers ("that can't really happen,") preclude us from a joyful abandonment?

In short, have we grown too sophisticated for yarns? Do we readers just know too much?

Movie of the Week: 

The Avengers.

Yeah, just go see it. Best, most thrilling time in the theaters thus far this year. (Truth be told, it'll likely be the winner of that category of film--you know, the FUN kind--for the entire year of 2012.)

Friday, May 11, 2012


By Russel D McLean

More and more these past few weeks, I’ve been seeing mentions of my own name on Italian websites*. This is not a coincidence. After all, THE GOOD SON has become L’IMPICATTO and found itself an Italian home thanks to those wonderful people at Revolver Publications. It’s got me thinking a lot about translation, though. I joke that the Italians have no word for “peh”**, but I do have to wonder how McNee sounds in Italian. After all, I’m sure that there must be differences.

The art of translation is a very strange one. You have to be as much an artist as the author in some ways, finding new and inventive ways to use the secondary language to convey the same sense as the original. After all, as a certain president once said, “The French have no word for entrepreneur”.

 I have a great deal of respect for those who translate novels into other languages. I would love to be bi(or multi) lingual, to understand the tricks of the trade. I found it fascinating that people noticed a difference in the US and UK translations of the Steig Larson novels. After all, we share a common language with the US, and yet certain turns of phrase and ideals would clearly not translate. Even Ian Rankin found himself unceremoniously translated when FLESHMARKET CLOSE became FLESHMARKET ALLEY. The language gap doesn’t just happen between different languages, it even occurs between different cultures with a common language. There are even minor differences in the US version of THE GOOD SON compared to the UK edition.

I’m a big fan of a writer called Domonique Manotti. I almost wasn’t. But luckily I read two wonderful translations of her novels first. To my mind, she was a Parisian James Ellroy but I wonder how much of that impression has to do with the translation. The third book I read was very different. If I’d read that first, I might not have picked up another because that brilliant, intense, terrifying voice was rendered functional and dull by the efforts of a very different translator who seemed almost too literal and refused to let the voice sing in the English language.

 Translation isn’t literal. It can’t be. It is an art form of its own. The translator must be a skilled writer in the language to which they are translating, figuring out how to transmit the sense of a novel rather than its literal translation. After all, just throw some text into Babel Fish if you want to see the kind of inanity that a literal translation can throw at you. Sometimes translation can lead to whole new and different meanings to titles when translated back again. Which is why books often undergo complete title translations in new languages. L’IMPICATTO, after all, does not mean literally THE GOOD SON. It means THE HANGED MAN. Which is, in itself, a very good title. If, perhaps, a little on the nose when translated back into English.

The work of a translator often goes unthanked. Especially when its good work. Because it’s so good that we could almost forget how much effort must have gone into it. So right here, on Do Some Damage, let me say thank you to those often unsung heroes of literature who try to bring us the sense and artistry of another language, who don’t simply replace words for their equivalents, but try to match and replicate the sense and effect of the original in a whole new language with a whole new set of signifiers and references.

Thank you to all of you because you have allowed readers like myself into the minds of authors we might otherwise have never been able to understand or discover. And you have done this by, in your own way, becoming artists yourselves, in your own right.

Thank you.

*Yes, I google myself. Deal with it.

 **Nor does anyone outside of Dundee. If you’re wondering, a “peh” is a “pie” and is generally referred to in the phrase: “twa pehs an’ an ingin’ in ‘n aw” which roughly translates as “two pies, and an onion one as well, please”. I do not use the word “peh” in any of my books. Like Elmore Leonard suggests, I try to avoid phonetic dialogue

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Men as Characters, Women as Symbols

By Jay Stringer

I'm returning to a theme I've looked at before, so I won't outstay my welcome on it. Yesterday Professor Weddle tweeted a link to this interview with Liz Meriwether, the creator of New Girl. I don't know if I'll lose any noir points for saying this, but I've been really enjoying New Girl. I didn't expect to; I'm very selective when it comes to sitcoms and rarely find ones that I enjoy. But the show has heart, which is it's secret weapon, and manages to be funny more often than not.

When the show came out it caught a lot of heat on the Internet. People wanted to analyse what statement the show was making, and what the characters signified about modern gender politics. Writers lined up to declare the show as some form of battleground, and to make a series of thinly disguised personal comments about the shows female lead.

In all the debates, discussions, and snark, it would have been easy to forget that we were discussing a television sitcom rather than a political manifesto.

It touches on something I've written about before. When the Internet (and the broadsheet media) took issue with perceived misogyny in an episode of SHERLOCK. I questioned whether it was fair to judge writers based on what happens in their stories. I also wondered whether people want writers to write the world as it is or as they think it should be, and if Internet critics could tell the difference.

But this interview with Meriwether really boiled down the issue far better than I could. Here's the bit I mean;

The characters don’t have to be symbols of a bigger movement. I feel like we are really past that.
That really says most of what needs to be said, right? But the interview also covers a little more ground. Does the show attract more snark because it's female lead? I'm tempted to say yes, but not in the expected old fashioned way. I think it attracted the snark because of baggage that people brought to it, and which had nothing to do with the show itself.

I'd argue, and I think perhaps the interview informs this too, that there is a tendency to read a female character as the writers definitive statement on feminism and gender politics. That's a hell of a lot of pressure to place on a character and a story.

Presenting well-rounded female characters in our work is vital. But there's a difference between someone wanting to pick up a book and feel represented in the text, and someone wanted to pick up a book and expecting a character in the text to represent all of their sex/race/gender/species/shoe size.

I think what we saw with the fuss over New Girl is that there are still a great many people who don't feel represented in the media, and still a great many rules in place as to how these things can be done. And we feel echoes of these things in our writing. But I also think it shows that there is too much pressure placed on female characters, and to be honest, I think we'd be doing far more to encourage well written female roles by removing these pressures and formulas from the conversation and simply promoting interesting characters.

Let's work towards a better balance in our fiction by stripping these barriers away, not adding to them.


Aaaaaaaaaand now that I've gone and stuck my toe into that little hornets nest, how about I close off with something completely different?

You may have seen on the twitters that I'm running an easy competition at the moment. I'll be doing a few things over the next few months in advance of OLD GOLD, but straight out the gate I'm giving away 5 signed copies. For Free. Free stuff? We like free. All you need to do to enter the draw is to join my mailing list. I'll leave the competition running until this time next week, then draw the five winners at random from my mailing list. Tell your friends. Tell your granny. Tell those guys in African countries who keep emailing you about money (sorry, I know we need to retire that joke, but once more, okay?). I want to send these books to folks who love crime fiction, but I would also like to send them to as many different places as possible. a real spread would be fun. I'll have more cool things for people on my mailing list between now and the book's release.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Knocking You Out

By Steve Weddle

I get up from the barstool and walk to the back of the room, past the mirror so that I can describe myself to you, the reader, in a completely natural manner that you totally fall for.

I rub my scalp the way one might palm a basketball, which is my way of telling you that I am bald because basketballs do not have hair. I like to think of my baldness as a choice. It would not be a lie to say that age had caused me to have less hair than I once had, but what of it? The parcel of scalp once reserved for hair had, years ago, given itself over to emptiness. If I were clever I would perhaps say something about my hair deserting me about the time my wife did and provide a little more depth to my character, which should interest you. Instead, I will probably make a joke to you about my hair deserting me, leaving a desert of skin on my head. As you can tell, I am not terribly clever. I could, I suppose, devote a few hours of the afternoon -- what might amount to a parenthetical for you, the reader -- to researching desert people. Bedouins or whatever they are so that I could layer my descriptions like a $100 haircut. But I cannot. I do not have that luxury. For this story, as you have noted, is told in the present tense. Were I in a position to know what will transpire, what will have transpired by the time you are reading this, will have read this, I could luxuriate in cleverness. But as it is, I can only pause here at the mirror for a moment, palm my head to show you that I am bald, and linger for a moment on my face. Let’s do the eyes first.

They’re a rather dullish brown. But I would like for them to be blue. So let’s pretend that they are blue. Also, let’s imagine that I have a scar above my eye. Don’t ask what it is from. I won’t reveal that until a hundred pages in, though I’ll drop hints about some sort of darkness in my past.


Did you make it this far? Did all the nonsense send you running?

I've been giving some thought to what pulls a reader out of a story. I think it might be different stuff for each of us.

I hate that "look at myself in a passing car window so I can describe myself to you, the reader" stuff. Some folks don't care. Some folks find other stuff pretentious. I don't mind pretentious writing, as long as it doesn't pull me out of the story. 

The self-description stuff is tough, tough, tough to pull off. I'm not sure how you do it in first-person and make it seem real. Maybe you work it into the story so that it means something other than saying what color your hair is. I mean, I get that folks want the reader to have a picture of the character. I just don't know that it matters. Do I care that your main character is 5'10" instead of 6'? I dunno. Does it come up later? Is there A Clue that only a 6'5" person could reach? A half-eaten, top-shelf donut with teeth impressions?

I'm not a big fan of physical descriptions, I guess, unless it matters. So those, especially when they seem forced, pull me out of the story. Do I care that your character is bald? Are you trying to sell action figures? Do I care about your eye color? Should I?

A description of the character that first appears 100 pages after the character appears also bugs me. Um, he has three arms? No, he doesn't.

Forced description pulls me out.

Bogus historical details will kick my lovely bride out of a book. I'm not a fan of any old crap, so I don't have any examples here. But like some Victorian card game in a Regency-period novel. Or a "dance card" 100 years too early.

Poor proofreading will send us both to another book. Even the best books suffer from "it's/its" sometimes.

Awful figurative language. "The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant." or "She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up."

I'm talking about stories that I like, stories I want to read, not terrible stories I don't care about. 

Don't knock me out of your story for something trivial. Please.

What pulls you folks out of stories?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Haters

The college sports world hit the new again tonight when a college hoops prospect decided he was going to choose his college this week.  The schools he'd narrowed his choices down to? UNLV and Oregon.

No big deal, right?

(Especially for readers of this blog.  Get to it, DaveyPants.)

Well, on Twitter it was a big deal.  Fans of the current champion Kentucky Wildcats assaulted the prospect's Twitter account.  "F*ck you!" They @replied him.  "I only hope the worst for you."  It was ugly.  And I only chose the easiest tweets to post.

But (aha, here comes the point), behavior like this is widespread across the internet. Look at any Amazon page and read some of the bad reviews.  While they are rarely curse laden, because Amazon screens, some are filled with hatred toward the author.  Anonymous comments on blogs lash out at people they don't agree with.  Look at any news article or blog post on teachers.  These posts are filled with thoughtlessness.  Cruelty. 

What do these people get out of this?  Hiding behind their internet screen names, they can say what they want and expect to be consequence free.  And most of these people aren't teens being teens.  They are mature adults who hold good jobs.

It's all about two things.  Power and entitlement.

Power:  People get a kick out of being able to say what they want directly to someone.  And when their view of that person or that person's work is negative, it becomes even easier.  It is very difficult to compliment someone.  A lot easier to bash and let every emotion they feel out toward that person.  Feels good, doesn't it?

Entitlement:  Now that the internet exists, people feel they deserve everything.  I spent 99 cents on this book.  I spent 9.99 on this book.  I deserve everything I buy to be GOOD.  I should agree with everything someone says.  My team should have the best players on the planet EVERY YEAR.

People need to think.  You wouldn't say this stuff if the author was sitting right next to you.  If the 18 year old kid making one of the biggest decisions of his life was standing in front of you.

So, don't do it now.

Even if you're on the 'net, hiding behind a fake name, be a human.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Catching Up: Random Thoughts and Links

-Saw The Avengers yesterday with the boy and here are some (very) random thoughts about it:

*I loved the Point Break reference.
*I can't believe he died.
*Related to that, is he really dead?
*When Loki finally get his comeuppance (as you know he will so this isn't a spoiler) it is the most crowd pleasing on-screen moment since Slim Charles shot Cheese.
*I remember reading an interview a few years ago where Dennis Lehane talked about how Bubba (the resident Kenzie & Gennaro badass) was becoming a cuddly character. I thought of this interview after watching the movie because The Hulk got all of the pop moments in the film. The crowd cheered out loud for The Hulk, laughed out loud at Hulk moments and erupted at one scene in particular (you know the one). So the Hulk who is a raging, rampaging near unstoppable force is, by far and away, the crowd favorite.

-We all know I have a love hate relationship/fascination with the CSI shows and that I contend that it is a fantasy show rather then a crime show. Here is an interesting piece that Frontline did called The Real CSI which asks the question how reliable is the science behind forensics? It's an interesting watch.

Watch The Real CSI on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.
-What is the language of power and can this principle be effectivley used in fiction?
by analyzing language you can easily tell who among two people has power in a relationship, and their relative social status. "It's amazingly simple," Pennebaker says, "Listen to the relative use of the word "I." What you find is completely different from what most people would think. The person with the higher status uses the word "I" less.
-I read about these "fashion garments become see-through when the wearer's heart rate increases." and the first thing I thought about was wearable lie detector suits in the future.

-Did you ever find advice in an unlikely place? I was reading this page on Android Design Principles and realized that some of it could be considered writing advice.

"People get overwhelmed when they see too much at once. Break tasks and information into small, digestible chunks. Hide options that aren't essential at the moment, and teach people as they go."
Currently Reading: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava
Currently Listening:  Shake Your Money Maker by The Black Crowes

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Hitting the wall

by: Joelle Charbonneau

As some of you might know, the past 6 or 7 months have been a challenge for me.  Not that good things haven’t happened.  They have!  In fact, some really amazing things that were on the list of “Wow, I hope someday….” happened.  Book 4 of the Rebecca Robbins series sold!  My amazing agent sold my young adult trilogy to a spectacular editor.  (She’s not just spectacular because she bought the books, but because she pushes me to be a better writer.)  Since that time, I’ve learned those books will be published in French and German and will also be made into audio books.  Cool right?


I should be on top of the world.  I should have energy to spare as I write this current manuscript.  Everything should be coming up roses.

And yet, life doesn’t work that way.  Just because there are really cool things happening doesn’t mean I feel on top of my game.  It doesn’t mean that the personal things that aren’t so great are balanced by the news that I get on the work front.  In fact, while each piece of good news makes me smile, I find that smile disappears quicker than it once did.  I sleep less easy.  In short…I’ve hit a wall.





Yep.  That was the sound of me running smack into that wall.  No, I’m not talking about writers block.  I am still writing every day.  Rain or shine, I put my but in the chair and I type because that’s my job.  I’m talking about an emotional wall.  One that makes me feel less optimistic about the world, my work and my life.  The wall is tall and dark and really, really tall and when I think about having to scale it, I want to sit down on the ground and cry.  Does that sound girly?  Probably?  But I’m a girl so I’m allowed. 

The point is that on those days where the wall appears, it is easy to think about not writing.  I come up with a lot of excuses as to why I should step away.  The writing won’t be as strong.  A nap would make me feel better.  I deserve a break.

But while those reasons are all valid and in many ways compelling, the days that the wall appears are the most important days for me to write.  Because I prove to myself that I can.  Rain or shine, I show myself that I can scale that wall.  And hopefully, greener pastures are lurking on the other side.