Saturday, September 22, 2012

Book Review: Lucky at Cards by Lawrence Block

Lucky at Cards is the second Lawrence Block/Hard Case Crime book I read. The first one I read was HCC’s very first publication, Grifter’s Game. And this is the first Block book I read after I started documenting and reviewing book on this blog.

Lucky at Cards finds one Bill Maynard in a dentist’s chair, having the dentist repair his teeth after a “misunderstanding” in Chicago. Block never names the city but you get the gist that it’s east of Chicago and west of New York. Thus, it could be any city and that makes it fun. Sy Daniels, dentist, invites Maynard for a game of poker with his friends that evening. Maynard, short on cash, accepts. You see, he’s a cardsharp (yes, sharp, not shark like I thought it was) and he knows he can cheat his way to some dough. And that he does…until the host’s wife, Joyce Rogers, comes into the room and steals Maynard’s breath away. Not only that, she calls him on the cheating using code words that only they would know. In short order, Joyce is naked in Maynard’s hotel room and they have hatched a plan to con her husband, Murray, out of his wife and his money.

The beauty of this book—the first con-game book I’ve read since I really dove in the deep end of reading crime fiction—is in the great lengths and details Maynard tells us about as he plans and executes his con. Little things, like changing his voice and his demeanor. And I thoroughly loved Maynard’s fast hands both at the poker table and in the process of the con itself.

Block’s humor and wit are on display here. Can’t quote much because I listened to Lucky at Cards via Audible. The reader, Alan Sklar, was good, putting lots of emphasis in his vocal characterizations. In fact, I actually laughed a few times aloud and alone in my car. Have to love that. Moreover, this is not the first book published during the formative years of rock and roll that has characters lambaste the new music. I chuckle every time.

One thing that struck me was the sex. This book was originally published in 1970 or so and the stereotype of books of this time is that things are implied but never explicitly stated. (That is my impression based on the books I have read so far.) Block pretty much puts it all out there, cleverly glossing over graphic details with euphemisms that leave little to the imagination.

The ending got me. Surprised me a little. The entries from HCC that I have thus far read have almost all had a particular type of ending. (You know what I mean.) Lucky at Cards didn’t. It was a good ending. It just wasn’t what I thought. Whereas the ending of Branded Woman or Little Girl Lost slaps you across the face, making sure to dig in the nails, Lucky at Cards slaps you another way. More in line with Kiss Her Goodbye. It isn’t bad and I am trying to dance around the fact without giving anything away. I really liked the change of pace.

This will not be my last Block book. I know HCC has published at least one more but I’d like to try one of his burglar books. And it has reminded me of a famous short story that I want to go re-read. I can’t tell you the title…or I’ll give away the ending. Just read Lucky at Cards. It’s a sure bet.

What I Learned As A Writer: Another thing I noticed with Block is that he always tells, in a few short words, what foods and drinks his characters are enjoying. It’s a little thing, really, but it brings the reader in that much more. Oh, and the ending. It proves to me that a writer can vary the endings of various books and still achieve the desired outcome. It's a good lesson.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Modern World

By Russel D McLean

It was a question that came up at Bloody Scotland this year. And it was a good question.

I was on a panel with Gordon Ferris and Craig Russell, both of whom answer my long-asked question of "who else is writing about Scottish PIs" with their superb novels. It was interesting to me that both authors set their books in the past. Russell in the '40s and Ferris in the '50s. Especially as it made me wonder if for many people the Pi might seem like a character from the past, but that's a rumination for another time.

We had a good chat about a lot of things, and then someone in the audience asked the question:

"Doesn't modern technology make sustaining tension difficult? Is it better to set things in the past?"*

It is, as I say, a good question. After all, help is only a phone call away. Cell reception is good in most places. We have google maps if we get lost. We can track people down on Google. We can... we can... we can...


CSI and other TV shows make it seem like computers can do almost anything in the blink of an eye. Even those adverts for the Chromebooks (of which I have one) or the IPhone (I don't have one) or whatever make it look like so much can be done in seconds (but do pay attention to the little "sequences shortened" tag on the lower left of the screen). The truth is that for every advantage we have, there are still disadvantages, and tension can still be wrought. That old example of "but you can just call for help on your mobile" leads to a "race against time" scenario. You can call for help, but can you hold on until it arrives. And even if you've placed one of those parental traces on your child's phone, can you reach them before they get into trouble and how do you know they really have that phone?

Even Google searches, despite the advertising, are not as effective as you might think. You have to be pretty damn talented to get all the information you'd ever need, and even if you could, what if you're up against a similarly sharp mind? The tension comes from move-counter move, just like a game of chess.

The truth is that tension and drama are possible whenever human beings are in opposition. Drama comes not from a lack of technology or some sense of character isolation, but rather from two characters who want different things and have to overcome each other to achieve their goal. Tension comes from opposing goals between two sentient beings.

Tension and drama can be created in any setting, Its just a matter of understanding the rules. Okay, so your character can call someone to ask for help, but then what if that person can help them but something else goes wrong? What if the person they call is the wrong person? What if they get a text that seems to help them, from a friend, but its not the friend sending the text? There are a million ways to pull drama out of modern technology that don't involve merely having batteries/signals running out or other hoary and cheap conventions. And the fact is that you don't have to let the technology go "wrong" to create the tension. You can have it work perfectly and still create a sense of tension and suspense.

24 was a great TV series. Why? It used and abused modern and sophisticated tech to create drama. Phone calls at the wrong moment, mis-interpreted data, hacks and counter-hacks, it employed everything in its bag of tricks to make life difficult for the protagonists (by the end, it was becoming a bit of an ensemble show, even if most of that ensemble kept dying) and by God it worked. The show was in touch (just about) with the modern world, and it employed that world in the name of dramatic tension.

Look, technology just means you build up the tension in different ways and if you use it realistically and use it right, it can create some really good drama. Recently myself and the Literary Critic wound up watching the Godawful 1994 Michael Douglas film Disclosure on late night TV. The following evening we watched the Harrison Ford starring Patriot Games.

Now, both films were made in 1994, and its funny to see the primitive nature of tech as it was then inclduing some ludicrously heavy mobile phones and some very text-based computers, but of the two, it was interesting to see how they approached computer technology. Disclosure creates some science fiction fancy-schamncy VR interface that it clearly believed was going to look futuristic to the audience (it just looks daft and utterly unreal) while Patriot Games uses real computers (albeit amped up a little from real life) and screens that look like the ones that real people used at the time.

Both movies involve their protagonist trying to download information from a shared network before another user spots them and deletes the files that Our Hero** is trying to open. The Disclosure sequence is not only dated, its plainly ludicrous and utterly laughable because it so removed from the tech of its time. The film clealry wanted to sex up the use of computers and make them more visual. But Patriot Games has Harrison Ford typing really fast while calling the guy he wants to distract so that he doesn't notice the files being opened on his system. Its real, its the way that we would use a computer as Real People, and by God it works as an example of dramatic tension.

Tension and drama are what we make of them. Having tech doesn't solve old problems and make things too easy; it creates new problems and makes the author have to find new and different ways of upping stakes.

And new and different are what fiction should always aspire to. Even fiction that sets itself in the past. Because fiction set in the past should not be set there simply because the author finds it eaiser to wring tension without cell phones or video chat or Google, but because the authors feels the past is the right setting for the story.

Dramatic tension is not about not being able to make a phone call or do a Google search. Its finding yourself wanting something that you cannot get, its about - as all fiction is - people.

*this may be a slight misquote, but the basic essence of the question is there

**Although given that Disclosure was part of the "Michael Douglas as sleaze" period of Hollywood - featuring sleazy turns in Fatal Attraction, Disclosure itself and of course Fatal Attraction - I'm a little hesitant in calling him our "hero"

Thursday, September 20, 2012

It's like a novel for the screen.

By Jay Stringer

I'm all caught up on Breaking Bad. I'm not going to spoil anything for those who aren't, but I do have a couple thoughts I'd like to share.

I've written about the show before, in comparison to The Wire, any my views haven't changed since then. I still love both of them. I still prefer The Wire out of the two, and I still think that Breaking Bad is going to end on a moral note.

Something we heard over and over during the years that The Wire was on the air was that it was 'like a novel, but on TV.' It never sat right to me, even thought I've probably used that description a few times when convincing doubters to stick with it during those first few episodes. It was never a novel. It was too intricate, to planned out and too perfect (for want of a better word.) It was precision TV.

Perhaps this only reflects my writing style, but I'm writing my fourth full-length book at the moment and on precisely none of them have I had an experience that seemed like the planning of The Wire.

But Breaking Bad? That fits. I can describe that as 'like a novel.'

With the exception of season 2, which was another dose of precision TV, the writers have approached this show the same way I've approached by books. They have an closing point in mind that they need to get to each year, they know a few big emotional and dramatic beats that they want to hit at some point along the way, and they dive on in to see how they get there.

They know in advance that they want some characters to die and some to live, but then they reach points when those characters surprise them, and they die earlier then expected or they decide to live. One of the main cast members was set to die at the end of season 1 but is still alive and kicking as we head into the final stretch next year. The big bad of seasons 3 and 4 only got elevated to that position because the writers realised that plan A didn't work, and they killed off the original big bad.

Along the way they'll drop in certain clues or plot devices, and they know they will return to them later, but they don't know exactly how until the time comes to use them. That's much like how I drop certain things into the books- I know it will play a part, but I need to get to the third act to discover how.

I had a similar feeling with Justified season 2. Which is one of the finest seasons of television I can remember. It constantly felt like it was adding up to a cohesive whole story, but it felt like the writers were sometimes discovering the road ahead only moments before we did.

And neither of these feel like The Wire, where I always felt there was an intricate schematic at the start of each season.

So, that Breaking Bad, eh? It's just like a novel.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cry Wolf, And Unleash A Load Of Crap

By Steve Weddle

Many human beings are complete assholes. They're self-centered and vain, vile, mean, and brutish.

They do terrible, horrible things, offering no consideration at all for anyone else. They're assholes.

They clog up your day, throwing off what might otherwise have been a good morning.

The asshole who cut you off while you were at the middle school dropping off your kids.

The asshole who woke you at 7 a.m. because he needed to get his grass cut before he left later that morning for the beach.

The asshole who was supposed to help you finish the quarterly report, but decided to take two days off this week instead.

There's so much crap floating around, you can have no doubt that the world is full of assholes.

But targeting someone for being an asshole just because you have A Cause and something to prove isn't fair to that person and makes you an asshole. Worse than that. It wrongs the other person and hurts your cause.

I don't know whether I want to call this "A Cause," because it isn't exactly what I mean. But, let's be honest, there are some creepy, weird, rapey dudes out there. And more and more we're hearing about them at writer conventions.

This summer, there was considerable nastiness at Readercon. Genevieve Valentine blogged about it.
Because seriously, let's review. My boundaries were violated physically, verbally, and in terms of my right to feel personally secure. In addition, within minutes of meeting him, I was told to stop saying things, because it made him somehow unable to control his thoughts, which is bog-standard thought policing. And I was subjected to not one, not two, but THREE instances of the man in question hovering near me because he wanted to apologize, and he wasn't going to stop until he had had his say. (If this sounds like stalking, I want you to think about that.)
There was considerable discussion, responses from con organizers that proved inadequate, follow-up responses, a post from Mr. Scalzi, and more and more attention. You can read about reaction and responses here.

I am not a woman. I have absolutely no idea what it feels like to be cornered by a man at a bar or convention conference room or the local supermarket.

This harassment happens. Stalking happens. Sexist behavior, online and in-person, happens. It's terrible, horrible, and folks need to stand the hell up and fix it when it happens. And make sure it doesn't happen. When this happens, it isn't just women who need to stand up. We guys need to publicize and prevent. We need to make sure that people -- men, women, children -- are safe, especially at a damn convention where you're supposed to be talking about books. C'mon.

So it's completely stupid as hell to go after sci-fi author Patrick Rothfuss for a blog post he wrote about The Hobbit movie. In the post, Rothfuss uses an old crush to stand in for the boyish love he had when he read The Hobbit and contrasts that with the dolled-up movie version that he compares to a stripper. It's kind of like that J. Giles Band song "Centerfold." (Kids, ask your parents.)

Rothfuss is also taken to task for promoting a calendar of some dude's artwork "which turns female literary characters from Twain and Dickens novels into 'Sexy but not smutty' literary pin-ups." (Here's his post about the calendar, with images.)

Then he's condemned for hugging a fan at a convention.

So we're going to equate stalking women, cornering them, and threatening their safety with hugging a fan WHO ASKED FOR A HUG? That's "semi-creepy" behavior? Hugging a fan who asked for a hug? Or deciding that a hug from a fan bodes well for the week? Or is that he describes her appearance and "pretty"? YOU SHALL NOT CALL WOMEN PRETTY!! Or maybe because he uses the word "cocks"?

Why is the blogger attacking Rothfuss? I dunno.

Can you imagine the discussion of this article?

-Did you hear about the author at the sci-fi convention?
-No, tell me.
-This fan asked for a hug.
-OMG. What happened?
-He hugged her.
-He didn't.
-He totes did.

As one commenter said of the attack post, "I've been thinking about this for a whopping... five minutes or so...My panties remain un-bunched. Am I alone in this?"

No. You're not alone. Most of the comments I've read agree with that comment.

This next comment, though, pretty much covers the awfulness: "I haven't read any of his work, but I'd be shocked if this guy is even capable of writing a remotely well-developed, nuanced, believable, human-resembling female character. Shocked. Honestly though, I don't know what to do with these guys--they may mean well but they seem like they've never once thought about what it might be like to be female in the real world. Make them take a seminar led by Joss Whedon and Wil Wheaton? Make them read a bunch of sci-fi/fantasy works written by women?"

The comments that start "I haven't read any of his work, but..." are always the best, aren't they?

I haven't been to the moon, but I bet it's made of feta.

I haven't seen the new movie, but I heard it's full of misogyny.

I haven't had my head out of my own ass in years. Butt.

So, this commenter has devised a 12-Step program to fix Mr. Rothfuss. How delightful. Yes, read a book by a woman. That's clever. Also, take a class from Wil Wheaton. Wil Wheaton, by the way, is a guy. So, uh, I dunno. Um, commenter, maybe you were being facetious and clever, but probably not. You know, I haven't read any of your other comments, but . . . .

Rothfuss, from the evidence that has been presented to the court, is Not Guilty of being a sexist asshole, despite the claim of the Jezebel blog that he writes "icky sexist" posts.

We've had a number of so-called "witch hunts" in the writing community. From sock puppets to sexism, if you're going to attack someone, you damn sure better be fair to that person.

The victims of the real and actual assaults deserve that. Someone (GValentine, for example) who was threatened by a man at a sci-fi convention had A Real Thing happen to her. Making up offenses -- like this "fan hug" or an author's suspected inability to create a "human-resembling female character"-- is terrible.

If you fly off attacking people just to draw attention to your cause, you're not only unfairly hurting them, you're doing a great disservice to your cause.

People will think, "Well, there they go again, Calling someone else sexist. Must be a Thursday."

And you don't want that. Because there are real, honest-to-goodness assholes out there making people feel uncomfortable, threatening their safety, doing terrible things to people. And this needs to stop. And your wild, link-bait attacks have to stop.

If you want to stop the stalky, awful behavior of men cornering women, of men belittling women online, of men touching and threatening women, then you have to be clear and precise. Thorough, but fair. You have to call out the real nastiness and spread the word so that the rest of us can join the fight to stop this. But if you are going to attack people for doing something wrong, you have to be right.

You can't go around shitting on everyone. That makes you an asshole.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Loving the Sound of Story

By Dave White

I've just finished watching THE NEWSROOM. If you haven't heard of it, it's Aaron Sorkin's newest series for HBO, about a News Television show who decide to do the news the "right way."

The series has been, apparently, pretty popular, though the critics don't love it. And I can understand why. The characters often defy logic, the romantic tension is often silly and overwrought, and sometimes the fictional characters dealing the real life news gets a bit silly.

But I found myself watching the series, despite these faux pas. Why? Because of the sound. I've never been a huge Sorkin fan, never found myself dying to watch his shows. I've seen SPORTS NIGHT, and liked it. But I've never watched THE WEST WING or any of his other shows.

So, I guess I didn't know exactly what I was getting myself into. But very quickly, I was drawn in. All because of the dialogue. It was snappy, funny, and often poignant. It was great to listen to.

Like music.

And, it reminded me of something. It reminded me of why I still read Spenser, even after I'd realized Parker wasn't in his prime anymore. I liked the way the books sounded. I didn't need the greatest plot. I didn't mind that Spenser, Susan and Hawk were doing the same thing over and over again.

Because I still got the laughs. I got the fun. I loved flipping the pages.

And, sometimes, isn't that what matters?

I will keep tuning into THE NEWSROOM, even though-on occasion... several occasions-I found myself rolling my eyes. I liked what the show tried to say and I liked the way it was said.

And I even might try to track down some prime Sorkin, so I can really listen to the music.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Do You Prologue?

By Steve Weddle

Found some interesting discussions around the web (olde tyme) about whether to included a prologue in your query when searching for an agent.

When sending out queries, I have noted that most agents ask for, in addition (of course) to a great query letter, a synopsis and the first chapter (or more) to get a sense of the writers ability, etc. What do you do with the prologue? The novel I am working on has a short (3 page) prologue. My reason for putting this in is to generate several questions that I hope will make the reader want to read the whole story. The prologue is actually about what happens as the end of the story, without giving away the final outcome. Since it is completely out of sequence with the beginning of the story, I can't see making it a separate scene of chapter 1. So, can it be sent along with the requested chapter 1? Or should I just make it the opening scene and not worry about the fact that it is not in sequence with the rest of the chapter?
Prologue in queries?
Query Shark deals with a submitter who sends five pages, all prologue. She says that none of the characters mentioned in the query show up in the prologue, so it seems like another book. And she says, "That's one of the (many) problems with prologues. When you query with pages, start with chapter one, page one. Leave OUT the prologue." from edittorent

I'd suggest never, ever writing a prologue. You'll be safe then.

But if you're writing a thriller about an artifact and you need to show that the Antikythera mechanism is a powerful piece of ancient tech that will allow Dr. Nastyballz to overtake the planet's water supply, do you include that prologue?

You know, the top of the page says something like

Alexandria, 142 BC

all in italics and all.

Blah, blah, blah. Old spooky crap.

Then, the scene ends all dramatic and shit.

Then, BAM, you're into Chapter One in which our hero, the brilliant but troubled Dr. Huffenpuggle, is trapped in a museum, running for his life and being chased by guards or assassins or his angry ex-wife with whom he keeps an on/off relationship (but he secretly loves her and she loves him but will they ever be able to set aside whatever it was and get back together?) and there he goes running.

So, do you query starting with PROLOGUE or with CHAPTER ONE?

I'm thinking go with Chapter One. It's a better hook.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Yes.....and? Figuring out what happens next.

By: Joelle Charbonneau

Writers are always asking themselves “What happens next?”  What happens next with the mystery?  The love story?  The grandfather’s Elvis impersonating career? 

Coming up with an idea for a story isn’t the hardest part about being a writer.  Answering the question “What’s next?” is.  Moving the characters and the story forward in a compelling way takes work.  It takes confidence and it takes a lot of thought.

I’m currently in the process of completing my third manuscript of this calendar year and I’ll tell you right now that making myself sit in front of the screen isn’t the hard part.  It’s coming up with the next moment in the book—the next hook—the next whatever.  Perhaps it would be easier if I outlined because then I’d have more than a foggy, barely formed thought as to where the story is going.  Only, I can’t.  I’ve tried.  Trust me when I say that I wish outlining worked for me.  But it doesn’t.  As much as I love the idea of knowing exactly what happens next when I start typing, my writing is more like performing an Improv show.  I need to type one moment before I can tell what the next moment is going to be.  I can’t decide what’s next until I know what comes before.

Perhaps it isn’t so strange that I am an improvisational writer.  All that training as a stage performer had to pay off at some point, right?  The best Improv performers follow certain rules which apply not only to creating a story on stage, but also creating a story on the page.  I’ve listed a few below that help me while I’m writing.  I hope they help you to.

5 Rules of Improv (and writing)

1)      Be willing to try anything

To succeed, one must be willing to fail.  Not only fail, but fail in spectacular fashion.  In Improv, a performer never knows where the scene is going.  Performing is a risk.  Just like writing is a risk.  When you sit down and start typing you risk writing something silly, stupid, or foolish.  And guess what?  Sometimes you will.  Sometimes the risks won’t pay off, but the more you try, the more successes you will have.  In Improv there are no mistakes – only opportunities.  Sometimes the most off the wall ideas in Improv are the ones that lead to brilliance.  You have to risk making mistakes and see where they take you.

2)      Stay in the moment

When doing improvisation, no one worries about what happened five minutes ago.  You have to focus on what is happening NOW. The only way to figure out what happens next is to discover what is occurring at this moment then follow that path in order to arrive at the next moment.

3)      Action beat inaction

Don’t just talk about doing something.  Do it!  Make a choice.  That choice will move the story forward.  The more specific the choice the better.  The more specific the choice the more committed your character will be.  Other characters will then respond with more conviction to those choices and the story will build from there.

4)      Trust

Trust yourself enough to take the risks required.  In Improv, you have to trust your instincts and the people around you otherwise the story falls apart.  In writing, you don’t have a teammate to perform with.  You are alone at the computer, which makes that trust all the more important.  If you don’t trust yourself to tell the story, how can you expect your reader to show up and trust that the story will be engaging?

Trust your instincts when it says to veer away from a preconceived idea or outline.  Trust your gut when it leads you through a dark, windy road that doesn’t seem like it will ever end.  Learning to trust yourself will teach you that the number ideas and ways to tell a story are infinite.  Only by trusting and experimenting will you find the one that works best for you.

5)      Yes….And?

The most important rule of Improv is the principle of “Yes….And?”  In an Improv scene, a performer starts with an idea.  “Hey, you stole my ferret.”  To move the scene forward, the other performer must agree with that idea and then add to it.  If they disagree by saying, “I don’t have your ferret” the scene ends.  However, by saying, “It’s only fair since you ran over my cat,” the scene continues. 

“Yes and” implies acceptance.  It also acknowledges the reality of the moment and gives us permission to create the future.  “Yes and” inspires us to discover what happens next.

So, No matter how silly something you wrote is, don’t immediately discard it.  Agree with it.  See where it goes.  Trust yourself.  Stay in the moment.  Try anything that pops into your head, especially if it is filled with action.  (Notice that I just pulled in the first four rules!)  Eventually those moments become scenes.  Those scenes becomes chapters until the story reaches The End.