Saturday, April 13, 2013

Books That Changed Me

Scott D. Parker
(You know, it’s getting rather difficult to follow Russell on Saturdays. Did you read his piece? )
One of my go-to places every day is SF Signal, the science fiction/fantasy/horror site run by fellow Houstonian John DeNardo. If you want the daily rundown of all things SF/F/H, the “Tidbits” feature is a must. Earlier this week, one of the links was to the blog of Helen Lowe. I am not aware of her work, but I was intrigued by her post, “Five Books That Changed Me (Warning: Not An Exclusive List!).”
I was intrigued enough to start me thinking about my list. Now, when I think of “changing me,” my definition of that goes something like this: I was a particular type of reader before I read SAID BOOK and I was different afterwards. As odd as that sounds, that narrows down the list considerably. Excluded are books that are personal favorites, ones that I may have re-read, ones that I have recommended, but, in the end, didn’t change me. Among these are the following: Hyperion by Dan Simmons; Perdido Street Station by China Mieville; Redshirts by John Scalzi; Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon; The Firm by John Grisham; Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos; much of what Hard Case Crime publishes, and the good old-fashioned pulp adventures of folks like Doc Savage, Tarzan, and Gabriel Hunt.
Here, then, are books that changed me in some form or fashion, chronologically from the earliest to the most recent:
SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE/A PRINCESS OF MARS—I’ll freely admit that my intense love of science fiction came from watching Star Wars. Granted, I read all things Star Wars related (articles, newspaper pieces, etc.) in the years 1977 to 1980 (and beyond) including the novelization (multiple times). I was tempted to list the novelization, but that’s cheating, really. No, it was a twofer that truly turned me on to SF. Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster wrote this first literary sequel to George Lucas’s universe. This was before The Empire Strikes Back and all that came afterward. This fictional world opened up my mind because even though Luke and Leia and the droids are in the story, the environment was new. I had to create space in my imagination. Because of Star Wars and Splinter, I read other SF/F and have never stopped. If Star Wars was the thing that caused me to swallow the hook of SF, A Princess of Mars was the thing that set the hook. Reading Splinter, while with new scenes, still started with a basic template: Star Wars. It was A Princess of Mars that forced my imagination to create whole images and worlds in my mind. The sense of wonder I experienced as a ten-year-old reading this novel for the first time was truly a magical time in my reading life. I’ve never looked back.
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES—If you can believe this, the third Sherlock Holmes novel was actually required reading during my ninth grade year. Up until then, I had never read any of the Holmes stories or novels. In reading this novel, my adoration of all things British, including the great detective, started. Ironically, this novel didn’t really turn the screw on mystery fiction.
THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS—I’m a lifelong comic book reader and a lifelong Batman fan. This series, in 1986, let me know that comics could change the way you look at something familiar. It also told me, as a middle teenager, that I no longer had to justify my love of comics. It also, more pointedly, came at the exact right time in my life where a transition (from youth to adulthood) started and this story told me that a familiar character that I knew and appreciated was changing, too.
TRUMAN—As a degreed historian, I pull my hair out at everyone who hates history because they had a bad teacher in school (or a coach who didn’t care). History is about people who make decisions and do things and deal with the consequences. McCullough’s biography is as good as a novel but it’s all true. I wrote my first novel with Harry Truman as the main character as a result of this book. Moreover, McCullough’s Truman showed me that, to a certain degree, the audience for history should be the general public, and the best way to do that is to write a book that they’ll enjoy reading.
MYSTIC RIVER—The one, single book that changed the trajectory of my reading and writing. Before Lehane’s book, I rarely read any mysteries or crime fiction (and didn’t realize there was a difference). After reading it in 2001, I knew what I want to write and a whole new world of reading opened up for me. Only now realizing that crime fiction of this nature may not be the kinds of books I write well.
THE BIBLE—Ironically, this is one that I read, cover to cover, most recently, but it’s influence has been with me my whole life. But it wasn’t until I actually read it from front to back that a new understanding of the ancient scriptures dawned on me. I’ll never know it all, but reading the book has certainly helped my journey.
That’s my short list. What about y’all?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Passage Work

By Russel D McLean

“The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passage work.” – Raymond Chandler, Trouble is my Business (1950)

Let me start out by saying I love crime fiction. I adore the genre completely. I think it capable of great things and some of the loveliest people I know are crime writers. Some of the most amazing books I’ve ever read are crime novels, but then they’re the ones that do exactly what I’m just about to talk about here…

I do a little bit of reading work here and there, freelance, for various people who send me unpublished manuscripts for appraisal*. This one I was reading, like many I get sent, contained a promise from the writer that it would send me into a state of shock and awe with its unique take on the tired detective genre.

It didn’t.

In fact, it trotted out a lot of the same-old, same-old, simply biding its time until it could try to pull the rug out from under the reader in a climax it clearly believed was going to shock everyone.

The curse of the twist ending.

Where all that matters is the twist. Everything that comes before the twist fails to matter because all the writer (and by extension the reader) is interested in is the twist.

The preceding was all “passage work”. None of it mattered if you didn’t have the ending.

Some people can do the twist well. Some writers can build to a twist and still have the work before feel less like passage work and more of interest in and of itself. But it’s a rare skill to be able to do this.

The end of the Chandler quote is this:

“The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing”

And its true. A mystery, or a crime novel (I view mystery as a subset of crime, so deal with it), is so much more than its twist ending or its dramatic reveal. While these are important (a good ending is a climax; an inevitable outcome that is shocking not in the unexpected but in the emotional sense), the journey to the end should not be dull or uninteresting or merely filling time. And too often in crime fiction it is. Endless scenes of procedure pad out pages with no emotional connection, or else there’s a pretence that something of deep import is happening that is actually of no relevance because the twist or the reveal is so all consuming that nothing else matters.

Every scene matters.

Every scene should be of interest in and of itself.

Every scene should be interesting.

To return to Chandler, there should be fireworks on every page. Whether that’s literary fireworks or emotional ones. Whether its just one good line or a sequence that leaves the reader literally breathless. Too often, I find pages filled with filler. Scenes that take too long to end, scenes that sometimes contain their own twist at the end after a mini-sequence of passage work to lead there, that would have been better eliminating the preceding and merely giving us the twist.

Not to say that one should eliminate foregrounding and set up. But rather that a writer should also make the foregrounding and setup interesting in and of themselves.

An impossible task?


When I was young and starting out with this thing called writing, my dad said something to me that stuck, that as a reader he didn’t mind the destination being a bit dull as long as the journey was worthwhile.

Took me a long time to figure what meant. But I get it, now. A novel is ninety-nine percent journey and one-percent destination (as, on a micro level, is any scene)* and that journey has to be interesting. At least as interesting as the destination, maybe more so.

Fireworks, people.

Make people remember scenes. Make them remember moments. Make them talk about dialogue and character with joy and the memory not of finishing the book, of reaching the climax, but of the actual reading of it.

*note – don’t send me manuscripts unbidden. I only take them through sources I know (and sources who know my work), on a pre-agreed chargeable freelance basis. I never know who the authors of these manuscripts are,  and I won’t open an unpublished manuscript that arrives unbidden in my mail box. 

**Although I do remember one novel where the explanation of the twist was as long as the set up. I read with my jaw on the floor as the climax turned out to be roughly sixty pages of exposition and re-explanation of things previously seen

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Catching Up- Veronica Mars

By Jay Stringer

I've been on a run of deep, moody or depressing posts lately. Also I've been hustling to sell my book. Something a bit lighter and easier to digest  this week.

I've been told many times to watch Veronica Mars. It's one of those shows that's been talked about around me so often that sometimes I've even begun to think I had watched it, and had opinions on it. A few people have assumed that one of the characters in my books is named after her. After all the hoohah about the kickstarter campaign, I decided it was time to finally sit and watch some of it. I bought the first season through itunes, and a few days later I'd watched the whole thing.

Man, what a fun show. It's clever and witty and it does one of the most important things in mystery fiction -it makes you give a shit. It strikes me that the difference between good mystery fiction and bad mystery fiction isn't how clever or simple the central mystery is, nor how sharp the writer seems to be. It all rests in whether or not you care about the characters.

I guess at the time it came out I was done with school drama. I finished High School in the 90's, and then I'd had fun watching the early seasons of Buffy to remember the hell I'd just escaped from. But my tastes in fiction and music were gravitating older, and I wanted to read about adult lives. When Brick came out I tried to like it -and I can certainly admire a lot of the craft that went into it- but I wasn't engaged by the concept and the attempt to force a 1940's film paradigm into a modern high school. It worked for many people, but not for me.

But it seems that 32 is the right age to have tried this, because I've grown past most of my baggage and tend not to pre-judge as much as would have done in the past.

Veronica Mars herself was a great character. Fresh and "sassy," (as I think you have to refer to young female characters who are allowed to have a mouth) and managing to be an interesting and well-rounded teenage character without having to be "kick ass." Her supporting cast each had more than one degree to them -if some were allowed to be deeper than others- and I was sold on the reality of the show. Not that the show was real, but that the reality of the show worked.

And I loved her relationship with her father. I loved that she was allowed to have a relationship with a father. It was great to see a drama show -a crime drama show- that was willing to let a dad just be a dad, and to clearly have fun being a dad, and be simple and loyal and very good at his job. Maybe so much of our fiction is driven by parental issues that we sometimes forget to step back and tell the other story. And especially fathers. Sure, there are a million and one shitty dads in the world, but there are far more who are great parents.

The plotting was also very impressive and assured. It touched on some very interesting modern social issues with a well-judged grace -I'm thinking the episode Meet John Smith- and it managed to spread out a mystery over 22 episodes. Even the 'filler' episodes were not really filler, as pieces of information were constantly being revealed in both subtle and obvious ways to make the final episode all make sense. Nothing felt like it was thrown in at the last minute. I liked the way we would learn something about a characters violent or emotional state that would then pay of several episodes later, that clues could be hidden in plain sight, and that all of the reveals felt obvious after the fact.

I liked that Veronica and Wallace were allowed to be teenagers who simply had an easy going friendship, with no need to throw any extra angst in there simply because they're male and female. I liked that it never tried to treat the viewer like a fool, even when trying to fool us.

I think I kinda fell in love with this show, maybe just a little.
Now I need to wait until payday before I can download season 2.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Making up churches

Setting. Some people just make it up (think Lee Child and the Reacher novels that happen almost exclusively in a series of fictional small towns). For others, it’s an exotic bonus (say Hilary Davidson and her out-of-the-way locales). For me, it’s central to the story.

Daley Center Plaza, The Picasso and City Hall
In my novel, Chicago isn’t just where stuff happens, its history is part of why stuff happens. When I was in the throes of writing the thing, that caused me some trouble. See, I was suffering from this overpowering obsession to get every detail exactly right.
Problem was, some of the details didn’t fit the story.
My story needed a somewhat grander version of Chinatown than is found on Chicago’s near south side. And a couple of scenes required churches in neighborhoods with very specific characteristics. That was messing with me. I could either mess with Chinatown or mess with a character that was vital to my book. After spending way too much time on Google earth looking at parishes churches all over Chicago’s northwest side, I realized I was also going to have to mess with the churches or else change the way another key character did things. 

Then I had a kind of epiphany. I was writing fiction. That means I get to make stuff up.

So, instead of picking an existing Chicago parish and getting a mess of angry letters from locals telling me how my scene couldn’t possibly have happened at their church, I just made up a new one, dropped it into the neighborhood where I wanted it and bingo. Done. Might be kind of a big deal to somebody. I mean Chicago is a pretty Catholic town. Lots of people, you ask them where they’re from, they tell you what parish they grew up in. I suppose I could still get some angry letters saying there ain’t no such church there, but there you go.

What I decided is this. Even when you use a real setting, what you’re really writing about is a parallel universe. Most of it is the same, but the people in it are made up, the events are made up, there’s no reason some of the setting can’t be made up, too. When I’m writing about some feature of the city that actually exists, then yeah, I try to get that write. But if I gotta fuck with the place to make the story work, then I fuck away. 

So what about the rest of you mopes, you got any thoughts on setting? How much fealty do you owe to it? What kind of liberties can you take?

And yeah Weddle, I know I’m late, but it’s still fuckin’ Wednesday, OK? Cut me some slack here.  

Joelle's trailer is at EW

Flashback to taking your SATs with the trailer for Joelle Charbonneau's 'The Testing' -- EXCLUSIVE

Ready for a new dystopian heroine to cheer for? Then we suggest you check out Joelle Charbonneau’s The Testing, the first in a new YA trilogy.
The fancy trailer for Joelle's new one is EXCLUSIVE over at Entertainment Weekly.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Make Your Website Useful

By Steve Weddle

Last week, I was reading a post about how creating a Book Page for your website is a bad idea. Links don't draw traffic, the buttons are confusing, the layout isn't appealing. On and on.

Some of it was making some sense, then I saw that the author was selling a service that would make your book page better. Then it made sense.

I'm not selling you anything today.

I'm just telling you about a weird thing I did that seems to be working out. (Oh, stop it.)

I've done a great deal of research for this latest book I'm working on. It takes place in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I'm from. The book has a little to do with the music scene in Shreveport in the early twentieth-century. The jazz. The blues. The brothels.

I'd searched around, read some articles and some books, and about one percent of what I'd learned went into the story.

So I had all this extra, interesting stuff I'd gathered from many sources, but nowhere to put all the extra.

Back when I was a grad student, I'd have just taken all the research and written some extra papers to sell, using the money to fund my My Little Pony collection.

Now, though, you know. What to do. What to do.

So I wrote a little essay on cool music from Shreveport in that time period. I named the mini-essay "Seven Songs To Hear in Shreveport When You're Dead."

I wrote about the "Elvis has left the building," a phrase that originated in Shreveport.

I wrote about Sam Cooke's "Change is Gonna Come" song, which was "inspired" by Shreveport's racism.

I wrote a little about Murco Records, about Leadbelly, about the Blue Goose.

I just collected some stories, linked out to the sources, and set it up in a list form.

People love videos. People love lists. People love learning stuff.

Anyway, I started getting quite a few hits every day from this page.

If you Google "St Paul Bottom Shreveport" then you'll see a link to my page. Search for "Murco Record label" and the page pops up.

I'm not saying it's the top hit anywhere. And if you look for Jelly Roll Morton, you'll probably have to wade through 376 pages before you get to me.

But people keep looking for stuff that I mini-essayed about, and they end up coming to my place.

I'm not drawing people in with pages devoted to reviews of my books. I don't have one of those pages where The Media can download a high-res headshot of me. I don't have much of anything, really.

And I'm certainly not trying to say I'm any sort of SEO Expert.

I just thought this might be helpful to you. Here's why.

If you're a writer, you've probably done research for your book. If you're writing about the mob in Toledo, you've done research. You know stuff. Warp engines. The history of crime in Toronto in the 1970s. Getaway cars. Diners in Chicago in the 1950s.

You've already done so much work. Why not use that? Make a page on your site that shares information with people. A specific, horrific crime in Baltimore in 1939 is the basis for your novel? Sweet. Write up a little non-fiction piece, with art/video, and let folks find it.

Use your research -- not just in your fiction -- but as non-fiction on your website.

And here's the cool part: When they're looking around the web for something about The Baltimore Massacre of 1939, they'll run across your essay and then see your novel for sale, too.

You've become The Expert in the thing your novel is about. Use that. Share that. Don't let it go to waste.

You've already done the hard part. Now you just have to put it together.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Viva Riva!, How to Steal 2 Million, and African crime films

Over at Spinetingler (and Twiter and Crime Factory) the Nerd of Noir is the resident crime movie god. He's usually on the bleeding edge of what's out there, particularly when it comes to crime films from other countries (Jed Ayres is great with this too). I think I may have him beat on this one (but probably not).

Viva Riva! is a 2010 Congolese noir-boiled crime movie that is currently streaming on Netflix. Yeah, that's right, we're talking straight up African noir here.

Riva is a young criminal who has stolen a large shipment of gasoline from the wrong people. This simple thing is one of the many things that appeal about Viva Riva! We see many crime stories with guns, drugs, and money. But the commodity that is most needed here is gas. Riva has it and everyone wants it. But really that want is need. They want it and they need it.

As the story progresses it widens greatly in scope with folks from different strata wanting in. The military, organized crime, even the church will all be involved in some capacity by the end. Is the entire world of Viva Riva! corrupt? I don't think this is entirely true, but they are so in need that desperation does permeate many of the decisions that these characters make. So in that respect Viva Riva! does follow in the footsteps of some of the great crime fiction stories where location is central to the story.

Just a quick side not that with Nora we have a great modern addition to the femme fatale hall of fame.

I've got to be honest. I haven't been this excited about a foreign crime flick since that run of late 80's to early 90's John Woo movies.

Viva Riva! is streaming now on Netflix and I urge everyone to give it a try.

Written African crime fiction has been on the rise for the last couple of years. I can only hope that with Viva Riva! and the South African crime movie How to Steal 2 Million (synopsis and trailer below) we are at the start of a new wave of African crime films.

Five long years...that's how long Jack (Menzi Ngubane) spent in prison after getting pinched for robbery. His partner in crime and best friend, Twala, never got caught and Jack never talked. But Twala proved as treacherous as Jack is honourable by marrying Jack's former fiancée Kim during his prison term.

Upon being released Jack decides to go straight. He wants to start a construction business, but after being rejected for a loan he must find a new source of capital. An opportunity presents itself when Twala suggests they do a home invasion with a take worth R2 million. The complication is that the mark is Twala's father, Julius. In his search for a third partner Jack comes across the tough, but sexy Olive.

When the robbery goes wrong secret double crosses are revealed. Twala never intended to split the money with Jack and has planned to kill him all along. As Julius edges closer to finding out who ripped him off and the pressure mounts on the three accomplices the tension builds towards an explosive and surprising finale.

So how about it, you ready for some African crime films? Are there any others I should be aware of?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

One size doesn't fit all

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Okay – there have been a bunch of articles lately about value of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing.  All are interesting.  There’s this one here by Patrick Wesnick  and this one from Hugh Howely and this follow-up  by our DSD friend and one of my all-time favorite bloggers, Chuck Wendig

They are all articles worth reading.  Go read them.  

(insert bad hold music here)

Welcome back.   Publishing is a funny business.   It involves marketing and publicity and all sorts of business decisions and craft.  Artistic imagination is forced to war with the realities of corporate business practices.  Needless to say, the people that excel in creativity often don’t love the corporate side and visa versa.  So it’s no wonder that there are those who love the idea of cutting out the business suits from publishing their stories.  And there are others who like the way the collaboration with traditional publishing model works because it does well for them.  And in the internet universe, those who are passionate about their choices are often intent on telling those who make different ones that they are wrong.  Misguided. Ruining their entire lives. Screwing their careers and losing money to boot.  The world is ending.  The sky is falling.  Run for your lives.

The thing is…one size doesn’t fit all.  You don’t go into a store, look at a piece of clothing and think that it will look good on everyone.  You don’t expect everyone who goes to law school to practice law in the same way.

People go into stores, try on clothes and select what works best for them.  Law students study all kinds of law and pick the type of career path that they feel compelled to practice.

One size doesn’t fit all.

The same is true in publishing.  Not everyone has the same career goals.  Not everyone has the same desire to be their own publishing.  Not everyone wants to be a part of the traditional publishing adventure.

Because one size doesn’t fit all.

The most wonderful thing about the rise of e-readers and the new self-publishing model is that there are more options.  More clothes to try on until an author finds the fit and color and style that works best for them.  Huzzah! 

Which is why the vitriol and anger I see across the web in the discourse about this subject is truly baffling to me.  If self-publishing works for you – YAY!  You are a vision in that green jacket with zebra stripes.  But why get angry when it doesn’t look good on someone else?  And if traditionally publishing a book is more your style – YAY again!  The purple polka-dotted muffler and leg warmers makes you look like a fashion plate.  Does it matter that your friends aren’t all wearing the same thing?

I guess what I’m saying is that if one size doesn’t fit all in most parts of our lives, why should anyone think that one publishing model will work for everyone?  Can someone explain this to me, because I really don’t understand.