Saturday, February 8, 2014

Where Art Thou, Yarn?

(I'm a a church event so I don't have time to write a whole new piece. Yesterday, I read a review by James Reasoner discussing Quest of the Golden Ape, an old SF story from Amazing Magazine. Twice in the piece, Reasoner referred to the story as a 'yarn.' That led me to my idea for which older piece I'd be re-running today. It's from May 2012. At the end, I've added a couple of quotes from the comments of the original article to keep the conversation going. Enjoy and I'll be back live next week.

 BTW, I'm reading yarn right now: Doc Savage: Resurrection Day. Anybody read that one? If there are any Doc Savage fans out there, which are your favorites?)

Through a chance post on the internet while reading about Erle Stanley Gardner, I learned about this book: Secrets of the World's Best-Selling Author: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner by Francis and Roberta Fugate. The title pretty much tells you all you need to know about the subject of this book. It turns out that Gardner's papers are housed at the Ransom Center at my alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin. The Fugates  waded into the 36 million documents to extract just how it was that Gardner did what he did: write 80 Perry Mason books, 29 Cool and Lam novels, and millions of words of pulp fiction.

Among all of the notebooks on plotting were the correspondence between Gardner and his editors. Over and over again, Gardner would refer to his stories as "yarns." It got me to thinking: why did that term first get applied to pulp fiction and why, in the years since its heyday, the term is rarely, if ever, used.

I looked up the definition of "yarn" and got a couple:

"an elaborate narrative of real or fictional events."
"a story told by a colorful character"

So, if these definitions are basically true, what does that tell us about Gardner thought about the types of stories he wrote? He's not necessarily a colorful character. The Mason stories are told in third person. The Cool and Lam tales are told by Donald Lam and I'd characterize them as yarns, to be sure. I wonder if Gardner kept thinking of his novels as longer versions of all those pulp stories he wrote back in the 1920s. Maybe so. I know that lots of the writers back then used the same term.

So why do we now think of out modern short stories and novels as yarns?

One possibility is realism. As the decades have progressed and the readers and writers have both become more sophisticated, new realism has creeped into our stories. Where once writers were restricted in how they described violence, now, no restrictions exist. Readers know a whole lot more then they used to, and the call for more real details--be it Tom Clancy or Patricia Cornwell--continues and we writers comply.

A corollary idea is this: with the drive to be more real, have we lost the yearning for a yarn? Have we lost the desire for an over-the-top story? Do our automatic triggers ("that can't really happen,") preclude us from a joyful abandonment?

In short, have we grown too sophisticated for yarns? Do we readers just know too much?


Thomas Pluck:
I still say yarn. I'm not always out for realism, especially when it has come to mean "tragedy," as if nothing ever works in the world. I read the paper every day, plenty of news stories would make great novels word for word, others would be nonsensical, others would seem too good to be true.
A good yarn has to be fake enough to seem real. 

Dana King:
"A good yarn has to be fake enough to seem real."


I think of many of Donald Westlake's comic stories as yarns. There's an implied bit of whimsy in a good yarn, a story neither the teller nor the audience is taking too seriously.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Party talk with a writer

So, is your book available in stores? On Amazon?

Yes. It's like a real book.

I'm looking forward to reading it. Can I get a copy?

Sure, it's available in stores. And on Amazon. Kobo.

Oh, I thought you probably had copies.

Yeah, I do.




Well, what?

Can I get a copy?

Of my book?

Yeah. I might like to read it. You know, if you have a copy.

Oh, sure. Can I get your credit card for a second?


So, how's your book doing?

Fine, I guess. I wrote it and people are reading it.

That's great.


So how's it selling?

Oh, I don't know. Publishing is weird.

Ah. But selling well?

Less well than I would have thought.


So you're a writer?

Yes. What do you do?

I'm a doctor of veterinary medicine.

Oh. Cool.

Yeah. So, they say everybody has a novel in them, you know?

I hadn't heard that.

Yeah. Like a story to tell. It's just finding the time to tell it.


You wouldn't believe how busy I am.

No, I wouldn't.


Yeah, so you figure everyone has a neutering in them, too?


I mean, you'd need to find the time.


Hey, come out back for a second. I gotta show you something.



Hey, sweetie.

Why are you standing over here by yourself?

I like it here.

By the sink?

Yeah. It's nice.

You don't want to mingle?

I did.

Did Betty find you?


She wanted you to sign her book.

So she said.

Oh. That must have made her happy.


What? Did you, did something happen?

It was a copy from the library.


So, you're the writer?

Yeah, OK.

Written anything I would know?

Maybe. What do you like to read?

Oh, I like everything.

Then probably, yeah.


I hate parties, don't you?

I guess.

My husband always dragged me to these things.

Oh, yeah?

Yeah. But now we're divorced, I'm kinda lost.


Trial is next week. Just wanted to get my mind off it.


Yeah. He was arrested by the justice department. Weird story.

No kidding?

Yeah. But you don't want to hear it.

Uh, mind if I take notes?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Brief, But Heartfelt, Thanks

By Holly West

I apologize for the following short post. With all the promo I've been doing for Mistress of Fortune lately, I'm about out of blog post topics for the moment. But have no fear, I'll be astounding you with my blogging brilliance again soon.

For now:

In the days leading up to the release of my debut novel, Mistress of Fortune, a quote kept running through my mind:
"I've always depended on the kindness of strangers."
Except, in my mind, I'd replace the word 'strangers' with 'writers.'

Because, indeed, I've been bowled over by the kindness and generosity of the writing community, particularly, the crime fiction community, as I prepared to launch my first book.

I thought about making a list here, but then decided against it lest I forget someone. But it's important that I let you all know just how integral you've been to this process. Not just the launching of Mistress of Fortune, but to my career as a whole. Just as my own career has progressed, I've watched yours go forward. You've inspired, supported, kicked my ass, and counseled. Believe me when I say I couldn't be more proud to be associated with this tribe.

I'll spare you my stirring rendition of Wind Beneath My Wings.

I just read a tweet that said "Retired Philip Roth says he has no desire to write fiction anymore." Here, at the beginning of my career, I can't imagine ever feeling like that. Especially with y'all around to share the ride with.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Blame Game

By Jay Stringer

When the economy collapsed there was a bit of a problem. Not for us. Not most of us. Those with normal jobs -or no jobs- and real world worries. The actual collapse had been largely to do with things that didn't exist. Gambles and debts being called in on speculation and futures. The initial wounded animals of the banking crisis were the bankers* and rich people. Bankers because they'd lost all of that fictional money, and with it their livelihoods and reputations, and rich people because they were about to lose investments.

Of course, that's not how history played out. Because quite quickly the fictional money was turned into real money, and the debts were passed off onto other people. A banking crisis soon became a financial crisis, which then became a financial meltdown. You don't need me to tell you where this story ends, you just need to count how many food banks and soup kitchens there are within five miles of where you're sat.

They key thing for today's post though was the blame. The blame was passed off first, loudest and longest. The poor people. They're where all the money was hidden. They're the people who needed to pay.

I can't speak for America, but one thing I've seen over here is the demonisation of the unemployed. People on benefits are being made out to be the cause of all of life's evils. The reason this is important, the reason people want us to focus on blaming the 'scroungers' on benefits is because it stops us looking at the amount of reparations that banks haven't paid. It stops us from looking at uncollected taxes from corporations and individuals living in tax havens.

We're led to believe the greatest drain on our nations finances is unemployed people claiming benefits, when the actual statistics show that only 3% of the total welfare budget is being spent on unemployed people. We're led to believe that people on benefits are all cheating, whereas the official stats show that only 0.7% of the welfare budget can be found to be fraudulent.

There is a television show over here right now called Benefit Street. It's filmed in a street that I know, from near where I grew up back home in the English Midlands. The show paints a picture of a street in which every inhabitant is living a life of ease and luxury on benefits, and some of the people featured in the show have received death threats from the British public, a public that is being stirred up to boiling point with hatred of 'scroungers.' Never mind that the real stats show that 75% of people living in that street are employed, and that those who are not would then fall under the stats I've already quoted. And never mind that in Birmingham, where the show is filmed, 1-in-3 children are living in poverty. That's 1-in-3 children in the second largest city in the UK who are more likely to die young, to have ill health, to have long term educational problems and to be both prey to -and the cause of- crime. Why try and help any of those children, when we can just blame them instead?

And it's also a view that ignores a much more revealing aspect of the welfare bill; the majority of people receiving benefits are employed. They are families who have jobs and still can't afford to live. The 'working poor' as we currently call them. To ignore these people makes it easy to paint the picture that benefits and poor people are the real reason everyone is struggling (to be honest, even the phrase, 'benefits' helps to do that. It's a loaded term.)

It makes it easier to overlook those that caused the problem -and those who could fix the problem simply by living up to their end of the deal- and to shift the blame onto those who are already desperate.

And that's where I get to my point;

We write and read crime fiction. We write about murder, violence, drugs, gangs and poverty. By definition, we are writing about the 1 out of every 3 children in these stats. I've asked before whether we do enough in crime fiction to live up to responsibility and I'm asking again now.

Are we tourists? Are we standing and pointing or, worse, are we standing and victimising. I like to preach about my little corner of the crime fiction world, where people talk of 'social fiction' and of addressing issues, but sometimes I wonder if even that is an excuse. Is it a way of making ourselves feel good about about exploitation?

Do we do enough, or are we just another part of the blame game?

*I know,  I know, not all of them. Just the evil ones.  

Monday, February 3, 2014

Tenderloin by Court Haslett - review

Everything I know about San Francisco politics in the late 70's I learned from Jello Biafra's spoken word piece "Running for Mayor".

Tenderloin takes place in San Francisco in 1978 using key political figures and other folks from that time in a fictional setting.

Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple figure prominently throughout the story. This works in some ways and doesn't quite work in others. It works because Jones and the Temple were a bad an omnipresent force in San Francisco at the time. They were feared by some people and some of these people felt directly the hand of Jones' retribution. You can't write a story that takes place in late 70's San Francisco and NOT include Jim Jones. It doesn't click in a couple of ways though. Each chapter features a date and time stamp. It's pretty easy, given the role of the Temple in the plot, what these time stamps are leading to. And since we know how that particular bit of history wraps up we know Jones (or his proxy's) probably isn't going to wind up being the big baddy who killed the hooker with a heart of gold. [There is also the usual problem of a series character being targeted, we know he is going to be injured but not killed. But I've long since learned to ignore this if I like what I'm reading and I did here]. I'm not sure the timestamps were necessary.

The Jim Jones presence is directly felt by the head of The Temples special security force. A scary ass woman that is a strait killer and a True Believer. Information at the end of the book tells us that this person actually existed. I would gather that not much specific information exists about her but Haslett does a great job of making sure she is feared by all, including the reader.

I did have a couple of nits to pick. There were a couple of spots that I would have enjoyed discussing with the author if I had been the editor. I'll give two examples. 1) Sleeper is a guy who doesn't watch a lot of TV, if hardly at all. He spends time at the track, at the boxing gym, at the bar, walking, talking with friends and associates. So it really felt out of place when he and another character were trading pop culture quips based on Three's Company. 2) A running subplot involves Sleeper and a neighbor friend building up a savings of gambling winnings to buy back the neighbors record collection. Sleeper makes a side comment about laying down some small bets here and there that has increased the amount they have saved. Except the reader has spent a lot of that time with Sleeper so when exactly did he get to the bookie. Hasn't he been too busy doing other A-plot related things? Again, like I said, small things but there were a few of them. Your mileage may vary.

Tenderloin doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it is an entertaining look at the time, featuring a who's who of pulp and crime fiction types. If you are looking for a quick and fun read look no farther.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off....and then what?

by: Joelle Charbonneau

One of the unexpected bonuses to being a young adult author is getting to visit schools and talk to young readers.  Part of the visits is a Q&A session with the students where they get to ask – well – anything.  The fact that they get to ask whatever comes to mind often causes panic for the teachers who worry that I’m going to be faced with a question I don’t feel comfortable answering.  (Or that will be inappropriate.)  So far, students have yet to ask anything that is out of bounds. To be honest, the questions asked have been fun, interesting and incredibly thoughtful. 

Part of my talk at schools revolves around my journey to being an author….specifically my wandering career path that forayed into theater, opera, modeling and just about any field that guaranteed a huge amount of rejection.  More than once I was asked the question “How do you stay motivated when you get rejected?”

That question was my favorite to answer.  Perhaps because the answer isn’t really about facing rejection. Despite what you might think.  And I’ll tell you why…

Rejection sucks.  It’s hard to hear NO!  It’s even harder to be told NO when you have put your heart and soul into something like an audition or a manuscript.  After all, you put yourself into that work so essentially it is you that they are judging.   It’s hard not to take that personally and feel as if what you are doing has no value.  Which is why so many people hear NO and decide to stop writing or performing or put aside whatever they are working on.

See…rejection sucks.  But when rejection strikes, the most important thing you can do to help yourself is to ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing?  Do you love the work?  Or do you love the accolades you dream will some day be yours?  If you are writing because you want to see fabulous reviews and sales…or if you are singing and dancing because you crave the applause – well, you might be doing these things for the wrong reasons.  Why?  Because you are seeking something you have no control over-outside validation.  External approval is a wonderful frosting on the top of the cake, but all frosting does not a dessert make.  (Trust me on this…I’ve made enough cakes to know!)  There needs to be something underneath the frothy, sweet, colorful topping that has more substance. 

If you are only looking for the accolades and the external approval of agents, editors, directors, reviewers, etc…well, rejection is going to eat you up and spit you out.  Each NO will feel like a punch.  Eventually, one of those punches will knock you out.  I’ve seen it happen a lot.  Applause is great, but it isn’t a reason for writing or performing.

What is?

The work!  Pushing yourself to be better.  Being passionate about what it is that you do.  Those things are the cake under the frosting.  Those are the things that you can control.   Those are what will get you through when you hear the word NO.

When I answer the question about how I stay motivated despite the number of rejections I get I can honestly say, “The work motivates me because I love what I do.”  And while that kind of sounds like a Hallmark card, it doesn’t make the sentiment less true.  Being passionate about what you do makes the work worthwhile whether it is validated by an external source or not.  It doesn’t mean the rejection won’t sting, because—hello!  Rejection sucks.  But being passionate about getting up day after day and doing what you love (whether as your full time job or late at night when you can squeeze in a few minutes) lessens the intensity of the sting and the pain of the punch.  Because while you’d like to hear “yes”, no matter what someone else says you know in your heart how important the work you do is to you.  And that really is what matters.

So – to all high school/college students out there – I give you this advice – find work that you are passionate about and use your desire to be the best you can be at that work to motivate you.  Let the goal of growing and improving keep you moving forward.  Don’t get sucked into needing external approval as a goal. 

And to all the writers who read this blog – when rejection slaps up upside the head and makes you stumble, ask yourself “Why am I writing?”  and if the answer is “Because I love the work.” I know you’ll pick yourself up, dust yourself off and be just fine.