Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Serendipitous Rabbit Trail

Scott D. Parker

The internet teems with rabbit trails. But sometimes, those rabbit trails can lead somewhere you never knew you wanted to go.

You know what I’m talking about. You go to the internet to look up something you need to know. You either find the answer right off the bat and sign off or, more likely, you find your answer and then see something else. You click on that other link which leads to yet another website. Before you know it, you’ve killed half an hour. Or more.

Recently, via Black, I read about the passing of Aaron Allston. As much as I like Star Wars, I was unfamiliar with his name. I glanced at his birth date, gave myself a few moments to see if I really knew his name, realized I didn’t, and then moved on.  

Cut to a few days later. I’m reading through yet another list of articles at Black Gate and saw the cover of something called Doc Sidhe. It’s a Doc Savage pastiche. I had never heard of that book but, it being a Doc Savage-type thing, I quickly clicked on the link to read the entire article. Fancy my surprise that Doc Sidhe was written by Allston who, to me on that day, was the writer who had just passed away. Imagine my surprise.

Just wait. It gets better. Liking what I saw on the cover of Doc Sidhe, I followed the rabbit trail over to Amazon. My thought was to buy the ebook. I searched for “Doc Sidhe” and found only the paperback. No ebook. On a whim, I clicked on Allston’s name and there found the end of my rabbit trail.

I’ve gone on record regarding my challenges of, to date, getting an idea for a book from initial spark of imagination to a manuscript. I’ve proven that, once I have the idea and the structure, I can bust out a book. But I’ve been having imagination issues. Which is why I've started reading how writers do their thing.

So imagine my surprise when I saw the following book on Allston’s Amazon page: Plotting: A Novelist's Workout Guide. Hey, thought I, that’s kind of something I could use. Intrigued, I sent a sample to my Nook. Opening the Kindle-only ebook, I read the first page:

Do any of these statements sound familiar?
  • "I come up with good ideas, but I can't develop them into complete novels." [Yes! That’s me!]
  • "I'm going along fine with my novel, and then it just stops. I can't get it moving again." [Again, yeah!]
  • "I know what happens from start to finish, but I can't figure out what it's really about." [Sometime, yeah.]
  • "I know what's supposed to happen and what it's supposed to mean, but my story is just not working." [Still me, a bit]
  • "My novel is missing something and I can't figure out what it is." [Sure.]
If any of the above applies to you, Plotting: A Novelist's Workout Guide can help.

Next thing I did? Immediately went back to Amazon and bought the ebook. Forget this sample thing. I knew I wanted this book.

And, so far (about 19% percent in--biggest peeve of Kindle = no page numbers!) I am already learning things, annotating like a crazy man. Better still is how Allston is taking all the instructions he writes about and creating a novel-in-progress, showing exactly how all of his instruction applies to real, live story.

I’ll report on this book when I finally reach the end, but, so far, it’s a excellent purchase. It's exactly the book I needed right now. And I owe it all to serendipity and, of course, to Mr. Allston. May he rest in peace. Thank you for writing this book.

Friday, March 14, 2014

And so the end is near...

By Russel D McLean

As I write this, I am finishing up the latest draft of CRY UNCLE, the last McNee novel. The draft is due to submitted just before MOTHERS OF THE DISAPPEARED  comes out in April. I feel a little odd about this one. Its the fifth McNee and I always said that I had a five book plan. One I've almost stuck to. So this, in a way, is the end.

Its not necessarily the very end. But its the end of the particular arc I wanted to write. It ties up a lot of loose ends. It brings a kind of emotional closure to certain aspects of the series. And of course it does open up the possibilities for new paths to be followed. If people want it, there may be room for more in the series. I just don't know how they would look. Yet.

To tell the kind of story I wanted to tell took a lot of ambition for someone who's not as concerned with plots as he is style. I always wanted the writing and the emotion to win out over any kind of whodunnit chicanery or clever-clever reveals. I never minded if people saw the twists coming but I did want them to be interested in the characters and where they were going. McNee has changed as the books have gone on. By the end of book 3, he had come to terms with his part in the death of his fiancee. He had started to quell the anger that he had felt for years. In fact, without giving too much away, the point of book 3 was to show that with a very specific kind of emotional switch that happened in the final act as McNee saw someone else go through the kind of anger he had experienced and realised how destructive that could be to someone.*

Book 4 therefore should start with McNee in a good place. But having had him come through that, I didn't think it was fair that he should have an easy time of it. And besides there were, as someone pointed out, still a few loose ends dangling from as far back as THE GOOD SON. When were they going to bite him on the arse?

They do. Right at the start of MOTHERS, a very bad decision we saw McNee make several years ago is rearing its head. Consequences are finally asserting themselves. He  has started to forgive himself. But can others forgive him?

We also explore a little more the time before he left the force. The book is very much about McNee's past both in the chronology of the books and his past as a cop. We learn that before he left the force he was involved in a very high profile investigation along with his now dead mentor, Ernie Bright. But while that case was close, it looks like the wrong man may have been arrested. The wrong who pleaded guilty. I've always been fascinated by the idea of miscarriages of justice, and the idea that an innocent person might have reasons for pleading guilty. So this book looks into that.  Not in a legal sense. I've never been one for that although I do think that this book might actually have more research than some of the others have when it comes to procedure. Its all about emotional consequences, however. And on that level I think it works very well.

McNee still has some very dark places to go. But I'm so very pleased that both Five Leaves and now Severn Publishing have given me the chance to write the books I wanted to write. Of course the series looks different in some ways from how I imagined it back at the start. But the thrust of that five book arc remains the same and I'm very glad to have done what I set out to do. You may be just about to enjoy book 4, but for me, book 5 is nearly complete and that brings with it a kind of beautiful bitter sweet feeling.

This may not be goodbye for McNee. But for me, it marks a kind of ending. One that makes me both smile and feel a tiny bit wisftul.

*I make no claims that I succeeded in doing this, but that was the intention

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Query Gambit

By Alex Segura

Over at my Tumblr, someone asked me about querying agents. I was going to respond there, but it struck me as a really nice debut post here at Do Some Damage.

Before I dive in, though, I’d like to thank Steve Weddle for letting me join this group blog. It’s an honor. I hope I don’t screw it up. I should probably introduce myself, too.

My name’s Alex Segura. I’m a crime fiction writer based in NY. My first novel – Silent City – went on sale last year from Codorus Press. It’s set in Miami and is the first in a series featuring washed-up journo Pete Fernandez. That’s enough self-promo, though.

So, right. How do you query your book to agents? Good question - and one that has no single, right answer! At least that I know of.

I've only queried crime fiction, so that's what I'll speak to.

My experience with having an agent is limited. I had one a while back and we parted ways - nothing bad, just wasn't working, it happens - and I currently have one. But my situation - like anyone else's - is unique, so take everything I say with a grain of salt.

These are the lessons I've learned:

Check your ego at the door. You will get rejections - plural. You should be ready for that.

It's a numbers game. If you're only sending out a handful of queries, don't be surprised if you hear crickets. Agents are busy and very selective. Make a robust list of target agents, query them and then be responsive if/when you get interest.

Always follow the format the agent requests. Most agents list HOW they want you to send a query to them. Do not deviate from this. Don't have a synopsis and think your query letter serves the same purpose? OK. But you won't get this agent interested because you're not doing what they asked OFF THE BAT.

Query agents that represent authors you like. I'm sure you have authors that write the kind of book you're trying to sell. Find out who reps them - a good trick is to check their book's acknowledgements - and send a query. Hell, even mention that you're a fan of their work with so-and-so. We all love so-and-so.

Don't get too high/don't get too low. You got a response from an agent. Great! Do your best to be responsive and professional. Don't bank everything on this one exchange, though. There are tons of steps in the process - partial manuscript requests, full manuscript requests, initial meeting, etc. Save the big-time celebrating for the moment when they officially say "I want to represent you." Until then, it's all written in sand. Allow yourself to be optimistic, but don't stop querying other agents/moving other pieces until you're locked in.

Stay true to the book you've written. Agents are going to have notes. They're going to make edits and suggestions. It's their job. But don't let the potential awesomeness of having an agent cloud your vision for the book. Do these notes jibe with what YOU, the author want? If so, great. If you're like me, you love feedback and suggestions. I'll do anything to make my book better as long as it doesn't disturb my initial intent for the story. In short - be open to change, but be true to the book you want to write. 

Disclaimer: I am in no way intimating that agents make unwanted/unnecessary changes. Not by a longshot. But you should always keep in mind what your breaking points are as an author. So, if someone asks you to turn your steampunk turtle romance book into a noir thriller set in Denmark featuring zombie rabbits, you may want to politely say “No thank you, that’s not the book I want to write.”

Be patient. This is the toughest, which is why I saved it for last. Sometimes people need weeks, even MONTHS to read your query, manuscript, synopsis, etc. That’s maddening, right? You want an answer RIGHT NOW. But that’s not going to happen – agents get a ton of queries on a given day. If they’ve responded and said they’ll look it over, celebrate (moderately) and wait. Don’t ping them before the window of time they’ve given you to read over your submission. Heck, don’t ping them on the day it’s over. If it’s been a month or a couple weeks since they said you’d hear back, politely check in. If you don’t hear anything then, check in one last time a few weeks later. Still nothing? They’re probably supremely swamped or not interested. Move on to the other queries you’re sending. You’re sending more, right?

Hope this helps!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Farewell, My Friend

The writing community lost a talented and good friend early Saturday morning when AJ (Bill) Hayes passed away. AJ was a huge presence in the online crime fiction world, contributing stories and poetry, editing, and offering support to other writers. I was fortunate enough to have spent time with him in person on several occasions, most notably at LA’s Noir at the Bar. He and his wife, Thury, drove up from the San Diego area for nearly every one of them, and AJ’s participation in this event, both as a reader and a member of the audience, was always something I looked forward to.
I can see his friendly eyes and big smile as I write this. AJ had a wonderful way about him—he just always seemed so happy to see you.
The first time I heard AJ read his work aloud was at an event in 2011 that Eric Beetner asked us to participate in. AJ (accompanied by Thury, of course), Eric, Josh Stallings, Stephen Blackmoore, and I met up at LA’s Greystone Mansion, to read our stories as part of an art installation. 
Greystone Mansion itself has an ominous history; Edward Doheny (a well known name in Los Angeles) gave the parcel of land it sits on to his son, Ned, and his new bride, Lucy, as a wedding gift in 1926. Construction on the palatial home began in February 1927, and the family moved in to the residence in September 1928. Five months later, Ned Doheny was found shot to death inside his bedroom at the age of 36, the victim of an apparent murder-suicide committed by his longtime friend and employee, Hugh Plunket.
That's the "official" story, at least. But no one seems to know what really happened in that room on February 16, 1929.
Various other art installations were presented throughout the house, but the group of us got the best location: the room where the murder took place. It was empty of furniture (except for a toppled over chair strategically placed to mimic the one found at the crime scene) and we all stood around or perched ourselves on the window sills, listening to each other read our stories while a film based on a Raymond Chandler novel that referenced the murder played on a silent loop, projected onto one of the walls. Attendees wandered in and out, some pausing for awhile to listen, while others just poked their heads in. It was the oddest event I’m ever likely to attend, but the location, the circumstances, and most importantly, the company made it one I'll never forget.
When AJ stepped up to the microphone and began to read, I thought, "Wow, this guy can write." The images he provoked were powerful and his words were unflinching. Beyond that happy smile and his unfailing support, that's what I'll remember about AJ Hayes. The guy could write.

RIP, AJ. It was a pleasure knowing you.


Select Stories & Poetry by AJ Hayes:

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Hollywood Colour-Coded Map


On his website, Jettison Cocoon, Cary Watson has a review of the movie Nebraska that starts with his imagined Hollywood map of the USA:

Somewhere in Hollywood there's a big, colour-coded map of the USA that shows what kinds of stories are permitted to be filmed in various regions of the country. On this map New England (tinted green) gets WASPy warmedies like Hope Springs and On Golden Pond. The South (peach-colored) gets brassy, sassy women givin' folks a piece of their mind in Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes. Big cities (marked with large gold stars) get all the hyper-kinetic action movies and the broadest comedies. This leaves the Midwest and the Plains states (slate grey). They get bleak, austere tales of plain-looking people who stare moodily from car windows, kitchen windows and store windows (the latter typically plastered with "Going Out Of Business" signs) at flat, treeless landscapes, lightly populated with other people staring gloomily out of windows.This is the land of films like Badlands, Fargo, The Last Picture Show and now Nebraska, which has followed the rules of Hollywood's USA map to the letter.

So, with our milion definitions for noir and so many sub-genres, does crime fiction also have a colour-coded map?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Tools for readers - do you use them?

I'm interested to know if you use any tools as a reader. And if so, what they are. Let me explain.

  • I check Netgalley once a week. 
  • I keep a robust wishlist on Amazon, which I check once a day using the "items with price drops" filter to see if there are any deals I should jump on. 
  • I use Librarything to catalog most of my books and track what I read. 
  • I use Author Alerts to keep track of favorite authors. 
  • I subscribe to eBookSoda for daily freebie alerts. 
  • I use ereaderIQ to track my wishlist for price drops and freebies.
 Do I take all of this too seriously? How about you? Any other good tools out there?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Jealousy – the easy answer

By: Joelle Charbonneau

Last week, I wrote a post about personal attack reviews against authors.  The post got some wide attention and as a result I was interviewed on the subject by The Guardian as part of an article they did about a petition currently circulating which asks Amazon to disallow anonymous reviews and comments on the site’s forums.   My interview was not on the petition – which I was in not familiar with– but on attack reviews in general and my experience with them.  During the course of the interview, I was asked if the attack reviews were caused by “an odd sort of jealousy”.  I think the reviewer expected me to say yes.  My answer was no.

When the topic of negativity or personal attacks comes up in discussion, I often hear people automatically say, “Oh they’re just jealous.”  It’s possible this is the case some of the time, but I would argue that ascribing all negative behavior to jealousy diminishes the conversation and negates the possibility of coming up with constructive solutions. 

To be honest, until the question was posed to me in such a direct way, I’m not sure I had truly thought deeply about the answer. Reviews that personally attack the author instead of criticizing the work are wrong.  Plain and simple.  There is no excuse for a review of the work that calls the authors names or threatens physical harm.  But do the people who write those reviews know they are wrong?  They should – or most of them should – but do they really?

My knee-jerk reaction to that question is YES!  Hell yes!  They know.  Or at least most of them should know.

And yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize that answer is flawed.  In fact, I believe that most of the people who post personal attack reviews believe they are not only acceptable, but that those reviews are rewarded.  And for that, we are all to blame.

Let me explain. 

When I was in my final college years, the Internet was just beginning.  (Yes, this sounds like the age of mammoths and saber tooth tigers, but in actuality was the 90s.  Go figure!) But it wasn’t until after ringing in the 21st century that the Internet became the social hub that it is now.  Blogs, social media and websites suddenly became a new an exciting tool for marketing.  Because of this, publishers and authors leapt onto the bandwagon of all things Internet to get the word out about their books.  And those with blogs and websites and social media outlets that got the most hits, retweets and likes were considered successful in spreading news about books.  That success was rewarded with…stuff.  Books!  Advanced reader copies!  Swag!  Party invitations at BEA, ALA or other conferences.  The more hits you get, the more the rewards. 

Score!  Right?  Okay, maybe not. 

But think about it.  What draws the most hits to a blog or gets the most retweets or shares?  (And I’m not talking about cat photos here.  Those are in a category all their own.)  What gets you clicking on a link that someone shares?  Do you click on the thoughtful article or the one that promises controversy?  In my experience, sensational headlines and a promise of snark gets people clicking every time. 

Because the old traditional marketing methods were so expensive, publishers both self and traditional embraced the growth of the Internet as a marketing tool.  I would argue that the growth of that tool became more important to many than the level of conversation it led to.  Hits and likes and shares and retweets have become measurable benchmarks for success online.  So is it any wonder that those who see those numbers rewarded embrace the methods they observe that achieve them?

Many people say that numbers don’t lie.  In this case, I believe they do.  The numbers are wrong an the culture of rewarding those numbers needs to end before any true change can be seen.

So, I ask the question now to you that I was asked.  Is jealousy to blame for the personal attack reviews on authors or the way many defend the belief that those reviews are perfectly acceptable?

What do you say? 

I say no.

And while I would argue that jealousy isn’t the answer, neither is the phrase “Trolls will be trolls” that I have seen so often posted.  To dismiss the problem as a result of jealousy or to label those actively participating in the behavior as trolls lowers the level of conversation and leads nowhere.

Last week, I was nervous to post on the subject of personal attack reviews because I feared the pushback I have seen others receive online.  I’m still worried, but I am continuing to talk on this subject because I believe a line needs to be drawn and that if I don’t draw it I am offering my tacit agreement that the behavior of personally attacking authors alongside their work is correct.  And I don’t agree.

And I don’t believe you do either.

Regardless of what is to blame for this problem, I have a firm conviction that we can create change.  I believe in the book community and the love of the written word that binds us.  I believe that we can turn back the tide if all of us who love books – authors, publishers, booksellers, bloggers, Internet retailers and the rest of the amazing reading community – draw a line in the sand together.  A line that is about respect for our mutual passion and a true discourse about the works we connect with or dislike.  By raising the level of conversation and not adding to the numbers of those who tear the conversation down, we can make a difference. 

So----who’s with me?