Saturday, August 6, 2016

How to Talk About a New Novel

I started a new novel on Monday, 1 August. It’s the second Lillian Saxton thriller. I plan on publishing the first one, Ulterior Objectives, later this fall. This new one is schedule for spring of 2017.

During my trip to Big Bend, I worked on the plot of this new book. For me, plot starts at the scene level. How does the story start? That’s how I began Wading into War and how I’ve begun many, but not all, of my books and stories. From this starting point, I build. End of Scene 1 is Whatever, which leads to Scene 2. The ending of Scene 2 has its own Whatever and that blends into Scene 3. And so on. In this way, I start constructing the skeleton of a story.

The benefit of this approach for me is that I give myself plenty of space to expand the narrative flow. I also allow room for the characters to breath. Sure, I need them to get from A to B, but how they get there I leave to the writing time. You see, I may have an idea: “Lillian Saxton and her partner, Henry Clark, must meet Important French Dude (later named Jacques) and they are delivered intelligence on German Luftwaffe positions.” That action is what I need to happen. But I don’t always know how it will happen. I trust my inner subconscious writer that, when the time comes, I’ll figure it out.

This is especially true for scenes that come down the line. As much as I’d love to start crafting prose with a clear and direct roadmap, it rarely happens. I know how the story starts, how I’m pretty sure it’ll end, and the major beats along the way. All the middle stuff, however, is, at this time, murky. I’ve a good idea how it’ll all turn out, but no clear path. That is both the exiting and scary part of writing.

But an interesting thing occurred to me on Wednesday. I realized that there was a better beginning to the novel. So, even though I had written the first scene, it is now chapter 2. Funny thing, that.

The biggest downside to these early days of a project with upwards of forty scenes mapped out is that when someone asks “What’s the new book about?” I have the tendency to start reciting my scenes list. That *isn’t* what the book is about. I have a strong notion of the themes that I plan on exploring, but I know from past experience that new, unexpected ones will emerge. I welcome and relish those moments.

How about y’all? How do y’all talk about new books when you’ve just started?

Friday, August 5, 2016

A Note on Community

You ever have one of those days so full of different emotions you feel wiped out by five?

This morning, my kid's pet mouse died.

Now, aside from being pretty cute, and fun to watch, the mouse wasn't a big part of our family. Mice aren't the most interactive pets, and I hadn't really formed a strong bond with the little furball. But I'm not six. My kid is six, and she still isn't over the unexpected death of a pet rat last fall. There was a lot of ugly crying and confusion in our home this morning.

No parent likes to see their kid that upset.

Ugly crying kid or no, I had a lot to get done today, and in the process I bought the new record from one of my two all-time-favorite bands. I've been trying to keep the perma-grin off my face in front of the kid who is still struggling, but it's hard. I had planned on writing a whole blog about how music affected who I became and what I write, but you know - dead mouse.

The next thing that happened was, I went to the mailbox and found the most amazing thoughtful gift from the people I work with at Dirge Magazine. I recently wrote about how I shelved a project I'd been working on for too long and started a new project I was excited to write and totally in love with. In the biggest vote of confidence I could get from a fellow writer, I got a custom made pendant with the title of my WIP done in the perfect lettering for the vision in my head (H/T: Torture Couture).

So instead of writing about how punk rock made me, and made my writing, and made a lot of things (we'll get to that next week, possibly). I want to take a minute to talk about the people I surround myself with. You don't have to spend long on Facebook to realize that there are more than a few writers who love to see others fail, who enjoy saying horrible shit to people, who are just cancerous to the community. They're everywhere. If you're lucky, you've only encountered them after they've been an asshole to someone else.

The people I've got in my little bubble are the opposite. I'm friends with people who offer to read for each other, who talk positively about other writers, who give me super meaningful gifts telling me that "Now, you CAN'T quit." I've got family that supports my writing and the late nights, and the neuroses that comes on when I'm waiting to hear back about something on sub.

I don't know how writers who don't have that stick with it. I don't know how you get through this gig without a ton of awesome people lifting you up and helping you out. This isn't exactly a plea for us all to be kind to each other (but hey, could we?) but more of a long winded appreciation for the good people in the writing community, and the constant bouying we provide each other.

It's hard to keep perspective when you hit the half way point of a story and you feel like the worst writer who ever lived. Maybe you're used to rejection letters, but you get one on a bad day and it's back to the way you felt on the fifth one (not the first one - because let's face it, we all expect the first one). But if you've got good people around, shit still feels pretty good most of the time.

Now that I've got you all hopped up on good feelings, who's buying me a drink at Boucher? Eh? Eh?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

We were such dorks back then

By Steve Weddle

Back in 2009, we kicked off this DoSomeDamage thing with a post introducing ourselves. Some of us have stuck around, some have gone for good, some have gone and come back, and only one is currently incarcerated (and only for the next two months).

Within a couple years we were doing podcasts and book clubs and all sorts of fun stuff. We even had another ginger.

And in all that time, my co-conspirator Jay Stringer has been publishing some swell fiction. In fact, this month he's got a great new out now -- How To Kill Friends and Implicate People.

Most folks know that Jay does violence and humor well, often in the same sentence. There was that groovy scene with the cricket bat that one time, you know? Anyway, violence and crime and humor and some good ol' pathos, that's what he's got going. But, if you're paying attention, you'll also see some smart, clever worth with social class, with immigration, with Brexit-type stuff, too. Steeped in history, you know? His novels don't shy away from what's currently going on in Britain, nor do they flinch from showing you how we got here. The violence underneath is scarier than any cricket bat.

And this new one is already getting wonderful reviews -- and hilarious ones, too.

So celebrate DSD's awesome writer people what write the books by grabbing the newest from Jay Stringer. It's fucking brilliant. Buy: HOW TO KILL FRIENDS AND IMPLICATE PEOPLE

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Copy Cat

by Holly West

Lately, I've been thinking I need to copy more authors.

I don't mean plagiarizing, silly. I mean studying what other authors do pr/marketing-wise and copying them. Or at least aiming to copy them. I have to be realistic, knowing that as much as I might want to, I'm never going to make the time to all of the stuff I see other authors do. My head explodes just thinking about it.

First, let's understand that the best pr/marketing tool we have is our next book. I get this. I'm working on that. This post is about strengthening my platform, creating a plan and following through on it. I've got lots of ideas but I suck on the follow through.

Who are some of the authors I'm looking to emulate?

Diane Vallere, author of four different series, one of which she self-publishes, is one of the best branded authors I know (she's also one of the savviest and most generous). And she does most of this branding herself. Her career trajectory is inspiring to me--she set about the traditional publishing route and when that didn't work out, she successfully self-published her Samantha Kidd series. After that, she launched her Madison Night Mad for Mod series, which was picked up by Henery Press, a small but growing publisher. Since then, Diane has secured deals for two more series, the Material Witness mysteries and the Costume Shop mysteries, both for Penguin Random House.

In the midst of all this, Diane quit her job and now makes her living as a full-time writer. While I don't want to write four series, I do want to diversify my writing life to fulfill my own interests and, if possible, to make a better income from writing.

So what lessons can I take from Diane?

1) She's always writing that next book.

2) Her website reflects her personality, the tone of her books and serves up what readers want to know.

3) Her social media presence is well-orchestrated without being obviously so. One of my favorite things she does is post pictures of her wardrobe when she packs for conferences. She knows her audience and caters to it splendidly.

4) She cultivates her mailing list and actually sends out newsletters.

5) I'm sure she does loads of other things I don't know about. But basically, she lays out a marketing plan and she follows through on it.

Jeri Westerson is the author the Crispin Guest historical mystery series (as well as several other novels) and I'm not sure if I know any other author who works harder at PR and marketing. She's also extremely knowledgeable about publishing and isn't shy about spreading that knowledge around. When her long-time publisher pulled the plug on the Crispin series, she self-published a prequel. She's since found a different publisher for the Crispin books but will continue self-publishing other titles in tandem.

Like Diane, Jeri is making a living at her writing, but it hasn't been straight forward and she's explored multiple avenues to get there. Everything I said about Diane, above, applies to Jeri, too.

I talk about self-publishing with author friends a lot. One of my favorites, Neliza Drew, just self-published her debut, ALL THE BRIDGES BURNING, and beyond the excellence of the book itself, she did such a good job with the publishing that it inspires me to consider self-publishing again myself. But if I ever do, it's clear to me that I'll have to master the art of marketing and PR in a way I haven't managed yet. Maybe by copying authors who do it better than I do, I'll get there.

Or at least I'll get closer. Baby steps.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

To Shoot or Not to Shoot: Writing Violent Fiction in a Violent World

Nick Kolakowski guest blogs this week.  Nick's work has appeared all over the place, and now he has put together a number of his best short stories in one collection called Somebody's Trying to Kill Me. I've heard Nick read at least a couple of these stories live, and they definitely held my interest.  They were violent and funny, but the humor didn't make the violence feel cavalier or frivolous.  Nick has obviously given thought to the ethical implications of writing violence as entertainment in a world that's quite seriously violent, and that subject is exactly the one he writes about here.  

And's Nick:

To Shoot or Not to Shoot: Writing Violent Fiction in a Violent World

by Nick Kolakowski

The other morning, along with millions of other Americans, I saw the shaky footage of Alton Sterling gunned down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana by a pair of cops. In the clip, the pistol-shots sound like two wooden blocks clapping together, dull slaps without fire. Sterling lies there, his arm trembling, his shirt soaked in blood. It is messy and horrible in all the ways that cinematic death is not.

Sterling’s homicide, along with the murder of Philando Castile in Minnesota and five cops in Dallas, marked a very bad week for this country, re-igniting the simmering debates over race and policing and gun ownership. In the middle of it, someone asked me if real-life horrors ever made me reconsider writing crime fiction.

At the time, I was putting the final editing touches on Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me: 17 Noir Tales, a book that collects a number of noir stories I’ve published over the past few years in Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Crime Syndicate Magazine, and other venues. It features a lot of murder, some of it tragic, but some of it humorous. “The Last Redemption of Bill,” a story narrated by an ultra-intelligent parasite living in the guts of a public health inspector, climaxes with a crooked cop smashing through the same windshield twice (it’s a complicated bit of black comedy). So I was sensitive to the idea of fictional violence trivializing real-life pain.

Every few years, it seems, I find myself revisiting this particular dilemma. Four years ago, a man shot a former business partner up the block from my office in Midtown Manhattan, only to be gunned down in turn by the cops. I came outside to a street cleared of everyone but police, as crime-scene techs draped the bodies in sheets and carefully marked off spent shell casings. For a few months after that, I drifted away from writing scenes of murder and mayhem, focusing instead on plots in which only feelings were hurt and no people died.

But slowly, perhaps inevitably, physical violence began to creep back into my plots. “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” one of the first stories I wrote after that shooting (and one of the pieces in this new collection), deals with the bloody aftermath of an underworld business deal gone wrong. A part of my brain was clearly processing my memories, just as it had with the fiction I wrote after 9/11, or when some of those close to me died.

It would be disingenuous to claim that violence in fiction doesn’t offer easy rewards to the author. It provides a structure for catharsis, propels plots forward, and serves as an effective catalyst for a range of character emotions. The audience expects its presence. When Chekhov hangs the gun on the wall, you’re looking toward the moment when it goes off.
For the audience, the relationship with fictional violence is often complicated. Sure, the author might write a violent demise as funny (every bloody death in Tarantino’s early films is played for laughs, for instance), but the audience, depending on their background and tastes, may still squirm uncomfortably. You can use all the tools of the trade to angle a violent scene to serve your ultimate intentions—but just as in real life, the ultimate impact of what you’ve set in motion is often beyond your control.

The best you can do is integrate your violence as seamlessly as possible into the story. Indeed, most fictional violence proceeds according to a moral framework. We’re horrified at the atrocities committed by the antagonist; when the protagonist delivers his or her own retribution, it’s in the name of a good cause, and thus restores the balance. (Yet as many works of crime fiction have pointed out over the years, such thinking is problematic. In Drive, the movie by Nicolas Winding Refn, the white knight who saves the widow and her son is also a blank-eyed psychopath; when he stomps a goon’s head to mush in an elevator, or drowns a mob boss in the ocean after a sadistic game of cat-and-mouse, it raises the question of whether any violence is ever “good.”)

As I told my questioner: Every time I see violence in the real world, whether or not it makes the news, I find myself questioning whether it’s wrong to keep writing about bloody murder.

Yet despite those reservations, my characters always find the gun again. And in that moment, with the renewed awareness of what real-life bullets do to real-life flesh, I remind myself that violence is a tool of plot and character, whether used for tragedy or comedy. And in that fashion, violence in fiction manages to separate itself from its real-life equivalent, in which so much is dictated by randomness, and the result is always cruel. 

Somebody's Trying to Kill Me is available here.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Reader Variable

The reading experience is about more than the book itself, because the experience of reading is contributed to by the reader as well. Everything we processes is filtered through our own experiences, beliefs and knowledge base.

No matter how technically precise a written with is, it may fail to spark the interest of the reader so that they pursue the reading journey. This may not have anything to do with a shortcoming of the author, but may be due to the specific interests or knowledge base of the reader.

It may also be that a reader becomes enthralled with a work, praising it and recommending it widely and referring to the inspiration or emotion drawn from the experience of reading that work.

That may not necessarily be because the work is a tour de force; it may be that there are elements within the work that speak to the reader personally because they relate to the situation, information or emotions in the story.

For me, one work that I have a strong personal connection to is Lake Wobegon Days. Garrison Keillor's novel might be special to people who live in Minnesota. It might be a favorite of Keillor's fans.

However, in my case, the connection has to do with the section of the book that covers religion.

Whenever a special Bible study meeting was scheduled for Sunday afternoon at 3:00, we couldn't drive home after morning meeting, have dinner, and get back to St. Cloud in time, so one Sunday our family traipsed over to a restaurant that a friend of Dad's had recommended. Phil's House of Good Food. The waitress pushed two tables together and we sat down and studied the menus.
The waitress came and stood by Dad. "Can I get you something from the bar?" she said. Dad blushed a deep red. The question seemed to imply that he looked like a drinker. "No," he whispered, as if she had offered to take off her clothes and dance on the table. Then another waitress brought a tray of glasses to a table of four couples next to us. "Martini," she said, setting the drinks down, "whiskey sour, whiskey sour, Manhattan, whiskey sour, gin and tonic, martini, whiskey sour."
"Ma'am? Something from the bar?" Mother looked at her in disbelief.
Suddenly the room changed for us. Our waitress looked hardened, rough, cheap--across the room, a woman laughed obscenely, "Haw, haw, haw"--the man with her lit a cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke--a swear word drifted out from the kitchen like a whiff of urine--even the soft lighting seemed suggestive, diabolical. To be seen in such a place on The Lord's Day--what had we done?
Now, a lot of people with a religious upbringing might relate to the idea of avoiding the evil sinners in the world.
The first time I saw a television set in a Brethren house, I was dumbfounded. None of the Wobegonian Brethren had one; we were told that watching television was the same as going to the movies--no, in other words. I wondered why the St. Cloud people were unaware of the danger. You start getting entangled in the things of the world, and one thing leads to another. First it's television, then it's worldly books, and the next thing you know, God's people are sitting around drinking whiskey sours in dim smoky bars with waitresses in skimpy black outfits and their bosoms displayed like grapefruit.
Yup, it's a slippery slope on the path to sin. And some of you might relate to that type of thinking too, but if you haven't been Brethren, or been extremely closely associated with someone who is closed Brethren, you simply will not have the same experience reading this section of the book that I did.

In a town where everyone was either Lutheran or Catholic, we were neither one. We were Sanctified Brethren, a sect so tiny that nobody but us and God knew about it, so when kids asked what I was, I just said Protestant. It was too much to explain, like having six toes. You would rather keep your shoes on.
We were "exclusive" Brethren, a branch that believed in keeping itself pure of false doctrine by avoiding association with the impure. We made sure that any who fellowshipped with us were straight on all the details of the Faith, as set forth by the first Brethren who left the Anglican Church in 1865 to worship on the basis of correct principles.
I remember when a friend, well known to many people in our meeting, joined us one Sunday. She had the nerve to smile. She'd done several missionary trips. One of the brothers gave her communion.

One of the elders in the church scowled and protested that she didn't even look like a Christian. I kid you not. She was properly clothed... Oh, wait.
My mother never wore slacks, though she did dress my sister in winter leggings, which troubled Grandpa. "It's not the leggings so much as what they represent and what they could lead to," he told her. He thought that baby boys should not wear sleepers unless they were the kind with snaps up the legs. Mother pointed out that the infant Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes. "That doesn't mean he wore a dress," Grandpa said. "They probably wrapped his legs separately."
She respectfully had her head covered in a scarf, but dammit, she smiled, and that was not acceptable... And she wore pants. And she was not confirmed Brethren. I suppose that's something they have in common with Catholics. They feel the need to determine who meets their criteria for communion. (When you travel to a different Brethren Assembly you have to take a letter signed by elders from your meeting to be presented and approved so that you can have communion there.)
Uncle Mel's wife, Rita, was a Lutheran. She only came occasionally and when she did she stood out like a brass band. She used lipstick and had plucked eyebrows and wore bright hats. Brethren women showed only a faint smudge of powder on their cheeks and their hats were small and either black or navy blue. Once Rita spoke up in the meeting--Al had stood up to read from the Lord's Word, and she said, "Pardon me, which chapter did you say?"--and we all shuddered as if she had dropped a plate on the floor: women did not speak in meeting. Another time, Sunday morning, she made as if to partake of the bread as it was passed, and Grandpa snatched it away from her. It had to be explained to Rita later that she could not join in the Lord's Supper with us because she was not in fellowship.
Lisa's venture with our Brethren Assembly (and Robert's actions in giving her communion) ultimately led to a split.

The split with the Johnsons was triggered by Mr. Johnson's belief that what was abominable to God in the Old Testament must be abominable still, which he put forward at the Grace & Truth Bible Conference in Rapid City in 1932. Mr. Cox stood up and walked out, followed by others. The Abomination Doctrine not only went against the New Covenant of Grace principle, it opened up rich new areas of controversy in the vast annals of Jewish law. Should Brethren then refrain from pork, meat that God had labeled "unclean"? Were we to be thrown into the maze of commandments laid out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, where we are told to smite our enemies with the sword and stone to death rebellious children?

The history of the Brethren splits could be its own full-length book. There's another line in Lake Wobegon Days about how once people got a taste of being right there were more and more splits. And that's really how it was. The whole account of life in a Brethren Assembly spoke straight to my personal experiences, and reading Lake Wobegon Days after leaving the Assembly meant the experience was incredibly powerful for me. I took the book along to the homes of others who had left in the split and watched them laugh until they cried when they realized that someone else out there understood. It was incredibly therapeutic, and we all felt a little less isolated because there was a sense we had shared an experience with the author.

And it doesn't matter what church you've left along the way; if it wasn't Brethren you won't have the same experience I did when I read that chapter, because you don't have same basis of understanding for the intricacies of their doctrine, their process and lifestyle. In the same way, I could never fully understand the intricacies of leaving the life of the Amish or traditional Mennonite behind. Religion and lifestyle might be tied up in it, but it's still different.

When you write, you do the best job you can to tell the most compelling story that will capture the audience's interest. However, there are things that are out of your control, and one of them is the reader variable. The experiences the reader does or does not bring to the experience will contribute to their level of appreciation for your work. If they are extremely enthusiastic it may not be because the work is exceptional, but because they personally connect to it in some way. And if they don't enjoy it, it may not be because the work falls short; it may simply be that they don't connect to the characters or story, or even that something in the book conflicts with their personal experiences in a way that deters them from enjoying it.

The writing experience is its own experience. The reading experience is a shared experience as the reader interacts with the writing. They bring in their own background, history, experiences and values, and those things will influence their reading of your work. It doesn't always mean they didn't "get" it, and it doesn't always mean you're as brilliant a writer as one reader thinks you are. It just means that their variable increased or reduced the perception of your work.

That's what's out of your hands as a writer. It presents an enormous challenge, because you want your book to appeal to as many people as possible, but it may reference things you have a deep knowledge of that not all readers understand, and you'll have to try to decide whether you'll write it for those who share that knowledge, or those who don't. Either way, you risk alienating one group of potential readers. That's why you need to focus on telling the story you want to tell, trusting your editor when you're told to add more or make adjustments, and let go of the response, because how a person interprets a book isn't all about your writing. A very big part of it is about them, and that's something you have no control over.

Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them," and the Brethren believed that was enough. We met in Uncle Al's and Aunt Flo's bare living room with plain folding chairs arranged facing in toward the middle. No clergyman in a black smock. No organ or piano, for that would make one person too prominent. No upholstery, it would lead to complacency. No picture of Jesus, he was in our hearts.
My affections were not pure. They were tainted with a sneaking admiration of Catholics--Catholic Christmas, Easter, the Living Rosary, and the Blessing of the Animals, all magnificent. Everything we did was plain, but they were regal and gorgeous.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Real World Research

By Claire Booth

I come to you from Branson, Missouri, the town where my novels are set. It's a research trip - looks rough, doesn't it?

Nothing beats walking and driving through where your books take place, and I'm making the most of it. Tonight I might try out one of the local wineries - for research purposes, of course.