Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Dietary Tips from Balzac and Highsmith

What writer doesn't like to read about the writing routines and general peculiarities of other writers?  I certainly do, and I recently came across a couple of curious tidbits when I was reading a piece from The Guardian online.  Some people reading this post may have seen the article, called Bacon and eggs for every meal: absurd diets of the rich and famous.  Killian Fox wrote it, and the excerpts come from his book, The Gannet’s Gastronomic Miscellany, due out next year.

One extract concerns Honore de Balzac, famous, as far as his dietary habits go, for his huge consumption of coffee.  As the piece says, “Coffee is a great power in my life,” wrote HonorĂ© de Balzac in 1830, “I have observed its effects on an epic scale.” Indeed he had. When in the grip of one of his “orgies of work”, the French novelist and playwright would get up at 1am and write until 4pm, with a 90-minute nap in the middle. To fuel himself, he imbibed as many as 50 cups of coffee a day. He also dabbled with “a horrible, rather brutal method” which involved eating pure coffee grounds on an empty stomach. When he did this, he wrote, “Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages.”

I'd known that Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day (and to think my son gets on me for drinking 4-5 cups a day), but I never knew about his ingestion of pure coffee grounds.  I'm intrigued.  It may be horrible and brutal, as he describes it, but it's legal and easy to at least try.  And if the results, in terms of stimulating ideas, is even close to what Balzac claims, it may be worth it.  This is especially true for a writer like myself, someone with a full-time job.  It's important to have the mind clicking at once during those precious two or so hours one has to write each day.

So thanks, Balzac.  Thanks very much.

(Though keep in mind that Balzac died of a heart attack at age 51).

As for Patricia Highsmith, she too didn't exactly stick to a diet that did her body any favors. But the sheer oddness of her routine is appealing:

Novelist Patricia Highsmith ate the same thing for virtually every meal: bacon and fried eggs. She began each writing session with a stiff drink – “not to perk her up”, according to her biographer, Andrew Wilson, “but to reduce her energy levels, which veered towards the manic”. Then she would sit on her bed surrounded by cigarettes, coffee, a doughnut and a saucer of sugar, the intention being “to avoid any sense of discipline and make the act of writing as pleasurable as possible”.

The obsessiveness here, how she eats the same food every meal, doesn't surprise me about Highsmith, but her determination to avoid a feeling of discipline does.  After all, she was very prolific and hardworking.  You have to admire her spirit of fun, though, health consequences be damned.  

It does seem that she did well in the gene department.  With all that bacon fat and grease and cholesterol and nicotine and caffeine and sugar, she lived to be 74.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Monday: Meet Nicola Murphy

The thing that got me about this one was the emotion. My emotion, I guess. I was uncomfortable as hell, but emotionally invested. And the payoff felt like something real-life might deal out. Great story.

Tom Pitts – Author; AMERICAN STATIC, HUSTLE, KNUCKLEBALL. Editor, Flash Fiction Offensive.

We've run a lot of terrific pieces since Tom and I took over, but I have to say this one is special for me.  Like Tom, I found myself emotionally invested and riveted, and it has stuck with me.  A goddamn gem.

Joe Clifford – Author; LAMENTATION, DECEMBER BOYS, GIVE UP THE DEAD, JUNKIE LOVE. Editor, Flash Fiction Offensive.

English author Nicola Murphy serves up twisted tales with seriously sordid overtones. The words are dark, personal and likely to make you think long after you finish reading them. If you like perfectly crafted tales with heartbreaking details you should seek out the work of Nicola Murphy.

I’m not the only person who loves your writing, but I wish more people knew about you. There are simply not enough of your stories in the atmosphere. It seems you are very careful in terms of beginning the process and seeking publication after. I wonder, what inspires you to sit down and commit?

I wish that inspiration was consistent, that it showed up each morning to clock in at 9, but it doesn’t. It can be a snatch of conversation at a cafĂ©, or on the radio – the most fully formed ideas I have usually start with ‘ooh, that’s interesting’, then carry on with ‘what if?’.

On my first writing retreat I shared a room with a very nice American lady. She was going through a hard time with her man, and we joked how it was a pity he was not allergic to something. That turned into a VERY short story about a woman who gives her husband anaphylactic shock by luring in the neighbor’s cat. So, the ideas come from anywhere.

I find that having word limits, e.g. 1000 words on Flash Fiction Offensive, can shape a story and how it turns out. And once I get typing the inspiration seems to flow. For a while.

Your tales are dark and personal. The characters you create are so real and human, they feel like friends or acquaintances. Do you get emotionally involved with your stories? Do you walk away from the page you are writing feeling anger or sadness? Revenge?

Ha! Some of the stories I’ve read out at my writing group have had the best reaction when the dialogue and emotion has come from real life – I wrote about a crappy weekend away where the protagonist had an argument with her OH, that was almost verbatim – and it went down very well as they could sense the emotion rolling off the age.

In other stories, especially for FFO, I have to imagine what it would feel like to be a serial killer, or to be abandoned and left to die by your seemingly best friend. That’s where trashy real-life magazines come in as my real life is (probably luckily) quite boring.

I’ve included your most recent piece and your most popular on this page. “Witch” and “Daddy’s Girl.” Most of your work is about the female experience. Are you aware of that commonality while writing?

For me, that’s just the way it is – it’s not deliberate, I’m just trying to tell a good story. Does that sound trite?

Not at all. I understand. The tales you tell have women at the core, the fact there is neglect or abuse in the setting or the character’s history reflects a sad truth in our world

“Are you a feminist?” I had three young ladies ask me this question recently. How would you answer?

Absolutely. There’s a lovely quote from Caitlin Moran on this. “So, here is the quick way working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants. A.) Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said yes to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.” That’ll do for me.

If I want to be girly, or wear pink, or have multiple piercings and dance around to the Sisters of Mercy, then as a feminist, I can. If I believe that things should just BE FAIR, then I’m a feminist. That doesn’t stop me from asking the OH to open a bottle of something because I can’t get the lid off. It means I question a lot of the patriarchal bullshit that’s been splattered around for far too long.

Who are the writer’s that have inspired you?

That’s not fair! My favourite character and author can change from week to week – however, I do have a crush on Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, and Stephen King rarely disappoints. Of course, there are the writers that aren’t yet famous, but should be (like a certain Mr. Joe Clifford). But at the moment I’m loving the books by Liane Moriarty: definite page turners and with very clever plots.

What are you reading these days?

Right beside me is THE ETYMOLOGICON by Mark Forsyth, a circular trip around the history of words – it’s funny and clever, and if you’re a nerd, like me, it’s invaluable.

Tell me what you are working on?

I’m working on a series of long stories/novellas which feature a female DI with loads of baggage, a must have for all successful detectives, and each story invokes a murder on a reality show. The first one is “Cooking Hell”, where the foul-mouthed host of a cooking competition (think “Masterchef”) is found brutally murdered. Of course.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

What Batman: The Animated Series Got Right

Scott D. Parker

I think most folks here know Batman is my favorite superhero, and, by general consensus, Batman: The Animated Series is arguably the best on-screen rendition of the character. This year is the 25th Anniversary of the series. All four seasons are available on Amazon Prime so I’ve been watching an episode or two most every day.

Boy, does this show hold up well.

By 1992, we were about six years into the Dark Era of Batman, birthed by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (1987). Throw in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum (1989) and you had the character shift from a man who was a detective (and who had a life) to the brooding, unhumorous character we got for the next twenty years. As cool as it was in the late 80s to see Batman portrayed like that, when it became the *only* way he was written, it grew tedious and tiresome.

Which was why Batman: The Animated Series (TAS) was such a surprise at the time and such a breath of fresh air twenty-five years on. Back in 1992, seeing a TV version of Batman that reflected the current trend in the comics as well as the two Burton movies was fantastic. Batman was born a creature of the night, and TAS remembered his Depression-era origins. But TAS was a kids’ cartoon so the violence you started to see in the comics could not be shown on TV. That, to me, kept the focus on the character and his interactions rather than gratuitous violence for the sake of shock value.

We got our darker episodes where various facets of Batman’s character were examined. The violence was present, but it was often just off camera. It had the dual effect of allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks and to pass the censors. “Robin’s Reckoning” and “A Bullet for Bullock” come to mind. “I am the Night” is also a good example because Bruce Wayne doubts whether or not his crusade against crime is worth it. But there were also the lighter, funnier episodes like “Almost Got’em” where a cadre of villains talk about how they almost killed Batman, almost always with a big trap.

TAS also never forgot Batman was actually Bruce Wayne in two key aspects. One, Bruce was human. He needed to sleep and eat, something Alfred constantly harped on in almost every episode. Two, and most important, Bruce/Batman reached waged war against crime each in their own venue. Sometimes, it was Batman punching out bad guys. Other times it was Bruce using his wealth to buy out a bad company. Too often in the past quarter century, we only get Broody Batman and rarely Bruce Wayne. It was such a great thing to see TAS touch on both aspects of the man.

And it is, to date, the only version where Bruce offers the wink to the audience that we know his secret identity. Superman did this all the time in the 1950s series and the 1970s comics, but Batman rarely did.

Among my favorites (and likely yours, too) are: Heart of Ice; Beware the Gray Ghost (Adam West guest-starring!); Joker’s Favor; Perchance to Dream; The Laughing Fish; If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich? to name but a very few. Even a ‘bad’ episode isn’t really that bad.*

Oh, and the opening of each episode is a mini movie, sans any words…but you don’t need any.

So, do y’all have any favorite TAS episodes?

*For my book club, one of the members picked Frank Miller’s Dark Knight III: The Master Race. I loathed the second volume, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, but I am re-reading it before reading DKIII. I am reminded of why I disliked TDKSA so much…while watching TAS’s greatness. Sigh.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Crime Family Reunion

That's what I call Bouchercon.

Apologies to folks who can't go, for whatever reason. If you love crime fiction, I would recommend looking at the Bouchercon website and seeing if one is scheduled near where you live in the next few years, and planning to visit for a day, or the extended weekend. You won't regret it. My friend Sabrina Ogden talked me into going in 2011, when I had only published a handful of short stories, and I thought it would be a waste of money, from a writing business perspective.

I was utterly wrong. It was an investment, with dividends that can't be measured on a balance sheet.
Now writers say that a lot because we operate so deep in the red that we might as well be Comrade Doggo:

Are your puppers in order?

Sarah and I make Bouchercon one of our vacations each year. She's visited more of the United States than I have, and there's almost always something nearby to see. This year's is in Toronto, a city I haven't visited in decades. I'm looking forward to it, but most of all, I'm looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones. It's a very friendly crowd, and more reader oriented than most other conventions. ThrillerFest is all about the biz, and is very worthwhile for writers looking to learn, but Bouchercon is for everybody. One of the best ways to meet folks is to volunteer, and they always need volunteers.

I know it sucks to be the one at home when so many of your friends and favorite writers are sharing how much fun they are having at Bouchercon on social media. I know people who take a social media break during it, for this reason. I know not everybody can afford to attend, but even if it's a once in a lifetime splurge, I recommend it. Wait for your favorite writer to be the Guest of Honor, wait for it to be held near you, whatever it takes. You'll make friends for life. Friends I knew only on social media have become some of my closest friends, thanks to this convention. And you can split rooms, carpool, do whatever it takes. Get a room with a fridge and get your food and drinks cheap at a local market. 

And as a business proposition, it's not money thrown out the window. I've talked with agents and editors, had great discussions with writers and readers, found copy editors and beta readers and new magazines to submit to, met with publishers (like the publisher of my Jay Desmarteaux series, Down & Out Books) and much more. And while some will tell you to skip the con and hang out at the bar, I think this is a mistake for a few reasons. One, the con's not cheap to run. Your membership is important, even if you can only manage a day pass. And you will meet many more people wandering the book room or before and after panels than you will at the bar. 

Writer shown with manly pink drink

Now, my next book is set in a bar. My uncle ran bars. The staff at my local bar, the Cloverleaf, knows me so well they've brought me drinks while I was waiting in line for a table. So I will be at the bar. But the bar crowd is a small slice of the whole. Not everyone likes a loud atmosphere, or staying up that late. You can meet just as many people in the morning at the hospitality suite, or at the hotel's cafe, or the lobby. Just hang out and say hello. Wear your name tag. Write your name in big letters with a marker, because sometimes they print them too small. Wear the tag up high so we can see it. Those dangling badge holders swinging around at crotch level make it tough to identify people without staring like some sort of weirdo.

I hope to meet you there someday, if you can make it. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A City to Visit

Well, this week will be a real short post. Time is short as I pack and get ready for a last day at work before heading to Toronto for Bouchercon. Funny how some cities, through reading and movies, you associate with crime fiction and crime films, and how other cities you don't.  The fact is, sadly, I haven't read enough Toronto set crime fiction, so to this day, in terms of narrative, when I think Toronto and stories I still think mainly about the films of David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan.  We're talking all sorts of transgressions with these two directors (Cronenberg one of my favorites ever, early Egoyan brilliant and idiosyncratic as well) but not crime stories exactly.  What are the Toronto crime films anyway, aside from Daryl Duke's 1978 heist film The Silent Partner? That's an excellent movie, starting Elliot Gould, Christopher Plummer, and Susannah York, and it uses the city and its streets effectively.  There's an interview the great film writer Kim Morgan does with Elliot Gould about the making of the film that is well worth reading: Gould Interview.

Toronto, like Vancouver, has been used countless times as a location, a city meant to stand in on film for other cities, but it doesn't seem like there are many crime films available that are supposed to take place in Toronto.  I'll have to look into this.

Anyhow, though I've visited Montreal several times and Quebec City and Nova Scotia, I've only passed through Toronto quickly. It was years ago, on a VIA rail cross country trip by sleeper car train from Calgary to Montreal. Basically, I've never spent time in Toronto. I'm looking forward to doing so and of upping my knowledge, outside of the Toronto based writers I know personally, of the city's crime novelists.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The School of Social Media for Writers

Sometimes, I wonder if anyone reads this blog. I wonder if anyone reads any blog anymore.

When I was first entering the crime fiction writing scene it seemed like everyone had a blog. There were group blogs, like this, that featured rotating author schedules. There were individual blogs. There were blogs that focused mainly on writing advice, while others posted jokes and others posted thoughts about life.

I had a blog. I used it as a disciplinary tool. It ensured that I started my day writing almost every day.

I soon found myself to be part of a blog community. There were other sites I went to every day for news. Some bloggers became online friends and I dropped in regularly to check in on what was going on with them.

There was a sense of community. There was a sense of connection. It may have been an illusion, but if I put people in the industry into two categories, grouped by those I connected to via blogging ten years ago and those I connected to post-blogging connections (those I've "met" through Facebook or Twitter) I'm in touch with more people from the blogging days.

Is it just me? Perhaps. I know lately things have been tense on social media because of politics. The result is that I see more evidence of writer fights and conflict than I recall back in the blogging days. I recently watched a 'friend' unfriend another actual friend simply because that person disagreed with their post.

Long story short, that 'friend' then deleted the post and posted that people were mean and the mean people should unfriend them. I told the 'friend' that just because a person disagreed with them it didn't make them mean.

I was unfriended and blocked.

Now, don't get me wrong. Back in the day there were blogger feuds. I was involved in a few myself, but there wasn't this same 'unfriend/block' action involved that made people disappear.

Perhaps the nature of the interactions back then made it possible to still be professionally connected to people who you weren't chummy with.

All I know is that now, it seems that the community is more fragmented. I know for myself that if someone takes a personal action against me, making it clear that they have no interest in my existence, I have no reason to think that person would want to deal with me professionally either. After all, I've started an author page on Facebook and anyone who wants information about my professional activities can follow that instead of following my personal page. I haven't done much with it because there's been limited interest. In fact, I've noticed some others abandoning their professional pages.

If there's a place people are interacting online regularly I don't know about it. (Didn't the ITW used to have a members only forum? Or did I hallucinate that?) I have limited time for online activities that aren't related to my work so I could never sustain the old blogging routine anyway, but I do find myself wondering if the fragmentation of the community has impacted people's ability to build their profile. I wonder if it's impacted our ability to work together professionally.

I found myself thinking about this yesterday because back when I entered the online community I learned a lot about writing and the business of publishing. There were a lot of blogs that dispensed bad advice. There were a lot of people flocking around self-appointed experts who had never been published themselves and didn't work in the business.

However, there were others who provided a lot of useful insight. I made mistakes starting out, as I'm sure all of us have, but I learned how to format submissions and I certainly learned what not to do after a rejection.

The thing is, I still see people making a lot of basic mistakes and I know that some good information is available online that can be found through a quick Google search. Heck, Spinetingler posts its submission guidelines, yet so many writers start off on the wrong foot because they do not follow them.

I was recently compiling material for Spinetingler's first issue in years. I was astounded at how many writers did not have websites. In some cases I couldn't find email contact information on their website. I tried contacting through Facebook Messenger in those cases - which I'm not a fan of doing - and almost all went unanswered. Did people get the messages or not? I have no way of knowing. Some people do not use Messenger at all.

We receive review copies almost every day. The emails that Spinetingler gets from some publicists about upcoming releases and the review copies we receive are almost the only indication I have of what's being published now.

This is making me rethink the future for the next issue of Spinetingler Magazine. Is it worth it to try to find a way to rebuild social media connections so that I can stay on top of what's going on so that I can determine what authors I should be featuring?

Or is it easier to let publishers and publicists call the shots? I recall a talk from a bookseller several years ago. He explained that even the publishers did not push all of their own books. They would concentrate their marketing on a few specific titles. He even said that sales staff from the publishing houses had told him directly which titles to skip and not stock in store.

Some authors could really lose out. I'm grateful for the publishers who do work with us; we have some wonderful colleagues in the industry. I just don't want to miss out on the authors at large publishing houses who aren't getting as much profile but are also worthy of attention.

Although I certainly don't have the time to do the blogging circuits the way I once did I do miss the old days. In order to combat this issue we're working on updating Spinetingler's Facebook page and website.

It still won't be as ideal as a personal page for communicating but it's a start. If you want to be among the first people to hear our upcoming news about our fall issue release connect to us on Facebook or Twitter.

I'm also thinking about creating a Spinetingler blog that would allow for more interaction. I'm not sure it's worth it; thoughts? Do people feel that social media isn't an effective means of marketing and therefore they aren't interested in forming online connections in the industry?

I think the proof for me was a few months ago. Someone I knew from the old blogging days submitted a story to Spinetingler. The other editor followed up with them about an acceptance but conveyed that the fall issue I was working on was full. The writer replied that they didn't even know I was working on a fall issue.

That's a problem, folks. If we can't get the word out to great writers effectively we lose out on the opportunity to publish them and they're missing submission opportunities.

On that note, here's some news. Submissions are now open for our next issue (release data to be determined). More big news coming soon.