One Bite at a Time

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I Did That on Purpose

Ed McBain used to tell of readers who’d point out inconsistencies in Isola geography between books written years apart. One even sent McBain what amounted to an atlas of every location he’d ever mentioned in all the 87th Precinct novels. (If memory serves, this included hand-drawn maps.) McBain couldn’t decide whether to be flattered or concerned. I mean, the guy clearly loved the books and bought them as soon as they were available. On the other hand, what kind of holes was he filing in his life that he took that kind of time living in Isola’s alternate universe?

All writers are subject to this, though not to the same extent. Readers love to point out errors. Sometimes it’s out of affection and a desire to see a favorite author get something right. Sometimes it’s a way to show their knowledge of a certain field is superior to the author’s. (Or at least that they think it is. Readers who point out perceived errors are not always correct themselves.) And some are just pricks playing “Gotcha” in the hope of proving (to themselves, likely) that while this big shot author may be making money off his writing, he’s no smarter than I am.

Authors respond in different ways. Some ignore any such comments. Some engage, either to agree with the reader and apologize for the error, or to point out the reader’s error. The latter can be fraught with peril. Among my favorite panels at Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conferences is when the guests of honor get together to talk about their mail and detail some of the exchanges they’ve had over accuracy, or, more precisely, the lack thereof. The stories range from hilarious to chilling.

Some authors argue, which even I, argumentative as anyone, see no profit in. Even worse are those who argue publicly when a reviewer points out an error in a forum such as Amazon or Goodreads. There’s no upside to that. It deteriorates into a pissing contest no one can win and the author can’t help but come off as the bad guy, punching down in weight class.

The best response to readers who point out errors, the one I’m adopting right now and from this point forward, the one I’m pissed I hadn’t thought of, and the one I consider PFG (Pure Fucking Genius), comes courtesy of Adrian McKinty, author of the Sean Duffy series. (Which I cannot recommend highly enough.) It’s from an old blog post I stumbled onto while reading a recent entry.

In short, when a reader points out an inconsistency with fact in one of the Duffy books—say, a road not yet built when the story takes place—Adrian explains that Duffy’s fictional world exists in an alternate universe where the road had been built. He freely cops to inconsistencies such as a character’s eyes changing color during the book: Sorry, mate, you caught me out there. I’ll see can it be changed for the paperback. Facts are more fluid and may need adjustment to get to the greater truth. (To a point. The Duffy books take place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. I believe the chances that Queen Elizabeth will come to an untimely demise are roughly equivalent to Lord Mountbatten surviving his attack.)

The Duffy books are historical, but the principle applies to non-period works. I actually made a conscious decision to do exactly this in Penns River without realizing it. Penns River stands in for three small, adjacent cities in Western Pennsylvania. I’ve even gone so far as to make a Google map of “Penns River” that encompasses the three cities (and one township) that make up Neshannock County. I use actual street names and locations so I never have to worry about McBain’s conundrum of forgetting where I put things.

This also allows me to create places as needed. Just because I used Leechburg Road and Drey Street and the coffee shop on Tarentum Bridge Road doesn’t mean any of this is real; there is no such place as Penns River or Neshannock County in Pennsylvania. This frees me up to create whatever else I want, such as a casino in an abandoned shopping mall, or to decide Ben Dougherty lives in the last townhouse in the row near the top of Garver’s Ferry Hill. They exist in that fictional version of the Tri-Cities. Reader response to Worst Enemies and Grind Joint implies the technique is effective.

Let’s hope that remains true in Resurrection Mall.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Thoughts on Libraries

My local library branch has been in temporary quarters for a couple of years while the county built a new facility on the site of the old one. The transient location wasn’t much, some space they shook loose in the town hall building. They did what they could to keep the kids’ stuff available—and good on them for that—but too cramped for browsing.

The new building opened a couple of weeks ago and it’s beautiful. Lots of space for all the books, plus open areas for seating, studying, meetings, teens, and kids, including a dinosaur skeleton in the floor. Really a nifty facility which will get me back in the habit of making regular visits.

It also got me to thinking about libraries in general. I have long believed that should some alien culture come to Earth after humans have killed themselves off, what they’ll be most impressed with are libraries. They are the physical manifestation of what separates us from the “lesser” animals, as humans are the only creatures on the planet able to transfer knowledge without direct interaction. We’re uniquely able to write down instructions, thoughts, dreams, laws, entire philosophies, science, medicine, you name it, and share them with people around the world across generations. Some may argue the Internet now does those things better, but what is the Internet but a vast library?

One thing a physical library does the Internet cannot is create a sense of belonging. I hadn’t thought about this much until I saw a video (on the Internet, of course) of Dennis Lehane speaking at the Crime Fiction Academy at The Center for Fiction. Lehane was there to talk about the twenty things that made him a writer, of which the first ten were public libraries. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

Libraries…are where people actually do something to show they care about the population of a city and they don’t get paid for it. It’s really an amazing concept. When I was a little kid we couldn’t afford books in our home. It was a luxury. We had some encyclopedias, but I think it was because my dad didn’t see the salesman coming that day and that was pretty much all we had. So my mom heard from the nuns—in what was maybe the only nice thing the nuns said about me—that I liked to read, so she took me to the library and she got me a library card. I still remember everything about that card, I swear to God….This concept that I can just go back here—every day, much as I want—and take books out for free. Just as simple as that. Take them out for free, take them home, read them, was something that to this day I still can’t get my mind around. What libraries say to kids from the wrong side of the tracks is, very much, that you matter. That this building cares about you, and this building is actually funded by the city, so that means the city cares about you, and it takes other funds from the state, so that means the state cares about you. There might even be a little money from the federals, so that means the country cares about you. You matter. That’s what a library says.

(The entire speech is well worth your time. YouTube has it in two segments of half an hour or so each. Informative and great fun to boot.)

So, yeah. Libraries. Mankind’s most precious invention. Like so many of mankind’s best and purest accomplishments, now under attack. Support your library. Borrow books so those in power know it’s being used. Donate old books to the book drive. At election time, vote Yes on the referenda asking for bonds to build and maintain them. It’s a painless way to do something for someone else, someone you may never meet, or even be aware of, to tell them they matter. That’s what a library does.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Could You Stop Writing?

I was chatting with Rick Ollerman at the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference a few months ago when this question arose: Could you just stop writing? Everyone has his or her own answer. Here’s mine:


I thought about ending the post there, but that wouldn’t be very writerly.

Sure, I could, and so could you unless you suffer from hypergraphia. Let’s can the melodrama. You can quit anything that’s not a basic necessity of life: eating, drinking, breathing, baseball. Heroin addicts and smokers quit and they have actual physical dependency issues. So yes, writers can quit.

I love writers. Many of my best friends are writers, and the vast majority of friends I’ve made in the past ten years are writers. I wouldn’t trade you in for anything, even if I did decide to quit. (Not that I’m thinking about it, but Ollerman asked. This entire blog post is his fault.) That said, writers as a group—not all, but a lot of us—can be an impractical, whiny lot when stressed. Some of us tend to think writing is harder than anything anyone else does. It’s not. That’s not to say it’s easy—it’s quite rigorous mentally—but any writer who walks up to a miner or ditch digger and says how much harder the writer’s life is had better be nimble.

We all bitch about the business of writing, but let’s face it: anything in the arts is a shitty way to make a living unless you’re extremely talented and fortunate. This is because there are more people who want those jobs and are capable of doing them well than there are jobs available. This also argues against the extreme difficulty of said jobs. People line up to do them.

Why am I such a prick about this? (Aside from the fact that I’m a prick in general.) Mostly because it is a hard way to make a living, and bitching about it doesn’t make things any easier. This is the life we have chosen. Deal with it.

What’s that? You didn’t choose writing? It chose you? You had no choice in the matter? Bullshit. Writing may be a calling but choosing it as a profession is exactly that: a choice freely made. Nothing prevents anyone from writing in their free time for personal pleasure, especially in this day of the Internet and self-publishing. Those who say they might have to quit writing because they can’t make a living at it have tacitly admitted they can’t not write.

Another reason I come off as a prick (in addition to being good at it) is because I’ve walked away from the thing I wanted to do most in the world and lived to tell the story. I guaran-damn-tee you that no one reading this wants to be a writer more than I wanted to be a trumpet player. It was pretty much all I cared about for over 15 years of my young adult life. I finally gave it up when I came to grips with the reality that I lacked the talent to be more than a good AA player (to use a baseball term) and that wasn’t enough for me. The two worst moments of my life were telling the then two-year-old Sole Heir that I was leaving her mother and the night I packed my Monette C trumpet in the box to ship it to its new owner. That those two events occurred within a few weeks of each other didn’t make things any easier.

I didn’t die.

I found a new job, which led to a new career. I turned to writing as my creative outlet, which led to the irony of finding I have far more talent for that than I ever had for music. I took the good from my musical days and brought it with me: many dear friends, wonderful experiences that could not have been gained any other way, and lessons learned that still apply in my business, personal, and writing lives.

That’s not to say I don’t miss it. I rarely attend orchestral concerts. They’re too hard to sit through. I’ve been “retired” almost 25 years now and still feel a little hollow after a concert, as if I had faced the wrong direction during the gig. (I sometimes wonder if it would be different if I sat in chorister seats behind the orchestra.) There are a million little things I miss about performing live, mostly the satisfaction of playing something exactly as I wanted it.

So, sure, if the day ever came that the bullshit I had to endure was greater than the satisfaction received, damn right I’d stop writing. Be honest. So would you. Go ahead. Admit it. It’s much healthier to want to do something than to feel needy about it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Strong Affirmation of Plantsing

There is only one generally accepted way to write: put your ass in the chair and get at it. The consensus breaks down after that.

I used to be a dedicated outliner. More than outlines; treatments. I remember a 30-page document written in full paragraphs for an early effort. Maybe the original Nick Forte, the one that (thankfully) didn’t sell before I decided to take the character in a different direction. (That doesn’t mean I’m not still carrying a torch for the publisher that jacked me around on an “exclusive” for two years before blowing me off with a two-sentence, grammatically incorrect rejection. But I digress.) Not one of James Ellroy’s 700-page monstrosities that are actually longer than the book, but still pretty detailed.

I went back and forth about this for a long time. Friends argued in favor of the virtue of being as surprised as the reader would be when a new plot point developed on the screen before me. I tried it a few times. Threw away tens of thousands of words, though I admit I was as surprised as any reader would be at how shitty the results were.

Around this time I read a nifty little book called Making Story: Twenty-One Writers on How They Plot. Not just 21 authors rounded up from in front of Home Depot looking for day jobs as stringers, either. The contributors included names such as Michael Stanley, Kelli Stanley, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Zoe Sharp, Stephen Jay Schwartz, Timothy Hallinan, Leighton Gage, Bill Crider, and many more. (Thirteen more, for those counting.) This would be the mother lode, I figured, prepared to alter whatever needed altering in order to move my stories forward.

I was right about it being the mother lode, and I learned a key lesson I might not otherwise have come to. Not only was there no consensus, there were 21 different ways to go about it, and they obviously all worked. I say 21 only because there were 21 authors in the project. Had 30 been asked, I’m sure the number would have been 30.

After a brief disappointment over not having found The Way™ I realized this was a completely liberating experience: what worked for one book might not work for the next and that some amalgam of the two could be the best way to write the third. My outlines contained less detail as I went, eventually shrinking to a brief—sometimes single-sentence—description of what needs to happen in each chapter. How it would happen was a game time decision.

I was delighted to be on a panel at the 2015 Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference to discuss the merits of plotting vs. pantsing, having thought on it a lot. (For the uninitiated, a “pantser” is an author who does not outline and “writes by the seat of his or her pants.”) I shared the panel with Weldon Burge and Sandra Campbell. Weldon and I were confirmed plotters. Sandra described herself as a “plantser:” half plotter, half pantser. By the end of the hour she had convinced us both that plantsing was the way to go.

I’ve written one book since then. (Nick Forte Volume 5, Bad Samaritan, yet to be released.) Right now I’m early in the second draft of the next Penns River story, working title Small Town Crime. Both had even sketchier outlines than my recent practice, often no more than a line per chapter. Among the benefits of a Word table is its ability to infinitely expand and to be easily re-ordered. Now an outline I would have adjusted a story to suit a few years ago is a living document. I have it up at the same time as the manuscript and it’s rare I go more than a few days without skipping back to the outline to add something that came to me as I typed up the draft and knew I’d want to use.

I read a few years ago that Raymond Chandler never edited drafts; he re-wrote them on clean sheets of paper, rephrasing everything. I tried that with Bad Samaritan and don’t see where it did anything but delay the process, given my shitty typing. (Just because Chandler did it doesn’t make it right. He drank to excess, had Mommy issues, and was a self-pitying pain in the ass, so I don’t feel all that bad about not slavishly following his example.) In Small Town Crime I rewrote the outline before starting the second draft. Quicker than re-typing everything, and easier to maintain an overview of what’s important.

What’s fun is that I thought of this just now, as I was writing this blog post. (Note: The Space-Time Continuum is intact. I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago.) Thanks to the 21 authors in Making Story and Sandra Campbell’s advocacy of plantsing, I’m now comfortable to try something different every time, even change horses mid-stream. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll learn something.

Fortunately those of you who actually read this know that’s sarcasm. Learning something is always the best-case scenario.

Friday, February 3, 2017

January's Best Reads

The New Year had a few disruptions to the reading schedule (trips to visit The Sole Heir in Connecticut and the Ancestral Units in Pennsylvania sandwiched around getting together with a half-million of our closest friends on the National Mall) but there was still time for some excellent reading.

Razor Girl, Carl Hiaasen. It’s authors like Hiaasen who keep me looking for better ways to track and plan my reading. It had been several years since I read him, and he never disappoints me. This time he’s in the Florida Keys with a defrocked police detective who’s now a health inspector, a woman who crashes cars for a debt collector, a mobster, a guy who relocates beaches, and the “talent” and “brains” behind a reality show that might remind you of Duck Dynasty. Inspired satirical mayhem ensues.

The Big Short, Michael Lewis. There’s an old story about a man who’s walking into town to play poker. “Don’t you know that game’s rigged?” says a friend. “Yep,” says the man, “but it’s the only game in town.” Michael Lewis has a gift for explaining not only how the markets are rigged (in this case the bond market), but how not even the people doing the rigging really understand what’s going on. Raymond Chandler once wrote that it was not funny that a man should be killed, but it was often funny that he be killed for so little, and Lewis brings that to his tales. The crash of 2008 was a tragedy—many people who never stood to gain from the boom lost everything while those responsible walked away with millions—yet Lewis finds a way to get you to shake your head at characters Elmore Leonard would have a hard time coming up with. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Enough is as Good as a Feast

A while back I discussed the often overlooked benefits of Facebook. Today we look at another: free blog fodder. A couple of weeks ago Sam Wiebe left the post below. I commented at the time, but said even then this deserved a whole blog post.

Here is Sam’s “inciting incident:”

Insomniac question: which of these would you choose and why?
1. Would you rather make a lot of money doing something you dislike...
2. ...or a 'comfortable' amount doing something you don't mind/kind of enjoy...
3. ...or a slightly above subsistence level doing exactly what you want?

There was a time when my answer would have been—and was—Option 3. In my trumpet days I was perfectly happy playing what gigs I could get and teaching. I would never have made more than I needed to live on—I wasn’t that good—but I would have been happy.

For a while.

Number 3 is okay if you don’t have other obligations and don’t mind working until you die because you don’t have enough saved—and may not have paid enough into Social Security—to feel comfortable retiring. Even had I not sought more permanent employment when The Sole Heir™ came along, my days as a musician were numbered. I need some idea of where and when my next paycheck is coming. I need to know I could meet my obligations. I was fortunate to be married to a woman who didn’t mind (too much) that I wasn’t really pulling my weight financially. I did what I could to be a decent house husband to pick up some of the slack, but it was an untenable long-term position for someone of my disposition.

It took me a while to drift into Option 2, but that’s where I belong. I have a good job now, saving for retirement. The Sole Heir™ is a grown woman. The house almost paid for. The job takes a consistent 40 hours a week, but I work almost exclusively at home, so there’s no commute. No waking at the crack of dawn, no fighting traffic. The work is usually interesting. I enjoy and respect the people I work with. It’s also not so draining that I’m not ready to write in the evenings, nor am I too tired to read for at least an hour before turning in. It’s a perfect situation for me. I might not have chosen Option 2 when I was young, but experience is a wonderful teacher for those who pay attention.

Option 1 is the one slot I’ve not filled, and yay, me. Even when I was too young to know better I understood that was not the way to go. Life is too short, and we only get one. Americans too often live to work, pushing everything else to the background and rationalizing it by buying things or hoarding money. Employers say, “Your family will just have to understand.” I say, “You have to understand. The only reason I’m here is for my family.”

An old Russian proverb says, “Enough is as good as a feast.” While my eating habits clearly haven’t internalized that message, I’ve always been pretty good with it. All my bills are paid, home maintenance is pretty well up to date, I’m saving money, I have time to spend on the things I care about most, and I’m not getting my balls broken on a daily basis. People I respect respect my writing and I enjoy the process.

Yeah, I’m in a pretty good place. Good thing, too. I’m too old for the rest of that shit.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Conversation With Todd Robinson

In an effort to keep everyone from being bored with this blog (including me). Today marks the first installment of a new feature. I’ll still do some Twenty Questions interviews, but those are really only good one time around. Once people have answered them, there’s not a lot left, even though I make an effort to swap out the questions from time to time.

A good interview should be more of a conversation, so that’s what we having here today. And not just some boring conversation with some droog off the street. The break the cherry of this new feature, we got Todd Robinson, founder and editor of the late, lamented Thuglit, and internationally published author of the The Hard Bounce and its sequel Rough Trade. Most of you already know Todd, at least by reputation. For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure…well, there’s a lot I could tell you, but it’s better to hear it from Big Daddy Thug himself.

You’re a Boston boy through and through. How’d you end up in Yankeeland?
A series of bad decisions. Add on another twenty years of bad decisions, and I'm still here. New York is that unforgiving kind of town that grants a person enough of a living to stay here without allowing the means to accumulate enough to fucking leave. It's insidious.

But at this point, my boy is here, so I'm here. I'm raising a New Yorker, so the best I can do is accept a lifetime with a Mets fan.

Needless to say, he is being raised with the concrete belief that the Yankees represent all that is wrong in the world.

Thuglit was considered by many to be the premier neo-noir outlet in the country. A lot of now big names were published there before they became big deals. What gave you the idea to start it up?

I got tired of the shitty longstanding magazines tendency to publish bland crime lit suitable for Nana. They weren't representing the kind of writing I was doing, and they sure as shit weren't representing the shit I liked to read.

What do you like to read? Not necessarily who, but what keeps you going through a book and what will bring you back for more?

I'm reading a bunch of different stuff. As much as I love crime fiction, I'm a little burnt out after eleven years of reading submissions for the magazine. It's important for me both as a writer and a reader not to burn out any further on a single genre. I just finished Birdbox (horror) by Josh Malerman, Deer Hunting With Jesus (current affairs/non-fiction) by Joe Bageant, and just cracked open Utu by Caryl Ferey (crime fiction).

I have to admit my reading focuses a lot—maybe too much—on crime. What is it about crime fiction that drew you in originally? Is it the same as what keeps you there?

What drew me in was that I recognized the characters and lives as reflections of the world I lived in. I recognized the desperation and the lack of societal care for people who were hurting and how they lashed out in a fashion that was sometimes criminal. And I also recognized the humanity underneath the surface of the people others might classify as damaged.

I write about my people. I like stories that relate to those experiences and emotions. Sure, I take those characters and scenarios down some fantastical roads, but do my damnedest to keep the innate truths about the people themselves intact.

I hear you’re going back to France for another tour. Who’s your French publisher and how did you get hooked up with them?

Gallmeister Editions publish my books in France. They have a unique way of finding authors. They find an author they want to publish, then ask that author who they think they should look at—someone that they might not have heard about. This is how they've gotten their fingers on so many authors who are considered "underground" here, and help them find a broader audience in France. Their stable includes some of the bravest and most ferocious writers in neo-noir...and then there's me.

Benjamin Whitmer recommended me into the company. I owe that man at least a steak.

Are French author events different from those you’ve been to here in the States?

Yes. People show up.

Forgive me for this, but I don’t get out much and live vicariously through my more successful friends, and I have a question I’ve wondered about since your first trip to France. Are the events in French or English? If French, do you speak French, or is there a translator?

The events are in French with an interpreter. God help me if I didn't have one. I learned some key phrases to engage people, and apparently my accent was convincing enough for them to sometimes believe that I was a naturalized speaker—perhaps one who'd suffered a recent head injury. Nevertheless, often people would just continue the conversation in least until they saw the panic in my eyes as I frantically searched the room for my interpreter.

Here’s the big thing I wanted to talk about today: You’re a respected voice in and for noir fiction. The late Roger Hobbs referred to you as “the most important name in contemporary American noir.” I’ve read all three of your books (Dirty Words, The Hard Bounce, and Rough Trade) and, while I find many of the short stories to be noir (especially “Peaches,” which I consider one of the handful of best short stories I’ve ever read), the novels strike be as black comedies not unlike some of Shane Black’s films, such as Kiss Kiss Bang and The Nice Guys. What does “noir” mean to you, and how noir do you think you are?

Meh. Noir has become such a malleable term so as to become almost meaningless. It just sounds good because it's French. How noir am I? Who the fuck knows? I'm just telling stories how I want to tell them. Some darker, some with more of tongue-in-cheek sensibility. I call my own style Idiot Noir. And I'm sure there are some who'd argue that what I do isn't classically noir at all, due to the humor. That said, my French publisher has included me in their Neo-Noir collection, so there's that. And those beautiful bastards coined the term. Ergo, the noir purists can suck it.