Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Who Gets to Tell Your Story?

There's a lot of argument over who gets to tell whose stories.

Writers have an instinctual revulsion to hearing what we "can't" write about. We believe it's our privilege to tell any story we choose. When we hear discussions of cultural appropriation, we feel boxed in. Hey, I thought you just told me to write more characters who aren't just like me? I'm trying, here!

The best answer I've heard to that comes from Kaitlyn Greenidge, writing in the New York Times last week, in her opinion piece Who Gets to Write What?

A writer has the right to inhabit any character she pleases — she’s always had it and will continue to have it. The complaint seems to be less that some people ask writers to think about cultural appropriation, and more that a writer wishes her work not to be critiqued for doing so, that instead she get a gold star for trying.

No one's telling you what you can and can't write, but none of us is immune to criticism, and we don't get gold stars for trying. (Isn't that what the older generation complains that the millennials are getting? Well, you don't get one when you're an old white writer who writes a badly researched and badly written story about a different culture, either.) There are dozens of articles by writers of color explaining how to write "the other."

Look them up; here's one by Linda Rodriguez. As writers, we like to think we step out of our own experience and into another person's shoes when we write a character, but often, we keep the same eyes. However sympathetic we think we are being, we aren't speaking from another's experience, but our own, transposed onto another. Empathy is our trade, and projecting our own feelings onto another is not empathy.

Imagine the better, stronger fiction that could be produced if writers took this challenge to stretch and grow one’s imagination, to afford the same depth of humanity and interest and nuance to characters who look like them as characters who don’t, to take those stories seriously and actually think about power when writing — how much further fiction could go as an art.
Some of my best-loved stories star characters who are not like me. African-American men and women, a West Indian woman, young boys in Appalachia. I read books by people like them and talk to people like them and most importantly listened to people like them, my mouth shut (a rare thing) before embarking on those stories. And I had reasons for writing those stories other than "I want to tell their story." Denny the Dent came from my experiences as a bullied child with an explosive Hulk temper that got him in trouble when the torment broke me. I felt like I had no one on my side, no one saw my pain, only the anger of my reaction. And when I sat down to write about someone with that experience, Denny came to life.

And yet if a reader or writer told me I got Denny wrong, even with readers who love him, I would listen. For what I did not get right. Because I want him to express the pain of always being seen as someone you are not. Of having to smile to allay fear, and know they might be smiling back, but they are reaching for a big rock.

Read on for how Greenidge took a bitter old white woman character she was writing from a stereotype to a living person. Think of how it hurt her to hear that criticism; she used it to improve. She didn't stomp off and sigh, "they can't be pleased." (Okay, she did at first, but she swallowed her pride and wrote better:

“It doesn’t work,” I was told. “She’s not believable as a character. She doesn’t work.” “Damn white readers,” I jokingly said to my friends. But once I got over myself, I took apart that section piece by piece. I rewrote and failed and rewrote and failed. As much as this character had begun as an indictment of all the hypocrisies of my childhood, she was not going to come out on the page that way, not without a lot of work. I was struck by an awful realization. I would have to love this monster into existence. The voice of this character had been full of scorn and condescension. I rewrote it with those elements in place, but covered with the treacly, grasping attempts at affection of a broken and desperately lonely woman.

We don't get a gold star for trying. But we don't get them without trying.

Keep trying.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Bittersweet


Quite suddenly, it seems, one era has passed and another has started. The previous era lasted for six years and involved a lot of time traveling each weekday on the subway, and now...

Let me explain:

Since 2006, I've been living in Bed Sty Brooklyn. "Bed Sty Do or Die," as the saying used to go. Spike Lee immortalized the area in a particular moment in time in Do the Right Thing.  That was 27 years ago, and since then things have changed a hell of a lot.  Not only in Bed Sty but in Brooklyn as a whole. Still, contrary to what HBO TV series show of the borough and what people in other parts of the country often seem to think, Brooklyn is not one vast stretch of urban hipsterdom. Williamsburg does exist as advertised and yes, even Bed Sty is gentrifying rapidly, but evolution, if you can call it that, doesn't proceed evenly in all areas.  A few pleasant bars have come to my area in the last 5 or 6 years and now there's a dog run in the small park around the corner from my house, but the public schools near my house haven't changed - improved is a better word - with quite the same alacrity.

In 2010, my son turned 5 and had to start kindergarten.  There's a school a three minute walk down the block from us, but both my wife and I rejected the very notion that we would put him in this place. Not to be a snob but...The best way to put it is to say my wife and I would have quit our jobs and lived out of a car to homeschool our kid before we put him in that school.  If that sounds callous, well...whatever.  There's no time or luxury for niceties when the education of your kid is involved.

To make a long story short, we had the opportunity to put him in a charter school in Manhattan, and there on September 8th, 2010 he went, for his first day of kindergarten.  The charter school wound up having a ton of problems and we transferred him out of there after 2nd grade, but the new school too was in Manhattan, a regular public school this time, on the Upper West Side, near Central Park.  The upshot: from kindergarten through 5th grade, we traveled to schools a good one hour and ten minutes away from our house. For six years, that commute was made, back and forth, back and forth.  Either I did it with him both ways (when my wife's work hours didn't allow her to take him or pick him up), or my wife and I split the drop off and pick up duties.  However you cut it, we all spent a lot of time on the subway, and the result was six years where we were tired from commuting and had nary a minute of spare time Monday to Friday.  Up at 6 am, then my wife or I would leave the house with him by 7:20 am, and either of us would return home with him around 7:30 pm. That was the routine.

Whatever writing I did, I worked around that schedule.  

The upside was all the time I got for six years to spend with my kid. When you spend that much time every day on the train, you do get to talk about countless topics, joke around constantly, play all sorts of games together.  It made the commuting worth it.

But enough's enough.  For middle school, we decided to ditch Manhattan. We selected and got a Brooklyn school fifteen minutes away from us by subway (though still not in Bed-Sty, mind you), and thus did the new era begin.  School this year has been going about two weeks, and how much more relaxed it is.  Though I was planning to take that short trip with him each morning, it's transpired that he can go with a classmate who lives around the corner from us.  No need for me or my wife to take him at all.  Let the process of independence begin.  It's what's supposed to happen, and I can't argue with that.  Besides, now that I don't have to do so much commuting, now that the gruelling subway routine is over, now that two extra hours a day for me are free, I have (what a change of life!) more writing time.  This is what I've been wanting for years!  As I tell myself, I can get so much more work done.

And yet, I still feel a little bittersweet.  I'm very glad the period of endless daily travel is over and happy I have more writing time, but a part of me will miss those hour long rides with my son. The laughter, the bickering, the discussions...

And so, on to the next phase.  Just like that, a new era begins. I actually have some breathing space and I can't but find it hard to believe I'll have additional time to write.

I'm excited. 

Sigh.  





Sunday, September 25, 2016

We Have Names, Too



This week, the Washington Post made a spectacular – and completely avoidable – contribution to the recent spate of sexist headlines that pretend accomplished women don’t have names.
Because the most important thing about her is that she’s Tom Waits’ wife, right? Um, no. She has a name – KATHLEEN BRENNAN. The AP reporter who wrote the story grudgingly mentions this at the end of the lede paragraph.
There is no mention in the story of Brennan’s own long list of songwriting achievements. And the fact that she’s the first female recipient of this award? That “unimportant” nugget of information was relegated to the tenth paragraph in a sixteen-paragraph story.
Now, let’s parse the blame here. The Washington Post chose to put the story on its web site and wrote the headline. The AP sent the story out without moving the first-female fact higher in the text or including a single complete quote from her speech.
How is this possible? Not just because it’s 2016, for goodness’ sake. But don’t you think people would be more aware after things like the horrible Olympics coverage brought this kind of crap into gold/silver/bronze relief?
Or how about when an NBC commentator credited an amazing gold-medal winning swim by Hungarian Katinka Hosszu to her husband? Or when Katie Ledecky’s world-record obliterating swim was demoted to a subhead? (And don’t start with me about Phelps’ achievement. Yes, amazing, but the hed could easily have said “Phelps, Ledecky swim milestone races” or something similar.)


This hurts especially much for me. I am a journalist as well as a novelist. I worked as a newspaper reporter for years. I know firsthand that sometimes, mistakes happen despite the best efforts of everyone involved. But this kind of thing? This is not a best effort. This is not trying. This is lazy, and this is sexist. The defense of “well, it wasn’t meant to be,” is not a defense. It is an excuse, and it is about time that the excuses run out. Because we have names, too.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Bouchercon wrap up

by
Scott D Parker

Yes, another Bouchercon post. But in my defense, this is my first con so I’m all excited.
Last week, I wrote about my first impressions of the convention itself. Today I’m focusing on the panels that I attended. I’m not sure which person or group determines the subject of the panels, but they did an excellent job. There were so many panels to choose from, and the ones I liked best work on at the same time (natch) so I had to make difficult choices.

 
First up was “Of All the Ladies I Know.” The subtitle of this panel was “Corsets and Crime.” What this panel ended up being was how these authors—all women save the moderator—wrote historical fiction from a female author’s point of view. The big name that I already knew was Laurie King, author of the Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell stories. One of the reasons why I write my stories set in the past is echoed by a quote from CS Harris: “Historical fiction eliminates technology and gadgets and relies on the wits and brains of the protagonist.” When moderator Andrew Grant asked why many of them picked a male lead character, most of the women had come to the same conclusion, because women just couldn’t do what a man could do at the time their stories were set. One particular note about dialogue was made by King: If something is factually correct but would kick the reader out of the story, she changes the word.
 

“Murder by Numbers: Ellery Queen, Their Works, and the Magazine” was a great panel. James Lincoln Warren was the moderator and the panelists included not only the current editor and book reviewer for the magazine, but Otto Penzler and Shelly Dickson Carr, the granddaughter of John Dickson Carr. This panel started with a history of Ellery Queen, the character and author. Next it touched on the magazine, its genesis and how it’s doing today. What fascinated me most was the behind-the-scenes details provided by Janet Hutchings and Steve Steinbock of how the magazine operates. 

“On the Nickel: PI” focused on private eye fiction. The biggest name on this panel was JA Jance. One of my characters is a private investigator so I wanted to see how veteran authors covered the subject matter. One of the biggest revelations was the difference between a private eye in real life and a private eye in detective fiction. No matter the medium, when dealing with fictional private eyes, they seem to always be in conflict with the police. More than one writer on this panel concluded that a good PI works with the cops and the cops accept the PIs because, in the end, they’re all going for the same thing. Good private investigators work with the cops, and that becomes their bread-and-butter cases. That would certainly make PI fiction more difficult to write.

Another great panel was “Golden Years: the Golden Age of Mystery.” Martin Edwards was the moderator and Do Some Damage’s very own Claire Booth was among the panelists. I had to chuckle when I looked around the audience wondered by how much I brought down the average age. Martin was very well prepared for this panel and even sent out questions ahead of time to give the panelists time to think about their answers. An idea that never occurred to me was that the torch of the traditional mystery has been carried on by cozy mysteries. It makes sense. Martin dug deep into the topic, trying to figure out why Golden Age mysteries fell out of fashion but also why the authors on the panels still wrote them. When asked what they had learned from Golden Age fiction, Claire was the first to respond. “Structure.” Moreover, she liked the idea of playing fair with the readers—every author repeated this comment—yet still keeping them guessing. All of the panelists concluded that entertaining readers was most important when writing. What I particularly enjoyed were the responses from the audience when the panelist named their favorite unknown Golden Age authors.

Perhaps the most surprising panel that I attended was “Bleeding Love: Romantic Suspense.” Allison Brennan was the moderator and hers was the only name I knew ahead of time even though I have not read any of her books. I like the opening question: what is romantic suspense? The panelist concurred that is a dual ending, namely a Happily Ever After ending and the Bad Guy getting caught. The hardest part, Anne Cleeland said, was having to get the love interests to fall in love quickly. This was the only panel at which I asked the question. I asked if the TV show “Castle” could be considered romantic suspense. I thought the answer was yes, and every panelist concurred. My big takeaway from this panel was from Allison herself, saying that you could do almost anything you want in romantic suspense as long as you have an HEA ending. In fact, she said that if you figure out the setup, the book all but writes itself.

Naturally I attended the “Once in a Lifetime: How Did I Get Here?” panel because it featured some Do Some Damage writers, namely Russell McLean and Jay Stringer. I had met Russell once in Houston, but I had never met Jay. The panel was as entertaining as you would expect it to be and it was fun to hear the stories of how these authors became authors and all the interesting jobs they had before they were able to quit their day jobs and write full-time. I especially liked Jay’s commentary on the difference between a “writer” and “an author.” If you look at the photograph, you’ll see Jay, far right, wearing a hat. He took off the hat and said “this is a writer.” Then, putting the hat back on his head, he spoke in a more professorial style: “And this is an author.”
Side note: that leaves only Steve Weddle as the only DSDer I haven’t met. BTW, did you read his column on Thursday? Brilliant.
So, yeah, I had a great time in New Orleans. I even managed to dictate some new chapters on the commute back to Houston. I expect this will be the last post on this subject for a time, but you never know.
One of the people I met was Susan Simpson. She’s from Alabama, and she helps run KillerBooks. For all you mystery fans out there, I have to say this is a nicely curated site devoted exclusively to mystery fiction. If you haven’t had a chance, you should head over there and take a look.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Come Down

The downside of posting on Friday is, you've probably heard everything about Boucher Con you're willing to hear, so I actually have to come up with something to say, rather than reminiscing about a great weekend filled with great writers. I thought I could talk a little about the "come down" that inevitably happens to me after conferences.

First, I have a confession to make:

I am an extrovert, and I don't drink very much.

I know I've just shattered the writer archetype, but it's who I am. I thrive on social interaction, and I love being around people. Whether it's sitting in the LitReactor booth at AWP, talking to anyone who will listen, or hanging out in New Orleans with all my favorite writer friends - I am in my element.

I do, however, drink a lot more in these fun party settings.

So Monday morning I woke up at 7 am, in my own bed, and set to getting the kid ready for school. My husband went back to work, and I found myself at home, exhausted, a little hungover, and alone.

I know a lot of people have written about how Boucher really got them excited to get to work, write as many words as possible, and read everything they can get their hands on - and that's fucking amazing. For me, it's a more uphill battle. I don't think I could have survived another day of drinking and walking those uneven sidewalks, but the absence of 1800 people to bullshit with is palpable.

I've already promised myself I'm going to make the drive to LA more often, to see all the Southern California writers I got to spend time with over the weekend, and I even started logging into Twitter more often. I know for a lot of people, more social media is definitely not the answer, but for me, if I don't get that charge from awesome people, I wilt.

The challenge is to get the charge without screwing up the time management, and it's always a little harder post-conference. As I'm writing this, it's Thursday and I've started to get back into the swing, upping my productivity outside of my daily tasks at Dirge Magazine and LitReactor where stuff has to get done regardless of how I feel. Maybe next week I'll hit full stride again.

In the meantime, I'd love for all my writer friends to share their California events with me so I know where to go to see your beautiful faces.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Brokeback Writer

By Steve Weddle

If you've felt a disturbance in the Bookternet this week, you might have been surprised to find that Franzen isn't to blame.

Merritt Tierce, recipient of awards, critical praise and sweet, sweet book money, recently wrote a 1,700-word piece for Marie Claire about the "dark side" of something called "literary fame," according to the article's deck.

Here's the piece. The main argument seems to be that she had a book come out two years ago and has not been able to live exclusively off the proceeds of that 226-page "dirty razor of prose" published by Random House.

tl;dr? Aight. Let's roll.
Love Me Back was reviewed by The New York Times ("brilliant, devastating"), the Chicago Tribune (one of their dozen best books of 2014), Texas Monthly ("one of the most mesmerizing heroines in recent fiction"), the San Francisco Chronicle ("ferociously good"), the Los Angeles Review of Books ("extraordinary"), Electric Literature ("the greatest restaurant book on earth"), mentioned in The New Yorker (twice), name-checked by St. Vincent, blurbed by Roxane Gay and Carrie Brownstein, and translated abroad. It won the Texas Institute of Letters' Steven Turner Award for Best First Fiction and was shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. Etc., etc., etc.
Everyone loved the book, so much that she has to move to "etc etc" when the praise becomes too much to mention. That's neat. Gracious, she must be awful happy.
I had an astonishingly good first run.
Which is, for the most part, over.
Publishing has moved on to Sweetbitter and The Girls and more Harry Potter. Publishing is always moving on. Foolish poet that I am, I didn't realize how hollow that would make me feel. 
Yeah. I'm felling you. The world is full of other books. That sucks.

So, she had a job, but quit the job when the book came out, thinking that she'd live on her husband's income while working on the next book, which she says gave her stress.
I haven't been able to write since the moment I started thinking I could or should be making money as a writer. I haven't produced a Second Book.
Yup. Feeling ya. Writing is stressful. Writing for sweet, sweet book money is stressful. That sucks.

Jim McCarthy, an agent and seemingly smart and clever human, said this on Twitter:
You know when to quit your day job as a writer? When you either a) have banked enough to live on for more than a few years, or... b) have published multiple books and your earnings are remarkably consistent, or c) you have someone who is willing to support you.
See if you can take a leave of absence if you get to tour your first book. Take a sabbatical. But holy christ, don't QUIT.
No author of mine has told me they were quitting their day job without giving me agita. And they mostly made the decision AS BESTSELLERS.
This business is competitive, and it is fickle, and it is difficult, and I want everyone to make a living as a writer but BE CAREFUL. PLEASE
And also? It should be noted that there is ZERO shame it being a writer with a day job. It doesn't make you less of a writer or less serious 
Long story short? I actually bought and loved your book, Merritt Tierce, but you owe me a Xanax for making it through that article.

 Yes to all those things, right?

You can make a living as a writer, of course. Nick Mamatas put it thusly:


You have to, you know, write stuff to live as a writer. Then you have to sell stuff. No one is going to pay you to sit around in your sweats all day and just type words into Scrivener. Even the Medicis needed ceilings painted.

Tierce herself addresses this in the original post about not being able to live on the proceeds from a novel you published a couple years back:
I would like to be paid to write.
I would, right now, sign in blood a contract that would pay me $40,000 a year for the rest of my life. No advances. No royalties. No freelance checks, no honoraria, no prize money, no film or TV options.
Yeah. That would be cool. I'd like to be paid to play banjo. I'm arguably one of the top five or six banjoists (yes, it's a word. shut up.) in my entire neighborhood. I'd love to be paid to just sit around and play in house without having to sell tickets to a concert or sell CDs or merch. I'd love to fly to Paris every year and eat cheese. I'd love to get through a week without pissing blood. I'd love to watch a baseball game every stinking day. None of that is likely to happen. And no one is going to pay me $5 to "just write," much less $40,000. Gracious. That's some sweet cash right there. 

I'm with Merritt Tierce there. That would be super cool. Then she says this:
At this stage in my vocational life, $40,000 is probably well below my earning capacity. I have a terminal degree from the most prestigious writing school in the country, and I've published a book with a major house—these qualify me to apply for tenure-track positions at universities.

Who the what now? Well below the what? Most prestigious? Major house? Damn it. Damn it. Why? I was totally with you. And now, now it's as if, I mean. Look, forty grand is sweet, sweet cash. Maybe these words don't argue that the author is too good for forty grand a year to just write. I dunno. Are we saying forty grand is settling for less than the author is worth? Being handed forty grand to write is taking less than what the author is worth. I mean, I think that's the argument here. I didn't got to the "most prestigious writing school in the country" and I haven't published a book with a "major house," so I'm just working with what little brain I have. But, you know, forty grand ain't no insult.

Worth more than forty grand a year. OK. Well, if I go to work in the morning making twenty grand a year, you know what I'm worth? Twenty grand a year. If I convice my boss to give me a raise of a thousand bucks a year, you know what I'm worth? A sweet twenty-one grand a year. (I didn't attend the most prestigious writing school in the country, but I can find a calculator.)

Tierce says she took a job with the post office making $16.65 an hour, but the job made her too tired to write after. Which is how we get to the idea of being paid to just write.  Yes, writing is hard. Writing when you're tired is hard. Writing before work is hard. Writing after you've spent three hours trying to help your kid through some horseshit math crap called "lattice multiplication" is hard. 

You can make a living writing, even if you're writing after work, it seems.

Ester Bloom wrote about this, in response to the Tierce column. Being a writer isn't a job


You can write as part of your job, of course. Largely that will mean doing the kind of un-fun, unsexy kind of arranging words that pays the bills: content marketing, for example, or corporate communications. Nicole Dieker is an exemplar. With hard work, she has been supporting herself as a writer for years now.

Lincoln Michel responded to Ester Bloom's response thusly: The hell it ain't:

The fact that writing is hard and there are many hobbyists doesn’t mean it isn’t a job either. It is very hard to be a professional athlete or a head chef, and many people practice sports or cooking as hobbies. But we would not pretend an NBA player or a head chef doesn’t have a job.
The more important point is that something can be a job even if it doesn’t pay you as much as you wish it would.
And that's really the point, isn't it? It can be a job even if the pay is poop. You can go broke working a a job that doesn't pay enough to live on.

You can't get by for years on one novel. Who are the super-successful novelists? Evanovich. Grisham. King. Many others. Each of those writers has published a novel since you started reading this post. Patterson has published six. Not written. Published. No one gives a crap how many novels you've written. Did you ask the pizza person how many pizzas she made today? No. You paid for the one you consumed. When a publishing house buys your book, they pay for product, not process. Yes, even a Major House.

I'm with Tierce that writing is tough, stressful and that trying to live for years on the proceeds of one highly praised novel is tough. She said she's sold about 12,000 copies. If you get a couple bucks for each hardback -- after you've earned out your advance -- then 12,000 copies at two bucks is 24 grand. (I don't know the terms of her contract, of course, though I do have access to that calculator, still.)

Can you live for a few years on 24 grand? Some do. Of course, they'd much rather get paid 40 grand a year for just writing or playing the banjo, I imagine.

For what it's worth, I don't have a problem with anything Tierce said in her 1,700-word piece in Marie Claire. I think she's wrong on many points, but I appreciate her writing about what she's gone through. I've read as much of her fiction as she's read of mine, I figure, so I can't speak to the novel itself, though I've no doubt it's wonderful.

You can make more money by publishing more than just a novel every few years, of course. You can write columns and Kindle singles and stories. I published a short story in a glossy last year and that alone has made me more money than all my other writing combined. Publishing is weird.

Here's a list of magazines that pay writers

You know who is on that list? Marie Claire.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Ro's Jambalaya is Delicious

By Holly West

Just yesterday, as we said goodbye in the hotel lobby, Scott Adlerberg and I lamented about what we'd write for our Do Some Damage posts this week. He came up with a good one, so if you missed yesterday's post, here it is. What he said, although in my case, I'm reading Ro Cuzon's UNDER THE DIXIE MOON, which is also set in New Orleans. It's noir at its sweaty, gritty best and Ro's writing chops are top notch, particularly for this type of fiction.

Note: Having eaten some of his fine jambalaya this past week in New Orleans, I suspect his pork chops probably are pretty good, too.

I'm not too big on conference wrap-ups, I'm not sure why. Let's just say Bouchercon 2016 was a great conference where I strengthened many friendships and cultivated some new ones. This, for me, is what it's all about.

Beyond that, I want to mention a couple of things that stood out to me while I was at the conference, both of which occurred during Harlan Coben's interview with Michael Connelly. Harlan told us his breakout book--Tell No One, if I'm not mistaken--was the tenth novel he'd written. Furthermore, his advance for the first Myron Bolitar book was $5000. His advance for the fourth? $6000.

Clearly, the path to becoming a best selling author can be a long and arduous one and most of us probably won't make it at all. Which is a little depressing to think about, right? But the information Harlan shared actually inspires me and makes me feel better about where I'm at in my career. My first two books did not sell very well and sometimes this gets me down but I need to remember that there will be other books (provided I stop f*cking around and finish the one I've been talking about for two years).

Other than that, I'm exhausted and happy and ready to work. So let's do it.