Saturday, December 20, 2014
Building Tension on "The Missing"
Scott D. Parker
My wife and I started watching “The Missing” on Starz this week. We’re two episodes in and it’s a splendid example of a story that builds tension in a slow-burn fashion.
Pretty sure it’s not a spoiler to reveal that the thing missing in the show is an English couple’s young boy. They are on vacation in France and you know, going in, that the child will disappear. But you don’t know how or where.
That’s what really gripped me. We’re shown wonderful domestic scenes of a young family on vacation. They’re smiling and laughing, the portrait of bliss. Car trouble prompts an unexpected stop and layover in a small town with only one hotel. The mom wants to nap and the dad and son go swimming.
Ah, this is when it’ll happen, you think, and you think you know exactly when: the pool. The camera shows scenes from underwater and you’re dead sure the dad’ll dive under and the child will vanish. Nope. But the tension built up is great.
It isn’t until the dad and son walk up to a group of Frenchmen watching a telecast of the World Cup (the flashback scenes are set in 2006) that the vanishing happens. “Just hold the kid’s hand,” I say out loud to the TV. “Better yet, hold him.” But Dad doesn’t do that and literally in the blink of an eye, little Oliver is gone. What follows is heart-wrenching for any parent. That my wife and I lost our boy for about twenty minutes at a nighttime a few days before watching made it even worse.
I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of this season play out. I’m also enjoying how effective the flashback juxtaposed with present day material storytelling style is. Not unique, but certainly a masterly presentation.
A Book Recommendation
I love Christmas story compilations. One of my favorites is Holmes for the Holidays. Last year, however, a new tome landed in my reading collection: The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler. This book makes the fourth I own from Penzler's series and it's great. There's a Christmas story for every taste, be it Sherlockian, traditional, pulp, funny, and more. If you are like me and have a few Christmas books that live in Christmas boxes, only to be opened each December and a few stories are read, a book like this will give you years of wonderful enjoyment.
Friday, December 19, 2014
(Even More) great Books from 2014
Last week, my Herald (Scotland) crime books of the year was published. It was one of the toughest columns I've had to write in ages, because there were so many good books I read this year. Some of them I got the chance to review professionally, others I never managed to place. But I only had space for a set number of books in the column, and narrowing it down was a killer. So here, as this is the last DSD post I'll do before Christmas, are my "runners up" in books of the year - these are all worth your time: some great books from some incredible writers.
Jason Starr's modern noir classic Cold Caller, charting the hell of a cold caller in the city, who might just have a few psychological issues, has been reissued by No Exit Press, and if you haven't read it, you need to do so. Now.
Stuart Neville's The Final Silence was one of my favourite serial killer thrillers of the year: pulse pounding stuff from a writer who never disappoints.
And speaking of never disappointing, John Connolly's The Wolf in Winter is the best entry yet in his long running Charlie Parker series - and the end will leave the Parker faithful with their jaws on the floor.
K.T. Medina's White Crocodile was a brilliant debut - set among the minefields of Cambodia (and the less minstrewn but equally dangerous mean streets of Manchester), it marks the arrival a stunning new talent.
Chris Ewan's Dark Tides was, I think, his best book yet - set during the Manx Halloween, its a claustrophobic and psychologically unsettling novel with shades of all your favourite slasger movies running through it.
Alan Furst's Midnight in Europe was tense and filled with his usual eye for period detail: a riproaring espionage novel.
Louise Welsh wrote a brilliant dystopian crime novel (first in a trilogy, so there's even more to come!) in the pacy and punchy A Lovely Way To Burn.
Meanwhile, Pulitzer prize winner Robert Olen Butler wrote a Hemmingway-esque crime novel in The Hot Country which is only the start of what I hope will be a spectacular series.
Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America by Kevin Cook was my favourite true crime book this year.
And, before I run out of time, one final choice... Reed Farrel Coleman's The Hollow Girl saw us say a bittersweet farewell to the incredible Mo Prager, one of the most developed detectives in recent years. Sad as I was to see Mo go, I'm glad it ended like that... it just felt... right.
Thursday, December 18, 2014
Dark Digital Sky: Pulpy techno-thriller
A gripping high-tech crime novel mixing the pulpy spirit of the past and the security threats of today
Chalk is an ex-FBI agent whose specializations are cults and computer forensics. The tools of his trade as a PI are a Porsche 911, an unregistered Glock, modified cellphones, radios, and an eclectic collection of computers. He suffers from bipolar disorder, lives alone and hopes, one day, to be able to see his son without the constraints placed on him by the courts.
Chalk’s mission is simple: find three biological sons of one of Hollywood’s sleazy successes whose origins lie in a sperm bank donation he made decades ago. Chalk finds all three, each as twisted as the father in very different ways. It seems his task is complete when Chalk discovers all three are being recruited by a demented General who is looting vast pharmaceutical warehouses and planning a major domestic terror attack.As Chalk digs further into the brothers’ plot, he uncovers a secret military weapons program embedded deep in the Hollywood special effects and technology industry. It will take every bit of techno savvy he has to strip away the illusions and the politics and find the real source of the threat.
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
In late 2012 I signed a contract to publish two ebooks with Carina Press, the digital imprint of Harlequin. The first book, MISTRESS OF FORTUNE, came out in February 2014 and the second, MISTRESS OF LIES (which I spent most of 2013 writing), came out in September 2014.
I absolutely loved the process of editing a book with a professional editor--I'd done it with a freelance editor (also a pro) before I got the deal to publish MISTRESS OF FORTUNE, but working with an editor in the publishing house was even better. It gave me confidence about my writing. For example, when I turned in MISTRESS OF LIES in November 2013, I knew it was a good story, but I hadn't had nearly the same amount of time I'd had with MISTRESS OF FORTUNE to edit it on my own. I was terrified my editor would say something to the effect of "you're kidding me with this, aren't you?" But no. She loved the book and while she had a few developmental edits to suggest, overall the book I turned in is very close to the book that got published.
It felt good knowing I could write a book worthy of publishing in less than a year.
My one disappointment with this process (and it's a big disappointment) is that sales of both books have not been as good as I (and my publisher) would've liked. I know that happens to a lot of writers and I don't think of it as a reflection of my abilities, but more a combination of factors. This has led to a couple of lingering questions as I think about my year as a debut author:
1) I decided to take the deal with Carina Press because Harlequin is a large publisher and I thought it was possible they could position my books--even without a print version--better than a smaller imprint. But now, I'm wondering if that's true. Carina Press publishes a variety of genres but they're not as well-known for their historical mysteries (or even their mysteries) as they are romance. Furthermore, the crime fiction community has still not fully embraced ebooks and having only ebooks available left many doors closed to me. Would I have been better off with a smaller publisher if I could've gone into print?
I honestly believe that I would've been, though it must be said that I didn't have such a deal on offer at the time.
2) Ultimately, should I have self-published?
There's no question that having a "traditional" publishing deal was good for me in a couple of ways. First, it allowed me to learn about the publishing business and the way it works. I really wanted that with my first go around as an author. Second, it did give me a little more credibility (perhaps this credibility is only perceived by me at this point). Still, at the end of the day, I've published two books with a major publisher and that feels good.
However, given the fact that my sales are not great, does it even matter that I was published "traditionally?" If I had self-published, I would've retained all of my rights, I would've had control over the whole process, and I could dictate how I wanted to proceed with the series. Yes, I know some of the same doors that were closed to me as an ebook author would still be closed if I self-published, but damn it, I would have control over everything. I feel like I have none of it now.
I signed away my print rights when I took the deal with Carina. It is very unlikely that those rights will ever be exploited. I knew this going in but when I signed the deal this somehow had less significance. Now it kind of bugs me. There's no way to know what the outcome would've been and there's no going back in time to un-sign the contract, so I try not to dwell on it.
Either way, I'm proud of what I've achieved.
I really am. When I signed my contract with Carina, I did so with the confidence that this would be my first book deal. If I made mistakes, that was okay. And I did make mistakes. But I went into this with the understanding that this was my chance to learn about the industry and to learn something about myself as a writer. I enjoyed working with Carina Press because their staff, especially my editor, are great.
As this year draws to a close, I there are still those lingering questions. But I'm not sure I'd change anything, even if I could. Mostly, I'm just proud and happy to have had this experience.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
20 Questions with Dana King
I run a regular feature on my blog, One Bite at a Time, called Twenty Questions, where I get to grill authors about their newest books, and writing in general. Holly was kind enough to submit to one when Mistress of Fortune was released, before performing her due diligence on what she was getting into. When I asked about possibly pinch-hitting on Do Some Damage to promote A Small Sacrifice, Holly showed she has a long memory and thought it would be great fun to make me answer all the questions I made her answer. So, if you don’t like this, it’s her fault.
Holly West: Tell us about A Small Sacrifice.
Dana King: It’s a story about a Chicago PI named Nick Forte, who is hired by Shirley Mitchell to clear her son’s name. Doug is assumed by everyone to have killed his five-year-old son, Justin, a year ago, but the police have butchered the crime scene and there’s not enough proof for an arrest. Forte is about convinced Doug did it, too, until something happens that turns the whole investigation around.
HW: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
DK: The idea came to me when John and Patsy Ramsey were on television almost every night, talking about their daughter’s murder. Just about everyone assumed they killed the girl, and were lying, so much so “those lying” seemed to have become part of their names. (As in, “Did you see those lying Ramseys on TV last night?”) I got to wondering, what if they’re innocent, but have to lie because the truth is even worse? From that point forward, I stopped watching any interviews or reading anything about them. I wanted the story to have as little to do with the facts as possible, beyond the original germ of the idea.
HW: How long did it take to write A Small Sacrifice, start to finish?
DK: A little over a year of actual writing. I went back a couple of years later for some changes when an agent showed interest, and did a little polishing before I released it as an e-book last year. From first draft of Chapter One to final e-book file took about twelve years.
HW: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
DK: Nick Forte is a former musician, teacher, and cop, now turned private investigator. He’s a divorced father who adores his daughter and is constantly aware of the things he can’t do for her because they don’t live together anymore. This is a large part of how Shirley Mitchell is able to get him to try to prove a negative: she guilts him into it. He has trouble sustaining relationships with women because he doesn’t want to have more children, worried his daughter, Caroline, will wonder if he loves the kids he lives with more than he loves her. He’s better at doing what he has to do than he thinks he is, but the violence he encounters as this case unfolds is more than he bargained for.
HW: In what time and place is A Small Sacrifice set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
DK: Today, or recent times, in Chicago and the northern suburbs. Lake City is a stand-in for any number of affluent communities north of the city. I worked hard to make Chicago a part of the story, but, to be honest, there were a number of cities I could have picked and probably made things work just as well. I was living in Chicago at the time and loved it, so it was the logical place to set the story. Now I associate Forte so closely with Chicago, I can’t bring myself to move him, though I’ve considered it from time to time.
HW: How did A Small Sacrifice come to be published?
DK: It had an agent at one time, and seemed to be very close to a sale, but things never quite worked out. By the time all was said and done, I had a few more Forte stories the agent wasn’t interested in, since this one didn’t; sell, and she wasn’t interested in the standalone I’d written next. I left Forte in the drawer for several years until he made a well-received guest appearance in my first contracted book, Grind Joint. I thought I’d see if people might be interested in more of him, so I published A Small Sacrifice myself, straight to e-book on Amazon.
HW: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
DK: Mostly crime fiction. Almost all of everything else I read is non-fiction, primarily history and true crime. I kept trying to broaden my fiction horizons, but found the stories I liked, those that spoke to me best about conditions in the world today, were crime stories at some level. I also like tightly-written prose, and most crime fiction writers keep things to the point. There is often an understated brand of eloquence, but it’s rare to see a crime writer write a beautiful sentence for the sake of writing a beautiful sentence. It has to serve a purpose. Good crime writers seem better at killing their darlings than a lot of mainstream or literary writers.
Favorites? Wow, so many I’ve actually created a spreadsheet to keep of track of who I want to be sure to read, so I get to them in turn. Of the big dogs, my current favorites are Robert Crais and Dennis Lehane. Tim Hallinan and Declan Hughes are great writers whose work I never miss. Charlie Stella is the Godfather of mob fiction, for good reason. Most of what I read are writers who are not quite broken out yet, people like Declan Burke, Adrian McKinty, John McFetridge. Terrence McCauley is doing great things with Depression and Prohibition-era stories. Tim O’Mara is about to become a best selling writer, if he isn’t already. Scott Phillips is a genius. There are at least twenty others in the regular rotation, and I apologize for not listing everyone.
HW: Who are your greatest influences?
DK: So far as getting me going, the usual suspects: Chandler, Leonard, McBain. George V. Higgins after I discovered The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I think might be the greatest crime fiction novel ever written. (That, or The Maltese Falcon.) Reviewers tend to cite Leonard and Higgins—which is immensely flattering—though one reviewer said he found elements of James Ellroy, which is also flattering, as I’m a huge fan and wish I wrote more like him, Frankly, I don’t see him in my own work.
HW: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
DK: Outline. Always. It’s not a real detailed outline, maybe a sentence or paragraph about each chapter, unless a scene grows organically in my mind before it’s time to write it, then the notes for that chapter can get pretty long. As a rule, though, it’s just enough so I know what has to happen. Everything else I make up as I type, always while wearing pants. Well, at least boxers.
HW: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
DK: My first drafts sometimes almost read like screenplays. I’m a dialog-heavy writer as it is, and if it’s flowing, I’m acting out the scene while trying to transcribe what’s going on. The next day I’ll go back and tidy things up before starting on what’s new, to get me back in the mood I was in when I left off. Once the first draft is done, I’ll let it sit for a while, then do usually three more drafts: one to add and remove things that will turn a series of chapters into a coherent story; one to add the little touches that make books fun to read; and one anal and OCD three-step process to get everything just as I want it.
HW: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
DK: Have a vision for your writing. Raymond Chandler once said, “Don't ever write anything you don't like yourself and if you do like it, don't take anyone's advice about changing it. They just don't know.” (I’ll use a Chandler quote at the drop of a hat, even if I have to drop it myself.) It’s not pessimism to note the vast majority of those who actually get a novel published—in excess of 90%--will never be more than a blip on the public consciousness, if that. Would you rather that be because you took your best shot and it didn’t work out, or because someone else told you to try something, or to do it their way, and it didn’t work, and now you’ll never know if your original idea would have? Then you can’t find out because whatever influences you accepted have changed you permanently.
HW: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
DK: Hanging with The Sole Heir, but she’s 23 now and about to start grad school, so I don’t get as much chance as I used to. Spending time with The Beloved Spouse, reading, watching the Pirates and Penguins.
HW: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
DK: Good reviews, which is good, as I’m not making much money. That’s not a complaint—I made peace with that aspect of the writing business long ago—but I guess what I mean is I get a great deal of satisfaction when I see people I respect “get” what I was going after in a book. That keeps me going, to be spoken of as a peer by those I consider to be my betters, as least as writing goes. It’s also a lot of fun, now that reviews are coming in from complete strangers. That’s immensely gratifying, to know someone has invested their most finite resource—time—and think I made it worth their while.
HW: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
DK: I was a real prick when I came up with this one, wasn’t I? Actually, I think this was suggested by a commenter on my blog, after I’d asked for suggestions.
My answer will probably appall a lot of people, but, yes, I would quit under those circumstances, though I’d have to have the agreement in writing and the money in escrow. As much as I said I enjoy writing above—and I do dearly enjoy it—it is not the defining feature of my life. There are plenty of things I’d find to do if I had the time in which to do them, which I would if I didn’t have to work. I’d miss writing, but I had to give up being a musician, too, which was the only things I ever really wanted to do, and it didn’t kill me.
HW: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
DK: I’ve tried all three, and, given my place right now, I think Option 2, though any can work given the right breaks. Option 1 works best for those who already have a foothold on the public consciousness, or are willing to work twenty hours a day on marketing. And are good at it. And write well enough for the marketing to matter. Option 3 can leave you in the cold if the big house doesn’t think you’ll be one of their breakouts, and the blemish on the record will be yours, not theirs. I think Option 2 leaves the best opportunity for a partnership with people who know the business end, though, of course, even there the match has to be right.
HW: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
DK: Beer. My favorites run in cycles. Right now it’s Bass Ale, though I’m sure Foster’s and Heineken will get their turns again. Sam Adams when I’m in the mood.
HW: Baseball or football?
DK: Baseball is the single greatest thing ever devised by the human mind.
HW: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
DK: That one.
HW: What’s the answer?
DK: “That one.” (I’m sorry, I stole that from Todd Robinson’s interview, but it’s such a good answer it ruined me for all time after I read it.)
HW: What are you working on now?
DK: Summer is when I put new work on hiatus, though I am polishing another Nick Forte novel so it’s ready for e-book formatting, or for the agent. In September I’ll start work on the edits for the fourth book in my Penns River series, currently laboring under the clever title of PR4.
Monday, December 15, 2014
Police, torture, and crime fiction
A couple of days ago our very own Jay Stringer asked where now for procedural writers in the wake of Fergsuon?
My response, in short, is: nothing. What happened in Ferguson will have no meaningful impact on the police procedural genre. If only because this kind of thing happens all the time.
For years I've argued that the police procedural genre is primarily a fantastical one because it is so divorced from reality. On TV we regularly see things that don't or can't happen in real life like: a suspect breaking in 30 seconds; using a missing persons cell phone data to determine a location without having to get a warrant; taking a door; rarely showing the process of obtaining a warrant to take said door; suspects, specifically affluent ones never lawyering up; making The Promise and then delivering on it in 42 mins.
These examples arguably are more benign (and focus heavily on TV shows since it is mostly taken from the linked post). There are other, far more serious, realities of policing that aren't presented.
Are cops aware of the immense power they have? The power to arrest someone is awesome; any cop, at any moment, can take temporarily take your freedom. Yes, there are courts to protect the rights of the innocent, but in the meantime, a police officer can still put handcuffs on you, shove you in the back of his vehicle, fingerprint you and lock you up for at least a couple of hours; and lock you up with some pretty mangy people if he so desires. That is real power, traumatizing power. Society grants police officers that power, but in exchange, we must expect certain things — that the police officer granted this responsibility show more patience, more kindness, and better judgment than the average citizen.
C'mon dude, stop being so melodramatic.
In January of 2013 a man named David Eckert didn't come to a complete stop leaving a store parking lot. He was asked to exit his vehicle. The officer believed that Eckert was clenching his butt cheeks because he was hiding drugs. They obtained a warrant and proceeded to give him multiple enemas and a colonoscopy against his will. They found nothing. And they billed him for all of the procedures.
These horrific things weren't/aren't done by renegade, lone wolf cops. They are done by every day cops that are part of a system that is interested in protecting its own interests and actually benefits from keeping it's lower ranked members (ie: the police that citizens deal with) uninformed.
You see, police officers are protected by a doctrine called qualified immunity. Police officers can also be shielded by something called the Good Faith Exception at trial.
In other words, the banality of evil at work.
I think this is why the David Simon penned cop shows come the closest to a realistic interpretation of the job. Because he understands the systemic forces at work. Or at least recognizes that they exist.
Another facet of this is that the historical role of police officers, has morphed into a much more militarized beast that isn't fully represented in cop fiction.
I actually don't mean this as a hit piece on cops. I just wanted to illustrated some of the ways that fiction differs from reality, and how significant some of those differences are.
Recent current events shine a light on another way that fiction differs from reality. This time I'm speaking of the torture report.
How many times have we cheered on a character who explicitly or implicitly tortures another character to extract information because in the fictional situation that has been set up and presented to us it's deemed not only appropriate but worthy when we may be against the practice in real life? Most of us would be appalled if a police officer violated our rights but happily cheer on a fictional cop/spy/solider/etc when it's done.
If a person, who otherwise believes themselves to hold a different opinion, roots for a character who tortures another character does that mask a latent belief that the person holds or just someone getting pulled into the narrative structure and arc of the story? I don't know but I think it's an interesting question.
Then there is the question of the fiction affecting the reality. In other words can exposure to something affect your belief in it? A few years ago the term Jack Bauer Effect (aka The 24 Effect) was getting some play. Specifically, that effective torture scenes in a post-9/11 world was making torture more palatable to people. Is this effect real? One thing we know is that it reinforced your opinion of torture if you already believed in using it. Hence the rise in so called Right Wing Thrillers. Glen Beck for example is constantly recommending certain fiction books to his audience. As for the rest of us? Maybe.
But there is also something called The CSI Effect that has been around for years. It states simply that juries expect a lot of forensic evidence in trials, which raises the standard of proof for prosecutors. Sounds silly right, that a show could have so much influence on public perception. But it is nothing new. In 1986 there was a paper written on Lawyer portrayals in mass media. You start looking at the way governments have used propaganda films to effectively sway people one way or another and...
I admit to finding the questions that all of this raises fascinating. Is there a morality gap in fiction? Specifically in how often consumers of fiction (movies, TV, books, etc.) will happily cheer on characters who represent something they disagree with. Can an author be unaware of thematic subtext when constructing a story? What is the author's responsibility in how they portray their fictional worlds?
Sunday, December 14, 2014
Being Published Isn't For Wimps
Being a published writer isn't for wimps.
You have to develop a tough skin and learn to let criticism roll off your back.
Otherwise, might as well thrown in the towel now. Because trust me, you are going to have people who HATE what you do, who RIDICULE your word babies, and who SCOFF at your life's work.
You can't give a rat's you-know-what if you want to make it in this business.
That's why it is important if you are a beginning writer to learn how to take feedback and use it to your benefit instead of letting it crush your little ego into smithereens.
Last week I raved about my writing group. And as I await their feedback on my third novel, I have no apprehension. I have spent years finding the right critique partners that I value and trust. I also use beta readers or critique partners SPARINGLY. What that means is now I only send my manuscripts to my writing group plus one writer friend who is a crazy good critique partner.
It wasn't always this way.
When I wrote my first book, I sent my manuscript out to as many people who would agree to read it. I'm pretty sure at least twenty people read that first book and gave me feedback.
As you might imagine, it was overwhelming. And soul crushing. And useless.
For many reasons.
It also was complicated. What one reader loved, another one hated.
One reader was incredibly upset that I had so many characters with names that began with the same letter. It drove her crazy. Couldn't even read my book it was so annoying.
So, I took all the feedback in and learned what to pay attention to and what to ignore and let slide off my back.
With hindsight, this was a good training ground for the rest of the publishing journey, but not always helpful at the time.
What I learned was some people have a gift for feedback and others ... not so much.
It had nothing to do with how good of a writer they were. It had nothing to do with how much I personally liked them. It was something some people had and others didn't.
So, what I have learned over the years, is that if you are lucky enough to come across someone who is gifted at giving feedback, do anything in your power to keep them reading your novels.
But here is a general rule of thumb I like to share with anyone who receives feedback —whether it is from beta readers, agents, editors, or someone else.
ONLY pay attention to feedback that:
a) is voiced by more than one person.
What that means to me is that I usually need at least three people to tell me the same thing about a scene or a character or a plot point before I seriously consider changing it. Every once in a while, I'll change it if only two people echo the same thing but usually follow the rule of three.
b) ignore the above advice if only one person says it but it RESONATES with you.
You know what I mean—when someone makes a comment about your writing and you want to slap yourself in the forehead and say, "By golly, you're right!"
If you follow this general rule of thumb about feedback, you have a good chance of keeping your ego intact at the same time you are most likely learning and growing and becoming a better writer.