Saturday, February 23, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 8

by
Scott D. Parker

Are you prepared to talk about writing?

JURY DUTY


I had jury duty this week, and a couple of things struck me. One is that you probably already rolled your eyes. “Jury duty. Ugh.” Believe me, I understand. We all understand. It’s one of those things that we have to endure, right?

But have you ever thought about the alternative? What if we didn’t have to go to jury duty because we didn’t have trial by jury? Not sure I’d want to live in a society like that, would you? So I’ll take the occasional jury duty as the easy payment for the freedoms we have in this country.

Besides, it really isn’t bad as long as you brought a good dose of patience with you to the court house. Oh, and a book. I brought my Chromebook and knocked out a few hundred words on the latest story before we all got called into the courtroom.

Now, as a writer, I’m all for new experiences. When we got into the courtroom—all eighty of us or so—we saw the defendants. Seven of them by my count. Two panels were seated. Yeah, I was selected. Sixteen out of eighteen in panel 1. My group consisted of 8 men and 10 women, all a nice cross-section of citizens in my precinct in Houston, the largest in the state. One by one, the defendants were called to the back room, their cases settled. As the judge told us, often when a person asking for a jury trial actually sees us ready to render judgement, it becomes very real and they settle.

The potential jurors who didn’t get selected were excused. Then panel 2. Lastly we eighteen in panel 1 were released. It was a painless experience. Heck, I even stayed late to chat with the bailiff, the judge, and the clerk. It was very nice.

You know what else was nice? Talking about my writing.

Okay, so I’m a nerd and I pulled out a steno pad and started making observations. When the judge started telling us facts about our precinct, I jotted those notes down as well. As you can imagine, my actions were noticed. The nice lady sitting next to me and I started talking. Turns out she’s a medical professional. She mentioned she enjoys spy novels and name-dropped Daniel Silva and Vince Flynn among others. Right as she was leaving, she asked for my name and a recommendation of one of my books. To date, my favorite book remains ULTERIOR OBJECTIVES. When I mentioned it was a World War II thriller, she got excited. Based on my Amazon sales report, a copy of that book was sold on 20 February, jury duty day.

Can I be sure it was she who purchased the book? No, but there is strong circumstantial evidence. I didn’t catch her name, but I thank her, no matter if she bought the book or not.

But you know what made the entire event not 100% professional? I didn’t have any business cards on me. I had to write my name on a piece of paper.

Sigh. I now have extra cards in my wallet.

If you are a pro writer, always carry business cards.

DEVOTIONALS CAN BE DIFFICULT


Chalk writing a Lenten devotional as something more difficult that you'd imagine.

I was assigned a passage from Mark by one of the pastors at my church. By way of guidelines, she told us contributors to aim for a word count from 250 to 350.

Listen: I can bust out a consistent 1200-1300 words per hour when I'm firing on all cylinders writing a novel. Initially, I thought it would be easy to get up to 350 words.

Wrong.

Five drafts later, I managed 366. Hopefully they'll make the cut--or my pastor will edit it down or ask for a re-write--but those were some difficult words. Go figure.


QUOTE OF THE WEEK


The more I write and the more I study the habits of writers, the more I realize writing is really a blue-collar job. Sure, we're not digging ditches or laying brick, but the process of writing has little magic to it. Other than the imagination, you sit in a chair or stand at a counter and pound your fingers on a keyboard. There really is no other alternative to getting a story out of your head and onto paper or a screen.

Which brings me to the words of Daniel Roebuck. He was the guest interview subject on The Ralph Report by Ralph Garman. On Monday, when the first part of the interview dropped, I was like "Who's this Roebuck guy?" Only when I pulled up his photo on Google did I realize "Oh, he's that guy. Wow. He's been in a lot of things." Yeah. Thirty-five years worth of consistent acting jobs. Quite the successful tenure. And he's got a great quote on his Twitter page.

How, might you ask, did a boy from Pennsylvania who drove out to Los Angeles with no connections become have the career he's had? By a simple realization.

"I knew I'd be a supporting guy. I'll be the James Whitmore or the William Windom and I set my sights on just being someone who worked. And so I'm completely satisfied." "I never had a false sense of my destiny. My destiny was never standing on stage giving a speech, getting an award. My destiny was being turned into a [movie] monster. That, in itself, makes me happy." "I never take a moment of it [acting work] for granted. I still audition…I go in there and try to win. Every day I wake up, bring it on, man. Give it to me. Give me a chance to do what I do."

When I heard those words, I knew I’d found a guy with a philosophy I could understand and admire. Because I try to be the writer version of Roebuck every day. I sit at my Chromebook twice a day (4:45am and 12:00pm) and write new words. I craft stories as best as I can. The yarns entertain me. I hope they entertain others. For me, the large majority of the joy I get from writing is that part, the part I can control. Control the Controlables. In the professional writing world, there are few things better than those hours spent writing.

BTW, if you read yesterday’s column by founding member Jay Stringer, you’ll remember he said much the same thing.

How about y'all? How'd your week go?

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Sunscreen.

By Jay Stringer
Remember me? Legend has is that DoSomeDamage was started ten years ago, on a bet between Steve Weddle and I, to see which of us could go grey the fastest. Well, jokes on you, Steve, because I'm going bald. Ha. I win.

(Wait.....)

(Maybe I approached this all wrong.)

But seriously. Ten years. That's a long time. And I've learned a lot in those years. (Like, never kill the President of Paraguay with a fork.) Many of my earliest posts on the site were about craft. I look back on them now, and wonder how I really felt I'd earned any of my early opinions. How did the younger me get to go around telling people that writer's block was myth? How could I start talking about structure, and character, and plot, when I'd written the sum total of one book? And that one was written by accident.

(Seriously, it was a short story that ran long.)

In the intervening years, I've learned to mostly avoid giving out writing advice. The most important, and consistent, help I can ever give, is to tell you not to take writing advice from the type of people who offer you writing advice. And that includes people who would use the word 'advice' four times in one paragraph. There's a dangerous power in giving advice (five). Somebody new to the scene might not have had the time, or resources, to scout out ahead and see who is worth listening to. If you pass on an un-earned opinion as a truth, even if it's well-meant, you might be damaging the prospects of the person you give it to.

I do have knowledge on craft. Believe me. I study it. I work on it. I'll sit and discuss it for hours with people whose opinions I trust. I'm pretty good at my job. Never good enough, but always improving. And to that end, if people really want them, I have my own rules of writing. They work for me, I guarantee nothing for anybody else.

There's a tendency, to my mind, of focusing way too much on discussing how to write and not enough on how to be writer. That is, on how to carry ourselves. How to make decisions. Who to listen to. When I start a job at a new company, sure, there's going to be someone who'll show me how to do the job. But once they've done their bit, I'm going to get on with figuring out my own way of doing it, through trial and error. What I'm really looking for is someone to come and tell me how to work in that place. Who can I go to for help? Who is a grumpy piece of shite? Is there a knack to the bathroom door? Are there any unwritten rules about the communal fridge? How long do I need to leave it before nobody gives a shit about whether I'm sticking to the dress code? What's the best time of the year to start putting in holiday requests?

So I've been thinking about this. If I were to sit down with the younger me, the version that was fresh in the door ten years ago, what would I tell him?

1. Know What You Want. Pick Your path. Commit To It.

There are many different career paths you can take as a writer. They're all valid, as long as you choose the one that's right for you. Don't head out to a sushi restaurant and get angry that steak isn't on the menu. A large advance is great for some people, but can be a trap for others. Small advances may not set the literary world alight, but can help you build a career and make a few mistakes along the way.

Do you want to write purely for yourself, or do you want to entertain a crowd? Do you want to write niche noir stories that you know have a small audience, or do you want to try and be the next Lee Child? Are you interested in finding an agent, and playing the game, or do you want to self-publish and do everything your own way? Are you interested in awards? Do sales figures matter to you? Is this something you want to make a living out of doing?

There are honestly no right or wrong answers in any of that. But be aware of the decision, take the time to think about it, and save yourself from walking down one path and wishing you were on the other. This is honestly the root cause of so many issues I've encountered from friends and colleagues over the years. Anger that their uncommercial book wasn't being picked up straight away. Frustration that their publisher was struggling to sell a work about six medieval goblins who pull off a bank heist.  Feeling slighted that their high-selling commercial procedural novel got overlooked for awards.

And if you do find yourself in that position, it's probably not too late to change, but again be aware of what's causing your frustration. Re-think, make the necessary changes, and go for it.

2. Be In The Moment.

Be in the moment? What kind of hippie bullshit is this? What's next, the joke about the Buddhist who asks the hot dog vendor to make him 'one with everything?' The one where he hands over a twenty and waits for money back, but the vendor says 'change comes only from within?' 

The truth is, there is very little we can control. Even once you've made the decision I mentioned above, and you've stepped boldly onto the correct path, there are precisely zero guarantees that you'll get success. And the worst part about that? It's nobody's fault. Publishers can do their best, agents can work their asses of, marketing people can market their hearts out....and sometimes people just don't want to buy the book. Or they buy it, but the wind is wrong and they don't engage with your words. You can work away on a project for ten years until it's the best book anyone's ever written, but if the right agent don't read it on the right day, it might not get you picked up. And none of that is the fault of the agents who passed. They're human, just as you are, and we all need a million things to go the right way just for us to wake up each morning and keep on breathing.

And faced with all of this, how the hell can we work in this industry without going insane, or growing bitter and jaded?

Be in the moment. Draw pride from how you manage the things you can control. Pull your self-worth from the work. Draw your strength and happiness from what you're doing right now. Do the best writing you can, every time you sit down to work. And on a day when the words aren't coming? Go find something else that makes you smile. Hang out with friends. Play with your kids. Fuss your pets. Ride a bike. Then come back to the page, and put your heart into it. Don't postpone your happiness. Don't pin your self-worth on something you hope might happen further down the line.

The work we do is one of the only two things we control. That means it matters. Do the best work you can. Every. Single. Time. And draw pride from that.

3. Never Use Exclamation Marks. 

4. Be Patient. Be Specific. 

The other thing we can control is how we interact with people. Be patient whenever possible. Be specific every time. Specificity, I'm learning, really is the key to so many things. Always be clear on what you're asking for. Always be clear on what you can deliver. The more specific you can be up front, the less chance there is for confusion (or being taken advantage of) further down the line. Get things in writing. Know what you're being asked to do, and when.

Sure, I could've led with more hippie stuff about being kind. And truly, being kind is so damn important. We have a choice with every single interaction. And the decision matters. This is a small industry. If you're a dick, people will know. If you're a liar, people will know. If you say one thing in public, but another in private, people will know. But 'being kind' on its own, can lead to making well-intended promises you can't keep. Or it can lead to other's trying to take advantage. And there comes a point where you need to be as kind to yourself as you aim to be to others, and it can be very easy to miss that turn-off. What's the best way to be kind without over-promising, or making assumptions, or doing yourself harm? By always being patient, and always being specific.

We all come from different places. Different backgrounds. We've all had to achieve a different standard to be here. There are going to be people who've had to climb over near-impossible hurdles just to get into the conversation, there are others who rolled out of bed one day and found themselves working in publishing. We might pretend like we're all on the same page, but we're not. Be conscious of whether you're holding people to different standards. Be aware that someone might not have been prepared for the unwritten social rules of the job. Keep in mind that opportunities aren't handed out equally. And on top of that, we're all bullshitting most of the time about how comfortable or successful we are. It's an industry built on imposter syndrome, and we all want to look like we know what we're doing, rather than breaking down in tears about how hard it is to cover the rent or pay for cat food. And faced with all of this, the only thing to do is be patient.

And there's an added complication, in watching the way you deal with people. And that is watching the way people who deal on your behalf treat others. If your agent is rude to your publisher, that reflects on you. If your publisher is rude to a convention organiser, that reflects on you. Of course, you can't dictate how other people act, especially when you're not around. And everybody has an off day sometimes (hey, be patient...) but we can all spot the signs, if we look. Treat your representatives the way you want to be treated, and if they're treating other people differently on your behalf....think long and hard about that professional relationship.

5. Be Willing To Say 'No.'

This one feels counter-intuitive, doesn't it? We're told the story of the actor who, when asked whether they can ride a horse, says "I have a saddle in the car." We're told to say yes. We're told to embrace every opportunity. But this approach can be a trap. It can lead us down the path I wrote about above, of over-committing, of starting something without knowing what the end-point looks like. To approach this from a cynical point of view, it can allow people to load their responsibilities off onto you. And there are understandable fears behind this. We're all nervous about the future. If I turn this chance down, will I get another? But what if you take this one, and that leads you to missing a better one? There are times when the best thing to do is say 'no.' There are times when politely declining an offer is the most professional thing to do, and might lead to you being held in higher regard than taking on too much and crashing.

Be bold. Be ambitious. Always look upwards. Take on writing projects that scare you. But also be brave enough to look after yourself, and your workload, and your reputation. I guarantee you, the biggest names in fiction -across all genres- are people who are accustomed to picking up the phone and saying 'no'.

There's something else that comes with no. Power. As writers, we don't always value our power. We join in conversations about social change without really being clear what we can do to enact it. The debates rage about representation and diversity and we think can I do something? It can be hard to see the power that we have. Especially at the bottom of a blog post that's told you there are so many things in publishing that are out of your control, am I right? But I've also preached about being specific, so...here goes.

Panels. Events. Fans and readers turn up to panels to hear authors talk. We have power there. We don't always see it, because we've paid to be at the convention, and we're accustomed to feeling grateful for whatever platform were given. But there are two things here. Firstly, once again, we are the draw. Not all of us in equal measure. Frankly, I'm fairly low on the draw-factor myself. But the event doesn't take place if we're not there. And secondly, in the convention model, we are paying customers, and customers have power.

If you're a man offered a spot on all-male panel, refuse. I've made this suggestion before and been met with howls of derision, why should it fall to me? Well, first, it's 2019, and it falls to all of us. Second, I guarantee you, losing out on that panel is not going to make or break your career, it's not going to impact the quality of your book, and, unless you're already a draw, it's not going to lose you many sales in the book room. If you're on a panel without any writers of color, or writers with a disability, or writers from the LGBTQI community, consider (politely) asking why. I say politely because I've done convention programming twice now, and the people putting the panels together are, ultimately, restricted to the list of registered authors. These are restrictions that hopefully will fade as time goes on, and we manage to open up the conventions to people from a wider variety of backgrounds. But in the short term, you can use your power to ask if there are reasons why your panel is all white, or all male, etc. Whether you're happy with the answer is down to you, but let's be willing to ask the questions.

Okay. Peace, out. See you in another ten years. 


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A Visit to the Nation's Oldest Bookstore... and Waffles!

By Thomas Pluck

This weekend we had a craving for Waffle House, Sarah and I. That dineresque Southern institution with a supply chain so sturdy they assist FEMA with logistics during hurricanes and other national disasters, and a menu so simple and comforting that "smothered & covered" is shorthand among enthusiasts, many of whom never order an actual waffle from the storied establishment. Those not in the know sneer like this is a Denny's or a Perkin's, but every Waffle House I have visited holds muster alongside your average New Jersey diner, and I've never had a bad meal there.


When you live north of the Mason-Dixon they become scarce, and they can crush your dreams. When Sarah and I were driving home from Bouchercon Toronto, one popped up on the GPS map in Stroudsburg PA, a city I haven't visited since a track & field tournament in high school, where I nabbed 3rd place in the freshman shotput relay. It hasn't improved much. As we veered off the interstate onto a main drag sided by every franchise you can think of, we looked for the familiar Scrabble tile yellow sign declaring WAFFLE HOUSE, but saw none. I even made an illegal U-turn to see if we'd missed it. And we had. Because the sign was there, but the lights were out.

I'd never seen a Waffle House closed before. Being the Yankee that I am, I've only endured two major storms and a power grid failure, and I had heard from Sarah that down South they know how bad a storm is by what the local Waffle House can and can't serve--road closures and power outages disrupt the fresh produce supply chain, so you can't get your hash browns smothered (with grilled onions) diced (with tomatoes) or capped (with mushrooms) when the storm is bad. You can nearly always get a waffle, but why would you do that?

We were heartbroken by the out of business sign, and this further cemented the terrible reputation of Pennsylvanian taste in our minds. So much that when we heard there was a Waffle House in nearby Bethlehem, PA--also home to Moravian Bookshop, the oldest in the nation and second-oldest in the world--that we double and triple checked that it was indeed open, before setting off on our little road trip. It was a lovely if frigid day, perfect for flying across Interstate 78 over the Delaware River. It is extremely difficult to leave New Jersey without paying a toll. This one was a buck, not so bad. Directly over the river, the geniuses of Pennsylvania DOT cut the road to one lane and create a massive traffic jam, but it is worth enduring to get yourself a Texas Cheese Melt with smothered covered hashbrowns. Trust me.

We visited the bookshop first. It was established in 1745 by the Moravian Church, and moved to its new digs on Main Street in Bethlehem in 1871. The town itself begins as industrial wasteland akin to Billy Joel's "Allentown", and you can sing "Bethlehem" to it, and annoy your driver, like I did

Well we're living here in Bethlehem
Where people think that we like them
But no one taught them how to drive
when to brake, signal or arrive
Oh they drive like shit in Beth-le-hem

(Forgive me, Pennsylvanians! Most of the bad drivers had Jersey plates. Most.)
Once you pass the Sands casino, which uses an abandoned railway bridge for its sign, you see the massive Hoover-Mason trestle and the Steel Stacks museum. It's like driving into mecha wasteland from The Dark Tower books or a Miyazaki film:



You need to cross another river to get to the quaint bits, which are quite nice. We parked and found a coffee shop that sold homemade chocolates, my favorite being coffee cups, which are like Reese's peanut butter cups but filled with espresso ganache. Addictive.

But so are books!


Moravian Bookshop sprawls through 14,000 square feet, has a lovely children's section, and sells Christmas ornaments all year round, it being the Christmas burg and all that. The store is part of Moravian College and is run by Barnes & Noble College Stores, but somehow has a smaller, if well-curated selection, than most B&N stores. I picked up Marlon James's Black Leopard, Red Wolf , as well as The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye--loved her adventure Jane Steele and Hotel has great word of mouth--plus Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, who blew me away with her Salvage the Bones, and Jerome Charyn's The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King, a fantastical retelling of Teddy Roosevelt's life up until his presidency, from the author of the Isaac Sidel mysteries.

A good haul! The store is friendly but does lack character, thanks to its corporate overlordship. I didn't even see a "Staff Picks" shelf, but I may have missed it. Sarah picked up Dumplin' by Julie Murphy--we liked the NetFlix movie--and Maddadam by Margaret Atwood. We're both fans of her work, too.


I haven't read those books yet but I did read We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, a brutal satire of a black father trying to protect his son in a future that's a hair's breadth from our current madness. If you liked The Sell-Out by Paul Beatty, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, or Pym by Mat Johnson (a real classic) this delivers a gut punch in between belly laughs that nearly make you cry. Because it's not really funny. The nameless narrator is a black man at a white law firm who wins the diversity chair position by humiliating himself more than this colleagues, and he wants the promotion so he can afford to "demelanize" his biracial son so he can pass. The City can be any; I'd assumed New Orleans, but it's just "the City," encompassing all. There's an equivalent to the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia here. Ruffin makes it work. Sad villains are tough but he aces it.

The Adjustment is a book I had signed by Scott Philips at Bouchercon in 2011 and promptly misplaced for years. I'm glad I found it. It's one of the best crime novels I've read in a long while. It's actually about a criminal, and I don't mean a sad drunk cop who breaks the rules, but Wayne Ogden, a fixer for a rich drunk ass who used to be his hero. Ogden becomes his Iago. In 215 pages, Philips packs in a lot of story and no filler. Ogden is utterly reprehensible, but charming company for those pages, even as he sabotages the lives of all around him for his own pleasure. There's no villainous rubbing his hands together to show how bad he is. He just does what he wants, and knows how to get away with it. His privilege helps, and he knows it. I'm told this is a sort-of prequel to The Ice Harvest, so I'll read that next (I loved the movie).

Okay, back to those hash browns. The Waffle House is situated, like many of them, right by the onramp to the interstate, which made it perfectly convenient for us to sup there after satisfying our chocolate and book joneses. It's a nice little clean spot, was nearly full, and the service was good. We got our food very quickly, and part of the joy of a Waffle House is the open kitchen. You get to watch the short order cook whip it all up and run that grill like an air traffic controller at JFK during a snowstorm. Having slung hash in my past, at the night cafeteria for a defense contractor, I admired his work. These cooks are unsung heroes. Our hash browns were perfectly crisp, my biscuit grilled to delightful buttery char, my little patty melt delicious. Sarah always gets the Texas Cheese steak, which whomps the butt of Pat's or Gino's in my book because Waffle House uses this thing called "seasoning".  I never get the cheese steak myself, opting for hash browns all the way and biscuits, or in this case, a patty melt. Then we trade bites. Somehow, tasting the cheese steak one bite every few months or years makes them taste even better.


The portions are just right for a drive home without a rest stop, too. Even Anthony Bourdain buckled and praised Waffle House after trying them, because they do what they do very well. It's comfort food served honestly, not overdone or "elevated," it's simple and good. And when it's a short drive from the nation's oldest bookstore, it's the perfect finish to a lovely winter day.

If you need a good read, sadly you missed out on the limited edition hardcover of At Home in the Dark edited by Lawrence Block, which includes my mob fixer mystery "The Cucuzza Curse," and Joe Hill's novella "Faun" which was picked up by NetFlix. You can pre-order the Kindle version, and LB will be offering a trade paperback in April, but it's not up for pre-order yet.

And you can pre-order Murder-a-Go-Go's edited by Holly West, a collection of stories inspired by the songs of The Go-Go's, all proceeds of which go to support Planned Parenthood. I somehow nabbed "We Got the Beat" for my story, and I can't wait to introduce you to The Beat Girls. The Kindle is only $3.99 before publication, so grab it now.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

As the Cities Change

By Scott Adlerberg

Unless you were in winter hibernation, you must have heard last week that Amazon scrapped its plans to open a so-called second headquarters in New York City.  Among the points the whole issue involved was gentrification.  How would Amazon's opening of a so-called corporate park in the middle of an already rapidly gentrifying neighborhood - Long Island City, Queens - affect that neighborhood? 


There have been some good pieces written recently about crime fiction and gentrification and how, though gentrification is not a new topic to crime fiction, it is right now a major one that merits deeper exploration.  Nick Kolakowski, who lives in New York, wrote a good piece about this a couple of weeks ago - How Gentification May Force Crime Fiction to Change -  and there's an insightful piece Sam Wiebe wrote last year about the changes going on in his hometown of Vancouver - Expect No Mercy: Crime Fiction and Gentrification.  As they say in these pieces, both of them use their books to get into the problems and dilemmas raised by gentrification, Kolakowski in his newest, Main Bad Guy, Weibe in his, Cut You Down.  





On my bedside table now, planned as my next read, is the coming novel from Richie Narvaez, Hipster Death Rattle.  


Narvaez, who grew up in New York, tells a murder mystery set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As the book's description says, it's a story set against a backdrop of rapid gentrification, skyrocketing rents, and class tension. I'm eager to read it, and to be honest, to read more crime fiction set in the present that gets into these areas. As someone who lives in a Brooklyn neighborhood, Bed-Sty, that has been gentrifying for several years now, it's a subject, I realize, that I've thought about a lot but for some reason haven't sought out much in fiction. That will change. And for the foreseeable future, as the once abundant seedy parts of many large cities continue to shrink, as these cities only get more and more expensive to live in, I imagine that gentrification and its attendant issues won't be a subject for urban crime fiction that will be getting stale any time soon.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Big Machine Birthed

Please welcome guest contributor Beau Johnson. In line with my recent posts regarding short stories and flash fiction Beau stops by to share the unusual way in which his character Bishop Rider found himself the subject of three anthologies.





THE BIG MACHINE BIRTHED

(OR THE FUNNY THINGS THAT HAPPEN WHEN A CHARACTER BEGINS TO RECUR)



It started when they found the fourth girl, her throat another mouth. Only it didn’t. It started seven years earlier with a girl named April Rider. For those of you who have read A BETTER KIND OF HATE, I tweaked that last sentence.


One, because it seems apt, those three lines coming from an early Bishop Rider tale, and two, because it’s as close as I can come to giving a time and place to when Rider entered my mind. His story morphed with time, sure, coming to include his mother’s murder as well, but yup, Rider’s story, it never really began with Rider, not as one would think.


Also, let’s get real: Bishop Rider is an archetype, and one which is as easily interchanged with Frank Castle as he is with Charles Bronson. What makes him different from those iconic characters is, well, not much of anything, really. He is just as angry. He is just as vicious. Willing to remove body parts when the situation calls for such an event to transpire. Granted, he may take things a step further, stacking said parts like wood, but only because a certain someone behind the keyboard feels there is some catching up to do.


And to tell you the truth, I never envisioned Rider’s story as this backdoor trilogy it will become. Better yet is at one time he actually stopped speaking to me. I know, I was just as surprised. Wasn’t until I broke a collarbone that his voice came back to me. And yes, I’d have to be a complete moron (hey, stop agreeing with that) in failing to see the correlation between Rider losing part of a leg at around the same time I snap my clavicle in half.


But that is only part of a trilogy I never knew was there, the other being a throwaway line from a story I wrote years before which proved to be not so throwaway after all. It involved Marcel Abrum (one half of a brother duo who take Rider’s sister and mother from him in ways we will not discuss) and a son which at the time I had yet to even name. 

Once this son re-enters Rider’s life, he is no longer that boy, but now a man just shy of thirty. A man quite unlike his father, oh yes, and looking back, exactly the turn of events I needed to open up Bishop’s world. I mean, I already had Batista, Rider’s old partner from his time as a cop, but to continue at the clip Rider wanted to, well, let’s just say it isn’t as inexpensive as people would lead you to believe. 

Enter Jeramiah Abrum, benefactor from the Gods. Better still was the irony I’d yet to discover-that the money Jeramiah would use to bankroll Bishop’s quest came from the very same man who’d taken Rider’s family from him. Ah, the ties that fucking bind.


So, we have Batista, Jeramiah, and Ray, a man who Rider and his platoon used to call Trinkets back in the day. He likes to make things, does Ray, and some of his ideas have gotten Rider out of some pretty hairy jams. Last but not least is one other, but as ever, this narrator has remained unnamed from the start. 

All told, and since I seem to tell Rider’s life out of sequence most times, he’s what I call my “previously on Rider” guy, implemented to keep you abreast of all the more pertinent points of interest so I don’t have to go all exposition-ninja on the reader whenever a Rider story is told. 

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still get to give my fair share of exposition, which is pretty much par for the course in a gig like this, but with this guy, I get to fill the bucket in a different (hopefully interesting) way.


Anyway, I’ve never been privy to how others work with characters who recur, but this here, warts and all, is how it happened for me. Take it or leave, it’s the only story I have to give on the subject.


Take it or leave it, it’s how Bishop Rider was born.

Also, and in case you missed it, I am now a co-editor over at The
Flash Fiction Offensive, or Out of the Gutter Online, along with Jesse Rawlins, Jim Shaffer, and Mick Rose. 

This means we’d like you to send us your double crosses, your tales of heists gone wrong, and maybe that one with that guy, him, buddy at the end of the bar. And trust us, we want to publish your stories, but only the best you have to offer will do. Even then it still might not fit---but be sure I have always believed in the motto of try, try again. 

Last thing: follow the guidelines. First thing that gets you ejected from the island will be this. As ever, we look forward to reading your dark minds laid bare. We look forward to your particular cup of swill.



Beau Johnson has been published before, usually on the darker side of town. He is the author of A BETTER KIND OF HATE, THE BIG MACHINE EATS, and in the spring of 2020, ALL OF THEM TO BURN. On top of this he enjoys book selfies, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and both Beckys from Roseanne equally.

True Crime: The San Francisco Dog Mauling Case


A name from the past surfaced last week. If you lived anywhere near San Francisco in 2001, you recognize it.
Marjorie Knoller.
She and her husband, Robert Noel, owned two dogs that got loose in their apartment building hallway and attacked and killed a neighbor. Knoller was walking the dogs at the time. She was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life. Last week, she was denied parole and will remain in a California prison for at least three more years.
That’s the short version. The long version proves the cliché that truth is stranger than fiction. I covered the story from the day after the attack all the way through the trial, and it contained one jaw-dropping fact after another.
The dogs were Presa Canarios, an obscure breed that’s a huge, mastiff-type dog with a potentially stubborn and territorial temperament. Knoller and Noel, lawyers with a small joint practice representing mostly prison inmates, kept the dogs in their tiny San Francisco apartment. Noel wasn’t there the night Knoller took the pair up to the roof to go to the bathroom. When she came back down, her neighbor had just gotten home with a load of groceries.
Diane Alexis Whipple was the lacrosse coach at St. Mary’s College across the Bay. She lived down the hall with her partner Sharon Smith. The dogs lunged, dragging Knoller down the hallway by their leashes, she would later say. Within minutes, Whipple was dead from a bite to the neck. An elderly neighbor would testify to hearing the 33-year-old Whipple battle for her life as she hid in terror behind her own front door.
It turned out that Presa Canarios were highly valued in the prison world (“territorial” temperament plus 140 pounds of solid muscle equals bad-ass scary), and these two dogs were owned—through layers of intermediaries—by an Aryan Brotherhood member serving time at the hardest prison in the state. Knoller and Noel were caring for the dogs as a favor because the man, Paul “Cornfed” Schneider, was their legal client.
But wait, there’s more.
We found out that Knoller and Noel adopted Schneider* (then 38 years old) soon after the fatal mauling. Cornfed, in state prison for crimes including stabbing a defense attorney multiple times with a homemade shiv, was a man of “character and integrity,” Noel said by way of explaining the adoption.
The couple started on a publicity blitz, giving interviews and appearing on national morning talk shows. Two weeks after Whipple’s killing, they went on “Good Morning America,” where Knoller said she bore no responsibility for the attack. “She could have just slammed the door shut. I would have,” she said.
They fought the city’s attempts to destroy the female dog, Hera.** (Bane, the male and acknowledged deliverer of the fatal bite, was put down the night of the attack.) They insisted she was docile. Knoller maintained that witnesses who came forward to describe frightening encounters with the dogs in the weeks before the mauling were lying to get attention.
All of this resulted in a huge groundswell of hatred among San Franciscans. I am not exaggerating this. This case was all anyone there was talking about in the first few months of 2001. I wasn’t in a bar or restaurant (I was in the newsroom, writing a story) when news came that the couple had been indicted for murder, but I have to imagine that more than a few watering holes broke out in cheers.
This kind of sentiment made finding twelve unbiased jurors practically impossible. Judge James Warren*** had little choice but to move the trial away. The state court system chose Los Angeles as the new location because its facilities could handle the massive media presence the trial would attract.
And it did. There was a first-come, first-serve line for seats every day. Bay Area media, thank goodness, had permanent seats, so we didn’t have to queue up early. Since we were all working late filing stories, that was a huge help. And I had the added layer of a commute. Everyone else stayed near the downtown courthouse. My newspaper judged that too expensive and put me up out near the Burbank airport. That meant I had to get up early enough to ensure I made it through traffic (which is never bad in LA, right?) and to court on time. Because even though we had those special seating arrangements, there was no pass for being late. Tardy arrivals didn’t get in until the judge called a recess.
The trial lasted more than a month in early 2002. I’d fly down on a Sunday night and back on a Thursday night (court typically wasn’t in session on Fridays). Some Fridays, I’d go back into the newsroom and write a weekend wrap-up. And boy, was there enough material.
There was the prosecutor showing the jury Bane’s mammoth skull. Knoller’s defense attorney throwing herself on the floor and weeping to show how her client said she tried to shield Whipple from Bane’s attack. The judge trying repeatedly to reign in her courtroom theatrics. The second-chair prosecutor with the movie star looks who shot to prominence as a result of the trial and her marriage to an equally glamorous San Francisco supervisor months before.**** And the regular press conferences where both sides’ attorneys would try to spin the day’s proceedings in their favor.
This last one resulted in one of my favorite professional moments, where a fellow newspaper reporter found one of the few chairs in the room and was standing on it to get a better view of the press conference over the crowd of people and TV cameras. I was standing next to him wondering where I could get my own chair, when a cameraman said, “Hey, buddy, do you mind? Your ass is in my live shot.”
After weeks of trial, the jury came back with a verdict of second-degree murder for Knoller and convictions for both of them on charges of involuntary manslaughter and “keeping a mischievous animal that killed a person.” Yes, that is an actual law.
There were a variety of appeals. Noel was sentenced to four years in prison and paroled in 2003. He died last year. Knoller will come up for appeal again in 2022.
Diane Alexis Whipple would have turned 51 years old last month.
*Cornfed was convicted in federal court in 2003 for taking part in a drug smuggling operation from inside California’s Pelican Bay State Prison and for participating in a 1995 armed robbery that resulted in the murder of a sheriff’s deputy.
**After a full-blown hearing triggered by Knoller and Noel’s refusal to give permission for Hera to be put down, a judicial officer ordered her destroyed. The two were also banned from owning any dogs for a three-year period. It was the first time an SF animal control officer had ever levied that penalty. It ended up being the least of the couple’s worries.
***Warren is a grandson of former US Chief Justice Earl Warren.
****That prosecutor, Kimberly Guilfoyle, married Gavin Newsom in 2001. The two divorced in the mid-aughts, in the middle of Newsom’s tenure as SF mayor. Guilfoyle then joined Fox News as a legal analyst. She is currently dating Donald Trump, Jr. Newsom, a Democrat, was sworn in as California’s new governor last month.