Saturday, August 25, 2018

More Writing Lessons from Pulp Writer Frank Gruber

Scott D. Parker

Last week, I reviewed THE PULP JUNGLE by Frank Gruber and how modern writers could learn from one of the most prolific authors of the pulp era. Reading through all the true struggles he endured to bust through and actually make it in 1934, I realized that I, in 2018, with a full-time day job, have it pretty good as I work at my writing craft and pursue my own goals.

But Gruber’s odyssey as a writer can also speak to us writers today. What follows are some key facts and quotes I took away from his book.

From August 1932 (when he arrived in New York) until June 1934 (when he sold the story that enabled him to break big in the pulp fiction market), Gruber wrote 174 “pieces” which totaled 620,000 words, all on a Remington manual typewriter. He called himself a sloppy writer, so he had to retype everything after he corrected the manuscript. The fiction spanned the gamut: Sunday School stories, detective stories, love stories, spicy stories, sports stories, etc. Those words were not solely fiction. He wrote tons of articles often on topics he had to learn on the fly. In the book, Gruber lists the dollar amounts he earned for various pieces. Even in 1932 dollars, those meager sales didn’t add up to a living wage.

My takeaway: Yeah, he had it bad, real bad. I don’t. Not really.

The Big Break came in 1934 in one of those great true tales you hear. Gruber gets a call on Friday afternoon. Operator #5 was going to press the next day but was a story short. Could Gruber write a 5500-word story overnight? In his retelling, he started at 8pm and had a character. Two hours later, he had his leading lady. By 3:30am, he had his big finale…but still needed a plot thread to weave it all together. He got it, and delivered the 18 pages by 9am. He didn’t hear back for a few days. He started to worry, so he called on the editor. Oh, he was told, we pay on Friday. Pay? Yup, the story was purchased. And then he was asked for another. According to Gruber, “I was ‘in.’”

My takeaway: sometimes, your best work can emerge out of your brain and through your fingers in whole cloth. Don’t be afraid of going with it.

His income in 1934 was less than $400 ($7,500 in 2018 money). In 1935, he made $10,000 ($188,000).

My takeaway: Yikes!

Even after his Big Break, Gruber worked steadily and for higher paying markets. The key factor here was that Gruber never stopped working. Yes he had made it, but in those days, a writer was only as good as the next sale. So he kept working on stories, then branched out into novels, both detective stories as well as westerns. All the contacts he had made during the lean years paid dividends later on, including when he moved to Hollywood.

My takeaway: Always keep learning. Always maintain your contacts when you make them. You never know what will happen and with whom.

Frederick Faust, the real man behind the famous pen name “Max Brand,” trained himself to write 14 pages every day, year after year. It added up to 1,500,000 words of fiction per year. It took him 2 hours each day. Then he would often drink.

My takeaway: Constant writing and constant production will produce material you can sell. Keep at it. We may not all type as fast as Faust and we may not all have 2 hours in our days, but we do have an hour or so. The words will come, and they will come faster and easier the more you do it.

"There is equality of opportunity. There is no equality of talent." Gruber said that about the days of yore. With independent writer opportunities, the field is even more wide open.

The story of Frank Gruber’s professional life suggests that hard work, determination, and perseverance will enable a writer to hone the skills necessary to become a full-time writer. It also demonstrates that writers must recognize and seize opportunities when they present themselves. Don’t think you could write a story overnight (or Insert Your Own Personal Challenge)? Perhaps Gruber didn’t think he could do it either…until he said “yes”. And he delivered. Only then did he discover he could. Then he did it over and over again.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Interview with Paul D. Brazill

Paul D. Brazill was one of the first independent crime writers I stumbled across when I got into this game. Two things that stood out with Paul is the humor in his writing and his support for other writers. Paul has two new recent releases: "Small Time Crimes", a collection of short stories published by Near to the Knuckle, and "Last Year's Man", a novella about an aging hitman returning to his hometown. I reviewed "Last Year's Man" a few weeks back at Unlawful Acts. You can find out more about Paul D. Brazill on his website.

By David Nemeth

David: Good lord, you sure do publish a lot. What’s your secret? Okay, seriously, what’s your writing routine like and about how many words do you write per day?

Paul: Oh, I’m not even remotely disciplined. I write ‘now and then’. Quite often, I go a few days without writing anything.  It’s the scattershot approach that I take to most things in life. It probably means that I limit the type of things I write to short stories, flash fiction, novellas. I don’t see me breathing down Don Winslow or David Pearce’s neck anytime soon.

David: You’re out there day after day hustling other writer’s work. I know that you turned me on to Paul Heatley’s “Motel Whore” and Tom Leins’s “Skull Meat”. First, thanks for that. I also know how much time that takes, but unlike many writers of today you are actually reading your contemporaries’ work and promoting it. Why? Wouldn’t your time be better spent writing your own stuff?

Paul: I got ‘into’ writing after discovering online flash fiction sites like Beat To A Pulp, A Twist Of Noir, and Shotgun Honey. I liked the stuff I read and decided to give it a go myself. A lot of those writers have their own books out now and I read most of them and see no reason not to promote stuff I like. I’ve already written more than most people need.

David: I haven’t had a chance to read “Small Time Crimes” yet. Could you tell me something about it?

Paul: Small Time Crimes is a typically scattershot collection of short stories and flash fiction. Here’s the blurb: ‘Hit-men, con men, jewel thieves, career criminals, killers, crooks and cannibals. They all congregate between the pages of Paul D. Brazill’s Small Time Crimes - a brutal and blackly comic collection of short stories and flash fiction that views the world at its most askew.’

David: I enjoyed one of your latest books, “Last Year’s Man” which displays the wit in your writing. So, what makes Brits funnier than Americans? Kidding. A bit of a safer question, what is it that makes the English so damn funny?

Paul: I think the Brits revel in our own ridiculousness, we know that life and people are absurd. After all, there are two types of people in the world and they are both preposterous. The most preposterous are the ones that don’t know they are, of course.

David: Much of your writing features music, lots of music. Back in the day, were you involved in the music scene?

Paul: I was lucky enough to hit 15 when punk exploded. In 1977 I sold my massive collection of American comics for a fiver and bought Talking Heads ‘77 and Jocko Homo by Devo. I started going to see lots of bands – The Clash, Joy Division, Magazine, The Adverts etc- and I even joined a couple of bands as a bass player though I was never any good!

David: Have you any thoughts on why music plays such a role in your fiction?

Paul: See above! Formative years and all that.

David: You’ve been living in Poland for quite some time teaching English as a second language. Why Poland? Why not some country bordering the Mediterranean?

Paul: I did my TEFL course in Madrid and enjoyed it there, though the 42c heat and siestas didn’t suit me. I was tempted to stay but I wanted to go to uncharted territory, which Poland was at the time.  I actually applied for a few jobs when I finished the course – scattershot again. The first job I was offered was in Bratislava – the instructions were fly to Vienna and take the night train to Bratislava. All very Ipcress Files! The job and city looked good but for some reason I was suspicious of it so I turned the offer down. The next email I read was from a school in Skierniewice – a small town in Poland. Just over two weeks later I was living in Poland. And here I stay!

David: More importantly, how does being an expatriate affect your writing?

Paul: Jason Michel of Pulp Metal Magazine once said that the ex-pat life keeps you in a state of permanent adolescence! For sure I have a big distance from current life in the UK which gives my yarns- especially Last Year’s Man - a sense of nostalgia.

David: Give me five books to read, genre is not important.

Musical Chairs by Kinky Friedman
White Rabbit K A Laity
The Portable Dorothy Parker
Rat Pack Confidential by Shawn Levy
Blue Heaven by Joe Keenan.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

How Eighty Years of Man-Hunts Influenced My ‘Hunting Club’

Scott's note: Nick Kolakowski returns here this week, and he's come to talk about his new book, Boise Longpig Hunting Club.  As I know from reading a bunch of Nick's other stuff, including his two novellas, A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps and Slaughterhouse Blues, Nick has a particular talent for writing scenes of ferocious action.  Nick and I have talked about action movies on occasion, so I was curious to hear if he applies to his writing anything he's learned from watching these kinds of films.  What kind of action that works on film works, or doesn't work, in prose?

Well, let's hear what Nick has to say about it.

How Eighty Years of Man-Hunts Influenced My ‘Hunting Club’

By Nick Kolakowski

 Many years ago, I heard a story about the filming of John Woo’s Hard Target (1993). And as the saying goes, if it isn’t true, it ought to be. Apparently Woo wanted the movie’s star, Jean-Claude Van Damme, to kill dozens of guys during the final battle, which takes place in a giant warehouse filled with moldering Mardi Gras floats. Someone else—maybe it was Sam Raimi, who was hired to oversee the set—told Woo that it would take too much time to kill that many guys; they had to keep the killings to a “reasonable” 20 or so.

“Reasonable,” of course, by the standards of John Woo, who killed 307 people in Hard Boiled (1992) and 149 in The Killer (1989), according to

I re-watched Hard Target when I was plotting my new thriller Boise Longpig Hunting Club. My book’s protagonists end up hunted by a lot of heavily armed dudes, and I was watching and reading everything that had a similar plot. At the root of this peculiar sub-genre, its urtext, is "The Most Dangerous Game,” a 1924 short story that was adapted into a 1934 movie starring Joel McCrea, Leslie Banks, and a pre-King Kong Fay Wray.

As a film, The Most Dangerous Game follows the plot of Richard Connell’s iconic short story relatively closely, albeit with the addition of a romantic subplot. It must have been exciting to viewers at the time, although its action seems incredibly corny in the context of modern, high-budget filmmaking. There is a moment with a mounted head that’s shocking, if only because we’re so used to black-and-white films being sanitized by the Motion Picture Production Code, which took full effect roughly two years after The Most Dangerous Game hit theaters.   

Decades later, John Woo riffed on the same plot with Hard Target,” which he layered with his signature action beats: white doves, slow-motion leaps, curtains of flame and shattered glass. If the movie feels clunky at moments, it’s because Woo had the final cut taken away from him in the editing room by Van Damme and a legion of studio executives. Nonetheless, you can still see flashes of his kinetic brilliance in the final product.

The variations don’t end there.  Surviving the Game is another 1990s movie that follows many of the “Hard Target” plot beats, but unless you really like Ice T or Rutger Hauer (surprisingly sane in this role), it’s a bit of a drag. The mounted-head gag from The Most Dangerous Game is revived, in slightly different format, and it’s easily the most memorable moment.

There’s also Battle Royale (2000), a Japanese film that features a school class abandoned on a deserted island, with students forced to kill one another if they want to survive. It’s very reminiscent of The Hunger Games, as well as the ultra-popular video game Fortnite, and your enjoyment of it is likely proportional to how much you like the idea of watching kids massacre their peers in creative ways for 113 minutes. (It does feature a cameo by Takeshi Kitano, who remains one of the coolest actors on the planet.)  

All these films influenced Boise Longpig Hunting Club in one crucial way. Although I love action movies, I began to find the actual hunts monotonous. For all of its age-related issues and the hammy acting, the short running time of The Most Dangerous Game means the climax is pleasingly taut; by the time you get to the modern era, with Hard Target and Battle Royale, all the killing drags maybe 15 or 20 minutes too long. As someone tried to explain to Woo, there are only so many ways you can repeatedly shoot, stab, and vaporize people.

On the page, the potential for tedium is even higher. Pick up a copy of Battle Royale from your local library (it was a smash-hit book before becoming a movie) and give it a read; I found it very tempting to skim through the unending cascade of deaths, especially since they go on for nearly 700 pages. Or if you want a real insomnia cure, read any action-movie script—Walter Hill’s never-filmed adaption of John Woo’s masterpiece The Killer is a good example, and so is the House of Blue Leaves sequence in Quentin Tarantino’s original Kill Bill script. Blow-by-blow descriptions of violence become repetitive over the course of a hundred pages. 

So when I sat down to write my hunt, I vowed to keep things as streamlined as possible; I didn’t want to test my audience’s patience with tens of thousands of words’ worth of people running around the woods. The ending is relatively quick, and it’s decisive in a very fiery way. If I’ve learned anything from my research, it’s that you need to give your audience what they want—whether they’re viewers, readers, or hunters.
You can pick up Boise Longpig Hunting Club here.


Monday, August 20, 2018

Ragtag Reviews - ZERO SAINTS by Gabino Iglesias

I’m gonna do it!

Randomly make my way through this leaning tower of TBR. Of course, my pile is in no order, therefore some of these titles may be quite old. You can’t read words off a page. That’s what my Dad always says. Age doesn’t matter. Just start reading. And review. Read and review.

Gabino Iglesias

Synopsis: Meet Fernando. Running from Cartel killers, Fernando flees to America from Mexico City. Finding work as an enforcer and drug-dealer he settles into a low-life groove. However, things are never that easy for Fernando. Soon he is caught in the cross hairs of a brutal drug lord, serious about staking his claim, a point made clear by the torture and murder of one of Fernando’s associates.

Be warned, Fernando is made of more than anyone can imagine and he will call on every corner of strength and force to survive.

Review: ZERO SAINTS is completely original. Equal parts noir and horror, Gabino melds his beautiful anger and artistic prose with ease and absolute sincerity. He slices his characters wide open, figuratively and literally, showing their fine and fragile inner-workings. These characters are real and vivid. As you read you can almost sense their presence behind you, an unsettling side-effect.

Our main man Fernando is a hard fellow to appreciate. His chaotic journey begins when he watches his friend tortured and beheaded, a scene described in horrific and visceral detail. From this point on we follow as Fernando dances between worlds to stay alive. This difficult duality is clarified by Gabino’s generous sprinkling Fernando’s native Spanish throughout the manuscript. Gabino reminds us our character is a fish out of water. Living in a land that is not his home. He is lonely, afraid, and capable of horrible acts.

Adding to the nerves and shivers is the otherworldly atmosphere that hangs over the tale. An ex-rapper with a killer eagle. A dog more human than canine. Santa Muerte. Voodoo. Tarot. Fernando’s almost manic habit of prayer. These shadowy details heighten the sense of dread and uncertainty.

ZERO SAINTS grabbed me from the very beginning. By taking a crime/noir framework and filling it with occult and horror aspects Gabino has added to the genre. No small feat and not often accomplished. Though I’ve written mainly noir, I am a horror gal in my heart, and this book captured and thrilled me. I loved it and highly recommend. Gabino is a wonder. Oh, I want a print of that cover. Spectacular.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Review: Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Book vs. Movie

Warning: mild spoilers ahead.
I loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I loved that a book about the love of reading was such a success. I loved that a book with that mouthful of a title was a bestseller. So I was definitely hoping that I would love the movie, which recently came out on Netflix.
GL&PPPS takes place during and after World War II on the Isle of Guernsey in the English Channel. It was taken by the Germans during the war and that occupation continues to haunt many of the characters after the Nazis withdraw. One of them contacts Juliet Ashton, a Londoner, after finding her name and address in a secondhand book. Juliet is an author, and she eventually strikes up a pen-pal friendship and then goes to Guernsey to find out more.
Both the book and the movie share this synopsis.
From the get-go, the movie is at a disadvantage because it can’t copy the aspect of the book that gives it such a distinctive style. It’s a novel of letters. The entire book is nothing but correspondence back-and-forth between Juliet and her publisher, her love interest, and different Guernsey residents. In less deft hands, this could have fallen spectacularly flat. But authors Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows give each character such personality that by the time you’re halfway through, you can tell which character is writing a particular missive without even seeing the name. The voices are that distinctive. And trust me, that’s a very difficult thing to do.
But a movie with nothing but scenes of people writing letters? Not so enthralling. It just wouldn’t work. So the character intimacy a reader got from the book had to be removed in the movie so that there’s actually some action. So I forgive the movie for that. It couldn’t be helped (I feel this is a very generous position on my part because I’m usually a total stickler for book/movie fidelity).
I am, however, going to quibble with a few of the other choices filmmakers made. In the book, Juliet corresponds with several members of the literary society before showing up on the island. She’s been invited and they’re expecting her. This supports why she feels so at home when she gets there. The movie inexplicably turns her into an uninvited guest, who shows up inconsiderately with no warning and no prior letters to anyone but the initial letter writer. This shades her character in a completely different way from how she was drawn in the book.  
The bad changes continue with the movie Juliet’s decision to accept a marriage proposal immediately. In the book, she says that she needs time to think about it. This change is ridiculous in light of an added movie scene, where she argues that someone she wrote about is an early feminist. That scene would have been well supported by leaving the book’s plot alone and having Juliet take a wait-and-see approach to her own possible marriage.
Now, I’m not a total book-to-film curmudgeon. There were things I did like about the movie. Matthew Goode is certainly one of them. The whole cast, actually, is fantastic. Lily James gets rid of the blond locks she had in this summer’s Mamma Mia sequel and plays Juliet with appropriate writerly (and brunette) aplomb. Goode, who was on Downton Abbey’s later seasons, is joined from that show by Penelope Wilton and Jessica Brown Findlay. Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones) is Dawsey Adams, the finder of the secondhand book who sets the whole plot in motion. The locations are gorgeous and the historical time period is fascinating. And to be honest, it was nice to watch something that was, well, nice. I enjoyed it. Anything that's about the joy of the written word is something to celebrate, as far as I’m concerned. And if it makes you want to read the book, all the better.