Saturday, February 27, 2016

Stepping Out of a Comfort Zone

Scott D. Parker

Yesterday, I traveled to a place I’d never been before: an anime convention.

My son and a few of his classmates really enjoy anime. For me, anime is basically limited to the old cartoons I used to watch—Speed Racer, Battle of the Planets, and Starblazers—or the movies of Hayao Miyazaki. Heck, those old cartoons weren’t even called “anime” back in the day. In short, it’s a branch of pop culture of which I know very little.

Turns out, there’s an annual convention here in Houston that specializes in anime: ANIME MATSURI. It’s a great convention. I have to admit that I expected there to be some “counter programming” booths. You know: something that isn’t anime, but comics or other things I like. Nope. Not a one. Unlike the Comicpalooza, which has anime, comics, pop culture, steampunk, etc., Anime Matsuri only has anime.


But I was completely unaware of a majority of the content. Sure, I recognized Sonic the Hedgehog, the various Miyazaki characters, and a few video game characters, but I was nearly completely out of my element.

So I learned. I asked questions. I got my boy to fill me in on things he knows and enjoys. I compared the types of cosplay at this anime convention versus the cosplay at a comic convention. I had a grand time.

Two observations:

One, the quantity of mango (Japanese comics) and books in general was rather small. I saw only about three vendors out of, say, 150, that sold books! Wow.

Two, it was a good thing to step outside of the spheres that make me comfortable. I get wrapped up in the things I like—music, TV shows, books—that I rarely venture out to see the broader world. Yesterday’s convention experience reminded me that I ought to do that more often.

Do y’all ever get in a rut regarding the things you like? How do you get out of it, if at all?

Friday, February 26, 2016

Dames in the Dark - Devil In Me

On Monday I'll be a guest on Authors on the Air with Pam Stack, and looking at some of the amazing writers that have graced those airwaves I can't help but be a little intimidated. We're doing Dames in the Dark, hosted by the amazing Angel Colón, I'll be reading some new flash alongside five other kick ass women. Nikki Dolson, Rios de la Luz, Heather Luby, Carmen Jaramillio, and Jen Conley will all be reading their work.

When Angel first approached me, I gave a tentative yes, and asked for a deadline on a real yes, because I didn't have a damn thing to read that fit the word count. On further thought though, how could I say no? I gave a yes and started brainstorming. Flash can be fun, but it can be fucking difficult - it's closer to poetry than short fiction and believe me, you don't want to read my poetry. I don't even want to read my poetry.

I do enjoy writing flash when I get my mood just right and figure out a voice. First person tends to work best for me in that small a space, but getting the story just right is the hardest part. I turned, as I so often do, to music for my inspiration.

I've written about my relationship with music in regard to my writing here before, so I won't get into it, but I had my lightbulb moment when I realized the catchy song by Gin Wigmore I'd be listening to and singing along with was actually straight up about murder (the video is also absolutely killer).

My favorite line of the song is "I'll drink, drink until you love me, and wake up always thinking of me", especially later in the song when it's juxtaposed with the more serious line "You left, left me on a Monday, so now I'll bury you on Sunday" - and, like I said, DAMN IT'S CATCHY. I always play it twice in a row so I can sing along. So this throaty, hardened chick getting whiskey bent and bloodthirsty over her ex embedded itself in my brain and I had to follow it.

If you're interested in the result... well I guess you'll have to listen.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Sometimes people write crap

Interesting column from Nathaniel Tower a while back about stories and tricks he's tired of seeing in magazine submissions.

An editor of a literary magazine has to put up with a fair amount. Among the struggles we must face on our daily quest for literary greatness is repetition. I’m not simply talking about the monotony of reading submissions. Rather, I’m referring to the fact that, at times, it feels like every submission is exactly the same. 

Stories that begin with someone coming out of a dream or end with someone realizing it was all a dream – You’d think that all dream stories would have been banned from the universe by now. It seems as if many writers haven’t gotten the memo. I’ll personally kill the next character that wakes up from a dream at the beginning of a story. And ending with a dream? Well, that’s even worse. You might as well just call the story “Nothing Happened At All” and leave the rest of the document blank.
Ending a story with a dream seems to be a cheat against the reader, doesn't it? Remember when Bobby Ewing died, but it was all a dream? Sean Munger talked about this particular situation a few years ago. For Munger, given the set-up, the other options were a faked murder, an almost murder, or twin brother.

The twin brother thing can be just as off-putting as anything else. As a Guiding Light fan, I recall the dual role Vincent Irizarry played. Heck, if you see someone drive off a cliff in a soap opera (day or night, in or out of the rain) there's very little chance the person died. And, if he or she did, maybe it was a twin. Or maybe they bring in a twin. Or maybe you're a twin.

Look, sometimes people write crap. You get backed into a corner and think, well, how am I going to make this work? Then you spend a month at your desk making it worse.

Or you pick up a book and groan when it starts with the main character waking up from a dream. Or a hangover. Or suddenly there's a dream scene in the story that is supposed to SAY IMPORTANT THINGS about the story itself.

Dreams are dumb. In the sleepy dreams, people never do anything that makes a damn bit of sense. See, you were there, but it wasn't really you. I mean, it started as you, but then you were on the porch, but it wasn't a porch. It was a ship. On and on. And the dreams we have for ourselves are also dumb. You know what my dream is? Getting through the week without pissing blood. Finding a good burrito in the frozen food aisle. Happiness. Blah blah. Who gives a shit?

The reason that dreams in stories are dumb is that they're often used as lazy cheats. (Not all cheats are lazy. Shut up.)  The writer gets backed into a corner and is too damn stubborn or lazy to keep working with the same level of creativity.

Wrote yourself into a corner? The Star Trek: TNG writers tried to do that each season and then spend the off-season working their way out of the corners.

Writing yourself into a corner is great. You've given yourself a challenge. A scope. Tower complains about dreams because he sees that too often in magazine submissions. That's because it's easy.

The reader is entering your story on page one, and you can have Robert Langdon being awakened by a phone call. OK. That seems an easy starting point, which makes sense if you want to write an easy story. If you don't mind tropes and cliches and are working with something you've pulled from Masterplots, page 74.

I'm not going to tell you to not write a dream. Dennis Lehane did it wonderfully in Mystic River in a scene with bird and a busted wing.  But you're not Dennis Lehane. (Unless you are, in which case, Hi, Mr. Lehane. I love many of your books.)

I have read books with cheats and enjoyed them, but they're still cheater-heads. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the subject of my master's thesis, kinda opens with the two of them waking from a dream. Of course, it's a bit more clever than that, as they're waking from being born, what with it's being the first page and all.

But a story itself is a dream. We're already once removed from reality. And the further you take your reader into Phonyville, the more trouble you can expect. We're asking readers for trust. We're trying to make the people in our books real. We're entering a contract with the reader and each time we cheat, that's one more chance to lose the reader.

Don't cheat. Stay in school, kids.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Florida Man

Guest Post by S.W. Lauden

Holly's note: As soon as I read this piece I couldn't wait to read CROSSWISE, S.W. Lauden's new novella, especially since I read his debut, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, and loved it. Really, the mention of any kind of pie is enough for me.

But I'll let Steve tell you why he's so drawn to Florida... 

“We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented.
 It's as simple as that.” —The Truman Show

I was a guest on Tom Pitts’ excellent “Skid Row Chatter” podcast recently when he asked me why I followed up my Los Angeles-based debut mystery novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, with a standalone novella set in Florida.

It was a fair question, but one I was dreading—mostly because I hadn’t worked out an acceptable answer yet. I skirted the question that night, but I’ll try to address it right here.

The simple answer is that I have fallen for the Florida Panhandle, specifically the stunning stretch of coast along the Gulf of Mexico known alternately as “The Emerald Coast,” “Lower Alabama” and “The Redneck Riviera.” There are lots of colorful nicknames for the place, some more flattering than others, but none quite do justice to the white sand beaches and blue-green water.

I discovered the area when a friend invited my brood to stay at his family’s beach house in the planned community/resort town of Seaside. We’ve been back every year since, as much for the chicken biscuits and key lime pie as the beautiful sunsets and laid back vibe.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that it’s the perfect place to set a murder. So I sat down to write a short story while we were there. That piece, CROSSWISE, eventually evolved into the novella that will be published by Down & Out Books on Feb. 29.

The idea for CROSSWISE was based as much on the tranquil setting as it was on all of the clichés about Florida—new and old, stunning and boring—that you encounter in the media these days. It felt like I had been promised a lot of Sunshine State weirdness, but was a little disappointed when all I experienced were friendly people, brightly colored beach houses, and perfect weather.

So I did what crime writers do, I created the darkness myself. Or, to be more specific, I amplified the oppressive charm of the place and populated it with a cast of shady characters including a disgraced NYPD cop, his drug-addict girlfriend, bumbling local law enforcement, and several surly retired New Yorkers. It was a bit like taking a beautiful postcard and defacing it with a Sharpie before mailing it to your best friend. Wish you were here!

There is just something about Florida that makes it the perfect setting for Noir. As if the constant sunshine should leave the cockroaches no alternative but to do their dirty work in the light of day.

Many others have realized this before me, of course, including literary luminaries like John D. MacDonald, Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard—to name just a few. And Hollywood has gotten in on the action for decades with films like Key Largo, Cool Hand Luke, Body Heat and Scarface.

Seaside itself was the location for the 1998 Jim Carey sci-fi comedy film, The Truman Show. I remember being overcome with an eerie feeling of familiarity as I roamed those winding streets for the first time. That spooky sensation lasted for a couple of days before my friend informed me that I was basically walking around a movie set.

That’s a unique surprise for somebody who grew up in LA where we’re used to seeing our hometown on TV and in the movies. But that strange feeling was only enhanced when I realized that the idyllic beachfront community where we were staying truly was an anomaly on the Panhandle.

You only have to get a few miles out of town (and your manicured vacation bubble) to see the stark contrast the region presents, one that is—at least to a crime writer’s eye—closer to the exaggerated Florida of film and literature. On the outskirts of town where the ferocious flora and fauna conceals all the scary possibilities that makes writing fiction so much fun.

So why did I set CROSSWISE in Florida? It has to do with all of the delicious juxtapositions and contradictions that the place presents. The movie set vs. the reality. The media clichés vs. the actual culture. The locals vs. the tourists. And did I mention the key lime pie?

It’s Florida, man. And I can’t wait to go back for some readings and signings in late March. I hope you’ll come along.


S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available now from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, will be published in September 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available now for pre-order from Down & Out Books.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Pale Flower: A Yakuza Film Beauty

by Scott Adlerberg

Funny, I've seen a couple of big films recently that I found slightly underwhelming. The Revenant was one and Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight was another.  Not that I disliked either, but neither lived up to the expectations I had for them going in.  On the other hand, it's always a joy when you watch a film you never even heard of before, and it turns out to be something that sticks with you.  That's what happened with the Japanese film Pale Flower, which I saw about a month ago.

A friend called me up on a Saturday night asking whether I knew the film.  Had I seen it?  No and no, but since he was so excited about it, I became stoked to see it also.  Pale Flower, a 1964 crime film directed by Masahiro Shinoda.  Part of the Criterion Collection (always a good sign) and available for instant viewing through Hulu.  I didn't have Hulu, but after my wife and son fell asleep that night, around eleven o'clock, I said screw it, signed up for Hulu, and searched out Pale Flower.

For anyone who likes Japanese movies, for anyone who likes crime movies, for anyone who likes noir - I say, "See this movie."  It's a beauty, filmed in crystalline, widescreen black and white.  The story's pretty simple: A middle-aged yakuza named Muraki gets out of jail after serving a term of a few years and becomes involved with a seductive young woman (Saeko) who he discovers is a gambling addict. While he's an old-school kind of gangster, stoical to the core, she's an impulsive thrill seeker.  She's well-to-do and seems to be slumming it in the underworld.  He falls for her, and it seems that the life force she possesses will be something that helps him rejuvenate himself and re-adapt to the outside world. It doesn't quite work out that way; her penchant for taking chances and seeking out danger really is a full-throttled self-destructiveness, and Muraki realizes that if he stays with her, she will destroy them both.  Still, can he go back to the empty life he had before he met her?

This film has an odd mood, at once swoony and detached.  Most of the film takes place at night, on rainy streets or in gambling dens.  There's a strange car race Saeko gets them into on an empty dark highway, her only purpose, it seems, to experience yet another thrill.  Doom hangs over every frame of this movie, in true noir fashion, and besides being gorgeously shot, the film has a striking score, composed by the great Toru Takemitsu.  There is a gangster sub plot to go along with the twisted romance,  and Muraki finds himself in the middle of everything, with life-defining choices to make.  All this in about 90 minutes (How long was The Revenant?  2 hours and 36 minutes. How long was The Hateful Eight, roadshow edition?  3 hours and 7 minutes), a 90 minutes I would gladly sit through again tomorrow. 

Bleak yet somewhat dreamlike, Pale Flower is a film that has a modern feel even though it’s over 50 years old.  It doesn’t strive hard for weight; it achieves its cool existential tone through economy, pacing, and atmosphere. There is a mixture of emotion and reserve in the performances.  And obviously, if I’m talking about it now, a month after seeing it, I'd call it a film that lingers in your mind.  Anyway, I’m glad my friend turned me on to it with his phone call on a Saturday night and that I then had one of those great movie times that results when something you didn’t know about turns into something you recommend to others.

Monday, February 22, 2016

"Molly Rose" by Willy Tea Taylor

Well no one was fearing, or knew of his plan
The Miner Lee MacGowan lived in highland
Where he stayed up each night foreboding near a year
And he'd whisper it softly, so no one would hear

Molly Rose, I'm coming for you
And I'll kill anybody, that don't want me too
The blood'll spill an ocean and then we'll set sail
Molly Rose, my darling, get ready for hell

Molly Rose was a lively, beauty of a whore
No man was so strong he couldn't come back for more
On a night that the moon had the cats a-howlin
In the whorehouse walked a darkness by the name of Lee MacGowan

He came there at night to take Mollys life
He had a bleeding heart, two forty-fours and his favorite knife

Molly Rose, I'm coming for you
And I'll kill anybody, that don't want me to
The blood'll spill an ocean and then we'll set sail
Molly Rose, my darling, get ready for hell

He was struck by her beauty, as she walked down the stairs
Every man's eyes were on her, wishing that she was theirs
Her seductive smile soon turned to a frown,
When she gazed upon a smiling man by the name of Lee MacGowan

She knew this face well, so dark and so cold
He nearly had to kill the man about a year ago
She shot him down with her Derringer, she took him right to death
But he fled away and returned today, to take her last breath

Molly Rose, I'm coming for you
And I'll kill anybody, that don't want me to
The blood'll spill an ocean and then we'll set sail
Molly Rose, my darling, get ready for hell

She knew I was there, she let out a cry, 
Three men in the whorehouse, they ran to her side.
The gun started blasting, bodies fell to the ground
The only two left standing, were Molly Rose and Lee MacGowan

And he smiled at her bloody, they shot him 6 times
But he ran for the staircase and he pulled out his knife
And he grabbed Molly Rose she was trembling with fear
And he held a knife right to her throat and he whispered in her ear

Molly Rose well I've come for you
And I killed anybody that didn't want me to
The blood made an ocean, now it's time we set sail
Molly Rose my darling, welcome to hell

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Writerly Routines

by Kristi Belcamino

One thing I'm completely fascinated by is other writer's routines.
At one point, when I was frequently interviewing other writers, I'd throw this question into the mix.
I always want to know where, when, and how other writers write.
Do they get up at 4 a.m. and write for three hours before the kids wake?
Do they, like Joelle Charbonneau, write everywhere and anywhere, including in the car or on a bench while waiting for a child to finish an activity.
Do they fit in writing after a day job, writing from 6 p.m. to midnight?
How about my friend, Sarah Henning, who - I think, forgive me if I'm wrong, Sarah - has been known to write on her phone while she's on the treadmill.
Or my friend, Kate, who will write on her lunch hour?
Do they, like me, write from 9 to 12, Monday through Friday?
When and how do you write?
Meanwhile, check out this Brainpickings post on writerly wake-up times and productivity.
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