Sunday, September 30, 2012


by: Joelle Charbonneau

Every time I turn a book in to one of my editors, the editor asked the question “Do you want a dedication included?”  That seems like a simple answer, right?  YES!  So many people have helped me along the way to publishing—family, friends, students, booksellers, etc…  The dedication is one place where I can focus on thanking one or two specific people who have championed me and my career.

Last year, I dedicated Skating Over the Line to my father.  He never saw that dedication.  I’m sorry to say he didn’t live long enough to see my work published.  It has almost been four years since he passed away.  I miss him.  I miss his love of laughter and his work ethic.  (Okay, sometimes the work ethic was a little extreme.  Like the time he climbed up on the roof to melt ice from the gutters after being told he was too sick to have surgery.  Still, you get the point.)  But even though I knew he would never see the book with his name in it, I felt it was important to let the world know that I would never have been the person I am without him.

On Tuesday, SKATING ON THE EDGE will hit shelves.  (Although there are reports that it has been spotted in bookstores already.)  Once more the dedication is to someone who has helped shape my life.  Once more, the person whom the book is dedicated to will not see his name or hold the book in his hands.  But I know he is watching.  That he is proud.  And that he is somewhere celebrating this accomplishment with my father.

To my father-in-law, Joe Blanco, thank you for your love, your support and your amazing ability to make me believe in myself.  I miss you more with every passing day, but your inspiration lives on.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

"Elementary" - A Review

I love Sherlock Holmes. Let's get that out on the table. Ever since I first discovered him back in the early 1980s when I took a paperback of the Adventures and Memoirs on a trip to Alaska, I've fallen under the spell of the famous detective. In these recent years, it's been a great time to be a fan of Mr. Holmes. You have the Robert Downey films (that I enjoy), the excellent novel, The House of Silk, by Foyle's War creator, Anthony Horowitz, the "I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere" podcast, and, most recently, "Sherlock," the excellent revamping of the Holmes and Watson characters in 21st Century London. With Holmsian material being enjoyed by so many, naturally American broadcasters wanted to cash in the action.

Thus, we now have "Elementary," the new series on CBS that debuted this past Thursday. In this one, the detective is played by Jonny Lee Miller, a British actor most famous to us Americans as the man who played the title role in the short-lived, fun show, "Eli Stone." Naturally, with this show's most obvious rival being BBC's "Sherlock," Miller will be compared to Benedict Cumberbatch (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Robert Downey). He will also find comparisons with Basil Rathbone, Christopher Lee, and my favorite *traditional* Holmes, Jeremy Brett. Rest assured that, in this series, Miller does Holmes well.

I put emphasis on the word "traditional" because that is where fans will diverge. Miller's series is set in New York City. Yes, he's still British, but much of the "usual" things that surround him are different, starting with his partner, Watson. Yes, it's a woman. No, it's not the same. Yes, that's a good thing. To spice things up a bit--and to bring in the female demographic--"Elementary" cast Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, Holmes's "sober companion". The thing that gets these two characters together is Holmes's recent "graduation" from rehab. His parents--alive in this version--hire Watson to basically live with and babysit Holmes for six weeks. Thus, the conceit: she must follow him to his place of business. It just so happens that his place of business is a crime scene.

Now, I know what the traditionalists are going to say: that Watson is a woman changes the fundamental dynamics of the relationship. Of course it does! But that's the point. This is a fresh take on the character in a new surrounding with a new partner. Ah, but the "Sherlock" fans will say the same thing, pointing to their male Watson (the fabulous Martin Freeman), and suggesting that their update is more true to the canon. Of course it is. That's the point of that show: take the canon and bring it up to 2012. The point of "Elementary" is different: put Sherlock Holmes in a typical TV police procedural and see what happens.

I found myself liking many things about the premiere episode. The chemistry is palpable between the two leads, especially as the hour wore on. You've got your standard assessment period where they both try things to test the other. Where Watson, naturally, assumes Holmes is a recovering drug addict, she is slow to realize that his substitute is the case work. Once she does, she sees Holmes in a new light. Where Liu's Watson shares common ground with all her male predecessors is her love of adventure. She quickly sees how the questions posed by the case prove to be a stimulant she didn't know she wanted. You saw that eye nod to Holmes as she notices a clue? She's into it. It's nice to see her choosing to help Holmes in her own, unique medical way.

Of all the little things I liked--the violin music; having the police foil be Gregson rather than the typical Lestrade; Gregson's nod to Columbo with his "one more thing" line; Holmes's near nod to Star Wars with his "wretched hive" line; that the killer doesn't have a monologue like in most every other police show--the one I loved the most is that Miller's Holmes came across as human. In the Doyle books, Holmes is all but a machine, a man who knows he's vastly smarter than anyone else and doesn't really hide the fact. Cumberbatch's Holmes does the same thing, Downey not as much. Miller's Holmes seems almost sad a few points, like when he finds the safe room in which lies the dead body. But as the show goes on and Watson keeps coming back to Holmes's initial deduction about her, she tries to chip away at his truths. It goes on like this until he blurts out the actual truth…but then rapidly tells her that he made up his initial deduction to spare her feelings. I loved this. No, it is not traditional, but it is modern. Now, not every modern thing is good, but I really liked this aspect of Holmes the man. In the books, you get the sense that Holmes does his job because he wants the mental stimulation. In "Elementary," Holmes is actually using his gifts to find the killer and put him away. That's great.

There are things I found odd--beekeeping as an obvious nod to the canon that, in this one episode, seems out of place; the cops discounting the overturned washing machine as an example of cops being dumb; the opera scene as a bit of funny, yet contrived theater--but they pale in comparison to all that they got right or fresh. Think about it: Holmes's parents are alive! Let the fantasy casting begin. Holmes has sex. Holmes had women troubles in London (who's going to bet it's a variation of Irene Adler?). That Holmes gets his clue from watching a bit of professional wrestling on TV in a bar. And that, in the closing moments, the episode ended with the strains of Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives," a song I hear each week on PBS's "The History Detectives."

There is way more than I expected that is good about this series after one episode and I'm excited about next week. For me, it's a keeper.

Did anyone else give the show a look? What did y'all think?

Friday, September 28, 2012

Its all relative...

By Russel D McLean

Its not spoiling anything about my novels to say my protagonist, J McNee, has killed a man. After all, the first book opens with a line that tells us as much.

But McNee has his reasons for doing so. Whether or not you agree with his actions, he is justified within his own mind as to what he did. I'm not sure even I agree with him entirely, but then that's not my job as an author.

Too many crime novelists inject a kind of judgement on their characters. The authorial voice present within the novel judges and condemns certain actions, layers a certain morality on top of the work that more often than not is of a very traditional kind.

But one of the joys of crime fiction is that it allows us to ask questions. Moral questions. Ethical questions. Questions of relativity. And while it is tempting to raise these questions in order to answer them, I think that its a poor novelist who does so absolutely. After all, fiction is a conversation between the work and the reader, and while the author may have certain goals in mind, if they start whacking the reader over the head with their own assumptions it weakens the novel.

That's not to say that its easy to allow your characters to develop their own moral compass. In early drafts of THE GOOD SON, McNee was far more liberal than he is in the final drafts. In fact he went so far as to refuse to carry a gun when one was offered to him. He rose above the level of the men he was going up against and went to that fatal confrontation unarmed.

Until one of my early readers pointed out that McNee was bringing "a cricket bat to a gun fight" and that McNee would be dead within a moment.

So how to get round it?

The answer was easy: stop imposing my own morality on McNee. After all, I would not carry a gun. Yes, I have fired a gun before, but I remain in favour of strict gun control.

And McNee might feel the same on one level, but on another it made sense for him to accept the gun and take it to this confrontation. And, in the end, to use it.

It opened up a whole side to the character I had never seen before. It made him more complex. More importantly, it made the narrative more complete in terms of morality, because McNee's actions were no longer simply moral in the traditional sense, but were situationally so. He made a decision that may have been best for getting him out of one situation, but which would bring more complexity to his life and his own conscience.

Morality in crime fiction novels is up for debate. What is the right thing to do in a situation that is utterly removed from the everyday? Will your decisions have unforseen consequences? How do you live with those decisions?

I don't like to offer answers in my fiction, or to impose any sense of my own judgements onto my narrative. I have my own personal ones, but I like to use characters to explore issues of moral relativity. To show how morality and ethical behaviour can be fluid within people, can be truly situational. This is easier to do when you have a protagonist who is not in a position of moral authority (such as an appointed investigator or policeman) but someone who can act outside of protocols and ideals of others, who can form their own morality and whose behaviour can be fluidly affected by the situations in which they find themselves.

McNee does not reflect my own morality. But he helps me to explore it. I would no longer impose my own sense of ethics upon him. Because to do so would be cheating. But he helps me to see other points of view, to understand another way of seeing the world. This is something that I think all fictional characters do to a degree, to both readers and writers. To read or write about a character is not to read or write about ourselves, but to see how others act and react, to try and understand them. Of course, fiction should be entertaining as well, but entertainment also allows us to gain new perspectives on the world in ways we might not even always consciously realise.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Writing Inside-Out

By Jay Stringer

One from the vault this week. For very much the same reason I mention in the first paragraph of this post. This was first posted on DSD way back in 2009.

I’ve been trying to crack a story lately. I’m working on a manuscript and, while I know I’ll manage to beat it into submission eventually, I’m still at the point where I haven’t quite cracked the heart of the story. But while I'm thinking about it, I’m realising a few things about my tastes.

I like writers that go inside-out.

What I mean is the emotion.Something Dave has touched on before. I need to get into the emotions before everything else falls into place. I’ve found a problem with all genres, but one I notice more in crime, is that not enough writers really tackle issues like grief or loss.
Sure, loneliness and isolation get used- but often more as short hand for establishing a moody character. These are some of the key emotions that we all experience, and if a writer shies away from those, what do they have to build on when they want to tackle things like love or hope? In a genre that is built on dark deeds, marginalisation and death, the emotional fall-out of these things seems all to easy to overlook.

I’m generalising, of course. For every writer that I’ve just tarred with that brush, there are many more who deal with emotions. Reed Farrell Coleman built a whole PI series -the Moe Prager books- out of loss, grief and melancholy. Ken Bruen at his worst can do more with grief and guilt than I could do in a lifetime at my best. Our very own Russel D McLean’s The Good Son was a book that tackled these things head on, that actually managed to build a plot on top of emotion.

An example of what I mean is in my first book. As I looked at where the story was headed on my last rewrite, I realised that I let the death of a teenager pass without any real sense of loss. So I stared at the screen until my forehead bled, trying to write a funeral. It wasn’t working. I’ve been to enough of them, I know what happens and when. But every time I started to write the scene, that’s all it became; a report of what happened and when.

Then, by chance, I wrote about the flowers on the coffin. I realised that some of those flowers would have been placed there by the boys’ mother, and bam….emotion. Writing the scene was easy from there; I had a way in. Once I had that one emotion on the page, the other followed, a broken heart and a bruised ego makes its way into the chapter. Anger bustles its way in. And just like that, a dull and lifeless scene became a chapter that managed to sum up each issue I was trying to get across in the book.

And thinking about all this recently has made me realise that this is what I look for in writers. All writers, be they films, novels, songs, comics, bleach bottle labels….

I often try and explain to friends that I need music to hit me in the heart and the gut before the head. I’m a lyrics man, no doubt, always have been. But they have to get me emotionally. If your song needs to be thought about before it can be felt, it’s not going to stick with me.
And that comes from an economy of words, I think. A real writer is one who can break your heart with the fewest words possible.

I’ve wasted many thousands of words online trying to explain what it is I love about Paul Westerberg. His lyrics get me into the heart of an emotion in a matter of seconds. He doesn’t need a whole song; he can do it with a flick of his words;

“How do you say ‘I miss you’ to an answering machine? How do you say ‘Goodnight’ to an answering machine?”

Boom. Loneliness. Guilt. Love. Loss. Heartbreak. In two lines. THAT is writing.

“The Bridegroom drags you cross the room, you said ‘I do,"
but honey you were just a kid, your eyes say ‘I did.’ "

Again. Right into the heart of it, a whole story told straight away.

Springsteen, too, has become a master at it. His early albums were full of words. Free and easy, jangling guitars and rhyming dictionaries in flames. Then he seemed to get a little darker, a little older and he found focus the way some people find religion. He crafted his sentences, stripped away at them like a hardboiled writer until he became the most effective storyteller to ever pick up a telecaster.

“To the dead it don’t matter much, about who’s wrong or right.
You asked me that question, I didn’t get it right.”

Slipped into the middle of a rock song, hidden away amidst other songs that got scrutinised for any political meaning, was the simplest assessment of a foreign policy. And more than that, it was done through regret and a sense of loss, rather than anger or blame. Or how about one of the few moments in song that matches Folsom Prison Blues for getting to the heart of darkness;

“They wanted to know why I did what I did,
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world.”

Sometimes a total lack of emotion can be just as pure as any hatred or love. Here, a cold blooded killer looks you in the eye and tells you he killed innocent people for no real reason. Chilling. Terrifying.

How about our man Waits? Natural born storyteller. Look at this little turn of phrase and see how complete a story can be told with a throwaway line;

“It’s a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace, and a wound that will never heal.”

Okay, okay. Everybody writes about Westerberg, Springsteen and Waits. This is true. But some clichés are still important. It doesn’t stop with them, though. There’s a songwriter by the name of Ben Nichols, the front man of Lucero, who I think is well worthy of attention.

“When this world was made, it was never meant to save everyone in kind.
I don’t believe God much had me, had me much in mind.”

I’ll be returning to Ben in future to look at his album, The Last Pale Light In The West. But back to today, it seems somewhat counter intuitive to love such economy. I mean, if a story can be told with 12 words, why read a book that takes thousands? Well, different mediums have different strengths, but the principle holds true. There’s an old joke that a gentleman is someone who can play jazz guitar but doesn't. Along those lines, I think a great writer is someone who doesn’t put too many words into a sentence.

All of the writers that really stay with me are the ones who can get me into the very heart of the story. As I've already said, going for the pure driving emotion of the scene and writing inside-out. Why? I don't know. I've written before about how comic books taught me to read, so maybe it comes from that. Maybe its because I'm dyslexic, and its a survival instinct -the fewer words there are, the more chance I have of getting the point. Maybe it's just because the sky is blue, I don't know.

How about you guys? Who does this for you?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I Welcome Our New Robot Authors

By Steve Weddle

If you're like most writers, you probably like to sit in the basement, passing gas, and playing "When Did I Eat That?" all morning.

That leaves very little time for writing.

Lucky for you that Combinatorial Publishing is now a thing.

All you need to do is to come up with a topic. Already, a sizable number of books exist concerning Snooki. Also, shark attacks. Archaeology. Here are some of their best sellers.

After some thought, I decided that there are too few books about a certain subject, so I created my own book --

I typed in that, then clicked a thing and voila:
Your search terms have been submitted to Nimble Combinatorial Publishing and the e-book is being built now.  If the alpha system understands the search correctly, the book will appear in the catalog after review by the publisher, typically within 24 hours.  In future, notification of status will be provided and appearance in the catalog will be nearly immediate.

So, I'll soon be a non-fiction author, I guess. 

Here's more on Nimble Books and CEO Fred Zimmerman, via the Boston Globe:
Zimmerman’s company, Nimble Books, is a small part of an industry that looks set to balloon. At its most vulgar, auto-generated content is used to churn out Web pages whose only purpose is to snag online searchers and drum up advertising. On a more substantive level, outfits like Narrative Science and Automated Insights are producing computer-generated articles on everything from Little League baseball to Wall Street trends. There are even efforts underway to produce automated snark, to cover the blog market.
But Nimble Books is something else—and the difference isn’t simply a matter of degree. A culture does not define itself by its ability to accurately portray box scores or stock movements. Our books, though—these are supposed to be the things that elevate us, that endow us with meaning. It’s hard to see where “Shark Attacks” fits into the literary canon. “Do we even know what a book is any more?” says Calvin Reid, senior news editor at Publishers Weekly. “It changes all the time.”

Right now, it seems, the Nimble Books software runs to Wikipedia and grabs some information. The idea, though, is that it will run around the internet, picking up pieces of information on your topic, then plop them into an ebook for sale.

By the way, Forbes also had a lovely article about the idea.

Right now, this seems mostly a non-fiction kind of thing.

Of course, fiction authors have had to do this the hard way, copying and pasting passages from Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum together, trying to make sense of them. I wonder how we can capitalize on this so as not be required to write anything original.

Take, for example, the recent spate of Public Domain Literature PLUS Monster story -- Jane Eyre and the Romulans, Sense and Sensibility and Salamanders, on and on. These authors have been forced to come up with their own salamander portions of the books. How 20th-century!

Imagine being able to type in a few book titles -- Moby-Dick, Harry Potter, 50 Shades -- and having a freshly derivative novel to sell.

These could be cheap, gimmicky books. As Zimmerman has pointed out, these books cost a couple of cents to put together. Even if, for some reason, the fiction books cost a little more, you'd still be able to make money from writing.

So, even if the book were to cost a nickel produce, you could sell it on Amazon for a dollar and, even with Amazon's thirty-cent cut, you'd be ahead.

No more writing novels that only you and your agent see. No more writing your fancy "linked stories" and waiting for the Pulitzer.

This is the path to publication. As the noted book-salesman John Locke said, you don't have to write good books. You just need to write entertaining books.


Speaking of entertaining books, friend of the blog Chris F. Holm had his second Sam Thornton book, THE WRONG GOODBYE, come out this week.

I've said that these books from Holm read like Jim Butcher meets Charlie Huston. I stick by that. There's this gritty, noir telling of a fantasy story, but the telling itself is so real, so palpable and engaging. Here's my Amazon review of the first one in the series, DEAD HARVEST.

And the second one, THE WRONG GOODBYE, really cranks it up a notch, especially the demons in a cave section. You'll want to get the book.

My guess is this will be one of the last really good books before the world is over-run with robot-generated novels.

Interestingly enough, THE WRONG GOODBYE is published by Angry Robot Books.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Lost Fastball

By Dave White

I still watch HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.

Last week, I talked about watching THE NEWSROOM and sticking with it even though I didn't love all the choices the characters made. I said I liked the voice.

Not true with HIMYM. That was a show I genuinely loved. It played with time, much like Steven Moffat's COUPLING, to give payoffs to jokes you didn't see coming or give the audience a different way to look at the characters. It had honest "in your twenties" moments and the chemistry between the cast was great.

Over the last 2 seasons or so (maybe even more), the show has lost its fastball. Like Randy Johnson on the Yankees. It's still capable of a quality moment here or there, but I don't laugh at it as consistently as I used to. But I can't give it up.

Lots of reasons why: It's comforting and mindless for a Monday night. I want to know who the mother is. And the chemistry between the cast is good.

On the other hand, I have given shows up. THE OFFICE is one most recently.

Once Jim and Pam got together and had a kid, I felt like it ran out of things to do. I didn't care anymore. I wasn't invested. And that cast still, from what I gather, has chemistry.

So I'm not sure why one show (HIMYM) keeps me coming back each week, but THE OFFICE pushed me away. Where's the difference? What's the breaking point? And what about you? What keeps you coming back to a show or author after he or she has lost it? And who have you surprised yourself and given up reading or watching? Why?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Five desert island books

Short post this week from me.

I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago that Drive by James Sallis could possibly be a desert island book for me. Patti Abbott responded that Drive was too short. This brief exchange got me thinking about desert island books. Or to think of it another way if I could only read five books for the rest of my life what would they be? What qualities would they share?

Re-readability would be the be the obvious #1 quality. So I limited my list to books that I've actually read more then once. I think the trap that some fall into when making a desert island list is that they name books that they want to read. But I'd rather stick with known quantities.

In her response Patti suggested that a desert island book needed to be long. While I don't think has to be true all five of my selections are longer books. There is a dense and sometimes complex quality to each of these books. They all feature great characters.

So here, in brief, are my desert island books (as of right now any way).

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchel
The Death of the Detective by Mark Smith
Last Call by Tim Powers
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff

(Also, I've read Drive five time since it has been released so yes, Drive really could be a desert island book for me. I've even mapped out the internal chronology of Drivers life in Drive because I'm that much of a Drive geek.)

So how about you? What are your five desert island books? What makes a desert island book?

Current Read: The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones
Current Listen: The new Avett Brothers

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Looking for the familiar

By: Joelle Charbonneau

My husband is a huge fan of the Phantom of the Opera.  Me…eh…I like it just fine, but if you got into a musical theater debate with me, I’d probably come up with all sorts of reasons why I think the show needs a bit more tweaking.  Which is probably a bit audacious of me, but hey, I’m allowed my opinion, right?

Anyway, because my husband is a fan, he has been following the launch and reworking of the sequel to Phantom, Love Never Dies, with great interest.  While Phantom of the Opera was a huge hit, the sequel hasn’t set the world on fire.  In fact, a lot of die hard Phantom fans (my husband not included) have had huge complaints about the new show.  Because of that, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and team have reworked the music and tinkered with the story.  But no matter the changes, the musical still has yet to connect with the existing fan base.


The writer in me has a theory.  It is because the characters have changed.  The story opens almost a decade after the original ended.  Of course the characters have changed.  They gotten married, had children, led lives. It only stands to reason that things will be different.  But, to me, the problem isn’t that the characters’ lives have changed—that which makes them what they are has changed.  The heroine is no longer heroic.  The musical opens with her having committed betrayals that at the core change who she is and how the audience connects with her.  The Phantom—the villain or anti-hero of the first musical—is now the hero.  Characters we liked have become warped and filled with jealousy and hate.  While the characters are still familiar by name, they are not familiar by nature which automatically disconnects the audience and disrupts the story before it ever has a chance to begin.

Crime fiction is filled with continuing characters and long running mystery and thriller series.  Time passes in between the last page of one book and the first page of the next.  Weeks, months and years go by between one case and another.  Readers are willing to accept that their favorite characters’ lives have continued.  But despite those changes when they open the next book, the reader expect to “know” them.  They expect that the choices that the characters have made between one book and the next will reflect the character’s core values and beliefs that are demonstrated on the page.  Those core values can change, but not out of the sight of the reader.  A reader wants to see those changes.  To live them alongside the character.  To feel the emotional tug-of-war and experience the path the character takes to come out the other side.  To change the core of a character out of sight of the reader is akin to pulling a bait and switch.  Which isn’t fun for anyone.

I’ve stopped reading a number of series because the characters felt distant and unfamiliar at the start of the next book.  Have you ever had that problem?  Have you ever felt cheated because a character had a major experience that you didn’t get to be a part of or changed them in a way that made the character unappealing?  And if you’re a writer, how do you deal with the time gaps that inevitably occur in between books?  Do you worry about what hasn’t been shown on the page?  And hey – who knows—maybe the folks in charge of Love Never Dies will read your comments and figure out how to make it the next blockbuster musical.  My husband would be grateful if they did!

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.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Book Review: Home is the Sailor by Day Keene

(I had a lot of home stuff and day job stuff get in the way this week, so I present another book review, from 22 May 2008, when I was in a self-education program on pulp fiction.)

Since I am a sucker for cool cover art, Day Keene’s Home is the Sailor (Hard Case Crime) was on my to-read list from the get-go. Not many of their covers simultaneously have a car going over a cliff with a hot babe in a too-tight dress. Then I learned a little about him and how much stuff he actually wrote. Couple that with more recent comments about him (Christa Faust mentions she’s reading Keene in this video from her Money Shot premiere), I was quite excited to crack the book.

I had to chuckle when I read the first two sentences: “It was night. It was hot.” (So, basically it was a dark and not-so-stormy night? Aren’t we writers cautioned not to start a book with the weather?) Nonetheless, I read on.

Pulp fiction is known for its pace. Old movies—film noir and others—are also known for their pace. It’s fast. Nowhere but in pulp fiction and old movies do men and women fall in love on sight. It happens to Swen Nelson, a sailor with $12,000 in hand and dreams of a life on land on a farm in Minnesota. But before he can get there, he meets Corliss Mason, the owner of the Purple Parrot bar-and-hotel establishment. He falls for her, she for him. They are all set to get married and move to the heartland when one thing leads to another and they have to get rid of a body. 

Keene’s Nelson drives the story and faces plenty of questions. One character keeps imploring Nelson to go away while he still can. A man threatens Nelson to stay away from his wife. And, through it all, Nelson puts away an astonishing amount of rum. The book takes place over four days and he’s drunk most of the time, a fact that almost every other character comments on. How does Nelson function with so much booze in him? Must be the sailor DNA.

In my review for The Guns of Heaven, I commented on some of the asides written out and how they really didn’t serve the story like I expected them to do. Well, the opposite is true for Home is the Sailor. There’s an aside, just some conversation between two characters, that comes back around like a boomerang and hits you between the eyes. An astute reader will put two-and-two together before the characters do (I did, at least) but it still makes the story fun.

One sad thing I noticed is the paltry number of Keene books available. Other than this one by Hard Case Crime, there are only two modern reprintings of Keene’s books at Amazon. Guess I’ll have to start the hunt in used bookstores. I found a great site with a good bibliography of Keene’s works and I’ll try to find some more. 

Oh, about the ending: Just like Angel Dare in Money Shot, Swen Nelson gets a chance to really examine himself and ask the question “Who am I?” And we get the answer in a brilliant last line. Don’t flip to the end; it’ll ruin it for you. Just go with it. You’ll enjoy the ride.

What I Learned As A Writer: The aside I mentioned earlier is important. And, I realized, that it’s a great way to throw red herrings at the reader, assuming you have more than one. There was only one but its importance was revealed in layers. Granted, I was ahead of Nelson for most of the book but that didn’t disappoint me. Heck, I could’ve been wrong. In my future books, I’ll try to incorporate some extra asides, some extra little stories the characters learn, and leave it to the reader to decide which one is important.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Who Changed The Superhero?

By Jay Stringer

I wrote a comment for Scott's Saturday post, but blogger said it was too long. I'll apologise up front for the length of today's post; it's really too long for a blog, but the subject demanded it. Back to usual next week. And to celebrate it becoming a blog post, I'll kick it off with an image.

Frank Miller's influence on the comic book industry cannot be overstated or ignored. He's been a vocal figure in the changing of creators contracts and he helped to change the language of comics. It would be fair to call him a revolutionary figure. However, his influence on Batman comics is very often over stated. Today I'll be tracing two interlinked ideas; Who changed superhero comics? Who changed Batman? There's a narrative that comic books were light and innocent, then Miller came along in 1986 and made them dark. It's a nice and simple narrative. There's also the idea that he somehow made them more adult or mature. I've played my part in peddling the latter, as someone who was a long time fan of Miller (and still appreciates a certain era of his work) but neither of these ideas are true. 

Part of the trouble is that we like to forget what comics are. We like to pretend that they're one small simple thing, rather than a large and varied medium of storytelling just like books, films, radio or television. As with any medium, what you find it directly linked to how deeply you look into it. At six years old I thought the only comics that existed were the one's I'd read, at 16 I thought the only ones worth reading were the ones with superheroes and by 26 I'd realised I was only looking at a tiny fraction of a whole art medium. There are two main differences between comics and the other storytelling forms. Firstly, comics are attached to our nostalgia bone, so there is a part of us hard-wired to always want them to be that thing they were when we first fell in love with them, and that is usually as children. Secondly, because comics by their nature were always looked down upon and ignored as children's fare, they have always been the place where subversive politics, crazy art ideas and social messages have been slipped in by artists who knew they would have more freedom to do so.

This freedom was first challenged in the 1950's, with the CCA, but I'll get to that later. As with  films, books or TV you can point to figures who created things (Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, etc) but it's not really possible to say one person changed things along the way. And any essay that hopes to sum up the history of superhero comics in one page will miss out far more than it includes, but in the context of today's questions I'll be mentioning three key figures. Also bear in mind that for real answers, as always, you have to look not at one artist or writer, but at the context and the social situation of the time. 

Frank Miller didn't change Batman in the comics. He changed him in mainstream pop-culture. A culture which still had Adam West as it's main image of the Bat, and was crying out for something new. Into that was thrown THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, a marketing behemoth and still one of the best selling trade paperbacks in the industries history. It (alongside WATCHMEN) changed the business model, the media profile, and the way the stories were packaged. But it didn't change the content of the comics, so much as it reflected an ongoing change. It was an out of continuity tale, written by a writer who allowed his own reactionary views and politics to lead him to satirise both modern (1986) culture and the superhero. Alan Moore set out to do the same with WATCHMEN. Comparing the two shows not only the huge difference between the two writers, but also that the changes in comics were inspiring Frank Miller, rather then the other way around.

TDKR had a big influence outside of comics. It attracted new readers to an industry that was in the toilet, and it gave a reference point for Tim Burton who would draw on it heavily in his Batman films. For my own tastes, I've never liked it. Even when I was more of a Miller fan than I am now. It strikes me less as a commentary on the Batman mythos as a direct reaction to the high camp of the TV show, but much like Robocop it takes that camp and turns it dark, rather than replacing it. I don;t know if 'Dark Camp' is a real phrase, but if not it should be, as it accurately describes what Miller produced with TDKR and has done with many of his following works.Don't take that as a dismissal of that approach -many of my friends can and do passionately defend Miller's style, but it's not for my tastes. TDKR is reactionary; it makes points for the the sake of making points, and it puts a gun it Batman's hand. In his earliest stories Batman had been a stone cold killer, but ever since then his hatred of guns has been a defining point, and I don't like it when writers or filmmakers ignore that for the sake of looking cool. I disliked his treatment of Selina Kyle, and there's a political undercurrent running through it that Miller would unleash more and more over the following decades. The Batman depicted in the story is one I've never seen outside of that story (and All Star Batman & Robin a few years ago, also by Miller.) The idea that TDKR changed Batman forever is disproved by the simple fact that I started reading Batman in that era and continued to do so up until this year, and I've been a fan of the character that whole time, but I don't like TDKR. If that version of Batman was the one we'd had for the last 25 years, I wouldn't have been reading.

Miller's lasting contribution to Batman in the actual comics was with BATMAN YEAR ONE, and my criticism of Miller's other work is balanced out in part by the reverence I hold for this story. That was Batman in the modern day. It was a 'modern day' that in 1986 was meant to represent anywhere from the mid seventies to the mid nineties. It retold his origin but it didn't make Batman into the psycho of TDKR, it built on the already existing mood in the comics and added a few extra troubles to Bruce Wayne's thoughts. It was part of a movement at the time that was saying, if we are going to tell stories about people who fight crime, we're also going to show criminals. This meant that prostitution, drugs, guns and knives started to be depicted more often as a part of everyday Gotham life than before. The thing to understand is that the Batman reboot in 1986 wasn't just a Frank Miller thing, it was a DC comics thing. They made sweeping changes across the board and both Batman and Superman were given revamped origin tales, while the Flash of the 50's was killed off and replaced by his sidekick. The effect on Batman wasn't to make him grimmer than he had been before, it was to take the editorial staffs preferred version and put him centre stage.

For all that I praise YEAR ONE, it was filled with a number of 'Millerisms' that felt immediately both out-of-date and at odds with Batman. These elements were ignored by the rest of the writers even then, and I'm talking of things like Selina Kyle's prostitution and Bruce Wayne's younger age. As an aide, my favourite era of Batman is still the Grant/Breyfogle one, and that much better represents the tone of Batman of that era and since. Still a hero, still with a grip on his sanity, but clearly mentally scarred. This run also played up the supporting cast of Gotham, including a group of homeless guys who regularly featured. This was the Batman of the late 80's and early 90's, right up until Bane showed up and we entered yet another new era. 

There are two other figures who need far more attention when it comes to changing comics. 

The man who changed Batman (and the first of the three names I'm going to point to) was Dennis O'Neil, and he shifted Batman back into the shadows from 1968.He was asked to reinvent the character, and he pretty much did just that. He picked up on elements of the mythos that had always been consistently implicit -but often pushed to the side due to sales, politics and censorship- and dragged them centre stage. He showed the editors at DC an essay by Alfred Bester on writing obsessed protagonists, and was given the go ahead to make that the new direction. It's always been talked about as simply going back to Batman's roots, but there is no hiding, reading the era back with the benefit of hindsight, what a radical move it was. This was the true shift in Batman comics, everything that followed has been an extension of that. The 70's gave us great stories like "The Joker's Five Way Revenge" and Steve Englehart's "The Laughing Fish," and it's these that really the stories that give us the modern Mr J, and both were hugely influential on the direction that David Goyer and Chris Nolan took in the first two films. To find Heath Ledger's joker we look not at Frank Miller but at the very first ever Joker story, then at these two 70's tales, and throw in Ledger's own anarchist take. And to read those stories is to pretty much read the Batman of the last 40 years. Other elements we take for granted that are directly attributable to O'Neil are the storyline of Bruce falling into a cave beneath Wayne Manor as child and being scared by bats, the creation of Ras Al Ghul and Bruce living in the penthouse of the Wayne building in Gotham. O'Neil didn't invent the term, "the Dark Knight," which first appeared in 1940, but he was the writer who popularised it in the 1970's as part of his 'new take.' The 70's is one of my favourite era's of Batman, for all the fresh ideas and a sense of youth and modernity in the art. All of these elements were key to Christopher Nolan's cinematic relaunch. (This is also the era that Grant Morrison clearly favours with his work of the last decade.)

It's also worth noting that O'Neil was named editor of the Batman books around the time of the mid-80's relaunch. He was the editor on both TDKR and YEAR ONE. He was the driving force, and would remain that way for over a decade until he ran out of juice and looked for retirement.

This era also saw the last gasps of the Comics Code Authority, and their regulations that O'Neil himself had helped to change in the previous decade. This is the CCA I mentioned earlier on, which was the beginning of artistic expression being controlled in comics. And this is where the second name comes into play; Doctor Fredric Wertham. Wertham was a psychologist who launched an astonishing attack on the comic book industry. Superman, he said, was propaganda to make American boys feel inferior. Batman and Robin, it seemed, was a way for subversive creative types to make all American boys into homosexuals. There were crime comics that, bizarrely, depicted crime. There were horror comics that, gasp, depicted horrors. This was in the same era as McCarthysim, when bizarre rhetoric was used to destroy the lives of writers and creators because establishment types always think these people have way to much power. The CCA was actually a self-imposed measure by the comic book industry, creating guidelines and rules of content, but it set up a huge schism; the more adult, interesting and radical art was pushed further into the fringes and away from the huge distribution network available to those who played the game. It also aided in the companies ripping off writers and artists, because the people most likely to be vocal about it were marginalised. (Sadly a practice that continues.) In the sixties and seventies, and much of the eighties, the comics were censored by the CCA. They were written within a straight jacket of talking down to the audience. The CCA had many rules that hampered storytelling, such as criminals not being allowed to be seen profiting from crime and also the methods of crime not being allowed to be seen. And if you're writing a Batman story, where you can't really show a crime being committed or profited from, you're going to struggle. Not least in reminding people of the trauma that created Batman.  Sadly the impact of the CCA means we need to name Wertham as one of the key figures on the development of the superhero comic, but it's in essentially the same way that we credit Margaret Thatcher with the development of coal mining. 

There is an era of Batman that some people recall, in which he would turn up to foil a vague plot by criminals -without us knowing what the plots were or why the criminals were even considered criminals- and then there would be a chase scene across giant furniture and ridiculous museum props, before the criminals would be caught and arrested. And they could be arrested by Batman, because he was a deputised law official to get around showing kids the actions of a vigilante. This wasn't the character that was created in 1939, and it's not the character we've had since the 70's. The strips are fun and enjoyable, and I like them as I like all eras of Batman, but they were written that way because of censorship, rather than out of any artistic desire. The schism I referred to can be clearly seen in superhero books of these decades, where some were the home of writers and characters who had no interest in rocking the boat or deviating from the acceptable route, and others who, as in every medium, wanted to push on to the next thing. 

Some superhero comics moved with the times and others maintained a state of paralysis, forever holding onto what they were when the then current generation of writers had been children, and therefore had only had access to CCA approved newsstand fare. We don't need a history lesson of the 70's here, as scandal, corruption and financial problems turned old-fashioned square-jawed authority figures into villains and turned marginalised figures into anti-heroes. But it is worth noting that two of the most violent and disturbed 'heroes' in modern comics -The Punisher and Wolverine- both debuted in 1974, and Blade appeared the year before. Iron Man's battle with alcoholism in DEMON IN A BOTTLE was 1979 and back in'71 Green Lantern and Green Arrow had discovered that their sidekick, Speedy, was a heroin addict. Gwen Stacey died in a defining 1973 Spidey story. This is worth mentioning for two reasons; firstly is send a ripple across the whole industry because it had been unthinkable that such a major character would die. Secondly it was drawn in a way that suggested Spidey may have been responsible for her death, because her neck snapped back when he stopped her fall with his web. This story is often credited as the moment when the "silver age" ended and comics started to move to a new era, dubbed the "bronze age," with more adult themes and stories that had consequences. 

In Green Lantern 76 (1970), GL was confronted by a an African American who said; 

"I been readin' about you…how you work for the blue skins…and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins….and you done considerable for the purple skins. Only there's skins you never bothered with…the black skins. I want to know how come?" 

Race played out in other stories as well, as Luke Cage appeared in 1972 -following the Falcon in 1969- as an African American superhero, and one who was grounded in New York crime fighting of the 70's. Many of these stories also bear the fingerprints of Denny O'Neil (he wrote the Speedy storyline, he wrote that Green Lantern issue, he was an editor at Marvel in the late 70's as these more grounded tales began to emerge.) O'Neil played a key part in getting many of the CCA rules relaxed as the 70's wore on, which was another reason why this new breed of story was starting to come through.  

These stories were there, but they were mixed in with lighter fare on the newsstands. And those newsstands were another aspect of the change; as the industry moved to the direct market and into dedicated comic shops, they found it easier to tell long form stories and to tackle darker themes. The move into the direct market would later come back to bite them but that was a long way off. The political, economic and cultural shifts of the 80's bled through into comics as with everything else. Miller was a part of that movement rather than the cause of it. 

And that brings me to the third figure who needs to be mentioned in any history of the changes in comics. Alan Moore

Moore played a much bigger part in the changing of DC, with his work on SWAMP THING and then with WATCHMEN. On SWAMP THING he completely re-wired the protagonist and elevated the level of storytelling from pulp to art , as well as creating a new supporting character by the name of John Constantine. He wrote THE KILLING JOKE which was one of the other main influences on Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT. The success of Moore opened the door to other Brits like Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, whose SANDMAN and ANIMAL MAN books respectively helped created a whole new leg of DC's business, the VERTIGO imprint, which saw titles like PREACHER dominate the 90's. Morrison wrote ARKHAM ASYLUM, which is still possibly the darkest and most challenging take on Batman. Moore's influence is still felt; a throwaway GREEN LANTERN story he wrote in the 80's was expanded into THE SINESTRO WAR and BLACKEST NIGHT, two of the biggest "space opera" superhero events of the last few years, both were a lot of fun. He was also fond of pointing out the basic silliness of superheroes. So modern DC is really the house that Alan Moore built.  (It's nice to see them treat him with such respect.)

Another aside here I should mention is that while I'm crediting Alan Moore for creating and influencing everything in the known world ever, It would be criminal not to mention a title that came at around the same time. MAUS by Art Spiegelman wasn't a superhero book, so it's never quite gotten the press of WATCHMEN or TDKR, but it told the story of the Holocaust, drawing on Spiegelman's own family stories, and presented the characters as animals (Jews being mice and Germans being cats.) It was an amazing work that showed what the medium could do, and deserves to be on all of you shelves along with WATCHMEN. Maybe put it in that space that you free up by throwing out TDKR.

Miller's big impact was on DAREDEVIL, a title he started to work on in 1979. That's where he put his stamp on the super hero comics from a content point of view. Many of the things that people  credit him for doing with Batman are actually things he did with Daredevil. He took a C-List Spidey knock off and turned him into a compelling and tortured hero (much of this run on the book was edited by some fella named Dennis O'Neil). He added in elements of Film Noir and Greek tragedy, with a healthy dose of what would later become an unhealthy ninja fixation, before ending his time at Marvel with the truly amazing DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN. He challenged tropes and stereotypes of the super hero genre, but really was challenging them by adding in tropes and stereotypes of other genres. He was essentially creating a mash-up. And he did bring more violence to Daredevil, including one not-so-subtle image of Elektra being run through with a knife by bullseye, that was his 'look at me' way of depicting a rape murder under the watchful eye of the CCA. It was that work that got him noticed by DC, and that calling card that gave him the clout to play around with Batman. His twin great stories of DAREDEVIL; BORN AGAIN and BATMAN; YEAR ONE remain high watermarks in super hero storytelling, and it's worth noticing that in both, the protagonist spends most of the story out of costume. (One of the many problems I had with The Dark Knight Rises is that the film had very effectively argued that people don't need to wear masks to be heroes, before then shoving one of those unmasked heroes into the Bat-Cave at the end.)

The darkest and most violent era of superhero comics came in a spell between around 1994 and 1998. That was the period when many characters were killed off or crippled, to be replacement with new younger and more violent versions, new costumes involving guns and armour and women in fridges. This was a poor period creatively and politically, but can't be laid at the feet of either Frank Miller or Alan Moore. Both of them by this point had left mainstream comics for the smaller companies that gave them more control and freedom. The result from Miller was the (infinitely silly) SIN CITY series. Moore was by this intent on showing that WATCHMEN hadn't been the only thing worth saying, and was bringing the fun and silliness back to comics with work on SUPREME and TOM STRONG. He had also spent some time being more overtly political, with the publication of AARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) and began the project LOST GIRLS which was aimed at reclaiming erotica and pornography as healthy art.

So if  Miller was done with superheroes, and Moore was at work embracing the silliness that had always been a hallmark of them, where was the violence and darkness creeping in from? The real agents of change were pop-culture and movies. Batman, essentially, had the same problem as James Bond. In the 80's he'd found himself competing competing with a new breed of both writer and hero. The action films of Arnie, Stallone and Bruce Willis scared the hell out of the Bond producers and set in an identity crisis that it took a generation to solve, and the same cultural shift hit comic books. As films were filled with larger spectacles and more violent heroes, comic books tried to follow the shift to keep readers. The direct market was becoming a large cause of this; when comics had been on the newsstands there had been a new generation of young fans every few years, but with the product becoming confined to specialist shops the audience was growing older and not changing, and so the industry tried to compete with that this ageing audience was watching. 

And for awhile it worked. The industry had a major boom in the mid-90's and issues were selling at a rate that they've never matched. But for every new fan who came in from the mainstream media attention, there were more who were leaving because of the changes. Some characters have managed to come back and find their feet, others have remained stuck in that time, reeling from a change they couldn't cope with. 

But the good news was that the industry found a new generation of young writers who were coming through with a love of all the different eras and could combine them. We had James Robinson's STARMAN, which was a love letter to both silver age and modern age super hero stories, and then following on later writers like Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker and Geoff Johns, who each combined all of the genres past into successful mainstream stories.

These days there is a comic book to suit everybody. Batman is a great example; you can find the grim and moody vigilante, you can find the action hero, you can find the caped crusader. Whatever you want, you cant find it. (Well, unless you're a woman or one of the many ethnic groups still marginalised, but even there, the industry is better than ever, it's just not good ENOUGH) There is a good varieties of tone and pacing, light and dark, but in a critically shrinking marketplace (though this has been a good year for sales so far, with smaller companies gaining ground on the big two). For people wanting a simple romp of a story I can recommend the new ROCKETEER series that has just launched at IDW, for the darker and more coldly logical end of the tights'n'capes thing I would suggest Irredeemable from Boom! Studios. Both of these are written by the same writer, which shows how interesting and open things are now. 

Creators are starting to have to fight to be heard, but are also fighting for ownership of their own characters, which will free them up long term from the kind of editorial and corporate mandates that drive the likes of Batman and Superman. It'll be interesting to see what the costumed heroes are like in ten years time, and how the industry will support them. I'm not sure If I'll still be reading about them at that point, because my tastes have moved further and further away from men in tights and masks who name themselves after animals, but hopefully they'll be in a place where Miller can't keep claiming credit for things he didn't do, while Alan Moore sits in a house in Northampton wishing people would stop trying to talk to him about an industry he revolutionised thirty years ago.

The real answer to the question of the title, who changed the superhero? Is we did. All of us. In our buying habits, our viewing habits, our moral panics and our entertainment needs. I've identified three figures who helped the genre along the way, but each time it was in a response to what 'we' wanted or needed.