Monday, July 25, 2016

Out of Character

Sat July 16 I was scheduled to read at Noir at the Bar event in DC. I'd tried working on a few different projects, but nothing was coming together. My most recent stories were too long and couldn't be pared down to the length needed.

Channeling my inner high school procrastinating skills, on Thursday July 14 I penned a short story. Initially at 2600 words, it too needed to be trimmed. I was confident I could squeeze it down to 1500 or so and be ready for Saturday.

One of my fellow Radioactive Writers read it and sent back notes, and we discussed the story at length over Skype. Rewrite followed rewrite.

For the purposes of Saturday's event I wanted to; a. Keep it to 1500 words or less, b. Keep it crime, and c. Tuck in some inside jokes for Marietta Miles, who was also reading at the event.

The inside jokes were references to The Walking Dead.

As the process of revision unfolded my critique partner suggested a reference to a Tom Waits song. It was a song Beth sang in the hospital.

Now, the song didn't make the cut. That's not the point. The point is, the suggestion got me thinking about Beth. Would sweet, innocent, sheltered Beth sing Tom Waits? Keith Green, sure. Tom Waits? Undecided.



I posed the question to Brian and that's when he pointed out to me that in some of my books I've had characters reading certain novels he doesn't think that character would read. He says it's common for authors to make that mistake to name drop friends' books.

Of course, I argued back with him that despite his and Bry's own views on religion they're all up on Parker Millsap, despite a lot of God references scattered throughout his lyrics. (And, I mean, who isn't all up on Parker Millsap? I guess anyone who hasn't heard of him, but damn, is he talented.)


However, he has a point about the book references in novels. They often pull the protagonist out of character to serve the author's agenda instead of maintaining character consistency.

Now, I'll be the first to say that I think people can be more diverse than story characters often are, and real people are often filled with contradictions that aren't accepted in character development (as I pointed out to Brian). However, both of those aspects of character development involve narrowing the focus on the character in a story. Inserting musical or written references that contradict the perception of the character don't expand that character; they simply contradict how they've been developed.

Maybe after the apocalypse, after the barn and the brutal deaths they'd seen, maybe then Beth would have listened to Tom Waits, but the only way for her to sing that song was if she knew if before the world turned to hell, and it feels like a stretch to me. I just wasn't convinced. Wild child Maggie, sure. Naive little Beth? Hmmmm. Not sold.

Whenever a character does something to suit the author's purpose the risk is that the reader will be pulled out of the story, and when that happens you risk losing them. Works that are character driven flow from a consistency of character with believable choices the characters make that drive the plot forward.

The other end of the spectrum is placeholder people who do what the author needs to follow their plot. The dumb people who, after being chased by a freak with a knife, hear a noise in the cellar and go to see what it is instead of running away. Or, you know, Kevin from Bloodline, who does everything he's told not to do.

This is an issue that crops up a lot in plot-driven writing. When the focus is on outlining and following a formula for storytelling, the compromise can be wooden characters who don't flow organically through the events because the author's more focused on scenes they want to incorporate than telling a story about a protagonist that flows from their motivation.

I was trained in outlining. When I took my creative writing diploma I worked under the tutelage of an author who had several books to her name. I felt apologetic telling her why I'd continued a manuscript (that eventually became Suspicious Circumstances) but abandoned the outline and why.

Her response? "You've a real writer." She credited me for knowing the limitations of the outline and being able to toss it aside when necessary in order to ensure the development of the characters and the story was organic and believable.

Ask if a character would really do something, and if so, Why? What's their motivation? If you can't answer those questions for a novel you're reading or writing chances are the character isn't well developed.


Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Thank You Note



Writing is such a solitary thing, that you can forget how many people are supporting you. I was lucky enough to be reminded yesterday.


From the fellow moms who watched my kids so I could get those chapters finished by deadline to the design expert who helped do my promotional bookmarks and the photography buff who took my author photo, I have friends who have pitched in regularly with their time, their skills and their encouragement to help make my book a reality. Their enthusiasm has been priceless.
And then there’s my family, who put up with my hours closeted away with a laptop and my frequent stares into space as I contemplated plot points. (That happened at dinner. A lot.) There aren’t enough ways to say thank you in the English language for me to express how grateful I am.
So for all the people who – even though they never write a word – help writers become authors and help books become reality, thank you.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Fiction Writing Streak #2 is Dead

Well, it had to happen, right?

My second fiction writing streak ended with a whimper on 18 July 2016. It started on 1 January 2015. That’s just a tad over a year and a half—565 days because 2016 is leap year—of writing some sort of fiction every day. That’s more than double my last streak of 255 days. And, obviously, it meant that I wrote some sort of fiction every day for all of 2015.

But it ended having been completely forgotten. On Monday night, as we were preparing for our trip—I’m writing this on Wednesday—I remembered thinking “I have to get my fiction in.” You see, as this summer has progressed, I’ve stumbled into another streak. I’ve written on my author blog every day this summer. And, in recent days, I’ve awakened at my typical 5:15am, but instead of writing on my current story, I’ve written a blog post. Now, it doesn’t take a genius to see the problem there and I freely admit to the change in priorities. But that’s where I’ve devoted my morning energies. I’ve moved the fiction to the evening.

And I missed it completely on Monday. Heck, I didn’t even realize it until I woke on Tuesday morning. I was crestfallen, to be sure, but also a little relieved.

Streak #2 had started to become an albatross, to be honest. There were some days when I pounded out 8,000 words. There were other days when I managed ten just to keep the streak alive. Another obvious issue is enthusiasm. When I’m excited about a project, I’ve got no issues writing. When the project becomes laborious, well, then, there is more than one issue a play, huh? That’s where I’ve found myself currently. I’m gearing up for my second Lillian Saxton novel that I’ll be starting on 1 August. “Gearing up” means researching The Battle of Britain and working over the plot and characters. Needless to say, “research” isn’t writing.

The way I get to split hairs is to say that my *writing* streak is still alive since I’ve written blogs on Monday and Tuesday. I’ve rarely counted blog-writing days as writing day, but I should. I *am* writing, after all.

So, there you go. Streak #2 is done. The breaking of the Streak has also given me a chance to contemplate how I move forward. It’s safe to say that once I start a project, I will write on it every day until completion. Maybe now that the Streak is broken, I can devote some of my time to marketing the books I write. By the time y’all read this, I will already be traveling. Traveling for me means when I’m not driving, I’m in the backseat, Bluetooth keyboard linked with my iPhone, writing. It’s amazing how much you can write when it’s basically the only option to pass away the miles. So, if nothing else, a new streak should have started on 21 July.


Let’s see how long this one lasts…

Friday, July 22, 2016

Noir at the Bar: DC

Marietta Miles photographed by Peter Rozovsky

By Steve Weddle

Over at Spinetingler, Rev. Eryk Pruitt recounts the recent Noir at the Bar in DC. Check it out:

On a weekend where the heat indexes crept into the 100s across the mid-Atlantic, no place was hotter than Washington DC’s Wonderland Ballroom, the site of author and reviewer E.A. Aymar’s third Noir at the Bar. Billed as “Chapter Three,” the lineup boasted  ten crime writers at the tops of their game to a packed house. The mood was kept dark and lively, thanks to DJ ALKIMIST, who spun intro music for each reader. Even amongst the crowd gathered a Who’s Who of crime fiction, as readers and writers alike mingled with folks like Peter Rozovsky, Brian Lindenmuth, and Erik Arneson.

Continue Reading >>

Thursday, July 21, 2016

When we were cool: FASTPITCH

By Steve Weddle

As someone who reads and writes about early to mid-20th century baseball, I dug the idea of FASTPITCH, Erica Westly's fabulous, amazing new book.

A hundred years back, towns had their own baseball teams and communities rooted against each other on the field. Heck, nearly everything was semi-pro then. You still get some of that amateur feel in the Cape Cod League and the Tidewater Summer League and so forth, but you don't really get that "town pride" that you had back in the 1920's, it seems. (Get off my lawn, etc.)

Westly's new book (which I totally lurved) shows you that feeling again, but also shows you the people who played softball, the companies that fielded teams, the atmosphere that made professional softball so cool, so cruicial to what made those decades such a cool time to be alive.

I've been looking for an old Brakettes jersey since I read the book, by the way. And the folks at Jezebel have a swell interview with Westly up over at their site.

Q: One of the women you follow is Bertha Ragan Tickey, and you open the book with this image of Bertha and the height of the Brakettes from Stratford, Connecticut, who were sponsored by the company Raybestos. Clearly the company was a major part of the town’s economy, and it seems like that team was really a culmination of this type of experience, how they built it up into a major local attraction.
A: Exactly. There’s a town pride element to it, too. Starting in the ‘50s and then going into the ‘60s where more people have televisions at home, not that they didn’t follow the professional teams from the nearest city, but people didn’t have the same need for the small town teams as much. But in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, it really meant something to have these softball teams from your town winning at the state and national level. That was really a big deal. It made front page on the newspapers and they really wanted those teams to be as competitive as possible.

I taught a William Blake class at LSU a thousand years ago. One of the students was on the softball team and one on the football team. The softball player worked so hard in class, even though she probably could have coasted by with a "B" without much effort. But that wasn't good enough for her, of course. The football player showed up for the first time a couple months into class, saying that I needed to provide him with the textbook we were using. The softball player went on the play in the Olympics. The football player went on to play in the NFL. All of this is true.

What is heart-breaking is that there aren't many options for a softball player after the Olympics. A football player can continue his professional career by playing in the NFL, but the softball player doesn't have the same options. You have the National Pro Fastpitch League, with a whopping six teams. There was a time when fastpitch softball rivaled baseball, when players were treated like celebs.

Also, you can follow the Brakettes on Twitter. And the Dallas Charge. And the Chicago Bandits.

Try finding them on ESPN, though. Or Monday Night Fastpitch.

If Westly's book were only about the history of the game, it might have made a good essay. Instead, she develops the story and shows us the people who made the game what it was, shows us the time period in which the game thrived, and, more importantly, shows us in great detail what we're missing now -- and what we still have that we can enjoy.

So, if you can get to a fastpitch game these days, do it. Follow NPF on Twitter and keep up.

More: Erica Westly

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

When Bad Guys Go Too Bad

by Holly West

Before I begin this week's post, I'd like to announce that Thomas Pluck will be sharing Wednesdays with me starting next week. I always enjoy when Tom writes a guest post, so I think we can all look forward to some insightful and entertaining content from him. Welcome, Tom!

The following post will be a bit spoiler-y, particularly if you haven't watched the last-ish seasons of House of Cards, Nurse Jackie, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and Orange is the New Black. No plot revelations, but I'll be discussing character development of these shows.

I'm sure I've said this before, but I love a flawed protagonist. They are, in fact, my favorite kind of protagonists. I'm attracted to misfits and characters who walk the thin line between good and bad. Characters who are fundamentally good but for some reason do a lot of bad things--maybe because they can't help themselves or they can't get ahead in life or they don't feel they have a choice. Maybe it's their job. Characters who are somehow able to justify the bad things they do in such a way that the audience is able to root for them in spite of their flaws.

Oh, how I loved Tony Soprano.
Take Tony Soprano. In the beginning, he was the perfect flawed protagonist. Admittedly, he was more bad than good, but that works for me. He did terrible things, but dammit, he really loved those baby ducks. And his struggles with his mother? I'd watched my own father have similar ones with his mother. I could relate. Tony was so simple and yet so complex and I loved him completely.

And while we're talking The Sopranos, what about Nurse Jackie (played brilliantly by Carmela Soprano--er, Edie Falco)? Another superbly flawed character whose drug addiction causes her to lose nearly everything. At first, the awful things she does are balanced out by her brilliance as a nurse but eventually, she hits bottom and we're left to wonder if redemption is possible. Has she pushed us too far, like she pushed away everyone else in her life?

Which brings me to the point of this post: what happens when characters go so bad they're no longer enjoyable to watch/read? I'm not talking about the bad guys--the guys whose job it is to be terrible. I'm talking about the so-called good guys. Flawed or not, the ones we tune in for each week (or turn each page or buy each book in a series) because they're compelling and sympathetic in spite of the bad things the do. In some cases, because of it.

In Tony Soprano's case, it became increasingly harder to empathize with him as the series wore on and that made him less interesting. There was no chance of redemption for him as a character because he'd pushed me to my limit and he wasn't giving enough back. Where are the baby ducks when you need them? I was ready to let him go before the series actually ended (though I loved him so much in the beginning, I still wanted him to live on in some kind of alternate universe, even if I no longer wanted to watch him).

Oh well.

I'm not saying that a character shouldn't, over the course of a series, become unredeemable. Often, that's a compelling arc and I'm into it. But as writers we need to be cognizant of when a character has reached the pinnacle of his/her evil and not let it drag on too long. Know when to cut him off at the knees. He can't go on indefinitely without consequences (and sometimes, the consequences are the end of the series).

A good current example is House of Cards. At the end of season three, I wondered if perhaps the Underwoods had become truly evil and whether I wanted to watch them any further. They no longer seemed to have any moral dilemmas--their only problems were keeping the power they'd gained and not getting caught for their many misdeeds. I'd watched for three seasons thinking they were working for some kind of greater good only to learn that they themselves were the greater good. Womp womp. But then, the season three finale ended with a good cliffhanger so I watched season four. Unfortunately, I think I'm through with the Underwoods--the series should've ended this season (and if you've seen it, you know they had the perfect opportunity).


I also mentioned Orange is the New Black. We're half way into the latest season I'm having trouble with the main character, Piper. Perhaps the goal was to harden her as the series proceeded (because let's face it, she is in jail and even if the inmates are magically able to have sex whenever they want it's still taxing) but she's lost most of the vulnerability that was so appealing at the beginning of the series. She's one-dimensional now. Not complex and not interesting.

Want an example of a show that did it right? Breaking Bad. The series ended at precisely the right time. I could still root for Walter because he was in the end stages of his disease and well, that's got to fuck a person up, but really, he'd turned so bad that having him live on would've been tedious. His story was finished and it was time to kill him off and move on.

I'm aware that I've only discussed television shows here. But these rules apply to books, though maybe not in the same way, unless you're talking about a series. Thinking about these issues reminds me to work harder at character development. Add some subtlety. Maybe a quirk or two. Good fiction demands we magnify some of qualities for effect, but no one is all good or all bad and we need to keep this in mind. We're creating characters here, not caricatures.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Wyatting past the Graveyard: Guest Piece by Joseph Hirsch

Scott's Note: Joseph Hirsch contributes a piece today.  Hirsch has a new book out called The Bastard's Grimoire, a book I enjoyed and blurbed, describing it as something akin to a Middle Ages set Terry Gilliam film with an NC-17 rating.  Since his first novel came out in 2013, Hirsch has been prolific; he has 10 books published all together.  He has worked in a number of genres so I asked him to write about precisely that: what prompts him with each book he does to write in a difference genre or meld of genres?  
Here's his answer.


Wyatting Past the Graveyard
by Joseph Hirsch

Every writer has their strengths and weaknesses. If I had to pinpoint my major weaknesses, they would be a tendency toward what the writer John Sheppard once (accurately) called overly-elaborate sentence construction, or what the writer Lori Fraser (also accurately)  referred to as my descriptive powers that sometimes reduce readability. I think it was Ben Bova who once said a writer has two options, to either have a reader admire their words or believe their stories.

There are some writers for whom the admiration of their words is bound to the believability of the story (one doesn’t so much read H.P. Lovecraft as admire the impenetrable paragraphs he constructed with a near-saurian disregard for what the reader thought). 
I personally think that the style a writer uses should be contingent upon the task at hand. Different genres call for different levels of ornamentation. Gothic horror gives one a chance to lard on the descriptions of putrescent moss and cracked fissures in cenotaphs, while a noir novel calls for a more minimalist approach. If I’ve made a mistake in the past (and I have), it’s that I used a scalpel where a chainsaw would have better suited my purposes, and vice versa. There are those who like my crime output, especially my novel Rolling Country, but I have mixed feelings about the book. The crime maestro Elmore Leonard once said, “After I write something, I read it, and if it looks like writing, I rewrite it.” I personally like my writing to look like writing, and so my forays in the crime genre have been few and far between, or have been slipstream affairs that meld crime fiction with other, bizarre elements.


Another one of my weaknesses is too much (hat-tip to John Sheppard, again) “table-setting.” I can go a full act or two without introducing much conflict, and then turn on the afterburners in the final stanzas of the third act. Some readers find this unconventional arc gratifying; others are flustered or confused by it.
Getting to what I think are my primary assets, I would enumerate two:
1). I rarely repeat myself, or allow myself to be reduced to formulaic writing. I have written tales about nano-sized robots who force a pizza deliveryman to place his pubic hairs on pepperonis in the pizza shop where he works, so that the little machines can monitor humans from inside of their digestive systems to determine whether or not our species deserves to be exterminated;  I have also written a tale about a heroin addict who goes to Afghanistan and makes some sort of Faustian pact with a reclusive Middle-Eastern billionaire, which turns his blood into a drug; I’ve written a straightforward crime foray about an over-the-road trucker who kidnaps a young prostitute, and I wrote a book about how Satan himself was nestled in a bed of ice beneath the Appalachian Mountains. I’ve written weird Westerns that involve cannibals, or trackers blessed with super-sensitive noses that can scent out fugitives and menstruating vaginas with equal ease. My latest novel, The Bastard’s Grimoire, is a fantasy tale set in a German High Middle Ages in which a wizard reads the biblical passage about “be fruitful and multiply” to a young man, in inverted Latin, which causes the lad to bring a monster into the world every time he copulates with a woman.

I do not have the weakness or problem usually ascribed to Chuck Palahniuk or Kurt Vonnegut (both of whom, I should add at this point, are probably better writers than me and are more successful than I will ever be). I have worked in every genre, not with any sort of overarching conscious plan, but because to do otherwise than to transplant my skillset from one area to another would be boring. “Talent is transplantable” as Richard Price once said, before going on to write the same novel over and over again (after Clockers, which was a masterpiece), before he became a successful TV writer whose return to the game was a pseudonymously penned lackluster affair called The Whites, written as Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt (what the fuck?), but I digress.
People who like my weird westerns and my crime novels (or my latest fantasy novel), who expect me to churn out the same book over and over again for their satisfaction should heed the words of the rapper Jay-Z: “Niggas want my old shit, buy my old album.”


All writers, I think, smart from criticism, especially in our internet age, when the time between “farm and fork” so to speak is pretty rapid, compared to in the nineteenth century or in the first half of the twentieth century. Melville and Fitzgerald both had to wait months or even years between the writing and the publication of their works, before an ungrateful or indifferent public responded to their books. We in the 21st century have Goodreads and Amazon.com, both of which I’ve stopped checking for reviews of my works.
I recently read a book about the internet that quoted a study in which it was observed that the neurological response to hurtful comments about oneself online mimics the effects of gripping a scalding cup of coffee. I know better ways to hurt myself than to constantly check the reviews and ratings for my books online. I’ve got a root canal and a lidocaine injection slated for this upcoming week, and if I’m feeling really frisky, maybe I’ll slam my dick in the car door, which brings me to my second, and most important asset as a writer:
2) I am insane. If one were to offer me the blandishments of Hollywood, cocaine, beautiful women, a mansion, fame, etc., if I would only allow myself to be reduced to a formula (or to writing screenplays), I would not take the bait. I would prefer to stay in my rented house with the worn vinyl siding, listening to ambient music on my stock computer speakers, and typing like I am right now, with my dog lying behind me on the bed where a woman hasn’t lain for some time.
This is what I was born to do. During my last two years in the Army, I told myself I wanted to be a professional writer. After I got back from Iraq I started submitting stories to various magazines and while I did get some rejections ranging from the indifferent to the mean-spirited, I also eventually broke that door down/ dug through that prison wall with a spoon (choose your metaphor). I eventually had something like eight or nine books published. I am not bragging. I had no choice; I still don’t.


I think that, even if I wanted to sell out, I wouldn’t know how. The progressive rock musician Robert Wyatt (former drummer of The Soft Machine) is so confounding in his approach to music that there is a neologism coined to describe driving people crazy by playing his solo work on jukeboxes in pubs in England. They call it “Wyatting.” (sic)
In Wyatt’s biography, Different Every Time, Robert was asked about the term and found it somewhat amusing, replying with a chuckle that he never set out to be prog or experimental in his music, that his real role model was Ray Charles. Wyatt said he always strove to make pop music, but it always came out strange in spite of his designs to sounds mainstream. I have the same problem.
But then again, the dichotomy of “strength” / “weakness” might be a moot one, if the reader remembers that old quote by Jean Cocteau: “What the public criticizes in you, cultivate. It is you.”
With that in mind, let me get back to writing my hardboiled PI novel about a loquacious gumshoe prone to logorrhea tasked with monitoring the priapic doings of a husband who has foregone his connubial vows to his betrothed and now partakes in myriad extramarital dalliances.
That last sentence probably made Elmore Leonard do a three-sixty in his grave, and rightly so. I can’t write crime / hardboiled / pulp for shit.  

The Bastard's Grimoire is available at Amazon right here.