Saturday, July 19, 2014

Give Tom Cruise a Break

Scott D. Parker

I saw the movie my wife’s been wanting me to see since it opened: Edge of Tomorrow. In case you haven’t heard, it’s a Tom Cruise film with Emily Blunt. It’s a science fiction/action movie that doesn’t let up until the very end. I found the film extremely entertaining with a likeable cast, a good dose of humor (lots, actually; I would love to see Cruise do a straight-up comedy perhaps in the style of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day films?), and a new and unique twist on how it’s possible for Cruise to do what he does (hint: think Groundhog Day. Hey, it’s in the preview so I’m not giving anything away here.). My wife, not a huge SF fan like me, loves the film and will buy the DVD. What does that say about genre and the common viewer?

Why do I bring up this SF film here at a blog devoted to writing and mystery fiction? I want to ask a question regarding authors but use Tom Cruise as the medium. The man knows how to make very entertaining movies. He is all but a sure thing. You buy a ticket to a Tom Cruise movie, you know you will be getting a good film and, more importantly, his absolute best effort. Has he even mailed in a performance? One doesn’t come to mind. Edge of Tomorrow is special, however, because we get to see Tom Cruise the Coward. It’s not something we typically see and it’s a nice testament to the fact that he’s a seasoned actor who knows his craft, studies his industry, and improves in every movie he makes, and puts forth the best product he can. He’s got talent, but he’s a craftsman, just like most of us writers. We write more and we improve. He makes more movies and he improves.

So why does he get a bad break? Was it the couch hopping thing? So what? The guy was in love. Who hasn’t been so in the bliss that you did crazy things? He just did his on national TV. Is it his religion choice? So what? This is America. We’re all free to practice our religion. Was it the Brooke Shields thing? So what? Aren’t we free to have our own opinion? Was it something else? Who knows. All I know is that when I buy a ticket to a Tom Cruise film, all that crap that people give him hell for doesn’t enter my mind. What enters my mind is the pleasure of seeing this actor entertain me.

Somehow, authors don’t seem to get this rap. I can’t think of an author who continues to study and improve and produce books year after year, and yet the readers turn their back on the author simply because of the author’s political or social views or some odd event in their lives. Granted, authors aren’t always seen in public, but you know what I mean. There are the big names--King, Grisham, Rowling, Roberts, Cornwell, Patterson--but an author’s personal convictions rarely interfere with our purchase of their books.

I suppose there might be some authors whose personal convictions would lead some readers not to buy their books, just like some moviegoers choose not to see a Cruise film. That’s fine, but I get the sense that people are not making their moviegoing choice on the content of the film--Edge of Tomorrow is fantastic, content-wise--but on Cruise himself. Again, free country, I get that, and free market, but why has Tom Cruise become a craftsman who is judged not by his craft but by his personal life? You certainly wouldn’t look at a carpenter’s gorgeous rocking chair that would be perfect for your living room but then not buy it because you saw a bumper sticker on his car for the presidential candidate you didn’t vote for. Would you choose not to buy a book from an author who changed their stance on an issue that was opposed to yours...without reading the book?

Can we separate a craftsman's work from the craftsman's convictions? Just some idle thoughts for a weekend in July. What’s y’all’s take?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Use Whatever Helps

By Steve Weddle

Good lord, what was with that 98-minute standing ovation for Derek Jeter at the All-Star Game? Or with Adam Wainwright grooving a pitch so that Jeter could get a hit?

Seems most folks are in love with Jeter because 1) he's kinda lovely to look at; 2) he's played the game at a high level for 73 years; and 3) he did it "the right way."

Of course, the "right way" means not getting caught with Jose Canseco putting a needle into your backside. And Jeter never got caught doing any of that. That worst Jeter was ever caught doing was Madonna.

As we say with some jackass gets a multi-million dollar deal for three books about an alcoholic vampyre detective going through a nasty divorce while something from his dark past resurfaces, "Hunh. Good for him. Good for him."

I'm not interested in writing the "right way." I'm usually writing as the sun comes up and, uh, maybe there's other stuff I do right. I generally don't compromise characters or plot. I don't chase fads. I don't  try to write anything popular. (Sorry, World's Best Agent.)

And I do this big thing that's probably frowned on. I mean, we're talking BALCO-level bad. Much like your PED-infused ballers, I do whatever helps, no matter the long-term consequences. I'll steal from anywhere. I'll take my performance enhancements where I can get them, lemme tell ya.

What the heck am I going on about? Well, here it is.

Writing via paint-by-numbers. Though I'm not proud of my behavior, I'm not completely embarrassed  by it.

Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT is this "beat sheet" that film people talk about. You have your "b story" and you're given the point at which your "all is lost" needs to kick in. You're supposed to open with an image, have the hero do stuff for a couple hours, then close with the opposite image so that people feel as if they've seen something happen for their $12. I mean, it's pretty well laid out there in front of you.  We're talking "hero's journey" broken down into neatly organized index cards.

Is that gauche? Is it cheating to use a "beat sheet" to write your novel?

Here's an example of how this template works for Frank Miller's famous BATMAN: YEAR ONE.

But here's the thing. I find bits and pieces I can use in what I'm working on. I gave some thought to a "Debate" scene in my current project, worked around some ideas.

Or kicking in with the catalyst. There's the old saying about how there are only two stories: someone takes a trip and someone comes to town. The key part of those stories is the change. And change tends to require a catalyst.
Catalyst – The moment where life as it is changes. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.Debate – But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.
I guess I find myself going back to these "how to write" programs when I'm thinking about writing or when I hit a slow patch. I don't use them all the time, just when I absolutely need them. You know, more Andy Pettitte than A Rod.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Criminal Activities

by Holly West

In the past year or so, I've become much more involved with both the crime fiction writing community at large and my own local community. In addition to writing weekly for the Do Some Damage blog, I now write a bi-weekly post for Prose & Cons. Locally, I'm the Vice President of Sisters in Crime Los Angeles and the newsletter editor for the Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. Finally, I'm involved in the planning/administration of the bi-annual California Crime Writers Conference, an event that's near and dear to my heart because it was the first writers conference I ever attended (in 2009).

Admittedly, some of these commitments result in some regular kicking and screaming on my part. For example, the monthly Sisters in Crime meetings are located in Pasadena and everyone from Southern California knows that the east/west trek from Venice to Pasadena (or really, anywhere in SoCal), is a pain in the ass, even on a Sunday afternoon.

And of course, a more serious consequence of getting more active in the writing community is the time it takes away from actual writing. This continues to be an issue for me, but one I'm determined to overcome. Why? Because becoming more involved in these circles have added far more to my life than they've taken away.

How do I benefit?

1) It's tougher to make friends as one grows older, but my activities in SoCal MWA and Sisters in Crime Los Angeles have resulted in numerous new friendships. Some are deeper than others, but on the whole I feel blessed to have so many great writers as friends.

2) Mutual Backscratching: Okay so that might sound creepy but what I mean is that by serving in your local writing organizations, you are putting cash in the "favor bank." You'd be surprised how often that pays off, both in little and big ways. Examples: Blurbs and promotional opportunities from other authors (some with much higher profiles than my own), and invitations/recommendations to speak and read at local events.

3) You've heard it said a million times that writing is a solitary craft. Leaving the house on a regular basis to socialize with other writers is sanity-enhancing.

4) Name visibility. With so much marketing responsibility on our author-plates, this is another opportunity to get your name out and sell books.

I'm fortunate to live in Southern California, where there is a vibrant crime fiction community. If yours isn't quite so active (or even non-existent), you can still join MWA and Sisters in Crime at the national level. You can pitch and write guest posts to bloggers like myself (and not just when you have a book coming out). And if you do live in a place where you have local writing organizations, I encourage you to get involved. Don't be like me and wait until your book is coming out. You just might be surprised by how much value you get for your time spent.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

As If Rocky Had Called Itself “Boxing Ring”

Okay, so it’s not one of the great crime films from the 1970s, but I recently had another look at a movie called Rollercoaster and I think it stands up pretty well.

It’s very straightforward – a guy lets off a bomb at an amusement park and then demands a million dollars from a bunch of amusement park owners or he’ll let off more bombs at more parks.

There’s some pretty good stuff about the amusement park owners trying to keep it out of the press and, of course, just like Jaws, the big finale is on the Fourth of July – I get the feeling that American tourist attractions are not completely empty the other 364 days a year, but who knows?

And George Segal is pretty good as the building inspector who puts the whole thing together and thwarts the bad guy. It must be the first (only?) time when the building inspector is the hero. My 13 year old son had a tough time believing that the grandfather from The Goldbergs was ever that young, but he doesn’t believe I was ever young, either.

The one thing that really stuck out for me with Rollercoaster, though, was the bad guy. We spend a fair bit of time with him, and Timothy Bottoms is very good, but we never find out anything about him. There’s no backstory at all. He doesn’t even have a name.

At one point a carny asks him if he was in Vietnam and for a brief moment it looks like the movie will be offering up that cliché but Bottoms only gives a wry look.

Of course, there’s extortion so his motivation is the money but there’s no lame reason given why his plan involves amusement parks instead of airplanes or trains or office buildings. The amusement parks looks good, sure, but there’s no monologue at the end where he tells us his mother was killed on a rollercoaster or his father was a carny who abandoned him when he was a baby, or anything at all.

The whole movie is on YouTube:

There are a couple of bonuses in the movie, too. For one, George Segal’s teenage daughter is played Helen Hunt and for another the band performing at the amusement park is Sparks.

Oh yeah, the title of this post is from a surprisingly positive review of the movie when it first came out.

I recently found a scrapbook of movie stubs I collected for a while in the 70s so I can tell you I saw Rollercoaster at the Cineplex Odeon Atwater theatre in Montreal on June 11, 1977.

The following week I saw Black Sunday, I guess it’s up next (it has a “disgruntled Vietnam vet’ and plenty of backstory on the bad guy if I remember correctly…)

Monday, July 14, 2014


DSD fiend friend Anonymous-9 stopped by Spinetingler the other day to talk about her new project with Uncanny Books. Today her publisher, Andrew Byers, tells his side of the story. Let's see if their stories match.


THE UNCANNY PUBLISHER By Andrew Byers, Uncanny Books

I first encountered Anonymous-9’s work in late 2012 shortly after publishing a review of her novel HARD BITE on Hellnotes.  I liked the book a lot and she reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in an interview to discuss how the novel came about.  The interview was a lot of fun, and Anonymous-9 also turned the tables and did a separate interview with me about being a book reviewer.  That was also great, and the reverse of the typical reviewer-interviews-author kind of thing.  We hit it off, and I mentioned that I would soon be forming my own small publishing house, which had been a dream of mine for a long time.  That happened a few months later in mid-2013 and became Uncanny Books, a small press focusing on horror, contemporary fantasy, and other genre fiction (i.e., all the stuff I love to read). 

Background to the DREAMING DEEP deal
We kept in touch and in the interim, Anonymous-9 put out the aptly titled JUST SO YOU KNOW I’M NOT DEAD collection of short stories to whet our appetites and assure us that in fact she wasn’t dead.  Which was nice.  I loved each of the three stories in JUST SO YOU KNOW I’M NOT DEAD, but there was just something about “Dreaming Deep” that really spoke to me.  When Anonymous-9 got in touch with me and suggested that I publish a much-expanded version of “Dreaming Deep” and that it form the basis for a shared world and set of characters that other authors could use, I was really intrigued.  I had been wanting to do something similar for a while, but had not yet come across the right setting and characters.  Until “Dreaming Deep.”

There is just something so iconic about a story that takes H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and sets in the modern day, then thematically matches it up with Herman Melville’s MOBY-DICK.  The story itself is such a compelling one, and I see so many possibilities for the further adventures of Captain Angelus and his crew.  I should also add that Anonymous-9’s voice comes through very clearly in “Dreaming Deep.”  By no means is this one of those Lovecraftian pastiches that clumsily tries (and fails) to use Lovecraft’s voice, nor does it simply name-drop the requisite elements of the Cthulhu Mythos (the Necronomicon, ol’ Squid-Face himself, etc.).  As much as I love Lovecraft’s writing and ideas – I discovered him at the age of 13 and my mind is still blown – I’d rather see other writers take his ideas and run with them in their own unique ways rather than mindlessly ape Lovecraft.  “Dreaming Deep” is a story fundamentally set in a world of Lovecraft’s imagining without needing to proclaim that that’s so.

The Long View
So Uncanny Books arranged to purchase all the rights from Anonymous-9 for the expanded version of “Dreaming Deep.”  Once it’s done, it will be published as a stand-alone novelette of about 15,000 words, but it will also form the kernel of a shared world.  Other writers will be invited to use the same characters and setting to tell their own stories, and Uncanny Books will publish a collection of those stories, bundled with Anonymous-9’s work.  And who knows, if reader response is favorable, we might do a series of these collections, or maybe someone might write a whole novel.  Only time will tell.

This arrangement between Anonymous-9 and Uncanny Books is somewhat unusual, and many authors would undoubtedly balk at selling all the rights to their creations.  I initially proposed a more traditional arrangement: that Anonymous-9 and Uncanny Books (i.e., me) would share rights to DREAMING DEEP and develop follow-on projects jointly.  But I understand why Anonymous-9 didn’t want to remain involved: she’s a writer, first and foremost, and doesn’t want to become a publisher.  I certainly get that.  This isn’t entirely untrod ground though.  Obviously there have been a number of publishers over the years who have maintained long-running house-owned series written by multiple authors, some using house names and some not.  There are a few contemporary precedents as well, including UK publisher Abaddon Books does this with a number of their series, and I would also note Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin’s very popular Dead Man series where they allow other authors to play with their characters, settings, and premise.

That's the plan for now although there will likely be many tweaks and refinements as things progress.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

My first book is now in the world. I held it in my hands last week and signed my signature for two hours straight, using up all the ink in two pens.
As I sat there overwhelmed by the turnout at my book signing, looking at the faces in the line that stretched out the door, I was very aware that I would never have been in that position without the help of my valuable first readers.
This post is about how grateful I am to the other writers who have critiqued my words over the years. I would never have had a published book if it wasn’t for them.
I was so lucky to have several of my valuable critique partners attend my book launch party last Thursday.
A member of my very first writing group, Mickie Turk, was at the front of the line. We spent a year together as I work shopped Blessed are the Dead, bringing 20 pages of the novel every week for critique.
And my current writing group, Supergroup, was there in full force: Jana Hiller, Kate Schultz, Sarah Hanley, Coralee Grebe and Kaethe Schwehn. (Jana and Kate were two who had read the earliest version of my book years ago and gave me encouragement to keep going.) We were missing Sean Beggs for health reasons, but his input has also been invaluable. 
These six writers are a very important part of my life.  Not only have we critiqued each other’s stories, but we have shared each other’s lives, sometimes with tears and confessions involved. I could not be more grateful for these people. As one of our members has said, just being in Supergroup has stopped her from moving out of state. I agree. 
Kaethe has her stunning memoir coming out soon and I can’t wait to be in line to have her sign my book next. I absolutely cannot wait for the rest of the group to get published because there is nothing standing in their way. They are all amazingly talented writers and I will be the first one in line to cheer them on and buy their books and rave about them to others.
In addition, another wonderful friend and valued critique partner, Samantha Bohrman, was there. Her book comes out this winter and I can’t wait for it to hit the world by storm. She is a fantastic writer and terrific critique partner. And my friend, Paul Legler, also a published author now, was there and had critiqued Blessed are the Dead before it saw the world.
So, out of maybe 100 people who attended, eight of them were people who have helped me be the writer I am today. Eight people in my corner helping me to become a better writer. How did I ever get so lucky?
I can’t imagine being a published author without their keen insight into polishing and shaping my novels into something the world is ready to see.
The level of trust involved in having critique partners is huge—because by showing them my rough, shitty first drafts, I’m exposing my soul to them and knowing that they won’t stomp on my ego but also won’t tell me I’m fantastic and don’t need to change a thing.
Instead, they will give me sound advice and keen insight into what I should do to make my words sing.
Dear writer friends, do you have critique partners in your life? Would love to hear about your experiences.