Thursday, February 28, 2013


By Jay Stringer

I watched Skyfall for the first time over the weekend. I really didn't enjoy it. I had a pretty bad year last year for films, there were a number of movies I'd been looking forward to that ultimately let me down. I'm not looking to go into specifics of Skyfall. Seems most people dug it. I've seen reviews calling it the best Bond movie ever. If folks enjoyed it, good for them. I don't feel the need to scientifically prove that they're wrong. Different tastes and all.

But watching the film did set a part of my brain whirring away.

A question I asked of my wife during the film, and a few times to friends afterwards, is what is left to say about modern Bond after Casino Royale? And from that I thought, maybe these films just aren't for me anymore.

We change. It's possible.

Just like anybody who's grown up near a TV screen in the past few generations, my first exposure to James Bond will have been the films. The first actor I can remember seeing play the role was Roger Moore, and I also know that the pre-teen version of me really didn't like Sean Connery's version. That changed.

But Ian Fleming's novels were one of my many gateway drugs to adult novels. I read them at the ideal time. That is to say- I read them when I was about thirteen or fourteen. Somewhere in the years before Goldeneye, I went from knowing nothing about Bond to having read everything. Some of them passed on to me from my Grandfather, some hunted down in second hand bookshops, some of them the new shiny editions that (Coronet? Penguin?) were putting out.

And I loved that there were no more Fleming books. I liked that there was a period when there was James Bond, and that the books then stopped. I read the continuation novels. I loved Colonel Sun at first read (It was one of the first Bond books I read, my grandfather had a battered copy of that along with a couple Flemings and one of the Gardners) and found it sloppy and dull when I went back as an adult. I read the Gardner and Benson books, and they were fun, but I never re-read them in the way I did Fleming.

And something I can see, looking back over the last decade or so, is that I've drifted away from the cinematic Bond and really only tend to think about Flemings version. The damaged, ageing, alcoholic relic of the 50's and 60s. That is Bond to me. If I were ever to pitch a Bond novel, it would be that character in that era.

I realised I don't really engage very much now with the idea of the timeless, ageless character. Fleming's Bond aged. We can say he probably didn't age in exact real time, and he may have conveniently stopped ageing completely if Fleming had lived on and kept writing, but as it is we have a ten year period where an experienced agent of the British government gathered moss. Hurt, grief and wounds traveled from book to book.

I like story. And for me (this isn't saying it has to be for everyone) that means a beginning and an end, and consequences in between. And I don't mean death. I mean that a story has an end. Long before I stopped reading DC and Marvel comics, I had started to feel at odds with the culture of these large franchise characters who don't age. A story without end. It feels to me like a first draft in which nobody ever takes the brave step of typing The End.

And I think Bond suffers more than most from this timelessness. He's trapped by it.

Reinvention is fun. Just as we write novels about distant worlds or future times with the aim of examining something about our current world, it can be fun to take a character from an older time and tell a new story, to see what that character tells us about ourselves. But with franchise characters, this can be more about money, more a case of just because. I enjoy Sherlock on the whole -with a few dodgy episodes thrown in. And I think a show like Doctor Who has an inbuilt device that makes it be able to constantly renew and refresh. And the worlds and time periods the Doctor visits can address something relevant about the world of the people watching the show. Sherlock has been a fun reinvention, taking an old character and seeing how he could fit into the modern day. The secret joke of the show is that he doesn't. We have to overlook a lot of logic and a lot of police procedure, and to buy into the fictional world they created, in order to buy into him having a place in the modern world. But it's fun, and they usually get away with it.

But for many of these timeless characters it begins to feel for me more like we use them to tell us who we were rather than who we are. And in the case of James Bond, who we wished we had been at some point. There is a moment in Skyfall when the villain has Bond captive and gives him a long speech about how Bond is fighting for a fading empire. And I realised that scene has been in many Bond films. And each time it seems to have been done as if it was honestly meant to be relevant, as if it revealed some hidden truth about the modern world.

James Bond was a fantasy character. Something running through the subtext of those original books was that he was a relic of a world that didn't exist. The whole "defending the realm" thing. He was Fleming's schoolboy fantasy of a figure fighting for a world that had ceased to exist in the decades before. So the big villainous speech about Bond fighting for a fading empire had relevance in the 1950's, as an echo, as the fact that the empire had already faded. In the 60's and 70's it was a mix of nostalgia and delusion. But to still be making this point in 2012, and to devote a monologue to it?

The failure for me of many of these timeless characters now is that we don't honestly use them to tell us something about who we are, or who we can be. We use them because it's easy, and we already know there is an audience for them, and because we can reverse engineer the modern day to fit the story. We can pretend that the Met would have a "consulting detective," who is allowed to access all of their information. We can also pretend that he is world famous, because the real world obviously cares so much about the people who solve crimes. We can pretend that there is a vital ongoing debate about the role in modern society of a secret agent who never existed, and that Britain is some glorious fading empire just on the cusp of the sunset. Cinematic Bond has become a time bubble, where the colours and clothes change every few years, but the basic story remains the same and the modern world is really only there as set dressing. We've seen three films now, costing hundreds of millions of dollars to make, that have essentially been an exercise in throwing Bond into a fantasy version of the modern day, and then slowly pulling everything back until he is in the same office, with the same secretary, and the same boss, and is going to be sent out on the same missions to defend the same long dead empire.

Phillip Marlowe drank and drank and had an occasional hangover.
Matt Scudder drank and drank and became an alcoholic.

Batman saw his parents murdered and put aside all of the 20th century's advances in psychology to don a Bat costume and wage a financially unsustainable war on crime that has been ongoing since 1939.
Rorschach used childhood trauma as a spur to don a trench coat and become a psychotic loner, who's pursuit of an unsustainable war on crime led him to a fast and lonely death after years of living alone.


Beginning. Middle. End.

You know what's so great about- for example- Greek mythology? It has those four things. We remember the characters because they burned fast and bright, then they burned out. The story of Robin Hood has an ending. The story of King Arthur has an ending. Even Gods used to die. One of the reasons all of the major religions have tales about the end of days is not because anyone really thought that is how things were going to go down, but because they'd learned from millennia of storytelling that all good stories have an ending.

But Bond doesn't get to have one.

Poor fella.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that lack of ending is his relevance. Maybe there is an ultimate joke in the  weary civil servant who can't afford to retire because there isn't a pension waiting? He's forced to go on, forever.

Crying Over Crime Fiction

The smart folks at The Millions have a nice piece about John Green's THE FAULT IN OUR STARS.
I began to feel uncomfortable about my relationship with this book. It’s a sad book, to be sure, about two teenagers who meet in a support group for kids with cancer, but it’s also joyful, hopeful, wise, funny, romantic, and genuinely inspirational. So why, in my efforts to share this joy and hope with other people, did I keep saying, go be unspeakably sad for as long as it takes you to read a 300-page book?
Does crime fiction do that to you? Do you connect with the characters in that way?

Or do you mostly just wince when the beatings start?

Of course, we have the policey-thriller that masquerades as crime fiction -- the little girl walking along with her mommy, snatched and beaten. Maybe we get close-ups of the grieving parents.

But what is the last piece of crime fiction you read that sent you through sadness and joy and romance and all the crap like that?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Piss and the fire in your belly - a memoir of sorts

By Dan O'Shea

My debut novel, PENANCE, is the first story I ever finished. Not the way it’s supposed to work, I know. I’m supposed to have some amateurish piece of crap stuffed in a drawer somewhere, maybe a couple of them, the training-wheels novels on which I cut my teeth, sharpened my craft, paid my dues. I don’t. Fact is, at this point I’ve written three novels and sold all three of them. Sold another one I haven’t written yet. Written 20 or so short stories and sold all of them, too – except for a couple I’ve donated to charity anthologies.

If that sounds like bragging, let me clarify. That drawer my crappy novel is supposed to be stuffed in? I’ve got other shit in there – like a couple of wasted decades.

I’ve dreamed of being a writer since I was a kid. I’ve always had the imagination for it and I had a flair for the mechanics of stringing words together, the editorial side of it. It was that flair, maybe, that got me off track.

I married young, had kids, had to earn a living. Stringing words together was the only marketable skill I had. So I got some editorial flunky jobs – started out as a proofreader in the bowels of a major accounting firm. The proofreader’s charge was clear. We were supposed to fix the mistakes – the misspellings, and any clear abuses of grammar. That was it.

But so much of the writing was just ugly. Sentences were wordy and unclear. Transitions between ideas were awkward where they existed at all. Evident opportunities to invest the copy with a little style, sometimes even a little wit, were missed at every turn.
So I started fixing that stuff, too. Good thing. Because, as anyone who has read my blog with an eye for detail can attest, I’m not a very good proofreader. Pretty good at the grammar stuff, but I’m a horrible speller. And this was back before spell check.

I’d only been on the job a couple months when the big boss called me in – the guy who was a couple levels above my supervisor. Seems she was tired of my missing the mistakes I was supposed to catch and really tired of my trying to fix things that I was supposed to leave alone. Seems she was looking to get my ass canned, so she copied a mess of the stuff I’d marked up and passed it up the chain of command. The big boss told me I sucked as a proofreader, but that I was actually a pretty good editor. Said he either had to fire me or promote me. He promoted me.

Which lead to a long career in financial copy, first as an editor, then as a writer. Turned out to be a profitable little niche. Once you get a track record for being able to translate crap like the tax code into English, you can charge a pretty penny. So I did.

Bingo. I was a writer and making a pretty good living at it. I just wasn’t the writer I’d dreamed of being. Nobody dreams of writing about the tax code.

You know all the excuses. The job takes time. The kids take time. Everything takes time. And, for a long stretch, I was freelancing. Seemed like the smart choice after I got some experience in and found out what the freelancers in my niche were making. A novelist? Seriously? Be a grownup, I’d tell myself. You really gonna spend time writing make-believe on spec when you could spend it chasing real work?

That’s the kindest thing I told myself. Behind that, though, was a lack of faith, was the idea that being a novelist was beyond me. The idea that kids dream about a lot of things. They dream they’re going to be Bart Starr or Ernie Banks too, but they grow up, recognize their limitations and get on with the business of being adults.

So I pissed on my own dreams. Pissed on them long enough to damn near put the fire out entirely.

Then people started dying. You get to be my age, that happens. My best friend, my aunt, my dad. And it hit me that I could just keep paying the bills and marking squares off the calendar until the squares ran out or I could actually take a shot at this novelist thing.

What I learned was this. The time thing? The last five years or so, the only five years where I’ve seriously written fiction on a consistent basis? I’ve been every bit as busy as I was for the three decades I pissed away before that. I’ve watched a little less TV, read a little less than I used to, Spent a little more time sitting on my ass writing and a little less time sitting on my ass doing nothing. I always had the time, I just didn’t have the discipline.

Also, I learned I’d already sort of written that stuff-it-in-a-drawer novel. See, while PENANCE may be the first novel I finished, it wasn’t the first novel I’d started. I’d written bits and pieces of shit over the years, had these fits and starts where I’d swear this time I was serious and I’d plug away for a week or two. A couple fragments from those efforts are in PENANCE somewhere. And I’d been writing PENANCE all along in my head, toying with the same characters, the same ideas.

In fact, at one point back in my mid-thirties, I had about 30,000 words in the can. Liked most of them, thought I was getting somewhere. Then I did something stupid. See, I had no idea how long a novel was supposed to be, and this was back in the pre-internet days, back before you could Google that shit. I’m sure there was a book at the library where I could have looked it up, but I got the itch to know late at night, so I grabbed a book off the shelf, figured I ought to be able to work this out easily enough. I counted up the average number of words in a handful of different lines, multiplied that by the number of lines on the page, multiplied that by the number of pages in the book. The number I came up with was 300,000 words.

Maybe I was only counting full lines and not allowing for all the fractions of lines – the dialog, the ends of paragraphs, whatever. Maybe I grabbed a Stephen King novel. Maybe my math just sucked. I dunno. But the idea that a novel was 300,000 words got stuck in my head and opened a yawning pit of despair. Those 30,000 words I liked were only a tenth of a novel? I’d never finish one. Never. I hardly wrote fiction at all after that, not for years.

It was such an obvious mistake, so clearly wrong. For chrissake, I’d written books. Not fiction, granted, but a manual on oil and gas taxation, a guide to doing business in the European Economic Union, a manual for boards of directors of not-for-profit corporations, a handbook for family business owners. I knew – or I should have known – that the 300,000 number was complete bullshit. But I chose to believe it. Why I can’t say. Maybe I needed a new excuse to justify not chasing my dreams.

Anyway, people started dying, I had my little epiphany, Google had been invented, and I found out that 70,000 to 100,000 was the real finish line. Only took a year after that for the first novel. Took about three months for the second. I wrote the first draft of my thirds in 34 days. (If it makes you feel better, I’ve spent more time cleaning up the second novel than it took to write the first draft, but that’s another story.)

The point of all this? I’m publishing my debut novel at the age of 53. I don’t have any more talent now than I had when I was 20. Sure, I’ve been writing professionally for a pile of years now, I learned shit doing that, I’ve got a training base laid down. And yeah, if I’d actually cranked out a full novel at 20 or 25, it probably would have been an amateurish piece of crap. But the next one would have been better. And I sure as hell could have written something publishable by 30 or so.

Gotta wonder sometimes what would be different if I had. Doesn’t matter, though. I didn’t.

Writing advice is all the rage. I’m suspicious of it, personally. I find the process to be highly personal and esoteric. What works for you is what works for you and that’s all you have to know.

But there is this. You have to actually write. And you can’t let anyone piss on your dreams.

Especially yourself.


How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Practice. Practice.
How do you get onto the Best Seller List?
Write a great book.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Care and Maintenance of an Author

By Joe Climacus

Today, we would do well to look at the care and maintenance of a writer.

First, we should note that we are using 'writer' to mean one who writes creative works to share with the public. That is to say one who writes poems, stories, or novels.

It has been suggested that their is a discrepancy between the term 'writer' and 'Author.'

A writer, it is said, is one who writes whatever it is that he or she wants, without any threat or pressure. A writer is one who 'only writes.'

An Author, unlike a writer, is one who has been proven, one who has achieved publication; therefore, the Author is the one who is known to squeal with glee when a box of ARCs arrives and to complain with suicidal overtones as a deadline approaches. An Author is one who must manage promotions and book tours and contests. An author is one taxed with working on the craft, one who crafts the resulting taxes into quarterly installments.

In so far as we can appreciate the author, therefore can we show that appreciation.

1) Provide reviews and ratings of balance.

Authors are often bombarded with five-star reviews. A book whose praise is of the highest nature can be suspect in that a casual observation might conclude that the reviews listed are "some bogus fucking bullshit." In order to counteract this difficult matter the author, through no fault of his own, finds himself in, a conscientious fan would do well to craft a two-star review or, if the reviews are generally of a five-star level, a one-star review. A book that receives dozens of low reviews is not one that can be suspected of being faked by family or sock-puppets.

2) Encourage continued success.

Most writers are required to "push" their current projects, despite the probability that the ninth book in the series is merely a rote attempt at completing a contract. It is incumbent on the conscientious fan to provide support and encouragement for those previous books that are clearly superior. When posting reviews on your own blogs or on Amazon, make clear that the earlier books are far better than these later books. It is only by encouraging past successes that we can help the author to achieve future magnificence. Use of the phrase "increasingly disappointing series" is suggested.

3) Financially support the author's work.

As a conscientious fan, it is extremely important to financially support the author's work. If you have ever been in a large book store, often called "chains" because of their inability to move with alacrity or finesse, you have seen stacks and stacks of books in the front. These books have been reduced and are often in possession of a black mark along the bottom of the pages. These are the books that you should purchase. Before purchasing any new works by a favorite author, the conscientious fan will purchase these "remaining" books. As book stores have limited amount of space, they are unable to stock new works while these old books are still available. Much like the boxes of frozen cream in your ice box, these older books will inform the manager that there is no need to stock newer product. With the vast amount of promotion and marketing every author receives from a book publisher, the new work will take care of itself. The conscientious fan will focus on purchasing a copy of one of these discounted books.

4) Focus your efforts to support the author.

You might also locate the author's personal email address and share that on your own blogs and social media accounts, so that the author can keep in touch with readers. Or you could call the publishing houses and speak with as many editors as you can, extolling the author's great works and how often she or he has touched you. Though you might currently read many authors, as a conscientious fan you owe it to the author to devote your time and energy. Make phone calls. Send emails. In the past few years, author have begun to publish more and more works, pushing novellas between novels and short stories between novellas. Encourage that. With each review you post, explain how you read the current work in one sitting and demand something new immediately. Show your passion for the author.

5) Provide creative help for the author's publisher.

The past few years have not been good for the publishing industry. This is all the fault of internet pirates and no fault at all of anyone in the world of publishing. Also, Amazon. Show your support and offer your help by creating your own covers for upcoming books by your favorite author. Just as we all became writers when typewriters were invented, so too are we all artists. Whether you have MS Paint or Corel Draw, you have the same tools that expensive "artists" use to create book covers. Your advantage is that you know the author's work. You have read the author's work, driven by her house, edited her Wikipedia page. As a conscientious fan, you must take the next step to helping create future book covers for the author. You can then post them on your blog, on the blogs of others, even on Goodreads and various other forums.

As we move further into this new era of publishing, the conscientious fan does whatever he or she can to help support a favorite author. No one has ever gone wrong by trying too hard to help. If you believe in something, you should do something. If you have a favorite author, show your support by doing whatever you can think of to help. The only bad ideas are the ones you don't act on.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Fine Art of Editing... and More Editing... and Rewriting...

On the weekend, the boy started his pottery classes. Brian got a great video of him, at the wheel, with his instructor, working on shaping the clay.

Something happened.

A little too much pressure, and the mold broke.  The instructor said not to worry, everything was fixable.

And they started again, from scratch.

It was interesting to me, because I was recently asked a question about editing your own writing.  How do you know when to fix what's there or when to get rid of it and write it again from scratch?  How do you know when it's enough or when you still have more you need to change?

Joelle might phrase it by asking how you know when it's time to stop tinkering.

Now, the truth is, sometimes there is no right or wrong answer, but that's not a very helpful answer.

For me, when you're working on a scene, there are certain things to ask yourself.

#1.  Does the scene reveal what I want it to reveal about the character?  Does it accomplish the job I've set out to do with this scene?  Do I unintentionally say things about a character that I don't want to suggest?  (This becomes an issue with writers who are trying to force characters into a plot that isn't a natural fit for them, and are using them as placeholders rather than letting them take on their own life.)

#2.  If the scene's focus isn't character, the question is whether it advances the plot in the way you intend (or contributes to the overall story development by setting the scene).

If you're torn between going in a few different directions, and both options serve the purpose of #1 or #2, or both, then it may come down to an artistic choice.

Sometimes, you need to have the ability to see four or five steps down the line.  Ask yourself what the logical result of option A is, and then compare it to option B.  And then get your big girl panties (or boxers) on and make a decision.

And remember, everything is fixable, until the book goes to publication.  For newer writers, this process may not have settled, and it's more likely that you'll do more rewriting, because you're learning so much about the mechanics of writing, as well as plot and character development.  As you go through the editing process on manuscripts, you'll start to know what to look for as you go, and hopefully, it will make the rewriting process a little more bearable.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

It's all about the tinkering....

by: Joelle Charbonneau

I have a major personality flaw.  (Okay, technically I have dozens of astonishingly large personality flaws.  However, for the purpose of this blog post and to keep my therapy and chocolate bill down to a minimum, I’m going to just pretend I have just the one.)  I like to tinker.  Okay – now you’re probably rolling your eyes at me.  Lots of people like to tinker, right?  But, for me, tinkering is a major problem.  I feel the need to tinker with everything.

If I’m making Cambell’s soup out of a can, I add garlic, pepper or sometimes even cream to it.  And if I make dinner from scratch (which more often is the case) I never make a recipe the same way twice.  I have to add a bit of this and a bit of that to see how it tastes. (This drives everyone who knows me nuts because I never have a recipe to hand them if they like what I make.  I can make a good guess, but I’m never totally sure I remember exactly what tinkering I did.)

I’m also a tinkerer around the house.  If my husband cleans the house (kind of a big “if” but it does happen), I always have to go around and fix what didn’t get cleaned exactly right.  Books in bookshelves get rearranged frequently.  Knickknacks and picture frames are moved from place to place.  I’m no the best housekeeper in the world, but when I get into the spirit, I find myself fiddling with just about everything.

And don’t get my students talking about the tinkering I do in voice lessons.  I’m a huge perfectionist with their tone and their dynamics.  During a lesson, I might stop them a dozen times during the course of just one musical phrase adjusting this and that until it sounds just the way I think it should.  And then I do the same thing with the next phrase.  And once the music sounds great I start to fiddle with their acting choices.  There are days I think my students are ready to deck me.  Thankfully, they haven’t succumbed to the temptation – yet.

Yes.  When it comes to tinkering I am an “A” type personality.  Which is probably why it comes as no surprise that I tinker A LOT when I write.  There is always a word (or hundreds) that I can change and adjust and make better no matter what stage of the process I’m in.  This means I tend to fret and worry when a new book comes out that I didn’t do enough tinkering.  Yes, I need professional help.

As I approach THE END of this current book, I am already getting the urge to tweak and change and alter things, which is good, because no matter how much we pay attention to our craft when writing a book, there are always things that need to be fixed.  In this case, I know that I have to play with the opening to make sure it starts with the biggest bang I can.  After that – well, I’m guessing just about every sentence will be analyzed, adjusted and maybe even deleted. 

Yep…fun times.  Of course, for the tweaking to start, I have to first hit THE END.  Wish me luck, because by this time next week I should be reporting that this manuscript is done.  Here’s hoping I’m right. 

How about you?  What things do you like to tinker with?  And if you are a writer, what is your goal for the week?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Yet Another Slogan for Creative Types...Because We Need Them

Scott D. Parker

We creative type are the weirdest workers, aren't we? Unlike our business brethren who face deadlines with certitude ("I am employed by this company and the boss says to get this project done by this date so I dang well better do it or else I'll be fired"), creative types don't often possess that most compelling of reasons to get something done. We have to be caressed, cajoled, and compelled to do something we tell ourselves we really want to do. Folks with day jobs don't have to be asked how we feel when asked to prepare a quarterly report or given just that precise incentive to hang sheetrock.

Knowing all this, knowing that many of us writers need the extra little push, I ran across an interesting quote this week over at Lifehacker. Attributed to Karen Lamb, the quote goes like this: “A Year from Now You May Wish You Had Started Today” It struck me pretty good on Wednesday morning when I read it. I have since printed it (that would be cajoling) and have applied a couple of blanks to the quote: “A ___ from Now, You May Wish You Had Started ____” In those blanks, I can add "few hours" and  "this morning". You can also add "week/today" and "month/today". It's a good reminder that, instead of feeling guilt that you didn't do something, imagine yourself congratulating yourself for getting up and doing the thing *you said you wanted to do.*

Another pretty obvious thing we writer have to keep in mind is that writing is an activity that builds on itself. Every session that you put words in a string, eventually, they add up to something more than the sum of the parts. This week--the very same day I read the Lamb quote--I was reading an interview with Cassandra Rose Clarke over at SF Signal, my go-to site for all news SF/F related. I ended up reading the interview because Clarke is a fellow Houstonian. Here is her quote in response to a question about works in progress:

Right now I’m in the midst of a writing experiment. I have a major project I’m working on, which takes up most of my attention, but I also have a minor project that I work on for fifteen or twenty minutes a day.  Basically, first thing every morning, I write between 500 and 600 words on this minor project, and then I set it aside. It’s kind of neat to know that I’ll have a book by mid-summer purely through the magic of cumulative effort.

Since we writers who don't have the good fortune to write fiction for a living have to carve out time to do our fun writing, this was yet another compelling argument that every little bit helps us.

On a side note, I ended up downloading the sample of Clarke's new novel, The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, late on Wednesday night…and blazed through it. I haven't done that in a long time.  Moving on to the entire book.

What little quotes or sayings do you use to help you get words in a row?

Friday, February 22, 2013


By Russel D McLean

This week I was lucky enough to read an ARC of Lauren Buekes' THE SHINING GIRLS. Its a genre-bending novel that is at once a serial killer thriller, a time travel masterpiece and something altogether a little weirder.

It grabbed my attention straight away.


Because it was taking risks. Because it was doing something very different. And because it was doing it well (although that was a bonus)

I do think that writers can often be pigeonholed into a genre, that they can be associated with one type of fiction and one type only. I think that they can sometimes be afraid to experiment. I think that sometimes their readers can be afraid, too.

Best example of someone always genre shifting is Iain Banks. He has two distinct fan bases, that do occasionally cross over. But it was interesting when tried to blur the two in TRANSITION, because suddenly people seemed not to know what to do, as though he had committed some grievous sin akin to crossing the DNA of a shark with that of a human being*. Really, folks? Because it dared to have elements of various genres, you threw up your hands in despair?

But its an old problem. I remember Banks talking with despair about readers who give up on perfectly good novels because they come across the word "space" and suddenly their brain shuts down.

And I remember some of the reactions to one of Chris Brookmyre's best novels, PANDAEMONIUM: "but there's deeeeemoooons! That's not realistic!" as though abseiling down a cliff-face using your enemy's intestine as a rope was any more so.** I can only wonder what their reaction to the more pure-SF BEDLAM is going to be like...

Sometimes, playing strictly within a genre becomes limiting. I read a lot of good crime novels, but many of them while competent and entertaining (and sometimes even quite brilliant) can suffer from adhering too strictly to a jaded formula or genre boundaries because that's what's expected***. I find it very interesting that John Rickards (aka Sean Cregan) has started rewriting his earlier novels which were published by Penguin, talking on twitter about how they made him pull back from some of the genre hopping elements he tried to put into them.

Variety is key to life.

Now, not every book should be a genre-hopper. I mostly write straight up crime fiction and I'm happy with that, but I hope if I ever should decide to hop about the genre playground, you, my dear readers, will trust me enough to know that this is what the story needs to be and that even if it plays a little outside of your comfort there is a method in my storytelling madness.

Because fiction should be about experimenting, about trying new things, about attempting to cross-pollinate ideas, themes and characters. Fiction is about possibilities. It should never be limiting.

Not even within a genre.

*apologies, I wound up watching DEEP BLUE SEA the other night primarily because as cheesily insane as it is, I can never resist that brilliant Samuel L Jackson chomped by a shark scene

**one of the best and funniest (in a dark way) moments in BE MY ENEMY

***note I said some, not all. Pure genre storytelling can still be very very very powerful and so well done you don't give a toss what genre it is at all

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Take A Moment

We're a family here at Do Some Damage. When one of us has good times, we all have good times. When one of us is hurting, we all hurt. 

There are some things we must each go through that can't be eased by anyone else's words, but it's important to say them all the same. 

We want to send out our thoughts and support to a member of our family, and we hope you can all take a moment to think of people important to you, and to make sure they know it. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Jay Stringer and the Danica Patrick Effect

By Steve Weddle

A couple weeks ago, the lovely and talented Jay Stringer cut through some nonsense to give out writing advice:
1) Sit your butt down and write, and
2) When you're done, just send the damn query.

Jay Stringer is somewhat like Danica Patrick. Or Derek Jeter. Or whatever name will being the good SEO to this post.

See, Jay Stringer's agent is not only one of the best agents out there, but also one of the coolest human beings. (Full disclosure: She also reps some complete dorks, for some reason.)

Add to that the fact that Jay has a great Thomas & Mercer deal for his Eoin Miller books, in addition to numerous stories, including this thing right here.

Danica Patrick is slated for the pole position at Daytona this weekend.

Derek Jeter is coming off a goofy injury to captain the New York Yankees to another disappointing season.

And Jay Stringer is talking with his agent and his editor about all the new novels he's writing that folks will be lining up for.

If you're looking for writing advice and querying advice, you're probably not those people.

If you ask Jeter or Patrick or Stringer for advice, maybe they'll tell you that you just have to do your best work and take your shots. Wayne Gretzky, one of the top thousand hockey players of all time, said that you miss one hundred percent of the shots you don't take. All fine advice, in a sense. Just Do It. Right?

Well, how about an unqualified 'yes and no'?

When you have an agent, a book deal, a pole position, a World Series ring, you may not precisely and exactly recall what it was like when you didn't have those things. I'm not saying those folks haven't earned everything they've gotten. Hell no. I'm saying that they HAVE earned those things. They've worked their butts off. But sometimes there are very specific things a writer without an agent, a driver without a pole, a player without a win needs to know. Success is great, but can distance you somewhat from the time before.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop, starting a story. I'm scribbling away in the notebook, meaning to write a certain type of story. At a table very near to me were two greasy hipsters, showing each other artsy mini-films on their $2,000 Apple laptops. Of course, I'm not judgmental or opinionated, but I could see how someone who had come to the coffee shop to write might have begun contemplating burr grinders in the use of facial reconstruction.

My story changed. Soon enough, the husband and wife in my story were quite angry with each other. The story got away from me. How do I get the story back? Thanks. Love the show. I'll hang up and listen to your answer.

Or how about this.

I'm working on a novel that has taken me, um, many years to write. I have moved it to the front of my brain and have decided to dedicate myself to working only on this novel until it is done. Then and only then will I get to the other nine dozen ideas I've had in the last month. Is that a good idea? Should I work on all these things at once? Should I take breaks while writing a long book to write little stories? What if I lose the momentum? How do I balance all these ideas? If I can't get this high fantasy idea figured out soon, I worry I'll incorporate a dragon-infested castle into my modern day noir novel. You know, maybe that's not a bad idea. Wait, that's a terrible idea. But maybe I should just try it for a while and see where it takes me. But maybe I'll get lost and all these other ideas for this novel will be cast aside. GAK!

These are very personal problems (heh) with my particular writing at this moment. The only thing that will help me figure these things out will be chatting with my lovely bride, other writer pals, or my agent.

Which brings me to the agent query.

Jay's advice was to write your best work and then send out the query. If that agent doesn't like your work, send to another agent.

That makes sense, but let's look at it another way.

I researched many agents years ago. I knew which ones might be a fit for me. I knew which ones sold the types of books I wanted to write.I knew which ones would stick you with the lunch bill.

A couple ways you can go about this. There may be more, of course.

You can create a spreadsheet with agent names and email addresses. You'll need a column for what you sent and when you sent it. You'll need a column for whether the agent responded. This column will be filled with "FORM REJECT," for the most part. You'll need a column for whether they asked to see a partial and when and what the result of that is. Look, I don't know if this is of any help to you, but here's the Agent Query spreadsheet I used. Feel free to take it, modify it, use it.

The problem with that, I think, is the compulsion to barrage agents. That's a temptation worth resisting. When I didn't have an agent, part of me thought that ANY AGENT would be great, a form of validation. I'd be visiting with an old friend and I could say something like, "That's nice, Mike. Glad your kid passed the spelling test. That reminds me of something my agent and I were talking about last week. What? Oh, yeah. My agent. You know. I didn't mention my literary agent? Yeah. She's in New York. Manhattan. Yeah. Oh, thanks. Sure. Well, yeah, it is kind of a big deal." And so on.

You don't want to do that. You don't want to send your query out to 50 agents at a time. When I talked to Real Authors during my pre-agent days, most of them said, "The only thing worse than not having an agent is having the wrong agent." My initial reaction was that they were trying to sound like Oscar Wilde. Turns out, they were right.

The wrong agent can steer your career the wrong direction. The wrong agent can ignore you. The wrong agent can depress the ever-living heck out of you, suggesting you work on projects that will drain your life until you're a quivering little mass of flesh-globs, like the mercury from a broken thermometer.

So, if you're going to query agents, be organized. Find a few who might work for you. Ask around. What helped me most was looking in the books I liked and reading the acknowledgements. Who is the agent for my favorite author? Who is the agent for the books that are like the books I want to write? Check out AgentQuery and the agent forum at AbsoluteWrite. And follow Victoria Strauss on Twitter.

I've blathered on long enough, but I wanted to also mention that following the agent's guidelines for submissions is worth considering. I didn't always do this. I don't suggest that you always do this. If an agent asks for your "First Five Pages" in your novel, you probably don't have to send in your first five pages. Send in the most gripping five. Of course, there's an argument to be made that the first five should be your most gripping. I'm not going to argue against that. All I know is that I had a nice scene later in my book that I used in many queries as my First Five. People liked them, but that wasn't how I opened the book. Honestly, by the time your book reaches the shelves, your first five won't be your first five, anyway.

Jay's correct, of course. Write the best book you can write and then find an agent.

But, from my vantage point, most of us need some tips and advice now and again. I have a few writing books that I go to every so often. I don't follow them blindly. I read a little, then use that to push me forward. Sometimes I'll read the first few pages of a thriller novel just to remind myself that I should be writing. If that schmuck can write, can find the time and energy, why can't I?

So maybe Jeter tells you to just keep your eye on the ball. Maybe Patrick tells you to keep the infield on your left and the wall on your right. And Stringer says to just put your butt in the chair and do it.

Advice from people who have succeeded is great, even if it seems a little removed from where you are right now.

But sometimes you need particular advice from a spouse, friend, agent, or editor.

Sometimes you need someone to tell you to put your damn earbuds in your ears and switch tables.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

It's Good to be Back

By John McFetridge

First of all, thanks to the DSD folks for allowing me to return.

And where was I, you ask? Time traveling.

I spent the last year and a half living in 1970. At least that’s what it feels like. I was writing a novel that takes place mostly in 1970 and I was a little obsessed there for a while. Books, magazines, newspapers, movies, TV shows – everything from 1968 to 1970.

My novel is called Black Rock and it’s about... well, here’s the publisher’s first blurb-like copy:

Montreal 1970. A man known as the “Vampire Killer” has murdered three women and a fourth is missing. Bombs explode in the stock exchange, McGill University and houses in Westmount. Riots break out at the St. Jean Baptiste parade and Sir George Williams University. James Cross and Pierre Laporte are kidnapped and the Canadian army moves onto the streets of Montreal, Constable Edouard Dougherty, the son of a French mother and an English father, a young beat cop working out of Station Ten finds himself almost alone hunting the killer.

Set against the actual Montreal events, including the hunt for a serial killer, Black Rock is not just a police procedural, it’s also a gaze into the Two Solitudes and a coming-of-age story for Constable Eddie Dougherty.


Well, that sure seems Canadian. Maybe too-Canadian, but oh well. You can read the first chapter here.

I find the early 70s a very interesting time. I turned 11 in 1970 so my memories aren’t much for a crime novel, but the research was fun.

One book that really set the stage was Mark Kurlansky’s, 1968. As it says on the flap:

To some, 1968 was the year of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Yet it was also the year of the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy assassinations; the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; Prague Spring; the antiwar movement and the Tet Offensive; Black Power; the generation gap; avant-garde theater; the upsurge of the women’s movement; and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.


In the bigger context Montreal was just one of many cities in the world with bombs and kidnappings and riots. And murders.

I also spent the last year reading some very good books set decades before they were written that used actual events. A few of the best were Adrian McKinty’s, The Cold Cold Ground and I Hear the Sirens in the Street, David Peace’s, 1972 and Charlie Stella’s, Johnny Porno.

So, it’s good to be back in the here and now but I am thinking about writing another book with Constable Eddie Dougherty set in 1972. I’m not really nostlagic, I don’t think, and I’d never refer to those years as “simpler.” In fact, I think what interests me are the similarities. In the introduction to another good book I read recently, 1973 by Andreas Killen (does every year have a book written about it?), the question is asked: Will the seventies never end? Killen makes the claim that the 70s were, “the incubator for many of the developments that now define our contemporary political and cultural zeitgeist.”

I’m not much for politics, but I’m a sucker for zeitgeist.

A few things that exploded into the mainstream in the 70s were cults and deprogramming, conspiracy theories (Watergate helped there), reality TV (PBS aired An American Family), Roe v. Wade, the Pentagon Papers, the oil crisis and recession, some great movies and novels and TV shows and some very bad fashion.

So, what are some of your favourite books, movies, TV shows or whatevers from the 70s?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Rural noir

I'm a fan or rural noirs, dark crime fiction stories set in rural areas. I'm not the only one. In recent years we've seen a rise in usage of the term, and its other variations: country noir, grit lit, hillbilly noir, southern noir, etc. While the term itself may be new, Give us a Kiss by Daniel Woodrell was labeled as a Country Noir, the roots of this story type go back to the Southern Gothic tradition, and to books from the 30's and 40's (They Don't Dance Much by James Ross is a proto rural noir from 1940).

There's been a number of writings about this genre, story type, and the authors in it, including the recently released Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader.    I don't want to define what it is or isn't, that's for another day. What I did was create a Pinterest Board for rural noirs. That way readers looking for some other titles to read within this story type can get a gentle nudge in the right direction. This is less of a curated list then my noir board. It is also a work in progress so if you don't see something let me know and I'll probably add it. 

What are your favorite rural noirs?

Sunday, February 17, 2013


by: Joelle Charbonneau

Well, it's Sunday.  That means I'm supposed to have a smart, interesting or funny blog post for you to read.  The problem is that I have nothing!  Nada.  Zip.  Zilch.  I have a deadline looming and the end of a book in sight.  Which is probably why my brain can't come up with a single thing that you might want to read about.  So....while I add pages to my manuscript and get closer to THE END, please feel free to share any thoughts you might have on what you'd like me to blog on in the future?  Is there a question you've been wanting to ask?  Is there a piece of publishing info you want me to discuss?  Do you want me to post pictures of my cat?  If so, let me know and I'll be happy to be smart, funny, and erudite when I'm not on overload.  And in the meantime, please feel free to send caffeine.  Lots of it!

Happy Sunday all!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Surprising Batman

Scott D. Parker
Comics don’t often surprise, but Scott Snyder’s Batman has done it. Twice.
I love comics. They are one of the ways I learned how to read. I learned about good guys and bad guys, how functional certain costumes can be, and what kinds of fun quips heroes can utter while battling their villains. Over years, the writers of these tales have gone big (Crisis on Infinite Earth, Marvel Super-Hero Secret Wars), gone small (Gotham Central), and everywhere in between. I’ve enjoyed quite a lot of it, but there’s always a sameness to these stories. Hey, I’m not complaining: I like this stuff and I dig just about every version of certain characters out there, but you pretty much know that, at the end of any given story arc, the heroes will be ready to do battle again.
So it was with a certain amount of joy that I can report that Scott Snyder, the writer for the newly revamped “Batman” title, has delivered two very strong and surprising stories. In case y’all didn’t know, in late 2011, DC Comics zeroed out all their titles and restarted the DC Universe (except for Batman, Green Lantern, and a few others; don’t get started there, okay?). Taking on the flagship Batman title, Snyder, with artist Greg Capullo, have done something breathtaking: they have introduced something completely new to a 70-year-old franchise. When you think about all the writers and artists who have had a hand in crafting the Dark Knight’s adventures, that’s a tall order.
The first arc, Court of Owls, introduces a heretofore unknown secret society that operates in Gotham City. What’s great about this concept is it enables Snyder to bring in various other characters (Penguin, AKA Oswald Cobblepot) and establish their lineage in this city. As Snyder writes him, Batman prides himself on knowing Gotham City. By extension, we readers think we know Gotham City, too. Sure, it’s gone through as many changes as Batman himself, but we pretty much know what to expect. It is with these dual expectations that Snyder plays so effectively, surprising us as well as the great detective. And, in a great bit of planned serendipity, another new title, All-Star Western, is set in Gotham City of the 1880s, giving background to some of the concepts Batman is wrangling with in the 21st Century. Fantastic story, easily one of my favorite Bat titles I’ve ever read.
The second story arc is good, too, but quite a bit more disturbing. Paying homage to the late 1980s run where the second Robin was killed (“A Death in the Family), the new “Death of the Family” exposes the reader and Batman to the new Joker. The Clown Prince of Crime has had a colorful history in his 70+ years, but, ever since the 1970s—and especially since 1988—he’s gone darker and darker, becoming much more scary and terrifying than just the clown you might know from the 1940s comics or the 1960s TV show or the 1989 movie. To be honest, his modern comic incarnation is scarier than Heath Ledger’s version. To showcase just how wacked Joker is in this new version of the DC Universe, his initial appearance in 2011 has him voluntarily submitting to having his face cut off. Yes, you read that correctly: the Joker had his face cut off.
And then he disappeared for a year (real time as well as comic time). He returns in Snyder’s Death of the Family and he proceeds to wreck havoc across the entire line of Bat titles: Nightwing, Red Robin, Batgirl, etc. And it’s bad. It’s shockingly bad, but gripping reading. This past week, the culmination of this story was published and, I’ll admit, there were a few frames in this issue that had my pulse racing fearful of turning the page because I didn’t want to see what I expected to see.
The beauty of the words and art in Death of the Family is how Snyder and Capullo’s depiction of Batman and the characters that surround him. I really like Capullo’s art, easily my favorite since Jim Lee did Hush a decade ago. Snyder digs deeper and unveils more layers to Bruce Wayne than many others before him. And to say that the implications of the ending of Death of the Famlily are profound is an understatement.
If you have a mind, find these issues (Batman 1-7 for Court; 13-17 for Death). There are many more side-titles you can read to fill in the gaps, but I haven’t read them all so cannot comment on them. Heck, just get all of the Batman issues and read them. You won’t be disappointed. With Snyder being a new name for me and liking what he was doing with Batman, I also picked up the new Swamp Thing, also written by Snyder. I was never a huge fan of that character, but very much am now. Great stuff.
Who out there still reads comics? What are your favorite titles? I’m mainly a DC guy, but I am reading some Marvel Now stuff. Any recommendations there, or beyond the Big Two?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Russel's rules for Redrafting

By Russel D McLean

As with last week, I'm still working on some redrafts. For me the redrafting process starts two or three weeks after finishing a manuscript. I've put it aside. I've thought about what I'd like to achieve with the structure and after the distance of those weeks, I'm ready to start again. To look at the book with fresh eyes and start to shape it the way I want it. This may take three or four attempts, maybe more. Its not a one and done thing, and generally I'll need to do it all over again once my editor and agent take a look. But there are 5 basic rules I always follow once I've vomitted that first (always unreadable) draft onto the page. I've found they help me to create a readable manuscript. They don't help with plot issues that arise, of course, but for this week let's just focus on the writing.

1) Read it out loud.

Ever wondered why some phrases feel right and others feel wrong? Depending on the mood you're aiming for, you want to read out loud the words on the page. See how they feel coming out of your mouth. This works just as well for prose as for dialogue. Of course since I tend to work in first person, I don't see a massive difference between dialogue and prose, but there will be subtle differences all the same.

By the way I know of some writers who read out loud in the nude. The second part is not necessary. Unless of course that's your bag.

2) Long sentence? Cut it down.

Voice is what comes out when you take away all the supposedly writerly bullshit. Long sentences tend to disguise voice (unless they're there for a purpose). Cut the long sentence up. Put in full stops. Make it two or three sentences. See how that feels. Generally you'll find that the three sentences are clearer and more easily understood than that single behemoth.

3) Avoid all filters.

"I felt a sharp pain my leg."
"I heard the owls hooting in the dark"
"I saw the shark burst out of the water in front of me."

If you've done your job right then the reader will always know whose POV we're writing from. This means that constant repeats of "I" become annoying. It also means that every time you say, "I did this" you're putting a barrier between your character's sensation and your reader's experience. You want the reader to be as close as they can be to the reality of what's happening. So quit filtering:

"There was a sharp pain in my leg."
 "The owls hooted in the dark."
"The shark burst out of the water in front of me."

Make everything as immediate as possible. Take out as many filters as you can. Try and put the reader as close to the POV character as you can.

4) Avoid repetition. Don't repeat yourself.

Any two sentences that mean the same thing in the same paragraph get cut. Unless there's a good dramatic reason for it. Same with repeated words or descriptions within a few paragraphs. And the same with information unless we really need to be reminded at that moment of whatever nugget of wisdom you believe may benefit your reader's understanding of the scene.

5) Don't start at the very beginning

I get very bored with properly constructed sentences in fiction. They tend to feel stiff and oddly unnatural. So I cut the beginnings of sentences where I can.

"He stepped into the apartment. There was a light in the bathroom that drew his attention."
"He stepped into the apartment. A light in the bathroom drew his attention."

So there we go, five tips that work for me. Note the second part of that sentence: that work for me. Writing is a hugely personal process and I think anyone who tells you they have the holy grail is lying. I tend to take what I need from other writers and ignore the parts that don't work. But hopefully some of these will help you tighten up your writing when it comes to that all important first pass through a completed manuscript.

In the meantime, I'm off to celebrate Valentine's Day in the traditional McLean manner: redrafting, redrafting, redrafting...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Why Runaway Town?

By Jay Stringer

This post was planned before we had a slight shuffle of the deck here at DSD. But I'd not be myself if I passed up the chance to throw a dedication to both Dave White and Dan O'Shea while writing a post about The Replacements. 

The title to my next book is taken from a song by The Replacements. It's a song that came to have a lot of personal significance to my wife and I (happy Valentines , yo) so it feels right to borrow from it the title for a book I'm very proud of. By why this band? Why do I shout more about them than about just about anything else in the world?

The promise of punk rock had been that any fucker could do it. Learn a few chords -maybe even just one- and take to the stage. By force in necessary. For so long the mainstream of music had become about art students and manufactured bands. And even within the punk that was breaking the mainstream there was a smell of manufacture. The rock and roll product was merely learning to repackage itself, and the art students were starting to wear safety pins. 

The Replacements were one of the bands to truly follow through on the promise of punk rock. A three-piece band formed by Bobby Stinson as nothing more than a basement jamming club to keep his 12-yearo-old brother off the streets and out of trouble. The band featured the unpredictable and troubled Bobby Stinson on guitar, young Tommy Stinson on bass (learning to play it songs by song) and a guitar player named Chris Mars filling in on drums to keep a rhythm while the Stinson boys jammed.  Paul Westerberg soon invited himself along to this club. A dyslexic loner who worked as a janitor at the local school and needed to be drunk to overcome his innate shyness and perform in front of anyone. He had been hiding in the bushes outside the house for days before he worked up the nerve to approach them. 

Anybody could have been The Replacements. They truly were the band from nowhere, the band with no rights and no hopes of producing music. They didn't even dress like musicians. Paul wore plaid, flannel, sensible shoes and he didn't rip his jeans. Bobby seemed to be on a mission to subvert 'cool' as much as he could, wearing unflattering clothes that were usually a size to small, wearing dresses and bin liners, wearing boiler suits. Quiet Chris dressed like any of the quiet Chris's you've ever known. The only one who looked the part was Tommy. There was no effort to fit in to something else, to be anything else. Later on, when record companies started suggesting such things, they started dressing in plaid suits, clown costumes, anything other than what was expected of them. The Replacements simply WERE.. A generation of musicians followed. Some were great, some were terrible. Some acknowledged the influence, some didn't even realise it. One of them -a three piece group from Aberdeen, Washington- took over the world for one brief moment in the early 90's. 

The trick, though, is also that nobody else could have been The Replacements. They were one of a kind. We are drawn to bands not just because of the music they make, but because they are the only people who can make that music. Buried away in human chemistry is the juice that gives each good band that 'thing.' To go back now and listen to Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash is to listen to an album that only those four snot-nosed brats could have made. It shouts it's influences at us, but they combine into something else. Has ever the spirit of the time, has ever the true spirit of street-level punk rock, been so purely captured as on this slab of vinyl. It works because of Tommy's jumping fingers on the bass. It works because of Paul's intelligent trickster vocals. It works because of Bobby's total lack of respect for music when he had a guitar in his hands. It worked because Quiet Chris somehow had to hold all of this together with his drums. Take any one of those things out of the equation and the album doesn't work. 

Calling the album 'punk' may be misleading. That's a word that means different things to different people. For some it's about a staccato rhythm banged out on a guitar that's only half tuned, or a voice carrying a nasal sneer. For some it's about a look, with bright hair and safety pins. For others it's about politics carried along by riffs. But the sound of those early Replacements riffs didn't fit into any of these ideas. It was D..I.Y, pure and simple, and it was a primal street-level roar that could be traced back via Johnny Thunders to Chuck Berry himself. It's a sound that is ageing very well. 

They were a band who never stood still, literally or figuratively. Once they'd captured that sound, there was no fun to be had in repeating the trick. They moved and evolved. Rock And Roll still wanted to sell you a very set version of events, and a very male version of lust and sex. The Replacements set about telling you it was okay to just be yourself.  It was okay to be lonely, it was okay to be fed up or angry. It was okay to be confused at 16.  It was okay to not fit into the simple gender roles of the glossy music magazines. You wanna dress like a boy? Cool. You wanna dress like a girl? Cool. You don't actually know what you wanna be? Cool. You can't articulate your hopes and fears? That's fine. Let's not belong together, whatever you are is the best thing there is. 

I found this intensely appealing a generation later, when all my friends were into Brit-pop, metal or punk. I didn't hear myself in the smug pretension of Blur, or the overcompensating machismo and sideburns of Oasis. The local metal scene talked proudly of being inclusive and open, but to walk into those pubs was to walk into a scene that wasn't being honest with itself. I could identify strongly with punk, but there were just too many cliques for me to feel completely at home. I saw boys and girls having to change who they were in order to fit into a scene, rather than having scenes that fit who they were. Then I heard this band.

Once a band like this 'made it,' that is, once they broke through into the members only club of Rock and Roll, they found another problem; the club had been run by a select group for so long that you needed to become one of them to get anywhere. You needed to play games, kiss ass, be packaged and be nice. Even rebellion was packaged- the false outrage of the Sex Pistols, the predictability of saying something controversial on cue. They just wanted to be themselves. In finding the one thing they wanted -and in fulfilling that promise of punk rock- they found it was the thing they least wanted. Failure became the challenge. Fans like me have often sat around and talked of how the band could have had a hit if they'd played along. Of how they could have broken the 1980's in half if they'd released the original band demo of CAN'T HARDLY WAIT, with Bobby's ripping guitar, rather than wait and put out the one with the horns. Of the MTV airplay they would have gotten if they'd made a 'real' music video for BASTARDS OF YOUNG instead of finding the loophole in the contract that meant they could just film a stereo speaker for four minutes. Of how they could have continued their fun rivalry with R.E.M to the world stage if they'd just played nice. But that would have been a betrayal of the whole message. It would have been rigging the game. 

If you're going to commit your life to anything, be it writing, music, art, film-making or interpretive dance, you should commit to being yourself while doing it. No matter what. There is no point putting in the hard work to get into the exclusive club and then letting them control how you behave. The Replacements were themselves to the bitter end.

The Replacements simply were.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Doing PENANCE and the remembrance of things past

By Dan O'Shea

I finally get the call to the big leagues. The cool kids at Do Some Damage asked me to suit up. So I’m trolling for a topic, and ol’ Papa Benedict, the head Mackerel Snapper goes and announces he’s hanging up his zucchetto. Sweet. I got a novel coming out named PENANCE, it’s got a little Catholic vibe to it, I know the Vatican sit-stand-kneel bob-and–weave. I might as well riff on religion right out of the gate, piss everybody off, maybe start a little scandal. Good for traffic, right?

I got steeped in Catholicism as a kid. Schooled by nuns from kindergarten through eighth grade, schooled by Benedictine monks through high school. Well, Benedictine monks and the U.S. military. It was a Catholic military academy with an honest-to-Jesus, sanctioned-by-the-Pentagon JROTC program. We had an armory full of M14s in the basement. Marksmanship was part of the curriculum. So was Mass. The school motto was Crede De Deo, Luctari Pro Eo – to believe in God and to fight for him. Always confused me. I always figured if there was one guy who could handle his own beefs, it was the almighty. Hell, ask Noah, or better yet, Noah’s neighbors. Ask the good folks of Sodom. Or Gomorrah. (Boy, being from Gomorrah really proves the value of top billing doesn’t it? Denizens of both burgs got the fire and brimstone treatment, but only the Sodomites have been memorialized as the poster children for deviancy.)  At least high school proved to be good training in cognitive dissonance. One period we’d be discussing the Beatitudes, the next a twitchy sergeant who’d done one too many tours in ‘Nam would be telling us how to kill someone with a copy of Sports Illustrated. Little hard on one’s social life, though. It was an all-boys school, so it’s not like you could impress some chick in math class by flexing your frontal lobes, and these were the 1970s. Everybody else was running around with Allman Brothers hair and I had the high-and-tight whitewalls. Although, upon graduation, I was named a brevet second lieutenant in the Illinois National Guard.

You never know what’s going to pay off when, as it turns out.

No, not the National Guard thing. The Catholic thing. See, one day during theology class one of the monks, just out of the blue, turns and asks “Mr. O’Shea, what’s the perfect time to be murdered?” I was leaning toward never, but it seems the answer he was looking for was as you leave confession. With your soul being freshly laundered and pressed, you’d be in a state of grace. It’s like having a lock pick to the Pearly Gates. Not that what was on the other side of the Pearly Gates held that much appeal to me anymore at sixteen. A back bench in the everlasting choir? An eternity praising God? Man, these Jihadists get a harem of virgins and we get Mass until the end of time? I’m thinking Islam might have been an easier sale to a mess of pubescent males already hamstrung in our hopes of getting laid by our unfashionable locks.

But that question stuck with me. Well, not the question so much as the answer. The idea that, in some twisted true believer’s mind, getting murdered on your way out of confession would be a good thing, that ended up being the germ of an idea that got me rolling on my first novel, PENANCE. (Coming April 30 to a book store near you from the good folks at Exhibit A.)

All writers joke about that “where do you get your ideas?” question. I imagine it’s the same for everybody. You read stuff – fiction, history, what have you; you hear stuff; you live through stuff. It all goes into the brain pan, just kinda bubbles around in there until it tastes like a story. Your brain works like that or it doesn’t. It’s not something explicable. Just pay attention I guess, and all that crap in there, stir it up now and again, see what floats to the top.

Anyway, howdy. Guess I’ll be cluttering up these parts on Wednesdays for a bit. Hope I don’t embarrass all these young whippersnappers with my curmudgeonly recollections. Those 1970s I was talking about? Back then, Bruce Jenner was an actual U.S. Olympic hero, on the cover of the Wheaties box, the whole deal. He wasn’t the punch line in a celebrity divorce or step-daddy to litter of big-assed Kardashians.

Been a long, strange trip for everybody, I guess.