Review: Death Masks

So here’s the thing about Jim Butcher. He’s not a great writer. Jim uses phrases and vocabulary choices out of workshops for how not to imitate pulp writers. He’s straight-up B to B+ on a good day. Uses adverbs when simple description would be better. Chooses overly dramatic words like “gaze” and “horrific.” Tags his dialog with Tom Swifties, even when he’s not making a joke.

But.

His pacing keeps me reading, piling on the tension and the fun. His characters are deep and interesting, even though sometimes archetypical. He uses legend — ancient and urban — in a way that adds texture and meaning to his books. I like Harry Dresden. A lot.

In this particular episode, he’s up against the Forces of Evil in the form of fallen angels. Fights along side some bad-ass knights and ends up shutting down O’Hare Airport for a few hours. A romp through mythology and mayhem you just don’t see so much anymore. Jim’s having fun. I’m having fun. So what it it isn’t Shakespeare?

Death Masks ranks between Bite Me and Ned the Seal  on this year’s fiction reading list, coming it at #4 for the year. It’s likely I’ll binge read the next few Harrys, so in fairness I’ll probably treat the series as one entry going forward.

If you’re new to Harry Dresden, start with Fool Moon. The basic premise is as follows. Imagine the world posited in Harry Potter, with all its magic and supernatural skulduggery. Imagine an adult wizard living in that world. Imagine he’s a pulp noir P.I. in Chicago.

That’s all you need to know.

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Social Networking and Community (Part I)

image by JD Hancock

I haven’t seen The Social Network movie….nothing against it, but I prefer my historical retrospectives to be about history. Not about current events. That’s not going to the movies. That’s watching the news — and I refuse to pay 10 bucks to watch the news.

Despite this, social networking is now part of a writer’s world. Fiction writers can use these utilities to build up a “platform” of fans to help make their work more attractive to publishers. Nonfiction writers can use it to keep in touch with potential clients, or to get their work out into the world. It’s a lot like marketing a small business: the more people you talk with, the better your chances of hooking into somebody who wants to read what you’re writing. Modern social network allows you to touch thousands of people every day — assuming to keep pushing to maintain contact and expand your base.

Here are some ways to use modern social networking and community resources to get your name and work out into the public eye.

  • Blog routinely — at least three times per week — on subjects related to your work. Any freelancer should have a blog like the one you’re reading now. Something that serves as a “living portfolio” where people can read about who you are and how you write. It can be about any subject you like, so long as it’s regularly updated and professional. Announce each post you write with an email announcement, Facebook notification or similar.
  • Join Forums on subjects about which you are passionate. As you become a respected member of that community, you’ll make friends who will be eager to read your work and share it with others. If the forums are tied to your writing, you can find some alpha readers to check your work — and who will then be engaged in the process and likely to share it with all of their friends.
  • Facebook friends are like ultrasubcribers to your blog or newsletter. These guys are reachable with one click, receive a high-profile announcement automatically, and often have a vested interest in what you’re up to. Ditto for many other networking websites.
  • Twitter is a way to generate buzz. You can tweet to announce blog posts or other events, or to “leak” short blurbs from your work. This can be a brilliant headline from a nonfiction article, or maybe a perfect piece of dialog from your latest book.
  • Professional network sites like LinkedIn and eLance are a must for freelancers who want to keep finding work. People who need what you sell search those, and the networking keeps you connected with people who may just want a writer some day.
  • Media sharing utilities including YouTube and the iTunes Store allow you to distribute video or audio to build excitement for your book. This can be a short lesson tied to your nonfiction project, an audiobook version of a chapter of your fiction, an interview, or anything else that builds your credibility and excitement about your project. You can record your own media, or find people who will have you on a show they host.

I don’t like going over 500 words for a single post, so I’m going to leave this as a list of types of social network sites. I’ll come back with some posts about how best to use them. Meanwhile, I’d love some comments about how other writers out there have successfully used these sites.

Thanks for listening.

 

Getting Started: Try This

The first step in becoming a professional writer is deciding you want to be a professional writer. The second step is developing a small body of work. If you want to write fiction, you need some short stories to sell to print and online magazines. If you want to write nonfiction or ad copy, you need a few articles or blurbs to show what you can do.

I’m going to assume that, if you want to become a professional writer, you aren’t one yet. This likely means you have a regular job. Maybe a wife, kids, commute and house to take care of. You can’t devote all your time to making this happen. That’s life…but it doesn’t mean you can’t make your portfolio happen.

Try this.

On Monday of next week, sketch a simple outline of a story or article. For fiction, write a sentence or two about each character and each major part of the tale. For nonfiction, write a note describing each paragraph in your essay or copy structure, and some lines about where you’ll go for further research.

On Tuesday, write the  “sketch draft.” This is the simplest written form of the story. Any time you get stuck, write in parenthesis a note about what you want to have happen and move on. “John looked into Stella’s eyes and said (something eloquent about loving her).” or “(Put actual statistic here) out of 100 Americans say they fear a terrorist strike in their local area within the next 10 years.” Get it all down.

On Wednesday, focus your efforts on filling in those parts you skipped the day before. Look up the the statistics, scan through scenes in books and movies you liked for inspiration about how to handle those tricky scenes. At the end of the day, you’ll have a working rough draft.

On Thursday, rewrite the whole thing by looking at the printed rough draft and retyping from scratch. This process lets you look at each sentence, tweaking and repolishing as you go. When you’re finished, read the story out loud to yourself. Take notes about spots that were jarring, repetitive or weak. Sleep on it.

On Friday, fix the things you noticed when you read it aloud the night before. Once you’re finished, run a spell check and have somebody else proofread it.

On Saturday, walk away. You’re done. If you want, have a friend critique it…but no more fiddling until somebody else suggests something concrete.

Each day should take no more than an hour or two — time you can give yourself if you really want it. If you do this each week for a month, or every other week for two, you’ll have a body of four respectable pieces. Most writing clients want just two samples when considering you for a job. Fiction magazines want you to send just one.

Presto…instant portfolio.

Thanks for listening.

Writing Professionally: Pacing

One problem with taking on any profession is that it begins to taint how you look at the world. Cops and social workers probably get the worst end of that stick. On the other hand, spending a decade as a professional martial arts instructor gave me a new level of appreciation for film choreography and fight sports. I find the same thing is now affecting how I read.

I just finished the newest Virgil Flowers thriller by John Sandford: Bad Blood. Sandford’s books – and he’s certainly written his share – can be a mite formulaic, but I love the heck out of them. He’s not saying anything important, nor is he bucking for a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize for literature. He just turns out good stories year after year. Sandford (and, yes I am aware that’s a pen name) uses some very specific techniques to make his pacing tight and engaging even though he’s really telling us the same story over and over again.

Structure

Sandford presents the story in chunks: short sections of just a few paragraphs that hop from viewpoint to viewpoint. Readers never get a chance to be bored because we’re moving around as much as the characters are. He does this more often in is Lucas Davenport novels than with Flowers, Kidd and his other protagonists.

Point of View

He examines key points from multiple views. He’ll describe eight seconds of a gunfight from one point of view, then review four of those seconds from an additional point of view. This builds suspense by delaying our gratification while simultaneously giving us further compelling exposition on what’s already happened.

Inevitability

Sandford often shows you the bad guy from early in the first chapter. You know what he’s about, and  – if you know the protagonists – you have a guess as to what’s going to happen when they clash. Anticipating the train wreck is half the fun.

Twists

By far the most common plot twist Sandford uses is something going wrong. It might be bottoming out a pursuit car in a ditch, or the weather ruining visibility. A great example was a dead headlight in a surveillance car that tipped off the bad guy to the fact he was being watched, throwing a kink in the progress of the cops and the story. It’s a bit of deus ex machina, but Sandford uses realistic problems and loads them with so much emotion that they feel natural, right and tense.

Characterization, dialog and word choice are other well-used weapons in Sandford’s arsenal, and I’m certain he uses others I’m not good enough to notice yet. But these are the insights I drew tonight.

Thanks for listening.