One Bite at a Time

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Stick With 'Said," He Admonished Gravely.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
(Elmore Leonard, “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing)

This is no bullshit. If you’re looking for ways to be clever and unique try writing better dialog. If the urge is overcoming you to have a character announce, assert, declare, disclose, express, maintain, reply, report, retort, respond, reveal, state, suggest, affirm, allege, divulge, exhort, imply, opine, relate, or remark, just lie down until it passes. All you’re doing is drawing attention from the important points of the story while the reader looks up “asseverate.”

I’m firmly in the “said” camp. Have been for as long as I’ve been a serious writer. (Pause inserted while readers consider whether I qualify as a serious writer….Okay, long enough.) I occasionally hear other writers rationalize that “said” gets boring and some variety is needed. To them I say, “You’re wrong.” “Said” is the invisible word. In the context of a dialog attribution, the eye passes over it like a warm breeze on the beach, disturbing one’s attention not at all.

Granted, there are pitfalls. Even the great Robert B. Parker was not above carrying a good thing too far, as in this excerpt from his otherwise excellent Western, Resolution:

“Why’s it swole?” Virgil said.
“’Cause she’s lame,” Blue Shirt said.
“Wasn’t swole when I sold her,” Pink Shirt said.
Virgil took a long breath through his nose.
“Where’s the horse?” Virgil said.
“Out front,” Blue Shirt said.
“Lemme see her,” Virgil said.

Now he’s violating the rule that prohibits using the same word too often too close together, even when it’s an “invisible” word. He could have saved one “said” by adding Virgil’s second line of dialog to the small bit of stage business that breaks up the dialog. (Editor’s Note: What follows is not in any way an attempt to improve on Robert B. Parker. I will throw down on any man who even implies I think I could improve on Parker. This is attempt to dissuade those who not already in the “said only” school from using it as an example of why other attributive verbs would be better.)

Virgil took a long breath through his nose. “Where’s the horse?”

Now it’s still obvious Virgil is speaking and we saved one example of driving “said” into our brains like a 10p common nail.

Parker does have a challenge here, as there are three people in the conversation. He can’t just leave the attributions out altogether. Well, he could, as each speaker has a distinctive point of view, but Blue Shirt and Pink Shirt aren’t in the book enough for us to have a good idea about them beyond this exchange. (Which is their only appearance.) Anything that causes the reader to have to think about who’s speaking takes them out of the story which is, by definition, a problem.

He could make use of some stage business, which he almost did by having Virgil take a long breath through his nose. One can also rephrase a comment so the speech appears as narrative.

Virgil asked why it was swole.
“’Cause she’s lame,” Blue Shirt said.
Pink Shirt crossed his arms in disgust. “Wasn’t swole when I sold her.”
Virgil took a long breath through his nose. “Where’s the horse?”
“Out front,” Blue Shirt said.
Virgil started walking. “Lemme see her.”

This may or may not be any better, or even as good. It does break up the scenery a little without slowing things down too much.

I’m making such a big deal of this because I agonize over dialog attributions. Breaking up the dialog to show some little action, not going too long in even a two-person conversation without mentioning who is speaking. Whatever I think will work. What troubles me more than anything is leaving the attribution to the end of the sentence so the reader may have to read the line again in the proper character’s voice if she didn’t pick it up on the first pass.

This last bothered me quite a bit on my final draft of the work-in-progress until I lucked into a solution. First, a brief digression. I know quite a few authors who don’t like to read fiction when they’re working on a book. They’re afraid the other author’s voice may creep into their own work. I understand that but disagree. To me, reading other fiction while working on a book is like taking a continuing master class. Not that I want to rip them off (not that I never do, either), but I’m often reminded of things I wanted to make sure are in my book but may have been forgotten as I focused on other details.

What happened here was different: I learned something. I was reading James Ellroy’s White Jazz when the answer to my dialog attribution problems fell into my lap. The particular question I had was how not to slow things down in a multi-character conversation by adding stage business when none would likely take place, yet still make it clear.

A colon.

Long a staple of stage and screenplays, dialog attribution by means of a colon works well in novels, too. Here’s an excerpt from White Jazz, where first-person narrator Dave Klein eavesdrops on a conversation between Touch, Rock, and Glenda from behind a door.

Smells: cotton, stale perfume. Dark going gray—I saw a bed and bookshelves. Voices—hug the door—listen:
Glenda: “Well, there is a precedent.”
Touch: “Not a successful one, sweetie.”
Rockwell: “Marie ‘the Body’ McDonald. A from-nowhere career, then this kidnapping out of nowhere. The papers smelled publicity stunt quicksville. I think—”
Glenda: “It wasn’t realistic, that’s why. Her hair wasn’t even mussed. Remember, Mickey Cohen is bankrolling our movie. He’s hot for me, so the press will think gangland intrigue right off. Howard Hughes used to keep me, so we’ve got him for a supporting play—”
Touch: “’Keep,’ what a euphemism.”
Rock: “What’s a euphemism?”
Touch: “Lucky you’re gorgeous, ’cause you’d never make it on brains.”

Another half a page like that. Granted, Ellroy’s style isn’t for everyone, but look what he accomplishes. Three people more or less talking over each other in a rapid-fire conversation. Three people the narrator can’t see. I’d never try to pull it off for that long, but the scene flies.

So now I have another tool available for judicious use. Like anything else, I have to be careful not to overuse it. Just like “said.”

Friday, March 16, 2018

A Conversation With Michael J. Clark.

Michael J. Clark is best known to Winnipeggers, Nova Scotians, and pretty much anyone with an internet connection as an award-winning Canadian automobile journalist. In 2015, he decided to take a break from the road and finish his first novel, Clean Sweep, published by ECW Press. He's currently wrapping up his second novel, set in Winnipeg circa 1985. Michael lives in Winnipeg with his very understanding wife, Carol.

One Bite at a Time: Readers love to ask where authors get their ideas and most authors reply with something along the lines of “we’re tripping over them. The trick is to find the idea that works best for me.” What made this idea worth developing, and how much development from the original germ was required?
Michael J. Clark: It all began with the real-life Tommy Bosco, one of my best friends with a
colorful past. We’ll call him OTB, the Other Tommy Bosco for short. OTB’s stories pull you in, like a Death Star tractor beam. You must find out how it ends. To be fair, an OTB story is rife with embellishment, just like the angler tales that roll out with ease on a Canadian lake, after a baker’s dozen of Extra Old Stock. I knew that I wanted to take the reader to a place that was newish for the genre, (Winnipeg) and to insert just enough historical reference that, when the ugly truth is revealed, there’s at least a hint of believable.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Clean Sweep, start to finish?
MJC: This was a long haul. I started in 2009, trying to fit it in here and there when I had time on press trips for my automotive journalism gig. When I finally got tired of finding out which car had the best cup holder, I finished the book in early 2016. Hindsight being 20/20, I preferred the writing of my second novel. That was about ten months start to finish. It will be out in the spring of 2019.

OBAAT: How did Clean Sweep come to be published?
MJC: I’d love to tell you that I had to send it off to hundreds of publishers, with an equal amount of rejection letters. I sent it out to three. Jack David from ECW Press reached out to me immediately after his read, and the rest is history.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
MJC: Let’s blame that on failure to launch as a screenwriter. (Yet.) Another reason is the film industry in Winnipeg, one that I hope continues as strongly as it does today, with         attractive tax credits. It’s amazing how many times my city is Someplace Else. Imagine          how much time will be saved just in not having to change out license plates. My ultimate goal is to see my stories on the big screen. I love my town! It is a worthy location, with plenty of dark and dank. 

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
MJC: The wardrobe. Threadbare, with a side dish of comfy. (I’ll put on something fancier for the launch events.)

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
MJC: I love to tinker. Anything that I can fix without bringing in outside help. I’ve been twisting wrenches on my own cars for years. I love fixing something that I’ve never fixed before. (Thanks, YouTube.)

OBAAT: What fuels your writing?
MJC: The possibility that it could truly be my primary source of income.

OBAAT: What’s your writing routine like? Are you a plotter or a “pantser”?
MJC: Total pantser!

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
MJC: I’ve just completed my second novel, set in 1985 Winnipeg. I’m working on the framing of Book Three, which will be based in Manitoba, though more of a rural thriller/conspiracy piece. (That’s all I can let out of the bag right now.)

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Conversation With Jenny Milchman

Jenny Milchman gets around, and I mean that in the most flattering sense. She spent eleven months in her car taking her debut novel Cover of Snow—as well as her husband and kids—to 400 bookstores. The book went on to win the Mary Higgins Clark award, was praised by the New York Times, and chosen as an Indie Next and Target Pick. Subsequent books—Ruin Falls and As Night Fallsalso earned outsized acclaim. Her newest, Wicked River, drops May 1 from Sourcebooks.

Jenny speaks nationwide about the publishing industry and the importance of sticking to a dream. She is Vice President of Author Programming for International Thriller Writers, and the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. Jenny led the literary series Writing Matters, which covered the publishing industry during the upheaval of 2009, attracted guests coast-to-coast, and received national media attention. She teaches writing and publishing for New York Writers Workshop.

She’s here today to talk about her involvement with the New collection from Down & Out Books, The Night of the Flood.

One Bite at a Time: I have to start with the obvious question. You have a sizable footprint in the industry. You’re a talented writer, come across as intelligent and you have your whole life ahead of you. What got you involved with Ed Aymar?
Jenny Milchman: Oh, well, you know what they say about appearances. In all seriousness, meeting Ed Aymar made everything in my life easier. Well, not everything. I still have to do the dishes. But given my role as ITW board member, Ed has been one heckuva connection for me because he is just as devoted to helping other writers, doing what he can to further their careers, as I am. This anthology being just one example. A couple of years ago, Ed became Managing Editor of ITW’s debut authors blog, The Thrill Begins, completely revamping it. And it’s grown into one of the best, most lively and interesting resources for writers on the web. (Do people still say “web” when referring to the internet? See, this is why I need Ed.)

OBAAT: Ed and Sara Chen were here a couple of weeks ago to talk about the anthology in general. Tell us a little about your contribution.
JM: Small. That’s what I have to say about my contribution to The Night of the Flood. When Ed described the project to me, I happened to be in a particularly frenetic phase of my career—losing my first editor, on submission for what would turn out to be the dream publishing team, only I didn’t know that then—and still, his idea completely swept me away. A novel in stories—told by writers whose talent I knew firsthand from reading their debuts, and in many cases, their follow-ups. I didn’t think I could add much, but when Ed mentioned that there’d be a sort of forward—an open letter to the townspeople of Everton—two things happened. One, I thought I could handle writing such a piece, and two, the voice of the character came to me, fully formed. She just began dictating words in my head, and I wrote them down. So that’s why I say my contribution was pretty small. And easy.

OBAAT: You’re able to write short stories and novels equally effectively. Is it as effortless as you make it seem? Short stories kill me. I write them, but to me they’re much harder than novels.
JM: Oh no, I completely agree with you. (See above). Writing a short story is like trying to swallow a whole lasagna in one bite. (I don’t know why I came up with lasagna. Could’ve been a casserole. Or a chocolate cake.) You know, the fullness and grandness of a novel loses something when I try to trim it down to 5000 or so words. I’ve written a handful of short stories I’m really proud of; two of them were published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and the best in my opinion is called “The Closet”, about a young girl who takes revenge—hey, shades of The Night of the Flood—but every short story takes me months and months of whittling, shaping, trying to find the core. It’s novels that have my heart.

OBAAT: Let’s talk about your novels. I write two series, mainly because once I get a universe down my ideas tended to come in that form. You’ve written three well-received standalones with a fourth to come. Are there any connective threads? Similarities in protagonist or location or themes?
JM: Actually, the dirty little secret behind my books is that they are a series that can be read as standalones. That secret isn’t so dirty actually. If it were, it’d probably get a lot more press. OK, rewrite! The secret behind my books is that they are a series that can be read as standalones.
Here’s how: They all take place in the same fictional town. It’s called Wedeskyull, and the town becomes a character in the books. A mountain village, largely lost to time, and riven by a cultural chasm between the old-timers and the newcomers, the locals and the expats. When those two groups share a land and their lives, it makes for a great deal of drama. Even though my forthcoming novel, Wicked River, is set in the back-country, the town still plays a role. The local police chief is first on scene when my honeymooning couple fails to arrive back home. People who read all four of my books will see small characters from one tale play bigger roles in another, and vice versa. It’s one of the joys of writing for me—to see this town come alive in layers and ripples.

OBAAT: In 2013 you and your family traveled to 400 bookstores over nearly a year. You’ve repeated the tour for each book since. What gave you the idea and how did you keep up with the rest of your life while you were living out of suitcases for so long?
JM: In 2013, after a thirteen year odyssey to see my “first” novel published (it was actually the eighth one I had written), my husband and I rented out our house, traded in two cars for an SUV that could handle Denver in February, and pulled the kids out of first and third grades to “car-school” them on a 35,000 mile drive around the country. I did a book event nearly every day, sometimes two. And my publisher thought I was nuts. They actually convened a call to tell me I was nuts. And here’s the thing—I was nuts. The whole idea was crazy. Who goes to one book event for an unknown novelist, traveling far from home, where she doesn’t know anyone—let alone 250 of them? Then my debut novel went into six printings in hardcover, and all of a sudden, well, I was still nutty, but the nuttiness had somehow worked. I think that may be because in this virtual world, we still crave the face-to-face. The handshake, the smile, the words exchanged in person. I was introducing my book to the world, but really I was introducing myself—and meeting people in return. Much as I appreciate all the riches on offer online, truly great was to see Facebook friends become friends IRL. As for keeping up with regular life—we didn’t for the most part. Book tour was like a step out of time for us, and we all really embraced it, and enjoyed the 24/7 aspect of being together. The humorous or ironic (or wonderful) punch line to all this is that I’m now with a publisher that believes in relationships and word of mouth and bookstores and libraries just as much as I do, and for my fourth novel, they’re sending me out on a mega tour again!  

OBAAT: You’re a board member and Vice President of the International Thriller Writers and run the Author Programs operation. How did you get involved in that?
JM: A long, long time ago—actually it was five years, a blip in publishing terms, which is roughly the scale of geological time—I was a newbie author, and ITW’s Debut Authors Program helped introduce my book to the world, and teach me about the biz. Being a writer is one thing, and usually by the time we’re published, we know a thing or two about craft. But becoming a professional in a very high stakes, major media industry is a whole other ball of wax, kettle of fish, pick your cliché, and ITW guided me as I began. I wanted to do as much as I could for the next wave of authors. First I served as Chair of the Debut Authors Program, then I joined the board as Vice President of Author Programs. This includes overseeing the Debut Program committee, a podcast featuring ITW members as guests called the Inside Thrill, a yearly program in Palm Beach that showcases debuts alongside one headliner—this year it’s R.L. Stine—our newly expanded YA/MG arm, and of course, all of Ed Aymar’s brainstorms.

OBAAT: Clearly we’re talking about two different Ed Aymars, but that’s a discussion for another time. What are you working on now?
JM: Well, it’s a story about this guy named Ed who’s sort of a Jekyll and Hyde figure…OK, actually, right now I am at the delicious, rubbing-my-hands-together-in anticipation stage of being about to begin a new novel. I call this the sprinkle-frosted cupcake stage. Nothing I enjoy more—about writing and the biz anyway—than a first draft. Now, this is because I suffer from a perseverative delusion that I am writing the world’s first perfect first draft, and I get my comeuppance come editing time, so don’t hate me. But right now, I am a happy, happy writer. The new book is called Mercy Island, and that’s all I can say, except that it’s a stranger-comes-to-town story, written from the perspective of the stranger.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

A Conversation With Patti Abbott

The second-best thing about a new Patti Abbott book is that I get a chance to interview her for the blog. (The best thing? The book, dumbass.) Patti is one of my first writing friends, from way back when the Crimespace web site was where all the cool kids hung out. I honed a lot of my writing chops working on the flash fiction challenges she used to run on her outstanding blog, pattinase. In fact, I think most, maybe all, of my best short fiction has roots in one of Patti’s challenges.

In addition to being an inspiration, Patti’s a damn fine writer. Her short fiction regularly appears in heralded collections and her novels routinely receive award nominations, notably two Anthonys and an Edgar. Her new book, I Bring Sorrow, released last week from Polis Books. (Breaking news: Patti has had a story accepted for the 2018 Bouchercon anthology, one of over 300 submissions. Congratulations, my friend.)

One Bite at a Time: Let’s start with the obvious first question: what is I Bring Sorrow about?
Patricia Abbott: I Bring Sorrow is a collection of stories that mostly deal with the idea of "flight." A woman flees the city that has forsaken her, a woman flees the husband that is responsible for their daughter’s death, a group of women flee the dying earth, a couple takes a boy out of a Tucson cafe. The original title was “Flight Tales” but it lacked any poetry.

OBAAT: Did you sit down to write a set of stories with similar themes with the idea of collecting them?
PA: Not at all. I think my work is pretty similar in both theme and tone without my giving it much thought. I find it hard to write light. I have another 20 stories that could have just as easily fit in here. Of course, it may be just me that sees my stories as similar. Maybe a reader would find them quite diverse. A few are humorous but again, it’s a dark humor. Writing a cozy would be impossible for me given my world view.

OBAAT: Your novels Shot in Detroit and Concrete Angel were nominated for Anthony, Edgar, and Macavity awards; I Bring Sorrow is a collection of short stories, which harkens back to your previous efforts Monkey Justice and Home Invasion. (The latter a novel in stories.) As someone who thinks of himself as a novelist, I always wonder how people who switch back and forth make the decision on what to write next. I mean, I write the occasional short story for an anthology, but all my shorts together might make one not very thick volume. You knock them right out.
PA: Almost always an idea comes to me as a short story. Both of the novels started from a short story. I wrote short stories for ten years before trying a novel so it was a real leap from the ledge to try a longer work. I like the hyper-focused lens of a short story best. However, I realize this is not true for most readers or most writers.

OBAAT: What was it that grew the shorts into novels? Was it that you had more to say? Or did additional things keep wanting to happen?
PA: Shot In Detroit bulged as a short story. Who kills a dozen men in 4000 words successfully? So it was ripe for expansion. I needed to talk about many more things and I saw that quickly. What kind of woman would photograph dead men? Why did so many young men die in Detroit? Can you make art from such a gruesome subject? So yes, to both questions. I wanted to explore how Violet reflected the city she lived in. I am trying to expand another short story now. But the focus is really changing as I write it. Not sure if it will really be a crime story at all by the end.

OBAAT: When did you realize you had more material than a short story could hold and how did you make the decision to expand the format rather than trim the potential material?
PA: Well, to be honest they grew into novels because the stories ended up functioning as outlines. Despite reading novels my whole life, I found it difficult to see an idea fully developed. I found it difficult to populate a 300-page story. By starting with the short story as a blueprint, I was able to add more here and there. My stories are usually trimmed to the bone already. I edit compulsively so allowing myself more space was the challenge.

OBAAT: You’ve built quite a career for yourself: hundreds of short stories, novels nominated for major awards. It has to be a good feeling. Looking at things another way, how much fun is it to be Megan Abbott’s mother, knowing the influence you’ve had on her talent and career?
PA: If we are to take any credit for Megan’s career (my husband has written 13 scholarly books) it would be in providing a bookish environment. We took our kids to the library weekly, to movies that were probably far too adult for them. We all talked about what we were reading all the time. Megan grew up watching her father write. Actually we expected her to do something in art because she drew all the time. Later I realized though that she was drawing stories. I am sure this scenario plays out in the homes of most educated families so I am going to say the influence was inadvertent if at all. We were open to her (and my son) pursuing their interests even if the chances for success were less than a business or engineering degree might offer.
It is often more worrisome than fun watching her work so hard in such a difficult field. No one works harder than Megan.

OBAAT: Patti, it’s always a treat to have you on the blog. You’re a class act and my respect for you and your work s boundless. What are you working on now? Will we get together at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg? I’m on the fence about NoirCon. Will you be there?
PA: I have recently finished a few invited short stories and I am 70 pages into a new novel. I have no plans yet for conferences. With the new tax laws, none of the expenses are deductible, which changes things. But I have been known to change my mind. Thanks, Dana. You are the class act.

Friday, March 2, 2018

February's Favorite Reads

White Jazz, James Ellroy. My trip through the LA Quartet is complete and I’m a better person for it. Ellroy’s novels are flawed in general—American Tabloid the notable exception—by overcomplicated plots. White Jazz avoid this for the most part, but the ending is still a somewhat frantic wrapping up of loose ends. The best written of the quartet, Ellroy is in full control of the style and voice he’d use to such advantage in Tabloid. He’s an acquired taste and not for everyone, but no other writer makes me revel in the excesses of his prose like Ellroy.

The Given Day, Dennis Lehane. Maybe the best book I’ve ever read. This or The Grapes of Wrath. I read The Given Day when it first came out and loved it. It’s even more powerful ten years later after having watched recent American history play out. True, Lehane had the benefit of 90 years’ hindsight when he wrote the book and wears his heart on his sleeve, but the way he weaves facts and fiction makes points about the eternal struggle of the haves and have nots few others can. I’ll have more to say on this after I’ve had some time to digest it.

All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, Jonathan Abrams. Reads like Connie Fletcher’s best work, though guided and far more introspective. Abrams gained access to just about every surviving member of the cast and key members of the crew; it’s a shame Robert Colesberry and Robert Chew had passed. The nuggets here are too many to cite, and to cite too few would do the book a disservice. Besides, I don’t do spoilers. All fans of The Wire need to read this.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Violence Against Women

Violence against women has been in the news lately. Not that it’s new; men have likely been abusing women since before there was language to describe it. A lot of frustration and anger overflowed its dam after the Harvey Weinstein revelations, which were revelations only to those outside of Hollywood, where Weinstein’s predatory behavior was an open secret, making a bad situation even worse.

This is a writing blog, so I’m not going to discuss the Right or Wrong or the politics of it. Franky, I don’t see what there is to discuss in the Right vs. Wrong arena, which means I don’t understand why it’s a political issue at all, but that’s me. We’re still not going there.

But this is a writing blog, and writers have things to answer for here. I’m not talking about any sexual transgressions writers may have committed themselves, though I’m sure there are many. I’m talking about our attitudes toward it, and there’s no way to discuss that without discussing the attitudes of readers.

Placing a woman in jeopardy is a quick and easy way to ratchet up tension in a story, as women are the more vulnerable members of society. (Children and the elderly even more so, but they are so vulnerable writers go there at their own risk.) It’s an effective and legitimate technique when used in moderation and as an organic part of the story. Women are in jeopardy. A lot. To ignore this fact is to write unrealistic fiction.

The problem comes when the author too often uses a threatened woman in this manner, or reaches outside the logical construct of the story to do it. Then it’s cheating. There are many other ways to create tension, but you have to work a little more than if you just tie Pauline to the railroad tracks and fire up the engine. To consider it acceptable as a routine device to get readers—or viewers—on the edges of their seats is a tacit acknowledgement that it’s accepted in society, or we wouldn’t see it so much relative to the use of children, the elderly, or pets. (Dear God, don’t hurt a pet.)

I’ve written two books where violence against women—or the threat of it—were the focus. A Dangerous Lesson was my serial killer novel and I’ll never write another. I was noodling around with an idea I won’t describe here because it gives away the ending and I know several of you haven’t read the book yet, and having a serial killer made sense. I’m not fan of serial killer stories, but I was curious as a writer, so I went for it. I think the book works for what it is, but it is my least favorite.

The current book, Bad Samaritan, deals with crimes against women in two different ways. Soccer mom Becky Tuttle is also steamy romance writer Desiree d’Arnaud. Becky goes to extraordinary lengths to keep her personas separate, even hiring an actress to make personal appearances as Desiree. Still, someone figures out her ruse and sends letters that, while not overtly threatening, are certainly disconcerting, if only because he knows who she is and where she lives.

Researching Bad Sam led me to the primary apologists for crimes against women, men’s rights advocates. While I was uncomfortable writing A Dangerous Lesson I felt like I needed a shower every time I spent more than twenty minutes looking into these evolutionary cul-de-sac degenerate motherfuckers. (Feel free to pass that along. Any day one of them has a harsh word to say about me is a good one.)

As the father of a daughter I became much more sensitive to the multiple threats women face about 27 years ago. Researching the MRAs brought the lesson home. The recent #metoo revelations are the icing on the shitcake. If authors want to be taken seriously as coming down against such behavior they must be sure not to risk normalizing it. If you’re going to place a woman in danger, don’t do it just because she’s a woman. Make her someone another character decided needed to go, like any man might be. If you are going to place her in jeopardy solely because of her gender, do it for a reason other than cheap suspense. Give your readers something disturbing to think about after they finish the book.

Readers are not blameless. These things get written because publishers know people will read them. If you would not want to see a woman terrorized then don’t read about it just for the “entertainment” value. It says something about you, and what it says isn’t flattering.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

A Conversation With E.A. Aymar and Sarah M. Chen, Editors of The Night of the Flood

The Night of the Flood is one of the more eagerly anticipated anthologies to come out in some time, dropping early next month from Down & Out Books. With contributors including E.A. Aymar, Rob Brunet, Sarah M. Chen, Angel Luis Colón, Hilary Davidson, Mark Edwards, Gwen Florio, Elizabeth Heiter, J.J. Hensley, Jennifer Hillier, Shannon Kirk, Jenny Milchman, Alan Orloff, and Wendy Tyson, it’s a…well, let’s just have the two driving forces behind it tell you about it: the editors, Sarah M. Chen and E.A. Aymar

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about The Night of the Flood.
Sarah M. Chen: It’s a novel-in-stories told from fourteen different perspectives that centers around one night of chaos in Everton, a small fictional Pennsylvania town. It all begins when the first female in modern times is executed in Pennsylvania. This sets off a group of passionate female activists to blow up the town’s dam in protest. What follows is an opportunity for crooks and killers to wreak havoc on the town while with some folks, it’s all about survival.
E.A. Aymar: Sarah couldn’t be more wrong. < Reviews her answer> Oh no, that’s right. She’s right.

And that, my friends, was a live example of how Sarah and I work together as editors. Ta-da.

OBAAT: As a Pennsylvania native myself, I have to ask: Why Pennsylvania? And what part of Pennsylvania is Everton in?
SMC: I was brought in after Pennsylvania was decided upon so had no say in it (because I would have definitely championed SoCal!). Then when I was trying to plan my character's route as she drives from New Jersey to Indiana (she's a reluctant truck driver), I needed more of an exact location so I could name specific highways and interstates. This was central to my story. We settled on a small town south of Pittsburgh near the Monongahela River. I wrote New Eagle in my notes after Ed and I had our first phone pow wow so that must be the town. I never argue with my notes.
EAA: We picked Pennsylvania because we needed the worst state we could think of and Ohio was taken. Ha ha, just kidding; obviously, Arizona is the worst state. On a serious note, Pennsylvania made sense both logistically and artistically – J.J. Hensley and Wendy Tyson both lived in PA (as does Tom Sweterlitsch, who was originally going to be involved), and the state is close to a number of the other contributors. That was important for local familiarity and if we wanted to do some sort of launch event in PA. And Pennsylvania is one of those states like New York or Virginia, where you have that discordant mix of urban and rural, and that environment gave us the freedom to draw from any number of approaches for our characters.

But SoCal was never an option.

OBAAT: How did you two get together on The Night of the Flood? Who had the idea first?
EAA: Actually, JJ. Hensley had the idea first. J.J. works with a bunch of us on ITW’s The Thrill Begins, and he had the idea of everyone putting together a shared-theme anthology. We screwed around with the concept and it eventually turned into The Night of the Flood. Then we needed to make the project a bit longer, so we brought in some friends.
SMC: I was brought in later by Ed. Thanks, Ed!

OBAAT: “We screwed around with the concept and it eventually turned into The Night of the Flood” is kind of vague. What sort of iterations did it go through?
SMC: Dana is totally looking right at you, Ed.

EAA: J.J.'s original suggestion incorporated characters from each writer's work, sort of similar in concept to the Match Up anthology that ITW published. But there were contractual concerns with that, as well as issues like not every writer has a series (in the end, I think J.J. and Angel Luis Colon were the only writers to incorporate characters who have appeared in their other work). I liked the idea of a cataclysmic event that every writer has to respond to and, when this book was discussed, Trumpism was on the rise and anger in the country was palpable. We ended up tapping into that anger, specifically in the town's riots and, conversely, (although this was well ahead of the Women's March and the #MeToo movement) in the sense that a group of women have simply been pushed too far. We had a firm sense of the novel's conflict, and an intentionally soft approach to how each writer was going to address it. We didn't dictate how the flood and riots would play out – that happened organically. And Jennifer Hillier's epilogue does a fantastic job of wrapping the story up.

OBAAT: That’s an impressive roster of contributors. How did you decide who to ask?
EAA: We had nine from The Thrill Begins, and when we decided to ask more, we just
E.A. Aymar (Photo courtesy of E.A. Aymar)
tossed some names around. Sarah was the first person we asked – everyone in TTB knows her and likes her personally, and respects her writing tons. And the four others (Alan Orloff, Hilary Davidson, Angel Luis Colon and Mark Edwards) each has something unique in their voice and varied in their style. Not everyone knew everyone, but we got a good sense of each other through collaboration.
SMC: It was a collaborative effort amongst all of us. <> Awww, OK, Ed’s answer is way better. Mine sucks. Get rid of it.

OBAAT: Given the caliber of writers involved in The Night of the Flood, how did you decide who got which part of the night? Was there any pushback from writers who wanted a different slot? How much direction did each writer receive about their slot?
SMC: There was a Google doc we all shared and worked off of. Each writer chose an hour on the timeline and sketched in their story idea. There were a few of us who couldn’t make up their mind between 4am and 11pm. (OK, maybe that was just me.)
E.A. Aymar arriving at interview site.
EAA: And, to be honest, a lot of it was luck. Nobody’s story was problematic. Everyone did what they wanted, and it ended up working perfectly. People played off each other really well. For me and Sarah, that made our job a lot easier.

OBAAT: So what exactly was your job? Fourteen talented writers write fourteen stories around a common theme. I’m sure discerning readers want to know, what does an editor do in a situation like this?
SMC: Ed and I talked at length over the phone after reading all the stories. This was our first round of edits. We wanted to be sure all the stories were consistent across the board in terms of landmarks, business names, how high the water had risen at what time, whether it was a full moon or half moon, and character names / descriptions if they appeared in more than one story. Stuff like that. We also went over things like confusing plot points or if something needed more development which wasn't really as much of an issue. Mostly, we needed to ensure that we were all on the same page with setting and story concept set-up. And of course, my favorite: proofreading! Seriously, I love proofreading.
EAA: I'd just add that Sarah has a ferocious memory for detail and that was so important when it came to things like street names, landmarks, and characters. I think Sarah and I did a good job of catching things the other might have missed, which is really the necessity of a good editor for an integrated anthology. Chris Rhatigan, who edited the book for Down and Out, was also a tremendous help and we're all indebted to him. But, truthfully, the benefit of working with good writers is that they're hard on themselves and catch a lot of their own errors. We lucked out with this group.

On the way out, Sarah pulled away to make the following comment:
I really enjoyed working with Ed. I think we make a good team. The same goes for everyone involved in this anthology. I feel so lucky and grateful that this talented group of writers brought me on board. They're awesome to work with and I've had a blast. Also, the Down & Out crew has been fantastic as well. They do so much for us.

I guess that was three things I added. Thanks, Dana!

And then Ed returned her dog unharmed.