Saturday, August 21, 2021

Two Observations on Storytelling: Stephen King and “Unforgotten”


Scott D. Parker


Two things struck me this week about the power of storytelling and the ability to weave a good tale. The first is not spoilerific—I haven’t finished the novel yet—while the second is very spoiler-heavy. Be warned.

Stephen King’s Billy Summers

I started King’s new novel this week. I’m listening to the audiobook from my local library via the awesome Libby app (y’all’ve got that app, right?). I was an avid reader of King’s novels from about 1987 (when I graduated from high school and entered college) all the way through the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. If he wrote a book, I read it or listened to it.

Somewhen over the 2010s, however, I started slowing. He didn’t, but I did. Don’t really have a reason. It just happened. In fact, the last King book I can remember listening to was Joyland. 

When Billy Summers was published, I decided to give it a try. In the story, Billy Summers is a former sniper now hired killer. He poses as a writer and, knowing those folks who hired him are monitoring his activity on the MacBook they supplied him, Billy begins to write his memoirs.

As soon as I heard that, I rolled my eyes. “Yet another story within a story thing from Stephen King? Really?”


It’s a thing King has done more than once. It’s particularly effective in Misery, but there are other examples. In that book, the font changed to indicate the story-within-the-story. In the audio of Billy Summers, narrator Paul Sparks slightly changes his voice so you can tell what part of the novel you are listening to.

Being an audiobook, yes, I can fast-forward but I would have no way of knowing when the ‘autobiography’ part stopped and the ‘Billy Summers’ part began. So, I did what the author wanted me to do: I listened.

And dang if the story-within-the-story part became almost as compelling as the main novel. There are whole sections of the story-within-the-story and I found myself really getting into that part. Then it would stop and I’d be reminded about the main story.

As if anyone ever needed any more examples of how good a storyteller Stephen King is, I’ll go ahead and submit this one into evidence. Like his stories or not, think they might be too long or not, you cannot dispute Stephen King is a modern master of the writing craft. I have known that ever since I read my first King novel—Pet Semetary—but I just needed a reminder. I got one this week.

The Ending of Unforgotten, Season 4

[Spoilers, folks]

Here in American, Masterpiece aired episode 6, the finale of Unforgotten, season 4, last Sunday. I’ve written about this BBC series before (how season 4’s opening episode instantly grabbed me) but season 4 did a couple of remarkable things for me.

One involved actor Andy Nyman. Before Unforgotten, I only knew Nyman as the comedic actor he is in Death at a Funeral. He is hilarious in that 2007 Frank Oz film and it took a little bit of time in episode 1 not to think of that funny character every time he appeared on screen. 

But by the finale, I earned a whole new respect for his acting prowess. He was wonderful, nuanced, and my favorite actor outside of the core group.

Speaking of the core group, Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaska play partner who solve cold cases. I’ve written about how much they are a breath of fresh air in detective shows. They’re not raging alcoholics or any of the usual tropes we see in TV cop shows. They are just normal people doing a dirty job the best that they can. They respect each other, but there’s not a hint of “will they or won’t they?’ in their relationship. They are friends and partners who deeply care for a love one another.

So it came as quite a shock to my wife and I as we watched the final moments of episode 5 when Walker’s character, Cassie Stuart, was driving and someone broadsided her car. In the previews of episode 6, we saw her in a hospital bed and all the other characters reacting to the news. We looked at each other and, other than wondering which of the suspects did the deed, wondered how Cassie was going to recover.

Spoiler alert: she didn’t. The character died. 

For older shows (Unforgotten aired on the BBC earlier this year), I do not do any research while I’m watching for the first time. News items can ruin big things that way. So I had no way of knowing what was coming.

It’s not every day when a main character is killed off on a popular TV show. I don’t know the ins and outs of Walker’s contract or any behind-the-scenes stuff so I don’t know why she left. But her leaving enabled a show that features normal people doing a troubling job the opportunity to show how those same normal character deal with the death of a friend and partner and commanding officer. It was stellar. 

The director also made a nice storytelling technique as well: for almost the entire last episode, Walker only appeared in the hospital bed. Only toward the end did we get to see Cassie leave the voice mail her father listens to over and over again, giving us viewers one last look at a beloved character.

And we also got a moving soliloquy from Bhaska’s Sunny. Just as the shock of Cassie’s passing took my breath away, Sunny’s little speech opened the waterworks.

Great storytelling.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Indie Book Covers For Cheap.

 By Jay Stringer. 

Since the last time I pointed you in the direction of the shingle above my door marked 'freelance cover art' I've now opened up to commissions in addition to the templates. 

So here's a wee reminder...

The templates are yours for 75 quid. Whatever that happens to be in dollars right now. We put your name, title, and blurb on. Move them around a bit to make sure they're clear to read on an Amazon or Nook product search. Good to go. For the next few weeks I'll throw in the wraparound cover for the same price, as long as you already know the dimensions and page count. 

The images here are all smaller than the thumbnails used by online retailers, for a clearer look at them head on over to my website

For commissions, I've had my range tested quite a bit in the last few weeks. A fantasy cover, a circus murder mystery, and a World War One novel, in addition to a noir cover and a few wee bits for myself, including a Marah Chase poster for my website, aped on the Drew Struzan style. My commission rate at the moment maxes out at £150 (again, whatever that is in dollars when you pay.) Some covers may be less than that, none will be more. At least for now, while that's my cap. 

 Want to throw some work my way? Drop me a line. for all (some) of you book cover needs. Or maybe just random other bits of art. A poster or something. Not everything in the image above is a book cover. Test me out. See what I can do. 

Eagle eyed will have noticed there's a new cover in there for Don't Tell a Soul? WHAT THE HELL? Jay, you spend two months hyping up a book, then change the cover a month after release? WHUT? All will be revealed in a later post. Just keep in mind the idea of comic books and variant covers...

A trip on the Gordita Especial


This week, Beau looks at Jailbroke from Brian Asman.

Future slacker Kelso’s got the easiest gig in the galaxy, working the Gordita Especial! pod on board an interstellar cruiser, although that doesn’t stop him from complaining about it to anyone who’ll listen.

Cyborg Security Officer Londa James spends her days wrangling idiot tourists and keeping an artificial eye out for any passengers or crew who might be on the verge of snapping from space sicknesses.

But after a colleague is brutally murdered, Kelso and James are going to have to work together if they want to survive! Man-eating machines, cybernetically-enhanced badasses, septuagenarian toddlers, an opioid algorithm-addicted bucket of bolts, a cult that worships the reincarnation of a 400-year-old God Genius, and one very unusual sex robot come together in JAILBROKE, a heartwarming/ripping tale about what it means to be human in a galaxy run by artificial intelligence.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Before and After

The other day, I started watching season 7, the last season, of Bosch, and I was glad to see that the first episode of the season kicks off by establishing the exact day and year the events are occurring: "New Year's Eve 12/31/19".  This makes it clear that we are going to be watching a story that takes place before the Covid pandemic hit, and knowing that, I settled in ready to enjoy something that might be dark in the way of this superb show but that also, almost by definition, would have a nostalgic feel to it.  And we're talking about a date and time, close to midnight on December 31st, 2019, that is less than two years ago!  But as we all know, that's how fast the world has changed in that brief time. 

The feeling I experienced seeing that Bosch graphic and going on to watch the entire season is not unlike the feeling, remarked on by many, that came with watching the Netflix series Pretend It's a City.  That's the one, released by Netflix on January 8, 2021, where Martin Scorsese, who directed the series, has a series of talks with his friend, Fran Liebowitz.  Most of these talks center around what it is like to live in New York City and to have lived there for a long time. Liebowitz, as usual, is very funny and very observationally accurate.  But like a lot of people, I watched this series during the height of the second wave of the pandemic, when New York City was still under partial lockdown, and to hear her talking about crowded streets and congested subways and tourists who don't know how to comport themselves on the sidewalks of Manhattan, created a pang in me for a New York that had vanished, as it were, overnight.  The series must have been filmed in the recent past (Bosch season 7 was shot during the pandemic) and it is set in the recent past, but it was not possible to watch without feeling that this all happened a good while ago, in a different era.  There they are, people moving around freely, maskless, without fear of contagion.  There they are shaking hands (no bumping of elbows) and talking (in Bosch) in each other's faces. This is the world that once existed, I kept thinking while watching the Scorsese series and the final season of Bosch. This world may come back again, probably will, but who knows when?

I'm currently reading a contemporary novel that was released this summer but that must have been completed before the pandemic broke out.  There's not a single mention of anything connected to the pandemic in the book. This, of course, has been true and is going to be true of any book, movie, or series that may be newly released and is set in the present but that was finished before the Covid-19 onslaught.  With each story like this, there is a little bit of a time lag to mark it as the last of a group of stories conceived of and done before the prescribed rules of engagement for human interaction in so many places shifted.  

Question: Should everything written now, assuming it's supposed to reflect the present, incorporate the pandemic in some way?  If you live in a part of the world affected by the pandemic, which seems to be everywhere, I don't see how a story could not.  Masks, variants, social distancing, the transformation of office spaces, and anxieties that didn't exist before -- one could go on and on with the details.  But I'm thinking that most writers who started books during the pandemic, and who see how the world continues to be in a "fog of war" state dealing with the pandemic, have wrestled with how to incorporate this current reality into the fabric of their narratives. I know that I'm about to start a new short story and that by setting it in the here and now, though it has nothing to do with the pandemic per se, I will have to take account of the pandemic's existence in the story.  I will need to do that or I will be saying without stating outright, as Bosch season 7 wisely, did, that I'm setting my story in late 2019 or before.  

It's odd to think about, but it does seem as though we're at one of those key junctures in history.  Write a book set 18-24 months ago, and you're writing something of a historical novel.

Sunday, August 15, 2021



Look at this! A book signing! More than that, evena launch party. In person. 


James L'Etoile sent his new thriller, Black Label, into the world yesterday at our local independent bookstore, Face in a Book. There were stacks of books. There was swag. There was wine. And most importantly, there were people. The delight was palpable as people mingled and chatted. 

I left with not only a bag full of new books (who can leave a bookstore with only one?) but a springier step and lighter heart. If you're able to safely do it at this point, gather together. It'll make you feel better. It sure did for me. 

Thanks to Jim and the wonderful staff at Face in a Book for a completely normal afternoon. (You can find out more about Black Label in this previous post.)

It wouldn't be a L'Etoile event without a Corgi.