Saturday, April 1, 2017

Switching Things Up

Scott D. Parker

Remember a few weeks ago when I mentioned how awesome it was to finish a book before the last day of the month in order to have a break? Well, I achieved that goal for March this past Tuesday. Not sure what happened here but I wrote the shortest of the three Calvin Carter books but actually took two days longer. I’ll just chalk that up to the mushy middle when I needed to right the ship and the story.

Anyway, I finished the story in my early morning pre-work session. I went to the day job floating on a cloud as I always do when I complete a novel. All day long, I didn’t think about writing at all. Ditto for Wednesday. I mean why would I? The next novel would be started until today, 1 April.
But something happened on Thursday. I got the itch. Not to write the next Carter book. No, I start those on the first day of each month. But I wanted to write something.

So I pulled out a novelette I had set aside late last year and re-read it. I made the corrections—implementing some writing techniques I’ve incorporated in writing three novels this year—and then I got to the part where I left off. Now, it was time for new content.

This novelette, however, has a different style than the Carter novels. A more pared down prose than the occasional flowery language I use when writing about the former actor turned railroad detective Calvin Carter. I had to remember the style and match it

I wrote nearly 2800 words over the past two days on that novelette. It was a great exercise, writing something completely different. It was still a western, but the style was different so it felt like a nice break, even though I still pounded the keys.

It made me wonder if other writers do this frequently. Cleanse the palette so to speak.

How about y’all? When y’all take a break, do you simply not write or do you write something completely different than the piece you just finished?

By the time this goes live, I will have started the fourth Calvin Carter novel. Unlike the previous three—in which I discovered the title along the way—a working title presented itself as I cast about for the plot. I immediately wrote it down and named the Scrivener file thusly: Calvin Carter and the Brides of Death. I’ll see if it holds.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Badass Biker Babes from New Orleans

I've been having a serious bought of insomnia that's coincided with the kid being on Spring Break, so it's safe to say my brain is FRIED. If it weren't, I might be trying to write a story based on these badass women in New Orleans.

Since I can't, I'm going to put this out into the world and hope someone else does. Tell me this isn't a killer crime story waiting to be written:

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Another Lovely Virginia Festival of the Book

PIC: Harry Crews is still head of the pack
at the Virginia Festival of the Book!
with Ted Geltner and Steve Weddle at 
New Dominion Bookshop
. Photo by Shannon Byrne

By Steve Weddle

This past weekend, Charlottesville hosted the Virginia Festival of the Book.

On a panel about southern writing, I got to chat with Ted Geltner about his Harry Crews biography and Jean W. Cash about her essay anthology, Rough South, Rural South. The next day, I talked with Randall Silvis, Robin Yocum, Diane Les Becquets, and John Hart about crime fiction on a "Caught Up in Crime" panel.

Caught Up in Crime panel. Photo by Rita Ramirez McCauley

Terrence McCauley was on a swell "Techno Thriller" panel and discussed his new book, A Murder of Crows.

Steve Weddle, Terrence McCauley, Sean Fate at VaBook.

Bill Beverly, Steph Post, David Swinson

Other swell authors were there, via some VaBook flickr ->

Steph Post 

Laura Lippman
Art Taylor and Megan Abbott

A fun time was had by all. Find out more about the festival here and plan to visit Charlottesville next spring for the 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book. Drinks are on David Swinson.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Write Training is Fight Training

How do you feel when you sit down to write?

Are you exhausted, eager, hung over, just getting buzzed, or full of dread?

Writing is exercise. It is a mental one, but just as strenuous as a good workout.

I don't train like I used to (no more flipping 800lb truck tires) but I still hit the gym three or four times a week, lifting weights with one friend who wants to bulk up and getting my cardio back in shape with a personal trainer pal, who was also the reason I trained in Japan. We don't punch each other in the face no more, but we hit pads and grapple like it's life or death. He's my oldest friend, and we've always been competitive. Thanks to him watching, I set the gym record for the 135lb prowler push (a dozen twenty yard laps on astroturf) and then broke my own record by seventeen seconds the week after. (2 minutes, 43 seconds, if you give a damn.)

I dread going to the gym sometimes, but I always, always feel better having done it. And it is the same with writing. Dorothy Parker said "I hate writing. I love having written." Well, to feel that love, you have to write. And when we train in the gym we always warm up and recover properly. Writers rarely seem to do this, and have that Crossfit dingbat mentality where pain is gain and we are to be measured by the depths of our suffering, like monks whipping themselves. It doesn't have to be that way. It shouldn't. You want to keep writing, you need rest and recovery.

If you have kids or a tough job (or like me, two inconsiderate felines) seven hours of sleep can be tough to achieve. I use earplugs when I have to. Your mind needs to rest. Exercise will help, even if it's just a daily walk. A tired mind and an sleepy body begins to feel like you swallowed a neutron star of cosmic dread. So get those hours of sleep in. Put down the iPad, turn off the NetFlix, close the damn book and sleep. Writers from Hemingway on recommended leaving "gas in the tank" and quitting before you're clawing for words, and it has many benefits. You leave the job with a positive mindset, with the reward of a job well done. And you know where to start when you sit down and write again.

Recovery also means you don't have to write every day. If the every day approach works for you, by all means, don't let me tell you otherwise. But don't use guilt and self-deprecation to rob you of a day off when you need one. Jerrold Mundis recommends taking the weekend off if you write full-time. For me this became a bad habit, because some of my best writing time is on weekends, given that I have a full time non-writing job. My favorite time to write is in the evening, after dinner, so this cut me down to four days a week. And then three, if we went out to the pub after the gym and got home late... so when the hell was I writing? I wasn't, and what was supposed to be a 3 month edit stretched out to six. And I felt miserable, like when I skip the gym for a week. Like a lazy slug.

Do you need to warm up? That depends on the writer. I usually "warm up" by putting on music and reading what I wrote or edited the night before, changing little bits here and there. Some writers meditate, stretch, hit the heavy bag, hit the sauce... whatever works. If you can dive right in, by all means, dive. Just make sure you get your rest, physically and mentally, and let yourself reap the rewards of the hard work, by not beating yourself up for not working even harder. As in the gym, it is self-destructive. Personal trainers laugh, because when a customer is seeing results from a steady and safe approach, they often want to do more.

"This isn't killing me, I feel like I could do more!"
"But you're seeing great results."
"But I could see even greater results!"
"And you can hurt yourself, and be out of the game for months..."

So if your method involves mad springs and long bouts of recovery, you might want to rethink that strategy.

I loathe the term "Self-Care" but in a culture that worships working yourself to death, call it whatever you want. I call it recovery. Look at Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. I love how honest he is about his diet on set. He looks that good because he eats boiled chicken and rice, and does push-ups and squats until the camera rolls. And when the film wraps, he eats a stack of pancakes and a pizza the same day. He earns that pizza.

Earn yours, and then eat the S.O.B.!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Farewell to the Whistler

I can't let this week go by without saying farewell to one of the greats of European cinema. I'm talking about Italian soundtrack legend Alessandro Alessandroni, who died over the weekend at age 92.  If you like Spaghetti Westerns from the 1960's and 1970's (And at this point, is there anyone who doesn't like Spaghetti Westerns? And if not, why not?), you know the part he played in helping to create some of the greatest film scores ever done.  With childhood friend Ennio Morricone, he worked on such films as A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and Once Upon a Time in the West.  He contributed to a slew of non-Leone Westerns also, and movies in every other conceivable genre.  Alessandroni played guitar, mandolin, accordion, and a number of other instruments, and above all, he was a remarkable whistler.  In all those Spaghetti Westerns, the Leone films, for instance, when you hear whistling on the soundtrack, you're hearing Alessandroni. He's there, too, plucking on his guitar, and he very much helped come up with the guitar riffs one hears in films such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  In other words, Alessandroni is a central figure in inventing a sound that marks an entire era in movies (you can't think of Spaghetti Westerns without hearing the soundtracks in your head), and let's not forget that he himself composed the scores to over 50 films.

You can get the names of the movies he worked on at the Internet Movie Database and elsewhere. But the best way to remember a musician is just to play his music.  So here's a couple of things from him.  The first is the main theme from A Fistful of Dollars with Alessandroni whistling and playing guitar in a live acoustic performance, and the second piece is a track I happen to love, with odd haunting whistling on it, from the Sergio Corbucci film, The Mercenary.

Addio, Alessandro!

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Distraction of Reality

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I'm a fan of the Fargo TV series. There are few crime series that I think rival The Wire as best ever, and Fargo is a contender for the crown. The first two seasons of Fargo have been exceptionally tight, for viewers like myself, who love a series with a long overriding arc and strong characters, Fargo is top shelf.

We've recently been re-watching Fargo in preparation for the upcoming third season. It isn't necessary. Each season is a standalone season, with a different story. Most of the characters are different, and in the case of season 2, the few returning characters are much younger than they were in season one, and you're delving into a part of their history that informed them in season 1.

The real reason for the re-watch is simple. This is a great show that holds up to repeat viewing. As I told Brian yesterday, I think it's more enjoyable the second time around because there are so many things you pick up on that make more sense or have relevance that you may have missed in the first viewing. The attention to detail is phenomenal, and it's just that layered.

The series has been filmed in Calgary, Alberta, and the surrounding area. That's never bothered me at all, even as someone who lived in Calgary and the surrounding area for many years. In season one, a key part of the story includes Stavros Milos, who started Phoenix Foods.

The actual grocery store used? My grocery store, from when I was in college. I lived about a block and a half from it.

This weekend I learned that the third season, again filmed in Calgary and the surrounding area, would venture even closer to home for me.

Parts of the show have been filmed in Beiseker, where my ex and I owned a house and lived for several years. And another filing location is the Beiseker library... A place that I worked at. Other locations included Bragg Creek, where North of 60 was filmed.

Personally, I'm really excited to see familiar sites and how they play out on the small screen. However, I also realize that this season will cut the closest to home. There may be flashes of stores I shopped in dozens of times, as well as restaurants I ate in. And part of the backdrop will be a place I worked in for a period of time.

While I don't think that will detract from my enjoyment of the show at all, I'm aware that when things cut close to home for some people it can be very distracting. How many cop shows follow police procedure to the letter? How many police procedures follow every detail precisely? They don't. Reality is almost always filtered to accommodate the needs of fiction.

The balancing act that writers must contend with is weighing the needs of the story versus the credibility of the content. When you can get a reader or viewer to completely embrace your work and dispense disbelief, or buy into your fiction, then you can successfully tell your story.

The setting may inform the story. There are things about specific places that, if gotten wrong, may make a local cringe or even abandon a story. I think as a Canadian, I'm accustomed to the distortion of Canada in story. One of my favorite slips was a reference to a town named Muskoka, when Muskoka is a district and not a town. Others might ignore than, but when you grew up in a town in Muskoka you can't deny they didn't do their homework. Did I stop watching the show? No. Canada is used as a fictional film backdrop for so many American shows it's just become something I think we overlook. Fargo isn't the first series to feature filming in Calgary or the surrounding area, and it won't be the last.

However, there is something distinct about how they've utilized their settings and created their world. It really works as a whole. I think Ewan McGregor said it best when he talked abut filming in the brutal cold winter this year. "I quite like it. I think when it gets really down to the minus 20s, I’m like ‘This is the real deal.’ This is what it’s meant to feel like. This is what it should feel like.”

The authenticity of the experience informs the art. How many of you have had that moment, when something in the fiction spoke to you as being so real that you connected with it deeply? I had that reading Laura Lippman's To The Power of Three, because the description related to the foot injury was so real that I - as a person who had their foot partially severed as a child - knew Laura must have suffered a foot injury she drew inspiration from, which she confirmed in an interview I did with her over ten years ago. Or when I read the opening of The Murder Exchange, and knew - as someone who almost drowned as a child (I was a nightmare kid, okay?) - that the author must have had an experience where they thought they could die.

When a setting I know is utilized in a way that creates a new setting, that makes it really become the fictional universe, it enriches the story. Done wrong, it can be a black mark. It's easier to do this in film than it is in books, but if you feel daunted by writing about a setting that you haven't visited or lived in, consider this: most people determine whether a work feels authentic to a location based on their perception of the location, rather than their experience with it. Sometimes, being believable is more important than reality... And if you're really stuck, there are usually community associations where you might be able to get in touch with someone who is more than happy to answer your questions and help you create an accurate representation of their world.

Back to Fargo, I'm going to put this challenge out there. If you haven't experienced Lorne Malvo messing with the minds of those around him for his own amusement, if you haven't watched Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers in action, if you haven't experienced Mike Milligan and the Kitchen brothers, if you haven't watched at least one season start to finish and weighed it as a whole, then you cannot argue that there's a better crime fiction show currently on television. This is one of the best shows that writers can watch to study villains who are so damned entertaining, you almost hate to see them brought down.