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Thursday, 10 October 2013
What's Your Issue?

In the same way that many television series have an A and a B story (and sometimes even a C) each week, often times it seems that in crime writing, writing about crime isn't sufficient. We also want write about "issues."


At 'book-ie' events, including at the recent Word Vancouver festival, it is not uncommon to hear writers talk about their fictional works being framed around a real-life social, political or economic issue they wish to explore. Indeed, there are perceived sub-genres in the field so readers who wish their crime books to be focused around poverty, or drug laws or prostitution.


To be sure, sometimes it happens by accident. In Last Dance (did you note the link to the Goodreads page?), Winston is defending the rights of a student who is forbidden from bringing his same-sex boyfriend to the graduation dinner and dance. I can't say that I specifically set out to right about gay rights issues (Last Dance origins story coming soon), or LGTBQ issues but sure enough, there I was at an LGTBQ educational display and on the table, among the books on display was Last Dance. When I asked the coordinator about it she replied "Your book is about a student who gets killed when he protests against the school for discriminating against him based on his sexual preferences. It is an LGBTQ book." Bammo - instant issue book.


I have heard other crime writers tell me they wanted to "explore" an issue through their fiction as well. One fellow panelist at the aforementioned festival, whose current series focuses on a transit security officer, stated quite publicly that there were "issues about public safety on transit" she was interested in delving into as part of her fiction and was working with sources who would able to provide her with inside information to that end. Her comment put me into chicken and the egg kind of thinking: what comes first - the issue or the story?


Certainly in my case, the story was what the story was and I suppose I began exploring the issue of how LGBTQ teenagers are treated as a result of my traveling down that story path. But I find it intriguing the idea of having an issue or cause about which I feel strongly and creating a story around it. Of course what concerns me most is that that seems like so much more work.


On the other hand, now that I've heard of these types of plans to develop stories to discuss issues I find myself worrying that if my stories aren't high minded enough to explore important elements of society's ills then they may not be serious enough for publication consideration.


In W3.doc, as I previously discussed, Winston is focused on determining the story behind the unusual disappearance of a former student. On the surface, a simple missing persons case that morphs into deeper problems the more Winston finds out. And certainly as the story develops, Winston will find that the bad guys are of a particular kind that have actually been in the news lately (which is sort of cool given that the idea for this book appeared several years ago). But I wouldn't yet call it "an issue." I'm not sure the reader is going to learn a whole lot about the issue by reading the book; I just think it might provide a little bit of interesting context for why things happen and give a little bit more depth to both the bad guys and the victims.


Hopefully that will be enough. Otherwise I better start scouring the news for my next major issue to turn into W4.doc. would a high school law teacher solve the government shut down in the U.S.?


Next week: another review - this time of a new book by a fellow local author.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
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Thursday, 3 October 2013
Keep It Down

In a previous post I talked about locations in which writers do their work. While I have yet to reap the types of royalty cheques that permit me to purchase a writing cottage, there are times when I find writing away from the home to be more productive than the domestic alternative.

Often times, I find myself writing in a local Starbucks, especially when I'm working on this weekly column, often completed on Wednesday evening while my daughter is in her gymnastics class. I know I'm not alone; walk into Starbucks or any other caffeine dispensing organization and not seeing someone sitting at their laptop (iPad in my case), crafting the next great novel - or, being Vancouver, screenplay, would now be out of the ordinary.

But I have needs. And my needs include quiet.

At the risk of going into the corporate history of Starbucks - and as a frequent patron I confess I have read Howard Schultz's book, it seems to me that Starbucks as an experience has changed – not for the better.

It used to be that when you went into the local Starbucks, there was the smell of coffee – and even Schultz admits that has diminished due to the fancy new equipment, - some comfortable chairs, a slight buzz of muted conversations, and soft  – did you catch the key word, soft – music.

Something happened.

I don’t want to be the one to tell someone how to run their business – and given the rate of expansion of the Starbucks empire it’s clearly doing okay –but some of the “improvements” have not improved the experience at all. Certainly, many of the stores have gotten bigger. I have to imagine one needs to be able to move a certain volume of coffee in order to remain profitable and having more space for more people surely equals more cups of coffee sold. So the buzz has gone a bit louder. And if that's all that had changed I'd probably be okay with it.

But someone also found the volume knob on the sound system.

The "coffee house experience" can certainly have coffee house music. And I may have reached the age where already I see the past through rose-coloured glasses but I am convinced that when Starbucks first appeared on the scene in Vancouver late in the 1980's, the music was a background part of the ambience, not the principal ingredient of the recipe. Certainly, in my memory, the music was jazz.  It may occasionally have ventured into classical. But here's the thing with both genres: unless you're at some kind of live performance or blasting a Bose-produced, stereo-headphone contained concert, both are meant to be quietly in the background of one's consciousness, perhaps permitting the muse to bob and surf a musical wave without streaming its way into the forefront of the consciousness.

When I step into the Gap or Guess and the music (I don't think it's even necessary for me to say "horrid music") is blaring to the point I don't want to stay in the store, I get it. I'm not their target demographic. But I would venture the assertion that in Starbucks, I am. I'm a fortyish (let's not niggle over single digit details), professional, middle-class guy, and while certainly there are times I'm taking my java to go, en route to wherever my admittedly busy life is pointing me, when I want to sit and relax and enjoy a carefully crafted latte, either to spend some contemplative time writing my weekly column or my novel, or having visiting with a friend or colleague, loud - really loud - pop music is not conducive to those experiences.  The Starbucks shop on United Boulevard in Coquitlam, at which I spent last Wednesday evening writing last Thursday's column, was so unpleasantly clamourous this week I've taken a pass and I'm writing in a Wendy's. It too lacks ambience and I've traded caffeine for poutine but it's comparatively peaceful.

And I'd further venture that was not part of the Starbucks vision for the coffee-house experience, based as it was, originally, on replicating or at least being suggestive of the European coffee shop experience.

To be sure, it's possible Starbucks is seeking quicker turnaround of its patrons. It's hard to imagine the writer types want to spend any significant amount of time in such a blaring blast of noise and maybe that suitably clears up tables faster for the next customer, unlikely to want to read, reflect or write for long in what used to be a coffee-infused haven from the cacophony of modern life, rather than another example of it.

If so, maybe there's a marketing opportunity for caffeinated competitors: come sip with peace and quiet.

Next week: issue writing

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
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Thursday, 26 September 2013
Too Tense?

One of the interesting questions I've had in all of the books that I've written (I like saying the term "all" because it makes me sound that I've written an awful lot of books) is around the question of tense.

Not tension, you understand, but tense.

Recently, I read a book by David Rosenfelt called Bury the Lead. It was an enjoyable enough tale (hey I promised the occasional book review)and I like the protagonist so I'll likely pick up more of his books. But what struck me as I was reading the book was his use of tense, specifically, the present tense.

Before you protest of flashbacks to eighth grade English class, let me assure you this isn't a rant by a hostile grammar fanatic, though I maintain there is always time for good grammar (which may affect how quickly - or whether - you receive a response from me when you send a text message to my phone). Story tense, if you will, has a significant impact on the telling of the story.

It was an issue with which I struggled when I was into a second draft or so of Deadly Lessons. For the uninitiated, that book, and its sequel are both written in the past tense. But sometime during the initial editing of the first book, I was also reading a book by renowned crime novelist Patricia Cornwell. At the time I was a fan, though I confess I lost interest in her Kay Scarpetta series. That could be a post for another week.

But one of the things that I noticed in the book I was reading at the time (I don't recall exactly which one it was) was that Cornwell switched from writing in the past tense to the present (she has since gone back and forth a few times). It kind of set me into a panic; here was this famous, super best selling writer changing her story telling mode. I guess I should do the same.

So I spent many hours re-writing the draft of Deadly Lessons into the present tense. And I hated it. Not just the doing the work (I'm rarely a fan of extra work); but the outcome as well. Suddenly the book had lost its tone and it didn't seem to work for me anymore and I suspected wouldn't work for the publisher, much less the reader, either. So then I spent many more hours putting it back (I know, I know, you're thinking surely I had saved a version to which I could return. I had but I had also made other edits I thought worthy of keeping while in the process of present tensifying so going back to the past involved significant more work...again).

Though I don't have specific statistics to back up my theory (I already mentioned I'm not a huge fan of extra hard work), I have read a number of analyses of past vs present tense writing, particularly with regard to fiction writing, that suggests much if not most fiction writing seems to be written in the past tense. A common description given is that books written in the present tense read more like a screenplay than a novel, and I agree. Though I don't know how many novel readers - or readers in general - spend much time reading screenplays and wouldn't necessarily be distracted by that fact - there is something inherently less real to me about telling the story as it happens. Certainly the screenplay comparison is especially apt when the present tense story is told in the third person. "Winston enters the classroom," seems far more removed from the story than "I walked into the classroom."

It can be argued, and it has been that present tense can lend a greater sense of immediacy to the story, as though the reader is traveling along on the journey. But the story can also feel like a running commentary of the protagonist's day, with no time or reflection between the action and the re-telling to winnow out the important details. The story comes across as occasionally feeling forced and clumsy and while I enjoyed the essential plot details of Rosenfelt's book, the present tense was enough a distraction to frequently take me out of the story. And no one needs that.

Thus, for now, future installments of Winston's adventures shall remain in the past tense, at least until I can find a way to make present tense work without distracting from the story.

Don't hold your breath.

Next week: Shhh! I'm trying to write.

News Flash: (in case you didn't get here via my website where this was also posted). This weekend is Word Vancouver Festival (formerly Word on the Street) at and around the downtown Vancouver Public Library. I'll be at the Crime Writers of Canada table (selling books!) between 12:30 and 2:30 and will appear on a moderated panel on crime writing at 2:50 inside the library in the Alma VanDusen room - ground floor. Come down - bring friends - meet authors - buy Canadian books!

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Friday, 27 September 2013 10:28 AM PDT
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Thursday, 19 September 2013
Where Were We, Part Deux?

In the last episode of "W3.doc Update" we determined that travel to Europe turned out to be a conducive to awaking the muse.

Turns out that going back to work is less so. Significantly less so.

To refresh your memory, W3.doc sees the return of Winston Patrick, approximately two years after the end of Last Dance. Winston is now a seasoned teacher, at least in so much as he's in his third year so he isn't a complete rookie. He doesn't consider himself especially better at it but at least he's not brand new. The book opens on parent teacher night, following which Winston has a conversation with a student from his first year. They reminise and during the conversation Winston is shocked to find out that another student who had been in the same class disappeared on a family hunting trip and hasn't been seen from since and is presumed dead.

Winston is, of course, shocked to hear this. The very notion that Christopher (I'm not entirely convinced that I'll stick with that name but for now it works for a specific purpose - was hunting at all seems completely incongruous with the gentle, quirkly student he remembers. What's even more odd is that Christopher disappeared nearly two years earlier - shortly after the events of Last Dance reached their conclusion and Winston had never heard anything about it. In a high school, bastions of gossip among both students and the teachers who work there, that such a momentous incident would go unheralded seems difficult to believe.

What's harder to believe is that the Vancouver Police Department, including Winston's best friend and star major crimes detective Andrea Pearson hadn't heard of it either. To be sure, a hunting mishap was unlikely to have occurred inside the Vancouver city limits - putting it out of the jurisdiction of the VPD. But Winston and Andrea are convinced that if a Vancouver citizen has disappeared, somehow she would have known about it, especially one from Winston's school; Andrea's zealous protection of all things related to Winston would surely have meant she'd have an ear tuned to anything that happens involving the place he works.

But the more that Andrea and Winston try to uncover what happened to Christopher, the more roadblocks they encounter. It seems a high-ranking officer in the RCMP has reason to keep the investigation - or even a report of a missing person - secret not only from Winston and Andrea but from his only colleagues of the Red Serge as well.

Does it really count as a spoiler alert if I haven't finished writing the book?

When I last left off, I had committed some violence, which has taken me awhile to get to in the book because, unlike many crime novels, there hasn't been a murder yet - or at least if there has it has yet to be discovered. It wasn't a conscious decision to introduce violence or specifically to hurt Winston - but that's what's happened. I wonder what it says about my relationship with the protagonist I created when I feel a need to physically abuse him in every novel. Freud would have a field day.

On the plus side, I'm not feeling hopelessly bogged down by writer's block. I have slowed down to be sure but right now that's mostly due to the insanity of the first few weeks of the school year. Add to that the fact I've returned to university for the first time in over a decade, a couple of consulting projects on which I'm working and occasional performances (hosting the Amazing Improv Race tonight, Thursday the 19th at 7:30 at The Improv Centre on Granville Island) and I'll chalk up my lack of literary output to just plain being busy.

But being too busy to write is not something that's healthy for me in any more than the short term and not a habit into which I'm planning to allow myself to fall. Thus I'm taking pains over the coming weeks - once I get past a couple of big time-sucking obstacles - to scale back those other outside commitments that block my W3.doc productivity.

Draft by Christmas remains the goal. Stay tuned.

Next week: tense. That's right…tense.

ps. Still hoping readers will take up the call to get those reviews posted on Goodreads and Amazon.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
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Thursday, 12 September 2013
Agent Provocateur


I have some experience with agents. As a working actor, as I once was, having a talent agent was more or less a necessity. Sure there were a few ‘unrepresented’ actors but for the most part, having representation was the ticket into the casting studio, not only because they had their finger on the pulse of who was casting what and when, but because many casting directors either sent casting information only directly to agents or wouldn’t consider an unrepresented actor credible enough to consider for a part. And most of us are happy – thrilled, in some cases – to have them. An agent validated our self-proclaimed title of ‘actor’ and we didn’t have to scour the casting workbook hoping to spot the audition for which we knew we were the right one.

Typically, agents get the actor in the door, the actor wows the casting director and then lands the part - for which the agent takes fifteen percent of the earnings. True, the agent acts as sort of the pimp in this transaction - a joke my agent at the time found less clever than I - but without them we really didn't get access to the work so we were happy to share that cut. Furthermore, the agent handled all those distasteful details like invoices, receipts and contracts. It was a price worth paying.

Literary agents, I suspect, because I don't have one, work in a similar fashion, at least in so much as they likely are paid a percentage of an author's earnings. But unlike an actor, who is constantly going out to auditions - in my heyday, I was auditioning three to four times a week - I can't help but wonder about what role the literary agent provides. I can't be pitching new stories every week: my book producing pace has been about one every three to four years (that's a topic for another column).

For a new author, a literary agent may well be the conduit through which the unknown author gets his or her manuscript through the publisher's door for consideration. I suspect this is particularly true with some of the larger publishing companies - your Random House or Harper Collins - who may consider more credible an author who has been taken on by an agent. And if agents charge a percentage of an author's sales, it would appear there's little risk to the author. Indeed, based on the paltry earnings one can expect as a Canadian author, one wonders how an agent can make a living representing Canadian writers. True, some less than reputable agents will charge authors fees up front for reading and evaluating manuscripts, for the most part, like his talent agent cousin, the literary agent is only going to make money when he makes money for his author client.

That said, is having an agent really worth the effort of trying to obtain one? Let's face it; I'm not exactly rolling around in Walter White cash . Having an agent means parting with fifteen percent of what little money I earn in royalties so my take home is even less. Sure, again, I'm not in it for the money but when Canadian sales figures are what they are, is splitting the meager take a good idea? I imagine the idea is that agents will better help the work to be promoted, therefore increasing sales and royalties, rightfully earning the agent a greater sum from his or her commission.

But literary agents, particularly in Canada, are a scarce breed and getting one to consider me is likely a daunting prospect. According to the Writers' Union of Canada, roughly eighty percent of published Canadian authors are unrepresented. With so few agents in the country, getting one to take on an author, even one with a couple of published books in his portfolio could well prove to be a daunting challenge.

And here's the other twist: what I'm really seeking an agent for is to help try to find production deals for both Deadly Lessons and Last Dance, and for that matter, W3.doc, when it's finally completed. And from what admittedly little research I've done on reputable Canadian literary agencies, the first couple I've found clearly state they don't represent screenplays, which is fair enough because right now, I don't have a screenplay for any of my books. That's part of what I want a literary agent to help me obtain: a production arrangement that could include writing of a screenplay.

In the meantime, I'm open to hearing people's experiences about working with or even trying to obtain literary agency representation.

One more thing to add to my 'to-do' list.

Next week: W3.doc. Where were we?

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
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Thursday, 5 September 2013
Let the Revolution Continue

Not all revolutions are spectacular. Some start with a poem, others a riot, still others with an unwillingness to pay taxes.

I was hoping mine would be about a book. Not that book or that revolution.

A few months ago I wrote about a literary revolution, one that would put at least one copy of Last Dance in every library in the country. A few people have let me know they have made requests at their local library, and it is appreciated. Libraries, of course, don't report their purchases to the authors who wrote them, so I can't say how much of an impact yet this mini-revolution has had. That said, if you haven't yet pestered your local library with a request for Last Dance it's not too late - putting the book in the hands of more readers remains the ultimate goal. I'd also be grateful if you'd pass along a request to people you know around the country that could also make the request. Family in Flin-Flon? Uncle in Ucluelet? Cousin in Clarington? Acquaintance in Abord a Plouffe? Our collective reach is much greater than mine.

I've also written about using social media to spread the words. To that end, I created a Facebook page for Last Dance but admittedly, I haven't updated it in a long time. Apparently, in order for social media to be effective, one has to be on top of keeping new information flowing. Yet another thing to add to the checklist.

My publisher is on me to focus on another social media, this one targeted specifically at readers and writers: Goodreads. I admit that I am a member of the site but I'm not what one might call active on the site. I briefly visited the site and set up a profile - I think - but beyond that I can't say it's somewhere that I've spent a whole lot of time.

Apparently, I ought.

Like Facebook and Linked In we can be friends, or co-readers or whatever the connection term is on that site. Or you can just visit a page and talk about the book. Last Dance has a page on the site and it has a few reviews, some more favourable than others. My publisher assures me that Goodreads recommendations can have a hefty impact on sales (assumedly with positive reviews), given that the social media site is inhabited by people with a love of reading.

Thus, if you'd be so willing, I would appreciate if you are a member of Goodreads, if you'd consider writing a review of Last Dance or, for that matter, Deadly Lessons. and its Canadian counterpart,, are also places that have an impact on sales; not only do the tenor of the reviews have an impact, the quantity of reviews is apparently a good indicator for readers to buy the book. So again, and I recognize I'm asking a lot, reviews and ratings posted here do apparently push copies out the door. Feel free to write one and place it on both sites. Really, it's about continuing to spread the word, from as many readers as we can.

Of course, I don't have much to offer in return - beyond an invitation to the next book launch, which becomes all the more likely the more this page-turning revolution inches forward, one copy at a time.

'Cuz I can't find my bayonet anywhere.

Next week: to agent or not to agent - that is the question.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
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Thursday, 29 August 2013
Better a Diamond with a Flaw Than a Pebble Without

No one really likes to dwell on our flaws but we do it anyway. I’ve often found the crime novelists I read can be sorted into two broad categories: the perfect hero and the pretty darned flawed one.

To be sure, even the super sleuth protagonists like Elvis Cole or his sidekick-turned-protagonist in his own right Joe Pike have some underlying flaw – occasionally of the fatal variety – to humanize and keep them from being completely cartoonish.

But the in the other camp – recognizing my opposing categories are painted pretty broadly – are the fumbling, bumbling, often amateur crime solver who saves the day almost in spite of him or herself. The Stephanie Plum series come to mind, with a heroine bail bondswoman who stumbles her way through mysteries until the bad guy is good and caught.

For me, I’m trying to get a balance for Winston Patrick that’s somewhere in the middle.

If it's true that we tend to write what we know it probably makes sense that we have a tendency to put a whole lot of us - or at least a whole lot of whom we would like ourselves to be - into our protagonists. So it seems odd we would choose to create characters suffering from particular flaws, unless we're on a cathartic mission to let the world know from what afflictions or character failings we suffer. And however deliberate or not that may be, so much of our real or imagined selves ends up not only in our principal characters but in the supporting roles surrounding them. If you've read Deadly Lessons or Last Dance it would probably come as little surprise to you that sleep is a fairly frequent battle for me over which I am not regularly the victor. In fact, in an early draft of Deadly Lessons I had to shave what amounted to two or three pages of detailed, clinical expository on the stages of sleep and types of disorders. Apparently during the initial writing of that portion of the book I was suffering through a particularly severe bout of sleep deprivation, a detailed examination of which likely would have done little to progress the flow of the story.

But it's also true that it's a character's flaws that often give him or her depth, make them more interesting, more relatable, and perhaps that makes it even more cathartic to create these flawed characters who, despite their failings, are successful anyway.

Finding the balance between their flaws and their successes is a key part of the challenge. Too much heroics and Winston becomes unbelievable. Too many flaws - or too great flaws - and he becomes uninteresting or worse: whiny. Sometimes, and I'm sure it's at least a part a reflection of my mood at the time of writing, when I review what I've written I can occasionally find Winston leaning into the whiny camp and it takes some doing to make sure I've created a better balance. It's a fair bet that if I start to find him less sympathetic as a character my reader will too.

If I were to list Winston's flaws or tribulations, they would include: insomnia, lack of verbal impulse control, a discomfort bordering on fear of his ex-wife, challenges saying no when he knows he ought, a perhaps nosier than is healthy curiosity and a slight propensity towards snobbery. Those are more less off the top of my head and while there are some I share in one way or another, most are fictitious (I don't have an ex-wife, even one I'm not scared of) and I like to think I'm working on them.

I also like to think that Winston's struggles will continue to make him an interesting character to spend time with and that readers will grow at least as interested in Winston the character than the plot to which he's contributing.

A tall order indeed.

Next week: Checking in with the revolution.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
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Thursday, 22 August 2013
Say What?

I admit I have never read...err...listened to an audio book. I have never downloaded an MP3, purchased a cassette, CD, DVD or any other mode by which I can be read a book. And to date, neither of my books, Deadly Lessons and Last Dance, have audio book versions published - if that's the correct term - nor have I heard of any plans to do so, at least in the immediate future.

But in an industry whose stories are often coloured in dark grey tones with reports of diminishing sales, closing publishing houses and independent booksellers collapsing against the commercial heft of the so-called big box stores, audio books apparently an area of growth. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal audio books are enjoying an "explosion" in sales in recent years, particularly in comparison to the print brethren. Booksellers and publishers have seen spikes in sales that while not surpassing print or e-book sales, have seen percentage increases not enjoyed by other segments of the industry.

In fact, many publishers and authors themselves are now considering this such an important aspect of their business they are investing significant resources into the production and even casting of voice actors for thier audio books. With bestselling, big name authors it is not uncommon now to find books being read not by one but by a cast of actors, each taking on voices for dialogue of different characters in addition to the narrator.

And research shows that audio books are reaching audiences our books weren't hitting. These can be the summer car trip families looking for something they can do together in the car beyond the children being buried in their own electronic devices. They can also be reluctant readers, those who, as one man claims in the Wall Street Journal article, hadn't picked up a book since high school but had burned through ten in a summer when listening to the story. Not only that, but some research indicates that those "new" readers, those who were coming to novels via audio rather than print, are coming to print in addition to audio.

Certainly as a former classroom teacher, there were times, particularly in that brief period when I was teaching English, that I read to students and they seemed to enjoy it. I suppose it's possible that while I was reading to them they weren't having to do the work, and for some of them that may have been the genesis of the enjoyment. But there is significant educational research that indicates that people at all ages can not only learn from storytelling in auditory fashion but obtain significant enjoyment as well. It works for our kids - how many parental help books beat to death the importance of reading to our children - why wouldn't older kids or even adults derive satisfaction from it as well?

The author in me is more explicitly interested in the commercial impact of creating audio books than the educational one, though, if I inadvertently have a positive impact on literacy, who am I to argue?

Of course, given that my publisher isn't chomping at the microphone to create these works and my ability to engage and pay for Alan Rickman is, shall we say, limited, I may have to resort to a significantly lower cost option, including, but not limited to, producing the work myself, or at least narrating it. Certainly, some reviewers advise against it (of course that particular review was written by a producer of audio books) but the sentiment is valid: performing spoken word is an entirely different skill from creating the written word and writers are not necessarily skilled at both. I like to think my performance background, both in talk-show broadcast and in improvisation performance (I'm hosting the Amazing Improv Race and performing in TheatreSports this coming Saturday night by the way - shameless plugs are an important part of blog writing) at least give me some experience that could contribute to a decent product. And while I'm not expecting it to become an audio bestseller, per se, it might be one more means by which I can get the stories in front of new readers...err....listeners.

So, if you happen to have a recording studio you're not using.....

Next week: writing your protagonist's flaws.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Thursday, 22 August 2013 8:38 AM PDT
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Thursday, 15 August 2013

I’m Back.


In case you’ve missed me, fear not – I’m home.


I’ll save you from scrolling down a few posts and let you know I left in the middle of July for a European jaunt (non-writers go on ‘trips’). We began in Barcelona, Spain (as opposed to the one in Cornwall, England, which, I imagine, gets appreciably fewer tourists). From there we boarded Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Spirit for twelve nights with stops in Toulon, France (with side trips to St. Tropez and Port Grimaud); Pisa, Florence, Rome, Naples (with tours of Pompeii and Sorrento, Mykanos – quite possibly my favourite; Istanbul, the ancient ruins of the city of Ephesus, Athens, where I broke my toe climbing the Acropolis but I’ve forgiven the Greeks; and disembarking in Venice. Exhausting yes, but a terrific trip nonetheless.


But this week’s column is not intended to be a travel piece.


Apart from the fact that I love Europe generally so I love the opportunity to go there (and will go for any reason if someone else is paying) one of my hopes about the trip is that it would inspire the muse and help break me from my writing slump on W3.doc, as I’ve taken to calling my as yet unnamed third Winston Patrick novel.


And…. It did.


I hesitate to say that I’m cured entirely; it’s been a bit slow since I’ve returned – more about that in a moment. But in the six months or so prior to our European venture I had written almost nothing of the new book and I produced a few thousand words while I was away this time.


It could be argued that travel itself provokes the muse and there may be some truth to that. That said, last summer we ventured on safari to South Africa and I barely scratched at the thing.


I think it’s Europe. Just as American intellectuals, writers, artists and thinkers were drawn to Europe in the early days of the new country and into the late 19th and early 20th centuries (see the excellent historian David McCullough’s book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris) something about Europe shakes loose the writer in me in a way no other location has yet to replicate. It could be argued I’m saying this as an excuse to make frequent journeys back to the Continent – and don’t get me wrong, I’d summer in Europe every year if I could afford it – but I actually believe the muse awakens among the relics and in some cases ruins of cultural and societal history that Europe provides.


The food and the wine don’t hurt either.


What may also have played a part in the increase in output is the mode in which I was operating: I was writing by hand. While it’s true I brought my iPad and Bluetooth keyboard with me, when I got there they more or less stayed packed. Instead, I wrote on a pad of lined paper and while the book is nowhere near finished, I did produce about forty pages by hand, roughly half that by the time I got it into the computer (which I just finished a week after coming home).


There may be something to this.


Researchers have apparently determined there is brain value to writing by hand that isn’t matched by writing directly on a computer. Writing in The Week, Chris Gayomali outlines four key benefits to writing by hand, two of which are germane to the topic at hand (no pun intended): many writers conclude they write better longhand and writing longhand prevents the types of distractions the computer can readily provide (who hasn’t procrastinated from writing – or any other kind of work – by surfing the net for an hour or two or six?).


I can’t say I’m necessarily a better writer when I write by hand, but I do find that ideas tend to grow on themselves more so on actual paper than on the digital variety. Many is the time I have been sitting in meetings of in which my interest was slight, at best, and found that while writing by hand I could generate a fair amount of work, more so than when I’ve had a laptop or iPad in front of me.


During our trip we had a good number of days on which we were on tour buses with an hour or so of driving time to our destinations. Though my handwriting faltered with the bumpiness of the bus, I frequently found myself whipping out the pad of paper pen (Pilot G2 is my new favourite) from my backpack and using the time fruitfully. It may be the relative ease and portability a pad of paper (I prefer a pad over a notebook – it’s probably not worth trying to figure out the psychology there) provides. I also found myself late at night when sleep was evading me (a characteristic I share with my protagonist) finding a table somewhere the ship’s deck or one of the bars and producing more so than I have in awhile.


And truth be told, it’s taken some time to get the handwritten work typed into the computer and I have not produced any new material while that’s been occurring. It may be that I convert to handwriting the book – something I actually did a fair amount of while writing Last Dance) at least as a means of keeping the output going until the muse finds her way just to my fingertips in front of the computer.


Either that or it’s back to Europe. I wonder if the publisher would pay?


Next week: thinking about the audio book.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
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Thursday, 8 August 2013
Vacation Reading
If you've been following along, I have been out of the country for the past few weeks. Hopefully, readers have had a chance to take a peek at the excerpts from a previous novel I began writing ten years ago on my first trip to Italy. It's a work in progress (okay, it's been shelved for some time - more about that in an upcoming post). If you haven't had a chance and are willing, I welcome comments: it may be worth reviving.

Soon I'll talk about the impact of travel on my writing but given my jet lag and general lack of sleep (thank you for the elongated stay in Germany, Lufthansa) I'll spend a bit more time on that piece for next week's post. This week I thought I'd talk about some of the reading I've been doing.

When I appear at book events, one of the frequent questions we're asked as writers is what we read: do we read outside our genre in which we write, fiction or non-fiction, etc. So, along with some of my other weekly ramblings I thought I'd post the odd review, particularly if something strikes me as worthy of mention, whether due to its high quality or some other characteristic.

Relatively recently I've discovered Harlan Coben. I have only read two or three of his books and along the way of this trip I read Stay Close. The book is an occasionally complex tale of a cold case about a missing man, the obsessive detective who continues to pursue the disappearance (one of the book's characters even refers to him as Javert from Hugo's Les Miserables). Coben weaves fairly complex backstories, altogether relevant for the most part into an intricate storyline. While it became clear (to me anyway) who the culprit was a ways before the reveal, Coben's narrative forcefully pushes along throughout.

What I am finding intriguing about Coben's work in the novels I have read is the depth and complexity of the worlds in these standalone novels. Certainly, he has a series of books based on his Myron Bolitar character (I have yet to read any of those though I am intrigued as the character is a sports agent, not your traditional detective, important to me given Winston Patrick's job as a teacher), the books I have read have been independent. There is a certain amount of laziness in me, I suppose, in that by writing a series I get to re-use a great deal of the characterization, back story and details in future stories without having to recreate the wheel, so to speak. In writing the number of standalone books Coben has, just the amount of work that has gone into creating these complex worlds the characters inhabit is impressive.

And he does it well, which is just as important, of course.

It could be a bit of latent jealousy that recognizes that Coben, as a full time writer, has the luxury to create these in-depth, independent stories that perhaps my more part-time status has me feeling limited by. But if you're interested, check out both Stay Close and another recent book of his I just read, Six Years to get a picture of the strength of Coben's creativity.

Next week: travel and the impact on the muse.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
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