Saturday, July 11, 2015

Starting in the Middle of Everything

Scott D. Parker

Yesterday, in the comments section of James Reasoner’s Forgotten Book entry (Crisis on Multiple Earths, a collection of Justice League/Justice Society crossover stories from the 60s), one of the commenters noted that, with so much history behind these events, it might be daunting to jump in and start. Non-expert that I am, I assured him that, at least with the 1960s and 1970s material, the author’s rarely left readers in the lurch. The writers and editors would find a way to make sure every issue had enough back story so that new readers could quickly catch up but not so much to annoy regular readers. To paraphrase Stan Lee himself, every issue of a comic will likely be someone’s first issue.

Over the recent decades of comics—let’s say 25 years—there has been many attempts by DC and Marvel to write The Big Story, The Big Crossover, The Big Event That Will Shatter Everything You Know. Great. Fantastic. I love it. But it can serve as a barrier to the general reader who might’ve watched Iron Man or The Dark Knight in theaters and is curious enough to want to put a toe in the comic ocean. It *can* be daunting. Heck, I’m a lifelong comic reader and I find just keeping up daunting.

The same is true for series novels. About a decade ago, when I began to read crime and mystery fiction, I faced a similar dilemma as the commenter from yesterday’s post: where to start. Here’s how it usually went for me. I’d be in a bookstore and a cover of a book would catch my eye. I’d pick it up, read the blurb, and usually like what I read. However, I’d learn that it was, say, book 4 of a series. More often than not, at that time, I’d put that new book down and seek out book 1. I never wanted to start a series with the latest book. I always wanted to start a series from the beginning.

And you know what? I’d almost never get to that book I initially noticed.**

That has led me, in recent years, to a new way of buying books: buy the book that I notice no matter the series order. Why? Because something caught my eye and I figured there’s a reason now I want to read it. If the novel is good, I’ll go back and catch up. I think most authors have enough of the idea that “Every book might be someone’s first book” to spice in past events (for the newbies) but not so much for the brand-new readers.

So, what do y’all do when you see a new book that’s not the start of a series? Do you read the new book or start from the beginning? And, does the number of books play a factor? That is, if the new book is book 9, do you ever start from book 1 and read’em all?

*In an interesting bit of timing, I’m actually re-reading my favorite JLA/JSA crossover from 1982. This one includes a third team, All-Star Squadron, and it spanned 5 issues over two titles. The story itself actually referenced a story from 1942.

**The only exception was Clive Cussler’s Isaac Bell series. I first noticed the cover for The Race, figured out it was a series, went back to book 1, and read through The Race up to the current book. LOVE that series.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Ways to Die in Glasgow: The Stringer Chat

By Steve Weddle

Jay Stringer’s WAYS TO DIE IN GLASGOW is one of the big hits of the summer, which should surprise no one. Already selling like pints of room-temperature stout through the UK, the book is set to hit American readers soon.

A violent drunk with a broken heart, Mackie looks for love in all the wrong places. When two hit men catch him with his pants down, he barely makes it out alive. Worse still, his ex-gangster uncle, Rab, has vanished, leaving him an empty house and a dead dog.
Reluctant PI Sam Ireland is hired by hotshot lawyers to track Rab but is getting nothing except blank stares and slammed doors. As she scours the dive bars, the dregs of Glasgow start to take notice.
DI Andy Lambert is a cop in the middle of an endless shift. A body washes up, and the city seems to shiver in fear; looks like it’s up to Lambert to clean up after the lowlifes again.
As a rampaging Mackie hunts his uncle, the scum of the city come out to play. And they play dirty. It seems that everyone has either a dark secret or a death wish. In Mackie’s case, it might just be both.

"That sounds great," you say, "but how's the writing?" Gracious, you're a tough one to please. OK. Here's the opening:

I’m baw deep in Jenny Towler when they come looking for me. I don’t hear it at first, because Jenny’s doing all that fake shouting that she thinks turns me on, and there’s guys in  the other rooms getting the same doing. But then I hear people running up the stairs and the back of my neck goes, does that tingling thing that always saves my arse, and I’m up and moving.
They come in through the door, a bald man covered in tattoos and some skinny blonde guy carrying a gun. You know you’ve pissed someone off when they send a gun.

What's that? Get out of your way and get to the interview thingy with the now-Wikipediable Jay Stringer? Fine. Enjoy.

Steve Weddle: Why are you setting this story in your Eoin Miller world? Are there aspects of that world you wanted to explore from a different perspective? Or are the worlds very different after all?

Jay Stringer: I grew up reading comic books. I know everyone’s onboard with the shared-universe thing now, because of the films, but I always liked how Daredevil and Spidey could go out for drinks, or Thor might fly past on his way to save the world. I really liked the thought that Jim Gordon could go for coffee with Maggie Sawyer, and they could have real-people conversations, while somewhere out in the world Superman was saving everybody from Darkseid. Then when I started reading crime fiction, I saw that Elmore Leonard did it, and so I just thought it was something we all did.

I think it’s exciting to leave the vague suggestion that Eoin Miller or Veronica Gaines could turn up in Glasgow at any moment. And, who knows, if I write a sequel maybe they will.

SW: Your earlier novels had a strong cultural and political tone, especially with the Romani people and the idea of “outsiders” and belonging in Britain.  Do you consider yourself a political writer?

JS: This is one of those times when the answer I’m supposed to give would be ’no, I’m not a political writer, sir, what a silly thing to suggest.’ But the real answer is, ‘yeah, kinda.’ I used to deny it. I’m a political person, so that finds its way into my work. I’m also a big fan of fart jokes, so, you know, you pay your money and take your chance.

SW: And, um, what is a political writer?

JS: Well me and my buddy George Orwell both think that all art is political. Even if you’re deciding your art isn’t political, well…that’s a political decision. Sure, Ms. Hollywood Action Film BlockBuster Writerwoman might say she’s just writing about fun things happening to cool dinosaurs, but she’s choosing to write that in a world with rising inequality and with species becoming extinct every year. Mr Cop Procedural UK Writerman might say his book is just a bit of fun, but he’s choosing to write that in a UK where one in four children is living in poverty. That says something about the writer, and they’re political choices.

We write about the world around us, and more importantly, about how we see it. How we meet it.

You might never go out and meet the world, never go and talk to the people you’re writing about, but it will show in your work. We have to tell some basic truth, and the truth isn’t always nice. That said, we’re storytellers, and nobody likes to read a polemic, so we have a duty first and foremost to tell good stories and give people a reason to keep reading.

SW: Your new novel opens, shall we say, in medias rogering.

JS: Perfect. let’s always say that, from now on.

SW: How important is pacing to you and how do you keep the readers engaged once the initial onslaught of intercourse and killing passes? How do you keep things moving?

JS: For Ways To Die In Glasgow, it was easy. I had Mackie. That guy is pure ID. He’s basically a human shark, he moves, he fucks, he eats, and if he’s not doing one of those things he dies. He’s not a character who will sit still and contemplate the world, or pause to reflect on some deeper irony of life. He’s always moving, and if you’re writing that guy, it means the plot is always moving, too. If I stopped at any moment to try and figure out what Mackie should do next, I’d find he was already off doing it.

SW: I heard that you have some sort of bicycle fixie, but I can't seem to find out what that is. I've looked at some British language sites, and it seems to be a bloke what is sat at the edge of the lane in a lorry with a spanner in hand to repair your bicycle for nine shillings. Is that right?

JS: Think of me like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in PREMIUM RUSH, except I do my own stunts. Fixed gear is where it’s at. Especially for writers, it’s a chance to get out and work the body without daydreaming about the current project. No gears. No coasting. Constant peddling. And you need to be aware of the road around you at all times, because you don’t have breaks. It’s like being a zen monk, but travelling headlong through traffic at high speed.

SW: When you move from voice to voice in your books, from perspective to perspective, you do a great job working with that character's voice. How do you inhabit each character? Do you think of the story as that person's story? Do you hollow out a place in your soul and become that person?

JS: I found playing around with tense was a fun trick. So Mackie, who seems to be everyones favourite character, was written in first-person present-tense. He lives in the moment, always alive, always moving in real time. We know what he’s going to do at the same time as he does. Sam, the PI, is a more thoughtful character. She tells her story in first-person past-tense. Then there’s Lambert, the cop, and his story is in limited-third. He has some secrets, a distance between himself and the reader. Once I figured out those three basic ideas, the voices came easily.

SW: When people ask me what path they need to take to be an author, I say they need to write a great book and add that the traditional "path" doesn't really exist, if it ever did. "Look at my pal, Jay," I say. “He's done everything wrong and he's a huge success."

JS: Usually, when people say "look at Jay, He’s done everything wrong and he’s a huge…” the word that follows takes the form of dirty cussin’

SW: Yeah, well I tell the folks how you don't spend months scheduling signings in bookstores or driving across the country to conferences or lining up readings. I tell them you write great books and that you have a solid relationship with the Thomas & Mercer folks over at Amazon. Seriously, though, how have you managed to get your books in front of everyone without blogging every day about nonsense or retweeting every positive review you’ve gotten or sitting on 20 panels a year?

Jay Stringer
JS: My approach is to not try. As you may have noticed. I’m rarely (apart from right now, because, hey, I have a book coming out…) trying to sell things to people. And if I do, it’s usually someone else’s book. Like I’ll say, “hey, check out Rumrunners by Eric Beetner,” or, "why the hell aren’t you reading Kristi Belcamino? Were you raised in a cave?” My social media platform, or whatever we’re calling it now, is really just a place for me to crack terrible jokes, talk about political issues, and write love letters to The Replacements. If I blog, it’s about something that’s interesting to me. I like to think people get a sense of who I am, rather than what I’m wanting to sell them, and then I let my publishers get on with the job of selling books. They’re better at it than I am.

SW: As a cyclist and a human, you've certainly followed all the doping stories in sports -- bicycling, baseball, track and field. If there were a performance-enhancing drug for writers -- besides coffee or whiskey -- what would it be? Adderall? Speed? 

JS: I think the fear of financial oblivion would be a good one. Contracts are also quite performance enhancing. I know there was this whole thing with Lance Armstrong about replacing the blood in his body, because the oxygen levels would be too high, and that got me thinking about this trick I used to try as a kid, where you hang your head upside-down off the edge of the bed while you….wait, where were we?

SW: We were on the last question. What part of this book was the toughest to write?

JS: The bit that’s not there. Fun fact, folks, the original ending is missing. I wrote a coda that summed up some of the themes of the book. Al Guthrie talked me into deleting it. It’s still on my hard drive. Maybe one day, it’ll make a fun extra, like a deleted scene on a DVD, but for now it’s on the cutting room floor. Maybe if people want to see a sequel, they’ll get to know what happened next.


UK readers can grab a copy of Ways to Die in Glasgow here.

Most of the rest of you can queue up here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Changing My Facebook Status

by Holly West

Lately, I've been thinking about changing the way I use Facebook. When I first got into social media, I was pretty good at keeping my professional life separate from my personal life. Twitter was for professional--meaning I followed lots of different people, most of whom I'd never met in person, and kept it pretty much writing related. Facebook was for family and friends, people I knew in real life and didn't mind sharing personal details with.

Six or seven years later, all of that has gone out the window. For one thing, I've met (in person) so many of the writers I previously knew only online. It makes sense that I'd be friends with them on Facebook. There are many people I haven't yet met in person but through social media, a genuine friendship has developed. I'm cool with sharing my personal Facebook page with them, too.

But over time, there's been a gradual expansion of my criteria for accepting friendship requests. It used to be that I only friended people I had personal experience with. Then I began friending people who I was familiar with through the larger writing community but hadn't necessarily interacted with myself. After that, things kind of just exploded, like that shampoo commercial: "And they told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on and so on..." Suddenly I'm friends with a load of people I have no real connection with, other than--possibly--writing and/or reading.

To be honest, I'm not all that wary of someone using the information I share for nefarious purposes, although I'm aware that does happen, probably with more frequency than I'd like to acknowledge. But my Facebook feed has become unwieldy and while I have the option of removing someone from my feed while still remaining friends, I'm not comfortable with knowing there are strangers out there who might be reading my personal posts and I have no idea who they are.

I'm not sure how to remedy the problem, however. Some people I know have stated outright that they're culling their friendships on Facebook and directing people to their author/professional page. I'm cool with that in principle, but if I did it I might feel a little jerky. Like--hey, you're not good enough to be my real friend but hop on over here and buy my books. Mind you, I'm not criticizing my friends who've done this--it seems like a reasonable solution to the problem.

Another solution might be to assume that if I unfriend someone who I don't actually know, without announcing it beforehand, they won't miss me in the first place. No harm, no foul, as the say. But that seems kind of dickish, too.

One thing I've always had trouble with is determining what to post on my author page versus what to post on my personal page. If it's related to my books, then of course I should post it on my author page, right? But what if I want a larger audience to see it? Facebook has changed the way it presents promotional posts, so posts to my author page receive only a fraction of the viewership and interaction that my personal page does. Sometimes I end up posting something to my author page then sharing it on my personal page as a result.

With all of this said, I often think, wow, this is only Facebook. Get a freaking life, Holly. Then I change nothing, and a few months later, I'm thinking, "I really should do something about my Facebook page."

How do you handle Facebook with regard to personal and author pages? Shower me with your wisdom, please.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Summer of Reading Westerns - June reads

About a month ago I posted some thoughts on the western. The summer of reading westerns continues so I thought I'd check in with what westerns I read in June.

.44 by H.A. DeRosso (1953) - It's easy to see why so many crime folks recommend this one. It's basically a classic, mid-20th century noir dressed up as a western. It can be a little tough to continue buying the protag's continued staying in the town but, recognized as the noir that it is, this is an easy enough hurdle to cross and the doomed ride becomes fun in it's own way. Recommended

The Searchers by Alan LeMay (1954) - This is one of those books that is hard to talk about without mentioning the movie. If you put the race issue aside for a moment, I've always thought the movie had its problems. Part of that is that Ethan (Amos in the book) dominates the movie so much. The book is told in a tight 3rd person pov from Martin's perspective, so the Mart character in the book is a far better character, with a lot of nice character growth, and worth the price admission alone. There's also some scenes that are gripping. One in particular is Amos and Mart trapped in a gulch by a blizzard for 60 hours. Just a fantastic scene. Is Ethan/Amos racist? and Is The Searchers racist? are two questions that have surrounded the movie for years. Is The Searchers (book) and it's author racist? I'm punting and will say that is thoughts for another day. Highly Recommended.

Death of a Gunfighter by Lewis B Patten (1955) - Good book that deals effectively with the idea of the aged gunfighter and his place in society as it progresses. In this case the town gave the gunfighter the Sheriff job to clean up the town, and then told him he could keep it for as long as he wanted since he did such a good job. Now they want him out, and he doesn't want to go. Patten explores both sides of this issue and swings the reader's loyalties from one side to the other. Recommended. 

Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer (1963) - Schaefer's Shane always gets the praise but Monte Walsh may be the better book (I read Shane year's ago and will be re-reading it this summer). Schaefer wrote some short stories about Monte Walsh that were then collected together and tied up together as the novel Monte Walsh. So the novel has a very episodic feel. Monte Walsh is an intimate epic, where one man's life represents the entire old west. Not only is the book a rousing story and very moving at times but Schaefer can actually write, so Monte Walsh utilizes a number of different literary techniques and modes by which to tell the story. Monte Walsh is an unheralded great American novel. Highly Recommended.

Gospel of the Bullet by Chris Leek (2014)
Gunmen by Timothy Friend (2015) - Straight forward westerns. My only observation of note (not a criticism) is that they both feel like the beginnings of larger stories rather than full stop stories. Maybe the authors will revisit these stories and characters at a later date. Recommended

Paradise Sky by Joe Lansdale (2015) - Lansdale's tribute to the black cowboys that rode in the west. This is a big old Texas yarn that is at times funny, harrowing, moving, goofy. Recommended.

Pig Iron by David James Keaton (2015) - What the hell is Pig Iron? Part absurdist western, part goof, part homage to western movies, part fleshing out of a Marty Robbins song. Sure, all of that and more. Some part of Pig Iron work better then others but it is a highly imaginative, highly original, highly fantastical western that is, at its best, a lot of fun. Recommended (but may not be for everyone).

Haints Stay by Colin Winnette (2015) - Haints Stay is a dark, moody, modern, revisionist western that is tonally related to the Sisters Brothers. Chances are if you liked The Sisters Brothers you'll be inclined to like this one too. One of the problems with revisionist westerns post Blood Meridian is that they all think that they are the first one to try and turn the genre on it's head. Revisionist westerns continue to trickle out, a couple a year or one every couple of years, and each occurrence is treated as if it's the best thing since...well... the last time it was done. And I say this as someone who likes a good revisionist western (which, btw, first started getting published as far back as the 50's). Recommended.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Guest Post: Nancy Allen

The Story Behind the Story of A Killing at the Creek

By Nancy Allen

In A Killing at the Creek, my new Ozarks Mystery, prosecutor Elsie Arnold has been handed her first murder case, prosecuting Tanner Monroe, a 15-year-old boy, for murder in the first degree.

He has been certified to stand trial as an adult for cutting a woman's throat and dumping the body in Muddy Creek in the Ozarks hill country.

Why did I choose to accuse a child of tender years of such a horrific crime in my legal thriller? Why did I create a character as dark as Tanner Monroe? Well, it's not because I hate young people, honest to god. I have a teenage daughter; I'm on faculty at Missouri State University; I’ve taught thousands of young students in my law classes. I love teenagers! Crazy about them!

But in my career, I served as prosecutor in the Ozarks, and one of my cases involved a similar scenario. I tried and convicted a sixteen-year-old boy for the crime of first degree murder. That case served as the inspiration for A Killing at the Creek. I must stress: my book is a novel, it’s fiction; all characters are solely the product of my imagination; the defendant, plotline and story arc are not a repetition of that real life prosecution. But the case provided the seed for me to craft my story, and gave me the professional experience to write a courtroom novel that rings true.

 In A Killing at the Creek, there are plenty of surprises; everything is not always as it seems. But that's also a reflection of our justice system. As an old trial salt with dozens of jury cases under my belt, I've seen plenty of twists and turns, things that would curl your hair. The bright side is: my experience provides inspiration and a wealth of raw material to weave into more adventures for my protagonist with feet of clay, the flawed yet loveable Elsie Arnold.

Hey--I like teenagers! Really, I do. I'm a faculty member at Missouri State University; I have a teenage daughter; I'm surrounded by teens. They're wonderful. But when a person of tender years is involved in, or accused of, a terrible crime, it raises fascinating questions. Did they actually do it? How could they be so cold-blooded at such a young age? Why would they do such a thing? Were they framed? Are they insane? These are some of the areas I was eager to delve into in A Killing at the Creek.

I knew my character Elsie was ready for a murder case, so I wanted to give her one. And in recent years, we hear so many reports of juveniles being certified to stand trial as adults for homicides. So I thought it was timely topic, and intriguing.

And yes--I have the background to write it. I tried murder cases in my years as a prosecutor, and one of those cases had a sixteen year old defendant. So I know the ropes. But, let me stress: my teen defendant in A Killing at the Creek is a fictional character! The book is a work of fiction, the trial and the scenes are a product of my imagination.

I was so young when I became a prosecutor: twenty-five years old. And I was handling major felonies, harrowing sex crimes, murder, crimes of violence. The drama of courtroom work, and the exposure to the victims' pain, kindle a desire to tell stories of criminal law from the prosecutor's perspective. In my years as a criminal trial lawyer, I knew I wanted to write about it; I even took a stab at it, but without success. I needed distance from the work, and the passage of time, to gain perspective.

Nancy Allen, an attorney, is a member of the law faculty in the College of Business at Missouri State University. After receiving her undergraduate degree in English Education from Missouri State University, she entered law school, and received her Juris Doctor from the University of Missouri School of Law.  Nancy practiced for fifteen years, serving as Assistant Missouri Attorney General and as Assistant Prosecutor in her native Ozarks. 

When Nancy began her term as prosecutor, she was only the second woman in Southwest Missouri to serve in that capacity.  In her years in prosecution, she tried over thirty jury trials, including murder and sexual offenses.  During that time, she served on the Rape Crisis Board and the Child Protection Team of the Child Advocacy Council.  As Assistant Attorney General, she argued criminal appeals and worked for consumer protection for citizens of Missouri.

Nancy lives in Southwest Missouri with her husband and two children. She serves on the Board of Directors of The Victim Center, a non-profit organization that provides counseling to victims of violent and sexual crime.

Her first novel, The Code of the Hills, was released by HarperCollins in April of 2014. HarperCollins released her second novel, A Killing at the Creek, in February of 2015.