Saturday, February 6, 2016

Open Letters to Our Idols

Scott D. Parker

Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire died this week. I was a latecomer to the music of EWF, having only really paid attention back in 2004 when they toured with Chicago. I saw them again last year when the two bands toured again. I spent all morning yesterday listening to EWF music. Is there a riff that can embed itself in your head quite effectively as “Let’s Groove”?

Thing is, early 2016 has not been kind to our idols. David Bowie. Glenn Frey. Alan Rickman. Lemmy Kilmister. Maurice White. All gone. Bowie hit me pretty hard. I’ve written about it elsewhere. I’m not alone in sadness.

But here’s the thing: Bowie never got to see the impact his death had on us. You can pretty much assume he knew what his life meant to us in all the folks who name him as an inspiration. One look at Lady Gaga’s career and you can see Bowie’s influence in many things she does.

Lady Gaga and all the other folks are famous. They are easily seen. Everyone else isn’t. Folks like you and me. Regular folks who latched onto a song, an album, a book, a film, a painting, whatever and had their lives altered by the thing. I think it would be nice for these people—famous and not famous—to know what they did for each of us.

It’s why I’ve decided to start an occasional blog series: Open Letters to Our Idols. On an irregular basis, I’ll write a post about an artist/person who helped shape who I am. Then I’ll make the person aware of the post via Twitter, etc. If they choose to read it, fine. They don’t have to. But they’ll have the opportunity to know what they meant to me.

My Bowie post probably started this thought process. It just kept churning in my head all through January and up until this week when Maurice White’s death brought it forward.

It’s the equivalent of the “hug your spouse and child” and “call your parents” kind of meme. This isn’t ‘my thing.’ It’s for everyone. I’m just putting it out there.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pulling the pin

I have a hard time giving up on things. Books especially. Letting go isn’t my strong suit.

This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it can be particularly difficult for two of my most-read genres: crime and comic books. Both often require a multi-book commitment, because they're written in series form.

So, this leads me to my question: when do you give up on a book or series? What’s your breaking point? What are the exceptions to the rule? OK, that was a few questions - but humor me here.

I sometimes want to be like the cool kids and toss a book across the room whenever it stops grabbing me. Life’s too short, I’ve got better things to read and so on. It sounds easy, right? It’s not for me. I know too much about how the sausage is made - I know how much effort goes into writing even a mediocre book. I try to give each one I read as fair a shake as I can. On the other hand, my time (like yours) is precious - so why waste it on a bad book?

I’m all over the place when it comes to this. I’ve powered through a 10-book detective series even though the last three books were mediocre, at best. I've stuck with books in the hopes that they'd get better only to toss them aside when they fell flat in the end. It varies.

I experienced this feeling of book ennui recently. I was reading an acclaimed, bestselling novel outside my usual genre and it just wasn't resonating with me. I was well into the book and found myself wondering, “What is the point of this book? Do I even care about these characters?”

Turns out, I did. I kept reading and really enjoyed how the book ended. The third act - which was not The Best Thing Ever, but good enough to almost make up for the sluggish start - propelled me toward more books by the author, which I subsequently enjoyed.

So, my answer is simple: there isn’t an answer. There are a ton of factors that go into whether I finish a book. Most of the time I do. I usually pick books I end up liking. However, if something doesn’t grab me and there isn’t enough to keep me interested (even in the earlier example, I at least liked some of the characters and world-building), then I chuck it and start something else. Hell, even my mood can affect whether I stick with a book. If I’ve started a crime novel after dozens of similar books, I might feel burnt out and want to read something completely different. I’ve stopped reading mid-series only to come back years later, in a different mindset, and finish. It’s hard to predict, but I’ve learned to just listen to my gut.

Life is too short to read bad books. But sometimes you don’t realize it as quickly as you should.

What are your warning signs that it might be time to bail on the book you’re reading? How much time do you give a book to right itself before you move on?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

When Do You Give Up On a Story... Or Do You Ever?

Guest Post by Sarah M. Chen

As I contemplated what to write for this guest post, I received another rejection from a fledgling crime fiction magazine. It came with an encouraging note that said, “This story came super close to getting picked for publication. We think you’re very talented and hope you submit again.” I was disheartened but buoyed at the same time. That weird bipolar feeling many of us writers understand.

This is a story that I wrote for Bouchercon’s “Murder Under the Oaks” anthology last year but was rejected. No lovely note, just a “thank you but it wasn’t selected.” Undaunted, I had sent it off to another publication. Several months later, another pleasant rejection arrived in my inbox. That was the point where I thought “okay, maybe my story isn’t as brilliant as I thought.” I tinkered with it until I thought “Now, it’s brilliant.”

A few weeks later, I sent it off to another fledgling crime fiction magazine (not the previous one I mentioned) and received encouraging feedback to the point that they told me they thought it was going to get in but ultimately it was up to their guest editor. That’s where my story’s journey ended unfortunately. However, I did receive notes which I most definitely did not ignore.

So now here I am with a story that has almost made it in to two different markets. I’m kind of at a crossroads: is it just a matter of not finding the right home or is it in need of more editing? At what point do we say: this story sucks and my dog could write something better? Or the opposite: this story is badass, it just hasn’t found the right publisher yet so I’m not changing a single word.

I set it aside for a bit and then re-read it a few weeks later. It hit me that it needed a new ending. Something about it had bothered me all along and that was it. The ending is the most difficult part for me to write. It has to have that knockout punch yet ring true for the characters. Once I torture my writing group for one more read-through, I’ll be ready to send it out into the world with its shiny new ending, confident that it’s reached maximum brilliance.

Okay, that’s a lie. I don’t think I’m ever 100% happy with anything I’ve written. Even after it’s published, I spot things I want to change. Coincidentally, I read a recent post by Art Taylor on Sleuthsayers that covered this same subject. He mentioned how endings, for him, are the hardest part of the story to write and he’s constantly revising even after submission. I totally related to that. Then I read an article in the February Sisters in Crime/LA newsletter from Lida Bushloper about a short story she wrote that had a 30-year journey to eventual publication. Now that right there is inspiration to keep revising and submitting.

The key, I think, is that something in the story keeps tugging at me or I wouldn’t come back to it over and over again, setting aside my masochistic tendencies. It also helps that two markets told me to keep working on it because they saw the potential in it.

Which brings up another point. If an editor or publisher tells you to work on something and resubmit—or even better, gives you notes and tells you to resubmit—then get on it. In fact, a highly respected publisher recently brought up this exact issue and referred me to an article on resubmitting: Submit Like A Man. It talked about how gender affects resubmission. Men tend to resubmit more than women. I found myself nodding along to many of the points. Gender was something I never even thought about when it came to resubmission frequency. It’s an issue worth discussing, but right now, I have to get back to my story and tweak the ending just a little bit more.


Sarah M. Chen juggles several jobs including indie bookseller, transcriber, and insurance adjuster. Her crime fiction short stories have been accepted for publication online and in various anthologies, including All Due Respect, Akashic, Plan B, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, Out of the Gutter, Betty Fedora, Issue Two, Spelk, and the Sisters in Crime/LA anthology, Ladies Night. Her noir novella, Cleaning Up Finn, is coming out May 2016 with All Due Respect Books.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and a Grave

by Scott Adlerberg

I know I'm not the first person to say this, but is there any true crime weird and disturbing like Wisconsin crime weird and disturbing?  The most recent example is none other than the saga recounted in the Netflix series, Making of a Murderer.  

Going back in time, there's the plague of depression and madness that gripped the economically depressed town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the late 19th century, a story that the book and film Wisconsin Death Trip chronicles memorably.

More recently, there was Jeffrey Dahmer, and before him, of course, there was the most famous Wisconsin grotesque of all, Ed Gein.  I may be wrong here, but I think Gein, in one way or another, has served as inspiration for more fictional killers - in books, in film, on TV - than any other murderer.

Which brings me to a good story.  It's the story of a true crime film project that was started but never got finished, and to this day, I think if I had to pick one crime documentary I wish had got completed, I'd pick this one.

I'm talking, of course, about the Errol Morris - Werner Herzog Ed Gein project.

The story, from what I know of it, goes like this:

Errol Morris attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and graduated from there in 1969.  He'd already been interviewing mass murderers - Ed Kemper, Herb Mullen and John Linley Frazier, all in Northern California - when in 1975 he went to Plainfield, Wisconsin to interview people in the town where Ed Gein had lived and killed.   He then started doing interviews with Gein. At this point, Gein was locked up in the Mendota State Hospital.  Morris was an unknown, an aspiring filmmaker you could say, but while out in California working toward a philosophy Ph.D that never came to pass, he had met film producer Tom Luddy, who introduced him to Werner Herzog.  Morris and Herzog, two eccentrics, hit it off, and according to all accounts, though Herzog was already considered one of the world's great directors and Morris had never shot so much as a foot of film, Herzog treated Morris as an equal, someone as obsessed as he was with losers, fanatics, weirdos, killers, and so forth.  In the summer of 1975, when Morris was absorbed in his Wisconsin investigations, Herzog and Morris discussed whether Ed Gein's mother's body was actually in the coffin where she was supposed to be interred.  Gein had dug up many bodies in Plainfield Cemetery before he was caught, and the graves he violated formed a circle around his mother's grave.  Psychological transference by Gein, who was unable to dig up the one grave in the cemetery that truly mattered to him? Or had he also dug up his mother's body?  Morris and Herzog discussed the matter, and they set a night and time to meet in the cemetery and dig up Gein's mother's grave to find out once and for all whether it contained her body.  As it turned out, on the scheduled moonlit night, Herzog arrived, shovel in hand, ready to dig, but Morris didn't come.  Morris had reconsidered the idea and backed out.  Herzog did not open the grave, and though Morris returned to Plainfield and did hundreds of hours more interviews with residents there, including interviews with town multiple murderers who came after Gein, perhaps influenced by him, he never did complete the project.  He'd been planning to call it Digging up the Past.

Oh, well.  What would have happened if Morris had shown up that night?  I suppose it doesn't matter anymore.  Herzog encouraged and helped Morris in his formative filmmaking years, and Morris has gone on to become one of the best documentarians around.  Herzog, well, is Herzog.  One film neither made does nothing to tarnish their careers or reputations, but I sure do wish Errol had shown up that night, they'd dug up Ed Gein's mother's grave, seen what was there or not there, and made a movie about it.

Sunday, January 31, 2016


by Kristi Belcamino

If you can't hack rejection—and you'd like someone else to publish your writing—you better get tough or consider giving it up right now.

Rejection is part of the publishing game.

I'm sure there are a handful of people who will say they have avoided rejection for most of their careers, but I'm not convinced they really exist or that they are really telling the truth.

It probably officially begins at the query stage.

Rejections are part of the process. Look at this way—every agent or editor who rejects your project means you are one step closer to success. Really.

Then, oh joy of joy, one day you are offered representation from a literary agent.

The agent then sends your manuscript out to editors.

For most of us, this means, yup, you guessed it, more rejections.

Eventually, if you are really lucky, one of these editors will like your book enough to publish it.

But, guess what? Yup, you're not necessarily out of the clear yet.

That editor has to sell the heck out of your book to the editing team and they might decide to give your beloved project the old heave ho. Rejection.

But say one day an editor loves your book, convinces her team to love your book and this leads to a book out in the wild! Wohoo! You've conquered rejection! You are home free!

Not quite yet.

How about reviews?

How about some nasty, vicious reviews. Get used to those, too.

I can honestly say that 99.9 percent of the time I find the bad reviews sort of amusing. I'm going to credit a career in newspaper with countless numbers of douchebags constantly weighing in on every little sentence I wrote. But it might be tougher for you. Keep working on that thick skin.

Wait? You say you're never going to read reviews? Good for you. You have more willpower than I do.

But the rejection game isn't over yet.

Do you ever want to write another book again?


Well, that most likely means ... you know it ... more rejection.

It's all part of the game.

I must say that after having four books published, the rejections don't sting quite as badly.

However, hearing that your writing isn't quite up to snuff or that you didn't quite grab the editor by the throat and not let go, well, sure that still smarts a little.

But it gets better as time goes on.

To survive in this writing business, you have to believe in yourself and your writing enough to not let the bastards get you down. Find your true friends. Support and encourage and cherish them.

Find an agent who bolsters you up during those shitty rejections, who believes in you.

Realize that rejection IS NOT PERSONAL. IT is part of the game. Every rejection you receive means you are one step closer to success!

Keep your chin up! It's worth it in the end!