Friday, May 6, 2016

Word on the Street with James Queally Pt. 2

Continuing LAST WEEK'S amazing interview with LA Times crime reporter James Queally, here's part two, where we discuss OJ Simpson, true crime television, and "crime porn."

I think the immediacy, when we’re watching television coverage of big news events like this that starts to get a little sticky. Do you think there is an advantage to – you have to go get the information, process it, write it, hopefully it goes through an editor, and then it is published vs. watching CNN when, I think it was the Boston Bombings, and they’ve got three reporters in the same parking lot and you can actually see the bus driving through it – they’re just scrambling to say something, anything, get any relevant sound bit they can get out. That’s their sense of immediacy. But you’re taking your sense of immediacy and filtering it through more of a process. Do you think there’s an advantage to that?
No, I can agree with that. There is an advantage. I don’t have a hot mic. Somebody is going to at least breathe and think about whatever feed I just sent in.  The only immediacy situation I have is, you know, we’re encouraged, especially in a situation like Ferguson, I was essentially using Twitter as a notepad. At that point, I’m taking pictures of clashes, of officers in riot gear and protestors, I’m sending out tweets that I just got hit in the face with tear gas. At that point I am just sending out, just pretty much stream of consciousness. But as far as a full report, and a continuous live stream – yeah, I feel like TV is at something of a disadvantage.

Especially when - San Bernardino is a perfect example. I’d written a story about this months later. The initial couple  of press conferences, the information that came from some witnesses at the scene was that there were three shooters. There was no evidence that there were three shooters. The FBI said only two weapons were used. This was never true, but because they were dealing with such a chaotic scenario the initial press conferences with Jarrod Burguan, the San Bernardino Police Department’s chief, he said there were three shooters and that got carried live by CNN, ABC, NBC, everybody who was there. 

And it’s, through no fault of the TV station, but they have to carry the live feed of the press conference. And they put out - everybody put out – that false information, just because it’s that immediate chaos following a scenario like that. And yeah, when they’ve got to constantly have live feeds, sometimes stuff gets misappropriated. You know this is a story I was telling out of Ferguson, too. The third night I was there was the night before Thanksgiving and everyone had kind of calmed down. You were talking about, there were hundreds of protestors out every night, but standing in front of the Ferguson police department I was like coin flip you were going to get arrested if you were anywhere near the protestors or God forbid you stepped into the street toward the cops. So it was a madhouse the first two days, and then day three – not really anybody there.

It was like half media, half protestors/demonstrators. At one point, a bunch of us came back from eating somewhere and I heard the CNN guy mutter something to the effect of “the crowd is doubling” into a live camera. The crowd of protestors isn’t doubling! It’s me, the guy from Buzzfeed and whoever else just walked back into the parking area. But they are running continuous coverage so they don’t … what’s his fact check on that? He’s going to turn over his shoulder? He’s going to run over and ask all forty of us if we’re demonstrators or not? It’s not the highest of journalistic sins that they’re committing, but it’s just the reality of, yeah, if you’re constantly live broadcasting – like you said – there’s no filter, there’s no check. You might have a producer yelling in the anchor’s ear to get away from something if something truly onerous goes on. You know, this happens during police pursuits– this has happened during police pursuits in LA before. I think there have been one or two cases where they actually shot and killed the fleeing driver on television. This happened a long time ago, before I was here. But that is the danger of covering anything constantly. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You can’t edit out what’s actually occurring on a livestream.
If I could lead you a little bit, away from actual TV news, which I think TV news is becoming more entertainment than news - I know that you said you’re not actually a big true crime entertainment fan. Is there a reason why you, personally, are not catching this wave that a lot of people are into right now, watching all these shows, listening to the podcasts – all of that. Or is it just that you’re too busy?
Part of it is overload, quite frankly. As you know, how you met me, I also write crime fiction. So I’m spending the day reporting on crime, I come home and I’m working on a short story or a novel. A lot of what I read is a lot of genre fiction and a lot of the TV I watch, in general – Better Call Saul is at the top of my list right now – that’s kind of a sad sack noir story. I need something different after awhile. Sometimes I just need to watch a basketball game.

Moreseo, from a critical standpoint, I guess I’m touch and go. I got into Serial for a few episodes and kind of faded away from it. On the one hand, I think stuff like Serial and Making A Murderer can be good because one of the main headaches of crime reporting, especially as I said at my old job, I was covering Newark Police Department, which is the largest department in New Jersey, a hundred murders a year in that city. And then I was doing Enterprise investigative pieces throughout the state. Any major disaster that happened I got sent on it, Hurricane Sandy, I was living on a cot for ten days in my photographer’s apartment – we don’t have time to do these kind of projects. It’s very rare if you’re a police beat reporter, we can’t do what Serial did. [Note: James did originally slip and call “Serial”, “Scandal” and he would like it on record that he does not watch Scandal].
I guess there is something of a danger in re-litigating a case, and it’s also, the other side of it – Serial did uncover some interesting things about the Adnan Syed case, especially the stuff regarding the defense attorney, I remember she had died before they did the podcast, but she had some serious misconduct allegations, I think. It kind of called into question whether or not he received adequate counsel. To some extent, I think something like that is very interesting. It does open up this kind of logical sinkhole, can the media re-litigate cases and what are you really doing it for? Are you doing it for journalistic integrity, are you doing it because you saw what a smash hit Serial was and now you’re going to profit from that as well? I haven’t watched Making A Murderer, so I can’t really comment on that, I don’t know the first thing about it.

I just started Making A Murderer, and to be honest with you I’m almost let down by it because people were so INTO it. But I read all of the stuff debating Making A Murderer before viewing it, so I kind of have a different view than watching it when it first came out. But what I thought was interesting about Making A Murderer vs. other cases we see get “re-litigated” (I’m going to use your term), is that it seemed that a lot of people debating the points of the documentary missed the point of the documentary, which was that there were obvious instances of misconduct. But people got so into the idea of “is this guy guilty or innocent?” that it took over the conversation people were having.

Right, and I feel like that can be a problem in and of itself because you can never – all of the things we’re talking about, whether it’s the motive as to why a sixteen year old got killed on a street corner in Newark or it’s what lead to one of these officer involved shootings that ends up on the national stage, or it’s something as complicated as a criminal trial – if you want to look at it for the quick fix of was somebody guilty or was somebody innocent – like you said - you’re missing the point of: was there prosecutorial misconduct? Was there inadequate counsel on side? What were the societal factors that lead to this? You know, these documentaries can answer a ton of important questions, but really only if their audience is willing to actually look for those from the show. If they’re not, if it’s just crime porn for them, it’s Court TV, you may not be accomplishing anything.

The OJ phenomenon, which I guess is the most recent example of this – I had a bit of a skewed take on this because I was like six years old when this happened. For me it was just really interesting to learn all of this stuff about the case –

Wait, how old are you?
I’m 28.

Okay. So you were older than six.
When the chase happened… no, when the chase happened I was seven.

Oh, okay. Right, because there was a gap. I was just thrown off because I’m thirty-two and I remember in sixth grade math class, the teacher putting on the verdict.
Yeah, they didn’t do that for us. I guess I would have been in fourth grade and they decided nine was too young for that.

And your teacher hated you everyday for it.

The only thing I remember about the OJ trial, from being that young was, this is going to sound stupid, it was a sports reason. I was living in New York at the time, I was a huge Knicks fan and it interrupted game six of the Knicks – Rockets NBA finals. That’s the only thing I really knew about OJ growing up until I started reading about it later. I had not read Tupin’s book, so like this was really a kind of dive in for me for all of the – I never knew about people cheering for him on the freeway in South L.A., about Marcia Clarke and what she went through during the trial, really just the insanity of the 24/7 media cycle. Really, to some extent that case and really Rodney King, kind of gave birth to the endless coverage of something you see on virtually any news story now. None of that was known to me then. I’d read articles about it here and there, looked up things about it. You know, obviously OJ is constantly in our news cycle, especially with that psychotic incident with the knife being found that we were covering about a month or two ago, but I really never had it in one sitting. One condensed – “This is what happened.” I think OJ was different because it was kind of a retrospective, for the most part it didn’t really try to pass judgment on anybody. I mean, there were a few characters that the show runners really couldn’t seem to hide their contempt for, OJ chief among them. For the most part it just kind of blends into history. It wasn’t some kind of alternate reality, it wasn’t some attempt to suggest that this, that, or the other thing happened. I think it was just a lens for, at least for me as somebody who really missed it while it was happening, to kind of relearn about this kind of dramatic shift.

They’re supposed to be doing Katrina next year, I really don’t know how that’s going to work.

So that leads me onto something else I wanted  to touch on, because I’m really interested in how you as a crime reporter – you have a job to do. You go out, you do that job every day. You see these things with your own eyes a lot of the time. You speak with people who are affected by it. I would assume that gives you a different perspective and maybe a different amount or type of empathy for the people involved in these crimes whereas when you look at something that isn’t necessarily retrospective but happening in the moment, like watching court cases on HLN or any one of a million day-time TV crime shows you can watch where someone is talking about this heinous crime they worked on – that empathy seems to get lost in 1) trying to entertain and 2) a sort of distance that’s harder to reconcile. So I was wondering if there was anything you could say about your experience being there on the street about how you hope that people are interpreting the things that you’re putting out there.

I think some of the day time shows you’re talking about, and I think I mentioned this when we were chatting some other day, some of those like Snapped or that one that focuses on social media, I think that’s like Oxy or HLN. Those are the two I’m familiar with, those are the two my girlfriend is obsessed with. Those two shows irritate me because – like you said, the empathy gets lost in the distance, whether it’s the narrator reading like he’s writing the worst dime store novel ever. You know the kind of awful puns that will come up from time to time, and you do see whenever they talk to a local newspaper or TV reporter who covered the case, they will have felt something. But yeah it just seems like the shows almost have fun with these cases where women died. Sometimes, often, in these situations, they are domestic violence cases. Nothing is funny about that in any way but it’s sometimes a more tragic murder than a random crime because it’s almost always somebody knew something and didn’t speak up and then things got out of hand. This kind of nausea comes over me, even if it’s like two in the morning and I’m like sitting there because I can’t sleep. It’s like why am I… I am part of why it’s okay to use these people’s corpses for a point 2 cable rating in the middle of the night. I feel like I’m not helping the problem.

There’s definitely a kind of empathy that comes with these kind of situations. Frankly, on both sides. I’ve interviewed the parents of people who were arrested for murder 48 hours after their son or daughter got taken into custody and I’ve spoken to way too many families of people who have been killed. And you have to take on an empathy for them. It’s very rare that you’re going to catch the mother, the husband, the wife, the daughter, at the scene and get them talking right then and there. You’re going to catch witnesses, you might catch some relatives and you might talk to them briefly and get their immediate from the gut reaction, but you’re not going to get that longer conversation that’s going to lead to the feature later. When you have that – you’re kind of asking them to tell their entire – the victim’s whole life story. You have to care. You can’t fake it.

There is, I will admit this, and I’m not the only reporter on Earth who does this – the way I begin those conversations is a little bit, almost scripted in my head. I’m hoping that’s not coming across like a manipulative connotation but you have to steel yourself to have this conversation for the five hundredth time in your career. It’s “I know this is a bad time. I understand if you wouldn’t want to talk.” You’re offering your condolences. You do say the same things over and over again early on. But after that, you have to invest yourself in that conversation or you’re not going to be listening, quite frankly. There’s no way you don’t make a connection with somebody sitting in a room in that scenario, and when you watch these more dime-a-dozen versions of these shows, I feel like when they talk to the reporters who were there, they will generally still seem to feel that empathy I remember feeling in those scenarios. I would imagine even the producers, the people who are doing the interviews for these shows generally, you know the people asking the questions on camera, they’re never shown on camera, you never hear their voice. I would imagine they’re having the same empathy toward these people, too, just from the documentary stand point. But it’s what it gets packaged into that kind of gets away from it.

I feel like that is, maybe, the problem with a lot of these shows is they become formulaic because people watch them for a lot of reasons, but one of the reasons someone is going to sit and watch the twelve hour Snapped Marathon is there is a sense of familiarity and knowing what’s going to happen.

There’s also a sense of… it’s simple story telling at the end of the day. We like heroes, but we also like villains. I don’t know if you watched it or not, but one of the big phenomenons from the last year of Netflix was the Killgrave character on Jessica Jones. That guy’s a monster! He’s a sexual predator, he’s terrifying, and he was probably my favorite part of the show. I think that does come across, too, when you’re watching these shows, like the killer is interesting and that is part of the issue, you get lost in that to some extent.

Two things following on that: 1) You mentioned that you did this really in-depth piece on civilian casualties in police chases, but admitted to me that in the news room, you’re still watching them. It still draws you in. And what’s funny is that I’ve sort of made a reputation over the last year of criticizing true crime, but I was watching one of these shows – Dateline something or other. Actually, it was called “Plot Twist”. I was watching it, and I was into it, I was totally invested and texting my husband saying ‘Oh my god, you’re not going to believe what happened now!” So I think we can criticize it all we want but at the same time…

We’re human.

Right, we’re human.
But what struck me was that you said you have that sense of empathy for both sides. Not just for the victims and the victim’s families, but it’s also for the perpetrators of these crimes, or the accused, depending on what the case may be.

Well the empathy is for the families. Usually the families of the accused, usually not the accused themselves.

I had one specific incident I remember in Newark, I wrote about this kid numerous times over the course of a year, thirteen year old kid just went on a killing spree. He robbed about four different people and two of them, after they surrendered and gave him money, he shot them in the back and killed them. He killed multiple people in the span of a month. A couple sources I had in the prosecutor’s office, I managed to get the family’s home address, and I got down there and the family life was not the best.

You know, there was an uncle in there who had a blood tattoo on for a set I recognized. I name-dropped a gang leader who was one of my sources at the time and he knew who he was, and this guy was around the kid all the time. But the older brother and the mom, they were just kind of constantly… they didn’t know what to make of this. They didn’t know that their son and brother was capable of this. She’s sitting there like, you know he loved playing basketball. She’s got the uniform of him in the, whatever the New Jersey equivalent of the CYL basketball league that I grew up playing in New York was. To her it was just her baby boy. You feel terrible for that woman. It’s like you could say bad parenting or whatever, but I don’t know… I feel like there’s very few cases of bad parenting that lead to your son going on a robbery/murder spree in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Newark. I’m sure there are abuse cases where that might be, but that was never alleged here, and to my knowledge that’s not what happened. This is just a woman who’s kid is thirteen years old,  and threw his whole life away and ruined the lives of how many other mothers and fathers sitting there having the opposite side of this conversation with a different reporter or a homicide detective?

There have definitely been situations where I’ve spent a lot of time with them. I did a magazine profile of Frank Lucas, the guy that American Gangster was based off of, his youngest kid, I felt bad for. The kid was brilliant, he was clerking in a law office for the guy that Russel Crowe played in the movie. The kid was an innocent, nice guy, but he’s living in the shadow of one of the most famous drug lords in history. It’s the people around the suspects that I always really feel for. It’s every reporter’s dream to prove somebody’s innocence but those situations don’t really happen that often so for the most part, the suspect is kind of just the suspect. If they’re cleared later, you know through the Innocence Project, you feel horrible that somebody was locked up forever and a day, but obviously when someone is going through the arrest and prosecution and judication scenario, I don’t really get access to talk to them. So it’s the people around them you empathize with because those are the people you meet.

 Read James's work at the LA Times here, and follow him on Twitter.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Narrative and the Talisman

Guest Post by Thomas Pluck

Like America, I have a complicated relationship with guns. One of the first memories I have of my father is him shooting a Colt Junior automatic in the basement when I was six years old. The last memory was the call to tell me he’d committed suicide with a snub nose .38 revolver.

So when Eric Beetner asked me to contribute to a collection of crime stories without guns, I was eager to join. I own firearms but I don’t keep them in my house. They’re in my stepfather’s gun safe. I have been assaulted, but the last thing I would have wanted at the time was a gun. It was three on one. I left with a bloody nose and one of them with a wrenched neck. None of us died that day. But that’s just my experience. I wouldn’t force that opinion on anyone else. Ten years of boxing and grappling in a dojo where the teacher made us practice every move on him, someone who had been stabbed, shot, and fought bareknuckle in Burma, I feel much more comfortable in possibly dangerous situations than I ever did when I carried a gun.

In stories, guns are instant tension. They appeal to our fears and desires for power. Chekhov’s “law” was that if you see a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third. Which has its own problems. Why can’t it be a red herring? What about Hitchcock’s adage about suspense? If a bomb goes off, it’s a surprise. If we know it is ticking under the table, that’s suspense. I’ve written stories where the gun doesn’t go off, and readers have told me how the suspense gnawed at them long after they stopped reading. But with no gun at all, you have to look elsewhere for that fix. For my Denny the Dent story, “The Final Encore of Moody Joe Shaw,” I chose different avenues of suspense. Is someone trying to kill the sweet old lady who’s hired Denny to clean up her mangled fence? She’s based on a woman I used to deliver groceries to in college. The real Mrs. Kolb worked for Houghton-Mifflin and loved books, so it’s fitting that now she’s in one. She didn’t have jazz records, but first editions of Hemingway and many others, and I wondered if someone pilfered her shelves when she died. I was out of state when it happened, and only learned of her death long after, but the mystery formed in my head, as they do.

The other source of suspense is the yearning that Denny’s friend Ike feels for connection, which for me, was the stronger. That sense of loss and what might have been comes from the death of my father, and that we never fully reconciled. He gave me the chance, when he had made his decision, but I was too young and headstrong to see it then. So I had a well to draw from.

I didn’t sell my guns or bury them in the ground when he killed himself. Guns are a tool, it’s our brains that are the problem. We mythologize them. The American hero is a lone killer with a gun. How many stories end with a man setting off to right things with his gun? It’s a narrative we’ve embraced, so that when our problems are too complicated to shoot our way out of, we shrug our shoulders and say “what ya gonna do?” There are few easy answers. We say we admire gumption, then why do we love stories where instead of hard work, the hero just kills everyone giving him static? Some of my favorite stories do this. It’s become The Narrative.

And who can change the Narrative? If stories matter, then we who write them hold some responsibility to change its course. Does the mere presence of a gun in a story inspire violence? I don’t think so. If it’s a magical talisman that solves all our problems and the stories end before the consequences of violence are explored, then perhaps it can. If the villain is simply “evil” and exists for the hero to kill with impunity, then maybe it does. My upcoming novel BAD BOY BOOGIE from Down & Out Books does not shy from the consequences. Jay Desmarteaux enjoys meting out vengeance, and those around him have used that to fire him like a hate-seeking missile at their enemies since he was a child. The scars from vengeance run deep, and an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. And if you think “consequences” is “killing ten bad guys every novel in a ten book series just means the hero is a lonely whiskey aficionado,” I direct you to Lt. Dave Grossman’s excellent book on the subject, ON KILLING: THE PSYCHOLOGICAL COST OF LEARNING TO KILL IN WAR AND SOCIETY. There are people who can kill without being deeply affected; in the end, most are in prison or hold long-term careers in the military where their skills can be directed toward socially acceptable targets.

Does this mean we can’t enjoy a good action story? I hope not. I love reading them and I love writing them. But part of me is glad that the new action tale involves grown men in leotards flying around shooting lasers or webs out of their hands and moving battleships with their minds, where the villains are defeated and imprisoned rather than blown away. Maybe the kids growing up on these will see a different Narrative than those of us who were weaned on Rambo and Schwarzenegger mowing through a small city of stuntmen? Say what you want about the immaturity of superhero stories, but the part where the bad guy is never truly defeated, and sometimes we have to join forces with them, even though we have irreconcilable differences.

That sounds a lot more adult than the story where one bullet solves all our problems.


Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017. He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim (not as part of a clever heist). Hailing from Nutley, New Jersey, home of Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, Thomas has so far evaded arrest. He shares his hideout with his sassy Louisiana wife and their two felines. You can find him online at and on twitter as @thomaspluck.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Don't Spoil Nabokov's Book, You Idiots

by Scott Adlerberg

I just finished reading the Vladimir Nabokov novel The Eye.  It's his fourth novel, written in 1930 in Russian when he was living in Berlin as part of the Russian emigre community. Later, with his son's help, as he did with all his books written first in Russian, Nabokov himself translated the book into English.

Now, literary magician that he is, prose stylist nonpareil, Vladimir Nabokov also happened to like using detective story conventions in his works.  Crime and murder and odd forms of detection pop up in a number of his books. The Eye is one, Despair another.  There are whole mystery novel plots described (for non-existent books of course) in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, and the two greatest masterpieces of Nabokov's later years, Lolita and Pale Fire, both have murders at the core of their narratives.  Not that Nabokov ever does anything conventional with the mystery form such as he has it in his books, but there's no question he liked the genre.  Nabokov put Poe, Conan Doyle, and G.K. Chesterton among his favorite writers when he was a child, and when he was asked why, more than once, he had parodied detective novels, he said, "My boyhood passion for the Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown stories may yield some twisted clue."

Of all his novels, The Eye is the one most transparently like a detective story.  In the introduction, Nabokov says this himself: "The texture of the tale mimics that of detective fiction, but actually the author disclaims all intention to trick, puzzle, fool, or otherwise deceive the reader.  In fact, only the reader that catches on at once will derive genuine satisfaction from THE EYE."

Interesting, that last sentence.  And now that I've read the novel, I know what Nabokov means.  I may even read the book again (it's short enough to zip through quickly) just to appreciate how he worked his deception. But the one thing I would not do is rob a reader of the pleasure of enjoying some mystification while flipping through the book, and yet, that's exactly what the people who fashioned the back cover of the current Vintage Books edition did.  The back cover describes the novel as a farcical detective story - true enough - and then tells you exactly the "solution" to the puzzle.  The book is not a crime story - it involves a suicide, not a murder - but without doubt there is a "who is that" question to be solved.  It's a novel, in part, that's an investigation into a person's identity.  The disclosure comes near the very end of the book, so why would you want to give that away on the book's back cover?

The only answer I can come up with is that whoever did the cover saw no reason to treat the book like detective fiction, with a climactic surprise to be revealed, because they saw the novel as high literature.  Which, to use that term in the accepted sense it's used, it is.  But so what.  That doesn't mean the writer's sense of play, his wanting to engage the reader through mystery and surprise, can't be respected?  When Vintage puts out a straightforward detective novel, or a thriller, you can bet they don't give away the solution and twists on the cover.  They'd never dream of doing that because they're dealing with what's considered "mere entertainment", and they know the fans of that entertainment would howl if they indulged in blatant spoilers.  What's revealing here is the assumption that readers of Nabokov don't mind plot and character spoilers because readers of Nabokov don't come to the man for the things readers of "mere entertainments" come to a book for.
But is that actually so?  Well, perhaps for some people (boobs), but for anyone who reads to experience a book spontaneously, surrendering to the craft and artistry and fun the writer has woven into that book, this idea is absolute nonsense.  It's nonsense whether you're reading a pulp crime novel, a wild espionage thriller, or Vladimir Nabokov.  Suspense, tension, plot tricks, carefully calibrated surprise - these are basic tools of the trade that even the purveyors of so-called high literature use.  Does this even need to be pointed out?  I would hope not.  And I have a feeling that Nabokov, if he saw the cover giving away his main conceit, would be as annoyed with that spoiler as I am.

Monday, May 2, 2016

I Don't Like Fish

It's true. I don't like fish. I mean, I like English fish & chips when it's coated in batter and doesn't taste like fish. There are certain fish sticks I can buy that are also more batter than fish and therefore palatable.

But I don't like fish. I might learn to tolerate it in order to survive if I somehow magically ended up as a contestant on Alone, because let's face it, I'm not exactly survivalist material, but tolerating fish would be a matter of necessity. It would never be a choice.

I started thinking about this when I was thinking about Kristi's excellent advice yesterday about feedback. There's a reason you need to have a threshold for criticism to be taken seriously, and that's because you have to filter out the objective analysis from the subjective opinion.

Outside of my own writing I offer editing and critique services. As a result I've read a number of unpublished manuscripts that I've had to assess. I try to note when something in the feedback is subjective. At that point, what I'm offering is food for thought. I offer it with the clear understanding that it is subjective, and try to ensure the person receiving it knows that it's just an opinion.

However, that doesn't mean that writers don't occasionally argue with me about the objective analysis. For the most part, I've been fortunate enough to work with people who are serious about improving their craft and take the feedback seriously.

Occasionally, the writer takes everything personally. Pointing out spelling mistakes and errors with the use of semicolons and commas is, to them, the equivalent of saying their baby is ugly.

Here are a few extra things I think those seeking and giving feedback should consider.

For those giving feedback:

Don't pull your punches. You aren't doing anyone any favors if you're too focused on hurting the writer's feelings. Be honest and thorough in your assessment of the material you've been asked to critique.

Don't be a dick. Just because you don't like something doesn't mean others won't love it. I don't like fish. I know I don't like fish. Other people love fish. It's one thing to say that something isn't what you typically read and wouldn't be your genre choice. It's another thing to say that stories about ____ are stupid.

Keep an open mind. I don't like fish. But I didn't know just how freaking much I could love a vampire story until I read an unpublished manuscript that brought me to tears. As far as I know the writer is still sitting on that book, and it's a tragedy. It was an amazing read.

For those seeking feedback:

It's important to understand that the person who's reading your work should be trying to help you improve your craft. If all you want is a bunch of people who say it's wonderful then  you don't want critique partners. You want cheerleaders.

Separate the objective and subjective. There are rules about how to spell words and when to use commas and semicolons. There are also general story structures that are more common in publishing, so a comment about the premature climax may be an objective analysis. A comment about not liking your character's name would be subjective.

Take time to let the feedback sink in. Process it. I know when I received feedback (from a published author) on five chapters of a drafted manuscript I didn't work on that project for a month. I was disappointed. I also had a hard time seeing my way forward, given the comments. It took me a while to process the information, filter out what was subjective and to utilize the feedback to improve my writing.

The stages of feedback:

1. Feeding the Dream. Early on, we often draw support from our loved ones. They will usually provide biased feedback that's filtered through their love for us. This usually isn't objective feedback.

2. Writing Peer Circles. The next phase is trying to find other aspiring authors we can exchange work with to receive feedback. It's usually best to pair up with people who have similar experience at this stage. A critique group might be all unpublished writers, or include a few writers who've had a couple short stories published. Having aspiring authors paired with traditionally published authors is unlikely, because traditionally published authors receive editorial feedback and have already established a writing peer circle they trust. Also, aspiring authors would be more likely to be intimidated by established authors.

3. Goal-Oriented Writers. Once you're ready to begin submitting to agents and editors you might begin to outgrow your writing peer circle. In my own experience, one group I associated with years ago became very focused on their aspirations. Anyone in the group who had success with acquiring an agent or with traditional publishing soon found themselves on the outside of the group, because the focus was all about those who had the dream of someday publishing. Very little in the group delved into the business of publishing and transitioning from aspiring to published. Some had spent years polishing the same manuscripts. One had been invited to submit their manuscript to an agent and a year later still hadn't done so. They didn't want to face the submission-rejection process, and if you want to be a published writer that's something that you have to go through.

4. Agent/Editor/Select Peers. Successfully published authors tend to receive most of their feedback from other authors who they trust, their agent and their editors.

It can be very difficult to transition from stage 2 to stage 3. At that point, you may want to consider a professional critique. Always make sure the person you purchase these services from has traditional publishing credits to their name so that you know they've gone through a professional editing and revision process and are giving you valid information.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

How to handle feedback

by Kristi Belcamino

Receiving criticism and feedback is a crucial part of my writing process.

In fact, with all five of my books, I couldn't imagine sending them out into the world without my writer's group weighing in on them. It took me several writers groups to find the one I'm in, so keep that in mind. But here are my rules of thumb about receiving and using feedback, in case it helps.

* Find the right people to give you feedback. There is a HUGE difference between someone pointing out something that doesn't work and someone giving you feedback on WHY it doesn't work. Some people aren't very good at understanding or explaining why something doesn't work, which is fine. What isn't fine, is people who arbitrarily give some incorrect idea on fixing what doesn't work.

I read somewhere that when someone points out something is wrong with your writing, they almost always are right, but when they try to explain what is wrong, they almost always are wrong.

In addition, some people are just soul-crushing, insensitive jerks when it comes to feedback. They aren't going to help you either. (Although I had an early beta reader who was harsh but helpful. He'd give comments such as "this whole chapter is boring, cut it." And while he was right, his delivery was so awful I couldn't deal with him for another book)

* Read (or listen) to the feedback, but then let it sit for at least a week. Hearing constructive criticism is almost always difficult during those first moments. Let it rest. Then go back to it after a few days or a week and re-read and see if the following rules apply then:

* Use these rules:

Only take feedback seriously if:

1. At least three people say the same thing.

2. Less than three people offer this feedback BUT it resonates with you.

This is what has worked for me.  What works for you?

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Erle Stanley Gardner: Independent Author?

Scott D Parker

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was talking shop with my friend David, the graphic designer who helped design the cover of ALL CHICKENS MUST DIE, the latest Benjamin Wade book. I gave him a list of books that helped me along. The books that I mentioned was one that doesn’t usually show up when we talk about famous writing books. It’s called The Secrets of the World’s Best–Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner by Francis L and Roberta B Fugate. The book was published in 1980. It’s the story of how Gardner went from merely a lawyer to, at the time of his death in 1970, the world’s best-selling writer. It is a fascinating book. When I first discovered it a few years ago, I checked it out from the Houston Public Library and read through it very quickly. I took copious notes. I mean a lot of notes. I ended up reading it a second time and now, I’m reading it through for a third time. There is little about Gardner’s personal life; instead, this is a “biography” of how writer practiced, honed his skills, and ultimately, was successful.

The Erle Stanley Gardner papers are housed at the University of Texas at Austin at the Harry Ransom Center. When I attended school there, I never knew it and, let’s be honest, I had never read any of Gardner’s books. The two Fugates scoured through all of Gardner’s papers and pulled out a wonderful history — complete with many of Gardner’s own notes — of the steps he took to become the writer he became. The appendices are wonderful and there are even a few photographs of Gardner’s own handwritten notebooks complete with descriptions, timelines, and all the other things he needed to craft his mystery books. A particularly neat thing is the transcription of a lecture he gave to the writers of the Perry Mason TV show back in 1959. And when I say transcription, I’m talking about an 8 to 10 page block quote. He basically summed up everything you needed to know about how he wrote all his books in this single transcription.

So how do the writings of Gardner and independent authors collide?

As independent authors in 2016, we are urged to publish regularly and frequently. This helps us build up an audience as quick as possible and, if one can maintain a certain writing production, it will give our readers a constant flow of our work. There are many different definitions of “publish regularly and frequently.” I’ve seen estimates that can range from two books a year to four books a year or more. If you think about it, even a moderately paced writing schedule of 1000 words a day can yield, more or less, four books a year that you can then publish. Anything more is gravy (or flooding the market, depending on your mindset).

The reason I bring up Earl Stanley Gardner when talking about independent publishing is his publishing schedule. Now, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m only talking about his novels. He honed his skill as a pulp writer in the 20s and early 30s, writing short stories, novelettes, and novellas. I seem to remember one statistic from the book which stated that he wrote up to 1 million words a year. I know some modern-day writers who can achieve this feat — James Reasoner being one of them — but the mere fact of writing a million words a year is incredibly staggering. But with the writing and publication of Gardner’s first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, Gardner turned toward writing more books and fewer short stories.

Get a load of the statistics. In 1933, he published two Perry Mason novels. In 1934, he published three. In 1935 and 1936, he published two each. So that’s nine books and four years. Starting in 1937, things get more interesting. In 1937, he published three novels, two Perry Mason’s and one of his Doug Selby, DA, series. In 1938, same thing: two Perry Mason books and one DA book. Now comes 1939. We get two Perry Mason books, one DA book, and the debut of the Cool and Lam series. That’s four books in one year! He tops himself in 1940: two Cool and Lam books, two Perry Mason books, and one DA book. So, if you do the math, in the first eight years of his novel writing career, Erle Stanley Gardner published 24 books in three different series.

So yeah, Erle Stanley Gardner pretty much published like an independent author. The only difference between him and what we do in 2016 is that he had a traditional publisher. And it was the 1930s, so things were different. And he was able to devote all his time to writing. And he dictated everything. Famously, he dictated the first Perry Mason book in three days. He said it took him a half a day to come up with the plot and 2 1/2 days to dictate the entire book. Wow. I’m majorly impressed.
And if you want one more little tidbit from the mind of Erle Stanley Gardner regarding how he thought about his readers and the editors of the pulp magazines in the 1920s, there is this: “My own approach to the question is different from that of the critic. I am a writer. I serve the reading public. The reading public is my master.” And, according to the Fugates, “After that, he became an outspoken exponent of the idea the publisher of the magazine was simply acting as a middleman in purveying merchandise — story supplied by writers — to readers, the ultimate consumers.”

Erle Stanley Gardner. He acted like an independent author when such a thing rarely existed. Now it does. I wonder how many authors can replicate his success over the nearly 40 years of his novel-writing career? I have my own answer. I aim to try.

BTW, the book is now available as an ebook.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Word on the Street - Interview with James Queally

Sometimes when you get to talking to someone with great insight and stories to tell, you lose track of time and forget you're going to have to transcribe the conversation in an interview format for the readers of Do Some Damage - and that's exactly what happened when I sat down with James Queally, a crime reporter for the L.A. Times, just days after his paper won a Pulitzer for their coverage of the San Bernardino shooting.

James shared some great stories and gave me a lot of his time, so rather than trying to butcher the wonderful thing we created, I've decided to split his interview into two entries. In this entry, we discuss the importance of crime reporting, the tensions during the Ferguson protests, and how small details tell more than one might imagine when reporting on crime.

Photo by Dan Buczynski

You’ve been doing crime reporting for a while now, how many years?
I’ve been on and off for about seven years. I did breaking crime at night, so like, graveyard shift homicides all across New Jersey for about two years at the Star Ledger, then I started covering the Newark Police Department and statewide crime there.

When I came out here the first year, I was doing… working on this like digital breaking news desk so it was kind of a diversion. Then, for about the last year I’ve been kind of like a general assignment crime reporter for the Times, mostly crime around L.A. County, so that could be anything from an investigative project to getting sent to South L.A. because a body got found in a refrigerator.

That actually happened, I’m not that imaginative.

Wow! So, I mean what I want to know, from your perspective is (and it may seem obvious to you): Why do you think it’s important to have people like you out there covering crime as it’s happening?
It’s a variety of different things. It keeps an open dialogue, especially in the past two years with every officer use of force, pretty much, that happens in the U.S. under scrutiny. It allows the other side of any argument to come out. It’s the same as the importance of covering politics, of covering you know, court system. It gets human voices, it gets dissenting voices into a conversation that would otherwise be dominated by the press release or the sentencing transcript, or the court transcripts. I guess court’s a bad example ‘cause that is pretty open dialogue.

But you know, it’s let’s us be there, in the moment getting witnesses, doing as much of our own investigation as we can. A lot of what drove Ferguson, aside from social media was simply the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative kind of coming out of witness statements, coming out of Twitter, coming out of the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s early reporting down there. It kind of, depending on what side of that argument you’re on, you could say it’s for better or worse, but it kept it from just being the original police department narrative. And that’s kind of what I’ve always found, and it also just gives you more avenues to a more human story.

I’ve found plenty of good features, good other interesting characters to write about. Moreso when I was in Newark when I was really plugged into the city, just by going to homicide scenes. You know, you may go there and it might be what on it’s face looks like a typical murder. Your average police department press release is not terribly illuminating. It will generally be this is the age, the hometown, gender of the dead person or people. There are survivors, they are in this condition. They’ll generally say they don’t have a motive or suspect, or if they do release a motive it’s because it’s something basic or obvious like a domestic violence call or a known gang thing. And that’s usually it.
Photo by Neil Cooper

That’s all there is – and at the end of the day, somebody died. You know, there’s still a story to tell there. It’s not going to be every murder case, but you need to go down there. It’s probably your best crack at finding witnesses – obviously at finding witnesses, but also finding family members who will show up before everyone kind of just kind of scatters away. It’s a lost opportunity to not armchair cover.  When drowning in Newark, in nearly a hundred murders per year, there were days I would occasionally not run on the scene, but more often than not, I tried to get to every one I possibly could.

Do you feel that, in the time that you’ve been covering these kind of things that people seem to be more interested in the more human details than maybe they have been in the past – with things like the Freddie Gray incident in Baltimore and realizing that there are competing narratives?
Yeah, I mean, people have always been obsessed with crime and true crime narratives, but I definitely think everyone – you know, you have a facebook account – everyone is armchair quarterbacking the way police handle everything, especially use of force these days.

So I think it is more important than ever to have the other side of the argument – even if the police are right – it’s just like any conversation you need both sides. I do think there is more interest in it now, it’s also more important, I think, just to get factual information to have traction. Because you know “millenials are evil’, it’s my generation that’s doing this, but they kind of live and thrive off social media

But you know, Ferguson was both a good and terrible example of this because while on the one side of things, Twitter definitely made that issue front and center – I really think that, more than Eric Garner, is what pushed us into the scrutiny and the climate we’re in now. But like I said, it brought all that attention the day of, and the week of when the shooting first happened. But also, when I was down there you could see people yelling and screaming things that were happening, that just weren’t. They would say the buildings were on fire that I was standing in front of, or that looters were in a certain building that they weren’t. You can just say anything. So I think now more than ever it’s important for those initial accounts to get out there and to get them from reporters on the ground, people you can trust. Get them online quicker.

If we’re not physically there in the moment and you’re waiting. It might sound like it’s a police sanitized narrative – but like I said before, the press releases are so limited that even while I was down there and I got to Ferguson – I landed about an hour after the grand jury decision, so things had already gotten bad. I could see the smoke coming up while I was landing at the airport in St. Louis. Anyway, there was a press conference about 2 am with the St. Louis County Police Chief, and he told you everything he could. But I mean, at the end of the day the official account of hundreds of people obliterating the main road through a city, he can’t cover everything that happened.

There was one thing I saw that got picked up by a few media accounts, but not a ton – there was a near catastrophe down there that I think I was one of the only reporters standing around for.
Things were insane. There was a gas station that had already been looted earlier in the night and – some of this is just illumantive to the tension, it’s not really a major story on it’s own – this caris just trying to get out of the street, from these rioters and peels off into the gas lot to get out of the way. And two officers arrived there, pull their rifles and advance on them. These were like sixteen year old kids, just trying to get the hell out of Dodge. That was like five seconds away from something absolutely mortifying happening. And in a vacuum, it’s chaos, no one is wrong to some extent. The officers are defending themselves, these people are trying to get the hell out of Dodge, but it’s just… you get examples like that, that really highlight the tension, almost more than any quote, anything a police officer is going to tell you, anything a city official is going to tell you. THAT image stayed with me and it was something I kept harkening back to writing about it later. You get those little pockets of action that you just might not see otherwise.
Photo by Intangible Arts

One of the worst murders I remember covering in Newark. There was some street dispute, I don’t remember exactly what lead to this. I think it was 2011. But a thirteen year old kid was murdered by this twenty-four year old. They were apparently fighting over the same woman. But when we got down to the scene it was less than an hour after it happened. A reporter who I was working with on it, found that the kid’s mother was outside, powerwashing the blood off the street. That’s kind of always been a hallmark of urban centers, the street Mylar balloons and candles, its always the one repeat image of homicides there, and she was cleaning the spot that was eventually going to turn into that. If that’s not indicative of the hellacious urban violence that happened in that city the whole time I was covering it, I don’t know what is. I just feel like finding those pieces can sometimes highlight what’s going on better than any comment.

And obviously, going back to what you said before, yeah what we’re talking about, especially increased scrutiny of police now – it’s not just getting the witnesses right there and not letting misinformation get traction, it’s also you wanna get to people before, you know like anything – like anybody, like a police officer would, too – you don’t want to talk to them after they’ve told their story three and four and five times and refined it. And they’ve talked to TV or have been coached, or they’ve been deposed by a lawyer. You don’t want to talk to somebody who was there three days later. You want to talk to them right there, right then, right now. So you’re gonna get the clean story.
You’ve just got to be there. It’s not a good way to do business otherwise

Look for part two where we discuss True Crime TV, OJ Simpson, and more. Read James's work at the LA Times here, and follow him on Twitter.