Friday, December 9, 2011

It's not a movie, it's the book trailer

No big stars, no big budget, no Academy nominations, no cameos by legendary directors. It doesn't introduce a hot new star and it doesn't have a theme song by Justin Timberlake...

It won't be coming soon to a cinema near you, but the book trailer for my mystery/suspense thriller 'The Delta Chain,' can be seen on a raft of cool websites, including all the usual suspects-You Tube, TrailerSpy, DailyMotion, Metacafe, and others.

My neighbour Buggeroff thinks it's a movie version. He doesn't listen. He turned up with an entourage of rellies, pizza, popcorn, beer and soft drinks. He was disappointed when it didn't last much longer than a minute, which is about the length of time to which I wish his unannounced visits were restricted.

I had to point out there's no CGI, no product placements, no sequel and no BluRay release.

It's not a movie, it's the book trailer.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Ordinary, everyday goodwill heroes

Over the past couple of decades we've seen the rise of the troubled, flawed, angsty anti-hero, with a dark side or a bad boy attitude. And that character was very much needed in fiction, an antidote to the holier-than-thou goody two shoes heroes of past eras - those down-to-earth, reputable, reliable lawmen, cowboys, space jocks, soldiers, doctors, local boys-or-girls-made-good, who were once upon a time the only way a heroic figure was portrayed.

But let's not let the goodwill, heart-of-gold hero disappear altogether.

Let's not turn our nose up at the genuine good guy. There's a place for him as well.

We may not all be perfect, but not all our heroes need to be mean-spirited, crazy, unhinged, haunted-by-dark-secrets individuals. (Don't get me wrong, I enjoy these characters and their stories, Dr Gregory House being one example, and TV's Dexter, a serial killer who kills serial killers, does provide a harrowing glimpse, and warning, of a darker reality and the evil that's lurking out there.)

But in real life there are also real, genuine heroes doing a hard days work for ordinary wages, men and women who believe in doing the right thing, who wrestle with their conscience, toiling away as policemen, as firemen, as rescue workers and paramedics, as counselors and doctors and lawyers (okay, maybe not lawyers), as footie coaches and computer geeks, some of them Moms and some of them Dads, and we don't want them to fade away from representation in our fictional landscape. They may or may not be rare, but they're certainly not extinct.

And they never will be.

There's a brand of TV drama, that's been a staple for many years, the on-going series with an ordinary, everyday, well-meaning protagonist, who helps those around him while pursuing a difficult quest of his own. It was around way back when , in 1960's 'The Fugitive,' as Dr Richard Kimble provided impromptu assistance to those he encountered, while fleeing from the law and searching for his wife's killer. In 'Quantum Leap,' good-natured scientist Sam Beckett leaps from one time zone and one life to another, setting right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next "leap" will be the leap home.

In 'Early Edition,' out-of-work, guy-next-door type stockbroker Gary Hobson receives a newspaper each morning that contains tomorrow's news stories, thus compelling him to try and avert calamities that are only hours away from happening.

In mystery, suspense, thriller novels about hardened law enforcers, and agents and cynical journos, I haven't come across too many examples of the ordinary, everyday goodwill hero. So I greeted him like a long-lost friend when, in Stephen King's new opus, '11.22.63,' a guy who is a school teacher, and who is not dissimilar to you or I, goes back in time and endures living in the world of half a century ago, in order to help out an old friend. He also undertakes a much grander mission. The juxtaposition of today's world with that of the 1950's, is fascinating, as is the irony of a 'small' person grappling with changing a 'major' historical event, the JFK assassination.

Indie author M P McDonald's novel, 'No Good Deed,' is the first in a series about another "regular" person, a photographer named Mark Taylor who finds that his newly acquired antique camera provides photos of future events. Tied in with his prophetic dreams, he finds it leads him to try and save nearby people from terrible fates. Taylor is a guy with a conscience, a strong sense of doing the right thing without profit for himself, however setting out to do "good deeds" leads to unexpected consequences. My review of the book is here, and I for one hope to see these kinds of so-called "old-fashioned" heroic characters still turning up from time to time.

There's a place for them in the world of fiction, just as there's both a place for them and a need for them in the real world.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Does your genre have a nickname to call its own?

Nicknames have been around as long as there's been people. At some stage or other we've all known a Woody, or a Sunny, or a Shorty, a Big Al, an Aggro, a Red, a Bluey.

Some famous people have had some very famous nicknames. Elvis was The King, John Wayne was The Duke, Russell Crowe is 'Rusty," the Spice Girls all had one of their own - Scary, Sporty, Baby, Ginger, Posh, and the Seven Dwarfs were well known for their monickers.

The movie world has long since had "labels," that are effectively a kind of nickname. There's film noir, and the Summer Blockbuster, the chick flick, the teen flick.

When it comes to genre fiction, ever wondered why science fiction is referred to as "sci-fi", but mystery fiction isn't called "mi-fi," thriller fiction isn't "thri-fi," romantic fiction isn't labelled "ro-fi," historical fiction isn't "hi-fi" - okay, that one's already taken by the sound industry, but why not "his-fic" (too much like hissy fit?) or...nowhere else to go with that, but I gather you get my drift.

If you haven't wondered about the above, then I guess you are now.

I'm wondering what I might have stumbled on to here? Is this a literary form of bias against one of our greatest fiction genres? If there's racism in our world (sadly, there is), if there's sexism in our world (tick that as well), if there's ageism in our society (yep, been on the receiving end), then is there in fact yet another, hidden evil that lurks among them...fictionalism?

What about women's fiction that's referred to as "chick-lit", you ask? Okay, but that one's deserved (no bias here.)

I admit labels can be fun - and for those poor, impoverished souls who visit bookstores and video libraries and ask the staff what would be good, or can they recommend so and so - then possibly labeling could be very useful.

What works?

Some random suggestions:

For fictional showbiz biography-type sagas - "sho-bi-fi."

For spy fiction - "spi-fi" (with my little eye.)

For supernatural fiction - 'su-fi."

The more I write about this idea, the less I like it, and the less sense it makes.

But labeling is everywhere and doesn't appear to be going away any time soon.

When s/f breakaway fiction featuring futuristic urban angst took off, it soon garnered the nickname "cyberpunk." (Now we're talking.)

With the rapid multiplying of fiction genres - Scandinavian crime fiction; time travel romance; vampire romance (to name just a few) I wonder if we won't see more of these evolving their very own individual "labels" or "nicknames."

Maybe the real reason science fiction was long ago the first to get its own special branding ("sci-fi" and/or "s/f"), is because it was a mark of reverence for a genre that stood apart, and alone, for many decades until it was embraced and interwoven with other genres and with the mainstream. It's blazed its own trail, a homage to its pioneers - Verne, Wells, Rice Burroughs and others - and to its leading lights - Asimov, Clarke, Wyndham et al - pushing boundaries, and illuminating the infinite possibilities not just of the universe around us but of the ingenuity within us.

And that seems like a good enough reason to me to have a nickname to call your own.

(An earlier version of this post originally posted on my 'Take It As Read' blog

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Man Who Wrote The Story Songs

Back in the 70's I became a fan of singer/songwriter Harry Chapin after hearing his epic ballad, "Taxi," about a down-on-his-luck cab driver who picks up a fare that turns out to be an ex-lover from his teenage years. Long ago they'd parted ways to seek their dreams, and in this brief cab ride the story of their lives and unrealized dreams is played out in bittersweet fashion.

It's a long time since I'd listened to Harry Chapin. Last week I spotted a newly released package of five of Harry's albums and I snapped it up, eager and curious to revisit the past myself, if only for a short while.

Harry was known as one of the main proponents of the "storysong," or 'folk/rock ballad," which had become popular in the late 60's, early 70's. Harry's songs, some of them more than five minutes in duration, were like mini-movies, telling tales of life with a hauntingly reflective, emotive pull.

Harry's songs were the kind to which people from all walks of life could relate. What surprised me, all these years down the line, was that those songs were even more topical and relevant now than they were back then. One of the hallmarks of a great storyteller is the timelessness of his tales, regardless of the medium in which they are told. So hats (and beanies etc.) raised now to Harry Chapin.

Many will know Harry's song, "Cat's In The Cradle," the story of a father and son, a No 1 hit for Harry in 1974, and a top 10 hit again in the 90's for rockers Ugly Kid Joe. Another of Harry's hits, "W-O-L-D," takes us on a road trip with an ageing DJ, "feeling all of 45, going on 15," trying to relive past glories. It was one of several inspirations for the producers of 70's tv series, "WKRP in Cincinnati."

Another song, "Sniper," is a riveting, multi-layered lyric and melody, told from several points of view, of a tragic mass shooting. If there is a song more revealing and insightful now than even back in the 70's, then it is this one.

One of my favourites, "Mr. Tanner," has insights to which every writer, singer, actor, musician, or creative artist can identify. It's the story of a small town tailor, loved by the townspeople not just for his tailoring, but for his beautiful baritone voice. Mr. Tanner always sings in his shop and his friends and customers encourage him to sing professionally.

The story of his debut, and of the harsh comments by critical snobs will bring a lump to your throat and a tear to even the most hardened eye. Check out this link to a performance of the song and I don't like to make guarantees, but you'd have to be a robot not to be moved by "Mr. Tanner."

Harry recorded and performed widely throughout the 1970's. He was also an active humanitarian, co-founding the World Hunger Year Organization, and in 1987 he was posthumously awarded the U.S Congressional Gold Medal. He was taken from us too soon, the result of a heart attack and car accident at just age 38, in 1981.

Perhaps the most fitting way to close this post about the man who wrote the storysongs, is from his epitah (taken from his song,"I Wonder What Would Happen To This World");

"If a man tried to take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man's life could be worth
I wonder what would happen to this world."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Seeing the world differently through a character's eyes

The use of the first person narrative in fiction, as in non-fiction, is one of literature's most effective mechanisms, enabling a reader to see the world differently through the eyes of a central character, to experience other places, other events, to understand their thoughts and opinions, to connect with their point-of-view.

Many classic novels draw on this method, creating the mood and the tone of an earlier era for a modern reader, as do many of the genre novels of today. And in non-fiction works, whether they are biographical, part-bio, or observational, the first-person viewpoint brings the subject matter much closer to home.

In his book, "A New Earth," Eckhart Tolle takes us on a journey of discovery, putting forward thought-provoking ideas on the individual and collective spiritual aspects of the human race. Tolle tells us his own story along the way, and we are part of the process: his work, his relationships, his life, his studies, and how ultimately they led him to the insights in the book, insights that provide much food for thought.

Of course, being drawn into the world of the writer shouldn't be taken the wrong way. My neighbor Buggeroff, read four of Ian Fleming's James Bonds novels in a row, then went out and hired an expensive, flashy sports convertible for a week. He barely had enough cash that week to buy petrol, and spent his spare time driving that thing to the local shop each day for bread and milk. Buggeroff really needs to read Eckhart Tolle.

Speculative fiction is a style of fiction that is not easily classified, as it contains ideas that transcend the established range of genres and sub-genres, ideas that are often mind-expanding in their scope. Science fiction and fantasy are the usual suspects in showing those sides, but sometimes the most amazing discoveries are all around us, hiding in plain sight in the everyday.

The first-person viewpoint can therefore be just as effective, in surprising ways, in fictional works that transcend genres, as I found recently when reading 'The Silver Mist,' by Martin Treanor, and which I reviewed on the Good Reads site.

There's always something particularly exciting about seeing the world differently through a character's eyes.

Silver Mist, TheSilver Mist, The by Martin Treanor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before I had finished the first chapter of this novel I knew I was in for a very special reading experience. Poignant, emotive and superbly written, it perfectly invokes the mood of 1970's Belfast, as seen through the eyes of Eve, a young Down's Syndrome woman. Eve's friendship with the mysterious Esther opens her eyes to both the horrors and wonders of our world through a series of spiritual journeys, and we are there every step of the way. Treanor's tale is intriguing, heartfelt and uplifting. It provides some thought-provoking insights into the nature of our existence and has stayed with me after turning the final page. A rare and highly commended read.

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Best new blog since the last one

After The Beatles split in 1970, and for the next ten years or so, young bands would emerge that the record companies and reviewers labelled as "the next Beatles" or "the new Beatles." None of them ever were. In fact, no group ever replicated the pop music phenomenon of 1960's 'Beatlemania.'

Not that there haven't been many brilliant and legendary bands. There have. But some of those groups called the new Beatles were like that garage band at the end of your street that makes dogs howl, cats leave town and birds migrate.

I've always been wary of these 'labels.' For the past ten years every second novel that features a modern day thriller combined with historical mythology and religious artifacts, has been called "the next Da Vinci Code," or its author dubbed "the new Dan Brown."

Thus far, none have matched the wide-reaching success or controversy of Brown's book. Nevertheless, as The Beatles did in rock music, Dan Brown's novels have been instrumental in launching a whole genre, many of which are good reads. (And more than a few that are not.)

Recently I read one of a series of novels about a learned hero's quest to solve a historical mystery, with conspiracies, mythology and science as the main undercurrents. This author had rave reviews from major media outlets. I tried hard but couldn't get through this novel. I passed it on to a couple of others who had the same experience as me.

However, to be fair, there can be an upside to all this: Finding a book that lives up to the promotion is a little like winning a prize. Some examples:

I'm a Michael Crichton fan, so when I see a book that's likened to his work, my curiosity is piqued. Paul McEuen's debut, 'Spiral,' carried a sticker that pronounced: "Like Michael Crichton? You'll love this." On this occasion, they got it right.

McEuen delivers a heady blend of family drama, tense action and a scientific/medical premise involving the threat of a virus. Equally as important, he has that elusive storyteller's gift, a narrative flair that keeps the pages turning.

Douglas Preston is another writer who has been compared with Crichton. Preston's novel, 'Blasphemy,' is an epic roller-coaster ride of mystery/crime/political skullduggery/and a mind-blowing scientific concept. It will certainly appeal to those who enjoy layers of depth and food-for-thought driving the thriller plot, and is a favorite of mine. Another Preston novel, 'Impact,' is more a suspense thriller a la Cape Fear, but with strong scientific elements underlying and propelling the action.

I've scoured the bookshelves, both brick and mortar and online, to see dozens of titles crowing "the next Robert Ludlum," " as good as Clive Cussler," "move over John Grisham."

Some are. Most are not. Perhaps a little more originality in the hype would be good.

Early in her career, Kathy Reichs was likened to Patricia Cornwell, and as we know Reichs has established herself as a leader in her own right in the forensic crime genre, just as Gayle Lynds has done in the espionage field since the days when she was compared to Ludlum.

As for that irritating garage band at the end of the street, maybe I'll join the cats and spend a couple of nights out of town. My neighbour, Buggeroff, encourages them by dropping by and telling them how good they are. He even asked them for free tickets to their first gig, whenever they might be. (Hopefully never.) Buggeroff isn't helping.

Back in the book world, when a story junkie uncovers one that is as good, even better, than the unavoidable hype, then its akin to discovering a lost treasure after several attempts that led down blind alleys.

And that's the one and only other upside: the search can be half the fun.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A fraction too much fiction

I've always been a story junkie but there was a time, not all that long ago, when I realized I was following 20 different tv series, watching every new release film, reading several books simultaneously, whilst revising one of my own manuscripts, writing another, working on this blog, editing the work of another writer, and constantly craving more.

It had to stop.

But how? What should stay and what should go?

Most of us have a relatively unharmful addiction to something, whether we're conscious of it or not. Maybe you're an adrenaline junkie, spending every spare moment at the gym, maybe you're a news junkie, obsessively following every broadcast, bulletin and news feed, perhaps you're a cyber-geek, engaged in a myriad of online video gaming pursuits, or a closet conspiracy theorist, or you've been labelled a workaholic, or you're a stock market addict, living and breathing the global markets and buying and selling daily, even hourly.

Hello, my name is Iain and I have an addiction to fiction (and non-fiction), reading it, watching it, writing it, editing it, whether it be in books, film, tv, audio, webisodes, blogs, I'm not fussy. If someone is spinning a tale or two I have to stop and sample it. Recently I heard about the newly emerging Japanese genre of serialized stories sent via cell phones and my curiousity was piqued.


When dealing with an addiction of any kind, and in fact dealing effectively with anything at all, be it a work project, a sport, an exercise regimen, a diet - the sensible, practical, most positive and successful approach is to prioritize, and then cut back.

There, I've said it. Prioritize.

So I set out on my plan. I would only read a book or watch a program if it was an absolute top-of-my-list, must-read/must-watch, something that keeps me turning the pages or glued to the screen. I would cut back considerably - not on the writing or the researching, but on those entertainments, most specifically tv and dvd that were the least compelling, the least hypnotic.

And isn't all of the above exactly what we should be doing, not just as readers, but as writers, and in fact in any other field of endeavour.

As an author, the first draft is about getting it all down. Then come the revisions, the editing, revising and re-editing, and this is where the P word comes into its own. Prioritize, so that every scene, every character, every line of dialogue, every plot development, every setting, every nuance, is absolutely essential, to ensure our story is as compelling, enlightening and entertaining as it can be. Or it's out on its ear.

Call it tough love.

Every story is competing for an audience that is already being bombarded (just as I was) with content, an audience that will ultimately gravitate to the stories that draw them in and captivate them the most.

Most writers wince at the thought of revision, but of course ultimately spend the lion's share of their time on the rewriting and finessing. It's the icing on the cake, and it can be the difference between a good story and a really great story that rises above its competition.

I'm still a story junkie, never intended not to be, just to prioritize so that I'm getting more out of the stories that I read, and the programs I follow.

Sooner or later we all have to be sensible.

I'm not intending to be anything like those dieters, who occasionally sneak out for a secret chocolate sundae with caramel topping, or those workaholics who intend chilling out just as soon as they do one last, 36 hour stint slumming for the next big client presentation, or those gamers, who have promised to get a life, just as soon as they crack the next level in that endless war against the hordes invading from infinite space-time dimensions.

Not me...