Saturday, October 20, 2012

It's Alive! It's Alive!

I've got a question for other authors here: do you consider your characters to be alive?

The reason I ask is because of Patricia Cornwell. This past Thursday, I attended the first Cornwell event in Houston, Texas, since 1991! It was a well-attended gathering at a hotel ballroom hosted by Houston's own mystery store, Murder by the Book. Ms. Cornwell said a few words and then opened up a Q&A session. Most of the questions revolved around her main characters--Kay Scarpetta, Pete Marino, Benton Wesley, and Lucy Farinelli--and what they thought or did in certain situations. Now, I'll admit that I've not read any of Cornwell's books (my wife has read all of them, including the Jack the Ripper non-fiction one) and found all the information informative.

What fascinated me is how Cornwell, herself, and the audience members basically spoke about Scarpetta et. al. as if they were real people. I know how characters in long-running book and TV series can get themselves ingrained in our consciousness, becoming like friends. It's just that I hadn't experienced that with fiction. Cornwell, when describing her writing style, mentioned that she had a relationship with her characters, one of the main reasons why she "talks" with Kay, Pete, and the others.

My view is different. Well, it's different at this young stage of my career. Talk to me in twenty years and I might have a different opinion. For now, however, my characters do what they are told. I have plans for them, stories to tell.

As authors, do you consider your characters to be real?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Outstaying Your Welcom

By Russel D McLean

I’ve often talked about how, in a perfect world, I’m bringing the J McNee novels to a close after five books.


All good things should come to an end, and I’ve never been a fans of series that outstayed their welcome. What’s got me thinking about it recently has of course been the return to UK screens of 90s sitcom, Red Dwarf. I loved Red Dwarf for six series and then it vanished. For three years it was off our screen and then it returned. And something was missing. The jokes. The humour. The characters. I could never point to what it was explicitly, but something felt off from the delayed seventh season and the show never quite recovered*.

It happens a lot with long running series. Unless the series attempts to evolve like say, Doctor Who, a show that truly changed with the times right down to rewriting the central character on several occasions, then a staleness can settle in after a while. Its known as “jumping the shark”, a phrase that entered popular culture when Happy Days suddenly became irrelevant to its audience after a strained episode where Fonzie, literally, jumped over a shark.

The point is that some series can run on beyond the point of their own relevance. And its often because an audience or readership demands that the series stay, but the creative spark has been extinguished or else has burned to almost nothing. It doesn’t happen in TV shows, but also in novels. Some long running series characters encounter the problem of stories that no longer feel relevant or characters who no longer have anything to say. Yet readers demand the return of these characters.

Its one of the reasons I admire George Pelecanos. He writes about the same characters for two, three or four novels, and then lets it go. He allows his characters to sya what they have to say and then moves on. Its admirable. And its the reason his writing is so powerful.

Coming back to TV, I love seeing TV shows with a gameplan. The Wire may have warranted a sixth series, but I’m glad it never got one. Babylon 5 completed its five year plan, and then fell apart completely when it tried to expand its own universe. Life on Mars never needed any expansion beyond two series because, frankly, it said everything relevant to itself in twelve episodes (Yes, I know about Ashes to Ashes, but that was an entirely different show in many ways). All of these shows set out too say something, said it and then (in general and discounting spin offs) got the hell out. Part of their appeal was that they stayed around as long as they needed to. But then you look at a TV show like The X Files; a show that outstayed its welcome by several years. It never reached a real climax, but it was soon apparent that it was lost for new and refreshing ideas, falling back on recycled ideas and falling behind the very TV shows that its helped to influence. And the less said about a TV show like Lost, that tried to keep itself going for as long as possible with no real game plan (you can’t tell me they knew where they were going; none of the plot holds up as having been planned from the start) the better.

Sometimes, its worth getting out before an idea gets too old, before a series loses itself in the race to remain on the go. With McNee, I only want to write about this character as long as I have something relevant to say with him, as long as I can allow him and the supporting cast to continue changing (albeit iin some ways subtly) from book to book. And even if I decide I have more to say about book 5, there is a game plan and certain elements that have been building since THE GOOD SON are going to be wrapped up by book 5 in a very definitive way.

I’d rather be The Wire than The X Files. I’d even rather be DeadWood - a show cancelled before it could say all it had to, but that left on a real high note before it lost the lustre of its early promise - than continue to expand an idea long past its sell by date, Or maybe I can create a property like Doctor Who; a series that manages to reinvent itself as something completely different every few years, that pre-empts the need to end by changing itself with the times and with the needs of its audience. But such an invention is rare, tough to craft and tougher to maintain. In general, the best rule is to let go of a character when the time comes naturally, rather than expand and continue past the point of no return.

*although to be fair, it seems to have regained a little something with the new series, perhaps through lessons learned from what went before - - maybe because the long, long rest (and the near disaster of its last attempted ressurection) has allowed the creators to rediscover something of what they had before.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Short Cuts

By Jay Stringer

First of all, a quick plug. I've written before about Sparrow And Crowe; The Demoniac Of Los Angeles. It's a fresh and exciting comic that blends horror and noir. If you like the books by our other friends of DSD, Chuck Wendig and John Hornor Jacobs, then you'll like S&C. The reason for today's plug is a bit of a seasonal treat. The comic book is coming out on a bi-monhtly schedule, which meant not having a fresh issue for Halloween. So the guys behind the book have summoned up a collection of writing and art talent (I assume with candles and a pentagram drawn in blood on a hard-wood floor) and produced a digital-only anthology. Four stories, 47 pages, and for only 1.99 of your ill gotten gains.
If you already read comics digitally, then just add this to your account and sample some great talent. If you haven't tried digital comics yet, what's been stopping you?

I've been thinking about short things lately. Mostly short novels. When I talk to other novelista, mostly ones outside of crime but even with some within this genre, I always notice how much higher their word counts are than mine. 80, 90, 100k. Those are epic tomes to me.

In such times you can -and I do- point to the great writers who've written shorter books. Hammett. Cain. I'm not sure there is a better writer working today than Cormac McCarthy, and his award winning book The Road tops out at around the same length I've run up in my first two crime novels. There are some that have surprised me; I was going to include Orwell's 1984 in my list of short novels, but when I took a look at the page count I noticed it was a lot longer than I remember. It just didn't feel like it in the reading.

Therein lies the challenge, of course. The book needs to be as long or short as the story demands, and setting out to write a book with a specific word count is probably counter-productive to that end. 

But I've also found many longer books that have been recommended to me have been put back down again within the first two chapters.The authors just put too many words on the page. It's never fair to name names, but there's a series of fantasy novels that it seems everyone has to read these days, and I tried the first book. I found straight away that I couldn't read it. As great as I'm sure the plot is, I don't need to have the clothes of each character detailed to me every time they enter a room. Nowhere on the huge venn diagram of writing -which balances out plot, character and exposition- do I see a space for the word clothes. 

Part of my mistrust of long books comes from my own shortcomings. That's always an awareness worth having. It was a long enough journey for me to read novels at all. The longer ones just seemed like a step too far early on. And then, when I did read a long one, and stubbornly make my way through, I would find that I wasn't enjoying it. As an adult reader I don't let such things stop me, I'll seek out a good book no matter the length, but as a younger reader that was a huge roadblock.

And as a writer I can't imagine writing one that long. This isn't to say nobody else should either. Each person has their own story to tell and their own skill set for telling it. For me, I can't imagine having a story to tell with a beginning, middle and end, that justifies running longer than, say 80k. Unless I'm adding in extra bits, having a story with beginning, middle, middle, fake end, middle, end, epilogue. I like for my work to be as tight as I can get it, and that usually means a lot of shaving as I go along. I constantly hack away at what I've written, taking out anything that I don't think is needed.

I like to challenge myself, though. So for book 3 I decided to change my approach. I set out to write a longer novel. And at first I powered through. The first act came together very quickly and I sailed on into the middle of act 2. Then I started to struggle. It went against my process and my instincts. I need to be happy with what's gone before to be happy with where I'm at. I don't just write a chapter then move on to the next one, I write a chapter then rewrite it, then edit it, then hack it, then move on. It  takes me longer to write a short novel than it would a long one, it seems, because they both start off in the same place but one takes a lot more editing than the other. 

So what I've found in book 3 is that operation; write long has been a failure, and now I'm going back to fix things that have been bugging me, things that wouldn't be bugging me if I'd followed my instincts in the first place. 

I'm not saying none of you should write long. I'm not saying my brevity is a purer form of writing, or that those of us who cut to the quick are harder workers. All I'm saying is; those of you who can write long? I doff my cap to you. Yours is a skill that I don't have. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Your Writing Workshop is Dumb

By Steve Weddle

I've been to organized writing workshops. I've been to those that were quite disorganized. I've been to seminar classes that acted as writing workshops. I've read 3,000-word stories each week for a semester, offering detailed comments each week. I've skated through writing workshops without reading a damn thing I was commenting on. I've gotten great feedback. I've gotten terrible feedback. I've been useful. I've been an asshole.

And let me say, your writing workshop is dumb. The ones I've gone to are dumb. The ones I've never attended, never heard of, and never imagined are dumb.

Here's why.

The person whose story is first is in the worst spot.
No one knows what the tone is. Are you supposed to attack? Support? What is the workshop like? Are there ground rules? After the first person says something negative about your story, you're going after that person as soon as her story is up, aren't you? I know you, you hateful bastard.

Your ground rules are dumb.
Do not frickin tell me that this is the first three chapters of a novel. I will slit you stem to stern as soon as I find out what that means. You don't get to say, "Oh, yeah. I totally get that you don't understand Sebastian's motivation and all, but, like, that's all covered in the ninth chapter." Screw you. Am I reading the ninth chapter? No? Then shut your frickin mouth.

The person whose story is last is in the worst spot.
See, if you're the person who goes last, you've probably tried to be nice all throughout this. Now everyone just wants to get this over with. No one cares about other people's stories. They're not in this workshop because they want to learn how to make other people's stories better. They want to make their stories better. So now that they don't have to be nice, no one cares about you and your crappy story. Oh, a coming of age story about a young man who discovers deep secrets in his family? Feh.

All criticism offered is useless.
See, nothing you can say in a workshop is helpful.Those typos you pointed out? I do not care. Seriously, it's super neat that you saw how I alternated misspellings of "Candace" throughout the story, but that's not terribly helpful.You're reading this story and offering tips on what you'd do if it were your story. Shut up. Tell me if you lost interest and stopped reading. Oh, but you can't. Because it's a writing workshop and we're creating a false reality in which you're forced to read this. Great.

Your crappy story is now in my brain.
Damn it to hell. That thing you did with the person walking by the mirror and looking at it to describe himself. I did the same thing in my story. Am I that bad a writer? And now when I go back to work on my story, all I have is your character's voice in my head. Damn it.

Seriously, shut up your mouth.
Yes. I appreciate your comment that for the first thousand words I was writing in omniscient third and then for that paragraph I slipped into limited second and then later for two sentences I wrote in omnitrix tenth person. Just please tell me did the overall story work. I don't need the nitpicking. I know you're happy that you could find something to comment on, but stop proofreading. Just read. Or don't.

Workshop readers aren't real readers.
You want to know if your story works? You have to send it to readers who will read the story when they normally read stories. Reading as an assignment for a class or workshop is not how most of the people will read your story. At least, you're hoping that's the case, right? People need a chance to abandon your story. "I started it, but I had these reports for work to do. I'll get back to your story." That means your story needs serious help, by the way.

Workshops spend too much time validating.
In the margins of my stories, people would write stuff like "LOVED THIS" or "YES!!" That's nice and useful if you're getting feedback from a magazine editor. But in a workshop? How is that helpful? You read a sentence and liked it? Of course you did. It's good. That's why I wrote the story. Do you mean you like how I brought the symbol back around and tied it in from the opening page? That's what it's there for. Glad you can read, dillweed.

I'm sure I missed some points. Writing workshops are not conducive to getting your best work. Sending to a couple beta readers, then off to some mags seems a much better approach.

Maybe your mileage varies?

The Point of No Return

I don't know if you watch HOMELAND, but if you don't, you're missing out on a good show.  Deep characters, great acting, and awesome tension.  If you don't know what it's about, I'm not going to give you the set-up here.  Go look it up.

But they did something last week that stunned me.  They took what I expected to be the end game of the series, or at least something I thought we be a cliffhanger at the end of a season, and popped it up right there at the end of the second episode of the second season.

The point of no return.

It's that moment that changes a book, movie or a TV series' plot.  Hell, flips the whole concept of it.  Think Jack telling Kate "We have to go back" in LOST.  The end of BREAKING BAD's last two seasons.  It's a huge moment, usually turns the plot on it's head.

I love those moments.

Well, when the writer actually follows though with it.  I'm very interested to see if HOMELAND follows though.  LOST was able to, and did a decent job of following what they set up.  I'm, of course, drawing a blank on other good examples.

But it is also what I'm trying to do with the book I'm working on.  I am now halfway through the draft (and yes, still writing slowly), and am trying to flip everything on it's head.  The trick is, if you go for that moment, you can't half-ass it.  If you try to find a way to talk your plot out of its own twist, the reader isn't going to follow you.

Sometimes writers raise the stakes so high, they write them into a corner, and the author falls back on a character lying or something the reader thought happened actually NOT happening.  It creates false suspense, and I hate when a writer pulls the rug out from you.

So, I'm very interested to see where HOMELAND goes now.  Do they follow through or come up with a way to avoid the revelations they've dropped.

What are some of your favorite "point of no return" moments?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Check Out The Savage Kick

We all know the history of the online short crime fiction zines and how they came to be over the last 15 years or so and filled a void.  In recent years there has been a rise in crime fiction print journals.  The legendary Murdaland stormed onto the scene, had an impact then folded after two issues.  A little more then a year after Murdaland our very own Steve Weddle co-founded Needle Magazine, which six issues later, is still going strong. Earlier this year John Kenyon launched Grift Mgazine, and Pulp Modern recently published their third issue. 

I think that these magazines and journals are all, deservedly, pretty well known. Especially within the crime community.

What I wanted to do briefly today was to point out another great magazine/journal that everyone might not be as aware of.  Savage Kick.

The Savage Kick is an annual (or whenever the hell they feel like it) fiction journal that contains a lot of raw and in your face fiction. It also features interviews and recommendation lists. The early issues were straight up old school zines that were stapled together and kind of sloppy in the best way possible, and the last couple being more of a trade paperback journal.

The new issue is out now.

Each of those old issues had a limited print run and when they hit the limit, boom that’s it, no more. In fact issue #1 is gone but the other are still available and highly recommended. There are probably two reasons why these guys aren't more well known: They don't publish only crime fiction and they are erratic.

But I do recommend that you check them out if you have the time and the coin.  It was actually in issue 5 that I first read a story by Julie Kazimer which lead to me buying her short story collection, nominating it for a Spinetingler Award, and purchasing and publishing her crime fiction novel through Snubnose (couple of weeks).

Bottom line is that I wanted to take a moment and use this space to boost their signal and make sure folks were aware of them.

Savage Kick is a part of the Murder Slim family. They published the Spinetingler Award cover nominee The Hunch by Seymour Shubin and also The Angel by Tommy Trantino which was featured in the article 30 Days in the Hole: The Real Prison Books. Check these books out.

Current Read: The Warlord of Willow Ridge by Gary Phillips
Current Listen: Babel by Mumford and Sons

And the beat goes on

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Get out the noise makers and the pop the cork on the champagne.  Yesterday, I finished writing Skating Under The Wire.  In an ideal world, I would have completed writing the manuscript weeks ago.  But life is never ideal and a combination of working on revisions for other books, family issues and publicity stuff for the release of Skating On the Edge slowed me down.

Now I can relax, right?  Well…

Being an author is a job like any other.  Just because one assignment is complete doesn’t mean the job is over.  Today I start rereading the manuscript and revising the pages so I can turn it in over to the world’s best agent for her opinion.  While she is reading, I will work on revisions for Independent Study (The Testing trilogy book 2).  As soon as those revisions are done, I am told revisions for End Me A Tenor should arrive.  When I am done with those, I will open up a blank page and begin writing Graduation Day.

When I was a reader, I thought being an author was a dream job.  You write when inspiration hits, celebrate big sales and movie deals and have lots of time off in between books.  Ha!  What I have learned is you never get your work done if you wait for inspiration.  Instead of celebrating finishing a manuscript with a vacation or several weeks off, a writer is often back at the keyboard the next day working to get that manuscript revised.  And when one story ends, another begins.

There are days that I wish I had more time to rest in between books.  Some days I feel tired and don’t want to analyze every word choice or pick apart the sentence structure.  But I do it because it is my job.  And WOW, am I lucky to get to do this for a living.