Saturday, September 19, 2015

On My First Binge Watching Excursion: Longmire

Scott D Parker

I caught up to the 21st century this month when I ordered Netflix. Being a person who is satisfied with broadcast TV and the offerings of cable, I never felt the urge or the need to order Netflix. House of Cards is available on DVD so that was not enough to get me to join. The first chink in my armor was the debut of the series Daredevil. But I didn't jump. I figured it would land on DVD soon enough. Whatever it was that got me to order Netflix had to be something very, very special.

That turned out to be Longmire.

When the show debuted on A&E three years ago, I absolutely fell in love with it. The setting in the contemporary West enabled the show to straddle both modern crime stories with huge chunks of things you normally found in Westerns: tough sheriffs, ambitious deputies, Native Americans, conflict between Native Americans and the white man, Winchester rifles, and more. The cinematography of the show hearkened back to John Ford Westerns. The writing was stellar. One could almost go to writing school simply by studying the first three seasons of Longmire.

And then there was the acting. Robert Taylor, as Sheriff Walt Longmire, may be Australian, but I will forever see him as the rugged, straightforward speaking Sheriff of apps Absaroka County, Wyoming. There have been few actors on screen who look better in a cowboy hat than Robert Taylor.

I've never really been a huge fan of Katie Sackhoff, but her portrayal of Deputy Vic Moretti is quite good. Bailey Chase as Deputy Branch Connally possesses the type a rugged good looks and deep inner conflict entire series are based around. Adam Bartley's Deputy Ferguson, a.k.a. the Ferg, has always suffered from the funny costar syndrome in the first three seasons but he’s coming into his own now in Season 4. Lou Diamond Phillips gets the award for "actor I already knew who blew me away." His portrayal of Henry Standing Bear is stellar, and it only gets better and seasons four.

I'm not giving anything away to say that season three ended on a tremendous cliffhanger. Within moments after we faded to black at the end of season three, my wife asked me “Do you think they'll renew it?" I scoffed. "With AN ending like that, A&E has to renew it."

I was wrong.

When fans started petitioning Netflix to pick up Longmire, I had seen so few successful campaigns that I just chalked up Longmire as a fantastic series where a loyal fanbase adored it, but was cancelled too soon. I’m looking at you Firefly. When Netflix said yes, I was ecstatic. Not only would I be able to see season four of Longmire, now had a good excuse to order Netflix.

So now we come to the heart of this piece. Unlike Longmire's airing on A&E, Netflix made available all 10 episodes on one day. This is a new thing for me. I enjoy network television. I enjoy waiting a week between episodes. I enjoy the season lasting weeks not days (or even hours). Call me old-fashioned, I don't care. That's just the way I'm used to, and that’s, frankly, the way I like it. When watching LOST back in the day, it was great having six extra days to think about what you saw, talk about it over the water cooler, read what other people thought about what they saw, and then raise expectations for the next week’s episode.

I convinced the wife not to binge all episodes in one day. She’s a veteran of binge watching, having blown through Dexter, Game of Thrones, Six Feet Under, and True Blood. As a result, we have been watching Longmire for one episode a night. I have to admit, it’s pretty cool to have everything right there at your fingertips just waiting to go.

So what is it like binging on my first series? Actually pretty fun. I suppose I could extend the viewing to one day per week, but with the new network shows coming up, it'll be nice to have completed Longmire before those shows begin.

I've not reached the end of season four but I'm already hoping there will be a season five. This cast, these writers (season four may be the best written season), these cinematographers are just heads and shoulders above so much of what you see on network television. If you've never watched Longmire, I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

Be sure to come back here on Monday when Brian gives his thoughts on the actual stories and episodes of Longmire season four. Also, David Cranmer is posting his thoughts per episode over at Criminal Element.

For all of you folks out there who have already learned about binge watching and find it your preferred way to consume seasons of your favorite series, I'll leave you with a quote my wife told me at the end of watching episode one when I commented that I’d almost prefer to wait a week before watching episode two: “Get over yourself!"

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Series of Sneaks

Writing a series is challenging. You have to keep momentum and reintroduce your character, setting, core cast and “world” each time for potential new readers while trying to not alienate older readers who just want to get to the meat of the next adventure. It’s a balancing act that, added to the already tough task of writing a novel, can be very daunting.

I’m not saying this because I write one - though, that helps. But because I’ve read a lot of them, and I feel like the good ones do certain things very well, while the ones that...aren’t as good, maybe forget to do.

I’ve got two Pete Fernandez Miami mysteries in the can - Silent City and Down the Darkest Street, hitting in March and April via Polis Books, respectively. I’ve got a second draft of the third novel and I’m chugging along on a fourth. Each book poses unique obstacles and surprises, some of which I expected because I’ve read many a series, some that came out of nowhere because I hadn’t even considered it possible.

I’ve cobbled together some topics that bounce around in my head when thinking about series writing - not saying what people should do, but bringing up a few things that I’m curious to hear other writers talk about.

Actual Change vs. Perception of Change. The term “perception of change” is thrown around a lot in comics. Robin never (well, rarely) gets old, Spider-Man never dies or ages beyond 30, Batman doesn’t get married, etc. At least not permanently. These concepts are stuck in a weird limbo, and “changes” happen - but are soon undone to revert to the perceived (and preferred) status quo. Some detective series are like that, too. Some, like the Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer books, are less about overt change and more about tone and style. Other, more recent series, like Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager books, take actual leaps of time between books and have drastic things happen to their protagonists. Dave White’s Jackson Donne books are also a good example of a series that features a protagonist that changes in a big way from book to book.  George Pelecanos’s Strange and Quinn books move along the same lines, but for fewer books. On the other end of the spectrum is Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s excellent series character. Like classic comic heroes, you have the perception of change - Bosch getting kicked off the force, retired, quits, etc. - these things happen from time to time, but we usually see him returning to the LAPD in some way, reestablishing a similar, if not identical status quo.

I can’t say I have a preference as a reader. It depends on my mood. I enjoy a good, timeless book that doesn’t require me to know anything going in as much as the seventh book in an excellent series. As a writer, I knew I wanted Pete to evolve. I figured the series would be finite, so I wanted each book to feel like a season of a great show, with major beats happening to create the sense that a corner had been turned. The challenge with that is there are only so many things you can change so many times - you can’t kill a friend each book, you can’t move your hero each book and you can’t have each book be the same level of “unstoppable” threat. So you have to spread out the “major” changes and try your best to make the surrounding elements of the story - supporting cast, villains, setting, conflict - as interesting as possible.

Open-ended vs. Finite. Going back to Pelecanos for a second - I loved and hated that the Nick Stefanos books (3) and Quinn/Strange books (4) ended. Loved and admired the author for being brave enough to put a successful character on the shelf to go try something else and hated the idea that there might not be another Stefanos or Strange/Quinn book in the offing. Some authors aren’t as definitive - Laura Lippman, for example, has a solid number of bestselling, engaging standalones. These wouldn’t have been possible without the Tess Monaghan series she launched her career with. She’s gotten to a great spot where she can do a standalone or two and come back to Tess when the mood strikes. That seems to be the ideal, if you don’t have a set number of books locked in for your series. It gives you the option to go outside the confines of your series while being able to return whenever you like. When I first set out to write my books, I figured it’d be a trilogy and then I’d move on to other things. But by the time I put a draft of the third book, Dangerous Ends, to bed, I had ideas for the fourth. So, keep your options open, I say.

The only limits are the ones you set for yourself. Sometimes you get a sense that maybe authors do standalones because they feel constrained by their series work - and that’s fair. As writers, it’s normal to want to write about a different kind of protagonist, place, era or what have you. But series themselves are only as limiting as you let them be, I think. This great New Yorker profile of novelist Michael Nava’s Henry Rios PI series got me thinking about how wonderful it is when a series character, and a series in general, becomes more than what you thought it’d be when you read the first book. It was also something I thought about while re-reading Ian Rankin’s first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses and Ross Macdonald’s first Lew Archer, The Moving Target: these series both started off so strongly, and it’s so interesting to read them knowing where not only Rebus and Archer are headed, respectively, as characters, but where the books are heading in terms of the entire series. Macdonald’s books, while still PI fiction, become much more layered and complex - touching on familial secrets, delving deeper into the minds and desires of Archer’s villains and giving complicated motivations to the foes Archer faces - while still managing to be what it set out to be.

My point is - I like series that don’t feel limited, and push the edges of their own creation to keep things fresh and unexpected. Not necessarily from a plot perspective, but tonally. The best modern examples (aside from Nava) I can think of on little sleep are Sara Gran’s amazing, underrated Claire DeWitt novels. Both books are bursting with personality, mood, tone and a rhythm all their own. It’s Twin Peaks instead of Law & Order. It’s something that strikes me as rare, but is also something I try to accomplish in my own way. You can be the judge of success there.

What do I know? Do what works for you. Write the book(s) you want to read or the stuff that gets you jazzed. That’s the best bit of advice I ever got - from a handful of people I trust and admire. The rest is going to be a byproduct of hard work, talent and a little luck.

What are your favorite mystery series? What do you like/dislike in series books? Share your thoughts below...if you dare!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Making the Most of Wasted Time

Guest Post by Craig Faustus Buck

I'd like to take a moment to praise an unacknowledged and often disparaged contributor to the writing process. I am as guilty as anyone of deriding this unsung hero, and I'll sometimes go to great lengths to avoid it.

One example: I usually shave at night. On its face (or mine), that's absurd. What's the point of being freshly shaven in my sleep? Doesn't it make more sense to shave in the morning? Of course it does. But when I wake in the morning, I want to get down to writing, so shaving feels like wasted time. But do I grab a cup of coffee and hie my five-o'clock shadowed self to my desk? No. I drink my coffee and do the daily crossword. I justify this by telling myself that I'm staving off dementia with mental exercise (though anyone who knows me knows it's already too late for that). In fact, what I'm really doing is practicing the ancient art about which I'm writing this blog: procrastination. It's a subject that tickles me because, in writing about it, I'm able to achieve it.

Procrastination often gets an undeserved bad rap. For instance, this blog is one way to put off working on my next novel. But it's not as if I'm being unproductive. Some of my most notable professional achievements have been born of procrastination.

When I completed the first draft of my debut novel Go Down Hard, it came in at 120,000 words. My esteemed editor, Kristen Weber, informed me that anything over 100,000 words would be a tough sell because of added production costs. So I set out to cut 20,000 words. Of course every word was precious, so the literary liposuction was painful, but the weight loss did improve the book.

I pasted much of what I expunged into a file for future mining. Among the sweepings on the cutting room floor were a few paragraphs about a pair of newly married petty thieves. I liked this couple a lot, but their relationship was more interesting than their peripheral role in the novel, so they had to go. Still, I kept thinking about them. In their backstory, they had gotten married impetuously and, as they'd grown to know each other, they both began to realize that she was a good deal smarter than he. I couldn't stop wondering how their dynamic would play out under pressure.

About a year later, my mind frequently strayed to this question as I became increasingly frustrated with the second act of my subsequent novel. I finally had to put the novel aside to find the answer. To a psychologist, it would be obvious that my preoccupation with these newlyweds was a device to avoid the inner demons of Act II that were preventing me from finishing my book. It's probably obvious to you, as well. And it's painfully clear to me.

Nonetheless, I set two days aside to put these low-lifes-in-love in a stressful situation that would test their relationship. I had them break into a beach house for a honeymoon that went horribly wrong. Three weeks later my creative procrastination produced the short story "Honeymoon Sweet," which was chosen for last year's Bouchercon Anthology and, this year, nominated for both an Anthony and a Macavity Award. Procrastination rewarded.

That step back from the novel, though far longer than intended, was just what the doctor ordered to regenerate my juices. I'm now 80,000 words into the WIP and safely through Act II. So the next time the sirens call me to rise from my desk and dust the tops of my door jambs, I'll choose instead to dust off that old story I've been meaning to finish. And the next time you see me unshaven, know that I'm trading good grooming for a superior waste of time. Procrastination is just barely a sin if you're honing your craft.

Author/screenwriter Craig Faustus Buck has been a professional writer for more than 35 years. His novel GO DOWN HARD was published in 2015 (Brash Books). His short story "Honeymoon Sweet" is a current nominee for both Anthony and Macavity Awards. His works include two #1 NYT nonfiction bestsellers (co-authored), an Oscar-nominated short film, dozens of produced screenplays and hundreds of print pieces (ranging from The New York Times to Ladies' Home Journal to Sports Illustrated).

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


Today is publication day for THE KILLING KIND by Chris Holm, formerly Chris F. Holm.

I plan to spend my day watching it climb up the sales charts.

You can read what the HuffPo said about it.

Or this:
With THE KILLING KIND, Chris Holm has created a story of rare, compelling brilliance with a concept so high you'll need oxygen to finish it. Hitman against hitman, one pure silk and evil, the other not exactly good, but we root for him anyway as the classic antihero. This is a one-sitting extravagant, mind-blowing reading pleasure with a stable of characters who come across as all flesh, bone and folly. You will never look at men hired to kill other humans the same way. You won't merely read this book, you will inhale it. - David Baldacci, New York Times bestselling author 

Share the publication news on Twitter using the hashtag #KillingKind and I'll send someone his/her very own copy tomorrow.

Next week I'll post the interview I did with Chris Holm about the new book. Here's a teaser:

SW: You spend a year or two writing a book. Then another year selling it. Maybe editing. Publishing and marketing and all that. How long has it been from the time you first started working on the story to publication day?

CH: This one took a while. It began, as you well know, with two guys kicking around an idea for a short story in the spring of 2010. One of them, the sensible one—me—was all, “I dunno. It sounds kinda big and messy. It could get away from me.” The other, who was probably just bored and stuff and wanted to egg me on, was like “Nah, do it. It’ll be cool. I’ll totes publish it.”

So I wrote it. At 11,000 words, it did kinda get away from me. But true to his word, that other dude—you—published it, in the second issue of Needle. Thanks, by the way.

People seemed to dig it. It got nominated for an Anthony. Wound up in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES. My agent at the time told me I should consider adapting it into a novel, which was weird, because usually she didn’t tell me anything at all. But I resisted, because the story seemed complete to me. Then one day, I woke up and realized if I shifted the narrative from first to third, I could pull back the camera to show more of this character’s world, and tell the stories of the people hunting him.

So, in between Collector books, I wrote it. And rewrote it. And rewrote it. When I was finally happy with it, I sent it off to my agent, who promptly sat on it for nine months without reading it.

In early 2013, we parted ways. I polished up the book again and started querying. It took almost a year to find the right agent. Another several months working with him on the book. And then it sold in something like a week. But even with that stroke of luck, we’re talking more than five years, start to finish.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Shitty First Draft

by Kristi Belcamino

My kids are back in school and while I love it, I also hate it.

For me, the start of the school year means a brand new book. This has been my routine since my kid started kindergarten five years ago and I wrote my first book, Blessed are the Dead, the first in my series featuring crime reporter Gabriella Giovanni.

Since then I've made it a fall tradition. Start from scratch.

In the past it is has been fairly easy, but this fall I'm starting a stand alone novel that has nothing to do with my series. I'm pushing myself harder than I ever have before and it is scary.

Thank God for the wise words of Anne Lamott or I'd never write a word.

She gives us permission to write a Shitty First Draft.

And after I read that, I gave myself permission to write a Shitty First Draft. It's the only way anything gets written. At least by me.

It usually takes me three to four months to write that SFD and then if I'm lucky I get to spend about that same amount of time polishing her and making her shiny and pretty.

When people ask how I combat writer's block, I say I don't ever get it because I allow myself to write a SFD. If you are stuck and having a tough time putting words on the page, I highly recommend you give yourself permission to write a SFD. You won't regret it. Especially when you type those most glorious words "The End."