Friday, March 15, 2019

Gone Fishin'

The blog takes the day off today for a family event. Around noon The Sole Heir™ will learn where she’s going for her medical residency, so The Beloved Spouse™ and I are on the road. OBAAT resumes its regularly scheduled programming Wednesday with an interview with Patricia Abbott, author of Monkey Justice. It’s a good one you’re not going to want to miss.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Amazon Conundrum

It is fashionable for writers to bash Amazon as the destroyer of all things good and noble, especially independent bookstores. The title of David Nemeth’s January 17 post in Do Some Damage implies the level of Amazon’s depravity and our own complicity: The Evil We All Do.

The post is primarily about the culture at Amazon, and I am not going to defend much of it. They treat their workers like shit—though they pay a lot better than Walmart and others—and the management attitude seems to be survival of the fittest. As a writer, the part of the post that sticks in my mind is this:

Most of us look the other way when it comes to Amazon. I know I do. Hell, over at Unlawful Acts, I have purchase links to Amazon. I'm a Prime subscriber and I even subscribe to Kindle Unlimited. And that's something I need to address, something I think we all need to address.

This is the standard “Amazon is evil and we all need to shun them or we are ourselves evil” comment. This school of thought argues—not without justification—that Amazon makes life difficult, if not impossible, for local independent booksellers to thrive. I don’t have the data and that’s okay as it’s not the point I’m going to argue today.

I am the quintessential indie writer. All my books not yet published by Down & Out are self-published through CreateSpace and Kindle. Therein lies my problem. The two closest things I have to a local independent bookseller are 45 minutes away (in no traffic) and won’t carry my books because
a)    My self-pubs are with CreateSpace
b)    Down & Out does not accept returns, as do few, if any, small publishers.

I hold neither of these policies against the booksellers. I understand their business model includes tight margins. They’re just trying to stay in business.

So am I.

If indie booksellers won’t carry my books, where else am I supposed to go? Is the test of my purity to either give away all my writing for free on the website or quit altogether? I work a day job forty-plus hours a week so the option of going full Joe Konrath and becoming my own sales channel is not an option even if I had the personality for it.

This is not to say I’m on anyone’s “side” here. If a local bookseller is willing to do something that would be of mutual interest, I’d be all over it. What I’m not going to do is to bite the hand of the only bookseller that’s ever fed me. If we are to boycott all companies with business practices we object to we’d better prepare for lives as subsistence farmers while we’re at it.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019


I haven’t watched a TV sitcom episode-by-episode since 30 Rock but people I trusted wore me down to check out Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It had two strikes against it going in:
  1. It was on Fox, so it was likely to be stupid.
  2. It was going to get the police stuff wrong and I’m a snob about that, even though I am not, nor was I ever, a cop.
But the word was good and I like Andy Samberg and I was interested to see how Andre Braugher did comedy and I was off work for the shutdown and was eager for anything to distract me and The Beloved Spouse™ had a Hulu subscription so I figured what the hell. It’s been on the air for five years so it wasn’t like I was watching something new and untested (Heaven forfend!) so we gave it a try.

This is one of the funniest shows I have ever seen.

True, it’s not the erudite comedy of a Frazier or the layers seen in Seinfeld. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is out of what I call The Simpsons school of comedy: We’re just here to make you laugh. Don’t worry about the plot or the timeline of the verisimilitude. Just go with it and enjoy yourself.

The show does have more to it than just screwball humor. The cast is uniformly excellent and the writers take care to create real relationships between them, which makes the goofiness more than just a string of jokes without context. It’s a string of jokes that are funny because Peralta said it to Santiago or Charles was intimidated by Diaz. The actors’ timing is spot on. There are a surprising number of stunts for a sitcom, and they unfailingly pull them off.

Those who know me are probably wondering by now how I get past the lack of police procedure verisimilitude when I spent half my waking hours bitching about that topic in other television shows. (And books and movies and short stories and casual conversations and…) Here’s the deal: Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn’t present itself as anything other than an exercise in getting you to laugh. CSI and NCIS and their ilk present themselves as investigations when they bear as much resemblance to real police work as James Bond does to the CIA.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine gets a pass from me for the same reason I don’t care that Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder books or Carl Hiaasen’s novels sometimes strain credulity. Once you get me laughing, I don’t much care how you keep the laughter going. I’m in. The harder and more often you can get me to laugh, the more you can get away with. (Mel Brooks is the prime example here.)

I mentioned the cast. While no one except Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher were known to me before I started watching, and everyone is excellent (even the guest stars hit every note), it’s Braugher who was the revelation. I’ve been a fan since he was on Homicide and wondering how Frank Pembleton was going to pull off a comedy could have been a subconscious reservation that kept me away from the show. If you, too, have that wonder, wonder no more. The man is hilarious and perfectly cast. The Beloved Spouse™ bought me the full boxed set of all seven seasons of Homicide for my birthday, which let to us watching several Brooklyn Nine-Nines followed by a disk worth of Homicide, which had us switching from Captain Raymond Holt to Detective Frank Pembleton and back every day. Acting studios could use these performances as primers.

Five weeks of bingeing reduced us to watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine the same way as everyone else: a week at a time. Well, not really. We came to enjoy the binge sessions so much we now DVR it and watch four or five episodes once a month, all at once. Once they get us laughing, 22 minutes is too soon to stop.

Friday, March 1, 2019

February's Favorite Reads

Happy birthdays to the two women in my life: The Beloved Spouse™ and The Sole Heir™. You two make every day worth looking forward to.

Split Images, Elmore Leonard. Leonard’s best remembered for his hip dialog and organic humor but his early crime books are darker and harder than those that came after. This story of a Detroit cop who falls in love with a freelance journalist, both of whom have involvement with a rich sadist, shows all the elements Leonard became known for in a harsher light and has what I think is the most surprising scene he ever wrote. We can only re-read him now, but few hold up as well to repeated examination.

Trigger, David Swinson. Book Three of the Frank Marr shows Marr getting straight—at least he’s off drugs; okay, he’s off illegal drugs—but he still goes through liquor like it’s oxygen. His old partner Al Luna is jammed up over what looks like a bad shooting of an African American kid and Marr is working as part of the defense team. Swinson’s writing is as sparse and hard as ever, a style all his own. The plot has sufficient turns to hold the interest of the casual reader, but the good stuff is the writing and the exposure of Frank Marr’s soul.

November Road, Lou Berney. Few tell stories as well and no one combines storytelling chops with writing skill as well. An alternative history story based on the premise the New Orleans mob killed John Kennedy and now Carlos Marcello is looking to erase anyone who played any part in the plot, however unknowingly. Frank Guidry wises up in time and takes off, happening across an Oklahoma housewife fleeing a dead-end marriage with her two daughters. The woman’s chapters aren’t as intense in the first half of the book as are Guidry’s and his pursuer’s and there’s a bit of a Hollywood element to how things shake out near the end, but the story runs like a bat out of hell without ever sacrificing the quality of the writing. Berney is the whole package.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Look for the Unexpected

Frank Zafiro (if that is his real name, which it is not) stopped by a couple of weeks ago to talk about how serendipity plays a role in what gets written next. Frank and co-author Jim Wilsky thought they were finished with the Ania trilogy, which was logical, having written three books. The vagaries of publishing opened a door, an idea presented itself, and the Ania trilogy now has a fourth book. It’s nice when a plan comes together, and even nicer when the plan presents itself, unbidden, from out of the ether.

Writing is like that, mainly because life is like that. We can make all the plans we want but should always prepare for the unexpected. That advice means to be ready to take care of what pops up that puts the plan at risk, but it should also keep us willing to adjust the plan in the event something better comes.

This is why it’s good to revisit things, whether novels, non-fiction, how-to-write books, movies, good television, whatever. It’s also a good idea to get ideas from various sources. Musicians should always study with various teachers even if perfectly content with who they have and only looking for a temporary change of scenery. The other teacher may see something in the student the regular teacher missed. Might suggest something different that works. Might even suggest the same thing but in a different way that makes more sense.

More to the point of my revisiting example, either teacher may suggest something to the student in the same way as the other did but a couple of months or years later when the student is better prepared to accept, understand, or leverage that information. We’ve all seen movies or read books that didn’t quite move us only to revisit them twenty—or even two—years later and see how outstanding they are. The book or movie didn’t change. We did. We learned and grew and had new experiences. Maybe the work of art had layers we couldn’t appreciate at first because we were caught up in the surface level.

It’s a running joke among a few of my friends that I now watch LA Confidential several times a year. I’ve seen it at least twenty times. It’s not one of the “comfort” food films I drag out when I want to settle in for the evening and relax and feel good. (You’re going to ask, so I’ll tell you: The Big Lebowski, Get Shorty, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Animal House, Monty Pythion and the Holy Grail, and a few others.) Every time I watch LA Confidential I see something new in it, or something I’d seen before that prompts a different thought process. That’s where the true genius of the Curtis Hanson – Brian Helgeland collaboration comes out. They took an overly-detailed mess of a gloriously-written book and created a precisely-detailed film that succeeds on every level. I’ve found a few flaws, but none that detract from my enjoyment.

Writing is planning and attention to detail. Even the most hardcore plotter must keep in mind what happened already and the most dedicated pantser cannot ignore what has to come later, especially when editing. Those considerations may seem like restrictions—and they are—but they’re also opportunities. I can’t begin to guess how many times I put something in a first draft because it struck me as a nice thing to add that gave me a new direction for the story well down the road. Could be something as simple as a unique eye color or hairstyle or even a reference to a minor character’s occupation when their job could have been anything; I picked this at random. Later I’ll be chugging along and realize, “Oh, shit! Dudley Wishbone works (or worked if he’s the victim) at the lumber yard!” and everything after that realization is affected, though not always directly.

I still plot everything I write; Scrivener has been a boon to my messy process. Even more so because of the changes of direction my books so often make well after I think the outline is finished and I’m well into the writing. Pay attention to the opportunities that present themselves. They don’t do it often, and they rarely come around a second time. As I said in the post I wrote for Elizabeth White when she was kind enough to provide space for me to promote Ten-Seven*: Pay attention.

(* -- Just because I’m not beating you over the head about it every day doesn’t mean Ten-Seven has gone out of print. It’s still available at all the fine booksellers noted here.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

What About Otto?

I make an honest effort not to respond too quickly or intemperately to what I see on Facebook or in blogs. For someone with my personality (Borderline Asshole Disorder, or BAD) not responding too quickly helps a lot with remaining temperate. It’s akin to a comic I saw many years ago—I wish I remembered who he was—describing why there are waiting periods to buy a gun: “What do you mean I have to wait three days? I’m mad now!

There was a post on the always worth reading Do Some Damage blog last week that got me to thinking, so I let it ferment for a while. (Some would argue my thought process is more like composting than fermentation. I have an answer to that, but I’m being temperate today.) David Nemeth’s thoughts on “What to do About Otto” Penzler have rattled around in the empty caverns of my mind ever since.

Full disclosure: I do not know Otto Penzler. I have never met him. The totality of my interaction with him is to have shared a crowded elevator at Bouchercon. I have never been to the Mysterious Bookshop. I obviously know who he is, as I’ve been involved in the crime writing community for quite a few years. My purpose here is not to defend Otto Penzler. He means nothing to me personally.

That said, I would like to give him a fair shake, if only as an intellectual exercise. Penzler is currently under assault on two fronts. One for his spirited—overwrought, even—condemnation of MWA for removing the Grand Master designation from Linda Fairstein in light of her involvement in the Central Park Five case. This rolled into accusations of misogyny with the resurrection of comments Penzler made near to the startup of Sisters in Crime.

In the interest of fairness let’s take a look at both situations.
  • The written position Penzler takes in each instance is indefensible, especially considering the vitriol with which they are written;
  • That said, the SiC comments are over thirty years old; I don’t know if he holds those same opinions now, as
  • His credentials as a misogynist were hardy burnished by standing up for Fairstein as he did.
What I don’t know is what kind of support Penzler and the Mysterious Bookshop have provided to female writers and writers of color. Maybe David does, and has figures. If so I wish he would have made them available before calling names that don’t easily rub off.

David Nemeth is a friend of mine who writes an excellent blog of his own; a lot of thought went into deciding whether I should post this. Still, making inflammatory statements without all the facts is not the way to advance a conversation. We should all strive to be better in this regard.

Friday, February 15, 2019

"Why This? Why Now?" A Guest Post by Frank Zafiro

If only I could tell you how many women have said those exact words to me. Fortunately the rest of you are in luck, as today we have what’s called in the publishing industry “a treat.” Frank Zafiro has stopped by to talk about writing, collaboration, his Ania series, as well as his newest and most precedent-setting series The Grifter’s Song. I could go on a while here, but Frank will tell all of it better than I could.

Why This? Why Now?

So far, I’ve written more than two dozen books. Most are crime fiction. Roughly half have been collaborations. And like probably every other writer I know, these books represent about one percent of the ideas I’d like to turn into books and get out into the world.
That being the case, it might seem a little surprising to some that I chose in 2018 to re-visit the seemingly completed Ania trilogy that I co-authored with Jim Wilsky. Starting with Blood on Blood, this hard boiled series was written in a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters. I wrote one character (Mick) while Jim wrote the other (Jerzy). These two half-brothers find themselves walking a tightrope between cooperating and competing with each other while in pursuit of the diamonds their father hid after his last heist. When Ania, a siren grifter, enters the scene, things get even dicier.
Ania is the thread that links the books of the series, as it continues in Queen of Diamonds, where Jim and I wrote the characters of Cord and Casey, respectively, as they face off in a high stakes poker match where Ania seems to be the prize. The series ends in Closing the Circle, as both John and Andros pursue the wily grifter from Chicago to Vegas and out to northern California. The trilogy most definitely gets wrapped up, and that was 2013, so why revisit it in 2018?
Well, there’s three reasons, really. There’s a business reason, there’s an artistic reason, and there’s an inspiration reason.
The business reason is simple. The fine folks at Down and Out Books decided to re-issue the series under their banner, complete with new covers. That alone got Jim and I talking about the stories again, and the possibility of maybe writing another one. After all, having a new book to add to the re-released trilogy makes some marketing sense, right?
But it was the artistic reason that really took hold. Both Jim and I had long wondered about our mysterious antagonist. After spending time with her for three books, we still didn’t know as much about her as we’d like. Who was she? Where did she come from? How did Ania…become Ania?
That led to some discussions and some exploration, and that led to a new book – a prequel aptly titled Harbinger (you can thank Jim for three out of four titles for this series. My lone contribution was the first book). In it, we discover at least part of the Ania origin story, through the eyes of Boyd and Hicks, presented in the same dual first person narrative of the previous books. Boyd, the pragmatist, and Hicks, the beach bum, both find out who Ania is, and how she became the sensual con artist that she is. Along the way, we discovered a twist neither of us saw coming.
So that’s the second reason to come back to a series that has been completed – that artistic need to ferret out answers to questions that were still interesting to me. Luckily, Jim had some of the same questions, and found them just as worthwhile to answer.
But a third reason emerged, and one that I was completely unaware when my conversations with Jim started. You see, spending time with Ania was inspirational in the sense that it got me excited about another pair of grifters whose story I wanted to get out into the world – Sam and Rachel.
Called A Grifter’s Song, the tale of Sam and Rachel is one of two grifters, deeply in love, and deeply in trouble. Having tried to rip off the mob and failing, they are on the run. Each episode takes place in a different locale, involves a different con, and is a complete story unto itself. But in addition to whatever perils they might face from their current job, the specter of the pursuing mob is always there as well.
As I initially envisioned it, I’d write all of the novella-length episodes and release them about once a quarter. Once the saga was complete, I figured I’d collect them into a compendium of some kind. Writing Harbinger moved the project of A Grifter’s Song up my queue significantly. The first episode, The Concrete Smile, started knocking, and then pounding, on my door.
Working on Harbinger with Jim was a reminder of how much I enjoy collaborating with another author, and how satisfying it can be. The entire process feels akin to how attending a mystery conference or just having coffee with another writer drives up the motivation and excitement about your own work. With that in mind, I took a look at the format of a proposal Gary Phillips had made, to which I had submitted a story idea. The format was also novella-length, with multiple episodes, but….every episode had a different author.
I realized that would be a much more satisfying way to go with A Grifter’s Song. It would keep the stories fresh and different. Best of all, it would be collaborative. So I did what all smart artists do, and promptly appropriated the idea for the format. Instead of me writing each novella, I’ll write the first and last of the series, and ten other authors will write the rest.
I pitched the idea to Down and Out Books, who jumped on it. Eric Campbell and I worked out that the series would take place over two “seasons” of six episodes each. He created a subscription model that included a discount for anyone who subscribed to the whole season. I agreed to write an additional story that only subscribers would get, and set about recruiting writers.
Gary Phillips, of course, was the first email I sent. That only seemed fair, right? And Jim Wilsky had to be included, too, since it was our work on Harbinger that got this project going for me. Add in two other authors I’ve collaborated with successfully (Colin Conway and Lawrence Kelter) and the always edgy J.D. Rhoades, and the first season was set. The second season took a little longer, mostly because of how selective I was, but finally rounded out as well. Season two will include Eryk Pruitt, Scott Eubanks, Asa Maria Bradley, Holly West, and Eric Beetner.
True to form, Eric Campbell commissioned some beautiful covers for the series. The tattered paperback novel look that Zach McCain put together really captures the feel of the stories, and ought to at least engender a second look from any crime fiction fan.
The idea of A Grifter’s Song isn’t new. Cons and heists are as old as the noir sub-genre itself. A man/woman team is classic noir. My intention wasn’t to create something completely new. If anything, my hope is that the series will be a modern homage to some of the great works of Richard Stark (maybe not the Parker novels, but the Alan Grofield ones like Lemons Never Lie) and Lawrence Block’s The Girl with the Long Green Heart (and you owe it to yourself to listen to the Alan Sklar narration).
What is new, though, is the subscription model. The collaboration aspect isn’t common, either. I’ll be interested to see how both fare in what is a capricious marketplace, but I’m proud of the fact that Down and Out Books and all of these authors are taking a stab at something a little bit different.
And really, when it comes down to it, that’s why I’m doing this, and that’s why now.