Saturday, September 28, 2013

Finish What You Started

Scott D. Parker

Every author can struggle with it and it's one of the two fundamental things any write must do. There are countless blogs about it, our own Joelle Charbonneau wrote about it last week, and there was a link via SF Signal Thursday about.

You simply must finish whatever project you start.

This comes from a guy who spent the past seven years starting and stopping various projects for no good reason. I'll pick laziness as my reason of the day. The struggle to get through a hard spot in a manuscript is the drudges, but it's a learning experience.

I thought of all that again this week as I near the end of book two this year and a plot idea suddenly showed up. As soon as I wrote it, I told myself, "you know, this probably should have gone in an earlier spot in this book." There was a moment, a long moment, when I sat there, fingers over keyboard, thinking if I should abandon forward progress and insert said plot point into the manuscript. Back in 2006, when I wrote my actual first novel, my reading buddies asked a question about a certain set of characters. I rattled off all that they were doing off screen. They said I should put all of that in. Well, I stopped forward momentum and did exactly what they asked for. Nothing wrong with that, really, but it killed the progress.

The decision I came up with this week was, ultimately, an easy one: Not now.

Perhaps my inner editor is right and the point belongs earlier in the book. Fine. Save that for Draft 2. This is the First Draft. And, above all else, it needs to be completed. I'm very close. I made a note and moved forward.

Progress to The End. It is the key to this entire industry. Just. Keep. Going. If I've learned one thing this year, it's that writing every single day without fail will, eventually, get you to The End. If I've learned two things, it's to finish what you started no matter what. You can tweak later. Get it on paper.

Do y'all ever stop midstream and fix something in an earlier section? How does that work out for you?

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Doctor A Week: Tom Baker: The Seeds of Doom

By Russel D McLean

11 weeks. 11 Doctors. 11 stories. Right up to the fiftieth anniversary, Russel will be reviewing one story a week for each Doctor. He will try and relate each story to a larger picture and how it relates to each period. He will occasionally make fun of them. But he will try and show you what a varied and brilliant history the show has. As well as overcoming his own prejducies about certain periods in the shows history. Each review will have spoilers and will assume a certain level of knowledge about the story in question.

Tom Baker is, for many, the quintessential Doctor. His unruly curls, his massive scarf (the first one knitted by Madame Nostradamus (a “witty little knitter” apparently) and his unpredictable behaviour (that became a little over exaggerated in later seasons) made him immensely popular. He would be the longest running Doctor, playing the part for seven years before finally leaving in his excellent final story, Logopolis.

He had several companions over the course of his run, including the “savage” Leela, the Timelord Romana and - for only a few episodes before Peter Davison was lumbered with his intensely irritating presence - the mathematical genius, Adric.

But its his partership with Sarah Jane Smith that many people fondly remember. Sarah Jane had replaced the outgoing Jo during the Pertwee years, and introduced a stronger female character to the mix. Sarah was an investigative journalist and while she was occasionally mistreated by scripts (perhaps never moreso than during the reunion special, The Five Doctors, where she got stuck down the world’s gentlest incline) she was, on the whole, a fantastic role model for a whole generation of young women, often able to hold her own against the Doctor. Her interplay with Pertwee was excellent, but the partnership of Sarah Jane and the fourth doctor was nothing short of dynamite.

Its hard to pick just one story from the Baker years, so I had to go with one that meant something to me personally. The Seeds of Doom is a story that I remember particularly well from its novelisation in the Target series of books. These novella length adaptations were written at a time when the possibility of TV repeats of Doctor Who was limited, and they introduced readers like myself to a whole back catalogue of stories and Doctors we never had the chance to meet. The Seeds of Doom was one of my favourites, and its tale of an alien plant intent on consuming the entire earth chilled me to the bone.

So what was it like to finally watch this six part story?

Surprising is the answer. Most of the stories selected for A Doctor a Week have been representative of the eras of the show they are from, or at least considered classics. The Seeds of Doom is surprising in that it is rather different from the shows that surround it. Others have claimed it to be an episode of The Avengers in Dictor Who drag, and I guess that’s true. There’s more of an action component than most of the surrounding stories, and anyone who thinks the Doctor is a lily white pacifist who never employs violence need to watch this one to see Tom Baker crash through windows, wave guns at people and generally do whatever is neccesary to get the job done.

What’s amazing is that none of this derring do is out of character. The monster of the piece is the Krynoid (Baker pronounces it “Kr-ih-noyd” but given how he also pronounces “homunculus”, we should always be wary of a Baker pronunciation), an alien plant that lives off animal matter and consumes whole planets. These creatures are immensely powerful and one of the greatest dangers the doctor has ever faced. We know this not just because we’re told so, but because Baker really sells his desperation in his performance. For this story, Baker dials back his performance and it works beautifully. His Doctor is strange and alien, but also unnerving because we never quite know which way he’s going to jump. Compare this to some later stories where he’s allowed to go full tilt pantomime crazy and tell me which aspect of his performance is more effective.

His concern for Sarah Jane is fantastic. Unlike Pertwee’s father figure, Baker’s Doctor treats Sarah equally. Yes, she’s from a race who can’t understand all the things that a Time Lord can, but he knows that she’s intelligent and that she matters as more than just someone to marvel at his brilliance. In a way he needs her, and that shows right through this story. He loses his temper at her, but he’s under intense pressure, and Sarah Jane gives back as good as she gets. There’s a reason she’s a fan favourite, and its this chemistry and genuine strength of character that secures her position in the viewer’s - and the Doctor’s - hearts. Its little wonder Lis Sladen would return to this character again and again; she’s a human being, something that would not always be the case for those accompanying the Doctor. And she’s great in this story (although of course sometimes she still gets scripted a little too weakly, but that’s as much the era this was written in as anything else.... at least she no longer has to deal with UNIT Medical Doctor, Harry, who accompanied them for a while and kept making digs about equality and women’s lib).

For a six part story, Seeds move fast. There are some mis-steps (a lot of toing and froing at the beginning when Doctor Who does The Thing, as they attempt to stop the Krynoid defrosting in Antarctica, and the awful decision to allow the Krynoid to speak, therefore robbing it of its elemental power) but on the whole, ever scene adds to the action. There are beautifully played human villains, too. Trigger from Only Fools and Horses does a nice line in thuggery as the violent Scorby, while Harrison Chase is one of the most chilling villains on record. In another life, he might have been an eco warrior. As it is he despises humanity so much all he wants is to see the world turned into a plant paradise. There’s real horror here, too, as there was during this era of Who. Phillip Hinchcliffe’s time as producer gave us some real horror stories, and with the body shock elements of human beings turning into plant creatures and some real nasty stuff with a compost machine, you can see why kids were hiding behind the sofa and why Mary Whitehouse was coming close to a heart attack as she tried to get kids TV to tone down the violence.

Seeds of Doom had a soft spot in my heart as a novelisation. And I hold it in even higher regard now I’ve seen it for real. The script is tight and witty, Sarah Jane and the Doctor are on top form, and the whole things just moves along at top speed. If you haven’t seen this one already, check it out.  You won’t regret it.


- I spent most of the last review moaning about the UNIT family, so its nice see new facets of the military organisation appear here.

- The Doctor really is violent here, and its easy to see why the part could have been written for John Steed of the avengers. And Sarah Jane makes a credible Emma Peel stand in, too.

- There’s a great moment during a fight in the compost machine where Chase tries to push the Doctor through the chompers. Baker looks genuinely bewildered as to why the other man is trying to kill him and his regret at letting Chase get chomped is absolutely clear. The is the Doctor. He does what he has to do, but he doesn’t have to like it.

- The action really is great. Baker crashing through skylight to rescue Sarah is a highlight.

- I’m still not sure how Sarah survives overnight face down in the styrofoam snow. But I’m glad she does. I’m sure the modern series would somehow work a way into saying the TARDIS did this.

- The whole opening stuff in Antarctica is brilliantly creepy and claustrophobic. Although as ever, the timer on the bomb seems to work in something other than seconds... (or else its the TARDIS stretching time... or something to do with the sonic screwdriver).

- I’m still not quite sure what the gag is in the very final scene. But I’m sure it was very amusing to someone somewhere.

A Doctor A Week: Jon Pertwee: The Green Death

by Russel D McLean

11 weeks. 11 Doctors. 11 stories. Right up to the fiftieth anniversary, Russel will be reviewing one story a week for each Doctor. He will try and relate each story to a larger picture and how it relates to each period. He will occasionally make fun of them. But he will try and show you what a varied and brilliant history the show has. As well as overcoming his own prejducies about certain periods in the shows history. Each review will have spoilers and will assume a certain level of knowledge about the story in question.

The one with the slugs.

Yes, the Jon Pertwee era is on us. Doctor Who is in full colour and somehow, things look a little cheaper than they did in the days of black and white, This is mostly because the producers have become obsessed with green screen effects that never match up studio and exterior writing properly. I’m not a masive fan of the Pertwee era. There are some great early moments (anything with Liz Shaw) and some brief snatches of brilliance, but on the whole, I find Pertwee’s Doctor just a little patronising and a little reliant on over-long stories.

The Doctor himself has changed again. He’s an immaculate dresser with his own sense of style. He’s tall, with a shock of white hair and a very patronising manner, particularly where women are concerned. Its a huge problem for me in this era of Who. The Doctor is definitely an authority/father figure and the sheer number of “my dears” thrown around in an exasperated fashion are too numerous to mention. For the first part of his run, Pertwee found himself stuck on earth, which lumbered him with the UNIT cast that he first met in his second incarnation (see The Invasion, last week). The UNIT family are fine in small doses, but there’s only so often Lethbridge Stewart can be pompous and disbelieving, or Benton can be loyal or Mike Yates can be a blank slate of nothingness. Its fine for a while but soon you yearn for other things, and thankfully by the time The Green Death rolls around, the Doctor has got off planet a few times. In fact, as this story opens, the Doctor is shirking his UNIT duties for a jolly to Metebelis III. This is in character with the Doctor’s third incarnation who often seems supremely self-obsessed, perhaps because he’s never quite got over his temporary exile by the Time Lords.

It could also have something to do with Jo. If there was ever a character designed to frustrate and annoy, its Jo Grant. Katy Manning does what she can with the material, but Jo is written far too often as a child-like incompetent in constant need of rescuing by the Doctor. More than any other companion, she seems in constant need of assistance. Jo does get some redemption in this story, but her final choice to leave with the man she’s fallen in love with over the course of a few days sees her swapping a father figure for a gentler brother figure. Its not exactly something feminists would be going wild over. That said, there’s a great connection between Jo and the third doctor. He may treat her like a child, and she may willingly go alogn with it, but its clear that the way they’re written, they’re perfect for each other, and Pertwee plays the final scene where the doctor skulks into the night (because he can’t handle Jo being happy with someone else) perfectly. Its just that in a larger context, the whole relationship is a little suspect.

Anyway, to the story itself: The Green Death finds a bunch of Welsh stereotypes working down the mines and suddenly discovering that some of their number are dying with an odd green glow emanating from their corpses. The Doctor would be useful in this situation but he’s gone off to Metebelis III for a sulk/to find the deus ex machina that is the Meteblis Crystal (he doesn’t know it will come in handy, he just wants one). On his return, he finds that the cause of the deaths are a bunch of odd looking maggots that have grown to unnatural size and are oozing around in green gunk. The cause of this green gunk seems to be nearby Global chemicals who are being run by an intelligent supercomputer called BOSS that has a weird plan for world domination. Or something. I’m not sure. Basically, its Skynet (from the Terminator movies) several decades too early. And in Wales. And with maggots instead of Schwarzenegger.

As a whole The Green Death is very representative of the Pertwee era. The earth setting. The all powerful computer. The Doctor acting like a secret agent (gadgets, disguises etc). The ambition outdoing the budget (the awful CSO work in the mine that even at the time must have looked dodgy) and the very cool clothes for the doctor. Pertwee excudes authority, and is in fact the most authoritarian of all doctors (no fish fingers and custard for this doctor; he’s very very serious). And the UNIT family. There’s some brainwashing too (seemed to happen to Mike Yates every other story - - only a few more stories until he’s duped again in the Dinosaur Invasion) and the Metebelis Crystals show up for little other reason than the writers needed them to. Mind you, the trip to Metebelis III is worth it for a great example of the Pertwee Gurn as he’s attacked by the indigenous life-forms. Its actually all very entertaining, and the maggots themselves are icky-scary. Pertwee himself is on fine form, and Jo gets a few chances to be an adult, although these are destroyed rather quickly by her terrible attempts to go down the mine and of course the moments she upsets Cliff’s science experiments. There’s escape, capture, death and the sight of Pertwee in drag. Not quite the all-conquering classic some would have you believe, but a good slice of Pertwee era action. With maggots.

Moments in Time:

- Those maggots are not, contrary to belief, made from condoms. They’re party balloons. Honestly, some people just see sex wherever they look.

- We’ve mentioned Pertwee’s disguises. But the moment where he’s dressed as the charlady is incredibly Madame Doubtfire. And let’s not mention his milkman moment.

- The Doctor would obviously change his mind with regard to letting married couples aboard the TARDIS but I do find it odd that Jo’s romance with Cliff would mean the end of their knowing each other. Then again, the Doctor tends to get a little possessive about those he travels with (it would be the same with Mickey, Rose and Doctor 9)

- Everybody knows that to touch the miner’s corpses means death. Yet folk move the bodies around and touch them to make sure they’re dead without so much as a momentary niggle of fear when the script demands it.

- I know they’re meant to be horrifying, but I do find the maggots rather cute in the way they wiggle around.

- The Metebelis crystal would return in the new series under Matt Smith’s tenure. But Smith’s pronunciation of it would be rather bizarre, maybe in reference to Tom Baker's strange inability to pronounce certain ordinary words.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Wonderful Middle

By Steve Weddle

Recently, Brad Listi had Tom Perrotta on the Other People podcast. Perrotta talked about writing novels, as well as his new Nine Inches collection. Perrotta, best known for Election and The Abstinence Teacher, said that writing the middles of his novels is the best part of it.

Short stories, he said, just get going when you have to shut them down.

The first part of novels are essentially laying out the ground-work, setting up characters and plot.

The ending is when the author has to tie it all up into a neat -- or not so -- bow. Or tie it off, I suppose. But, you know, certainly with the tie, Ty.  

I've written four books (one publishable) and I'm starting another.

I dig the research part of writing -- the part where you're reading and taking notes and learning so much. Billy Sunday? OK, let's read about him for a few days. Tenant farming in the 1930s? Why not search the internet for bookstores with old out-of-print books I have to have. Great.

And the first few thousand words, where you're just letting the characters talk and you're doing that scene-setting, that's good stuff. And maybe the ending, if you had one in mind, is a great spot to bring it all together.

But that spot that's 10-30% into the book, words 10k-30k if it's a 100k-word book, that's a rough spot, at least for me. And the 80-90% spot. I hate that spot, too.

The middle, as Perrotta said, is a good spot. Your characters are doing the stuff you want them to do, but they don't have to have everything line up perfectly, as they do in the last part. So often, if a character does a thing in the 80-90% part of your manuscript, that action has to mean something. It has to move forward and look behind. It's connective tissue with a purpose. You know, the connecting.

The first part is the setting-up. The middle part is the action, the story. The doing. And then the ending is, well, the ending. The End. Hooray.

The parts between, that's the hard slogging. That isn't the stained glass window or the beautiful oak door. That's the mortar, that's the part you have to get just right, so that everything settles in perfectly.

Maybe some writers hate starting books, but I can't believe that. Why would you keep writing? Why sit down to the desk in the first place? And everyone loves to finish writing, at least in that moment. Before a few days pass and you remember all the stuff you should have put in the book. The research you forgot about. How you'd meant to include a section about tenant farming, but forgot all about it once the sheriff shot that woman. Time to go back in and add a scene, I guess. Probably, of course, around page 40.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Where do you get your ideas?

Last week Michael J Malone dropped by to talk about the incident which inspired his latest McBain novel, A Taste for Malice, and it was a fascinating insight into how a single moment, quite a small and unspectacular one, the kind of thing which happens a thousand times a day, seeded itself in his mind and sparked off a train of thought which turned into a compelling crime novel.

And yet, for some reason asking writers where they get their ideas from is seen as terribly clich├ęd, the last resort of lazy journalists, as if it isn't at the very core of their work. 

I want to know why authors gravitate to certain subjects, I want to see where that spark comes from and why they feel compelled to pursue it to the bitter and blood soaked end. Especially with established authors who keep turning out excellent, original work or those rare writers who produce the kind of high concept books which make you smack your forehead and say 'why didn't I think of that?'

In fairness I completely understand the drive to guard your work during the process - I'm ridiculously superstitious and would never discuss a book while I'm writing it, but once it's done why not let people know about the weird conversation you overheard or the terrifying situation you found yourself at the edge of, with your writer brain already conjuring scenarios?

There's that issue of protecting sources too. Pretentious as that might sound. And it's something I've been thinking about a lot as the interviews and blog posts have started to stack up ahead of me. How much do I want to reveal? How far do I need to protect the people I've spoken to during research? 

Writers don't draw a line in the sand like journalists, there is no 'on the record' or off distinction. We hear things we know we probably shouldn't use, but when the moment arrives, and the storyline demands an action based in fact, suddenly authenticity seems more important than discretion.

The inspiration for Long Way Home partly came from a discussion I heard about a gangmaster and his business practices, and frankly I've got no problem with bringing such disgusting exploitation to light, but the discussions which followed it, as I delved deeper into the world, talking to landlords and tenants and people at the more respectable end of the agency spectrum...those people I wouldn't feel comfortable exposing.

But the truth of the matter is that's where the spark for Book Two came from - popping up unexpectedly in a conversation about something else entirely. The crime involved already interested me but I wouldn't have understood the complexities of it without some insider information and ultimately the book wouldn't have rung true.

It's really important to me that these books are authentic. I want them to reflect the fact that sixty years on from my family landing in England life hasn't got much better for immigrants, indeed in some ways it has actually got worse, with the mainstreaming of ultra rightwing ideology and the relaxation of employment laws. So while the ideas behind individual books come from various sources the original inspiration for this series is my seething sense of injustice.

Is that a good thing to be inspired by? Honestly, I don't know. It's probably not very healthy but the anger keeps me at the keyboard and the research process keeps throwing up new and terrible things to write about, which is actually quite reassuring as I think about taking the series forward.

And to the writers out there I want to say, be generous to your readers, let us see the mechanics behind the magic. We're fascinated by what you do, we want to learn from you if we can, so come on, where do you get your ideas from?

Eva Dolan

Monday, September 23, 2013

Turn your jar of coins into books

I have an interview with Burnt Bridge's Jason Stuart in the process of being formatted so look for that next week. Folks are traveling back home from Bouchercon and coming down from last night's Breaking Bad so here's a quick post sharing something I discovered recently.

If you take your coins to one of those Coinstar machines they will waive the fee/service charge if you get an eCertificate to participating restaurants and retailers. There are a lot of good choices and Amazon is one of them. So you can take that jar of coins, dump them in, the machine spits out a receipt, head to Amazon, punch in the redemption code, and boom, instant credit.

So if you have some coins lying around and don't know what to do with them here is a new option for you.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Let's say it again....

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Well, since I'm currently in Albany, NY for Bouchercon, which despite the strangeness of Albany (if you've been here recently, you'll understand what I mean) is tons of fun I have decided to run a post that I wrote about a year and a half ago.  It was advice I gave to so many aspiring authors this weekend and I figure if they had to hear it...well, I guess you get to hear it, too.

Finishing What You Start

Almost everyone I know loves to begin a new project. Whether it is a novel, a short story, knitting a scarf or building some cool new thing for the house – beginnings are exciting. Everything is bright and new and shiny. Kind of like a new toy on Christmas Day. There are endless possibilities as you imagine the fun you will have.

Beginnings are awesome.

Too bad beginnings can’t last forever. But they don’t and the bright and new and shiny wears off and you are left with something that no longer feels like fun. Instead, it feels like work.

Whether you are a third of the way through knitting a sweater, rebuilding a car engine or writing your manuscript—getting past the point where the activity feels like work can be tough. This is probably why so many people talk about wanting to write a book or knit a blanket, but never have a finished product to show anyone. They get distracted by an exciting new idea or a nifty knitting pattern and suddenly they have ditched the old one so they can have the “new toy” feeling again.

When new writers ask me what I think is the most important step they can take to becoming a published author my answer is always the same. Finish a book. It doesn’t matter if you realize halfway through that your midget werewolf, time travel, erotic mystery is not what the market is looking for. I don’t care if you say that you’ve realized your story has a huge hole in it. I don’t care about any of the reasons you have for not finishing the book. You need to keep going and finish the damn book!

Why finish something that won’t have a chance in hell of selling? Because finishing a project teaches you something very important. It teaches you that you actually can finish.. 

Why is that important? I mean, if the book will never sell, who cares. It doesn’t matter that you’ve finished the book. Right?


I know lots of aspiring authors who have been typing furiously for years and have never gotten to THE END. And while they keep blaming the story or the lack of time to write or the worry that the market isn’t going to want to buy what they are writing – they are just making excuses. With every new beginning comes the bright and shiny new toy moment. But for those that have never finished what they have begun that bright and shiny moment is laced with fear and uncertainty. 

Uncertainty because you have never finished a project. 

Fear that you never will.

Trust me when I say the first book I wrote will NEVER see the light of day. It sucked. Oh – there were good moments in it. It would be hard to write that many words without a few gems in the bunch. But I hadn’t a clue how to really construct a story. I didn’t have a feel for pacing or for keeping a scene focused. Face it—I didn’t have a flippin’ clue. The only thing I did right was I finished the sucker. All 134,000 words of it. (Yeah – now you can see why that book had problems…right?)

But that book taught me something very important. It taught me that I could sit down every day and fill the pages with words. Even though the story was less than perfect, it had a beginning, middle and most important it had an end. I learned that I could finish a book. Which meant when I started the next project, I KNEW that project would have an end, too.

I currently have two books on the shelves of your local bookstore with eight more under contract—only 3 of which are written. If I hadn’t proven over and over again to myself that I could reach the end of those as yet unwritten books I would be cowering under my bed. Instead, I sit at the computer every day and know that I will reach THE END of all of those books not just because I have to, but because I have proven to myself that I can.

We all like to talk about voice and sentence structure, pacing and characters, but so often we forget the most important milestone of a writer’s life is finishing that first book and banishing the fear. And when you are fearless, anything is possible.