Saturday, September 7, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 36

Scott D. Parker

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 4, 2019


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

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

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

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

I highly recommend both.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Time, Perceptions, Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 2, 2019

Rob Pierce introduces us to TOMMY SHAKES


by Rob Pierce 
Cover art by J.T. Lindroos

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, perfectly said.

For more wicked words please visit Rob:

Sunday, September 1, 2019

What's in a Name?

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