Saturday, May 21, 2016

New Technology = New Opportunities


By
Scott D. Parker

I finally got a smart phone.

For the longest time, I have enjoyed caring around my flip phone. I mean, come on, it was a Star Trek communicator. What wasn’t to like? I loved being able to take it out of my pocket, flick it open, and answer the phone. Additionally, I liked flicking it closed with a hard smack. Plus, I could be rough with it. If it fell on the floor or on to my desk, it didn’t really matter.

But as much as I liked it, my old phone was showing its age. Regularly, I would receive calls but could never hear the other person. My wife thought it was “selective hearing,” but it wasn’t. It was just spotty service for a phone that was at least four years old. In fact, when my last flip phone died, I went to T-Mobile to get another one. They didn't even sell them anymore. So I went to Target and bought a new flip phone for $30. $30 for a phone that used to cost over $100!

But don’t think I'm a Luddite who never had any other technology. I always carried around my iPod Touch. Granted I was limited to areas where there was Wi-Fi to get the internet but that didn't bother me much. I enjoyed being able to be unconnected from the world. With the iPod Touch, I was always able to write on the fly by typing very fast on the device. I had my music, my books, and all my notes. Frankly, I was set. In addition, I didn't like all the giant phones that seem to be all the rage nowadays. The iPod Touch, with its 4-in. screen, was perfect for me. I didn't want some massive slab in my pocket. If anything, my flip phone so compact that I often forgot it was even in my pocket. 

Oh, and the joy I received whenever I was able to show others that my phone was my phone and my iPod with my iPod was great! The looks of incredulity always made me smile. The longer I went without a smartphone, the more I enjoyed it. I liked being different. I liked being able to choose when I was connected to the world. And, besides, I was always connected with my flip phone. There’s rarely a time when I needed to conduct an emergency check of my email. Sure, when Houston traffic snarls, it would be nice to check a smart phone for the best alternatives, but I know my way around the city. The only thing lost is time, and I can spare that.

But with the release of the iPhone SE, things changed. That was the phone that matched the size I want with the brand-new technology that came with the iPhone 6. Now was the time.
I've only been using the phone for two days. With the size being the same—and my apps in nearly the same layout—it’s barely noticeable that I’m carrying an iPhone. The most obvious of course is where I now carry one device where I used to carry two. That's nice. It means fewer things in my pockets. I used to carry my flip phone and my keys in my right pocket. Yesterday, more than once, when I reached for my keys, I had that sudden fear I left my phone at home! I carried my iPod in my left pocket, which is now where I carry my iPhone.

But I think the biggest change with having the iPhone will be in the ability to dictate content anywhere. I was already using the iPod to dictate when I was within Wi-Fi range, but now I am unencumbered. Now, I can literally walk anywhere and still produce content. The more I get used to dictating my fiction, the more stories that I will be able to publish for the world to read. That gets me very excited.

And I’ll be healthier, too. It means I can go for walks, dictating along the way. That’s a nifty thing.
So, I have joined the masses. I now have a smart phone. I really enjoyed being different, but I’m looking forward to the fabulous stories I write using the iPhone.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Game is Afoot

Ch-ch-changes...

I've got a lot going on so strap in and listen up! You might care about some of it!

I've been working on a novel for a couple years. This includes the rewrites, the beta reads, the going back for a ground-up reworking because the beta-reads didn't go the way I'd hoped, putting it aside to come back later, and all the things that usually come with a manuscript that takes a couple years of your life.

And as of Tuesday, I've shelved it.

I've been spending a lot of time recently telling myself that all the other ideas I have can wait, because goddamnit, this project will get done! But the truth is, if it were really that urgent, it'd be done. The other truth is, in the couple years I've been writing and publishing my focus has changed and I'm much better equipped to write this story about nymphomaniac bank robbers than I ever was to tackle soft science fiction.

So here it goes, right?

With a new project almost always comes a new approach. I can crank out a short story in an afternoon, but novel writing has always taken a lot more work and concentration for me. I really want to focus my ability to hit a high word count into writing a novel quickly, and it's time for me to admit that being a "pantser" is just not for me.

So, with trepidation, I set out to write an outline for the current WIP. Looking at all the options and explanations just made me feel like I wanted to hold my breath until I passed out and come back to it later, but I did run across Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet from Save the Cat, and it looked doable. After a long Facebook conversation with Jay Stringer and Bryon Quertermous, I had some actionable advice I felt like I could put to use, and immediately set about making my office look like a serial killer's den. 

Two days in and I'm feeling like all those brain storming sessions might actually mean something when I hit the halfway mark and start wallowing in my own self-pity. 

Speaking of self-pity - 

Haha, just kidding. I don't self-deprecate. But the novel I collaborated with Andrez Bergen is available for pre-order now and the release date is creeping closer. 

I had a lot of fun working with Andrez on the Trista & Holt comics that became Black Sails, Disco Inferno, and I'm really looking forward to sharing this baby with the world. You've got a retelling of Tristan & Isolde with crime, disco, and characters I've really come to love (looking at you, Governal). 


And in my ongoing efforts to leave the house and interact with real humans, I'm once again joining the SWILL crew at Beast Crawl this year. Check out our fancy Facebook invite and holla at me from the bar. We're reading at Longitude this year, same as last, and I can tell you they make some amazing bourbon cocktails at that location. Not only that, but one of my favorite Dirge Staffers (they're all my favorite, who am I kidding) promised to bring a sign and cause a scene, so you don't want to miss that.

NOT ONLY THAT, but holy cats, did you see that lineup? You get me, DSD's very own Holly West, David Corbett, Rob Pierce, and Sean Craven. This thing is going to be wild. Come see us!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A conversation with Laura Lippman

I love it when an author surprises me. I don't mean that in a "wow, great plot twist" way. Though, that's always welcome. I mean when an author goes beyond expectations and delivers a book that is not only good/great, but different, thought-provoking and a notch above what's come before. That's how I feel about Laura Lippman's Wilde Lake.

Which isn't to say Lippman's previous work - 20 novels worth, natch - is anything to scoff at. I've made no secret of the fact that her Tess Monaghan books were part of the reason I'm even writing my own Pete Fernandez mysteries. She's one of a small group of writers that I will follow without question. Her books are automatic buys. So, I went into Wilde Lake expecting the usual level of quality. It went above and beyond.

I've had the pleasure of talking to Laura before and I'm grateful she took the time out of her busy schedule to chat with me about her new book, her process and her love for a certain animated series. As usual, this interview was edited for space, clarity and all that other stuff - it also first appeared via my newsletter.


Laura, so I think this interview will veer away from what's now become my standard chat, if that's okay. Can you tell me a bit about the story behind your latest, Wilde Lake? What made this the book you had to write next? 

I had been thinking a lot about rape. When Dylan Farrow published her letter on the New York Times website -- winter 2013? -- I found myself revisiting that event, how I reacted in the 90s when her father, Woody Allen, was accused of molesting her. At the time, I had been very comfortable with the paradigm of he said/she said/we can't know.

I'm not comfortable with that paradigm anymore. Because, if you think about it, there is a lot of stuff we can never know, but we don't shrug and say, "Well, I can't know what happened, so I won't have an opinion because the risk of harm is equal to both parties." Sure, if I were a juror, I would hold myself to the standard of a criminal court proceeding, beyond a reasonable doubt. But I'm not a juror. I'm a human being and I know some stuff. I know that the "problem" of false reporting is exaggerated in most people's minds while the problem of under-reporting -- a lot of sexual assaults are never reported to any law enforcement agency -- is quite real.

About 2-8 percent of criminal reports of sexual assault are false. God help you if you're one of the 2-8 percent and I realize the pendulum swings wildly at times, and that some colleges have over-reacted. But I decided that if 92 to 98 percent of sexual assault complaints are not manufactured, then I'll focus on those.

So when I decided that I believed Dylan Farrow, I began thinking about other cases where I might have not believed victims, initially. And I couldn't help thinking about To Kill a Mockingbird. Not because I disbelieve Tom Robinson -- he's so obviously innocent, that's the point. But the same elements, in a different time or place -- I saw how the story could play out quite differently.

The story runs very organically on two tracks, each happening in a different time, building toward one another. How challenging was it to keep everything straight? Can you share a bit about your process for writing a novel - generally, and anything specific that came up when penning Wilde Lake?

It took me quite a while to figure out how to tell this story and while I wrote a few chapters alternating between past and present, once I really understood what I was doing, I wrote one story first -- Lu's life from birth through a particularly notable funeral in the 1980s -- and then the modern-day story of a rather ho-hum murder prosecution. Then I had to write the final third of the book, which was all in the present day.



Lu Brant is a layered and realistic protagonist - she's driven and whip-smart but is also at peace with her flaws. She's career-oriented but also mindful of family. She feels very alive, which is great. What went into her creation? 

A lot of me, a little Jean Louise Finch. The competitiveness, the drive, the perfectionism. And maybe some of my daughter, because she has a much older brother who means the world to her. May I tell you a really weird story? We were coming up on parent-teacher conferences recently at my daughter's school and she said to me: Mama, make sure you tell me everything that my teacher says, the good and the bad. My assistant looked at me and said: "That sounds a lot like a certain book I've read." It was really eerie, almost word for word out of my own book.

That's...pretty intense.

Now, I'm always curious about what authors are reading - in the moment and while writing. Are you a research-focused writer? Were there any books that you referenced while working on Lake? What have you been reading for pleasure lately?


A New City Upon a Hill, a very good book about Columbia, was key. I'm a very efficient researcher, and I knew Columbia well.

For pleasure, I am reading a galley of Ann Hood's The Book that Matters Most and I love it.

You've been very savvy about shifting between you're bestselling (and acclaimed) standalones and your long-running (and beloved) Tess Monaghan series. Does it boil down to you writing what you want as the mood strikes you, or do you feel like the standalones offer you the room to do new things that a multi-book series can't, by design?

I pretty much write what I want to write when I want to write it. That's an incredible privilege and I admit, I might have lost sight of how privileged I am a time or two. I'm not "pure," and if I had strict instructions to write to a certain market, I think I could do it. But I've been allowed to follow my own imagination and interests and -- well, wow.

Going back to Wilde Lake for a second: I hesitate to use the term "leap forward" here, because it's not like novel-writing is new to you, but the new book felt like you'd leveled up somewhat, like a culmination of your previous novels. For you, was it a difficult book to write? Did it differ much from the novel you envisioned when you first put pen to paper?

It took longer than any other book I had written. And it's only recently that I've begun to remember all the false starts, all the things I didn't do. Initially, I imagined a girl coming out of the lake and claiming she had been raped. A body found at a construction site. (It seemed impossible to write about Columbia and not take on development.) A man in prison who knew something about Lu's family.

I really try not to do things twice, though. So I didn't want Lu to spend time talking to an incarcerated man, that felt like a throwback to I'd Know You Anywhere. The girl emerging from the lake -- that had an echo of What the Dead Know. I've written 21 books and a collection of short stories. It's hard not to repeat myself. I let go of the development thread. I've come to realize only in talking about this book how much I resent Columbia's transformation from the place I knew in the 70s. Paved paradise/put up a parking lot would be overstating it, as I never thought it paradise, but I have a bizarre nostalgia for the deadly left-hand turn onto I-29 north. Back in my day, we didn't have no stinkin' overpass, kids.

What else are you working on these days? 

I seem to have inadvertently wandered into this phase where I want to rethink, repurpose, retool beloved narratives. I'm working on a mean, lean little novel that's sort of a gender-switch of The Postman Always Rings Twice that also recognizes the very noir underpinnings of Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years. I have to work on a revision of the original book that my husband, George Pelecanos and I wrote for an original Pogues musical. And, every day, Monday through Friday, I write a new lunchbox note. My lunchbox notes are EPIC. A year ago, I don't think I had ever been inside a Michael's; today I have BINS of stickers, stamps, ink pads, paper, cards. Sometimes, my husband gets a lunchbox note.

I really hope those lunchbox notes are collected someday. It's a lost art, the lunchbox note. (Also, everything else you mention sounds amazing - A POGUES MUSICAL?!)

Ahem. In terms of other media - what have you been watching or listening to that's left an impression?


Catastrophe on Amazon Prime, although I love discussing it with my good friend Rebecca Chance, because I think she's right that there's a seed of female fantasy in it. And my attitude is: WHAT'S WRONG WITH FEMALE FANTASIES LET'S HAVE MORE OF THEM! Which is funny, because I think I used to argue with her about Jane Eyre, saying it was too much of a female fantasy, but then decided to succumb to its charms again. I loved Jane Eyre and then I didn't and now I think I love it again, and isn't it lovely to think of writing something that a person would engage with that way over a lifetime? (Well, 40 years for JE and me, which was a lifetime for a Bronte.)

I love Archer. That's the Lippman-Simon "no cheat" show; we don't watch it apart. I'm sure someone will write a very good "think" piece on why I'm wrong to love Archer, but if you rate the characters on IQ alone, Lana is clearly at the top and her only flaw is her man hands/having had sex with Archer; and then there's Mallory, who's a sociopath and a bad mother, but she can survive anything. Then Cyril and after that it's a big race to the bottom. So an African-American badass woman, an "unnatural" mother and a nerd are the most admirable characters.

Oh, I know what you mean. It's The Americans and Better Call Saul for us. Before we wind down, did I miss anything?

Did I? I probably have a few more thoughts about Archer. I am probably thisclose to writing Archer fanfic.

Please do this. And thanks for coming by! Always wonderful.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Under Construction

by Holly West

I've been struggling with structure lately. As in, how in the hell do I structure this godammed novel?


Back in October I had my current WIP professionally edited and one of the questions that came up was whether I'd waited a bit too long to introduce the dead body. I suspected it might be an an issue when I turned in the manuscript but by the time I realized it I didn't have time to re-write it. Now I have lots and lots of time to re-write it but no clue as to how to actually do it.

Have I mentioned how much I hate revising? If not, consider it said now. I HATE REVISING.

At least, I hate revising at this stage. When the book is just slightly past the first draft stage and needs a major overhaul. When you break it up into chunks and move them around, then have to go back to the beginning and fix everything so that it makes sense with the new arrangement. When you have trouble keeping track of the story because its so unwieldily and you have to pay attention to every detail for the sake of continuity. Writing a first draft is so much more fun because it's messy and you don't care because you know you have to go back to polish it anyway.

Unless you're one of those writers who write clean first drafts. I don't know how to do that.

I don't mind revising the third or fourth (or more) drafts too much because usually, by then, you've got your structure nailed and you're basically just fine-tuning. It's like staging a house--the bones of the house are there and now you get to do the fun stuff like picking out curtains and pillows and paint colors.

But right now I'm in the middle of a full-scale renovation and just like with residential renovations, it's taking three times longer than I budgeted for. Going into it, I knew my first job was fix it so that the murder happened sooner in the book. But how much sooner?

In cozies, it's pretty much a given that a dead body will show up in the first chapter, if not on the first page. But I don't think that's necessarily the case with other crime fiction sub genres. In the first draft of my WIP, the murder occurs about 15,000 words in. In draft two, I determined I'd move it to the first 10% of the book, so around 8,000 words in. After three months of half-assed work, I decided that the murder had to happen at the end of the first chapter and that's where I am now.

It's definitely a better book because of it.

The question now becomes, what do I do with the previous beginning chapters now that they're now mainly backstory? It's something I've always struggled with: balancing exposition and moving the story forward. I've solved part of the problem by re-writing some of the passages so that they simply happen in the present. That's easy. But other things, like establishing the characters and their relationships as well as some of the events leading up to the murder, are harder to incorporate. I've had to cut a lot of it altogether.

One way to approach this problem is to write a prologue. Put the murder front and center then go back in time in Chapter One and tell the story from there. Back when I started writing MISTRESS OF FORTUNE I read somewhere that prologues were frowned upon so I've never used them--they feel a little like cheating to me. But I see plenty of books by high profile authors that use prologues so it's tempting to write one for this book.

Another option is to have the action in Chapter One happen in real time then go back in time in Chapter Two. This, to me, is just a prologue by another name, but I've seen it done plenty of times. I'm just not sure it's the best way for me or for this book.

Finally, and this is the hardest way to do it, is to start the book with the murder and then fold in exposition with a light hand. It's how I've chosen to do it but right now it feels like I'm editing with big ol' Hulk fists.

Obviously I'm not the only writer to struggle with this. This is what revising is all about--figuring out the best way to tell your story. Finding the right place to begin it is crucial, so it's right that I'm taking time to experiment with it. I just need to hurry up and finish so that I can move on to installing the hardwood floors.

My question for you is: how do you feel about prologues? As a writer, do you use them? As a reader, do you mind them?

I've already answered the first question: No, I don't use them (or haven't yet). As a reader, I'm not too bothered by them but I prefer a story to start at the beginning (whatever that may be) and then go forward.



Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Interview with Adam Howe

Adam Howe is an author I'm glad I believed the buzz about.  I picked up his collection of novellas, Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, based on the good things I'd heard about it and because I'd enjoyed reading some blog pieces he wrote for Jed Ayres' Hardboiled Wonderland site.  It was obvious from his writing there that he has a funny, incisive sensibility, a view of the world that comes from a sharp, sometimes threatening, angle. All of this is on full display in the three novellas in Die Dog, a collection that mixes horror with satire with noir with pulp with a complete lack of narrative inhibition. I had a great time reading the book and raced through it. What's clear is that Howe, with only Die Dog and an earlier novella collection called Black Cat Mojo under his belt, is an accomplished storyteller and quite a craftsman - a writer in total command of his extreme material.  

I had the chance to talk with Adam about his books and the films and writing that have influenced him.

SCOTT ADLERBERG: When did you start writing, and did you start out writing the kinds of stories you write now?
ADAM HOWE: started writing at an early age, even dictating stories to grownups before I could write myself.  My mum recently sent me one of my earliest efforts, about a bulletproof werewolf.  Illustrated, no less.  According to my scrawled signature (maybe it’s an autograph, I was an ambitious kid), I was six-years old when I wrote this masterpiece.  So yeah, it seems I was writing much the same shit, just without the sleazier elements of my current work – that’d be worrying, a six-year old writing about dwarf porn stars and sodomite orangutans.  As a kid, I was drawn to horror.  I’d haunt the horror section at my local video store, soaking up the lurid box art, and write stories based on what I imagined the films to be.  My parents divorced when I was very young, and I moved with my mum to her home country of Australia, while my dad stayed in England – so maybe I was filtering my anxieties through horror.  More likely I was just hardwired for horror.  Most young boys like blood and guts and nasty shit.  I just never really grew out of it.
It’s apparent that movies, B-movies, horror movies, are something you love and that you draw upon them perhaps as much as fiction as an influence?  What kind of movies did you like growing up, when you were 12, 13, a teenager?
Hey man, I like good stuff too!  But yeah, busted, I’ve got a soft spot for schlock. As a kid, the movie that made the biggest impact on me was Jaws, after which I was fiend for killer animal flicks, most of them Jaws knock-offs, and monster movies.  At a way-too-young age, my mum innocently rented me a video double-bill of An American Werewolf in London and John Carpenter’s The Thing, which I watched alone.  She monitored the first five minutes of American Werewolf to check it was suitable for an impressionable young child.  The opening scene in The Slaughtered Lamb seemed harmless enough, so she left me to it.  Moments later, I was traumatized by the sight of a werewolf savaging David Naughton and Griffin Dunne on the moors.  In terms of graphic content, American Werewolf and The Thing are a considerable step-up from Jaws, and it’s fair to say they blew my tiny mind.  But after that, I couldn’t get enough. 
I subscribed to Fangoria magazine, pinning the pullout posters to my bedroom wall.  During the UK’s ‘video nasty’ hysteria, many of the movies described in Fango were either slashed to ribbons by the censors, or banned outright, and it was hard to track down a lot of this stuff.  Again, I used my imagination, writing my own versions.  Wish I’d kept those stories.  It’d be interesting to see how my bootlegs measure up to the real McCoy versions.
Around age eleven, I moved back to England, where under my dad’s tutelage, I received a crash course in action movies, and was fortunate to be around for the Golden Era of 80s action – what a time to be alive!  I particularly enjoyed producer Joel Silver’s oeuvre, and the early work of Steven Seagal.  I pity the kids of today for their lack of potbellied, ponytailed heroes.
Each novella in Die Dog has, in some way, to do with animals.  Or creatures anyway, that may or may not exist.  In each case, having an animal in the story adds a great element of unpredictably.  You never know what an animal, or skunk ape, will do.  Any idea where this interest, engagement, with animals comes from?  Is it an interest that extends outside fiction, like to pets or an interest in wildlife?  Did you want to be a biologist when you were a kid?
The animal motif in my work came about after I wrote the story "Of Badgers & Porn Dwarfs" for the Black Cat Mojo collection.  The story was inspired by a hoax news article, which claimed that celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s dwarf porn star lookalike had been discovered partially devoured in a badger sett.  The image of a dwarf versus badger battle royale was too good NOT to write.  I envisioned it as a scale version of the David Mamet-scripted killer bear flick, The Edge, in which Sir Anthony Hopkins and F.A.G. President Alec Baldwin fight a grizzly bear to the death.  After that, the floodgates opened, and a menagerie began stampeding from my brain.
As for where it really started?  I guess I never grew out of that boyhood phase of dinosaurs and predatory beasties; a rite of passage, I suppose, in which boys tentatively tests the boundaries of danger and fear.  Growing up in the Australian countryside, there was never any shortage of exotic critters.  I’d embark on backyard safaris, trapping venomous creepy crawlies in jars to keep in my bedroom (to my mum’s delight), or take to school for ‘show and tell.’
Today my interest in wildlife is much more casual.  I have a Jack Russell terrier called Gino, named after Steven Seagal’s character in Out for Justice.  I watch the odd nature documentary here and there.  YouTube clips of animals going berserk on live TV are always good for a laugh.  The interaction between man and beast is a constant source of schadenfreude.
As I’ve said, Jaws made a huge impression on me as a kid.  So initially I planned to be a shark hunter, like Quint.  I sang a mean Spanish Ladies, and even affected Quint’s habit of nibbling crackers and crushing beer (OK, soda) cans.  When it was pointed out to me that this profession didn’t end well for Quint – visions of Robert Shaw gargling blood as ol’ Bruce chomps his guts – I decided instead to become a marine biologist, like Hooper.  Unfortunately, Jaws had also implanted in me a mortal terror of the ocean, so that was a non-starter.  Somewhere along the way, I cottoned on that Jaws was fiction, that someone had written it, and so I chose the safest course of action and decided I’d become a writer.
The three tales in Die Dog all delve into a particular slice of low-down pulp Americana, if you will.  You capture each particular milieu so well.  When did you start to develop a fascination with these strands of American culture?  More through books or movies or a combination of both?
I spent my formative years living in small-town rural Australia, which I imagine isn’t a million miles removed from the American South.  I’m a city-suburbs boy now – to be honest, I was never really a country boy, I just lived there – but I still feel an affinity for the country, and the no-bullshit attitude of country folks.
For good or bad, Americana dominates pop culture worldwide, and the ludicrousness of redneck ‘Murricana appeals to my sense of humour – which you may have noticed, is a little warped.  There’s a mythic quality to the South and her people that suits the hyper-real worlds of my stories.  I’m not interested in realism so much as I am in subverting tropes and stereotypes, while telling an entertaining story. 
My inspirations are more consciously drawn from movies than books.  That’s where my ear for the language comes from.  American Southern noir and hick-lit fiction is a relatively new discovery for me, but a sub-genre I feel at home in.
Who are the writers who’ve made the biggest impression on you?
The writer whose voice I first really connected with was Stephen King.  As a kid, I went to King for the blood and guts, the vampires and werewolves and killer clowns; but over the years, I stayed for the characterization.  These days, I much prefer his non-supernatural work, such as his superlative noir "1922" from the Full Dark, No Stars collection.  My first break as a writer came when King chose my short story Jumper as the winner of his On Writing contest, which was open to unpublished writers outside the States.  My winning story was published in the paperback and Kindle versions of King’s On Writing, and I even got to meet the man himself.  As you can imagine, it’s proving hard for me to top the achievement of that first published story.
In my teens, I started writing screenplays.  The best way to learn the craft is by studying produced screenplays.  In the pre-digital days, this was much harder to do than now.  Screenplays were difficult to obtain in the UK, not to mention pricey.  But I lucked out, snagged a job writing copy for a mail-order company supplying scripts to universities, writers and film geeks.  The screenwriters I most admired were Shane Black, David Webb Peoples, and Quentin Tarantino.  Black, in particular.  Really dug his smartass buddy repartee, and his action writing.  It’s great to see Black enjoying a renaissance right now.  Can’t wait for The Nice Guys.
In my twenties, I landed an agent and embarked on a ‘career’ as a screenwriter.  Had a few feature film screenplays optioned, doctored other writers’ work.  But nothing I wrote every made it to the screen.  In the end, it became too dispiriting seeing piles of work left to gather dust, and I made the jump back to writing fiction.  But those years as a screenwriter taught me much of what I know about traditional story structure, and gave me my ‘cinematic’ prose style.
Also around this time, I was working for crime writer Maxim Jakubowski at his Murder One bookstore in London.  There I discovered some great crime writers – Chandler, Hammett, Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Lawrence Block.  But I was still a punk kid back then, mostly grooving on true-crime and horror, and I took for granted what should have been my education in crime fiction. 
I’m making up for lost time now.  Crime fiction scholars like Kent Gowran and Jedidiah Ayres are a boon for relative noobs like me.  Through Jed’s Hardboiled Wonderland blog, I’ve discovered some great writers.
Most recently, the writer who’s made the biggest impression, with his genre bending, and use of humour to move between light and darkness, is the Champion Mojo Storyteller, Joe R. Lansdale, whose work re-energized my own.  Even before I read him, I felt like I’d been hearing his voice, or one like it, in my mind for years.  Joe’s also a solid guy.  ‘Die dog or eat the hatchet’ is a phrase I’d noticed him use in his work, meaning ‘do or die.’  I contacted Joe, asked if he’d mind if I used it as a title, and he gave me his blessing.  He could have just used it himself.  “You’re right, it IS a good title.  Thanks, kid.”  Man, it would’ve killed me if the next Hap and Leonard book was called Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet… 
Talk a little about your process?  I know – it’s obvious from the writing – that you put a lot of effort into crafting your sentences and stories.  The events in the narratives may be wild and extreme and gory but the writing is lucid and tight.  The plots are well wrought and have a definite beginning, middle, and end.  There’s even restraint in how language is used – very little profanity, no straining to be ‘disturbing’ or edgy.  Nothing seems forced or excessive for mere shock value.  Do you wing it as you write or outline a lot?  Go through many drafts?  Proceed slowly, correcting and editing as you go?
It’s easy to dismiss pulp fiction as superficial and disposable, but I put as much time and effort into the work as any other writer you care to name, so I appreciate the compliment, thanks for noticing.  I’d disagree with you that there’s little profanity in the work, but that it doesn’t draw attention to itself is great, means it isn’t gratuitous.
I’m self-taught from reading and trial-and-error writing, and I find it hard to discuss the mechanics of the craft; I work from the gut, write from the heart, I know what I’m looking for, and when it’s right.  My MO comes mostly from screenwriting, which is all about structure; solid beginning, middle, and ends. 
I work from an outline, but the outline is flexible.  My first draft tends to be a first act, setting the scene, establishing character; I’m feeling my way into the story.  As the story is slowly revealed to me, I rework my outline, refine those second/third acts, start shaping the plot; sometimes I’ll start from scratch and rewrite that first act to reflect later changes.  So quite often, my first draft is a solid first act and second/third act outline, where I’ve figured out various story beats, including the climax.  As a result, my second draft is usually structurally sound and remains the spine for future drafts.
I’ll write at least three drafts, page one rewrites, with further polishes and revisions as necessary.  Before subbing to publishers, I hand the manuscript to my #1 beta reader and editor, Bill Chaney, for final revisions before the ‘house’ edit.  Bill’s not a pro, just a friend whose opinion I value.  His tastes in genre fiction are very different than mine – he’s ‘outgrown’ pulp, and prefers more literary work – which I think makes for an intriguing clash of influences and styles.  I have Bill to thank for tipping me off to Joe Lansdale; he spotted similarities in our work, and suggested I might like Joe, which proved to be an understatement.
In Gator Bait, you explore some racially charged stuff, albeit stuff based on historical fact, in the US South.  It’s all organic to the story and after all, these things described may have actually happened, but did you have any worries about what reader reactions would be?  More generally, what has been the reaction to this collection and your brand of uninhibited, “yes, I went there” fiction in general?
As far as I can tell, readers and reviewers have taken to the ‘edgier’ elements of my work in the spirit I wrote it.  A quick look at my story synopses should let you know if my work’s for you.  As writers, it’s hard enough to silence our own inner critics, without worrying about the opinions of others, especially the self-appointed moral guardians who seem to exist solely to be ‘offended’ by things.  Of course, I considered the racial elements in Gator Bait.  But in the end, I felt the language was in keeping with the period and place – 30s Louisiana – and so I went with my gut and trusted the intelligence of the reader to contextualize those elements.
I am, by and large, a pulp writer.  Even as a reader, I prefer subtext to be, you know, sub-textual.  I want to enjoy a good story – even a ‘tough’ story like Gator Bait – without being moralized to.  So when it comes to writing period pieces like Gator Bait, I prefer the reader brings their own experience to the mix, rather than writing revisionist history.  I want the reader to feel uncomfortable.
Gator Bait, though a period piece, was written during the Ferguson riots, and the Black Lives Matter protests, and that tension bled subconsciously into the work.  It was only in later drafts, while searching to see if the title Gator Bait had been previously used – it had, but I figured what the hell – that I stumbled across the historical practice of ‘gator bait.’  This refers to Southern alligator hunters using slave children as ‘gator bait’ to lure their prey.  It’s hard to imagine this was a widespread practice, but that it happened even once is quite horrifying enough.  When I wove this history into my narrative, it created even greater tension.  Does it make for an unpleasant, uncomfortable reading experience?  You bet, and I’d hope so; Gator Bait is a suspense story, after all.  Is the subject matter inappropriate, or is it inappropriate for a white male writer to write about such subject matters?  Well, that’s more subjective.  All I can tell you is that my intentions were honorable, and that I wasn’t thinking much further than just telling a good story.
With these stories, especially what happens in the middle novella, Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, you’ve set a high bar in terms of outrageousness, gore, and brutality.  How do you approach a follow up to this?  Do you want to top yourself by getting even more outrageous and bloody, or do you change direction, even if writing horror, to try to entertain through different means?  There’s always the balance between giving your audience what they might expect from you and pushing so hard readers can see you’re only trying to surpass how far you went last time.
Die Dog was written as a standalone novella, to capitalize on my Stephen King connection.  My first book, Black Cat Mojo, is an offbeat crime/horror collection.  When I was pimping that book, you bet your ass I marketed myself as ‘the winner of Stephen King’s On Writing contest,’ but I imagine readers who came to Black Cat Mojo expecting King-type stories got a shock with titles like "Of Badgers and Porn Dwarfs and Jesus in a Dog’s Ass" – not exactly The Shining, right?  So with Die Dog, I tried to write a more ‘traditional’ crime/horror story, which is kinda funny considering how fucked-up the story turned out.  I was leaning towards the extreme end of the dark fiction market, so I knew I could push boundaries, but even I worried I’d crossed the line in certain scenes.
In movies and books, I like graphic content, and I seem to have a dubious flair for writing violent action scenes, so I might as well play to my strengths.  What stops graphic content from becoming gratuitous is character; without strong characterization, all the reader’s left with is gore for gore’s sake, which really doesn’t interest me.  So I don’t intend to try and out-gross-out myself.  That’d be hackwork.  I’ll write graphic scenes as and when the story demands it.  I’ve got many other stories I’d like to tell, even in the horror genre, which won’t require a fisting-by-disembodied-limb scene.  Time and a place for everything!
Your first two books, Die Dog and before that, Black Cat Mojo, were published by an indie press.  What’s your view of the whole indie press boom?  Is this a good time to be an author with all the publishing choices around or a maddening one with the glut of books being published whether by large presses, small ones, or authors themselves?
This ‘boom,’ it’ll translate to megabuck sales soon, right?  To be honest, I don’t follow the markets very closely, so I don’t feel qualified to answer.  I lucked out with my publisher, Comet Press.  I’d enjoyed their dark fiction anthologies, and put them high on my wish list when I started seeking publishers for Black Cat Mojo.  Fortunately, they dug the work, and were among the first publishers to get back to me.  My experience with Comet so far has been only positive, and I can’t recommend them highly enough to other writers.  Good people.
With the ease of digital publishing, there’s a ton of shit out there, written by self-proclaimed ‘Amazon #1 bestselling’ authors.  I don’t know how other readers navigate it all; for me, I rely on the recommendations of my friends in the crime/horror fiction communities.  From what I can see, many small presses are publishing infinitely more interesting works than the majors, by writers who deserve to be bestsellers. 
I intend to take a crack at the majors myself, once I progress from writing novella-length fiction to novels; I’m still adapting to the shift from screenwriting to prose, and I’ve found that a 30k word novella roughly equates to a feature film screenplay.  To have any chance of success, I guess I’ll have to tone down my more lurid elements – if I can – but I’ve got a lot of more ‘mainstream’ stories I’d like to tell.
I think I read somewhere that you are actually working on a novel now.  If that’s true, anything you can give away about it?  And are there any more Reggie Levine stories in the future?  I think your ex-boxer turned bar bouncer turned (for one story at least) skunk ape hunter is quite an engaging and idiosyncratic character and I’d love to read more about him.
My white whale of a novel remains elusive.  I haven’t been satisfied with early drafts, but I’m determined to finish the fucking thing.  It’s called One Tough Bastard, and it’s an offbeat crime/thriller, and my ode to 80s action flicks.  It concerns washed-up action star Shane Moxie, who’s like a combo of Jack Burton and Kenny Powers.  Shane’s biggest hit was a buddy action/comedy in which he co-starred with a hyper-intelligent Nim Chimpsky-style chimpanzee called Duke.  Duke went on to the A-list, and became the most celebrated animal actor since Lassie.  Shane flushed his career down the toilet.  When the two are reunited for the anniversary screening of their cult movie, they soon find themselves embroiled in a criminal conspiracy involving an Arnold Schwarzenegger-style action icon… A lot of what I’ve written really works, the characters are fun, and I’m sure readers will dig it.  But it’s just not quite ready yet.
As for Reggie Levine, he’ll be back in action later this year, or early next, in Tijuana Donkey Showdown.  I really put the poor bastard through the wringer this time.  It’s the first sequel I’ve written, so it’ll be interesting to see how readers feel it measures up to Damn Dirty Apes.  It’s certainly crazier.
When sleazy used-car salesman (is there any other kind?) Harry Muffet recruits Reggie to retrieve his wife’s Chinese crested terrier, which is being exhibited as a chupacabra at a rundown roadside zoo, our hapless hero is dragged into an epic clusterfuck involved neo-Nazi drug smugglers, a donkey porn star named Enrique, and in a hairpiece-raising cameo, Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage.
I’m also collaborating with horror writer Adam Cesare on a period crime/horror project we’re pitching as Michael Mann’s Public Enemies meets John Carpenter’s The Thing.  No title as yet, and we’re a little behind schedule due to other work commitments, but hopefully we’ll have this one ready for next year… So, lots to look forward to – and hopefully much more to come!

Black Cat Mojo can be found here.
Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet can be found here.
From May 17 through May 21, you can get Gator Bait as a standalone novella for your Kindle free right here.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Novel's Secret Magic Ingredient










 ✓  a clear protagonist with a special ability
✓   a clear antagonist you want to see defeated
✓   losses the protagonist has suffered
✓   clear allies to the protagonist that are helping them accomplish their mission
✓   high stakes - the fate of the world rests in our protagonist's hands
✓   love = personal motivation for the protagonist and risk of significant loss
✓   action - people don't just stand around talking or sit around thinking - stuff happens, the characters have to 
      fight to save themselves and others, more than once
✓   actors I've seen be convincing in other roles, suggesting they have some degree of ability

  ✗ successful story

Over the weekend we watched a movie based on a series of books. I'm not going to divulge which one, because it doesn't matter. It wasn't the first movie in its series. We'd seen at least one other movie in the series and it was above average. Not great. Not life-changing. Just solid with no complaints.
It was enough for us to return for a second offering, but after this weekend's experience I doubt we'll watch more in the series, unless we're still trying to determine what caused the trainwreck that this movie was.
As we watched it I couldn't help but be fascinated by the story that the writers, director, producers and actors hadn't intended to tell. What had made this movie fail so spectacularly? I'd seen more than one of the actors in other roles where they'd performed well. One's an Oscar winner, if that means anything to you. More than one have been in certified box office hits.
The good guys and bad guys were clearly identifiable, and there were just enough guys that were shades of grey to allow for a few twists. There was plenty of action that involved our heroes fighting their way out of danger and escaping death yet again.
And yet the movie fell apart. It failed to engage us from the start, had various members of the family questioning the plausibility of some character actions, while others cited the predictability of the plot. 
The movies in this series are based on books that have been successful in terms of sales standards; however, our avid teen reader gave up on the books partway through the series. Now, this is a reader who reads fast and reads plenty of long books (I think we gave her a Dean Koontz book when she was 9) so the reason isn't that it was above her ability to follow. The reason she quit the series had to do with boredom and unnecessary confusion within the story that made it lose appeal.
Oddly enough, that seemed to translate through to the movie versions clearly.
Now, in my non-writing life I provide critiques and editing services to writers, and I find myself trying to explain what can't be quantified about a manuscript. As a result, I was recently reading a list of reasons why manuscripts are rejected by editors, and found this near the top of the list:

The manuscript doesn’t seem organic or authentic. “If you’re trying to follow a trend, you’ll lose your voice,” says Scheina. “If I feel like this is something I’ve already read, I’ll put it down.”
  
I don't envy the job that editors have. There's a pressure to acquire books that will perform to a certain sales standard, and editors lack a crystal ball that will enable them to foresee popular trends in society that will affect reading habits often as much as two or three years from when the manuscript is first submitted to them.
And then there's the imitation game. In the hopes of acquiring the next blockbuster, when a book or series breaks through with millions in sales and a Hollywood film series that only drives sales higher everyone wants a piece o that action. Publishers jump on the bandwagon and acquire anything that can be marketed comparably that they can get their hands on.
The result is often a lack of authenticity that makes the product feel more like a knock-off rather than a superior, unique product.
There's a certain je ne sais quoi about a story that makes it work. This is what's so hard to pinpoint for ourselves and explain to others. A story that resonates is always more than the sum of its parts. It's more than words on a page and it's more than things the characters do. It's how the motivations and consequences affect our audience that will make the story stay with them and prompt thought and discussion years after being seen or read.
There have been a lot of stories over the years about people who are different being persecuted by those who are afraid of them. For me, everything compares to the first story I recall reading about mutants with special abilities who were not accepted by society.


When I first started seriously attempting a manuscript I was terrified of reading books within that genre. I was afraid someone else would have already written a story with my idea and that my story would be pointless. What I eventually realized was that there are a limited number of types of stories we're all writing, but it's what we as the author bring to them that makes them stand out. It's our life experiences, our secret knowledge, our perspective that will help us infuse the characters with life. 
It's possible to take all the ingredients and produce something that's truly your own, that adds to the subgenre and enhances it because it has that organic quality that only you, as the writer, can bring to that twist on the subgenre.
You have to tap into your own soul to infuse your feelings, knowledge and experiences into the characters in a way that makes the story genuine, so that it will resonate with the audience. 
When a writer tries to copy what's worked for others or tries to replicate their own past success the focus isn't on writing from themselves; the focus is on trying to anticipate how the audience will interpret the product. At that point the artistic process has been compromised and the ingredients of a story alone won't mask the fact that the tale doesn't rise above the level of an imitation.
Original or knock-off. You can have a certain amount of success copying what others have done, but you'll never be considered a one-of-a-kind artist. I actually think it's harder for those who are trying to copycat others to break into publishing because there are many talented writers who can be commissioned to write or ghostwrite specific types of stories publishers are looking for, and without a focus on artistic authenticity the writer has nothing original to offer to a publisher that anyone else can't produce.
The type of writer you'll be is up to you, and whether or not you succeed in acquiring a publishing contract may depend on it.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Favorite Writing Books

by Kristi Belcamino

I'm a total nerd about writing process and craft books.

I just finished a good one, Wired for Story. It was so good that as I read, I kept my moleskine journal open, taking notes.

Here are my top five books on writing. Would love to hear yours.