Saturday, January 9, 2016

Reading Resolution: 2016

First off, no, I'm not copying Steve. His Thursday column was about reading more in 2016. Turns out, that's my resolution as well. I used to make writing goals, but I've discovered my groove with writing, so I no longer have to do that. Now, I just need to read more.

On the recent podcast from Kobo Writing Life, they interview Michael Connelly. He mentions that he would like to read more. Because, let's face it: when we writers are actively writing, we can sometimes let the reading half of our lives lapse. I know I do.

Up to now, when I write a new tale, I tend to read something similar. That's not to get 'ideas' but to stay in a certain type of mindset. When I write a western, I want to read a western. It would be a tad difficult to read a modern technical thriller while writing a novel about the Old West. I suppose some writers can do that, but I choose not to.

Having said that, it's nice that my upcoming writing schedule should enable me to read westerns, modern mysteries, and World War II thrillers. (That's what is called a hint at what Quadrant Fiction Studio will be publishing this year.)

But I want to read more broadly as well. Again, I tend to find those genres and authors I like and just stay there. I'd like to discover a new-to-me author this year. I'd also like to keep more up-to-date with the modern mystery and crime fiction field. My eyes see so many books in all the various sources from which I consume content that it all becomes a blur. Then it becomes overwhelming and I don't know where to start.

Well, thanks to my Kindle Paperwhite, I have one place to start. "Kindle First" is a program for Prime members where you can download one free new book per month. Now, it's not *any* book, but one of 6 the editors have selected. Fine by me considering I know where to find the books and authors I already know. This way, I will have 6 likely new-to-me books/authors from which to choose. Here's January's list.

I'm not going to pledge anything. Reading isn't like NaNoWriMo. I can't read faster than my already moderate pace. Plus, I don't have a lot of time for reading. But I will certainly read more books. And I'll keep track of them, likely on my author website. More details on that forthcoming. But I don't want to just add books to the To Be Read pile. I plan on actually reading them. I know I won't end 2016 having read all that I want to read, but I aim to keep the pile manageable.

So, surely Steve and I aren't the only ones who want to read more. What are y'all doing to read more books in 2016?

Friday, January 8, 2016

I Got It First!

You know that feeling you get when you read a great book and you want to talk about it? You recommend it to all your friends and tell them, "let me know when you've read it!" The first book I finished in 2016 was phenomenal, but unfortunately, much as I want to tell everyone reading this to go buy it right this second - it's not out yet. It's not even to the publisher yet.

One of the best perks of being a part of a writing community is getting to see great work first. I was lucky to have three great writers (and wonderful people) offer to beta read a novel I am working on (Rob Hart, Leah Rhyne, and W.P. Johnson) and in return, of course, I offered up my time to return the favor. This is how I got to be one of the first people to read Hart's next book, City of Rose - which was hardly a chore. I get more excited every day the release date comes nearer. This is also how I got to read what will become W.P. Johnson's debut novel, A Song For John.
Available for pre-order!

I've known that Johnson had chops for a long time, enjoying his short fiction and essays for the last few years, and I knew he had put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into A Song For John, so when it finally showed up, I didn't feel the trepidation I sometimes feel when opening a file from a friend. The worst case scenario when beta-reading for a friend is the discovery that your friend cannot write, or their story is plain bad. I was spared this scenario in favor of an engrossing horror novel with fantastic characters and tons of cool music references. In many ways, it felt like someone had written a novel just for me.

 When I started taking my writing seriously I joined the LitReactor website and got involved with an ill-fated anthology project that had one fantastic upside - I found my "people." There comes a time for every writer when a workshop style round of critiques is less helpful and the need for focused feedback from peers who "get" what you're doing is necessary. I've been lucky to beg and receive feedback from a tight group of great writers that always seem to be around when a story isn't working or is nearly finished and needs one last set of eyes on it.
W.P. Johnson

Beta reading is a part of the process I don't think gets talked about much. I know many writers choose to skip this step once they've hit stride, and that's fair enough, but for those first few projects, when you don't have an agent or publisher on your side, willing to over look your silly mistakes, it's better to hear it from a friend. The added benefit is, of course, getting to be "first" when writers you know have a new project that's almost ready to go. If you've ever felt like you loved a book "but", this is that rare moment where your "buts" matter.

For me, the trade hardly seems fair. Rob Hart and W.P. Johnson both gave me great notes and tons to work with on my subsequent draft, but both of their books were so good, so enthralling and fun, that instead of feeling like I'd returned a favor, I felt like they'd done me yet another. I got to be one of the first people to taste their words and experience the worlds they created - and I get to tell everyone, "Oh yeah, I read it, it's good" while they say, "But it's not even out yet!" (Aside: Leah, lady, send me a book to read!).

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Reading more in 2016

By Steve Weddle

Happy New Year and all that crap. We're getting back into the full swing of things here at DoSomeDamage. so you'll see postings pick back up the next couple weeks. Your prayers have been answered.

Did you make any resolutions for the new year? Good. I did, but they're none of your damn business,

Anyway, as readers and writers, what are the things we're supposed to make for resolutions?

I logged in to Goodreads the other day since LinkedIn was down and I needed something else to do on the internet. They have this Reading Challenge for 2016 over there. It looks like this:

Damn right I want to read books in 2016. And magazines. Newspapers. Blog posts. All sorts of things. Of course I do. So I go to check the box there, and it turns out they want me to put a number in that slot. What the heck am I supposed to do? How many books am I supposed to read? More than I read last year? Should I read fewer books but more pages? 

Goodreads would probably like for me to read many, many books. They'd like for me to update my status as I read, review books I read, join discussion groups to talk about books I read.  

Helpfully, they've let me know what others are doing:

People are PLEDGING to read books? (What's that on your chest, mister? A pledge pin, sir.) OK. Do I get a coffee mug if I pledge to read 50 books? A tote bag for 100? An Arlo Guthrie/Judy Collins DVD for 200? The box says 37 million books have been pledged. I guess they'd like me to join in. Of course, Goodreads (owned by Amazon) would also like for me to click the Audible (owned by Amazon) ad below to get a book to listen to or click over to Amazon itself to buy some books to read. Sure, Amazon wants me to pledge to read 48 books. Heck, if I sold lemonade on the corner, I'd want you to pledge to buy 100 cups or more. That makes great sense from a financial perspective. And I'd certainly agree that we should read more. I just disagree that increasing the number of books -- or even bothering with counting -- is the best way to measure whether you're reading more.

Read in more genres this year. Do you read mysteries and thrillers? Have you slid in a biography of a pirate? A space opera? A book of essays? I'm kinda in love with Rebecca Solnit essays at the moment. She wrote a book called Men Explain Things to Me, which has been fairly popular. The one I'm reading is called The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciouness, and has a brilliant piece on the Katrina response, as well as a clever, sly essay on California punk rock and how the 1970s maybe didn't exist at all. How about letters? Do you read collections of letters? The Nabokov letters recently made a big splash, judging from the reviews I read everywhere. Westerns? When's the last time you read a real Western? True Crime? A book on foods from Siberia? Just think of what we could learn if we spread our vision to other sections of the bookstore. Heck, maybe you're way ahead of me on that. 

Read more "different" voices. As a white dude, I still read many white dudes. I don't say to myself, "Hey, sexy, You've read a white dude this weekend. Your next read should be by a Martian." I have been hugely successful in picking out books from folks around the world. I mean, just type "Nigerian novel" into the Google searches and you can't go wrong with the first couple pages of searches. Here's a list I've found super helpful, too. 100 Must Read Nigerian Novels Of course, you can go with Iceland. New Zealand. Ukraine. The world awaits you.

Read short stories. I will run across a short story in Zoetrope or the New Yorker or at a thousand other places and end up buying a collection from that author. That's how I ran across Rebecca Lee's amazing collection, Bobcat. I don't always read every story in the book I end up with. (Sorry, Nathan Englander.) But I read as much as I want, whether just a few stories or all of them. I find that reading stories instead of novels sometimes makes it feel as if I get to hear more voices. 

Read everyone from one author. This seems like a cool thing I'll never do, Pick a new-to-you author and read everything. Laura Lippman. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Ben Okri. Sjon. Zane Grey. Heck, just pick someone. Chances are, you're missed some stories or books from even your most favorite writers. It's possible I've missed a story from Jay Stringer, though I kinda doubt it.

So, yeah, you can read more in other ways, too. You've probably already thought of some. Reading more is great. Posting reviews is great. Puppies are great. But maybe you don't want to just put a number in that empty slot. Maybe a number isn't what you need to challenge yourself this year as a reader. Maybe reading 500 books isn't the answer. Maybe, like me, you just want to read more.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

What's in a Pen Name?

by Holly West

Hello there, lovelies! I hope you had a wonderful holiday and that your new year has started on a positive note. I allowed myself two weeks of utter freedom, if you call hosting family and friends for several large meals freedom. It just so happens that I do call it freedom and it felt wonderful.

Over my Christmas vacation I finally came up with a pen name for myself. I have no immediate need for one and truthfully, I hope I never have to use one--that is, I hope I'm able to sell my next novel using my own name. Well, if we're being really honest here, I hope I'm able to sell my next novel period. On the cusp of submitting it to my agent, I have that same peculiar blend of authorial confidence and withering self-doubt that fueled my initial foray into publishing. But I'll get to that in a minute.

My pen name is not particularly sexy and it's far less cool than Holly West is. I get an obscene amount of compliments on my name, which seems weird. It is, after all, just a name. But people love it.

I went back and forth on whether I should make my pen name unisex but quickly decided if I couldn't sell a book as the female I am then so be it. I also didn't want to use initials because I get confused when authors use them. I can never remember what the initials are--in my addled brain PD James becomes PF James and while that probably won't prevent me from finding books by that author, I'd like to avoid any possible confusion for my own books.

Ultimately, the name I chose is practical and a little nostalgic. It's a bit old-fashioned and maybe hints that I'm older than I am--or at the very least hints at my actual age, which is old enough. It reminds me of my heritage, but mostly, it frees me of the constraints of being Holly West. Being Holly West is awesome but for the last year or so I've wanted to get away from her, writing-wise. I'm not sure what that means yet but I'm looking forward to exploring it, even if I never actually use the pen name.

Back to what I said about authorial confidence/self-doubt. From the day I wrote the first sentence of my first novel, I never had any doubt that I'd be published. If I had, I might never have tried. This was just before self-publishing became an acceptable and common practice, so that wasn't a consideration for me. No--I was going the traditional route and that meant writing the book, securing an agent, and selling it to a publishing house.

In the end, I achieved this goal, though not in the exact way I imagined. Though being published hasn't thus far been what I thought it would be it's still been pretty great. Having just written that sentence I'm reminded of my supposed regrets and realize I don't actually have any regrets at all with regards to what's happened since my books were published.

Wow. Who knew that writing a simple DSD post could bring me to such a profound realization? I have no regrets. Maybe I don't need that pen name after all.

Ah. I forgot about the second part of the equation--the self-doubt. Although perhaps its not self-doubt at all. It's the knowledge, based now on hard experience, of how difficult it is to make it as a writer. "Making it"means something to different to each of us but regardless, it's a tough slog and one that we have little control over, even if we're self-published.

And yet still, I try. That's where the confidence comes back in. The confidence that one way or another, my books will reach an audience. Maybe this one won't but the next one will. Or maybe this book by Holly West didn't catch on, but this one from insert pen name here will.

Here's to 2016. I'd raise a glass of champagne but since it's Dry January you'll have to settle for coffee.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Best Story I Never Wrote

by Scott Adlerberg

For three and a half weeks in December and January of 1985, I belonged to a five man blackjack team that lived in Atlantic City. Through months of trial and error, we had devised a system that targeted specific ace and picture card clumps in the deck.  The targeting depended on sitting through entire multi-deck shoes, placing five dollar bets at tables ninety nine per cent of the time, watching for patterns, and then, anticipating, based on the dealer's shuffle, where those clumps in our favor would come out during the next shoe.  For hands we anticipated being in our favor, we'd raise our bet substantially.  This may sound farfetched, but believe me, we thought highly of our system and each of us, five guys in their twenties, one in his thirties, put all the money we had into the venture - a total of about $7,000.  

The cash in our pockets, suitcases in hand, we took the bus from New York City to Atlantic City. Two of our group were wearing wigs; one of these two had a phony beard on his face.  We'd hired a professional movie make up artist to devise disguises for the pair because they were already known as counters in Atlantic City, and the pit bosses at the casinos we intended to play in - Bally's and Sands - knew them well and would give them a hard time if they showed up as themselves. The pit bosses would know that these two had some system they were using, and even if they didn't recognize our system immediately, they'd be watching that pair closely.  The other three of us, myself included, were unknown in Atlantic City so we figured we'd be able to play under the radar. Or, I should say, we'd be under the radar for awhile; at some point, the pit bosses would notice that we were up to something because of our odd betting patterns.  Once they knew we were playing a system, they wouldn't rough us up or anything that dramatic, but they'd definitely try to intimidate us and break our rhythms by ordering the dealers to shuffle up every time we sat down at a table. This is not something they want to do - it costs them time and time is money, and constant shuffling annoys the other people playing at that table - but it's the casinos way of letting you know they're onto you and won't let you get over on them.  Of course, casinos have been known to escalate matters to the violent level, but we were confident that the amounts we were betting wouldn't piss them off enough for them to take that recourse.  

So we're set with our money, system, and disguises.  We moved into a motel with two adjoining rooms off the Atlantic City boardwalk. That's five guys in two rooms with four beds.  One person slept on the floor. Though actually, it never transpired that all five of us were in the rooms together. Since Atlantic City went 24 hours a day, we worked in shifts, with two or three guys out in the casinos playing and the others in the room idling, watching television, waiting till one of the team came back at his appointed time so that - no time to waste - he could give what money he had, more or less than he'd left the room with, to the next guy to go out and play.  

As I say, we liked our system.  Our main concern was that, as with any system, great as it might be, it could take time to work.  All systems depend on how they will work in the long run, and you need enough money to absorb losing streaks. What if we had a losing streak the first week and went through our $7,000? We had very strict rules about how much each person could bet at any one time (depending on the odds of winning that bet), but play it as conservative as we might, we could still go broke and head back home to New York City in no time.  We had, it should be pointed out, bought open return bus tickets before leaving Manhattan. 

Our hope was to double our bankroll, get to $15,000, so that we could take our system west. We'd go to Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas, where there are a lot more casinos to play in.  Moving around through different casinos out there would reduce the chances of pit bosses catching on to us, we figured, but first, we absolutely needed to get to that $15,000 mark in Atlantic City. And we needed to reach that amount before the pit bosses did get wise to us and start making our lives miserable.

In a nutshell, we never got to Tahoe or Vegas. But not because our system didn't work.  Within a week our bankroll dropped to as low as $1,500 dollars, and only one person at a time could go out and play while the other four hung around the rooms in sweats and underwear. How thrilling. But eventually our system did start to kick in, and we got our bankroll up to about $13,000.  The pit bosses, by now, had seen through the disguises of the two notorious guys on our team, and they'd connected the three neophytes to the two veterans.  We knew our days in Atlantic City were numbered, and we were just about to toast ourselves as successes and head west when...human vanity and ego spoiled everything.  One member of our team lost his cool and made a series of over bets that halved our bankroll in ten minutes and left the team riven with dissension.  We split the money we had and went our separate ways.  There was no five guys riding on a bus together after that. I wound up coming home with a few hundred dollars less than when I'd left New York, which means we made money when you consider the motel costs and the meals we bought over three weeks. Still, what a disappointment.  Now it was back to finding a job...

There's more to this story, lots more.  And I took extensive notes on the entire adventure while we were in Atlantic City. And I think I can pretty much say that as far as noir goes, albeit humorous noir, this is the most noir experience I've ever been part of.  I write crime.  Here's a story made to order.  Not even much embellishment is needed.  And yet, in 30 years, I have never written a story or novel or much of anything about the Atlantic City blackjack team adventure. I have told the story to many friends (in much greater detail than I told it here), and nearly everyone has said, "You have to write that. How can you not write that?"  My current publisher asked me the same thing.  Indeed, there's no story idea I've ever told anyone that has engendered the enthusiasm the Atlantic City story does.  So...what's keeping me? After all this time, why don't I just write the damn thing?

Simple.  I've talked about the story so many times over the years that I have no desire to write it.  I've regaled friends and acquaintances with the tale, making them laugh and shake their heads, and each time I spun the yarn, verbalized it, I lost yet a little more desire to sit down at a desk and tell it as a written narrative. "What's the point?" I think to myself.  I've told this story countless times. I know what happens, know the people, know the jokes and every twist.  

I get bored just thinking about writing it.

Well, maybe I blew it with this story, but I learned something.  At least something that works for me.  When I have a story in mind, based on actual events or things I made up, I say virtually nothing about it.  For me, now, reticence has become the better part of creativity. Everyone is different, but I'm always a bit puzzled by those writers who tell you all about the book they're writing or planning to write.  Whatever works. Everyone is different, obviously.  But through the blackjack team story I never wrote, but told too many times, I've come to understand that for me a potential story, or a work in progress, has a kind of energy in it, and every time I talk about it, I'm releasing some of that energy. Wasting that energy.  Losing that feeling of excitement that says, "You really want to tell this story." So if anyone asks what I'm working on now, I keep my description as bare bones as possible and make sure we start talking about something else. Hell, if they don't know the blackjack team story, I start talking about that:
Me: "You know, I'll tell you about the story I should write."
Them: "And? Why don't you?"
Me: "I talked about it too many times?"
Them: "Then stop talking about it and write it."
Me: "Ok. Ok. When I'm done with the story I'm working on now."

Yes, the blackjack team story will always be the story I should write. Meanwhile, I'll keep writing other stories. But even unwritten, the blackjack story serves an odd kind of motivating purpose. It says, "I'm the one you let get away. Over talkative schmuck. Put your focus where it needs to be."

Into the writing, onto the pages, till the story's done.