Saturday, April 27, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 17

Scott D. Parker

Well, it turned out to be a writing-centric week, capped off by a triumvirate of awesomeness yesterday: finished a book, heard a new Springsteen song (something like 14 times), and watched the final movie a decade in the making.

Writing Tips Are Always Welcome

Four of the six posts since last week's entry of the Year of an Indie Writer series focused on learning. Dean Wesley Smith discussed how writers think they've gone the 'wrong' way with a story, but authors are often the worst judges of our own work. I experience that literally this month.

I revisited lessons from pulp fiction legend Frank Gruber, and ended the week talking about the things we can actually control (part 1 and part 2). There's only so much over which we writers have dominion and it's best not to worry about everything else. Easier said than done, sometimes, but it'll ultimately prove beneficial.

Aztec Sword is Done

I mentioned last week I finished proofing the latest Calvin Carter novel, but felt it needed another chapter. Actually, it turned into four. But the story now feels complete with an ending I like.

But it was touch and go for the first half of the week. With a "only one more chapter" mentality, I realized I couldn't fit in all I wanted in one chapter. That gave me some heartache because I was not going to change my publication date of 1 May.

And yesterday, I put the last period on the book. Whew!

But what is it about?

Aztec Sword Description

Actor turned detective Calvin Carter stands on his favorite place--a stage--when armed bandits attack. Carter and his partner, Thomas Jackson, foil the robbery, and the surviving gunman snitches the name of the mystery man who hired the gang.

Both men soon die, taking their secrets to the grave.

Turns out, the entire robbery was an elaborate distraction. In the melee, a master thief with a unique calling card swipes a prized artifact: a macuahuitl, an Aztec sword, dating back to the Spanish conquest of the New World.

But when Carter and Jackson are assigned to track down and recover the sword, those men who know about the macuahuitl start dying, one by one. If Carter and Jackson aren't careful, they will be next.

Bruce Springsteen's New Song: Hello Sunshine

Well, the contest for Favorite Song of 2019 is over.

One word review: Gorgeous.

It's been three years since I had an emotional reaction to a song on first listen. That one was joy. This one was simultaneously happy, melancholy, and nostalgic. It was like a song from my childhood, yet it's a tune my fifty-year-old self experienced for the first time. I didn't roll a tear, but they were in there. Beautiful song. Instant classic Springsteen song for me.

If this is any indication of how the rest of the new album is, then the contest for Favorite Album of 2019 is done.

Just listen.

Avengers: Endgame

Saw it.

Loved it.

Perfect ending to a decade of movies.

How's that for a spoiler-free review?

Tune in Tomorrow...

On my own blog, I'm writing about an album that turns 50.

Friday, April 26, 2019

The Privilege of Boycott

By Jay Stringer

Another week, another controversy. Or....the same controversy. Again. On repeat. The same controversy that should have been settled, but isn't. The same controversy that, let's be honest, will roll around for Thrillerfest, then Bouchercon, and many stops in-between. There's a show dropping on Netflix soon, it'll be interesting to see the conversations that surround that in our little part of the world.

And I use the word controversy very begrudgingly. I don't think it should be controversial to say that a racist, misogynist, asshat, who still (publicly) thinks the Central Park Five are guilty, who has said women can't write crime, and who was so proudly and publicly abusive toward women of color in our community, is someone we don’t want to hang out with. I hoped this was a settled issue.

I will never genuflect. I will never endorse. I will never pose for a picture with him. I will never grace him with my presence. I'm not entirely happy with gracing him with the time it takes me to write this. I'm proud to wear a sheep badge if that gets this message across.

But I'm not here to shout at the people who make the other choice. I'm here to talk. We all need to talk. Conversations where we look each other in the eye, ask, talk, listen, share, trust each other to be the best we can be, try and find the way forward. Because, friends, we are exhausting each other. We're throwing punches. We're taking flesh. We're taking each other down. We're aiming shots and snipes at the very people we need to stand by and support.

There is a certain percentage of our small crime fiction population who already know this. And they are doing great work. Believe me, I see you, I thank you, I have your back, you have my support, you have my place on the platform any time I can give it.

But the rest of us.....let's sit round the kitchen table and talk about something.

The word nuance can be loaded at times like this. It becomes a shield. An excuse. "Yes, you've called out a friend of mine for shitty behaviour, and you've pointed out that I'm endorsing that behaviour by standing next to him. But the nuance...." No. Let's not play those games.

But there is a nuance that needs to be talked about here. Privilege. Who gets to make mistakes? Who gets to come back from mistakes? Who gets asked to give up their platform for a higher purpose? What do each of these things cost us in our different positions?

Which is to say: those of you who call for a boycott? I get you. I do. I'm not here to tell you you're wrong. If I place each and every one of my cards on the table here, I agree with you. I will not be putting any money in those pockets, I will not be putting my feet in the room, I will not be endorsing that crap. I. I. I.

That's all about me. What am I? I'm straight. I'm white. I'm male. I'm cis. In the grand scheme of things, it's kinda easy for someone like me to burn a bridge, knowing there will be half a dozen other ways to get across. Not everyone can say the same. A writer from a different background already has fewer viable -and visible- platforms in our community. Is it their job to give up one of them, for the 'higher purpose' of picking a fight that most of the white writers -of all genders- seem to be ducking? If there are so few places they can go to be seen, to be heard, to sell books how can we expect them to lose that?

Here's the thing. I know. I know. All of you, the straight white cis authors I've invited into this kitchen chat, we're all trying. It's tricky. We want to be friends, family, allies. We're trying to figure out the line. When is it our job to speak about #MeToo, when is it out time to shut up? When do we shout over racism, and when do we stand back and hand the mic to people of color. When do our trans friends need us standing beside them, and when they want us to get out of the way. The problem of racism is (broadly speaking) a problem with white people. The problem with misogyny is (broadly speaking) a problem with men. The problem with homophobia....The problem with with transphobia.....etc, and so on. There is a weight we need to be pulling, some deep and honest conversations we need to be having with ourselves. And how do we balance doing all of that, with not talking over the very people we're trying to be allies to? I don't know the answers. Really, I'm not here to pretend otherwise. If you're like me, you're socially conditioned to be the loud voice in the room, you're programmed to think it's your job to rush to the rescue, to speak, to save. You might, for instance, in all good intent, become a white liberal old politician who grabs the mic and ends up sabotaging the campaign of a more qualified woman. (Just an example...)

But I'm trying to learn to think of it in terms of cost. We don't carry the cost equally. I pay less of a cost for speaking out, for punching out, for shouting out. If it turns out to be a mistake, I pay less of a cost for making it.

What am I saying here? I don't know. I'm frustrated as hell. There are fights going on all over the place, and none of them feel like they're moving us anywhere, meanwhile there are people doing serious, hard, progressive work behind closed doors who are being left to do it alone.

The community seems to agree that it's okay for a piece of shit to be a piece of shit, and we'll all forget about it until the next time, then forget about it again straight after. But I can afford to criticise, I can afford to boycott, I can afford to abstain, my career will not take a single hit. It costs me basically nothing to take any of these positions. But there are others who can't say the same. The weight doesn't fall equally, and we need to remember that before we start insisting other people boycott.

I'm not saying we should call for boycotts. I'm not saying we shouldn't. I think it's a conversation we need to have. But we need to keep the idea of all of our own differing privilege levels in mind. People who have the privilege to choose whether to go to those parties need to start being honest with themselves about that choice. I think it's fair to expect that now, in 2019. But I can't call for people who already have so few opportunities to give one up, because I think that would set us all back, rather than moving us forwards.

Let's just talk, everyone. Talk. Like friends do. Like family should.

And as a start, let's build a list of the good places. Of stores we can rely on. Of booksellers to support. Of places writers of color can go for exposure and events. Of other organisations and small business that will join us on the journey we need to take. In particular, let's help our friends in NYC, who are new authors, or career authors, or indie authors. Who are writers of color, or women. Let's build a list of alternative and supportive stores they can use.

(And in the spirit of passing the mic when I get a chance, today's post was partly inspired by this piece by Angel Luis Colón.)

Thursday, April 25, 2019

There Ain't No Party Like an Otto Penzler Party

By David Nemeth

The tweets and Facebook posts are from Otto Penzler's The Mysterious Bookshop's 40th Anniversary Party.* The event happened on April 23, 2019.

The text is from a letter written by Otto Penzler to the Mystery Writers of America's Board of Directors. It is from December 2018.†

Four months. Only four months.

". . . racially charged and utterly misinformed letters from Attica Locke and Steph Cha." - Otto Penzler

"Her [Cha] stupefying ignorance did not, however, prevent her from having powerful opinions. " - Otto Penzler

", , , a tweet sent by Locke, in which she claimed that Ms. Fairstein was “almost single-handedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five,” which is neither true nor credible to anyone with even a fundamental understanding of police procedure and the legal system." - Otto Penzler

"For many years, I have welcomed the celebration of the incoming board with a party at the Mysterious Bookshop. The board does not deserve a celebration of any kind, and it would be hypocritical of me to host one. You are no longer welcome in my bookshop." - Otto Penzler

* Let's not kid anyone, that was an Edgar Party too.
† You can read the pdf version.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

                                                  VIOLENCE FOR VIOLENCE'S SAKE

     I  love all types of crime stories. I will just as soon read a dark, gritty tale by Dennis Lehane  as I will an English drawing room mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers or Edmund Crispin. However what miniscule talent I may have has always seemed to manifest itself through the prism of hard-boiled fiction. And while I can't speak for anyone except myself I'd bet dollars to donuts any writer worth their salt who writes in said hard-boiled style has come up against the question I faced last night during my current round of edits.
      Is this too violent?

And before you all jump in the comment section I know there is violence in English mysteries and cozies and other non hard-boiled genres. However, most of the violence in these books is off screen. We may see a body lying in repose in the library or the greenhouse and we are assured through the astute observation of the brilliant detective that is our guide during this tale that the person or persons are dead. There may be a few drops of blood on the harpsicord but generally that's about as graphic as those types of novel tend to get. And that is perfectly fine. Not every story has to involve shattered jaws and broken teeth. 
   Most of mine do and that's okay as well. 

     Yet I still find myself wondering where is the line? When does my desire, or my duty, to give the reader the most comprehensive and detailed description of the rage my characters feel and the consequences of that rage on the human body stray into gratuitous voyeurism?  Is there even a line ? 
      Last night I was working on a scene where my protagonist catches up to the man who betrayed him. A man who killed my protagonist's best friend. At one point the protagonist shoots his enemy in the knee. From my research and discussions with some medical professionals who undoubtedly will cast a suspicious eye at me from now on, I've learned this is one of the most painful places to be shot. 
     As I was writing this scene I realized that wouldn't be enough for my main character. He wants this man to suffer. A mere bullet wound is not nearly enough. I won't go into detail here as to what he does but believe me when I say it's not for the faint of heart. In the course of that scene I found my line. I found the place where I can go no further. My line is probably different from yours, whether you are a reader  a writer or both.  And yes I know that may seem like some mealy-mouthed cop out but it also happens to be the truth. 
     I'm a firm believer that violence is as necessary to a good crime story as love is to a romance novel. Much like sex in the latter violence in the former is a foundational component. The graphicness of these narrative techniques is up to the author. We all have to find our line . I don't think that you have to agree with where my line is but I think in a society that seemingly restricts our freedom of expression more and more everyday we do have to agree to allow everyone to find that place on their own. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Down to the River Anthology

Remember when a fire broke out on the Cuyahoga River, near downtown Cleveland.  Smoke on the water, not only in a song, but in real life.  This was, last time it happened, in 1969.  And it was not the worst such incident; the Cuyahoga had gone up in flames many times before that, including the even bigger conflagration in 1952.  The reason each time was related to the oil-soaked garbage and debris floating on the water's surface. In 1969, as a case in point, sparks from a passing train landed on that oil and set the flames going.

In 1969, I was seven years old, but I remember the story of the burning river well.  It sounded weird. How could water burn?  The story was all over the news, in print and on TV.  And, let's face it, an event like that you don't forget.  As a kid you wonder, what could human beings be doing to make a river so polluted that it does something entirely unnatural?  

The Cuyahoga may have been the most extreme example, but the 1960s and 1970s were a time when a number of rivers were polluted.  If you grew up in New York anywhere near the Hudson (as I did), you were aware of how chemical-filled, how toxic, that river was.  For years, companies such as General Electric dumped PCBs in the water, and there was also mercury contamination and towns and cities dumping untreated sewage into the Hudson.  This is the time when the peregrine falcon population in the Hudson Valley was decimated. One reason: the falcons, which nested in cliffs above the river, would eat the fish that had ingested the chemicals they swam through, and the PCBs in the fish caused the falcons to lay soft and unviable eggs.

I say all this as background to why I was happy to accept an invitation to contribute to a short story anthology that just came out.  It's called Down to the River and it's edited by Tim O'Mara. It's a collection of twenty-two crime stories that take place on or near an American river, and proceeds from sales will go to the conservation non-profit, American Rivers.  As someone who grew up when rivers in the United States were in terrible shape and likes how much they've been cleaned up since while recognizing that the conservation work must go on (because, always, there is more to do), I couldn't say no to Tim when he asked me.

"Write about a river you're familiar with," Tim said.  "But not the Hudson. That's too obvious."

After a moment's thought, I came up with another New York City river to write about, the Bronx River, which flows south from Westchester County down through the borough it's named after.  It cuts through the heart of the Bronx Zoo, a favorite place of mine since childhood, and I figured I could set a good story there.  Anyway, the story is titled "Bronx River Elegy", and who can complain about being among such contributors as Reed Farrell Coleman, Hank Phillipi Ryan, Eric Beetner, Charles Salzberg, Dana King, John Keyse Walker, and many more?  Among the rivers the stories revolve around: the St. Croix River in Minnesota, the Alleghany River, the Missouri River, the Connecticut River, the Dan River in Virginia, the Mississippi, and the Los Angeles River.  In other words, there is much geographical variety in this collection, though of course, you can be anywhere for crime to occur.

Publishers Weekly has done a nice review of the collection - Publishers Weekly - and so has The Providence JournalProvidence Journal - which calls it an "early candidate for the best crime-mystery anthology of the year".

Down and Out is the publisher.

Anyone want to take a dip?

You can get Down to the River here.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Last Woman Standing

Life as a writer poses many challenges. And not all of those challenges are writing or publishing related. Some challenges are how to carry on when life throws you a curveball.

My wife and I have been married for nearly twenty-one years, longer than most lesbian couples. We're still a lot like two lovesick teenagers, always making each other laugh. In so many ways, the honeymoon never ended.

That's not to say we don't have our challenges. Over the past few years, my wife has become disabled. It's difficult for her to stand for long periods of time or to walk long distances. So I've had to step up my game. And I'm happy to do so.

I do more of the chores around the house. I am doing more and more of the cooking (which is something she's always enjoyed doing.) I take care of our three cats. Plus my day job. Plus my writing career, which she has whole-heartedly supported.

As I said, I'm happy to do it because she's such an amazing person who helped me work through a lot of the PTSD-related issues that I had coming into the relationship two decades ago. In a very real way, she showed me what love is. And I am beyond grateful.

Me waiting for surgery
A couple of weeks ago, I started to feel some abdominal pain. I figured I probably strained some muscles pulling weeds. And then at times during the week, I felt lightheaded and feverish. Wasn't sure what it was, but I kept an eye on it.

Then a week ago last Saturday night, I felt a hard lump just above my navel. I'm realizing this isn't just a pulled muscle. Quite possibly a hernia. Not what I need with so many responsibilities at home.

I went to the Emergency Room and learned I had an abscess the size of a plum in my abdominal muscle. I was admitted to the hospital to have it treated.

Because of my wife's condition, she couldn't visit me. That was hard on both of us.

After a couple of days of being pumped with antibiotics, they drained the abscess, leaving in a JP drain to allow further drainage. After five days in hospital, they finally pulled the drain and released me.

Me getting a little silly on the whiteboard
The medical care was top-notch. The food was...well, it was not my wife's awesome cooking, I'll tell you that. And missing my wife for so long left me a little stir crazy. Writing silliness on the whiteboards.

I'm happy to say I am now home and on the mend. Not sure when I'll be back at work. And while my wife really stepped up to do what she could to take care of the cats and herself during my absence, it was a painful struggle for her.

Despite instructions for me to rest and take it easy, I simply can't. With all I went through, I'm still the most able-bodied person in the house. A day after my release, I was making meals, shopping for groceries, cleaning litter boxes, etc. Because shit still needs to get done.

Yes, I know the old adage about taking care of oneself as a priority before helping others. But the truth is, it's a balancing act. Difficult choices must be made when you're the last woman standing.

Maybe now I can get caught up on my editing.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Happy Easter

For those who celebrate it, Happy Easter. And a joyful spring to everyone.