Thursday, December 14, 2017

Dork dork dork

By Sam Belacqua

Life, friends, is boring. So says the poem.

Also, crime fiction is getting boring. Check out what Neliza Drew says  ->

Most crime fiction books outside the “noir” stuff offered up by small and indie presses bores me these days. I keep being told I need to read or thing or hearing hype and getting around to a thing, only to feel like I’m being bludgeoned by the thing. There are exceptions to this, yes. Will I tell you about them? Maybe in person. Because the books with the buzz or the recommendations are often really good books that just aren’t for me or aren’t finding me at the right time.

With Holly West posting great content on "meh" books, what about those "great" books that you don't connect with?

I'd say the ratio of books that are hyped to hyped books that I dug is something like 20:1. I do know that the odds of my liking an "award-winning" book from a big press are something like the odds of a dude what fought agains the KKK winning a senate race in Alabama. I mean, it could happen. Stranger things have happened. (Last week I made it through a night without getting up to piss blood, so you never know.)

Is it the characters? The story? Is it a matter of raising expectations so high that no book could match? Fuck if I know. Maybe it's because the people what hand out book awards have to read 500 books at a time and look for something that aims high, even if it doesn't deliver. Or maybe the books that appeal to mostpeople (one word, as cummings intended) don't appeal to me.

Anyhoo, while I spend the rest of the week chugging NyQuil and gummy vitamins, go check out the DORK post over at Medium, and be sure to make with the claps and the follows.

Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings:mostpeople are snobs. -- e e cummings

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Unknowing How the Sausage is Made

by Holly West

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the age-old question, "Why do 'meh' books sell?" My friend and colleague, Thomas Pluck, had a good answer:

Because people like to be entertained, and they are not always as bored or jaded as we are. They don't constantly hear "what is a good book" and anguish over it. They like a good story and will forgive what we consider "grievous errors" to follow a character they enjoy reading.

It made me think about something I've known for a long time, but haven't figured out what to do about. I've been writing fiction seriously for nearly ten years now and over that time, I've forgotten how to read for pleasure.

It's not that I don't enjoy reading anymore--in some ways, I probably enjoy it more than ever. But that enjoyment often comes more from analyzing the books I read rather than just sitting back and savoring them.

Referencing the title of this post, I still don't actually know how sausage is made (writing-wise or meat-wise) but with writing, I'm learning and getting better. One of the ways I learn is by reading and as a result, I'm constantly studying, constantly thinking about the choices authors make, the way they construct a story, trying to figure out if there's a better way...

It's exhausting.

A couple of years ago, I re-read a book that had been one of my favorites in my mid-twenties. It was a mass market paperback historical romance saga, purchased from the supermarket. Back in the day, I marveled at how beautifully it was written. Someday, I'll write a book like that, I thought.

So I re-read it and I couldn't believe what absolute dreck it was. The story itself was fine, interesting even, and well-researched (as far as I could tell). But the writing. MY GOD, THE WRITING. It was terrible. Awkward sentence structure, poor word choices, overuse of cliches, pretty much all the things I try to avoid in my writing.

Would my re-visit of this novel have turned out differently if I hadn't been writing myself these past several years? I don't know. Possibly, I've matured (not bloody likely). My tastes may have changed (improved?). But I suspect the real reason the book didn't hold up is that I looked at it through a different lens than I used to.

And if you make any jokes about my bifocals, Imma cut you.

I don't think there is an answer to my dilemma. Reading different genres is sort of helpful but even if I don't I fixate so much on plot, I still obsess over phrasing, character development, and word choice. The even sadder part is that this analyzing has carried over into the films I watch, and even television. Once you start paying attention to this shit, it's like something changes in your brain. It's not enough to like or dislike something. No, you have to pinpoint what it is so you don't make the same mistakes in your own work.

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only writer who has this problem. Anyone have any ideas on how to break this habit? Not altogether, mind you. I'm still trying to learn how to make the damned sausage. Sometimes though, I just want to enjoy the sausage someone else makes, you know?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What the Hell Comes Next?

Scott's note: Angel Colon returns to Do Some Damage today to guest blog, but he does not come to talk about his just published book of short stories, Meat City on Fire (and Other Assorted Debacles).  This book collects a number of the stories Angel has published the last few years in different venues, and it provides a good way to get acquainted with his writing, if you don't know it already.  Angel is unpredictable in his stories, and in this collection there is a lot of variety, different tones, different voices.  And if you have read his stories before, or heard him read at Noirs at the Bar, well, here's a nice way to have a bunch of his shorter stuff all in one volume. I mention the book in this space even if he doesn't.  And I'll add that you can find the collection here.

But as I say, Angel isn't guest blogging specifically to talk about his new collection.  With everything going on, Angel is hear to address the state of affairs of certain things as he sees them, and as we would only expect from him, he does not hold back:

Without further delay...

So What the Hell Comes Next, Fellas?
by Angel Colon

Don’t think I need to run down the stories we’re hearing lately regarding sexual assault. We’re all hip to this bullshit and we’re all hip to the fact that a lot of houses need cleaning. Renee Pickup summarized this on DSD a week or two ago (CLICK) and I think she laid it out better than I can (it’s not my place to either).
First, though, I think it’s important to restate how little authority I have here when it comes to the recent stories women have shared. I’m not speaking for any of the abused because, frankly, my privilege has left me unscarred. What I can share is what I think men like me should do in order to provide a message of support and to move things in the right direction as allies.
I’m also very aware there are tons of people who are working their asses off to address and work through these issues (some for decades). I’m in no way belittling that work. And fellow men, if this all makes you flush red in the face and makes you feel defensive, well…shit dude, you might have some real reflecting to do. I probably have a metric ton of reflecting to do myself.
So what comes next?
I don’t think that any of us can affect massive change alone, that’s obvious, but I do think small, incremental steps with concrete results—actual value add, to steal a term from my corporate self—is a path that many if not all of us can follow.
So what exactly do I mean? Well, for one, how about you take an hour a day and research new writers from underrepresented communities in our genre (especially women)? Sisters in Crime has a pretty extensive list on their site HERE. Go check that out. Grab an anthology or book from an author that sounds interesting. Maybe give a few clicks to their websites—share a blog entry or two. Small steps. Incremental change. Those small changes can become the norm easier than you think.
And I’ll elaborate for fear of coming off “angry” or self-righteous (*smirk*): big change is always fought against the hardest. Big change has brought us to where we are with constant bickering and cowards shrieking about their rights too. It’s silly and it’s easy to roll our eyes, lecture, and move along. And while there are absolutely things we should flip the bird to—like, always punch Nazis, ALWAYS—I think we do need to take the fragility of those horrified at the thought of more than five successful female writers in a genre into mind. Not because they’re important or they need to be “understood” but because they’re what I’d call a “toxic stakeholder”, the person with a vested interest in no change with just enough pull to ruin it for the majority. That sound familiar?
So that covers a broad piece. What about the pieces of shit that are making many of our friends and peers feel unwelcome physically right now? What about the people who are holding onto trauma every single day and who feel that unburdening themselves would only make things worse?
I think it’s time we call the abusers out—and I’m talking again to my fellow male crime writers—and take some of these assholes to task. We’re at a point that we shouldn’t be scared of reprisal anymore. And I’ll admit my own silence hasn’t helped matters either. I’m as much at fault as anyone else in this mess, but ultimately, this piece isn’t for me to feel better, so I’m going to stop there. I’ll only say I’m sorry.
Last bit (and I have it on good authority that this is probably the only part that matters): we need to listen and learn. I think some of us are pretty comfortable with owning conversations and being more active participants in our social situations (I am fully aware of how loud and obnoxious I am, so to anyone nodding all smug-like, let me assure you: I know myself). Stopping and listening doesn’t lessen a soul; if anything, it amplifies the voices that need hearing. That’s good stuff!
So, to those out there directly affected: I believe you and will stand by you. I’ll also work to be mindful of my own bullshit because I’m not perfect and always have more to learn. I think it’s incredibly important for the men in this community to do the same and work towards making the scene better than it’s ever been.
It’s cliché but it is truth: when one of us succeeds, we all succeed. Embracing change and protecting those with unlimited potential should be our default setting. You have any idea how many of these sentences I’ve rewritten?
How can writers NOT embrace change, for fuck’s sake? It’s all we do. And seriously, the writing stuff—maybe there’s a way for me to put my money where my mouth is. More to come.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Monday Review: WHAT WE RECKON by Eryk Pruitt

Meet Jack Jordan. He’s a smooth-talking con artist with a penchant for the fast life. He’s snuck into Lufkin, Texas, in the dead of night with little more than a beat-up Honda, a hollowed-out King James Bible full of cocaine, and enough emotional baggage to sink a steam ship. He’s charming, dedicated, and extremely paranoid.

Summer Ashton, his partner-in-crime. She’s stuck by him through thick and thin, but lately her mind has begun to slip. They’ve told their fair share of lies and she’s having a devil of a time remembering what’s the truth. And recently, she’s been hearing voices. Unfortunately for both of them, she’s the brains of the operation.
- Polis Books, 2017

With that entrance, you may think you know where this story is headed, trust me reader, you do not.

WHAT WE RECKON by Eryk Pruitt tells the tale of Jack Jordan, once a simple, bumbling college-town drug dealer with dreams bigger than his abilities. After he meets Summer Ashton, or Jasmine, as she was called those years ago, he learns the ways of contact-making and deal-brokering. Together they grift their way through the American south, changing cars, names and addictions with each new hamlet.

Yes, it's a gritty, dirty crime romp featuring the desperate and often ill-planned endeavors of these two addled drug slingers. The novel is brutal and this down-and-out duo often find themselves in life or death transactions, facing violent adversaries, often because of their loose hold on sobriety and reality. Their relationship is more than complicated, they are full of need and hate for one another.

There are moments of dark humor, most notably when Eryk details his colorful cast of spoiled clients or describes a smoky, never-ending living room soiree.  The author's ability to highlight and shade this tart story with levity is due, in no small part, to his glittering way with words. WHAT WE RECKON is a dark story, at times reminding me of MIDNIGHT COWBOY or REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, that is made more palatable by the author's sweet prose.

RECKON is an addictive read, slipping along at a mesmerizing clip, darkly rich in atmosphere and character definition. Looking into the mental and emotional machinations of our main characters is fascinating and terrifying. RECKON is also pessimistic, perfectly painting the life of those enslaved by drugs, mental-illness or their own devices. 

WHAT WE RECKON is absorbing and one of my favorite books of the year.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Train, a Murder, and a Mustache

I finally had the chance to see the new Murder on the Orient Express yesterday, and I was, well, flat-out nervous about it. On the one hand, I was eager to erase any last memories of the horrible Albert Finney version. On the other, David Suchet is incomparable and every television episode in which he played Poirot is a jewel in Agatha Christie’s detective crown. 
Mustache v. Mustache: A Face-Off
I read my first Agatha Christie in middle school. She is the reason I love crime fiction, the reason I love a book that is a puzzle, and the reason I know that a finely drawn protagonist is something that will last the ages.
This movie version is directed by and stars Kenneth Branagh, who chooses to make the meticulous Belgian less finicky and more a prisoner of his own “little gray cells.” He can’t abide anything crooked or off-balance, and at one point says that this way of seeing the world is what compels him to be a detective.
Branagh chooses an almost James Bond-ian opening, with the film’s first ten minutes going to a completely unrelated criminal case, much like 007 makes it through a fantastical stunt chase that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Branagh uses it as an opportunity to familiarize newcomers with a few of the detective’s personality quirks, which I think is absolutely key to any hope of bringing new Poirot devotees on board.
After that prologue, the movie slows way down. I thought it took too long to get to the murder. There are many shots of train passengers walking around. Some of them talk to Poirot, some of them don’t. It’s inconsistent and possibly confusing for someone with no prior knowledge of the mystery. Once the victim is found dead, however, the momentum picks up and the suspects start to differentiate themselves.
Branagh chooses to inject several modern conventions into the plot. Poirot dwells on a lost love, and he suffers much more of a moral dilemma at the end than Christie put him through in the book. Branagh also ups the action quotient with several chase scenes not in the book. They would’ve been absurd for Suchet’s Poirot, but Branagh makes it work for his.
The most disappointing – and to me, heretical – change was the location of the climactic scene. It doesn’t take place on the train. It’s at the mouth of a snowy train tunnel, with the suspects spread out behind a table like some sort of Last Supper tableau. In the book, it occurs in the restaurant car. You know, on the train. The movie location loses the claustrophobia of a narrow train car, where the suspects are forced to sit looking at one another because there literally is no where else to turn. Instead they all face outward in such a way that no two characters can be in the frame at the same time. (And if you know who done it in this mystery, you know why that wasn’t the way to go.)
A newbie might sniff and call a group of suspects voluntarily sitting together for the unveiling of a killer nothing but a cliché. But every cliché starts somewhere, and this one started with Christie. It’s an absolute hallmark of the Golden Age of detective fiction, the decades between world wars when crime fiction authors, mostly British, perfected the art form.
As a movie standing alone, it was good. Not great. But for me, I still can’t get away from the Suchet comparison. For me, he is Poirot. Branagh is an interpretation. But maybe somewhere, some young teenagers are seeing this movie and its detective for the first time. And Branagh’s Poirot will become their entry into a world of clues and killers and puzzles and idiosyncrasies, and a lifetime of reading crime fiction. And that would be fine with me. Any Christie is better than no Christie at all. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas, or So That's What It's Like to Live With Your Imaginary Characters

Scott D. Parker

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a writer wrestling with a story? Well, have I got a movie for you.

When I first learned there was a movie based on the non-fiction book The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford (my review), I wondered if it wasn’t merely a documentary. To some degree, it is, seeing as how the movie is based on the actual events of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol in only six weeks and publish it on his own. But the movie is more. It is a visual representation of how writers create their characters, how said characters can take over an author’s imagination, and end up becoming something more.

The movie opens in October 1843. Dickens’s finances are not what they once were, with Martin Chuzzlewit not performing as well as Oliver Twist. Add to that the author’s blank-page syndrome: he doesn’t know what next to write. When he happens upon the idea of a Christmas story, his publisher scoffs at the idea. The production time alone makes the notion a non-starter to say nothing of the fact that Dickens had not written a single word. Nevertheless, the thirty-one-year-old author charges ahead.

Anyone familiar with the novel or any of the screen adaptations will enjoy witnessing Dickens encountering various bits of dialogue in his everyday life. The famous line about the poor houses is uttered by a rich patron who dislikes Dickens populating his stories with “them,” the poor. He sees a jolly couple dancing in the dirty streets and envisions Fezziwig and his wife. And, at a funeral, he sees a man, played by Christopher Plummer, who becomes the physical embodiment of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Seeing Dickens struggle with crafting the name for his main character is fun, particularly when Dickens, as played wonderfully by Dan Stevens, zeroes in on the name itself. “Scrooge.” The look on Stevens’s face is like “Of course that’s the name.” I don’t know about you writers out there, but coming up with a name for main characters can be difficult.

But the movie really takes off when Dickens begins interacting with his creations. Plummer’s Scrooge has multiple dialogues with Dickens, and the two actors play off each other well. Stevens possesses a certain manic quality not present in his role on Downton Abbey. I could easily see him starring in screwball comedies the likes of which that made Cary Grant a star.

As any writer will tell you, when you are deep in a novel, the moments are few when you are not thinking about the story. Sitting in traffic? Check. Shopping at the grocery store? Check. Watching a TV where you’re suppose to care about that story? Check. It happens all the time. So it was utterly charming when the movie portrays Dickens’s characters actually showing up in places he least expected it.

Credit the movie also with some genuine tension. The mere fact there’s a movie devoted to this book’s creation means you know Dickens completed the book. However, the movie effectively showed his struggle with the ending just well enough that you might start to wonder if Boz would get it done.

I’m not enough of a Dickensian to know if the author truly had a different ending to his Carol or not, but the movie plays with that concept. Dickens wondered if someone like Scrooge could really turn around his life in only one night. I’d like to think that almost anyone—be it Scrooge, the Grinch, Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” (and “Scrooges”), or even Nicholas Cage in “Family Man” to name a few—would change.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a charming, magnificent movie about a remarkable author and a timeless story. I can’t help but wonder if this movie will, in the course of time, became a classic.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

85% Problem

By David Nemeth

I’ve got a confession, in the 18 months I’ve been writing crime fiction, my author list is not as diverse as I imagined. It kind of sucks. And the worst part, I thought I was doing well. The rough numbers: 85% men; 85% white; 85% from the United States. I have no numbers on LGBTQI, but I’ll take a wild guess and say those numbers suck too. Did I miss reading crime fiction books by marginalized writers in the last year? Absolutely. I missed reading lots of fucking books in 2017.

I look at my review queue over the next few months of new crime fiction books and it’s like a fucking blizzard – white and whiter as far as the eyes can see. It probably doesn’t help that I do not like the more commercially-viable genres such as serial killer books, police procedurals, and psychological thrillers. Boring! By not reading these genres, the diversity baby is in the corner and I don’t see a way out.

I realize that to read crime fiction by people of color and other marginalized writers, I’m going to have to go back in time because when I look at my favorite crime fiction publishers, all I see is a lot of white and not much more. Publishers of books and short stories will say they only print the best of what they receive. I get that, but just as readers like myself need to search out new and different writers to read, publishers need to be searching too.

For now, the best I can do is to keep on looking for books by people that are not like me.