Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thank you

If you're reading this - and celebrate Thanksgiving - I hope you're stuffed with tasty food and surrounded by those you love. As I get older, Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday. It combines so many great things - the warmth of family, good food, friends, conversation and sometimes a decent football game. While it's gotten commercialized like anything else, there isn't much stress about buying presents or decorating, at least in my family. We just gather, eat, hug, smile and enjoy a few quiet moments. Anyway, I hope you're enjoying your day - and that you're not on the Internet reading this for too long.

Thanksgiving is also an opportunity to look back on the year and beyond to give thanks for all the good, middling and bad that's come to pass and recognize that it's that blended pot of circumstances that makes us who we are. Though, I for one want more good than bad. Luckily, I can say that was the case in 2014. 

It was a transitional year, sure - I started learning how to be an author as opposed to an aspiring one. But it was a great year, most importantly. Silent City came out last October and 2014 was a whirlwind of events, readings, growing pains, conventions, comics, panels, signings and so much more. I won't try to list everything I'm thankful for - there be dragons. You always end up forgetting something. But I will take a minute to say thanks for some things that I think most authors can relate to, and then put down the mic so you can all join the party in the comments section.

I'm thankful, first and foremost for my wife, family and friends. Self-explanatory. I don't think Silent City or much of anything I've written would exist without her. She's understanding and patient when I'm typing away into the night and she's the first set of eyes on my writing before it goes out into the world. There's a reason the book is dedicated to her.

My fellow authors. I said this a few times while at Bouchercon last week, but damn - is the crime/mystery writing community friendly or what? Whether it's a pep talk, an invite to an event, a moment of sage advice or a cheerful note/call/email - I feel constantly supported. You know who you are, and thank you for being kind to a newbie. I can only hope to return the favor.

My agent. For making my books better and being an advocate for my work. My publisher, for deciding to put the book out and supporting me throughout.

Readers. Bloggers. Fans. Marketers. Book People. The lifeblood of this whole operation. We write to be read, and it's so great to hear from people - ideally when they like something, but even otherwise. Writing is a solitary endeavor, and the anxiety you feel before you set your work free and let the outside world engage with it is insane. I should amend my earlier statement about mystery/crime writers - it isn't just authors, it's the entire network, from the person moderating your panel to the guy tweeting about enjoying your book – the entire community is full of supportive, friendly, helpful and kind people. They just like to read about terrible things happening – they do the opposite.

Indie booksellers. Thank you for stocking my book. Thank you for hosting my events. Thank you for being welcoming and supportive to a first-time author finding his way. Buy indie.

That’s all I got. What are you thankful for?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Talk Dirty to Me

by Holly West

When I sat down to write my weekly Do Some Damage post today, I had a completely different topic in mind. Then I happened upon the post Jay wrote yesterday about writing sex and decided to write about that instead.

The thing is, I was just this morning thinking about this very topic--writing sex and my discomfort with it--and particularly, about a story I contributed to Shotgun Honey's first anthology, BOTH BARRELS Vol. I, called Regrets Only. It features a troubled female protagonist named Tammy Valero whose been diagnosed with incurable cancer. The realization that she's only got a few weeks to live compels her to take care of the one regret she has in life, with (of course) disastrous consequences.

Tammy isn't quite a prostitute, but she's become accustomed to using her body and sex to eke out a living and to get what she needs, both emotionally and materially. After a lifetime of addiction, abuse, and bad choices, she's managed to convince herself that whatever worth she has is wrapped up in her sexuality. She barely notices that what little satisfaction she gets from it is a poor substitute for the love, respect and security she's hungry for.

The resulting story contains many crude sexual references and a somewhat explicit sex scene that, even now, makes me uncomfortable. The scene isn't gratuitous, nor is it particularly titillating, though even if it was, that wouldn't invalidate it's appearance in the story. Mostly, it's used to illustrate Tammy's habit of compromising herself in spite of consistently dubious outcomes.

My own experiences have been very different from Tammy's, but the truth is that I know few--if any--women, including myself, who haven't compromised themselves sexually in some way because it seemed easier to capitulate than to refuse. That compromise could be as seemingly innocent as hugging a man you don't particularly want to hug. As I wrote the story, I knew I was tapping into something very personal that made me feel vulnerable and exposed--I was acknowledging that in some ways, I knew exactly what it felt like to be Tammy. That is where my discomfort lies, and where it remains.

What I've since realized is that when you tap into that vulnerable place and dig around a little bit, that's when the best writing can happen. I don't mean to limit that to sex, of course--any time you're writing about something true and real you're exposing a nerve of sorts, and sometimes that can be uncomfortable.

But that's only part of it. As Jay points out, crime writers routinely tackle some of life's toughest subjects--death, violence, drugs, war, the "misery of the human experience," so why do we shy away from writing sex scenes? I've written violence, perhaps not explicit, but violence, nonetheless. I never agonize over it as much as I do writing about sex. Hell, I don't agonize about the violence as much as I grapple with using foul language. Why is that?

The truth is that I don't even like to talk about sex, even with my close friends. Writing about it feels awkward, perhaps because it's an admission that I've done it. That it's something I like and something that interests me. That doesn't stop me from writing it--Mistress of Fortune has more explicit sex in it than most crime fiction novels I read and I put it there because I wanted it to reveal something about my protagonist. That's what the best sex scenes do--they reveal something about your characters.

Well, I have to say, this post ended up being much more interesting than the one I was going to write. Lucky you.

What are your thoughts on writing/reading sex?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Let's Talk About Sex (Baby)

By Jay Stringer

You know those times when I can come off as a pretentious arty idiot? There's one near the end of this blog. I'll give you warning before it happens. 

Why are we scared of sex scenes?

Okay, sure, there are writers out there who don't shy away. I'm sure even as you read this, you can think of enough examples to shoot me down in flames. But I think I'm on solid enough ground when I say that many of us -including me, originally- shy away from writing sex scenes.

I wonder why this is. I've been wondering for a while now. And I've asked people. Online, on ello and facebook. In person, at the bar at Bouchercon.

We're crime writers. We like to write about some of the darkest, most challenging moments in the human experience. We write violence. Death. Misery. Blood. Guts.

Sometimes, if we want to appear edgy or cool, we write drugs. We pretend to get all transgressive and do things that chalenge the reader.

But write a simple, fun, exciting or emotional sex scene? Hooo boy we can't run away quick enough.

Some of the writers I've spoken to say it's fear; fear that readers might think we're writing about ourselves. Well, firstly, who cares? We're writers. There is a bit of us in everything we write. Secondly, if I'm willing to write about some old guy being beaten to death with a stick, without worrying that the reader might assume I've gone and done that for research, then why the hell should I be worried they'll think they're reading about my own kinky sex habits?

I worked hard at avoiding sex in my work for a long time. My protagonist in Old Gold get's down to it twice during the story, and I went out of my way to avoid having to really write any sex. Here, I'll quote some of it at you;

"It was easy and functional, and we both seemed to enjoy it. It was sober sex, something I'm not used to. We smiled as we went. We didn't make too many mistakes."
I'm doing a lot of heavy lifting there to avoid dealing with any actual sex, and when I read it back, that heavy lifting is all I can see. I can see the nerves, the awkwardness of a first-time writer trying hard not to be laughed at.

But what single moment can we find in any story (any lifetime) that reveals more about a character than while they're naked with someone else and trying really hard to get off? When do we see anyone in a more emotional, honest or vulnerable state? Or, alternatively, if the scene shows that they still have their guard up, that they're still playing games, then that says more about them than just about any other scene. Sure, we can say violence reveals character, that trauma or high-stress reveals character, but why rely on those moments when there is something simple, easy and relateable that we can get to with far less plot mechanics?

A second answer that has come up in my conversations has been the reader. Maybe we'll turn away the reader by throwing in some sex scenes. Sure. Maybe. People's tastes vary, and every book you ever write will lose somebody. I've written about violence, racism, politics, drug use, grief, death; somewhere in there I've probably found things that have made a reader put the book down. On the individual level, that's absolutely fine. But on a larger level, if we're worried that en masse readers can handle death, violence and brutality, but baulk at a little sex, then there's maybe a deeper conversation we need to be having there.

My second book Runaway Town features no sex at all, though the plot features sexual assaults related to us through memories, so I still think I made the right call there. By the time of Lost City, I was well aware that I had the fear of the scene. And my approach to writing is that if I'm scared to write something, then I have to write it. So Lost City opens on a sex scene.

Fear is good. We need to use it. Channel it. Fear tells us what we need to write next, not what we need to avoid.

Which brings me to the other point that writers have made; The bad sex awards. More than one writer has mentioned to me that they don't want their work to show up on the list. Yeah. Fine. There's a chance it might. But you know what? There's a chance all of your work might suck. Everytime we sit down in front of the blank page, we are jumping off into the unknown. (Warning, pretentious wanky bit) But what kind of artist backs away from doing something for fear of being laughed at?

Remember that time Sandra Bullock turned up to collect her Razzy in person? Too right. Fucking own it. We can fail at all of this, but we should embrace that.

If writing is about any two things, it's about trying to fake a sense of emotional honesty and about doing something that brings with it the real possibillity of failure. If you know exactly how to write your next project, I would suggest it's time to find a new project. Find the one you might fail at. Find the thing you're scared of. And you won't find a single, simple, human act that relates emotional honesty better than a sex scene.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Three recommended 2014 re-issues

Over at Spinetingler we'll be doing our annual Best of the Year post (we usually post closer to the end of the calender year). In the lead up to that post I'll be using my time here at Do Some Damage to pull together some recommended reading lists for short story collections and anthologies, non-fiction books, comics, re-issues, and straight up crime fiction.

With waves of new releases continuously crashing over a reader's head the re-issue of a classic can get lost. Here are three that are worth the crime fiction readers attention.  

The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Michel Hartog, a sometime architect, is a powerful businessman and famous philanthropist whose immense  fortune has just grown that much greater following the death of his brother in an accident. Peter is his orphaned nephew—a spoiled brat. Julie is in an insane asylum. Thompson is a hired gunman with a serious ulcer. Michel hires Julie to look after Peter. And he hires Thompson to kill them. Julie and Peter escape. Thompson pursues. Bullets fly. Bodies accumulate.

The craziness is just getting started.
Manchette is an acclaimed and influential French crime novelist. Only four of his novels have been translated into English so far. Some great American crime fiction writers are fans: James Sallis (intro to The Mad and the Bad); Duane Swierczynski (“Dear God: Please have someone translate more Jean-Patrick Manchette novels.”); James Ellroy ("Man-oh-man Manchette was a decades-long hurricane through the Parisian cultural scene. We must revere him now and rediscover him this very instant."). Manchette's English releases are scattered so take the moment to acquaint yourself with his work.

Get Carter by Ted Lewis

It’s a rainy night in the mill town of Scunthorpe when a London fixer named Jack Carter steps off a northbound train. He’s left the neon lights and mod lifestyle of Soho behind to come north to his hometown for a funeral—his brother Frank’s. Frank was very drunk when he drove his car off a cliff and that doesn’t sit well with Jack. Mild-mannered Frank never touched the stuff.

Jack and Frank didn’t exactly like one another. They hadn’t spoken in years and Jack is far from the sentimental type. So it takes more than a few people by surprise when Jack starts plying his trade in order to get to the bottom of his brother’s death. Then again, Frank’s last name was Carter, and that’s Jack’s name too. Sometimes that’s enough.

Set in the late 1960s amidst the smokestacks and hardcases of the industrial north of England, Get Carter redefined British crime fiction.
Ted Lewis' books are currently being re-issued by Syndicate Books. While the Carter trilogy are probably his most well known books in America (due to the classic Michael Caine movie) it's important to note that this series of re-issues will culminate in many crime fiction readers finally being able to read the legendary GBH. But don't take casting an eye to a future release as a skip for the current crop of releases. Simply put Get Carter is one of the great modern Brit Grit crime novels. Lewis at his best (and this is one of them) wrote some of the best crime fiction novels of all time. If you haven't seen the movie go do that now. If you've never read the book and are a fan of crime fiction then you must go read Get Carter now.

Stray Bullets: Uber Alles Edition by David Lapham

Stray Bullets is one of the five best modern crime comics (the others being Scalped; 100 Bullets; Criminal; Sin City). The Uber Alles Edition collects the entire run of comics in the series. There isn't a single narrative arc, or even a single, traditional protagonist in Stray Bullets. He creates an entire crime fiction tapestry with characters and events weaved together with devastating effect.

What great books were re-issued in 2014?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bouchercon 2014 - Murder at the Beach Recap

By Kristi Belcamino

I've been trying to process what my very first Bouchercon was like and in many ways it felt like bobbing around in a swimming pool crowded with other bobbing heads. I would see  people I knew or wanted to meet across the pool and would attempt to paddle toward them but would often get distracted by running into other people I knew and wanted to meet along the way.

Sometimes I never quite made it to the other side of the pool (or bar as it was often the case at Bouchercon) to say hello to someone I wanted to meet or chat with.

At the same time, there were many unexpected meetings along the way. Such as walking back to the hotel along the promenade beside Hank Phillipi Ryan and striking up an organic conversation with possibly the most friendly mystery writer alive. Or sitting down at a restaurant by the ocean at a table next to the most awesome Dru Ann Love and her friends. Or something as simple as meeting a friendly woman on the sidewalk, chatting with her on the elevator in the hotel, being blown away by her career choice to work with special needs kids, and then running into her another day while I was walking with Alex Segura and discovering this delightful woman was his wife's stepmother!

It was a four-day confluence of coincidences and bonding moments.

I'm happy to say that two of my favorite new author friends I got to know at Bouchercon is our very own Jay Stringer and Holly West. Both were so wonderful I only wish I could've spent even more time with them. (I was lucky enough to meet Alex in person a few weeks prior and he is even cooler in person!)

I have so much more to say about B'Con, but will leave you with a few snapshots of my time there if you'll indulge me:

Saturday, November 22, 2014

On Being Professionally Edited

Scott D. Parker

One of the key steps for any author is to have one’s work read by a non-friend or a non-family member. You know, to get the unbiased take on your work.

A fellow author friend of mine highly recommended the editor she uses. My friend said, “Oh, you’ll love her. She’s really good.” On that kind of praise, I called up the editor and we worked out a deal. I dropped off the manuscript for my first novella that I’ll be publishing next year a little over three weeks ago and I met with her yesterday. Now, I’ve known writers who, at the time of letting their manuscripts out into the world or, as in this case, out to a non-relative/friend, balk or have a little worry. Did I have that worry? Not at all. You see, any manuscript can be fixed and made better. I joked leading up to yesterday that I was hoping to land somewhere on the scale of “This is the thing I’ve ever read” down to “Please, just put down the pen and walk away.”

As expected, I was somewhere in that range. We met yesterday at a nice little cafe here in Houston, the Heights to be exact. It was raining but not cold. We met, chit-chatted about things, and general getting-to-know-you stuff. Then we got down to it. I had delivered my novella in hard copy, double-sided. It was 65 pages or so. I got back the very same manuscript, marked up, and a good set of notes, also typewritten. Both were in a nice green folder. In addition, she delivered a list of instances when the various characters appeared and on which page. There was also a word list of various multiple uses of a word (towards and toward, for example; things I missed on my pass) and other things, like time-period accuracies (the yarn takes place in 1940). I got this word list both in alphabetical order as well as page order.

Before I cracked the folder, the editor told me that it was among the cleanest writing she had seen in a long time. Have to admit I enjoyed hearing that. There was a moment there, sitting in that booth, where my pride swelled a little. I mean, who wouldn’t, right? Then I opened the folder and saw the plethora of editorial marks. Whoa. If this was a clean manuscript, what must a unclean one look like.

But that’s her job, right? To edit. To make better. Believe me, I’ve scanned the edits and my manuscript, my book will be so much better for it. I also noticed a lot of check marks. I asked about those. Turns out, those were things she liked, whether it was turns of phrases, pacing, description, or whatever. Happily, there were a lot of check marks.

I got home last night and showed my wife the edits. In all, I had written the draft and then edited it myself (pass 1), my mom and dad edited it and bled all over it (pass 2), and my wife read it (pass 3) and made comments that didn’t appear in either of the first two passes. A fellow author friend of mine had also read it and given a thumbs up on it. Then I got my professional editing pass, number 4. My wife asked me, “So, now that you have that, after you make the changes, what’s next?”

What’s next? Well, I still need to develop a cover. I have a concept for this series. I am going to meet with a friend of mine who is a graphic artist. I will tell him what I’m envisioning and then send him off to work it up for me. Then the formatting of the ebook itself (I’m reading Zen of eBook Formatting by Guido Henkel--great book). Once those steps are done, I’ll have my new company’s website up and running. Then, come January 2015, once all the pieces are in place, the final step will be publication.

And the book will be out there in the world.

Exciting times.

Meanwhile, my own NaNovellaWriMo work is progressing nicely. My original goal was to finish my novella by 30 November. I'll make that, but I might beat that goal. There's an outside change I'll be done by Thanksgiving. 

How are y'all's NaNoWriMo projects coming along?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The four requirements of solid crime fiction

By Steve Weddle

John Hornor Jacobs and I have two things in common. One is that we're both fans of the work of Steven Brust, whose new Vlad Talos novel just came out.

HAWK is, roughly, the eight billionth Vlad novel. If you don't know the series, we're talking about an assassin living among people not-his. This is swords and sorcery. Also, witchcraft, which is kind of a dirty cousin to sorcery and kinda completely different. It's crime fiction, clearly, as we've got killings and gambling and minor wars. But we've also got wars with gods and pouches of gold. And klava, which is kinda like coffee but not.

The first Vlad novel came out in the early 1980s. I found it in the back corner of Waldenbooks in the mall in Shreveport (or maybe Bossier), tucked away in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of the store, which has always seemed a weird combination, though the Sword and Laser people seem to have embraced it just fine.

So now, 30 years later, I'm still reading the series. Here's why:

1) Heisty Plans. There's that cleverness in here that comes with some of the best Parker books. You see pieces of the plan and want to know how everything comes together. You're intrigued. You keep reading.

2) Stabby Time. Yes, you get some good action in here. Some of the plans made lead to killings, to assassinations. This moves the story along, but it usually also moves to up the stakes. The violence in the books is pretty tame in its telling, by the way. You get the stabbing without having the author showing off in a way that he thinks is being descriptive.

3) Humor. You get some self-deprecating wisecracks without having it go on too long or get to be too annoying. Think about the best parts of Nelson Demille's John Corey. Gallows humor, too. A snarky familiar. Anyway, as a smartass, I can appreciate this and acknowledge that this was a huge draw for the 1980s version of me.

4) A Character You Care About. I've been with Vlad Taltos since 1983, but wouldn't keep coming back if I didn't like the guy. The thing that brings me to the next book -- to the next page, even -- is my craving to find out what is happening to the guy. You're in his head for thousands of pages, after all.

Anyway, if you're looking for what makes good crime fiction, you could do well following a checklist with those four things on it. Brust does, and it's what has drawn me and John Hornor Jacobs and many other folks to the Vlad Taltos books. Like I said, it's one of the two things JHJ and I have in common. (The other thing isn't very interesting.)


PS - You can help get my book banned in Texas.