Saturday, August 31, 2013

Just Showing Up + End of Summer Report

Scott D. Parker

I'll admit something: this past week's writing was a struggle. I still managed a thousand words a day, but they were words that I all but had to force out of me. But, here's the thing I learned: they would have stayed inside of me had I not sat down in front of the Mac and wrote.

It goes without saying that the only way to write is to write. Duh. For all the imagineering you do in your head, if you are not writing down words in some form or fashion, you are not writing. Case in point was Tuesday morning. I've settled in on a 5:30am wake up time. That gives me roughly 30 minutes for writing before the rest of the house wakes up. It's not the hour I prefer, but, then again, I also prefer to be awake and alert and healthy. I found that, in nearly two weeks of getting up at 5am, it was catching up with me. Health-wise, I needed the extra time. So, I compromised with myself: wake up at 5:30, get half an hour's worth of writing done. If I hit 1,000, great. If not, I have all day to get to that point.

Tuesday was bad. I was dead tired. It was the day, frankly, where I realized that 5am was too early. The words. Just. Did. Not. Come. Ugh. I clawed and scraped for them, but I got nearly 650 or so. Here's where truth dawned on me. In the past, I would have just shut down. "Oh, the words aren't coming? Well, the book must be crap." Shelve it and move on to the next. That was how I operated up until this summer. And I experienced the same type of progress with this book, too. Excellent pace on the first half, then, the slower middle part (where I am now). I've got 232 pages of this book written, 47,800 words. This time, unlike in the past, I made progress. I put down words and then more words. And the only way I did that was to sit down and do it.

Again, this isn't rocket science nor is it anything new. But, in the Summer of Progress, this Summer of Learning, it was an eye-opener for me. Just get through it. Just show up, and you will make progress. I've already made a good amount of hard-to-see progress. Take this for example. The 47,800 words in this second book have all come in August. That figure beats my June figure (34,000) but not my July pace (73,000). At the 29-day mark of the first book this summer, I had only written 32,560. That's an improvement of just over 15,000 words. It's a combination of factors that have me writing more words. One, I'm simply getting better at typing faster and getting words down. Two, I'm insisting to myself that I write at least 1,000 words per day. Motivation makes Progress. The numbers add up. They start to take hold of you and they propel you forward.

End of Summer Report

What about all those words? When Memorial Day dawned, I made the commitment to write every day. As of this morning, 31 August, I'm up to 97 straight days of writing. In that time, I've written 158,990. By Labor Day, I will have crested the 50,000 word mark in this second book.

My goal for the summer was to write and complete stories. The way I was going to do that was write a story a week. Then, after getting to "the end" on several stories, I was going to tackle a novel again. It didn't work out that way. In fact, it flipped. I completed a novella on 2 June, then another short story seven days later. Then I wrote 93,000 new words on a novel and completed it. I wrote 47,800 on a second novel and expect to complete it within the month. And I will have turned in a short story for an anthology. Not the progress I expected, but I'll take it. In fact, it's been better than I expected.

August Monthly Stats:

    Minimum threshold: 21,700 (700/day for 31 days)
    Total words: 50,901
    Difference: 29,201 words above the minimum
    Average: 1,599/day
    Best day: 2,929 (11 Aug)
    Worst: 1,002 (1 Aug)
    Items worked on: Chapter 1-20 of Book 2; short story for anthology.
    Number of consecutive days writing: 97 day (All summer long!)
        Number of consecutive 1,000-word days: 59

For those of y'all that made summer 2013 goals, did you achieve them?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Eliminate the Unnecessary (or.... Axe those Adverbs)

By Russel D McLean

Last week, talking about Elmore Leonard, one of his ten rules - my favourite - reared its head. You know, the one about not using adverbs.


Why do we hate them?

I think it comes back to the essence of show and don’t tell. Adverbs tell. Used sparingly, of course, they can be effective, but most of the time we use them unneccesarily. Let’s take a basic example:

“Go to hell,” he said, angrily.

“Angrily”. There’s no need for the word to be there. And yet time and again I read books where this happens, where what is obvious from dialogue is unnecesarily reinforced by an adverb. Let’s overlook the fact that “go to hell” is a cliche, and think about why we would use the word angrily.

Its a first draft problem. The use of the adverb is usually a sign that the writer is talking to themselves and not to the reader. For me adverbs become placeholders until I can work out how to make the scene “pop”. But when overused in final or published drafts, they become  the equivalent of a movie director walking on stage and saying, “this is how I mean to convey this moment” because they don’t have faith that the audience will understand their intent. Adverbs kill the moment. They make what is usually already obvious even more so. And they remind us that we are reading. The act of reading - the merging of an author’s words and reader’s imagination - should create an illusion of reality. The more that a writer does to remove the reader from the “reality” of their story, the more likely the reader is not to care.

Make the audience understand. Show them what you mean, Don’t tell them.”

“Okay, smartarse,” I hear you say, “What if you intend for your dialogue to do something other than the obvious?”

“Go to hell,” he said, regretfully.

Okay, okay. I see what you’re talking about. But you still don’t need the adverb.

“Go to hell,” he said. His voice was soft, a whisper, really. There was no punch to his tone, no fire burning behind his eyes.

Yes, it uses more words (and is probably not the finest piece of writing in the world) but it is more of a direct appeal to the reader to use their brains. They are not being directly told what to think. Yes, there are hints and a tone that implies but the reader is less removed than if simply told, “regretfully”.

And yes, I know some people talk about “escapist” fiction as though sometimes we just read to turn off our brains, but its simply not true. Our brains do not turn off. And dumb fiction does not have to be dumbly written.

If you ask me, adverbs (mostly) take away the fun of fiction. When we watch a film, we need to guess what the characters are feeling through gesture and expression. Prose has a shortcut through that process in that it can tell us directly. But by telling us directly it takes away the emotional impact of a dramatic moment. By using, “angrily,”, “sadly”, “madly,” etc etc, we alienate the reader from the reality of the situation. Adverbs distance us from emotion. They provide a barrier between what we want to communicate at an emotional level. They are, in a word, a cheat. We experience the world through sensory impressions. Our brains interpret these. Adverbs bypass those impressions but in doing so lessen the impact on the reader. They are a cheat. And not a good one.

All of which is not to say that they should be avoided completely. Fiction is not a precise art, and sometimes cheating is the only thing to do. But what really annoys me is when adverbs are overused. Yes, all fiction should skip the occasional corner and occasionally adverbs can provide a nice and simple escape from a moment that never ends, but when used all the time they render prose and action soulless.

So, he said. empathetically, avoid the adverb. Use it judiciously. Use it correctly. Just don’t use it in a place where you can appeal directly to the reader’s emotions. Don’t use it as a stand in. Trust your readers. Make them work just a little. Bring them closer to your world. And if you do have to use them; use them wisely. Use them well.

Next week marks the beginning of a series of 11 geeky geeky blogs by Russel leading up to a certain fiftieth anniversary. Just to warn you...

Thursday, August 29, 2013

On being an aspiring writer

By Steve Weddle

We've started a giveaway for COUNTRY HARDBALL in which you can get a signed ARC two months before the book is published. People have been awfully nice about getting the word out, and I appreciate that. I'd hug you if I could and/or if I didn't totally skeeve about touching you disgusting people.

Pre-order as many copies as you like. Makes the perfect holiday/birthday/graduation/retirement present.

Also, I'm scheduled to chat with Alec Cizak for the KMSU Weekly Reader program. Cizak is the guy behind the wonderful Pulp Modern, by the way. Find out about his Manifesto Destination here.


Aspiring Writer.

We've seen the term, up there in Twitter IDs and Facebook Abouts. Some of us have laughed, "Ha. Don't aspire. Just write, silly."

Most writers are aspiring. Inspiring. Perspiring. Tiring. Etc. Some of that. All of that?

Some authors aspire to certain things.

For example, I've seen writers tweet about how they aspire to a better stage position at a conference. Better signing tables at conventions. A panel with JK Rowling instead of @author_dan261. I suppose that's a certain type of aspiration. Aspiring to the best table, signing booth, parking spot at BookFabCon2013. Those authors want to be seen as more important, I guess. It makes a great deal of difference to them what other folks think, how they're seen. Respect. They have a thing they wrote and they want it to sell. They aspire to be a Staff Pick at Warehouse Books Inc and so forth. Great. That's one kind of aspiring writer. You aspire to get an agent. Then a deal. Then good reviews. Then on all the lists. Then on the best panels. Movie deals. Cocaine with that guy who made those 1980s movies. Awards. 

Others aspire to write better sentences. To push themselves to tighter plots, a greater understanding of the human condition. A cleaner line, perhaps. They aspire to write better. Maybe they want more challenges. Maybe they've nailed the thriller and want to aspire to something literary. Maybe they've sold millions of book in sci-fi or chick lit and they aspire to be "taken seriously" as an artist.

If you're a writer who is aspiring, I figure that's a good thing, right? You want more? You want to push yourself? 

Have you ever noticed that the New York Times Book Review Podcast refers to authors in a couple of different ways? If you listen to them talk about a Big Six (or five) best-selling author, then they'll say -- "Coming in at the third spot is Marc Mahonor." If the author is second on the list and happens to be self-published (GASP!), then they will say, "a writer named Marc Mahonor." It's weird. Maybe some authors aspire to be referred to as just their names, as opposed to "a writer named" something or other.

Other authors aspire to do something with their notoriety. Anton Strout, for example, has this promotion to, sure, help sell books, but also to help the Worldbuilders charity. He and his publisher are donating a dollar (each) for every pre-order. (Up to $1,500.)

We can aspire to be better at our craft, but also at all the other stuff we do. The not-being a dick, the supporting the good causes, the promoting of the good books and authors. 

The more I think about it, the more "aspiring" sounds good. Aspiring writer. Aspiring baseball fan. Aspiring parent and spouse. Steve Weddle, aspiring human. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The New 30

by Eva Dolan

When you think about 'women of a certain age' in crime fiction who comes to mind? Miss Marple, Vera, Jessica Fletcher...I'm struggling here. Because you know what? There just aren't that many of them. 

One of the most impressive books I read last year was Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante, an elegant novel about a sixtysomething woman with Alzheimers who is accused of murdering her best friend.  Jennifer was a brilliant surgeon, a fiercely intelligent and spiky character whose identity and memory is being slowly but irrevocably broken apart. Through a fractured narrative we get glimpses of who she was and we see how capable she is of murder. It's an ambitious work, edging into literary fiction, but what really struck me about it was the originality of having an older woman at the heart of things.
And I began to wonder why you don't see that more often in crime fiction. Despite women being the largest consumers of the genre and, judging by their presence at events, a loyal fanbase, they seem to stop being of interest to crime writers once they're too old to make a pretty victim or a - eugh - feisty investigator. They become hard faced senior coppers, the murdered teenager's saggy mother, and when they're pushed into background roles, there and gone in a couple of paragraphs, the language can get distinctly Medieval; do the words 'hag' and 'crone' really still have a place in contemporary fiction? Turns out they do. See also; housecoats and blue rinses.
It's common complaint that as you age you become invisible and right now that is the only way fiction is chiming with real life. But when I look at women of my mother's generation I see a lot of highly capable professionals, well put together and worldly; children of the sixties who broke free from the constraints their own mothers were bound by.  
These are women we should be writing about. In the crime genre they're the women we're writing for and they deserve books which reflect their experience and intelligence rather than being treated as pieces of ugly plot furniture. Two authors who've done just that are the late A.S.A Harrison and Louise Doughty. Both stories could have been hung around women in their twenties or thirties - they suffer and enact the same betrayals after all - but these books share a heightened sense of jeopardy because their heroines are mature women with more to loose.

The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison has been touted as this years Gone Girl but it's actually a far more interesting book. Both deal with the implosion of a marriage, both are structured around a 'him' and 'her' narrative, but that's where the similarities end. Jodi is in her forties, a therapist who believes in accepting peoples flaws, which is why she turns a blind eye to her property developer partner's serial adultery. Until he falls in love with a much younger woman who wants commitment. At first Jodi responds with serene passivity, believing this affair is as meaningless as all the others. But from the very beginning we know she will become a killer and as Harrison describes the meticulous rituals of Jodi's life and the play acting of a perfect marriage, we feel this threat drawing ever closer, and know that eventually she will have to accept her new status as the spurned woman and act accordingly. Even if that means murder.

Louise Doughty's Apple Tree Yard centres on woman who we meet in the dock at The Old Bailey, on trial for a crime which appears to result from an affair she's had with an unnamed man. Yvonne is an intriguing heroine, a highly respected geneticist, married with two grown up children, and at fifty-two she is the woman who seems to prove that you can 'have it all.' The affair begins as a moment of feverish impetuosity, a meeting of eyes, a dash to privacy, then intense secret meetings followed by lonely, late night self-doubt, but despite everything she stands to lose she can't stop, and the spiral of temptation and destruction is laid out in a first person narrative, which swings between clinical and febrile, speeding the reader along to the final, nerve-shredding court scene where all illusions will be stripped away.  
While a handful of books don't make a trend the authors I've mentioned prove that it's possible to craft compelling crime narratives around women in their forties, fifties and sixties and - for the mercenary minded out there - do so with real commercial success. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Celebrations in the Ossuary

Guest Post:

David Cranmer on Celebrations in the Ossuary & Other Poems

Many thanks to the Do Some Damage crew for allowing me to say a few words about Kyle J. Knapp's posthumous poetry collection, Celebrations in the Ossuary. Kyle was my nephew who died in a horrific house fire this past June. Our family can never fully recover, but through his words we may find a plateau where we can smile more than we grieve. What follows is my afterword to Celebrations:

BEAT to a PULP books published Kyle Knapp’s Pluvial Gardens in July 2012. The eclectic, one-of-a-kind collection touched on nature, death, pop culture, and relationships, interwoven with Greek mythology. A bold, new voice quietly entered the scene, painting what one intuitive reviewer noted as a “impressionistic dreamscape.”

Soon after Pluvial, Kyle began working on Celebrations in the Ossuary. He was so prolific—often writing a poem a day—that he had finished it on October 21, 2012, and at his untimely death on June 18, 2013, he had finished enough for a third book and part of a fourth.

Kyle and I had discussed the direction of his poetry following Pluvial’s release, and my only suggestion for him was to turn inward and address some of the themes of his life. I knew he had conquered drugs and was in an ongoing fight battling alcoholism. However, it wasn’t until after his passing that I started to analyze his work and realize to what extraordinary depth he had mined his soul to lay naked such raw-nerve pieces as “To Drink in the Early Hours” and “Edward and Dedalus.” He also warmly opens up his world to reverentially speak of friends he had said goodbye to in “The Greatest Loss” and “We Lived Alone,” and he continued to touch on the beauty surrounding him with “The Perfect Day.”

Kyle J. Knapp
For Celebrations, I made only minor corrections to Kyle’s text. Though he always gave me full editorial control, I didn’t feel the need because these verses were resplendent. Kyle often sent a revision telling me to discard what came before, and, more often than not, the revision was from a perfectionist raising his own personal bar with some seemingly slight change. Not much has been altered from Kyle’s original work, aside from a few spelling and punctuation corrections and the omission of one word after discussing it with his mother. Celebrations is very much the book Kyle wanted published right down to the title, number of poems, artwork, and theme.

On a personal note, I miss Kyle dearly and long to banter with him about Charles Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, Vladimir Nabokov, or any number of other authors and books we had discovered and shared. The memories of moments spent in his home along Fall Creek discussing our mutual reading passions are what I’ll cherish most, and, I will do my best not to be sad when I recall these memories, because, as Kyle says in these very pages,

“Those days will come again,

They were eternal, after all …”

Monday, August 26, 2013

Best crime flicks of the aughts (2000-2009)

Short post this week. I'm also seriously considering doing a list over at Spinetingler of favorite crime flick broken up by decades from the 70's top the aughts, so keep an eye out for that if such a thing floats your boat.

I threw this out as a discussion topic on Facebook.  Here are the tabulated results from all of the responses.

3) (tie) Kill Bill, Memento, Old Boy,The Cooler

2) (tie)  Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, No Country for Old Men, Sexy Beast

1) The Departed

Single vote titles: In Bruges, Gone Baby Gone, Salton Sea, Felon, Insomnia, Narc, Memories of Murder, Spartan, Animal Kingdom, ONCE, Blow, The Ice Harvest, The Good Thief, Snatch, Chopper, A History of Violence, The Dark Knight, Kick-Ass, Sin City, Running Scared, Lucky Number Slevin, Smokin' Aces, Dark Country, Miami Vice,Eastern Promises, Tell No One.

What was the best crime flick of the aughts?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

We're all in this together

By: Joelle Charbonneau

Years ago, I was sitting around with lots of other writers and a few of their family members.  None of us had yet to publish.  Most of us didn’t have agents, yet, and not because we hadn’t tried.  We had.  We tried.  We were rejected and we tried again and again.  Yeah – we were a group that didn’t know when to call it quits. 

While chatting, one of the non-writers asked if it was difficult to be friends with other writers since we were in competition with each other.  The question baffled me.  Competition?  What competition?

On the surface, I suppose I can see where some people might think there is competition between writers.  After all, there are only so many books traditionally published each season.  And even if you are self-published, there are only so many books bought every day/month/year by readers.  So, I suppose when you look at it that way, a writer has to work hard to get noticed by readers or perhaps land that traditional publishing spot.  Some people might view that as a type of competition.

But it’s not. 

All writers are different.  We work at different paces.  We have different voices.  And the stories we tell are uniquely ours. 

Add to that the fact that readers and editors buy books based on their personal taste.  So the editor that loves my orphaned-zombie-post-apocalyptic-romance is probably not going to like your hard-boiled historical noir mystery.   A marketing team who gets behind your roman gladiators on a satellite revolving around earth novel is probably going to be less enthusiastic with my hat wearing camel in small town Illinois.

When we feel as if we are in competition with our fellow writers we do ourselves a disservice because really—we are all in this together.  Sharing information about the business is good.  Offering a helping hand to read a few pages or point someone in the direction of an agent or editor is worthwhile.  Talking sales numbers and advance amounts isn’t gauche—it’s helpful in offering perspective on the industry we are all a part of. 

This is a tough business.  During my time writing I have experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and just about everything in between.  I’ve had agents tell me my books have no value in the fiction market and to throw my manuscripts away.  Yikes!  I’ve had multiple publishing houses offer on some of my work.  Yippee!  And mostly there are days where I am alone with my thoughts in front of the computer hoping that I know what to type next.    But whether I’m experiencing a high, a low or one of the normal days, I feel less alone because I know other writers are out there going through the same things I am. 

Being an author isn’t about competing with other writers.  If you are in a competition it is with yourself to tell the best story you can.   The rest of us are all cheering for you and hoping that your story will set the world on fire.  So I guess the whole point of this post is to say—Writing is a solitary experience, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel like you are in this alone. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Writing Under the Morning Stars

Scott D. Parker

Here’s a fact you may not know: 5:00am is really early.

My boy returned to school this past Tuesday thus ending my magical summer writing time of 6am. I have been waking up at 6am all summer long to write and it was great. On Mondays—the one day I go into my office—I got to write until 7:15 or so. On the other four workdays when I work from home, I was able to manage nearly two hours of writing time before I was on the clock at 8am.

With my boy returning to school, something had to change. I was faced with only two options: write earlier in the day (5am) or later (9pm or 10pm). Seeing as how I got great writing done in the morning, I tried the 5am wake up call. To help me, I started doing this 7-minute workout. I started Monday to give me a head start.
Yeesh! It’s really early. I was used to writing outside on my deck this summer. It’s nearly completely dark at 5am so that felt a little weird and I moved back inside for the last two days. Most days, I was pretty awake and did pretty well. Just limit the news gathering and the email checking. You see, my son’s alarm goes off at 6:15 so I now have a hard deadline. And if I want to maintain my 1,000 word/day pace, well, there’s very little room for error. Or research. I found that out on Tuesday when I decided to stop forward progress to look up something. Learned the hard way when I had to come back later in the day to top 1,000. From now on: make notes for research and just write.

There’s also the aspect of sleep and health. I can function well on six hours. In the summer, that meant to bed by midnight and up at six. Well, if I’m waking at 5am, that means I have to get to bed by 11pm. That didn’t work but one day this week. It was rough. So, yesterday, I tried something different: get up at 5:30, push the exercise until later in the day, and just bang out words for 45 minutes. That went pretty well, actually. That might be my new standard. I didn’t quite get to 1,000 so I had to make it up later in the day, but that was okay.

And, chances are, I’ll still tweak the writing time as the school year goes on, making up some lost time on the weekends. But the good news is that I still managed to crank out just over 8,000 words this week writing primarily (i.e., 95%) in the mornings. That isn’t too bad considering I wrote 8,800 words last work-week.
It’s all a process. Today is the 90th consecutive day of writing. Last Sunday was the day I topped 150,000 new words. I also started writing a short story I’m on the hook for this week. That was kind of odd as it was the first multi-story day this summer. Had to recalibrate the brain, but in a good way.
I’ll have more updates next week on the story’s progress—I’m rapidly approaching the part of the story where I have no notes so we’ll see what happens then. How are all y’all’s writing projects going?


I’m a huge Batman fan. The news that Ben Affleck is going to don the cape and cowl surprised me. He was certainly not my first choice, but I will withhold judgment on how well he does until…15 July 2015, the day the movie premieres. I can’t help but think of 1988 when I learned “Beetlejuice is Batman?” and that turned out okay. And again in 2007: “Ledger’s Joker?!” That turned out great. I have full confidence that Affleck will do well with Batman and that he’ll be different than Bale. I don’t want a Bale clone. I want a new interpretation. Heck, for all the love the “Bat God” gets nowadays (so named because, in the past twentysomething years, Batman has morphed from a dude in a cape to a dude with a ‘super’ brain who is ten steps ahead of everyone), I’m game for something different. Heck, I expect it. Bring it on.

Do you realize how utterly awesome 2015 is turning out to be? Star Wars VII. Superman and Batman on screen together. Avengers 2. There’s probably more, but that’s more than enough. We may not have the hoverboards Marty McFly had when he went to 2015, but we’ll have nerdvana. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Elmore Leonard

by Russel D McLean

“I once asked this literary agent what kind of writing paid the best.  He said, “Ransom notes.”” 
– Harry Zimm, Get Shorty

For me, Elmore Leonard – who died on 20/08/13 – was and will remain the most influential crime writer I read. His place in history is assured, and while Chandler and Hammett may have invented modern America crime fiction, Leonard (after a brief time writing westerns) took it to places that I don’t think anyone expected. He really did give murder back to the people who did it right, and more than that, he wrote in their language and he didn’t (often) filter his crime through the lens of the procedural.

In fact – US Marshals Givens and Sisco aside – I’m having trouble remembering too many cop characters who took the lead in Leonard’s work. The ones who stick in the mind are the characters who’d be bad guys in any other novel: Harry Arno, Chili Palmer, Bobby Deo, Ray Barboni. Leonard treated his criminals with a respect that is rare in crime fiction. Even his sociopaths felt real. Bobby Deo, from Riding the Rap, could have been a simple one-joke character – a criminal who likes to cut people’s fingers off with his gardening shears and has fantasies about facing off with Marshall Givens in a High Noon-style climax – but Leonard isn’t afraid to make him charming and occasionally normal. Deo is fascinating, and the banality of his sociopathy is far more chilling than if he’d been a scene chewing, blood spattering psycho.

“That’s right, you got a divorce. You remarried – what about your present husband?”
“He died last year”
“You go through ‘em,” Nicolet said. “What kind of work did he do?”
“He drank,” Jackie said
Jackie Brown

Like Chandler, Leonard had a habit of creating fireworks on every page. Even when the plots were paper thin (and they occasionally were) you read for the verbal sparring of his characters. Leonard wrote dialogue the way Mozart wrote Symphonies. Most of the time you didn’t need a dialogue tag to know who was speaking, and you could feel your eyeballs moving with the pace of a character’s speech.

First time I encountered this was when my Dad gifted me a copy of Mr Majestyk when I was 16 or 17. He wanted me to try other things apart from the Science Fiction I was devouring on a daily basis. I wasn’t so sure, but I took the book and made a promise to read it. It wound up in a pile of books I meant to read someday. Then, a few months later, I saw the John Travolta starring Get Shorty, based on another of Leonard’s books and immediately started devouring my dad’s backlist of Leonard novels. I had a lot to choose from.

“Majestyk didn’t say anything. He gave the guy a little smile. He had enough to think about.” 
– Mr Majestyk

When I was younger, me and mum would buy dad an Elmore Leonard novel every birthday or Christmas (so it seemed) and what I would do every time was decide which one he’d read based on the distinctive two tone colouring of the covers. At that time, Leonard covers were cool and striking

and you could tell which one’s he’d read by which colours were on the cover. But as I discovered fast, there was more to Leonard than just cool covers. Maybe the association helped ease me into Leonard’s world, but I doubt it. You could come cold to Leonard and still admire his ferocious skill.

What Leonard wrote weren’t Agatha Christie novels, or books where the cops always won out and locked up the bad guys in time for tea. These weren’t even “subversive” books about the point of view of sadistic bad guys. They were books about knock-around guys and working criminals. The kind of characters you could meet almost anywhere but who had chosen a life that revolved around breaking – or more usually bending – the law.

But there was something else about Leonard that really affected me: the man could be screamingly funny. For a while, I thought that was his schtick; he was the guy who wrote the funny crime novels. But Leonard wasn’t a one trick pony. Novels like Touch and Killshot showed a more serious side, and while perhaps they weren’t as well received, I still think they were masterfully constructed. For all its flaws, I still think Touch is an underrated book, and the fact that it’s about a guy suffering from Stigmata actually adds a layer of interest rather than detracting from what many would have seen as Leonard’s style.

“I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs.”
– Elmore Leonard

More than anything, Leonard was a storyteller par-excellence. One of the oft quoted blurbs on his books has him “sidling up like a bar-room buddy with a story to tell” and that’s how it always felt. You could always rely on Leonard. He had a voice. A voice that never interfered with the story he was telling, that always masterfully disguised itself within the action of a narrative, within the words of his characters. A Leonard book was always unmistakeably a Leonard book, but it was also its own entity. He allowed his characters to tell their stories. He never judged. Never manipulated. Just let them speak.

His list of 10 writing “rules” remain important to me. Although I believe I may have broken his second (“avoid prologues”) a few times. But I still think that those ten aphorisms are more important than anything one could ever learn on a creative writing course. To this day I still cringe when I find myself using the word “suddenly” but I’m proud to say that I’m fairly certain I never used “all hell broke loose” right behind it. He’s also the reason that, as a writer, I avoid writing in a Scots “patois”, instead suggesting accent through cadence and rhythm. As to adverbs, well, I quite those suckers long ago. Never looked back.

I never met Leonard. He was one of my “to meet” list writers (so far I’ve managed one, and chickened out of meeting another) and now I’ll never get to tick him off that list. By all accounts he was a good guy, well liked by people. But it’s his writing that I and many others will remember him for. Because he could write. Brilliantly and consistently (whoops, there go those adverbs). His novels – even into his 80s – were often more energetic and effortlessly cool than writers of half his age. My proudest professional moment was having a magazine review I wrote of COMFORT TO THE ENEMY quoted on Leonard’s publisher’s website: “An excellent read….Concrete evidence of a master crime writer still at the top of his game.”

And that, for me, was a truism about Leonard the writer. Sure, some books were not quite as a good as others, but he was always entertaining, always worthwhile. Where some writers vary in wuality from book to book or find themselves dropping off, Leonard was always exciting. A lesser Leonard was a still brilliant book by any other standard. I can count on one finger the books that I wasn’t so keen on. Yes, I even loved his Floridian comedy, Maximum Bob.

Maybe all of this is why Leonard’s passing feels so oddly personal to me. I never met the man, but I knew his writing. A new Leonard book was like meeting with an old friend and finding they were just as dynamic and interesting as ever. For me, he felt like a permanent part of the world. Bookstores and publishers and pretenders to the throne came and went, but Leonard stayed. Until now.

So thank you, Mr Leonard. As a writer, I was inspired by your works. But more importantly, as a reader, I was consumed and enthralled by them. You were – and will remain – one of the few writers whose books I read and re-read, whose characters I reference in conversation, whose dialogue always brings a smile to my face .

Elmore Leonard, 1925-2013

5 Elmore Leonard Novels you should read

Riding the Rap – it’s a later Leonard, but for me, Bobby Deo is the ultimate bad guy. And his fate had me gasping halfway between shock and laughter.

Get Shorty – The sequel was inferior, but the original book is a sharp and savage Hollywood satire.

Mr Majestyk – the first book my dad gave me, it’s a short, sharp tale of revenge. Bloody brilliant.

Out of Sight – effortlessly sexy tale of the attraction between a US Marshall and a professional bank robber who’s on the run. Like, Get Shorty, this was made into a successful movie, and its easy to see why when you read the book.

Rum Punch – Filmed as Jackie Brown, its an effortlessly cool entry into the Leonard Canon.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Tuesdays With Tyrus

On Tuesday, I talked to Ben LeRoy of Tyrus Books -- publisher for my upcoming COUNTRY HARDBALL.

We talked about dead elephants, baseball, and steam shovels. Then I took the headphones off, shut the laptop, and thought about the clever things I'd meant to say which would have been totally impressive and sent everyone running to buy the book. 


KillerNashville is going on Aug. 22-25. If you're in the region, check it out.


Also, I'm posting pages from the sequel to COUNTRY HARDBALL. Spoiler Alert: They're all werewolves.


Also, as well, publishing isn't dead.


Bookshelves, via Bill Crider

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Wee Danny by Gerard Brennan

Gerard Brennan's acclaimed novella Wee Rockets was a pulsating slice of Belfast grit, following the lives of a gang of teenagers who spent their time harassing old folks and getting wrecked in parks on cider and weed, a story which hummed with street smart credibility.  The recently released Wee Danny is a sequel of sorts and sees one of the main characters, Danny Gibson, now locked up in a young offenders institution. 

Danny has worked out how to make it through his stretch and his eyes are fixed firmly on his upcoming release.  He knows to keep his head down, avoid trouble and play the reformed character.  Maybe he is being rehabilitated, he's certainly behaving better than he did on the outside - making nice with his psychologist and teachers, side stepping the macho crap of his fellow inmates, or at least making sure he looks like the innocent party when the fists start flying.

Then Danny is befriended by Conan Quinlan - The Barbarian, naturally - a gentle giant with learning difficulties who prompts an uncharacteristic protectiveness in Danny.  Conan is a big target, physically capable of taking care of himself but lacking in Danny's feral guile.  They're an odd double act but their friendship is the kind that develops in harsh situations, sparked at random and tentative to begin with.  Danny is initially wary of Conan, not sure if he's a threat or a friend, confused by his strange behaviour and intimidated by his bulk, but he feels protective towards him and when the opportunity to spend some time outside on a work placement arises he talks the prison psychologist into letting Conan out too.  A move which will lead to his rehabilitation being tested.

Wee Danny is a much gentler book than Wee Rockets, there's violence but because of the setting it is contained and brief, more a battle of wills than all out warfare, and Brennan does an excellent job of teasing out the small slights and power games which define the hierarchy within a young offenders institution.  At the heart of this slim but perfectly formed novella is the relationship between Danny and Conan, and through it we see the tearaway of Wee Rockets in new light, capable of decency and kindness.  Maybe he'll be fully reformed in a future book, or maybe it's only his environment which allows him to show this new side to his character, hopefully we'll find out at some point.

Gerard Brennan has always been a writer with a great flair for character and this has come to the fore in Wee Danny, a large hearted character piece which, despite the subject matter, is actually really touching.  

Italics - yes or no?

This week I’m going over the final copy edit of my novel, Black Rock. The (terrific) copy editor, Jen, has put all the French in italics. So, the opening line of the book is:

Constable Eddie Dougherty climbed up the iron work of the Victoria Bridge onto the railway tracks and said to his partner standing by the radio car,Yeah, c’est une bombe”

This is the traditional approach.

When I wrote the first draft I didn’t put the French in italics. It’s mostly in dialogue, the main character, Dougherty, has an English father and a French mother and he moves easily between the two languages so I felt that the words on the page should also move easily between the two languages.

For Canadians, anyway, I don’t think there’s anything in the book that would be too hard to understand with at least high school French and for everyone else I think it’s evident from context. Or maybe it’ll be a little frustrating, just like it can be to live somewhere with more than one language being spoken – which is pretty much everywhere now, isn’t it?

There is also this kind of thing in the book:

“You know a taverne dans le Point, s’appelle Nap?” he said in his Franglish and Dougherty said, “Yeah, Nap’s — Napoleon’s. I know it.”

And Delisle said, in English, “Go down there and get Detective Carpentier.” Being in Westmount must have thrown him off.

One of the bomb squad guys standing nearby packing up equipment said, “Is he drunk again?”

Delisle said, “Bring him au dix.”

I guess without italics the line, “Bring him au dix,” would be strange.

Then I came across this quote from Junot Diaz:

"Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3 elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and White people think we’re taking over."

But he didn’t say anything about italics. So what do you think?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Understanding What Comes From A Character's Crazy Mind

In order to write compelling characters, you have to understand something about people.

It's something deep.  Something foundational.  You have to really be able to understand what motivates your character.  What drives them to do the things they do.  What makes them tick, and what ticks them off.

If you don't understand those things about your character, or aren't in the process of discovering them and looking for them, your character will just be a placeholder, made to do arbitrary things to serve the plot.

TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure--the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature.
--Robert Mckee

The phenomenal Anne Frasier asked a question, several years ago, on her blog.  Are authors broken?  It generated 50+ comments, and has lingered on my mind all these years later, because it got me looking within myself.

I grew up in a fast and confusing fashion.  The long shadows of old secrets darkened the world around me, even when I was too young to understand that.  What I understood what the shadow of the darkness, and what I grew up wondering about was the why. 

My mom was undiagnosed bipolar when I was growing up.  I didn't understand that.  I don't think she did either.  It took a lot of strength and courage for my mom to face that when I was an adult, and I feel it's even delicate to share about that now, but her situation affected me on a deep level.

I didn't grow up surrounded by women who went to college.  I didn't grow up surrounded by women who had independent careers.  Most of them had family businesses they ran with their husbands - my parents included. 

Many women I knew had also gotten pregnant before getting married.  Back then, people did the right thing.

As with all things, there were varying degrees of happiness to be found amongst those people.  Closer to home, I could only say that things weren't usually what I'd call happy.  There was a problem, and I could never quite put my finger on it as a kid, but I grew up expecting the next problem.  I grew up waiting for shoes to drop.

Like the night I woke up, and instantly, in the dark, in the middle of the night, knew something was wrong.  I found myself running down the stairs, starting the register a distant noise that wasn't right for a nighttime sound.  I found myself pounding on a locked door, yelling, "Let me in."

My parent, inside, screamed back, "Let me out!"  Someone was in there, they were being attacked.  There were bangs and thumps and my heart was pounding with fear.  In the days before 911 and cell phones, there wasn't much I could do.  When the lock finally clicked off and the door opened, I expected the attack to follow.

Instead, there was my parent, alone.  Hallucinating after taking an overdose of pills.

What followed was the long drive to the hospital, the drama as they tried to fight off hospital staff, four days in intensive care, and then a mandatory admittance to a hospital in Penetanguishene.

Now, some might think that it's wrong of me to share about this here.  That it's private business.  I don't do this to shame anyone.  You have no idea how strong I think my mom is.  My grandfather died in a mental institution when she was so young, and she barely remembers him.  My grandmother had issues of her own.  There was a rape and a half-brother my mom had that the truth didn't come out about until I was 16. 

If I were to try to tell you what I even know of my mom's story, it would take weeks.

These days, someone doesn't make the cheerleading squad or football team and they're killing the competition or in therapy for how unfair life is and everyone should excuse their behavior.

My mom got her education, she went to college when I was young, and she's spent decades at the helm of a successful business.

Me?  Man, I looked at the world around me when I was young, and I didn't want that.  I may not have really known what I wanted, but I knew I didn't want to find myself in a trap I couldn't get out of.

Motivation.  The motivation in my life came deep and young and over many years of not being sure what was wrong, but knowing something was, and wanting to escape but feeling compelled to fix things.

You see, my motivation affected my choices on so many levels.  I surrounded myself with clean kids by going to church, although I was raised somewhere between agnostic and atheist.  There was no way I was going out on Saturday night and getting drunk, and there was no way I was getting myself chained down by getting pregnant.

Simple people might have called me a prude.  Or a snob. 

The truth is, I was a person constantly working on making sure I wouldn't get trapped anywhere I didn't want to be.

And I still find myself, on many levels, anticipating problems.  I spent so many years on alert for the pendulum swing that comes from living with a bipolar parent** that I still watch for the problems, all the time.  At work, in general life, at home.

This is part of why I'm a stickler for doing the right thing, and part of why I'm not big on secrets.  Secrets have a way of biting you in the ass sooner or later. 

And doing the right thing?  With everything my mom and her siblings endured as kids, where were the teachers?  Where were the people who should have realized they weren't eating because they didn't have food?  Why didn't anyone care enough to do something to help them?

It's so easy for people to turn a blind eye to abuse, neglect, and to people with real, serious life problems.

I don't respect that.  Certainly not if it's a situation where you're witnessing the problem day after day after day.  I know I can't solve everyone's issues, but I also know that when I worked in the school system, I was bound by laws to report concerns, and if I had them, I did.  From the kids who weren't eating at lunch and snack time to the kid who told me he was going to slit his throat.

And to this day, if I see someone who is negligent, or someone who I think is being mistreated, I'm not going to keep my mouth shut.

It's part of who I am.

Yeah, I went through some crap as a kid.  But I didn't let that be my excuse to do drugs or screw around or become an alcoholic.  I let it be my motivation to get out and get an education and do things with my life. 

Because, like my mom, I'm stronger than all that shit, and that's nothing I'm ever going to feel ashamed of because of people who are weak and careless.

Believe it or not, I'm far more relaxed now than I ever was as a teen or young adult.  Part of that comes from a sense of security.  I married a man who's as complicated and, at times, confused as I am.

I could tell his story, but all it serves to explain is how I understand what drives him.  How I understand what his priorities are.

Every single day, I see him making his number one priority trying to give the kids the understanding and patience he feels he never got as a kid.

Giving them room to make mistakes and the security of knowing they're still loved.  That they won't be discarded the way he was.

Some people use their pains and problems as an excuse to bully others.

Some tap into it and use it as direction, to help them avoid making the mistakes others made that hurt them.

Those are the strong people, the people of substance.  The people worth knowing.

And if you understand what motivates me as a person, you understand why I think that.

I still find myself wondering about that old blog post of Anne's, and if the best writers must be broken people first.  Is it possible to understand anguish, torment, the depths of the deepest grief if you have not experienced these things? 

Is it possible to understand compassion if you have none?

I was talking to Brian about this yesterday.  Other than grammar and punctuation, the most common thing I seem to comment on in texts I review is about content.  It needs to advance the plot or reveal pertinent information related to the plot or central characters.  If it doesn't, it almost always can be cut.

It all ties to motivation.  It ties to the very depths of what motivates people to do the things they choose to do.

And if you want the characters in your stories to resonate with a sense of believability, you need to understand what drives them.

Or at the very least, be on the journey of discovery, trying to peel off the layers to get to the core of what makes them tick.

The trouble with too many contemporary novels is that they are full of people not worth knowing. The characters slide in and out of the mind with hardly a ripple. They levy no tax on the memory; they make little claim on the connecting power of identification. They make only the skimpiest contribution to an understanding of the human situation. They leave you cold.
Norman Cousins

** I don't mean to lay everything at my mother's door.  My dad's problems are, in many respects, far more complex and damaging.  The real issue is that he's never publicly owned them, and because of that, I can't talk about them, to this day.

Well my father put a shame on me. Said he wouldn’t put his name on me. Said he wouldn’t be the first in his family Who’s son cried when he was born. Well he died the day i got a gun. Said that he was proud that I’s his son that that was right there in his plan I’d grow up and be a man. And there was a tear. I saw it in his eye. He said he couldn’t think of a better way to die
And the Lord came down and put a spoon in my mouth. It tasted so bitter, but I couldn’t spit it out. It tasted like the money that my poor mama made. When I went and stole it, cause she took it to the grave. And there was a note clenched in her right hand, Said boy if you wanna live, better die like a brave man.
I don’t wanna die in the middle of the night, I want a brave man’s death. I don’t wanna die in the middle of the night, I want a brave man’s death. Spittin gasoline, burnin my teeth, getting salt on the fields of my past. And the sword will come down with a milky white flash And I’ll get my brave man’s death at last.
I had a woman. And she had some kids. She said she loved them, I never did. Just the way that they feed And take away what was young. But my wife’s a muscle that can do what needed to be done. And the day that she died, her cup was fully drained. She said take hope my love, that life was worth the pain
I don’t wanna die in the middle of the night, I want a brave man’s death. I don’t wanna die in the middle of the night, I want a brave man’s death. Spittin gasoline, burnin my teeth, getting salt on the fields of my past. And the sword will come down with a milky white flash And I’ll get my brave man’s death at last.
I had a heart that’s willin but a back without a bone. My body’d go to war, but my head would come home And I always had a knife in case a real man came along. He turned his head and his life was gone. So I hold it in my heart, yeah I hold it in my heart.
No, I hide it in my heart, cause it’s tearin me apart. The last thing that he said to me was blood was on my hands

Oh god, I wanna die like a man.