Saturday, March 16, 2013

Travel: The Inspiration Generator

Scott D. Parker

When you can't write what you know, write what you see.

I've been reading a lot of Alan Dean Foster. While he is not a crime author--he writes mostly SF and fantasy--he did pen Cyber Way, a murder mystery set in the American Southwest and that is the ticket we'll punch to discuss him here, on this crime fiction website. Anyway, along with my reading of his early SF work, I've been reading some of the interviews available on the internet. One of his passions is travel. He has used travel to spur his imagination over the course of his forty-plus year career. There are some definite alien-looking things here on plant Earth that hold mysteries even to this day. Foster has used his extensive travels to spur his imagination and fill his science fiction and fantasy books with all sorts of interesting creatures.

Foster's use of travel as inspirations for his books was in the back of my mind as my family and I took a day trip out of Houston yesterday. We went west to Sealy (about 30 miles out) and then north to Bellville (another 13 miles). Along the way, we saw small town rural life on a beautiful spring day. The near cloudless sky was so pristine, the humidity barely present, and the temperature just perfect that I would not have been surprised to have seen a giant stamp in the sky, proving that I was, in fact, traveling on a post card.

With hardly any thought whatsoever, stories just flowed and bounced around in my brain. It didn't hurt that our destination was the Newman Castle. In the 1990s, the owner of a local bakery decided to build an actual castle on his land just outside of Bellville. He actually lives there, gives tours each day, and opens up his home to private parties and dinner theaters. Needless to say, you didn't have to be a medieval scholar to have a few scenarios bump around in your head.

Imagination is easy and takes almost no effort. Sitting at your writing desk, fingers on your keyboard, you can go anywhere you want in your mind. But it's a nice change of pace to travel somewhere new, somewhere different and see things that, perhaps, your imagination might not consider. Or, better yet, to send your imagination off into another branch of your internal discovery.

Do you use travel to initiate creativity?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Torture Porn

Hi everyone. Russel’s away in Paris for the week, eating too much Wild Boar and slowly turning into Obelix. He asked me to pen a few words to fill the space he left behind.

First the promotional bit. My debut novel, Natural Causes, is coming out on May 9th in the UK, published by Michael Joseph. A lot of people have already read it, though, because I self-published it as an ebook just over a year ago.

The wonderful thing about fairy tales (and I hasten to add Natural Causes is not a fairy tale) is that they do occasionally come true. I had no great hopes for my book being a huge success. If I had a goal at all it was to sell perhaps a thousand copies of it and its sequel, The Book of Souls, over the course of a year. As it happened, through the clever marketing wheeze of giving Natural Causes away for a bit and hoping people would then pay for The Book of Souls, I shifted over three hundred and fifty thousand copies of both books on Amazon alone in the six months before the good people at Michael Joseph made me a very tidy offer for the rights.

This post isn’t so much about that. (Though please excuse the shameless bragging. I am, as you might say, cock-a-hoop.) I mention it only to suggest that many people have read the opening chapter of Natural Causes. Some have read no further. I know this because they have written me one star reviews to that effect, and sent me emails berating me for the sickness of my mind. Just this week I’ve had another one on Amazon, under the title ‘Sick’:

“The graphic detail in the opening chapter made me feel sick, I couldn't read any more of it. A poor choice for me on this occasion.”

They may have a point, even if they are in the minority. You see, the opening chapter, though just a shade over five hundred words long, is a graphic depiction of the gang rape and ritual murder of a young woman, written from the point of view of the victim.

Some of you have judged me already, I can tell. Those of you wondering what the fuss is all about might like to take a moment to go and read the offending piece. You can do so here. I’ll wait until you get back.

When the print edition of the book comes out in May, however, that offending and offensive-to-some chapter won’t be there. We have decided, my editor and I, to remove it to the back of the book, with a little covering note explaining why.

The reasons for doing this are many fold. Perhaps the most obvious and least defensible is that with such a graphic and disturbing opening chapter, the supermarkets may shy off stocking the book. It’s sad but true that supermarkets are where most people buy their books these days, plucked from the shelf at random and thrown in the trolley with the ready-meal horse lasagna and bottle of cheap Australian Chardonnay. Supermarkets can be fickle about what they stock, and not making it into Tesco can be the difference between a bestseller and a flop.

That’s not the only reason for removing it, though. I’ve had my own reservations about the opening for a while. It is an undeniably graphic and horrible description. It was designed to shock, and I think succeeds. It also doesn’t really fit with the tone of the rest of the book.

To understand why it’s there, I need to explain the history behind Natural Causes. I’m a late-comer to crime fiction, some might say something of a charlatan in the genre. I wrote my first attempt, a short story, in 2005 after my good friend Stuart MacBride had suggested I do like him, which was to stop pissing around with fantasy and SF and try my hand at something that might actually get published. He’d been given similar advice by a departing agent, and it seems to have worked out well for him. I wrote a half dozen short stories featuring a detective I’d created for a comic script, pitched unsuccessfully to 2000AD in the early nineties. Natural Causes was, I think, the third one. It was published as a short story by Spinetingler in late 2006. By then I’d already started the process of rewriting it as a novel, and Sandra Ruttan suggested I might submit it for the CWA Debut Dagger.

You only get 3000 words and a synopsis for your Dagger entry, so they need to count. The novel originally opened in the same way as the short story, with DI Tony McLean stumbling upon a crime scene already being investigated by another, more senior detective. I wanted something to grab the judges’ attention, and since the book revolved around a ritual killing from the past, what better way than to describe that killing as it happens?

It must have worked. Natural Causes was short-listed for the Debut Dagger in 2007. It didn’t win, though, and neither did the exposure gain me a publisher or agent. So I put it to one side and got on with writing the next book. When I self-published last year, I thought long and hard about that opening chapter, but decided again to keep it. If nothing else, it would get people talking about the book.

But it still bothered me. Crime fiction by its very nature deals with the nastiness and violence of life. Bloody murder and the worst of human nature are our stock in trade. But there’s a big difference between describing a horrific scene to explore the reactions of your characters, and doing it to impress a set of award judges. Or just to shock your readers into talking about your book.

The opening scene in Natural Causes occurs sixty years before the events that make up the bulk of the book, long before DI McLean and his team are even born. It’s in the present time, when the body is discovered walled up in a basement of a derelict mansion, that we begin to explore the effects of the crime on those investigating it. There are a few other scenes in the book that are quite graphic and unpleasant, but they are necessary to drive the story forward, to motivate the characters and add a sense of peril. The opening scene is gratuitous, for all that I still think it is, technically, a strong bit of writing. And for that reason alone it had to go.

Looking at the books I have written since Natural Causes, I can see what to me looks like a toning down of the visceral shocks; the guts and gore stuff. The latest has a couple of gross moments, but most of the truly horrific I leave to the reader’s imagination, which is far worse than anything I could ever write. More importantly, what is there is relevant to the characters within the book, rather than simply put in to get a reaction from the reader.

The first is good storytelling, whatever the genre. The second is just torture porn.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Runaway History

By Jay Stringer

So, I have this whole book thing happening.

My second crime novel -RUNAWAY TOWN- comes out in less than two weeks. It has a theme tune, too, but more on that next week.

I've been  going easy on the hard sell over the last few months, but it's time to get the hustle on. Next week I'll talk about one of the major themes that informed the plot, but this week I want to talk about an issue that comes from the setting. Yesterday Mr O'Shea laid down some schooling on how the history of the setting is important.  I spent much of the first book -OLD GOLD- establishing my hometown (or home-region, as it's more accurate to say. The Black Country is a collection of towns) as a setting that could carry a crime novel.

One of the obstacles I had to overcome was that the region usually doesn't get to be the setting for, well, anything. It's ignored in the national media. It's ignored in fiction. Hell, the football team I support is on the brink of financial meltdown and a second successive relegation -when teams from "cooler" parts of England have suffered like this it's been national news and the subject of much debate. My team don't merit a mention, it seems. (In this instance that is perhaps a blessing in disguise- why would I want the wound made any more raw?)

I've spoken on this at great length before. I only raise it now to make this point; that was the first challenge. That was one of the thing I needed to accomplish with the first book.

What next?

Deal with it. Earn it. Turn up the volume.

I was done telling the world to pay attention to the Midlands, and it was now my turn to pay attention. What was the region trying to tell me? What was the story that I'd fought so hard to tell?

I grew up in a very racially diverse area. Some parts of the UK have remained blind to immigration (they tend to be the areas that produce our government ministers.) Some places have had one or two eras of immigration that still define it (you don't have to be in the west of Scotland for long to see that the Irish diaspora is still a key issue). The Midlands -because of it's place in history as the centre of the industrial revolution and the 200 years that followed- has greeted every wave of immigration to hit the island.

To talk about this in one sense is to embrace multi-culturalism. I can talk of the vibrant parts of the city and of the many positives to be gained from the constant influx. It's a region where you will find countless different ethnic backgrounds all united by being the same social class. But I'm a crime writer, so it's more often my job to look past the surface and see what issues need to be dragged out into the light.

Racism. Racism is often the ugly flip side of the coin to multi-culturalism. Find me an area where successive generations of people have learned to live and work with new cultures, and you'll also find the groups who feel threatened by the very same thing. Hopefully their numbers get fewer with each generation, but that also seems to raise their resolve, and they gather together in pockets of hate. When I moved away from the region I found that other (and frankly 'whiter') parts of the UK had more 'casual racism.' That is to say, I found that people would use terms and hold opinions that were not meant to be offensive; they were based on ignorance rather than hate. I'd grown up in an area where much of this casual level of racism had been worn away over generations. What that process reveals though is the people who mean it.  There were people back home who knew that their opinions and words were offensive, and they meant each of them. 

In the Midlands you'll find many activists and people willing to stand up and fight for multi-culturalism, but you'll also find the groups on the opposite side, people who want to return their 'homeland' to a mythic state of 'purity' that never existed. And I decided I needed to admit that if my work was going to stay honest. I recall a conversation before I left the Midlands, when someone pointed to a freshly built mosque and said, "how would they like it if we went to their country and started building churches?" There were so many levels of fail in that one line that I didn't know where to begin.

Fortunately, when you write novels, you don't have to know how to begin, because you can spend 70-80 thousand words exploring the conversation. I wanted to do just that.

What becomes clear is that the battleground for this issue is the working class. People who've grown up with very little, and who were conned into increasing that from 'very little' to 'some,' by taking out unsustainable mortgages and credit. Whenever the economy takes a dump, these concerns become even greater, and in these times we all look for people to blame. This is the chance for people to stir up fear and hate and, boy, are they good at it.

Over the past few years I've seen people who I've known all my life, people who have never uttered a racist word or argument, start to fall prey to this fear. They build fences around their thoughts and look to see who is to blame for the loss of money and possessions that they never truly owned in the first place. And slowly the words they use change. Slowly they go from being one kind of person to another, whilst still being the same person in every other way.

As a writer I found that both fascinating and troubling.

In our rush to talk up the positives of modernity, and in our eagerness to fight for the great things to come from immigration and multi-culturalism, we perhaps become afraid to discuss and present the darker side. We want to point to the good and hope that the bad goes away

I argue the opposite. I think what we need to do is open the conversation up rather than attempt to moderate it. That's what we can do with crime fiction. We can drag the thorny, ugly and troubling issues out into the light and explore them. (While also telling a fun story and occasionally blowing shit up.)

I decided to make sure my writing was a mirror rather than a travel brochure, and that was one of the starting points for Runaway Town.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Burning down the house

Stick with me for a little Chicago history lesson and I give away some goodies at the end. Or, if you're an impatient bastard, just jump to the end for the free stuff. But you'll feel guilty. You know you will.
Say Chicago to someone, and then say the 1968 riots, and you’re going to hear about the Democratic National Convention. Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies and The Whole World Is Watching. Great political theater, sure. A seminal moment in the whole 1960s counterculture, in the anti-war movement. But it’s not what I remember. Nobody died, nothing burned.
I was nine years old in 1968. Say 1968 and riots to me and here’s what I remember. I remember the days following Martin Luther King’s assassination. I remember watching Chicago burn on the news, watching my grandparents’ neighborhood burn. 
It was only three months before the convention that most of the west side went up in flames. 11 people were killed – all black, all shot by the police. Hundreds more were injured, thousands arrested. In a 27 block stretch running west to east between Roosevelt Road and Madison Street, more than 200 buildings were burned to the ground. The city sent in more than 10,000 cops. The state deployed 6,000 National Guardsmen. President Johnson deployed 5,000 regular army troops. Funny the parts of history that get ignored.
That’s why, for me, history is a part of, maybe the most important part of, a setting. That’s why I wrote Pillar of Fire for Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds. A story that delves not just into the history of Chicago, but also into the history of the characters from my debut novel, Penance.
Penance is set in Chicago. For some writers, setting is an afterthought, but for me, setting matters. As a geographic location, Chicago certainly has its points of interest. There’s the lake, there’s the architecture, there’s the feudal and still often racial nature of its neighborhoods. There’s the politics – maybe the last real big-city democratic machine still in operation, with all the attendant corruption.
But setting begins with history.
The architecture? Chicago is one of the world’s most interesting architectural towns because, just as the ideas and technology that made the steel-framed skyscraper a possibility germinated, a huge swath of this city – including most of the central business district – burned to the ground. This gave visionaries like Jenney, Root, Burnham and Sullivan a blank canvass to explore the new art of soaring steel at a time when most other cities were fully built. In New York or Boston, they could only envision a building. In Chicago, they could envision a skyline.
Chicago’s raw youth and explosive growth are also the foundation of the story of its politics and its racial unease. In 1840, Chicago was only four years old and its population numbered less than 5,000. By 1890, Chicago’s population had exploded to nearly 1.1 million – it had increased to more than 250 times its original size in just fifty years and was now the second largest city in the United States.
Unlike the cities on the east coast, which traced their histories back to the Revolution and before, this sprawling new metropolis had no establishment, no central locus of power, no families or ethnic groups well enough entrenched to make or shape the rules. Where New York had its financiers and Boston had its Brahmans, Chicago had a vacuum. When those eastern cities saw their populations explode with the rising tide of immigration, those immigrants arrived in metropolises with established orders, established rulers.
Immigrants poured into Chicago in huge numbers – the Irish, the Germans, the Poles, the Czechs, the Ukrainians. In 1900, there were more Poles in Chicago than in any city in the world outside Warsaw, and more Czechs than in any city outside Prague. The Germans and the Irish each accounted for nearly a fifth of the city’s population. And the ethnic groups tended to stick together. The Germans on the northwest side in Jefferson Park. Many of the Irish on the south side in Bridgeport. The Poles along Milwaukee Avenue. The Czechs and the Ukrainians – the Bohunks as my ancestors would have called them – on the near west side.
These immigrants arrived not as servants to an established elite, but to a political and commercial vacuum, a free-for-all where the only limit to power was what you could take – and what you could keep. Chicago’s official motto is Urbs in Horto – City in a Garden, but its operating principal has always been Ubi est mea est – Where’s mine? Bare-knuckle politics were nothing new in the U.S., but the brand played in Chicago was particularly brutal – and often overtly racial. And it was a brand of politics at which the Irish excelled.
In the early 1900s an explosive new element was added to the mix of white ethnic groups already slugging it out for power – the blacks. The early 1900s saw the Great Migration – the influx of blacks from the rural south to the industrial north, where they hoped to escape the discrimination, disenfranchisement and violence of the Jim Crow south. Their hopes were not well met. In Chicago, much of the black population was shoehorned into a long, narrow strip of dilapidated housing on the south side centered on State Street that came to be known as The Black Belt – an area that bordered the fiercely defensive and often virulently racist Irish enclave of Bridgeport.
In 1919, a young black man name Eugene Williams was swimming in Lake Michigan and got too close to an area of beach considered “white.”  White beach goers started throwing stones at Williams, and he drowned. When blacks near the scene went to the cop on the local beat and called for an arrest, a black man was arrested instead. Already simmering racial tensions exploded into violence.
A white mob threatened to burn down Provident Hospital, where most of the patients were black. Scores of fires were set in the Black Belt and, when the fire department tried to respond, they found the streets leading into the area strung with cables, blocking their access. The mayor’s office would later report word of a plot to burn the entire Black Belt to the ground in order to force the blacks out of town. During the rioting, 38 people were killed – 23 blacks and 15 whites. Hundreds of blacks and almost no whites were arrested. Trains leaving Chicago for the south were crammed with black families fleeing violence. In the aftermath, unionized white workers threatened to strike at the stockyards if black employees were allowed to return to their jobs. The stockyards were a sprawling operation on the city’s south side adjacent to both Irish Bridgeport and the Black Belt. This is where almost all the cattle and pigs from west of the Mississippi were brought by train, stored, slaughtered and distributed to the rest of the country. When my grandfather first arrived in Chicago in 1916, his first job was at the stockyards. He killed cows by hitting them over the head with a sledgehammer. The stockyards  were one of the city’s major employers and one of the few places where blacks held decent jobs. The blacks were largely nonunion workers, many who had been brought in by management as strikebreakers during earlier labor disputes. Black employment at the stockyard plummeted.
After the 1919 riots, an official inquiry found that Irish social clubs from Bridgeport were responsible for much of the violence – including the Hamburg Athletic Club, of which a 17-year-old Richard J. Daley, who would go on to found Chicago’s famous political dynasty, was a member.
And that’s why I wrote The Old Rules, for Shots e-zine.
The almost cliché quote from George Santayana says that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. I say that writers who fail to learn the lessons of their setting’s history miss out on the best stories.

OK, the promised giveaway. In my lifetime, the State of Illinois has had nine governors. Guess how many of them have ended up in prison?  I’ve got signed ARCs of Penance for the first two right answers.

Should You Write 'For Free'?

Gar Anthony Haywood offers this:

The lesson I think I've learned --- as late as I am in getting around to it --- is that not every person (editor, producer, agent, etc.) asking you to write something for little or no compensation is a crook looking to exploit you.  Sometimes, the risk of writing for free is one well worth taking.

More here

The Nate Thayer/Atlantic piece that got the ball rolling is here:

From the Atlantic:Thanks for responding. Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How To Query An Agent

By Johannes Climacus

The drunk people at Needle have tweeted some tips on querying an agent. Here are two:

Which reminds one of query posts from:

Rachelle Gardner

Holly Root

Ava Jae

Nathan Bransford

Feel free to add your own tips below or on Twitter.

As always, the best advice is essentially this: Don't be an asshole.

Don't be an asshole by querying for unfinished work. No one buys part of a novel. Unless you've written GATSBY. Which you haven't.

Don't be an asshole by ignoring an agent's stated guidelines for submissions. She wants to see your first five pages for a reason, dick.

Don't be an asshole by sending in work that isn't your best. Why waste someone's time just because you "wanted to take a chance?" Show some respect, dick.

Give it some thought. Most agents are decent human beings and should be treated as such. Don't be an asshole.

Speaking of writing tips, be sure to check out the new E.L. James writers guide, filled with tips and notes on what inspires her.

“As E L James traveled and met with her readers, there was a great curiosity about how she got started writing,” explained Vintage/Anchor’s Anne Messitte, the acquiring publisher of the Fifty Shades series, in a statement. “Her personal story as a writer is inspirational to many women, and journaling has been an important part of her creative process from the start.”

Monday, March 11, 2013

odds and ends - birthday edition

Today's my birthday and I don't have a real post written so here's some miscellaneous things.

-Just as an FYI Spinetingler has been hacked and we are working to resolve the issue and get it back up and running.

-Riffing on a theme #1:

Neo-noir writers: if, within the first 7% of your novel, there are four acts of mind-bogglingly violent violence, and your shit is based in modern-day America, then check it: your characters lives are about 60% (might be faulty math) comprised of ridiculous violence. They would be in jail. Let's go a page without describing a gun or a spurt of blood or a devious sexual act. Let's meet the characters. Let's talk our constantly ejaculating boner off that ledge, get a nice cup of coffee, and talk it back into a more satisfying boner. Doctors warn that you should go to a hospital if your erection lasts more than four hours. The engorged phallus of your writing is about to make me pass out. -- J David Osborne (author of the highly recommended Low Down Death Right Easy)
-Riffing on a theme #2:

True transgressions cannot be undone; those transgressions that can be undone are not transgressions at all (the wealthy, white couple slumming it in Harlem can always take a car back home). Whatever literary dalliance with the so-called margins of society I indulge in for the sake of impressing my audience as pushing the envelope amounts to nothing more than me being a “tourist with a typewriter.” Violence, sexual assault, discrimination, addiction, and chronic/terminal/mental illness... these things are real and happen to real people. And while all of the above are the fertile subjects for memoirs, their use as mere shock fodder by an author who has only limited experience with them (or none at all) is ultimately an act of privilege. And few things are as safe and insulated from harm as exercising one’s privilege, the product of a genetic or statistical lottery. -- Craig Clevenger
-Riffing on a theme #3:

-Here's two cool music videos.


-Here's a cool picture:

-And one to make you laugh:

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Taking care!

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Being a writer means you have to be an independent worker.  You have to self-motivate.  You have to be willing to ignore the lure of social media or solitaire on your computer and get work done.  While there are lots of people involved in turning a manuscript into a book, a writer works alone to create that book.  There is no one sitting next to you that makes you log in your time. 

Self-motivation is important as a writer.  The best self-motivators feel compelled to sit at their computers every day and log a certain amount of words or pages in.  Which is awesome.  Deadlines are big time motivators for authors—but often can add stress.  At one point I had 5 books under contract to write in 18 months.  I am down to the last book on that list.  The light is at the end of the tunnel, but while I have met deadlines and gotten the work done, I have not always respected the fact that burning the candle at both ends can have unpleasant results.  At the moment, I’m sick.  This is round 2 in the last 4 weeks of having this particular cold. 

Bummer.  Right? 

While I might have gotten sick anyway (I mean, I do have a 5 year old running around at home and several voice students who have had colds in the past few weeks.), the lack of sleep schedule I’ve been keeping lately could not have helped.  Writers, me especially, often forget that while getting pages done is important, so is taking care of themselves.

So here are a few things that writers need to remember to add to the check list along with all those pages written and words typed.  (And yes, I am writing this now because I neglect these things and need a swift kick in the rear.)

  1. Get enough rest – writers have to write when they have the time.  For me, this is often at night after the kid is in bed or during the 2 hours in the morning when he is in school.  Too often, I am up until 1a.m. letting my fingers do the walking.  My body can handle doing this once in a while, but every night for weeks (or in this case 16 months) mean running myself down.  If your body is tired, your mind will be tired, too.  Writing tired can mean writing sloppy.  Take the time to get some sleep so you don’t have to do twice the amount of work on the editing end.

  1. Eat well – this is kind of like the sleep thing.  Writers have to sit for hours on end in front of the computer which requires energy and stamina.  It is easy to say “It’s not like I’m running a marathon” and reach for the bag of potato chips, but remember you are running your own kind of marathon.  A novel takes weeks and months to create.  You need to keep up your enthusiasm and energy for the project in order to reach THE END.  A body fueled only by crap won’t be up to the challenge.

  1. Read – This one gets me every time.  Every writer I know started out as a voracious reader.  Before getting published, I used to read between 150-200 books a year.  Now I’m lucky if I read 20 or 30, but I make sure to take the time in between projects to read because it reminds me of my passion for the written word.  It also keeps me looking at voice, character arcs and pacing in new and interesting ways.  Reading will help you remember why you love this business when you are ready to kick the business in the ass.

  1. Get away from the computer screen  – Writers, performers, musicians and artists are inspired by the world around them.  In order to find that inspiration, you actually need to get out in the world and roll around in it.  Take the time to enjoy family outings, take walks around the neighborhood and experience the world around you in between getting those words on the page.  You’ll be a happier person and a better writer for it.

  1. Give yourself permission to take time off  – I’m struggling with this one right now, but I’m working on it.  (Especially now that I’m working on the last book I currently have under contract.  The end of the tunnel is in sight!)  Writers need to write, and when I’m writing a project I write 7 days a week.  No one can keep up that pace day in and day out.  Take a break between projects to recharge.  Take time off on the weekends to regroup.  Like any job, you need to take vacations (and this means more than an hour or two here or there) to really get away from work.  After a week or a month or even a summer you will better remember and appreciate the reason you write.  And don’t we all do better when we are doing something we love?

What kind of things do you need to do to make sure you cope with the stress of work? Did I miss something?  I can use all the tips I can get because just like writing a book – no one but you can actually do the work to take care of you.