Saturday, December 5, 2015

NaNoWriMo 2015: Lessons Learned

Scott D. Parker

First things first: I’m not quite finished with the book. I expected it’ll happen this weekend. Likely on Saturday (seeing as how I’m writing this on Friday).

The second Gordon Gardner investigation now stands at 77,400 words and 70 chapters. For the most part, the first 85% of the book played out exactly as I planned it back in October. That enabled me to get this first draft out of my head in an efficient manner. Only at the end, ironically, did things slow down. The main reason is that the little nuances that happened along the way slightly altered how the ending finale took place. The set-up was there, but the variations needed ironing out. So I slowed down. Irritated me, but I kept forward momentum.

By now, this is my ninth manuscript to complete. A few things have emerged that seem to indicate my preferred writing style. (A quick aside: I wrote my first book in 2005-06. I’ve written eight since May 2013. It’s these latter eight I group together.)

Endings Are Fluid - This current book is a case in point. So far, about six of the recent eight books all had endings I didn’t see coming. Only THE PHANTOM AUTOMOBILE and the forthcoming Lillian Saxton novel had endings I saw ahead of time and wrote toward.

I Can Crank Out First Drafts - Having a road map for my books means I can drive the speed limit or faster. I don’t have to worry about what happens next. I know what happens next. Sometimes, new things pop up. I address them and then get back on the road. A book is a whole lot easier to work with when you have it on paper in front of you. Then, you’ve already told yourself the story and you can fix things.

Writing With a Full-Time Job is Doable - Granted, I've learned this my entire fiction writing career since I've yet to have the opportunity to write full-time. But it's still nice to know that I can bring home the bacon and still produce a book.

Writing From a Theme is Interesting - I specifically tried a new technique with this book: write from a character perspective and have a theme I’d like to explore. The next thing about this is that I was able to shape scenes to fit the theme. I think it helped drive home the central idea.

I Suck at Titles - I have no idea what this book will be called. Right now, it’s “Gordon 02.”

I Like the Plan-for-a-Month/Write-for-a-Month pattern. I’ve now down it twice this year and it’s worked very well. It may be my new standard.

That’s about it for now. So, for y’all who did NaNoWriMo, did y’all learn anything about yourself or your writing process?

Friday, December 4, 2015

On Names and Playlists.

A little known secret about me is that while "Pickup" is definitely my real, legal name, "Renee" is not. This all came to light when I went to pay for my dinner a couple Boucher Cons ago and all was revealed when I had to pass my credit card across the table. Renee is my middle name, and I've used it since I was twelve years old, but ever since that fateful dinner, Joe Clifford has used every opportunity available to remind me that my name is, in fact, Brandi.

Most recently he posted on my Facebook wall, "Every novel gets a setlist. Working on the new one, and this gem made the cut..."

I know a lot of writers need white noise or instrumental music to concentrate and get their ideas down, but I've always listened to music while I write. It's become almost necessary since I had a child and the ability to shut out noise with a pair of earbuds is the only thing keeping me writing. 

Usually I set the mood by creating a Pandora station, the idea being I will have a steady stream of unfamiliar music that will block the noise, but not distract me by being too awesome to ignore. The project I'm currently working on has called for a different approach. This project calls for hot sex, bad bitches, boozing, and stealing shit. So I went hog-wild on a playlist. I even learned how to use Spotify so I could grab some songs I don't think I'll listen to much outside this project, and to be able to share it with all you fine folks at DSD.

The playlist is weirdly eclectic, but I'm trying to meld two fairly strict genres (crime fiction and erotica) into something fun, sexy, and exciting. The common themes are drinking and substance abuse, hot sex, and, bad women. Makes for a crazy playlist, but hopefully a good story full of cracking safes, hot sex, and of course, things that go terribly, horribly awry.

I'm actually really enjoying working with a playlist. It's especially handy when I'm doing something mindless like cleaning the kitchen or driving to the grocery store, and I want to use that time to keep my head in the game. Some of the songs already work like Pavlovian cues, switching the part of my brain that's responsible for the story into action. The quick flips from Hank Jr to MIA and back to Sleater-Kinney also help to keep me from focusing on a sexy mood when people are shooting at each other, and not blaring gangsta rap when people are screwing. It's a good time. Plus, I have more excuses to listen to Elle King, who I've fallen desperately in love with.

It will be interesting to see how the finished story measures up against this playlist. The working title has already changed three times, so who knows what's in store.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Favorites and Thanks

Somehow, I ended up teaching a LitReactor class. If you’re reading this early enough, you can probably still sign up. It starts today and covers how to pitch a comic book. Should be fun.

While crafting my first lecture - yes, I can lecture - I got to thinking about the idea of learning, and how as writers, we should never really stop. I was also thinking about gratitude a lot, too. Thanksgiving had just ended and I’d just flaked on two DSD posts. So, I was thankful for all the great things in my life, one of them being Steve Weddle for his patience and understanding.

So, what’s my point? My point is that I’m thankful for a lot of books and things I’ve learned from them. With that in mind, here’s a list of what got me jazzed about reading and writing this year - with a few older books tacked on that deserve special mention.

Not a shocker that most of them are crime novels, politics or music-related. Those are my jams. I read a ton of comics, too, but that's a whole list unto itself. Maybe later this month.

In terms of next year - I'm very much looking forward to the new Megan Abbott, Duane Swierczynski, Reed Farrel Coleman, Charlie Jane Anders and more. I'll pop that list up here early next year.

What were your favorite books of the year? Which books are you most looking forward to? Share below!

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving break and got some much-needed down time.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Get With the Program: An Interview with Judy Bobalik

by Holly West

Whether you're a reader, a writer, or both, if you spend much time in crime fiction circles you've likely met Judy Bobalik. Judy isn't just an avid crime and mystery fan--she's contributed numerous hours of hard work doing the programming for Bouchercons over the years. Together with Jon Jordan of Crimespree Magazine, she'll be doing the programming for Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans.

When I returned from Raleigh in October and began scheduling DSD posts for the remainder of the year, I knew I wanted to interview Judy. She graciously agreed to answer my questions and herein provides some insight into the process of programming a large conference like Bouchercon.

HW: I know you're a voracious reader. In fact, voracious doesn't even cover it. How many books do you read, on average, a month? Do you have a favorite sub-genre of crime/mystery? 

JB: I read or listen to 25-30 books a month. My favorite sub-genres are private eye and police procedurals.

HW: How many Bouchercons have you attended? How many times have you served as program director or co-director of Bouchercon? What other mystery conferences to do you attend regularly?

JB: I have attended 16 Bouchercons, 1987 and then every year since 2001. I have programmed 4 Bouchercons, 3 with Jon Jordan, 2008, 2010 and 2013 and one, 2011 with Ruth Jordan. Jon and I will be doing the programming for 2016 in New Orleans. I try to attend Left Coast Crime every few years and the same with Magna cum Murder in Indianapolis.

HW: How far in advance do you start planning the Bouchercon program? What is your process in the early months?

JB: This year we will start programming in June of 2016. In the early months I try to read new to me authors. I also Google or go to the website of every single author who has asked for a panel. So having an up-to-date website with current information is a plus.

HW: Is it important for authors to register as early as possible? 

JB: It is not a first come first served scenario, people requesting panels need to be registered by the cut-off date. This year it is May 31, 2016.

HW: How can authors make your job easier?

JB: In my dream world every single author would be available from the start of the first panel on Thursday to the close of the last panel on Sunday. Barring that, it is most helpful if panelists let me know when they won't be available before I send out the panel assignments.

HW: Do traditionally-published authors have an edge over self-published in getting panel assignments?

JB: Yes, while we don't automatically discount self-published we will fill the panels with traditionally published authors who have had a book published in the last 3-4 years first. We have been known to make exceptions based on our knowledge of the person and what we feel they can contribute to the panel.

HW: What would you like to tell authors about conference programming that they might not know?

JB: Thursday, contrary to popular belief, has the most highly attended panels resulting in the most book sales. Morning panels also have a high attendance.  Jon and I put in too much time to program scrub panels. Bouchercon is not about being on a panel, it is about meeting people in the bar, at lunch,at other panels and networking.

Judy Bobalik doesn't like to leave home, but when she does, it's to go to a bookstore or a mystery conference. She used to own a bookstore but now makes her recommendations online. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and three cats.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

La Frontera

by Scott Adlerberg

Last week in this slot Gabino Iglesias wrote a piece about his new book Zero Saints. He discussed writing in Spanglish, novelistic violence, and positionality in today's indie crime fiction. I hadn't read the whole book when I read his piece last week, but now I have finished it, and looking back at what Gabino wrote, I find one sentence in particular has been ringing in my head:

"I wanted the novel to explore life after crossing the la frontera."

La frontera - that long border between the United States and Mexico that never stops being a source of discussion, contention, interest, outrage...

Okay, how many books have you read, movies have you seen, where somebody has crossed la frontera, or intends to, heading in a southerly direction?  It's a familiar trope in the popular imagination, and the reasons people head across the border from the United States to Mexico are many.  I'll list a small number that occur to me:

  • To escape the law: After criminal activity in the U.S, one or more people flee to Mexico.  (See innumerable books and movies not to mention criminals from real life.)
  • To escape the law and/or kick back with booze and whores for very cheap. (See, for example, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch).
  • To chase and hunt down Native Americans who struck ranchers and the US Cavalry, then fled south. (See Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee - but enough with Peckinpah whose obsession with Mexico is well-known).
  • To become a bullfighter and impress a woman. (See Budd Boetticher's 1951 film The Bullfighter and The Lady, with Robert Stack). 
  • To observe a revolution in action. (See the life of Ambrose Bierce, whose mysterious last days, probably in Mexico, perhaps at Pancho Villa's side, are explored in Carlos Fuentes' The Old Gringo.)
  • To prospect for gold. (See The Treasure of Sierra Madre, either the great book by B. Traven or the great movie directed by John Huston.)  
  •  To ease personal pain and guilt by bringing a dead friend to his hometown for burial. (See the film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.)
  • To have adventures of all sorts as you go from boyhood to adulthood. (See Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy).
  • Etc.
It strikes me, looking at this list, that it's very male-oriented, but Mexico exists as a testing ground or place of escape in women-centered narratives also.  Just to name a few works:
  • Set It Off, in which three of the four African-American women who rob a bank get killed trying to escape, but one, Stoney, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, escapes on a bus to Mexico.
  • Donald Cammell's Wild Side, in which Anne Heche and Joan Chen, after many tribulations, finally get clear of the men in their lives to escape together, as lovers, to Mexico.
  • The recent Sicario, with Emily Blunt joining a federal task force that does dirty work against drug cartels on Mexican soil.
  • Thelma and Louise, a clear example of if only, as in if only Louise had been willing to drive through Texas, the outlaw pair might very well have escaped getting caught and made it to Mexico.

There are so many more examples and I'm sure I could go on for hours. As could you if you start making your own list. But the point is that for North Americans, Mexico for a long time has served as "that other place". It's the place where so much is possible that's not possible "above" the border.  It's a bit like a country that exists symbolically as a gringo's subconscious.  Go to Mexico and anything can happen.  It can serve any number of needs for the North American going there.  You can find yourself in a nightmare or you can find sanctuary.  Even if it's just a place to retire to, it still represents a haven, a place where a North American of moderate means can live quite well.  The weather will be hot, the colors provided by Nature intense, and you can get yourself a house on the Gulf or the ocean.  To the North American imagination, Mexico is  a country and a psychological space.  But what Gabino Iglesias does in Zero Saints is reverse that trope, and if the reader has any doubts about what he's doing, he breaks into his crime tale to tell the meaning of "la frontera" for someone crossing it going north.

A little more than a third of the way through his novel, Gabino has a chapter that begins, "What happens when you cross la frontera is that you leave a place to enter a void......You do everything in your power to become a gringo, to fit in, to become as unnoticeable as the cracks in the sidewalks.  Then you start walking with less confidence because everything is mysterious and new and scary and you never feel bienvenido.
What happens when you cross la frontera is that la frontera keeps a piece of you inside, hasta  el hueso, where you can't heal yourself.  It slashes you in places no blade can reach and cripples you in ways you don't understand...
What happens when you cross la frontera is that your body becomes a magnet for the bad stuff that has piled up all along that awful dividing line."

Awful dividing line?  That's not how North Americans generally describe it, unless they say the line is awful because it's porous and we need to build a gigantic wall....but that's another story.

There's a good bit more to the Zero Saints chapter on la frontera, and I won't give it all away.  It's incisive and painfully honest .  In crime fiction at least, I've rarely seen the reversal of "the crossing" trope presented so explicitly.  If for the North American, going across the US-Mexican border is a descent into the subconscious, frequently the id portion of the subconscious, where the shackles one has on up north can come off, then for the Mexican crossing the other way, it's like a trip to the land of a harsh super ego - lots of threats and punishments and constraints.  

Better behave 'cause if you don't...

Fiction from the other angle, that's Zero Saints. It serves as a bracing corrective.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The L.A. Riots vs Black Lives Matter

by Kristi Belcamino

This is a VERY long story about why I didn't flinch when I was told by my newspaper to  cover the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis despite Molotov cocktails being found near my car and five people getting shot.

I've seen all this before on a scale that is nearly unfathomable to me now. If you have a few minutes to spare, here is the story. The above photo was taken by a man named Gary Leonard in my neighborhood in 1992.

It was April 29, 1992. That day I threw on my Alice-in-Wonderland print dress and laced up my Doc Marten boots. I stepped into the hallway of The American Hotel — where very few people had televisions and Internet access was many years in the future — and was told this:

"You're lucky you're moving to Seattle next month because as soon as this verdict comes down, all hell is going to break loose in this city."

I  lived in a residential hotel in downtown Los Angeles that was above an infamous punk rock bar, Al's Bar, where Jane's Addiction had played in the day and where Charles Bukowski's widow held his wake.

I was on the fourth floor and at night, sleeping on my black futon spread on the floor, I could tell whether the band was any good or not based on the vibrations coming up through my floor. 

For some reason, I don't remember which one of my neighbors  at the residential hotel told me this that fateful day, but his words are seared into my memory. I paused outside my door and then, almost without thinking, as a primal, self-preservation instinct, I walked back in and changed into jeans and a T-shirt, grabbing my jacket that had a huge picture of Robert Smith from The Cure on the back. The future was uncertain and I felt too vulnerable to step onto city streets wearing a dress that day.

We were awaiting the Rodney King verdict. Little did I know that I would be wearing those same clothes for the next three days.

About a half hour later, I was on the 710 freeway that snakes from Los Angeles to Long Beach — where my boyfriend was waiting for me. The 710 freeway travels right over South Central L.A. In fact, it swoops very near Florence and Normandie.

As I drove to Long Beach I listened to the radio news announcing the Rodney King verdict and it's aftermath. First, reports of what was happening at Florence and Normandie near where I was driving: a man later identified as Reginald Denny was yanked out of his truck and beaten. A helicopter hovering above captured the beating on camera for the world to see as it ignited rioters across Southern California. The news reports said rioters were attacking drivers, reporters, anyone who wandered into their path.

In Long Beach, the entire town was in an uproar talking about the violence and chaos just north of us. Everyone was in a state of shock and disbelief. It suddenly felt like we had been thrust into a third-world country.I don't remember much about those first hours. 

Everything was overshadowed by the riots. People were gathered in front of radios and TVs everywhere. We stood around and watched what was happening. On street corners. In restaurants. In coffee shops. At the bars. The beaches were deserted. Nothing else existed except the riots. Oddly, I remember that there wasn't a lot of conversation about it at the time. People were too stunned. Most of us stood there, stricken into silence, watching the news reports.

Later, tired, and ready to go home, I was on the freeway again, this time toward my home in downtown L.A. I was about to exit onto the 101 freeway, but what I heard on the radio made me change my plans: Rioters had swarmed onto the 101 freeway and were setting fire to cars and palm trees.

One of the scariest moments of my life was exiting the freeway right then to turn around and realizing there was not an easy entrance to get back on the freeway heading south. My memory is hazy, but I remember the fear that coursed through me and verged on panic. In the dark streets I drove, frantic to get back on the freeway as I saw clumps of people less than a block away swarming the streets with their fury.

I somehow managed to get back on the freeway and, unsure where to go, since I couldn't go home, headed back to Long Beach.

Meanwhile, as I later learned, back at The American Hotel, my neighbors had taken to the rooftops with their guns, vowing to protect our building, as piss-filled and worn-down as it was.The guns were a bit of a surprise to me. 

One neighbor, a former cover girl model now down and out, who like me worked as a waitress at the Mexican cantina a few blocks away on the border of East L.A., stood on the roof with an Uzi.

Two days later, when I returned to L.A. my neighborhood had been turned into a war zone. Parking lots that usually were full with commuter's cars had been turned into armed camps, with camouflage nets strung across the tops. An empty dirt lot near The American Hotel now had trenches dug in it and was patrolled by National Guard members in full body armor. Old hangouts were burned to the ground. Tank-like vehicles rumbled down my street.

But that first night, I knew none of this. That first night, reports of the rioters on the 101 freeway were enough to send me scuttling back to Long Beach. That first night, I got a hotel room and stayed up all night with my boyfriend, glued to the TV. 

We stayed up until dawn, until we could no longer keep our eyes open anymore. We stayed up watching footage of L.A. burning, of rioters looting and carting shopping carts full of merchandise, of bricks hitting people's heads. My neighbor was right. All hell had broken loose in my city.

The next day, blurry-eyed, I hung out in coffee shops all day long. I remember calling in to the Mexican cantina and being scolded by my boss for not coming to work that day. I told him that there was no way in hell I was going to go to work at the Mexican cantina that was a notorious hangout for both East L.A. gangbangers AND off-duty LAPD. Screw that. It would be fire-bombed, I was sure.

I was sitting at one coffee shop, the last in a long series I had visited that day, when the Long Beach cops came in and shut the place down. They said they were closing all businesses on that street because "The rioters" (they had taken on a life and entity of their own) were a mile up the road burning the mall.

"The Rioters" — an unidentifiable group of people — had become a solid mass that struck fear in people. What I hated, what I loathed with every fiber of my being, was this sudden acute awareness of race and skin color that faced me at every turn. I hated thinking that the color of my skin was defining me in that moment and defining others, as well. 

It was shameful to realize that the world had suddenly turned into "us" and "them" overnight. It scared me to think that the L.A. population was being viewed in terms of black and white. 

Literally. To me, that was more frightening than rioters burning palm trees and cars. I knew I wasn't the only one who felt this way. I knew that people black and white, felt exactly the same way as I did.

With nowhere to go, my wandering eventually led me to a bench on some cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I sat there with my head in my hands for what seemed like hours, but was probably only minutes.

Then, I noticed somebody had sat down beside me. I looked up. It was a black guy about my age. He sat in a similar position, holding his head.

When I saw his similar pose, I chortled a sort of delirious, sleep-deprived laugh. He looked up at me and laughed, too. We both were in hell and we knew it.

We spent the rest of the afternoon together. We tried to figure out what had gone wrong in the world, how we had grown up in the middle of it all, and what we could do to stop something like this from ever happening in the future. (Remember we were idealistic college kids!)

We especially talked about "them" — the rioters. Because they were not us.

The ones who were trying to seek justice by destroying a city and killing people were not us. We didn't know how to solve such a deep societal problem, but we knew violence wasn't the answer.

And so, no, I didn't flinch for a second covering the peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis. They were angry and there was shouting, but the only violence the first two weeks of protests saw came from an outside group - a radical white supremacist group that decided Molotov cocktails and shooting people was an answer to whatever frustration they were having - or whatever hatred they needed to spew.

The protesters remained angry, but peaceful.

People out that Friday night included families with children, ministers from different denominations across the Twin Cities, and people who had grown up on the North side and seen and had an experience with police I've never had.

So, no I didn't flinch when I was told to go to the protests and see what was going on.

When I arrived, I headed straight to the fire pit with the toughest, baddest looking guys gathered around it.

And you know what happened? They offered me a slice of pizza and scooted over so I could warm myself at their fire.

When it was time to go back to the newsroom, I found a man with a flashlight checking under cars in a dark parking lot. When I showed up, he was ducking down peering under my minivan. He told me they'd received numerous threats from white supremacist group's promising to disrupt the protests that night. In fact, they found several Molotov cocktails near my car. He was checking to make sure there weren't any more.

"It's really freaking us out," he said.

His name was Michael and he was one of the organizers from Black Lives Matter. I gave him a hug and thanked him for being out on this cold night taking the time to look under my vehicle and others for something that could hurt us. By the time I got back to the newsroom, the Minneapolis police had posted this photo:

And a few days later, several white guys in masks showed up at the protest and opened fire. Five people were shot with non-life threatening injuries. Four men have been arrested in connection with the shooting.