Saturday, March 12, 2016

Keeping Track of Writing Time

Scott D. Parker

One thing remains obvious whether you get to write for a living like many of my fellow DSDers do or write as a second job like I do: Producing fiction is a job. With any job, fiction writing or otherwise, it’s often good to know the pace at which you are producing The Whatever. In my case—day job at a ‘regular’ job and write fiction on the side with a determination to make the latter the only job—the pace at which I produce content directly affects my prospects of selling books. Obvious. The more books and stories I have for sale, the greater the likelihood readers will find said tales and read them.

Based on past experience, I’ve learned that I can produce a book in little over a month. The last two novels I’ve written—both north of the standard 80,000-word length—took me 40 days and 35 days respectively. But what I’ve never been able to determine is the actual *pace* of writing. I’m talking words/hour. Well, a friend of mine—David, the graphic designer who created the cover for ALL CHICKENS MUST DIE—actually supplied me with a good way to track word count and time.

Hours Tracker is exactly what you think it is: an app that tracks the time taken to do anything. It’s free and it’s literally a time clock. Punch in and punch out, or, in this case, “Clock In Now” and “Clock Out Now”. The level to which this app keeps track of time is pretty granular. What exactly is 0.38 hours? I don’t know either. Hush. I don’t want to do the math.

Every morning when I sit to write, I pull out my iPod and clock in. I blaze away on the keyboard, and then clock out when I’m done. There’s a notes option and I include the chapter number and the number of words. What’s also neat about the overall display is that the first line of each note is shown, so you can get a quick overview of each sessions word count. At top, there is the total time.

Ever since 1 March when I started this new novel—a western with the working title of ALWAYS BET ON RED—I’ve clocked in *every* session. This includes the various 3-minute bursts I do at the day job on my iPod when I take breaks.

Something remarkable showed itself: I’ve not been able to write for a solid hour yet this month…but I’ve already amassed 22,000 words. Now, that’s a bit of a cheat. I started with a 7,100-word short story, but that’s still 15,000 or so new words in 11 days or 21 sessions.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the time to write exists. You just have to decide to do it. When you do, and do it consistently, you can amass enough words for a story, novella, novel, or series.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Unconventional Weapons

As writers, particularly crime writers, we get caught in some weird thought experiments. That's how I know I'd rather murder someone with a knife than a gun, and exactly how I'd personally dispose of a body (no, I'm not telling). One thing crime and horror seem to have in common is that creating new and interesting ways to murder people is a big concern. You don't want to go so over the top that it takes away from the story, but how many times can you read "BANG! BANG!" before you're bored? And though I favor the knife idea, knives get plenty of play in crime fiction, too.

The new anthology Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns is due out in April, and it's got me thinking - if I were going to go whole hog, and leave behind the conventional weapons I rely on in my fiction, how exactly would I kill motherfuckers?

I present a short (and not wholly serious) list of options:

Boa Constrictor

This has probably been done, but if we can use guns and knives all the time, surely there is room for more stories where a character finds himself stuck in a small space with no one to keep him company but a hungry boa. When it begins to wrap around him, he fights back, of course, but as the air is slowly squeezed from his lungs, arms pinned to his sides, he begs for the sweet release of death. He prays he won't simply fall into unconsciousness and awake with the bottom half of his body bulging out of the snake's guts. If the boa above can eat a kangaroo - it can definitely fuck you up. Plenty of drama, and, why limit it to boas? There are anacondas, pythons, and all manner of big snakes with big appetites.


A cheap, brutal, and efficient weapon of convenience, the smiley is a hell of a weapon. The simple padlock on a chain design has been favored by everyone from cyclists (who actually have an excuse to carry them) to dirty punk rockers looking to cause a ruckus. Anyone could have one - even someone who didn't plan to use it as a weapon when they left the house. Your killer could be a real estate agent on her way to lock up a lot of land, a drug dealer with limited means for self defense, an angry cyclist, or even some dumbfuck kid who thought carrying a smiley sounded cool but never actually thought he'd pull it out in a fight. It's a dirty weapon - no clean hands or clear conscience after using one of these. Other pieces of hardware guaranteed to hurt: collapsible spade, Maglite, rototiller.


Piano wire has made it's way into many a murder scene, but outside of Looney Tunes I haven't seen a lot of pianos used to murder people. This is a really versatile weapon, it can be defenestrated (oh, what a word!), pushed down a flight of stairs, or even, if on wheels, used to smash into someone again and again. It comes with it's own discordant soundtrack, and the added benefit of having your character accomplish something cartoon characters only dream of. Other stuff to drop on people: anvils (obviously), old cars, oversized refrigerators.

Fun fact: A strip club bouncer was actually killed while having sex on a piano rigged to rise and lower for performances. They hit the switch and it rose until it crushed him to death, leaving his partner trapped underneath him. I'm telling you - pianos don't fuck around.

I can't understand why we don't see more grenades in crime fiction. They're small, easy to use, and cause a hell of a lot of damage. Everybody likes a good explosion and you can have fun with the fact that most people don't have any idea how far you should be when one goes off, or what kind of damage it can do in a small space. Hitmen tossing grenades into cop cars while they're on stake out - KABOOM! Not to mention the element of surprise in a face to face fight when someone drops a live grenade at your feet. It would get ugly fast, but man would it be a ride. Other explosives: dynamite!

The Illustrated Moby Dick

I guess this one is cheating, as plenty of people get bludgeoned with bricks. I prefer to experience the "crazy old man obsessed with fish" story as written by Hemingway - shorter, mostly - but if a hardcover edition of Moby Dick has to exist, and it has to be even thicker with the addition of illustrations, we may as well use it to smash someone's face in. There's room for all sorts of great one liners about getting "schooled" or "acting like a real dick." Perhaps the darkest facet of this particular murder weapon is that nobody wants this big ass book to be the last thing they lay eyes on in this realm. Other books to kill with include: War & Peace, hardcover family Bible, the unabridged version of The Stand.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Beachhead from Jeffery Hess: Author Interview

By Steve Weddle

Back in the sixth issue of Needle: A Magazine of Noir, we had a swell story from Jeffery Hess.

In addition to writing short stories. Hess has himself edited a number of story collections, and his novel, Beachhead, hit the stands this week.
It’s 1980 on Florida’s Gulf coast. Sun, drugs, gambling debts, and dirty deals push Navy-prison parolee, Scotland Ross, deeper into the life of crime he never wanted. His sister’s life, a potential newfound love, and his own freedom are all on the line as he tangles with a redneck gangster intent on becoming the state’s next governor. Will Scotland make the right choice or the one that keeps him alive? Beachhead is dark noir set in the state of sunshine. A story of crime and loyalty, love and hate, and choices made when everything you care about is on the line.
Pinckney Benedict has compared the writing to that of John D. McDonald. Fred Leebron mentioned Elmore Leonard as a comparison. Ron Earl Phillips said, "Hess moors together a compelling story of land grabbing, political aspiration, government graft, and adulterous jealousy that will leave you reeling in its wake." And I said this about the novel: “Jeffery Hess’s BEACHHEAD sets a relentless pace with a brutal story of Scotland Ross, dealt a bad hand and determined to go all in. Whether the crimes are of passion, politics, or violence, every minute of this Florida thriller gleams with conflict and character.”

Beachhead is just the latest in a growing list of great books from the folks at Down & Out Books. I caught up with Hess for a little Q&A. It went something like this:

Do Some Damage: What makes Florida the best setting for this book? Why not Maine or Nebraska?

Jeffery Hess: My wife and I were sitting at a beachside bar on St. Pete Beach one spring day when the bartender told me I should be writing about the fishing ban that was happening in the Gulf waters right in front of us. He was pissed off about it and really animated. It seemed worth looking into. I didn’t know much about grouper fishing, but I’ve lived in Florida since I was four-years old. And Florida has a rich history in crime fiction from John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard, sure, but also Harry Crews and Jeff Lindsey. While the east coast gets so much attention, I was anxious to bring some of that fun to the west coast.
More to the point, I turned fifteen the year this book is set. Florida, especially back in 1980, was (and has always been) a place of extremes—a rich juxtaposition of nature and modernity; cabbage palm and pine scrub next to gleaming sub-divisions; beaches and swamps; lakes and limestone mines; bungalows in the shadows of high-rises; palm trees growing next to live oak trees. Then there’s second and third generations of Floridians who got integrated with all manner of transplants from other states, including senior citizens, young families, tourists, and what I’ve always known as transients, who came for the job boom in construction and the like. While those with the means “winter” or vacation down in the sunshine state, others don’t fare so well. That just makes it a natural choice for me. And these characters are Floridians in all those ways.

DSD: How important is it for you to have characters that readers care about or does that matter? Do you aim to make characters interesting? How do you go about building characters?

JH: Care about? Yes. Like? Not necessarily. I can’t say deliberately try to make characters interesting other than they’re already interesting to me. It’s character authenticity that I’m striving for, so in order to make that accurate, I either have to know something about them or go learn something about them. It’s tough for me to pull off stuff I’m not interested in. Of course I hope these characters appeal to readers in the same way. If I do my job correctly, the characters and their situations and their resulting actions will evoke at least a little empathy, which is the goal.
That said, the way I build characters varies from character to character and story to story. Sometimes they come fully formed, but mostly they come in increments, like at a dinner party, where the longer I’m around somebody, the more I pick up on certain actions, traits, attributes, and flaws. Characters, like people, generally act and react to present tension and stress based on experiences and lessons of their past. So, going forward oftentimes fills in the backstory, too.

DSD: Why this book? What is it about this story that is important to you?

JH: What’s important to me about this story is also a juxtaposition—one of loyalty to your loved ones and yourself, but also of distrust of authority, not in disobedience, but in challenging that authority. Crime stories are often about reactions to oppression of some sort. The more time I spent with my characters, the more invested I became in them.

DSD: As a reader and as a writer, do you differentiate a "happy" ending from a satisfying ending? Once you become invested in them, as you say, how difficult is to do really nasty things to them? How tough is it to give Scotland Ross a good beating?

JH: The “satisfying vs. happy” ending debate is similar to the “like vs. care” issue mentioned earlier. I don’t recall many happy endings in noir fiction, but many of them are satisfying in their absence of happiness. Look at Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, for an extreme, and often contentious, example. The ending of that book (which is immensely more satisfying than the endings of either film version) is not happy, but it’s so unexpected in its bleakness that it satisfies me. For a more conventional example, take Richard Stark’s, The Hunter. I wouldn’t call that a happy ending, but it was also satisfying.
As for my characters, there’s this perverse sense of obligation that my characters must endure the purest form of hell capable in their world, or as close to it that makes sense. It’s like following them around and seeing how they fuck up and how that can be made worse. That’s the beauty of noir, these characters can’t stay out of trouble.
As for putting Scotland through beatings, Beachhead opens with him getting a good beating and it only gets worse from there—despite a few short-lived upticks.

DSD: You point to stress and tension for your characters and experiences. Can you think of a point in any writing -- this book or other stories -- where you've realized that the scene needed more conflict? Do you go back through and "up" the stakes in the story? What is your editing process like?

JH: To me, Noir fiction is about people faced with situations they know they should get away from, but for some reason they are powerless to resist—they willingly go into the dangerous situation every time. They volunteer for their own doom through choice, coercion, or compulsion, but whichever it is for each particular character, he or she goes headlong into it and I just follow them.  As for needing more conflict, sometimes in revision, I’ll go back and see that an area needs to be ratcheted up, but more often what’s missing is a greater sense of what’s at stake. I try to be conscious of the “So what?” and “Who cares?” questions when I write, but especially in revision. Results vary.

The way I go about revision, these past few years, is scene-by-scene. I don’t like to move onto a new scene until the last one has been printed, read, marked up, and revised. It’s not the fastest way to write a first draft, I but I go through the whole draft (of novels, stories, even essays) this way. By the time I end, I have a relatively cohesive story and a fairly clean first draft. Then I go through. Scene-by-scene, again, each time looking at mechanical and craft issues and fixing, cutting, and stressing as necessary.

Get your own copy of Beachhead.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Shakespeare and Me

by Holly West

I'm in Europe this week and I'm having fun looking for books written by my friends. Note: "Friend" in this case means someone I've met personally and chat with on at least a semi-regular basis.

So far I've found:

OUTSIDE THE LINES, edited by Souris Hong-Porretta

JEWISH NOIR, edited by Kenneth Wishnia

I've got not one, but four friends involved in this particular project. Kudos, Kenneth Wishnia, Travis Richardson, Gary Phillips and David Liss.

And finally, I found Lisa Brackmann's HOUR OF THE RAT at the iconic Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris.

That's it for me this week. Right now, I'm having so much fun I'm kind of feeling sorry for anyone's whose not in Paris.

Au Revoir!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Hap and Leonard: Nonchalantly Complicated

by Scott Adlerberg

I've never read Joe Lansdale, but I decided last week to give the first episode of Hap and Leonard a try.  I enjoyed it enough to stick with it, though the commercials Sundance loaded into the show were annoying.  In the era of Netflix and streaming, who can tolerate commercials any more?  Anyway, there was a small moment in the show that struck me and that, more than anything, persuaded me to give the series a chance.

Late at night after some drama he's gone through with his ex-wife Trudy and Howard, Trudy's current boyfriend, Hap goes out to a grocery store and picks up some beer.  This is deep in rural East Texas, of course.  He pulls over to the side of the rode, cracks open a beer, and starts to think about his childhood, a time one night he was in the passenger seat and his father was behind the wheel.  It's raining hard, and the two pass a black man who's pulled over on the other side of the road. That guy has his front hood up and is trying to fix something on his own car.  Hap's father laughs, saying something like, "Look at how wet that nigger is." Haha.  No special nastiness in the comment, just run of the mill racism, a joke at the expense of the proverbial other, and the boy Hap seems neither upset nor amused.  But a moment later, his father slows their vehicle down. There's a child in the backseat of that other car, his father says, and he starts to turn their vehicle around to give that black guy and his kid help.

That's the end of Hap's memory, and the episode continues from there.  It's a brief moment, handled in a matter of fact way, but it's the kind of quick and off-handed scene involving race you rarely get in American television.  Or in movies, for that matter.  Too often, if race is involved, we get a whole drama constructed around a racial issue or, within a drama, something made heated or one dimensional for emphasis.  Right now in movie theaters, the story of Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics is playing, and could they have given the film a more obvious title than Race?  Or, on TV, you get shows like ABC's American Crime. I watched that last year, all of Season 1.  It wasn't the worst show in the world (I haven't watched Season 2 this year), but it wears quickly because it errs on the side of didacticism. Hap and Leonard, by contrast, at least so far, takes precisely the opposite approach, and the scene with Hap remembering the night his father stopped to help a black guy, who he just called a nigger and laughed at, is exactly the kind of scene I love to see in a TV show or movie.  It's a small moment that without hitting you with a hammer captures a lot.  Lo and behold, things aren't so simple.  But the scene's very casualness comes as a little bomb to the viewer.  Since we know Hap's best friend in the world is a black man, and a gay black man at that, we can connect whatever dots we need to make the jump from that brief glimpse into Hap's past to Hap's present. Which is not to say we won't see more of Hap's past.  I expect we might.  But as I said, I haven't read the books so I don't know.

In any event, if Hap and Leonard continues to take this laid back approach to complexity, I'm gonna like it. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

#OscarsSoWhite and #BestNovelSoMale

Anyone who's been on social media in the past month has almost certainly at least tripped across a headline about the Oscar controversy.

What some may not have seen was subsequent comments criticizing the LAT Book Prize Mystery/Thriller nomination.


I completely agree there's a problem if men are avoiding books by women because they think novels by men are somehow more worthy of focus. What I want to make clear from the start is just that this was what got me thinking about this topic and how it ties in with the possible return of Spinetingler awards. Nothing more. No fingers pointed at the source. No assertions the claim is wrong. Just my thoughts on the subject of awards and how this issue - which has been a recurring issue in crime fiction - is affecting my thinking right now.

I'm not here to dispute the opinion. I'll admit these types of issues always make me nervous. In my life the thing that I've been discriminated against is being a smart/nerd/bookish type of person. That's my childhood experience at school in a nutshell. 

There was gender stereotyping. I do recall being told that I couldn't take karate because it was a guy thing. I don't think that was born out of discrimination, but rather the gender stereotyping that was prevalent in the 70s.

What I don't like about feminism is that some feminists seem to push more for superiority than equality. 

And I don't want to assume that discrimination is the reason someone does or does not read or nominate a specific book.

I have to be honest. I tend to read books by men because I don't enjoy some attributes of women or interests that a lot of women share. I'm not a girly girl and have no interest in fashion. I've been married twice and that's the number of men I've slept with. Couldn't care less if you think that makes me a prude. What you do yourself is your business, but I'm just not interested in reading 50 Shades of anyone's sex life. I don't enjoy spending time with women who are petty, backbiting, superficial and fit the "mean girls" image, so I don't want to spend time with characters like that in my reading (unless it really fits the narrative). I just spent four years working with a lot of bitchy, catty, superficial, mean women. Yes, some people were nice and good and decent. Most weren't. It was like high school times 1000. I wake up every day thankful I don't have to deal with all that crap anymore. If I want to spend time with bitches I'll get female dogs.

That said, I'd hang with Molly Solverson any day. 

What have I read lately? The first Harry Potterˆnovel and Kass Morgan's The 100. Both books by female authors. One is enormously popular, and this is my first time reading Harry Potter because I tend to avoid the super-popular stuff, having never fit in with anything extremely popular in my life. 

I love The 100 TV show. It swings for the fences. They throw plot twist after plot twist at a breakneck speed and have done some things that are truly dark and haunting while trying to give hope to the human survivors establishing communities in a post-apocalyptic world. I liked the book but prefer the TV show, perhaps because I love Octavia in the show as opposed to the novel and I like some of the other characters the show has that the novel does not.

Although I tend to read a lot of books by male authors and count male authors amongst my favorites I do read books by women.

My reluctance to draw conclusions about the lack of female nominees is not because the inference about the reason is necessarily wrong. 

I just don't want to see the day that every award category has to have a token African American nominee and a token female nominee and a token LGBT nominee and a token Asian nominee...

I do want to believe that awards have something to do with merit, but the longer I've lived the more certain I am that they have more to do with popularity than anything else.

All of this brings me to the real point of this post today. We used to have Spinetingler awards. We haven't had them for the last few years. There are a number of reasons for this. The awards became too much for us to handle, and detracted from our ability to do much else. Combined with the demands of daily life there hasn't been much time in recent years for writing, never mind contributing meaningful content to Spinetingler or this blog or managing the awards.

We have been having discussions about bringing a streamlined version of the awards back. This may involve cash prizes for a few select categories. It could be very good for writers with works in those categories, and I like the idea of supporting writers.

The issue that I come back to is the issue of possible bias. I'm inclined to split any category in two and have a list of nominees and eventual winner in a 'best male' category and a list of nominees and eventual winner in a 'best female' category.

I really, really, really have no interest in investing my personal time and energy into doing something that is intended to help writers and find myself on the possible back end of accusations. I will flip my shit if someone comes at me and says a writer was picked just because they were male or female or black or pink with purple polkadots.

I mean, for short stories the best writers that come to mind include Patti Abbot and Sandra Seamans. How about Nikki Dolson, M.G. Tarquini, J.T. Ellison and Amra Pajalic? Spinetingler has proudly published all of these talented female writers, and many others. I still recall the atmosphere of J.T.'s chilling short story we published. These ladies are all capable of penning works that stay with you long after you've read them. Why, today I was just recommending Cornelia Read to someone...

The question on the table is whether it's time to split the categories. Will it solve more problems than it creates? Or is it a sign that one gender can't compete against the other? 

Thoughts? If we decide to bring the awards back we will be making an announcement soon so we're throwing the door open for discussion now. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Happy News!

Wow, am I thrilled to share this news.

I'm going to be published by Polis Books! I have long admired Jason Pinter and Polis Books and am extremely excited and honored to be part of a publishing team that includes authors such as Alex Segura, Rob Hart, Bryon Quertermous, Patricia Abbott, Dave White, and Todd Robinson!

Here is what will run in Publisher's Weekly about the book, which is slated for spring 2017.

Anthony and Macavity nominee Kristi Belcamino’s debut Young Adult novel CITY OF ANGELS, set in 1992 Los Angeles amidst the boiling tension of the Rodney King trial, about a destitute teenager named Nikki who ends up living above a punk rock bar, and must investigate the disappearance of a young girl who has either succumbed to the streets, or something far worse.

And here is my own blurb/synopsis:

Nikki Black, 18, a self-imposed lone wolf since her mother died, fled suburban Chicago to escape her painful past. But when her so-called boyfriend reveals why he really lured her to Southern California — to star in child porn flicks — she ends up on the streets of L.A. with only the clothes on her back and a fourteen-year-old addict named Rain trailing in her shadows. The girls seek refuge at a residential hotel above a punk rock bar in downtown L.A. a few months before the city erupts into chaos during the 1992 riots. At The American Hotel, Nikki makes friends and for the first time in years feels as if she has a real family again.

All that changes when Rain disappears. Everyone except Nikki, including the police, thinks Rain succumbed to the seductive allure of addiction and life on the streets. Nikki finds herself fighting for her own life the closer she gets to unveiling a sinister cover-up by a powerful group that secretly controls the city of angels. City of Angels is an edgy, gritty, mature YA mystery about a teenager’s struggle to not only belong — but survive.