Saturday, July 22, 2017

Try and Avoid [Squirrel!] Distractions When Writing


By
Scott D. Parker

This past Tuesday, I got a chance to see Jason Isbell live here in Houston. It was a thrilling experience and I wrote about it the next day.

And there’s where the rub comes in.

Even though it’s summer, I still wake up early to write. When I do, it is usually in a direct line: bed to kitchen (for apple cider vinegar and coffee) to office. Open the laptop and start writing. Don’t check email, don’t check the news, don’t do anything other than write. It helps with the brain and the creativity.

Naturally, Wednesday morning’s session was the time I didn’t write on my current Calvin Carter novel but I used the time to write my thoughts about the Isbell concert. (Loved it, by the way. Y’all really should give him a listen. Here he is in June performing three songs on CBS.) I knew going into the session I was doing this, wanted to do, needed to do it, and that was that.

But what came after proved a distraction.

The opening line of the post reads like this: “Have you ever had an experience when you discover something new to you, it blows you away, and you look around and see if anyone else knows about it?” I was so excited about the show and my piece that I truly wanted other people to read my post and be introduced to Isbell’s music. I put it on Facebook—both my personal account and my two author accounts. I tweeted it, three times, in fact, giving props to Isbell as well as Houston Revention Center and Radio Paradise (the online station where I first heard Isbell).

During my workday, when I have a few spare minutes here and there, that’s when I like to write a few paragraphs on the current fiction project. It is one of the reasons why I can get a first draft of a novel done in under a month. But on Wednesday, when I should have been writing, I was too busy refreshing Twitter and Facebook, hoping that Jason Isbell himself read my post. Oh! I liked one of my tweets! Yay!

Complete blew apart my writing for the day. Words written on Monday: 3545. Words written on Tuesday: 2219. Words written Wednesday: 728. See what I mean? By the end of the day, I was pretty irritated with myself for allowing myself to get distracted the way I did.

Distractions don’t always come in the form of alerts on our phones or computers. They can be purely of our own making. I made my mistake on Wednesday. I corrected myself on Thursday and yesterday, but it was a reminder that I need to maintain the focus of my writing time throughout the day.

Y’all ever get distracted like that?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Service Guarantees Citzenship

The coolest part about being a writer is supposed to be writing a perfect sentence, or seeing your name on a cover of a book - and I'm not saying that isn't cool, but I'm nothing if not honest. And here's the honest truth - the coolest thing about being a writer is meeting other writers. Beautiful, ridiculous, creative, and fun writers who always have side projects going and let you jump in and have fun with them.

I mentioned that I will be at MidSummer Scream next weekend, and I really can't wait - but wait, I must. Lucky for me, my friend Kit Power got ahold of me last week to ask me back to his killer podcast Watching RoboCop with Kit Power. If you're unfamiliar with it - it's exactly what it sounds like. Awhile back I was on to... watch RoboCop with Kit Power, and watch it, we did. We provided our own commentary track, sometimes completely off topic, and had a fucking blast.

If you missed it, you can listen here.



This time, I'll be joining Kit for a bonus episode, to talk about my favorite Verhoeven film - Starship Troopers. I'm not sure when it will air, but you can listen to us wax philosophical about the anti-Oprah in RoboCop in the meantime. This episode should be a lot of fun - I love Starship Troopers, but since Kit and I had thrown the idea of doing this around several months ago, I decided not to give a re-watch. I can't remember the last time I saw the movie, so it'll be a little like the first time all over again.

A preview of things I will more than likely say:
-Something about how Jake Busey was really popular for a moment.
-Something about co-ed showers being considered futuristic.
-Something about the bugs where I used to live looking exactly like the bugs they fight.
-Something about the USMC Commandant's Reading List.
-Something about not fucking remembering that!

And more!

Can't wait to share it with all of you, and/or jump in on your next fun side project.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

And boy are my arms tired...

I recently returned from a 13 day, 2400 mile, 7 country road trip across Europe with my wife Sarah and my friend Johnny the ginger Marine. I did the driving, they did the navigating. We had a great time, and I only visited two bookstores if you don't count museum shops.

The first was a lovely little place in Bruges called Books and Brunch. How could I pass it up? They had waffles AND books! And they had a nice selection of both. I admit only partook of the waffles, but I nearly grabbed a copy of Underground by Haruki Murakami, his interviews with survivors of the Tokyo sarin gas attack. Cheerful reading! I lugged too many books on vacation as usual, so I was given a moratorium by Sarah.

If you haven't seen Martin McDonagh's In Bruges you're missing out on one of the best crime films of recent vintage. It showcases the beautiful city very well, uses the scenery to make it integral to the plot, and stars Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes. Brutally funny.

Here's a look at Books and Brunch.


If you zoom in you can see they have good taste. Megan Abbott, Michael Koryta, Richard Price, all in Dutch. No Dutch Leonard, though. Damn shame.

A few days later we visited our friend Courtney in Maastricht in the Netherlands, and she took us to bookstore that truly worships books... Boekhandel; Dominicanen, a huge bookstore in a former Dominican church. The front door is a rusted metal masterpiece, and inside the vaulted marble ceilings make you reverent, even if you're giggling at a copy of I Love You Dick, by Chris Kraus.

Take a look:



Make a pilgrimage there if you happen to be in the area. It's not far from Aachen, Germany, home of the Aachendom, the church where Charlemagne's throne and grave sit. 

It's one of the most beautiful bookstores I've ever visited. I bought myself a fancy pen to commemorate the occasion. And I bought I Love You Dick. Because no one tells me I have too many books!




Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Iain Ryan on The Student

In less than 2 years, Australian writer Iain Ryan has put out 5 novels.  He started with Four Days, a fierce novel set in Queensland state in the 1980's, when police corruption was endemic there, and he went on from that impressive debut to his pitch-black Tunnel Island trilogy: Drainland, Harsh Recovery, and Civil Twilight - books in which he continued to explore the intersection between nasty criminals and corrupt cops, with the cops often being more flawed and violent than the criminals. Now he's turned in a different direction, a college campus set novel, though that doesn't mean he's brightened his material. His new novel, The Student, goes to the same dark places his Ellroyesque procedurals did, this time from the point of a view of a university student.  I asked Iain whether he wanted to talk a little about the book, and he said sure.

Here we go.




SCOTT ADLERBERG: After Four Days and then your Tunnel Island trio, four novels centered around the doings of criminals and morally compromised cops, and where those two groups often intersect, what prompted you to write a college campus novel, albeit a very dark one?

IAIN RYAN: In the 2015/16 Australian summer I needed to sit down and write a textbook for my job at a university. This was not a task I was particularly looking forward to and as I started, I soon found that I needed to write a bit of fiction to get the gears turning and warm-up. Of course, I didn't want the book to require more research than I was already neck deep in so I opted for a period setting from my own biography: a rural campus town in the mid-90s. I really love campus novels, especially The Secret History by Donna Tartt and The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, but I can't really remember the exact motivations for writing a crime novel set on campus. Which is all to say, I made decisions about this book very quickly, thinking the manuscript would amount to very little.

So this was a wing it as you go sort of novel, or did you plot much out beforehand? Sounds like it grew as a book pretty naturally

I always outline but it definitely evolved past the outline more than anything else I've ever worked on. And as my first book for a traditional publisher, there was a full structural edit too and I took a lot of that on board. It's one of the things that's most sold me on traditional versus self-pub/small press. I think 5 or six people ended up working on The Student in one guise or another and I welcome all the help I can get. They definitely improved the book. Definitely.

You envisioned this book from the start as a book for a traditional publisher? How did you settle on Echo Press? And having worked with a traditional publisher, do you see yourself going back in the future to self-publishing or are you going to try to stick with the traditional publishing route?

Oh no, I thought I'd self-publish the book. I came so close to self-publishing it that I had it edited and I had the cover for it. But then I got cold feet. One thing I've learned from the trenches of self-publishing is that standalone books are a tough sell. 

Self-publishing is a commercial marketplace. If you want to succeed there, you generally need to write a series and you need to hit the genre tropes square on. You need a likeable protagonist. You need a clearly resolved ending. You need the book to move quickly forward and for the style to be nonintrusive. The Student didn't really tick these boxes. 

Around this time, Angela Meyer from Echo Publishing read my first book Four Days and despite rejecting it for a local release, she asked me to send her whatever I wrote next. Figuring I had literally nothing to lose, I sent across the manuscript for The Student and that was that. I didn't formally submit anything. My entire pitch was 200 words long -- no cover letter -- and I sent the entire manuscript as an attachment. It was very informal. 

I don't think there's any real lesson for anyone in all this except that this could stand as a gentle reminder that we're not always the best critic of our own work. And that it's foolish to get to indebted to one mode of publishing. The idea that I nearly self-published the book because 'It's what I do' is something that keeps me up at night. It would have been a disaster. 

As for whether I'd go back to small press or self-publishing? I'm sure I'll be back at some point. I love writing. And putting your work out there -- however you can -- is part of writing.




I read Four Days, your first book, and really liked that, in part because you took your clear love of James Ellroy's books and used it to craft a book entirely your own, with your own feel and sound. With The Student I can see some Bret Easton Ellis influence, especially The Rules of Attraction, which you mentioned. But do you think your crime fiction influences came into play at all with this book? It sort of blends campus debauchery novel with a violent grimy crime novel sensibility and it makes for something tough but refreshing.

I still see a lot of Ellroy still popping up in this book. It's more White Jazz than LA Confidential this time round, is all. I'm not sure I'm ever going to outrun his influence. That said, I'm a bit Ellis fan too and I definitely reached for Rules of Attraction when I was planning the novel. I really like how he wrote the teenagers in that book, especially their lack of empathy -- or more generously, their underdeveloped empathy. Which is something I see all the time working with teenagers. Even as a late teen, you're not really set up to process the full spectrum of adult situations yet. In fact, that's kinda what becoming an adult is all about. The links between the two -- between Ellis and Ellroy -- are also not as far apart as you'd imagine. They're both deeply invested in how various elites perpetuate and profit from their sociopathy, be it the nameless bad men of American Tabloid or the despondent rich kids of Less Than Zero.

I never thought of them as linked, not even thematically, but that's a really good point. 

It's a awhile since you've been in college, so in portraying teens and college students, did you draw upon memories primarily or what you observe in college age students now or a combination of the two? And how much of yourself, if anything, did you throw in the mix? I assume you had your share of fun and excess in college.

I think that's it exactly. Nate is a combination of what I remember from that period of my own life combined with the young people I teach. The naivety about the world comes from me. The almost-Stoic self-determination of Nate is more from my students. No one ever really comments on this but late-teens are pretty hard-boiled. I've taught lots of young men and women who view the world as one giant bureaucratic system obstructing them (ala the 'mean streets' of crime fiction). And they don't ask for help. In the novel I put together a fairly detailed subplot as to why Nate doesn't just call the cops but I'm not sure I needed to go to that effort. Anyone who teaches has met that kid that won't ever ask for help, no matter the situation. Nate's one of those. 

As to my own hedonism, all I can say is that when you *really* think back to that moment in your life, you realize it just is a more hedonistic moment. Maybe not you, specifically, but your friends and such. University students don't behave like adults. They just don't. Most 40 year olds don't experiment with new drugs, sleep with strangers and forego any responsibility at whim but this is not overly excessive behavior for a young university student.

What do you have in the works next? Will you be going back to straight crime and dirty cops, or do you have plans to branch out, as with The Student, in yet another direction?


I'm working on another novel. I'm not going back to straight-up crime/detective fiction yet but I'm still firmly working within the genre. Part of me desperately wants to return to the warm confines of straight-up police procedural / detective fiction but my current publisher is really supportive and while I have that support, I want to turn in work that is slightly more adventurous. That said, the crime fiction scene -- even at the trade/commercial level -- is really opening up. I mean, I'm writing this stuff and looking to Megan Abbott's hard-boiled gymnasts and Sarah Gran's Clare Dewitt and Gillian Flynn's multiple POVs and such. I'm not sure I'm capable of a cop novel that can cut it with these people in the mix.

Ha, yeah.  It's always good to be pushed though, right?  Anyway, I'll be looking forward to whatever you have coming next.  


You can pick up The Student on Amazon right here.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Do Girls Bite?

The latest in First World problems sees the internet collectively losing its mind over a girl.

Some people, it seems, think a girl can't be a doctor. Who knew? In 2017, apparently, there's still a list of what different genders are permitted to do. Online articles pulled responses from Twitter to talk about the backlash.


This brought to my mind The Shield. CCH Pounder's character "Claudette Wyms was originally supposed to be a man, but Pounder's agent called creator Shawn Ryan and convinced him to change the detective to a woman. However, Pounder still requested that none of the original dialogue was changed so her character would be able to "hold her own" alongside other male detectives."

Another thing this brought to my mind was the ridiculousness of people who are afraid to write about people of the other gender. People are people. They all have hopes and dreams and fears and likes and dislikes. There's a male in this house more terrified of spiders than any girl that lives here.

I suppose, for me, the idea of true equality means there's a smidge of hope for acceptance for some of us. If you thought sexism was a thing of the past, you only needed to hit the internet yesterday as people were losing their minds over Dr. Who, but the bench of those who perpetuate gender stereotypes is deep. One place I worked at was a perfect example. They were supposed to champion the rights of people with disabilities, but they had a clear preference for female staff who were cutesy and dumb. A supervisor told me early on that I may have a problem because I'd worked in more professional environments in the past.

If I smiled and laughed a little more and thought a little less I'd do fine.

For real. In this decade.

You know what I say to that? Fuck them.

I shouldn't have to be a bitch to be treated equally, but I also shouldn't have to be a little cute and stupid to be liked as a woman. Yet I still feel this is a reality; it's part of how girls are taught to flirt. It's how they learn to manipulate people to get what they want.

There are no spoilers in the first few minutes of this; it starts with episode 1. The critical bit I was thinking of is from 4:48-5:45 approximately; as Sansa is getting her hair done, she moons over a boy.



It's so typical of what's almost expected of a girl when she has a crush; she loses her mind and rushes headlong into her obsession without thinking things through.

It's actually interesting to watch the bit just before that scene, when the king arrives and greets the Starks. Sansa isn't even a name to him; she's assessed on appearance alone. It is Arya, the rebel sister, the one who is more interested in the sound of a bow than the needlepoint in her hand, that earns her identity with the king.

The author behind Game of Thrones has taken a lot of criticism for how women are treated in his stories, but I find nothing to fault him on. He has female characters, like Sansa, who are trying to fit into the mold of society's expectations. He has other characters, like Arya, who have no interest in conformity. Martin said:

The books reflect a patriarchal society based on the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were not a time of sexual egalitarianism. It was very classist, dividing people into three classes. And they had strong ideas about the roles of women. One of the charges against Joan of Arc that got her burned at the stake was that she wore men’s clothing—that was not a small thing. There were, of course, some strong and competent women. It still doesn’t change the nature of the society. And if you look at the books, my heroes and viewpoint characters are all misfits. They’re outliers. They don’t fit the roles society has for them. They’re ‘cripples, bastards, and broken things‘—a dwarf, a fat guy who can’t fight, a bastard, and women who don’t fit comfortably into the roles society has for them (though there are also those who do—like Sansa and Catelyn). 

 I think that Gwendolyn Christie pretty much nails her assessment of what Game of Thrones has really done with the female characters.

“This was a television show that would put women at the forefront,” the actress, who plays Brienne of Tarth on the HBO series, says in The Top 10 Game-Changing Game of Thrones Moments, a special on the PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). “We were going to explore female characters in a way that conventionally doesn’t happen.”
With characters like Sansa and Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister, and Brienne, she says the show’s women are as independent and complex as they are powerful. “They wouldn’t simply exist as the mother role, the girlfriend role, the wife role, or the sister,” Christie explains. “They would be people in their own right.”





If for no other reason, Game of Thrones is actually well worth watching just to see the extent of the character development at work. The women who start out controlled, meek, submissive do not stay that way.

As my husband says, the show is really about the fall of the patriarchy and the rise of the matriarchy, because it's long been clear that the women are asserting control and having the most significant impact on the events that are unfolding in Westeros.

While it's fair for someone to say they aren't convinced about an actor who's earned a specific role, if they refuse to give them a chance just because of their gender, that's sexist.

There's a reason that The Handmaid's Tale entered the pop culture mainstream this year, and has become a symbol of public protests. It's tragic that in this day and age, in the western world, that women working for the White House earn 80 cents to a man's dollar. Not based on credentials. Not based on experience. Based on gender.

This, right here folks, is why my husband has been right in his Disney princess aversion. He never wanted his daughter thinking she just needed to be someone's little princess. He was never so sexist that he called her his princess. She wasn't reduced to being a man's possession.

Instead, they were watching Princess Mononoke.



If western culture is still so backwards that people are financially penalized for having ovaries, then we must cheer for the creators who are putting women at the forefront, showing that they can hold their own and do anything that a man can do. For me, it isn't about dominance. I love a great story about a man; I love writing male characters too.

But thankfully, it's now far more common for people to write about women who are more than some man's eye candy. Those are the women I want to watch. It may be that Game of Thrones is one of the first shows I have a really hard time choosing a favorite character from, but of the top five, only one man makes the list, and it isn't because there aren't a lot of great male characters. The bench is deep, which makes the fact that so many female characters

I personally haven't been a Dr. Who follower in the past, but I say that whether the new actress in the role works on not will depend on a number of factors, starting with the writing, and can only be determined once seen. For anyone that finds it hinges solely on the lead's gender, well, I guess they have to ask themselves why they are okay with perpetuating discrimination.

“And then there’s the whole issue of sexual violence, which I’ve been criticized for as well. I’m writing about war, which what almost all epic fantasy is about. But if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist... I want to portray struggle. Drama comes out of conflict. If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book.”
-- George R.R. Martin

The women on my favorites list have overcome abuse, have overcome rape, have overcome loss. They are not strong women because they've been spared these horrors. They are strong women because they refuse to let others dominate them. They see themselves as equals.

And perhaps, sadly, that's the part of Martin's stories that's more of a fantasy than dragons, because apparently we still live in a world where women need a strap on and flat chest to be treated as equals.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

When You Accidentally Recommend a Bad Book

By
Scott D. Parker

It was the perfect set up.

I’m a part of a book club with four other gentlemen all of whom love science fiction and fantasy. Some years back—eight years ago!—we all decided we’d love the opportunity to do outside of the office what we kept doing in the office: chat about SF/F book and movies and TV shows. We just thought it would be a good idea to do that somewhere other than our shared office hallways.

So we made a SF/F book club. But recently, another member and I got to talking: what if we expanded our sphere just a little bit. You know: make it big enough to include some books that weren’t exactly SF/F. Not Pride and Prejudice or a romance, but something “manly!” I pitched the idea to the collective and we all agreed.

Yes!

And boy did I have the perfect book. No, I hadn’t read it yet because it was being published in June 2017. Yes, I had read other books by this author and I enjoyed them. The origin of the novel was perfect. Moreover, this book was tailor-made for our next expansion, and man did it have an awesome cover.


Yeah, that cover is one of the best ever done by Hard Case Crime. One of the guys said he’d read the book based on the cover alone. We all did.

But the book didn’t deliver.

Fair Warning: I’ll be spoiling some aspects of this story.

Let me put it another way: it didn’t deliver on the way the book was marketed. It was all but a dream team-up: crime fiction author extraordinaire Donald Westlake writing a James Bond story that was to have been Pierce Brosnan’s second Bond film. That film ended up being Tomorrow Never Dies, a movie I quite enjoyed, not the least being that Brosnan’s Bond had a “Bond Girl” in Michelle Yoeh who was an equal. When 1995’s Goldeneye was a bona fide hit, the producers needed to rush through the next movie. Westlake’s writing style didn’t match that pace and the two parted company.

But Westlake enjoyed the story he had created so much that he ended up writing a novel—Forever and a Death—using many of the pieces. He certainly couldn’t write an outright Bond novel…but he at least could have had a spy in it.

Forever and a Death isn’t a horrible book by any stretch. It’s competently written as one might expect from someone of Westlake’s caliber. But it just didn’t gel for me. It didn’t get very much either for my compadres. We all had a similar complaint: we kept waiting for one of the good guy characters turn out to be an actual spy. None were. You’d think if Westlake had crafted a good Bond story, he’d at least keep a spy in it.

Too many of the characters seemed to just be there for the purposes of the story. The leading lady—a twenty-three-year-old girl—is nothing like the woman on the cover. She served her purpose for our hero—a girl to rescue—then hung around for no reason other than to do a thing at the end. The leading man literally drops out of the story for a long stretch. The villain is probably the most fleshed out character, but you’d certainly like him to be really villainous. He’s half-hearted. And the ending is just about as abrupt an ending as I’ve read in a long while.

There’s an afterward where the producer who brought Westlake on board tells the tale of how this all went down. The best aspect of the Afterward is him saying which parts in the book we just read were in the final film treatment that was abandoned. You’d think Westlake could have done more.

Which brings back to my book recommendation: I wanted to love this book. I wanted my friends to love the book and go read more Westlake. I thought this book was going to be a slam dunk. It wasn’t. And I hope my friends will give Westlake a chance.

So, my lesson learned from this experience: Before I recommend a book, actually read it first.

Have y’all ever had a similar experience?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Tarantino and True Crime?

If you've been reading my weekly posts here for any amount of time, it's safe to assume you know two things about me: I love Tarantino movies, and I have major reservations about true crime as entertainment.

The recent announcement that Tarantino would be tackling the Manson Family in an upcoming film has left me deeply ambivalent. The things I love about Tarantino are the exact kind of things I can't imagine loving in a film about real people, real crimes, and real victims. The Hollywood Reporter states that "one of the stories" will be based on the murder of Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and four other people.

The copious amounts of fake blood, snappy dialogue, and brutal depictions of violence that Tarantino is known for aren't the kind of care I'd hope for in a true crime film. Lifetime Original Movies have made bread and butter of movies based on violence against women, and despite having an almost exclusively female audience, they over-sensationalize (and almost always over sexualize) their true crime stories. Imagine if they had free range to get as brutally violent as an R rated film?


None of this is to say that Tarantino can't possibly get it right. Recent years have him going in different directions with his films. Where he hasn't felt the need to be historically accurate in his historical films, I hope he won't lean sensational in this venture into true crime. It's almost an odd move for someone like Tarantino. It seems like true crime is having a huge moment in popular culture, and he's jumping on the bandwagon. Tarantino has been accused of a lot of things (fairly and unfairly alike) but being trendy isn't usually one of them. 

Given no precedent in his oeuvre to work from, it's impossible to know how this will shake out. I'm hoping for the best but fully aware I might be signing up for the worst when I inevitably go see it.  When the news notification popped up on my phone, I think I made a face. I've always thought crime fiction and true crime serve different purposes, and it generally makes me nervous when they cross too far. Given what I know of Tarantino from my long time love of his movies, I just can't imagine what this movie will look like - or, perhaps the problem is, I can. And it's not a look that makes me feel good.