Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Writer's Block? Nah.

I haven’t written a fictional word since March. Even then I was putting the finishing edits on the work in progress, so I guess one could argue I have not written an original word of fiction this year. (I realize there are those who might posit I have never written an original word of fiction. Bite me.)

It’s not writer’s block. I’m not stuck. I just don’t feel like it. The two books I already have finished are due out next year so there’s no way I’ll have anything else that needs to be published until at least 2020, so there’s no sense of urgency. I have other things on my mind and they’re sucking up much of my energy.

Joe Clifford made one of his more insightful comments at last year’s Toronto Bouchercon when he said teen angst is what happens when a young person develops sources of information other than his parents and realizes Mom and Dad have been lying to him. “Lying” may be too strong a term, but the kid realizes that what his parents have been telling him about the world isn’t true and now he has no idea who or what to trust.

I’ve been going through the adult version for several years now, the process exacerbated by the 2016 presidential campaign, the election, and subsequent events. Not to be political, but there are things on my mind demanding attention. Fiction seems trivial. I have words, but need a better place to use them for the time being.

I’ve been more abrupt than usual in some discussions. (Diversity in conferences, how to address enbies, a few others.) I know these matters are of great importance to some, and it’s a sign of my white male privilege that I’m not directly affected, but compared to babies being taken from their parents and people losing health care and long and mutually beneficial international alliances being torn asunder, they’re not at the top of my list of concerns. The garden where I grow my fucks has been overfarmed. I need a little crop rotation so I can move forward again.

I took last week off, not just from work but from life in general. Very little time reading the news or Facebook. It was a pleasure, so much so I actually found the urge to write returning. I have a short story for an anthology due by the end of the month, and a good idea for that. The outline for the next Penns River book is taking shape and the germ of an idea for a new Nick Forte novel has come to mind. (Writers among you are snickering. We all know the distance from “germ of an idea” to “something I’m willing to spend a year writing.” On the bright side, there is no “something I’m willing to spend a year writing” without there first being the germ of an idea.) I spent several of my vacation evenings watching familiar Westerns and the long-postponed Western novel now has a few more things fleshed out, at least in my mind.

It’s easy for those of us who live so much in our own heads to talk about how hard writing is. How I can’t write something about what’s really bothering me, not only because it will no longer be topical by the time the book comes out, but because things one is too close to are almost impossible to write well. What’s getting me past that is reminders that, no matter how much I may shy away from writing something ripped from the headlines, I’m not the person who had his children taken away because I asked for something I have a right to do, nor have I lost my health insurance because someone who makes more money in a day than I make in three months would rather people lose their homes—or die—because they can’t afford proper medical care than pay an extra few percent in taxes. I have a good life—better than I have any right to expect or deserve—and to have to imagine misfortune in order to write about it is a blessing I cannot in good conscience ignore.

That doesn’t mean I have to wallow in it. I don’t need another story about how the government can’t find some of these kids or their parents; what I want to know is what’s being done about it. So I’m trimming my interactions in Facebook to either those I’ll learn from and enjoy, or those I hope to learn from even though I might not enjoy it. There’s no longer any time to read folks bitching about yet another example of the same old thing without suggesting a viable remedy. I don’t care what Donald Trump tweeted this morning. He’ll tweet something even more offensive tomorrow. The time I spend being outraged could be more profitably spent interacting with those who are actually willing and able to do something about it. Elected representatives. The ACLU. The Southern Poverty Law Center. The Beloved Spouse and I went to the immigration rally last week and I plan to counter-protest the White Civil Rights rally next month. Energy breeds energy, and I’m tired of letting bad news flow over me like the overflow from a backed-up sewer. It’s time I pushed back in some way.

Then I’ll be ready to write.

(Afterword: I have begun a short story since the first draft of this post was written. So, progress.)

Friday, July 6, 2018

Stuck in the Middle, Guest Post by Sam Wiebe

Sam Wiebe is the author of the Vancouver crime novel, Cut You Down, Invisible Dead, and Last of the Independents. Wiebe's short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Spinetingler, and subTerrain, and he was the 2016 Vancouver Public Library Writer in Residence. He lives in Vancouver.


That’s from Sam’s website bio. It’s accurate, as far as it goes. What it doesn’t tell you is how Sam has won awards and may well be the tip of the spear that brings private investigators back to their deserved position at the apex of crime fiction. Sam didn’t just stumble onto this. He’s as thoughtful about the craft as any writer I know, so I was delighted when he agreed to be this week’s guest poster.

One more thing few people know about Sam: Even though he’s from Vancouver, he has an
affinity for hush puppies. (Not the shoes, dumbass. The food.) Find some from Claude Cooper’s and Sam will follow you anywhere.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
Stuck in the Middle

“If you want to write commercially, abandon pretense and go for the throat.
If your field is literature don’t worry about the market.”
Jack McClelland, shared to me on Facebook via John McFetridge

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately, as I try to figure out where my career is going.

I’m lucky. I’ve written only the books I wanted to, and the response to them has been overwhelmingly positive. But I’m also not sure where to go from here.

There isn’t a lot of advice for the mid-career writer. Other than a couple columns—Chuck Wendig’s was pretty good—it’s not an area that attracts a lot of philosophizing. People want to know how to break in, or how to make millions overnight. Few people want to know how to sustain a writing career once you’ve breeched the walled city.

As Harlan Ellison wrote, “The trick is not to become a writer; it is to stay a writer. Day after day, year after year, book after book.”

I didn’t know anything about the publishing world when I started. (Not much has changed.) It’s a problematic business, especially when success is measured by two things which might not help, and may actually hinder, a sustained writing career: giant advances and first week sales. It’s a business that moves slowly, when it moves at all, and a business in which writers are not often ‘looped in’ with marketing and publishing decisions that affect their fates. (There are several columns to be written on these topics, by people much smarter than I am.)

To go back to the McClelland quote: I’ve never worried about the market, but the genre I write in is commercial to some extent. I think of myself sometimes as being in the middle, between someone writing just for themselves and just for an audience. It comes back to the advice of “write the book you want to read.”

The middle is a dangerous place to be, career-wise. Your work is in market competition with books written for no other reason than to sell. On the other hand, as a genre writer, you’re shut out of a lot of the protections and awards that gild the careers of “literary” writers. You have to make your own opportunities, but at the same time, you’re writing something you care about. Any business success serves only to sustain a writing career so you can write more things you care about with fewer distractions.

Writing comes first, business second, but the distance between those isn’t as big as I’d once believed, and they’re interrelated in ways I’m only now appreciating.

Anyway, there’s no conclusion to this, no, “And here’s where I learned sales don’t matter…” We all have books to write and bills to pay, and I love to see conversations about doing both.

(Editor’s Note: Sam has expressed things here I’ve thought quite a bit about myself. Expect to see more on this topic from him and me in the near future.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Favorite Reads in May and June

Beast of Burden, Ray Banks. Banks is one of the writers that forces me to look for ways to be sure they don’t fall through the cracks of a busy life. I’ve never been disappointed in anything he’s written. In fact, I’m always pleasantly surprised, even though my expectations are routinely high. Beast of Burden is the fourth and last of the Cal Innis PI books. Not that Cal is really a PI. He tries to be. Sometimes. Thing is, Cal is too tied to his history to break away and do much for himself. It’s going to undo him someday, though not likely for the right reason. That’s cryptic, even for me, but this one has a twist in the end I don’t even want to make you look forward to, let alone spoil. Banks is the George Higgins of the UK, writing dialog that carries his story in ways no one else would think of. It may take a while for an American to fall into the flow of the slang, but once you do few writers can wrap you up in their world better than Banks.

Playing Through the Whistle. S. L. Price. A non-fiction account of the rise and fall of Aliquippa, PA, as seen through the prism of its high school sports teams, especially football. Even in its heyday Aliquippa never had 40,000 residents; now the population is less than half that. Still the town cranks out top rate NFL players that run from Mike Ditka through Tony Dorsett to Darrell Revis and beyond. The original Jones & Laughlin mills ran for seven-and-a-half miles along the Ohio River west of Pittsburgh. (Think about that for a minute: seven and a half miles. A straight line west to east across Manhattan Island through Central Park is less than two.) The mills are gone for all intents and purpose, but the town lives on. Price is not a native but has the perfect combination of perspective and love for the community to tell this story as few can. Penns River is not Aliquippa—things are actually better in Penns River—but it could have been had I been born 40 miles farther west. Playing Through the Whistle deserves every accolade it’s earned.

Nobody’s Fool. Richard Russo. Been a while since I read any Russo, so I returned to where I started. Most people are aware of the story because of the movie where Paul Newman plays the hapless Sully, who couldn’t catch a break if it floated down to him tied to a parachute, and doesn’t really want to. Towns like North Bath and Aliquippa and Penns River are full of Sullys, outlaws in their own ways without being criminal and whose ration of don’t give a shit has reached self-defeating levels. Russo shows Sully as an asshole who doesn’t mean anything by it, not knowing when to stop teasing his friend Rub and stealing the same snow blower multiple times. It’s a leisurely stroll through several weeks of life in a dying town that’s still lively enough to remain entertaining throughout.