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.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

College Bound

By: Joelle Charbonneau

My son is only five, so I am not one of the many parents taking their children to college this month.  However, two of my students did go off to school for the first time this weekend and while I am not their parent, I have had a great number of emotional moments as I’ve watch them set off into this next phase of their life.

The two that left this weekend have been with me for years.  I’ve watched them struggle, triumph, get frustrated and celebrate the happy moments.  I pushed them hard as they prepared for countless concerts and musicals and for the intense college application and audition process.  They rose to every occasion.  And in between the lessons were hundreds of phone calls and texts filled with chat, support, questions and advice. 

As a private voice teacher, I get the unique opportunity to really know these students and be a part of their lives.  They are my kids.  I’ve watched them grow and change and truly become young adults.  They are people who think for themselves, are open to new things and passionate about the subjects they have chosen for their futures.  I’m so proud of how far they have come and part of me wishes I could still be there for their weekly lessons to help them take the next steps.

But I can’t.  

They will have new teachers.  They will take these next steps without me.  And as sad as I am to not be there to see each development as it happens, I am so very happy.  They’re ready for this next step.  They have come far enough that they will listen to their teachers with the confidence to try whatever is asked of them.  They are ready to believe in themselves just as I have always believed in them.  I have done my job.  It is time for others to work magic in their lives and for me to step aside.

So, while I’m not the parent saying goodbye, I still feel the tug of sadness and the incredible pride that those parents must feel.   Because they are my kids, too. 

So to Kristen and Jacob – congratulations on taking this step.  And to all the parents out there who are feeling that ache of sadness because their child has started a new phase of their life—my heart is with you all.  Letting go is hard, but this is the best kind of letting go.