Sunday, September 15, 2019

Doing Time: Jail vs. Prison for a Desperate Housewife

Felicity Huffman was sentenced Friday for her role in the college admissions scandal. She paid $15,000 for a test cheater to bump up her daughter’s SAT scores. The actor got 14 days in the slammer. And this is where—from my persnickety copy-editing point of view—things got interesting. And infuriating.
Jail and prison are not the same thing. They cannot be used interchangeably. Yet they were, repeatedly, during the coverage and social media conversations about Huffman’s case. I also see the mistake in crime fiction every once in a while. It makes me cringe there, too.
Time magazine's coverage. They didn't mention that the federal Bureau of Prisons will be the one assigning her to a facility.
Admittedly, this case presented some challenges that aren’t usually there when you need to differentiate between jail and prison. I’ll get to those in a minute.
Typically, any criminal sentence less than a year is served in a jail. Jails are operated by local authorities, usually counties. They are designed to hold people who are awaiting trial or serving time for misdemeanor convictions. Prisons are operated by either a state or the federal government (there are also some privately run prisons—the same terminology holds true for them, too). They are for people who’ve been convicted of  felonies. Now, occasionally a person in prison might get out after serving less than a year (good behavior on an already low-year sentence or other reasons) but generally, this is how it works.
This information is pure gold for the crime fiction writer who needs a setting in the lockup. The two places have very different environments and you can create very different characters to populate them. Many times, though, writers just need a toss-off reference and that's where the errors creep in. Your main character's uncle isn't at the birthday party because he's incarcerated for a first-time drunk driving offense?  Uncle Billy isn't in prison. He's in jail.
Now let’s get to Felicity. This was fascinating to me, because it did not hold to the usual rules. She was sentenced to 14 days in "a facility designated by the Bureau of Prisons." The federal Bureau of Prisons doesn’t run jails, so it’s a reasonable bet that news organizations took when they said that she will serve prison time—even though she’ll only be there two weeks.  
Here's the Associated Press, which appears to have done the same thing I did. It reflexively said 14 days in jail (bottom tweet), then corrected itself later after looking at the judge's Bureau of Prisons statement.
Breaking news is tough. Journalism is hard. The AP did it right here, and consistently stayed with prison for the rest of its coverage. Not like some places. This right here is the absolute cardinal sin: A headline that doesn’t match the story. 

The enlarged lead paragraph of the story on a TV station website.
If all this is still confusing, then use a tried-and-true route. Pick a word that could mean either, like I did up above. It's not a solution in the journalism world--no editor would ever let you use them--but in fiction, they might accomplish what you need.
Hell, use the word pokey. It might be corny, but at least it isn't wrong. 

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 37

Scott D. Parker

And now, a word from our sponsor.

No, not really, but after you read today's post, you might wonder.

A Two-fer from Draft2Digital

Tuesday was a fun for me. First there was a new blog post from Draft2Digital. It was nothing new to me, but it was about the definition of the word 'prolific.' The post was penned by Kevin Tumlinson, arguably the face of Draft2Digital. The piece is a nice reminder that being prolific doesn't always mean churning out a book a month or publishing sixteen books a year. It can mean whatever you can sustain.

And that's the key: sustainability. You have to be able to sustain whatever schedule you develop. Here's how Kevin ended his piece:

"If your goal is to be a prolific writer, the secret isn't a secret by any stretch. It simply comes down to "write a lot."

Spend your time and energy now on developing a daily writing habit. Treat every bit of writing you do (emails, blog posts, social media posts, even text messages) as practice. Engage your writer brain early and often and always. Put it to work daily, and it will build up some callouses so it can keep working when it really counts.

Commit to a daily target and start meeting it, then push yourself to exceed it. You'll thank me when you have a shelf full of books to point to."

Meeting with Kevin Tumlinson

The other cool thing on Tuesday was that I got to meet Kevin live (and not in person). I attended one of Draft2Digital's "Ask Me Anything" Facebook live event a couple of weeks ago. That session itself was good enough, but as a treat/thank-you gift for attending, we had the opportunity to meet with Kevin and discuss the author business.

Kevin and I linked up on laptops and we had a great 30-minute conversation. One of the biggest things was clearing up a misconception re: Draft2Digital's printing service. Not sure how this idea got ingrained in my head, but there you go.

When you upload your files to Draft2Digital for their print-on-demand service, you do not incur any fees. In addition, if you have to make any changes, you still do not incur any fees. Do you know what that means? It means the POD service via Draft2Digital is free at the outset. They'll get their cut on the backend, but too often, we authors tinker or find things only after we upload the files. It is reassuring to realize you can make mistakes and you don't face any charges.

Plus, Draft2Digital can be the middle man for getting ISBNs. That's a big help.

So I'll be moving all my POD books to Draft2Digital. Because why not?

If you want to join the next Ask Us Anything Facebook live event, head on over to Draft2Digital's Facebook page and sign up.

One Last KISS

This week, I went to my last KISS concert in Houston. As a fan of the band for 41 years, it was fantastic and bittersweet. I never, ever tire of watching the opening of a KISS show, but to know this was the last time to hear "Rock and Roll All Nite" live was bittersweet. Here's my full review.

TV Shows With Unanswered Cliffhangers

My wife and I watched two unique BBC shows in recent weeks: The Ketering Incident and The Living and the Dead. Each are unique in their own ways. Each end with a cliffhanger that doesn't diminish the series you just watched, but leaves unanswered other questions.

Both were not renewed for a second season, so those unanswered questions are not answered. Irritating, I know.

It makes you wonder why the creators and writers didn't make an official "This is what Season 2 would have done" post or ebook or novel. Is it the idea that they might make the second season one day, or might the TV studio own the rights and they just don't care?

Are there shows you enjoyed with unanswered questions?

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Writing Again

It’s been a strange few weeks round here.
I think last time I wrote here I was procrastinating and feeling blue and generally faffing about with a few different ideas.
Well, I made a decision to work on a new standalone that – once I’d done some cursory research to confirm the basic premise was physically possible in the real world - made me exited.
My friend Neil Broadfoot is a genuine Pantser. You know: one of those people who has an idea and just runs with it. I’m awestruck how he manages to not only come up with such Byzantine plots and twists but manages, always, to tie everything up neatly. His latest “No place to die” is a masterpiece of plotting, with not a single loose (or even slightly threadbare) end unresolved, and yet he’s open about having Pantsed the whole thing.
I’ve always been a plotter, someone who – before writing a word of the book proper – usually has about ten to fifteen thousand words of notes sketched and arranged in chronological order so that some chapters are basically cut n paste the notes then expand on what you’d already decided.
So I started working on thestandalone, and realised very quickly that because so much of the story relies on the repercussions of things that happened two (or more) decades ago I’d have to sketch the back story first and make sure I had that locked down.
So I did.
Then I went to Edinburgh for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I can not recommend this highly enough: If you’re a lover of theatre, of comedy, of music, of people and random strangers chatting to you at the bar, of a quick Scotch turning into a taxi ride across town to see a show that you ‘Just have to see,’ then this is the festival for you and the fact that this was the first time I had ever gone is to my deepest shame.
Then I came back to London and got sucked into various dayjob shenanigans.
Last Tuesday I was sitting at my desk paying as little attention to a phone meeting when I suddenly realised the back of my head felt wrong.
It hurt.
And as I moved my hand to it and tilted my head a millimeter backwards the hurt exploded into agony and spread like wildfire up the back of my head and across the top, seeming to bloom inside my head at the same time.
I grunted in pain and closed my eyes, opening them as I continued to tilt my head backwards in agony. Panic set in when I realised that my vision wasn’t moving in the same direction as my eyes, which is to say it clearly was but something in my brain was telling me that I was tilting my head forward even though I knew it was going backwards.
The fireworks lasted a few seconds and then something not-quite-agony settled in.
Frightened, and assuming it was a migraine (I had to assume as I’ve never had one before but it scared the living shit out of me and hurt like nothing I’d experienced before) I scuttled home, alternately sweating profusely and shivering wildly, crawled into bed and passed out.
When I awoke a few hours later the pain was almost completely gone, though an occasional twinge has served, since, to remind me of what was a truly disturbing event.
I’m seeing the doc on Friday and getting various tests to check that it wasn’t anything more serious.
Last Friday would have been my mother’s 76th Birthday, if she hadn’t died four years ago. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, and the grief which almost consumed me before and after her death is less likely to drag me under these days, though the waves are capable of moving from millpond flickers to Tsunami at little to no notice and for really odd reasons.
I thought I was fine at the prospect of her birthday approaching, but maybe I wasn’t.
Maybe the migraine was my body’s way of reminding me how much pain I was really in.
Maybe it was reminding me that the anniversary of 9/11 – a date that changed my life so much I still think of things pre- and post- that date – was looming.
Either way, I spent the weekend chatting to family and hanging with family friends and loved ones. I went to a local music festival and did what my mother often did when she felt discombobulated: I cleaned house.
Months of ‘Mail I’ll get to next weekend,’ receipts I was going to file and check off, flyers for sales that have been and gone, statements I need to review and file were scattered all around my writing space.
I knew I needed to get on with writing that new book.
I hadn’t, remember, written a word of the actual book, only a bunch of scene-setting.
But my brain was in a place where what I needed to do was tidy. It felt like making the place where I work ‘new’ again would be totemic, and clearing all the physical clutter might help clear some of the mental clutter too.
Plus, as I suspect I may have said before: I am the Emperor of the small island of Procrastinatia.
So I tidied, and I did my accounting and I got the shit together to do my Tax return; and I decided that I’d do that next weekend (See: Procrastinatia rules!).
And finally, last night, I sat down and opened the word document and realised two things:
I hadn’t written a word of it since 17th August (which has to be the longestI have gone without writing fiction in years), and I hadn’t quite finished the back story.
So I brought the backstory right up to the moment where the book starts, and I added down the few scenes I had already envisioned in the book proper.
And by then it was bed time. But guess what? I went to bed HAPPY. I got through the past week. I can get through this week.
And the book is not going to be as tightly plotted as my others because I don’t want it to be. I know where it needs to go so I’m going to take a leaf from my friend Neil and start writing it.
And that’s what I did today, and it flowed.
Oh I’m not kidding myself that I’m not going to reach a point where I go “How the fuck do I get out of this?” But it doesn’t matter. 
I’m writing again.
I may be winging it (and who doesn’t from time to time), but I’m writing.
So I’m calling that a victory!

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Fiction and Non-Fiction: An Enjoyable Balance

When 2019 started, I had as my primary writing goal to finish the novel I've been working on for a while.  It's been going well but with my usual slowness, and I promised myself, in January, that as soon as I finished the extended piece I was writing on the Russian science fiction writers the Strugatsky Brothers - a piece for a collection of essays on science fiction writers that will come out in the next year or two - I would resume work on the novel.  I also promised myself that in 2019, unlike in 2017 and 2018, I would not keep pausing in my writing of the novel to write non-fiction pieces and reviews.  In early February, when the Strugatsky Brothers piece was finished and I'd sent it off to the editors of the sci-fi piece collection, I took up work again on the book.  It takes a couple days to get your head back into a fiction story and build up a little momentum.  But I got back on track, as I always seem to do despite my worries that I won't, and I did stick with the novel for a few months to the exclusion of everything else except the blog piece I write here each week.

Intentions, intentions.  If only one could stick to them!  By spring, I found that I'd volunteered to write or accepted offers to write a number of pieces on crime books, or authors, past and present.  And I found myself, as I'd vowed I wouldn't, repeatedly putting the book aside to write these pieces.  

Momentum broken, momentum restarted, momentum broken, momentum restarted...

It would be easy to balance fiction and non-fiction if I could write full time. I could write fiction in the morning, eat lunch, and write non-fiction in the afternoon.  But since I can't do that, I have to swing back and forth between the two - it's one or the other at any given time - though I can write non-fiction a bit faster than I can turn out fiction. As I write this, I haven't touched the novel in about 5 weeks and I don't expect to be getting back to it till at least December, perhaps not even till 2020. Maybe I should admit to myself that what is really going on is that I'm writing the novel in between stretches writing non-fiction.  That's what 2019 has turned into.  And yet, to be honest, I can't say I'm upset.  I do wish the novel was further along and I was closer to finishing it than I am, but as I've come to realize I really enjoy writing these non-fiction pieces. It's as if the book reports I once loathed doing in school I now can't keep myself from doing.  I love doing the research you need to do.  I like the challenge of organizing a piece to try to create maximum interest and of using the analytical part of the brain more perhaps than you do when writing fiction.   And the fact is you get paid something, guaranteed, and probably get as many if not more readers from certain pieces than you do from a novel.  At least, I do.  So that's the situation.  Writing is writing, and I've always admired writers who are versatile and can do both fiction and non-fiction well, people like Joan Didion or V.S. Naipaul, Jamacia Kincaid or Ishmael Reed.  The list of writers who do a good deal of both, in truth, is long. 

And the book I'm about halfway through?  It's there in a folder on my dresser, printed out to where I am at this moment, and I look at it periodically to help keep my mind on it while I do the pieces I need to do.  When I return to it, it'll take me a few days to rebuild momentum, and I'll be worried that I won't get back on track but then I will get back on track, and...

In 2020, I will have this book done! 


Monday, September 9, 2019

Congrats on Writing Your First Book! Don't Publish It.

The Thrill of the First Novel

I wrote my first book during NaNoWriMo 2007. I still have the T-shirt. For those not familiar with it, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a personal challenge event where people all over the world attempt to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November.

The feeling of exhilaration when I hit that goal, and again when I finished that rough draft, was powerful. Writing a novel is no easy task. Right away, I wanted to share my amazing creation with the world. I still feel this way when I finish a rough draft.

I see a lot of posts on social media from newbie authors, awash in the euphoric throes of accomplishment, saying, "I just wrote my first book. How do I publish it?" It is often followed by a rambling, convoluted, sometimes incoherent, explanation of the plot.

But despite the urgent desire to want to show a rough draft to the world, especially the rough draft of a first novel, my most fervent advice to anyone having completed such a momentous task is "Don't!" More specifically, "Don't publish it!"

By all means, bask in the glow of your accomplishment. Writing a book is not easy. But you are just getting started. Writing is a craft with many skills to master (story structure, scene structure, dialogue, character development, etc.) and many pitfalls to learn how to avoid (info dumps, "as you know's", clichés, etc.) It will take you time to learn them. And to do that, you will need to study your craft. You will need to get honest feedback from fellow writers and editors. You will have to write a lot.

Study Your Craft

I have read dozens of books on the craft of writing. Some of my favorites are Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, Jordan Rosenfeld's Make A Scene, and Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. Other good books for the budding writer are Stephen King's On Writing and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. Finding a good book on grammar is also invaluable. Each one of these books offers a different perspective. Some focus on a specific skill, while others are more general.

At the same time, I read heavily in my genre, which happens to be crime fiction. This includes the classics like Sherlock Holmes and the works of Agatha Christie; the works of seasoned veterans like Lawrence Block, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton; and books by newer authors including Kellye Garrett, Vivien Chien, and Thomas Pluck (just to name a few). I also read books outside my genre, including romance, sci-fi, fantasy, and literary.

Reading the books on craft gives you the theory, while reading in your genre (whatever genre it may be) shows you these skills in action. You begin to recognize the patterns, the tropes, and what writing looks like when it is done well and even not so well. 

A writer who doesn't read is like a boat with no rudder. Lost, directionless, and ultimately doomed.

Get Feedback

When we are riding that rush of excitement having finished a draft, the last thing we want is to be told everything that is wrong with it. Talk about harshing your mellow. But it is very much needed. Better to be told what's wrong by a fellow author or editor before publication than in a review on Amazon.

Don't look to get feedback from your family or friends. Unless they are writers themselves, they will just blow sunshine up your ass because they don't want to hurt your feelings. Believe me!

For newbie writers, I suggest joining a local critique group, where each member lets the others read a short story or a chapter (not the whole bloody manuscript) and tells you what works and what doesn't. can be a great way to find such a group.

Each critique group is its own animal with its own rules and experience. Some require members to read their work aloud, while others swap work and read silently. Most I've found offer good insights. Sometimes you can get conflicting advice. But it's a starting point.

Don't take critiques personally. No one is judging you. The goal is to help each other improve their work.

Once your story has been critiqued by the group, you might want to look at beta readers. Beta readers may or may not be writers. Ideally, they should be well-read in your genre and be willing to read the whole book and give you honest feedback. Again, the goal is to make you aware of problem areas in your story. Beta readers may or may not know how to fix them. They may just tell you they don't like a particular character or how a certain scene plays out.

At some point, you may want to hire a freelance editor, even if you intend to go the traditional publishing route. Hiring an editor isn't cheap. For a 100,000-word novel, it could cost you a $1,000. Maybe less, maybe more, depending on what level of editing you are looking for.

I would suggest starting out with just a developmental edit. It's a bird's-eye view that will give you insights into the major areas where your story is lacking. The focus isn't on typos or punctuation.

Later on, if you decide to go the self-publishing (or indie) route, you may want to hire an editor to do a line edit (also called a copy edit) that focuses less on story structure and more on sentence structure and word usage. From there you would hire a proofreader to fix typos and punctuation.

Write a Lot

There is a saying that a new writer should write a million words before they are ready to write anything worth publishing. The point is that your first novel probably isn't worth publishing. Even if you hired the finest of editors to help you polish it. But do work with critique groups, beta readers, and maybe editors to get it as polished as you can. Learning the various stages of writing and editing is as important as learning a three-act structure or when to use a semicolon.

Before I wrote Iron Goddess, my first published novel, I had written multiple drafts of two complete novels and several short stories. Was writing them a waste of time? No! It was practice. Skills require practice to learn. Each story was a way to learn how not to write a story so I could do it differently the next time.

I realize setting aside a first book or a second book, stashing them forever in a drawer (or folder on your computer), can feel like you are abandoning your work. But this is a vital part of the process. Learning when to move on to the next story.

Taking the Leap Into Publishing

I spent eight years honing my skills before I was ready to get series and writing something worth publishing. That's a long time. Maybe it won't take you as long. Or maybe it will take you longer. Each writer's journey is unique. But it will take time.

Eventually, you may decide it really is time to publish. Now you are faced with a decision. Do you go the traditional route and try to get published by one of the Big Five or perhaps a small press? Or do you brave the ever-change waters of indie publishing? Well, that is a discussion for next time.

Until then, focus on your writing. Ass in chair, hands on keyboard.

Dharma Kelleher writes gritty crime fiction with a feminist kick series and is one of the only openly transgender voices in the genre. 

She is the author of the Jinx Ballou bounty hunter series and the Shea Stevens outlaw biker series. You can learn more about Dharma and her work at

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 36

Scott D. Parker

This week has largely been consumed with reading, revising, editing, and posting the three-part interview with Don Price. He's the local Houston man responsible for creating and hosting the Son of Houston-Con IV. This is the direct descendant to the original Houstoncon, the first main genre convention series in Houston.

You may ask yourself why would I need to revise and edit and interview. Well, my initial set of 15 questions exploded into follow-up questions, but those were after Mr. Price returned a Word file nearly eight pages long. In fact, Part 3 of the interview (posted yesterday) was a single answer to a single question. This interview is chock full of great material. Even fans of comic conventions in other parts of the country might enjoy reading what it was like to be a kid who loved comics in the late 1960s. Very different than now.

I really enjoyed the process, and learning about fandom's early days in Houston. It reminds me of my time in grad school and writing my thesis. Weird, I know, but, then again, I'm weird. By the time this post goes live, I'll be heading out to the con with a pair of friends from my SF book club. It'll be a fun day.

Well, this is kinda strange. I didn't finish anything of note this week for a review. I'm in the middle of a BBC series, The Living and the Dead, but I'm not finished. It Chapter Two starts today but I haven't seen it. No new movies of note. Books, neither, although I'm ready for this coming Tuesday when the next Isaac Bell Adventure by Clive Cussler is published.

So this is going to be a really short entry. Hopefully, I'll have more to say this time next week. Come back and find out.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019


Last night, I wrote in a journal for the first time in years.

This is where my writing began, when Mrs. Graziano in Freshman English at Nutley High School handed us little blue pads and made us write for ten minutes in the beginning of class every day, and hand them in for her to peruse. She used an egg timer, and I remember writing a silly poem called "The Magic Egg, it Ticks so Sweetly," to the beat of "My Guitar Gently Weeps" for one entry. I kept this habit in homeroom throughout school, using a Mead notebook to write cruel parodies about students and teachers I disliked, a stupid cartoon called "Dog Haters Column," which was a response to a book of evil dog cartoons called When Bad Dogs Happen to Good People, and my Douglas Adams ripoff teleplay, Your Tour Guide to the Universe (really? Yes, really).

My friends loved reading it, so I had the equivalent of instant online validation. I soon wrote a 400 page space fantasy disaster called The Immortalist, sort of Highlander meets Spellsinger meets uh, the Traveller RPG I think? It made no sense, it was wish-fulfillment with a Mary Sue protagonist, and I think I threw it out and I am glad if I did.

Until last night, I never wrote in a private journal.
To be fair, I had scribbled in a "writing notes" pad last week, and forgot to continue. So I stopped in a local stationery store and bought a new blue Clairefontaine pad—such silky paper, even my stolen Hilton hotel pen glided over it like a seabird skimming the waves—and debauched it last night before bedtime, with a class of High West distillery's Jimmy Red bourbon, made from a corn favored by moonshiners.

I highly recommend both.

But if you think I'm selling a load of hooey, ask Joyce Carol Oates. In her classes on fiction writing, she has her students write a journal. (You can take her Princeton course syllabus online at Master Class for ninety bucks, and I plan on it after I'm done editing Riff Raff). I thought it was a silly affectation that would cut into my word count, as if words were an unrenewable resource to be rationed. (Notably, I do not count tweets against this count...) And true, I didn't edit last night. I gave myself Labor Day off, but I worked Sunday, and finished off a pivotal chapter, so I deserved it.

And the journal writing paid off. I finished reading Maggie Nelson's poetic-philosophical memoir Bluets yesterday after the rain, sitting outside. I enjoyed reading it, she is a masterful writer and a fount of knowledge, and the book ties her obsession with the color blue to a devastating break-up with a "ghastly" cad, which I found difficult to relate to. I've been married eight years going on nine, to a soul mate with whom I've gallivanted all over New York and the world, and before that I was in a long relationship drought that I will eventually novelize into an incel story. So I couldn't remember heartbreak, only loneliness. That's a large part of her book as well, so I followed along.

And then when I sat down to write my thoughts on Bluets, I remembered a brief fling with a romantic psychopath who played paramours and friends against one another, and found other people's feelings to be "unfortunate," and their own to be real. It's a memory I buried deeply for a long time, chalking it up to experience: the heartbreak came at the right time, and helped me escape a rather toxic "lost boys" Peter Pan world in a strange section of animation fandom where the people I left still reside. I am very glad that MRA/incel culture did not exist on the level it does today. It was certainly there, I'd seen some of it, but the rabbit holes were tougher to fall into unawares, you had to make the jump yourself. This all helped develop an idea I'd been kicking around, a sort of In a Lonely Place for the incel generation, which will move to the top of my project list.

All from the freedom to write—with pen and paper—a single journal entry, as I listened to Lucinda Williams sing "Blue," while sipping whiskey and writing about Bluets.
Give it a try, even if you're skeptical. So much of our writing is policed, by ourselves and others, that the freedom to write something no one is meant to read may unleash ideas you never knew you had, let you plumb experiences long forgotten, and make writing a joy again, when it can feel like work.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Time, Perceptions, Stories

Over the weekend, for the second time in four weeks, I went to see Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  I liked the film on second viewing as much as I did on first viewing, and what particularly caught my attention this go-round is how masterful Tarantino is in manipulating time and audience perception for his own narrative uses.

Tarantino's films have always been obsessed with the form and structure, the plasticity if you will, of storytelling itself.  No need to rehash here the chronological corkscrews of Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill Volumes I and II or to go through the number of times in his movies characters tell other characters stories or a narrator suddenly breaks in on the movie to tell the audience a story within the film's main story.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, for the most part, is told in chronological order.  And most of its running time is actually a day in the life narrative following Brad Pitts' Cliff, Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick, and Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate as they go about their business in different parts of Los Angeles.  No one is better than Tarantino at taking time to let you get to know characters.  But he does it in a way that the rhythm of what is going on varies, helping to keep you engaged and off-balance.  The casual flashback/daydream Cliff has of his onset scuffle with Bruce Lee arrives out of nowhere, and despite all the uproar about it, remains, in fact, something that has an unreliabity about it.  It may have occurred exactly as Cliff recalls it, or it may not have.  We actually get a sweet glimpse of Bruce Lee later in the film, a glimpse that contradicts Cliff's recollection of Lee, when Lee is helping teach Sharon Tate martial arts for her role in The Wrecking Crew (Lee did, in reality, train Tate for that film). 

Did Cliff kill his wife? Again, Tarantino doesn't give you enough information to definitively decide what truly happened.  Kurt Russell's character, who can't stand Cliff, is the one who announces that Cliff killed his wife, but we get no other evidence the murder happened. Which doesn't mean it did not happen.  We understand from his alluded to war record and what we see Cliff do in the film that he has no great problem committing violence, but in the one brief look we get of Cliff with his wife, which occurs as a flashback or memory within a flashback or memory, no killing occurs.  Cliff's wife does seem like a harridan, but yet again it's hard to state that what we're seeing is objectively true of his wife or filtered through what Cliff thinks his wife was like.

Tarantino handles all these little time folds effortlessly. And then there's the Spahn Ranch scene, which most directors, in this day and age, would never let go on so long.  This scene is proof of how length, when done well, can be the essence of suspense (shades of the basement scene in Inglorious Basterds, which goes on and on and only makes the viewer more and more tense).  Not rushing, in an era of the supposed short attention span, is the key.  The Spahn Ranch scene is like a scary little horror film within the overall film, and then soon after that, tension released, we have Tarantino completely switching gears once again and that unexpected narrator he likes to use coming in to cover a year in Rick and Cliff's life in a few minutes of screen time.  All to set up what you might call the last act, which he also builds deliberately as the audience starts to squirm again.

It's all beautifully done, the mark of someone who plays with chronology, narrative time, and audience perception with ease.  Or, at least, Tarantino does it with an ease and a looseness in this film that even he has not had before.  He's always been a storyteller who breaks whatever so-called storytelling rules he wants when he wants, and he's never done what he damn well wants to do better than he does in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Rob Pierce introduces us to TOMMY SHAKES


by Rob Pierce 
Cover art by J.T. Lindroos

Tommy, a former addict now hitting the bottle, is a career criminal, though not very good at his job. He continues to make missteps while trying to save his marriage and broken relationship with his teenage son by taking one more big job. He thinks it’s about the money, but Tommy’s troubles go far deeper. Written by Rob Pierce and available from All Due Respect mid-September.

Rob Pierce is one of my favorite writers. Besides publishing a collection of short crime stories, a novella, and two novels—UNCLE DUST and WITH THE RIGHT ENEMIES—his work has also appeared in numerous anthologies and his otherworldly editing skills are in high demand.

Well-known and respected for his intelligent, edgy crime thrillers he lines his writing with criminals and thugs. Average Joes and calloused accomplices. Mr. Pierce creates vivid and realistic communities and settings for his stories to take place and seemingly drags the bottom of the barrel for his villains.

“(Uncle)Dust was essentially the uglier side of me, the side that I pretty much always manage to restrain.” – Rob Pierce author of TOMMY SHAKES, UNCLE DUST and WITH THE RIGHT ENEMIES.

Yet, it is his protagonists that grab a reader and refuse to let go. They are tightly written to the smallest detail and familiar enough to make the reader pause. Uncle Dust. Vern. And now Tommy Shakes.

Rob Pierce took time out of his crazy schedule to chat about his new book, short stories and the healing balm of writing.


You've authored books, penned short stories and edited several anthologies. That's a lot of time you've spent on crime fiction. Of those creative experiences, which stands out the most in your memory?

Writing is best. Novels, short stories, either way, the thing being that a novel is more writing and feels like more of an accomplishment when completed. But my favorite of my short stories, “Thanksgiving, 1963,” about a Texas gun dealer and his family at the time of the JFK assassination, was a hell of a thing to research because a college football game was involved and there’s very little info out there about a college game played over 50 years ago. Plus, it’s about the economics of violence and feels more relevant now than when I wrote it.

Editing is great once you get past the slush pile and fine-tune good work, although the slush pile taught me a lot of things not to do.

Of your own books, which do you enjoy reading the most and which did you enjoy writing the most?

Like, which is my favorite child? Thanks, Marietta.

I thought With the Right Enemies was probably the most difficult to read due to all the innocent victims, but I found it enjoyable once I finished suffering my way through it. Enjoy writing it? I want the reader to feel the characters’ pain and the only way to do that is for me to feel it while writing it. My writing’s a therapeutic addiction—I need the process and I love making a scene work, although whether something works is an opinion that can change frequently. I do throw a pretty good amount of humor into my writing so I think that’s enjoyable.

How would you describe Tommy Shakes and the worrisome situation he has backed himself into?

Tommy is a career criminal who isn’t as good at his work as he thinks he is. He used to be a junkie and now he’s an alcoholic and his marriage is in trouble, due to his job and his drinking. He figures he can patch things up by pulling a big heist but the robbery turns into a shootout and one of the victims his crew is robbing works for a local gang boss. If the boss finds out who killed his lieutenant, murder one will be the least of Tommy’s problems. Three guesses whether he finds out.

Do you see similarities between yourself and Tommy or any previous characters?

The protagonists, always. After Mike Monson accepted Uncle Dust for All Due Respect, he asked how I wrote that character. I just wrote. Dust was essentially the uglier side of me, the side that I pretty much always manage to restrain. But once you know the possibility’s in you, writing that is easy. Vern of Vern in the Heat was a similar character to Dust, so same thing. Vollmer in With the Right Enemies, though—putting myself in that character’s place was real work because he was so severely lacking in positive characteristics. I’d given him the background to explain it but that one was still a performance piece.

As to Tommy—I wrote about his failing marriage while trying to salvage my own, and the last few chapters were written slowly because I knew at that point that my wife was moving out. And I share Tommy’s biggest problems: I immerse myself in my work and I enjoy drinking. And my work (the writing, anyway, not that damned job that pays the bills) is pretty much always noir or hardboiled, so hardly rife with happy endings. My life isn’t awful right now, quite the opposite, but awful helped me write that book. Not to make light of the demise of my marriage. I’m not laughing at the funeral, but now that the bastard’s dead, let’s enjoy the wake.

As always, perfectly said.

For more wicked words please visit Rob:

Sunday, September 1, 2019

What's in a Name?

When I do a book event, one of the most frequent questions I get is how I come up with character names. It’s a good question and one I love to answer, because I love collecting names.
One of the best ways is to read the obituaries. Not only do they have a fantastic variety of names, they often give you the background behind it. You can find out that the person was a Croatian immigrant, or of Chinese ancestry, or hailed from a huge family in Indiana. All of these bits of information can more fully develop a character as you write.
Another great way to collect names is to watch the credits of a movie or TV show. Because—just, wow. The credits on something like an animated movie or CG-heavy blockbuster go on for ten minutes and are absolutely diverse. Watch one at home, where you can hit pause and write down whatever names strike your fancy.
If you need more of a mainstream name or you want to peg your time period just right, there’s no better source than the Social Security Baby Names website. You can find the top baby names by year. So if you’re writing a historical piece, you can find the top names from, say, 1890. (Number 10 was Bertha—see how awesome a tool this is?) You can also sort by name popularity, seeing how one name fluctuates over time. (Bertha, you will not be surprised to hear, declines steadily and disappears from the top 1,000 names altogether in 1985.) Be warned—this website is a rabbit hole of extreme dimensions. You could get sucked in for hours.
My last go-to name source is actually meant to be a name source: baby name books. I have one that sits right next to my thesaurus on my desk; it’s that important. I flip through it all the time.
If you write, where do you find names? And if you don’t write, do you read obituaries or notice movie credits?