Saturday, November 14, 2015

NaNoWriMo 2015: Week 2

If Week 1 got off to a great start, Week 2 maintained the momentum. I experienced no major roadblocks. Well, perhaps a minor one: I ended up writing a couple of scenes that I didn’t foresee so that was interesting. But the newbies seamlessly integrated into the story.

Week 1: 16,087
Week 2: 12.096

Two things of note for Week 2.

1. I passed the halfway point (25,000 words) three days ahead of the standard pace.

2. I dictated portions of my chapters on my iPod. I upgraded the software on the device and, when I was dictating a Facebook post, I noticed how swift the dictation was on the screen. Almost instantaneous. The biggest stumbling block to dictation right now is not being able to see the text (because I dictate into an audio file and transcribe later.) But how do I remember where I left off at, say, my last break at the day job?

Up until now, the dictation feature on my iPod was slow so I never used it. With the update, I started to. Granted, I’d dictate a sentence or two and then stop Siri, but that was pretty good. Something new to try.

Oh, another fun thing this week was seeing our old friend Joelle Charbonneau at Blue Willow Books here in Houston. She’s promoting her new book, NEED. I picked up a copy and plan to get to it in December. Get yours here.

Another book I’m excited to read is Kristi’s new book, BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO WEEP. Right now, for a limited time, it's only $0.99 for the ebook! I picked up my copy this week. You should, too. C’mon! It’s less than a cup of coffee.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Those curtains again

By Steve Weddle

Back in 2011, I said a thing about this dumb thing:

Essentially, I argued that if you ever found yourself in that situation, you should read better books. If you're reading books in which the author only meant to tell you the color of a thing, well, that's on you. The world is full of books by brilliant authors who can layer meaning and, I argued, you should read those instead of bitch about the shitty books you're reading now. Or, I guess, you could do both. Or neither. I'm not your real mom.

And yet.

And yet.

And yet that dumb thing has come back around, probably because Facebook is doing the "Hey, remember last year when you posted this picture? Wasn't that fun?"

So let's consider it this time, not from the reader's point of view, but from the writer's.

Sure, you could mean that the curtains were blue. That's fine. But let's work through how an intelligent writer might handle those curtains.

You could get particular about color, if you wanted. I grew up with the box of eight crayons, but I'm told some kids had boxes with more. Orange-red and red-orange. Something called "taupe." You could say the curtains were "light blue" or "sky blue." That's the sort of thing a writer might do when someone marks "needs more detail" in the margins. See, it seems like more detail, but it's not. It's dumb. Who gives a shit? Light blue. Dark blue. So what? Please stop writing stories.

If you're a writer with any skill. you'll want the curtains -- and much of the, ahem, fabric of the story -- to do more than just sit there. Lousy writers put detail where it isn't needed, where it merely slows the flow of the story and confuses the reader. Don't do that. What, you want an example? Fine. How's this?
He sat down on the couch, which was about six-feet long and had been bought at an outlet mall near Cleveland.
Again, who cares? Does the length of the couch, the mall, or Cleveland have anything to do with the rest of the story? Is Cleveland some sort of clue? No? Then shut up about friggin' Cleveland.

An origin story for a couch? No. Well, unless, OK. Let's try it again, this time with those damn curtains, again.
He slid open the curtains, their bright blue contrasting harshly against the deep blue of the walls, a color choice he'd argued against, but, what hadn't he and Margaret argued about in the snow-deep months last year.
Here, the origin matters. Margaret and the dude here got kinda fighty. Neat. Now we have more of the story coming out, thanks to the curtains. Of course, having an adverb in there -- "harshly" -- kinda kills it for me, but whatevs. You can work on that.

If you're giving details, you have to keep in mind that the details have to tell you something about the character or the setting. Or they have to move along the story. I mean, they have to do something. Gracious, any damn thing is a start.

Are they mis-matched curtains? Fine. Is that because she doesn't care about how things look or because she doesn't have the money to buy an $80 set at Curtains-R-Us? Or is it because she had a matching set, but she and Blaine had to split everything in the divorce, even the curtain? Come on, you're a writer. You can do better than having blue curtains, right?

Back in 2011, I said that if you read a book with the line "The curtains were blue," then you have lousy taste in books.

Four years later, I'd just like to say that, have all the blue curtains in your story you want. If you think a funny meme will make you a better writer, then you're probably setting the bar too low. You can do better than making internet memes proud of you.

You want to write about curtains? Rock on. Keep the curtains closed if your character is scared. Have her panic at the crease of light along the edges. Or tell me why a successful corporate vice president has Snoopy curtains in her office. Or why the guy hosting the party in your neighborhood has blinds on some windows and curtains on others. Is he a sociopath who hosts parties? Weird. Tell me more.

Have all the blue curtains, brown couches, and white towels you want. But, for Salter's sake, have them do something.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Being an Author Requires Actually Talking to People

Guest Post by Sarah M. Chen

Holly's note: When I read Sarah's guest post this week, I thought, "Yup, I can relate to that." I think a lot of us can. Few of us are comfortable speaking in front of crowds or even interacting on a smaller level, but a part of being an author is doing just that. Like Sarah, I'm kind of surprised at how easy it's gotten for me. It doesn't mean I like it any better, but it doesn't fill me with anxiety like it used to.

The funny thing is that I've heard Sarah speak and read her work in public and I never for a second thought she wasn't right at home doing it. That's a useful thing for us all to remember--we might not feel entirely comfortable when we're called to speak publicly, but more likely than not, our audience isn't aware of our apprehension.

<Handing the virtual mic to Sarah>

As authors, we all know that it’s important to get ourselves out there, whether it’s through social media or actual face time with real people. We’re told “You need to tweet ten times a day!” or “post consistently on your Facebook author page.” Even better, “boost your post on Facebook.” I have no idea what that entails but a publicist recently said it works. I took her word for it. 

All this social media work (because that’s what it really is—work) is daunting. But it doesn’t stop there because as an author you also have to do appearances and signings. You have to speak on panels at conferences and read at Noir at the Bars (if you’re lucky to be asked).

They say if you don’t do all this, then readers won’t feel connected to you. They want to meet you in person. They want you to reply to their tweets. They want to know what you’re doing every single second of the day. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating with that one. But my point is that if I’d known all this beforehand, I wouldn’t have ever had the balls to be a writer. Because all that social stuff makes me extremely anxious.

But I think I’m getting the hang of it—meaning I don’t have a complete meltdown at the thought of speaking to a crowd of people. Which is how I was years ago. When I first started publishing short stories back in 2007, I had no idea there were things like panels and events where I’d have to talk to people. When someone suggested I participate on a panel, I scoffed. Yeah, right. I’m a writer, not a motivational speaker. I quickly learned that that was the wrong attitude.

So I started out tentatively. My first panel I was on was a “South Bay Mystery Writers” panel at the Carson Library. I managed to squeak out a couple sentences that didn’t make sense. Next was reading alone in front of a crowd who may or may not heckle you. It was a “flash mob” style Noir at the Bar at Left Coast Crime in Monterey. I sucked it up, ignored the urge to duck behind the bar, and read from my WIP. It was the best thing I ever did.

From that point on, speaking gigs started to get easier for me. I moderated a panel at Bouchercon Long Beach. That was terrifying, but surprisingly, people told me I managed to look like I knew what I was doing. Then I was a panelist at Left Coast Crime in Portland. I read at Noir at the Bar in LA. Next was the Noir v. Cozy Smackdown for LitCrawl LA. Most recently, I participated in a celebration of a friend’s debut novel. Instead of the usual launch party, he did a mish-mash of author readings and live bands, and it was really fun.

On the digital side of things, I finally joined Facebook after balking for years and even created an Author page which still surprises me. I became friends with authors I admired which was a huge honor and pretty damn exciting. I joined Twitter finally this year. I’m still trying to get the hang of it, but I’m pretty certain ten tweets a day is not happening for me, like ever. I became a regular on a blog and—hey, I’m even doing guest blogs now!

I also feel like I’ve finally discovered my niche as a writer. A noir novella on the horizon has put me in contact with a lot of other noir folks and it’s a good group of people to know. It makes my time out in the real world and the digital world a lot less terrifying, with a lot more profanity. Works for me.

Sarah M. Chen’s crime fiction short stories have been accepted for publication online and in various anthologies, including All Due Respect, Akashic, Plan B, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Betty Fedora, Vol. 2, and the SinC/LA anthology, Ladies Night. Her noir novella, CLEANING UP FINN, is coming out May 2016 with All Due Respect Books, proving she can write something over 6,000 words. Visit her online at

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Crime Fiction and Scale

By Scott Adlerberg 

A particular quote has long fascinated me in relation to crime fiction.  It’s the famous quote usually attributed to Joseph Stalin that goes, When one person dies, it's a tragedy, but when a million people die, it's a statistic.”  Stalin of course would know about the killing millions part, though I’m not sure what single person’s death he actually found tragic. Coming from the Soviet dictator, this quote sounds cold and cynical and can serve as justification for mass slaughter.  From the ruler’s point of view, killing many is safer than killing that select few who might become martyr figures.  It makes perfect sense that Stalin would say something like this. 

The wrinkle here (if you can call it that) is that Stalin probably never said the line.  The quote is real though, appearing in a novel by Eric Maria Remarque. In his 1956 novel The Black Obelisk, there’s a passage that says, "Strange, I think to myself, how we have seen so much death in the wars and we know that two million of us have fallen in vain - how come we are so stirred up by this one man and have almost forgotten those two million? But that's just how it is, because one man is always the dead - and two million is always just a statistic.”  Here the quote takes on a sad humanitarian strain that has nothing in common with the Stalin attribution.  Indeed, when I think about it, taking specific quotes and putting them in the mouths of different people through history would be a fun game.  A compassionate line said by one historical figure might sound vicious and ironic coming from someone else in an entirely different context. But let’s stick to the line at hand. What does it have to do with crime fiction?

Only this: that no matter who came up with the words we’re talking about – it’s a line that has resonance because it does seem to state something true about human psychology.  Large scale death and suffering tends to elicit less sympathy than small scale misfortune.  People can sympathize with others in direct proportion to the degree to which they know something about the people afflicted.  As the saying goes, proximity is more important than magnitude.  It’s an equation all writers wrestle with really, but crime writers in particular tussle with it since their domain is what you might call the dark side.  If the best crime writers are fearless, contemplating, describing, and illuminating every aspect of human behavior, no matter how unpalatable, then finding just the right scale while doing this is of the utmost importance.

Crime writers routinely talk about how brutal and unflinching their works are. But in terms of magnitude, how brutal are we talking about?  Writers talk about the troubled characters they create, the criminals of every stripe, the psychopaths, but does one fictional killer conjured up, even a sadistic serial killer, hold a candle to, say, Bashar Assad, smiling in his well-tailored suits. You could name any number of so-called leaders, political and otherwise, in this connection? How much blood does that person have on his or her hands? How many lives ruined, how many people displaced? Thousands.  Hundreds of thousands.  Millions. Talk about crime!  But when we get into the area of what you might call crimes against humanity, crime fiction itself fails. Which is another way of saying, fiction is written about the Final Solution, the Srebrenica massacre, the Rwandan genocide, and so on, but it's no longer crime fiction per se. It's something else (war fiction, survivor fiction, historical fiction, etc). There may be some examples, but I'm hard put to think of crime fiction that takes place dead smack in the middle of a war zone. Or a crime novel set in a place where atrocities are everyday occurrences, like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. It may be too hard to find the right scale under such chaotic conditions, where arbitrary death, barbarity, and constant suffering are the norm. 

Where crime fiction does flourish is when set in periods soon after a time of trauma and strife. This can work in different ways.  After World War I came the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction (1920-1939 roughly), and though the era’s mysteries have been criticized backwards and forwards for being artificial contrivances, mere escapist puzzles, it can also be said that it was precisely their escapist quality that satisfied a need after the massive useless bloodletting of the “Great War.”  The novels of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, John Dickson Carr and countless others make death a thing that becomes a part of a country house game.  Evil intentions are always foiled; disruptions to the social order vanquished. That’s all dated now, but one can understand why people trying to come to terms with the horror of casualty statistics would eat up this kind of fiction. 

Crime fiction since the Golden Age doesn’t compartmentalize violence and death like those genteel masters did, but even the hardboiled people, the hardcore noir people, follow the same basic principle.  They tell a story about characters people get to know so that when death hits, the reader feels something specific, related to an individual.  To the greater horror outside the immediate world of the story, where the dead are mere statistics, we get hints.  Perhaps this helps account for the never ending stream of war veterans who have populated crime stories - books, movies, TV - from World War Two till the present. War veterans with all their psychological baggage (not to mention their skills) make for fascinating characters in their own right, but they also allude to something beyond themselves that the smaller scale story they’re in can’t encompass.  The Afghan war and the two Iraq wars have provided the fodder to keep this tradition kicking; among the works I've encountered recently where war vets play an integral part are Jon Bassoff's Corrosion, Mike Miner's Hurt Hawks, and Wallace Stroby's The Devil's Share. Paul Marks' Vortex is another. Justified has several characters who are returned vets, both on the side of the law and not, and True Detective couldn't but fail to have one of its cops be a former soldier.  I could go on with contemporary examples, but you get the picture. Clearly the vet in crime fiction tradition shows no sign of abating.

Still, in regard to the idea that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths a statistic - is there any single story that encapsulates this best? It's a matter of opinion, but I'd go back in time and point  to Graham Greene and the 1948 film from his script The Third Man.  Above all, I'm thinking of the character Harry Lime.

Lime (Orson Welles) has been trading in diluted pencillin leading to the death of many, including children.  But when his old friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) confronts him, high up in a ferris wheel, Lime asks him how much pity he’d feel if one of the dots (the people down below) stopped moving.  He adds the inducement of money.  Twenty thousand dollars to get rid of one dot.  From their high vantage point, aloof from the fray, thinking of people as sheer blips and numbers, is it so difficult to imagine accepting such an offer?  Those deaths would mean nothing to Lime, and we grasp his ruthlessness.  But as played by Welles, and written by Greene and him, Lime has a certain sardonic charm. We get to know him enough that we almost like him. There’s a woman who’s loved him and continues to love him despite the bad things she’s learned about him.  When Lime dies, after being chased through the sewers like a rat, we feel something for him despite ourselves.  We don’t feel shocked when his onetime lover, who knows of his crimes, snubs Holly Martins after Lime's funeral.  She knew the whole Harry and still feels emotion for him.  I might not call his death a tragedy, but as presented, it does come across as sad. The audience is made to feel ambivalent.  We understand that Harry Lime changed over time.  Something happened to him.  His moral sense coarsened. Maybe (shocker) it had to do with World War II and the callousness created by seeing death triumphant everywhere.  If millions just died in Europe and Asia, what’s a modest number more if it makes life easier for you?  In a way that’s more direct than usual, The Third Man gets into the question of distance and numbers and how people value human life, but in one way or another, this is a question that lies beneath the surface of a lot of crime fiction.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Talking P.I. Series with Alex Segura, Part II

Thanks so much for coming back to read Part II.
I have to tell you a little secret - Alex Segura is one of the most supportive crime fiction writers around. And he's a super great guy. 
When my editor and agent told me to go seek blurbs from fellow mystery writers, Alex was the first one I turned to and he was incredibly gracious and supportive and I'm very lucky to count him as a friend. (That's the secret part, you all already know what a great guy he is.)
And besides all that, he's a great writer. I love reading about his protagonist, Pete. If you haven't yet met him, I recommend you check him out, as well.
Here is the rest of our conversation. 

ALEX: What are some of the series you like to read, or that influenced your series work?

KRISTI: When my first book came out my editor said “Fans of Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series will enjoy this book” So of course I went out and read everything by Lippman I could get my hands on.

Also definitely, Edna Buchanan’s Britt Montero series.

And now I’m obsessed, flat out crazy about Chelsea Cain’s Archie and Gretchen series. I am a huge fan girl of Cain. I first heard about her in Jon Jordan’s bedroom at Crimespree Castle. (I just sort of want to  leave that there, but I”ll explain!)

I was in his room with Todd Robinson and I think Jeremy Lynch and Jon and my husband and Jon was showing us his flat out mind-blowing collection of books and all those guys started talking about Chelsea Cain with this awe and reverence and I thought, “Who the hell IS this woman.”

It took me about a year to pick her one of her books for the first time after that and as soon as I read it, I was starstruck. Gaga. Fangirl. I love, love, love all her books.

ALEX: Isn’t it awesome to discover a “new” writer and be able to dive into their entire run? I love that. I am a huge fan of all of Lippman’s work, particularly the Tess novels. They were a big influence on my own writing - the ability to show a flawed, human protagonist who didn’t fall into some of the more overused tropes that have become repetitive in detective fiction. I think Tess feels very real, and i wanted the same thing for Pete - if not the same traits and life. I wouldn’t have written a word if I hadn’t read George Pelecanos’s A Firing Offense, the first in his three-book Nick Stefanos series. Now there was a flawed hero! And he had NO desire to be a detective, he just kept getting into trouble. Just as it began to feel like it’d become routine, Pelecanos ended the series and moved onto something else, which I respected a lot. The Dennis Lehane Pat and Angie books also really loom large for me. I liked how he portrayed a dysfunctional and sometimes romantic friendship, how vivid the Boston setting was and how nasty his villains could be. The books just felt creepy and dirty and they didn’t resolve cleanly. I’m really interested in the gray areas of life, and in books that don’t fix everything in time for the peaceful epilogue, and Pelecanos and Lehane are both masters of that. I also have to point to the Lawrence Block Scudder books - what a trip. Scudder feels like such a NY landmark by now, but those first few books were totally different than the last few - you’re on this epic journey with Block as he creates this entire world of people and places. I visited the diner Scudder hangs out in a lot just for fun a few years back - I don’t do fanboy stuff like that often, but I really wanted to experience it. It almost felt like I was hanging out somewhere an old friend visited. All these series share protagonists that aren’t detectives per se - and if they are, they’re not your typical fedora-wearing tough guys looking for a lost dame, you know? I think we have enough of those stories done remarkably well, so I’m always curious about the ones that come from a little left of center.

KRISTI: You sparked a thought here - I am not really doing this in my standalone, but in my series books, I also really wanted to write an Italian-American protagonist. I wanted to write somebody who I related to on that level. There have been a few really great characters like this. Nobody as badass as Jackie Collin’s Lucky Santagelo, but also Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap books showed Italian-American life. For me, in my series, it was important to have that background and culture and close family ties and big Sundaydinners for Gabriella Giovanni. And like her, I have two Italian-American brothers who are very protective of me and I think people might think it’s a little bit of a caricature. But there is a level of family loyalty in this culture. Not totally Godfather stuff, but I’ve had family members offer to go to bat for me on a level that might seem a little scary. I did go into that a little bit more in my fourth book and I really enjoyed it. It’s hard to walk that fine line between showing those unique cultural aspects and coming off like a cartoon world.

ALEX: I’m so glad you brought this up, because it’s a part of the Pete series too - in a slightly different way. If you read Silent City, you realize that Pete is Cuban-American. He was born in Miami to Cuban parents. But it’s not something that’s hammered home throughout the book - by design. I really wanted to show someone who had this heritage, was defined by this heritage, but was also an individual with quirks and a unique perspective, you know? It was challenging, because you don’t want to seem like you’re shirking his culture, but I knew a lot of people like Pete and I wanted to show that - a Cuban-American guy who does regular things (and some crazy, not-regular things!). I think that says a lot in its own way. It’s funny, because your answer got me to thinking about character descriptions - I try to go pretty light on them, for a variety of reasons. As a reader, I hate getting bogged down by long, descriptive ‘graphs explaining what someone looks like, what they’re wearing and so on, unless it’s relevant to the story. If it isn’t, skip it, I say. So, with Pete and his friends, I kept it pretty light - you know Pete is of average build with brown hair and he sometimes has stubble. But that’s it. I leave the rest to the reader to tinker with in their head as they go on this trip with me. I don’t think I even go into his friends’ backgrounds in much detail, though they are very vivid in my mind, because I want it to be a collaboration with the reader to a point. I like envisioning characters in my head when I read and get really gummed up when the descriptions weigh things down.

That’s a bit of a rant, but I hope my point is clear! I think it’s important to show not only where the characters are going and facing, but where they come from. Pete’s dad is a big part of Silent City and the whole series, and his Cuban heritage, while not front and center in Book 1, is a major part down the line. The past is always relevant to the present.

KRISTI: Nice! I TOTALLY agree with the character description philosophy, although my style is to put a bit more in than you - I like to read about the clothes a woman is wearing! : ) But not too much. I want the reader to come up with her or his own idea of what a character looks like which is why I am still - 15 months after my first book was published - chapped about my cover which has a giant face of a woman on it. It just kills me. What a wake up call to me that I would truly have no say over my covers. I’m still holding out hope that they can be repackaged one day - that carrot was dangled before me once -- but not sure how to make that happen.

Do you like your covers? You probably wouldn’t say if you didn’t, right? I guess at first I wouldn’t either but after BOLO books wrote about how he wouldn’t read my books at first because of the covers,I  I sent his blog post to my editor - they are pretty clear about how I feel about the covers! ; ) HA!

ALEX: I love my covers, actually - and I’ve been extremely lucky so far. Polis has been very proactive and engaged in terms of running stuff by me and explaining why things look a certain way. It also helps that they get the book, want to create a consistent series design and know the market. I couldn’t be happier with the first two Pete covers. Really curious to see the next one. In terms of covers in general, I do LOVE them, but I can’t say they make or break a purchase for me. They can definitely help - I think Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt books have stunningly simple and iconic covers - but I would have bought those books anyway, you know? I think a great cover can be additive and a terrible cover can hurt your casual buys, definitely. I know people who won’t buy a book if they think the cover is off, which isn’t me, but that’s the way it is. I see the cover as a teaser trailer for what’s coming - either a key scene, moment or even feeling. It’s a really hard thing to do well, and I’m not a designer, so I’m always in awe of great covers and the people that make them.

I get what you mean about your first cover, though, especially if you want people to create their own mental picture of Gabriella - I think I’d be frustrated if that happened to me, too, because you want to keep some mystery in the reading experience.

I think this is a good spot to close out - thanks again, Kristi! This was an informative conversation!

KRISTI: Sure! This was fun. Great idea, Alex.