Sunday, December 22, 2013

Arriving at Conclusions

Guest Post by Clayton Lindemuth

Paint the Picture, Not the Conclusion

Imagine you’re the commander and your platoon is under attack. You learn a private observed an enemy formation a short while before the mortars started falling. You’ll probably want to know several things, but the most urgent will be how many enemy did the private see, what equipment did they have, and what were they doing? Was it enemy, or the enemy that is attacking us?
To arrive at a clear understanding, you’ll want both the details the private remembers and the conclusions he drew. You’ll want the information delivered concisely. You may not agree with his conclusions, but they are integral to his report because they include information that contributed to his understanding. For example, the private might not know the hand signals given by the point man, but his interpretation that they were about to attack is relevant. You may not accept his deductions—as commander, your understanding of context might point you to a different belief. However, you will still value his insights because they tell you how he understood what he saw. As the commander, you want all of the information, and you’ll sort out its relevance.
Storytellers have different goals, however, and consuming a novel is a lot different than demanding a private report on a sighting of the enemy.
Is your reader like the commander?

First, lets consider the commander’s objectives. What does he want? To more fully understand his environment so he can take action that improves the odds of defeating the enemy. The commander is looking for survival and victory. Given these motivations, how likely is the following dialogue?
Mortars are falling. The ground shakes. You—as commander—and the private are hunkered in a hole. You say, “Sergeant Storm said you observed activity outside the perimeter a short while ago. What did you see, private?”
“How many?”
“Roughly fourteen.”
“What sort of men?”
“They appeared to be wearing camouflage.”
“Like ours or like the enemy’s?”
“Like our enemy wears.”
“What equipment did they have?”
“They had rifles, I think.”
“Did you see any other equipment?”
“Well, dammit?”
“There appeared to be two men with giant tubes on their backs, and two others with sizable heavy obelisks.”
“You mean, like mortar crews?”
“Yes, exactly.”
“What were they doing?”
“They were walking slowly, slightly bent forward.”
“They were spread out over that hillside.”
“What direction were they moving?”
“Toward us.”
Can you hear the commander growing frustrated? In fact, can you imagine a scene like that playing out at all? It’s difficult to conceive of a private responding this way unless he is the token low-IQ guy in every Hollywood war movie. Given average intelligence, and that mortars are falling and bullets zipping, he’s more likely to say, “I saw an enemy patrol, fourteen men with rifles—maybe more—including two mortar teams. They were on the hill over there, and looked like they were preparing for an assault.”
Herein lies the difference between communicating as authors versus communicating in real life. Our goal is not to communicate. It is to create the desire to understand.
The storyteller has different objectives

The storyteller wants her readers to feel compelled to turn pages.
In real life and in fiction, we provide information to others so they can arrive at conclusions. The manner we provide the information affects the other person’s ability to draw a conclusion, thus is of prime importance to a storyteller. If the author fails her  primary objective of creating reader engagement, no other objective may be satisfied.
In real life we want answers. In fiction, we demand puzzles.
Although the private would not have spoken in the drawn-out manner of the dialogue above, it was nearly effective as fictional dialogue because it allows the reader to assemble information into a context and then guess about the relevance of the context. As authors, the more opportunities we create for our readers to draw their own conclusions, the more engaged they become.
Although the private never in the dialogue says the words patrol or attack, you—as a reader—had no problem making that leap, and as you assembled the information into a context, part of your engagement was based on creating and testing possible explanations that account for the facts, and eliminating the flawed ones.
We deliver information differently in story than real life.

As an example, imagine decades have passed. You’re sitting beside your grandfather, and unlike most who saw war, your grandfather is a storyteller. Instead of being his commander, you’re now his grandchild.
“So I was shaving out of my canteen cup with a broken piece of mirror, when my eye caught movement on the hill, way off.”
“What did you see, Grandpa?”
“Well it was the derntootinest thing. There were a bunch of them, walking slow, like this, kind of bent forward, had their rifles like this… spread out… all across the hill…”
“Who were they, Grandpa?”
“Well, they had on enemy uniforms…”
Obviously, Grandpa’s telling a story. The manner is piecemeal, not too unlike the dialogue with his commander from above, except that in the context of storytelling it makes sense to deliver facts slowly, allowing tension to build, and providing time for the audience to test hypotheses. Because the danger is long past, the goal is not to survive, but to keep the kids on the edge of their seats so they can feel the power of a story, and learn from it as if they were there. Grandpa gives enough information to provoke a question that furthers understanding, and judges the effectiveness of the story not by whether he is concise and clear, but by whether the kids remain deeply engaged.
Be like Grandpa.
To keep readers engaged, let them draw their own conclusions.
Clarity in fiction doesn’t come from telling readers what to think. It comes from drawing pictures so clear their conclusions eventually become inescapable. From this, a simple rule: Don’t avoid creating a clear picture by explaining the relevance of an obscure one. Meaning, if you collapse relevant action into a summary or a conclusion drawn by your protagonist, there’s a big chance you’re missing an opportunity to draw your reader into the story.
Instead, explore the text. Is there something you could show the reader to help her arrive at the conclusion on her own? What’s more powerful?
“She looked upset.”
“She threw the steak knife at me.”
What are your thoughts? Let’s unpack it more in the comments area.


Clayton Lindemuth’s debut novel Cold Quiet Country earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly and inclusion on the Indie Next List. His short story Simple was included in Needle, and his follow up novels Nothing Save the Bones Inside Her and My Brother’s Destroyer, both released in December of 2013, follow the same “thrilling, visceral, and unsparing” rural noir tradition, and are now available on Amazon. Follow Clayton on twitter @claylindemuth.

Tidings of comfort and joy

by: Joelle Charbonneau

With the holidays upon us there is much joy in the air.  Packages to be wrapped, holiday services to attend and lots of concerts, parties and laughter.  It is a time to celebrate surrounded by family and friends.

Of course, the holidays have a more melancholy side.  Because while we celebrate with the family we hold close, we cannot help but think about those whom we love that are no longer here with us.  Two years ago today, we lost my father-in-law, Joe Blanco.  To say he loved the holidays is an enormous understatement.  He had huge faith and an even bigger heart.   To him, the holidays were about family, goofy hats, fun, music and helping others.  He worked at the homeless shelter, made sure older members of the community were healthy and safe and went to nursing homes with his vocal group to spread holiday joy.

I miss him.

There is a hole left in our lives that can never be filled by his loss.  I also miss my father.  This year is the fifth holiday season spent without him.

And yet, as sad as I am that they are no longer here to lend their strength and love, when I look at the brightly wrapped presents under the tree I think of them and the wondrous gift I had by having them in my life.  And the gift that loving them continues to bring me every day.  And while it is not as good as having them here to share everything life brings, I am comforted by the memories I have and thinking of the happy moments fills me with warmth.

So, for all of you out there celebrating the holidays with family and missing those who have left us behind--my heart is with you.  May you find joy in the season.  And if you see a light shining a little more brightly on your tree, think of it as those who are not there with you sending their love.

Happy Holidays.  Merry Christmas.  And most of all my thanks for all of the support you have given me and my fellow DSD writers throughout the year.  May the end of 2013 bring you many wonderful moments and I hope there will be great happiness for each one of you in 2014.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Year of Progress

Scott D. Parker

Thirteen is considered an unlucky number, but the year 2013, at least for me, was anything but unlucky. In 2012, I had a simple goal: write that second book. I failed. Thus, naturally, the goal rolled over in this year of 2013, but there was a mental change that hadn't been there before: I forgave myself for not writing that book in 2012. That may sound strange, but I needed to do that. That simple act wiped the slate clean for 2013.

That was January. For four months, I thought and wrote next to no fiction. Perhaps forgiving led to lethargy. Who knows? In May, however, I decided to write a short story as a means to get back on the writing wagon. It worked. I spent most of the month, off and on, writing and getting my feet wet again. On 28 May, the day after Memorial Day, I asked myself another simple question: how many days in a row can you write? I didn't know.

Now I know: 207 as of last night. I haven't missed a day of writing since 28 May 2013. That, in and of itself, is a definition of progress. A funny thing happened along the way: I ended up writing not one novel but two. Regular readers of this column can look back on my summer postings and see my weekly progress. The thing is, now, at the end of the year, I am amazed and proud of myself. And I think a large majority of the progress I made this year started by forgiving myself for my past failures. It was a barrier that I didn't know existed. But, once it was removed, the flood gates opened.

I now know I can write not one, not two, but three novels. I know I can do this thing about which I talk a lot. It's a positive step forward. Which is why the year 2013 will never be remembered as an unlucky year. It was a very lucky year. There's nothing like writing "The End" on your first novel. There is equally nothing like doing it again on your second.

I write these words not to showcase what happened to me and toot my own horn but also to illustrate a point: if you are a writer who is struggling, like I was for years, please know this: You Can Do It. Believe in yourself, believe in your talent, but acknowledge that the work will be hard and the road long. Forgive yourself for past failures if you have to. Once you get past the barriers that are holding you back, then you can make Progress. Let's all make Progress in 2014.

Once again, on behalf of all of us here at Do Some Damage, I'd like to thank y'all for sharing your time, your thoughts, and your companionship with us. We all truly appreciate it. Have a very merry Christmas and fantastic and safe holiday season.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Five Books

By Russel D McLean

Yes, its the time of year where everyone does their "best of" lists of the year, so I figured I'm one for jumping on bandwagons and therefore give you my top 5 reads of this year (in no particular order and probably missing out one or two that I completely forgot about, but these are in my  brainpan right now):

1) THE CRY - Helen Fitzgerald: Wow. Oh, wow. A devastatingly well written novel about a woman whose child is killed during a holiday and the aftermath of the terrible decision she may or may not have made. Its got a straight from the headlines hook,  but Fitzgerald is such an exceedingly clever author that she never once judges her characters or their decisions, leaving the reader in the uncomfortable position of having to work out who to trust and who not to believe. Its a brilliant and unsettling novel that you absolutely have to read.

2) ONION STREET by Reed Farrel Coleman: Coleman's Moe Prager series is drawing to an end, which is sad news for fans of the conflicted and always intriguing wine-store owning hardboiled eye from Brooklyn. But this book - which skips to Moe's college years - is one of his finest adventures yet; a mix of recent history, character development and brilliant plotting that confirms Coleman's place among the greatest crime writers you might not yet have read. If you haven't read Moe yet, you really need to start. Now.

3) WOUNDED PREY by Sean Lynch. An unexpected entry for me as this one just kind of dropped through the letterbox. But with its Michael Connelly-esque feel and its brilliant understanding of the psychotic nature of its bad guy, this is one of the few serial killer novels I really enjoyed this year. Or indeed, ever (I'm not a big serial killer novel fan, so they have to do a lot to convince me) Lynch has a great future in the genre, and I'm glad to have got in at the ground level.

4) THE HARD BOUNCE by Todd Robinson. Another debut, and one I admittedly read a year or so ago (but it was just released this year - yeah, check the front pages, this one's got a blurb on it from me) - - but its a great read and Robinson has an authentically tough new voice. THE HARD BOUNCE is the kind of novel I love. Full of street level violence and barely any hero cops to be seen. Boo Malone is a brilliant creation and frankly I'm looking forward to whatever Robinson does next.

5) NOS4R2 by Joe Hill. Hill has been on my watchlist for a while. His HEART SHAPED box was a little too constrained by its King-esque conventions (and yes, Hill  is King's son, but I didn't know that, then) but was very readable and great fun. HORNS was brilliantly good fun, although fell apart a little towards the end. Still, an original concept and even more assured writing. But NOS4R2 is brilliant. A sustained (and huge - we all know I usually don't like big novels) and thrilling novel that never quite does what you expect, it starts with a killer whose car takes him to his "inscape"; a place inside his own head he calls Christmasland. Our killer takes children to Christmasland in the belief that he is helping them. To do this he employs the assistance of a strange individual known as GasMask Man. Meanwhile, a girl discovers her own inscape and soon finds herself in the path of this monstrous killer. Nothing happens the way you might expect, and Hill creates an imaginative, epic horror that never once forgets about character or atmosphere. Its all a little surreal but very well conceived, and I admit to shivering more than once. I can't wait to see where Hill goes from here.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Silent City is a fantastic debut from Alex Segura

By Steve Weddle

Alex Segura's SILENT CITY will be sticking with me for a long time. In a way I was reminded a little of our own Dave White’s Jackson Donne, with an edgy Scudder twist, but Pete Fernandez is his own character.

The story opens as his life is falling apart, and things just get better from there. For the reader, at least. Pete doesn’t always fare so well. As a newspaper guy, I can tell you that the insider description of the newspaper was pretty spot on. You get the feel of the workplace and of the bar scene in Miami and the neighborhoods and the people.

From the music he enjoys to his slacker wardrobe, Pete is the kind of guy you can see right there, the sort of character you end up rooting for. Pixies. Talking Heads. What's not to like?

The trio of Pete, Emily, and Mike also works well. These people feel like old friends, the way they play off each other. Segura really puts you there, in the middle of the lives, their day-to-day existence. As Pete's life starts falling apart pieces at a time, you get to this points where you're hoping he won't take that next drink, won't do that next stupid thing.

And then his falling momentum begins to sync up with the plot's momentum, so that you're hurled forward in a story that gets more and more developed with each page.

The is a thrilling read that picks up speed with each page. This book was a fantastic debut in the mystery genre, and I’m ecstatic that Pete Fernandez has his own series.

Looking forward to more from Segura.

Check this out for more Silent City news from Alex Segura.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Matter of Size

Guest post by Eric Beetner

I’m happy with it short. In fact, I prefer it. [Insert penis joke here]

I have another novella out now, my fifth. Thirty one thousand words. That causes it to be slightly ghettoized by the publishing world. Too short to qualify for the moniker “novel”. And we all respect the novel. His little brother novella? Not so much.

But is that changing? Perhaps in this digital age of tablet reading, books on cell phones and less time to read as we go-go-go through life and its many distractions we are at a perfect crossroads for a new renaissance for the short novel.

True story: I talked to a guy at work yesterday who reads on his cell phone. I’d heard about people doing it, but hadn’t actually met anyone who did. He reads on the toilet as an escape from his twin boys. Needless to say, I sold him a book on the spot.

I’ll admit to shying away from any book over five hundred pages. Okay, if I’m really honest, that threshold is really more like four hundred. And three fifty really gives me pause.

My time is limited and I’m impatient. I grew up on TV and now I work in TV so I’m sure I’m a social scientist’s wet dream of an example on how my rotting brain can’t focus on literature anymore. So, okay, what’s the excuse in the pre-TV 1930s when The Postman Always Rings Twice came out? Or let’s go non-crime fiction with The Great Gatsby, Call of The Wild, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea. All short books. All under, some way under, the fifty thousand word mark that generally constitutes a full novel, though there is no solid number.

Beyond liking a short, punchy story that doesn’t dwell on the unimportant or stick around to wear out its welcome, I’m a fan of a book being as long as the story needs it to be. If your story is over in 150 pages, then so be it. Why slap a different label on it and treat it as somehow lesser than?

And this is not to say people shouldn’t write longer books. Go ahead. I might not read them until I retire, but I’m glad there is War and Peace for those readers looking for War and Peace.

My new one, White Hot Pistol, was a hell of a lot of fun to write. It’s the kind of short, hardboiled tale I like about an everyman who gets sucked into a vortex of bad luck, lousy options and violent confrontations. My publisher, the new ebook venture Bookxy founded by the Stark Raving Group, is going all in on novellas. That’s all they’re going to publish for now, the thinking being that in this age of new reading technology, people prefer a shorter product for their tighter reading times and smaller devices.

I hope they’re right. I have two more ideas for novellas I want to write for them, all set in the fictional town of Noirville (A cheap gag, I know, but it suited the pulp style) Bookxy is attempting to get ahead of the curve in ebooks by catering to people who read on their phones (not me) and on tablets (very rarely me). One of the first copies of White Hot Pistol I sold was purchased by someone on an airplane. Beyond it being a little creepy that they could even tell that, I think it’s great to give readers the option.

With digital reading, we could see the novella get the boost that Fifty Shades of Grey got – no one can see what you’re reading. You don’t have to try to look smart with a thousand page David Foster Wallace book. No one will know you’re slumming the pulp depths when all they see is your tablet/cell phone/next big thing.

And we all know no one wants to be seen reading anything with my name on the cover. I’d bet people took the dust jacket off Fifty Shades and used it cover some of my books.

If you’d like a taste to see if you’d be embarrassed to read it, the first chapter of White Hot Pistol can be found here

Eric Beetner is the author of The Devil Doesn't Want Me, Dig Two Graves, Stripper Pole At The End Of The World, Split Decision, A Mouth Full Of Blood and co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. Award-winning short story writer, former musician, sometimes filmmaker, film noir nerd and father of two.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Books that stuck with me

There's a meme that's been making the rounds on Facebook about books that that have stuck with you. Your supposed to make the list without putting a lot of thought into it (ie:  don't make your list cool, or respectable, or whatever). I gave my list but thought I'd save the why for a post.

-Peanuts & Mad Magazine - When I was little we would go my Dad's Aunt and Uncle's house deep in Pennsylvania. Their children were all grown and I would always get their son's room. He had a bookshelf filled with mass market sized Peanuts collections and Mad Magazine collections. Over the course of many visits I devoured all of these books many times over. I came to identify with Charlie Brown and admire the humor of Mad Magazine. I still remember some of those books to this day.

-The Wizard of Oz books - A friends Grandmother had a collection of old beat up Wizard of Oz paperbacks. What started off as just kind of glancing at one of the books quickly became me devouring them all.

These three titles (Peanuts, Mad Magazine, Wizard of OZ) were the first books I consumed en masse.

-The Great Brain books - I can't really say how I came to find The Great Brain books only that I was enamored and obsessed once I did. I knew that there were seven books in the series. And in the pre-internet days it was damn near torture to try and track down these books but it made finding them and reading them so much more enjoyable. To this day I can still recall scenes from these books (the peg leg race, selling candy).

-The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban - I probably came to Hoban's work by way of The Emmett Otter Jugband Christmas special. The Mouse and His Child is a dark, allegorical and philosophical work. Certain ideas expressed in the book have stuck with me ("I've got this nasty sort of a huge lip with a joint in it like an elbow, and I catch my food with it. And the odd thing, you see, is that I don't think that's how I really am. I just can't believe that I'm this muddy thing crawling about in the muck. I don't feel as if I am. I simply can't tell you how I feel inside!"). The other thing that has stuck with me about this book is how high the body count is. Yep, that's right, a children's/YA book with a high body count.

-Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers - This is a book that has an experience tied to it, which accounts for the sticking with me. Walter Dean Myers came to my school in support of this book. I heard him speak, got a copy of the book, and had it signed. I also went home and read it and really enjoyed it too. But to this day whenever I see a copy I remember that experience of meeting the author.

-Watership Down by Richard Adams - I hit a point in school where my reading ability was far ahead of what we were doing in school. And that was frustrating. My oldest brother, who is six years older then me, was the first to really pick up on this (sharing a room helped I'm sure). So he started giving me some of his books to read. He gave me this book about rabbits that was the size of a brick, had a ton of pages and really small print. But once I started reading I couldn't stop, and he knew exactly what it was I needed. After I finished the book he asked me what it was about. I told him. He then asked me "what if it was really about government, and systems of government?" and blew my young impressionable mind. He made me see that a book could be about different things and work on different levels. Upon hearing this I promptly set about reading it again.

-The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck - In the pre-internet days I didn't know what genres were, I read by going through phases. I would go into a phase, read every book on that subject I could find, then move on to the next one. Forexample I went through a Beat Generation phase, a philosophy phase, and a John Steinbeck phase. To this day what I remember about this book is the section about the Congress in the Dark. It's a section that will likely stay with me until I die. 

-On the Road by Jack Kerouac - I came across On the Road at the right age, when I just wanted to get out into the world and was trying to figure out who I was. I actually concocted a plan once where I was going to sneak out and take all the lawn mower gas cans in the neighborhood, steal my aunt's car, use the stolen gas, head west and find myself, my people, and a girl. At the time I felt like I had to (I never did) and it was all Kerouac's fault.

-Lord of the Rings by JRR Somebody - I read and loved The Hobbit but The Lord of the Rings always left me cold. But I had the audio of the BBC's adaptation of LOTR and I listened to it multiple times, and that was how I came to Tolkien. 

-Perdido Street Station by China Mieville - When my daughter was an infant I did all of the late night feedings. I was also so busy that I was only able to read one book that year. And it was Perdido Street Station. I would hold her, lean towards the night light in her room while feeding her, prop up the book, and read just a couple of paragraphs a day. I literally crawled through that book. So it imprinted itself on me in a way that many others haven't.

-The People of Paper by Salvador Placencia - This is a formally inventive novel with a beating heart and both of these aspects have stayed with me.

-Last Call (and The Anubis Gates!) by Tim Powers - One of my favorite novels and my gateway Powers novel. I devour every Tim Powers book but these two I re-read every couple of years. Horrabin the Clown from The Anubis Gates is a horrific figure forever imprinted in my memory.

-Drive by James Sallis - One of my favorite novels of all time. I've read Drive more times, by far, then any other recent novel. I've broken down the chapters into chronological order, I've read the book in chronological order, I' this book a lot. The ending stays with me, some of the moments stay with me, the description of a Ford F-150 has stuck with me. At this rate I'll soon have the damn thing memorized.

-Darkness, Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane - My favorite Lehane book. There are six words ("I know," he said. And died.) at the end that punch me every time, and I'll never forget.

-Cast of Shadows by Kevin Guilfoile - There's a scene at the end at the Soldiers for Christ/Hands of God Picnic Social where the books antagonist delivers a quiet speech that is one of the most chilling things I've read in a long time. His story ends and his audience sits in stunned silence ("In the quiet around the picnic table, you could hear the water spitting out the end of the pinhole barrel.") and you will too.

-Go With Me by Castle Freeman Jr - This slim book is filled with little moments that have stayed with me and when I think about re-reading a book this often tops the list.

-Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff - The reveal near the end (and at the heart) of this book is so shocking (and so obvious in hindsight) that I raced to finish it and then started it over again.

-Four Corners of Night by Craig Holden - Truly one of my favorite novels. It is filled with moments both small (The two cops having their meal interrupted by an emergency call and pointing to the waitress as they run out so she knows they will pay for their meal next time) and large (the emotional roller coaster of the last third or so). There are charged moments where the fear is palpable and only a friend can held ("Mack! Mack!").

-White Apples by Jonathan Carroll - This book has a couple of memorable scenes that haunt including the barbershop transformation scene and the scene at the zoo where the noble animals sacrifice themselves (guaranteed to bring a lump).

-The God File by Frank Turner Hollon - Another "quiet" book that has really stayed with me over the years. I love the opening.

-The Gift (and Door Number Three) by Patrick O'Leary - The Gift has a haunting opening, then goes way into the past to tell the story of everything that happened before that moment, then delivers emotional body blows with reveals that hammer the the already haunting opening home.

-The Cleanup by Sean Doolittle - Another of my favorite recent crime novels. It is filled with moments that haunt and resonate and stay. For example, here is a scene that is worth taking a closer look at. The protagonist's ex-wife, whom he obviously still has feelings for, has just come to his house to tell him that she is pregnant. She wanted to tell him directly before he found out through others, you see the man that she left him for is another police officer. In tones of quiet restraint that are loaded with subtext he congratulates her. Then she leaves. It’s at this point in the scene that we get to see the strength of Doolittle's game. The protagonist's house is being staked out by two men and they will see her leaving the house then sobbing in her car before driving off. We the reader, through the eyes of these two men, will bear quiet witness to a scene that we weren’t supposed to see. Nobody was supposed to see it and it feels like we are invading her privacy, we also feel dirty because of it. There is also extra weight of subdued menace as the two men decide to follow her instead of continuing to stake out the house.

Here are some comics that have stayed with me or that have scenes that have stayed with me:

-Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
-100 Bullets
-MPD Detective
-Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service

Also, I can't overstate the importance of some non-fiction books that were instrumental in my cultural education in the pre-internet age. Books like: The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction; The Encyclopedia of Fantasy; Spin Alternative Record Guide; The Rolling Stone Album Guide (the 1st ed. and the 1992 ed), Leonard Maltin & Ebert movie guides.

I read every line in these books (and others I'm sure) many, many times. These were my bibles. I circled, highlighted, folded in page corners. I learned from them, took recommendations from them, quoted them, and discovered a lot because of them. I made lists and went to the the mall and Record and Tape Traders hoping to expand what I knew and compare my thoughts to them.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

What is success?

by: Joelle Charbonneau

This week something unexpected happened.  I woke up on Thursday to an e-mail from my editor letting me know that THE TESTING would appear as #14 on the 12/22/2013 NY Times YA Extended Best Seller list.  To say I was stunned would be a huge understatement.  I think I turned white and my mother and husband both thought that something was very wrong when I called them.  Yeah – I guess I don’t handle good news very well. 

Since Thursday, I’ve thought a lot about what hitting the list means.  Most people would say that The Times list is a mark of a successful writing career.  


Oh – don’t get me wrong.  I’m thrilled and astonished and still processing the fact that something I wrote hit that list.  But as important and wonderful that is, I don’t consider it to be my achievement alone.  Yes, I wrote the book, but it took an enormous village of people who believed in THE TESTING to help push the boulder up the mountain.  My editor, my agent, the HMH marketing, sales and PR teams, and my family and friends – everyone worked tirelessly to make sure readers learned about The Testing.  This is a group effort and the spot on the Times list belongs just as much to them and to all of you as it does to me.  That doesn’t diminish the accomplishment, but I know there is no way I could have hit this place in my career without enormous support.

Hitting the list is a successful group effort.  And I am so proud that I am a part of the team that did something so cool!  But as I sit behind my computer screen, I find that though the tag line behind my name is different, I am not.  I still measure my own personal success in the same way that I always have.  By getting up in the morning, putting my hands on the keyboard and filling the pages with words.  Each day that I write is a success.  Each day I add pages or edit a story is a success.  Each time a reader picks up one of my books and finds something engaging about my work is a success. 

I don’t know what will happen to my writing career in a year or two or ten.  At this moment, I don’t have a contract for another book.  Who knows…I might never get another one.  Those are things out of my control.  The only thing I can control is sitting in front of my computer screen and writing.  And every day I do that is a success.  Hopefully, you consider every day that you sit down and work to be successful as well.

And most important - thank you.  Thank you to each and every one of you who has read my blog posts and maybe even read my books.  You are part of the reason that I get to write every day and I am more grateful to you than you can ever possibly know.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Ghost of the Writing Streak

Scott D. Parker

Last night was Day 200 in my consecutive-days writing streak. What’s funny about a habit, no matter what it may be, is the subtle joy you experience when you realize you have internalized the habit. For those first two or three months, I was obsession both about writing and the marking of the red X on the calendar. Now, I got days without marking the Xs on the calendar. It’s a great feeling.

What’s not so great is the spirit of the writing streak. Once I started writing again and especially in June when my consecutive days streak began, I’ve told myself to write at least a minimum amount of words. This has been a year of discovery for me and, for most of the year, writing a minimum of 500 words was pretty straightforward.

Until recently.

I’ve discovered something about myself in the past few weeks: I really enjoy reading, especially Christmas-themed works (remember that post a few weeks ago about my seasonal reading?). I really enjoy writing. There are only so many hours in the day. The streak has continued--but believe me, there were days when I thought about stopping it partly because I was tired and partly because I wasn’t doing too well with the current story. But I told myself that me not feeling it on a particular day or me not truly knowing what the next scene is proves to be stupid reasons to break the streak. To have broken the chain of Xs with either one of those reasons as the source would have resulted in a pretty bad result.

So, I’ve kept the streak alive, but the spirit of the streak has waned in recent days. I’ve not achieved the minimum on numerous days, but the streak has continued. Is that a good thing? I believe it is. Joelle wrote about that a few weeks ago. It was a nice thing to read at that time: to give yourself permission to produce less in this holiday season. It’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve moving the story *slowly* forward but reading a whole lot more. It’s a Win “win”. It’s a Win because I’m reading what I want to read. It’s a ‘win’ because I am writing every day but just not to the level of early this year. But I’m learning about myself. And I know what I'll be doing next year...and in January.

Do y’all learn things about your writing selves along the way and adjust?

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Entertainer

By Russel D McLean

The other week, I was out at Literary Death Match (where, by the way, I won the evening...). Its an odd mash up of literary event and game show where four writers read in front of three judges who choose the two "best" to go into a head to head competition tangentially linked to literature. Hosted by the effervesent mass of energy that is Adrian Todd Zunga, LDM is a fantastic night and well worth attending. The mix of standard literary stuff (the readings) with more fun additions (the standoff, the occasionally insane judging commentary) makes for great entertainment, and its no surprise the show has been optioned for television.

But it got me thinking about authors and reading. Generally I don't do much reading at my events. The main reason being I can barely concentrate on the whole thing as a listener. I admit I drift off during most author readings, because most authors aren't trained performers. There are exceptions, of course. Stuart MacBride is a great reader. But he really plays the parts he's reading. However, most authors tend to lose any traction they've built up prior to reader by mumbling the words off their books. Sometimes this is down to ability, but often I think it's lack of preparation. I admit I read by the seat of my pants. I will change my mind about what I'm reading at the last moment, but I am confident in the fact that I'm two steps ahead of the words that I'm speaking in my ability to edit as I read, to change words and tones to suit the drama of the moment (ie, I edit my own work as I'm reading it). But as one writer told me on the night of LDM, they cannot read without knowing exactly what they are going to say. And I suspect many writers are similar, and yet I get the feeling they don't practice over and over again with their readings. Because they are never told how to.

Writers are expected to perform their books. Where the truth is that most writers don't know how to perform expect on the page. They can create stunning words, but reading those words is not enough. Our brains perform for us when we read words on the page, but its the rare untrained reader who can then perform in a way that brings that to life.

And while I claim to be a seat of the pants reader (when I do read; most of the time I talk about things that interest me, or about the stories behind the books or that time I got chucked out of an internet cafe while doing research for a novel when I was a teenager), the truth is that I always practice my voice and intonation. I may not read what I expect to read when I go up there, but I have always prepared myself with a tone of voice and feeling I want to convey. When appearing with other writers, I make sure I have a few topics we can both talk about just in case we dry up. I have spent hours thinking about how I want to appear and the kind of mood I want to create.

Because an author event is an event. You can't just show up. No other business in the world would allow a performer to show up and not have prepared to engage with the audience. And yet so often in the world of literary events, writers are let loose with little to no idea of what kind of structure or tone they are supposed to be shooting for with an evening.

LDM sets its tone nicely with the pre-event communication. It lets writers know what they need to do. But I do think that writers (none of those I appeared with at LDM, by the way; its just that this is the event that got me thinking) need to understand more about presentation and showmanship. We are writers, but if we insist on turning up to meet and greet our readers we need to give them something more. We need to give them a show. We need to give them a good time (by which I mean interesting; you can be serious, and it can be equally as much fun as someone who is laugh a minute if you are passionate and interested in the subjects about which you talk).

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Malachi Stone Interview

By Steve Weddle

The world of Malachi Stone is an experience. Not just the books, of course. His personas. The Facebook army he's created. Roughly 48% of my friends on Facebook are Malachi Stone. Recently, he took time out of his busy schedule of creating personalities and writing novels to chat with me.

Steve Weddle: When I try to explain your writing style to people, I say it has a certain gravitas implied, as well as a complete disregard for normalcy. I say it’s like Theodore Dreiser meets Kurt Vonnegut in the middle of a Sunday sermon. Does that seem accurate? Am I missing an important element? 

Malachi Stone: Wow! Thank you so much, Steve! May I lift a quote from that and use it as a blurb? Actually, I have a passion for originality. If, after I've written something, I detect the faintest hint of imitation, I delete it and start over. My worst nightmare is publishing a novel and then discovering there's unconscious plagiarism lurking somewhere.

SW: What sort of element – plot, character, setting – do you start with when writing a novel? 

MS: Not to be flippant, but I just start writing and before long the characters write themselves. I do tend to favor dark characters with strange and powerful obsessions, who inhabit convoluted plots and exotic locales like Belleville IL, which, as you may know, is the sister city of Paderborn Germany.

SW: Through the years, you’ve been active in Smashwords, Authonomy, and the Amazon direct publishing, as well as other online sites. Is it helpful to go the agent route or is direct publishing a solid plan? Aside from “Write a good book,” do you have any strong feelings on the state of publishing from an author’s point of view?

MS: Like so many others, I fell back on DIY only because I was shut out of traditional publishing. Once upon a time I had been represented by a capable literary agent/editor who threw her best efforts into it but after more than three years couldn't "find a home" for any of my novels, as the saying goes. I'm far from bitter about it; she worked hard and never made a dime off me.

Maybe I'm too personally invested in my novels to be able to bear seeing them homeless. Whatever the reason, I don't take rejection well. My wife says she remembers me staying up all night after the breakup with my agent. Writing, I've always believed, is a form of performance art. When one editor after another rejects my books, it's like I'm center stage in an old vaudeville theater, giving them a righteous buck and wing, while out in the audience all these assholes are lobbing overripe tomatoes at me—tomatoes like, "people don't want to read about negative protagonists," or "too much explicit sex." So, unwilling to give up on writing, I started looking around, and self publishing seemed to be the only option.

Amazon is the big dog on the block, of course, but I also publish on Nook Press (Barnes & Noble) and on the two aggregators Draft2Digital and Smashwords. Smashwords is not only an aggregator but also publishes ebooks on its own site. Draft2Digital offers user-friendly formatting but charges you ten per cent off the top for that service. Nook Press is a no-brainer. You just slap your .docx manuscript up on their site and you're published, Dude. The others require a bit more effort, but anyone can do it with a little practice. I taught myself to format my novels for Kindle, Smashwords and, more recently, CreateSpace for POD paperback editions of all ten.

Self publishing is a daunting and yet exhilarating experience for an author. You're putting yourself on the line balls-out, with no copy editor, no story editor, no legal department, no publicity department and no sales team. (Notice how I eliminated the Oxford comma in that last sentence? Why? Because I wanted to, that's why.)

As to formatting, you're better off doing it yourself rather than ponying up money to somebody else to do it for you. I've found out that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks, especially when that old dog has an aversion to paying other people to format books that, if they sell at all, will net me less than two bucks a throw. CreateSpace took me nearly a week, off and on, to master, but I'd rather do it that way than pay CreateSpace's people $399 and up to do it for me. Now that I know how, although I'm by no means an expert—my knowledge is limited to Word 7, for instance—I'd be happy to help anyone who wants to go the do-it-yourself route. Just email me at and I'll send you a flowchart I developed specifically for CreateSpace formatting. It may not be perfect but it worked for me.

Smashwords is another challenge to master, but they do offer you a free ebook style guide that tells you everything you need to know about formatting your book for epublication on their site. Here's the link: It's 27,600 words of mind-numbing boredom (just kidding) but if you follow it step by step you will wind up with a manuscript that will pass perfectly through Smashwords' meatgrinder software.

As to the state of publishing from an author's point of view, the Internet has radically changed the game. To be blunt, now any dumb ass can write a book and see it in a digital format that looks just like it was professionally published. In fact, in ebooks published by the Big Five one can often spot glaring errors of formatting, grammar and composition, even spelling, despite the fact that we live in the spell check age.

The single most daunting problem confronting any self-published author is this: PROMOTION. I can furnish no useful advice about promoting one's novel, online or otherwise, even though promotion is the key to success. I do know a few things that have not worked for me. For instance, despite the fact that at last count I have 1130 FB friends (three of whom are me), 600+ Twitter followers and 266 people who like my FB author page, I've found Facebook and Twitter to be utterly useless for book promotion. Likewise, I have failed to create an audible blogging buzz. More of a popcorn fart, really. Pimping for reviews has proven a total waste of time. So what does that leave? Door-to-door sales? Cold calling? Infomercials featuring ShamWow's Vince? You tell me.

SW: How did the creation “Malachi Stone” come about?

MS: Malachi was derived from Malachi Chapter Three, where God promises His people that if they bring their offerings into the storehouse He will open the windows of heaven and pour down for them more blessings and more bounty than they can hold. Stone connotes enduring strength. Stone is the one thing that lasts. For all we know the ancient Egyptians may have had iPads, but only the hieroglyphics they carved in stone remain.

SW: Is it not possible to publish these novels under your own name?

MS: No. In my conservative profession and conservative church it might cause my family and me some grief. Not that I think there's a thing wrong with any of my novels—I've moved beyond my initial ambivalence in that regard—but why tempt fate?

SW: I imagine the nom de plume has helped in some ways, but has the “Malachi Stone” persona limited you in a way?

MS: He's overborne my real personality in a Jekyll and Hyde takeover bid. (Or is it Heckle and Jeckle?) While I don't think I'm anything like my pseudonymous alter ego, I find him wasting more and more of my time on Facebook spreading his own peculiar and toxic brand of misanthropic and transgressive humor. One of his most popular FB features is Perverts on Parade, also Not This Guy Again, The Fake Cop News, and Belleville IL: Honey, Let's Stay Here Forever. He's become like a guy with ten followers and his own nightly webcast who thinks he's the next Howard Stern. Talk about performance art!

SW: With a dozen books out there already, where do you suggest a new start? Do you think some of the novels are more "accessible" for a new reader? Do you see of them as more plot-driven? More of a character piece?

MS: Currently I'm around 16,000 words into writing a legal thriller with the working title WANTON AND WILLFUL, about a lawyer whose ambition to be a judge hooks him up with a powerful political boss known as The Junkman, a wheelchair-bound scrap metal dealer. The Junkman views our hero's headstrong wife as a career liability. Later that night, hero catches his wife at home with a young stud, and accidentally dials 911. The police show up, cast him as the bad guy and order him to leave the house for the night. Hours later, after doing a little drinking, he comes back home anyway where he discovers his wife's car still in the garage and something banging away off-balance in the washer. He lifts up the lid and, guess what? [Cue Bernard Herrmann PSYCHO score] Inside is his headstrong wife's severed head.

That's all I have so far. I don't know what I'll do with my latest novel once it's finished. I hate to throw it down the dumper of self publishing because it may be one of the best things I've ever written. On the other hand, I balk at the idea of sending out a couple thousand email queries and getting stiffed again. But I'm damned if I'll let this indecision keep me from finishing, even if I have to write the rest for the sheer pluperfect subjunctive hell of it. Had I finished...?

As to accessibility, all of my novels score in the high seventies to low eighties on the Flesch Reading Ease scale (That's easier to read than the Reader's Digest) and land around the fourth or fifth grade level on Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level test. Other than content, all my novels would qualify as YA fiction. Since something like 80% of YA fiction is read by adults (a depressing statistic in and of itself) my novels should pose no problem as far as reading difficulty is concerned.
Other than that, my personal favorites among my novels are CONJURER'S OATH and DEVIL'S TOLL, both for the magical realism, the humor and the characters. Let's face it, character is everything. If you enjoy legal thrillers and watch Nancy Grace, try HARD BREAK. Prefer scary shit but burned out on Stephen King? Read OZARK BANSHEE. (One older gentleman came up and told me after I'd performed a reading of OZARK at Subterranean Books, a St. Louis indie bookstore, that the passage I'd read was so scary it would surely give him insomnia. I still treasure that compliment. And don't call me Shirley.)

PRIVATE SHOWINGS and WICKED KING DICK are two novels I wrote years ago, and are the most traditional in terms of writing style. Both are more plot-driven than my later works. ST. AGNES' EVE is the first novel I ever wrote. It has undergone extensive editing by professionals. HEARTBALM is a sequel to ST. AGNES' EVE but stands alone. Personally I prefer the sequel, again for the humor and characters. (There's a horny woman of a certain age with ridiculously overdeveloped breasts and a spastic neck condition, a seven-foot biker street-named Snuggle, and a hottie secretary who shifts without warning into the persona and patois of a forties film noir gun moll.)

Rounding out the field of ten are DEAD MAN'S ACT and SHARP FORCE TRAUMA, my Bosco Hoël series. Bosco Hoël is a small-town attorney who encounters more than his share of grisly murders. Both books have elements of magical realism. In DEAD MAN'S ACT, Bosco is targeted by a bloodthirsty Odinistic cult wreaking havoc in a Midwestern farming community. In SHARP FORCE TRAUMA, a novella, I was going for a Nick and Nora Charles flavor in the dialogue between Bosco and his attorney-wife Brenda. Read it and see whether I succeeded. And don't miss the goofy nut in SHARP FORCE TRAUMA who cross-dresses as a nun, haunts the corridors and the chapel of a Chicago hospital, and engages Bosco in abstruse theological discussions peppered with dirty jokes and sudden violence. Or is he/she merely a hallucination brought on by Bosco's sleep disturbances? SHARP FORCE TRAUMA is my latest completed work and I'm kinda proud of it, as you can probably tell.
All my novels are available to sample or purchase here: Amazon refused to publish RUDE SCRAWLS, my short story collection. Never fear. You can order RUDE SCRAWLS from Barnes & Noble's site and from many other fine retailers. RUDE SCRAWLS is not for bluenoses, as the plain-brown-wrapper book ads in men's magazines used to say when I was a kid. It's "a compendium of short stories featuring adults misbehaving in various and sundry ways. None of the characters in this anthology of modern day morality tales are any better than they have to be, and some are quite a bit worse than they ought to be," quoting the book description. In RUDE SCRAWLS I'm going for the kind of stories you might get if John O'Hara were living today and wrote for Hustler. Enjoy.

Find out more about Malachi Stone at Smashwords and Amazon.

Thanks to Malachi Stone, wherever and whoever he is.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Truth is Harder Than Fiction

by Holly West

A few months back, Joe Clifford asked me to participate in Lip Service West, a literary event he co-produces with his wife, Justine. Located in the San Francisco area, it features artists reading their gritty, true-life stories aloud.

Though flattered by the invitation, my first impulse was to decline. You see, I write fiction for a reason: on the surface, it seems a whole lot easier than delving into one’s personal story, digging for nuggets of truth that may be painful to examine in the harsh light of day. Lip Service West’s tagline is “Everyone Has a Story.” Well, I’ve read Joe’s memoir, Junkie Love. I’ve also read Josh Stalling’s memoir, All the Wild Children. I’d heard TomPitts read and knew something about his struggles with drug addiction. These were some of the artists I’d be reading with, and my story has more in common with Snow White’s than it does with theirs. I couldn't imagine what I had to offer such an event.

Except that even Snow White had a wicked stepmother who tried to poison her. It doesn’t get much grittier than that, does it? I knew I had a story or two to tell; the only question was whether I was brave enough to put one of them on paper and read it aloud. I didn’t give myself too much time to ponder it before I typed a hasty acceptance to Joe’s invitation.

As expected, it turned out to be one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever written. Once I’d settled on a topic—a difficult task in itself—I struggled with just how much to reveal, how vulnerable to make myself. The first draft was charming and funny, full of witty observations about the event I was describing. Then I read it to my husband and he told me that all of my "clever" commentary was getting in the way of the interesting bits of the story.

<Ba dump dump>

In my attempt to protect myself, I realized I'd tried to cover up the truth by injecting too much of myself into the story. I've always said that I admire Josh Stallings greatly for the authenticity he brings to his writing--I now understand what a difficult thing it is to do. Because my impulse, whether I'm writing fiction or non-fiction, is always to protect myself. To never make myself truly vulnerable.

To be certain, I'm in no hurry to write another true-life essay. However, I learned something from this exercise that applies to my fiction: those uncomfortable passages that make me squirm in my chair? The ones that make my cheeks burn red or tears fill my eyes? The ones that I'm afraid my parents will read? Those are the keepers: they're the ones that make me a better writer.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Other People Podcast with Colum McCann

Colum McCann was a guest on Other People last week. One of my favorite podcasts overall and a favorite episode. Check it out to find out why:

Colum McCann is the guest. In 2009, he won the National Book Award for his novel Let the Great World Spin and this year published a new novel calledTransatlantic. He is also the curator of a new anthology called The Book of Men, available now from Picador.  The Book of Men is the official December selection of The TNB Book Club.