Thursday, January 31, 2019

Writing Is Subjective

By David Nemeth

Back in August 2018, Brian Lindenmuth posted a thread on Twitter about Allan Guthrie and his books which Lindenmuth followed up with a post at Toe Six Press, "I come to praise Allan Guthrie, not bury him". The praise was high and the books were cheap. I bring this up now because Sandra Seamans at her excellent blog My Little Corner wrote a short piece on Guthrie and his rules for writing.

I know, writing rules.

Every writer has their own rules though most of them are unspoken.

There are many rules for writing out there, rules by Elmore Leonard, Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller register. A brief Bing search shows that there are more, a lot more: rules by Zadie Smith, Erica Jong, Janet Fitch, etc. There are even infamous rules.

Now Guthrie's rules.

In 2010, Guthrie wrote "Hunting Down The Pleonasms". Or is it called  "32 Writing Rules"? It's not clear. Ambiguity in writing rules is one of the themes that many have, so the uncertainty of Guthrie's title pleases me.

Guthrie opens with:
I can’t stress strongly enough that writing is subjective. We all strive for different goals. Consequently, we all need our own set of rules—and some of us don’t need rules at all! Personally, I like rules. If nothing else, it’s fun breaking them.
I say no rules is a rule in itself, but let's not go down that rabbit hole.

Guthrie covers the usual writing rules and does so with drollery. On show don't tell, Guthrie writes, "Much vaunted advice, yet rarely heeded." He goes on:
If you want to engage your readers, don’t explain everything to them. Show them what’s happening and allow their intelligence to do the rest. And there’s a bonus to this approach. Because movies, of necessity, show rather than tell, this approach to your writing will help when it’s time to begin work on the screenplay adaptation of your novel!
Some rules delve into Guthrie's own writing style, after all these are his rules, "Vary your sentence lengths. I tend to write short, and it’s amazing what a difference combing a couple of sentences can make." Other rules are a punch in the face, "Smiling sadly is a capital offence." There is a pronoun lesson––rule number 30––and it begins, "Pronouns are big trouble for such little words."

We read writing rules because we need writing rules. We pick the ones that resonate as we form our own set of rules, rules that help us put pen to blank page. Joe Lansdale's quote, "I write like everyone I know is dead" is taped to the wall beside one writer friend's desk. Me, I try to remove every just or very in my prose. Whether our rules have physical manifestations or swim about in our cerebral cortex, they are there.

Read Guthrie's rules and steal what you like. I'm sure he won't mind.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Class and Crime and Comps

I recently finished reading An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, one of the best crime novels of the year that will never be called a crime novel. I'm not one of those genre cheerleaders who demands that bookstores shelve Of Mice and Men and MacBeth in the Mystery & Crime section, but I do think that marketing constructs keep us away from as many books we might love as they do lead us to same.

This is a perfect example. The best-selling novel by Tayari Jones is, of course, about a marriage. But it is also about a black man wrongly accused of a crime, and Jones handles that as well as any crime writer I've read. She does so by omission. We don't get the procedural. We see everything from the point of view of Roy, the arrested, and his family and friends. The book is equally about Celestial, the artist-entrepreneur who marries Roy and gives us the marriage of the title. They meet in New York where he's a well-dressed marketer on the come-up and she is waiting tables to help pay for her graduate degree, their roles switched for a time. Celestial comes from a well-off family, her father is a chemist and her mother an educator; Roy is from country, Louisiana, from a working class family who that had "everything we needed and nothing more." "And nothing less," his mother would say. One of the great lines from the book, and there are many--Jones writes with a noir sensibility, the ability to conjure up a character in a line or two--is this description from Roy:

"If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread."

The book is about class as much as it is about race. There are no white characters in the novel so far who are named, and I don't expect any. This is an Atlanta marriage with a crime in rural Louisiana, they both went to HBCUs. The book is gripping for many reasons, but what stuck out to me was how deftly Jones depicts the differences in class between Celestial's family and Roy's. He has a chip on his shoulder, something to prove. When Roy left his small town for college, he shouldered the guilt of leaving his family, and you can project that anger at yourself on others. The hospitality of others can feel patronizing, when it is not intended. There is racial code-switching, and there is class code-switching (and both). Another character is from a family where the parents split up when he was young, and Jones captures in a single word the feeling one gets when you leave the single parent who raised you to spend Christmas with the more affluent side: disloyal.

The second act of the book contains some great prison writing, some epistolary. And I usually hate back and forth letters. Jones does it well, there's little fooling around to get exposition. Some of the exchanges seem unlikely to go uncensored, but it moves time along rapidly, which helps the story. She knows the right details. Nothing is said of pruno, and the potluck casseroles that everyone brings something for, ramen noodles, Doritos, and the treasure of a real onion, turn minor discrepancies into verisimilitudes.

This isn't to say that crime fiction doesn't talk about class. Blood Always Tells by Hilary Davidson handled it well, with working class protagonists learning just how little value their lives have in the world of the one percent. That book is a favorite of mine and there's a fear that working class up and comers feel right in the title: that if you came from digging ditches, it will come out. Your blood will tell. There's some of that in An American Marriage, as well. Writers like Larry Brown and others write about working class people, but the generic default for a lot of big-5 crime fiction is middle class, where they aren't afraid of the police, they are afraid of poor people coming for their stuff, where someone who's done drugs is the first suspect, and the "return to order" is the goal, and not "feed the kid and put a few bucks towards the rent." Megan Abbott is great at writing about the working-class protagonist who breaks into the academic or middle-class world and feels like she will be exposed at any moment. The best for this was Give Me Your Hand, but there's a touch in You Will Know Me as well.

Why don't we see more books like this? Well, one reason is how white and upper class publishing is, because when it was legal to not pay interns (thankfully, no more) most of the ones who could afford to intern for free were students whose parents could pay their NYC rents. Another reason is comps, which Laura B. McGrath was so kind to explain in her LA Review of Books article, "Comping White."

tl;dr? If you can't say a book is "like this bestseller" it probably won't be published because "we dunno how to market it!" The article is very much worth reading to see what comps are and how a book gets on the list. But the gist is, without effort by editors and others in publishing, you get the same kind of books. Like Hollywood: Reboot. Remake. The Girl with the Woman in the Window on the Train. Law & Order fan fiction where DNA and forensic "science" are 100% infallible and no one withholds evidence so they can run for office next year with a pristine conviction rate. Where the person who doesn't "belong", after two red herrings, will be the one who did it, because people who went to bed hungry once will kill to have your Rachael Ray-approved lifestyle, so build that wall--around your housing development, at least.

I don't want to spoil the end of An American Marriage, but it is worth your time. The characters are neither good nor bad, not always right or wrong. But they think they are. And they want what they want, and justify their decisions. There are two choices made in the end, one by Roy and one by Celestial, where they won't give the other what they want, which is an excuse to see them as the "terrible person." It's a choice that might have gone different in a genre novel, to reassure our sense of fatalism. My one disappointment with the book was that it reinforces the belief that you should stay with your own; striving is punished in noir, you should keep your place. I don't find that as radical as I do conservative, and while social mobility, especially in relationships, is statistically less successful in the U.S.A. despite our mythology that isn't, I wanted to believe. I'm in such a marriage myself, and I recognized the points of contention.

So, what's with the tweet I quoted at the top? It comes from a thread about how it feels to be from the working-class family when you're at most literary or academic events, when you're not questioning our "authenticity" because we don't fit your stereotypes. You are very entertaining, though. Thanks for that.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

A First on True Detective

I'm neither a True Detective lover or hater.  Despite its controversies, I liked the first season overall, and though it had its good moments and contained an excellent performance by Rachel McAdams, I found the second season underwhelming.  Nic Pizzolatto's show does remain one that is easy to ridicule, but I think in large part that's because it is so relentlessly somber.  Whether a season or an episode or an individual scene is strong or weak, effective or meandering, its tone in this show - you can count on it - is some variation on solemn.  This doesn't make True Detective any more serious as a piece of art than, say, a work consistently funny, or a work that punctuates its bleakness with moments of levity, but Nic Pizzolatto doesn't seem to have understood this yet. Or perhaps he's just temperamentally incapable of lightening up.  This incessant self-seriousness was one of the things I found most irritating about season 2 in particular.  The show had that tone in season one as well, but the overall creepiness and the better plotting than in season 2 and the acting by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConnaughey made up in large part for this Pizzolatto weakness. 

In season 3, which got off to a solid start with its first two episodes, directed by Jeremy Saulnier, before slowing down to something of a crawl in episodes 3 and 4, we've gotten more of the same tone.  But I must say that there are occasional signs that Pizzolato is, so to speak, expanding his palette just a little bit. I wouldn't call it banter exactly - the exchanges are dry - but some of the verbal interplay between Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff has an undercurrent of humor.  Again, this seems due more to the strength of the actors than what's in the actual script, but that's okay. I'll take it.  And there was in episode 2 a truly unexpected scene that made me laugh out loud. It's the first time, the only time, through 20 episodes of True Detective, that I've laughed like that.

It occurs when Ali's character as an old man is talking to the young, white TV woman interviewing him for her true crime show about the case at issue, a case that has been haunting Ali's character for decades.  

At one point she asks him, "With what happened in 1990 and you leaving the force, did you ever feel your leads and theories were discounted because of your race?"

"No," he says. "Not particularly.  Why?"
A self-satisfied expression comes over her and she says, "Well, I'm interested in the intersectionality of marginalized groups within authoritarian and systemic racist structures."

She looks at him with a kind of bright hopeful look, as if he, and his grown son standing next to him, will approve, but Ali's character only looks a bit disgusted and slowly turns his head towards his son, with whom, in effect, he shares an eye roll.

It's an unexpected moment and seems real, the awkwardness exchanged between the white reporter with all her good intentions and pre-conceived notions conveyed through academic jargon and the black police detective who has no time for topical theory but a large amount of real-life experience.  It also captures well a certain type of irritation a person of color can have with a well-meaning white person.

As I say, I found this scene, which came out of nowhere, quite amusing, and also real.  Nic Pizzolatto breaking out with something funny (and insightful)!  I didn't know he had it in him.  The scenes don't have to have anything to do with race or even social issues, but True Detective needs more true to life little moments like this, those moments when in the midst of the brooding and difficulty, the ridiculous or the incongruous pops up and makes you actually smile. It would help the show.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Be The Community You Want and Need

(All tweets displayed have corresponding links and only those with ability to share/retweet have been used, since those are public.)

It was easy to convince myself that once I got published I would belong.

I would be an author.

It would mark the accomplishment of a lifelong dream and I'd have a place at the table. Other people who shared a passion for writing would recognize me as one of their own and I would be surrounded by others who understood the ins and outs of writing. I'd be able to give and receive support along the way.

The grass would be greener. Everything is always better once you get through the gate, right?

In some respects, the significance of the writing community at the time I was coming up set me up for greater disappointments than one might have thought possible. The blog community of 14 years ago was very different than the blog community of today. It was a common habit to put up a blog post and make the rounds, interacting on potentially dozens of blogs throughout the day or week. We didn't have Twitter - this was back in the days of MySpace and that space was quickly fading. Our engagement happened directly at the source. Post writers responded, and there was a lot of back and forth with both published and aspiring writers. Just look at Anne Frasier's post with 52 comments. She replied to those who commented. People were accessible in a way that made us newcomers feel accepted.

14 years ago I could email Laura Lippman and Stuart MacBride and Mark Billingham and Simon Kernick and a whole list of others and schedule interviews.

Today, I can't even email some alumni of this blog and get an interview with those people.

Due to the fact that people communicated with each other years back we had a sense of knowing each other. We also had a sense of friendship that was different. Many discussions that started on blogs spilled over to emails and when you went to a convention you had a long list of people you were looking forward to chatting with. It didn't seem awkward because you felt like you already knew them.

However, things changed. Perhaps it was always an illusion and this imperfect but generally positive community was never real. Maybe those of us being published got schooled in the business and found ourselves placed in boxes that put barriers between us and others who were viewed as less than, because we found there were expectations that accompanied being published that we never anticipated. Was that why connections we once formed by choice were sometimes replaced by ones that were promoted (by publishers, agents or our own business decisions for how to elevate our careers) while the original bonds faded?

I have looked back on those early blogging days with a lot of nostalgia. I miss the interaction we used to enjoy.

I miss the illusion of friendship.

Twelve years ago when my first book was coming out I discovered not all writers are equal. I don't mean because some are bestsellers and others aren't. I mean that some are accepted and others aren't. To most readers an author is an author. All that mattered to me when I went into a bookstore or library was that I found something with an interesting story that I wanted to read.

It never mattered to me whether they were with a big 5 publisher. I didn't even know what that meant. I didn't care if they were with a small press. I didn't know. I never looked at the publisher name.

People were accepted as part of the community. It wasn't perfect, but it enabled a level of interaction that only extreme controversies on twitter come close to matching. Look back at that post from Anne. You were part of the discussion, not just another person reacting to something.

Recently, a friend from back in those days made something of a return to social media. It wasn't that they'd completely disappeared, but they had gone off some platforms and been quiet on others.

They returned with fire and brimstone and posts that shocked.

My read between the lines was that things weren't good with this person. I'd had that sense for a while before their crash return. I was worried. I'd told them that.

Nothing I saw in their behavior fit with the person I'd interacted with online for over a decade.

My mom is bipolar. She wasn't diagnosed until I was 17, so I am familiar with cycling. My ex-husband's brother committed suicide in a horrific fashion. My grandfather died in a mental institution.

And a few true losers right now are probably thinking that they knew I was crazy, that because my life had touched mental illness I must be nuts. It's catching, right?

You want to know something that bugs the piss out of me? Not that we treat self-published authors like they're less (although, seriously, some of them are much better than). Not that people pretend to care about others just to get something (as true in publishing as any industry, because there are users everywhere). Nope.

What bugs the piss out of me is that people pretend to give a shit about mental health and pass on the mental health awareness notices and appropriate ribbons and talk the good talk because it's politically correct, and yet when a person who is connected to our own community is clearly in distress, they unfriend and/or block them.

Many after taking a sledgehammer to them.

Now, I get that ego comes in and people take things personally. I've had times people have said things about me that have stung. I understand fully the inclination to respond in kind. I've defended others and myself when I thought it was warranted.

Sometimes perhaps too zealously.

However, there is a notable difference between someone saying something insane because they are not in their right mind and someone saying something cruel just because they're an asshole.

It's one thing to take offense and say so. It's one thing to say that you disagree, or that you don't find their comments valid/fair/appropriate. It's one thing to tell the person that they seem to be working out some issue that they're taking out on the wrong people and ask them to stop.

It's another to rain down judgment and start calling a person names or to say that they're a bad person.

I'd like to think that the average person I know has the maturity to be able to assess when someone is hurting or not well and separate their behavior and know that it isn't coming from a place of health.

I'd like to think that the average person I know has the ability to feel compassion for someone who is in a bad state.

I'd like to think that the average person I know would calm down after the fact, even if they reacted in the moment harshly, and see the situation for what it is.

Instead, I saw people who weren't even part of the community 14 years ago checking in on the person in distress to ask if they were okay, while others who were part of the community tossed flammables back and lit a match.

Perhaps no group of us ever truly has been a community.

There is more evidence of fracturing because there seems to be less community discourse. Remember the good ol' days of discussing things at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind or Miss Snark's blog? (500 plus comments on her farewell speaks to the level of engagement there.)  Remember the powerhouse group blogs, like Murderati?

Now, we seldom even have much engagement here on the blog in the comments thread. People have their discussions on Facebook and Twitter. Facebook, for me, is friends and family. I've been weeding out the people who do not engage with me personally.

Twitter is the wild west and as impersonal as it gets. And it seems to be where most of the personal attacks occur these days. People feel no sense of community to require them to respond to comments the way they once did on blogs. You mainly see the same people engage with the same people, who coincidentally are the same people who blurb each other and promote each other.

Part of the reason there seems to be less of a functioning community is the lack of open discourse. People have their cliques.

Also, a long history of alienation of certain people has led to support groups for diverse writers and others. This is, overall, a very good thing. It's tragic that it's necessary, but the writing world has not done a good job of welcoming writers with different skin colors, genders, sexual orientations.

Seriously, RWA published some bullshit about how it was unrealistic to have happy queer characters in historical fiction because other writers were criticized over the need to write about potatoes during that time period correctly? Do I understand this right?

The crime fiction community isn't the only one that has problems, but we do have problems, and that has become increasingly apparent. Now, I have a spouse who is, in some ways, more in touch with what's going on online in the crime fiction world than I am these days. And my spouse often alerts me to train wrecks on twitter and social media firestorms that are brewing. A certain A list author's lack of interest in female writers would have gone right past me were it not for my husband.

He is inclined to the view that his opinion on some of these touchy subjects is meaningless, that because he isn't an author what he has to say doesn't matter.

And I have been inclined, on occasion, to tell him I think he's using that as an excuse to avoid taking a stand.

The thing is, those of us who are at all a part of the community can't continue to ignore issues. Our indifference is a big part of the problem. Racism persists and even thrives because there are a lot of people who just don't want to upset the status quo, who say things are better than they used to be, like that's supposed to make it good enough.

Hell, how many people reading this have talked about going to a convention and finding their tribe? Have we stopped to consider how Indigenous people in Canada and the U.S. feel about that? I asked someone directly. They certainly weren't impressed. Honestly, I probably used the same type of language 13 years ago when I went to B'con for the first time, and I am ashamed of how insensitive I was.

How do we, as writers, excuse ourselves for not considering the weight of our words?

And yet so often we don't. We throw around remarks on social media, forgetting people take screenshots of everything when crap hits the fan. We hurl insults and judgments without thinking about the silent observers.

I completely understand that the lack of acceptance by white writers has caused writers of color to band together for support. I understand the reasons why Sisters in Crime is important for female authors.

Our response to this progression in the genre cannot be more fracturing. It can't be to form a club for white writers. Our response to this progression is to recognize it for what it is - progress - and to be an ally to those who have been overlooked and excluded. It is time to welcome our brothers and sisters, no matter what color their skin is, what gender they identify as or who they like to sleep with. It is time to celebrate diverse voices.

And yes, that even means there may be a few people who have some mental health issues. Good news. It isn't catching.

Be warned. People are always watching, whether you realize it or not. You may get away with pulling a certain amount of crap once, but you won't get away with it forever.

Everybody gets an off day.

Everybody gets a chance to apologize and mend fences.

If you don't? It must may be that you're the asshole.

However, your choice to be racist or sexist or intolerant may have consequences, and you may not get a second chance to make a better impression.

Therefore, is it too much to ask for people to be welcoming and supportive? If you won't do it out of the goodness of your heart could you try just because it will make agents and publishers more likely to want to work with you?

Is it too much to ask for you to realize that ganging up on a person going through a mental health crisis doesn't make you look tough? It makes you look like a completely intolerant, insensitive bully, even if they're the one who called you names first. You don't pick on people with disabilities or mental health issues. Only true losers do that.


To some degree, we have to work to make the kind of community we want to be part of. I am honestly struggling with how to do this, because the people who are at the top enjoy the status quo and many others have their cliques for support and endorsements and have no interest in wholesale change, particularly if they feel it may reduce their chances for publication.

I'm also struggling with how to address unacceptable behaviors. I do not always agree with everyone here about everything, and that's fine. I live in a world that's big enough to embrace some different perspectives.

However, when people step over that line and hurl personal insults at a person publicly?When other people stand by and think it's entertaining to watch a person go through a meltdown or be attacked? It's never entertaining. It's tragic.

I've learned when my husband tells me that someone is an asshole, believe it. He doesn't make that judgment lightly. He won't put it on Facebook or Twitter, but when he sees enough to render that kind of verdict? He warns me to stay far away. And he's helped me admit the truth to myself. I do not like the direction some people are pulling the crime fiction community in, because they seem intent on hostility, they seem to look for reasons to judge and provoke and they play favorites with the worst of them.

I'm not giving up on my friend who's been having issues. Even if texts and emails go unanswered. This person was once a part of a thriving community, and they need our help. I guess it boils down to this - is this just a business for you, where you form relationships you think you can get some benefit from and discard people who can't help you anymore? Or have you realized that being a human being and a decent person is about caring for others, even when they can't help your career?

I know if I needed help today I could call Danny Gardner or Mindy Tarquini or Anne Frasier ... There are a few others. And there are a lot of people I thought were friends who would fall silent in my hour of need. I watched some of them fall silent with our friend recently.

It really hurt how little some people cared and it made me wonder what I was doing as part of this 'group' that purports to be so supportive and turns their back on people in their hour of deepest need.

Very few of us will ever earn the kind of royalties that are enough to cover the price of our soul. If you're willing to sell out for a pittance what does that say about you? Will you be the kind of friend you'd want to have? Will you drop an encouraging message to a friend you haven't chatted with in ages or send them a gif to brighten their day? Or will you write them off?

Finally, ask yourself this. If you face a personal crisis and are in need of help, what kind of people do you want to be surrounded by?

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Check Your Local Listings

Me getting interviewed for People Magazine Investigates.
Before I started writing novels, I wrote true crime. I spent many years writing about crime as a newspaper reporter, and my first book was about a multiple murder case that I covered in Northern California.
First published in 2008. I've recently put a new cover on it. You can find it here.
That set of crimes happened almost two decades ago, but every now and then I’ll be contacted by a true crime TV show and asked to do an interview about it. The latest of these is People Magazine Investigates, and it premieres tomorrow, Jan. 28, on ID (the Investigation Discovery Network).
Most of the time, a producer will send me a list of topics beforehand. This lets me refresh my memory on any specific information they’ll want to talk about on camera. 
Getting ready for a shoot several years ago.
Now don’t get me wrong—the facts of this case are permanently etched into my brain. But it’s nice to be able to remind myself of an exact date or the name of the business that sold that pair of handcuffs.
The setting for this interview was a little bit different than usual. Typically, the production crew rents a conference room in a hotel, and I just show up there for the interview. People Magazine, however, had rented an Airbnb. It made sense—one smaller bill for interview space and sleeping rooms, instead of a bigger bill for five separate hotel rooms and a conference space. But it was definitely a little strange to be sitting in someone’s living room full of family photos instead of in a sterile hotel.
Note the sterile hotel background of previous shoots.
Even after doing several of these shows, it's still jarring for me. I was always the one asking the questions as a reporter. I don't think I'll ever get used to being on the other side of an interview.
The episode title is “Children of Thunder,” which was the name bestowed by killer Taylor Helzer on his little group of followers. He was a Bay Area man who said he wanted to usher in Christ’s Second Coming with peace and love. In order to do that, however, he said he needed money. So he kidnapped a retired couple named Annette and Ivan Stineman, forced them to empty their retirement accounts, and killed them to cover his tracks. Then he killed a young woman, Selina Bishop, who he’d been dating only so he could use her to launder the couple’s money. Then he killed the young woman’s mother, Jenny Villarin, and her friend Jim Gamble, who just happened to be with her at the time.
Five people murdered. Dozens more victimized and forever changed by Helzer’s crimes. I was lucky to get to know many of them and privileged to get to tell the story of their loved ones. If you’d like to know more, tune in to People Magazine Investigates, or for the entire story, you can read The False Prophet. And if you have questions, let me know. I'll answer any that I can.