Saturday, May 16, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 20

Week 20 of a Year of an Indie Writer is available on my YouTube Channel.

Today, I discuss a recent interview with Larry Brooks and Joanna Penn about Larry's new book, GREAT STORIES DON'T WRITE THEMSELVES.

Dave Grohl quote:
The Foo Fighters frontman received a handwritten letter from Springsteen a few days later that he said "explained this very clearly": "When you look out at the audience, you should see yourself in them, just as they should see themselves in you."

Read More: How Bruce Springsteen Humiliated Dave Grohl

Friday, May 15, 2020

Beau Bouncing Hard with Todd Robinson

This week, Beau Johnson takes a look at The Hard Bounce from Todd Robinson and Tyrus Books.

In this dynamic hard-boiled quasi-PI novel by Robinson, editor of the crime short fiction webzine Thuglit and its anthologies, the burly William “Boo” Malone, with his bouncer friend Darrell “Junior” McCullough, runs the 4DC Security outfit based out of a Boston blue-collar bar called the Cellar. This friendship goes back to the dysfunctional orphanage where they met after a harrowing incident separated Boo from his family. The two are hired by DA Jack Donnelly to find his missing teenage “hell-on-wheels” daughter, Cassie, but have to stay under the news media’s radar since Donnelly is a mayoral candidate. Trading often funny wisecracks, Boo and Junior tangle with Danny Barnes, Donnelly’s ornery chief troubleshooter, before discovering Cassie has been forced to make snuff porn films. Buried emotions resurface when Donnelly insinuates that if Boo finds Cassie, Donnelly might find Boo’s long-lost sister. Determined to get to the bottom of the snuff-porn ring, Boo survives stakeouts, a beating, a shooting, and a run-in with the local mob boss before he and Junior wrap up their first case, neither tidily nor predictably, leaving enough setup for what may become a sturdy new crime fiction series.


Thursday, May 14, 2020

One Approach To Writing Short Stories

By Chris Rhatigan

As the co-editor of All Due Respect, I read a high volume of short stories. These days, the quality of submissions is high. Most of what we receive is fairly close to on target—the right length, in the right genre, not too many typos or other glaring errors. Still, if I reach the end of a story and think, “Whelp, nothing wrong with that,” I’m unlikely to recommend accepting it. After all, if co-editor David Nemeth and I aren’t jazzed about a story, then what’s the point in publishing it?

It’s difficult to define what makes a good short story. Certainly, there are no set rules, and writers have proven the medium is flexible enough for a range of approaches. One of the best stories I’ve read in recent years is “Movie Version” by Tom Sweterlitsch in The Swamp Killers (edited by E.A. Aymar and Sarah M. Chen). This experimental story follows none of the principles I’ve laid out here.

In other words, there are many different ways of constructing a good short story. I’m going to walk you through one way of doing that here. Each aspect I discuss below puts a limit on the writing to better maintain focus.

Minimize the number of characters
This is critical for two reasons. The first is that adding too many characters will confuse the reader, making it more difficult for them to become absorbed in the story. The second is because, in my opinion, character is the most important element of short stories.

Establish two interesting characters, then put them into conflict with each other. This is a reliable formula for writing a good short story. The plot is direct: Character A wants something; Character B wants to prevent them from getting that something. The drama comes from how things go down, rather than from what happens.

An excellent example of this is “Mad Dog,” by Stephen D. Rogers. This guy is a master of the form and has written more than 800 (!) stories.

This story only has two on-page characters—Mad Dog and the narrator. The narrator wakes up to find Mad Dog is pointing a gun at his face. She says she’s taking him on a ride and, as you’d imagine, he doesn’t want to go on that ride. The electric fight scene that’s the climax of the story nearly costs both characters their lives. Adding more characters would lessen the drama, tension, and focus that Rogers establishes.

Simplify the plot
You don’t need a twist to construct a good short story. In fact, one of the most common mistakes I see is writers constructing stories that are built around a twist. In other words, the first three-quarters of the story seems to express, “wait for it, wait for it, the twist is coming!” Every part of a story should be engaging—not just the end. A related problem is that twists are so common that the law of diminishing returns kicks in. I would imagine most readers have seen plenty of twist endings. 

Simple plots that are handled with expert care and focus on a natural progression of events tend to make stronger stories.

Take “The Biggest Myth,” by Tom Pitts. Christophe is a lender who’s talking with Jerome about his debt. These two characters have opposite goals: Christophe wants his payment one way or another, and Jerome is desperate to wriggle free from his obligations. Note that this story only has two characters.

The brilliance of this piece is in the patient way Pitts builds the tension. Christophe politely asks Jerome for a cup of coffee as he lectures him about the inner workings of his less-than-legit lending business.

At first, Christophe seems reasonable, business-like. He comments on the smell of the coffee as it brews. He then prepares the coffee to his liking. It’s not hot enough, so he reheats it in the microwave. Slowly, Christophe reveals that while harming debtors isn’t usually in his best interest, he’s prepared to make an exception here. Then Christophe throws the scalding-hot drink in Jerome’s face.

Keep it in medias res
It’s tempting to explain everything to the reader, to provide every detail of the character’s backstory to make what happens in the story relevant.

But resisting that temptation leads to more engaging short fiction. You as the writer may want to know the backstory and details for yourself, but allowing the reader to fill in the finer points is part of the magic. 

Keep the focus on a single moment in time and in a single location. The reader will discover the character through what they do and say and think in this moment. Many successful short stories are only one scene.

Both the stories I’ve referred to do this: “Mad Dog” takes place in the narrator’s home. “The Biggest Myth” takes place entirely in Jerome’s kitchen. And they both happen in real time, with very little about the characters’ backgrounds being revealed.

Make it about one thing
Often the best stories are unified around a single idea. “The Tut,” by Paul D. Brazill is illustrative.

The reader is informed in the opening line that Oliver has, after enduring forty-five years of marriage that was, “at best, like wading through treacle,” murdered his wife. Oliver is initially overjoyed with his decision. But he becomes increasingly uneasy, as he begins to hear a disapproving “tut tut tut” similar to the sounds his bride used to make. The “tut” lurks behind him until he finally can’t take it anymore.

This is a genius move because Brazill takes a common enough crime fiction plot—spouse murders spouse—and breathes new life into it through unifying the story around the haunting “tut” that will never, ever leave Oliver alone.

The goal in working within these limitations is not to stifle creativity by adhering to a rigid formula. Instead, they allow for creativity in all other aspects of writing—from the prose to the dialogue to the setting and characters. Each of the stories I’ve referenced is memorable not because of its adherence to any rules, but because of the author’s ingenuity and style.


Chris Rhatigan is a freelance editor and publisher of All Due Respect Books. He has worked on novels that have gone on to win the Anthony Award, the Independent Publisher Book Award, and The Beverly Hills Book Award. He also co-edits the crime fiction magazine All Due Respect. He is the author of five novellas and two short story collections. He lives in Philadelphia. Find out more at his website,


Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Dana King on Writing Cops

Scott's Note: Dana King comes back to Do Some Damage this week, talking about his new Penns River crime novel, the fifth in the series, Pushing Water.  It's a series that focuses on police and police work, and Dana talks here about writing procedurals and what he has learned, over the years, about crafting them.  

Here he is: 

As always, thanks to Scott for giving me an opportunity to make folks aware of the new book. (Pushing Water dropped last week from Down & Out Books.)

The first thing I saw on the Down & Out site when I went for the hyperlink was Pushing Water in the position of honor on the home page. In bold letters below the title was a quote from Colin Campbell: “An extraordinary voice.”

That blurb meant a lot to me, not just because it was supremely gracious. For Pushing Water I asked for blurbs from writers who were, or still are, cops. People I can’t bullshit about the procedures or the kinds of things cops do and say among themselves. To get such enthusiastic responses from the likes of Colin, Mark Bergin, Adam Plantinga, and Frank Zafiro validates all the time I spent trying to get it right.

My proudest moment as a writer came at New Orleans Bouchercon. I was in a conversation with a few author cops, playing sponge to see what I could soak up, when one of them (I wish I remembered who; we were several drinks into the evening) turned to me and said, “Well, you were police. You know.” He was surprised when I said I never had been.

Another prime moment came in St. Petersburg, when a man I didn’t know at the time (who turned out to be Mark Bergin) told me how much he appreciated Worst Enemies because (spoiler alert) it showed that the cops don’t always get the bad guy, even when they know who it is.

People read for stories, and I work hard to get compelling tales. My guiding principle still comes from Joseph Wambaugh: a good procedural is more about how the case works on the cops then how the cops work on the case. Part of the reason I made Penns River a post-industrial mill town is so I wouldn’t have to fool with all that CSI bullshit. Penns River’s cops still solve crimes by talking to people and piecing things together and paying attention to what’s changed in the environment. Everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to says that’s how it's still done the majority of the time.

It bothers me that so many people think what they “learn” in cop and courtroom novels and shows are how things really are. It creates unhealthy ideas of how law enforcement works, or doesn’t. To feel one has to choose between realism and entertainment is a door to lazy writing. There’s no reason the story can’t be both.

Actual investigations are dry, dull, tedious work. People and events are interesting. It’s more important to show what and how the cops piece everything together and imply how the sausage got made through their internal discussions. I can add a character to stand in for the audience if I feel compelled to explain something.

It’s also not like cops devote their lives to one case at a time. Wambaugh is the master (of course) of showing all the different kinds of things that can come up on (or off) a shift, from the ridiculous to the horrifying, sometimes on the same call. If more people had an idea of what goes on during a cop’s shift—admittedly condensed or it really would be boring as listening to bowling on the radio—they’d realized RoboCop was satire.

Don’t misunderstand. Cops come from the general population, so one can find all humanities’ better and worse qualities in a police department. Some cops joined up because they like to help people. Some like to tell people what to do. Some like to drive fast and chase bad guys. Some have found a way to pick up untaxable cash while still holding down a job with benefits and a pension. For some it’s getting to carry a gun, though nowadays every Tom, Dick, and Mary carries. Some are teetotalers. Some are drunks. All are people, with all the same things in their lives we have in ours, though with the added burden of having to make potentially life and death decisions—theirs and others—at any time and on a moment’s notice.

That’s what I want to write. To hear that I succeed on some level from the people I’m trying to describe is better than winning an award.

You can pick up Pushing Water here.

Monday, May 11, 2020

COLDWATER by Tom Pitts

By Tom Pitts

Out May 18

Tom Pitts is one of the most talented writers working today and I count him as a favorite. He has a natural knack for storytelling, parceling out details and character in perfect quantity and time. With an uncommon ability, he builds suspense and anxiety, creating tension throughout scenes that hurls the reader into the moment. He isn't afraid to go too far and his tales are original, unlike most others in both substance and presentation. His work will rock you.

COLDWATER comes out on May 18 and I can't wait. The book has already amassed a plethora of positive reviews from early readers. If you like crime, suspense, hardboiled, or noir I suggest you read Tom’s newest when it hits the shelves and then take a deep dive into his cache.

The story...

After a miscarriage, a young couple move from San Francisco to the Sacramento suburbs to restart their lives. When the vacant house across the street is taken over by who they think are squatters, they’re pulled into a battle neither of them bargained for. The gang of unruly drug addicts who’ve infested their block have a dark and secret history that reaches beyond their neighborhood and all the way to the most powerful and wealthy men in California. 

L.A. fixer Calper Dennings is sent by a private party to quell the trouble before it affects his employer. But before he can finish the job, he too is pulled into the violent dark world of a man with endless resources to destroy anyone around him.

Praise for COLDWATER:

“You know those times when your reading slows down and you can’t find the right book to read next? Tom Pitts’s Coldwater was the book I needed to pull me out of those doldrums. I tore through it, gripped by every page. Simply put, Coldwater is a damn good book. A thoughtful and violent tale of bad luck and bad choices. I loved it.” —Johnny Shaw, author of Big Maria and Undocumented 

“A great American writer who knows his way around the gutter. Pitts is bold; his style his own. In Coldwater, he builds characters with heart, through layered storytelling and dialogue as real as a conversation between old friends. Tom Pitts at his very best.” —Matthew McBride, author of Frank Sinatra in a Blender and A Swollen Red Sun

Sunday, May 10, 2020

An Unprecedented Mother's Day

This is not going to be an eloquent essay on motherhood. This is not an eloquent time. This is a hanging-off-a-cliff-by-your-fingernails time. So this Mother’s Day you deserve to be lauded for surviving:
- lockdown,
- quarantine,
- toilet paper rationing,
- The Tiger King on Netflix,
- working from home,
- pointing out that you’ve always worked from home because motherhood is work, and isn’t it nice that everybody else is getting a dose of it right now,
- trying to sew a face mask that someone would actually agree to wear outside,
- homeschooling,
- having to cook actual legit dinners because everyone is home at 6 p.m. and staring at you like they’re members of the Donner Party,
- Zoom meetings,
- homeschooling,
- really, really wanting a happy hour with your friends to take place in person,
- the complete absence of sporting events and the corresponding sad, aimless wandering of certain family members through the house,
- caring for sick relatives,
- Common Core math classes,
- guilt over totally giving up on screen time limitations,
- cleaning up the leftover mess from craft projects and wondering where they got glitter because you could swear there was none in the house,
- cats who can’t stand you by now and dogs who are starting to feel the same way,
- antsy kids who just want to go outside and play,
- “unprecedented” everything,
- being reminded even more than usual that you have no idea what you’re doing,
- taking grim satisfaction in the fact that no one else knows what they’re doing either.
If moms are heroes every Mother’s Day, think about what they are this year. Send them your love, and your congratulations that they’ve survived it all. Because we’re moms, and that’s what we do.
Happy Mother’s Day.