Saturday, April 19, 2014

Setting Goals and Honing the Craft: How Do You Measure It?

Scott D. Parker

Sometimes, you just need to set a goal. For lots of people who want to do something other than writing, goal setting is a bit more straightforward, even measurable. Now that we can see summer coming, you might want to get in shape. Your goal might be to lose five pounds. That's measurable. If you want to run a marathon (a bucket list thing for me), there are wonderful training regimes out there to follow and you can measure your progress. Even if you want to learn a new craft, woodturning, say, there are steps you can take to get there and measure your progress.

What about writing?  In particular, what about professional writing? What kinds of goals do you set? How do you measure them?

These were the questions I asked myself yesterday while sitting outside on my deck eating breakfast and enjoying a nice spring morning. As is my wont, I had a 11 x 17 sheet of paper in front of me and I wrote the first thing that came to mind: write and sell fiction. I mean, that’s the most basic, fundamental thing, right? It's the reason why blogs like this one exist. It is the reason why there are tons of books about writing and how to write.

But how do you go about doing it? The very next thing I jotted down was “Hone the craft.” And, that, too, is pretty fundamental. Just get better, each time you write. Look, I know this is elementary, but, again, I ask: How do you measure that? If you learn how to turn wood, you can tell when you look at the final product that you at better. You can see your missteps and mistakes and learn from them.

How do you do the same thing with writing? Is sales a true barometer? Or can you just tell after you do it for awhile?

What are your thoughts?

P.S., I wrote other things on my list, but I’ll discuss them next week.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why Needle mag exists

By Steve Weddle

Back in 2010 when we started this magazine, I solicited stories from some talented folks. Some were friends, while many were friends of friends. That was an odd process.

Cover art by Scott Morse
ME: Hey, we’re starting this noir lit mag, and I was wondering...
PEOPLE: I’m in.

And so they were.

We put the word out and the submissions started to come in from all over the world.
In 2010, we ran a long story from Chris F. Holm. He’d had a couple stories he was working on and asked which I preferred. Sounded to me like he wanted to work on the longer of the two, which seemed to me the more developed the story. “It’s kind of a long story,” he said. I said that was fine. “Like, more than 10,000 words,” he said. We made room. It was a hell of a story.

Otto Penzler and Harlan Coben thought so, as well. They selected the  story for that year’s Best American Mystery Stories, the first for Needle and Chris F. Holm, though not the last.

I’d known he was continuing to work on the story for a novel. The character is just that good. The author is just that brilliant. So he kept working on the story. This month, Holm sold the novel -- The Killing Kind -- in a two-book deal to Mulholland. Find out more at

We love seeing these stories come through the submission machine. We love seeing them formatted for the page. We love seeing them as ink-on-paper stories when the magazine comes out. We love seeing them in anthologies. But we sure as hell love seeing them get a bigger life -- all grown into a novel and waiting there on the shelf for you.

I mean, a big, fancy novel from a story that was in this here little magazine. How great is that? If you ever wonder why we publish this magazine, that’s why.

(Needle 2014 Update: Ordered an extra round of proof copies just to make sure the new paper quality is fine. As soon as that's sorted, should be up for sale. Probably early next week.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Socially Inept

By Holly West

This past Monday morning I decided to take my first ever social media break. As I'm writing this, it's Tuesday morning and by the time you read this it will be Wednesday. Hopefully, I'll still be on the wagon. My goal is two full weeks away from it.

That's two weeks without checking or posting on any social media websites. I've kind of made Pinterest the exception, but only because I don't check it regularly in the first place and it's filled with pretty pictures of food and interior design and homemade lotion recipes. It doesn't give me panic attacks and feels like a sort of refuge from all the things that cause me stress.

Though this is my first actual break from social media, it's not the first time I've contemplated taking one. I'm an unabashed fan of it--particularly Twitter and Facebook. In fact, if it weren't for social media, I probably wouldn't be published. But with the good comes the bad and I've become increasingly addicted to social media over the years. I'll be writing and the moment my mind wanders, I check Facebook. This happens constantly throughout the day, making it difficult to get anything substantive done. I've known for awhile that I need to break that habit, and this seems like a good time to do it.

The truth is that my social media feeds have become anxiety inducing. They're overwhelmingly about books, selling said books, writing, and of course, selling said writing. It's not the books and the writing that are the problem, it's the selling, and the anxiety that comes with it, that's got me a bit down. It's gotten to the point where I find myself scrolling down my Facebook feed thinking "shut up, shut up, shut up."

I know! It's terrible, isn't it? I feel bad even writing that last sentence. I mean no offense. It's not you, it's me. I'm sick of myself, I'm sick of selling my book, and I'm sick of worrying about the writing of my next book and then having to sell that.

That doesn't mean I'm taking a break from writing that next book, of course. It just means that I feel the need to step back from all the noise and write in relative solitude for awhile. Does that make sense?

Ironically, my last reason for taking a social media break comes from the need for me to explore other options for selling my books. With the second in the series coming out in the Fall, I know there are some things I missed when the first came out. Though I've amassed a nice following via social media, they are mostly personal friends and family. My wider circle is the crime fiction community and other writers. I recently realized that I haven't made a big enough effort to find other readers outside of these circles. For example, my series is historical fiction and yet I have no platform whatsoever in the historical fiction community. This needs to be remedied (even if I'm unsure, exactly, how to do it). Social media will, of course, become a big part of this expansion, but for now I'm going to explore some online forums, participate in listserv and that sort of thing.

So yeah. I'm taking a social media break because I'm sick of selling my book but ultimately, I need some time to explore other avenues to sell my book and my addiction to social media prevents me from taking that time.

But as always, the writing is the thing. If something is taking me away from it, whether mentally or physically, then I need to take steps to get back to it. No excuses, no whining. I'm working on that last part.

By the way, if any of you reading this could share it on Twitter or Facebook, I'd appreciate it. KTHX.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Twenty Five Years On

Football was not a nice place to be in the 1980’s. 

We let narratives get created, we let groups of people in society become dehumanised, labelled, blamed. We let ourselves be guided to blaming the poor, or the sick, or those on benefits, or those who wear hoods, or those who take drugs. We slowly let our sense of collective be chipped away, until it’s Us VS. Them. And then we don’t think of Them as human anymore, and we don’t stop to help them. 

Football fans were just such a social evil in the 80’s. Penned in, ignored, blamed, herded. Even at my young age, I could sense an atmosphere, an attitude towards football fans. I remember the cages around the pitch, fans penned in like animals. 

Those of us who remember a time before the Rupert Murdock money came into the sport bemoan many of the changes, but if 96 football fans died at an F.A. Cup semi final in 2014, action would be taken. People would be prosecuted, locked up. Every victim and every hero would have a face and a name. 

On the 15th of April 1989, fans of Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest converged on Sheffield’s Hillsborough stadium for the semi final of the F.A. Cup. As Liverpool fans amassed at their end of the ground, a gate was opened to herd them in, and thousands of fans poured into one area at the same time. 

A short while later, 94 of them were dead. 2 other fatalities followed. In the days that followed, a massive cover-up operation went into full force, one that is only now being admitted to. Police reports were doctored. Video evidence went missing. Newspapers printed lies. The Sun ran a front page labelled, “The Truth,” in which they stated that fans were robbing the dead, were pissing on the police and were attacking people who tried to give CPR. All lies. All damaging. All deliberate.

In trying to make sense of it all, one thing is abundantly clear; How easy it would have been for it to not happen. If fans weren’t treated like shit. If those in authority didn’t cast off responsibility. If people were treated like people. There was also precedent, fans had been saying something like this would or could happen. My team, Wolves, played Tottenham Hotspur in a semi final at the same ground in 1981. There was a crush then, too. Tottenham fans were penned in and unable to move as more people where herded in behind them. Crucially on this occasion the police acted in time and opened the gates to the cage and let the fans out onto the pitch. But in 1989 the culture was different. Football fans had spent the decade being treated as the social menace. They were not to be trusted, not to be helped. They were not human. They did not need the help they were calling for, begging for.  To read accounts of survivors of the crush is harrowing not just for the details of what was physically happening to them, but for the stories of Police standing by and doing nothing when football fans were calling for help. Crash barriers were torn up out of the concrete by the sheer weight of people being pressed onto them. By them time anybody came to help, people were dead. 

We know the names of the 96 people who lost their lives, and today we remember them. The youngest was 10 years old. A boy who went to a football match and never came back. They’ll never be forgotten. But what is harder to do is to give name to all of the other victims. The family members whose lives were forever changed. The futures that were taken away. The football fans elsewhere who suffered as part of the system of lies and cover-ups and dehumanisation. 

We've all heard the phrase "telling truth to power," but the problem is, the power already knows. Families, friends and football fans have fought for 25 years for that truth to come out. Mothers, fathers, brothers sisters- they’ve lived with this, grown with this inside of them, knowing their loved ones were being lied about. They’ve never given up, never stopped fighting even when the whole weight of the British establishment was against them, and a fresh inquest is now underway. 

Watching the footage, reading the accounts or talking to survivors is a harrowing experience, but something else stands out, too. There are another group of people we will never be able to honour properly; the heroes. 

Even in the midst of the crush, there were people saving lives. People who could barely move, people who surely suspected they were not getting out of it themselves, acted to help others. Teenagers were lifted up out of the crush by people below them. Some survivors talk of passing out in the middle of the mass of people, pressed down under all the weight, but then waking up on the pitch later, not knowing who carried them free.

Supporters in the stand above reached down to pull people up. People down at the front, who had gotten free of the cage and unimaginable horrors, went back to help. Strangers ripped advertising hoardings from around the pitch to carry other strangers to where they could receive medical attention. As those in authority and power did nothing, those who had neither stepped in and saved lives. Liverpool fans that day showed a courage, strength and basic decency that others had tried to steal from them. And the families of the victims have continued to show that strength and courage to this day. 

Fans helped fans. People helped people. 

We’re made to be scared, to be mistrusting. We made to treat other groups of people as less than human, as social demons. We help in robbing whole social classes of a voice, and then blame them when that voicelessness turns into something dark. We’re encouraged to walk by and ignore the person asking for help or crying in the street.

So as we remember the victims and fight for justice for them, lets also remember those who helped, whether we know their names or not, and learn from them. Authority comes and goes, uniforms fade and retire, those in power rise and fall. But people help people. Always have, always will. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Copyedit Hell

By Kristi Belcamino

When I received the copyedited version of Blessed are the Dead this last week it was super exciting. Here was my baby all laid out pretty with my name and the dedication up front like a real book. Woohoo! A dream come true.

But that excitement soon faded as I sat down to look at what the copyeditor had done. My task involved reviewing every sentence highlighted in purple to indicate the copyeditor had made a change. I needed to look at the change and either accept it or reject it.

It didn’t take me long to realize that nearly every page of my 297 page novel had some purple on it. That’s cool, I told myself. I love editors. I am the biggest fan of editors because nine times out of ten they make you look better than you really are. True story.

But as I read on, I realized I much prefer working with my HarperCollins editor versus working on changes from a contracted copy editor. I’m sure he or she is a lovely person. And it’s obvious he or she is extremely talented, catching so many little things I didn’t. But I can’t deny what soon became glaringly obvious in reading the changes — I don’t have a clue how to use a comma. Really.

Even though I’ve had a career as a newspaper reporter and have written three novels, this basic skill has somehow eluded me for 40-some years.


It wasn’t easy coming to this realization. I mean, at first, I denied it, telling myself, “Well, the copyeditor obviously likes commas more than me.”

But that is probably less likely than the fact that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing when it comes to comma use.


As I went on, I saw that probably 98 percent of the edits from the copyeditor were adding or subtracting a comma. Mostly adding.

Thank God, the publisher contracts this work out and I don’t have to face this copyeditor in person one day, hanging my head in shame. (By the way, is that comma I just used in the right place? Now I’m doubting each and every comma I use!)

So, the comma thing was the toughest part of being copyedited.

But there were some fun parts, as well. Heck, I’d even call them educational.

For instance, I learned all kinds of cool things about some of my favorite words.

I learned that “douche bag” is actually two words. Who knew?

Here are some others you might not know or realize:

Goddamn - one word
Barstool - one word.
Supertight – one word
Wineglass – one word

And by the way, hard-asses is hyphenated.

I, also, got a little education on the word “nod.”

I’ll share it with you as a helpful hint of the day just in case you didn’t know. (Although there is a good chance everyone else on the planet knows this but me, but in the off chance there is one other person who doesn’t know this, well here you go.):

You can only nod your head. You can’t nod any other body part. You don’t nod your foot, only your head. So saying someone nods his head = Redundant. (And possibly ignorant, when it comes down to it.) Who knew? Oh yeah — everyone but me.

You nod. Not your head. You just simply nod.

There you go. You’re welcome.

The further along in the copyedits, the less intelligent I felt. Hell, I don’t even know if “further” is the right word anymore? Is it farther? See, I’ve lost any ability to write at all. My worst fear has finally happened.

I’m, also, starting to wonder if the copyeditor ended up hating me by the end of the novel. I mean, maybe he or she was so disgusted by my flagrant misuse of commas that by the end of the manuscript, he or she was seething with resentment and irritation. I can just imagine him or her at the bar after a day spent copyediting my novel, telling a friend, “Man, I’ll be so glad to get done with this novel because that writer doesn’t know a comma from a hole in the ground.”

At the same time, I’m incredibly grateful that this expert — this person who is smart about commas — is making my book look so —well — smart.

Hey, here’s a little hint for any other writers out there who feel like they might be getting a little cocky or arrogant or thinking they are too cool – just have a copyeditor read your novel! Voila! Suddenly, you will slip right off your high horse and join the rest of us hacks. You might even feel a little bit of writing insecurity creep up you because after all, the truth is you really have no clue how to use a comma. Wait — that’s just me.