Saturday, January 12, 2013

Talking With Myself

Scott D. Parker

Sometimes, writing advice arrives in the strangest of locations. Recently, I discovered some by a fictional character written by a fictional author written by someone the world doesn't know.

Let's be honest: when we're dreaming up our stories, the echo chamber of our own minds if often not the most critical. I don't know about you, but I have to get ideas out of my own head in order to see if it's even good in passing. Most of the times, my wife is my first sounding board and, just as often, the convoluted thing in my head sounds off-key (or too convoluted) when spoken aloud. Moreover, as I'm saying the storyline, I watch her face and can pretty much tell when I'm off the rails.

The "other person" is a good way to get that feedback. But, sometimes, there is an "other person" still in your head. I touched on this last week when I mentioned that I had been having some conversations with myself. One of my standard ways of getting ideas down is to journal them. In the past, this is more monologue than dialogue. Over the Christmas break, I took a cue from one of the Richard Castle novels. In the book, the writer character, Jameson Rook, conducts a conversation with himself to work through the mystery. In the novel, both halves of his brain work together to figure out his next move.

I did the same thing. I called them Me and Honest Me (or Me That Tells Me Like It Is). And I literally had two halves of my brain talking to each other over plot points. For every "interesting" thing I came up with, the other half would try to poke holes in it. Often, the hole puncher won.

Examples (each paragraph mark is a different voice):

Hang a second, I don't know what the subplot is.

Not my problem. It's on you.


Hey, I'm back.

I thought we ended our conversation.

I have a question.

Really? [sigh] Okay, shoot.

Granted, those are the funnier ones, but what I ended up with, I hope, is a throughline that's more cogent and provoking. Only time will tell on that. Or the wife.

Do you have a dialogue with yourself, in some form (paper, pixel)? If not, how do you work out plot points?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Write Here, Write Now

By Russel D McLean
This post was accidentally posted at Russel's old blog at We're updating so it appears here, where it was meant to. With some minor alterations towards the end in answer to a comment by Graeme Powell on the original post.
I can't promise I'll never do it, but one of my pet hates is writers as characters in fiction.
Writers who writer about writers,
Not only is it a weirdly incestuous feeling, it also often feels wrong.
As with all things, there are exceptions:
Stephen King nails it in The Shining and Misery.
And Michael Chabon in Wonder Boys.
But that's about it. Most people when they write about writers, they talk in this weird way that doesn't sound real. They create writers who are succesful, who appear on talk shows. Or they talk about working hard on drafts and sending them out and getting rejected.
And every time it comes off as either wish fulfillment or oddly disconnected from the emotional reality of writing. I rarely read about a writer in a book and think, "boy, that's me!" or, "Yeah, that's how it is."
Maybe its the same for cops who read crime novels.
Or matchmakers who read romance novels.
But then, maybe its because writers focus on all the wrong things when writing about writing. Maybe because we're too close to it and are trying to find ways to communicate the truth to non readers but it just isn't possible to do it.
Or maybe, just maybe, its because writers writing are dull.
When we lose who we are in the words, or when we write frantically to deadline, we do little that is actually dramatically interesting. Honest to God, there's nothing exciting about me sitting around trying to watch that little movie in my head and translate it into the words that then appear on the screen in front of me. And there's nothing exciting about getting cheque that pays off the credit card bill. Or me eating an entire pack of crisps while swinging in my chair trying to think of a witty last line for some poor schmuck before he gets chibbed.
Somewhere there's a sense that writers should be interestong. And some of us are, that's why there are biographies written about them. But they're interesting beyond their writing.
The act or writing?
Its nothing.
Its uninteresting and tough to communicate as a dramatically intriguing character trait. When it works, the use of a writer as a character is not just a trait, but something deeper. King's writers are always control freaks. Their writing is about their controlling (the Shining and Misery in particular). When Phil Dick uses writers, he uses them as creators of worlds. Thematically, Dick moulds the profession into something more deeply meaningful. The writing part is not the focus, but more the traits of what makes the character a writer. But most of the time, the use of writers as protagonists comes across as lazy and self-serving. It comes across as unrelated to the reality of actually being a writer (and let's not get started with characters in films who are writers - no amount of montaging will make writing sexy). Or at least, I can't identify with the characters. They appear as stereotypes of writers, which is ironic given that they are being created by writers and even worse, their own writing wouldn't pass muster if written by their creators. That always bugs me. Writers who writer in novels read like writers, rather than real writers who do not, who disguise the effort and artifice with seeming ease.
So please, let's call time on writers as protagonists in works of fiction.
Unless they're interesting*.
Unless they're Paul Sheldon with his missing "e" on that very special typewriter.
*because the thing with all rules, especially in writing is this: don't break them, unless its the right thing to do.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Local History

By Jay Stringer

It's funny how time changes us in small ways. (It's not funny how it changes us in big ways. No sir. Can I have my mid-twenties body back, please? Not even all of it. I'd settle for half. On a time share.)
When I worked in bookselling I was the crime buyer for the store. In between heading out into the town to buy some great robbery, vice, larceny and murder (ho, snap, see what I did there?) I would also order books.

I loved my section. I still do. I look back on it with pride, and at getting people in the town to read Jim Dodge, Jim Thompson, and some other Jims that I'm probably forgetting. I ordered in books from America, and I sold A LOT of Matt Scudder.

One thing I never really embraced was the true crime section. Reps would come and pitch their books, and I'd order a couple of each, and we stocked a lot of books about football hooligans that were stolen by men with shaven heads and tattoos (says a man with a shaven head and tattoos.) And I guess I pre-judged it. I didn't want to know.

A couple of years later as I embraced the writing gig much more -as I crossed that line from being the guy in a shop who says he wants to be a writer, to being that guy who works in a shop and spends all his spare time writing- I learned to love true crime. I learned to find the good stuff, to focus in on the human stories, and the real histories and the facts. More than anything, I suppose, I learned that it was a great place for me to steal ideas.

There was another section in the store. Local History. Most bookstores have them, certainly if they have any sense, but few of them are like this one. This section was run by a woman named Eileen. She was a bit mad, but also brainy as hell and she loved that section. And once again, I prejudged it. I always fought for it's place in the store whenever head office wanted to move it, and I always fought for Eileen to have as much purchasing power as we could give her, but that was because I could see the  amazing sales figures. I can't say I ever truly understood it.

I'd see local people come in, most of them of 'a certain age' and buying the books as much to reconnect with a childhood memory as to learn something new, and I met the authors (often 'of a certain age' and writing in their spare time.) There were a few colourful characters, a few professors and a few local celebrities. I was happy to encourage and support it, but I wanted no part of it.

We moved across Glasgow to a new apartment towards the end of last year. I became fascinated with the history of the are we moved to, of long forgotten railway stations, of hidden buildings, of the people who used to gather in the park across the road to hang their washing, and of the many protests and demonstrations that had happened in that park over the last few hundred years.

I learned that I am a local history guy.

On some levels I've known this for awhile. After all, I'm the one who keeps banging on about social fiction, and about the history of the Midlands, and of all the important details I try to catch in my books. But I'd never been bitten by this bug for anywhere outside of my hometown area or my dream city of New York. This was something new.

I realise now, several years to late to take an interest in Eileen's local history section or to talk to the authors in a way they'd appreciate, that local history is history on the level that matters. We can all learn of the big changes in governments and kings, of the rise and fall of pretend things like money and politics, and of what excuse was used to go to war with whom and when. But local history is where you find people who care about the human stories. Real history is human stories. It's the people who find ways to carry on with their lives beneath all those big things that make it into the textbooks. It's the buildings and shops that come and go, the families who move away, the families who stay, the accents and the dialects and the stories they tell.

I've learned that If I'm to really become the kind of writer I want to be, the one I'm constantly working towards, then it's on this level that I need to read. I spent six years in Glasgow reading the news, and looking at the big historic events, and failing to make enough of a connection to think of a project set here that was worth tackling. I've spent two months since moving reading up on local history, and people, and small events, and understanding the streets around me.

I think I may have something soon.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Your New Year's Resolutions Are Stupid

By Steve Weddle

So I'm in the Emily Couric center in Charlottesville having some stuff done to me by nice people and I see this here sculpture:

That's called "Resolution" by Kurt Steger. I am very stupid and don't get art, so that looks like a circle of wood to me.

I mean, honestly, I don't get why people need to line up to see the Mona Lisa on a wall when it's already in a billion art books. You think the colors are different in person? You think it's less blurry looking? I don't get it.

And photography as art? Um, point and click. Done. Oh, look. It's in black and white. Artsy.

So, anyhoo, the circle of wood is called "Resolution." I can dig that, at least. Because most of the resolutions people make are circles. You say on Jan. 1 that you're going to lose 50 pounds and then by May you're back throwing down chicken wings at Laverne's Wild Wings so that the following Jan. 1 you plan to lose 65 pounds. Or whatevs. Maybe that's not you. I don't know you. How did you get here?

I'm beginning to think they took too much blood from me today. Shit. Is 1.6 liters much blood? It seems like much blood. But then they replaced it with something called "LifeASyn," which they say is some sort of synthetic replacement they're trying out in what sounded like some sort of guinea pig beta test thing. I dunno, to be honest with you. But when I call up my insurance company and tell them I need $45,000 coverage for my "LifeASyn," I'm probably going to need to spell it out for them. Someone in branding should have thought of that.

New Year's Resolutions are dumb, is what I was getting at. 

There's this article about changing your identity if you want to change your behavior. If you want to keep in touch with people, don't resolve to keep in touch. Just be the person who calls a friend every weekend. Here's the article: Identity-Based Habits

Look, I'm not sure why people wait until Jan. 1 to do something they want to do. If I want a taco, I go get a taco. If I want to catch up on emails, I go to the can. I don't wait. If you want to be a better writer, do it now. If you decide in November that you want to get down 1,000 a day, don't wait two months.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

We all do dumb things to get done the things we need to do. We bargain with ourselves. Maybe with God. With the clock. With our future selves.

I'm going to bed now, even though I need to write. I'm tired. I write better when I'm awake. Vibrant. So I'll go to bed now and get up early and write. Sure, that always works. Tomorrow Me will be awesome.

Next year, I'll be a better person. I won't write on my notebooks. I'll do my homework before I watch TV. I'll do the dishes before I go to bed. I'll spend more time with orphans. I'll stop making fun of my Aunt Tess's skin graft. I'll donate to charity. I'll respond to every email the very month I get it. Whatevs.

We do crazy, stupid things. Things that don't have clean edges. Last year, I NaNoWriMo'ed and it was crazy.I failed miserably. I said I was going to do it because, damn it, I wanted to have the thing done. And if you want to have the thing done, you need to do it. See, many of us would love to be able to play the oboe, but we can't. Why? Because we don't want to practice the oboe. Also, some people maybe don't know what an oboe is. I mean, I know, of course. Why don't you just tell me what you think it is and I'll tell you if you're right, k?

We have to trick ourselves. Your New Year's Resolution is stupid. You're not going to write 2,000 words a day. You're not going to read a book a week, every week. You're going to write on your notebooks the very first day because, let's face it, Megadeath does indeed rock 4evah.

As Mr. Robert Smith says, "So I trick myself. Like everybody else." He was referring to sinking, it seems. But I'm talking about resolutions and the games we play.

Ha. Remember the Alan Parsons Project? "Games People Play"? Ha. That song sucked.

Seriously, 1.6 liters. That's like one of those jugs of Coke, right? Shit. Did I say that already?

Yeah. So, we all make resolutions and play games and, while your resolution is stupid and a sure path for failure, who cares? Fail. You fail. I'll fail. We all fail for ice cream.

If NaNoWriMo gets you writing, does it matter if it sounds whackadoodle?

If a resolution motivates you, whuppie-damn-ding-dong.

Or finding pictures of crappy writers with best-sellers out and taping those pictures to your laptop with a note that says "They can do it. Why can't you, putz?"

Or a writing group. Or an MFA program.

Or repeating "Every day in every way I'm getting better and better."

Only, and here's what I think is important, don't beat yourself up over it. You have many tools in your writer's toolbox. Sure, many of them have to do with pacing and character and STORY ARC and all, but save some room for motivators. And when one stops working, you have to go to another one.

Motivation is tough, especially if you're not writing on some sort of deadline. Which is why self-imposed deadlines such as NaNoWriMo are so popular.

But making a Year's resolution just seems stupid. Make a resolution for this month or for this week. Or for the next three days. Starting Friday, spend an extra half-hour writing. A three-day resolution. Then you can make another one.

Tom Stoppard would line up a half-dozen cigarettes on the window sill and write for however long that took. He wouldn't write for X hours or X words. He'd write for X smokes. And that worked for him.

New Year's Resolutions and NaNoWrimo are suggestions, not rules. My suggestion is to look for little resolutions, little motivators.

Maybe like that Identity-Based article suggests, being the type of person who writes 1,000 words a day is easier than telling yourself to write 1,000 words a day.

I don't know. It sounds like a trick. But, then again, writing is tricky. If it were easy, they'd call it photography.

That's a joke, folks. Photography is great. Especially for people who can't paint.

Now, I'm going to go have a bit of a lie-down and see whether this LifeASyn self-replicating factor is able to put any oxygen into my brain. G'night.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Being Obsessed With Story

As a culture, we're obsessed with the idea of story.  Look around, story is everywhere.  There are TV shows, movies, books, video games, all centered around story.

Then there are the storylines reality TV, sporting events, and even politics.

Yes, politics.

How many times have you heard "Changing the narrative" on Fox News or MSNBC?

But, as I watched yesterday's Redskins Seahawks game, and followed RGIII's storyline, I started to wonder what the enjoyment is in story.  Is it watching the story playout?  Or is it in the ending?  I wanted to know how the game turned out.  I wanted to know who won the election.  I wanted to know how LOST would end.  To see how THE WHEELMAN would escape.

All about the end.

I usually have to watch things twice.  Especially when marketing gets in the way.  When the ending is teased, that's all I can think about while watching or reading.  It gets in the way of my enjoyment of the trip.

So, with things that are less time consuming, TV shows and movies, I watch it twice, the second time to just enjoy the ride.  Because maybe I'm obsessed with story too.

What about you?  Can you enjoy the story the first time around?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Mystery fiction or Crime fiction

About a week ago Patti Abbott had a blog post about whether the genre should be called Mysteries or Crime Fiction. Patti's blog is one of the better ones for actual discussion (see also Adrian McKinty's blog and Peter Rozovsky's blog) so a nice little debate broke out. I offered up this brief comment:
This is an old argument (which is the genre and which is the sub-genre) that has no clear cut answer. Plus other parts of the world use each term.

I have no easy answer only a personal one. For me there are three distinct groups of fiction in this genre we love: mystery, crime fiction, and thriller. The three are not the same though they may carry some aspects of the other.

I think the split goes back to Hammett, whose fiction was clearly something else. This split is exactly what Chandler was writing about in his essay The Simple Art of Murder.

Look at it this way using modern examples: George Higgins, Elmore Leonard, and James Ellroy do not write mysteries.
I just wanted to expand on this slightly since the conversation has moved on. Initially the genre was very mystery based. Then Hammett came along and broke the genre, creating a rift that lasts . What he was doing was so unlike anything that came before (which is part of the reason that he holds a place of importance in the genre) that the genre was forever changed. This change was so fundamental that Raymond Chandler wrote about it in his famous essay The Simple Art of Murder:
I suppose the principal dilemma of the traditional or classic or straight-deductive or logic—and—deduction novel of detection is that for any approach to perfection it demands a combination of qualities not found in the same mind. The cool-headed constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing-board. The scientific sleuth has a nice new shiny laboratory, but I’m sorry I can’t remember the face. The fellow who can write you a vivid and colorful prose simply won’t be bothered with the coolie labor of breaking down unbreakable alibis. The master of rare knowledge is living psychologically in the age of the hoop skirt. If you know all you should know about ceramics and Egyptian needlework, you don’t know anything at all about the police. If you know that platinum won’t melt under about 2800 degrees F. by itself, but will melt at the glance of a pair of deep blue eyes when put close to a bar of lead, then you don’t know how men make love in the twentieth century. And if you know enough about the elegant flânerie of the pre-war French Riviera to lay your story in that locale, you don’t know that a couple of capsules of barbital small enough to be swallowed will not only not kill a man—they will not even put him to sleep, if he fights against them.


Two-thirds or three-quarters of all the detective stories published still adhere to the formula the giants of this era created, perfected, polished and sold to the world as problems in logic and deduction. These are stern words, but be not alarmed. They are only words.
Terminology is an interesting thing though as people freely use different terms in different ways. It's common to see someone refer to reading "schlocky noir mysteries" or other personal identifiers.

In my initial response I named, off the top of my head, three authors who, to me, don't write mysteries. Later comments assured me that those authors absolutely write mysteries.

Here's one of the conclusions I came to. Mystery won the battle and Crime Fiction won the war. Solving something is still central to the genre but the influence of Hammett was so great that he forever pulled the genre in his more realistic direction altering the landscape for generations to come. Hammett is probably the most influential writer in our genre.

What say you DSD'ers?

Currently reading: Submissions, Live By Night by Dennis Lehane

Currently Listening: "Gravel & Wine" by Gin Wigmore

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A new year -- now what?

by: Joelle Charbonneau

HAPPY 2013. 

Another year is over.  The world didn't end.  And hey, guess what?  Neither did publishing.

Traditional publishing and self-publishing are still co-existing.  New bookstores are popping up.  Some are fading.  E-book readers are creating a new breed of reader for both traditional and self-published books even as some people I know have grown tired of reading on a screen and have decided to go back to buying paper books.  The circle of publishing life is spinning.  The only constant in the ever changing cycle of the business is that writers are sitting down in front of their computers and writing.

With ever new year, I see lots of posts that attempt to predict what will happen in the upcoming year.  In publishing, there are guesses as to what books are going to hit big.  There are also articles speculating on which publishers will merge, by what percentage print books will be supplanted by e-books, and how long it will be until publishing officially dies.

Every year someone is speculating that traditional publishing will end.  Why?  I have no idea.  Probably for the same reason that everyone was waiting for the world to end on Dec. 21st.  Because it is fun to speculate.

Which is why I'm giving you a chance to give me your thoughts on what you think will happen in 2013 - in publishing and otherwise.  Who do you think will win the World Series?  What actor is going to get arrested? Are you going to land a new job?  It is time to roll the dice, get out your crystal ball and place your bet on the upcoming 359 days.  What will they hold?