Saturday, June 22, 2013

Breaking It All Down

Scott D. Parker

In recent weeks, I’ve been documenting my own self-education back into writing. This week, I’m going to talk about an exercise I did that helped me understand how a novel can be put together.

In just about every nugget of advice on writing, the virtues of ‘write a lot’ is always near the top. In fact, it’s second only to ‘read a lot.’ I’m of the belief that you can write a ton of words, but if you are doing it wrong, you won’t be using your time efficiently. Now, “wrong” might be a harsh word, but let’s be honest: there’s a reason certain stories work and stay with you and others that evaporate as soon as you’re done with them.

So, along with my new focus on writing a bunch of stories in different mediums, I’m breaking down some stories I like and know well in order to study how they are constructed. One in particular may surprise you. I’m a huge fan of the TV show “Castle” and the collateral material being published in the real world. To date, “Richard Castle” (or whomever is actually writing the books; it’s still a mystery) has written four books featuring Nikki Heat with a fifth on the way this fall. He’s (she?) also managed to pen a couple of new Derek Storm tales. If you enjoy the TV show, the Nikki Heat novels give a nice echo to the events of the show.

The second novel in the series, Naked Heat, is one that really struck me. When I first listened to it (narrated by Johnny Heller who provides excellent narration; he really channels Nathan Fillion), I was impressed by how fluid the story was and how easily it moved from scene to scene, taking me along from the beginning to the end. In an era in which I don’t re-read hardly anything, I re-read this book.

And now I've read it again, on paper this time. I picked up a paperback copy and pored over it with pencil in hand. Knowing the story, I annotated this thing to death. There's hardly a page without a mark. With this re-reading, I learned a few things that I found interesting. One of the characters, a high-profile sports agent, is never actually described. His dialogue is the thing used to describe him. That surprised me because I have a very distinct image of him. Guess I filled in the gaps. The plot and sub-plots are easy to see and follow and it’s very neat to see how it flows throughout the book. One of the things I do a lot is describe my characters eating or drinking. There’s an entire scene in this book where the four main characters discuss the case over coffee. Not once is the dialogue broken up with descriptions of drinking. They get their coffee at the start and they finish up at the end. It’s implied that they were drinking. It just shows me that the little breaks I put in don’t really matter. Fascinating. I’ve already started applying some of the techniques in this book for my own writing.

This was a fantastic exercise for me and I have a renewed appreciation of the shape and structure of how a novel is put together.

Have y’all ever broken down a book or story for additional study? Did it help your writing?

Friday, June 21, 2013


By Russel D McLean

With apologies - - this post is being written on the move. Was hoping to link to some examples of Gandolfini's work, but the internet connection is spotty, hence why the late posting.

I remember watching The Sopranos for the first time, watching Tony have a panic attack and thinking, “that’s how you do it.”

The Sopranos was released around the same as Analyse This, and I remember being bored for much of the screwball mobster comedy not just because Billy Crystal’s part should have been played by Woody Allen, but because they really messed up the panic attack part. I should know; I suffered from really bad attacks throughout much of my teenage years.

But watching the Sopranos, the way that James Gandolfini really sold that aspect of Tony Soprano’s character, I was utterly convinced, and utterly empathetic with, Tony (in that situation, not in many of his others). The performance was so good that one of my teachers used to call me, “Tony” and joke about giving me good marks in case I called out a hit on them.

After the Sopranos I started to notice James Gandolfini in a lot of other things. For a man with such imposing physical presence and such distinct features (you couldn’t really mistake him for anyone else) he had range. Took me years to realise he was in Get Shorty, playing Beat, the stuntman that Chili Palmer throws down a set of stairs.  Even when he was in something bad - I’m thinking the Pitt/Roberts stinker, The Mexican - he was generally the most interesting thing on the screen. He had this way of inhabiting a character’s psychology, of saying so much with his eyes that you understood the character he was playing just by looking at him. The last performance of Gandolfini’s that I watched was in Killing Them Softly, a movie that can definitely be described as an actors film. one where ther performances are driven not by studio demands but by the instincts of the actors. The washed up schlub portrayed by Gandolfini in that film was a far cry from Tony Soprano; he was a genuinely unnerving mess, and throughout the whole movie you didn’t doubt that he was any other way. Psychologically, if not physically, Gandolfini was a chameleon. He could make that large frame seem inofensive and unthreatening or he could use to truly strike fear into the heart of the viewer. As Tony Soprano, he was a force of nature; the scenes where he lost his temper (witness when his bi-polar lover throws a steak at his head or when he realises that Ralphie’s done something to the horse that Tony loves so much) were so physically and psychologically intimidating that even watching from the comfort of your own living room, you’d freeze up in fear of his wrath.

Which is why I was shocked to read of Gandolfiini’s death from a heart attack at age 51. I realised upon reading the obituary’s that I’d never known what age he was, and if pressed would have nebulously given you an answer from 40s through to later 50s, but without any certainty. All I knew of him were his characters. And, with an actor, perhaps that’s how it should be. The world is filled with celebrities and egotists using film and narrative to portray various degrees of their own self. Gandolfini - from what I saw of his body of work - was an actor; utterly inhabiting the persona of the character he played. David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, said he was like “Mozart” when it came to acting, and its a fair description. He was an actor’s actor and also a people’s actor. He wasn’t mysterious about his craft, but he also took it very seriously indeed. Not only that, but he was an actor who looked like a real person which was part of his gift.

Like many people around the world, I’m considering returning to The Sopranos, reminding myself of what has to be one of the most sustained, consistent and brilliant performances ever to be put into a TV show.

RIP, James Gandolfini. You will be remembered. Even by those who only knew you through the characters you breathed such life into.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


By Jay Stringer

I've been having the feeling of running on empty with social media for a while now.

I've been here before, of course. Long time readers will have seen me discuss the issues I have with the way sites like twitter can lower the level of conversation. I've taken breaks here and there and recharged. I've been talking about this with people behind the scenes for most of the year.

But more and more it seems like social media is basically all the worst parts of Soccer rivalry -partisan opinions, shouting,  fighting- with none of the benefits -seeing Wolves score goals.

And worse than that, for a writer, is all the writing. Keeping a presence online requires typing. It requires writing. It requires opinions. These are all things that I feel I would be much better served putting into novels.

More and more I'm speaking to writers who are pulling back from the world wide web. Some are doing it completely, some are doing it partially. Each of them is talking about getting much more actual writing done.

And writing online, be it blogging, tweeting or facing the book, involves some strange tricks. There are ways to get readers. There are certain issues that can be expressed, certain argument styles that can be used. We can use snark, or be deliberately controversial, or poke people in the eye. And these ways are not mine.

I'm not moaning about the Internet overall. I make my living off it. My publisher has a large online presence and most of my book sales are digital. The good points of the Internet far outweigh the bad, but do I still want to engage in the parts of it that I find to be 'bad.'

Bad for me, bad for my writing, bad for my productivity.

So, I don't know.  I'm at a crossroads.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Guest Post: The Code

By Jim Winter

Most PI characters have a code, whether it’s stated outright or implied by the character’s actions.

There are lines Spenser would never cross. Marlowe gets damned preachy about it. Hammer’s even more physical, using his fists to emphasize his point. The PI story is often about what the protagonist believes.

Bad Religion is more about the protag questioning what he believes. For starters, if you read Second Hand Goods (and if you haven’t, it’s $2.99 on most ereaders. Go. Now. I’ll wait.), you know that Nick and his married secretary Elaine had a fear-driven one-night stand. As Bad Religion begins, Nick is already pondering if that was the mistake they told each other it was or something more. What prompts Elaine to start dangling the forbidden fruit once more, aside from her crumbling marriage, is an opportunity for them to leave their patrons at TTG Insurance for an office of their own.

Nick says no when he realizes a Russian mobster with delusions of legitimacy is the money man behind the potential new client. Nick refuses to “sell his soul to the devil,” only to learn that a criminal with his own set of rules is not the worst person to do business with.

And then there’s the case itself, an associate pastor of a popular suburban church accused of skimming the collection plate. As Nick and Elaine dig into church politics and shady real estate deal, Nick is forced to face that pesky God issue he’s ignored since he was a teenager. Nick was never the most devout Catholic and never embraced atheism, but he is forced to define himself as he watches two reverends – one genuine and humble, the other a preening huckster – struggle with their own beliefs. True to his ambiguous nature, Nick doesn’t really resolve the issue.

In the end, Nick is left wondering what the hell happened. He knows even less about what he believes and has crossed lines he would never have dreamed of even days before the story begins.

About the only thing he believes in at the end is guilt.

He doesn’t need God for that. He’s racked up enough of it on his own.

Kindle | Nook | Smashwords

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

BEA2013: People Say the Darndest Things

By Steve Weddle

Finally got a chance to sit down and watch the C-SPAN coverage of last month's Book Expo America.

I thought the Future of Publishing panel, while not terribly surprising overall, was filled with some good points.

WATCH HERE: A panel of graduate students in New York University’s publishing program talked about the future of publishing, particular through digital technology. They responded to questions from the audience.This event took place at the annual book publishing trade show, Book Expo America, held May 29- June 1, 2013, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City.

The idea of one department at a publishing house holding a training session for another department in order to explain "tweeting" seemed hilarious and a little sad. And, yet, how much sadder if folks needed to know this and everyone had just assumed that they already knew?

I can see a couple of old folks at the publisher sitting around, making jokes about "the twatters? is that what it's called?" and the "the facebooks on the webbernets" and all. Oh, the hilarity.

Just because Ned in marketing doesn't use Twitter doesn't mean that millions of book readers don't. So it was reassuring to hear about how people at the publishing houses are taking this seriously, are teaching each other to use whatever technology is becoming popular and useful.

Then I watched John Sargent, Macmillan's CEO, talk to the president of the American Booksellers Association. He said he doesn't have a cell phone. I got the feeling he was rather proud of this. He said if he needed to find out any information online, he could do so. He added that he'd made CD-ROMs twenty years ago, so he knew "a fair amount about the technical side of the business." (49:37)

I'd never begin to argue with the CEO of a Big Six publishing company about their business, but I would like to point out that thinking about ebooks as "the technical side of the business" rather misses the point. This would be like saying you can coach Tyler Moore out of his hitting slump because you manufactured baseball bats in the 1990s.

Of course, unlike Mr. Sargent, I don't run a giant publishing company, my father never ran a publishing company (to my knowledge), and I don't have a degree from an Ivy League school. He knows more about running that company than I'll ever imagine. I'm just this guy who reads books.

But some of the things he said stuck with me.

Mr. Sargent said that there was something "pretty magical" about having a child sit in your lap and reading to them from the printed page as opposed to a screen. (46:48) I am not sure where he thinks the "magic" comes from. I had assumed it was from the story, from the imagination, not from slices of dead trees.  Having had my children in my lap and reading to them from Harry Potter or My Little Pony, I can tell you that they didn't give a damn whether I was reading the words from a screen or from a piece of paper.

Mr. Sargent added that he preferred to sit in a chair with a lamp behind him and a print book in his lap. The people who sold print books applauded.

To me, at least, it isn't one or the other. I don't have to choose. I don't see why Mr. Sargent does, either. I read on my Kindles. I read hardbacks. I read trade and mass market. I have an Audible account. This isn't an either/or choice, in my mind. To me it's about the book, the story. And some bookstores have Google Books and Kobo eReaders prominently displayed on their sites and mentioned in their stores. That's great. I want people to read. I want them to have access to the book. And the book isn't just the sheets of paper bound together.

Applaud the book, not the paper.

If I had a vote, I'd prefer that CEO of every book publishing company read books on a cell phone, on a tablet, in paperback. I'd prefer they listened to audiobooks, too. Because I buy my books in many, many different formats from many publishers, but especially from Macmillan. Picador. Tor. Heck, Minotaur. So many books I've loved -- on my phone or in my ear -- have come from Macmillan. And so many folks who read Minotaur mysteries -- or any other book -- don't always have the luxury of hopping across the street to a bookstore.

(Again, I'm not arguing with Mr. Sargent. He seems like a nice enough man. I'm not going to assume too much about how he buys books, but I've been to Manhattan and I'm well aware that it's fairly easy to find a bookstore there. Much different than having to coordinate with your family in order to stage a drive into the city to purchase a book next weekend. Very often, by the way, the bookstore will have a copy of the book I want. And, if they don't have it, they always offer to order it online for me and have it shipped to the store so that I can drive into the city again to buy it.)

On the forward-thinking side of things, Mr. Sargent mentioned how Tor now allows DRM-free ebooks because their authors and readers are self-policing. A great step in the right direction. My contention has always been that locking something down, making it hard to get, and over-pricing it are great encouragement to piracy.

It was an odd juxtaposition, watching these two panels back to back. I'm not about to suggest that one was the future of publishing and the other the past. I don't think that's the case at all. I think each showed elements of moving ahead and of trying to stay entrenched.

As I've said often, I love bookstores, have basically grown up in bookstores, and love that many independent bookstores are in great shape. The smart folks at Politics and Prose were up at the Gaithersburg Book Festival recently and engaged in a panel moderated by the guy who started up ShelfAwareness.

2013 Gaithersburg Book Festival: Panel on Independent Bookselling
From the 2013 Gaithersburg (MD) Book Festival, a panel discussion on independent bookselling. Participants include: Mitch Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami, Florida; Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of Politics & Prose in Washington, DC; and Chris Kerr, Managing Partner at Parson Weems’ Publisher Services. The panel is moderated by John Mutter, Editor in Chief and Founder of ShelfAwareness. WATCH HERE

They talked a great deal, not about how much better the world was before Amazon ruined everything by getting books to people quickly and cheaply, but about what new ideas they are using to keep indie stores moving forward.

The bookstores that are in great shape are those that are actively engaged with readers, because that's what this is about. This isn't about the printed book or the ebook. This is about people who love stories, who love reading, who love books and authors. It's great when some folks get that. And it's super great when the shop around the corner gets it.

A while back, some stores were complaining that Barnes and Noble would put them out of business. Or Border's. Now we've got complaints against Amazon. Whether those complaints are well founded or not, success comes for the stores that think less about the competition and more about the customer. No, life ain't fair. But how can the bookstores make it unfair in their advantage? Events. Signings. Trips. Bonus Content. Personalizing the experience. On and on.

Devoting the front half of your shop to stationery and Michael Buble CDs isn't the answer, is it? I don't own an indie bookstore, so I could be completely off-base. Maybe selling CDs is the future of bookstores. I didn't know anyone bought CDs anymore. To me, there's something pretty magical about having a child sit in your lap while you're streaming music over your cell phone, both of you singing along to the latest Jason Isbell.

And maybe soon we'll get to a point that will have people cheering when all these bookstores can connect with readers in even more ways, when we can bring every book lover together in the reading community. Having QR codes for EXCLUSIVE CONTENT printed on bookmarks given away at readings. Having field trips -- like those Politics and Prose has -- to connect readers with places from their favorite books. Having more authors come in to teach writing classes. Being able to bring your Kindle (Gasp!) into a bookstore to download a book or some sort of bookstore-only content.

When I see a bookstore -- Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Books & Books in Miami or P&P in DC, for example -- that Gets It, I want to cheer.

You know, instead of applauding when someone says he doesn't have a cell phone.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Shame Shame Shame Shame

Last week, I listened to a debate about public shaming.  It's been a hot topic, particularly in the wake of the story about the woman who posted pictures of an alleged cheating spouse on Facebook, after listening to his conversation while on a train.

Yesterday, I found myself resisting the urge to snap a photo and post it myself.  I didn't do it... but I was tempted.

We'd gone go karting for Father's Day.  It was my first time go karting, and it was also a first for both of the kids.  We were in line for one of the tracks, and the guy took Bry's ticket (we had multiple ride bands, so this means he broke it off her band) and she was off to a kart.

Then he told us there was only room for two more.  I stepped aside to let Brian go, which gave me a chance to snap a few photos of everyone in action.

It also gave me a clear view of two guys who were out on the track.  Although the rules are clearly posted - no bumping or being unsafe - you can expect that you'll make contact at times, even without intending to.

These two guys, however, fully intended to make contact.  They were cutting each other off to run each other into the boards.  In fact, they smashed so bad that part of the engine broke off one of their karts and wires were dangling from the kart and the entire run was stopped and everyone else had to sit on the track while this kart was pulled to the side and they fixed it.

Although it was posted that breaking rules and unsafe behavior could result in being removed without a refund, it didn't even look like anything was said to these guys.  When the race resumed, so did their reckless driving. 

All I could think was that my husband was out there.  Our kids were out there.  I was furious.

And I was tempted, but then I thought about the debate from last week, about public shaming.  I wasn't worried about context: I'd witnessed what they'd done first-hand.  I could have videoed it.

I realized that I wasn't only angry with the losers on the track.  I was angry with the go karting place.  Why post rules you won't enforce?  I mean, it wasn't just that they were breaking the rules... it was that they also crashed a vehicle hard enough to break part of it off.  You would think the staff would have pulled them from the ride.

Instead, we spent the rest of our rides making sure we weren't in the same line with the losers.

Now, for businesses, there is a way to publicly shame them.  Twitter and Facebook are options, as are online reviews.  Is it fair that the business should take the brunt alone? 

In a way, it is.  After all, we're riding at our own risk... but if the company isn't enforcing their own safety policy, I think their disclaimer wouldn't be worth the price of the signs it was posted on.

At the end of the day, we all had fun.  We came home safely.  There was one bad ride.  (I'd knock it two points straight off for letting people smoke in there, and the service wasn't good.  Our three-scoop cones were the size of a one scoop anywhere else - and I used to work in an ice cream shop, so I know... and the scooper touched the ice cream with her hands while scooping.)  Did I have a good time?  Yes.  Would I go back?  I'd want to check out another venue instead. 

And what would publicly shaming the two losers have done to affect my day or my next experience?


I guess I'm not quite like the woman who made her kids wear signs in public about their behavior.

But as an author, I'm familiar with the temptation to get revenge in writing.  I know a lot of authors who like to kill off people they don't like, who've hurt them.  I don't do that.  I make them the villains, because people feel sympathy for victims, and I don't want readers to have any sympathy for the people I'm taking my private revenge on.

And I'm not quite like Taylor Swift, loving, leaving and dishing the details in my next break-up song.

Will the two losers ever feature in one of my books?  Possibly.  If they do, my husband and I will be the only ones who'll know who I'm referring to.  I don't know their names, and I don't know anything else about them, so it's not quite like shaming.

That's what I tell myself, anyway.  What about you?  How do you feel about public shaming?  Or getting revenge in writing?  Ever been tempted yourself, or taken it to the next level and done it?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy Father's Day!

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Well, what are you doing here reading a blog post?  You should be celebrating the wonderful world of fatherhood!  I know that's what we plan to do.  This is the 5th Father's Day since my father passed and the 2nd since we lost my father-in-law.  While they are not here to give presents to, they are still with me.   Today, I remember their strength and laughter, their unflagging love and their support.  I miss them as I know many of you miss those whose strength influenced your life and have since gone.

Today, I'd love to dedicate this post to all the fathers who have made us into the people we are today.  I'd love to hear about your father (grandfather, godfather, etc...) and share celebrating them with you. And to all of you who are fathers - a big thank you to you for all you do for those you love.

Happy Father's Day!