Thursday, July 28, 2016

Do you write moments or scenes?

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a joyless movie that had none of the fun that comes with being a superhero flick (I mean, even Batman can have fun between grunts). But that wasn’t the main reason it sucked. Nerdwriter explains that its the movie’s over-reliance on moments versus scenes that makes the whole thing feel awkward, staged, and inauthentic. The film tried to awe us with slow motion shots, montage sequences, dream scenes, close up shots, and absolute destruction...but as a result, it forgot to build a world or tell a story we would care about.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Belly up to the Bar with Neliza Drew!

Well, I'm finally Damaged enough to join this crew. I knew it would happen, if I kept reading crime novels. I'm elbow-deep in edits for my next novel, the Nazi hipster craft beer cozy, so I cheated a little for my first post. I interviewed Neliza Drew, whose debut novel ALL THE BRIDGES BURNING came out this month. It's a great mystery thriller with a kick-ass heroine. I'm a stickler for realistic fight scenes--I actually choreographed some of the fights in Blade of Dishonor at the fight gym where I trained at the time--and while Davis Groves doesn't always lead with her fists, when there's rough and tumble action, it's done well. You can find out why in the interview that follows. Among the many things Neliza Drew has done, she's now a karate instructor.

TP:
Neliza, belly up to the bar. What can I pour you?

ND:
It's been crazy-hot for days on end, so let's go with an ice-cold club soda. 

TP:
Davis Groves is a smart-ass ass-kicker who came up hard. One thing I love about Davis is that she doesn't have a "code" but almost a child's sense of what's right and wrong, and take-no-BS attitude for those who can't stop making problems for themselves. Does she have an inspiration in fiction, and in real life?

ND:
So much of Davis is informed by and inspired by the girls I used to teach at the regional detention center. She started out, twenty years ago in an awful short story that has thankfully been lost, as a kind of alternative to the few female sleuths I'd read at the time. 

Back then, I hadn't fully discovered the richness or depth of the crime fiction genre. This was pre-Amazon and my family wasn't big on mysteries and thrillers, so the books I had access to were what I could find in small bookstores or my local library. I scribbled her down because I wanted to read about a younger, more screwed up, less "honorable" female protagonist, more of those have been published and found their way onto my radar. 

The parts that make her feel "real" though, came from my former students and watching how they dealt with the crap life threw at them. It's not uncommon for someone who's had to "group up fast" to keep a childlike moral compass because they, rightly or wrongly, believe it's worked for them so far. You hear it a lot in people who think anyone who hasn't had it as hard as they have (no matter how they define it) has no reason to whine or complain. It's a coping mechanism, but it sounds mean and uncaring. 


TP:
Davis is based in Florida, but you decided to bring her home to coastal North Carolina, rather than keep her in the chaotic playground of Florida craziness. What made you set the book there?

ND:
What made me set the book there was laziness. 

I knew she wouldn't live near her family, that something had happened to test her loyalty and make her move away. I also needed a reason to cement the mother, Charley, someplace because it would be too hard for her to keep moving around and keep custody of Lane on her own. 

Davis lives in South Florida. It's full of plot possibilities and I've been watching it change for two decades, so again...laziness. Charley needed somewhere else and I stuck her in the county I grew up in. Plus, winters there are gray and depressing, which seemed perfect for a story about confronting a mess of one's past demons, guilt, and family dysfunction. 


TP:
You've been both a teacher in classrooms and in the dojo. How has that influenced your writing? 

ND:
I have to let stuff "simmer" for a stupid-long amount of time, so most of the time at the dojo has been too recent to really affect much. The time at the detention center, though, colored a lot of Davis's past, her attitudes, her relationship to her family, and some of the plot.

In eight-and-a-half years, I spent all but one of those at the regional detention center and about half of those years were spent teaching the girls all day, every subject. Spending all day every day (including summers for several years) with girls who've been locked up can be a powerful and informative experience.


TP: 
You write damn good fight scenes thanks to your experience. Who are some of your literary influences?

ND:
I know I'm supposed to pull out some classic tome, wax poetic on the Big Boys of Noir, or craft a nostalgic essay on Goodnight Moon. I'm not that good a writer. 

I grew up on Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. At some point, I discovered the Nancy Drew books, and while the classics were fun, the ones I really liked were the "Case Files," which were in hindsight the worst bits of the older books dressed up in the worst of the 80s.

In the 90s, I read all the Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller books and kept up with both until a few years ago. One day I'll get back. I read all the Karen Kijewski's Kat Colorado books and about the first quarter of Grafton's alphabet. I have loved everything I've read by Robert Crais since The Monkey's Raincoat with the exception of Hostage. For whatever reason, that's possibly me, I cannot seem to finish that book. 

I've also said before that had I met ZoĆ« Sharp's Charlie Fox back before I started writing Davis, I might never have felt compelled to create her. Not sure Charlie and Davis would get along as one is disciplined and well-trained while the other charges on blindly, expecting disaster and halfway not caring.


TP:
I'm a big fan of Crais as well. Everyone forgets Bad Joe Pike is a vegetarian... You're a practicing vegan. I know they have a reputation for being preachy, but I never got any grief from you (or Alex Segura, another vegan crime writer I know). What made you embrace Lord Seitan? And thanks for introducing me to veggie chorizo crumbles. My breakfasts have never been better.

ND:
Glad you've found some tasty veggie crumbles. 

About eight years ago, a local book club I was in picked The Jungle as their first read. Between that and the vegan guest speaker at school showing videos that looked like outtakes from the book, I was too grossed out to eat meat for months. By the time I stopped being grossed out, I realized I didn't miss it, so I never went back. Turns out since eggs and most dairy were already on my "icky" list, it was pretty easy except for trying to eat in airports. 

I'm not super-militant about the whole vegan thing (which means a lot of vegans would wrinkle their noses and call me a "plant-based eater"), but I purposefully shop for cruelty-free cosmetics and hygiene products, and I avoid secret animal-based ingredients whenever I can.

Technically vegans eschew leather and leather products, but my vegan-eating sister (who is also a big environmentalist) and I found a quandary there. Synthetics don't last as long, resulting in more waste, and aren't really any more sustainably produced. Buying used keeps stuff out of the waste stream longer -- especially since leather is durable and repairable -- without requiring new animal sacrifices. 


TP:  
You travel a lot, and I have the postcards to prove it. Will Davis hit the road in the future? and what would be your favorite place to set a crime novel?

ND:
I honestly didn't think I traveled that often. I do love a good road trip, though. They're cheaper than destination travel. I can pack my own food. I get to explore lots of stuff. And I love driving back roads.

Davis grew up on the road, but not in a fun free-wheeling kind of way. Still, that sense of impermanence sticks with her, so I imagine she'll meander around. I may have also drafted a few novella-length stories of her teen years that are hanging out on my hard drive. 

There is a Davis idea I have that would take her to San Francisco and then backtracking through some of the places she lived growing up. Might take me a few years. 

I love a good motel so eventually I'm going to have to put that fascination to good use. 


TP:
Novellas are hot right now. I hope we see some of those. You've set a few of your stories in the juvenile justice system and in schools. If you had a magic wand and could pass one law, or erase one, whatever- change one thing- to improve how we treat teens in reform schools or the justice system, what would it be?
ND:
I'm not sure one law, give or take, could change much. The Zero Tolerance laws passed in the wake of events like Columbine did more harm than good. The stories that got the press were the (usually white) honor students with plastic knives for food and similar insanity, but ZT laws did a lot toward funneling children of color into the school-to-prison pipeline. Once in the system, it's very difficult to fully escape, so introducing students to the system for petty reasons can have disastrous effects. 

The whole juvenile system is a messy hodgepodge and most everything legislatures try to do to "fix" it, tends to make things worse because they listen to lobbyist, capitalists who want to privatize the systems, and administrators who haven't been "in the trenches" in years rather than the people who do the work and who also do the caring. 

Like schools, if you hire well, pay well enough, and treat your employees well, you will tend to have more caring staff and fewer problems in places like programs and juvenile detention centers. When the state slashed funding, that became too obvious to all but the state leaders. 


TP:
That doesn't give me much hope. But to end on a light note, what would be your last meal? (PS, if you come to NYC we've got to go to Blossom. Sarah said the mock duck with cashew cream was amazing). 

ND:
The last truly awesome vegan meal I had was at De La Vega in Deland, FL of all places. I could definitely go for that again. The husband makes a delicious vegan shepherd's pie, too. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Chester Himes' Plan B


by Scott Adlerberg

(This comes from an essay I wrote on Chester Himes' Harlem Detective novel series that will appear next year in a collection of pieces on radical pulp fiction edited by Andrew Nette).


It's his last book, it's unfinished, and it's a difficult book to enjoy, but now is the time Chester Himes' Plan B seems more relevant than ever.  It's the novel in which Himes gives vent to his apparent belief, after years writing in controlled anger, that racial justice through peaceful means is a pipe dream and that only violent revolution by blacks against whites will change the established order. Though it does feature his two series detectives, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, Plan B is his novel about this revolution and its possible consequences, with Jones and Johnson playing, in essence, a supporting role.

Easily the most violent of Himes' books, Plan B has a loose plot that follows the doings of Tomsson Black, a black man of humble origins. Through a series of unlikely events, Green becomes a wealthy revolutionary masquerading as a black businessman.  Rich white people befriend and financially support him during his rise to respectability, and he uses their money to buy huge stocks of weapons that he funnels to blacks for his uprising.  The novel alternates between historical chapters tracing Tomsson’s background and contemporary chapters (the 1970's) in Harlem where the revolution breaks out.  Grave Digger and Coffin Ed come into it when they respond to what seems like an ordinary killing in Harlem among junkies.  At the apartment where a heroin addict killed a woman friend of his, they find a high-powered rifle that was mysteriously sent to the man along with an incendiary note. The note tells the weapon’s recipient to learn how to use the gun, wait for instructions, and not tell the police.  It promises that “FREEDOM IS NEAR!!!!”



Plan B is part thriller, part satire, part political screed.  As blacks perpetuate random and horrific violence against whites and whites retaliate against blacks, Himes fills his narrative with acid observations:

It was then, as both escape and therapy that he [Tomsson Black] had begun moving in the circles of Northern white liberals who needed the presence of a black face to prove their liberalism.

And there were some whites who went about crying publicly…touching blacks on the street as if to express their suffering through contact, and sobbingly confessing their sorrow and begging the blacks’ forgiveness.  There were a few extremists who even bent over and offered their asses for blacks to kick, but blacks weren’t sure whether they were meant to kick them or kiss them, so in their traditional manner, they cautiously avoided making any decision at all.

The citizens of other nations in the world found it difficult to reconcile this excessive display of guilt by America’s white community with its traditional treatment of blacks.  What the citizens of the world didn’t understand was that American whites are a traditionally masochistic people, and their sense of guilt toward their blacks is an integral part of the national character.

The novel has an over the top quality and an apocalyptic tone. Himes pours on the violence and depicts the carnage with gusto.  Blacks massacre white men, women, children, and old people.  Whites talk about bringing back slavery and castrating black males.  They enlist big game hunters to go on “The Black Hunt”.  Blood flows in the streets.  Blacks do not get intimidated and continue killing whites.  It’s as if Himes is indulging in a fantasy long held and until now somewhat suppressed: the ultimate revenge of American blacks against American whites for the legacy of racism and injustice.  No non-violent method of protest has gotten black people to the point they need to be – equal with whites – so the only option left is violence.  At the very least, even with whites striking back, using a tank to level a Harlem house, lynching a man at a concert in Central Park, violence offers black people consolation; they have the satisfaction of seeing white people in constant fear.  The disorder spread through the secret machinations of Tomsson Black provides for a catharsis no peaceful means of protest can equal.




Or does it?  Does this alleged catharsis lead anywhere? For all Himes' expressed belief in the necessity of armed insurrection, Plan B betrays an ambivalence in him.  For starters, the insurrection he lays out, whatever Tomsson Black’s original plans for it, deteriorates fast into haphazard violence.  People given weapons to use, with virtually no one to guide them, run amuck.  Blacks are no different than whites in this aspect.  Near the end of the novel, Tomsson confesses that he should have anticipated this.  The uprising he envisioned has spun out of his control.  Blacks committing their murderous acts against whites has resulted in the United States becoming a field of pandemonium.  How this will end even Tomsson Black can’t predict, but he feels that he must keep distributing guns and “let maniacal, unorganized, and uncontrolled blacks massacre enough whites to make a dent in the white man’s hypocrisy…”

It's possible that this book doesn't get the attention of Himes other novels because he never finished it.  It's conceivable also that Himes stopped working on it because he’d written himself into a corner.  How do you end such a book?  Reconciliation after all the violence would seem implausible, so what do you do instead? Have the whites exterminate the blacks?  The blacks wipe out the whites?  Does Himes really think mayhem like this will lead to racial equality, or is he saying that uncoordinated violence doesn’t work and will never help blacks attain their goals?  Maybe Himes is suggesting that whatever blacks do, they have to get their numbers in order before they mount any serious offensives against the white power machine.  It’s not violence itself that Himes seems to frown on, but violence that squanders opportunity and becomes misdirected.  However it's read, Plan B comes with all the bite but less of the fun of the first eight Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones books, but it’s one that even in its extremity should be better known.  It was his last Harlem detective novel and his last novel overall, and for anyone at all interested in Himes or in crime fiction with a strong social bent, it's a must. 

Especially right now.






Monday, July 25, 2016

Out of Character

Sat July 16 I was scheduled to read at Noir at the Bar event in DC. I'd tried working on a few different projects, but nothing was coming together. My most recent stories were too long and couldn't be pared down to the length needed.

Channeling my inner high school procrastinating skills, on Thursday July 14 I penned a short story. Initially at 2600 words, it too needed to be trimmed. I was confident I could squeeze it down to 1500 or so and be ready for Saturday.

One of my fellow Radioactive Writers read it and sent back notes, and we discussed the story at length over Skype. Rewrite followed rewrite.

For the purposes of Saturday's event I wanted to; a. Keep it to 1500 words or less, b. Keep it crime, and c. Tuck in some inside jokes for Marietta Miles, who was also reading at the event.

The inside jokes were references to The Walking Dead.

As the process of revision unfolded my critique partner suggested a reference to a Tom Waits song. It was a song Beth sang in the hospital.

Now, the song didn't make the cut. That's not the point. The point is, the suggestion got me thinking about Beth. Would sweet, innocent, sheltered Beth sing Tom Waits? Keith Green, sure. Tom Waits? Undecided.



I posed the question to Brian and that's when he pointed out to me that in some of my books I've had characters reading certain novels he doesn't think that character would read. He says it's common for authors to make that mistake to name drop friends' books.

Of course, I argued back with him that despite his and Bry's own views on religion they're all up on Parker Millsap, despite a lot of God references scattered throughout his lyrics. (And, I mean, who isn't all up on Parker Millsap? I guess anyone who hasn't heard of him, but damn, is he talented.)


However, he has a point about the book references in novels. They often pull the protagonist out of character to serve the author's agenda instead of maintaining character consistency.

Now, I'll be the first to say that I think people can be more diverse than story characters often are, and real people are often filled with contradictions that aren't accepted in character development (as I pointed out to Brian). However, both of those aspects of character development involve narrowing the focus on the character in a story. Inserting musical or written references that contradict the perception of the character don't expand that character; they simply contradict how they've been developed.

Maybe after the apocalypse, after the barn and the brutal deaths they'd seen, maybe then Beth would have listened to Tom Waits, but the only way for her to sing that song was if she knew if before the world turned to hell, and it feels like a stretch to me. I just wasn't convinced. Wild child Maggie, sure. Naive little Beth? Hmmmm. Not sold.

Whenever a character does something to suit the author's purpose the risk is that the reader will be pulled out of the story, and when that happens you risk losing them. Works that are character driven flow from a consistency of character with believable choices the characters make that drive the plot forward.

The other end of the spectrum is placeholder people who do what the author needs to follow their plot. The dumb people who, after being chased by a freak with a knife, hear a noise in the cellar and go to see what it is instead of running away. Or, you know, Kevin from Bloodline, who does everything he's told not to do.

This is an issue that crops up a lot in plot-driven writing. When the focus is on outlining and following a formula for storytelling, the compromise can be wooden characters who don't flow organically through the events because the author's more focused on scenes they want to incorporate than telling a story about a protagonist that flows from their motivation.

I was trained in outlining. When I took my creative writing diploma I worked under the tutelage of an author who had several books to her name. I felt apologetic telling her why I'd continued a manuscript (that eventually became Suspicious Circumstances) but abandoned the outline and why.

Her response? "You've a real writer." She credited me for knowing the limitations of the outline and being able to toss it aside when necessary in order to ensure the development of the characters and the story was organic and believable.

Ask if a character would really do something, and if so, Why? What's their motivation? If you can't answer those questions for a novel you're reading or writing chances are the character isn't well developed.


Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Thank You Note



Writing is such a solitary thing, that you can forget how many people are supporting you. I was lucky enough to be reminded yesterday.


From the fellow moms who watched my kids so I could get those chapters finished by deadline to the design expert who helped do my promotional bookmarks and the photography buff who took my author photo, I have friends who have pitched in regularly with their time, their skills and their encouragement to help make my book a reality. Their enthusiasm has been priceless.
And then there’s my family, who put up with my hours closeted away with a laptop and my frequent stares into space as I contemplated plot points. (That happened at dinner. A lot.) There aren’t enough ways to say thank you in the English language for me to express how grateful I am.
So for all the people who – even though they never write a word – help writers become authors and help books become reality, thank you.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Fiction Writing Streak #2 is Dead

Well, it had to happen, right?

My second fiction writing streak ended with a whimper on 18 July 2016. It started on 1 January 2015. That’s just a tad over a year and a half—565 days because 2016 is leap year—of writing some sort of fiction every day. That’s more than double my last streak of 255 days. And, obviously, it meant that I wrote some sort of fiction every day for all of 2015.

But it ended having been completely forgotten. On Monday night, as we were preparing for our trip—I’m writing this on Wednesday—I remembered thinking “I have to get my fiction in.” You see, as this summer has progressed, I’ve stumbled into another streak. I’ve written on my author blog every day this summer. And, in recent days, I’ve awakened at my typical 5:15am, but instead of writing on my current story, I’ve written a blog post. Now, it doesn’t take a genius to see the problem there and I freely admit to the change in priorities. But that’s where I’ve devoted my morning energies. I’ve moved the fiction to the evening.

And I missed it completely on Monday. Heck, I didn’t even realize it until I woke on Tuesday morning. I was crestfallen, to be sure, but also a little relieved.

Streak #2 had started to become an albatross, to be honest. There were some days when I pounded out 8,000 words. There were other days when I managed ten just to keep the streak alive. Another obvious issue is enthusiasm. When I’m excited about a project, I’ve got no issues writing. When the project becomes laborious, well, then, there is more than one issue a play, huh? That’s where I’ve found myself currently. I’m gearing up for my second Lillian Saxton novel that I’ll be starting on 1 August. “Gearing up” means researching The Battle of Britain and working over the plot and characters. Needless to say, “research” isn’t writing.

The way I get to split hairs is to say that my *writing* streak is still alive since I’ve written blogs on Monday and Tuesday. I’ve rarely counted blog-writing days as writing day, but I should. I *am* writing, after all.

So, there you go. Streak #2 is done. The breaking of the Streak has also given me a chance to contemplate how I move forward. It’s safe to say that once I start a project, I will write on it every day until completion. Maybe now that the Streak is broken, I can devote some of my time to marketing the books I write. By the time y’all read this, I will already be traveling. Traveling for me means when I’m not driving, I’m in the backseat, Bluetooth keyboard linked with my iPhone, writing. It’s amazing how much you can write when it’s basically the only option to pass away the miles. So, if nothing else, a new streak should have started on 21 July.


Let’s see how long this one lasts…

Friday, July 22, 2016

Noir at the Bar: DC

Marietta Miles photographed by Peter Rozovsky

By Steve Weddle

Over at Spinetingler, Rev. Eryk Pruitt recounts the recent Noir at the Bar in DC. Check it out:

On a weekend where the heat indexes crept into the 100s across the mid-Atlantic, no place was hotter than Washington DC’s Wonderland Ballroom, the site of author and reviewer E.A. Aymar’s third Noir at the Bar. Billed as “Chapter Three,” the lineup boasted  ten crime writers at the tops of their game to a packed house. The mood was kept dark and lively, thanks to DJ ALKIMIST, who spun intro music for each reader. Even amongst the crowd gathered a Who’s Who of crime fiction, as readers and writers alike mingled with folks like Peter Rozovsky, Brian Lindenmuth, and Erik Arneson.

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