Saturday, September 30, 2017

Into Uncharted Territory

Scott D. Parker

Come Monday morning, I will be unemployed for the first time in my life.

I started working a day job back in February 1999. Of course, back then, it was the only job. I have worked steadily ever since. As 2017 rolled around, everyone at my company knew the project for which we were hired to work would end. For many of my co-workers, that end arrived back on 30 June. For me and two other technical writers, we got an extra three months. That time ran out on Friday. Actually it was Thursday since my boss decided we three didn’t have to come to work yesterday. T’was a nice gesture and we thanked him for it. Actually, yesterday just seemed like one of my bi-weekly days off. Come Monday, things will be different.

I don’t know about y’all but I love to work. Sure, the paychecks are nice and necessary, but I crave the structure and routine of work. I enjoy working through problems, developing content, and delivering products. I enjoy using my skills to help my company and my clients. I have no problem with getting up in the pre-dawn darkness, knocking out a thousand words, getting the boy out to school, and me to the office. I was fortunate enough to work close to my house, enabling me to come home for lunch with the wife.

Come Monday, all of that remains in place except the office part. Everyone I speak with tells me I’ll find something. I know I will, but it’s the uncertainty that’s new to me. I’m the type of person who is ready to establish a new work/life routine as of yesterday. I’m ready for the next day job challenge and I’m eager to dive into a new set of assignments and delivery high-quality documentation.

But until that next day job arrives, it’ll be time for a new routine. And I think everyone here knows exactly what it will entail. For the longest time, I’ve always referred to my day job as the primary job and the fiction writing job as the other one. Come Monday, that routine will be flipped. I’ll be here, writing most of the day, every day. The early morning part will remain the same: wake, get the boy off to school by 6:25 a.m., and then, instead of hopping into the car to head off to work, I’ll come back here and start my new novel. I purposefully didn’t work on it yesterday or today and I won’t do anything tomorrow. For the near future, my fiction writing job is my day job. I’ll be living (admittedly not of my own choosing) the life of a full-time fiction writer.

It is what I ultimately want, but I’m not ready yet. I’ll make the most of it, but come Monday, I’ll be looking forward to the day in which I can be a full-time technical writer again.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Be Kind

Today is my grandmother's funeral and yesterday I got news that my friend and colleague, Kirk Clawes died unexpectedly. I don't have energy for a long blog post this week, but with these two kind and wonderful people in mind, and knowing all that is happening in this word, I would ask you, members of the crime community who I love, to do a favor for a friend, donate a buck or two to charity, or call someone you haven't spoken to in awhile.

Losing two such kind and wonderful people so close together is a painful reminder to be more kind, so if you're inclined to remember them with me today, please do so by living their examples.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Getting Down to Brass Tacks with Jess and Shannon

Guest Post by Shannon Baker & Jess Lourey

Hi Holly and everyone here at Do Some Damage. Jess Lourey and I (Shannon Baker) are embarking on our second annual Lourey/Baker Double Booked Tour. Jess’s newest in the laugh-out-loud Murder by the Month mystery, MARCH OF CRIME, launched in September and my next Kate Fox mystery, DARK SIGNAL, is slated for October 17. (Pre-order!)

Holly's note: Can't wait for October 17? Forge has released "Close Enough," a Kate Fox short story, available on Kobo and Amazon for .99.

We’ve been on the road a while, so instead of chips and beer, let’s opt for a healthier choice, say, mimosas and celery sticks? I hope you don’t mind if I forgot the celery. Today, we’re here to talk discipline and writing. Strap in.

Shannon: I love to write. I really, honestly do. Every day. Lots and lots of words. Lalalalala.

Okay, I’ll cut the crap. Not every day, week, or even month is Happy Writing Land around my house. In the Grand Plan, I’m committed to writing, or I wouldn’t have stuck with it this long. Since I’m not inspired every day, I’ve had to work out a whole slate of tricks and mind-fuck to keep me plugging along until I catch the wave again. Jess, what are some of your best strategies to fight resistance?

Jess: Since we’re being honest here, I go days without writing. Unfortunately, I’m thinking about writing that whole time, or more accurately, beating myself up for not writing. It’s painful. I do it up until a point where I realize it’d be easier to simply write, and when I reach that low point, I require 2000 words a day out of myself until I get out of that seat. They don’t have to be good words, but they have to be typed words, not “in my head words.”

Shannon: I knew you’d cough up the goods. For me, I begin with the basics. You can’t win if you

don’t play. I have this stupendous idea, deep characters with arcs like rainbows, action to carry us to the moon and back. I may or may not be able to get that down on the page and the world may or may not want to read it if I do. But here’s the sure truth: if I never write it, I sure as hell will never get it published.
Jess: Exactly. It’s much easier to fix a weak story than to fix a story that’s never been written. Are there any tricks or questions you ask yourself to motivate you to slog through the writing process?

Shannon: Who is your parole officer? Find someone or a whole group of someones for whom you can be held accountable. I’m part of a writers group that has been together for over 20 years. At one point, our collective productivity dried up like Tucson in June. We took stock and decided we had to recommit or quit. When the thought of quitting felt like a serrated knife to the heart, we decided to post our word count to each other daily. No judgements, no chastising, because we’re all adults with lives. Simple posting. When we started, I’d post 200. That was pathetic to see, so I upped it, and upped it again, until I was able to post 1200 fairly routinely (I was working a full time day job). Seeing my progress and knowing someone else saw it, too, kept me in the game, and led to my first Nora Abbott book.

Jess: I love that idea. Did you guys post in Google docs? (Shannon here: Google doc? Pshaw. This was when Google was only a gleam in, in, well, the Google inventor’s eye) And you say that there was no shame, but there was a little, right? Shame is a great motivator. I also, weirdly, motivate myself with mental health. I am a happier person when I write. I wrote a book on the science of this process (Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction), but essentially, writing cleans out the garbage in our brains in measurable ways. Buckets of it. There is a saying that mystery writers are the nicest folks out there because we work out our murder and aggression on the page, and it’s so true.

And I’m so happy to get to call myself a writer. I finished writing MAY DAY in 2004. It was all of 45,000 words long, and I was so green that I figured it was plenty good. It took over 423 rejections—plus adding 15,000 words and writing JUNE BUG so I could sell it as a series—to land my first agent. She had a side business selling healing crystals, and I hope she did well at that because she couldn’t sell my book. We parted ways amicably, and my second agent landed a two-book contract with Midnight Ink.

Shannon, you wrote your first book without a contract, just like me. How’d you finally land your first contract?

Shannon: It’s Who you know. It took me about twenty years to finally get a publishing contract. Along the way, I’ve often wanted to throw in the towel. I even gave it up twice, once when I got divorced, moved, and started a new life, and again for two years when I earned my MBA. What always brings me back are the friendships I’ve made. I love writers! You are wicked smart and witty, interesting and observant. If I quit writing, I might lose the bond that holds me to my friends and comrades. I can’t stand that possibility. So when I’m frustrated by the “homework for life” thing and the insane business, and I want to leave the circus and drink cerveza by the pool every day (who am I kidding? I pretty much do that now) I think about how lonely I’d be without you.

Jess: Haha! It really is homework for life, isn’t it? What have we done to ourselves? In any case, I completely agree that writers are the best human beings. Writing a book is the ticket to the tribe, and it’s not a bad motivator. Shannon, I’d like to talk with you about your writing tricks, but first, I feel like you want to say two words, one a type of metal and the other an office implement. Am I right?

Shannon: Brass tacks.  On a practical level, I do a few things. There is the usual word count quota. That’s generally good. But some days I have more resistance that requires me to be trickier. That’s when I pull out the James Lee Burke game. I heard him speak once and he said he only writes 750 new words a day. And they don’t have to be good ones. He said, (in that melting Southern drawl) if you write 750 words a day, by the end of the year, you have a book. If it’s good enough for James Lee Burke, it’s good enough for me.

A trained monkey can write 750 words. So I convince myself that’s all I have to do. But the magic happens when I sit down to do that, more often than not, when I hit 750, I’m just getting warmed up. I’m so easy to fool!


Come on folks, tell us your tricks. We are each giving away three books on the Lourey/Baker Double-Booked Tour. For every comment you make along our tour stop, you’ll get another entry in the contest.  So buckle your seat belts and come along with us.

September 2 Mysterious Musings
September 5 Janice Hardy
September 7 The Creative Penn
September 9 Write to Done
September 12 Wicked Cozy Writers
September 20 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Blog
September 21 There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room
September 23 Femmes Fatales
September 24 Writer Unboxed
September 25 Dru’s Book Musings
September 27 Do Some Damage
October 3 Terry Ambrose
October 12 Jungle Red Writers


Jess Lourey (rhymes with "dowry") is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's Excellence in Teaching fellowship, a regular Psychology Today blogger, and a sought-after workshop leader and keynote speaker who delivered the 2016 "Rewrite Your Life" TEDx Talk. March of Crime, the 11th book in her humorous mystery series, releases September 2017. You can find out more at

Shannon Baker is the author of the Kate Fox mystery series (Tor/Forge). Set in the isolated cattle country of the Nebraska Sandhills, Kirkus says, “Baker serves up a ballsy heroine, a colorful backdrop, and a surprising ending.” She also writes the Nora Abbott mystery series (Midnight Ink), featuring Hopi Indian mysticism and environmental issues. Shannon makes her home in Tucson where she enjoys cocktails by the pool, breathtaking sunsets, a crazy Weimaraner, and killing people (in the pages of her books). She was voted Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s 2014 and 2017 Writer of the Year. Visit Shannon at

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Diversity Rises in Genre

Richie Narvaez guest blogs this week.  A former president of the Mystery Writers of America's New York chapter, Richie carries himself with a humility that belies a one time head of state.  He is a tireless supporter of other writers and a guy I always enjoy spending time with.  He's also a hardworking writer himself, and one who's quite versatile. I've read stories by Richie in a variety of genres - crime, science fiction, social satire, straight on realism - and he happens to be adept at blending fictional tropes. This year he has a story in a collection of sci-fi and fantasy tales written by Latino/Latina authors, and it's this collection that he'll be talking about here.

So Richie, let's hear about it:

Diversity Rises in Genre
Richie Narvaez

As a doe-eyed kid growing up in Brooklyn, I didn’t actively look for Latino characters in all the buckets of pop culture I was gobbling. But when I came across them, glowing on the screen or speaking to me from a story, it was joyful. Hey, that guy looks like my dad. She sounds just like my mom. Of course, as a Latino, the faces I did find were pretty much limited to Zorro, Chico and the Man, and West Side Story. Still, this showed we weren’t just invisible sideliners in the world. We were a part of it.

One-to-one character identification isn’t necessary for a story to be accessible, of course, but when it’s a character from a group that is usually marginalized, that adds a freshness to an author’s story, and, yes, it’s a nice extra for readers from that marginalized population. Now if I were writing this post last year, I might’ve dared to say that the fight to bring this kind of diversity to pop culture was winning. But after last year’s U.S. elections, it seems that the advantages of diversity need to be brought up again and again.

Realism. Variety. Representation. And empathy, that lessening of fear of the Other. All understandably and logically good things, no?

Literary fiction tackles diversity and the social commentary that is inevitably a part of it, but that kind of book may at best have the air of a “Very Special Episode” or “Important Lesson Here” and at worse creak under the label of “political correctness.” This is why genre writing — mystery, science fiction, and horror — can be so important to diversity. While the primary responsibility of genre arguably is to entertain, some of the best genre writing delivers social commentary wrapped in a plot-driven story, and so like a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down — or, if you prefer, like an undercover cop, a Mak'Tar stealth haze, or a cloak of invisibility — mystery, science fiction, and horror can make a social or political statement subtle, not polemical, illuminating, not mawkish.

Most crime fiction reinforces the status quo of our lives. Justice prevails, crime doesn’t pay, everyone move along back to your homes now. But when there is Latina lawyer as a heroine, or a procedural series is set in Puerto Rico, that says not only that Latinos are part of the world, but also that we can be part of this tradition of crime fiction. Science fiction, through its frequent use of allegory, alludes to the possibilities or change or the consequences of not changing the injustices in our society. Horror also works at the allegorical level, exemplifying some deep fear in the zeitgeist.

I write in all three genres, and I’ve been privileged to have stories featured in several Latino-themed anthologies for crime and speculative fiction. My first reaction when I heard of these type of anthologies was that they were a sad sort of self-segregation. But stories ache to be told, and they will find any damn way they can to be told. Or, perhaps more accurately, their authors will find any damn way they can to tell them.

Recently, I had a story published in Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latin@ Science Fiction and Fantasy, the first-ever collection of United States-based Latino/Latina writers in speculative fiction and fantasy. By virtue of a vigorous Kickstarter effort by its editor, Matthew David Goodwin, the book got the attention of an independent publisher, Wings Press, and was published in January.

The anthology contains wonderful examples of diversity and social commentary and great plotting. There is a monster in "Sin Embargo," by Sabrina Vourvoulias, but there is also insight into the verbal-coding endured by immigrants, all taking place during the atrocities of Guatemala's dirty wars. Carlos Hernandez's "Entanglements" involves alternate timelines, but also make a comment on stereotypical notions. In my own story, “Room for Rent,” there are no Latino characters. But there are extraterrestrials who are forced to immigrate to Earth.

Now, one thing about such anthologies, titled as they are, is that they may only be read by the converted. But the (possibly a pipe) dream is that these stories and books won’t have to have labels appended to them forever, that these characters and issues can casually illuminate the experience of everyone, including that little kid who does not yet know the joy of finding a familiar face.

Richie Narvaez is the award-winning author of Roachkiller and Other Stories.  His fiction has appeared in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, Plots with Guns, Sunshine Noir, and Spinetingler

You can get Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latin@ Science Fiction and Fantasy here.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Failing To Deliver

I can think of at least one person I've let down recently.

I have a couple of author Q&A features that were supposed to run on Spinetingler's website.  The problem? Spinetingler's website had been neglected for so long that in order to do upgrades that Wordpress was screaming at us about it meant backing up content, because there was a chance everything would be lost.

We were so many updates behind that before I could proceed I was going through the site, deleting content that was old and irrelevant (upcoming event notices) and copying things we didn't want to lose.

I finally gave up. Somewhere between family obligations, earning a living and working on a new issue of Spinetingler - our first in a decade - I was out of time and energy. I'd hoped to have the site's system updated early July. Instead, I finally had to prioritize, make peace with the possibility of losing up to 80% of our content, and start pushing buttons.

The site survived the first steps. I still have some more work to do, but there's been significant progress.

And still those author Q&As wait. I don't want to put them up and then lose them, so I need another two weeks.

I understand all the reasons. And I also understand all of the realities. We're in a vicious cycle in our industry, because there's a history of giving away our time and money for free. I don't get paid for what I do with Spinetingler. People have always reached into their own pockets to cover expenses - whether it's been me, a former owner or the current site owner. When I was starting out with Spinetingler many writers were happy to have their work published without a cent of payment because the webzines provided critical exposure to readers.

The problem is that we've helped perpetuate a system of free work and in doing so we've undervalued the services associated with publishing. This means that there are a lot of authors who are trying to fit writing in around their careers and families.

As though that isn't enough, the responsibilities of promoting novels typically falls on authors. Publishers aren't asked for interviews about an author's new title; the author's asked to participate. Then there are bookstore events, conventions and podcasts.

It can be very time consuming.

A few years ago I was asked to contribute a piece to someone's literary blog. I actually knew the blogger IRL. Rare, I know, but at the time I was working in the public school system and I worked at the school where the person taught. I was given a very tight deadline and I couldn't work with the schedule and apologized for that.

They got pretty snarky with me. They were happy to rub in the fact that another author, who was so successful that they wrote full time, had been able to contribute.

I remember making a face. How nice for someone who didn't have to spend hours each day commuting, who didn't then have to come home to pick up the kids, handle homework and school paperwork (my gosh, the notices they got in elementary school!) and make dinner and do laundry and all of those fun things before they could even think about writing for pleasure or for free.

I completely understand the challenge of balancing life and author-related duties.

Now, I'm pretty rusty these days. It's been years since I had a new book out. It's been years since we did an issue of Spinetingler. However, I've been reminded lately of the need for my own structure to prioritize.

My tips?

1. Keep a day planner or a calendar. Mark your deadlines. That way, you won't forget them. Gone are the days when I could recite conversations by heart. I've always had a good memory, but age catches up with us all, and being busy just adds to that.

2. Be realistic. If you try to do it all, you'll most likely fail. Politely declining is always better than failing to deliver. I mean, there are times life goes crazy. Last week in the midst of needing to work and having a tight deadline I found myself considering the serious possibility of packing bags to head out of town because of a family health emergency. Things happened so abruptly that didn't happen, but it's on my mind that Brian needs to see his sister, and we have to make that happen. I'm not talking about emergencies. I'm talking about knowing that if you have plans every night of the week and work full-time that aren't going to have much time for other things.

3. Saying no is okay. I recently sent out emails to a lot of authors about Spinetingler-related things. A reasonable-but-approaching-tight deadline of six days was involved for completion for the first ones I emailed. I never heard back from most authors. Some delivered. Some offered more than was asked and still delivered. Some thanked me for getting in touch but had to decline. I really appreciated those responses, because they helped me plan for content without waiting for the deadline, which is what I had to do for those who didn't reply.

4. There are no small opportunities. I know Spinetingler isn't the New York Times, but I also know writers who credit small venues with starting their career. For us, James Oswald is standing alum. He had his first Inspector McLean story published way back when. He has since gone on to enjoy a six-figure book deal writing about McLean. He's a friend, he's a great writer, and no matter how busy he is, he always finds time for us. I remember years ago, Lee Child invited Cornelia Read on tour. I once heard him asked about why he invited new authors and he said that maybe some day when they were the big name and his career was fading that they'd return the kindness. Like it or not, this is an industry of connections.

5. Know your history. Boy, I need to do a better job with this one. Thank goodness Brian knows so many people involved in publishing. He helps me out routinely when I don't recognize a name. The thing is, a lot has changed in publishing in the past decade and a lot of old connections have faded. The discussion lists aren't what they once were (Rara-Avis) and the new crop of writers coming up don't have the history with the webzines and reviewers and even some of the authors who emerged ten years ago. My husband is smarter than I am and has written far more extensively about the genre than I have. Nothing is funnier than when people try to school him on some Facebook thread about how he needs to learn about noir. He's read more books than I ever will in my life. Plus, some of these people have tried to school Brian by quoting to him from articles he wrote. Hilarious. Just because you haven't heard of a person doesn't mean that they don't know what they're talking about, doesn't mean that they aren't part of the community (Brian has more famous author friends than I do) and doesn't mean that they shouldn't be treated with respect. Google searches are your friend. When in doubt, if approached by a publication or website you aren't familiar with, ask for a little background.

6. Know your promotional window. Brian and I disagree. He thinks that with the online marketplace that small press authors have a wider window. I still think that even web-based publications are more interested in talking about what's coming out than what came out eight months ago. What do you think? No matter what, authors can't and shouldn't promote endlessly. At some point the business of writing needs to happen. As one author told me years ago about skipping a Bouchercon, if you're there every year then nobody will be worried about coming to see you, because you're always available. Make the events you chose to do count. Make people choose your event because it's a special opportunity or regret missing it instead of being everywhere all the time so that seeing you isn't a priority because it's always possible.

Now I have to get back to work so that I can meet my deadline today. Today is for Spinetingler.  Tomorrow, I have to actually try to earn money so that I can pay the bills.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

You’re Supposed to be Embarrassed, Right?

Scott D. Parker

When you look back on your former work, do you get embarrassed?

For the past week or so, I have updated the interior layouts and covers for the paperback versions of my four mysteries. I took the paperbacks offline back in May when I updated the ebook covers and put them in Kindle Unlimited. It was an experiment and one that is, slowly, getting some traction. To be honest, the western side of things, under the S. D. Parker pen name, has been doing much better.
Anyway, I pulled up the earlier versions of the files and went to work. The covers were relatively straightforward. I used the existing cover template, paste on the new front cover, then updated the spine and back copy. Now the four books all appear from the same family: same cover template, same wrap color and font, with little pictures of the other three books on the back cover. The interesting thing was using the first book as a go-by and literally copying/pasting the cover on top of the other three novels in order to line up every font and square. Adobe Illustrator is a powerful tool and I know I’m probably only scratching the surface of its capabilities.

It was the interiors that made me gasp a little. They all look fine, but my sensibilities have matured since I initially created those interiors back in 2015 and 2016. My eye had improved and the details I now want to present were not there in those older versions.

For example: the font on the chapter headings (i.e., Chapter One) were all visually the same but in terms of styles, they were all over the place. There are few things are monotonous as going through each chapter, highlighting the chapter head text, and then applying a new style to it. But it is accomplished now. And I kept ULTERIOR OBJECTIVES they way it already was: simple Arabic numerals. Other than that distinction, all four interior layouts now appear the same.

I admitted to myself a little bit of embarrassment over the matter. Sure, all the books were fine in and of themselves, but as a whole, they were not as unified as I wanted. Now they are.

I’m looking forward to seeing the proofs that’ll arrive sometime next week and then putting the paperbacks on sale again.

As an independent author, the learning process never ends. Yes, we writers are always in school when it comes to crafting our stories. But the nuts and bolts part of the job—like layouts, covers, and marketing—is also a constant learning process as well. As much as some of the parts of my interiors made me cringe here in 2017, I also had internalized one crucial lesson:
Do the best you can with the knowledge you have acquired up to a certain point and then release the book into the wild. Do not wait until you think you have it perfect because you will ultimately never release it. Use your knowledge to make the next project the best ever. And then the next.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Headphones Guy

Gather 'round for story time!

This one is true, and happened to me earlier this week.

Last Friday I picked up a rental car to take up North to see my family. When I returned to the house to pack our bags into the car (which turned out to be a small SUV, because the rental place was out of midsizes), my dog was acting strange. At first I thought she had gotten into the trash or done something else she wasn't allowed to do, because she looked guilty as sin. If you have a dog, you know this look - ears down, laying on her belly, submissive posturing. The kid and I looked around the house for evidence of wrong doing, and found none. My dog has a checkered past, and we don't know any of it. She was picked up as a stray, starving to death, covered in fleas and puncture wounds, and had clearly lived most of her live outside, as evidenced by the fly-strike on her ears, that had eaten away most of the velvety soft fur. This to say - sometimes she acts guilty and submissive because, I assume, she had a lot of experience being punished for nothing.

Usually some kind words and a belly rub pulls her out of feeling guilty for existing, but this time, it didn't work. She whined and cried at me, which was new. When she laid on her side, I rubbed her belly, and instead of her usual ecstatic response, she winced.

Fuck me, right?

The kid's car seat was already set up in the rental so I ran out and covered the cargo area in sheets and got her in. I say that like it was easy, but she was in pain and weighs as much as some adults, but the point is - I got her in.

I won't go into too much more detail because the reason I'm telling you the above is to say: I put my dog in a rental car.

You're not supposed to put your dog in a rental car, and you're especially not supposed to put your dog in a rental car if she sheds like a hair bomb going off, which mine does. The following day, I put her back in the rental car to follow up with her regular vet. When Monday rolled around and I had to return it, the back end of that Jeep grocery-getter was covered in fawn colored dog hair, despite my best efforts with the sheets. 

I had to get gas, because the car was a Jeep, and despite not driving it for hundreds of miles North, but just around the neighborhood to the veterinarian, I had used half a tank of gas. I figured the vacuum at the gas station was a better bet than my home vacuum, and I could kill two birds with one stone. I loaded the kid into the car and set off. 

This was my neighborhood gas station. I know the clerks, I've been there easily a thousand times since moving here four years ago. I had to run in to get change for the vacuum, so I left the kid in the car and ran inside. As I approached the door, I noticed a guy staring at me. He looked to be about my age or a little older, and was loitering outside wearing headphones. I wouldn't have noticed him if it weren't for how hard he was noticing me. Around the time I stopped being able to deny that he was staring at me, he pointed at my Snake Plissken t-shirt and shouted, "KURT RUSSELL!"

I laughed, feeling foolish (he was just staring at my t-shirt, god Renee, get a grip) and said, "Yeah!"

When I came out of the gas station, though, he yelled at me again. "KURT RUSSELL! KURT RUSSELL! BIG TROUBLE IN CHINA!" I told myself he was yelling because of the headphones, and stopped myself from saying, "No, Escape From New York" or "You mean Big Trouble in Little China" and instead said, "Yeah, man! Kurt Russell!" But then he followed me back to my car. He stopped about 100 feet short as I opened up the passenger side and pulled out the knife I keep in my purse and attached it to my waist band. I looked to the kid, and she didn't seem to notice, so I put my buck in the vacuum and went to work. 

As I vacuumed the thick coat of dog hair out of the cargo hold, I watched him. Another car pulled in beside me, apparently someone he knew. The vacuum ran out of juice, and as I got out to put another buck in, I noticed he was talking to these people in a completely normal tone of voice. He wasn't off his rocker, or deafened by his headphones - he just felt the need to yell at me. But he was minding his business at that point, so I went about mine. When I moved to the back seat where dog hair had inexplicably flown over the seat and covered everything, I noticed the man creeping closer to the car. I looked to the kid and saw that she was watching him, too. I didn't like it, but I couldn't get inside the gas station to tell them someone was loitering without passing him, and I felt like calling the police over a loud mouthed loiterer who liked Kurt Russell probably wouldn't help me. Then, this motherfucker stood right in front of my rental car and leaned against the wall.

I didn't like that the kid was watching his every move. She had her dad's iPad in her lap, and a baby bunny riding a puppy offering free candy can't tear her away from that thing - but she was noticing this guy, and watching him like she was waiting for him to do something. I had been keeping my eye on him since he followed me to the car, and I definitely didn't like that he was standing right in front of us. I wouldn't say he was staring us down, but he was clearly keeping his eye on us.

In my mind, I made a plan. I didn't want to confront him and ask him to leave, because I know all too well how a situation like that can escalate, and my kid was in the car. I didn't want to traumatize her, or put myself in danger right in front of her. But I couldn't ignore this guy's behavior, and the implicit risks. I tell myself, that if he comes to the door while I'm half in, half out, vacuuming up dog hair, I'll swing the hose at his face and go for my knife. I wonder what kind of damage the hose would do, and if sticking the industrial grade sucker on his face would serve me better. I look down for split seconds at a time to finish my vacuuming and keep my eye on him while trying to decide whether hitting him or trying to suck his eyeballs out of his face is the better opening move. He doesn't move from his spot in front of my car, and I try very hard not to imagine what he might be calculating in his mind.

If this were a short story, he would have moved to the door. I would have turned the vacuum on him - either hitting him in the face or sucking his eyes out, and things would have gone wrong, or at least not smoothly. I would have stabbed a man in front of my grade schooler, and you'd get some graphic descriptions of his blood spattering on the white paint job.

But he didn't make a move, so I didn't make a move. As I hurriedly wound the vacuum hose around it's hook, he started to drift around the passenger side of the car, but he gave it a wide berth. I decided I would rather not get gas there, and got in, making some excuse to the kid to alleviate any fear, and drove across the street.

As if this were a short story, a man at that gas station also stopped me to comment on my shirt, but he was friendly and not yelling at me. The only thing he did that rubbed me the wrong way, was disagreeing that Escape From LA is a good movie if you watch it in the right frame of mind.

My mind often goes to the worst case scenario - when I am writing and when I am not. Perhaps my response to the man with the headphones was over the top - but maybe it wasn't. I've been groped leaning into my car to buckle the kid in, right across the street from her elementary school. I've told men who were creeping me out to give me space only to see the situation turn into a screaming match. I've had all sorts of bad experiences with men in public spaces, and it wasn't a possibility I was going to bet against when I had my kid with me.

It turns out that the headphones guy incident was just punctuation in a bad week getting worse, so I am at a loss for how to conclude this. But I think these stories are important to tell. 

David Nemeth is a gift to us all

By Sam Belacqua

David Nemeth is doing a thing what needs to be done. He's a one-man machine with his goddamn INCIDENT REPORTS.

Submission calls. Book reviews. Articles. Interviews. Videos of author readings.

Each week this mother fucker is posting an amazing write-up of what the hell is going on in the crime fiction world, mostly in the "small press" realm.

Most of us (yeah, me included. fuck off) have our heads up our asses. Nine out of 10 author newsletters I subscribe to have something like "What Coffee I Was Drinking When I Wrote My Beautiful Words of Beauty Today," complete with links to some schmuck on Goodreads who said some nice words about you and your book because, honestly, why would I care about something that wasn't you, author?? Gawd, we authors can be such self-indulgent cockcanoes, convinced that people want to read the ways whatever goddamn 100-year-old celebrity what died this week influenced said author. Dear Author, No one gives a shit that the first time you wanted to be a writer was when you saw Sir Rupert McDickdoozle in the 1968 film noir "Dark Darknesses." Who gives a shit?

David Nemeth is helping spread the word about other authors, and I give a shit about that. So I grabbed my cup of Death Wish Coffee that I was drinking to honor the memory of Harry Dean Stanton, whose performance in The Avengers: Hulk on a Plane made my balls soft and ever so delicate, and I walked my scabby ass over to the email machine to ask Nemeth some questions.

Sam Belacqua: The fuck made you start this weekly report?

David Nemeth: I don't think I would have ever started "Incident Reports" without the crime fiction community being so welcoming and supportive of the book reviews I was doing. Once I realized that it was impossible for me to keep up with all the new books coming out, a weekly series was a way for me to at least mention them. That was its genesis, but I then I added book reviews, short stories, and articles I read because I'm a glutton for punishment.

SB: What the fuck is it with this weekly shit? That's a fuckload of work, man.

DN: Weekly, damn, yeah it is a lot of work. I did four weeks of dry runs before I published the first one to see if it was a doable thing. It's tough, but I have two things going for me: an understanding and supportive wife who I don't deserve and only one kid, who is in college. So I've got some free time. If anyone cares, technology-wise I am using Newsblur for RSS feeds and Instapaper to store articles. I just started using Scrivener to write the posts using Markdown and that has sped things up.

SB: Yes, people care about that tech bullshit. It's a goddamn nerdfest around here. Christ, in the time it took you to answer that question, seven douchenozzles have written blog posts about using Scrivwhateverthehellyousaid to write their novels that no one will ever publish. Speaking of writing, what kind of creative shit you been up to?

DN: I'm trying to write some short stories, and by trying, I haven't carved out the time just to sit down and write. I'll get there though, but I'm thinking about it at least. Instead, I'm reading, doing lots of reading, and binging Shameless with the Missus.

SB: Shameless with the Missus? Christ, is that some weird sex thing I don't know about? I'm not going to Google that. Sure, it sounds harmless, but I ain't going to have another "pegging" search page again. Fuckin' hell. Ain't enough brain bleach in the world, man. Anyway, what's one of your most popular posts? Some big successes?

DN: The most popular thing I've written on my blog was my post on the death of 280 Steps. I still miss them but hate the way they went out. BTW, can Hinkson ever find a publisher that will stay in business to keep Hell on Church Street in print? That book is the balls. What I really enjoy is when I recommend books and people dig them like Marietta Miles's Route 12, Paul Heatley's Motel Whore, or Lina Chern's Sparkle Shot.

SB: Anyone been a jackass? Any pushy authors? I want names and home addresses, goddamnit.

DN: Luckily, I've been under the radar so I haven't gotten bombarded. Will this article take me to the next level? I will say that the big publishers are the worst at rancid promotion on Twitter. How many times do big-time authors, authors I thought I respected, shill for a book that sucks? I hate that. At least with small presses, if a book isn't fantastic, you can see the effort and talent there. I'll support that over a shit-ass book from a major that was only written for a TV or movie deal in mind.
Thank Zeus we have this mother fucking David Nemeth showing us how it ought to be done. He's saying, "Hey, there's this cool thing someone else did. Go check it out." I mean, fucking hell, man. That's the shit right there. Pay it forward, or whatever that bullshit is. 

If you're doing newsletters and you aren't helping readers discover people who aren't you, then maybe you can take a lesson from David Nemeth's INCIDENT REPORTS.

And, by the way, if this mother fucker ever puts up a tip jar on his site, buy the man a drink each month. Hell, he's working his ass off for you people.

PS - Dear Author, I didn't mean that your author newsletter was bad. You're a goddamn glorious snowflake & everyone loves you so hard.

PPS - I swear to whatever god you love that if you see Nemeth's blog and your first thought is that you ought to send him your own book for him to review, then you're a goddamn monster.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Why Aren't You Watching Narcos?

by Holly West

Look, I know these things are subjective and my own viewing habits are fairly narrow, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say this: Narcos is the best show on Netflix right now, and possibly, the best show on any network at the moment. So why is it I never hear anybody talking about it? And why hasn't it won very many big awards?

Or maybe, people are talking about it and I just missed it. I tend to miss a lot.

I've tried to avoid spoilers in the rest of this post but if you're concerned, maybe just go watch the show.

Medellin Cartel, as portrayed in Narcos
I'll admit, the first season fell into what I call the "homework TV" category. While that sounds like a bad thing (and in some ways, maybe it is), when I refer to something as "homework TV" I generally mean it requires a little work on my part to get into. Game of Thrones is, for me, a classic example of "homework TV" because there are so many elements I have to keep track of: characters, families, who sits on what throne, that sort of thing. I love the show, but sometimes I just don't feel like watching it because it requires more brain power than I'm willing to give.

At this point, you might be asking yourself: How lazy can a person be? But hey, I've never made a secret of my poor attention span. The Internet has only made it worse.

Chepe "negotiates" with the Dominicans. A truly stand out scene in Season 3.
Okay, so at first, Narcos was "homework TV," for a couple of reasons. One, much of it is in Spanish and requires subtitles for people like me who are less than fluent in the language. I don't have anything against subtitles except that sometimes they detract from what's happening on the screen. Second, like Game of Thrones, there are a lot of characters to keep track of because it follows a few cartels and government agencies. This, combined with the Spanish, often had me going back to ask, wait, who is this guy? Is he Cali Cartel or Medellin? Is he part of the Policia Nacional or local? These things matter because the jurisdiction of a particular law enforcement agency are sometimes central to the plot.

This is no fault of the show or its writing, I promise you. Based on true events, Narcos is a complex, beautifully acted and well-plotted drama that often has me on the edge of my seat. I wasn't sure how I'd like Season 3, given that the show started out being about Pablo Escobar. In this case, history is a spoiler because we know, more or less, how Señor Escobar died in real life.

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar
Speaking of Señor Escobar, the actor who plays him, Wagner Moura, is magnificent in this role. He was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2016 and, much as I love Jon Hamm (let's face it, I'm a sucker for a pretty face), Moura was robbed. In his portrayal, he struck the perfect balance between vicious psychopath and loving husband and father. Escobar himself would've been honored.

As it turns out, Season 3, in which the Cali Cartel takes center stage, is as strong as the first two seasons and in some ways, I liked it better. Although it lacks a single character as intense as Moura's Escobar, it has a Sopranos/Godfather-like quality, especially because one of the characters it focuses on is a key player in the cartel but desperately wants to get out. He's so good at his job that his employers won't let him. Picture Michael Corleone saying "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." Only in this case, the stakes are far higher for the individual in question.

Pedro Pascal as DEA Agent Javier Peña
Once again, the writing and acting is top notch. This cast is multilingual and the performances are absolutely compelling. It helps that I've had a crush on Pedro Pascal, who plays DEA Agent Javier Peña, since his ill-fated appearance in the above-mentioned Game of Thrones, but good as he is, he's not the best actor in the cast, not by a long shot.

If you're looking for a series featuring strong women, Narcos generally isn't it. Part of it is the time and culture they're portraying, of course. And this isn't to say that the women in the series are weak, they just don't take center stage like the men do. You know, like in real life, 2017 USA. That said, as secondary characters they're a bit more nuanced than I see in a lot of popular television shows, which is something to applaud.

Sometimes, I have to wonder how much I miss in translation. Considering how much I love the show based on the subtitles, I have to assume the dialogue in Spanish is that much better. I confess to practicing my Spanish as I watch the show, and now, as we finish Season 3, I have a much firmer grasp of its profanity and drug lingo. One must ask oneself how many times the word puto can be uttered in one scene. Answer: a lot.

I hope I've convinced you to give Narcos a chance if you haven't already. Since my husband and I've spent the last week or so watching the latest season, it's heavily on my mind and I want you to love it as much as I do.

Por favor y gracias.


Note: As I was writing this post, I was looking for video to include and learned that Carlos Muñoz Portal, a Mexican location scout for Narcos, was recently murdered in a violent region of Central Mexico while looking for filming locations. I'm terribly saddened by this news. Condolences to his family and friends.

Second note: As I was finishing this post, my brother notified me that Steve Murhpy and Javier Peña, the agents who took down Pablo Escobar, and on whom Narcos is based, are speaking at a nearby venue next week. Of course I bought tickets.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A Dangerous Book

What's the most dangerous book you ever read?  When someone asks that question, they generally mean a book that's dangerous because of its ideas or transgressive content.  For certain people, it may be a book they read while living in a country where specific repressions apply - political, social, what have you - a book that restrictive forces in that place consider subversive. But what about a situation where you're reading a book that shouldn't be a threat to anyone? By any objective standard, you're not reading something taboo, but circumstances have made the book you're reading dangerous to you alone. What then?  I had that experience once, and I was reminded of it the other day when I was rearranging my bookshelf and came across the book that caused my nervousness - Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Pledge.

The Pledge, subtitled Requiem for the Detective Novel in its original edition, concerns an investigation conducted in a Swiss village by Inspector Matthai.  One day away from retirement after a renowned career as a police inspector, he gets entangled in a child murder case, and this case upends his life.

Though a suspect is caught and confesses after hours of interrogation, Matthai does not believe that the man is the killer.  There have been other children murdered in the area over the past months, and Matthai is convinced that a serial killer is behind the deaths.  He tells his colleagues that the man in custody is not the person they need to catch.  No one agrees with him, however, and the department closes the case.  Undeterred, Matthai promises the murdered child's parents that he will catch the actual killer.  This is his pledge.  And after making his pledge, in retirement, using his own money, he dedicates himself to conducting an investigation that he is sure will catch the real killer, who he says will strike again.

I don't want to give away how the novel plays out. If you haven't read it, or seen the 2001 movie adaptation with Jack Nicholson as Matthai (directed by Sean Penn), you're in for a treat. It's a treat with a kick, though. The Pledge has an ending that is perfect for the story preceding it and that serves as a commentary on detective fiction endings in general.  It's not an ending you easily forget.   

So where does the danger in reading The Pledge come in?  It resulted from an unfortunate fluke. 

I first read the book when I was in my senior year at SUNY Binghamton University. I read the novel for pleasure, not a class. I was living alone in my small ground floor apartment, and I remember I was reading it at night, on a weekday, when somebody knocked on my door. When I opened the door, I found two local policeman standing there, and though they were professional and polite, they were quite serious. Now that day on my bus trips to and from campus - about a thirty minute ride each way - I had seen police out in force. They had roadblocks set up in various parts of town.  This was highly unusual, to say the least, in Binghamton, but for whatever reason, in my student obliviousness, I hadn't even bothered to ask anyone what the police activity was about.

The two officers at my door now told me.  A child (aged 10 or 11, as I recall) had disappeared that morning, and the hunt for the boy was on.  The boy lived with his parents in the neighborhood where I did, and I had to assume that the large police presence in my area especially meant the police had a lead and suspected possible foul play. 

I invited the two policemen into the apartment, and we talked awhile.  They asked me general questions about myself (it was nothing unusual for them to encounter a student since Binghamton is a college town) and some questions about how I'd spent my day.  I didn't put up any objections to them looking around my place, a studio type arrangment with a living room/bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom  Though surprised to hear about the reason for their visit, I was calm and amiable, and they remained professional throughout. Still, the entire time, I kept glancing over at my book.  I was well into The Pledge, and Inspector Matthai, in the Swiss countryside, was obsessively pursuing his search for the predator who he knew would kill another child.  I had left the hardbound book on a chair, its title plainly visible, and the absurd thought occurred to me, "What if one of these cops knows the book and is a Durrenmatt fan?"

It seemed unlikely.  And yet my mind kept racing: "He'll get suspicious. He'll think I'm the guy who snatched the child today.  He'll think I'm a psychopath who takes his inspiration from fiction and here I am reading for ideas on how to get my next victim..."

I may even have started to sweat.

No, not really.  I did in fact have those thoughts but I never perspired or betrayed nerves. After about 15 minutes, the two policemen thanked me for my cooperation and left.  I closed the door behind them, heaved a sigh, and went back to my book.  I laughed at myself.  Such silly thoughts.  Why would either of them know The Pledge?  But hold on a second. What if they were now staking out my apartment, surrounding me even as I returned to Matthai, ready to move in and grab me? 

That didn't happen, but the man who owned the house in which I had my rooms (there was a floor above mine where somebody else lived), told me days later that the police had indeed checked the building's celler when I was off at school the day after their visit.  Of course, I have no idea what their impressions were of the house's other tenant.  In any event, no body was found in that cellar, and despite my slight paranoia connected to my reading of The Pledge, I didn't notice anyone tailing me in the days to come.  I finished the novel without incident.

And the upshot of the real life narrative, the fate of the actual missing child?

After all these years, I can't for the life of me remember the reason behind his disappearence. But I do recall that he was found alive and unharmed.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Monday Review: SKULL MEAT by Tom Leins

Before turning in one night this past summer, I picked up my reader and skimmed the first few paragraphs of SKULL MEAT by Tom Leins. It had been a long day and I didn’t think I would be awake for very long.

Thanks to Tom Leins I didn’t get any sleep.

I couldn’t put it down. Tom’s writing is kinetic and fast-paced, perfectly suited for the break-neck feeling of this novelette. Start reading a few lines and the next thing you know it’s well past the witching hour. SKULL MEAT delivers dirty, British crime at its best. Descriptive. Violent. Bloody. Grotesque. Wait until you meet 'Swollen' Roland. I loved it!

The story goes…

Meet Joe Rey. Joe is a tough guy hired to sort out problems for unseemly businessmen and violent crime-leaders. His latest brutal assignment comes with a few complications, however, and soon a game of cat and mouse ensues. Rey tears through his seedy seaside hometown of Paignton, with his trusty pig-knife, dealing justice or vengeance. Joe is as tough as the streets he walks.
Charming, quiet beach towns will never look the same.
Perhaps the most intriguing character in the novelette is the setting, Paignton. Leins admittedly gives the burg an “apocalyptic edge” and in doing so creates a depressing setting with wildly dangerous characters ready and willing to do anything. The danger feels life-changing, bigger than the town.

The next time you day-trip to your nearest quaint beach town, I guarantee you’ll be checking around corners and avoiding alleys.

SKULL MEAT has mobsters, ex-cons and unscrupulous undesirables. It’s a grimy tale, disconcerting in a thrilling way. You may feel a little dirty after reading, but it is worth the guilt. Realistic violence and snappy dialogue keep the story moving at a scary pace.

Former film critic and current rapscallion, Tom Leins is one of the best voices in British crime writing, well known for his short stories and flash fiction. He’s been published by the likes of Akashic Books, Shotgun Honey, Near to the Knuckle, Flash Fiction Offensive, Horror Sleaze Trash and Spelk Fiction.

Currently he is working on a collection of wrestling-themed tall noir tales and finishing REPETITION KILLS YOU, a project he has described as a “literary jigsaw puzzle.” Not one to rest he is also completing another novella in the Paignton series, BONEYARD DOGS.

If you like your stories down and dirty, you need to put SKULL MEAT on your TBR list.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Of Fall and Football and Friends

I’ve been thinking about Missouri lately. I know, I know, it’s where my books are set, so go figure. But lately I’ve been thinking about Missouri, as in the university. The place where I spent some of the best years of my life.
I always tend to think of the University of Missouri-Columbia as autumn rolls around and the school year begins. And the football talk starts up. Now, when I was there, I can just about count the number of football games we won on one hand. And I’m talking for all the years I was there, not just one season. 
Me during losing (and therefore very long) football seasons.
Nowadays, no matter how the Tigers do, it’s better than that. Although I did cringe yesterday. We lost. I won’t say by how much. But the season is still young. There’s always hope. There’s always crisp fall air, and spiked cider in plastic cups, and wrinkled flannel shirts paired with someone’s borrowed jeans because you forgot to do your laundry. There are always those things, even if it takes a little imagination to get there now that I’m so far away – in both distance and age.
And there are always friends. I’m very lucky that there’s no nostalgia with that at all. I’m still in touch with many of the people I went to school with. Just this past week, I got to catch up on with an old j-school friend I hadn’t talked with in years. And this coming week, a woman whom I met my first day in the dorms - and who’s been one of my very best friends ever since - will come to visit. I can’t wait. I’ve got the spiked cider all ready.