Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Tyranny of the Interview (and pants)

When you're a new writer, interviews are a joy. Oh, you want to ask little old moi where I get my story ideas? *pulls up a chair, ties you in it*
But the more interviews you give and take, the less interesting they become. I try to make interviews interesting for the subject and the audience, as well as my self. I have a boundless curiosity, a rather childlike inquisitive mind, and little capacity for embarrassment, which I use to my advantage. For a year I interviewed crime fiction writers from Patti Abbott to Lawrence Block on my website, in a series called "Belly Up to the Bar." Some questions were repeated, but I tried to get a few out of left field. Some authors have been asked it all, after sixty plus years in the biz, and it's tough to excite them.
I commiserate with Saeed Jones's statement. I would much prefer to meet an author for coffee and record our conversation on my phone and transcribe the juicy bits than come up with interview questions that they must write short essays to respond to. Perhaps Twitter would be a good medium, limiting questions to 280 characters and responses to a couple tweets per? It takes the proper writer, someone fast on their tweet as it were, to keep up. But with the popularity of AMA threads (ask me anything) this may be my new go-to for Twitter-savvy authors.

I recently interviewed Joyce Carol Oates for CrimeReads—it's not published yet, so don't bother looking—and the questions were lost in email hell for a month or so. She was kind to take the time to respond to my rather detailed interrogations, but was despondent at the idea of having to write responses again, and I do not blame her. Even someone as prolific as Oates—seriously, she had two more books published since I pitched the interview, and an anthology she edited is about to be published as well—answering these questions has become a burden, as you can tell from the short responses the more seasoned authors give. Read Lawrence Block's "Belly Up to the Bar" interview for a couple of quick witty rejoinders that parry my attempts at getting him to write an essay for free!

He was gracious, and so was JCO. Many writers have asked for a moratorium on the most repeated questions, that have become a running joke for decades: "where do you get your ideas?" Because for a writer, we can't imagine not getting ideas. It's what we do, we observe the hot mess that is humanity and get inspired to write a story. The best interviews I've read of late have been lightly edited chats; here's a good one with Stephanie McCarter and Jia Tolentino on sexual brutality in Ovid's Metamorphoses, for example. Another excellent one by Matt Zoller Seitz with Sady Doyle on her book Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers that does a deep dive into Frankenstein, is a great read.

You can't do this easily via email; there needs to be back-and-forth, quick thinking, not an author sitting at their chair with all the time in the world to craft the perfect answer. But there are time constraints, especially when it's an author promoting a new book. Meeting somewhere? In a digital world, without teleporters? Madness. Even an hour of FaceTime becomes difficult to schedule. You can get away with not wearing pants, but you need a shirt and to get your hair did. Maybe a text chat in Google Hangouts or similar, Twitter DMs, is a good place to start? I'll attempt that for my next interview, and we'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Keep Open Mind, Go See Film, Decide What You Think

Recently, over on his own blog, Jedidiah Ayres wrote a superb piece about the soon to open film, The Joker.  In the piece, Jed discussed the portrayal, in fiction, of people who do terrible things.  To quote a few lines from Jed's piece: "But as a writer, I am very here for the challenge of humanizing horrible characters because when we write off real people who do horrible things as 'monsters' or 'unhuman' we do a disservice to ourselves.

They are human and what they do is monstrous."

You should read the entire piece because, as usual with Jed when he talks about film (and not just film, of course), he's fearless and illuminating.

If you haven't read it yet, you can read it here: "I Started a Joke".

I mention Jed's piece because aside from all the dead-on points he makes, it appears that The Joker is symptomatic of a syndrome that never ceases to recur.

What am I getting at?  

Just this:

The Joker has divided the people who've seen it.  In both Venice and Toronto, the festivals it played at, it drew praise and stoked concern.  Okay.  That happens.  What's off-putting are the all-in reactions you see from people yet to see the movie.  As I say, there is nothing new about this; it's a sad and pitiful road that people continue to take.  

A previous example that comes to my mind, that I remember: the opprobrium thrown, way back in 1988, at Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, before the film had even opened, protests and outrage and boycotts by Christian groups over the depiction of Jesus in the film.  If you had to characterize this in political terms, I guess you could say this was outrage coming from conservative groups. 

Why so narrow-minded and reductive, conservative people?

But then there was the anxiety, again floating around before the film had opened in the United States, that led up to the release of David Fincher's Fight Club, in 1999. "What are we going to see?" some people were asking.  "Is this film a right-wing fascistic fantasia?"  I'm not sure what these people based their perception of the film on;  again, the film hadn't opened before many were giving their definitive take-downs of the movie, and as I recall, none of these take-downs referred to Chuck Palahniuk's novel as the source of the problem.  In other words, people who hadn't even read the book or seen the movie knew the movie just had to be somewhat fascistic based on what they imagined the movie was.  Like The Joker, Fight Club had premiered at the Venice Film Festival to a very polarized reaction among critics, and word that it had to do with men fighting and secret societies and violence naturally meant - to some - that it contained a right-wing, proto-fascist slant.  If you had to characterize this in political terms, I guess you could say this outrage, for the most part, came from liberal-minded people.

Why so narrow-minded and reductive, liberal people?
And, oh yes, with Fight Club there was something else. There was the worry that the film would incite copycat violence.  Have we not heard this exact same fear expressed about The Joker?  

I don't know whether I'll like or dislike The Joker, and in all honesty, it's gonna have to be really damn good for me to rank it anywhere near Fincher's film.  But I want it to be a film I consider a good film.  Why wouldn't I?  There is always an abundance of poor and mediocre films made, so every time a good film is made, that's a plus.  There are films you hear about that you expect will probably not be good - fair enough - but why would you root for a film you haven't seen to be a stinker?  It's remarkable to me that I see comments online where people essentially applaud the negative reviews they see about The Joker not because the movie may actually not be great (possible), but because they want to see it taken down a notch after reading the good reviews it got. What we're talking about here is people having what you might call a psychological stake in a film based on what they read about the film because they're convinced the film carries a certain ideology.  Convinced by what?  I can't quite say. They haven't yet seen the film.  Of course, when they do see the film (if they do), the odds of them going into the film with anything like an open mind are very high. 

When does The Joker come out, by the way? I have to check, reserve my seat.  I don't know whether I'll be there opening night like I was with The Last Temptation of Christ and Fight Club, but I'm sure I'll be there soon after it opens.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Why do we like the dark?

By Marietta Miles

How often are you, crime writing friends, asked why you write about such a dark subject? Moreover, as a reader, do you wonder why you like to read about crime?

Is the reason I am fascinated with crime and horror a reflection of my fears and concerns? Or is it a reflection of something dark living inside of me?

When I was a kid and my mom and I would visit the library, I would sit in the adult section, while she combed the stacks, and pour over THE MAMMOTH BOOK of MURDER. Eyes big and the hair standing up on the back of my neck.
The first short stories I wrote, years ago, and submitted for publishing were vicious and horrific. So disturbing, I was often turned down for inappropriate content. As I matured, I realized that a tale must be more than just intense snapshots of savagery and brutality took a back seat to story.

After becoming a mother and stepping up as caretaker in my family, the idea of the victim became one I couldn’t let go. I was plagued by thoughts of the helpless falling victim to horrible fates. It seems apparent why my thoughts would hover over these ideas. I was overwhelmed by the vulnerability of those I love and mowed down by such intense and enormous emotions.

Experiencing all these emotions and even knowing the reasons, I still find myself obsessed with the dark. Why?

There's this book... 
by Rachel Monroe

Savage Appetites: 
Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession

Journalist Rachel Monroe, recent finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists, named as one of 56 women journalists everyone should read by New York Magazine, and admitted fan of true crime fiction, brings us SAVAGE APPETITES.

This is Monroe’s first book and is part personal account and part social research.  It explores the darkest part of the human mind and attempts to understand the fixation our society has with violence and brutality.

In SAVAGE APPETITES we meet four women, each a perfect example, each obsessed with true crime. First, Frances Glessner Lee, who created the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, composite crime scene models recreated on a one-inch-to-one-foot scale. These were dioramas used as police training tools to help crime scene investigators learn detailed forensics-based detection. Her fascination with murder gave the crime fighting community a new tool for justice.

There is Alisa Statman, a writer and director who inserted herself into the myth of the Manson murders, living in the very house where Sharon Tate and others were killed and eventually writing a book. All of this without proper authorization or research.
Lori Davis, a landscape architect, who fell in love with—and set out to prove the innocence of—one of the West Memphis Three. Her story being one of perseverance. 
Finally, there is Lindsay Souvannarath, a young woman obsessed with the Columbine killers. Enthralled and inspired by the massacre, Lindsay began to make and move on her own plans of mass murder.

Rachel Monroe delves into possible reasons why women are drawn to tales of brutality. Do we read violence to prepare for violence? Women are constantly reminded, by deeds or by stories, of their fragility in this world. Is it possible that we read James Patterson, Thomas Harris or TRUE CRIME magazine so we are prepared for what we think will eventually happen to us?  

Or, do we read violence because we like it, because we see a reflection of our own desires in the acts we are reading? Is it a release or a danger sign?

In searching for an answer Monroe presents each woman’s narrative alongside her own, making this a personal read and pulling together all of the stories so that they relate. SAVAGE APPETITES is a well-written, well-researched book that does not offer up easy answers. By the end, Monroe seems to infer that there are too many reasons to count. Every individual has their own, complicated reasoning.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Doing Time: Jail vs. Prison for a Desperate Housewife

Felicity Huffman was sentenced Friday for her role in the college admissions scandal. She paid $15,000 for a test cheater to bump up her daughter’s SAT scores. The actor got 14 days in the slammer. And this is where—from my persnickety copy-editing point of view—things got interesting. And infuriating.
Jail and prison are not the same thing. They cannot be used interchangeably. Yet they were, repeatedly, during the coverage and social media conversations about Huffman’s case. I also see the mistake in crime fiction every once in a while. It makes me cringe there, too.
Time magazine's coverage. They didn't mention that the federal Bureau of Prisons will be the one assigning her to a facility.
Admittedly, this case presented some challenges that aren’t usually there when you need to differentiate between jail and prison. I’ll get to those in a minute.
Typically, any criminal sentence less than a year is served in a jail. Jails are operated by local authorities, usually counties. They are designed to hold people who are awaiting trial or serving time for misdemeanor convictions. Prisons are operated by either a state or the federal government (there are also some privately run prisons—the same terminology holds true for them, too). They are for people who’ve been convicted of  felonies. Now, occasionally a person in prison might get out after serving less than a year (good behavior on an already low-year sentence or other reasons) but generally, this is how it works.
This information is pure gold for the crime fiction writer who needs a setting in the lockup. The two places have very different environments and you can create very different characters to populate them. Many times, though, writers just need a toss-off reference and that's where the errors creep in. Your main character's uncle isn't at the birthday party because he's incarcerated for a first-time drunk driving offense?  Uncle Billy isn't in prison. He's in jail.
Now let’s get to Felicity. This was fascinating to me, because it did not hold to the usual rules. She was sentenced to 14 days in "a facility designated by the Bureau of Prisons." The federal Bureau of Prisons doesn’t run jails, so it’s a reasonable bet that news organizations took when they said that she will serve prison time—even though she’ll only be there two weeks.  
Here's the Associated Press, which appears to have done the same thing I did. It reflexively said 14 days in jail (bottom tweet), then corrected itself later after looking at the judge's Bureau of Prisons statement.
Breaking news is tough. Journalism is hard. The AP did it right here, and consistently stayed with prison for the rest of its coverage. Not like some places. This right here is the absolute cardinal sin: A headline that doesn’t match the story. 

The enlarged lead paragraph of the story on a TV station website.
If all this is still confusing, then use a tried-and-true route. Pick a word that could mean either, like I did up above. It's not a solution in the journalism world--no editor would ever let you use them--but in fiction, they might accomplish what you need.
Hell, use the word pokey. It might be corny, but at least it isn't wrong. 

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 37

Scott D. Parker

And now, a word from our sponsor.

No, not really, but after you read today's post, you might wonder.

A Two-fer from Draft2Digital

Tuesday was a fun for me. First there was a new blog post from Draft2Digital. It was nothing new to me, but it was about the definition of the word 'prolific.' The post was penned by Kevin Tumlinson, arguably the face of Draft2Digital. The piece is a nice reminder that being prolific doesn't always mean churning out a book a month or publishing sixteen books a year. It can mean whatever you can sustain.

And that's the key: sustainability. You have to be able to sustain whatever schedule you develop. Here's how Kevin ended his piece:

"If your goal is to be a prolific writer, the secret isn't a secret by any stretch. It simply comes down to "write a lot."

Spend your time and energy now on developing a daily writing habit. Treat every bit of writing you do (emails, blog posts, social media posts, even text messages) as practice. Engage your writer brain early and often and always. Put it to work daily, and it will build up some callouses so it can keep working when it really counts.

Commit to a daily target and start meeting it, then push yourself to exceed it. You'll thank me when you have a shelf full of books to point to."

Meeting with Kevin Tumlinson

The other cool thing on Tuesday was that I got to meet Kevin live (and not in person). I attended one of Draft2Digital's "Ask Me Anything" Facebook live event a couple of weeks ago. That session itself was good enough, but as a treat/thank-you gift for attending, we had the opportunity to meet with Kevin and discuss the author business.

Kevin and I linked up on laptops and we had a great 30-minute conversation. One of the biggest things was clearing up a misconception re: Draft2Digital's printing service. Not sure how this idea got ingrained in my head, but there you go.

When you upload your files to Draft2Digital for their print-on-demand service, you do not incur any fees. In addition, if you have to make any changes, you still do not incur any fees. Do you know what that means? It means the POD service via Draft2Digital is free at the outset. They'll get their cut on the backend, but too often, we authors tinker or find things only after we upload the files. It is reassuring to realize you can make mistakes and you don't face any charges.

Plus, Draft2Digital can be the middle man for getting ISBNs. That's a big help.

So I'll be moving all my POD books to Draft2Digital. Because why not?

If you want to join the next Ask Us Anything Facebook live event, head on over to Draft2Digital's Facebook page and sign up.

One Last KISS

This week, I went to my last KISS concert in Houston. As a fan of the band for 41 years, it was fantastic and bittersweet. I never, ever tire of watching the opening of a KISS show, but to know this was the last time to hear "Rock and Roll All Nite" live was bittersweet. Here's my full review.

TV Shows With Unanswered Cliffhangers

My wife and I watched two unique BBC shows in recent weeks: The Ketering Incident and The Living and the Dead. Each are unique in their own ways. Each end with a cliffhanger that doesn't diminish the series you just watched, but leaves unanswered other questions.

Both were not renewed for a second season, so those unanswered questions are not answered. Irritating, I know.

It makes you wonder why the creators and writers didn't make an official "This is what Season 2 would have done" post or ebook or novel. Is it the idea that they might make the second season one day, or might the TV studio own the rights and they just don't care?

Are there shows you enjoyed with unanswered questions?

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Writing Again

It’s been a strange few weeks round here.
I think last time I wrote here I was procrastinating and feeling blue and generally faffing about with a few different ideas.
Well, I made a decision to work on a new standalone that – once I’d done some cursory research to confirm the basic premise was physically possible in the real world - made me exited.
My friend Neil Broadfoot is a genuine Pantser. You know: one of those people who has an idea and just runs with it. I’m awestruck how he manages to not only come up with such Byzantine plots and twists but manages, always, to tie everything up neatly. His latest “No place to die” is a masterpiece of plotting, with not a single loose (or even slightly threadbare) end unresolved, and yet he’s open about having Pantsed the whole thing.
I’ve always been a plotter, someone who – before writing a word of the book proper – usually has about ten to fifteen thousand words of notes sketched and arranged in chronological order so that some chapters are basically cut n paste the notes then expand on what you’d already decided.
So I started working on thestandalone, and realised very quickly that because so much of the story relies on the repercussions of things that happened two (or more) decades ago I’d have to sketch the back story first and make sure I had that locked down.
So I did.
Then I went to Edinburgh for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I can not recommend this highly enough: If you’re a lover of theatre, of comedy, of music, of people and random strangers chatting to you at the bar, of a quick Scotch turning into a taxi ride across town to see a show that you ‘Just have to see,’ then this is the festival for you and the fact that this was the first time I had ever gone is to my deepest shame.
Then I came back to London and got sucked into various dayjob shenanigans.
Last Tuesday I was sitting at my desk paying as little attention to a phone meeting when I suddenly realised the back of my head felt wrong.
It hurt.
And as I moved my hand to it and tilted my head a millimeter backwards the hurt exploded into agony and spread like wildfire up the back of my head and across the top, seeming to bloom inside my head at the same time.
I grunted in pain and closed my eyes, opening them as I continued to tilt my head backwards in agony. Panic set in when I realised that my vision wasn’t moving in the same direction as my eyes, which is to say it clearly was but something in my brain was telling me that I was tilting my head forward even though I knew it was going backwards.
The fireworks lasted a few seconds and then something not-quite-agony settled in.
Frightened, and assuming it was a migraine (I had to assume as I’ve never had one before but it scared the living shit out of me and hurt like nothing I’d experienced before) I scuttled home, alternately sweating profusely and shivering wildly, crawled into bed and passed out.
When I awoke a few hours later the pain was almost completely gone, though an occasional twinge has served, since, to remind me of what was a truly disturbing event.
I’m seeing the doc on Friday and getting various tests to check that it wasn’t anything more serious.
Last Friday would have been my mother’s 76th Birthday, if she hadn’t died four years ago. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, and the grief which almost consumed me before and after her death is less likely to drag me under these days, though the waves are capable of moving from millpond flickers to Tsunami at little to no notice and for really odd reasons.
I thought I was fine at the prospect of her birthday approaching, but maybe I wasn’t.
Maybe the migraine was my body’s way of reminding me how much pain I was really in.
Maybe it was reminding me that the anniversary of 9/11 – a date that changed my life so much I still think of things pre- and post- that date – was looming.
Either way, I spent the weekend chatting to family and hanging with family friends and loved ones. I went to a local music festival and did what my mother often did when she felt discombobulated: I cleaned house.
Months of ‘Mail I’ll get to next weekend,’ receipts I was going to file and check off, flyers for sales that have been and gone, statements I need to review and file were scattered all around my writing space.
I knew I needed to get on with writing that new book.
I hadn’t, remember, written a word of the actual book, only a bunch of scene-setting.
But my brain was in a place where what I needed to do was tidy. It felt like making the place where I work ‘new’ again would be totemic, and clearing all the physical clutter might help clear some of the mental clutter too.
Plus, as I suspect I may have said before: I am the Emperor of the small island of Procrastinatia.
So I tidied, and I did my accounting and I got the shit together to do my Tax return; and I decided that I’d do that next weekend (See: Procrastinatia rules!).
And finally, last night, I sat down and opened the word document and realised two things:
I hadn’t written a word of it since 17th August (which has to be the longestI have gone without writing fiction in years), and I hadn’t quite finished the back story.
So I brought the backstory right up to the moment where the book starts, and I added down the few scenes I had already envisioned in the book proper.
And by then it was bed time. But guess what? I went to bed HAPPY. I got through the past week. I can get through this week.
And the book is not going to be as tightly plotted as my others because I don’t want it to be. I know where it needs to go so I’m going to take a leaf from my friend Neil and start writing it.
And that’s what I did today, and it flowed.
Oh I’m not kidding myself that I’m not going to reach a point where I go “How the fuck do I get out of this?” But it doesn’t matter. 
I’m writing again.
I may be winging it (and who doesn’t from time to time), but I’m writing.
So I’m calling that a victory!

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Fiction and Non-Fiction: An Enjoyable Balance

When 2019 started, I had as my primary writing goal to finish the novel I've been working on for a while.  It's been going well but with my usual slowness, and I promised myself, in January, that as soon as I finished the extended piece I was writing on the Russian science fiction writers the Strugatsky Brothers - a piece for a collection of essays on science fiction writers that will come out in the next year or two - I would resume work on the novel.  I also promised myself that in 2019, unlike in 2017 and 2018, I would not keep pausing in my writing of the novel to write non-fiction pieces and reviews.  In early February, when the Strugatsky Brothers piece was finished and I'd sent it off to the editors of the sci-fi piece collection, I took up work again on the book.  It takes a couple days to get your head back into a fiction story and build up a little momentum.  But I got back on track, as I always seem to do despite my worries that I won't, and I did stick with the novel for a few months to the exclusion of everything else except the blog piece I write here each week.

Intentions, intentions.  If only one could stick to them!  By spring, I found that I'd volunteered to write or accepted offers to write a number of pieces on crime books, or authors, past and present.  And I found myself, as I'd vowed I wouldn't, repeatedly putting the book aside to write these pieces.  

Momentum broken, momentum restarted, momentum broken, momentum restarted...

It would be easy to balance fiction and non-fiction if I could write full time. I could write fiction in the morning, eat lunch, and write non-fiction in the afternoon.  But since I can't do that, I have to swing back and forth between the two - it's one or the other at any given time - though I can write non-fiction a bit faster than I can turn out fiction. As I write this, I haven't touched the novel in about 5 weeks and I don't expect to be getting back to it till at least December, perhaps not even till 2020. Maybe I should admit to myself that what is really going on is that I'm writing the novel in between stretches writing non-fiction.  That's what 2019 has turned into.  And yet, to be honest, I can't say I'm upset.  I do wish the novel was further along and I was closer to finishing it than I am, but as I've come to realize I really enjoy writing these non-fiction pieces. It's as if the book reports I once loathed doing in school I now can't keep myself from doing.  I love doing the research you need to do.  I like the challenge of organizing a piece to try to create maximum interest and of using the analytical part of the brain more perhaps than you do when writing fiction.   And the fact is you get paid something, guaranteed, and probably get as many if not more readers from certain pieces than you do from a novel.  At least, I do.  So that's the situation.  Writing is writing, and I've always admired writers who are versatile and can do both fiction and non-fiction well, people like Joan Didion or V.S. Naipaul, Jamacia Kincaid or Ishmael Reed.  The list of writers who do a good deal of both, in truth, is long. 

And the book I'm about halfway through?  It's there in a folder on my dresser, printed out to where I am at this moment, and I look at it periodically to help keep my mind on it while I do the pieces I need to do.  When I return to it, it'll take me a few days to rebuild momentum, and I'll be worried that I won't get back on track but then I will get back on track, and...

In 2020, I will have this book done!