Saturday, September 21, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 38

Scott D. Parker

I was told there'd be no math in writing.

Turns out, there is, and it's telling.

The Math And Nothing But The Math

My wife is learning a new art technique: paint pouring. It involves putting various amounts of paint and other synthetics in a receptacle (cup, colander, anything really) and pouring it on the canvas. Then you manipulate the canvas in your hands until you find your work of art.

Let me give you an example.

But here's the thing: at almost any stage, you can literally scrape all the paint off and start over.

Every so often, veteran writer Dean Wesley Smith likes to do the same kind of thing with the writing business. This week, it's with math. Specifically the math involving the money one makes as a traditionally published author vs. the money one makes as an indie writer. The post was prompted by a traditionally published author's piece on Medium. Dean didn't want to comment on the author, but I actually found it. Wasn't difficult considering Chuck Wendig also offered a response, albeit from a traditionally published author's point of view.

Dean has done math posts before, mainly from a word count point of view. Here he examines the finances. It's sobering. I read his post first when it was published on Wednesday. As an indie writer, I'm part of the choir. But when I discovered the original post and read it, I was sobered even further. How many of us would, more or less, do the same thing? The answer is likely somewhere north of lot of us.

The biggest caveat to Dean's outlook is time. His view is long term. His way takes time. It'll likely end up making more money, but it'll be stretched out over years. For folks who intend to make a living writing as their sole income, they'll need money right now. For someone like me, who holds down a day job with hopes and dreams of writing fiction full time, I have the time to wait. Ain't always fun, but it's good steady work with writing on the side.

If you read the comments, you'll see me in there. I asked Dean about advertising and how we should factor in an advertising budget into the cost of a single book. His response was one, while it makes sense, I don't necessarily agree with 100%. "Let your books build," was his response. Over time, I should get the 42 books sold per month average he uses to make his case for the indie life. Sure, that's something, but I probably should have posed the question about promotion. How is the best way to promote out books? The age-old question, isn't it?

Here's Dean's post. Here's Chuck's response. Here's the original post that prompted everything.

BTW, Dean does a follow-up. It's here.

Definitely food for thought. What are yours?

Unforgotten TV Show

My wife and I enjoyed Season 3 of this BBC show earlier this year via our local PBS station, Houston's KUHT. The characters are a nice counterpoint to traditional cops in TV shows, even traditional cops in BBC police procedurals.  Neither DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) or DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) are from the standard mold. Neither are troubled. Neither are raging alcoholics with some vague past that threatens to rear its ugly head. They're just ...people. Granted, people whose job it is to crack cold cases, but their just a couple of folks who care for and respect each other and get the job done.

And it's so refreshing.

That doesn't mean this pair is dull. Far from it. But they are refreshing in their mundane-ness.

Of the three seasons, the second really hits home partly for the story and plot, but mainly for the acting. There are a trio of folks Cassie and Sunny zero in on during their investigation, and those three actors--Mark Bonnar as Colin Osborne; Badria Timimi as Sara Mahmoud; and Rosie Cavaliero as Marion Kelsey--are fantastic. There is a moment in the last episode where Bonnar has a particular scene, that, as my wife and I sat watching, we were utterly spellbound. When the scene shifted, I realized I had involuntarily held my breath for a bit, so engrossed was I in what he was saying and the spectacular delivery. Turns out he won a BAFTA for the role.

You watched the show?

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Tyranny of the Interview (and pants)

When you're a new writer, interviews are a joy. Oh, you want to ask little old moi where I get my story ideas? *pulls up a chair, ties you in it*
But the more interviews you give and take, the less interesting they become. I try to make interviews interesting for the subject and the audience, as well as my self. I have a boundless curiosity, a rather childlike inquisitive mind, and little capacity for embarrassment, which I use to my advantage. For a year I interviewed crime fiction writers from Patti Abbott to Lawrence Block on my website, in a series called "Belly Up to the Bar." Some questions were repeated, but I tried to get a few out of left field. Some authors have been asked it all, after sixty plus years in the biz, and it's tough to excite them.
I commiserate with Saeed Jones's statement. I would much prefer to meet an author for coffee and record our conversation on my phone and transcribe the juicy bits than come up with interview questions that they must write short essays to respond to. Perhaps Twitter would be a good medium, limiting questions to 280 characters and responses to a couple tweets per? It takes the proper writer, someone fast on their tweet as it were, to keep up. But with the popularity of AMA threads (ask me anything) this may be my new go-to for Twitter-savvy authors.

I recently interviewed Joyce Carol Oates for CrimeReads—it's not published yet, so don't bother looking—and the questions were lost in email hell for a month or so. She was kind to take the time to respond to my rather detailed interrogations, but was despondent at the idea of having to write responses again, and I do not blame her. Even someone as prolific as Oates—seriously, she had two more books published since I pitched the interview, and an anthology she edited is about to be published as well—answering these questions has become a burden, as you can tell from the short responses the more seasoned authors give. Read Lawrence Block's "Belly Up to the Bar" interview for a couple of quick witty rejoinders that parry my attempts at getting him to write an essay for free!

He was gracious, and so was JCO. Many writers have asked for a moratorium on the most repeated questions, that have become a running joke for decades: "where do you get your ideas?" Because for a writer, we can't imagine not getting ideas. It's what we do, we observe the hot mess that is humanity and get inspired to write a story. The best interviews I've read of late have been lightly edited chats; here's a good one with Stephanie McCarter and Jia Tolentino on sexual brutality in Ovid's Metamorphoses, for example. Another excellent one by Matt Zoller Seitz with Sady Doyle on her book Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers that does a deep dive into Frankenstein, is a great read.

You can't do this easily via email; there needs to be back-and-forth, quick thinking, not an author sitting at their chair with all the time in the world to craft the perfect answer. But there are time constraints, especially when it's an author promoting a new book. Meeting somewhere? In a digital world, without teleporters? Madness. Even an hour of FaceTime becomes difficult to schedule. You can get away with not wearing pants, but you need a shirt and to get your hair did. Maybe a text chat in Google Hangouts or similar, Twitter DMs, is a good place to start? I'll attempt that for my next interview, and we'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Keep Open Mind, Go See Film, Decide What You Think

Recently, over on his own blog, Jedidiah Ayres wrote a superb piece about the soon to open film, The Joker.  In the piece, Jed discussed the portrayal, in fiction, of people who do terrible things.  To quote a few lines from Jed's piece: "But as a writer, I am very here for the challenge of humanizing horrible characters because when we write off real people who do horrible things as 'monsters' or 'unhuman' we do a disservice to ourselves.

They are human and what they do is monstrous."

You should read the entire piece because, as usual with Jed when he talks about film (and not just film, of course), he's fearless and illuminating.

If you haven't read it yet, you can read it here: "I Started a Joke".

I mention Jed's piece because aside from all the dead-on points he makes, it appears that The Joker is symptomatic of a syndrome that never ceases to recur.

What am I getting at?  

Just this:

The Joker has divided the people who've seen it.  In both Venice and Toronto, the festivals it played at, it drew praise and stoked concern.  Okay.  That happens.  What's off-putting are the all-in reactions you see from people yet to see the movie.  As I say, there is nothing new about this; it's a sad and pitiful road that people continue to take.  

A previous example that comes to my mind, that I remember: the opprobrium thrown, way back in 1988, at Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, before the film had even opened, protests and outrage and boycotts by Christian groups over the depiction of Jesus in the film.  If you had to characterize this in political terms, I guess you could say this was outrage coming from conservative groups. 

Why so narrow-minded and reductive, conservative people?

But then there was the anxiety, again floating around before the film had opened in the United States, that led up to the release of David Fincher's Fight Club, in 1999. "What are we going to see?" some people were asking.  "Is this film a right-wing fascistic fantasia?"  I'm not sure what these people based their perception of the film on;  again, the film hadn't opened before many were giving their definitive take-downs of the movie, and as I recall, none of these take-downs referred to Chuck Palahniuk's novel as the source of the problem.  In other words, people who hadn't even read the book or seen the movie knew the movie just had to be somewhat fascistic based on what they imagined the movie was.  Like The Joker, Fight Club had premiered at the Venice Film Festival to a very polarized reaction among critics, and word that it had to do with men fighting and secret societies and violence naturally meant - to some - that it contained a right-wing, proto-fascist slant.  If you had to characterize this in political terms, I guess you could say this outrage, for the most part, came from liberal-minded people.

Why so narrow-minded and reductive, liberal people?
And, oh yes, with Fight Club there was something else. There was the worry that the film would incite copycat violence.  Have we not heard this exact same fear expressed about The Joker?  

I don't know whether I'll like or dislike The Joker, and in all honesty, it's gonna have to be really damn good for me to rank it anywhere near Fincher's film.  But I want it to be a film I consider a good film.  Why wouldn't I?  There is always an abundance of poor and mediocre films made, so every time a good film is made, that's a plus.  There are films you hear about that you expect will probably not be good - fair enough - but why would you root for a film you haven't seen to be a stinker?  It's remarkable to me that I see comments online where people essentially applaud the negative reviews they see about The Joker not because the movie may actually not be great (possible), but because they want to see it taken down a notch after reading the good reviews it got. What we're talking about here is people having what you might call a psychological stake in a film based on what they read about the film because they're convinced the film carries a certain ideology.  Convinced by what?  I can't quite say. They haven't yet seen the film.  Of course, when they do see the film (if they do), the odds of them going into the film with anything like an open mind are very high. 

When does The Joker come out, by the way? I have to check, reserve my seat.  I don't know whether I'll be there opening night like I was with The Last Temptation of Christ and Fight Club, but I'm sure I'll be there soon after it opens.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Why do we like the dark?

By Marietta Miles

How often are you, crime writing friends, asked why you write about such a dark subject? Moreover, as a reader, do you wonder why you like to read about crime?

Is the reason I am fascinated with crime and horror a reflection of my fears and concerns? Or is it a reflection of something dark living inside of me?

When I was a kid and my mom and I would visit the library, I would sit in the adult section, while she combed the stacks, and pour over THE MAMMOTH BOOK of MURDER. Eyes big and the hair standing up on the back of my neck.
The first short stories I wrote, years ago, and submitted for publishing were vicious and horrific. So disturbing, I was often turned down for inappropriate content. As I matured, I realized that a tale must be more than just intense snapshots of savagery and brutality took a back seat to story.

After becoming a mother and stepping up as caretaker in my family, the idea of the victim became one I couldn’t let go. I was plagued by thoughts of the helpless falling victim to horrible fates. It seems apparent why my thoughts would hover over these ideas. I was overwhelmed by the vulnerability of those I love and mowed down by such intense and enormous emotions.

Experiencing all these emotions and even knowing the reasons, I still find myself obsessed with the dark. Why?

There's this book... 
by Rachel Monroe

Savage Appetites: 
Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession

Journalist Rachel Monroe, recent finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists, named as one of 56 women journalists everyone should read by New York Magazine, and admitted fan of true crime fiction, brings us SAVAGE APPETITES.

This is Monroe’s first book and is part personal account and part social research.  It explores the darkest part of the human mind and attempts to understand the fixation our society has with violence and brutality.

In SAVAGE APPETITES we meet four women, each a perfect example, each obsessed with true crime. First, Frances Glessner Lee, who created the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, composite crime scene models recreated on a one-inch-to-one-foot scale. These were dioramas used as police training tools to help crime scene investigators learn detailed forensics-based detection. Her fascination with murder gave the crime fighting community a new tool for justice.

There is Alisa Statman, a writer and director who inserted herself into the myth of the Manson murders, living in the very house where Sharon Tate and others were killed and eventually writing a book. All of this without proper authorization or research.
Lori Davis, a landscape architect, who fell in love with—and set out to prove the innocence of—one of the West Memphis Three. Her story being one of perseverance. 
Finally, there is Lindsay Souvannarath, a young woman obsessed with the Columbine killers. Enthralled and inspired by the massacre, Lindsay began to make and move on her own plans of mass murder.

Rachel Monroe delves into possible reasons why women are drawn to tales of brutality. Do we read violence to prepare for violence? Women are constantly reminded, by deeds or by stories, of their fragility in this world. Is it possible that we read James Patterson, Thomas Harris or TRUE CRIME magazine so we are prepared for what we think will eventually happen to us?  

Or, do we read violence because we like it, because we see a reflection of our own desires in the acts we are reading? Is it a release or a danger sign?

In searching for an answer Monroe presents each woman’s narrative alongside her own, making this a personal read and pulling together all of the stories so that they relate. SAVAGE APPETITES is a well-written, well-researched book that does not offer up easy answers. By the end, Monroe seems to infer that there are too many reasons to count. Every individual has their own, complicated reasoning.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Doing Time: Jail vs. Prison for a Desperate Housewife

Felicity Huffman was sentenced Friday for her role in the college admissions scandal. She paid $15,000 for a test cheater to bump up her daughter’s SAT scores. The actor got 14 days in the slammer. And this is where—from my persnickety copy-editing point of view—things got interesting. And infuriating.
Jail and prison are not the same thing. They cannot be used interchangeably. Yet they were, repeatedly, during the coverage and social media conversations about Huffman’s case. I also see the mistake in crime fiction every once in a while. It makes me cringe there, too.
Time magazine's coverage. They didn't mention that the federal Bureau of Prisons will be the one assigning her to a facility.
Admittedly, this case presented some challenges that aren’t usually there when you need to differentiate between jail and prison. I’ll get to those in a minute.
Typically, any criminal sentence less than a year is served in a jail. Jails are operated by local authorities, usually counties. They are designed to hold people who are awaiting trial or serving time for misdemeanor convictions. Prisons are operated by either a state or the federal government (there are also some privately run prisons—the same terminology holds true for them, too). They are for people who’ve been convicted of  felonies. Now, occasionally a person in prison might get out after serving less than a year (good behavior on an already low-year sentence or other reasons) but generally, this is how it works.
This information is pure gold for the crime fiction writer who needs a setting in the lockup. The two places have very different environments and you can create very different characters to populate them. Many times, though, writers just need a toss-off reference and that's where the errors creep in. Your main character's uncle isn't at the birthday party because he's incarcerated for a first-time drunk driving offense?  Uncle Billy isn't in prison. He's in jail.
Now let’s get to Felicity. This was fascinating to me, because it did not hold to the usual rules. She was sentenced to 14 days in "a facility designated by the Bureau of Prisons." The federal Bureau of Prisons doesn’t run jails, so it’s a reasonable bet that news organizations took when they said that she will serve prison time—even though she’ll only be there two weeks.  
Here's the Associated Press, which appears to have done the same thing I did. It reflexively said 14 days in jail (bottom tweet), then corrected itself later after looking at the judge's Bureau of Prisons statement.
Breaking news is tough. Journalism is hard. The AP did it right here, and consistently stayed with prison for the rest of its coverage. Not like some places. This right here is the absolute cardinal sin: A headline that doesn’t match the story. 

The enlarged lead paragraph of the story on a TV station website.
If all this is still confusing, then use a tried-and-true route. Pick a word that could mean either, like I did up above. It's not a solution in the journalism world--no editor would ever let you use them--but in fiction, they might accomplish what you need.
Hell, use the word pokey. It might be corny, but at least it isn't wrong.