Monday, June 29, 2015

In praise of Newton Thornburg and Cutter and Bone

At the time of Newton Thornburg's death in May of 2011 all of his books were out of print. He was so far off the radar screen that his death wasn't even noticed by the media until weeks later. Newton Thornburg is too damn good and interesting of a novelist to remain out of of print. I love Newton Thornburg and it is a damn shame that he is largely forgotten these days. So, lets talk Thornburg.

A couple of things to know about Thornburg: He doesn't fully fit in to the crime fiction category but crime fiction fans have been the community to adopt him; He probably thought of himself more as a literary writer than a genre writer; he wasn't prolific; and, rather then write to a genre, all of his work is reworkings of a handful of themes.

Newton Thornburg was a cynical and pessimistic man through and through (more on that in a bit), and it shows in a lot of his work. It also works the best in his crime novels.

He wrote from the 60's to the early to mid 80's and it shows in his work. What I mean is that it is writing from and influenced by another era. No slam bang pyrotechnics and things build at their own pace (then, sometimes, he tacks on and resorts to an almost thrillerish ending that hurriedly ties everything off).

"For human beings finally were each as alone as dead stars and no amount of toil or love or litany could alter by a centimeter the terrible precision of their journeys."

That line is from Cutter and Bone. To me it is one of the darkest, scariest, truest, prettiest lines I've come across in a long time. For me it is the most noir line ever written.

Cutter and Bone is his masterpiece and the must read from his body of work. It was perhaps the best distillation and working of his themes. The books that came before were leading to it and the ones that came after at times channel the cranky old man side of personality a little too much. I think that the pace and necessary forward momentum of his more genre novels prevent him from dwelling too much.

Sometimes it's good to read a true noir book, one that is noir at a DNA level. A book that resets your noir compass to true North. Cutter and Bone is that book for me.

A couple of years ago Charles Ardai, editor of Hard Case Crime, wrote "Noir is crime fiction written by pessimists", in a piece at the Mulholland Books site.

I remember making a comment about that line to my wife to the effect of 'it's not pessimism if you are telling how it really is'. She quipped that that was the mark of a true cynic. Newton Thornburg was a cynic "I suppose I was pretty cynical early on,").  Even if we didn't hear it directly from him we would have the body of evidence that is Cutter and Bone to support the claim. Plus, we recognize our own.

Cynicism thy name is Alex Cutter. The character Cutter is one of the finest characters ever put to paper. One of my notions of what noir is, is embodied in the Cutter character, that noir has to do with systems defeating the individual. Cutter doesn't have an unearned chip on his shoulder and a petty grudge against the world. He was ground up and spat out by the gears of war and as such holds a mortal contempt for the larger forces and big institutions that crushed his body. David Simon wrote of the "essential triumph of institutions over individuals". This is another theme that Thornburg explores in Cutter and Bone. These larger forces (war, socio-economic, class) crush Cutter, leaving only his desire to fight back at them no matter the cost. This pursuit is a noble one. At first.  Yes, this rich man killed this girl and dammit he simply cannot get away with it. This pursuit then becomes obsession that colors everything and starts leaving a fatal wake. The institutions that had a face, that seemed surmountable, show their true size and begin to crush the foolish mortals that dared to rise up.

Thornburg gazed in to the abyss and Alex Cutter was staring back with one eye.

These characters outlook of the world and Thorton's cynicism are therefore linked because that level of cynicism cannot be faked and it informs the very DNA of Cutter and Bone. Thornburg was also great at tapping into the fears of his characters, and probably himself. At one point Mo, another great character and the original bruised angel, says,

"And in the middle of night, Rich, when I wake up and can almost hear my terror scratching along the walls -- will you be there then? Will you be there to hold me, Rich? Will you love me then?".

Diversion Books recently, and without much fanfare, reissued 9 of Thornburg's 11 books as e-books (everything but Gentleman Born and Knockover). This isn't the revival that Thornburg deserves but this is the one we get.

Ross Macdonald's brand of Cali noir has been getting some attention lately due to the second season of True Detective. And deservedly so. There is a rich history of California noir to delve into if you are watching True Detective and Thornburg too has a thematic trilogy of Cali noirs: Cutter and Bone, Dreamland, and To Die in California.

All of the e-books are $2.99 each so consider giving Thornburg and his work a try.

Cutter and Bone
Dreamland
To Die in California
Valhalla
Beautiful Kate
A Man's Game
Eve's Men
The Lion at the Door
Black Angus

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Series Books and Frequency

by Kristi Belcamino

My HarperCollins imprint, WitnessImpulse, has a demanding publishing schedule and while I don't mind it, I'd like to hear opinions on it.

I've heard a lot of different opinions on how often/quickly readers want a new series book to come out.

Part of the philosophy behind WitnessImpulse is that many mystery readers read on eBooks and that they want to read the next series book as quickly as possible.

That's why when my fourth book, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, comes out Sept. 29th, it will be the fourth book I've published in 15 months. I've been okay with the schedule so far. I'm a veteran journalist and the benefit of that is I know how to write very fast and I know how to sit down and get the job done. In my book, there is no such thing as writer's block.

But I think for future series books, I might consider a book a year, which is what most NYT bestselling mystery writers produce.

What are your thoughts? Are there any downsides to an author putting out more than one book a year? Any drawbacks to only publishing one book a year?

Thanks for your thoughts!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Learning How to Adjust for Indie Authors

 by
Scott D. Parker

Being an independent author has many benefits. I can write and publish what I want, I can design any sort of cover I can conceive, and I can establish a publishing pattern that suits my output. Heck, I can even pivot on a publishing schedule when it makes good business sense.

But there are limits to the things you can control. Sure, I can write whatever I want, but if no one buys, is that a good idea? I can make any sort of cover, but if it fails to attract attention and make sales, is that a good idea? I can publish a book a week for a year, but if no one buys, is that a good thing? No would be the answer to those questions. There is another thing over which an independent author has no control: the printing of a hardcopy book.

I use CreateSpace, which is an Amazon company. The way you go about creating interior files and cover files is very straightforward. I have experience no issues with that--once I learned how to conform to their standards. Having that first book under my belt, prepping the second was a piece of cake.

Here's the thing: WADING INTO WAR is a shorter book than THE PHANTOM AUTOMOBILES. I never considered making WADING into a physical book until I realized some folks--hi Mom!--wouldn't be able to read the book because they don't read on a device. No problem. I'll just use CreateSpace. The issue I had was with the spine. The book comes out a little shy of 100 pages and the space on the spine for content was, understandably, small. I got the text just the right way, but the cover image kept sliding onto the spine. Only a millimeter or two, but it looked bad.

I called up CreateSpace and talked with a couple of nice folks. They said that the printing process allows for a 0.125-inch variance. Of course, most books are printed 100% correct, but every now and then, especially with a book the size of WADING, things can shift.

Now, I never considered myself a control freak--and still basically am not--but when it comes to the look and feel of my books, that tendency comes out in me. The one thing I don't want is for a reader to buy WADING and have the printing be off. How to correct that?

Adjust. The best way for everything to line up correctly was to adjust the cover image to allow for that variance. As much as I didn't want to do that, I did. I altered the front and back cover, now with a black border that bleeds onto the spine. Now, the books should print the same way every time. I've ordered a physical proof so I'll get to see it in the flesh next week.

Is it the way I envisioned the book? Nope. Is it the end of the world? Also nope. I'm just thankful that I have the ability to do it.


Are there any aspects of publishing, either traditional or independent, that you have had to adjust to?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Read a thing while I'm on vaca


By Steve Weddle

I'm on vacation, kicked back in a long-sleeved t-shirt and light pants under an umbrella on a North Carolina beach, reading a Robin Hobb novel. While I'm out, I figured you might want some Daniel Woodrell you probably haven't read. Enjoy.

"Johanna Stull," by Daniel Woodrell (Buffalo Almanack)

Eugene’s partners have gathered on the gravel bar below the rapids at Tulla Bridge, where so many tourists in canoes take spills and lose watches, rings, cameras, sunglasses and so much else, adding their treasure to our riverbed, and Eugene wanted me there. He wants me along as his witness when he tells this bunch how he’s not worried about the mailman any more, that testimony won’t get said, and the cows can be moved to a sale barn in a few days or a week. Buster Leroy Dolly is sitting on a folding chair, bare feet in the Twin Forks, canned beer between his legs, and a handful of other fully dressed fellas also hang about, smoking weed, snorting stuff that snorts, conspiring idly and drinking plenty in the fine sunshine. >>

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Summer Vacation with Grandma

By Holly West

Today I'm broadcasting from Rogue River, Oregon. As I write this post, I'm watching The Price is Right with my Grandma, which is only one of the many television shows I watch when I'm visiting her. Later today, we'll see The Young and the RestlessGeneral Hospital and The Bold and the Beautiful. Maybe not the most exciting vacation ever, but it takes me back to my childhood when my brother and I would spend a couple of weeks with my grandparents every summer. They lived in Coalinga, California, which, if you haven't been there, is the sort of place that feels like you can never escape, even if you drive for miles and miles. Kind of like a real-life Wayward Pines, only not as charming.

Mostly, I loved those vacations in Coalinga. At home we had chores to do but at Grandma's we got to sleep in and eat sugar cereal for breakfast. My Grandma gave me home permanents and took us to the pool at the community college where they had a high diving board. I'm not sure I could jump off one now but as a kid I had no problem with it. Same with doing cartwheels and twirling on the uneven bars at the playground.

Summers in Coalinga were hot, which made playing outside during the day unpleasant. My brother and I would play in the living room all day with my Grandma's "soapies" playing in the background. One day in August the program was interrupted for a special news alert and the newscaster announced that Elvis Presley was dead. I turned to my Grandma and said, "the Elvis Presley?" It didn't seem possible.

My Grandpa worked six days a week. We'd get up early and have a Carnation Instant Breakfast with him while he played solitaire before work. He was a tractor mechanic on a farm and when he came home he smelled like motor oil and cigarettes. Sometime before I was born, he lost his left index finger down to the second knuckle in a work accident. I never thought I'd forget his hands and yet I just had to ask my Grandma which one--right or left--was missing the finger. She was married to him for nearly 69 years and had to think about it herself.

I got my taste for black coffee and beer during those summers. My Grandma had a pot of weak Folgers in the coffee maker ready throughout the day and my Grandpa would give me sips of the Coors he opened when he got home from work.

Every summer, we made a neighborhood friend or two. There was an older girl down the street who loved telling us how worldly she was. She told me about children being kidnapped and sold on the "black market" and I spent the remainder of the summer terrified that I'd be snatched.

Good times.

But you know what? They really were good times--some of the best of my life. And that's why I'll happily sit here watching soapies with my Grandma and hope I get to do it for many years to come.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Pig Iron by David James Keaton - guest post

by David James Keaton

My new novel Pig Iron had a strange journey to print, and it’s hard to know where to start, but I feel like a reason to have detailed the adventure may present itself by the time I’m finished. I guess it pretty much started when my dad played me the Marty Robbins song “Big Iron,” and we kept having conversations about the story within that song, both of us amazed and how much character development singer/songwriter Robbins got out of so few lines. We felt like we knew “Red” and “The Ranger” pretty well after a few years of repeat listening, and this led to more discussions about what might be going on behind those lyrics. Our interpretation got weirder and weirder, and I became obsessed with the talk of people on that second-to-last lyric of not seeing the Ranger “clear leather,” and how maybe that meant he didn’t shoot Red at all? So we indulged ourselves, and whenever we had some time between family gatherings, my dad and I cranked out a screenplay. At the time, I was trying to be an unsold screenwriter rather than an unread author, so I sent out Pig Iron (The Movie) to a couple agents and producers and got all sorts of fun rejections. My favorite would have to be the guy who emailed and asked, “Have you ever written a screenplay before?” I responded, “Nope,” thinking he must be real impressed. Instead he sends back, “We thought so. We started printing this out at noon, and it’s still going.” It was well after noon, of course. I wanted to at least congratulate him on choosing to print a western script at “High Noon” of all times, but instead I just moonwalked out of that online conversation and worked on cutting the giant script down to a more manageable size. That was Ryan Reynold’s agent by the way, but back then no one was as impressed by that.

So with enough wasted years and close calls, I moved on to trying books, but I always liked the set pieces in Pig Iron, maybe not all those big speeches though, so at some point, I tried to convert it into a novel, which seemed like the most backwards move yet, making it irresistible. But it never felt like a book to, and instead I cannibalized it for parts, turning some of the showdowns into short stories instead, just so I could show my dad I’d turned it into something tangible. “Three Ways Without Water (or the Day Drunk Driving, Roadkill, and the Electric Chair Were Invented,” a short story that was sort of a condensed version of the entire script, was the first story to come out of the script, published in Pulp Modern between Alec Cizak meltdowns, and “Smelt (or a Gun Named Sioux,” which was sort of a sequel, found a home in The Big Adios. “Ha’Penny Dreadfuller,” sort of a prequel or origin story, cobbled together from backstory conversations in the screenplay, ended up at Barrow Press Review. And those three stories felt like the logical conclusion to my attempt at a western. Then I went down to St. Louis for a Noir at the Bar with Jed Ayres, and afterwards while drinking, Jed, Scott Phillips, and myself watched as the late, great Cort McMeel began to tell us of his dozen or so Big Ideas, all amazing brainstorms which he sold to us like a pro. I was ready to follow him into the breach, no joke. Anywhere. He was drunk, but passionate. And one of Cort’s brainstorms was for an anthology of novellas called “Acid Westerns,” a term I hadn’t heard before that night, or if I did, I was talking about the wrong thing, but I’ve since realized this genre encompasses nearly all of my favorite western films. It’s the name of all those weird ‘70s westerns with the counterculture Mad Max vibe to them. And I thought, “Goddamn, that’s kind of what Pig Iron is! Was! Whatever!”  Then Cort got really wound up as I went through a list of a dozen Irish films to see whether he thought they were “legit.” This led to another Big Idea, but that’s another story for another time.

So I went to work on Pig Iron again, starting from those three short stories this time though, rather than the cinderblock of a screenplay. Concentrating on the main idea of a town without water, and how long something like that might last, and how a man could win a gunfight without actually pulling a gun, of course. And out popped a lean, mean, very simple, sorta “cinematic” novel. It was so tiny I felt guilty, so inspired by Deadwood and A Clockwork Orange, I threw in a glossary of all the western terms I’d invented along the way, so that people might be surprised when they turned to the definitions in the back of the book that otherwise noble cowboys had been referring to drunkenness and masturbation during even their most innocent conversations, which I still like to believe is happening in most western films, acid or not.

So Pig Iron finally exists in some form, so far away from the days of that screenplay and the song “Big Iron” that it’s a new thing entirely really. In fact, I wrote my own song to include in the credits, still feeling guilty about it’s girth, sort of a “Nick Cave meets Johnny Cash” kinda thing, but with more people catching on fire in the chorus. I do wish Cort McMeel would have been alive to read it, or sing it. And I also think he would have enjoyed Scott Phillips’ own western novel, supposedly inspired from that time in the bar, Hop Alley, an amazing book you should certainly read first chance you get, if you want to find out how dangerous ghost-busting scams in the 1800s could get. So if you get a chance to give it a look, Pig Iron the movie turned novel will be coming out from Burnt Bridge/Blastgun Books, and will drop on Amazon or wherever on June 19th, my dad’s birthday, and you can see what might happen to a town without water and guns that don’t work right. Here’s a hint. Everything burns.

"Pig Iron" by Arty Stealins

Sunday, June 21, 2015

More on Blurbs

by Kristi Belcamino

Do blurbs mean something to you or are they useless?

I still cringe remembering having to ask for blurbs for my first book.

So not fun.

I was extraordinarily lucky that I happened to ask some of the nicest crime fiction writers in the biz for blurbs, which made it a heck of a lot easier.

Recently, one of my closest friends got a two-book deal and is in the position of having to ask for blurbs. So far, she is doing everything right. And believe me, I think there are many ways to go astray in seeking blurbs.

We've written a lot about blurbs on Do Some Damage, but it is probably worth revisiting every so often.

Rather than blab too much about my limited experience on blurbs and blurbing, I'll offer up three rules I believe should be followed and then a few links I've found on blurbing.

Here are my rules for what they are worth:

1. Read the author you are asking for a blurb. Blurbing 101? You'd think, but I was asked for a blurb I was unable to provide, and a month later saw on Goodreads that the author who had asked for the blurb had just started reading my first book. Doh. The problem with this ISN'T indignation that someone DIDN'T read my book! The problem is how can she know my writing is copacetic with her, which leads me to my second rule:

2. Ask authors who have something- whether it is style or subject matter-similar to your book. For instance, I asked Bruce DeSilva for a blurb because he is a lifelong journalist who writes book featuring reporters. A natural fit, no?

I also asked Alex Marwood, another longtime journalist, because although we have a different writing style (uh, yeah, hers is AMAZING), we both have darker books.

For instance, I would never ask a crime fiction writer who pens historical novels or cozy mysteries. There are a few reasons for this, but an obvious one might be that they won't like my book - it's totally different than what they like. And the second reason is that if I have a blurb from an author who writes a historical cozy, the reader who picks up my books because of that blurb is going to be very disappointed when they crack the pages of my dark, more contemporary world.

3. Be gracious and don't take it personally. When you ask for a blurb explain why. Because I'm a published author is not usually a good reason. I only asked authors I truly admired and thought might be similar enough to not only enjoy my writing but be a valuable blurb.

Here are some more thoughts on blurbing from others much smarter than I am:

http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2015/01/logrolling-in-our-time-or-you-cant-take.html

http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2012/10/how-to-ask-for-blurb-even-when-youre.html

http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/get-published-sell-my-work/10-book-blub-basics

http://www.rachellegardner.com/blurb-etiquette/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/holly-robinson/7-ways-to-make-pimping-your-book-for-a-blurb-less-weird_b_6146802.html