Sunday, June 30, 2013

All hail librarians!

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Yesterday, I was at my very first ALA conference.  ALA stands for the American Library Association. And lucky me, the conference this year was in Chicago.  Hurray for the windy city.  (Sorry for the weather, though.  The freak thunderstorms and cool temperatures aren't typical.  Honest!)

While I was on the ALA exhibit floor, I got to see cool authors signing books (I even got to sign books!), browsed booths filled with ARCs and finished copies of kids and adult reading and I got to talk to librarians.  The last should be a no brainer since...well,'s a library conference.  But there is something funny about the way television and movies always characterize librarians.  In those mediums, librarians are often played as meek, quiet, shy and nervous about speaking their mind.

Um--nope!  Not the librarians I talked to.  Oh, I'm sure that lots of them are shy or get nervous in social situations, but when it comes to books they let their personalities shine.  They love books.  Not just in the casual way that some people say they love to read.  These are passionate advocates for the written word.  They love stories of all kinds.  But beyond that they love to tell people about the stories they love.  Connecting readers with stories that will open their minds and imaginations is something that drives them.  How cool is that?

Growing up, I was at my local library at least once a week.  I remember browsing the shelves and checking out my limit of books every time...I think it was 5 (I have now been told the limits for kids is almost limitless!!!).  I also remember my local librarians making suggestions about what I should read next.  Because they took the time to learn about my preferences, I was never disappointed when I read one of their recommendations.  The librarians at my local library were awesome.  The librarians today were just as amazing.  They know books.  They love books and they want the world to love them, too.

Too often, I think kids feel that reading is work.  They think they have to read and remember and be tested.  Those kids can turn into adults who feel adverse to reading for entertainment because of poor reading experiences as children.  And that is so sad.  Because I'm betting if as a child they went to their local library and had a passionate advocate like the ones I met today putting the right book in their hands reading wouldn't feel like work any more.  And the more I think about it, the more I am certain that librarians are a resource our country should celebrate more.  Because if the passion I saw from them this weekend could be transferred to our youth - I firmly believe that anything would be possible.

So to all the librarians I met and those I have yet to have the privilege of saying hello to - Thank you for all you do.  Little by little you are changing the world!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Some Stats and Experiencing "That Moment"


Scott D. Parker

Today is the penultimate day of June 2013 so it's close enough to list some statistics. I've been blogging about my restarted writing after a long fallow period. One of the things I wanted with this reinvigoration is to have some metrics. I wanted to see numerical proof of my progress. One thing I did was set a daily goal: at least 500 words. That's really doable, if you just carve out 30 minutes a day. I achieved that goal for 27 of the 28 days in June. I so wanted to be perfect, but I messed up on one day. Darn it! But I'm more than happy about my progress and the new habit of writing. Even on the day (10 June) I didn't meet the 500-word threshhold, I *did* write. That makes 33 consecutive days writing. By the time this post goes live, it'll be 34 (since I'm writing this on Friday and I write around 6am in the mornings).

Here are the actual stats:
  • Minimum threshold: 14,000 (500/day for 28 days)
  • Total words: 31,159
  • Difference: 17,159 words above the minimum
  • Average: 1,112/day (Somewhat misleading because I only topped 1,000 words 9 days, but those days were usually nearer 2,000)
  • Best day: 3,571 (2 June)
  • Worst: 313 (10 June)
  • Items worked on:
  • --Finished one story, an 18,000-word "whatever" (novelette?) (1-2 June)
  • --Started and finished a 9,500-word short story (3-8 June)
  • --8 chapters of the current book (9-28 June)
  • --New scene of another short story (22 June)

So, I include the data here not to toot my own horn--I'm am much more proud of myself for the consistency than the numbers--but to demonstrate how metrics can spur you on. I have a calendar in my office on which I write a nice giant red X onto each day I write. Using the Seinfeld chain concept, it starts to get to the point that you force yourself to write something just to keep the Xs going and not break the chain. That was the story on 10 June when I only managed 313 words but I wrote something, got to write my X, and moved the novel forward.
Speaking of the novel, I had a little breakthrough yesterday morning. I've been plugging away at it for most of the month and I've had one mantra: move forward and make progress. Get it written. You can fix later. So I've not been looking backward except to check on character names. [BTW, this is where Scrivener is great because there is a special little folder for character names.] As I've forged ahead, I've realized that I will have to tweak the order of some of the scenes but I'm okay with that. All I care about now is getting this story that's been in my head on paper and pixel.
Yesterday, literally as I was wrapping up my session, something in the tale clicked into place. For all you writers reading this, you know what I'm talking about. It's not as great as typing "the end," but it's in the Top 10, maybe even the top 5. To quote David Bowie, "The moment you know you know, you know?" It was that little moment when I knew that threadwise, storywise, I was moving forward and had reached a place where, while the end of the road was not yet in sight, I knew I was on the right road. Man! That's a great feeling.
Do y'all ever keep metrics on your writing? If so, mention it in the comments and we'll all go read about your successes.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Sonic Boom

Contains minor spoilers for Man of Steel

After the bombastic and eye-straining opening twenty or so minutes of Man Of Steel, it seems like things might finally slow down for a moment. Putting aside the incredibly silly and ill-conceived view of Krypton (I still don’t get why they don’t leave the planet when they have the technology) and the bizarre plan of Kal-El’s dad (He’s a natural born Kryptonian but we’ll still mix him in with the unborn Krypton drones), its tempting to think that perhaps the film might slow down for two seconds and let us get to grip with any characters we can care about.

But it doesn’t slow down. Although it does have the most “Superman” moment of the movie crop up as Clark, who is living as a drifter, finding his way in the world and working on a fishing boat, spots an oil rig on fire and flies off to save the day. He saves the men trapped on the rig with an amazing display of his powers and then realises he can’t go back on the boat and instead decides to stay underwater a while with the whales and reflect on his life.

Its a promising start. As are the scenes that follow where we flash back to his early life, as he deals with his new powers (there’s a hint of autism on the way he runs into cupboard to escape the noise and size of the world) and what people will think of him (when he saves his classmates from drowning, people begin to realise there’s something odd, and his dad goes mental with worry which seems a very human reaction).

But then you realise, this new film isn’t play with time or telling out of sequence, its simply suffering from a very real kind of ADD. We don’t stay with any quiet scene for more than a few moments without some kind of bombast. When Pa Kent goes to talk to Clark about what it means to have his powers, he does so in a very angry kind of way, slamming his coffee mug down and crashing through the screen doors of the Kent home*. The camera zooms in on the sloshing coffee and the door slams loud, and we jump cut outside and... its so dramatic - pardon me, so melodramatic - that it loses all meaning. If a coffee cup can be bombastic, what hope the Superman Punching that will come later in the film?

What hope indeed. The film is desperate to get to the punching. So desperate that it skips over everything (except exposition - - there’s a whole ten minutes of Russell Crowe gently explaining everything that should have been included in the opening prologue over and above Krypton Dragons and an inexplicable civil war). It throws in fanwank at an astounding rate: Hey, they said “phantom zone”.... oh look its an intern called Jenny Olsen (was there any point in including the character at all... no problems with the gender flip from Jimmy Olsen, but the fact is that she does nothing except get stuck under some rubble at some point when we’re supposed to care about this character that’s never said a word)... cool, its The Daily Planet... and so forth. It doesn’t explain anything. It doesn’t give us any character development at all. Lois Lane comes in, does a little bit on spunky reporting, decides to tell the world about Superman and then...? Who is she? Why is Superman so attracted to her? Is it because she found him? Is it because she’s cute? God only knows, we’re given no reason to believe that Supes would so instinctively trust her, especially when she disseminates his story across the world when he doesn’t really want her to. If we were take out ten or fifteen minutes of Henry Cavill Punches Things Real Good (tm) we could have got to know our supporting cast a little more, especially Lois, who is the ideal character through which to tell the Superman story. If we saw things from Lois’s POV, perhaps we could have created a story with tension, mystery and rising action. A story where the Henry Cavill Punches Things Real Good (tm) moments were emotionally earned.

The best movie superhero fights come from where we give a toss about the wellbeing of the people involved. The Batman/Joker fight in Tim Burton’s Batman was earned due to us really liking the kooky Michael Keaton character and the intense, scene-stealing Joker. The final showdown between Green Goblin and Spiderman was earned through spending time with Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker and knowing what he had to lose. And so on and so forth. Hell, check out The Dark Knight where the final confrontation between Joker and Bats is turned on its head, as the Joker realises he is no physical match for Bats but instead tries to break him down psychologically by showing him how his mission is all a joke. Its a great moment and it has far depth than just Two Chaps Punching Each Other in increasingly implausible ways.

Yes, it does mean you need to spend a bit more quiet time with the characters, but when a film is all one (very very loud**) note, it becomes very dull. Frankly I knew less about Superman at the end of this movie than I knew at the start. Other than he punches things real good.

And its a shame because Superman has a great potential to create a conflicted character. He is super powerful, so powerful that he can be a God*** in the eyes of humanity. He cares for us, he wants to save us. He has a supreme moral core. And yet the movie chooses to ignore this (other than lip service) to get straight to the punching as Zod comes careening out of the sky to turn Earth into a new Krypton at the expense of humanity. As impressively epic as the fight sequences with Zod are, I couldn’t help but feel they betrayed the character (and not in the way that the resolution to the fight seems to imply to certain fans - - another moment they didn’t earn at all) in his attitude. Superman is open to interpretation but if you ignore his sense of morality then he is simply another Big Punching Superhero in a natty costume. Yes, they give him lots of speeches about how Earth is now his home and how he is “American” because he comes from Kansas. But what makes Superman is his absolute and total concern for humanity. He will let the villain leave the scene in order to save innocents (which is why that allegedly controversial final moment is not actually completely out of character even if it is contextually very suspect). He will not allow one person to be hurt. The needs of the few and the many are one and the same to him. One human is as important as 1 million. Which is what disturbed me so much about the final scenes of the movie; the big climax. Superman and various kryptonian soldiers have this massive, insane fight through the city of Metropolis**** (and earlier in the small town of Smallville)during which Things Blow Up Real Good. But the disaster is so epic that when you stop to think about it, no matter how far citizens might have tried to run away, many of them will be left behind and caught up in terrifying situations as their world collapses and Blows Up Real Good around them.

Now, Superman as we know him would try and save these citizens. This would take priority over Punching Zod In The Face Very Very Very Hard, which seems to be Superman’s main response to the situation. But he doesn’t. He just crashes through office buildings and residential dwellings with barely a thought except taking Zod out of the picture. Now, this might be a fine approach to the character if he later comes to a realisation that his actions have consequences. Perhaps a minor character we have come to know dies***** and suddenly Supes realises that he has to make more nuanced moral decisions. Or perhaps Lois gives him an earful about how he has to take responsibility for his actions. Or he has another memory of his father telling him that he needs to realise how powerful he is and how capable he is of destruction as well as good acts.

Or perhaps he realises this in the first place.

But no. Zack Snyder, as usual, uses all the right ingredients but doesn’t know how to mix them. The same mistake he made in Watchment, where he had the right cast and the right look, but not the right tone. Taking a movie about how uncool it would be to a Superhero and making it look supercool. And its the same with MoS. There’s lots of potential here to make a Superman movie with nuance and intelligence and some troubling questions about what it means to be a God among mortals, but instead it becomes about unsubtle Christian Imagery and Punching Things Real Good (which is exactly what Jesus would not have done). In challenging Zod a final time, Superman would try and lure him out somewhere deserted (say, the Indian Ocean where Supes earlier destroyed a world engine that was in the middle of absolutely nowhere) rather than destroying an entire city.

In Nolan’s Batman trilogy there was debate about whether we get the Hero we need or the Hero we deserve. In Man of Steel, despite Cavill’s attempt to imbue Supes with some kind of humanity against the neverending bombast, we wind up with a hero we neither need (imagine the death toll he’s responsible for both through his own action and inaction) not the one we deserve (In this current world, a hero like Superman should be trying to be a guiding light, even if he gets it wrong).

Not only that, but we also get one hell of a headache. Whose decision was it to get every single cinema in the world to turn the volume up to 11?

* This is what Michael Bay refers to as “fucking the frame” - - ie, constantly having things in motion so that the viewer doesn’t get bored. The irony is that it often winds up being very boring indeed. See any and all of the modern Transformers movies

**Both myself and The Literary Critic came out with intense headaches brought on by both the noise and constant camera movement during the never ending fight sequences.

***Oh did I mention the ham-fisted Jesus Symbolism that made Russell T Davis’s attempt turn the Doctor into a lonely God seem positively subtle.

****Which could be any US city; at least in the Batman movies, Gotham had something of a character. Here we could easily be in NYC, Seattle, San Francisco, any anonymous US city

*****This does happen to three characters with speaking parts who are in more than one scene in the movie, but everyone seems to merely shrug aside their deaths and move on, even Lois Lane which is right there when these deaths happen (but is of course saved by Supes).

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Grammar Chameleon

By Jay Stringer.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a moving picture filled with words that's also narrated? Well, that makes my brain explode. I asked Siri how many words that was worth. Siri said "lots"

Siri actually said, "go away, you creep" followed by, "the Chinese restaurant on Dalmarnock Road opens until 11pm." But That's not important.

Dave White and I have both made arguments against the grammar police. We've gone round on that particular dirt track a few times.

But Dave sent me a link to Stephen Fry summing it all up quite nicely.

So go watch this video. And then remember, which side of an argument do you want to be on? I think you want to be on the side that has Stephen Fry.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

School's Out

My son finished his first year of high school last week and that got me thinking about the end of my first year of high school - 40 years ago.

This song was a year old then. And although none of the students at my high school had their own cars, it did look a little like this:

Enjoy your summer!

Monday, June 24, 2013

James Gandolfini - The death of a series character

In the aftermath of James Gandolfini's death I was struck by a couple of things, one of which was the level of assessment and accolades thrown his way. I think this was partly fueled by the surprise of his passing due to his young age. The other was how personal people took it.

Here's the thing, and again I say this as a fan (I was managing a video store when True Romance came out and his performance was notable, even then.), his filmography, if taken simply as a list, isn't that impressive. It's not impressive in the same way that Paul Newman's was when he died. It's filled with small parts and memorable supporting roles. His fame rests on the success of primarily one role, Tony Soprano.

The era of TV that we are in now is often referred to as the Golden Age of Television and The Sopranos is often credited with ushering this age in (which is an unfortunate snub to OZ). No one here needs me to explain what the Golden Age of Television is but suffice it to say that one of the hallmarks is its focus on more serial type, long form story telling. The best examples are often compared to novels, or are described with terms that had been reserved for novels.

If you look at a show like The Sopranos where, despite the large cast of fully developed characters, there is one touchstone character the only comparable thing is the series character in novels (Rebus, Bosch, Scudder, Parker, etc.).  The Sopranos ran for 86 episodes. That's 86 hours of time spent with this character and those around him. The intimacy of spending that much time with one actor/character is going to really connect him to his audience. Hence the reaction to his death, because we had witnessed what felt like the death of a series character.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Making it better

by: Joelle Charbonneau

So, you've finished writing a book.  Congratulations!  Celebrate.  Get out the marching band and pop the cork on the champagne.  You've earned throwing yourself a party.  Because I truly believe that getting to THE END is one of the hardest things a writer can do.  Especially writers who are first starting out.  So--please--when you hit THE END acknowledge the accomplishment.  You did it.

Now what?

Should you start trying to decide who to query or whether to self-publish.  Um...nope.  Now you need to make the manuscript better.

It is time to revise and edit your manuscript and turn it into a book.

What?  Hitting THE END doesn't make your manuscript a book?  Well, I suppose depending on who you talk to some people would say yes.  Me...not so much.  Because to me a manuscript is something that isn't quite ready for public viewing just yet.  There are lots of steps still ahead so that the story is turned into something others will hopefully want to read.  Manuscripts are filled with potential.  Doing revisions and editing are about turning that potential into something better and more readable.

It is not a coincidence that I am writing this post today.  Why?  Because I just finished revising GRADUATION DAY and am now working on editing A CHORUS LINE-UP.  Now, you might ask, aren't revisions and edits the same thing.  Well...some people might say yes.  Me...not really.  I use those two terms to define two very different processes.

For me revisions refer to the process of changing major plot points and character moments in the book and then pulling those changes through the story.  In GRADUATION DAY, my editor asked me to consider moving a plot point from page 89 up in the story.  I did.  It is now on page 38.  Altering the story in that way shifted the pacing, the character development, the sequence of events in the book and just about...well...everything.  Revisions to me are about moving pieces around and trying new things.  Writing the manuscript is about telling the story.  Revisions are about tearing the story apart and seeing if you can tell it in an even better way.  For me, revisions are exciting and incredibly challenging.  It can mean taking a leap of faith, cutting a hundred or more pages of a book and trusting that the story will be better for it in the end.  Sometimes it is.  Sometimes it isn't and you have to go back and try again.  But I have always become a better story teller by going through this process.  I truly believe there is no wrong way to tell a story, but there are better ways than others.  Revisions give you the opportunity to find the best approach to tell your story.

Edits (when it is me doing them, not my editor) is something very different.  When you see me on twitter talking about editing a book, it means that I am going line by line through the manuscript and tweaking every word to make sure the cadence is exactly what I am looking for.  Too many words in a line can ruin the cadence and spoil the humorous moment or the tension I am trying to built.  When I edit, I look at sentence structure to see if the lengths of the sentences on the page are varied enough to keep the reader zipping along.  I also make sure that the continuity of the story and all the plot threads that I have woven together are tied up in the end.  This work is very detail oriented and can get irksome to some authors because while it is important, it doesn't feel as creative as the drafting and revising part of the process.

Call me crazy, but I LOVE editing.  Adding that final polish and making the book sparkle is fun.  It requires time and focus, but there is something wonderful about shining up a page and moving onto the next one.  Revisions are scarier to me.  I really enjoy them.  I enjoy the challenge of trying new things and seeing where it will take the story.  Because I don't outline (I wish I did, but I just can't!) I never know how the story is going to turn out until I get to those final pages.  Revisions are my chance to finally see the big picture and find better ways of getting to that final moment.

Regardless of what you call your process after getting to THE END, making a manuscript better should  receive just as much attention as getting to the last page.  Trust don't want to have people read the manuscript.  You want them to read book that manuscript becomes.

And for those who have offered to read Graduation Day...nope!  It has only been revised--once.  I'm betting there's at least one more revision to go.  Then it will need to be edited.  But I really appreciate the offer:)  But I promise that when you do read it - it will be the best version of that book that it can possible be.  (At least...I hope so!)

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!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

It's Superman! - A Book Review

(In honor of the new Superman movie released this weekend--I'm seeing it this morning--as well as the acknowledgement that I did not get to finish the piece I was writing last night about breaking down a favorite novel [tune in next week], I present this review of a Superman story you may not know about but might want to read. It's from 2011 and it's presented here without edit.)

I've always been a Batman guy. Even as a kid, I gravitated towards the Caped Crusader with his more outlandish villains, his humanness, and his tales that seemed just a bit more real. As a kid, I loved Superman, but I liked him best when he was with other characters. My Superman comic collection fits in probably one-and-a-half comic book boxes (approx 250/box). My Batman collection spans three boxes at least, perhaps four. Even as an adult, I still kept up with Batman while Big Blue just seemed to fade away.

So how to explain the sudden desire, about a month ago, to read a Superman tale? The author, to be exact. Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman is just about the best Superman story I've read in a long time. Not hard to do considering I've not read a Supes story in years. Morrison recaptured that whimsical Superman pre-1986, when DC Comics rebooted Kal-el's story from the beginning.

But I've always wondered about Superman's true beginning. Since his debut was in 1938, that makes him a Depression-era hero. For all the years of telling and retelling his origin, writers have always tried to update Clark Kent's story. Where was the tale that put Clark back in the 1930s? Tom De Haven must have had the same question, but he answered it with his novel, It's Superman.

When you get right down to it, some of the best Superman stories are, in fact, Clark Kent stories. A good friend of mine--a member of my little SF book club--commented that, since Superman is so strong and so invulnerable, the only good Superman story is an origin story. He might have something there. Case in point: TV's "Smallville" has stretched Clark's discovery of his alter ego over ten years. Jeph Loeb captured an excellent, modern retelling of Clark's story with "Superman: For All Seasons." But not since the Depression has there been a good, honest story about Clark Kent and Superman in the 1930s.

Superman, as created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is an American story of the Depression. Tom De Haven captures the look, the feel, the smells, the sounds of the Depression with intimate detail. Not hardly a page goes by without some reference to how we lived in the middle of the 1930s. It served as a wonderful touchstone to the types of lives that Siegel and Shuster lived as they created the first, great superhero. To be honest, this tale is more pulp than SF. Heck, it's almost Steinbeckian in its slowness and non-action.

Not that that's a bad thing. De Haven allows all the characters to breath on their own. The story is the origin of how Clark went from a farm boy in Kansas to a reporter and superhero in New York. And, yes, De Haven sets the story in NYC, not the fictional Metropolis. It's yet another piece that makes the story of this alien more real.

Lois Lane and Lex Luthor play their obligatory roles. Lois is almost the most fully realized character in the book. She is not some modern 2011 woman trapped in the 1930s, complete with winks and nods to us 21st Century readers. She is a modern, 1930s-era woman. She wants to be taken seriously as a reporter--something the male reporters don't do--but, also, upon meeting one character, tries out his last name with her own first name, wondering about marriage and kids.

Lex is fabulous. This isn't the mad scientist of the Silver Age of Superman's history. Lex, now, is more in line with the post-1986 rebooting of the character: a rich, brilliantly intelligent man, an Alderman, and a gangster. He doesn't want to rule the world, he just wants to rule the organized crime groups in NYC. Unlike Clark, Lex knows that his intelligence makes him an outsider among the more "normal" people.

Lex's brains is a nice counterpoint to Clark's brawn, a usual aspect of Superman stories. But, in this retelling, Clark isn't very smart, constantly doubting what he should do. In fact, it is Clark's constant questioning of his powers that, depending on what kind of story you want, will sway you one way or the other. For those of y'all (like another member of my book club) who read the word "Superman" on the cover and wait for Superman to do something super, you'll be disappointed. For those of y'all (like me) who enjoys the human side of Clark's story, this novel will be right up your alley. In the world of 2011, if one discovers one has superpowers, we'd likely try to get a TV deal. For someone like the Clark Kent of the 1930s, he almost doesn't know what to do.

Superman, like Batman, James Bond, and various animated characters, has adapted as the decades have passed. With my reading of It's Superman coming around the 900th issue* of Action Comics--the comic where Superman debuted--and it's modern, super-smart, SF version of Superman, it's fascinating to read a novel that takes Clark/Superman all the way back to his beginning.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Entirely Coincidental

By Russel D McLean

One of the strangest stories I read over the last week was this one:

Scarlett Johanson suing an author for using her likeness in his works (or saying a character looks like her).

But it brings up an interesting point of where real life and fiction collide. After all, many authors use real life people as the basis for characters to varying degrees. I’ve certainly named a few characters after people I know (mostly it’s a private joke and they’ve asked or I’ve asked, and even then I’ve been careful about what I do to these characters). The character of “Sooty” Soutar in Father Confessor is loosely based on someone I know both in terms of name and his physical presence. I’ve been namechecked in a few works of fiction, once or twice by nicknames rather than my real name.

Once, I was even accidentally "cameoed" in a book by a writer I know who had a particularly horrific character work out of an address I used to live at. I knew it was a coincidence (the writer in question had no idea that used to be my address, and he certainly didn't intend for anyone to believe this character we in any way related to me) but people I knew didn’t, and had assumed it was a joke in bad taste. Its now become a joke in quite good taste, of course, and an object lesson in how despite your best efforts you’re probably going to wind up getting some people confused about real life and fiction.

And of course then there’s Peter James using a character by the name of Amis Smallbone as a stab at a public figure of words who rudely dissed him.

But where does the line end?

All characters in this work of fiction bear no resemblance to persons living or dead?

To what degree?

In American Psycho* there’s a scene where Tom Cruise shares a lift with our protagonist. There’s a dialogue between the two. Nothing particularly terrible. In fact it’s kind of bland** But it got me wondering, in light of Johansson’s case, what was Cruise’s reaction to the cameo and how did he feel to be associated with this kind of character, even in passing?

At what point do we pass into use for public domain? Without using celebrities and their public personas for comparison or even scene setting, how can fiction in any way relate to the real world as it is now? They become short hand for certain associations. In the same way that music, objects and brands can be used to say something, so can the association of a certain type of celebrity. To say that someone has a Tom Cruise smile, or Roger Moore eyebrows brings with it a cultural association that sets an immediate kind of mood.
Not only that, but it helps to ground works in a certain place or time. For example, set a book in the eighties or beyond and talk about Roger Moore eyebrows, it makes sense. But set that book in the mid-1700s and the comparison is not only anachronistic but it destroys any suspension of disbelief.

Hate on Dan Brown as much as you like, but he’s very clever in using celebrity shorthand for his character descriptions. By comparing Langdon to Harrison Ford “in Harris Tweed” he sets up a very immediate association in the reader’s head, especially given Ford’s associations with characters whom Brown would like the reader to identify his character with (Indiana Jones - - yes, Langdon isn’t a brawny kind of guy but he is a man who investigates the mysterious and by making that association, Brown is able to get readers to accept the kind of journey upon which Langdon embarks)

But how much can or should we use celebrity in our fiction? Tom Cain’s debut novel used the real life death of Diana Princess of Wales as a starting point, but refused to name her specifically, perhaps relying on the implication of her life as enough of a hint to readers as to what he was really talking about. And of course a number of authors have fictionalised famous people in often unflattering ways. Ellroy’s depictions of historical figures is often disturbing and unsettling. Is he using them fairly? Certainly he uses them to service his view of the world and the use of them helps us to believe that what he is writing about is plausible is not actual.

There are lines, certainly. Lines that should not be crossed. If American Psycho had for example implicated Cruise in some horrific act that was at odds with what we know him as a public figure then that would be a cause for him to complain, in the same way that I might complain if someone used a “Russel McLean” who was a no good piece of shit dog killer in their fiction and who lived at my address and shared my taste in clothes, music and so forth.

But what point are you public enough to be fair game for fiction writers? At what point can you not complain if you are used merely as a comparison or in a purely fictional sense where it is very clear that this is not the real “you”?

I understand why Johansson might be unsettled at the idea of being mention in a fictional work. But is it any different to appearing in the National Enquirer or a tabloid where rumour is reported as truth?

And more importantly, if we were not allowed to let elements of reality – specifically the mention and use of public domain figures such as celebrities – intrude on our fiction, how would that affect our storytelling and the way that it relates to readers? Its not a question that I have an easy answer to, but I suspect that were we not to use famous faces as signposts, were we not to include an element of the real in our fiction, then it would make it that much harder for readers to engage with our work as it would be unable to function as a reasonable simulacra of the real world.

*I know it’s a classic but I’m in the midst of it right now and finding it a bit of a slog

**Which is the point, of course.