Saturday, January 28, 2017

Writing a Novel in a “Week”

Scott D. Parker

I finished my first book of 2017 this past Thursday and it only took me a week…and 26 days.

Confused? Don’t be. Let me explain.

Those of us who work a typical day job work 40 hours a week. We go to work around 8:00am and leave at 5:00pm. We get an hour for lunch and end up working 8 hours a day. If we work a typical Monday through Friday, we work 40 hours a week.

Now, I’m not sure about your job, but mine is pretty specific. I show up at 7:00am (I actually work a 9/80 schedule where I get every other Friday off, but I have to work 9-hour days) and I’m expected to work. I don’t have time for “I don’t feel like it” or “I’m having writer’s block on this technical manual.” Within five minutes or so of me walking in the door, I’m working. And I’m working for five days on most weeks.

Somewhere along the line, we fiction writers got it in our heads that making stuff up for a living is not a real job. It most certainly is. And I discovered a little about myself over the first 26 days of January.
On New Year’s Day, I started writing my first book of the year. I have a title: CALVIN CARTER AND THE EMPTY COFFINS. It’s a 65,000-word (pre-edit) western/mystery novel, first in a new series. Anyway, whenever I sat down to write, I literally clocked in using the HoursTracker app on my phone. I wrote about tracking your writing time a couple weeks back. It’s also good to see the numbers add up over time.

One of my columns was “Time (cumulative)” where each day’s hours spent writing are totaled. If you look at it one way, it’s simply a column with an ascending series of numbers. Here is the data for the first six days in January: 2.35; 4.43; 5.43; 6.78; 7.83; 8.65. This column’s number go all the way up to 36.03 hours, which I hit on Thursday morning.

But if you stop and look at this column from another point of view, you see something completely different. If you imagine your day job 8-hour day, then when you hit 8 total hours, you’ve worked a “Monday.” When you reach 16 hours, you’ve worked through “Tuesday.” The math works all the way up to “Friday” and 40 hours.

By examining the data in this manner, I imagined what it would be like to have fiction writing as a full-time job…and realized that I could write a book in a week! That’s only 8 hours a day, time off for lunch, and no working the weekends. (Side note: I worked every day from 1 Jan to 26 Jan but that’s because fiction writing is not my full-time job.)

A big caveat: words written per hour. I have only one hour a day to write on weekdays, a tad more on weekends. I absolutely must be efficient in my writing time. Chances are that my overall word-count-per-hour would decrease if I truly worked eight hours straight, but when it’s an hour at a time, I can fly, especially when the guns are blazing and Carter has to get out of scraps. But even if my word count dropped to 1,000 words per hour, I could still work out a 40,000-word novel—enough for the  westerns back in the day—in a week. Anything higher than that is gravy.

It’s not difficult to project forward the idea of working as a full-time fiction writer and the output that could be achieved if the constraints of another day job were not in the way. A book a week pace is crazy! I know. Not only would the physical aspect take a toll but the mental gymnastics to come up with a new book every week might prove too much. But some do it. Robert Randisi, in an interview published just this week, lays out his working day. It’s incredible, but he does it, day in and day out.

Just like a real job.

Go figure.

Because writing IS a real job.

Some have the opportunity to do it full time. Others, like myself, have to bide our time, all the while training up for success. For one month in January 2017, I realized I could write a book in a month, and maybe, just maybe, given the opportunity--or a deadline--I could do it in a week.

Friday, January 27, 2017

I Googled "How To Rob A Bank"

Awhile back, I needed a good look at how a person would crack a bank vault. I carefully worded my Google search so as not to say "How to rob a bank", but Google came back with "Did you mean how to rob a bank?"

Gee, thanks Google!

Result? I this fascinating guy:

Jeff Sitar is apparently the world's fastest safe cracker. He's been featured on magazine shows on several networks, has his own wildly 90's website, and is the only guy you're going to see cracking a bank vault, unless you ride with a totally different crew than I do. I got a little obsessed with Sitar after watching this video and taking a look at his website. He's just an average joe from Jersey who can crack any safe by touch alone. He says he's never used this skill to steal because it would mean he couldn't work or compete - but isn't that exactly what someone would say if they had robbed a bank?

Not making any allegations, just wondering aloud.

There's even an article titled "How To Rob A Bank." Clay Tumey did a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session and the result of that was published at Deadspin. There are some interesting tidbits for a writer trying to make a believable bank robbery happen in their book. He claims that dye packs tend to be in with the twenties, so he asked specifically for fifties and hundreds. He also says he did his research before hand, and noted that the people who get caught are always the people with partners. Of course, Tumey eventually got caught, too, but it may explain how he got away for so long.
Pictured: 4 guys who were too dumb to work alone.
Good thing any good story has more than one character. If a live bank robber says working in pairs is troublesome, I'm going to believe it. But I won't let my characters know. I might Google something that also means "how to rob a bank" but my characters have a little more finesse. They know better than these goons who actually did type "How to rob a bank" into a search engine and then immediately robbed a bank.

It's astounding how many major publications run articles with titles like "What You Should Know Before Robbing A Bank." Our fascination with bank robbers and intricate heists is a well documented cultural phenomenon, but we like books and movies about serial killers, too, and I don't think USA Today would publish an article title "What You Need To Know Before Going on A Killing Spree." I think there's some idea that since the banks are insured, and most robberies go off without any violence, that it just isn't as bad to rob a bank as it is to commit other crimes. Very few people are interested in how a burglar invades a home and figures out where the good jewelry is, but if you look up "heist movie" on IMDB, you'll be overwhelmed with results.

This is good news for anyone working on a heist novel, for sure. Probably bad news for the FDIC.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Bad Agenting

Super post from Janet Reid this week on agenting and what an author should expect in that relationship.

Bad communication is one of the reasons people leave their agents, and it's the reason I hear most often when those writers are looking for new agents.  
Writers put up with bad communication far longer than they should because they're afraid of rocking the boat; appearing to be a pest; or afraid their agent will no longer like them. 
This is utter crap.  
This is YOUR work, sold on YOUR behalf, and it's YOUR career.

Read more here >>

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Writer Types: A New Crime Fiction Podcast

by Holly West

Have you heard? There's a new podcast in town. This month, crime fiction writers Eric Beetner and S.W. Lauden debuted Writer Types, a podcast devoted to crime and mystery fiction. You can listen to the first episode here:

As you can see (hear?), episode one pulls together an all-star line-up: Megan Abbott (YOU WILL KNOW ME), Lou Berney (THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE), Steph Post (LIGHTWOOD), with appearances by Eric Campbell of Down & Out Books and many more. I've been told that episode two is also shaping up to be a strong one, though given its creators, this is no surprise. But I'll let Eric and Steve tell you about it.

HW: Both of you already do quite a bit of promotion/advocating for the crime fiction community. Not to mention busy writing schedules and families. So whose bright idea was it to add a podcast and why?

SWL: This is what happens when Eric and I are cooped up in a car together all day! We were driving down to a book signing at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego and started talking about podcasts we like (when we weren't listening to Eric's super obscure music collection). It doesn't take much to get Eric and I brainstorming. We pretty much had the basic outline for Writer Types by the time we got back to LA that night.

EB: Steve and I have had a great rapport since we first met and I'll go almost anywhere he asks. (SWL: "Almost?") During our drive we both slowly came to realize with his background in journalism and mine in TV we could do a podcast that was different from others out there. We wanted ours to be more like a radio show with multiple guests and short segments. From there it came together quickly and at every turn we've agreed on how we should approach each little decision. It's a true collaboration.

HW: I've listened to the first episode and I'm impressed with your balance of well-and-lesser known authors and books. Do you plan to expand the podcast to include other genres or other crime-related topics (film, TV, etc)?

EB: I'd love to include screenwriters down the road. We really are open to everything. Obviously the first few are going to pull from our own contacts, but like you said up top both Steve and I have been around and involved with dozens of other writers whether it's through me hosting Noir at the Bar or Steve's blog interviews, so we could go a whole lot of episodes just on people we can reach out to easily and quickly, which is nice. And as well all know, crime fiction people are the nicest around so everyone has been nothing but supportive.

SWL: I agree with Eric. The podcast is so new that really anything is possible. The hope is to create a fast-paced show with lots of different voices every episode—all revolving around crime and mystery fiction. We got really lucky with our guest list for the first episode, but the second episode is shaping up to be just as amazing.

HW: Obviously many of your guests call in their interviews. But what about you guys? Are you holed up in a room together producing this podcast?

EB: As much as we can we want to be in the same room. It gives it a different vibe. If we can't be, we're still live with each other via a video link. So when we did all the interviews for episode one we were together. For some of our host segments we were video linked but each in our own homes. Technology! Beyond that, we don't want to give away too many trade secrets. Important thing to know is that yes, we both wore pants the whole time. I can't verify the same for all guests.

HW: I liked the inclusion of Eric Campbell from Down & Out Books, but I'm a writer. It made me wonder who you consider to be your main audience? Readers? Writers? Both?

SWL: That's an interesting question that we've definitely wrestled with. Really, this is supposed to be a podcast for the crime/mystery community as a whole. We're hoping there's something there for readers AND writers, but it'll definitely take some trial and error to figure out what works and what doesn't.

EB: This was a topic of much discussion. We try to think of readers first, writers second. I think one industry professional per episode will still be interesting to readers. Everyone likes a peek behind the curtain of a world they love. So we want to appeal to both but we don't want readers to ever feel like we're just sitting around talking shop. We won't ever ask our authors too much about process or technical stuff about writing. We want it always to be fun as well as informational.

HW: What are your goals for the podcast?

EB: To make the kind of show we'd want to listen to. It's the same approach I take to my writing. I write a book I'd want to read. But for us working in the industry-ish or at least knowing about production, and our time as musicians and working in studios, we knew what we wanted and set about making that a reality. Beyond that, we want to give authors we love a platform to talk about their writing. Want to give voice to some under-the-radar authors. Everyone we interview are all people we like talking to and want to know more about, you just get to listen in but we know enough to know we have to add a little something to make it interesting to listen in to.

SWL: I've said this many times before, but the crime/mystery community is the closest thing I've found to the rock universe I came out of. Sure, we're all trying to promote our own books, but in the end we have this amazing opportunity to support each other in a difficult pursuit. If this podcast helps connect a few authors with a few new readers, and vice versa, than I think we will have succeeded. I just want to keep having interesting conversations along the way and meeting passionate people. Also, I've apparently become a hippie.

EB: Yeah, I keep hearing all about this punk rock past of yours. All I see is a devoted father in his Harry Potter hats with a respectable 9-to-5 and a reputation in the crime fiction community as being a super nice, very supportive guy. Sellout! Wait, I just described myself too. Steve, what have we become?!?!

SWL: Our parents, Eric. We've become our parents.

Find the Writer Types podcast here:

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Unstable Detective

Like most things involving fictional detectives, it started with Sherlock Holmes.  Or maybe it started before Holmes with Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin.  I'm talking about the detective, amateur or professional, who is brilliant but eccentric and troubled.  He or she is a committed and gifted investigator, but the gifts come with serious baggage - like deep neuroses or some type of addictive and destructive behavior.  Over the last 20 years or so, it's been as true on television as in crime novels and stories. Among a few of my favorites of this type: Robbie Coltrane's Cracker, an inveterate gambler, heavy drinker, and chain smoker; Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, who's not eccentric or odd but who as the series progresses uses alcohol more and more as a crutch;  Idris Elba as the dark-souled and violent John Luther. The current Sherlock, of course, has played up the neurotic qualities of Holmes to the nth degree, at times presenting him as an outright mess, though he's as sharp as ever at solving crimes. Other examples abound.  And perhaps it's the familiarity of the type that has led television crime writers to take the next step and create investigators who are not merely eccentric or flawed but gripped by psychological maladies.  As they do their jobs investigating cases, they have to contend not only with the difficult world around them, but also with whatever their mental condition happens to be.

The series Hannibal on NBC gave us a Will Graham who gets deeper into imagining and visualizing the killings he investigates than any Will Graham we've seen or read about previously.  He suffers from encephalitis at one point (though nobody discovers this for awhile) and winds up institutionalized. The show takes us past the cliche of the investigator who shares enough of his serial killer quarry's darkness to understand it and thus catch his prey. Hannibal starts there, with Graham's ability to empathize, if you will, with a serial killer, his ability to think and feel as a serial killer thinks and feels, and then the show goes into a different psychological realm entirely.  You don't always feel certain that Graham will return from the realm of derangement he has the ability to access.  In fact by the show's end (assuming it is the end and doesn't return anywhere for a fourth season), a part of Graham's mind may be permanently damaged, something his nemesis Hannibal takes pride in having contributed to.  What happens with Graham, though, is progressive. He starts out as the brilliant but eccentric investigator who has unique talents, but because of what he undergoes pursuing and interacting with Hannibal, he slides into an area along the fringes of madness.  In the show, over the course of three seasons, we see him change.

Not so with London DI John River of the British series River. The show stars the great Stellen Skarsgard as a police detective who hears voices in his head and has whole conversations with people he's known.  He even converses with long dead historical figures. This is not a condition that comes upon River during the course of the series; it's the show's basic premise.  

The person John River sees and talks to the most is his former partner, who was murdered. She was both his partner and a most sympathetic friend.  Though extremely good at his work, John River can experience his visions without warning, at almost any time.  It's no secret that he has these visions, and his superior officer demands he undergo a psychiatric evaluation, expecting River to fail it and be taken off the force.  But what becomes clear to both his psychiatrist, some of his colleagues, and the audience is that River relies on his voices to cope.  The show's creator and writer, Abi Morgan, has come up with a character who is a starkly original variation on the melancholy, middle-aged, gruff cop who has trouble connecting with people.  But instead of holing up in pubs (like, say, Inspector Morse would do), he communes with people not there.  His condition becomes a metaphor for how to deal with and endure loneliness, and it also gives him a way to mourn his ex-partner.  By talking to her, he works through his grief.  As such, there's nothing about his mental health issues that strikes the viewer as exploitive or cartoony, and despite his unusualness, he quickly becomes a character you can relate to.  He's an original creation, John River, and I for one hope he comes back for another season.  What's fascinating, as Stellen Skarsgard has noted, is that River's condition "doesn't really exist as we know it. It's a combination of problems, because he's not like people who hear voices - they're usually schizophrenic and lack empathy and he does not. But it doesn't make it less truthful."

Marcella, which I just finished watching, is an eight part British series centered around London detective Marcella Backlund, played by Anna Friel.  When the series begins, she has been off the force many years, but she rejoins it after a detective on the murder squad visits her to consult her about a string of murders that seem to replicate murders that she investigated, but never solved, eleven years earlier. Marcella is a hard-driving, very focused and observant detective who clearly has a high IQ.  She also happens to be a person with an explosive temper, and when she loses that temper, if she's under great stress, she goes into fugue states in which she does things she can't remember later.  In those fugue states, it becomes apparent, she's capable of just about anything, including, perhaps, deadly violence.

So here we have another police detective struggling with a psychological condition that threatens career ruin.  She too visits a psychiatrist.  But besides her propensity for blackouts, Marcella is not a flamboyant eccentric in any way, nor does she have self-destructive habits. She does happen to have an intense, thorny personality, and her relationships with her two school age children and her husband, who she discovers has been cheating on her for three years, are complicated.  You feel for her, tortured as she is by her fugue states, but her affliction serves much less as a vehicle for audience sympathy than John River's.  Marcella doggedly investigates the multiple murder case, but she may also have killed one of the people thought to be among the wanted person's several victims.  

In Marcella, we get a convoluted but very entertaining tale that involves a police person who may simultaneously be a pursuer of a killer and a killer herself, and though the series has so much going on that at times it becomes difficult to link every single plot point, I found it compelling from first episode to last.  The key, I think, is how the show withholds information, keeping you in the dark about certain points as much as Marcella is.  What she can't remember, we never see.  We feel her disorientation.  And though the main case is solved, there is no final catharsis for Marcella and not much granted to the viewer.  We end the series with the same sense of strong unease that is gripping her.  

I really liked this show despite its convolutions and perhaps because it does not follow a strictly conventional linear line. From what I hear, a second series is coming. But will Marcella, who loses it when her flip is switched, find any peace?  I don't know, but I'll enjoy watching her struggle with her demons - a prime example of a contemporary type, the unstable detective.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Watching the Watchers

Folks in town have created a “crime watch” page on Facebook. A great idea, in theory. Mission, keep people up to date on the ins and outs of the neighborhood. The site helps reunite lost dogs with their owners, tracked down missing Christmas deliveries and organized a community meeting at the local elementary school to discuss, with police and other community leaders, the increase in crime on our streets.

I’ll admit, most of the time my interest in the site is less about information and more about amusement. There is something side-grabbingly funny to the random response from an angry armchair hero who, alone too long with his beer, emphatically and repeatedly announces the generous size of his man accessories in response to a bewildered post questioning strange popping sounds on the fourth of July.

I realize the page has a greater purpose. When there is trouble afoot, say tire slashing or mail stealing, involved individuals will post their story in hopes of warning others. It’s a social media version of the general store and we’re the old people talking and complaining on the bench in the front window. Except, the weight of social media chatter has far reaching and long lasting consequences.

For instance, we have our share of teenagers and these teenagers have evolved as all teenagers evolve. Slowly. Very slowly. They do teenage things. Knock over flower pots. Drop trash. Curse loudly. Smooch under on the steps of the church. They act like dogs with the gate left open. Do. Everything. Now.

This is where the execution of the community page gets a bit dicey. People are snapping photos of the kids they believe are taking part in criminal activity and posting to the Facebook page. After pictures are posted a string of comments usually follow stating the police record of said kids, their parents or any other juicy tidbits someone can pull from the archives.

All of this information brought to you directly from the general public, with little to no evidence backing up most of the claims. It all comes down to “I have a friend and they heard from their friend…”

It’s gossip. Gossip that is seen by hundreds of people on a page specifically created to circulate information on local criminal activity, a page that is not associated with the police department or burdened by the requirement of facts. It is gossip and it can haunt a kid for a lifetime.

There is also a certain amount of rabble rousing on the page. Recently, the call to arms has been so urgent I fear for the man or woman unfortunate enough to sell or market door to door.

A typical posting is distrustful and, at times, threatening or violent. “Some guy knocked on my door. Asked if I needed lawn care. Lawn Care? Shit. I told that guy he should run.”

Ugly responses and comments follow. “Better be glad he didn’t come to my door. I’d introduce him to Smith and Wesson.”

A few days ago, a young man knocked on my door, explained his boss would be coming through the neighborhood giving free estimates on gutter and window work. Would I be interested?

“No, thanks,” I said. Visibly relieved with the simple and underwhelming response, he motored on. I felt bad for him. I wanted to give him a juice box, a can of mace and prayers for safe passage.

There is definitely a use for these sites, these new world community boards. We don’t really have block parties or founder’s events. No potlucks or over the fence chats.

Around these parts, most parents work two jobs to make ends meet. The days of Gladys Kravitz sitting in her window, keeping watch on the suburban sprawl are gone. This is how people touch base, remain involved but a mass bulletin, forever filed on the web, probably needs better execution.

I don’t believe this page should be taken down. Please, no. It’s a favorite stop. Frankly, you could arc an entire novel in one post and its kooky replies. The inspiration!

Perhaps the answer is as simple as someone keeping watch over the neighborhood watch.