Saturday, August 10, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 32 AKA "What's the Point?"

Scott D. Parker

You ever have one of those weeks in which you mutter to yourself, "What the hell's the point of all this?"

The Funk

Usually, I don't get those moments, but somehow, some way, I got stuck in that rut. Been trying to analyze why.

Last weekend, I did the grunt work associated with re-publishing my westerns from my pen name "S. D. Parker" to my full name: "Scott Dennis Parker." Updated the website, too. Have to admit it was nice seeing all the stories in one place in a location other than my website. So that was a good thing.

The new book's not going as swimmingly as when it started. That's an expected thing. Beginnings are always flush with excitement. Endings are barreling to the big conclusion. It's the vast middle where you have to keep up your game. And with this new book being unlike any of the others, the self-doubt crept into my head. "Hey, buddy, you know you can write mysteries, westerns, and thrillers. Why are you even bothering with this other thing?"

For most of this week, my answer was "I don't know." "Who the hell am I fooling" swept in and out of my brain this week. There's a writing assignment with a fast approaching deadline that I kept struggling with. I almost emailed the editor to back out. Heck, I even chastised myself for not bowing out of Do Some Damage with last week's column (seeing as how we're celebrating our decade anniversary and with me being the only original left, it's soft code for everyone else figuring out something different to do). It would have been a nice, even number. Ten years to the month.  Holly's post from last week, "Writer, Know Thyself," struck home with this mentality. If I'm having second thoughts on the validity of keeping the DSD streak going, well, then...

What the hell is the point?

The Beginning of the Turnaround

Here's irony for you. A large bulk of this feeling coincided with the beginning of August. This month marks my twenty-year wedding anniversary, so that's an awesome thing. But August almost marks the beginning of the end of summer. Around mid May, I am so excited for the summer mentality that I can't wait for the end of May, Memorial Day, and the early days of June. Early summer is such a welcome thing. The boy's not in school. I don't have to get up at 4:30 am to write. The weather is wonderfully hot. The movies, books, and TV are all geared to the summer mentality.

Now, in August, the summer's at an end. CBS's Blood and Treasure finished its wonderful freshman season this week. American Ninja Warrior is nearing its season finale. Elementary airs its series finale this coming week. Man, am I going to miss that show.

And school starts. Back to 4:30 am writing times. That's not a huge deal because I've been getting up at 4:45 to 5:00 am this summer, but still.

What August also means is that the 97-day writing cycle I touted back on Memorial Day was mostly for naught (in terms of fiction).  I let time slip away from me and didn't get nearly the amount of work I wanted to complete done. It almost seems like a waste.

But not totally.

The New Project: Watching Kevin Smith Films

From the end of June all the way to this week, I've been working on watching and reviewing all twelve of Kevin Smith's films before the new movie, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, debuts this October. My goal was to watch them all before I started publishing them so that I could have my own thoughts on all his films without anyone going "Boy, his movies really took a dive after [fill in the blank]." I wanted nothing coloring my own opinions.

But that meant I had to sit on all these reviews. No more. My Introduction and first review for Clerks is now out. The Mallrats review comes out this coming week, so I finally get to share what I've been doing. I've seen and written reviews for eight of his films now. All those reviews are already in the can, waiting to be let out in the coming weeks. Now, I can talk about what I've been doing this summer.

The Posts at DSD

It turned out to be great timing for the return of veteran DSDers to the blog. Three of them--Jay Stringer, Dave White, and Russel McLean--all wrote about the crap time they've faced and with which I've been struggling. Dave's post about the joy of blogging brought a smile to my face. But it was something Jay wrote that, yet again, struck home.

1. Find a thing you love doing
2. Put in the work to get good at it
3. Draw your self-worth from doing it, not from what you think you'll get from having done it. 

You see that third point? I've preached that for a long time. I call it "Control the Controllables." Some when this summer, I lost sight of  it. When people are shocked that I get up at 4:30 am, I tell them it's a blast because I get to tell myself stories! How awesome is that? Well, I forgot how awesome it is.

And then I remembered. I'm a storyteller.

Is it the best job in the world? Probably not, but it's a damn good one.

Am I out of the funk completely? Not yet. But the light is there.

We creatives all go through times like these where the urge to just throw in the towel is so dang strong. It would be so, so easy to just give up. And no one would notice. Well, we would. And we'd like feel like crap.

Fight through those tough times. Persevere. Keep going.

Why? Back to Jay's first item: because you love it.

That's the point.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Why I Keep Writing (Or... Russel keeps up his old tradition of very late blog posts...)

Given that it is ten years since Do Some Damage started, there are certain traditions I felt I should keep up in this, my reunion post… such as being late in posting… (In fairness, this was an admin error… Probably Weddle or Stringer’s fault)….

In truth, there are a lot of reasons for this. The last week has run away with me. Since I left DSD due to work commitments, I’ve made a living as a freelance editor, working for various publishers in the UK and the US, as well as running workshops on writing crime fiction (although I think my lessons apply as much to any form of fiction as they do genre) and working for various manuscript assessment companies. And this last week saw all aspects of my work converge at once.
Especially when I realised I haven’t had a book published for three years.

Why not?

Its not writer’s block – I know the book I want to write, and I know how to write it. And I know that I’m dedicated enough to create time to write. I wrote my first five books while working a full time job, and now my schedule is far more flexible than it once was.

No, it’s all due to circumstance. The enemy of the author is almost always the circumstances outside of their control. I’ve been ill (kidney stones that saw me in and out of hospital for six months), I’ve been struggling to get a home after the flat we expected to buy was pulled out from under us at the last moment. And I’ve just generally been running the treadmill of life (with some high points too: I got married to the incredible novelist, Lesley McDowell, and I’m now working on two hush-hush projects that are quite exciting)

So this isn’t a “poor me” diatribe – it’s a fact of life. Most authors acknowledge that we’re pretty much in an uphill struggle to get the time to write. Look at now-bestselling author Adrian McKinty – a man whose books I admired for years – who essentially quit writing because of the lack of money. You could argue that he got lucky, of course (but part of that luck involved the fact he’s a damn good writer and deserved to be noticed!) but for every fairy story ending, there’s a handful of equally talented writers struggling along to get noticed, turning out great work that fans love but that doesn’t get the exposure it needs for some reason.

I’m not saying I’m anywhere near as good as McKinty, but I do sometimes wonder why I continue to write, and why I continue to fight against the enemy of circumstance and passing time. The new book – set in the late 70s, an attempt to do to the Scottish city of Dundee what James Ellroy did to LA, and clearly from that pitch alone, a massively uncommercial idea! – is almost ready to go to my agent, but I still don’t know that it’ll set the world on fire. So why do I pursue its publication? Why do I keep writing?

Because I love what I do. I love my readers (all three of you!) and I love words, storytelling, the creation of other worlds and the exploration of why people do what they do. It’s been at the heart of everything I’ve done since I entered the publishing world. As a bookseller, I championed the unusual and the odd in my preferred genres, as a writer I’ve tried my best to make characters feel real, even if that means they’re not always “likeable”, and always challenged myself to try something new and different in each book (even the McNee series had a different “feel” to each book, or at least that was the intent). As an editor I like to push my authors a little, try and get them to think about what they’re doing works on a practical level – how do we build stories? – and to maybe try something new each time.

Circumstance has stopped me from writing my own fiction for longer than I would have liked. But I’m not going away. This is an industry I love, and I want to champion. I’m lucky my day job allows me to do that “behind the scenes” but I’ll be back on the stage, soon enough, even if only my dedicated readers are there. There may not be a magic moment in my future, but I’m going to keep at this as long as I can, because, goddamn, I can’t imagine a life where I could be doing anything else.

And you know part of what kept me going back in the early days? This damn blog.

Happy Birthday, you Do Some Damagers – here’s to another ten glorious years!

Russel’s latest book is Ed’s Dead, the story of a young Glaswegian bookseller who accidentally ends up becoming “the most dangerous woman in Scotland”. He has a new short story that acts as a coda to his J McNee quintet due to be published in the upcoming Book of Extraordinary Amateur Sleuths and Private Eye Stories edited by Maxim Jakubowski. He was one of the first bloggers on Do Some Damage, and misses those carefree days. More information on Russel and his workd can be found at 

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Blogging... the happy medium...

I love to blog.

Back, oh say... ten years ago?  Not so much.  In fact, my first post here at Do Some Damage started out by saying I really didn't like blogging all that much.  Blogs on the publishing scene had been around for a good 5-7 years, and it felt like anything you could talk about in writing had been covered.  I'd read so many "How To" write certain kinds of scenes that I was losing my mind.

But now?  Ten years later?

I feel like the blog post is a lost art.  Never would have expected that ten years ago, but with the advent of Facebook Status updates, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and whatever the heck Tik Tok is (it's been ten years, I'm almost 40 so I'm an old man now)... you don't get the nuance of a good blog post.  Not many people want to read 1,000 words on the state of publishing when you can get someone boiling it down to 280 characters in a tweet.

The best blog posts are like a cross between a good 3 tweet thread and a think piece someone worked seven years on.  They are the first draft of an essay.  Kind of jumbled thoughts, maybe some typos (Hey! Don't judge my fat fingers), and a bunch of cool nuggets of information.

On Twitter, I can post "Hey, the way the Hulk brought everyone back in Endgame meant those guys who flew the helicopter came back in midair. But no chopper."  But in a blog post, I can go into the deep ramifications of the way Hulk brought people back meant that millions of people who were flying on planes, or crossing the street or doing something completely mundane woke up and were immediately killed.  And, in a solid think piece, I'd have written it all months ago and really revised it and published it about the time The Eternals hits the big screen.

Yeah, so Twitter is an immediate "Should I even say this out loud" thought.  Blogs are the deeper version of that.

Which brings us to what I really like.. about books, about movies, about music and what blogs often represent.  They are the nitty gritty.  They are fast and mean and funny.  They are a bit ragged.  Sometimes people interpret them the way you don't expect and sometimes you aren't trying to be shocking at all, but the internet blows up about it.  And sometimes you are trying to be shocking and you don't get your point across as well as you hope (because it's just a damn first draft) and the idea doesn't get any traction.

I don't blog as much as I used to.  Hell, I hardly blog at all, except to cover Rutgers sports.  When I have a book out, I love to reach out and do some guest post about how Jackson Donne went from being Elvis Cole to Joe Pike (sort of).  Or how a high school basketball coach who was also a cop inspired a character of mine.  And usually, I'm working out what I worked on on the page.

So, what's my point here?

Eh, it's a blog post so I'm not really sure.  I wanted to celebrate 10 years of Do Some Damage.  I wanted to keep it upbeat and bouncy.  I didn't want to make any puns.

And I wanted to change my stance from ten years ago, because we all grow, we all learn and we all miss things.  I love to blog.  Not consistently, I don't have time for that, but you have to realize that--just like all kinds of writing--it's an art.  A little grimy, a lot of fun, and a lot of work.

So, here's to Jay and Steve and all the other writers out there who posted on Do Some Damage for ten whole years.

What a great place to visit.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

McFet turns 60

By John McFetridge
About the same time I started with Do Some Damage I became a participant in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging. At the time I felt far too young, but the participants chosen were between the ages of 45 and 85 when recruited and were to stay with the study for at least 20 years or until death. I was within the age range.

But I didn't feel like I should really be taking part in an aging study because my writing career was just starting and that made me feel young. Okay, I had been trying to start a writing career for about thirty years at that point but it was just starting and I thought it would go on for a long, long time so I felt young.

The aging study is a long questionnaire with some memory tests thrown in, done on the phone every couple of years. A lot of the questions are about my general health and some are about what medications do I take and some are about how active am I and that kind of thing. When I first started the study the interview was a lot of fun, I felt great being in good health, not taking any meds and being active. And I did pretty well at the memory tests.

Some of the questions were about personal independence, could I dress myself and wash myself and make my own meals. Good questions for an aging study and a reminder about what's coming if I'm lucky enough to make it that far.

And some of the questions are about mental health; depression, loneliness, feelings of failure and regret. I take longer to answer those than I did ten years ago.

Luckily I can still answer yes to, "Do you have more than 22 of tour own teeth," but it worries me about where this is headed.

Many of the questions are yes or no, or are the kind where a statement is made and you answer that you a) strongly agree, b) agree, c) disagree, or d) strongly disagree. Some of them are tough to answer that way. One that trips me up "I am optimistic about the future." To answer honestly I would have to say I agree I am optimistic about my future but I disagree that I'm optimistic about the overall future.

Another one that's a little tough is; People are generally good. Lately I've been saying what I think is wrong with the world is that people are generally awful. I don't really mean it, but I have started to question if always saying that we believe people are essentially good has been the best way to look at the world. People can certainly be good but, wow, can they also be really awful.

This time when I was asked if I was retired, partly retired, working part-time, or working full-time and I answered that I was partly retired. When we started Do Some Damage I was on an almost book-a-year pace which I'd planned to keep going for a lot longer than I did. The follow-up questions about why I was still working were a little tough for me to answer because the truth is, the truth I like to avoid is, that I'm not as good at it anymore. It takes me a lot longer to write a page and more and more often struggle to remember common words.

Well, that's okay, a big vocabulary was never what my writing was about anyway.

I'm pretty sure the next questionnaire I do for the study I won't do nearly as well on the memory test sections.

Between the time I started in the study, and we started Do Some Damage, I wrote three novels that are set in the 1970s, when I was between 10 and 20 years old. There's a lot of nostalgia in those books (probably too much) and I was feeling nostalgic at the time but for the most part that's passed now. That may be part of aging, too.

Getting to the end of my fifties (I turn 60 this year) I have been surprised that it's been my best decade. I certainly didn't expect that going into it. And now I expect my sixties will be even better and I really never expected that.

I think taking the aging survey has helped me realize that aging, at least this far, doesn't have to be as bad as Hollywood makes it out to be.

It's not so much the questions themselves, it's the process of answering them. This aging study looks like it will result in some very useful data for future policy-makers, but it's also just a good idea to stop and take an accounting of things once in a while. Which isn't exactly an original idea, but I think it's worth repeating.

And so are anniversaries. So, Happy Tenth Anniversary to Do Some Damage, it's a good time to stop and take a look back and a good time to look forward. I'm only partly-retired, I have a new novel coming out next year and it may be the first in a new private eye series, I'm not sure. I'm working on the second one now but I keep forgetting words like "suspect" and "case" and "client."

If you're interested in the aging study you can find information here:

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

A Crime Writer's Guide to Being There

By Jay Stringer

It's somewhere about 1986. Possibly 1987. My grandfather, who loved fishing, wanted nothing more from life than for me to share his three passions. Fishing, cricket, and football. In that order. The football thing happened. The others passed me by. He took me carp fishing one weekend, with my own junior rod, and we sat beside the lake. And we sat. And we sat. After a time, I must have been visibly bored, because he started telling me one of his stories. He got so wrapped up in the telling, and I got so absorbed in the listening, that we didn't notice when something came and took the bait from both of our lines. To my grandfather, this was a deep failure. To me, this was a deep revelation. There's something in this whole 'storytelling' thing.

It's somewhere around 2010. I'm working in a call centre, thirty-five hours a week, and leaning hard on my functioning insomnia to get books written in my 'spare time.' My line manager has called me into the board room for a private talk. "How serious are you about this job?" He says. "Because I know you've got your writing thing. But come on, I'd like to play midfield for Rangers, it's not going to happen, is it?"

It's somewhere around 1995. My GCSE History teacher, Mrs Etheridge, makes me stand up in front of the class and tells everyone I'm an example of someone who won't amount to anything, that I'm lazy, and not interested in learning. She tells me to get out of the class. My dyslexia isn't going to be diagnosed for another three years.

It's 2017. It would seem I'm having a good year. I've just been nominated for two Anthony Awards, and I'm attending Bloody Scotland, where I've been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize. Everyone greets me with a smile, a handshake, or a hug. Everyone is wishing me well. And they're all genuine. People are happy for me. So why am I not happy? Why is this whole experience draining my battery so rapidly?

It's September 2016. I'm in New Orleans. I should be having a great time. I've just organised a Noir at the Bar from across the Atlantic. I'm in a great city. I'm hanging out with friends. But something's been wrong for a while, a big black pit had been growing. One cross word from the wrong person at the wrong time, and out of nowhere, for the briefest few seconds, I'm thinking about not existing, and then I'm getting blackout drunk as a form of self-defence, to push past that feeling.

You know that bit in Goodfellas, where Henry tells us all he ever wanted to do was be in the mob? Same story, but find/replace 'mob' for 'writer.'  I've had many other dreams along the way, naturally. My first real love was standup comedy. I tried songwriting. I tried screenwriting and making student films. Eventually I came round to realising that all I wanted to do, all I'd ever really wanted to do, was sit and write conversations between interesting characters. Interesting to me, at least.

When we started DoSomeDamage in 2009, I'd taken a few big steps towards my dream job, but I wasn't there yet. I'd been nominated for a Derringer Award, for a story called The Hard Sell published over at BeatToAPulp. I didn't know anything about it until I got an email from Al Guthrie congratulating me. Around this time I landed an agent. Steve Weddle dropped me a line to say we should start a group blog, and we spent a few weeks putting all together. I felt a sense of momentum towards what I wanted. And that was all I was thinking about. Getting there. Because there wasn't here. All of the problems of here would vanish once I got there.

My first book deal came in 2011. That contract led to so many great things. Some of my favourite people are in my life because of those early connections. But at the same time as these things all seem to be going well, I'm having real problems in the here. In the day-job -a shitty call centre full of corporate speak and managers who seem to have no clue or interest in people- I'm starting to unravel. For the first time, finally, in my thirties, I'm admitting how much I struggle with basic tasks, and I'm slowly learning to ask for help. I tell my line manager that I'm making mistakes on their computer system, and that I think it's down to my dyslexia. Really? He says. I haven't noticed anything, but let's have a meeting. We have the meeting. I go seek expert advice and report back. We agree to monitor the situation. A few months later, I'm in a different team, under a different manager, and I'm being disciplined for making mistakes. They put me through the full disciplinary process, resulting in a written warning. At one point during this, a senior manager says to me 'why are you choosing to make these mistakes?' Like you'd ask a blind person why they're choosing not to see. When I appeal the warning, they put me through the process again just to uphold the decision. They have managed to lose any proof of me ever raising the problem with them in advance. No record of the meeting. No proof of me seeking advice. A thirty-something man has finally gotten over his male programming and admitted he needs help, and is kicked in the face repeatedly for doing it. So the writing career starts to become an even more important there. My route out, my way to hold down a job I can live with. The next deal becomes crucial. Everything is riding on it. I'm becoming shitty to live with. I'm not breathing properly when I get back from work. My body is breaking down. I've piled on weight. I'm no fun to be with. And my wife, the only person who ever really gets to see the full real version of me, is saying that I need to go to a doctor.

Finally, I listen, and visit my GP. It only takes him a few seconds to diagnose me, and he tells me I'm not going back to work until I'm healthy. I spend the next four months signed off from the call centre. That part isn't new, I wrote about it on DSD back at the time, summer 2014. (When, oh yeah, I was also campaigning for Scottish Independence in the most heavily unionist part of Glasgow, because I needed a fight to pick.) I discovered cycling. Over the last few years, that's one of the main things people have come to know me for. Fixed-gear cycling. the words Zen and mediation are overused by people who haven't studied Zen and don't meditate. But in my shallow understanding of the terms at the time, I start telling people that's what cycling does for me. When I'm on my bike, I'm not thinking about the past or the future, I'm not thinking all that much at all, I'm just doing. All the worries go away. The thoughts. The conflict between the there and the here. So I figured I was fixed. I'd sorted it out. Just get on a bike when things get too much, and clear out the head.

In late 2015 my book Ways to Die in Glasgow is doing pretty well. After a good couple of months, I'm looking at my incoming royalty cheque and I can do it now. I can get out of the shitty job. Go live the dream. So I take the jump....everything's going to be great, right?


'Living the dream' and going full time didn't solve any of my issues. It just removed the mask placed over them by a shitty day job. All the insecurities, all the doubts, all the fears. They were still there. All the social awkwardness, covered over by booze at festivals and conventions, was still there. Suddenly, being a full time writer was the here, and now I needed something else to be the there. So what's next? The big book. The worst phrase in publishing. I spent two years trying to write something that would sell. Trying to second guess my own voice and find something that was commercial. And I no longer enjoyed writing. The one thing I'd always wanted, and now I hated doing it.

And into that mix you throw the usual career issues. The end of a relationship with a publisher, the time to move on. In New Orleans I went to a dark place, and it showed me I needed to fix something, but I didn't know what it was. And then by 2017 I have three award nominations, and yet Scotland's main arts funding organisation turns me down for support because I'm not established enough.

Somewhere in here you're starting to feel even worse, because you're 'living the dream.' There are people who would kill to have what you have, you remind yourself. And yet you're not enjoying it. And, finally, it's starting to show. People are starting to see your attitude has shifted. People are starting to associate you with bad moods, or snark. You're not that guy, except, you're becoming that guy. Because you've managed to turn the thing you loved into just another version of the call centre job you hated.

I go back to work. Real work. I become a bike courier. Pounding the potholes of Glasgow, fighting with the drivers, for less than minimum wage. And it's fun, I get paid to be outdoors, I get paid to do one of my favourite things, and I don't have any manager calling me into an office to be an asshole. But everything feels like it's getting further away. The brain fizzes. The insecurities bounce around. You walk into Bloody Scotland, being greeted by everybody, and deep down you're thinking, I hate this job, and everything is riding on what happens here, and why does it look like I'm doing well when my credit cards are a month overdue, and I don't know where my share of the mortgage is coming from at the end of the month. Why do people think I'm doing well when I'm loading up on my credit card just to be able to attend Bouchercon?

I don't know what the exact moment was. When I started to figure shit out. Or...I probably do. There have been a few things that have happened in the last six months, off the back of events that happened in the previous year. And some of you know these details, some don't. It would be a whole other story, and I need to save something for DSD's twentieth anniversary. But somewhere in all of this, everything started to make more sense.

Not financially. Shit, you want secure finances, don't be a writer. I'm reaching the end of my run as a bike courier because I'm 39, and earning less than minimum wage isn't sustainable. My bones are tired when I wake up every morning. I'm applying for real jobs again now and it's like getting out of prison after four years, there's no clear way to re-enter the jobs market, and nobody understands what you've been doing in that big gap on your CV. I've already been blanked by one company I applied to, for a job I've done before. There's a whole bunch of questions there yet to be resolved, but you learn to live in the unresolved.

But emotionally, things make more sense. And this is the point of today's blog. After the darker things I've touched on, and the fears, the insecurities that all writers are familiar with, I've come to a place where I'm happy with writing. The thing is, we can't keep pushing our self-worth and happiness into getting there. We have to live in the now. Writing was all I'd ever wanted to do, and somewhere along the way, I'd lost sight of why. In my last year, my thoughts have formed around three rules:

1. Find a thing you love doing
2. Put in the work to get good at it
3. Draw your self-worth from doing it, not from what you think you'll get from having done it. 

It's a long way round to saying be present and live in the moment. If you want to be a writer, do yourself a favour and learn to enjoy writing, not having written. It's a magic trick. We take a blank page, through nothing but out own will and imagination, we start filling it with words. And those words are people, and places, and emotions, and events. How is that not the best thing on the planet? 

And...Thats basically it. Marah Chase and the Conqueror's Tomb dropped last month. It's a book that many people would have told the confused, angry, 2016 version of me not to write. The sequel is written. Immediately after finishing that, I raced through another book, about a Bounty Hunter in Arizona who is hired by criminals to go after a standup comedian. I loved the hell out of the writing of it. I enjoyed listening to the characters, seeing where they went next. I was living the moment, and having blast doing rather than thinking. And since I finished that book? Nothing. I'm letting my mind wander (while busting my ass delivering food.) I'll have edits on the Chase sequel soon from my publisher. And notes back from my agent on the Bounty Hunter book. And both of those steps will make the work better. And meanwhile, I'm not starting anything new until I have an idea that I'll enjoy working on. 

And with this realisation, I started to enjoy the job again. Attending festivals and conventions felt fun, simply hanging out with people, cracking jokes, and not worrying about any of the bullshit. 

Make no mistake, this isn't me giving up on writing a book that sells. I still want that. Of course I do. I can't shake the notion that a writer should be able to make a living from writing. The publishing industry isn't perfect, but it's still the place I want to be. I want you to go buy the hell out of Marah Chase, and the sequel. But I want success as me. I want it to be as a result of enjoying what I do. Whenever I sit down to write, I need to be that kid sitting beside a lake, lost in the art and the joy of storytelling. Chase is part of that, writing those books is about having fun. I'm not planning ahead now. I'm writing the books I want to write in the moment. 

And hey, I'm not total dummy. I have a book to sell. Go buy it. Also, I have a live event tonight at Waterstones Argyle Street, from 7pm. Come along. 

Monday, August 5, 2019

Querying agents? Remember to respect and engage

By Steve Weddle

As you know if you've read this site since we launched in 2009, I'm known as the somber, forgiving, helpful person around here.

Over the past decade, we’ve had some here who would make jokes about what was going on in publishing, about something an author had done or said. We welcomed the silliness, as we hope to offer a variety of voices. As you know, this is a serious business meant to be taken seriously.

And we’ve had critics here at DSD post unforgiving looks at some actions out there on the bookternet, usually something characterized as “condescending” or “jackassery” from a best-selling author. I, as you know, have never poked fun nor taken any other authors “to task” for something they’ve done. We are all doing our best out here.

No, I’m the helpful one, the one with tips and hints and honest looks at the business. Which is why I wanted to bring Boomerang for email to your attention.

In the course of querying agents and getting a publishable draft together, authors can make use of many tools and tips, and Boomerang is one of the best, so let’s start there.

Boomerang for email. You can use this for Outlook or Gmail or, likely, a dozen other email programs. While Boomerang does many things, this is the killer for me:

Remind you if you don’t hear back: There are times you need to make sure you follow up within a specific time frame after sending a message. You can select to only be reminded if nobody replies, or regardless. This way you won't let messages slip through the crack and will never forget to follow up with people.

Yes. If you email someone, you’ll get a reminder after a week or two if they didn’t respond to you. Sure, you can drop that email in your “Follow Up” folder and check it during your Friday afternoon cleanups and action captures (or whatever system you use), but wouldn’t it be easier if you just got an email notification?

This would be exceptionally helpful when you’re querying agents. Agents are busy people, often bombarded with dozens of manuscripts each year, nearly all of them far worse than yours. Why should your manuscript suffer because of this? Set Boomerang to remind you after two weeks if you haven’t heard from an agent. Maybe set it for every two weeks on a recurring schedule, or more often if your manuscript is really great. Depending on the quality of your work, every couple days might be appropriate.

Also, keeping in mind how busy agents are, be sure to clarify what type of novel you’re sending. If you’re sending a mystery novel that’s of passing quality, be sure to let the agent know it’s a mystery novel. But, if it’s really, really good, then it’s probably a “literary mystery.” Even better, if the mystery novel is really, really, really good, then it’s probably a “literary thriller.”

Now, let’s unpack that a little. If your mystery contains a murder, that’s great. If it contains a murder and a foreign country, then it’s a thriller. If it contains a murder, a foreign country, and a chase scene, then it’s what we call “cross genre.” Think of something that contains both science and fiction? Science fiction is a really successful type of cross genre. A murder mystery is also cross genre, because it contains murder and mystery. Cross genre is very popular, so be sure to mention that if you want to sell a bunch of books.

Keeping in mind how busy agents are, staying on their radar is essential to getting a good book deal. Let’s face it. Most books out there are not very good. What keeps a great writer from a great book deal? We all know the answer: social media. To get an agent to notice you, you’ll want to send in a manuscript (or at least the part of the manuscript you’ve finished). But you’ll also need to engage with the agents on social media. Agents are always talking about how they’re looking for “engaging” stories. Be sure to engage. Follow the agent on Twitter, Instagram, Ello, Facebook, Mastodon, and so forth. Show the agent that you are following everything he or she is saying. Respond. Retweet. Drop in little reminders, such as, “Oh, what a cute cat you have. This reminds me of the cat in the book I sent you last week. #Twinning.”

Finally, be sure to let the agent know that you understand the business. When you’re querying your novel with agents, include some cover images you think would be appropriate for your novel. You think agents are busy? Try publishers. You think a publisher has time to make all those covers? No. Sometimes a publisher has to hire that done, so be sure to tell the agent whether you have a friend who can make the cover for you, or whether you know how to use CorelDraw or something similar. Publishing is looking to save money. Let the agent know ways you can help.

And, speaking of helping, I trust that this has. I’ll be taking a break from social media, but Dave White has offered to field any cards of thanks or comments you might have. Reach out to him at @Dave_White if you feel the urge. You’re welcome.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Writer, Know Thyself

by Holly West

April 2009
When Do Some Damage started in 2009, I was just an itty-bitty baby writer who hadn't even finished the first draft of my novel-in-progress. I was hopeful, so hopeful, with big dreams of multi-book deals, Edgar nominations, and crime fiction super-stardom.

If I could finish the goddamn book, that is.

That hope sustained me. If I'd ever doubted my eventual publishing success I probably wouldn't have followed through. And even then, it took me five full years to finish a draft I thought was publishable, plus six or more months of querying and rejections, a professional edit, and an extensive rewrite before MISTRESS OF FORTUNE finally found a home at Carina Press, the ebook imprint of Harlequin Books (now a subsidiary of Harper Collins. I think. It's hard to keep track of who owns who, at this point). I secured a two-book deal and wrote the second in the series, MISTRESS OF LIES, in eight months. Both books were published in 2014.

I haven't finished writing a novel since.

If I'm being honest, there's a part of me that wishes I'd put MISTRESS OF FORTUNE in the proverbial desk drawer. The series didn't sell well and my fears for my publishing future were stoked into a raging blaze. I didn't stop writing but I stopped believing I'd ever publish anything of any note again, so really, why bother? I still called myself a writer but only in the flimsiest sense. I wrote short stories here and there and did what I considered the bare minimum to keep myself in the game.

Please don't take that last statement as a denunciation of short fiction. I love short fiction and I love writing it. But my larger goal was to write novels and I stopped following through on that.

Somewhere along the line, Steve Weddle, who seems to have been there at every point in my "career" (he published my first short story, did you know?) asked me to be Wednesday's contributor on Do Some Damage. At the time, I felt I still had something to say. Not wisdom, exactly, but I had been published, I did have some experience. Week after week, I wrote posts, sometimes about my process, sometimes about my life, sometimes about my depression, and sometimes, about nothing substantial at all. I tendered my resignation when I was finally tired of hearing myself speak and those throw-away posts became more frequent than not.

This all sounds very sad-sack, but I promise it will get better.

But first, it gets worse.

2018 was an exciting year for me, publishing-wise. Down & Out Books agreed to publish a charity anthology inspired by the music of the Go-Go's, edited by me. A group of some of the best crime fiction writers in the business signed on to write stories for it. I enjoyed the editing process even more than I expected to. From start to finish, MURDER-A-GO-GO'S was a labor of love.

My own writing? Not so much. By the time 2019 rolled in I was ready to call it quits. Who was I kidding? I was never gonna write another novel and it didn't seem to matter anymore. My plan was to launch MURDER-A-GO-GO'S then sail off into the sunset. Or, that's what I wanted to do. In reality, I had one more project I had to finish, a novella I'd agreed to write for Frank Zafiro's "A Grifter's Song" series.

Writing that novella, titled THE MONEY BLOCK, helped to change everything. In true Holly West form, I waited until nearly the last minute to write it, which meant I had to work smart if I wanted to finish on time and deliver a good book. I returned to the method I used when I wrote MISTRESS OF LIES all those years ago: I plotted the entire story in detail before I got down to the actual writing and used that road map to quickly write a fairly clean first draft. Two drafts later, I had completed a manuscript I was proud to submit (and nearly a month before the deadline, to boot).

At less than twenty thousand words, THE MONEY BLOCK is a small project, really more of a long short story. But finishing it served two functions: 1) The subject matter was new to me (cryptocurrency) and I wasn't sure I could pull it off. But I did pull it off. 2) Writing it reminded me how much I loved the creative process.

Or, put it this way. I enjoyed the way I felt about myself while I was writing it. I was happier, I felt like I had a purpose. I'd returned to a process I knew was effective for me from past experience and I put in the work.

Did you hear what I said? I PUT IN THE WORK. And I knew if I wanted to keep feeling good about myself, I needed to keep putting in the work.

That's all it's really about, isn't it? Putting in the work, with no guarantee of success or acceptance other than the satisfaction derived from the process itself. I did the work and I remembered I like the work and that the work makes me feel more whole. I realized that writing is good for me and that I'm well-suited to do it if I make the choice to shut out other distractions and get it done.

I'm getting it done.

July 2019
I can't promise you I'm completely reformed and that I'll have a new novel ready to shop by the end of the year. I titled this post "Know Thyself" for a reason, and I know myself and my capacity for self-delusion. But I can tell you that I've made significant progress in the past three months and I like the way that feels.

So, ten years later, I'm... what? An adolescent writer? All pimples and braces and training bras and first kisses? More like menopause and Spanx and a snoring spouse. And pimples. I still get pimples.

Certainly, I haven't yet reached full writer adulthood. But I'm slowly growing up, letting go of insecurities and envy and taking responsibility for myself and my own work. All it took was 50 years.


Happy 10th Anniversary to Do Some Damage. I'm proud to have been a part of it.

Most of all, thank you to Steve Weddle, who has always had my back. We should all have such friends.