Monday, February 20, 2017

Big Love

Tissue paper hearts tucked away in well-loved books. Heart-shaped boxes, at one time teeming with candy, now empty and set on a shelf. Pink. Red. Cupid. Love.  February 14 has come and gone. Safe in our rear-view mirror. The Valentine sweet rush has faded to a drowsy sugar crash.

I’m not a romantic. When my husband bent down on one knee to ask me to marry him, on a pier, under the moon with water gently splashing the sand below, I nailed him in the chest with my fist, pushing him to the ground like a turtle stuck on his back and covered my face. “Yes. Cut it out!”

My septic heart can’t even enjoy the sweetness of young love for long. My daughter, ten-years old, received a chocolate rose with a sweet note from a lovely young man, also ten. This boy has given my girl chocolate for Valentine’s for the past three years. Christmas presents and Halloween candy, too. Just a treat to let her know he thinks she’s special. Aww.

Blech. For some reason, romance has always seemed manipulative to me. Dishonest. Like the lover with the roses in hand is trying to trick me. Trick or treat? It’s a costume or a mask, romance is not real. It’s an imagined version of ourselves presented on a platter. To entice. Woo. Lure.

Valentine’s Day is a pastel knockoff of Halloween. You act differently than you do most of the year and give out candy but you don’t get to dress up in zombie masks, hang reapers from your oak tree or generally scare the hell out of people. Maybe, we paint over all the pink and start calling February 14th Second Halloween.

There are other types of love that are way better than the idealistic, starry-eyed, Valentine’s kind. “The Body”, by Stephen King, illustrates the painful path away from childhood for a group of forever friends, the insane adventure as well as the ugly, life-changing reality.

It. Goonies. Stranger Things. See the connection? Love of friends. Sure, there are romantic threads through lots of great stories. Romance is a catalyst. A starting point for, hopefully, a long and diverse tale.

My dad is suffering from cataracts and is almost blind. He’s completely deaf and because of his rheumatoid arthritis can’t use his hands to grip. Also, due to the RA, he has a hard time swallowing and can’t keep weight so he comes in at a whopping 100 pounds.

My mother survived stage three kidney cancer. She kicked breast cancer’s ass, as well, and recently had a cyborg pelvis put in to replace her own, wonky structure. She too is a wisp, 98 pounds soaking wet. Still, as they bump into each other inside their tiny kitchen, fetching treats for their new kitten, they are laughing and patting each other’s hands.

“We may be falling apart but at least were doing it together,” my mom grins and stares at the wall, thinking it’s me. It’s not romantic but its real and deep. It’s what comes after the beginning.

Romance is like candy. It’s a delicious treat every now and again but a steady diet is sure to play havoc with your brain and body. Cupid’s big day feels a little forced.

Sitting side by side at the doctor’s office, holding hands during a terminal diagnosis. Standing beside each other, weak and full of grief, while saying goodbye to a dying parent. Loving each other through the ugly. Real love. Epic love.

On this February 14, my husband waited for both girls to return from school and they all whisked out the door to pick up a surprise for me. When they returned, arguing about who chose the best present, they screamed Happy Valentine’s day.

My little one gave me a sweet crystal bear holding a red heart. Not surprisingly, I find this knick-knack on her bed side table more often than my own. My husband gave me the world’s biggest Hershey bar because he is very wise and my oldest passed me a pink and red card with a lovely lesbian couple on the front. Yup, we’ve got a big future ahead of us. I’ve got epic love.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

I Really Made That Mistake Eleven Times?

I got the copy edited manuscript for Another Man’s Ground four days ago. This is the stage when a person of exacting standards and keen grammatical skill scrutinizes every word, punctuation mark, and fact in 338 pages of text. This person is my best friend.
I’m reading through everything – accepting changes, evaluating suggestions, answering questions. I’m about halfway through and so far, it’s become apparent that I don’t know how to punctuate around an em dash. And that I miscounted the number of days that transpire between two significant plot points. And that I call one character different names in different chapters (Bill or Lee – pick one!).
This might sound like painful reading, but I love it. I am very, very picky about details and grammar, and I enjoy delving back into my book at that level. It’s great to have a copy editor who has the same (or greater) level of obsessiveness as I do. I also appreciate not looking like an idiot when the book comes out.
And if a book copy editor can keep a writer from looking stupid, that’s nothing compared with what a newspaper copy editor can do. Having a fictional character with two different names is one thing, but imagine spelling the name of the city’s mayor wrong. On the front page. Or mixing up the numbers of a phone hot line that the copy editors catch because they called it right before deadline and discovered it went to somebody’s Aunt Marge and not the animal shelter featured in the news story.
I don’t think I ever spelled the name of a politician in one of my cities wrong, but I did once spend an entire breaking police story writing that a priceless Aston Martin was stolen from an airplane hanger. Now, a “hangar” is where you park an airplane. A “hanger” is what you put a coat on. Thankfully, one of the best copy editors in the business caught it, and my front page story ran error-free.
Who can ask for a better friend than that?

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Chekhov’s and Chandler’s Corollary: Character

Scott D. Parker

A writer’s trope, attributed to famed playwright Anton Chekhov, goes something like this: if you show a gun on the mantle in chapter 1, then that gun better go off in some future chapter. It’s the art of foreshadowing.

Another trope, likely attributed to some nameless pulp writer, is that if your story is mired down, have a guy show up in a room with guns blazing. Then your characters have to react to the gunslinger. Okay, so I just looked that up and the quote is attributed to Raymond Chandler. The official quote is this: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” Some websites call this Chandler’s Law.

Well, I think the two authors might be interested in knowing a new corollary might now exist: Chekhov’s and Chandler’s Character. I could go with CCC but that reminds this historian too much of the Civilian Conservation Corps from the 1930s.

You see, earlier this week—on Valentine’s Day no less—I was hitting a wall. I was in a necessary exposition chapter, but as I’m writing this novel with my pants on, I wasn’t too sure what would happen next. If I followed Chandler’s Law, I’d have a gunman enter the room. My novel is a western so that’s not too difficult. Instead, however, I created a brand-new character. She walked into the scene—literally—and she solved everything.

In one fell swoop, I had a new character with whom my two railroad detectives could interact. Because she’s a lady, my titular hero, Calvin Carter, a ladies man if there ever was one, suddenly had to make sure his tie was straight and his charm offensive in place. Having Carter charm the ladies is one of the great pleasures of writing the character.

Most importantly, however, Aurora Ashe was able to link the story Carter had experienced up to that chapter and the rest of the story. (I have a decent idea of the ending, but nothing close to 100%.) Her presence unlocked the door that allowed me to walk through it, fingers flying across the keyboard, words magically appearing on the screen. It was rather liberating. The word count reflected the change, too. On Monday, I only eeked out 1274 words. Valentine’s Day was 1591. The 15th saw 2456. With her on stage, I was again on the fast track to the end of the book.

Have y’all ever had that happen in your writing, when a brand-new character you never saw coming suddenly takes over and clears the cobwebs for you?

Friday, February 17, 2017

San Diego Comic Fest!

On Sunday I'm going to be at San Diego Comic Fest to promote Black Sails, Disco Inferno while participating in a fun panel alongside fellow San Diego area writers Tone Milazzo, Indy Quillen, Chad Stroup, Israel Finn, and Lara Campbell McGehee. If you've got a pass, you can come hang out at the Kirby Cafe with us and listen to us discuss the business of writing as authors who, like most people, aren't cashing James Patterson checks.

I've never been on a live panel before, so it'll be a lot of fun. More info on Comic Fest here.

I've been working on my notes for the panel, and I obviously can't get into it here, two days before the real thing, so I'm going to leave you with this video of the band I'm seeing tonight and wish you a happy weekend. Hope to see you Sunday!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

George Saunders

Perhaps George Saunders is a writer more talked about than read, as the saying goes. David Foster Wallace.Virginia Woolf. Thomas Pynchon.

Saunders's shorts have won many awards. Hell, maybe all the awards. And now his debut novel is out, and it hardly seems as if he's a debut novelist. He's already been the literati's poster boy for years, and I've enjoyed many of his stories so far. Nice to see LINCOLN IN THE BARDO getting love.

The AV Club liked the book

Vulture liked the book and talked to Saunders

My Goodreads friend Faith liked it

NPR said it was bizzare

UPDATE: Keith Rawson said a thing

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

That's Entertainment

It is the writer's first duty to entertain.

But that doesn't mean you have to entertain everybody. I found James Joyce's Ulysses incredibly entertaining, because I am a lit nerd and recognized more of the references than some. It drives plenty of people away, and there's nothing wrong with that, them, or Ulysses for that matter. I'm sure writing it entertained the hell out of Mr. Joyce.

If the book doesn't entertain you, how can you expect it to entertain anyone else?

I like to learn. So the books I enjoy most introduce me to new discoveries, concepts, people, cultures, history, and so on. Crime fiction introduced me to the underworld, to New Orleans, to the rough living made by ship-scrappers on the coasts of Africa, and so many other new experiences. And this is how I learned to write; to share my own experiences, the little things I have learned about the world and the weird creatures on it called people, and the inexplicable actions they take every day.

In Blade of Dishonor I researched the Devil's Brigade, the First Special Service Force, a joint command between the US and Canada during World War II whose exploits were never, in my opinion, properly told. Tarantino references them in Inglourious Basterds and there was a forgettable movie in the '60s, but these were commandos who struck terror into the hearts of the SS. So I made the centerpiece of my book about them, and one daring soldier chosen to embark on a suicide mission.... well, for the rest, read the book. You'll be entertained.

I heard an amusing story from my sister, about when she worked for an animal welfare charity, about The Neuter Scooter. And that became "The Big Snip," which Lawrence Block chose for his Dark City Lights collection, and Kristine K. Rusch selected for her Year's Best Crime & Mystery Stories 2016

For Bad Boy Boogie I needed to do much more research. I watched fights from security cameras in New Jersey's Eastern State Prison (aka "Rahway"). I read the Louisiana State prison newspaper, The Angolite, to learn about work programs. I found that the American with the most mechanical repair certifications is currently serving a life sentence in Angola prison. I didn't need to research the daily operations down at the Newark docks, because I worked there for eight years, and the stories I told always fascinated people. So the docks are in the book. I worked next to relatives of Vincent "the Chin" Gigante and Lefty Ruggiero during that time. It was... entertaining. 

And I bet reading about it will be, too...

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

When Attention Returns to Movies

Writer and Broken River Books publisher James David Osborne guest blogs today, talking about his rediscovered appreciation for the movie watching experience.   


               For a time I couldn’t even watch movies. I’d click over to Netflix and look at all the preview images and think “where do I even start?” Then I’d click out of it and head over to Facebook for a nice helping of bite-sized chunks of dog shit.
            Attention is difficult to control. We all do it. Most of us are good at hiding it. Be real for a second, though: it’s hard to pay attention now. Especially with that phone dinging, with the e-mail marching into your inbox, and with the flood of new stuff that all looks so good.
            Maybe “looking good” was the problem. Maybe I liked it all in theory. I liked the movies when they were synopses that couldn’t disappoint me.
            Spending two hours staring at a screen, screens that have trained me to click away from this over to that, to learn as much as I can as fast as I can, well, that made my chest hurt. Add onto that the possibility that the movie might not be any good? Deep breaths, David.
            Didn’t have a problem with books, oddly enough. I could still get into those. In that spirit, I reevaluated my relationship to film. Didn’t I read some bad books? Didn’t I read some great ones? More often than not, though, didn’t I take something away from each experience, good or bad?
            I started a job that afforded me a lot of free time, including the opportunity to watch about two movies per shift. My books called to me from my backpack, but no, I was going to sit down and watch some movies. At that point, I’d seen a handful of films in the past year: Green Room, Elle, Ju-On, and Yakuza Apocalypse.

             I went over to Jedidiah Ayre’s “Hardboiled Wonderland” blog and added his recommendations into my Netflix queue. Overlap: he mentioned Too Late, and William Boyle had also mentioned that one when I talked to him for my podcast. Shot in five long takes and arranged in a non-linear fashion, it’s a neo-noir detective film and if there’s gonna be a movie that makes me like movies again, maybe this would be it. I clicked the play button. Bill had warned me that the first twenty minutes almost made him turn it off. He wasn’t lying.
            Everything I disliked about film came flooding back to me. The dissonance between what was on the page (in this case the screenplay) and how it came out of the actors’ mouths set my teeth on edge. That guy with the pompadour tawkin’ in that fake Suthin accent…make it stop. The hyperreal dialogue and why did they get Rider Strong and NONE OF THIS IS COMPELLING OR MAKES SENSE… Sure, it looked pretty. But goddamn. My finger hovered over the X in the corner. Ready to blow the escape hatch and barrel roll out.
            No. Wait.
            I sat through the whole thing. I hated about half of it. But, look: strokes of genius! How great is John Hawkes? Every second he’s on the screen, it’s worth watching. And look: when he meets the troubled dead woman from the first scene in a flashback, all of a sudden she’s acting fantastically. How interesting, that actors can vibe and play off of each other in that way. Can’t get that with a book. And that musical number at the end of part three. That was great. The whole “redneck boxing” thing: hilarious. Hmm.
            Enough to get me interested, at least.

            I queued up De Palma next. What better way to reignite interest in a medium than to watch a documentary about one of its masters? Did not disappoint. There’s tons of fantastic information, and I loved his uncompromising attitude, and his “so it goes” mentality when it came to his duds and his successes. That one really got me fired up. I had to get a meta-look at the whole thing.

            The Trust followed. I loved the shit out of that one. It moves so smoothly, and Nicolas Cage is so good in it playing every stepdad in history, only psychotic and murderous (which, I mean, maybe still stepdad qualities? Mileage may vary). Once the actual heist kicked in, however, I started losing interest. The tension built nicely, sure, but we know where these things are going. Throw a monkey wrench in it. Okay, there’s a woman in the apartment above the safe they’re trying to crack. We see where this is going, right? One of them is going to catch feelings and it’ll be their undoing. No spoilers here, but come on. We know.
            The whole thing wraps up nicely, though. It’s been my favorite so far. The dialogue is crisp and well-delivered. Some of those shots are things of beauty (the garish tiki bar, the inside of the safe), but we’re touching on what drove me away from film in the first place: the predictability. The fact that story is boiled down to an A, B, and C, and it’s up to the filmmaker to make that interesting. I don’t like the A, B, and C. I want to jump over to Z and work back, skipping all the bullshit letters along the way.

       Which brings me to Dog Eat Dog, a film that pretty much does exactly that. More a series of vignettes than a proper film, I loved the insanity of this flick from beginning to end. It starts off with basically a short film about a psycho looking for a place to stay. The opening ends ugly. And the movie stays ugly. We’re introduced to the band of lowlifes plotting one last score.  Not a moment spent on character development. Well, maybe one. The final scenes, the fog and reds and blues shifting, Cage doing Bogart…it’s all maniacal brilliance. Okay. I’m back to liking movies again.
            What does it say, though, that even though I claim to prefer wild, reckless structure to straightforward plotting, that I liked The Trust better than Dog Eat Dog?
            I’m dipping my toes back in, and I’m not sure what I think anymore. Which is what I like about art in general: it’s ability to make me feel two things at once, to be proved wrong over and over, and occasionally, to utterly disappoint me.
            There are now 25 movies in my Netflix queue. I no longer fear the heavy click.