Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Love and Bullets: Megabomb Edition

In 2017, Nick Kolakowski began his Love and Bullets trilogy with the novella called A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps.  Shotgun Honey put it out.  The book did pretty well for Nick, and that encouraging development helped lead him to write the follow-ups, Slaughterhouse Blues (2018) and Main Bad Guy (2019).  In this spot, I reviewed Heartbroken Saps when it came out and later Slaughterhouse Blues. I didn't review but thoroughly enjoyed Main Bad Guy when that appeared, Nick wrapping up the saga with more imaginative mayhem and continuing to use the novellas not only as vehicles for pulpy crime fiction but also to score satirical points about any number of things.  Slaughterhouse Blues, to cite one example, has a great extended gag about electric vehicles, and in Main Bad Guy gentrification in the New York City borough of Queens is the target for some not so gentle gibes.  Nick ends Main Bad Guy in a satisfying way, and yet here we are in 2021 with another Love and Bullets book, which is in fact the three novellas back to back mixed in with new material.  How did this come about?

In his introduction to the expanded volume, Nick explains:

"By that point [the writing of Main Bad Guy], the trilogy had sold in Europe, so I had to stitch the three novellas together into a single work, titled -- you guessed it -- Love and Bullets.  Then Shotgun Honey wanted to release a single volume in the U.S., and here we are."

Here indeed.  Nick had the rare opportunity to go back and tinker with something previously published, and he took that opportunity to resurrect a character who, to all evidence, died in the first book.  He doesn't resort to gimmicks, I must say, or to some ridiculous (it was only a dream) re-plotting, but actually exploits an opening from Heartbroken Saps to change a character's fate.  We never actually were told outright that the character in question perished.  

So an intriguing character gets unexpected page time in the Megabomb edition, his own adventures folded into what is taking place in the hectic lives of Bill and Fiona.  There's no question that Nick likes this character (why else would he have brought him back?), and he gets the chance to give this person what you might call a second chance, or a shot at something akin to, if not exactly, redemption.

Is the new material essential?  I wouldn't say that.  And anyhow, that would imply that the original trilogy was lacking something needed for a sense of completion.  The trio of novellas do not need that.  They are quite complete as is, thank you.  But the bloody adventures for the person back from near-death are entertaining in and of themselves and do give an extra resonance to things.  These additions are not without risk either.  The shakiest aspect of A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps is how it switches, without a feeling of necessity, between its third-person narration for the Bill and Fiona parts and its first-person narration for other parts.  Slaughterhouse Blues and Main Bad Guy, without the first-person narrator character in them, jettison these point of view changes, making the books more cohesive than their predecessor.  With the Megabomb edition, Nick extends the first-person segments beyond the first novella, and here he does take the risk of splintering his narrative and slowing down the story's momentum.  When everything was so tightly put together before, won't the insertions throw the previous structures out of whack?

The answer, in brief, is a little bit, but the tone of the added sections is so of a piece with the original material (despite the point of view switches) that nothing comes across as extraneous.  With the rapid pacing and the chapter cliffhangers, you speed through the chapters old and new alike. Nick's wit and sarcasm and biting commentary remain strong, and his inventiveness with action, with violence, with scenes blending humor and human exsanguination, never flags.  In total, including the trilogy, I've read six of Nick's books now, and I can only marvel at how he keeps coming up with entertaining ways to depict human beings in absurd and absurdly violent situations.  When it comes to carnage, he has a fecund imagination, but as I've said about him before, he doesn't forget that emotion is key no matter how much craziness goes on and that if you don't care about somebody in a story, all the action in the world won't save it.  The Love and Bullets trilogy was highly enjoyable as three separate novellas and it's lost none of its zest as a single, thicker edition.

Get the expanded edition if you haven't read the books already. Get it if you read the novellas before and want to zip through them again while following some smile-inducing, bonus shenanigans.  Not everyone can mix love and bullets on the page effectively, but Nick Kolakowski is a writer who does.

You can get Love and Bullets: The Megabomb Edition here.


Monday, November 29, 2021

Hugh Lessig Takes on The Flash Challenge

Hugh Lessig has been a part of RVA City Writers for several years and he came to us with a lot of experience. He spent more than 30 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily covering politics and the military. He’s spent time with doctors in Ecuador, earthquake victims in Haiti and fellow journalists in Ukraine, but his best memories are the quirky and sometimes questionable characters he’s met closer to home.

Now, Lessig has turned his way with words toward the field of fiction. His short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Needle: A Magazine of Noir and Crime Factory.

More recently, his story “Last Exit Before Toll” was included in Mickey Finn Noir, Volume 1, released last year from Down & Out Books.

This year, he was part of the Guns + Tacos series of stories, also from Down & Out, and next month, Mickey Finn Volume II will be released and include his story “Confessions on a Train from Kyiv.”

He’s currently working on a novel about an aging thug battling Alzheimer’s and the crime boss who abandoned him.

We are pleased to welcome Hugh to the Flash Challenge. What is the challenge? Write a fifty-word flash. That’s it. However, the story must incorporate three randomly selected words and revolve around a single, overall theme. The words have been drawn and shared; letter, afford, and yard. The theme is despair.

Bad dog

By Hugh Lessig

Digging in the yard, Butterbean tears off Joe’s finger and parades up the street, wagging his tail.

After Joe’s drunken rant, everyone cried over my broken arm. I couldn’t afford a hit man or dig a decent grave, but my neighbors won’t care about the letter of the law.


Saturday, November 27, 2021

NaNoWriMo 2021 - Week 4 Encouragement: Congratulations, Honest Assessment, and the Future

Scott D. Parker

Well, as of yesterday, NaNoWriMo 2021 has only four more days. As nice as it was to start the month and our novels on a Monday, we actually have until this coming Tuesday to reach the 50,000-word mark.

I reached that milestone last Sunday, about 36 minutes into my 76-minute writing session (yeah, I kept track of the time and the exact word count). As of yesterday, I’m up to 61,667 words and I still have a bit to go. Not sure how much, but I’m going to keep going until I get to The End. I kept track of the total minutes written so far and they add up to 35.5 hours. It’s moments like this when I superimpose a month’s worth of writing in spurts of 60-75 minutes over a typical day job of 40 hours a week and start to wonder what it would really be like to have a day job in which I wrote fiction for 8 hours a day. I know that it would not be a one-to-one comparison, but I still think about it. Maybe one day.

So, how are you doing? Did you get to 50,000 words? Did those 50,000 words correspond to the end of your novel or do you still have to keep writing to get to The End? Did you fall short? Don’t worry. I’ve done all those things and more.

Depending on your answers, you should do two crucial things.

First, if you finished, CELEBRATE! You have just written a 50,000-word novel. Celebrate. Tell people about it. Post about it on Facebook. Tweet your accomplishments. Open a bottle of champagne. Seriously on that last part, do it. Ever since I completed book 2, I have sprung for a bottle of bubbly to celebrate. It is a monumental thing if you have written a novel, especially if it’s your first.

Second, if you did not finish, do not beat yourself up or chastise yourself. Do not do those things. They do you no good and, in all honesty, they hamper your next writing effort. Believe me. I know this one all too well. It wasn’t until January 2013 when I again looked at the past year of not writing and finally turned myself around. I didn’t chastise myself like I had on previous New Year’s Days. Instead, I analyzed what had kept me from writing. Once those things were identified, I was able to skirt around them, avoid them, and I became a much more productive writer.

Now what?

Well, you’ve got to ask yourself a question. Did you participate in NaNoWriMo 2021 just to say you have written a novel, or did you do it because you want to keep writing stories? If it’s the former, good for you. Print it out, bind it if you want, display it proudly, and mark it off your bucket list. Mission Accomplished.

But if you found you enjoyed the process and kept doing it, you must keep writing. Seriously. Maybe NaNoWriMo 2021 took a lot out of you. That’s okay. Take a break for sure. Revel in your success. But make a plan--today--that you’ll start your next book on a certain day. My suggestion: New Year’s Day.

Now that you know you can write a novel, do it again. What better way to start a new year than with a new novel. I’ve done it the past few years. It’s a great way to get past the inevitable doldrums I often get in January. It’s like the hangover for all the holidays we celebrate the last 62 days of a year. Make a plan to start a book, and then write that next book. I’ll leave it up to you whether or not you decide to make January 2022 into a NaNoWriMo, but make a plan.

Ideally, you’ll finish your next book by 31 January 2022. Then, do it again. The best way to make it as a writer is to keep writing regularly. The ‘regularly’ is the key part. Writing is a muscle. It needs to be exercised to keep it in shape. And here’s the cool part: the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Even if you don’t do a true NaNoWriMo of 1,667 words a day, shoot for 1,000. That’s the goal of veteran writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch. In two months, you can have your next book written. Or a novella in 31 days.

Just keep writing. Make it a habit. If you do, you’ll discover the joy of writing, the ease of writing, and it’ll likely make you happy.

Right now, revel in your celebration: NaNoWriMo 2021 is almost over. Congratulations. Now, don’t wait another eleven months to write your next book

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Loose Thoughts on...vampires.

 By Jay Stringer

Midnight Mass sent me on a bit of a Vampire fiction binge. I'm sure the season helped. It gets dark in Glasgow this time of year. I've said it on here before, but once the end of October hits, Scotland has a way of reminding you that we're on the same latitude as Moscow. There's an inky quality to the darkness here. A thickness. It seeps in, if you let it, and my tastes tend to turn towards horror when the skies get dark. Asking questions like, do we create monsters in the shadows because we're scared of the dark, or did we learn to be scared of the dark because that's when the monsters came? 

But from Midnight Mass I started listening to the audiobook of Salem's Lot. And watching a lot of vampire flicks and TV shows. Some worked. Some didn't. I became fascinated trying to spot the patterns. 

The thing that's easy to forget about Dracula is what a modern novel it was. A century of seeing it as a period piece, as Lugosi, Lee, Hammer Horror, wigs and capes. But when the book came out it was a contemporary story, about a very modern town being met by a very old problem. Van Helsing was a doctor, a scientist. The book was epistolary, made up of journal entries and -if memory serves- a transcription from a wax recording. Today it would be a book made up of blog entries and a podcast. If it was a movie it would be found footage, webcam maybe. 

And so that's the first thing that I think is needed. The story needs to be set now, and needs to feel like it's about now. Period piece vampire fare just doesn't do it for me. An old threat in an old world. 

This is related to the second key point. Science. Medicine. The story needs to have some form of scientist or doctor trying to figure out the rules. Whether they succeed or fail, the collision of science and mystery is key to the genre. 

What we know vs what we don't. 

There needs to be some form of fellowship formed. We face our own personal demons alone, but to survive in one of these stories we need to believe in something bigger than ourselves. It doesn't need to be god, but it needs to be something, or somebody. We need to put a team together. Which leads right into a final act twist that is also key. A change in genre. No matter what the story has been up until this point, no matter how dark or light, how scary or funny, to really succeed a vampire story needs to turn into an adventure in its final act. The race of the fellowship against time, against the sun, chasing down the Count on horseback, or by car, or on a daring raid into a spooky house. Some vampire fiction tries to subvert or ignore this aspect. It aims for nihilism, or loneliness, or a conspiracy-style open ending. But we need that spirit of adventure and teamwork. 

But I also keep thinking about an element I would be interested in subverting. 

As I said above, the battle between what we know and what we don't is key to this genre. And folklore by its nature is about us providing some rules to life, about figuring things out. The vampire usually enters the story with a sense of those rules. Once they turn up, certain questions about the universe are answered. And, more importantly, the vampire already knows those answers. They know their place in the pecking order. They know their rules, their mythology, their purpose. They tend to know all about the history of their species, and what their powers are, and how.

But I'm interested in finding the human level of that. Where are the atheist vampires? The ones who have as little real sure knowledge of the universe as we do. Sure, they have ancient books telling them their creation myth, just as we do, but beyond faith what do they really know? Why do they get to be so sure? I'm interesting in thinking about a story of vampires who have no more understanding of the meaning of life (or death) than we do. They wake up, they exist, they feed, they sleep, they occasionally look up at the sky and wonder what's up there. Some of them can be religious, some not. Some have carried out experiments and studied to know how their biology works, most haven't. They're just creatures existing on this planet and getting by day by day...by hunting. 

I might have a story in there, fighting its way out. 

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Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Under the Thumb

 by Scott Adlerberg

In this spot back in March, Rock and a Hard Place Magazine co-editor Roger Nokes guest blogged with his piece explaining why the magazine (co-editor Jay Butkowski) was putting out a call for a special themed anthology called Under the Thumb: Stories of Police Oppression.

None other than S.A. Cosby took on the role of the anthology's editor, and in that March piece, he explained the anthology's goal:

“I think the main objective of this anthology is to demystify the cop story in crime fiction. We are trying to invert the usual perspective when it comes to a crime story. A deconstruction of the police procedural that examines the world through the eyes of characters who are usually voiceless. We’ve all read a police procedural that uses the suspects as simply props for the story of an officer who 'bends the rules' to get things done. Too often we don’t consider the cost of this kind of indoctrination. Stories are our myths and our myths become our reality. But it's a reality shaped by a worldview that disavows the truth of people from marginalized communities and underrepresented cultures. I like to say writers are liars who seek the truth. That’s what we are doing with this anthology. Seeking the truth. No matter how much it hurts.” 

Well, the anthology has now been released, and it has a stellar lineup of writers.  There are stories by Travis Wade Beaty, Andrew Case, Hilary Davidson, Hector Duarte Jr., Michael Downing, Jeffrey Eaton, Michael A. Gonzales, James D.F. Hannah, Zakariah Johnson, Preston Lang, Bobby Mathews, Mike McHone Richie Narvaez, Oluseyi Onabanjo, James Queally, Keith Rosson, Jeff Soloway, Joseph S. Walker, and Tim P. Walker.

Crime fiction, as ever, is a great vehicle to explore the power disparities of the world and the flaws and problems inherent in the systems of human justice, and I'm eager myself to see how these different writers approach all this.  There should be a lot to dive into.

Proceeds from sales, by the way, go to The New Jersey chapter of Black Lives Matter.

You can get Under the Thumb: Stories of Police Oppression right here.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Flash Fiction Challenge...Julia Brugh


Julia Brugh is one of the newest members of RVA City Writers, having joined us during the pandemic and soon taking part in our virtual readings. She writes dark fiction with an eye and voice for unreliable narrators, ghost stories, and gothic tales centered in Appalachia. She and her husband, Mark, co-authored the book CIVIL WAR GHOSTS OF SHARPSBURG from History Press, a great read for a stormy night.

In addition, on the first Friday of every month, the Brughs host Happy Hours with Back Porch Cocktails on Facebook Live! Friends gather and chatter over a cold or warm cocktail created by the supremely talented and creative Julia Brugh. The drinks are perfect for the season and the conversations stretch from best rock tunes featuring flute or banjo, to favorite karaoke tunes, or Top 5 “Coming of Age” movies. Bueller? Bueller?

For now, let’s settle in and read Julia Brugh’s flash fiction challenge piece. What is the challenge? Write a fifty-word flash. That’s it. However, the story must incorporate three randomly selected words and revolve around a single, overall theme. The words have been drawn and shared; letter, afford, and yard. The theme is despair.

Tit For Tat
By Julia Brugh

The old woman cursed me after I recorded her in my yard. I couldn’t afford not to.

She’s internet gold-screaming about noise-waving some letter around.

Said I’d cut off my nose to spite my face.

She was right, but I’m okay.

It barely bled,

and I went viral.