Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Joy of Discussing Being Creative

Scott D. Parker

Fellow writers and creatives, do y'all like talking shop with fellow creatives? Over the years I've found talking the details of the writing process with others actually gets me fired up to write. Case in point: my co-worker.

David--who also happens to be the graphic designer who created the cover for ALL CHICKENS MUST DIE--wants to write. His brother, too. Now, David's got a built-in advantage over someone like me in that, eventually, he will illustrate and write. A nice combo to have. He's got the illustrating part locked in. What he doesn't know how to do is write.

That's where I come in.

These past few weeks, during breaks and such, we've been talking shop, specifically how I do my writing. I relate all my pitfalls and triumphs and even let him borrow a few of the books from my library. We sometimes try and relate writing techniques to his art techniques, wondering if there are similarities to that which he is used to in the art world. What usually happens during our discussions is the massive urge to run home, open up my computer, and start writing! But we can’t because we have to work. Ugh.

But talking out the technical process of writing, creating a story, etc., is a wonderful way to help me learn more. You know, teach and you will also learn? What was great about a recent conversation was when we were discussing the pieces that make up a story. Inciting incident, point of no return, denouement, etc. Know what I’m talking about? It was neat seeing the light bulb illuminate on his face just like it did for me when I figured that out.

Speaking of books, when asked for recommendations, I ended up with the following:

  • Plotting: A Novelist's Workout Guide by Aaron Allston
  • Story by Robert McKee
  • Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
  • Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland
  • Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker

Do y’all have a certain set of folks with whom you talk writing techniques?

Does talking about your craft recharge your batteries for the craft?

What are some of your how-to writing books?

Friday, April 15, 2016

On O.J., JonBenet, and Growing Up

By Renee Asher Pickup

The People Vs. O.J. Simpson got a lot of attention, for a lot of reasons, but what I found particularly interesting about it was that people around my age had a Kennedy moment. Facebook posts asking "Where were you when the verdict was read?" cropped up and the answers were incredible when you consider that this case took place long before everyone had the internet in their pocket (most of us didn't even have it at home).

We were mostly in school (I was in my sixth grade math class, the teacher put it on for us to watch), and we were mostly jubilant. It's odd to think that most of us recall a celebratory feeling in hearing that a man who was so obviously guilty was innocent. A lot of it had to do with tension in the air, the way we all felt it, even if we were much too young to understand it. I don't recall any case being as public as O.J.'s trial before that time, though now, that kind of coverage seems par for the course.

The other case that I've found fascinates and captivates my peers is the JonBenet Ramsey murder. This one never went to trial because the murder was never solved. The unsolved murder seems to crop up every so often with a new theory or just a reminder that the little girl we all became so familiar with is still dead. Much like the Zodiac Killer, people seem desperate to find the missing clue. So desperate, it appears we're getting a TV show based around the idea that there is a way to find answers twenty years after the fact.

When I think about what it is about JonBenet Ramsey that's stuck with the public over other child murders that seem to flash in the pan and dissipate, I wonder if the reason we're still so fascinated and upset by her murder is what her murder showed us. Before there was Toddlers in Tiaras, there were people postulating that Ramsey was over sexualized by pageants. There was the insinuation of possible sexual trauma, hyped by the media, and the zeroing in on her parents as the perpetrators. In 1996, I was twelve years old. Old enough to be watching the nightly news with my parents, old enough to understand the sexual elements, and old enough to be horrified by the strange details of this child's murder.

While sensational media coverage has always existed, JonBenet Ramsey seemed to get a particularly lurid and mean sort of coverage that I had not seen at that age. Again, this sort of thing seems relatively normal now, we've lived through so many media spectacles with pretty blonde little girls at the center. We've lived through so many parents being drug through the dirt only to be later exonerated, or, in worse cases, found guilty. But in 1996? I can't speak with full authority, as at age twelve I was only just starting to be aware of national news crime coverage, but it seemed new. It felt very personal and frightening.

Twenty years of escalating crime coverage in the media - twenty years of Lifetime Movie Originals and ID Discovery, and To Catch A Predator - have dulled the shock of the Ramsey case. Twenty years of debates about child beauty pageants and the over sexualization of young girls has made her made up face and big hair seem less shocking. But today, I have a daughter the same age as JonBenet was when she was murdered, and it seems surreal to think that the coverage that was so shocking then is old hat now.

Perhaps the TV series will show us something new, or give answers about the case that investigators were still looking for as recently as 2009, but I wonder if the show will take on the bigger question, which is why we're still so attached to this one particular murdered girl over so many others.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A memoir and some mayhem: From Berlin to Vegas

By Steve Weddle

Rob Spillman’s All Tomorrow’s Parties is a memoir about identity, sure, but it’s also a story about belonging. Andrew Hudgins has a poem about a boy in a church pageant and the poem begins “A boy – ok, it’s me.” That’s the sense from reading Spillman’s magnificent book, a man telling a story about a character who is, who was, himself.
Rob Spillman

Spillman’s story moves between belongings: from Berlin to the states, from one divorced parent to the other, from artist to young man who doesn’t quite feel like an artist.

Of this book, Anthony Doerr said: “If you’ve ever been young, in love, and desperate to live an authentic life, this book is for you: a ravishing memoir about a young man’s quest for art, meaning, and a place to call home.”

“Desperation” is a good word to associate with this book, with the character who inhabits it. He’s desperate to be an artist, desperate to be loved, to fit in somewhere. When he moves to the states following years in Berlin, he’s clearly a separate person from his classmates, distanced from them. The feeling the story evokes isn’t necessarily one seeking pity. The boy isn’t trying to fit in with this group, necessarily. He isn’t interested in the television shows that interest them, for instance. But he is looking for a place to belong, even if it is within his own skin.

Rob Spillman is editor of Tin House magazine and has written for the New York Times Book Review, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, and many other magazines, newspapers. He worked for Random House and The New Yorker. He knows his way around sentences, around books.

In a sense, this book is quite similar to John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, the letters he wrote to a friend while writing East of Eden. Only, this is more the journal of an artist, of someone who wants more than anything to find his mission as an artist, his place of belonging, his identity. Judging from Spillman’s remarkable work these past decades, he’s found it.

And finding something is key to John Dufresne’s new novel, I Don’t Like Where This is Going. Let’s be honest. If you’re going to use that as the title of your book, you’ve got balls as big as Uranus. The bad reviews almost write themselves, don’t they? Of course, Dufresne won’t have to worry about that, as the book is an absolute delight.

John Dufresne
Dufresne, who made is name with the novel Louisiana Power and Light two decades back, has turned to a mystery-caper-buddy novel this time around. This is the second Wylie “Coyote” Melville novel he’s written and, though I haven’t read the first, I darn sure plan to now. Some people have said this novel is “Raymond Chandler in Vegas,” which is certainly a thing to say about a book. The sense I get, though, is that this is more akin to Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice novel, if that book didn’t keep stepping on its own dick trying to be clever. Dufresne’s novel is clever, damned clever, especially since it isn’t trying to show off.

Perhaps a better comparison, if you’re into that sort of thing, would be Elmore Leonard. You’ve got nutty characters and propulsive shenanigans and, overall, a book you can’t stop reading. Each sideways glance yields another weird, strange vignette into Las Vegas which does nothing to distract from the story and everything to enhance it. The main character is a therapist who is sort of hiding out in Vegas with a magician. Imagine Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo trying to solve a mystery in Vegas when everyone else is on drugs. This is a smart, funny book. At the sentence level, this book works well. At the story level, it excels.

Lucky for you, the nice folks at W.W. Norton have offered a copy of I Don’t Like Where This is Going to a lucky DSD reader. Just comment below or share this post on Twitter, using the hashtag #DoSomeDamage.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Story Behind "Peep Show"

by Holly West

Last week, I asked Eric Beetner, the editor of the forthcoming UNLOADED: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns, to tell us a little bit about why he pursued the project. This week, I want to tell you about the short story I contributed, "Peep Show."

Many of you know I lived in Los Angeles for nearly thirty years. My most recent history there was in Santa Monica and Venice, but in the nineties I lived in the Wilshire District and West Hollywood.

Those were lean times for me, as ones twenties often are. I mostly lived paycheck to paycheck and my first apartment on Mansfield and Wilshire consisted of one room and a bathroom. There was a hot plate and mini-fridge in one corner of the closet. After saving up, I added a small microwave to my meager collection of kitchen appliances. My rent was $400 a month.

I loved that neighborhood and still do. Driving through it, the nostalgia almost suffocates me. Good, bad and sometimes ugly, I can't escape my past, nor do I really want to. I just have to resist idealizing it.

Around 1996 I decided I needed more lavish accommodations and thus moved to another one-room apartment on Seward and Santa Monica Boulevard. My rent increased to $500 a month, but now I had a kitchenette, complete with a stove, full-size fridge and peel-and-stick linoleum flooring. The neighborhood was undeniably seedier, but it was also more exciting. Sunset Boulevard was just a couple of blocks away and Circus Disco, a gay-friendly nightclub, lit up the corner of N. Cherokee and Santa Monica Boulevard.

It was also the part of West Hollywood where transgender prostitutes ply their trade. Not to glamorize what is clearly a difficult and dangerous life, but I thought they were beautiful. Most put far more effort at looking feminine than I did--I suppose they had to. Their looks were hard, but their vulnerability somehow shone through.

I wanted to know their stories.

One of my upstairs neighbors was a young Thai man who was quiet and friendly. By day, he dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts, typically and unquestionably male, if one is to go by appearance alone. But at night, he transformed himself into a lovely woman--legs up to here, gorgeous long hair, perfect make up. Not unrecognizable, but nearly so.

I don't know if he was a prostitute or an escort. I don't know if he was transgender or merely enjoyed dressing in drag. Our most meaningful interaction was ever just a pleasant greeting. He was simply a nice neighbor who lived upstairs and occupied the parking spot next to mine.

At some point during my residence in that building, I acquired my first dog, Kramer. My lease didn't allow dogs and I told the apartment manager, a lovely Armenian lady who lived in the apartment next door to mine, that I planned to find him a new home as soon as I could. It was true when I said it, but within a week I was certain I couldn't give him up. At one point she must've realized that he'd become permanent but neither of us acknowledged it aloud. She'd grown to love Kramer, too.

After a few months of living peacefully with Kramer, he awoke in the morning's wee hours, growling. Something going on just outside my apartment had disturbed him. His growling soon turned to barking and I quickly shushed him. The nice landlord might be okay with knowing there was a smuggled dog living next door, but if he became a nuisance, she might insist I toss him out.

When I quieted him somewhat, I went to the door and peered out the peephole. The building's entry was abuzz with official looking people--fire and police men and such. The only window in my apartment faced the side of the building next door but I could see the hint of flashing lights from emergency vehicles. I couldn't guess what had happened but whatever it was appeared to be serious.

I didn't dare exit my apartment because I had to attend to Kramer. I went back to bed and tried to go back to sleep--I had to work in the morning--but it was impossible. Neither of us could settle down. Somewhere around 6am I got up and checked the peephole again.

I'll never forget what I saw.

Two fire fighters carried a black body bag down the stairs, which were directly in front of my door. I didn't know who was in the bag, but the fact that anybody was inside of it at all was enough to make a lasting impression. I don't remember exactly what I felt--certainly shock--but without knowing the who/what/where of the situation likely limited my response.

By this time, Kramer was in dire need of a morning walk. When the activity outside finally diminished, I opened the door and popped my head out to see if it was safe to take him out. My landlady was in front of her own apartment speaking with the building's owners. When she saw me, she scuttled over and I asked her what happened.

Someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail into my Thai neighbor's apartment on the second floor. It killed him.

If I ever knew further details about this murder, I can't recall them. It's tempting for me to assume that he died because he was transgender. I'll never know. As fate would have it, I'd already arranged to move out of the apartment but wasn't due to leave for another week. I called my friend Harold, with whom I was going to live, and asked if I could move in that day. He agreed and I never spent another night in that apartment on Seward.

But sketchy as my knowledge and memory is, I always wanted to write a story based on this event. When Eric asked me to write a story for UNLOADED, I thought this was the perfect chance. The finished version of "Peep Show" is very different from the truth, but the broad strokes are there. I can't read it without revisiting that time in my life.

I'm not sure I did my neighbor justice in the writing of it and I still wonder if his killer was caught and punished. But I'm proud of "Peep Show," nonetheless. I can only hope that he continues to rest in peace.

UNLOADED (Down & Out Books) officially drops on April 18 and includes stories by Reed Farrel Coleman, Joyce Carol Oates, Hilary Davidson, Joe R. Lansdale, Joe Clifford, S.W. Lauden, Thomas Pluck and many more. Pre-order your copy now.

UPDATE: Rob Hart, another contributor to UNLOADED, shares the inspiration behind his story, "Creampuff."

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


It took me awhile, but I've caught up entirely with the Amazon series, Bosch.  I recently watched Season 1 over the course of a week and season 2 in a weekend. Have to say, I was not disappointed.

Bosch is a straight police procedural that does nothing new, nor does it try to tweak an old formula or play around with familiar tropes.  It works as a series, though, because everything about it - the plotting, the acting, the characterizations, the pacing, the mood, the feeling for place - is done well. Each season dips into and adapts a few of Michael Connelly's Bosch books and seamlessly binds them into a tight, cohesive whole.  As I say, there's nothing startling or that you've never seen before, but while watching, I was reminded of film director Howard Hawks' definition of a good movie.  "It's three great scenes, no bad ones," Hawks said. Bosch, through 20 episodes, has maintained a level of rock-solidness with nothing less than good scenes and no poor ones.  It's an addictive experience, a perfect show for a binge watch.

The quality comes as no surprise.  There's the strong source material and Michael Connally's involvement with the show and a number of the people behind the show's production are crime show veterans.  Eric Overmyer developed the series for Amazon - he's a guy who's worked on Homicide: Life on the Street, Law and Order, and The Wire - and one of the executive producers, Pieter Jan Brugge, has worked on several Michael Mann films, including Heat and Miami Vice.  These are pros who know the genre inside and out, and the same goes for the episode directors, people who have a long history working on high end crime television dramas like the ones done by Tom Fontana (Homicide, Oz) and David Simon. Titus Welliver makes a fascinating Harry Bosch, and his chemistry with Jaime Hector, who plays his partner Jerry Edgar, is excellent.  Though he's been getting regular TV work for years, I haven't seen Hector in anything since he was Marlo Stanfield in The Wire, and the controlled authority he brought to a street drug boss in that, he brings, (albeit with less menace) to his role as Bosch's partner.  From The Wire also, Bosch has Lance Reddick in a key role and James Ransone in a smaller one. It must be said that the show takes something of a risk here.  Any time you cast a crime show with people who were on The Wire, the audience will think of The Wire, and maybe you don't want your audience comparing your show to the greatest crime show ever on American television? But Bosch gets away with it.  It doesn't try to compete with The Wire but does its own thing, and seeing the familiar crime show faces made me think of how old Hollywood used to do it, with the same actors turning up in gangster films over and over.  Like with the people behind the show's cameras, the actors bring not only their skill but their experience working in the genre, and it's fun, for example, to watch Lance Reddick do a variation on the reserved serious police officer character he played in The Wire or James Ransone inhabit yet another jittery screw-up, this time not as a low-level drug dealer but as a corrupt cop ripping off drug dealers.

From top to bottom, the series is well-cast, and it's the kind of show that takes time to develop lots of relationships among different characters.  Bosch alone has layered relationships with his ex-wife, his daughter, and Lieutenant Grace Billets, his immediate superior.  The lives of secondary characters are complicated.  It's a show, in other words, with a density and texture I find compelling, and it does it all in a way that's smooth and unforced.  In both Seasons 1 and 2, the narrative flows. And it's superb in capturing Los Angeles in a way that's both naturalistic and reminiscent of classic noir, without, again, seeming mannered.  Not to beat a dead horse, but damn this show is so much better than that second season of True Detective.  It's what True Detective in its second year could have been but wasn't. We're in southern California, we're dealing with politics and police corruption and organized crime, but Bosch gets it right in contrast to Nic Pizzolatto's strained, pretentious, allusion-strewn creation.

For the record, watchable as Bosch Season 1 is, Season 2 is better.  One thread in Season 1 concerns a serial killer, and though Jason Gedrick is good as the killer and the story line is suspenseful, with surprises, it is yet another rendition of the serial killer on the loose plot, with a few predictable notes.

Season 2 goes in a different direction and is more interesting for it.

And now, unfortunately....there's waiting.  I've had my Bosch binge watching pleasure and can't do anything but wait till a third season gets filmed.  Which it will. Amazon has made the announcement.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Gender Identity Crisis

I haven't worried about writing from the other gender's perspective the same way some writer friends have. My main view is that people are people, whether male or female, black or white, and within each gender and ethnic group and any other categorization that can be applied to people there are individuals with a wide range of interests, attitudes and experiences that combine to make them who they are.

I don't think we're identified solely by our gender.

And I've never considered myself a staunch feminist. What concerns me about how the term is sometimes used is that people mean women are superior to men. I'd prefer to think of myself as a humanist. Everyone should be treated equally.

The real dilemma for writers is that people aren't all treated equally. I found myself thinking about this recently when I happened across an old CSI episode.

Way back to when Sara was abducted and almost died. The beginning of the end. Not the end of her life, but the end of her career as a CSI. 

She couldn't do this anymore.

And I wondered why it was that it was okay to write a female character out that way. Does it diminish her as a woman if she didn't stand up to an attacker and a bad experience and defy it, and refuse to let what happened cause her to quit?

Nick didn't quit after he was buried alive. Greg didn't quit after he was assaulted.

Apparently Finn (after my time of regularly watching the show) quit like Sara did - after events she couldn't overcome caused her to leave.

I found myself wondering about way female characters had been written out. Did quitting make them seem weak?

And if men don't have women to protect do they lose their sense of purpose? How much of a man's gender identity is connected to protecting his family?

I've been wondering about this a lot lately. Part of the reason is because of the number of conversations about The Walking Dead that I've had recently. As I've blogged about here already, the character of Carol has been going through quite an ordeal, and some fans feel it undermines the strength of her character.

Carol is a woman who endured abuse from her husband. She's survived losing him and losing her daughter and emerged as a force to be reckoned with, capable of doing whatever she needed to do to survive and help the group.

Even if that meant murder.

Now, Carol doesn't want to kill. She's consumed by guilt and doubt. Living in a state of relative safety in Alexandria can make people soft, and it also allows time for fear to subside. When fear has driven you do the unthinkable for a long time the absence of fear can lead to self reflection and guilt. When the fear is passed you'll ask yourself if you really had to kill someone who'd threatened you along the way.

I mean, the Terminus folks were about to turn Glenn, Daryl, Rick and others into burgers. Lizzie was about to kill L'il Ass-kicker, Baby Judith.

Can Carol really feel guilty about killing them to save her friends?

Yet it would be the ultimate human response, wouldn't it? I mean, if someone broke in here and attacked my family I'd like to think I'd do whatever I had to do to save them. I'd like to think I'd rip a man's throat wide open if it meant saving my husband or kids. Think of every cop drama you've ever watched during a post mortem. There's admiration when the evidence proves the victim put up a fight.

And yet I can also imagine that I would be consumed with doubt and guilt afterwards. I'd search my mind for some other way I could have achieved the intended outcome. I would question if I'd really had to do what I did.

Carol's suffering PTSD. It doesn't make her weak or feminine. It makes her human.

TJ is right. As I've been thinking about the way that the genders are portrayed in fiction I've realized that it's women who tend to be the ones who know when to walk away. They can see the damage that they're enduring from a situation that isn't healthy for them and choose to make a change. It's quitting to some and it's self preservation to others. Sometimes you need to be able to recognize a situation that's destructive and choose to altar the landscape, and sometimes the reason you're doing that is because you recognize that you deserve better than what you're currently experiencing.

That doesn't mean that men can't. There are stereotypes that still exist in our world and in our fiction. Men are determined and won't let go of a vendetta until they have resolution. Women are more likely to walk away.

If the stereotypes are to be believed.

In order to write past gender stereotypes you need to assess the motivations of your characters to ensure that their actions are based in character consistency and logic. In the end, everyone's an individual. And some stereotypes will be true about some people some of the time. The way to ensure that the character doesn't read like a cardboard cut-out of a stereotypical male or female is to understand the characters so that you know why they have their beliefs and act the way they do. Conveying that understanding to the reader will take them from a superficial character who simply acts like a lot of other men or women and make them a complex, compelling individual.

Looking for portrayals of great characters in fiction? Consider Happy Valley (Netflix) as the recommendation of the day and feel free to share your recommendations in the comments.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Remembering Gary Shulze

Dear friends who loved Gary,

Please send any pictures you might have with him to Jon Jordan at Crimespree Magazine ( so we can put together a tribute page. Thank you!

Here is what my paper and the other paper in town wrote about him.