Saturday, September 3, 2022

Getting Through The Writer’s Drought

Scott D. Parker

Remember back on Memorial Day when I wrote a post about The Great Summer Writing Season? I said that in the 97 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day 2022, if you keep up a decent writing habit, you can get a book written or a number of short stories.

How’d you do?

Better than me, I hope, because I failed. Badly.

And the thing is, I’m not sure why, but there were a number of factors, the primary one is the change in the house. My son moved out of the house in July, heading out for his junior year in college. I was not prepared for the emotional wallop that event delivered. In the days and weeks before he moved out in late July, our family centered on being together and a series of Lasts. In the days and weeks since, we’ve experienced a series of Firsts. All of those things churned through the emotions and the end result was a shift of focus.

Then there was the reading (and listening) of books, comics (and audiobooks). I don’t know about you but I have seasons (not the best word but I’ll go with it) with my reading. I’m always reading something but sometimes, the desire to read more and more things consumes my attention. Couple that with the limited amount of time I have to write and/or read and as the summer progressed, I found myself opting to open a book a read in those precious minutes before work rather than writing. The thing was, I didn’t mind.

The reading material was not all fiction or comics either. I ended up on a run of self-help, creativity books. Having read the first Steven Pressfield creativity book, The War of Art, I kept going with Turning Pro and Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants To Be. Both short volumes had great nuggets that subtly began to shift some of the ground beneath my feet and started edging me to getting back into a writing habit. I mean, the title of that third book pretty much says it, right?

But it was the concepts and philosophy behind James Clear’s Atomic Habits that really did the trick. I’m a latecomer to Clear’s book but I picked it up in July and began reading it, annotating it, and compiling my own set of notes and takeaways from this excellent book. I highly recommend it (a couple of folks in my office are now reading it). It’s kind of put some guidelines around this new life my wife and I find ourselves in: empty nesters. It’s a big change, to be sure.

One of the crucial ideas Clear makes, um, clear, is that to start a habit, you have to make it easy. If you leave the dental floss out on the counter next to your toothbrush, then you’ll be more likely to floss when you brush. If you have a desire to become more physically fit, start with something so easy—like one push up—that the barrier is basically nonexistent.

This applies to writing as well. And, truth be told, I pretty much wrote the same thing back in May, but somewhere along the summer of 2022, I forgot it. That is write whatever you can in the time you have per day. Don’t get hung up on striving for a certain word count—at least if you are getting back into the habit.

That’s where I am now: getting back into the habit. I have a project I’m actively working so that’s a nice on ramp to the writer’s superhighway and I’m taking it.

I hope your summer writing season was productive, but here’s an important thing to understand: if it wasn’t, that’s okay. We can’t always be on all the time. Droughts happen. I’ve been through a few myself and I’ve come to learn that they will pass. It’s better to just get through them—enjoying whatever it is that’s taking you away from writing—so you can be supercharged on the other side and hit the writing with a renewed sense of optimism and excitement.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Old Gold - Ten Years On

 By Jay Stringer. 

My first novel Old Gold was published ten years ago last month. That's a decade in the game. Nine published novels, a couple in the drawer. A few anthologies. 

Ten years in, I'm currently un-agented and not under contract, but having seen the industry from a number of different levels, as well as trying to organize behind the scenes at conventions. What a trip. 

But looking back at that first novel -written in my late twenties, published in my early thirties- what is this thing I'm feeling? 

      A large dose of pride. There’s some fine writing here. A control that was ahead of my years. A confidence. A will to step off the path and present different voices and places. There’s also an anger, and a sense of grief. I was going through a divorce when I started this story, and in a healthy relationship by the time I finished. Without knowing it at the time, I was writing the first few steps of that journey into the DNA of my novel. 

      There are elements here that were ahead of their time. An own-voices novel of an ethnic minority protagonist. A diverse cast of characters – though my stripped-back descriptions didn’t always make that clear.  I laugh now at one of the biggest debates I had with my agent and editors on the road to publication. I would get notes at every step of the way telling me it needed to be clearer why Eoin Miller wouldn’t just go to the cops with his problems. Why is the first act dominated by this working-class Romanichal character doing everything possible to avoid dialing 999? I never understood the note. It always seemed obvious to me. The world has moved a lot in the last decade, and hope writers don't get that note as often now. 


      Mixed in with the pride is a healthy dose of embarrassment at the elements that haven’t aged well. I was playing with a box of tropes, knowingly. That's the double-edged sword of my twenty-something confidence as a writer. OH I CAN PLAY WITH ALL THE TROPES AND KNOWINGLY SUBVERT THEM. Okay, my dude, but at some point that still just adds up to a book full of tropes. I quite deliberately built the structure around two different approaches to writing women in a hardboiled novel. The first half is just old-school, male-gaze-dominated PI fiction. Around the mid-point Miller gets literally punched in the dick by the main (OR IS SHE...) female antagonist, and from then on the book was dominated by women. Heh. The dumb confidence of younger me, seeing the issue, but not really seeing it. Still, ultimately, writing a book about a sad man motivated by a dead woman. It is what it is. Old Gold is a book I’m proud of, and I wouldn’t change it for the world, except…I’ve been uncomfortable about that aspect of the book since the moment it was released. We live. We learn. We grow. And when you’re a writer you grow in public. It's pointless to deny that growth. Just own it. 

      There's also an unmistakable element of pose to the book. But, like a musician who spends their first few years imitating their record collection, that can be hard to avoid. It would take a couple more books for me to ease up and realize my humor was a strength, that it could become something readers would come to me for. (The colostomy bag joke I wrote two books later is still one of my proudest moments.) 


      Another thing I regret is moments where I chickened out. You won’t see them. Aspects of Eoin Miller’s character that I buried away in subtext. The only cryptic clue I’ll give is that one little easter egg remains in the book, one brief moment that hints at a very different path I almost took with Miller. A whole other way the themes and sub-plot were set up to serve the character's growth and self-realization. But I didn't do it. I don't really remember why now, whether I was advised against it or whether I advised myself against it. But that option is still there, on the table, if I ever return to the series. 

      And then my other naive/bold conceit. The notion that I needed to 'earn' using a first-person narrative in a mystery novel by making it meta. But then...because I love to play games with myself that nobody else knows about...hiding that meta element and never talking about it. The idea that the whole trilogy was a true crime memoir, which could be collected and read in one go as if Eoin Miller had released it himself. I think I hoped that would happen someday, with the books being collected into one edition as a special edition. 

      Maybe that could still happen, eventually. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The Islands of New York City With Nick Kolakowski

 I love local oddities. The small things full of mystery or malice that sit in big cities that everyone sees, but that are so a part of the landscape that your eyes just pass over them. I'm not talking about oddity museums. Those places are cool, but they have the feeling of trying just a little too hard. Of curating the unknowable (an action that then makes it all kind of bland). I'm talking about the places out there in the world. Places you can go to, if you only know they're there. The Paris catacombs. The Sedlec Ossuary. Or, closer me, the Villisca Axe Murder House. 

But my favorite oddity has always been the islands of New York City. 

In one of the densest cities in the world, and there's all this land out there, untouched, unused, abandoned. Sometimes for good reason. Sometimes because of bureaucratic hiccups. Sometimes because it's just always been that way.

Nick Kolakoski, the author of Hell of a Mess, out now from Shotgun Honey, shares my fascination, and we recently traded emails talking about the islands of New York City, where Hell of a Mess reaches its bloody, thrilling climax. 

Make sure you pick up Hell of a Mess when you're done reading. But now, please enjoy Nick and I chatting about the islands around New York. I promise you'll learn something, and you'll be even more excited about Nick's book when you're done. 

Hell of a Mess features... I was going to say, "one of my favorite weird New York tidbits", but it's actually just one of my favorite weird tidbits, period; the islands of New York City. As someone who has been in NYC a long time, and as someone who grooves to a lot of similarly weird things as I do, what can you tell me about the Islands of NYC? How many are there? 

NYC is ultimately a constellation of islands poking into the Atlantic. Some of the biggest are instantly recognizable—Manhattan, Staten Island, etc. But there are a cluster of little ones sprinkled in New York Harbor and Long Island Sound that have been used for all kinds of liminal purposes over the years—for prisons, as pauper’s graves, as holding places for the mentally ill and the desperately sick. 

With the exception of Governor’s Island, which was primarily a military facility and sits off the tip of lower Manhattan, and Roosevelt Island, which sits smack-dab in the middle of the East River, most of these islands are relatively out of sight. You see Riker’s, the prison island, when you land at La Guardia, but otherwise it’s at the far end of a closed-off bridge; you can’t really get a close-up view of Hart or North Brother, because they’re closed to civilian traffic. So there’s an inherent spookiness to them.  

What's the coolest island of New York? The scariest? 

Governor’s Island is easily New York’s coolest almost-deserted island. It has a Civil War fort, the crumbling remains of a military base (complete with admirals’ mansions), ridiculously landscaped hills, and a “glamping” compound where you can stay in a huge tent for some insanely high fee per night. There are great art exhibitions, outdoor movies, and a near-total lack of cars. It is, in short, an absolutely perfect place to spend an afternoon, especially if there’s an exhibition of some sort. 

Hart Island is the scariest of all the islands around New York. Even more than Riker’s, it’s the point of no return. There are more than one million people buried on the island in communal graves, with 1,500 added to their number every year. Whatever happens, you don’t want to end up on Hart.

Do you know anyone who has been to any of the islands? Or did you go to one of the islands for research for Hell of a Mess? 

The climactic action of “Hell of a Mess” is set on North Brother Island, which is strictly off-limits to anyone who’s not a city employee. North Brother Island was a quarantine facility—it hosted Typhoid Mary—and a rehab facility, but now it’s abandoned. It has a lot of bad karma, over and above the people forcibly kept on it for decades—in 1904, a huge passenger ship named the “General Slocum” caught fire and burned in Long Island Sound, and the bodies ended up on the shores of North Brother Island.

Today, its buildings (such as a hospital and a lighthouse) have crumbled back to nature, and all the roads and former paths are overgrown. It’s the perfect place to set up a cat-and-mouse situation without any hope of outside help, especially in the midst of a hurricane, which is why I used it for the book. Since I couldn’t actually go to the island, I relied on photographs (there are many), as well as firsthand accounts, video, and articles in places like Atlas Obscura.

How did you decide to incorporate the islands of New York City into Hell of a Mess? Did it happen organically, or is this something you've been wanting to work into something for a while? 

I spend a lot of time on Roosevelt Island, which at one point was another infamous “plague island.” For decades, it hosted a sanitarium for the infected on the southern end of the island, and a mental institution on the northern end, with a prison somewhere in the middle. Now it’s a beautiful, quiet space with funky apartment buildings, a cancer center, and the FDR Memorial. I’d wanted to set a story or part of a novel on Roosevelt Island, but I couldn’t quite make it work.

I also really like the idea of setting something on Governor’s Island. During the pandemic, I toyed with the idea of setting an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery on it, but again, nothing quite worked. 

Clearly, I had islands on the brain. When it came time to write “Hell of a Mess,” I knew I needed an isolated place for the finale—a location where characters could stalk one another, and even set off a few explosions, without calling down the NYPD and the FBI within minutes. Of course, I instantly thought of an island. Why not North Brother? It’s appropriately dark and overgrown, with no help in sight. Plus, there are lots of death traps you can set up in an abandoned hospital.

Can you recommend any other books, either novels or non-fiction, about the Islands of NYC?

Chris Holm’s “Child Zero” also has its climax on North Brother Island. I’m reading that book as soon as it came out, because I love Chris’s stuff, and I get to that part and start screaming—literally screaming—first, because he did such an amazing job, and it’s suspenseful as hell, but also because I realized I no longer had a unique lock on the location. But it’s fine; I heartily recommend that book for anyone who’s a fan of science-infused thrillers, or just thrillers in general.

Finally, are there any other weird New York City landmarks or legends that you hope to include in future works?  

I haven’t discounted using Governor’s Island in something. A closed-room mystery. Friggin’ vampires. Whatever—it’s too great a location. 

Thank you to NIck Kolakowski for stopping by today. And don't forget to pick up Hell of a Mess! Also, if you have any favorite NYC Island stories, drop them in the comments. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Colleges and Black Cinema

I’m on the road as I write this, in California visiting prospective colleges with my son, who’s about to be a high school senior. So far the trip has been smooth, with no chance meetings with anyone that have led to Tony Soprano like activity away from the actual college touring. I’m glad about that.

Besides the schools, I did visit, for the first time, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, where they have, among their regular galleries, an exhibition that just opened called “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971”, an exhibition that, as the museum describes it, offers “a rigorous and celebratory exploration of the achievements and challenges of Black filmmakers in the United States from the dawn of cinema to the Civil Rights movement”.  It’s a fascinating exhibition, one in particular I wanted my son to see, charting as it does all sorts of little known facts about Black actors and actresses and filmmakers from the silent era till about 1971. And of course I’m not talking about representation only in Hollywood films but in such works as race films, the hundreds of movies made from the silent era till the early 1950s that were produced for Black audiences and had Black casts and consisted of people talking as people talk, not as Black characters in so many Hollywood films of the era talked. Comedies, musicals, mysteries, thrillers, adventure films, melodramas — race films covered them all, just as Hollywood did. I’m ready to try to track some of these films down to watch when I get back home (I haven’t seen all that many of them over the years), and I mean beyond the films of the Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, the best known and among the most prolific of the race films filmmakers.

The exhibit had a number of good posters on display as well as everything else, and a few particular favorites of mine I took photos of. They’re from Hollywood films, I have to say, and, yes, films involving crime.

Then there was this, not related to a crime film, but a poster I couldn’t help but gape it.

High praise, I guess, to portray the then heavyweight champion of the world as taking on the entire Axis. But anyway, this and other telling curios help make this exhibit a must if you happen to be in Los Angeles anytime in the near future.

Monday, August 29, 2022

The End is Near

 The Walking Dead

“Days Gone By,” the premiere episode of The Walking Dead, debuted in October of 2010, thus thrusting the show’s death-grip onto millions of fans.  Imagine, a show about humans, loved ones, rising from the dead to feast on fellow humans, shockingly splayed against physical reminders of what our world was, keeping a grip on an audience for so long. The apocalyptic imagery becoming iconic. The view of Rick, a lone horseman, riding towards Atlanta, a city overrun by the dead. The burnt black cars and signs of violent struggles in the slow lane out of town. Those first few years felt unchartered, the show at once disturbing and moving, while walking us through the devastation. Addictive.


See the barn scene in Season 2, when Rick tells Carl to take the gun. Tells him the harsh truth about the world they live in and how everyone dies, no matter how hard you try or hope. No matter how much you love someone they will pass, because everyone dies. The heartbreak of a father having to tell a son this truth at such a young age. The two sitting quietly looking out over the farm, you can see there’s a chill in the air, with Rick’s fatherly voice unrelenting in its honesty. The slow, faltering piano sounding very much like a breaking heart.


The season 2 death of group sage and moral compass Dale Horvath sent viewers into absolute grief. After standing against the violent, chaos brought by antagonist Shane, Dale wanders from the house and into the quiet, misty fields, distracted by his disappointment in his fellow survivors and at a loss from their apparent ethical decline. He’s attacked by a roaming walker and brutally, mortally wounded. Ultimately, after much suffering, he is euthanized by Daryl Dixon with a bullet to the forehead. He dies in agony, with the group frenzied and wailing, confirming there is not always a happy ending.


“Killer Within” finds the survivors enjoying the small victories they have fought for when the rug is pulled from underneath them, once again. The prison yard, just recently cleared, is sabotaged and a mass of walkers are unleashed on our odd, feral family. The group is divided, then separated, and a pregnant Lori is taken to safety by the truly fearless Maggie and Lori’s son, Carl. The choices made by the trio while hiding away from the swarm of walkers is so personal and poignant that it is impossible not to be affected. When Lori’s baby cries out as only Carl and Maggie walk from the deep dark of the prison, Rick collapses in grief.  His misery is palpable.

Hope and Humanity

The group fights their own internal demons, whether they be prejudice, greed, addiction, or pride. And the outside world is constantly beating on the doors and rattling collective swords. Yet, by always choosing to gather and work as a community, whether building their homes or defending them, the heroes of The Walking Dead not only survive, but continue to look and fight for meaning and purpose. When they step back from the brink and make the humane choice they move forward as people, and further separate themselves from the mindless flesh-eating monsters living around them, which for me, has always been the main point of the story.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Castaway: the Art of the Slow Start


By Claire Booth

I recently re-watched Castaway for the first time in years. It was as good as I remembered. It was also a lot slower than I remembered. And I mean that in a good way.

Nowadays the plane crash would take place within the first 10 minutes. There would be a brisk, stylishly edited montage to show how devoted Tom Hanks’s character is to his FedEx job and then blam, the plane goes down. 

I totally overdressed for this place.
Know how long director Robert Zemeckis takes to get to that scene? 21 minutes and 46 seconds. It’s not 21 minutes and 46 seconds of slow drag either; they’re good scenes, full of plot points and character development and foreshadowing.

I don’t think there’s any way a film paced like that could get made today. People—from studio executives to viewers—would demand that the action start much, much sooner. Which is too bad. There’s a place for a movie (or a book) with a steady build before it drops you off the cliff. To me, that means I’m in good hands, and I’m in for a hell of a ride.

See? A hell of a ride!