Friday, August 3, 2018

A Tale of Many Californias

My current work in progress is about a lot of things - crime among them, but in my heart it’s a story about California. Being a California native, I’ve spent my entire life here with the exception of just under 6 years where I tested the waters in Virginia and Baltimore. There is a lot to love, and a lot to hate about Baltimore, and being broke in Baltimore definitely provided fodder for my crime stories - but California is where I belong, so it’s where I returned. I’m still figuring out which part of California I want to claim, but in fiction, I claim them all.

I want to capture the quiet, uber-private suburbs I live in now, and the glory and dirt of the up and coming neighborhoods in Los Angeles - those last few desperate blocks that haven’t been gentrified all to hell. I want to write a sentence that hammers home how lonely and desolate the I-5 is, no matter where you’re going or what you’re running from. I live in a California where I made memories playing in muddy ditches, hiking in the woods, driving up to Berkeley for the first time and going to killer places like Amoeba records. It’s the California of endless summer in San Diego, and fog so thick you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

When I make the drive up to visit my parents, I drive through the California that’s farmers desperate for enough water to keep their crops alive. I live in a California that’s hardcore right wing, but less than two hours drive from Hollywood - the liberal capital to hear any Republican tell it. It’s an insane state that shouldn’t be, but manages in it’s contradictions. And these days, it’s a state where you can legally order some pot to smoke and the burrito you’re going to want to eat after, and have both delivered to your door.

All these California’s exist - and more. And they’ve all got their own brand of crime, their own casts of characters, and their own way of doing things. Some areas worry about earthquakes and others have fire evacuation routes, but they’ve all got stories to tell. I hope mine does these places justice.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Robert DeNiro in BIG: The new 7minuteswith podcast

By Steve Weddle

Welcome to episodefour of SEVEN MINUTES WITH, brought to you by
Host Steve Weddle is joined by Jedidiah Ayres talking about directors in movie jail, Holly West on the television shows Succession and Dietland, and Chris Holm on all the musics.
Chris F. Holm:

Jed’s Movie Jail talk:
Christopher McQuarrie:

Holly West’s TV talk:

Chris F. Holm:
Julien Baker
Velvet Underground

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Sensitivity Reading for Mystery and Crime

By Danny Gardner

Becoming known for something is a surefire way to get bogged down when demand for that thing becomes the thing. The 90s brought me so many invitations from all sorts of estranged friends and relations. There I'd be, ready to rekindle a long bond over, say, Thanksgiving dinner, just to see a microphone on a stand in the corner. 'Oh, that's for me? How thoughtful. When this L-tryptophan kicks in, I'll keep myself awake by performing a free after-dinner set."  When I traded in the road for an IT career, it was the broken printer or the failed HDD over aperitifs. One friend would bring his laptop to the bar so I could check his code syntax. To be known for a thing is to be doomed by it, or at least offended to no end by the constant call "Is there a doctor in the house?"

In my case, it's "I have some racism/sexism/insensitive portrayals/really bad writing in my manuscript! Is there a black writer in the house??" Which is the reason I've just slotted my very last pro bono sensitivity read, or, as I like to put them, insurance against hashtagging. Marginalized people now have the time, money, and tools to communicate offense to something they previously had to let roll. That's the pendulum swinging back, like a you-know-what, and at a time when authors have to worry more and more about non-writing issues to sell books. Combine that with editors' calls for diversity in whatever form and more and more writers are combining volatile organic compounds with no lab training.

All forms and functions adapt over time and through circumstances both individual and global. Language is the first of the cultural indices to fluctuate when changes occur. It comes subtly, often as slippage in forms that were once acceptable. "When did we stop calling them Orientals?" That sort of thing. Journalists with decent jobs may be fortunate enough to have editorial leadership that adapts editorial standards and practices as fast as possible. The rest of us don't have time to pay attention to the changes in America's volatile cultural atmosphere. In relation to a book that takes you a year or more to complete and bring to the world, that's quite a bit of time you're voluntarily disconnected from an ever-developing environment. It's really hard to pull a book back from its print run because some syntax that could be construed as cultural appropriation or insensitivity wasn't sniffed out in the manuscript phase.

Mystery and Crime is the genre that is carrying American publishing over the next five years. Even in these uncertain times, more and more folks you'd consider dissimilar to you are buying and consuming your books, and have a grasp of the forms and functions of language that is up to the minute. Everyone reads sensitively now, even those trusty carnival barkers who rant against political correctness. Everyone notices, maybe because everyone is rubbed raw. Regardless, someone in your writing life has to keep up with the trends in cultural communication. Not to gin up fear, but we've all witnessed what happens when, say, something as innocent as conflating "people of color" with "colored" happens. That's not changing for a while. People who were previously voiceless now have enough time and energy and reach to discuss with you their issues with your work. Yep. It's like that.

Since 2016, I have completed sensitivity reads with full notes and consultations on five novels, a novella, and seven short stories. This is in addition to the ad hoc consultations that take place at least weekly, just to talk stuff out and clarify thinking during the writing process. I'm excited folks are asking me to examine the messages they send for unintended evils (I'm here for all the intended evils. I don't dare touch those.) I wish it didn't stem from a sense of fear of comeuppance for simple mistakes (and, frankly, moments where writers still try it,) but I'm happy to participate in anything that brings people together in the cause of better understanding.

Unfortunately, I just can't do this work for free anymore.

I'm less interested in being known as the race guy and more interested in ensuring cross-cultural understanding so everyone can remain the self they choose to be and still hold control of the messages they want someone unlike them to receive. It's a delicate balance that goes far beyond checking for bad words on a list. A lot of folks can do that for you. My particular strength is translating your intention against the language. Understanding what you meant to do, what ruckus you fully intended to set off, and helping you still do that without the assured destruction that comes from being reckless. On more than a few significant occasions, it's been akin to "Here, give me that chainsaw. Okay, now, try that same thing, but with this scalpel." Same cuts, better instrument. Same intention, better results. No compromises. More finesse. I'm not helping authors conceal bigotry. I'm helping them transcend it to deliver a more truthful message according to their own values. That is a considerable amount of work, for which I've happily accepted no coin.

I love being helpful. Being perceived as capable and generous requires more up-front investment but always pays off in the end. Thing is, I've helped myself into a bit of a quandary. I'm not hanging out a shingle, but while I'm very comfortable with being known and respected for my insights on race and class, to do it right, I have to treat it like work. Otherwise, the quality diminishes and people, including my peers, get hurt. If you need help, y'all know where to find me. If real work is required, we can rap about it. These are good times. Our genres are in a good place. I'll still help, as generally or specifically as I'm able. All the signs point to good times. I want us to share them, together, and not at career wakes, where there lies Joe Author, died from a hashtag to the forehead.

- dg

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Get That Stamina Back

I'm just back from a three day weekend spent in the country with a few writer friends.  On Friday morning, we left New York City and drove 3 hours north to a rented house in the Catskill Mountains.  We did this specifically to have an extended block of writing time, from Friday through Sunday, with no distractions.  And everyone stuck to the plan.  All Friday afternoon and into the evening, each of us wrote, and the same went for Saturday and Sunday from about 9 AM till about 8.  Breaks were short and infrequent.  After 8 came dinner (we had three topnotch cooks among us) and drinking and talk.  Not a bad way to spend three days.  And from what I could gather, everyone got a good bit of work done, whether it be straight writing on something new or making an editing pass on something completed.  I did pretty well myself, making solid progress on the novel (could end up being a novella) I'm doing.

I found out something unexpected, though.  I'm not sure why it came as a surprise actually, because it makes sense; I just didn't think of it before we embarked from the city for the weekend.

Before marriage and kids, I used to routinely write 4 hours a day.  That was my goal, and sometimes I'd surpass it and sometimes do less - like 3 hours - but more days than not I hit 4 hours.  But those days are long gone, what with work and familial obligations.  Don't get me wrong.  I was working before I had a wife and kids, but a job without a family still leaves plenty of writing time.  A job with a family doesn't leave much time, but as with everything, the idea is to adapt or perish, and over time, I've become adept at working an hour here or two hours there, after work in my office, at home before bed, whenever.  Through sheer necessity, I've gotten to where I don't need time to "warm up".  I have my productive and less productive writing days like anyone else, but generally speaking, I sit down and get to work and something comes.  Again, I don't want to give the wrong impression. My actual word count each day is small.  I'm glad to get 300 words a day done.  But those are 300 pretty clean words and when you think about it, if you do 250-300 words a day, let's say even 5 days a week, you're talking enough to have a novella or short novel (I've written no long ones) done in a year.

But getting back to the writing weekend escape.  In that country house our group rented, I suddenly found myself having several hours to write at a clip, as I once did, and it felt odd.  I was glad to have the time, but I found that I didn't have the stamina I once had.  I've trained myself to do a sprinting session, as it were, and this weekend I could afford to jog for hours, but my wind wasn't quite ready for that. 

I'm not complaining.  The extra time was a luxury.  And it's nothing remarkable to say I basically wrote 2 hours at a clip, took a short break, maybe a walk outside, fired up more coffee, and repeated the process. Each day, for three days, for several hours each day, till we had to leave.  Thus the progress I made on the thing I'm working on.  But it was still interesting to see how my stamina has waned because of these years of rarely having the time to do more than a couple of hours at a clip.  You do get into a different headspace when you have four, five, or six hours, on a consistent basis, to write. Fatigue does its own things to your imagination; it pushes it in surprising ways; it's like in running or other endurance sports when you hit the wall and have to push through; you can get a high, a particular intense sensation, that you simply can't get from a 100 meter dash.  

Now I'm home, as I said, and back on my work schedule, so it's time for the hour or two stints again.  No shame in that.  Adapt or perish.  But I'm keeping this weekend in my mind so I remember what I need to develop again - stamina, like I used to have, the ability to sit at a desk and just write for several hours at a time.  It's something to shoot for anyway, like you shoot for retirement.  Will it happen? Who knows? But I'm trying to get there.

Monday, July 30, 2018

What's in a Name?

Naming characters can be a nightmare. I've heard it said editors will reject a manuscript simply due to a character sharing the name of a former partner or person they don't like. While I think that's more myth than fact, contrived to illustrate how subjective rejections can be sometimes, getting character names right is very tricky.

Brian once told me he was reading a book with a character named Brianna and reached a sex scene she was in. He couldn't read it.

Chalk that up to having a daughter with the same name, even if the spelling is different. Names can have powerful associations.

Thanks to a recent Publisher's Weekly review of The Spying Moon, I'm reminded that I have a quirk with names. I was reading the review and really surprised by the references to Kendall. All the promo and back copy refers to Moreau. She's a cop and is referenced by surname throughout 99% of the story.

And there's kind of a deal with her name. She doesn't volunteer her first name until she feels comfortable with someone, which is very deep into the book. One of her colleagues - who can be a real jerk - thinks her name is Casey... but even when that was used by someone else it was K.C. because those are her initials.

It reminded me that one of my characters in Suspicious Circumstances had a misleading name.

Why do I do this? This realization prompted a little self-examination.

I think I have a heightened sensitivity because of having the name Sandra. No matter how many times I introduce myself as Sandra people assume I go by Sandy.

And I don't. When people call you something that isn't your name there's typically one of two reasons. It's either meant as an insult or it's meant as a sign of familiarity.

With Moreau, she sticks to her last name and is occasionally called K.C. because she's a very private person. In some respects a shell, because of being an orphan. She doesn't trust easily but giving someone permission to address her in a familiar way with her first name is a sign of that trust.

She doesn't offer up any part of herself lightly.

Having a protagonist with that disposition creates its own challenges because there's even a sense of her withholding from herself at times. She isn't one to dwell on things. That's why her personal issues are soon put in a box and she tries not to think about them.

So when you read PW's review, you may want to substitute Moreau for Kendall.

(And don't equate sincerity with goodness. Some characters are sincerely awful. And there may just be an American in the mix.)

I'm thankful for a good PW review. What's in a name? When it comes to the trades, PW has a good rep they've built and maintained over the years.

At the start of this dour yet lucid police procedural from Ruttan (Suspicious Circumstances), Kendall Moreau, a recent graduate of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police training center, is on her way to her first posting. Since early childhood, everything she has done has been motivated by her desire to find out the truth about her mother’s disappearance, and now she’s set to be stationed in the area of British Columbia where it happened. But Kendall is redirected to the “beautiful but broken” town of Maple River to join a task force investigating drug traffickers. The team’s first meeting is interrupted by the news of the discovery of a body. At the scene, the police find teenager Sammy Petersen, “a good kid from a good home,” shot through the head. The postmortem reveals that he had a lethal dose of drugs in his system. Kendall soon finds that the drug problem is just the tip of the iceberg, and she suspects that at least one of her new colleagues may be involved in the murders, assaults, and robberies that are plaguing Maple River. The subject matter may be grim, but the Canadian sensibility—everyone is so sincere—is refreshing. (Sept.) 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Guest Post with KJ Howe

Today I’m delighted to welcome KJ Howe, author of the Thea Paris thrillers. The second in the series, Skyjack, hits UK shelves this week. It involves the armed takeover of a plane in Africa that sends Thea, an international kidnap negotiator, on a jet-setting chase to stop a global threat. KJ is a life-long world traveler and uses all that experience to great effect in her books. Here she is to share a little of that expertise. – Claire
Summer is here, and it’s time to enjoy a holiday getaway. Pack your bags, and don’t forget that sunscreen. And buckle up for an exciting journey, as turbulence increases with the heat. Anyone enjoy it when the plane shakes, rattles and rolls? My character Thea Paris sure doesn’t, as she’s no fan of flying. And that’s what made Skyjack even more fun to write. 
My latest novel required extensive travel, including trips to Turkey—the Hagia Sophia figures prominently in the story—Austria, as my character Johann Dietrich attends the same school that I did in Salzburg—Italy, the home of Mafia Don Prospero Salvatore, and other exotic locales. Nothing replaces spending time in the actual setting, as I like to bring the sights, sounds, and tastes of the location to the reader. I also spent extensive time researching the aviation world to bring authenticity to the dynamic flying segments. 
In this spirit, these tips will help keep you safe in the friendly—and not-so-friendly—skies:
1. Where is the safest place to sit? The rear of the plane. Why? These seats are the furthest ones away from the likely point of impact, and distant from areas where fuel may catch fire. Even if you don’t receive champagne there, you can relax knowing you truly have the best seats in the house. Thea Paris loves the exit rows in the rear.
2. Always keep your seat belt fastened snugly while in flight. Most aircraft injuries are caused by turbulence, which often isn’t polite enough to announce itself. The seatbelt should be fitted snugly across the hips. Any slack between the seatbelt and your body can increase the G-forces you are subject to during a deceleration, increasing your chance of injury. 
3. Locate the closest two exits and count the number of rows between your seat and those egress points.  If there’s an emergency and you need to leave the plane in darkness or with your vision impaired by smoke, you will be glad you’re prepared to feel your way out.
4. Wear comfortable shoes and loose clothing, particularly pants, socks or nylons. DVT or Deep Vein Thrombosis is a serious condition that can develop during air travel. Wearing clothes that don’t restrict blood flow can help prevent it. And make sure you get up and walk regularly. 
5. Take non-stop flights on large planes. Since most incidents occur during take-off and landing, non-stop flights are the safest way to go. Also, the larger planes (more than 30 passengers) have demonstrated the best survivability in crashes and are subject to the most thorough regulatory and security scrutiny. Think big!
6. When you’re in the air, the cabin pressure is the equivalent of being in the same altitude as Denver, so alcohol will affect you more strongly than at sea level. Moderation is a great policy, as this will also reduce potential involvement in air rage incidents, which are sadly on the rise.
Enjoy your summer travel in good health and safety. Don’t forget to bring along a cache of books to read on the beach or plane—and you could be brave and choose to be Skyjacked on your next flight!

KJ Howe is the author of the Thea Paris thriller series. The series debut, The Freedom Broker, recently won Best First Novel from the International Thriller Writers. The second, Skyjack, is available this week in the UK. To write about kidnap negotiators, Howe has interviewed former hostages, negotiators, hostage reintegration experts, special forces operatives, and kidnap and ransom insurance executives. She also travels extensively, both for research and for fun.