Category Archives: Michael MacLean

Hoisting up my Geek Flag: A Tribute to 30 Years of Star Wars

The year was 1977. I stood with my sister outside a movie theater in a line that curled around the building. My father towered beside us, his light Irish skin going red. It was hot, like only Arizona can be. The sun blazed in the sky and heat waves shimmered up from the concrete. I was sweaty and tired, but I didn’t care. I was five years old, and my world was about to change.

I was going to see STAR WARS. Star_warsonesheet_l01_4

Thirty years later, this lingering memory makes me wonder. After all, why should a sci-fi space epic have such a lasting affect on a writer trying to pound out gritty, little crime tales?

I realize now that Star Wars was one of my first creative writing teachers.

Elements of the basic patterns of fiction (The Quest, The Initiation, The Union, The Choice) are each recognizable in the Star Wars saga. Luke’s decision to accompany Obi-Wan to Alderaan turns into a QUEST for Princess Leia, a quest that forever changes Skywalker. Luke’s quest leads him to Yoda who INITIATES him into the role of a Jedi knight. Han and Leia, despite their differences and despite obstacles (like being frozen in carbonite), are drawn together, an example of the UNION. Luke and Anakin are both confronted with a life altering CHOICE, at the high point of their story’s plots.

Today, as I take a crack at my first professional screenplay, the original Star Wars also serves as a textbook example of structure.

Star_wars_2

According to acclaimed screenwriter Syd Field, act one introduces the main character and launches the stories chief premise. This occurs approximately 30 minutes into the film, depending on its length. About 30 minutes or so into the original Star Wars, Luke finds his aunt and uncle murdered and agrees to accompany Obi-Wan on his mission. This decision is the first plot point, an event that moves the action forward.

By the end of act two, our heroes have faced several obstacles: the tractor beam, storm troopers, and the trash compactor. These event lead to the second plot point, the death of Obi-Wan at the hands of Vader. This gloomy event, together with Han Solo’s refusal to join the attack on the Death Star, is necessary for the dramatic, happy resolution of act three, where Luke succeeds in blowing up the Death Star. Millennium_falcon_escape

Perhaps the younger generations will look to the Harry Potter books for inspiration, but for me and mine it was Star Wars. It wasn’t simply groundbreaking special effects or fantastic creatures that put our butts in front of the screen, time and time again. It was a story told well.

So, how about you, murder fans? With the 30th anniversary behind us, what are your first memories of the original Star Wars? And did the films influence any of the writers out there?

KING OF THE MONSTERS: David Wellington

Interview by Mike MacLean

David Wellington’s career is a real Cinderella story, only with FLESH EATING ZOMBIES instead of wicked stepsisters.  Even if undead cannibals aren’t your bag, Wellington’s road to America’s bookshelves makes for one fascinating story. 

Instead of following the traditional route, (agent…publisher…bookseller…reader)  the talented Mr. Wellington cut out the middleman.  He wrote a serialized novel, Monster Island, and posted it as a blog, available to Wellingtonauthorpicture_5 anyone for free.  The result was an online phenomenon that led to a three-book deal with Thunder Mouth Press: Monster Island, Monster Nation, and Monster Planet.  If that’s not impressive enough, Wellington has already landed yet another three-book deal, this time with Three Rivers Press: Ninety-nine Coffins, Vampire Zero, and Thirteen Bullets, which just hit bookstores this week.

Via email, I spoke to Wellington about writing, publishing, and things that go bump in the night.          

MM: What made you decide to serialize this work onlline rather than to take it to a publisher?

DW: A friend of mine, who is now my webmaster and chief online marketer, Alex Lencicki, had a website–a blog to be exact.  He came up with the idea of writing a web serial.  I thought it might be an interesting experiment.  I really wasn’t thinking about publishing the story at all.  I had an idea for a zombie book I wanted to try and he said it sounded great, so I asked him for six months to do research, to work up an outline, and so on.  He said the web didn’t work like that–I would be starting the following monday.  I had to write the book in real-time, basically, putting up a chapter every monday, wednesday and friday and doing all the research and editing in between posts.  It was exhilarating–and maddening.

1560258500MM: What other challenges did you face writing a serialized work?

DW: Well, I’d never done one before.  There just weren’t a lot of opportunities for serials before the web came along–it was a lost art form, something Dickens and Conan Doyle used to do, a nineteenth century thing.  I actually went back and read a lot of old pulp stuff trying to see how they worked.  It’s a very restrictive medium–every chapter has to end in a cliffhanger, you can’t expect people to remember subtle details when it’ll be months between plot developments.  Yet it also infused the book with a crazy anarchic energy I’d never seen in my writing before, and I think that’s what really drew people to it.

MM:  Even after getting a contract, you continue to publish your work online for free.  Why?

DW:  It was just too much fun to stop.  Publishing online meant I could get instant feedback from my readers.  They felt like they had a special access to the book and I felt like I had a friendly focus group ready to tell me whenever the writing wasn’t clear or if a certain character’s actions felt off.  It’s a lot of work but it makes me a much stronger writer.

MM: Has offering your work on the web for free cut into hardcopy book sales?

DW: Not at all.  Most people who read the books online want to own them, either as a souvenir of something in which they invested five months of their lives, or to see how the book has changed between web and print.  Others want copies they can give their friends.  I hear a lot of people say they’d rather read a paper book they have to pay for than one they can read for free on a computer screen.  Regardless of why, people seem happy to pay for the books once they go to print.

MM:  Why zombies?

DW: That’s an easy one–I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, where George Romero made his zombie movies.  We used to watch them on tv uncut and in prime time, even when I was just a little kid.  I think I saw zombie movies before I’d even heard of Dracula or Frankenstein. 

MM:  What’s your favorite zombie movie?

DW: Night of the Living Dead.  It’s the one that started it at all, and it’s still the best.  Romero didn’t just change zombies with that movie, he changed American film.

MM:  As a true zombie nerd I have to ask this question.  What did you think of the controversial "fast-walking" zombies in the Dawn of the Dead remake?

DW:  The way you know that zombies are really an archetype, and not just a fad, is that you have so much freedom when working with them.  Romero’s zombies were slow and shambling and they were terrifying simply because they weren’t fast but they also never gave up–they would slowly gain on you no matter how fast you ran away.  The zombies in the remake of DotD are scary because they’re probably faster than you are, so running isn’t an option.  I’ve seen talking zombies, zombie animals, romantic zombies, zombies with super-powers, zombies that are undead and zombies that are still alive but sick, zombies possessed by demons–and they all work.  There’s something essential and horrifying about the zombie that is strong enough to stand up to whatever you want to add to the genre.

MM: Name an author we should be reading but aren’t?

DW: Well, there’s a good zombie book called Xombies by Walter Greatshell that came out a year too early to be part of the zombie renaissance.  Well worth checking out.  In terms of general horror, people should be reading more Ramsey Campbell–the man’s a genius of style and should be taught in schools alongside Faulkner and Joyce.

MM: As I mentioned, 13 Bullets is out this week.  You’ve stepped away from zombies in this one to explore the world of vampires.  Why the change?  How is this book different than others in the genre? 
13_bullets_2 

DW: It takes a few minutes to post a book online, but it can take up to eighteen months to get a book published and in stores.  I had a long time to wait between Monster Island’s web success and finding out if it worked at all as a printed book.  I’m a nervous fellow by disposition and the time lag was driving me nuts, so I did what I always do when I’m feeling at odds and ends–I started writing again.  Thirteen Bullets was originally going to be a short story but it kept growing.  It turned out to be the best thing I’d ever written.  I’d been reading a lot of vampire novels at the time that were essentially romance novels–the vampires were actually dating and sometimes marrying the human heroines.  That didn’t work for me.  I remembered reading Dracula for the first time and being actually scared!  Vampires were supposed to be monsters, evil, unnatural creatures.  The vampires in Thirteen Bullets are less Christopher Lee or Gary Oldman and more Max Schreck–the very creepy actor from Nosferatu.  They’re hairless, they don’t read poetry, and instead of taking you for a nice dinner they’d rather rip your head off and drink out of the stump.  Thirteen Bullets is violent and bloody and thoroughly unromantic, but it also has a fun side because I play with a lot of the vampire clichés, turn them around and make them nasty.

My thanks to David for taking the time to speak with me.  If you’re interested in his novels, you can check them out for free at http://www.brokentype.com/davidwellington/.  If you like what you read, please support the author by purchasing a hard copy version. 

As always, Murder fans, I leave you with questions.  Would any authors out there consider publishing a novel online?  Why or why not?   And could an online crime novel earn the same success as something from the sci-fi or horror genres?

Dis…trac…tions

Mike MacLean

The "inter-web" and I are good pals.  When I first seriously started writing, it gave my voice a place in the world.  There weren’t many print markets for short crime fiction out there, especially not the down and dirty variety.  But on the web, bloodshed and bullets and brutal head bashing, were no problem.  I had a home.

And let’s not forget the web’s role as invaluable research machine.  With just a few clicks I can find information on muzzle velocity, illegal cheese smuggling, narcocorridos, whiskey stick fighting… the possibilities are endless. 

Maybe too endless.

Often, my forays into internet research have left me…       

Bruce_2 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yg6bZSM48vU

…distracted. 

I blame myself, of course.  I should have more discipline.  But the waves of words and images have gripped me in their undertow, ripping me away from my work.  The biggest culprit is… 

Pic_home http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rABM8ZsFAGg

…YOU TUBE. 

Where else can you find skateboarding dogs and crack smoking prostitutes, the Wiggles and Sadam Hussein swinging from a rope, all in one convenient location?  I’ve visited the TUBE looking for inspiration or images to help bring authenticity to my work. 

More often than not, I…

Um_12579454101office_jesus___elevat

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DjEQARfQ524&mode=related&search=

…end up surfing through a sea of videos.  Some funny.  Some gruesom.  Some awe inspiringly strange. 

Am I alone? I think not.  Several writers consistently include YOU TUBE links in their blogs, enabling my addiction (I’m looking at you JD!)Ajad01

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMlnJLdV5VY

So the question dear Murderati readers, do you suffer from my calamity?  If so, how do you avoid the siren call of the Internet while writing?

And, while this might sound like an alcoholic asking for a tequila shot…include some of your favorite YOU TUBE links.

Get Your Freak On

by Mike MacLean

B0001eqhxo_01_lzzzzzzz_2 In 1999, Freaks and Geeks was one of the best shows on television.  It was a heartwarming coming of age story full of wit, intelligence, and sincerity.  So of course, NBC cancelled Freaks in its first season.

It was sad news.  But watching the episodes, witnessing the raw talent and charisma on screen, I just knew I’d see more of these kids.

Yet still, I wonder how James Franco took it when the show was cancelled.  Did he feel like his big chance had slipped through his fingers, that he’d never get another opportunity to live his dream?  Or did he know something better would roll his way-something like the Spiderman movies, some of the biggest grossing blockbusters of all time.

Ae_spiderman_4

Or how about Jason Segel?  After being dropped, did he dare to imagine himself succeeding on network television?  Could he have guessed a hit show like How I Met Your Mother was on the horizon. Segel03

Or Seth Rogen?  Before stealing scenes from Steve Carell in the 40 Year Old Virgin, did he picture himself waiting tables?  Did he think his opportunities would shrivel on the vine, or did he know he’d someday be a leading man in upcoming movies like Knocked Up?      

Knockedup The hope is that good writers put everything they have into their work, just as the young actors of Freaks and Geeks had.  So what happens when you try your best and come up short?  What happens when your "big chance" doesn’t pan out? 

Giving up would be the easiest option, and possibly the sanest.  After all, there are thousands of aspiring writers out there, and only so many book deals to go around.  So why not throw in the towel?

For me, the answer is simple.  Throw in the towel and you’ll never know what the next round has in store for you.  Just ask the cast of Freaks and Geeks.

So how about it, Murderati readers–has a writing failure ever led you someplace unexpected?  Has a lost opportunity ever turned out to be a blessing in disguise?

 

Knuckle Sandwich with a Side of Bullets

by Mike MacLean

Way back in December, Bryon Quertermous, editor of Demolition Magazine, blogged on a subject I hold dear to my heart–action scenes.

Fist Chances are, if you write crime fiction or thrillers sooner or later someone is going to throw down.  Fists will fly.  Muzzles will flash.  Blood will spill.

But what’s the best way to go about writing these sequences? 

Duane Swierczynski, author of The Blonde, is no stranger to this bloody art.  He commented that keeping descriptions to a bare minimum allows the scene to "take place in the reader’s mind."  On the other hand, too much detail in an action scene can distract a reader.

Swierczynski makes a good point.  Years ago, I attempted to read a thriller by an ex-special forces dude (who will remain nameless because I’d rather not end up in the cross hairs of sniper scope).  I put the book down after the very first action scene.  An entire paragraph was used to painstakingly describe the simple act of drawing a pistol.  It was like reading a technical "how-to" manual.  Needless to say, my heart was not pounding with excitement. 

And that’s the key.  A good action scene should make the old ticker go thump, thump, thump.  Often, it’s not the bullets and roundhouse kicks that accomplish this; it’s the SET UP.  The emotional build up before the fight.  The conflict assembled into the narrative.  The trash talking that fills the pages with tension. 

But sometimes, as both writer and reader, I yearn for blood on the page.  I Pistoloptics1_2want justice served up with a machinegun or nice crushing elbow strike to the larynx.  Simply put, I want my protagonist to kick ass.

What’s worse than slogging through 100s of pages of a thriller only to have it end with a minimum of ass-kickery?  (ass-kickery, copyright 2007 M.MacLean).  I’ve thrown books across the room for less.

Too much description can bog the reader down, boring him into skimming pages (a cardinal sin among crime and thriller writers).  Too little can leave the reader feeling unsatisfied (another sin if you’re looking to sell your next book).

So, what do you think Murderati readers?  What makes a good action scene?  Who writes the best?  Who does the best job of the "set up"?

War of the Words: Scripts vs. Novels

Antique_typewriter As I began my new screenwriting gig, a memory struck me.

Years ago at a book signing, a fan asked a respected mystery author to compare the challenges of writing a novel to that of writing a screenplay.  At the mention of the word "screenplay" the author’s face went sour. 

For him, there was NO comparison.  While novels were full of complexity and style, a screenplay was merely "an outline."

I shrunk in my seat.

You see, one of my favorite courses in college had been Screenwriting.  From it, I not only leaned proper screenplay formatting, but I also took away a nuts-and-bolts understanding of story structure and an economy of language that still influences my writing today.  Valuable skills in my book. 

Yet here was this author, a man I admired, telling me the craft was second rate.

He wasn’t alone in his sentiments.  Months later, I attended another reading where another famous author was asked essentially the same question.  His answer was almost identical.  Novel writing is real writing.  Screenwriting is outlining.

While I would’ve never said so out loud, that line of thinking strikes me as narrow-minded, perhaps even insecure.

Screenwriting is not a lesser form of literature.  In fact, it presents many challenges the novelist doesn’t face.  As Richard Walter puts it in his book Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing

"The limitations of sight and sound require that a screenwriter never write what a character "thinks," "realizes," "recalls," or "remembers"… This requirement to present such information visually is one reason that the screenplay, contrary to popular misconception, represents a more demanding form of writing than the novel."

More demanding than a novel?  Maybe not.  But the challenges of writing a screenplay–a good screenplay–shouldn’t be understated.

Of course, all this is just one man’s opinion.

What do you think Murderati readers?  (I’m looking at you Alex!) 

Is a screenplay easier to write than a finely crafted novel?  Of course the politically correct answer would be that they’re different art forms with different demands.  But is there anyone out there willing to go on a ledge and side with one over the other?  What makes a screenplay easier to write?  What makes a novel easier?    

Deadlines: Lethal Foe or a Writer’s BFF

by Mike MacLean

April has been very good to me.

First and foremost, my daughter Chloe came into the world.  She is the best gift ever (even better than the Millennium Falcon I got for Christmas at age 8).  The moment I set eyes on her, I understood why all those annoying parents go on and on about their precious children.

Much less monumental, yet still exciting, was an email I received a few weeks ago.  A film producer read my work in the Best American Mystery Stories and wondered if I was interested in writing a screenplay.  The film will be low budget, but the producer has been a fixture in the industry for years and the pay is generous.  Without missing a beat, I said yes.

I’m trying not to get too excited.  The contract isn’t finalized, and I’ve had more than one writing project slip through my fingers.  But I have a good feeling this time.  If everything works out, I’ll have a foot in Hollywood’s door.  Well, maybe not a foot, but at least a toe.  A big, fat, hairy Irish American toe.

And do you want to know the best part?  It’s the deadlines.

67842248_09c25d8624_2 What did he say?  Deadlines?  How can deadlines be the best part of a movie deal?

The word itself is damn ominous.  DEADLINE.  As in LINE OF DEATH.  As in, "If you don’t finish by a specific date, you’re a frickin’ dead man."

But to me, in this time of my life, the word is like music.  Hardcore speed metal maybe–but music all the same.

People who catch the writing bug have a responsibility to write.  For most of us rookies, this responsibility is purely internal.  No one is waiting for our novel.  We simply owe it to ourselves to write it.  I’ve heard the internal voice many times.  "I thought you wanted to be a writer?  Then why are you on the sofa watching Seinfeld reruns?  Get your ass to the keyboard and write, damn it!"

Unfortunately, when life becomes hectic and other responsibilities come into play, it’s far too easy to shut this voice out.

But when the responsibility to write is an external one–when money and deadlines are involved–that’s a whole new ballgame.

My family will ALWAYS come first.  But these deadlines are a blessing.  Already, they have forced me to plan ahead, to make time for writing, to focus.  I will write the best screenplay I can possibly write, and I’ll finish it on time.

But the subject of deadlines brings to mind a question.  Do deadlines hamper the imagination?  Do they rush the creative process?

I for one am energized just knowing industry professionals are reading my work.  And I can’t help but presume that this excitement will lead to greater creativity.  But knowing every author is different, I wonder how others feel.

So how about it rati-readers?  Are deadlines friends or foes?

I’ve one last point to make before I go.  If you’ve read my posts in the past, you might have noticed that I NEVER give advice.  We are fortunate here at Murderati to have many talented, published novelists as readers.  Who am I to council them?  But today, I want to give a suggestion to the newbies.

Get a website.

Even if your work has only been published online, get a website.  This production company I mentioned googled my name, found my site, and contacted me via email.  Who knows what would’ve happened if I wasn’t so easy to find.  Would they have gone to great lengths to track me down, or would they have reached out to the next author?

And if you do publish online, include an email address in your bio.  It astounds me when writers fail to do this.  SPAM be damned.  Include your email address and get a website.  You never know who is out there reading your work.
 

Oh Baby!

I apologize for not participating in the blog discussions this week.  But I assure you I have a good reason…

Introducing, CHLOE CHAMPAGNE MACLEAN!!!

Born Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Chloe_1_57 pounds 15 ounces

20.5 inches

10 fingers, 10 toes

Perfect!

Both mom and baby are doing just fine.

This is the extent of my blog this week.  I could try to wax poetic on the nature of new life and writing, but I’ve got dirty diapers to deal with.  Besides, that little face says it all.

In other News

The great Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale along with MWA SoCal are pleased to present Barbara Peters in Conversation.  Peters, a publisher, editor, and bookseller, will speak on "Current Trends in the Book Biz and What Writers Ought to Know About Them."

When:             Monday, April 16 5pm

Where:            The Poisoned Pen

                        4014 N Goldwater Blvd. Suite 101

                        Scottsdale, AZ

But wait, there’s more.

While the event at Poisoned Pen is open to the public, MWA members are invited to get together afterwards at a nearby watering hole for cocktails and conversation.

Balance

Mike MacLean

My wife is nine months pregnant, due to give birth any day now.  While we have the usual doubts about parenting, we’re excited and happy for this new chapter in our life.

I have only one real fear.  What will happen to my writing?

As it is, my time is spread thin.  Between the day job, my martial arts studies, quality time with the wife, and the blog, my fiction sometimes gets pushed to the side.  And now, there’s going to be a little one in my life-a beautiful, crying, crapping, burping little one.  Just one more demand on my time.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned.  After all, writing doesn’t pay the bills right now.  Writing isn’t going to change a diaper.  Writing isn’t going to hug my wife.

So where does writing fit in the grand scheme of things?  How important is it?

I remember a 60 Minutes interview with a famous playwright whose name now escapes me.  When asked about the balancing act between his family and his work, the playwright responded, "Art comes first… Always."

While I don’t agree, I understand the sentiment.  To give up on writing, would be giving up on a dream.  Losing hold of it would mean losing a piece of myself.  That’s a short road to bitterness.

How good a husband will I be if I’m unhappy?  How good a father?

Putting writing aside simply isn’t an option.  In fact, I feel more and more that I must make it a priority.  The question becomes, where do I find the time?

So I’m reaching out to you once again murder fans.  To the writers out there, especially those with day jobs, how do you keep the balance?  How do you keep writing a priority when life gets in the way?

Happy Easter and enjoy the ham.

Mike MacLean

How to Make a Fan

Rusty_2  By Mike MacLean

In one day, three writers made an instant fan for life–J.A. Konrath, Thomas O’Callaghan, and Murderati’s own Paul Guyot.

How did they do it?  They each sent an email with a few words of encouragement.  That’s it.  One little email and they now have a life-long fan.

I’d been writing stories online for a while, yet hadn’t received much in the way of recognition.  Dave White once sent a note, but for the most part encouragement was a far off speck on the horizon.  Then last year I was lucky enough to have stories posted at both Thrilling Detective, and Demolition.  Although I’d never met them, Konrath, O’Callaghan, and Guyot each wrote me.  Nothing major, just a few kind words.  The impact was tremendous.

Bonethief200 Hearing that professional writers had not only read but enjoyed my work meant the world to me.  It made me feel like all those hours behind the keyboard might actually payoff, that someday I could possibly carve out a little place for myself in publishing.

A few short emails, that’s all it took.

Even before hearing from these guys, I’d made it a habit to contact webzine writers when I enjoyed their stories.  I haven’t been doing that lately.  In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, "Life comes at you pretty fast," and I’ve been busy.  But now, I’m vowing to make time for zine writers again.  And I strongly suggest anyone reading this should do the same.  Let me illustrate why with two points. Whenonemandies_124_2

1.  It will make you feel good giving a struggling writer some encouragement.

2.  Your time reading the story and sending a short note might pay off in book sales.  For example, I’ve bought Konrath’s books, I’ve bought O’Callaghan’s, and I’ll be the first in line to buy Guyot’s and White’s.  Also, I’ve just mentioned each of these guys in a blog which is read by other people who might now go out and buy their books.

So when you’ve finished with this, cruise over to one of the fine sites below and browse a few stories.  I  guarantee you’ll find one you like.  Then track down the author and tell him so.  If you have time, come back and mention the story you read in the comments page so others can check it out too.

Thrilling Detective

Demolition

Thug Lit

Hardluck Stories

Spinetingler

Muzzle Flash

Mouth Full of Bullets

Shred of Evidence

(If I missed anyone, I apologize)

And while you’re at it, drop the editors a note.  These people put blood, sweat, tears, and cash into their zines, often with little appreciation, all to give new writers a voice.  I for one would like to thank each and every one of them.

         

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