Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Don't Be That Person

by Holly West

This is my semi-regular plea to authors (and everybody else) about writing political or otherwise controversial posts on social media. Please think before you do it. Hell, sometimes even thinking about it isn't enough. Maybe you should just not do it at all.

Awhile back, someone I know to be an avid reader tweeted, "I liked my writer friends a lot better before twitter." I'm paraphrasing because I can't find the exact tweet, but it was a reference to authors who post about politics. I feel similarly about Facebook and a few of my relatives, so I understand the sentiment. Who doesn't?

But what really prompted me to broach this topic again was that over the last year or so, I began following an author whose books I like on social media. Said author has never been particularly shy about writing political posts, but with the primary season upon us, those posts have really ramped up. They're increasingly vitriolic, and while I suspect this author believes the commentary to be thoughtful and well-considered, it's only convinced me that he/she is somewhat of a tool, and not a tool in the useful sense. At the very least, my respect for the author has diminished considerably.

Yes, I realize this post is somewhat passive aggressive in that I wouldn't say any of this to the author directly. And yes, I know that I'm free to unfollow or unfriend. But this post isn't so much about me being annoyed as it is about how authors choose to use their social media accounts. We're told constantly we need to have a presence on social media, which requires effort. Taking the time, even if it's minimal, to cultivate a social media presence only to turn around an alienate your audience is counter productive. I've done it many times myself.

We're not out there trying to be jerks, we just don't realize the negative impact such posts can have. It's too easy to post one's opinion without really thinking about how it can be received.

I said earlier that I've enjoyed this author's work in the past, so I wouldn't say that my new impressions will prevent me from buying future books, though I might think twice. But what about the author who I might not have any experience with beyond annoying social media posts? Even if I wasn't an author myself, as someone who loves books, it's not inconceivable that I might cross paths with someone on social media whose work I'm not familiar with, who I'd first get to know through social media. Call me immature and small-minded, but I probably wouldn't buy their books if they're constantly posting about politics. I have too many other choices.

When you post about politics and other controversial subjects, you never know who you might offend. And sure, I get that you might not care about offending others. Sometimes I don't care either, especially if a particular topic is important enough to me. But the Internet world we all inhabit is an increasingly chaotic and negative space, and I try not to add to the noise.

Before you write such a post, I urge you to think about it. What's your purpose? Are you trying to convince others to see your POV? Chances are, that isn't going to happen. Do you have some anger or frustration to vent? Maybe go for a walk instead. Do you just need a little reassurance that there are others out there who feel like you do? Trust me, there are plenty of them. But there are also a lot of people who don't feel like you do and they aren't aren't interested in your diatribes. Or mine, either.

<Sigh.> Something tells me it's gonna be a long, hard road to November.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Precinct: Siberia -- Cop Novels by Tom Philbin

Guest blog by John Shepphird

A big thanks to Scott Adlerberg for offering the space here this week. Since Scott’s a true New Yorker, I can think of no better place for a tribute to the late, great author Tom Philbin.

While browsing a dust ridden used book store many years ago, I picked up a paperback solely because of its cover; a NYC cop climbing the staircase of a  brownstone, a desperate woman in the shadows looking back, and a mysterious killer about to blow the cop away. This was the 1986 Fawcett Gold Medal/Ballantine mass market paperback Cop Killer, the third in Tom Philbin’s Precinct: Siberia series, and a true discovery. I relished the pulpy prose and dark humor. I was hooked and would go on to read and collect the entire nine book series.

Over thirty years after Ed McBain began his 87th Precinct series of novels, Tom Philbin echoed the McBain formula for Fawcett with a cast of continuing characters in a New York City Precinct. Whereas McBain’s fictionalized a typical midtown precinct with run-of-the-mill cops, Philbin forged the Bronx’s 53rd Precinct--a dumping ground where the NYPD sends losers, misfits, and problem cops--the toughest beat in America’s toughest city known as Precinct: Siberia.

In the first chapter of Precinct: Siberia Tom sets the scene:
It was places, precincts like the Five Three, that cops dreaded being sent to. Actually, you weren’t sent; you were sentenced, and at any given time there was always a Fort Siberia. In the fifties and sixties there was Fort Apache. Before that there was Staten Island; there was a precinct in Harlem, one in Bed Stuy. It was punishment duty, except for cops who had the misfortune to be assigned there after the Academy. It was for misfits.
Alcoholics who couldn’t be helped, homos, psychotics, grass-eaters, drug users. Malcontents, thieves who couldn’t be nailed, wheeler-dealers, cops who messed with the wrong people, and old cops who should retire but who wouldn’t and, like old Indians, were put out on the plain to die.
Having lived in NYC for a half a decade, Tom’s fiction felt so real to me, his characters and locations so vividly portrayed. I had worked part time for the New York City Department of Transportation making training films while a student at Columbia University. The NYC DOT had its own dumping ground, a drab building way out on Queens Plaza in Long Island City. I’d learn because of the labor unions it was nearly impossible to fire a city employee as long as they showed up for work. The solution was to send the square pegs to the Department of Transportation’s own “Siberia.”
There was always a strong sense of justice in Tom’s narratives, with underdogs finding a way, and that made them satisfying. In Leroy Lad Panel’s exceptional reference book, The American Police Novel: A History, he describes Philbin’s characters as:
“The point Philbin makes, however, does not concentrate on the corruption in the precinct, but on the way in which leadership and an awakening sense of duty transform losers into cops. He created a cast of misfits and losers: Grady is a burned-out drunk, Getz is a pea-brained muscleman, Piccolo is a violent hothead, and Edmunton “had been assigned there for grass-easting – petty thievery that couldn’t be proved" (Undercover).  Not a loser or a misfit, but the victim of departmental injustice, there is also detective Barbara Babalino. All of them profit, grow, and mature because of the leadership of Detective First Grade Joe Lawless. About Lawless Philbin does not mince works: “Of all the human beings who had crossed his path in forty-two years of living, Joe Lawless was probably the best. The stuff, really, on which heroes are made” (Cop Killer).
I felt Tom’s series would make great television (even though I didn’t necessarily have the means to get a TV series off the ground), so I found Tom through the Author’s Guild. Unfortunately Precinct: Siberia was already optioned, but over the years we remained in contact and grew to become friends. On a trip to New York, Tom drove me around the battered Bronx neighborhoods that inspired his novels, where he’d grown up. We even dropped in on the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx where Poe spent the last years of his life and penned The Cask of Amontillado.   
Tom was the son and grandson of police officers. He’d served the U.S. as a  paratrooper, and worked as a painter and contractor, then started writing about what he knew with books such as How to Hire a Home Contractor Without Getting Chiseled. In 1981 Tom made his fiction debut with the thriller Yearbook Killer, a Fawcett mass market paperback. A few years later Precinct: Siberia would be published. Eight more would follow.
A Matter of Degree sticks out from the pack. It’s the one novel that does not parallel three cases but rather concentrates on the singular hunt for a serial killer by hypochondriac Detective George Benton, or as other cops call him, “The Bent One.

By the 90s the series ended when Fawcett’s mass market pulp paperbacks all but faded away. The producers that had optioned Precinct: Siberia had a pilot script written. Fox was looking for a police series. Precinct: Siberia was one of the projects considered, but the studio instead chose Stephen J. Cannell’s The Commish starring Michael Chiklis.
Tom would go on to write Copspeak: The Lingo of Law Enforcement and Crime, serial killer nonfiction, horse racing books such as Barbaro and the stunning Churchill Downs commissioned Two Minutes to Glory: The Official History of the Kentucky Derby plus a variety of others. He published over 40 books.
Tom encouraged me to write fiction and served as a mentor. I’d fax pages and we’d swap notes. I found early success when my short stories were published, and in the acknowledgements of my novella The Shill I give tribute to the “late, great pulp paperback author extraordinaire Tom Philbin.”
If you’re a fan of gritty cop novels, sample one in the Precinct: Siberia series, available on Ebay, Amazon, or quite possibly in the mystery section of your favorite used book store. Everyone I’ve ever referred the series to says the same thing; “Hey, these things are really good.”
 (John Shepphird is a Shamus Award winning author and writer/director of TV movies. Look for The Shill and Kill the Shill from Down & Out Books). 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Let's Talk About the Word "Fuck"

This is from a Facebook discussion yesterday.
Warning/Public Service Announcement:
If you've read my books, this is nothing new, but if you haven't here you go -
I use "fuck" in my books.*
Sometimes a lot.
While my main character, Gabriella Giovanni, doesn't use it much, people around her do. She covers the crime beat.
Cops say fuck. Reporters say fuck even more than cops, maybe. Bad guys say fuck.
My books are crime fiction. They have the word fuck in them.
I try not to use the word thoughtlessly, but it is part of the world I write about.
One of the best compliments I get about my books is that they are "authentic." Cleaning up the language would mean sugar coating it, glossing over what the world I write about is really like.
This post is basically a way to say that if you are offended by seeing the word fuck in print, maybe my books aren't the right ones for you.
It's cool. We can still be friends.
I recently received a one-star review that called my book foul. "If you want to read four letter words of all types every few paragraphs then this is your book."
I felt a little bad, as if somehow I'd mislead that reader, but I hope that with my darker themed covers and blurbs that say things such as "disturbing" on the cover, that people won't mistakenly pick up my books and expect something different.
I'll never forget the time my great friend, Father Seamus Genovese, God bless his soul, called me from Oakland, California to tell me that a nun he knew was reading my book because I had based one of the characters on Seamus. When I hung up the phone, I quickly grabbed the book and flipped through the first pages. I think I had the word "fuck" twenty-two times in the first two pages. Oops.
So, again, my books have foul language in them and if that is extremely offensive, I have some very talented author friends with lovely books that might suit you more than mine.
It's okay.
Nobody likes every book out there. That's life. And it's cool. No, really.
Feel free to weigh in. Comment below on what you think about books with "fuck" or other swear words in them.
*PS I almost always avoid using swear words on this Facebook page out of respect for my super classy mother who also reads this page. And yes, she reads all my books.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Open Letters to Our Idols

Scott D. Parker

Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire died this week. I was a latecomer to the music of EWF, having only really paid attention back in 2004 when they toured with Chicago. I saw them again last year when the two bands toured again. I spent all morning yesterday listening to EWF music. Is there a riff that can embed itself in your head quite effectively as “Let’s Groove”?

Thing is, early 2016 has not been kind to our idols. David Bowie. Glenn Frey. Alan Rickman. Lemmy Kilmister. Maurice White. All gone. Bowie hit me pretty hard. I’ve written about it elsewhere. I’m not alone in sadness.

But here’s the thing: Bowie never got to see the impact his death had on us. You can pretty much assume he knew what his life meant to us in all the folks who name him as an inspiration. One look at Lady Gaga’s career and you can see Bowie’s influence in many things she does.

Lady Gaga and all the other folks are famous. They are easily seen. Everyone else isn’t. Folks like you and me. Regular folks who latched onto a song, an album, a book, a film, a painting, whatever and had their lives altered by the thing. I think it would be nice for these people—famous and not famous—to know what they did for each of us.

It’s why I’ve decided to start an occasional blog series: Open Letters to Our Idols. On an irregular basis, I’ll write a post about an artist/person who helped shape who I am. Then I’ll make the person aware of the post via Twitter, etc. If they choose to read it, fine. They don’t have to. But they’ll have the opportunity to know what they meant to me.

My Bowie post probably started this thought process. It just kept churning in my head all through January and up until this week when Maurice White’s death brought it forward.

It’s the equivalent of the “hug your spouse and child” and “call your parents” kind of meme. This isn’t ‘my thing.’ It’s for everyone. I’m just putting it out there.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pulling the pin

I have a hard time giving up on things. Books especially. Letting go isn’t my strong suit.

This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it can be particularly difficult for two of my most-read genres: crime and comic books. Both often require a multi-book commitment, because they're written in series form.

So, this leads me to my question: when do you give up on a book or series? What’s your breaking point? What are the exceptions to the rule? OK, that was a few questions - but humor me here.

I sometimes want to be like the cool kids and toss a book across the room whenever it stops grabbing me. Life’s too short, I’ve got better things to read and so on. It sounds easy, right? It’s not for me. I know too much about how the sausage is made - I know how much effort goes into writing even a mediocre book. I try to give each one I read as fair a shake as I can. On the other hand, my time (like yours) is precious - so why waste it on a bad book?

I’m all over the place when it comes to this. I’ve powered through a 10-book detective series even though the last three books were mediocre, at best. I've stuck with books in the hopes that they'd get better only to toss them aside when they fell flat in the end. It varies.

I experienced this feeling of book ennui recently. I was reading an acclaimed, bestselling novel outside my usual genre and it just wasn't resonating with me. I was well into the book and found myself wondering, “What is the point of this book? Do I even care about these characters?”

Turns out, I did. I kept reading and really enjoyed how the book ended. The third act - which was not The Best Thing Ever, but good enough to almost make up for the sluggish start - propelled me toward more books by the author, which I subsequently enjoyed.

So, my answer is simple: there isn’t an answer. There are a ton of factors that go into whether I finish a book. Most of the time I do. I usually pick books I end up liking. However, if something doesn’t grab me and there isn’t enough to keep me interested (even in the earlier example, I at least liked some of the characters and world-building), then I chuck it and start something else. Hell, even my mood can affect whether I stick with a book. If I’ve started a crime novel after dozens of similar books, I might feel burnt out and want to read something completely different. I’ve stopped reading mid-series only to come back years later, in a different mindset, and finish. It’s hard to predict, but I’ve learned to just listen to my gut.

Life is too short to read bad books. But sometimes you don’t realize it as quickly as you should.

What are your warning signs that it might be time to bail on the book you’re reading? How much time do you give a book to right itself before you move on?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

When Do You Give Up On a Story... Or Do You Ever?

Guest Post by Sarah M. Chen

As I contemplated what to write for this guest post, I received another rejection from a fledgling crime fiction magazine. It came with an encouraging note that said, “This story came super close to getting picked for publication. We think you’re very talented and hope you submit again.” I was disheartened but buoyed at the same time. That weird bipolar feeling many of us writers understand.

This is a story that I wrote for Bouchercon’s “Murder Under the Oaks” anthology last year but was rejected. No lovely note, just a “thank you but it wasn’t selected.” Undaunted, I had sent it off to another publication. Several months later, another pleasant rejection arrived in my inbox. That was the point where I thought “okay, maybe my story isn’t as brilliant as I thought.” I tinkered with it until I thought “Now, it’s brilliant.”

A few weeks later, I sent it off to another fledgling crime fiction magazine (not the previous one I mentioned) and received encouraging feedback to the point that they told me they thought it was going to get in but ultimately it was up to their guest editor. That’s where my story’s journey ended unfortunately. However, I did receive notes which I most definitely did not ignore.

So now here I am with a story that has almost made it in to two different markets. I’m kind of at a crossroads: is it just a matter of not finding the right home or is it in need of more editing? At what point do we say: this story sucks and my dog could write something better? Or the opposite: this story is badass, it just hasn’t found the right publisher yet so I’m not changing a single word.

I set it aside for a bit and then re-read it a few weeks later. It hit me that it needed a new ending. Something about it had bothered me all along and that was it. The ending is the most difficult part for me to write. It has to have that knockout punch yet ring true for the characters. Once I torture my writing group for one more read-through, I’ll be ready to send it out into the world with its shiny new ending, confident that it’s reached maximum brilliance.

Okay, that’s a lie. I don’t think I’m ever 100% happy with anything I’ve written. Even after it’s published, I spot things I want to change. Coincidentally, I read a recent post by Art Taylor on Sleuthsayers that covered this same subject. He mentioned how endings, for him, are the hardest part of the story to write and he’s constantly revising even after submission. I totally related to that. Then I read an article in the February Sisters in Crime/LA newsletter from Lida Bushloper about a short story she wrote that had a 30-year journey to eventual publication. Now that right there is inspiration to keep revising and submitting.

The key, I think, is that something in the story keeps tugging at me or I wouldn’t come back to it over and over again, setting aside my masochistic tendencies. It also helps that two markets told me to keep working on it because they saw the potential in it.

Which brings up another point. If an editor or publisher tells you to work on something and resubmit—or even better, gives you notes and tells you to resubmit—then get on it. In fact, a highly respected publisher recently brought up this exact issue and referred me to an article on resubmitting: Submit Like A Man. It talked about how gender affects resubmission. Men tend to resubmit more than women. I found myself nodding along to many of the points. Gender was something I never even thought about when it came to resubmission frequency. It’s an issue worth discussing, but right now, I have to get back to my story and tweak the ending just a little bit more.


Sarah M. Chen juggles several jobs including indie bookseller, transcriber, and insurance adjuster. Her crime fiction short stories have been accepted for publication online and in various anthologies, including All Due Respect, Akashic, Plan B, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, Out of the Gutter, Betty Fedora, Issue Two, Spelk, and the Sisters in Crime/LA anthology, Ladies Night. Her noir novella, Cleaning Up Finn, is coming out May 2016 with All Due Respect Books.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and a Grave

by Scott Adlerberg

I know I'm not the first person to say this, but is there any true crime weird and disturbing like Wisconsin crime weird and disturbing?  The most recent example is none other than the saga recounted in the Netflix series, Making of a Murderer.  

Going back in time, there's the plague of depression and madness that gripped the economically depressed town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the late 19th century, a story that the book and film Wisconsin Death Trip chronicles memorably.

More recently, there was Jeffrey Dahmer, and before him, of course, there was the most famous Wisconsin grotesque of all, Ed Gein.  I may be wrong here, but I think Gein, in one way or another, has served as inspiration for more fictional killers - in books, in film, on TV - than any other murderer.

Which brings me to a good story.  It's the story of a true crime film project that was started but never got finished, and to this day, I think if I had to pick one crime documentary I wish had got completed, I'd pick this one.

I'm talking, of course, about the Errol Morris - Werner Herzog Ed Gein project.

The story, from what I know of it, goes like this:

Errol Morris attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and graduated from there in 1969.  He'd already been interviewing mass murderers - Ed Kemper, Herb Mullen and John Linley Frazier, all in Northern California - when in 1975 he went to Plainfield, Wisconsin to interview people in the town where Ed Gein had lived and killed.   He then started doing interviews with Gein. At this point, Gein was locked up in the Mendota State Hospital.  Morris was an unknown, an aspiring filmmaker you could say, but while out in California working toward a philosophy Ph.D that never came to pass, he had met film producer Tom Luddy, who introduced him to Werner Herzog.  Morris and Herzog, two eccentrics, hit it off, and according to all accounts, though Herzog was already considered one of the world's great directors and Morris had never shot so much as a foot of film, Herzog treated Morris as an equal, someone as obsessed as he was with losers, fanatics, weirdos, killers, and so forth.  In the summer of 1975, when Morris was absorbed in his Wisconsin investigations, Herzog and Morris discussed whether Ed Gein's mother's body was actually in the coffin where she was supposed to be interred.  Gein had dug up many bodies in Plainfield Cemetery before he was caught, and the graves he violated formed a circle around his mother's grave.  Psychological transference by Gein, who was unable to dig up the one grave in the cemetery that truly mattered to him? Or had he also dug up his mother's body?  Morris and Herzog discussed the matter, and they set a night and time to meet in the cemetery and dig up Gein's mother's grave to find out once and for all whether it contained her body.  As it turned out, on the scheduled moonlit night, Herzog arrived, shovel in hand, ready to dig, but Morris didn't come.  Morris had reconsidered the idea and backed out.  Herzog did not open the grave, and though Morris returned to Plainfield and did hundreds of hours more interviews with residents there, including interviews with town multiple murderers who came after Gein, perhaps influenced by him, he never did complete the project.  He'd been planning to call it Digging up the Past.

Oh, well.  What would have happened if Morris had shown up that night?  I suppose it doesn't matter anymore.  Herzog encouraged and helped Morris in his formative filmmaking years, and Morris has gone on to become one of the best documentarians around.  Herzog, well, is Herzog.  One film neither made does nothing to tarnish their careers or reputations, but I sure do wish Errol had shown up that night, they'd dug up Ed Gein's mother's grave, seen what was there or not there, and made a movie about it.