Saturday, March 4, 2017

Breaking Ain't Bad

Scott D. Parker

Sometimes you just need a break.

For the past few years, I’ve committed my writing self to writing streaks. The first one was from late May 2013 to early February 2014, something like 256 days in a row. I had another streak—I think in 2015—where I wrote some sort of fiction every day. But here’s the little secret: not every day was good. Some days will be good—I had an 8,000-word day once!—and some days will suck horribly: a sentence of 10 words? After awhile, keeping the streak alive was more important than what I was writing. The streak became unbearable.

And, more importantly, unsustainable.

I used to think that taking a break in writing was a waste of time. Of course, I told myself, I could keep up my writing day after day. All I had to do, thought I before I embarked on these two streaks, was to swap out what I wrote.

I’ll admit that what I ended up writing was a series of novels. I likely should have thrown in some short stories to lighten the load, but I didn’t. Who knows what could have happened had I done that. Well, I wouldn’t have arrived at my new philosophy.

Starting this year, I set an ambitious writing goal. It was based partly on word count but also on more products. As I wrote in my first column of 2017, the only thing we writers can control is what we produce. I wanted to write a ton of words that formed a ton of products. But more than anything, I wanted to develop a sustainable writing production schedule.

Much to my surprise, that included breaks.

I finished my first book of 2017 on 26 January. That was a Thursday. I told myself that sustainability was key so I gave myself permission not to start the next book until 1 February. That was the following Wednesday. I had nearly a week off from writing.

And it was great. I slept in past my usual 4:30 a.m. weekday alarm, and on those mornings I didn’t, I woke, sipped some coffee, and read. It was fantastic.

February, however, is the short month. I very much wanted to complete the second book—which I started enthusiastically on 1 February—before 28 February. Why? Because I wanted that break. I loved that reward of having accomplished something and the downtime that came with it. I ended up writing over 14,000 words from 24-26 February, but I put “The End” on the Book #2 last Sunday afternoon.

And I had my break. Shorter than January, of course, but still a break. And I started a new book on 1 March.

Two books, each written in 26 days with a full-time job. Both hovering around 62,000 words (they’re westerns so they may actually be a tad long) and both took about 36 hours of actual pounding-the-keyboard writing time. All, frankly, with little major effort except last weekend’s marathon push to get Book #2 completed. (BTW, tentative title for #2: Calvin Carter and the Hell Dragon.) Now, if the pattern holds, then around the last weekend of this month, I should be done with Book #3 and I’ll have earned myself a welcome break.

Is this method sustainable? To date, yes. Is it easy? Mostly. Waking at 4:30 a.m. isn’t always fun, but getting the chance to sit and have an adventure with Calvin Carter is a blast! But I never knew just how important having a break from writing can actually be. It gave me the enthusiasm to get back to a new blank page with and write with gusto!

I’ve learned, and I will be incorporating breaks into my writing life from now on.

What about y’all? Do y’all work in breaks from writing?

Friday, March 3, 2017

Playlist: Crime Fiction Through Music (2)

Last fall I did a mini-playlist of songs that tell crime stories (here) and I thought it would be fun to do again. If you like a good crime story there's no reason you won't like it in the form of a movie, a book, or a song, right?

1. Bobby Fuller Four - I Fought The Law

I went with Bobby over The Clash because I'm a cheater and am including The Clash after this. This song's got it all - it's a love story, a prison story, a heist story, and a western (because what modern bank robbers use "a six gun"?). I've never met a person who didn't know this song, which means it's probably no revelation. But hey! I found you the 1966 version with video!

2. The Clash - Guns of Brixton

Bankrobber would have been a better choice. A deeper track, more direct in it's references to crime, I know. I linked it back there so you can watch the video if you're into the idea. But I've had Guns of Brixton on heavy rotation lately. It almost sounds like a protest song, and a lot of the lyrics seem relevant to American issues at the moment - but a closer look at the lyrics make it clear this is about organized crime. Doors are kicked down, people are shot in the street, the threat of death row hangs over head - this song has got it all. 

3. Brody Dalle - Don't Mess With Me

It's a badass punk chick singing about standing up to a bunch of guys with guns pointed at her, do you need more? I've been jamming to this one a lot since the theme of being surrounded by people with guns pointed at you, and feeling like you're going to be okay because someone else is with you is a big one in my work-in-progress. And because Brody Dalle will never not be ice cold cool.

4. Big D and the Kid's Table - My Girlfriend's on Drugs
Look, I know - you're not here for ska. Too bad. The Boston ska scene doesn't get enough credit and a whole hell of a lot of it is about drugs and crime. The title of the song is "My Girlfriend's On Drugs" so I feel like you know what it's about. This is more silly than anything, but that's one thing 90s ska really handled well - serious subject matter presented in a highly danceable, super kinetic, candy coated package. Not everything has to be so fucking heavy all the time. 

5. The Taxpayers - Some Kind of Disaster Relief

I know, two ska songs on one list. You guys are going to send me hatemail, aren't you? The point of these lists is to appreciate crime fiction where you don't expect to find it, and this Taxpayer's song answers that. It's a hell of a lot heavier than the Big D song above, tackling drug addiction, skipping town, kids with guns, and extreme poverty. There's a series of crime novels hiding between the drum beats. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Anthony Awards are coming

This, from the official Bouchercon folks concerning the Anthony Awards:

Anthony Award Ballots emailed
**Important Information re Anthony Award Ballots!**
If you were registered for Bouchercon in New Orleans and/or are signed up for Toronto this year, your Anthony Award nomination ballot will be arriving in your email box on Tuesday, February 28.
The nomination form will be coming from SurveyMonkey. If you don’t see it in your inbox, please check your spam/junk folder. If it’s not there by Wednesday, March 1, please message us.
Anthony Award nomination forms are due back by April 30. As soon as all nominations are tabulated, the 2017 Anthony Award Nominees will be announced.
As he does, Jay Stringer is compiling a list of eligible works, which we'll run on this here DSD site soon. Tell Jay what you liked last year.

Anthony Awards WIKI

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Universal Stories

If you don't care about the Oscars, I'm sure there's a subreddit where everyone holds heartfelt discussions about how they're not like everyone else, and therefore don't care about the Super Bowl or award shows, and only truly enjoy urinating on random parade-goers.

Whether you watch the award show or not, you've probably heard about the snafu that led to Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty incorrectly announcing that La-La Land won Best Picture, and the gracious correction as the producers called Barry Jenkins onstage to accept the award for Moonlight. A lot of viewers were so angry at La-La Land winning that they turned off the television and missed the retraction until the resulting explosion on social media. It was an experience.

I wanted Moonlight to win (my other favorites were Arrival and Hell or High Water, but I didn't have as high hopes for them) but I expected La-La Land to sweep it. I enjoy musicals, but I found La-La Land to be rather boring when they weren't singing and dancing, and after The Neon Demon, the glorification of a naif's image of Hollywood, where the worst thing that happens to you is when no one shows up for your show and Philistines make you play "Jingle Bells" didn't really compel me. And while Moonlight is specifically about a gay black boy growing into manhood, it is really about anyone who wears a mask to avoid the condemnation and bullying of society. It was a beautifully filmed character study with excellent performances, and characters we rarely see.

You could say the same about Manchester by the Sea, which I enjoyed but felt needed a stronger editor. I really didn't need to see that many scenes of a crappy teenage band or the gray ocean, and for a working man's film it ignores the realities of a maintenance man leaving his job for weeks, and a charter fisherman who never seems to take anyone out to sea. It might as well have been a typical Hollywood rich family who never have to work, after he left Boston. Hell or High Water, I hoped would at least win original screenplay. I really enjoyed Arrival and how it made me think the unthinkable, to try to understand a way of viewing time that we can't experience. It's no 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it was one of the best science fiction stories brought to screen, with strong performances, and a story that made the intergalactic personal.

The thing about Moonlight's win is, don't let anyone tell you that your story isn't "universal." How is a story about a bullied kid any less universal than one about two beautiful, talented people trying to break into movies and music? Or one about a man who hates himself, so he refuses to let himself be happy? Human stories are universal. Anyone who has ever worn a mask to get through the day would find Moonlight or Manchester "universal." Find an agent or publisher who sees the universality of your story.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Crime and Chupacabras

Scott's Note: David Bowles guest blogs today, talking about his new novel Chupacabra Vengeance.

Guest Post by David Bowles
I’ve long been a fan of hard-boiled crime fiction, cutting my literary teeth on James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett before moving on to Chandler, Spillane, Thompson, Mosley, inter al. As my circle of favorites has widened down the years, I’ve discovered to my delight that many writers fuse the roman noir with other genres I love, from sci-fi (Dick, Gibson, Murakami) to horror (Hjortsberg, Straub, Barker) to fantasy (Huff, Adlerberg, Barron).  

Indie presses have done an amazing job of publishing books that straddle the stark, ugly realities of crime fiction and the equally bleak irrealities of horror. Broken River Books springs immediately to mind, specifically Zero Saints by Gabino Iglesias and Will the Sun Ever Come out Again by Nate Southard, my favorite Austinite blends of noir and the supernatural.
Broken River Books has also released this month my short story collection Chupacabra Vengeance. Though generally speculative, many of the fifteen pieces are decidedly influenced by the sensibilities and tropes of crime fiction, and readers who enjoy that sort of mélange will, I think, find something in those three hundred pages to fit the bill. 

The title story, for example, explores the criminal underbelly of Mexico that preys on transnational immigrants heading north from Central America atop La Bestia, a dangerous train that charges a steep fee in lives and limbs. The muggers and coyotes are just the beginning — those who make it to the border often face human trafficking rings in league with the US Border Patrol. When the chupacabras finally put in an appearance in this story, their violent alien goals seem almost pure in contrast to such cruel corruption.
“Bloody Feathers,” which first appeared in Out of the Gutter, is narrated by a broken man in the vein of many noir anti-heroes. Tormented, ambiguous, cynical, the narrator feels himself pushed into what we would deem horrific, immoral actions in order to save the world from an apocalypse. 
A more overt mystery / crime story is “The Bones of Rio Rico,” in which a middle-aged woman’s investigation of the disappearance of children in 1930s South Texas leads her across the river to a town run — as one might expect in a Continental Op novella — by Mexican mobsters. Even Al Capone shows up in this one, his gunsels helping to stave off a supernatural attack. 
In my sci-fi short “Winds That Stir Vermilion Sands,” I take a look at the interactions a Sephardi scavenger and his teenage son have with yakuza … on Mars. Struggling to escape the shantytowns of the Hellas Region, the boy and his father try to cut a deal with a crime syndicate … and when things go sideways, the teen has to make a terrible decision. 
Set in that same universe, “Undocumented” flips the modern immigration narrative on its head as a young Chicano flees an ice-choked and failing US, crossing a deadly high-tech border with the help of human traffickers. His goal is to reach a colony ship getting ready to blast off from the relative paradise of Mexico, but his illegal status puts him in the path of law enforcement and unscrupulous citizens. 
The other stories, while not nearly as overtly influenced by noir, share many of that genre’s sensibilities, especially the weird/horror pieces. For years, writers and critics have noted the similarities between these two modes — the pervasive sense of bleakness, the cynical and disconnected nature of its outcast protagonists, the preoccupation with explore the dark and hidden things of the world. From that perspective, nearly all of the tales in Chupacabra Vengeance are noir in its most basic sense: black, black as the void that waits at the end of the path. 


Chupacabra Vengeance can be found on Amazon right here.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Talk is Cheap, But Inspiration Can Last a Lifetime

Unlike many of you, I went to bed at a decent time last night and did not watch the Academy Awards show. Like many of you, I'm keenly aware of the "drama" at the end. It's made my mind spin in some odd circles this morning, so bear with me here.

I'm not going to weigh in on whether it a was a legitimate mistake or a carefully crafted ploy to get people talking about the Oscars today. It's Hollywood. It's media types. Already I've seen the jokes on Twitter and Facebook about how this must make Steve Harvey feel better, and if you know what that reference is to then you know why some people may view last night's "mistake" as a publicity stunt.

"Blunders" enter the social media sphere and generate more awareness than the events themselves. It's the cheapest form of publicity that there is, but I can see some people thinking today that if they could orchestrate a mistake they could generate a lot of press for their work.

Is that ooops going to make me watch the Oscars next year? No. Look, if you watch the Oscars it's because you like watching celebrities get dressed up, talk politics, shed a tear or two and you want to see if the host will entertain or fall flat. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm sometimes interested in the winners of a specific category, or a few categories, and I can check online the next day to see who won. Watching four hours of an awards show last night allowed people who did watch to be in on the big talk of the day. "Did you see that?" "Did you see the look on so-and-so's face?"

As Emma Stone said, "We made history."

To be honest, I'm just glad to have something take over the front page of the news this morning that has nothing to do with politics. Okay, well, there may have been some political talk at the Oscars last night, but that's been overshadowed by the need to clarify that the winners list is the real winners list.

And that makes me a little sad about what happened. Not just because the legitimate winner of best picture may have been robbed of a little of its thunder, but because it underscores the lack of trust people have in information now, even when it's being reported by major news outlets.

And that does speak to something political.

I'm going to sidestep that a little bit. I studied journalism in college. I had the opportunity to hear renowned journalists speak. I also had the opportunity to have my feet held to the fire and learn to validate my sources and substantiate my information. I was a huge fan of Sunday Edition and a huge fan of Bob McAdorey's entertainment show on Global.

Right now, I can walk to the next room and put my hands on a Rawlins Cross CD and know that I saw that band live and have enjoyed their music because of Bob McAdorey. That isn't the only band I saw on his show, but it's just an example of an influence that has endured.

Gimmicks get you for a second. Influence can last a lifetime. I know that as authors, many of us struggle to determine how best to promote our work because we want it to be appreciated and enjoyed. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's far more important to focus on the quality of the work rather than promotional stunts. When you do, you'll build an audience that endures and grows through heartfelt recommendation and referral.

While I'm glad the dominant headlines this morning are about anything other than politics, I have to admit that even the 0.0000001% chance that the Oscar blunder may have been a marketing stunt combines with the recent war against the media to make me sad. We've all been reminded of a crucial truth. Just because you heard it on TV doesn't mean it's true. However, we need to verify truths to protect us from falsehoods, and we do that in our day to day lives with world events and policies and politics through the media. It is not up to anyone else to tell us who can and can't be trusted or how to verify a news source. It is up to us to make sure we never take our news from one source nationally or internationally, but that we verify and confirm and that we make our news sources earn our trust so that we can be confident of their authenticity.

We'd really like to think that when an announcer says, "And the winner is..." that they're going to give us the right information. We'd also really like to think that our journalists are giving us facts instead of falsehoods. When we have verified our sources they can influence us on a level that can last a lifetime.  I've made the mistake of seeing a report we thought was legit only to learn it isn't. Last night reminded me of that, and reminded me of the importance of valuing a trusted source of information.

Be diligent. In this era of 10 second attention spans and Twitter marketing go deeper than headlines. Go deeper than flash-in-the-pan writers who use a gimmick to get attention. Go deeper than cheap marketing stunts and superficial fluff. Wherever you invest your time and money, from movies to books to newspapers, make sure you're supporting quality. The best way to ensure more great movies get made and more great books get published is to ensure the ones that really are exceptional get the attention they deserve for the right reasons.

On that note, I leave you with a lasting influence for me that came from a journalist who didn't need a gimmick to get my attention.