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  • Ethical Aspects of Animal Husbandry
    Ethical Aspects of Animal Husbandry
    by Craig Terlson

    A collection of short stories where the humour runs dark and the slipstream bubbles up.

     

    ...imagine if Raymond Carver called up George Saunders and Joe Lansdale, and they all went drinking with Neil Gaiman.

  • Correction Line
    Correction Line
    by Craig Terlson

    “… it's clear that Terlson is way ahead of the curve in terms of crafting an engaging premise that reaches for elevated territory and reinvents enduring archetypes of action and suspense.”  J. Schoenfelder


    "Sometimes brutal, often demanding and always complex, this novel will repay the reader who likes their assumptions challenged and is happy to walk away from a book with minor questions unanswered but the big ones definitely dealt with! It’s likely to satisfy those who enjoy Hammet and/or Philip K Dick and who like their fiction very noir indeed."   Kay Sexton

     

    "I love a novel that you can't put down, and this is one of them."  L. Cihlar

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Friday
Jul132018

A formula for suspense

Last year I was interviewed by someone who asked me how I went about creating suspense. They complimented me on my ability to crank up the tension in a scene, thus driving the reader forward.
I’m guessing they didn’t say “thus”, but hey, my memory is what it is.

I appreciated the kind words about the writing – but then had to wonder, well how do I do that? I won’t keep you in suspense (I kill me), so here goes...

Simplest suspense formula ever:

Writer knows something + holds back something = reader in suspense

Maybe this is just plain common writerly sense, but it took me a while to learn how to do it. And it first really came home to me from a somewhat unlikely source. The ever so amazing Canadian writer (and icon), the late Robertson Davies wrote a series of books known as the Deptford Trilogy. I’d never read him before my daughter had to read him for a class, and asked if I would read the first one (Fifth Business), and tell her what I thought. Oh, and could I do it quick, because she’d already read it, and the paper was due soon. So bam, there is the ticking clock of suspense already – you got a day to read this thing… GO!

I was hooked immediately by the great prose, the rhythm, and the masterful treatment of character. But the part I recall the most about the book all these years later, was a seemingly innocent part about a character going to retrieve something from another character’s room. You see, I wasn’t told what they retrieved, but I knew it was important, and I didn’t find out until the VERY END OF THE DAMN BOOK!

Now lots of things kept me reading this book, and it remains high on my list of best reads. But when I started writing, I thought about what Davies did in Fifth Business. He knew damn well what was retrieved in that room – for sure he knew early on when writing the book. Maybe in early drafts he even told the reader what was retrieved. But then he left it out. He. Left. It. Out.

The withholding of information was one of the biggest lessons I have learned as a writer. The I know everything but I’m not going to tell you everything is the best way I know how to create suspense. And it doesn’t have to be the lone gunman, or the ticking bomb under the railway car, or the scary guy in the hockey mask (btw, I hate that horror stuff – it’s not suspense, it’s a cat jumping out at you in a dark garage and you screaming… aieeee what the FUCK?!)

Back to the railcar for a second. I recall reading a Hitchcock interview, it might have been from the famous series he did with Truffaut (seen above), where the point of suspense is to show the viewer the ticking bomb under the railcar, but also make it clear that the people in the railcar have no idea the bomb is there. We know, but they don’t. The master of suspense, Hitch, also says, “and don’t let the bomb go off – or for sure not right away.”

So there you have it – I’m giving away all my secrets. One of the things I do when revising a manuscript is wonder what information can I take away, or reveal later in a narrative. What can I withhold? And then a further step is to plant what information is needed to suggest that the missing bits are really important… I’m just not going to tell you what they are. This was key to what Davies was doing. You can’t just simply withhold stuff and move on. The trick of suspense if showing the reader that there is something missing that they really need to know. But I ain’t telling you – so neener-neener! (The cry of the suspense writer).

It’s not easy (but c’mon, nothing about writing is) – but when it works, it is delicious. I love when a reader rips through something that I have written because they have to know! But I. Left. It. Out.

Thanks for reading. Please comment here about your favorite suspense novels, or even just moments of suspense in books.

Monday
Jul022018

Champion Mojo Storyteller - Joe R. Lansdale


“But to lose my idealism, to quit believing in the ability of human beings to rise above their baser instincts, was to become old and bitter and of no service to anyone, not even myself.”
― Joe R. Lansdale, Savage Season

About a dozen or more years ago I was working on my first novel, Correction Line, and I was swapping chapters with a friend from Rhode Island. My story was a combination of a lot of things I loved, literary fiction, the prairies, baseball, bad guys with guns, and oh yeah Marquez and other magical realists. Let’s just say I was trying to put a lot of things together.

While my friend was reading the excerpts he asked,
“Anyone ever tell you that you kinda write like Joe Lansdale?”
“Who?”

And like someone gave me a beautiful spin kick to the head, I discovered the Mojo Storyteller - as he refers to himself on his website.

Over the years, lots has been written about Lansdale. He’s always had his pockets of fans, and it seems the pockets are getting bigger lately. It seemed like he flew under the radar for quite a while, in my circles anyway. But with movies like the cult classic Bubba Ho-Tep, and the adaptation of Cold in July, and the most recent three seasons of Hap and Leonard on the Sundance Channel, a lot of people are discovering his work. I’m really happy for him, as it is all well-deserved, but there’s a part of me that still wanted to keep the secret to myself… sort of like when I first loved the Talking Heads, or even Smashmouth, before whatever the hell happened to that band happened. (Shrek anyone?)


Anyway, like I said, lots has been written, including by me at this blog, on my love of all things Lansdale. At the centre of this praise are his two best, and most well-known characters, Hap and Leonard. Trying to keep this intro short, so let’s just say working class white, liberal, draft dodger Hap teams up with black, gay, conservative, Vietnam vet, Leonard and they… wait, what do they do? Solve cases? Help people? Are their own kind of knight errants? Kick a lot of ass? Well, yes to all those things. It’s kind of hard to describe. They do get into their own sort of trouble, and end up helping people because it is the right thing to do. But really, for me, it’s all about who they are—I read them just to find out what they’re up to. And the characters are so sharp and original that I’d read a story about the two of them going to the grocery store to pick up a box of Vanilla wafers for Leonard (his favourite).


It’s damn hard to create characters like this. In the books I’ve written, the fiction gods smile on me from time to time and deliver someone out of the ether, or Venus from a shell, or pick a magical metaphor. In Correction Line it was the character Lawrence, a hitman with a gift for language and a love of music. In Surf City Acid Drop it was another hired killer named Mostly Harold. (Given the name by Luke Fischer when he explains that he has a number of aliases, but mostly Harold). I wonder if somehow the same thing happened to Lansdale, where these two guys just showed up at his door, fully formed, and said, let’s get at her.


Somewhere I read that plot is simply character in action.


Lansdale is the master of sharp visceral dialogue and action—as well as laugh out loud funny moments, like the one that opens Bad Chili. Hap is staring down a rabid squirrel, who chases both him and Leonard before latching onto Hap’s forearm, until Leonard finally runs over the bugger… repeatedly. The Hap and Leonard novels are full of these great moments, but what I keep coming back for is the character’s friendship. The fact that these polar opposites have a deep friendship makes me think that Lansdale is poking at something here— how in spite of our polarities, we can still come together.


Hap and Leonard bust as many stereotypes as they do heads.


But again, it is the small moments between them that say so much. I could have picked a passage from any of the novels, but because I have Bad Chili open, I’ll quote from that.
Hap has found Leonard in his house, after escaping from a group of bikers by way of crawling through a whole lotta pig shit.
The dialogue between them could be an old married couple, but instead it is the best of friends… friends willing to die for the other.


“I thought you might be dead.”
“Disappointed?”
“A little. I can’t believe you didn’t take off your fuckin’ shoes and clothes before you got in mybed. I do that to you, get shit on your bed?”
“I don’t even remember having on shoes and clothes, Hap. You didn’t bring home anything to eat, did you? I couldn’t find nothing but ants and sardines, though I think I’d prefer the ants to the sardines. Goddamn ants ate my cookies.”
“Those were my cookies.”
“Yeah, but I know you keep them for me.” Leonard swiveled to a sitting postion on the bed. “Is that coffee I smell?”


To finish this up, at the heart of it is great storytelling. I’ve been reading some Chuck Wendig, especially his latest, Damn Fine Story. Wendig writes about how lots of so-called rules of writing can be broken, if at the heart of things you have a great story – in fact they can be broken to aid in the telling of the story (but for damn sure, know the rules you’re breaking).


The first few chapters of Bad Chili revolve around Hap getting treatment for his possibly rabid squirrel bite. I know some editors and agents would say that the conflict has to be there right on the first page, and don’t fuck around getting there. Lansdale eventually gets there (the novel is not about rabid squirrels—but for three of four chapters it is). Because he has created such great characters, you don’t feel one ounce of impatience in the doling out of the story… or I sure didn’t. And it is a damn good story.


I’ve learned a lot from writers like Lansdale, Stephen King, James Crumley, James Lee Burke, and Neil Gaiman. There are other writers that I love just as much, but for different reasons. Richard Ford and Don DeLillo for the beauty of language—same goes for Raymond Carver, Alice Munro and Jennifer Egan. The publishing industry likes to separate literary from genre writers. But when I look at this tossed together list, though the styles are quite different, at the centre of each beats the heart of a great storyteller.

Hey, feel free to comment on your favourite storyteller.
Or your favourite rabid squirrel. Your choice.


 

Monday
Jun252018

OK, let’s talk about this knight errant thing

In thinking about a follow-up to my “why I write this stuff”, I kept circling back to the idea of the knight errant.

I’d certainly heard the term, maybe even as a kid when I was geeking out on all things Arthurian – as in Mary Stewart’s the Crystal Cave, which served as kind of a touchstone when I finally was old enough to understand (and laugh my ass off at) Monty Python’s Holy Grail. So I figured this knight errant thing had something to do with that, though it always seemed like a weird term – shouldn’t it be the other way? Errant Knight? And how did Don Quixote fit into all this? And Batman?!! Wait, I’m confused.

Chill. All we become clear... enough.

So the term translates as: “a medieval knight wandering in search of chivalrous adventures.” Simple enough, Arthur and his pals, doing good deeds, slaying dragons, saving damsels, eating whole turkey legs and drinking a lot of mead. Oh, and patrolling the streets of Gotham to search for, and beat the hell-crap out of any hoods and ne'er-do-wells. I for one wish for the word ne'er-do-well to return. 

 


Anyway – how did we get from Lancelot to Batman? And what about Quixote again? (Ok, ok, I’ll return to him.)

The answer for me lies in the reason I write this stuff.

Bad shit goes down in our broken world all the time. Some writers have taken this bad shit, and made epic tales of good staring down evil – and this often goes down in a whole different world (think Tolkien and Lord of the Rings), or a very similar world (think of Stephen King’s, The Stand). A question, to stay with those 2 books for a second, is who stands up to the evil? Well, Frodo, Sam, and quite a few others in LOTR, and maybe Tom, Nick and Stu Redman in the Stand. I use these not as examples of knight errants, but more as showing those people that stand (get it?) in the way of evil, and say, uh-uh, not today mo-fo! 

Why do they do it? Because it is the right thing to do. Because they are inherently good people. Because truth, justice, kindness, and chocolate must prevail! Ok, maybe not chocolate. Fuck it, why not CHOCOLATE?!

At the heart of this is this question, “why right the wrongs?” In acting speak (2/3 of my kids are actors), “what’s the motivation, man?” Like why should I right the wrong? Like what for man? And why am I talking like a 70s druggie surfer from a bad B-movie? Man.

The question of why right the wrongs fascinates me. It is why I love John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He is out there righting all kinds of wrongs, and pocketing a tidy bit of change for himself (after solving complicated financial schemes that really only high level CPA’s and maybe Macdonald himself understands… maybe!). And lest you think old John D. didn’t mean for McGee to be a knight errant, he only mentions it about a half dozen times in every book. 

a knight in rusty armor with a broken lance and swaybacked steed, fighting for what he fears are outdated or unrealistic ideals” John D.

 

Of course Travis is called a modern-cynical knight errant (maybe it’s the cash he keeps for himself, or it could be the buckets of gin he drinks onboard the Busted Flush with his buddy Meyer.) 

(That's him above in the movie poster for Darker Than Amber, a film I have a fondness for, as one of the few made out of the McGee novels.)

But I love this sort of knight even more. Go back some decades and you have Chandler’s Marlowe striving to bring justice to a “wronged and fallen universe” – or push the cynicism, the alcohol, and the bad-assery further and you get C.W. Sughrue (James Crumley). Sughrue might do the right thing eventually but not until he’s outdrank, outsmoked, outsnorted, every asshole in the room – chivalrous? Um… sure.

I could go on about my favorite knight errant duo, Joe R. Lansdale’s, Hap and Leonard - but I’ll save that for another post.

For me, exploring crime fiction and the creation of my own knight, Luke Fischer, has brought me back to the question: why make wrongs right?

Maybe that’s too simple of a question, but then ask yourself, who do you know who is out there tilting at windmills? (See, told you I’d come back to it).

 

"Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless."

"What giants?" asked Sancho Panza.

 

Okay, this post is getting long, so I’ll wrap up. But don’t you love Sancho here? Um, Don, I know you’re all quixotic and shit, but, uh those giants are actually in your imagination.

I had a great reader for my new Luke Fischer novel (you know who you are), and they kept asking me the same, and valuable, questions  – so why does Luke want to help, why does he want to make things better, what drives him?

A short answer is: restoration. At the centre of every great story from crime fiction to fantasy to the Bible... things need to be restored. And we need someone to do it. We need the foul brood removed from the earth (or the shire perhaps), so we can restore the world… get it back to normal… or the new normal.

You know what we need? We need a knight errant.

 


Thanks for reading, love to hear your comments on your favourite knight errant.


Tuesday
Jun192018

Why do you write crime fiction? Isn't it all just guns, blood, and violence?

 

Over breakfast, I was chatting with my wife saying how I was dealing with more dead bodies in that morning's writing session.


Her: Why do you write stuff like that?
Me (after I got over my defensiveness): Um, uh… well, cuz… FLANNERY O’CONNOR.

I didn’t even try to explain the blurted remark. She’s heard me wax on about O’Connor before. She is a wonderful patient woman (my wife I mean. Reading her correspondence, I got the sense that Flannery didn’t suffer fools, or critics, much... and would tear a strip off of any one that gave her a weak argument. A writer not to be trifled with.)


But it did get me thinking about why I love writing and reading crime fiction.

I really don’t like violence. The last fight I got into was in Grade 4. And I got my ass handed to me thank- you very much. I stopped watching horror movies in my early 20s because I just couldn't hack the blood and gore. (Haha, hack, get it?) I remember the movie - Cat People, the Paul Schrader remake, where someone gets their arm ripped off. And blood gushes out and out and out… okay, I feel woozy writing this. But I got up, said, ok, enough of that, and left the theatre.

So why in the hell write crime fiction queasy-boy?

Well, did I mention Flannery O’Connor? Oh, I did? Have you talked to my wife?
Anyway, here is what the master said:


I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.



Now, don’t get me wrong... the crime fiction I write is not worthy to tie the sandal strap of the brilliant and fierce FOC. But her work, and reading other writers I admire, got me thinking about what my characters and stories are telling me. Why am I writing this stuff?

For starters, I learned over the years not to being with, or forcibly inject theme into a story - and thank God I learned it. Because when I look at some of my early work it was all shouting and pointing: hey, over here, major moral lesson!!!
The didactic lessons that I doled out would make Aesop blush. (Dude, a bit more subtly, old Aesop would say. Cuz, he was like from California or some tripped out place. Talking animals? Point made.)

But stepping back from my own crime fiction, I realized that I was pushing my characters into violence. I pushed them into situations where their heads were so hard that nothing else would work on them... and by work, I mean have them show their true character, and if I got incredibly lucky, expose a moment that espouses the human condition.

YES I SAID ESPOUSED THE HUMAN FUCKING CONDITION.

Relax. I say shit like that.

Growing up I read a shit-ton of science fiction and fantasy (you want morality plays? Read a couple of space operas and one dragon slayer to go please.) But I also loved the mysteries, as a kid it was the Three Investigators more than Encyclopedia Brown (because who could figure out that shit?) And later in my teenage years, I discovered a guy named Donald Westlake. In some ways his work was above me, I didn’t really understand what he was doing. But now, as a sort of adult, reading him, and especially his writing as Richard Stark, I was drawn into the darkness, into a place where violence happened, and things changed.

I’ll leave this for now, and say more in the next post.
But to say this is a lead up to what I am trying to do in the crime novels with Luke Fischer.


Thanks for reading, and please comment.

Illustration above by the late and very great Darwyn Cooke - illustrating Stark’s The Outfit.

Saturday
Jun162018

Okay, so apparently I am now a crime fiction writer…

 

 

It happened so fast that my unfocused eyes barely picked it up, but somehow Sam got a knee up and slammed it under his chin. Then she sprang up like a slinky on acid and gave one of the prettiest spin kicks I’d ever seen. Like a jolt of the best coffee, my world sharpened, and when Mr. Freight Train turned to give me another swing I came up and gave him one of my Montreal specials. I don’t think I broke his jaw, though back in my sparring partner days in Belle Province, I’d been known to do that. He timbered straight back, I’m sure unconscious before he hit the floor. Lydia kept screaming. I seriously didn’t know when she took a breath.

 

Last year with the release of my literary fiction novel, Fall in One Day, I entered the world of publishing as a literary writer. Heavily influenced by writers such as, Richard Ford, Don DeLillo, Raymond Carver, and Jennifer Egan, this all made sense.


But here is my dark, not so secret, secret: I love good crime fiction.

I am shifting the focus of this blog towards talking more about crime fiction, including some of my favourites, new and old—and I want to broaden it out to include films and anything else I think will fit the theme.

I call this my not so secret secret, because if you have read my two self-published novels, Correction Line, and Surf City Acid Drop, you might already know me as a crime fiction writer. And to be honest, there were elements of suspense in Fall in One Day that also emerged from these stylistic patterns.

So why is it that I think so much of Gene Hackman’s meandering journey in Night Moves, or Elliot Gould as the perfect Marlow in Altman’s the Long Goodbye (it’s okay with me), or my fascination with James Crumley’s bad ass detective, C.W. Sughrue, or especially Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard novels (as well as most of his work)?

I’m going to answer some of those questions in this blog. I also want to look at why some crime fiction writers are more literary than others, and what the hell does that mean anyway?

A motivation for returning to this theme on woofreakinhoo (a theme I’ve talked about before) is that I recently completed the follow up to Surf City Acid Drop. The new novel is called Manistique (an excerpt starts this post), and yes, it is another Luke Fischer novel. I really enjoyed getting to know him at a deeper level, and I think a bit stronger skill set to this new book.

Also, because I love the craft so much, I am going to talk about some of the things I've learned over the last years. Stuff like: So how do you write violence (and why)? What creates suspense? How do you research?

Lastly, I'll do my best to increase the frequency of the blog.

I look forward to any of your comments.

Cheers.