Saturday, January 21, 2017

Patience: A Writer's Essential Quality

Scott D Parker

To use a sports analogy, writing is never a sprint. If anything, is a marathon. It’s pretty much common wisdom among us writers, but sometimes we just want things to go faster. I want more sales and I want them to come quicker. I want to have written more books and I want that day to arrive sooner. I want to have newer marketing techniques that I want those techniques to be deployed yesterday. But I think we all have to remember that patience is a key to being a long-term successful writer.
The year 2017 will be the year that I experiment with various ways to wrap up and maintain productivity of my writing while I still hold down a full-time a job. After 20 days, I can honestly say that I’m on the right track. I am well into my first book of the year, but something interesting happened earlier this week.

I was chugging along in my first book of the new year when I hit a snag. For the better part of every writing day, I've been smiling as my fingers fly over the keyboard. The story just emerged from my brain and into Scrivener, still my favorite writing tool. For this novel, I have a high-level idea of how this story is going, but that's it. Then, out of the blue, I hit a snag. It was right at the end of my writing hour so I ended up with fewer words written in that session than in others. I showered, got ready for work, all the while mulling over what slowed and stopped my forward progress. It irritated me, to be honest, because it killed my forward momentum and shrank my average hourly word count.  For a writer who has a day job, efficiency of available time and word count is key.

But later that day, I had worked out the snag. It required only a little backtracking and deleting of existing words, but the end result was me back on track. Every subsequent morning of writing went smoothly.

What lessons did I take away from this?  One, sometimes a little backtracking is necessary, up to and including excising text. I always make a note of where a story changed so I can go back and imagine a different type of story. Two, the books don't have to be perfect right out of the gate. Now, I don't necessarily subscribe to the Crappy First Draft school of thought. Doing that only makes subsequent drafts and revisions that much more of a slog. I strive for drafts as clean as possible. It was a happy reminder that patience is an essential quality for a writer. It allows you to overcome the occasional snag.

But most of all was the knowledge that everything I write is making me a better writer. I know that the novel I write in December will be better written than this book I'm writing in January. And this book is better than the book I wrote in 2013. It's all one long process that continually builds on itself. In time—i.e., with patience—you will become a better writer.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Forget Inauguration, I have an announcement...

Looks like I got stuck with Inauguration Day. When I signed up for Fridays I didn't think "wait, do a lot of big news stories happen on Fridays? When is Inauguration? Will Trump become President on a Friday?" Lesson learned.

I am doing my best to ignore the Inauguration. I've never really sat in front of the TV with popcorn, anyway, so I don't see the point in suffering through it for a President that seems intent on smothering any kind of expression we value.

I do have some big news though. Through my time at DSD, I've shared a little about my job at Dirge. It's not really crime related, though I do write some true crime essays there, from time to time, but it is writing related, and as Jinx likes to say, I've been with the site longer than the logo, so it's a big part of my life. No one who's run a magazine of any size will tell you it's easy, or it's a "side gig" you can do with your free time. No, being Senior Editor at Dirge became my day job.

And here's where it gets tricky. I hate editing. I had no intention of working on that side of publishing. I found things to love about the editing part, and I definitely loved being involved with a site that I think is really amazing, but as my time to write got smaller and my job became more involved, it became clear that it was time for me to step down from Dirge and go my own way.

It seems like such a pragmatic, simple decision, but it took months to get around to it and it sucked. Jinx has become one of my best friends over the last two years and I happen to think Dirge has the best staff anyone has ever seen. It's sad. It's not bad, but it's sad. I'll be working in a limited capacity for a couple more months, handing off all my projects (many of which will unfortunately die), and transition to "reader" of the magazine (Hey, Jinx, maybe you can change my title to Senior Reader).

That said, I hope to crank out a lot more fiction this year, and I hope you'll all come along for the ride while my focus shifts back to fiction.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The 10 Albums I Wish I'd Heard in High School

By Steve Weddle

Like you, I’ve seen the “10 Albums I Loved in High School” lists going around. I like knowing what other people liked, and I like remembering some old songs I maybe haven’t thought of in years. In high school, I had Dylan’s Biograph on repeat. I had some AC/DC and Iron Maiden and Willie Nelson and Go-Go’s and the Doors and Steely Dan and stacks of others. But, I missed out on so much. Here are some of the albums I wish I had been listening to in high school. I'm shy of 10, so feel free to help me fill out the list.

Kind of Blue (1959) 

I came across the work of Miles Davis and John Coltrane in college thanks to a tape Chris Case handed me. While a grad student at LSU, I was fortunate to hear the local college station play every Coltrane recording one year. They had this compilation of all his recordings, back from working with Red Garland and before to Coltrane’s death. Each Thursday night (or Wednesday or Friday, I forget) the radio station would play the next Coltrane recording in chronological order. They’d have studio stuff and live shows. I’d slide in a 90-munite cassette and record what I could. I had boxes of Coltrane on cassette after a while, a luxury I tried my best to appreciate. 

Kind of Blue would have been a great introduction for me as a high schooler. Davis on trumpet and Coltrane on tenor, you also get Bill Evans on piano for all but one of the tracks. I’d come to love Evans’s albums later, especially the work he did with guitarist Jim Hall. But Coltrane. That was my guy. And Kind of Blue would have been a welcoming introduction. 

The Queen is Dead (1986) 
By the time I got to The Smiths, they were done. Just barely. As an undergrad, I permanently borrowed a cassette tape from a roommate. One side had The Queen is Dead, which stood out to me as something new and amazing and maudlin and hilarious and vibrant. “Frankly, Mister Shankly” and “Cemetery Gates” got a great deal of play in my dorm. Louder Than Bombs would have been a nice one, too, but Queen is solid as a album as opposed to a collection of singles.

Pet Sounds (1966) 
Robert Schneider walked me through this Beach Boys piece of brilliance one night. I’d dismissed the Beach Boys as silly surf music. With this one, I learned what an idiot I’d been. Not what an idiot I’d been about everything, of course. Just this album. But, you know. Still. Dang. “Sloop John B” still slays me. 

Bryter Layter (1971) 
Nick Drake’s second of three albums is the one I find myself listening to most often these days. “Northern Sky” and “One of These Things First” are in 19% of all indie films and 11% of all commercials for a reason. 

Come on Pilgrim (1987) 
Of course, I lived on The Pixies in college. Surfer Rosa, Come on Pilgrim, and Doolittle were reasons to live. Come On Pilgrim is the only one released when I was in high school, and hearing “I’ve Been Tired” or “Vamos” or any other track on the eight-song EP would have been great preparation for all the pain and screaming and humor and horror to come in my life and, of course, to come on all the upcoming Pixies albums. 

The Heart of Saturday Night (1974) 
What in the world was this album that Brian Arundel handed me twenty years after it came out? I was in grad school and on this mix CD were “Jockey Full of Bourbon” and “Tango ‘Til They’re Sore.” I tracked down all the Tom Waits I could find right away. I have different favorites each month now, but I think The Heart of Saturday Night would have been a good match for high-school me. Weird, lyrical, and just enough darkness. 

Blue (1971) 
I was in Brian Levy’s car in college and he had this tape in the deck. He let me borrow it. I never gave it back. From “A Case of You” to “River,” I was completely amazed. 
“The Last Time I Saw Richard” sounded to me like a French novel. Or German. It sounded like something brand new and completely familiar. A piece I’d lost that I didn’t know was missing. 

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in '68And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café 
Yeah, I thought. That’s right. Stupid romantics. All that emotion and junk. If I could have slipped this to me in high school, you know?  And then the ending, the smiling humor coming from the rhyme and the dark humor from the scene: 

Richard got married to a figure skaterAnd he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on And all the house lights left up bright. 

Like all these albums, I got there later than I should have. But I got there. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Graphite Ammunition in a 2-gauge Ticonderoga

"If voting/writing/etc. did anything, it would be illegal."

If being cynical required doing anything, it would be less popular.

The first thing autocrats attack are the artists. They wouldn't waste their time if the artists weren't dangerous. We've seen it before, and we're seeing it again. Pussy Riot imprisoned. 3 AM tweets from you-know-who. Woody Guthrie wrote "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar not because he swung his axe like Mjolnir, but because the songs and the music reached people in ways politicians and journalists didn't.

*also works on communists
Now of course you can kill a fascist (or anyone, really) with a nicely sharpened pencil if you ice pick them in the eye socket good and deep, or reverse grip it and go for the soft part of the throat. But it's the words that really get to them.

I write this today because of the great wailing I hear from writers on social media. What are we to do? Write. Write about the world you want to see. Give us living villains who embody what you fear and despise. Give your protagonist difficult choices that pit their principles against their comfortable lives. Do what fiction does best, and plumb the hearts of characters only you can write. No matter what your beliefs, challenge yourself to write the opponents you can't possibly reason with as real, whole people who think they are fighting for good. Don't take the easy road and make them deluded dupes, "sheeple," or useful idiots. That's your own fear clouding your empathy. You don't have to make them misguided. They can be ignorant, selfish, unaware of their deep biases, no matter what side of the road they are on.

Put your anger, hopelessness, and fear into your writing. You are not alone in feeling this way. There are readers waiting for stories that will give them hope, and some who want to confirm that not only is dystopia is inevitable, but that it's what we deserve. So there's room for your most optimistic and cynical stories. But most of all, when people are afraid and uncertain, they want to be entertained.

And that's our job.

Deflating totalitarian blowhards is just a side effect.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Silence and Paradox

Well, this is my last DSD post before Inauguration Day, and I've come to resign myself to a simple fact: every day for the foreseeable future I will either read, see, or hear something about Donald Trump.  This is not only due to Trump's omnipresence in the media or his regular Twitter comments. It's also a result of the never ending commentary upon commentary upon remark upon despairing rant one comes across on, say, Facebook.  Not that the barrage of Trump related discourse isn't understandable and justified, but at the same time, I can't help but wonder whether this constant deluge of political noise one encounters from the moment one wakes up in the morning to the moment one goes to bed poses some kind of danger to your imagination.  I'm not talking about
political inclinations here. It goes without saying that I wish the man would not become president. But he will become president. And there's a  point where it starts to feel imperative to find a balance between being aware, vigilant and resistant and being, shall we say, more psychologically distant.

As far as I'm concerned, writing requires a certain silence. I'm not talking about literal silence (though the closer to complete silence, the better the conditions for writing), but a kind of mental space free of the world's noise.  It's a noise that comes from everywhere now, not only from the people spewing disagreeable notions and plans, but also from the people you way more often than not agree with.  With social media especially, who can't make noise, well-meaning or toxic, who can't spread and share noise created by others making noise?  And of course, the noise is needed.  True silence in the face of a certain mentality with a will to power suggests acquiescence. So no, we don't want silence.  No silence!  But the fact remains, I have to confess, that at a certain point I get fed up with all the noise emanating from so many sources, each of which would like to persuade you of something or other.  And maybe it's just that: the predominance of the lecturing, the moral certitude that comes tucked within so much of the noise created on a daily basis.  

But whatever.  Maybe in middle age, I've just become a cranky individual. My tolerance for listening to people repeat themselves on the same subject has become low.  Better to have the freedom to make all that noise, no matter how platitudinous, than not, right? No question about that.  And the antidote against it is simple.  

Tune out, tune in, and drop acid.

No, it's not that (though I wish it was).  But it is as simple as putting yourself on information lock down and placing yourself in that silent space where the main noise you hear is from within. 

Sounds almost dopey, when I think about it, but I find it works.  

Tune out, tune in (to Microsoft Word, how mundane) and write.  

It's something of a paradox, but for myself at least, the best way to engage with the world through writing, to reflect that world in a hopefully striking and imaginative way, is to get as far away from it mentally as possible.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Music of My Youth

There's been a meme floating around social media lately about the best albums of your teen years/favorite songs/favorite bands. There's a few variations that I've seen.

I thought this week I'd chime in with some of the most influential videos/songs of my teen years. I read once that the music we like as teens has the deepest impression on us because we're really maturing at that age. I don't know how valid that is, but I do know there's still something about hearing a song from all those years ago and turning up the radio. It does connect you to places, times and people in a way that nothing else seems to.

I think Brian thinks I'm not as big of a music fan as I am. The problem is that it's like crack for me. Once I start I can't stop. I love my music. I grew up around a lot of live music. I've been to the Grand Ole Opry and seen Loretta Lynn and Ricky Skaggs. Best concern of my teen years? Ronnie Milsap in Panama City, Florida. Nothing gets you as high as live music in a great show. If we were talking concerts I could work in some Rawlins Cross... But I'll stick to some memorable 80s songs, and try to work in some of the ones you haven't heard of. We all know Eric Clapton and Elton John, but do you know Platinum Blonde?

You may not know that I was raised strictly on country music. Everything else was just noise. As I stepped into the teen years I explored music, and that caused more than one argument with my dad. I had a big argument with him about the fact that rock music was about nothing. I pulled out Dream of the Blue Turtles and read lyrics from one of Sting's songs and got a grudging admission that that song was about something. So we start with Sting. I heard this song for the first time watching 21 Jump Street... You know, the original. It stayed with me.
 U2's Joshua Tree really took off in the early 80s, but I listened to them right from Sunday Bloody Sunday and A Sort of Homecoming. I pick this one, because it's MLK Jr Day.
 Could there have been the 80s without Cyndi Lauper? In a word, no.

 The name of the song says it all.

 That voice. It's one of a kind.

 I still have a major thing for INXS. What You Need, Listen Like Thieves, Suicide Blonde, Need You Tonight... So many great songs. Love their albums too. Remember listening to an album and finding those songs that never hit radio that you just loved? That's INXS.

 Rockers with a cause. It's always been important to me to stand up for others, and I might not ever listen to this single these days, but it was an impressive gesture at the time, and it told me rich people paid attention to others too.

 There were a lot of Canadian bands that were a big part of the 80s music seen. Ah, Platinum Blonde...

 And speaking of Canadian bands, Glass Tiger. Gotta love a video that says "Canadian version".

We could be here all day. I could pop in Bowie's Modern Love, dig up Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, insert Gowan's Criminal Mind. I could put in some Duran Duran, who I was addicted to for a spell, and Corey Hart. REM. Depeche Mode. So very many. But at some point you have to wrap things up, and I'll do that with a song that isn't from the 80s, but is from Sting. I saw him in concert some years ago, just after this song came out, and he had Annie Lennox opening for him. They performed together. Oh my god. That's all I'll say. I'd love to see them perform again.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

When It Rains . . .

We’ve had quite a bit of rain here in California lately. For the first time in years. Seriously, years. And in the past week that has meant flooding in the valleys and avalanches in the mountains.
Which got me thinking.
Weather is such a fantastic plot device. As the ultimate meteorologist, a writer can throw any kind of seasonal disaster at her characters. It makes things more difficult for them, which is exactly the point – especially in a crime fiction novel.
In The Branson Beauty, I use a winter snowstorm to help run a tourist showboat aground. And I use it to illustrate how out of his comfort zone my warm-weather sheriff really is.
Weather also is an integral part of setting. The heat of Arizona, the humidity of the Amazon jungle, the crisp cold of the Swiss Alps.
What books have you loved where the weather was a key part of the story?