Monday, June 26, 2017

Tom Pitts and AMERICAN STATIC or Meet Princess Quinn

It’s summer! Time to catch up on that teetering, tower of TBR. One of the season’s most anticipated new books is finally out.
"I don’t know what’s better, his (Tom Pitts) writing or the story he is telling."
                                        -David Nemeth, Noir Czar, Unlawful Acts

Fans of dark, gritty crime fiction have come to know the name Tom Pitts. Author of FASTBALL, PIGGYBACK, and HUSTLE he is also acquisitions editor at Gutter Books and Out of the Gutter Online. He fills his 24-hours. His new novel AMERICAN STATIC hit the streets June 26.
                                               American Static

AMERICAN STATIC is a fast-paced crime thriller with a mystery woven throughout. It plays out against the backdrop of Northern California’s wine country, Oakland’s mean streets, and San Francisco’s peaks and alleyways. The perfectly paced story is filled with corrupt cops and death dealing gangsters.

With a chaotic writer’s schedule and O.J. vs The People streaming on Netflix Tom Pitts is a busy man, but we wanted to learn more about his pitch perfect and true to life characters.

To get some insight, Do Some Damage sat down with AMERICAN STATIC’s lead instigator Quinn and author Tom Pitts. Quinn is a mysterious stranger on a desperate search for his daughter. When he picks up innocent protagonist Steven after the latter is beaten and left for dead the two set out on the ride of their lives.

In hopes of learning more about this fascinating man I filled my phone notepad with questions. Deep, meaningful questions probing and delving the depths of his soul and heart. Questions that might lead to a deeper insight into his demons and angels.

Then my kids were released from school. Summer vacation hit and my phone has not been the same. They text friends. Search DIY slime recipes. Listen to Pandora without closing the app, suck the battery and lose all files in my notepad.

There are some awesome consequences, though. All vocal apps now address me as Mrs. Snow, Mother of Dragons. I can, in certain circumstance, speak another language as my girls have changed my texting capability to Japanese only. Plus, every single app on my phone is princess related.

With that being said and Quinn’s patience already tested I decided to just do it, dammit. Thank you, Shia.

Ladies and gentlemen please meet Quinn and let’s get ready to play…

Which Disney Princess Are You?

Quinn: Wait … is that a real question? ‘Cause I have some thoughts on the subject. Having had a daughter of my own, the whole princess thing is—

Pitts: Hang on, wait a second, I don’t mean to interrupt, but this is ridiculous. I get that trying to do a different spin on things might be fun, but an online Disney quiz? Aside from it being inappropriate for the subject matter, you’re opening yourself up to scrutiny from the most litigious organization in the history of copyright infringement.

Quinn: Eh, not for nothin’, but you seem a bit uptight, Pitts. Let’s let the little lady have her fun and play along. Who knows maybe you’ll learn something.

Pitts: She’s not a little lady, she’s a writer trying to go against the grain of a tired format. Saying shit like that is patronizing at the very least.

DSD: It’s okay, Tom. I don’t mind-

Quinn: Tell you what, I’ll take the quiz, you can sit tight and relax for a minute. There’s a bottle of Jack in the truck, why don’t you go pour yourself a short one and have one of my Marlboros.

Pitts: I don’t smoke.

Quinn: Ha! Right! Maybe you should. Maybe that’s your problem. Look, we all got shit to do today. I’m startin’ to feel like you’re just being disruptive.  I’ll tell you only once more, sit down.

Pitts: I don’t like the look you’re giving me.

Quinn: Okay, Marrietta, I’m sorry. Some people just can’t let go of their own shit long enough to have a good time. Now … where were we?

DSD: Checking hair in Quinn’s mirrored glasses. Huh? Oh, yea. Wait. Something with princess. Which princess are you? Here we go.

1.       What was your favorite subject in school? 

A.      Gym. I was always team captain

B.      History. I loved learning how romantic things were back in the day.

C.      Lunch. Chatting with my friends was the best part of my day.

D.      English. Getting lost in a book is so dreamy.

E.       French. I couldn’t wait to travel the world.

Quinn: School. Yeah, right. I think you gotta get your education outside of the four walls, you know? Question authority, and all that? Fuck school.

2.       How long does it take you to get ready in the morning?

A.      Fifteen minutes. Tops. I like the natural yet pulled-together look.

B.      Five minutes. Messy hair? Don’t care. Hello messy pony.

C.      Depends. I love to try new things. Ask my mood?

D.      Thirty minutes. That is just my hair.

E.       An hour. Perfection doesn’t happen by accident.

Quinn: Fifteen minutes. This perfection actually did happen by accident. Back in the joint, it was up at 5:45 and in the chow line by 6. If you didn’t make it by 6, it was white toast with no butter for you. Now that I’m out freewheeling, I guess I could do what I like in the morning. Take my time, read the paper, jerk off, whatever. But, you know, old habits die hard. Flashes perfect pearly whites.

DSD: No time for proper nutrition? Shame. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

3.       When it’s a chill day, what is your fav activity?

A.      Curl up with a good book. No shame in re-reading my favorites.

B.      Hang with my besties.

C.      Hit the mall. Hopefully run into my secret crush.

D.      Sports. If I’m not running, skating, swimming or biking I’m practicing.

E.       Spa day!!!

Quinn: Behind the wheel, all day, no stopping. One straight fucking beeline to the border, baby.

DSD: Sounds like someone is a fan of the gorgeous open-air markets in Rosarita. Is it the glassware or the hand-wovens?

 4.       How would you ask your secret crush on a date?

A.      Just ask. Duh.

B.      Stick a cute note on their car or mailbox.

C.      Pop the question during half-time!!!

D.      Plan a fun scavenger hunt.

E.       Chill. Send a text. NBD.

Quinn: Me? I have to ask? I don’t know if you noticed that waitress looking at me, but she is. Chicks dig me, what can I say. Usually they’re the ones asking me out.

DSD: Notes waitress’ expression also resembles “bad burrito face.” Absolutely. I can see that. Let’s move on.

 5.       You’re having a sleepover with your besties. What will you and your posse probably do all night long?

A.      Video games.

B.      An epic game of truth or dare.

C.      Mani/pedis, of course.

D.      Stalk your secret crush on social media.

E.       Watch our fav tearjerker.

Quinn: Besties? What the hell is that? Like a cellie? If we’re locked down, I don’t want someone crawling the walls. They better lay still and entertain themselves. You think I need a weapon to shut someone up? Hell no. All I need is these two hands.  

DSD: Aha. So, you like arts and crafts? Are you a modeling clay type or do you like to work with wood?

 6.       What is your go to flirting move?

A.      A subtle hair flip is perfect.

B.      Being super, duper nice. Make them cookies!!!!

C.      Show off.

D.      Ramble on and on until we find something in common.

E.       Play it cool. Act like I could care less.

Quinn: My smile, it’s all I need. I’ve been told many times I got movie start good-looks. Hell, I flash this grin at you and before you know it, I’m at your kitchen table and you’re telling me your deepest darkest secrets. Lifts chin. Smiles.

DSD: As long as you brought the doughnuts. Stares at phone.

 7.       Your bestie is super stressed they will never have a date. What do you suggest?

A.      The Gym. People who go to the gym are dedicated and totally hot.

B.      Church. It’s where all the decent people go.

C.      You can find love anywhere. Just be open to it.

D.      Hang out after work. Friends of friends.

E.       Love yourself first and love will find you.

Quinn: Toughen up, kid. We ain’t all cut out for a life full of love.

 8.       Describe your fashion style.

A.      Sporty.

B.      Flirty.

C.      Classic.

D.      Trendy.

Quinn: You kidding? Class-sick. Shit.

DSD: Regular Robert Redford.

 9.       Describe your perfect crush. 

A.      Popular and charming. So many people can’t be wrong.

B.      Captain of the football team. Go team!!!

C.      Tough on the outside, sweet and sensitive on the inside.

D.      Mysterious. Misunderstood.

E.       I have a crush on everyone.

Quinn: I’m not sure I understand this question. What’re you trying to say? Are you accusing me of something?

Pitts: Whoa, hang on. Don’t get excited. It’s just one of those online quizzes for fun.

Quinn: For fun? Online? Who else is reading this? I thought it was just us three, you know, having a good time. What the fuck, Miles? Who asked you to do this? You with somebody? You know Ricardo? Don’t lie, I’m not always this nice. If I find out you’re fucking with me, shit ain’t gonna end pretty.

DSD: I don’t know a Ricardo. I know a Weddle. Let me just get your score.


You are funny and gregarious, people say you have a great sense of humor and that you always keep them smiling and in stitches. You are constantly on the lookout for adventures and excitement. You will never settle down.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Marking a New Release

The launch of my next novel is only two weeks away and I’m getting all kinds of ways ready to let people know about it. One of these is the time-honored tradition of author swag. I’m not one who does a wide array of things in this regard, but I do spend a lot of time on my bookmarks.
The design I wanted to use wouldn’t have worked without great cover art. I wanted to preserve the detail and fantastic colors. So instead of reducing the cover to a small rectangle and putting it on a small spot in the front, I kept it close to the original scale and sliced it.
For both books, the choice of which slice to use was obvious. For the first, it was the sinking showboat in all its listing, smokestacked glory. And for the second, it was the solitary figure standing in the middle of the shadowy woods armed only with a flashlight. (He might have a gun ... you'll have to read the book to know for sure.)
The inspiration for this comes from fellow author Susan Spann, who’s been “slicing” her cover art into bookmarks for a while and graciously gave me pointers.
So I got rid of the title wording and then turned it over to a wonderful friend of mine who also happens to be a fantastic graphic designer. She chose arranged where the text would go and how it would look, and designed the back. 
They came in the mail from the printer on Friday, and I love them. And if you’re anywhere near me in the next couple of months, I’ll give you one!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Reading for Pleasure vs for Research

Scott D. Parker

How many of y’all writers out there read for research?

Now, I’m not talking about actual research, where you scour the internet or books to make sure you have your facts correct for a historical piece or to verify which bullets go into the gun your hero carries for a thriller. I’m talking about reading other fiction books with a writer’s mind involved.

For awhile now, I’ve read hard copies with a pencil in my hand and I will mark up the book as I go along. I circle various passages or great turns of phrase. This is especially true when I read westerns because I gather a growing list of “western words” that I can deploy in my own writing.

But I also study how books are constructed. How many chapters? How many sub-chapters? How many pages/words per chapter? How many pages over all? How many total words? A few years ago, I broke down the first 100 pages of THE DA VINCI CODE to figure out why it’s such a page-turner. It’s really not rocket science.

As fine as this practice is, it can also lead to reading *only* for research. For example, I’m in western-writing mode in 2017. That’s what I’m reading (mostly) and writing. Thus, the desire to read only westerns is quite strong. But other books are pulling at my attention. I selected the new Donald Westlake novel, FOREVER AND A DEATH, for my book club so I’m reading it. BEACH LAWYER by Avery Duff is also on my Kindle. The oddball is a book by Jim Beard written in the G.I. Joe Adventure Team Kindle Worlds Universe, MYSTERY OF THE SUNKEN TOMB. A fellow book club member recommended it to me. I’ve read a bit and it pretty darn good.

Which reminded me of the reason I (and all of us) read in the first place: for pleasure. A good story told well is a great pleasure to experience. So I’ve put my pencil down for a bit and engage in some pure summer reading for no other purpose than to enjoy myself.

Y’all ever run up against the conundrum of reading for pleasure vs. research?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Crime DOES Pay (For awhile)

A real life jewelry heist story...

Most heist stories focus on what goes wrong - whether it's during or after the robbery. A well-executed robbery where everything goes to plan and the thieves escape doesn't make for great story telling. Or does it?

Surely when a real life criminal decides to rob a jewelry store or start fencing stolen goods, they think they're going to live the high life. Who would submit themselves to so much risk if the payoff was continuing to live a normal, boring life with a shit job? Marvin Lewis figured it out.

I mean, he got caught. We wouldn't know the story if he didn't. But before he did, he bought the cars, the luxury watches, the clothes. He inserted himself in Oscar and Emmy parties and documented his moneyed life on Instagram. He got another guy to keep robbing stores while he partied it up.

Usually, the only thieves who get to drive $200,000 dollar cars and hang with celebrities work for banks (badum-tss), but Marvin got his, at least for a little while.

His most heinous crime? "Loving" Ed Sheeran.

The moral of the story is always supposed to be "crime doesn't pay" and while Marvin defended himself by claiming he'd always been rich, despite not wanting to discuss where his money came from in court, he's facing 57 years in prison. Hope the parties were worth it - and that a great director gets the rights.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

First Readers and Sensitivity

Most writers have a "first" reader or readers, sometimes called beta readers, ideal readers. They are trusted voices who "get" what we do, who catch the rough spots we can miss because we're so close to the work, among other things. For some it's an editor or agent. 

We research our books. Some crime writer go on a ride-along, take FBI courses, or visit areas they want to write about, to get the little details that make verisimilitude in the story and hold the readers' suspension of disbelief, because after all, if it's fiction, they know it didn't really happen. It's our job to make it feel like it did, or bring it to life in the readers' minds. One of your first readers might be in law enforcement, if you are writing about police. They might be someone who spent time in prison, if you are writing a prison novel. Someone who lives in Alaska, if you are writing a book set there, and only had the time and funds to research it online or by reading. Someone who has lived a life similar to your character.

Which brings up what some are calling "sensitivity readers." It's a first reader who has lived a life similar to your character. But not in their profession, or in their home country or state, but their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation. And a lot of writers chafe at this idea. Some of it is the name itself. What, you sayin' I lack sensitivity? (Imagine that said in my thickest of Jersey accents).

Writers work in empathy, in the original sense. The vicarious experience of another's emotion, through our imagination. And the idea that we'd fail at this strikes at the heart of what we do. Part of what we do is create imaginary people, and they are very personal to us. And the idea that we lack "sensitivity!" That's our bread and butter! We observe, we feel, we create in response to those observations and emotions! 

Yes, but we do it through a lens. We don't actually walk in another's shoes, much less their skin. And as hard as we try to shed the beliefs and prejudices we were raised with, there are experiences we can only know second hand. Sometimes we feel like we know these experiences because we've read about them, watched them on TV, and have close friends who have lived it. But that's a lens in front of a lens. Which can be doubly distorted.

A writer I greatly respect responds to this with, "but your 'sensitivity reader' is only one person. Their experience doesn't speak for everyone of their background." And that is true, but their lens is different than ours. Personally, I think this chafing comes from fear. Not at being called a racist, but of finding a cataract in our empathic lens, a blind spot. To me, that's an opportunity for improvement. To learn something about life I can never experience firsthand. And that's why I read.

And I will admit my hypocrisy. One of my more popular characters is Denny the Dent, a hulking African-American man with a birth injury that makes people assume he is developmentally challenged. I have never used a first reader for any of those stories. They've gone directly to editors. Because Denny is based on me. Once I filled out, and my terrible striking defense gave me a pugilist's nose, I noticed that people were intimidated by me. When I went on my nightly walks, lost in my daydream writing world, people would cross the street. When I'm distracted by writing thoughts, I get what my wife calls my "murder face."
So I amplified what I felt, when writing Denny. He's a very sympathetic character. Like his pit bull Remy, he just wanted to be friendly, but the world was cruel. And now he hides inside himself, until he sees a cruelty inflicted upon another that he cannot abide.

That doesn't mean I got everything right. Denny grew up in Newark. I've worked there for decades, but I don't know what growing up in his ward was like. I've read articles by people who grew up in the Terrace projects, and talked to people who have. For a few short stories that may have been enough, but when I write the Denny the Dent novel, a lifetime Newarker like Denny will be one of my first readers. Because I want to get it right. Another lens, when positioned correctly, can let us see the stars. And that's what the right first reader can do. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Gritty in the Suburbs

Stanton McCaffrey is a first time novelist whose book Into the Ocean recently came out from New Pulp Press. A New Jersey set crime novel from a Jersey native, it's gotten good reviews like the one at Out of the Gutter online, and no less a crime writing notable than Charlie Stella calls it "a hell of a debut novel".  In his piece here, McCaffrey talks about how important setting is in his novel and why he aimed to write not an urban crime tale or a rural crime tale, but one set in the very specific world of the New Jersey suburbs.

Gritty in the Suburbs

When starting the brainstorming process for my first novel, Into the Ocean, I knew I wanted to write something brutal, something gritty. I like the idea of morally conflicted and desperate protagonists. Even more, I like settings that don’t just feel like characters but feel like forces conspiring against characters.
For the types of fiction I like to read, those stories typically take place either in urban or rural environments. But those aren’t the places that I know. I could have done research on those places I suppose, but to me that would have been dishonest. That would have been someone else’s book.
No, I grew up in the suburbs. They’re what I know. To be exact, I grew up in Edison, New Jersey, which is in-part the inspiration for the fictional Madison Park where Into the Ocean takes place. Madison Park is an amalgam of central New Jersey towns, where we have both trailer parks and housing projects. We used to have vacant factories too, but they’ve all been turned into big-box retailers and Amazon warehouses. The poverty is there too, you just have to look for it or know people well enough.

It struck me thinking about the setting I grew up in and am still in to an extent, that I didn’t have to write someone else’s novel in order for my book to be gritty or for it to hit some of the same notes that other pieces of noir hit. Based on my own anecdotal experiences alone, with some creative exaggeration of course, I felt I could pull off some brutal and honest crime fiction.
Just like in the flashback scenes I have in the novel, there were some nasty characters around me growing up. And, man, people in the eighties and nineties in central New Jersey were incredibly racist (not to say they’re not still). There was one kid who would ride his bike through the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood making Nazi salutes. Last I heard he had a job with the township.
Also, the town I grew up in had and still has an almost comically corrupt police department where one officer recently tried to firebomb an officer from another town’s house for not getting his relative off a DUI charge. When I was a teenager I had a drunken run-in with the Edison cops myself from which I still bare the scar on my head. A detective told me that if I didn’t admit to punching a cop he would stick his pen inside the hole the other officer had put in my head.
If you decide to pick up Into the Ocean, you’ll notice that police corruption features prominently. 
It’s not just the police. The entire atmosphere in the suburbs is stifling. Growing up, if you had a conflict with somebody in elementary school that conflict carried through to high school. If you weren’t lucky enough to get out as an adult, you still worry about running into that person you tussled with in 5th grade or one of their siblings at the ShopRite. In the suburbs like Madison Park there is no starting over.
There’s the poverty too, a staple of noir fiction and something I felt compelled to depict. In my neighborhood now, which you’d still consider the suburbs, poverty is apparent. As I write this, two of my neighbors sit with their utilities cut off because of inability to pay. Two houses on my street were abandoned when the owners could no longer cover the mortgages. My personal favorite story is that another one of my neighbors, one who my wife also witnessed smashing his car with a garden hoe in a drunken fit of rage, tore off his nipple hopping out of a dumpster after looking for food. Now, tell me that’s not gritty.

There are statistics and wider reporting to support these anecdotal observations as well. The suburbs might have once been the home of Leave it to Beaver, but now they’re home to Breaking Bad. According to Time Magazine, more and more people simply don’t want to live in the suburbs anymore. According to The Atlantic, “The number of poor in the suburbs surpassed the number of poor in the cities in the 2000s, and by 2011, almost 16.4 million suburban residents lived below the poverty line.”
This means to me that many of those that still live in the suburbs are those that for one reason or another can’t get out. They, like many noir protagonists in books from Dennis Lehane or Daniel Woodrell, are stuck.  
Add to all this the current opioid epidemic hitting much of the U.S. and particularly central New Jersey and you have a perfect storm fit for crime fiction.  
And Into the Ocean is fiction, but I like to think it portrays at least one honest perspective of life in the New Jersey suburbs where it’s not just the summer humidity that makes you feel like you’re going to explode.

You can pick up Into the Ocean here.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Bidding Adieu

My husband and I have an ongoing debate about books and shows. Or, perhaps more accurately, we have fairly firmly set opinions that are entrenched, and that are at odds with each other.

I love a great series. Brian... not so much.

The real difference centers around Brian's belief that too many series outlive their shelf life; they could end on a high note earlier, but instead they're milked for all they're worth and the overall quality suffers.

I have to admit that, while I might not be willing to always pull the plug as soon as he would prefer, that I'm starting to embrace his way of thinking.

Personally, I think it sucks that Orphan Black is taking its final bow this year, after just five seasons. I think there could have been more depths to explore in this richly layered world, but I will applaud them for staying focused. Meanwhile, a few other shows that I've enjoyed in the past are not fairing as well for me. I'm not captured by this season of Orange is the New Black yet, and I didn't find House of Cards to be quite as compelling, either.

However, House of Cards elevated the whole season with one critical ingredient; the ending. A great ending can draw things together in a way that reveals the genius of subtlety that may have been at work throughout the body of the season.

I've been thinking about that a lot as we watch this season of Fargo. The acting is brilliant, as ever. The show retains its quirkiness and its black comic moments... but something this season felt a little off. Perhaps it was my expectations. I'd anticipated season three with the expectation of declaring Fargo the greatest crime show ever made; seasons one and two are amongst the best seasons of any crime show, ever, but when faced with competition such as The Wire I felt like Fargo needed a third season to rise to the top.

Interestingly enough, Brian and I aren't the only ones who've talked about how the truth of the season's merit will be fully realized with the finale. The AV Club's reviewer "said last week that it was possible that the final two episodes of the season might tie things together" and that's the beauty of these complex, season arc shows; they must be weighed as a whole.

And much of the weight falls on their finale.

Recently, The Handmaid's Tale stuck the landing so brilliantly, I was surprised. And I do not want to give anything away, but if you're studying story arcs, if you're looking for great examples of storytelling that masters  the art of both the subtle and straightforward approach, look no further.

I think one of the reasons the endings can elevate the storytelling's effectiveness so significantly is because they can give shape to what's been hinted at that may have been missed, and that means you realize there was even more going on than you picked up on fully, and then you watch again and begin picking up on those cues.

Think of storylines that have suffered with an ending that failed to tie things together in a way that convinced the audience or elevated their understanding of the storyline. Lost comes to mind as an example, along with How I Met Your Mother, and I am not alone in those views.

Ending well is an art... and it's a storytelling skill that, when mastered, can take a good story and make it great. Knowing when to end is part of that equation; knowing how to tie together the subtle and straightforward threads is another. In order to get there, yes, the audience has to be invested in the journey, but word of a bad ending can deter an audience from giving a story a try, or finishing it.

As I was once told, the end of your story sells the audience on your next story, and it's what we all should be striving for in our craft.