Saturday, October 31, 2015

NaNoWriMo 2015: Day 0

Scott D. Parker

So, I’m doing NaNoWriMo. Last year, I did my own version. Instead of a 50,000-word novel, I *completed* a novel. I published it this year as The Phantom Automobiles. It was the first Gordon Gardner investigation. This year, I’m writing Gordon’s second investigation.

I’ve been brainstorming the work during October. I’ve got most of the book more or less mapped out. I’m using some of the techniques I learned with Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker. (My review) I’m constructing the book a little differently. Before now, I was plot first. With the Hawker method, I’m approaching Gardner 02 with character first. In addition to character, I have an arc. With these two things in place, any scene that doesn’t contribute to the arc or character, I don’t use. It’s a different way of building a story so it’s a little…interesting. I don’t like the word ‘scary.’ I’m actually looking forward to the process.

I don’t have a working title yet. I toyed with “Who Killed Bobby Brooks?” but I’m going with “Gardner 02”. I might develop one along the way. If I do, I’ll let y’all know.

The blurb isn’t quite ready. In general, this is the opening scene: Gordon Gardner, demoted from his investigative reporter position to that of society reporter, desperately wants his job back. At a big shindig, he overhears a couple of known shady types talk of a planned heist against one of Houston’s most influential men, a cattle baron who runs a gambling ring out of his house. Moments after this fact lands in his ears, Gordon hears one of those men murdered. And he’s the only suspect. Now, inside the interrogation room, Gordon Gardner makes a decision: he will investigate the case on his own and win back his old job. What could go wrong? Only another murder and a whole lot of people who suddenly decide that Gardner must know more than he’s letting on.

And I’m adding a wrinkle: I’m documenting the process in public. Each week, here at DoSomeDamage, I’ll provide a weekly recap. But every day, I’ll provide a quick post on my author sites (blogspot and; maybe twitter as well) to provide daily word count. Why am I doing this? I want to show the public what an author like me—with day job—can do during NNWM. I’m tipping the hat to Dean Wesley Smith who does this all the time. I just thought I’ll try. 

A caveat: my version of NNWM is a completed manuscript for a book. That book may or may not get to 50,000. It may go more, it may go less. The Phantom Automobiles came in around 31,000 words and I was cool with that. Gardner 02…we’ll see. 

So, there you go. NNWM 2015 starts tomorrow. Who’s in?

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Serial Killer Chick

Last I checked, an article I wrote about Ted Bundy and feminism had been read nearly ten thousand times and was still bringing in hundreds of views a day.

First, let's party - it's by far my most-read piece ever, including fiction, and that's fucking amazing. Second - I think I inadvertently became "the serial killer chick."

My most read nonfiction is all at Dirge Magazine and it's been a great place to publish.  The first piece of mine they ran was On Love, Sex, and Murderers. The piece was about the women who suffer from (or enjoy living with?) the paraphilia known as hybristophilia. You may have heard it called "Bonnie and Clyde syndrome." The more violent, detestable, and terrifying a man is, the more sexually attractive they are to these women. It's a strange phenomenon and one I thought spoke to something in our culture worth discussing. Moving it to Dirge definitely got it in front of more eyes, and as a result I had a lot of people wanting to know more. Hell, I wanted to know more.

That's how I deal with weird, dark, horrible shit - I research the hell out of it. Somehow knowing more makes me feel better. Around the time I was attempting to get a few of these women to do an interview with me (with no dice) Slate published an irresponsible and inaccurate article on the James Holmes fangirls that seemed to speak to the reasons many women gave for not speaking to people like me. Without a woman to interview, and feeling a bit "scooped," I decided to make my sequel a direct response to Slate, and take a moment to clarify that the women involved in the online hybristo communities may be living with an incredibly dark and unimaginable paraphilia, they are not freaks to be infantilized and laughed at.

If we fast forward a bit, we land here - me with a Ted Bundy article that's taken on a life of it's own. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy this article is reaching people and I'm thrilled that what I was trying to say is relevant enough for this kind of success, but it does leave me wondering "what now?"

I've always enjoyed reading about serial killers. It's a topic I find endlessly fascinating, and through my research I've stocked up even more interesting facts and strange perspectives on the topic of men and women who kill. Is this my specialty? It's a funny thing to think about. I wasn't writing nonfiction with any regularity a year ago. I didn't enjoy it and I had zero confidence. Somewhere along the line, though, I've found a voice, and that voice seems most at home when talking about serial killers, or, at least, spectacularly violent crimes. A part of me wants to dig deep and find a pitch that goes far away from the work I've done on serial killers and similar crimes, but the other part of me still wants to know more.

It does seem a little pretentious and even pre-emptive to worry about finding a niche or escaping one, but what are writers if not pretentious and neurotic? My first blog here was about the spectacularly violent crimes that made up my high school years in Central California, my most read pieces are about children attempting to murder their friend, serial killers, and women who want to have sex with serial killers. It's an odd place to be comfortable.

But I am comfortable. Not so comfortable that I am complacent or lack a challenge, but comfortable in the knowledge that I'm examining something that matters - and I think I'm doing it in an interesting way.

So, yeah. Maybe I am the serial killer chick.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Supergirl: The Quest for Fighting Skillz

By Steve Weddle

So, this Supergirl show was on my TV this week. My good pal JEB! said he was looking forward to it, and we gave it a chance at our house. Gotham gets DVRed, as do Flash and A.G.E.N.T.S. O.F. SHIELD and Arrow. We're not immune to the pull of comic book shows, though I am disappointed Warren Ellis's Transmet hasn't made it to TV.

I was surprised at how much they crammed into the first fifteen minutes of the show, if I'm being honest with you, which, sure, let's try that for a bit. The expositiony backstory was pretty awkward, like when you have to carry something a little too big that isn't heavy, just kinda cumbersome. After Kara Zorels is handed off to George Reeves and Teri Hatcher on that seacoasty house where they stand in yards and eat lobster (-Excuse me, Teri Hatcher. Are these lobster balls real or imitation? -They're real, and they're spectacular!) we get to see Kara get coffee for Ally McBeal (hey, remember those co-ed bathrooms in her law office? that was weird).

Then something something story, Oh, she fights Lizard Head Trucker. Cool. She has no training, though, and gets her tail handed to her. But then they cut to commercial and she goes to the Bat Cave with her sister who is in the ELO or something and some mean dude and then she asks this mean dude's permission if she can go fight Lizard Head Trucker (LHT) again and he's like, "Sure. Whatevs."

You're gonna worry, right? Because she tried to fly two commercial breaks ago and barely managed that. One commercial break ago she got ROUNDLY TROUNCED (technical Cuong Nhu term) by LHT. And she hasn't had the music montage training scene yet? How can she learn to fight without a Night Ranger song and hanging upside-down situps? Does no one remember how to write??

Somehow, she learns to fight during the commercial break. Like how on a reality show -- The Amazing Race or Ink Off or Face Masters the contests are totally doomed -- "We will never find the magical token key clue!!" -- and then they cut to commercial, come back and they find the thingy? (Tip: If you're ever on The Amazing Race or one of those shows, say "We'll never find the" whatever and then watch what the cameraperson does, because the cameraperson always pans to the location of the thing you can't find just to make you look like an idiot.)

Anyhoo, they come back from commercial and Supergirl is a better fighter and eye lasers the Sword of Kryptonian Nuclear Destruction and so LHT can't be taken alive because he doesn't want to be tortured for the location of Magical Token Key Clue (not sure on this part of the plot) and so he sticks a glow stick into his chest and dies on the loneliest, most untraveled road in America.

So, I dunno. I was kinda impressed at how much character building they did in the first quarter of the show, despite parts of the backstory being clumsier than a drunk Guy Gardner on a cruise.

Kara Zorels seems to be a likeable enough character. I think they've done fine there. I worry that, because this is on CBS and not CW or UPN or AMC that we'll lean to pop more than indie. Maybe that's fine. At least it's not on one of the premium movie things or whatever they're called now, where you'd get boobies and peckers and humpy time every fourth scene.

So, maybe give this a shot? Who knows? What rating grade do I give it? Uh, seven purples? Is that a fair rating?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Fuck Genre

Guest post by Josh Stallings

When my good pal Holly invited me to stomp the halls of Do Some Damage, I knew I needed to up my game, play hardball, bring out the big guns, and at least two more trite but manly clichés. So I started writing an erudite essay on how gender affects perceived genre. It was going gang busters (cliché #4 for those watching the score board), until I remembered I’m a white American male and should ride shotgun, leaving the driving in this genre war drive-by to someone with the extra X chromosome.

So I deep sixed that and put on my marketing hat. I wrote about how I was told by a trusted advisor that my new book, YOUNG AMERICANS, wouldn’t sell, because it’s a coming of age, and a heist novel and those genres don’t cross over. Then I whined on about how my perceived label as a noir writer would make a lighter book a hard sell. My plan here was to shill the book while cloaking it in a higher literary discussion. Kinda like, “don’t buy the Moses McGuire novels, they’re full of sex, violence and unrelenting action.” (You just Googled them, didn’t you?)

But the truth, like the tattling little bitch it is, sold me out. And the truth about genre is… it means fuck all. Tells nothing about a writer. Admittedly, I may be the wrong cat to talk restrictions of genre, since you will as easily find Donna Summer, David Bowie or NWA on my currant playlist. Books? I read widely. I have one criteria, make the words sing and don’t bore me. Too many clunky paragraphs will have me hurling a book across the room. This has happened often enough in Erika’s thirty five years with me, that she has stopped noticing. She does however seem to prefer the muttering and slamming of the delete key when I’m Kindling it.

At Bouchercon 2015, I attended the "Where Crime and Mystery Meets Horror and the Weird" panel. Chris Holm spoke of using horror techniques in crime novels. He’s a smart guy and so were David Morrell, Reece Hirsch, and John Rector, so I paid attention. Take away - read many styles and genres, then steal their punk asses blind. This is the way to build a large tool-chest. This scam is nothing new. Oxford, Bacon, Derby, and Marlowe all said Shakespeare ripped them off. And criminal Thomas Pluck admitted after the rubber hose was applied that he got a five finger discount on style points from Willa Cather for his atmospheric western monster story, "Little Howl on the Prairie."

At Left Coast Crime, Portland, I was a panelist on Katrina Niidas Holm’s Cozy/Noir Summit panel. To prep I read Hannah Dennison’s MURDER AT HONEYCHURCH HALL,  a solid book that’s more about a painful mother/daughter relationship than discovering who done it. From cozy writer Marty Wingate, I took away how sexy it can be to open a scene just after the boots stop knocking. You know, that still moment when the passion is slipping away but you haven’t cooled down enough to pull the sheet up. The sex takes place in the reader’s mind. In Chris Holm’s THE KILLING KIND, the most horrific torture scene is the set up, the rusted tool, the beloved character trussed… And he leaves it there. When we return to the same room we witness the aftermath. Holm didn’t allow me to turn away, the horror was already inside my head.

In case this talk of sex and torture has you skipping a groove, I’ll remind you - genre means fuck all. Erin Mitchell told me so. OK, not in those words. She explained that in a digital search engine, a book could appear in as many sections (genres) as it fit in to. Unlike in mega-book stores and library shelves, which use precise, controlled and inflexible systems to organize material, a good (independent) book store or a well staffed library will have humans who know and love books. People who could see I was reading Hunter S. Thompson and suggested James Crumley to me. In doing so they changed the trajectory of my life as a writer. “You love Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy, you should give Ken Bruen a shot.” Bingo, another life changing exchange. These suggestions defy genre. Currant logarithms ain’t too sharp at picking books for me, (proven by how many time they suggest I read Josh Stallings) but they will get better and hopefully bring on the destruction of genre. Until then I will rely on trusted friends for guidance.

Here are just a few of the outside-my-wheelhouse writers worth jacking:

Diana Gabaldon, (I never would have read her except for Erika’s obsession.) The Outlander series is brutal and sexy and romantic, did I mention brutal? Need to write about someone stitching up a wound? Read her.

Terry Shames, (again it took Erika to get me on board.) In the Samuel Craddock novels, Terry writes about things that matter, spousal abuse, racism, and more - but she is never obvious or preachy. She slips themes into, like Greeks hiding in a wooden horse, her pastoral tales of small town Texas.

A.A. Milne, in THE HOUSE AT POOH CORNER, draws complete characters with so very few words. Plus, Eeyore is pure noir.

Anaïs Nin, master of erotica. If more people read her, she would have ruined any chance 50 Shades had of shocking, let alone selling. If you want to be schooled on writing sex read LITTLE BIRDS.

Tim Hallinan - His creative tool chest must be one of those big rolling Craftsman suckers. He writes the Poke Rafferty novels, tough heartfelt and very real. And the Junior Bender Mysteries, light and fun, but also with heart. He has two very different and completely authentic voices living in his head. And that is worth checking out.

Chelsea Cain - I hate serial killer books, even good ones. I also have no stomach for torture (the Moses McGuire books may lead you to a different conclusion. Writing it ain’t the same as digging it.) But Cain’s HEARTSICK - I loved it. This novel could be in the romance section of an alternate universe bookstore. Dark as midnight in a blindfold, she does things with hammer and nail they don’t teach in wood-shop. And yet, she made me care about these people. Made me want them to find peace somehow, or at least a resting place in their lives away from the pain.

When I step outside the construct of genre I can see a link between crime writer Jamie Mason and celtic noir writer Ken Bruen. They both sling words fast and true. When I pick up either of them I know I’m in for word magic.

Back to my 70’s glam rock disco heist coming of age crime novel. Both Pearce Hansen's STREET RAISED and Ian Ayris's ABIDE WITH ME are coming of age crime novels, and these gentlemen are writers I’d be proud to run with. So, I think I’ll just keep writing what my heart tells me is next and leave genre to the salespeople. Be on the lookout for my upcoming World War 2 crime romance science-fiction dance western novel - HOW TO DIE AT HIGH-NOON IN THE TRENCHES OF MARS WHILE WEARING A TUTU. I’m sure marketing will want a shorter title, but screw them, this is my art man.


Josh Stallings is the author of Anthony Award nominated memoir, ALL THE WILD CHILDREN and the multiple award winning Moses McGuire crime novels. YOUNG AMERICANS, a ‘70 heist novel will be out November 2015. His short fiction has appeared in Beat To A Pulp, Protectors Anthology 1 and 2, Blood and Tacos, Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey and more. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Erika, two dogs and cat named Riddle.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

I Can't Say Goodbye to Ross Macdonald

By Scott Adlerberg

Some writers keep drawing you back to them.  Among crime writers, one who does this to me is Ross Macdonald.  I first read him when I was 13 – the novel was The Goodbye Look, a Lew Archer mystery from 1969.  At the time I read it, the mid-seventies, the book was contemporary, and I remember the enjoyment I felt reading a hard-boiled private eye story that was not Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler – in other words, that type of mystery story but not set in the past.  I liked Hammett courtesy of Red Harvest and the Continental Op short tales I’d read and I adored Chandler from reading Farewell, My Lovely (that cool, cynical voice!), but Macdonald felt different.  I recall thinking that Macdonald’s characters were people I might actually meet. 

The Southern California suburbs he described were different than the suburb I lived in north of New York City, but the problems and issues he explored seemed familiar: parents and children who struggle to communicate, husbands and wives arguing, unhappiness despite comfortable surroundings, families with secrets, the importance of psychology and psychologists in apparently everybody’s worldview.  

I recall, too, from that particular read, that the complicated plot held me enthralled.  I’ve read a number of Archer books since adolescence, of course, and The Goodbye Look twice more, and I have to say that the pleasure of sifting through Macdonald’s plots is one that has never diminished.  Nor has the emotional satisfaction I get reading Macdonald at his best. In his full maturity, Lew Archer has got to be as compassionate a private eye as ever existed, and the people he investigates have a psychological richness that draws you into their stories. Through Archer, you feel their pain.  

           The first six Archer books are enjoyable. Macdonald writes classic, terse Southern California mysteries in the Chandler tradition.  That’s a key point: from The Moving Target (1949) through The Barbarous Coast (1956), Macdonald’s talent is obvious but so are his influences.  In The Moving Target, for example, Archer’s narrative voice has a self-conscious toughness barely present in the later works, and the dialogue often works too hard. Macdonald pushes to be witty in the literary street patter style of the day.

Take this stilted exchange:
“The name is Archer,” I said.  “Do you use bluing when you wash your hair?  I had an aunt who said it was very effective.”His face didn’t change.  He showed his anger by speaking more precisely.  “I dislike superfluous violence.  Please don’t make it necessary.”I could look down on the top of his head, see the scalp shining through the carefully parted hair.  “You terrify me,” I said.  “An Italianate Englishman is a devil incarnate.”

A little farther on, Archer says that he hates being touched by a man because “his hands were epicene.”  There’s no way the Archer of the 60’s and 70’s would express this contemptuous and macho a sentiment, and more than once in The Moving Target, Archer suddenly finds himself kissing a seductive young woman whose “lips were hot on my face.” You could get this kind of stuff in any private eye tale of the day.  

By the third book, The Way Some People Die (1951), Macdonald as a hard-boiled craftsman is working on all cylinders.  I'd even say that this novel is among my favorites in the series.  It has a relentless quality and an overall sense of nastiness.  In a case with a high body count, Archer has to outmaneuver the police and the mob while moving from one seamy location to another, and it's here that we first get a glimpse of the Archer to come – a thoughtful man who keeps his composure amid deception and dysfunction, familial and otherwise, of the worst sort. 

The Doomsters (1958) and The Galton Case (1959) mark the turning point. In these books, the Archer voice changes into something unique, and for the remaining ten books, the full-fledged Macdonald conception of a private eye appears.  Hammett, non-romantic to his core, had created the tough existentialist protagonist.  Chandler’s version was more romantic, the ever popular tarnished knight.  Both write stories with sociological overtones, but the emphasis remains on catching the wrongdoer.  Motivation is considered insofar as it will help in nailing the culprit. Empathy is not a quality that comes to mind when you think of the Op or Spade or even Marlowe.  But for Archer, product of a creator who went to therapy for his own issues (a childhood shadowed by the early separation of his parents, an absent father, and a lot of moving around growing up), trying to get at the why of crime, the root causes, becomes the investigative touchstone.  

As Macdonald wrote in his 1965 essay “The Writer as Detective Hero”, Archer “is less a doer than a questioner, a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge.” He comes across sometimes as a therapist as much as he is a detective, a role he acknowledges.  And what psychiatric school does he follow? Well, Macdonald is nothing if not a Freudian, and with Freud, for better or worse, the key to psychological problems usually lies in childhood.  From The Galton Case on, Macdonald’s plots follow one pattern: trouble in the present, usually involving family tensions, stems from murder and other traumas in the past.  

The generations are at odds, the relationships between younger adults and their parents are strained, and the arrogance and hypocrisies of the parents cause no end of damage to their children.  People try to cover up and repress past experience, but as every respectable Freudian knows, repression is merely the mother of neuroses.  Archer does his probing through these inter-generational webs of conflict, and though he tends to sympathize with the young against the old, he casts few judgments. He knows that repression solves nothing, that what’s buried will bubble up in the present, causing calamity.  He explains his view of time's weave in The Chill (1962) – “History is always connected with the present” – and expounds on it in The Far Side of the Dollar (1965), “Life hangs together in one piece.  Everything is connected with everything else. The problem is to find the connections.”

How Macdonald creates a fabric where the past is present and connections are pervasive is through his intricate plots, which are things of beauty. His ideas on plot are essential to understanding him as a writer, and he expresses them best himself in the essay I quoted earlier.  

Here he puts his ideas in context, explaining how he differs from the giant looking over his shoulder – Chandler:
I learned a great deal from Chandler—any writer can—but there had always been basic differences between us. One was in our attitude to plot. Chandler described a good plot as one that made for good scenes, as if the parts were greater than the whole. I see plot as a vehicle of meaning. It should be as complex as contemporary life, but balanced enough to say true things about it. The surprise with which a detective novel concludes should set up tragic vibrations which run backward through the entire structure. Which means that the structure must be single, and intended.

The argument against Macdonald’s plots is that he had only one (from The Galton Case on) and used it again and again. That’s not completely untrue.  But it’s a great plot, and what he does in each book is work variations on it.  That Macdonald likes jazz is obvious from the jazz player references he makes in his books – people such as Lux Lewis and Mary Lou Williams are mentioned in The Moving Target, JC Higginbotham in The Far Side of the Dollar – and I wonder whether Macdonald saw himself doing something a jazz musician would do, riffing on a theme and continually reworking it, trying in his mind to get it just perfect.  

Reading him now, you go into each of the last eleven Archer novels knowing what he’s going to explore in that book and how more or less he’s structured it, yet it doesn’t matter.  You still admire the construction, the suspense, and the mastery of language.  You still live with the anguished, striving characters.  His characters kill for any number of reasons, but nobody is what you'd call an evil person. He would agree with what the crime writer Ruth Rendell said about criminal motivation, that "Crimes are more often committed out of fear than wickedness. People lead frightened, desperate lives." Macdonald's characters fit this description to a tee, and his understanding of the human weaknesses that lie behind the monstrous acts is what leaves you finishing his books feeling, above all else, as in Greek tragedy, pity.  Pity for the criminals and pity for human beings in general. 

What I saw as fresh and current in Macdonald when I first read him is as far back in history now as Hammett and Chandler were when I started reading them.  Considering that, has Macdonald dated? When Archer uses a 60’s era phrase like "I had a gestalt", as he does in The Chill, perhaps the answer is yes, a little. But is his use of the parlance of his time any more dated than the 20's lingo Hammett falls into or the 40's slang Chandler employs? 

Macdonald fused plot, character, style, and psychology in the private eye novel like nobody had before him.  He used genre fiction to explore his deepest personal concerns and obsessions.  As a writer (and I don't even write PI novels), I've come to regard him as one of those novelists you can keep learning from, and after all these years, as I said a bit earlier, he’s a writer I keep coming back to, reading and re-reading.

Who among crime writers do you keep returning to?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Bouchercon Wrap Up in Pictures

by Kristi Belcamino

As a crime writer, I'm lucky to have dozens of wonderful mystery conferences to choose from each year. As a crime writer on a budget, I have to be picky about which conferences I attend.

I've only been published a little over a year, but I've decided the two main conferences for me to attend are Bouchercon and Murder Mayhem and Milwaukee.

Which are your Must Attend Conferences?

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with a photo essay of Bouchercon, the world's largest mystery conferences, which took place a few weeks ago. (So basically, the conference is where you go around and take pictures with everyone you know!) HA!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Motiffs That Transport

So this past Wednesday was October 21, 2015, otherwise known as Back to the Future Day. I think by now we all know what that date signifies, but for those of you who are living under a rock, that was the date Marty McFly and Doc Brown go forward 30 years from 1985 to 2015. I’ll admit to a little bit of sadness when you realize the entire trilogy now all takes place in the past. What was neat about Wednesday, October 21, 2015, was the promise of hope for the future. You knew you weren’t going to get flying cars…but there was hope, right? To those of us born and raised in the 1900s, the year 2000 was a magical year. Course when we got there, Y2K didn't happen. And, somehow, January 1, 2000 looked pretty much like [pick your date] 1999.

Question: Was October 21, 2015 the last great ‘future’ date in pop culture and/or science fiction? It’s certainly the last positive one I can think of other than Star Trek. “The Martian” is set in the future but it’s never dated. Are there any new dates? There’s The Running Man in 2017 and the future Blade Runner showed us for 2019. Not sure we’ll get to either one of them, thankfully.

On Wednesday, I re-watched Back to the Future Part Two since it takes place on that day. After the universal logo, the screen goes dark and there is that four note motif that opens all three films. Instantly, those four notes, conveying whimsy and wonder, put me in that mindset. It got me to thinking about other musical cues that instantly transport you. Here are a few off the top of my head:
  • Jaws (two notes, tons of menace)
  • Star Wars (first blast of brass)
  • Superman (opening five note, a clarion call for goodness)
  • Raiders (strings are all I need, but the brass really bring it)
  • Star Trek (opening three notes channels the sense of wonder)
  • Batman ’89 (opening mysterious vibe before the theme kicks in)
  • Jurassic Park (swirling strings)
  • first Harry Potter movie (where the theme is played on the flute-like bells)
  • opening Dick Dale riff in Pulp Fiction (not a theme per se, but hearing that anywhere takes me to Tarantino's LA)
All good themes. What are some themes y’all like whose opening riffs take you to that place you want to be?

Friday, October 23, 2015

An Ode to the TBR

By Renee Asher Pickup

Ah, the TBR pile.

The digital age hasn't made it easier to get through that long list of "To Be Read" but it's made it a hell of a lot easier to grow it. My relationship with the TBR is a mix of excitement and horror - every time I open a new book I think of all the others left behind, waiting, collecting dust.

Here are some of the books that have been on my TBR list for too long.

It's been over ten years since I worked at Borders book store in Columbia, Maryland, which is where I first encountered STIFF, shelving books. I'd worked in the schoolhouse where the USMC and Army trained service members to retrieve casualties and done a few morgue visits, and an interest in death, dying, and bodies remained. Mary Roach has gone on to pen several other books I really want to read, and haven't actually gotten around to. 

As soon as I added the photo for this book I felt like I had to duck - the readers of Do Some Damage are very likely throwing rotten vegetables at me for skipping this one. If not, wait for this - I've never read ANY Ellroy (if I'm not here next week it's because I've been asked politely to leave). I don't know how something like this happens. I know I should read Ellroy. I actually really want to read Ellroy. My growing interest in true crime says - for chrissakes, woman, read Black Dahlia! Yet, here it sits in the TBR, under a book I borrowed so I really, really need to read it before I get to anything else.

I look at this book every day. It is on a shelf in the living room and I can't walk into that room without looking at this book and yet... Ed Brubaker doing a mix of crime noir and Lovecraftian horror, somehow isn't the first thing on the TBR. I went back and read Deadpool vs. The Marvel Universe but didn't read Fatale. This blog entry is starting to make me feel bad about my life choices.

In addition to never reading Ellroy, I also never watched Justified. Not on purpose, really, I just didn't. I'm a big Elmore Leonard fan, though, and according to Goodreads I'm "currently reading" Pronto. Except, I'm not. A few years ago I downloaded the Raylan novels to see what the fuss was about, and apparently had really high hopes for tearing through them without delay. I also seriously intended to watch Justified. The intricacies of Raylan Givens remain unknown to me.

I've been a huge Stephen King fan since I was ten years old, sneaking books off the shelf. I have a huge collection of first editions, promotional items, and other random book-nerd junk I'm really proud of. Somewhere along the way though, King stopped being an author I bought and read overnight and became an author with a spot saved on the TBR. 11/22/63 was the first King novel to go TBR, and each subsequent release has followed. It's like I don't even know who I am anymore.

This is just a small selection from my ever-growing TBR. If I were to combine the actual pile with the digital list, and look at it long enough - I'm sure the length of the resulting list would make me feel my mortality in a very real way. The "To-Be-Read" is like a pile of hopes for the future and failures yet-acknowledged. 

What's been in your TBR for too long?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Noir at the Bar 101

So you wanna host a Noir at the Bar, eh?

Wait, you don’t know what Noir at the Bar is? Eek. OK. Well, read this and this and this. This blog post is not a history lesson, but those links should give you a general idea. Going to a ton of Noir at the Bars will help, too. Lemme know when you’re back.

Oh, hi. OK - still want to host one? Great.

I’ve had the pleasure and honor of participating in a ton of Noir at the Bars as reader and host - mainly in the NY/NJ area, where I learned a lot about hosting from folks like Todd Robinson and Thomas Pluck. I also like to think I’ve hosted a few good ones on my own in Queens. That said, I’m not the be-all, end-all when it comes to the mechanics of these events. With that in mind, I’ve put together a quick and dirty guide with my thoughts, plus insight from some of the best and brightest Noir at the Bar hosts around the world. So, sit back, pop open your favorite beverage and start dreaming up your plans for Noir at the Bar Narnia…


A good venue is the unsung hero of N@tB. What makes a good venue? Well, it should be relatively spacious, have a decent PA/mic setup (so the audience can actually hear the readers) and sport a relaxed atmosphere. Now, here’s where I digress from traditional N@tBs - I’ve hosted four, and all have been at coffee shops. The first four were at ODradeks, a coffee place in Kew Gardens. The most recent, and arguably most successful one, was at Astoria Coffee. Both places served beer and wine, covering the “bar” part - but most importantly, both places had a mellow, welcoming mood with engaged owners/managers that “got” what we were trying to do and promoted the events via their channels. That last point is key because it draws people in beyond your circle of writers and friends-of-writers. I’ll get into promotion a bit later, too.

It’s important to find a place that not only opens its doors to new patrons, but to the event as a concept.

“You want a place that likes having you and doesn't make you charge a cover,” said Jen Conley, who runs Noir at the Bar New Jersey. “I like the old school bars. I do mine at Tumulty's in New Brunswick. We have a downstairs room with chairs and a bar—all to ourselves. The place is fantastic.”

Adding special twists to make your event stand out from the many going on across the country doesn’t hurt either. But first order of business is getting a killer venue, most N@tB planners agree.

“For Noir at the Bar Twin Cities, we partnered with Paul Von Stoetzel - our MC - of Killing Joke Films,” said organizer Dan Malmon. “He shows a short film at each of the readings. That gives us a unique experience. The venue is so important. We've been in bars that were too loud, a private theatre that had a bar and stage, but was too isolated. We've been at Bent Brewstillery for 2 readings now, and it's perfect. They are a great partner and really enjoy having us. Tasty beer too.”

Even something as simple as a “VIP” meal can suffice.

“At the one I hosted in Harrisburg,” said Erik Arneson. “We had a pre-event dinner with all the readers who could make it early. Great fun.”

It also helps when the venue doesn’t do readings often - so the event feels new to not only the attendees, but the venue and its staff.

“For my money, the venue needs to be somewhere that doesn't typically host literary events,” said Jay Stringer, co-host of Noir at the Bar Glasgow. “I like the punk rock idea of taking literature out of libraries and book stores and putting them in a bar, making it live and fresh.”


OK, so your venue is locked in. What’s next? For me, I usually coordinate a ballpark date with my contact at the space - like, Thursdays in November, for example. Then I send an email out to some writer contacts to gauge interest (BCC is your BFF here). The people on the list vary and depend on the event. Not all Noir at the Bars are the same. For example - the first three N@tBs I did at ODradeks were not “selling” events. Which is to say, people didn’t expect to sell copies of their new book at the event. We did raffles every 2-3 readers so authors could bring their giveaway books and promo materials. However, the most recent Noir at the Bar Queens was done in tandem with the wonderful Astoria Bookshop - which meant I had to limit my roster to authors who had books out that could be ordered by a bookstore. Sounds trivial, but it changes things. After the initial emails are sent, I wait to see who responds and what date works best. Based on that, I start building a list. I try to cap it at 10-12. That’s usually two hours of reading, and you shouldn’t try to go over that. That’s the mechanics of it. There’s more to it.

I always strive for a mix of “big” names, up-and-comers and outside-the-box readers (i.e. crime writers who people might not expect to see at a N@tB). The idea is to pull from each author’s fanbase or circle of friends and to also draw in people that don’t normally attend a Noir at the Bar. Once you lock in your list, you’re halfway through. The next challenge is reading order. I liken it to creating a mixtape (so does Jay Stringer, which further proves we’re soul twins) - you want to start strong, close strong and have tonal shifts throughout to keep things interesting. Whenever I make a playlist, I start big, then hit harder with the second song and blow it out of the water with the third, always keeping in mind that the finale has to be the biggest moment. What does that mean in concrete, picking-a-reading-order terms? It’s hard to say. It should be a mix of what you know about an author’s skills as a reader and their resume in terms of being a draw. If you have a big name, like Lawrence Block - who was at the last Queens Noir at the Bar and hadn’t done a N@tB before - you close with him. Not only was he the biggest name on the bill, he was also a masterful reader (and a gentleman and joy to deal with), so it evened out. Other times, I’ve closed with a lesser-known author who I’m certain will bring the goods and end the night on a strong note. Go with your gut.

For what it's worth, I always ask readers if they have a preference as to where they land on the list. You’ll be surprised at some of the responses you get. I don’t always do this, but you should also note that while you’ll do your best to make it work in terms of author preference, final say on reading order rests with the host.

“Go with someone dark and funny to open,” said Ed Aymar, who runs a Noir at the Bar event in D.C. “Nik Korpon opened at our first, and Peter Rozovsky opened our second. Great ways to set the tone, and let newcomers know what to expect. Along those lines, if someone wants to participate but their usual storytelling is a different flavor, it's good to let them know what to expect. My pal Wendy Tyson is reading in Philly, and noir's not her bag, so she asked Angel Colon for advice at Bouchercon. I think she's still a little shaken, but ready.”


Easier said than done. I’m thankful I have some basic PhotoShop skills. Most of my N@tB posters are old paperback covers with modified text. They work for me.

If you’re not design-oriented, keep ‘em simple - cool photo, legible font and there you are. Just make sure the poster lists your readers, venue (with address!), start time and date. I also like to note it’s a free event, because I think everyone is cheap.

I also like printing it out on nice paper and providing it to the venue so it’s on display a week or two before the actual event. I’ve heard from attendees who came based on just seeing the poster.


Not all authors are Noir at the Bar veterans. In fact, you don’t want your lineup to be full of the same names someone could see elsewhere. After doing a few of these, I’ve started to notice how the Queens events differ slightly from its N@tB siblings. Not in a better or worse-than way, but just different. That’s good. And because you should strive to get new people into the mix, you should also be prepared to over-explain what the event entails. I try to lay it out as clearly as possible when emailing the roster - readings shouldn’t go over 10 minutes, I suggest a time of arrival and also ask readers to stick around until the end if they can (for the post-game group photo and because I think it’s nice to support your fellow readers - but you should also be understanding if someone can’t). These guidelines serve as a safety net for readers - it doesn’t guarantee a good reading. But you, as a host, have done your duty in letting your participating authors know what’s expected. The rest is in their hands. 90 percent of the time, it’s great.

I’m also learning as I go as a host. I make a little cheat sheet for myself before each event - it’s literally a script for the night - “Thank the venue, thank the readers,” etc. It includes author bios and sections that note when breaks should happen to allow people to exhale a bit, order a drink and mill about. Without those pauses, you’re basically sitting in silence for two hours.

Most, if not all Noir at the Bar hosts are veteran Noir at the Bar readers. With that experience comes a sense of how it works and what to do.

“Rehearse! Practice your piece. Keep it short,” said Eric Beetner, who’s organized a number of Noir at the Bar events in L.A. and elsewhere. “Pick something with humor or action and something that doesn’t need a lot of setup or backstory.”

Yes, bring the funny.

“Funny is always good,” said frequent Noir at the Bar reader and organizer Nik Korpon. “Don't go too heavy on dialogue unless you're an actor. Or at least, too many speakers. Don't go too long. I try to keep my readings under five minutes, which is about 2–3 pages.”


Every Noir at the Bar has a story - funny, bizarre, awful or amazing. It’s just the way these things go. As host, you should do your best to keep things relatively painless for your authors and put on an entertaining show for the people attending. Everything else is out of your control.

One of my fondest memories as a reader was watching Todd Robinson read a story of mine that involved some graphic stuff at a recent Noir at the Bar NYC that featured a handful of authors trading stories. I cried with laughter as things got more and more awkward.

As a host, I don’t think anything can top introducing Lawrence Block. He not only honored us with his presence, but he absolutely killed it as a reader.

But it’s not all unicorns and rainbows. Shit happens.

People get turned off.

“Our weirdest story was when we had someone walk out,” said Malmon. “During our second N@tB, Jed Ayres was in town from St. Louis. He read his story ‘Hoosier Daddy.’ It gets pretty graphic at the...climax...and we had a walk-out. Jed says it was a Red Letter Event for him.”

People get pissed.

“Our bar double booked by accident one night,” Beetner said. “So we had a very raucous birthday party going on at the same time. I’d worked really hard to get a reclusive writer out that night and it felt like he thought I was an idiot. Like, why did he agree to this bullshit.”

Readers swap stories.

“Reading Rob Hart’s story ‘Pretty Princess’ [at Noir at the Bar NYC] was just a blast,” Conley said. “Todd Robinson put together an event where we read each other’s stories. It was absolutely hilarious—the story and the event. I swear I must have turned 10 different shades of red while I was up in front of the microphone reading that tale.”


You’re probably doing this because you love crime fiction and being part of the community. So make sure you’re enjoying the process: listening to great stories, meeting the readers, connecting fans with great books and laughing  with your friends. Otherwise, why bother?

“They're all great,” said Eryk Pruitt, who hosts a Noir at the Bar in Durham. “As a host, it's going to be hard to top the one at Raleigh Bouchercon because there were eleven seasoned pros showing us how to do it. As a reader, I enjoyed reading at Shade in NYC because everyone was so nice and receptive. It was great to see how the grown ups do it.”

Got a favorite Noir at the Bar story? Share it in the comments.