Saturday, May 4, 2013

Writing With a Template

by Scott D. Parker

My wife is a jewelry artist who markets herself under the name Betoj Designs. Her studio is filled with all the tools of her trade: saws, torches, kilns, and many, many sharp pointed things. On her wall are dozens of templates, those plastic and/or metal things with shapes cut out so she can always make sure her circle or star or whatever is exactly correct. It helps her create the beautiful things she does, but it doesn’t actually do the  work for her.

If you are like me, you might occasionally find yourself in a writing slump. It happens, or, at least it does for me, a person who writes technically by day and doesn’t always write as much as fictionally as he should at night. While there are no good reasons why not to write, being an avid reader is the one thing I’ll lay at the throne of King Why I Don’t Write. I’ve been on a reading tear in recent weeks, plowing though old Alan Dean Foster books, new space opera books by James S. A. Corey, and even re-reading Erle Stanley Gardner’s Top of the Heap this past week.

Another book I’m reading is the new Doc Savage book, Skull Island. In case you don’t recognize that name, it’s where King Kong lives. Seriously, the book had me at “Doc Savage meets King Kong.” How could I not read that. And, so far, it’s pretty darn fun.

 When you start talking about Lester Dent, the prolific author who created Savage, you invariably get to his Master Fiction Plot, his formula for writing a 6,000-word pulp story. It’s all over the internet, but here’s where I first found it. In many ways, Dent’s formula is an earlier version of Larry’s Brooks’s Story Engineering. Like a blueprint, Dent’s little essay is a way to build a foundation of a story, but it does not tell you how to construct one. That’s up to the writer.

Now, I know what you are saying: Scott, all you’re really talking about is an outline. Yes, I am, but one with a slightly different angle. You see, when I’ve tried to outline a story, I do it from the traditional outline look at feel, complete with Roman numerals and capital letters. That didn’t always work for me.

So, last weekend, I tried something. I combined the two things together. I took an 11 x 14-in. piece of paper and folded it, leaving me with essentially two 8 ½ x 11-in. side by side. Eyeballing it, I then created four columns of roughly equal size. Then, I printed and cut out Dent’s formula. He does the standard 4-part story structure, each section containing 1500 words, where the midpoint comes at the end of Act II and the huge cliffhanger comes at the end of Act III. I took those pieces of paper and taped them on the sheet, one in each section.

That’s all well and good, but the “outline” part was still the big white areas at the foot of each little mini column. How to create the outline? Well, I took a page from Michael Moorcock, who himself used the Dent model. Moorcock scaled up Dent’s formula to a 60,000-word novel. Here, Moorcock divided each 15,000-word section down into six chapters.

Bingo! I decided that each of my main four sections would have six sub-sections. Thus, I penciled in the letters “A” through “F” in the white spaces below the taped Dent words. And, viola! I had a template on which I could structure a story.

Truth be told, it worked pretty easily. I wrote in pencil and started in section I-A with the image I have had in my head for a time: a Houston PI, circa 1941, knocking on a door of a house in a neighborhood...and bullets erupting from inside. I was able to craft the entire story in a sitting or two. With the larger piece of paper, I was really like having a blueprint in front of me.

Will this work for every, single story? Of course not. But if you need to get off the snide and start working on story that you actually create yourself, this is a nice boost to get you started. More importantly, it felt good to be creative again, no matter how I got there.

Are there any tips and tricks you know to prompt your story ideas?

P.S., Today is Free Comic Book Day. Head on over to your favorite comic store and find some titles you might like. I'm hoping they'll have a Grimm comic available.

 P.P.S.,  May the Fourth Be With You.

Friday, May 3, 2013

2013 Edgar Allan Poe Awards

May 2, 2012, New York, NY:  Mystery Writers of America is proud to announce the winners of the 2013 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television published or produced in 2012. The Edgar® Awards were presented to the winners at our 67th Gala Banquet, May 2, 2013 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York City.


Live by Night by Dennis Lehane (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)


The Expats by Chris Pavone (Crown Publishers)

The Last Policeman: A Novel by Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books)


Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted

the Last Days of Old China by Paul French (Penguin Group USA – Penguin Books)


The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics
by James O’Brien (Oxford University Press)


"The Unremarkable Heart" – Mystery Writers of America Presents:  Vengeance
by Karin Slaughter (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown and Company – Mulholland Books)


The Quick Fix by Jack D. Ferraiolo (Abrams – Amulet Books)


Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Disney Publishing Worldwide - Hyperion)


 “A Scandal in Belgravia” – Sherlock, Teleplay by Steven Moffat (BBC/Masterpiece)


"When They Are Done With Us" – Staten Island Noir
by Patricia Smith (Akashic Books)


Ken Follett
Margaret Maron


Oline Cogdill

Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, San Diego & Redondo Beach, CA

Akashic Books

(Presented at MWA’s Agents & Editors Party on Wednesday, May 1, 2013)

The Other Woman by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge Books)

# # # #

The EDGAR (and logo) are Registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by the Mystery Writers of America, Inc.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


By Jay Stringer

One from the vault this week. Just a quick repost of something from a few years ago. This gives you more time to go and get Mr O'Shea's book

It seems like it's advice week here at DSD, so I thought I'd wade in with something that's playing on my mind this week. Not that anybody should listen to my advice. Hell, I was the guy telling Warner Brothers to hire Will Ferrell to make the new Superman film. Instead they went with some dude who made a film about watching men, and some other film about naked men fighting in grease.

So if Warners' don't listen to me, there's no reason that you should.

But I'm here today to talk about one of the greatest villains of our time. A character so vile that he appeared in all three Austin Powers movies. Yes, him. Mr Basil Exposition.

The dude is evil, I'm tellin' ya.

No sooner are you sat at your writing station typing away, feeling good about writing the great American word, then Mr Exposition comes and craps all over the page. Prose that should be singing start to stink. Words that should be clean start to mumble. The chapter starts to sink, and it drags the whole start of the book with it.

In no time, you're left with the smoking wreckage of what used to be a laptop and the cracked plaster of what used to be a wall. You are somewhere in the corner, with your pants over your head, trying to turn your internal monologue into internal dialogue.

So how to fix these problems? No, really, tell me, how? I know a few tricks that work for me and I tentatively suggest there may be something in here that works for you. I also suggest that I will be stating the obvious, because that's what good writing advice always boils down to; shit that you probably already know, if you cut yourself a break and take the pants off your head.

So let me start with the step I have to take before I can slay exposition.

Embrace Exposition.

If you listen to the right kind of advice, they will suggest to you that putting exposition on a page is akin to putting barbecue sauce on a baby. I'm here to tell you there's nothing wrong with either of those things. Writing advice always comes down to one thing. It's always about writing well. Sure, Elmore Leonards '10 Rules Of Writing' are great rules. I stick by them as much as I can. But buried away in those rules is the simple idea; "If you can do something well, then to hell with the rules." Lets look at another rule. Never use voiceover in a movie. Hell, has nobody ever seen Goodfellas??

So first and foremost, if you got it, flaunt it. If you can do chunks exposition on a page like nobody else, then go for it. Exposition is not the enemy. Bad writing is the enemy.

We need it during a first draft. That first pass is not the book that the world will see. Hell, it's probably not even the draft that your agent or editor will see. It's the draft that your brain needs to see. That process of throwing 80,000 words onto a page so that you can then go back and turn them into a novel. The plot is not quite formed, the characters are not yet at their devious best. So if you need to throw leaden exposition onto the page to get from A to B, then have at it, and sing while you work, because you is writing. And exposition is important.

Dialogue, Dialogue, Dialogue.

All writers have their own crutches. Mine is dialogue. I can do it. Not always very well, and it's all to easy to fall into the trap of writing something that's snappy for the sake of being snappy. Yes, Tarantino, I'm looking at you. If the audience knows it's good dialogue, then it's not good dialogue. Anyway. Point is, if I'm in a whole I know I can use dialogue to get me out of it.

And its true that a lot of exposition anxiety can be resolved through dialogue. You've got your characters at your disposal, you might as well use them. Look at McFet, or Leonard. Look at the Fletch books, which were a huge influence on me for awhile. Characters explain stuff to each other. They debate and discuss. The author is there in the background, somewhere.

But here lies a trap. You have to hold yourself to realism when it comes to dialogue. Two characters who both know something are very unlikely to bring it up in conversation simply for the sake of it. You need to either find a natural way for the information to seep into the dialogue, or find a different way altogether. I love The West Wing as much as the next bod, but Josh was only there for exposition. It was his job to wander through the script telling Donna (the audience) what was going on. If you're Aaron Sorkin, then you can maybe pull it off. If you're anyone else, find another way.

Here are the two things I'm finding key to my writing process at the moment; Honesty and Movement.


Writers need to be damn hard on themselves. It's tempting to treasure every word that you put onto the page. It's your art. It's your jelly baby. It's your rosebud. It's also potentially your enemy. I walk away every now and then, have a drink or a shower, and then come back to the page on a mission to beat the crap out of what I just wrote. Strip away at it, question every word, make everything that's on the page have to earn its place.

The funny thing is, even once every word has justified it's place, the story can still suck. Because now that the words are right, the order might be wrong.


I'm cheating here. I see this as two different things, but I'm too lazy to come up with separate titles. The first element is editing. Moving the pieces of the puzzle around. Even after you've done everything else,the dialogue, editing and honesty, you still need to drop a chunk of exposition into the middle of a chapter. And you worry that the readers will spot it a mile off. They probably will, they're a clever bunch. But I find that if I keep moving all the pieces of the chapter around, eventually I find the right shape, and most of what's left falls into place.

And the second part of movement is my simplest, and my current favourite trick. If in doubt, if ever I'm stuck on a chapter with anything at all, I'll start with a movement. (Oi, Weddle, stop snickering.)

If I have to drop in one of those bits of exposition? I'll earn it first. And it can be simple. A character can walk into a room. He can park his car. He can lie on his bed. Any kind of movement, no matter how small, seems to work some magic trick with the readers brain. It gets the story moving.

And it's not just me. I've taken a look around at some other books.

First a couple from our favourite scary man, Allan Guthrie. The opening of his first book, Two Way Split, goes like this;

"Four months and twenty-two days after he stopped taking his medication, Robin Greaves dragged the chair out from under the desk and sat down opposite the private investigator."

Now, that's not the biggest opening ever. No cars were blown up. But it's an opening with a simple trick to it, and it's one that makes you want to read more. It has some fairly big bits of exposition wrapped up in it; it has medication, it has a time frame, it has two character introductions and it tells you roughly what genre of story we're dealing with. But what is the magic trick, if my theory holds any water here? It's the moving of the chair and the sitting down. A simple act of movement right at the top of a chapter (and the book.) By the time you've read this opening, you know a hell of a lot, and you're buying into a scene of two people talking, which will probably be full of exposition. Job done.

Here's another Guthrie, from Savage Night;

"When he opened his sitting room door, the last thing Fraser Savage expected to see was a corpse."

Now you might cry foul here. You might tell me it's the corpse that draws your attention. And yes, you're right. But what is it that eases you into that steady climb of reading the sentence? I'm sure it's the small, simple movement. Something active at the top of the page that gets our brain into gear. Something as simple as opening a door.

And it can get even simpler than that. Here's the opening line from (what I think could be) the best crime novel of the past five years, Drama City, by Pelecanos;

"Lorenzo Brown opened his eyes. He stared at a cracked plaster ceiling and cleared his head. Lorenzo was not in a cot but in a clean, full-size bed. In an apartment with doors that opened and shut when he wanted them too. A place where he could walk free."

Hey, did you see that? A guy opened his eyes. Nothing to it. But you sure read the rest of that paragraph without feeling it, right? And hidden in there is a ton of exposition. It doesn't tell you about his past, it tells you about his present. But that informs all that you need to know about where he's been. And by the end of that extract, you can feel the freedom in his movement. And that freedom will carry you through the rest of the chapter, laced with this kind of exposition. And once you've read that chapter? Hell, might as well read the book, right?

So those are my tricks. Dialogue, Honesty, and lots of little movements. That's how I get around the exposition trap. And I didn't end up at Drama City by accident. When I first started to think about this part of my writing, I re-read that opening and made it my bible. Just look again at how much Pelecanos tells us in that paragraph, and how easy it seems. I can only imagine the sweat that goes into an opening like that.

So, those are my tricks, what are yours?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

O'Shea's PENANCE is on shelves now

PENANCE, from our own Dan O'Shea, launched yesterday. Get yours.

Born and raised in Chicago, Detective John Lynch might just be about to die there too.
Because one dark secret might be about to tear a whole city apart.
A pious old woman steps out of the Sacred Heart confessional and is shot dead by a sniper with what at first appears to be a miraculous and impossible shot.

Colonel Tech Weaver dispatches a team from Langley to put the shooter—and anyone else who gets in the way—in a body bag before a half-century of national secrets are revealed.

Detective John Lynch, the son of a murdered Chicago cop, finds himself cast into an underworld of political corruption and guilty secrets, as he tries to uncover the truth about what’s really going on – before another innocent citizen gets killed.

Penance is a rare novel, at once staggering in scope and achingly human. A brutal, white-knuckled tale of betrayal and redemption in which the sins of the fathers are laid upon their children tenfold, O’Shea’s astonishing debut delivers pulse-pounding thrills and the beating heart to match. Fans of Le Carre and Lehane had best take note.” 
– Chris F. Holm, Stoker-nominated author of Dead Harvest and The Wrong Goodbye.

“A non-stop adrenaline rush, beginning, middle and end; half Stephen Hunter, half American Tabloid, Daniel O’Shea’s Penance is a bonafide blockbuster.” 
 Owen Laukkanen, author of The Professionals.
Penance has one foot in Bourne and the other in The Untouchables, but tells a very human story of loss and atonement. A great thriller that ranges from the streets of 1970′s Chicago to the highest levels of modern power, with tight dialogue and righteuous violence. One for fans of crime, espionage and mayhem.” 
– Jay Stringer, author of Old Gold.

"Penance makes the bulk of cliche-riddled crime fiction sound flat-footed by comparison." 
Peter Farris, author of Last Call for the Living

 "A heart-pounding ride that leaves you breathless, yet allows for unforgettable moments of grace. A must-read."
-Hilary Davison, Award-winning author of The Damage Done
"With John Lynch and Penance, Dan O'Shea has produced a worthy competitor [to Michael Connelly]"

"Gritty, intense and exciting."

"Expect PENANCE to shake things up and conquer conspiracy enthusiasts as well as hardboiled literature fans. It's a tremendous novel. The kind you experience, rather than read."
-Dead End Follies
"Penance is a heartbreaking account of love and loss, and the havoc that grief can wreak on an unstable mind."
-Katrina Niidas Holm, CriminalElement

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Little Free Libraries

Is there a Little Free Library near you? You can check on this handy map:

One showed up on my street a little while ago and it turns out there are a few more in the neighbourhood. It's kind of the book version of, "Take a penny, leave a penny."
You can find more information on the Little Free Library Website.
I don't have a favourite design, but I think if I put one up in front of my house I may try and make one that looks like an old-fashioned jail. You know, for crime novels.
Okay, so I don't have it worked out yet.
What do you think of these Little Free Libraries?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Print Books As Furniture

By Steve Weddle

Something in the Sunday paper struck me. It was a baseball bat. And how it got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.

Something else, though. In an article about the fiftieth anniversary of a certain university press, the interim publishing director was speaking about  those people in the book publishing business and said this:
There’s a warmth to a book that plastic computer screens don’t have….It’s the same as a furniture maker who loves making furniture. There’s a craft element to it. What image do you put on the cover? What typography does inside? What kind of paper do you use? Of course, when you look at e-books, there’s a technology aspect to it that’s every bit as much a craft. But I don’t think this is the demise of the book.
Now, it is certainly possible that the reporter asked some leading question, something along the lines of “Are e-books the end of civilization?”

Still, I’d wager the three dollars I have in my pocket that the e-books published by these folks have cover art. And typography. That the visual aspect of the book – big headers, small headers – has taken some crafting, as well. To publish an e-book, one does not simply up a text doc to the cloud anymore than one simply walks into Mordor. One must walk into Mordor very, very complicatedly with hours of tedious backstory. The same is true of books, whether “e” or “p.”

I don’t merely look at books. I read them, usually on my Kindle Fire, because inside of a dog it's too dark to read on my K3.

I was, in fact, looking for a book this weekend so that I could loan it out to someone. As it happens, I’d read it on my Kindle. In all seriousness, maybe I should have known whether I’d read those words on a screen or on sheets of paper. I suppose it matters to some people. It doesn’t matter to me.

And speaking, as I almost was earlier, of Eric Blair’s famous Vaudeville show, “Shooting An Elephant in My Pajamas,” I made my way down my driveway Sunday morning for the paper that had the story about the university press inside.

I could have just downloaded the newspaper to my Kindle, as it is available in the newsstand. I didn’t, though. Of course, it would have been less expensive had I downloaded it. And I would have gotten it sooner. And I wouldn’t have had to walk outside in my admittedly lovely black-watch pj bottoms and “All your base are belong to us” t-shirt. But, and here’s the important thing, had I downloaded that newspaper and read the story about the publishing world, I would not have been able to enjoy the crafted typography of the print version.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Opinions in the age of the internet

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Ok.  Perhaps this isn't the best post for me to write, but I've been thinking about this topic for a while and I finally decided to give it a whirl.  Here goes.

I think the internet is great.  I love social media because I get to reconnect with people that I haven't seen in years, look at family photos and effortlessly connect with friends old and new.  YAY!  However, the age of the internet has also created something a little frightening to me.  A lack of civility.

More times that I can count, I've witnessed the posting of a picture that a FB friend wanted to share (political, religious, a happy quote that means something to them) which lead to belittling or berating comments.  And the posting of a personal political or religious comment - no matter how positive - more often than not opens a can of worms that includes unkind words and attacks.

And, of course, this behavior doesn't end on Facebook or Twitter.  Take a look at the comments on any online news article and watch the lack of civility that appears.  There is no filter.  Trust me, I love the first amendment and believe that we all should have the right to free speech as well as freedom of religion and freedom of the press.  But when did it become okay to disrespect someone else's opinion?

I've seen this same disrespect extended to reviews on products, restaurants, movies, music, plays and books.  And wow, does it shock me every time.  Not that I think that everyone should like everything.  I boring would the world be if that was true.  I mean - honestly - that would be duller than dull.   It's not the opinion I have a problem with.  I don't like everything I read, watch, or experience.  But it's the tone in which the opinion is expressed that has the power to me cringe.  These days book, movie and other entertainment reviews are strewn with personal attacks.  If a book or movie isn't to your liking - say that - but don't tell the author or director or actor that they are stupid or are ruining the world as we know it.  (Trust me - authors, actors and directors really aren't that powerful.)  Personally, I go with the rule that I shouldn't say something online that I wouldn't say directly to someone's face because while there is a screen between me and whoever I'm talking to - there is another living, breathing person with feelings on the other side of the communication.  Right?

And perhaps even worse to me are the times where someone respectfully expresses their opinion and then gets attacked by the defenders of whatever book, movie, restaurant or product the comment centers around.  How is that okay?

Look, in my life, I have chosen to be an actor, a singer and a writer.  I get reviewed all the time and  my reviews have ranged from glowing to scathing.  That's the business.  (In fact, the negative reviews are often easier for me to read than the glowing ones.  How crazy am I?)  But it is more than reviews than I am talking about.  It's the method in which we discuss information and ideas.  I love debate and an exchange of contradicting or conflicting thoughts.  To me, respectful debate is the best way to learn and think of problem or concept in a new way.  But the key word is respectful.

We all have opinions.  We all have the same rights to express them.  But when you are doing so - think about how you would feel if you were the recipient of the Facebook comment you are about to type.  The internet is a great place that brings us together in wonderful ways--expect for the times it allows us to tear ourselves apart.  I'm hoping that someday more people remember to be respectful so that we can have wonderful debates and and exchange of ideas that makes us all better.