Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Twenty Questions with Dana King

Note from Holly: I first met Dana King at Bouchercon Albany in 2013. Since then, I've gotten to know him better online and recently read A Small Sacrifice. I loved it. It's a well-crafted mystery that's reminiscent, but not derivative, of Raymond Chandler. It's biggest strength, of course, is its protagonist, Nick Forte. I'm terrible at writing reviews so please don't make me say more. Just read the book.

I'm pleased to host Dana at Do Some Damage this week. Take it away!:

I run a regular feature on my blog, One Bite at a Time, called Twenty Questions, where I get to grill authors about their newest books, and writing in general. Holly was kind enough to submit to one when Mistress of Fortune was released, before performing her due diligence on what she was getting into. When I asked about possibly pinch-hitting on Do Some Damage to promote A Small Sacrifice, Holly showed she has a long memory and thought it would be great fun to make me answer all the questions I made her answer. So, if you don’t like this, it’s her fault.

Holly West: Tell us about A Small Sacrifice.

Dana King: It’s a story about a Chicago PI named Nick Forte, who is hired by Shirley Mitchell to clear her son’s name. Doug is assumed by everyone to have killed his five-year-old son, Justin, a year ago, but the police have butchered the crime scene and there’s not enough proof for an arrest. Forte is about convinced Doug did it, too, until something happens that turns the whole investigation around.

HW: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)

DK: The idea came to me when John and Patsy Ramsey were on television almost every night, talking about their daughter’s murder. Just about everyone assumed they killed the girl, and were lying, so much so “those lying” seemed to have become part of their names. (As in, “Did you see those lying Ramseys on TV last night?”) I got to wondering, what if they’re innocent, but have to lie because the truth is even worse? From that point forward, I stopped watching any interviews or reading anything about them. I wanted the story to have as little to do with the facts as possible, beyond the original germ of the idea.

HW: How long did it take to write A Small Sacrifice, start to finish?

DK: A little over a year of actual writing. I went back a couple of years later for some changes when an agent showed interest, and did a little polishing before I released it as an e-book last year. From first draft of Chapter One to final e-book file took about twelve years.

HW: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?

DK: Nick Forte is a former musician, teacher, and cop, now turned private investigator. He’s a divorced father who adores his daughter and is constantly aware of the things he can’t do for her because they don’t live together anymore. This is a large part of how Shirley Mitchell is able to get him to try to prove a negative: she guilts him into it. He has trouble sustaining relationships with women because he doesn’t want to have more children, worried his daughter, Caroline, will wonder if he loves the kids he lives with more than he loves her. He’s better at doing what he has to do than he thinks he is, but the violence he encounters as this case unfolds is more than he bargained for.

HW: In what time and place is A Small Sacrifice set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?

DK: Today, or recent times, in Chicago and the northern suburbs. Lake City is a stand-in for any number of affluent communities north of the city. I worked hard to make Chicago a part of the story, but, to be honest, there were a number of cities I could have picked and probably made things work just as well. I was living in Chicago at the time and loved it, so it was the logical place to set the story. Now I associate Forte so closely with Chicago, I can’t bring myself to move him, though I’ve considered it from time to time.

HW: How did A Small Sacrifice come to be published?

DK: It had an agent at one time, and seemed to be very close to a sale, but things never quite worked
out. By the time all was said and done, I had a few more Forte stories the agent wasn’t interested in, since this one didn’t; sell, and she wasn’t interested in the standalone I’d written next. I left Forte in the drawer for several years until he made a well-received guest appearance in my first contracted book, Grind Joint. I thought I’d see if people might be interested in more of him, so I published A Small Sacrifice myself, straight to e-book on Amazon.

HW: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?

DK: Mostly crime fiction. Almost all of everything else I read is non-fiction, primarily history and true crime. I kept trying to broaden my fiction horizons, but found the stories I liked, those that spoke to me best about conditions in the world today, were crime stories at some level. I also like tightly-written prose, and most crime fiction writers keep things to the point. There is often an understated brand of eloquence, but it’s rare to see a crime writer write a beautiful sentence for the sake of writing a beautiful sentence. It has to serve a purpose. Good crime writers seem better at killing their darlings than a lot of mainstream or literary writers.

Favorites? Wow, so many I’ve actually created a spreadsheet to keep of track of who I want to be sure to read, so I get to them in turn. Of the big dogs, my current favorites are Robert Crais and Dennis Lehane. Tim Hallinan and Declan Hughes are great writers whose work I never miss. Charlie Stella is the Godfather of mob fiction, for good reason. Most of what I read are writers who are not quite broken out yet, people like Declan Burke, Adrian McKinty, John McFetridge. Terrence McCauley is doing great things with Depression and Prohibition-era stories. Tim O’Mara is about to become a best selling writer, if he isn’t already. Scott Phillips is a genius. There are at least twenty others in the regular rotation, and I apologize for not listing everyone.

HW: Who are your greatest influences?

DK: So far as getting me going, the usual suspects: Chandler, Leonard, McBain. George V. Higgins after I discovered The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I think might be the greatest crime fiction novel ever written. (That, or The Maltese Falcon.) Reviewers tend to cite Leonard and Higgins—which is immensely flattering—though one reviewer said he found elements of James Ellroy, which is also flattering, as I’m a huge fan and wish I wrote more like him, Frankly, I don’t see him in my own work.

HW: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?

DK: Outline. Always. It’s not a real detailed outline, maybe a sentence or paragraph about each chapter, unless a scene grows organically in my mind before it’s time to write it, then the notes for that chapter can get pretty long. As a rule, though, it’s just enough so I know what has to happen. Everything else I make up as I type, always while wearing pants. Well, at least boxers.

HW: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?

DK: My first drafts sometimes almost read like screenplays. I’m a dialog-heavy writer as it is, and if it’s flowing, I’m acting out the scene while trying to transcribe what’s going on. The next day I’ll go back and tidy things up before starting on what’s new, to get me back in the mood I was in when I left off. Once the first draft is done, I’ll let it sit for a while, then do usually three more drafts: one to add and remove things that will turn a series of chapters into a coherent story; one to add the little touches that make books fun to read; and one anal and OCD three-step process to get everything just as I want it.

HW: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?

DK: Have a vision for your writing. Raymond Chandler once said, “Don't ever write anything you don't like yourself and if you do like it, don't take anyone's advice about changing it. They just don't know.” (I’ll use a Chandler quote at the drop of a hat, even if I have to drop it myself.) It’s not pessimism to note the vast majority of those who actually get a novel published—in excess of 90%--will never be more than a blip on the public consciousness, if that. Would you rather that be because you took your best shot and it didn’t work out, or because someone else told you to try something, or to do it their way, and it didn’t work, and now you’ll never know if your original idea would have? Then you can’t find out because whatever influences you accepted have changed you permanently.

HW: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.

DK: Hanging with The Sole Heir, but she’s 23 now and about to start grad school, so I don’t get as much chance as I used to. Spending time with The Beloved Spouse, reading, watching the Pirates and Penguins.

HW: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?

DK: Good reviews, which is good, as I’m not making much money. That’s not a complaint—I made peace with that aspect of the writing business long ago—but I guess what I mean is I get a great deal of satisfaction when I see people I respect “get” what I was going after in a book. That keeps me going, to be spoken of as a peer by those I consider to be my betters, as least as writing goes. It’s also a lot of fun, now that reviews are coming in from complete strangers. That’s immensely gratifying, to know someone has invested their most finite resource—time—and think I made it worth their while.

HW: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?

DK: I was a real prick when I came up with this one, wasn’t I? Actually, I think this was suggested by a commenter on my blog, after I’d asked for suggestions.

My answer will probably appall a lot of people, but, yes, I would quit under those circumstances, though I’d have to have the agreement in writing and the money in escrow. As much as I said I enjoy writing above—and I do dearly enjoy it—it is not the defining feature of my life. There are plenty of things I’d find to do if I had the time in which to do them, which I would if I didn’t have to work. I’d miss writing, but I had to give up being a musician, too, which was the only things I ever really wanted to do, and it didn’t kill me.

HW: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.

DK: I’ve tried all three, and, given my place right now, I think Option 2, though any can work given the right breaks. Option 1 works best for those who already have a foothold on the public consciousness, or are willing to work twenty hours a day on marketing. And are good at it. And write well enough for the marketing to matter. Option 3 can leave you in the cold if the big house doesn’t think you’ll be one of their breakouts, and the blemish on the record will be yours, not theirs. I think Option 2 leaves the best opportunity for a partnership with people who know the business end, though, of course, even there the match has to be right.

HW: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?

DK: Beer. My favorites run in cycles. Right now it’s Bass Ale, though I’m sure Foster’s and Heineken will get their turns again. Sam Adams when I’m in the mood.

HW: Baseball or football?

DK: Baseball is the single greatest thing ever devised by the human mind.

HW: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?

DK: That one.

HW: What’s the answer?

DK: “That one.” (I’m sorry, I stole that from Todd Robinson’s interview, but it’s such a good answer it ruined me for all time after I read it.)

HW: What are you working on now?

DK: Summer is when I put new work on hiatus, though I am polishing another Nick Forte novel so it’s ready for e-book formatting, or for the agent. In September I’ll start work on the edits for the fourth book in my Penns River series, currently laboring under the clever title of PR4.

And there you have it. Thank you so much, Dana, for taking the time to answer your own questions. Now you know how it feels. ;-)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Noir women

A few years ago Neil Krug's exercise in using expired film stock took the pulp/noir blogosphere by storm. People couldn't stop talking about these images that looked like they were from some long lost 70's film.

As much as I love words I also love images. Over at The Cold Blooded Sausage Maker (my tumblr devoted to images and pictures) I began to take note of other evocative pictures of women whose story I wanted to know more of. Sometimes it is the situation, sometimes it is a look in their eye, or an enigmatic smirk. Whatever it is in each picture there is something interesting that has been captured.

The following three images are among my favorites and, for me, are as classic as the Krug image. Moreso because they are not staged.

Here are some others.

These pictures all capture stories that I want to know more about. 

How about it? What do these pictures say to you? Do you find them interesting? Any other evocative pictures I should know about?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Crime Writers Kitchen!

By Kristi Belcamino

I'm excited to announce that our very own lovely and talented, Holly West, the awesome and awe-inspiring Thomas Pluck, and yours truly have teamed up to start a website about crime writers who cook.

Crime Writers Kitchen stemmed from the realization that the three of us are crazy about good food. We first recognized each other as kindred spirits on Twitter when we got way more excited about food tweets than the average crime writer. That enthusiasm led to a conversation about joining together to share recipes and the Crime Writers Kitchen was born.

It would have never been more than a yummy idea if it weren't for Holly's initiative and expertise in setting up the website and a Facebook page and basically getting it off the ground while Thomas and I sat back in admiration.

We are hoping it will be a repository for delicious recipes we can share, not just for food, but drinks, as well.

You can check it out here:

Our Facebook page is here:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Give Tom Cruise a Break

Scott D. Parker

I saw the movie my wife’s been wanting me to see since it opened: Edge of Tomorrow. In case you haven’t heard, it’s a Tom Cruise film with Emily Blunt. It’s a science fiction/action movie that doesn’t let up until the very end. I found the film extremely entertaining with a likeable cast, a good dose of humor (lots, actually; I would love to see Cruise do a straight-up comedy perhaps in the style of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day films?), and a new and unique twist on how it’s possible for Cruise to do what he does (hint: think Groundhog Day. Hey, it’s in the preview so I’m not giving anything away here.). My wife, not a huge SF fan like me, loves the film and will buy the DVD. What does that say about genre and the common viewer?

Why do I bring up this SF film here at a blog devoted to writing and mystery fiction? I want to ask a question regarding authors but use Tom Cruise as the medium. The man knows how to make very entertaining movies. He is all but a sure thing. You buy a ticket to a Tom Cruise movie, you know you will be getting a good film and, more importantly, his absolute best effort. Has he even mailed in a performance? One doesn’t come to mind. Edge of Tomorrow is special, however, because we get to see Tom Cruise the Coward. It’s not something we typically see and it’s a nice testament to the fact that he’s a seasoned actor who knows his craft, studies his industry, and improves in every movie he makes, and puts forth the best product he can. He’s got talent, but he’s a craftsman, just like most of us writers. We write more and we improve. He makes more movies and he improves.

So why does he get a bad break? Was it the couch hopping thing? So what? The guy was in love. Who hasn’t been so in the bliss that you did crazy things? He just did his on national TV. Is it his religion choice? So what? This is America. We’re all free to practice our religion. Was it the Brooke Shields thing? So what? Aren’t we free to have our own opinion? Was it something else? Who knows. All I know is that when I buy a ticket to a Tom Cruise film, all that crap that people give him hell for doesn’t enter my mind. What enters my mind is the pleasure of seeing this actor entertain me.

Somehow, authors don’t seem to get this rap. I can’t think of an author who continues to study and improve and produce books year after year, and yet the readers turn their back on the author simply because of the author’s political or social views or some odd event in their lives. Granted, authors aren’t always seen in public, but you know what I mean. There are the big names--King, Grisham, Rowling, Roberts, Cornwell, Patterson--but an author’s personal convictions rarely interfere with our purchase of their books.

I suppose there might be some authors whose personal convictions would lead some readers not to buy their books, just like some moviegoers choose not to see a Cruise film. That’s fine, but I get the sense that people are not making their moviegoing choice on the content of the film--Edge of Tomorrow is fantastic, content-wise--but on Cruise himself. Again, free country, I get that, and free market, but why has Tom Cruise become a craftsman who is judged not by his craft but by his personal life? You certainly wouldn’t look at a carpenter’s gorgeous rocking chair that would be perfect for your living room but then not buy it because you saw a bumper sticker on his car for the presidential candidate you didn’t vote for. Would you choose not to buy a book from an author who changed their stance on an issue that was opposed to yours...without reading the book?

Can we separate a craftsman's work from the craftsman's convictions? Just some idle thoughts for a weekend in July. What’s y’all’s take?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Use Whatever Helps

By Steve Weddle

Good lord, what was with that 98-minute standing ovation for Derek Jeter at the All-Star Game? Or with Adam Wainwright grooving a pitch so that Jeter could get a hit?

Seems most folks are in love with Jeter because 1) he's kinda lovely to look at; 2) he's played the game at a high level for 73 years; and 3) he did it "the right way."

Of course, the "right way" means not getting caught with Jose Canseco putting a needle into your backside. And Jeter never got caught doing any of that. That worst Jeter was ever caught doing was Madonna.

As we say with some jackass gets a multi-million dollar deal for three books about an alcoholic vampyre detective going through a nasty divorce while something from his dark past resurfaces, "Hunh. Good for him. Good for him."

I'm not interested in writing the "right way." I'm usually writing as the sun comes up and, uh, maybe there's other stuff I do right. I generally don't compromise characters or plot. I don't chase fads. I don't  try to write anything popular. (Sorry, World's Best Agent.)

And I do this big thing that's probably frowned on. I mean, we're talking BALCO-level bad. Much like your PED-infused ballers, I do whatever helps, no matter the long-term consequences. I'll steal from anywhere. I'll take my performance enhancements where I can get them, lemme tell ya.

What the heck am I going on about? Well, here it is.

Writing via paint-by-numbers. Though I'm not proud of my behavior, I'm not completely embarrassed  by it.

Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT is this "beat sheet" that film people talk about. You have your "b story" and you're given the point at which your "all is lost" needs to kick in. You're supposed to open with an image, have the hero do stuff for a couple hours, then close with the opposite image so that people feel as if they've seen something happen for their $12. I mean, it's pretty well laid out there in front of you.  We're talking "hero's journey" broken down into neatly organized index cards.

Is that gauche? Is it cheating to use a "beat sheet" to write your novel?

Here's an example of how this template works for Frank Miller's famous BATMAN: YEAR ONE.

But here's the thing. I find bits and pieces I can use in what I'm working on. I gave some thought to a "Debate" scene in my current project, worked around some ideas.

Or kicking in with the catalyst. There's the old saying about how there are only two stories: someone takes a trip and someone comes to town. The key part of those stories is the change. And change tends to require a catalyst.
Catalyst – The moment where life as it is changes. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.Debate – But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.
I guess I find myself going back to these "how to write" programs when I'm thinking about writing or when I hit a slow patch. I don't use them all the time, just when I absolutely need them. You know, more Andy Pettitte than A Rod.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Criminal Activities

by Holly West

In the past year or so, I've become much more involved with both the crime fiction writing community at large and my own local community. In addition to writing weekly for the Do Some Damage blog, I now write a bi-weekly post for Prose & Cons. Locally, I'm the Vice President of Sisters in Crime Los Angeles and the newsletter editor for the Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. Finally, I'm involved in the planning/administration of the bi-annual California Crime Writers Conference, an event that's near and dear to my heart because it was the first writers conference I ever attended (in 2009).

Admittedly, some of these commitments result in some regular kicking and screaming on my part. For example, the monthly Sisters in Crime meetings are located in Pasadena and everyone from Southern California knows that the east/west trek from Venice to Pasadena (or really, anywhere in SoCal), is a pain in the ass, even on a Sunday afternoon.

And of course, a more serious consequence of getting more active in the writing community is the time it takes away from actual writing. This continues to be an issue for me, but one I'm determined to overcome. Why? Because becoming more involved in these circles have added far more to my life than they've taken away.

How do I benefit?

1) It's tougher to make friends as one grows older, but my activities in SoCal MWA and Sisters in Crime Los Angeles have resulted in numerous new friendships. Some are deeper than others, but on the whole I feel blessed to have so many great writers as friends.

2) Mutual Backscratching: Okay so that might sound creepy but what I mean is that by serving in your local writing organizations, you are putting cash in the "favor bank." You'd be surprised how often that pays off, both in little and big ways. Examples: Blurbs and promotional opportunities from other authors (some with much higher profiles than my own), and invitations/recommendations to speak and read at local events.

3) You've heard it said a million times that writing is a solitary craft. Leaving the house on a regular basis to socialize with other writers is sanity-enhancing.

4) Name visibility. With so much marketing responsibility on our author-plates, this is another opportunity to get your name out and sell books.

I'm fortunate to live in Southern California, where there is a vibrant crime fiction community. If yours isn't quite so active (or even non-existent), you can still join MWA and Sisters in Crime at the national level. You can pitch and write guest posts to bloggers like myself (and not just when you have a book coming out). And if you do live in a place where you have local writing organizations, I encourage you to get involved. Don't be like me and wait until your book is coming out. You just might be surprised by how much value you get for your time spent.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

As If Rocky Had Called Itself “Boxing Ring”

Okay, so it’s not one of the great crime films from the 1970s, but I recently had another look at a movie called Rollercoaster and I think it stands up pretty well.

It’s very straightforward – a guy lets off a bomb at an amusement park and then demands a million dollars from a bunch of amusement park owners or he’ll let off more bombs at more parks.

There’s some pretty good stuff about the amusement park owners trying to keep it out of the press and, of course, just like Jaws, the big finale is on the Fourth of July – I get the feeling that American tourist attractions are not completely empty the other 364 days a year, but who knows?

And George Segal is pretty good as the building inspector who puts the whole thing together and thwarts the bad guy. It must be the first (only?) time when the building inspector is the hero. My 13 year old son had a tough time believing that the grandfather from The Goldbergs was ever that young, but he doesn’t believe I was ever young, either.

The one thing that really stuck out for me with Rollercoaster, though, was the bad guy. We spend a fair bit of time with him, and Timothy Bottoms is very good, but we never find out anything about him. There’s no backstory at all. He doesn’t even have a name.

At one point a carny asks him if he was in Vietnam and for a brief moment it looks like the movie will be offering up that cliché but Bottoms only gives a wry look.

Of course, there’s extortion so his motivation is the money but there’s no lame reason given why his plan involves amusement parks instead of airplanes or trains or office buildings. The amusement parks looks good, sure, but there’s no monologue at the end where he tells us his mother was killed on a rollercoaster or his father was a carny who abandoned him when he was a baby, or anything at all.

The whole movie is on YouTube:

There are a couple of bonuses in the movie, too. For one, George Segal’s teenage daughter is played Helen Hunt and for another the band performing at the amusement park is Sparks.

Oh yeah, the title of this post is from a surprisingly positive review of the movie when it first came out.

I recently found a scrapbook of movie stubs I collected for a while in the 70s so I can tell you I saw Rollercoaster at the Cineplex Odeon Atwater theatre in Montreal on June 11, 1977.

The following week I saw Black Sunday, I guess it’s up next (it has a “disgruntled Vietnam vet’ and plenty of backstory on the bad guy if I remember correctly…)