Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Process


The first draft of the work-in-progress is as done as it’s going to get.


Let me explain.


There is a chapter—maybe two—I might decide to add. One, almost certainly. I know where it belongs; I know what has to happen. What I don’t know well is the context, as the idea came to me when I was well down the road from its eventual residence. I could read the preceding chapters and knock it out now, but that seems inorganic compared to my approach so far, and all my good feelings about this first draft derive from trusting the new process of letting things flow as much as possible when I sit down to write. When the time comes I’ll pause—knowing what’s to come—and let it roll. Worst case, I have to rewrite it. Or throw it away. Even throwing it away would show I have enough confidence in what I have to know what doesn’t fit.


Back to the first draft. I’ve been posting about my process’s evolution, and how I think it’s for the better. So far I have no reason to change that assessment. It’s possible I might when I come back in a few weeks for a fresh look and find it’s a steaming mass of covfefe. The big thing is I’m not worried about it.


“Worried” might be too strong a term for how I often feel during revision. It’s a sense of how much remains inadequate, all the things I was unhappy with in the first draft but left in because that’s what first drafts are for: digging up the raw material the edits smelt into something useful. I still have all of that to do. What’s different is I’m looking forward to it. I’ll approach the edits the same way I did the first draft. Try not to think about them until right before I go into the office to write, when I’ll sit quietly for anywhere from two to twenty minutes to let my mind sort itself out. Then I’ll go in and see what needs to be better.


The first pass at revision won’t improve the writing much. That’s fine. The purpose is to smooth out the story so it flows. Get the pacing right. Scenes in the right order. Cut what I don’t need. Scrivener is good for that.


The next revision is where the real writing takes place. I’ll export everything to Word and give it all a hard look. Does it flow? Does it have the tone I want? Does the humor work? Does the violence work? Is there enough description? Too much? Does the description detract from the pace? Does the dialog fall on the ear how I want? It’s still the same attitude as the first revision, though: nothing is wrong. Things just need to be better.


Then I’ll let it sit again before doing my version of line edits. There’s a detailed and OCD process I use before I’ll let myself type “THE END.” I tend to call it the “final” draft, and it comes after I’ve fixed all the stuff that catches my eye. Some books it’s Draft Seven. This time it will be Draft Four.


I used to put off sticky problems by telling myself, “You’ll catch that in the next draft.” Then I’d keep cranking out drafts until I didn’t say that anymore, after which I’d set the book aside before the final OCD draft.


Not this time. This time I want to keep a little pressure on myself. I want that turn of phrase, that banter, to be just how I like it in Draft Three, understanding that it probably won’t be. It just has to be close. The final pass will be to tidy things up. A proofread as much as anything else.


Will it work? So far so good.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Movies I'd Watch Forever


We all have movies we’ll watch time and again. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but if I had to pick a dozen movies to watch for the rest of my life, I’d be happy with these. (In alphabetical order.)


Animal House (1978) A film that speaks to me. I graduated college in 1978, and a guy lived in my first off-campus dorm parked his motorcycle in his room. I would vote for John Blutarsky in a heartbeat if he were running against either Mitch McConnell or Lindsey Graham. Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.


The Big Lebowski (1998) How The Beloved Spouse™ and I spend two hours of every New Year’s Eve. The Dude abides.


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Greatest buddy movie ever. Who are those guys?


The Drop (2014) As perfect an exercise in storytelling as I have ever seen. They never see you coming, do they, Bob? (Honorable mention: Gone Baby Gone.)


The French Connection (1971) I date all crime movies as pre-French Connection or post-French Connection. You pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?


The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) Maybe the best film ever made about the side of mob life no wants to think about. Life is hard. It’s even harder when you’re stupid.


Get Shorty (1995) What I watch on my birthday, and still my favorite Elmore Leonard adaptation. I’m not gonna say any more than I have to, if that.


Hell or High Water (2016) Sicario probably gets more attention and Wind River might make this list on a different day, but Hell or High Water is as well-constructed a crime story as you will ever see. What don’t you want?


Hombre (1967) There are arguably better Westerns, but not many. Maybe the best Elmore Leonard adaptation, certainly the truest to the book, and maybe his best book. Mister, you got some hard bark on you.


The Ice Harvest (2005) The Beloved Spouse™ bought it for me and fell in love with it. Now it’s the Official Christmas Eve Movie of Castle Schadenfreude. As Wichita falls... so falls Wichita Falls.


LA Confidential (1997) You knew it would show up here sooner or later, right? I’ll watch this bad boy multiple times a year and never get tired of it. Was that how you used to run the “good cop – bad cop?”


Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) My brother and I used to binge this as best we could when the only places you could see it were on PBS pledge drives and midnight shows. I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper.


Aw, hell. As I went through the list I realized there are two more I can’t leave out.


The Maltese Falcon (1941) As faithful an adaptation of as perfect a book as has ever been written. Or at least as close as the Hayes Office would allow. We didn't exactly believe your story, Miss Wonderly. We believed your two hundred dollars.


The Princess Bride (1987) I always forget how much I enjoy this movie until The Beloved Spouse™ talks me into watching it. Then I could watch it again the next night. The epitome of good, clean movie fun. As you wish.


I was going over this list with The Beloved Spouse™, who responded with some alarm, “Where’s Mel Brooks?”


Blazing Saddles (1974) Of all the movies that couldn’t be made today, this one is most unable to be made today, and we’re all worse off because of it. Satirical social commentary was never better. Huh, Mongo straight.


The Producers (1967) I liked the remake, but this is the one I’d take with me for Zero Mostel and a young Gene Wilder. Will the dancing Hitlers please wait in the wings? We are only seeing singing Hitlers.


Thursday, October 8, 2020



Last week I read a book by a favorite author that was, frankly, disappointing. I identified the problem about halfway through: too much time spent on backstory. I don’t remember this being an issue with this author in the past, but I imagined an editor saying, “People like characters with personal struggles that have nothing to do with the story. They eat that shit up.”


Not all people.


Backstory is like research: don’t use any more than is necessary. The author should at least have an idea, but the reader doesn’t have to know everything. The way to develop characters is in the context of what’s happening now. The backstory and research should seem to live between the lines as much as possible.


Several years ago a good friend or mind (yes, I have them), a sorely underrated author, was taken to task by the critic for a major newspaper because the critic wanted to know why the drug dealer had become a drug dealer. I read the book. It didn’t matter. The man was a drug dealer when the book started. Unless his background was unique and important to the story—which it was not—it’s not germane.  The book wasn’t about that. It was about what’s happening now.


This is among the reasons I detest serial killer stories. (The book in question has a serial killer, but that’s not what the book is really about.) I do not care about the psychological underpinnings of this asshole’s need to seduce, rape, mutilate, and kill women. It may be important to the cops, but even they don’t need to know everything. Just tell us what we need to make sense of things. You know, leave out the parts we’d tend to skip, like I did the parts of the book under discussion where the killer describes his crimes in a journal. The author had already presented him as a sick fuck. Everything else was piling on.


Hint at backstory. Tease the reader with it. Here are two outstanding example, both from moves, but movies where the writing was paramount.


In Spike Lee’s Inside Man, screenwriter Russell Gewirtz tells us nothing of Dalton Russell’s (Clive Owen) background, except that he knows things about Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) no one else knows. How does he know these things? Doesn’t matter. He knows them and the whole story revolves around what Russell is willing, and not willing, to do about it.


We do get insights into Detective Keith Frazier’s (Denzel Washington) background. He’s pondering marriage but has financial concerns. He’s also under a cloud due to a large sums of money that went missing from a previous case. Both matter to the story, as the suspicion makes his assignment to thie case tenuous, and his marital dilemma provides opportunity for a peek inside Russell’s character. (If you haven’t seen Inside Man, by all means do so. It’s wonderful, start to finish.)


Another, micro, example is from Deadwood: The Movie, written by David Milch. In a crowd scene near the end where the townspeople pelt series villain George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) with all manner of projectiles and invective, a man in the crowd hollers out, “I hope you die in the street like my father.” There’s an epithet, and a hint at why the man said it, all in ten words. Let your mind explore the possibilities. All Milch had to do was open the door. (As Timothy Olyphant said in the interview that drew my attention to this, “Wow. Backstory.”.)


Backstory, research, and description all exist to support the story, not crush it. Engage the reader’s mind. We all caution to “show, don’t tell” but what is it but telling to say the character was “Six-feet-one-inch tall, with blue eyes and brown hair that grazed his ears and collar. He had a well-defined nose with bumps that hinted at multiple breaks and fingers disproportionately thick for his hands.” How much of that do we need to know? He’s tall, but not exceptionally so. Unless his eyes and hair come into play later, why not leave them to the reader’s imagination?



Thursday, October 1, 2020

Who Cares What King Thinks?


Much of this blog’s recent content involves either writing craft or the philosophy of writing, which leads to obvious question:


“Why should anyone care what Dana King thinks about any of this?”


Yeah, well, I’ll have you know I’ve sold scores of books over the past ten years, pal. Tell your story walking.


Back to reality. It’s a reasonable question. How can someone with my profile presume anyone else cares what he says about writing? Even I don’t often read articles about writing unless written by someone whose work I know and respect. Who am I to expect other to take interest in what I think?


That’s easy: I don’t. There’s an old story about a couple about to have sex for the first time. She notices his erection spans three inches, at best, and asks, “Exactly who do you plan to satisfy with that?”


“Me,” he says.


I write these for me. If you gain any benefit, that’s great. If there’s one thing I feel I was born to do, it’s teach. I love it and I’ve had enough feedback to know I’m good at it. Events and timing killed what career hopes I had, but I still get to do some on the day job. If these posts get anyone to think about something they might not have thought about otherwise, that’s great. The teacher in me hopes you’ll let me know in the comments.


Hearing from you is nice, but it’s gravy. I have learned over time the best way for me to refine a thought is to write about it, even if I never show what I’ve written to anyone. A personal standard allows me to see if I’m on a track worth pursuing or if I’m kidding myself. I’ve lost track of how many potential blog posts are never completed because I wasn’t satisfied with how the thoughts come together, or get a few hundred words in and realize not even I care enough about this topic to go on.


This is where I order my mind. I post because—well, because I can. The Internet gives every swinging dick who thinks he has something to say a venue. I work to ensure I don’t too often fall into the noise, so maybe someone else will learn something, or consider something new, or just pass a little pleasant time on a tough day.


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Taking My Time


I wrote in July about the influence of David Milch on my writing and the concept of “resting transparently.” An exercise he promotes is to sit down and start typing a scene. Two characters: Voice 1 and Voice 2. Nothing but dialog. Type whatever comes to mind for no less than 25 minutes and no more than 50. Stop when you begin to think about what you’re doing. When finished, seal it in an envelope and forget about it. As Milch puts it, “Give it to God.”


Milch believes writers too often think about what the writing can do for us, or how it will be received, or, ultimately, if it will sell. Or how well. The point of the exercise is to pull the creative process away from that. His point is that your best writing gives you the best chance of success, and your best writing often comes from a place the conscious mind may be reluctant, or afraid, to go. Resting transparently is letting go and trusting your subconscious.


I don’t have much time for exercises. The day job still consumes almost half my waking hours. What I can do is to put the concept to work for me.


I’m writing this after supper. The work-in-progress awaits. When I finish here I’ll do something else for a while to clear my head. When I’m ready to get to work I’ll take a few seconds, no more than 30, and refresh my memory of where I am in the book. Then I’ll walk into my reading room, sit in my chair, and close my eyes. Whatever comes to mind comes to mind. I make no conscious effort to direct it.


Sometimes it’s a little while before the book takes over. Sometimes—and more often recently—I sit no more than a few minute before I know exactly what comes next. I about launch myself out of the chair to get to the keyboard.


The session goal is 500 words. If I hit a roll, I keep going until I start thinking too much, or I start feeling good about what I’ve done. Either of those involves the ego, and the ego is the enemy of creativity. When that happens it’s time to stop. With rare exceptions, this takes 25 – 50 minutes.


Where this method works best is on days I don’t work the day job and I can repeat the process three or four times. It seems to work so long as I leave an hour or so between sessions. Do that three times a day and I’ll have at least 1500 words and quite possibly more than 2500, because, once begun, every session gets easier as more comes to mind virtually unbidden.


It also helps that this is the first draft. There are misspelled words and mangled grammar. There are sentences I’ll look at in three months and wonder, “What the hell does this mean?” Doesn’t matter. There are no mistakes. There are only things that need to be better. That’s what edits are for.


First drafts were always drudgery for me. Now I look forward to the next session. This may be the best first draft I’ve ever written. I don’t know if it will be the best book—a draft often bears only passing resemblance to a finished novel—but I’m delighted with what I’ll have to work with.


I’ve discovered chapters I’ll need to add. Leave them for the end, then find good places for them. Sanding off the unintentional edges are what edits are for. (Scrivener’s note cards are great for this. Just create a new card, type in a slug, and I’ll get to it when I get to it.) What’s best is the lack of anxiety. Every first draft I’ve written has had several, “Oh shit” moments. Not once in this one—so far—and I’m at least two-thirds of the way through.


I’ve known for years I’m more left-brained than it’s good for a creative person to be. Resting transparently allows my right brain to breathe. Taking my time allows what comes next to form itself in my subconscious so when I’m ready to rest transparently, what I need is right there.


I never think about writing when I’m not writing anymore, which is another Milchian trademark. That doesn’t mean ideas don’t come to me unbidden. I came home from shopping recently with well over half of the plot for a new Nick Forte novel so well formed I typed out 1500 words of notes. Didn’t have to think about them. Just wrote down what was on the tips of my fingers.


We’re all looking for a way to open the tap in our brains that lets out the words we want in the order in which we want them. Resting transparently and taking my time will not make me more talented. They might help me to stay out of my own way.

Thursday, September 17, 2020



The Beloved Spouse™ and I rarely leap into the hot thing du jour. We let things breathe and gauge the reception over time before devoting any of our precious remaining hours to something. Ergo, we recently binge-watched NYPD Blue fifteen years after it went off the air. All 261 episodes. In a row. We didn’t watch anything else.


We don’t fuck around.


What a great show. Like any property that runs twelve years, it slows down a little toward the end, but not a lot. The entire cast turns over except for Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and the producers use that turnover to shift the squad’s internal dynamics so you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen, but you have an idea how events will affect the characters.


If I had to pick one thing that stands out, it’s how the rest of the squad, including the bosses, come to respect and gain affection for Sipowicz. He’s a racist asshole when the show starts, and he’s never cuddly. He struggles with multiple demons and keeps them at bay while understanding they are never defeated. He learns when and how to ask for help, never more touchingly as when he calls his wife to come get him in a bar. “No, I’m not drinking. But if you don’t come for me I know I will.” Not an order; a plea. Early in the show the only person who has the time of day for him is his partner, John Kelly (David Caruso.) By the end the entire squad will do anything for him.


All of the characters’ histories have their places, but not in a manner that the show becomes about their flaws; it’s still about the whole person. What turned me off of Rescue Me was that every episode became a test of whether Denis Leary would drink. After a while I didn’t care anymore, and there wasn’t much else to him. That’s never true of NYPD Blue. Everyone is a well-rounded person and personality. The characters never become stale because there’s always fertile ground to be worked, between New York situations (“Everything’s a situation,” said Sipowicz’s second partner, Bobby Simone) and the depth of the characterizations.


Since I brought him up, let’s talk about Bobby (Jimmy Smits). He’s only in a third of the episodes, but he leaves his mark on the rest of the show. His replacements, Sorenson (Rick Schroder) and Clark (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) are well-developed, well-acted characters, but they’re not Bobby. It’s Simone’s understanding and empathy for Sipowicz that turns the rest of the squad around. Not because Simone says or does anything, but everyone loves Bobby, and if Bobby feels this way about Sipowicz, then he can’t be all bad. The show is still good, but not so often transcendent after Simone leaves..


It’s a cop show and I haven’t said a word about the crimes. There’s no big deal made of stories “ripped from the headlines,” but former NYPD detective Bill Clark had a hand in breaking the overwhelming majority of stories. It shows. The weird crimes all have a “no one could make this up” feel, and the painful stories are never melodramatic. They just tell the story. Make of it what you will.


No show has better exemplified Joe Wambaugh’s mantra that a good cop story is more about how the cases work on the cops than about how the cops work on the cases. NYPD Blue is a procedural without much procedure. Only what you need to understand what’s going on. Nothing easy about that, and it’s more than worth your time when executed this well.


(I also recommend David Milch’s book, True Blue, about the first two seasons of the show, including the transition from Caruso to Smits. As good a behind the scenes book as I have read.)


Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Cold Six Thousand

My first exposure to James Ellroy was the movie LA Confidential. That sent me to the local library, where only Ellroy available was The Cold Six Thousand. It was the most unpleasant reading experience of my life. I vowed never to read Ellroy again.


A few years passed. Stephanie Padilla, then editor of the New Mystery Reader web site and the person responsible for many of the good things in my life as a writer, asked me to review Blood’s a Rover, which picks up where The Cold Six Thousand leaves off. I accepted as a favor to Stephanie. Turns out it was she who’d done me a solid. I loved the book, which taught me

1. The Cold Six Thousand is not a good point of entry into Ellroy’s work.

2. I needed to go back to The Black Dahlia and read him in order.


I revisited TC6K a couple of months ago. I revised my original assessment by the end of the first page. By Page 100 I understood why it’s a masterpiece, though I stand by my opinion it is not the place for the uninitiated to learn about Ellroy. There are no good guys, only shades of bad guys, and they’re not just bad guys, they’re bad people. Racial epithets, anti-Semitic and homophobic comments, the dialog and internal thoughts of the characters show much of the worst of human nature. The subject matter aside, the best word to describe the writing style is, “brutal.” The sentences are short and percussive.


The story draws heavily from the FBI’s attempts to discredit Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. The hatred for the Kennedy brothers shown by organized crime and J. Edgar Hoover in American Tabloid is now secondary to civil rights matters, but the inciting incident for the book is John Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.


TC6K reads like a description of what one might find after overturning a rotting stump, told in stark, unapologetic language. Human empathy is well down the list of “virtues,” and it’s most often dealt with by crushing its bearer. It’s a dog eat dog world, and the main course doesn’t need to be dead for the feast to begin.


And yet it’s a glorious read, as daring a book as I have ever encountered. Ellroy’s vision of America in the 60s turns a negative light on events we have struggled for years to describe either positively or as aberrations. Ellroy is having none of that. To him, the events described, factual and fictional, did not happen in spite of America’s greatness; they are part and parcel of the illusion of American greatness.


It’s also a much timelier book now than when I first read it. The current political climate has allowed the kinds of people depicted in TC6K as working underground to surface and thumb their noses at ideas of decency. Lots of people write of dystopian futures. Ellroy pulls the covers off our dystopian past.


Through all of that, the ending shows a little light. Not so much for the situation as a whole, but for how people can find a little justice for themselves, so long as they don’t hope for too much of it. Even that is eventually doled out in a brutal, too little too late, manner.


There won’t be any moves made of The Cold Six Thousand, though the storytelling virtues of streaming services make one wonder what Netflix or Amazon Prime could do with the material. I have no idea how TV would handle the pages of “transcripts” and “internal reports” that give the book such a documentary feel in places. Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks have both tried, and failed, to get series on the air.


It’s just as well. The Cold Six Thousand may be a story best saved for those willing to invest the energy to reads them. No skimming here. A proper encounter gets the reader dirty with the characters or the point is missed. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

Irish Alzheimer's

My friend and outstanding writer Dietrich Kalteis asked me to contribute my “favorite” rejection story for an article he’s putting together. He only wanted a paragraph and I had a good story for that level of detail. I have another story that’s more along the lines of writers’ nightmares I can share here.


Nick Forte was originally a tongue-in-cheek protagonist of a not quite cozy about a former musician turned PI who worked cases that involved the music business. His sidekick fancied himself as Hawk but was universally known as Wren. I had an agent—the late and sorely missed Pam Strickler—who enthusiastically pushed the book to the major New York houses, where it received encouraging rejections.


Pam turned to a leading second-tier publisher of crime fiction. They asked for an exclusive, then sent it for a round of readers’ comments. I made some edits, and they sent it around again. More comments. More edits. Then it went through what sounded like a painfully detailed evaluation process with the house editors. No news. Pam sent a gentle prod. They put us off. Pam send another note. The runaround again. I forget how many of these we went through, never rejecting us, but not sending a contract, either.


Pam and I finally agreed it was time for the “piss or get off the pot” letter. That received a blow-off: a two-line e-mail with grammatical errors even I recognized, back when I chose to write in the first person because I lacked confidence in my grammatical skills. Total time waiting: almost two years.


The story has a happy ending. I used the time to take Forte in a different direction, which led to two Shamus nominations. Still, I have a fantasy I think most writers can relate to.


I sell a book that generates enough buzz I get to make a national tour. When the publicist tells me I can have a spot in [city name redacted] speaking at [prominent bookstore associated with the publisher mentioned above redacted] I tell her I wouldn’t appear there if the owners kissed my bare ass on the 50-yard line of the Super Bowl during the coin toss. The publicist would be encouraged to relay my comment to [publisher name redacted] in those exact words. I’d then ask her to spare no effort to book me into that bookstore’s closest competitor, where I’d be happy to bring food and beverages, stay as long as anyone wanted, and sweep up after.


(*--Irish Alzheimer’s: A condition where the afflicted party remembers only the grudges. My mother’s maiden name was Dougherty.) 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The French Connection


I suppose it’s telling that, facing a rare free weekday afternoon and looking for a feel-good movie, I chose The French Connection.

Regular readers know I am a devotee of Seventies crime movies. I rarely pontificate on the “importance” of films, but I do believe The French Connection is a seminal event in the genre. Crime movies were different after this. They had to be.

A problem with seeing anything as often as I’ve seen The French Connection is that little flaws become more obvious and TFC has its share.

·         Cloudy (Roy Scheider) asks Popeye (Gene Hackman) how he was supposed to know a guy they busted had a knife when it was he who hollered, “Watch out, Jimmy! He’s got a knife—” when the action went down.

·         Why do the smugglers leave the Lincoln with the drugs at the waterfront? I’m willing to say the plan was to have it picked up to transfer the drugs, reported as stolen, and returned intact, but there are far easier ways.

·         Why do they buy the junker car to store the money? Why not just put it back in the Lincoln?

·         Why take Doyle and Russo to the site of a horrible car crash to take them off the case? They’re Brooklyn narcotics detectives. Why are any of them even there?

·         How does the conductor (or whatever he is) of the subway train not know the Transit cop has been shot? What happened to all the people who fled toward the front of the train?

·         Why doesn’t the dead man’s switch engage when the motorman passes out? (Yes, I read The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three.)


None of that matters.

There are lots of movies where any of the above would take me out of the story. Not here. I saw The French Connection for the first time in a theater (a double-feature* with M*A*S*H, no less) and noticed none of those things. The film engrossed me from the opening credits. Martians could have delivered the drugs and I wouldn’t have cared.

 It’s the attitude. It sweeps you into Popeye’s world to see things through his perspective, even when he’s not ion camera. As great as the chase is—and it still has to be in the top five ever—the scene I remember best is the two cops walking into the bar and Popeye says, “All right, Popeye's here! Get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!” Every line in that scene shows Popeye controls the situation less because he has the badge than because he has the will.

 The original heroin test. (“Blast off: one-eight-oh. Two hundred: Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”) Picking up the initial thread while out for an after work drink. (“He’s spending money like the Russians are in Jersey.”) Tearing apart Devereaux’s car. Stalking Frog One through the abandoned crematorium with Russo darting from cover to cover while Popeye walks right up the middle. Popeye and Frog One getting on and off the subway train and Frog One’s little finger wave goodbye. Popeye mimicking that wave when the cops come for the arrests. The continuation of Popeye’s obsession even after he learns it’s Mulderig he shot. (“That son of a bitch is here. I saw him. I'm gonna get him.”) The film keeps you in the moment, and in the moment it all makes sense.

 And Don Ellis’s soundtrack. So far ahead of its time we’ll never catch up. Never intrusive, always uneasy, propulsive when necessary. There are less than 25 minutes of music in the movie and every second has a purpose. Ellis was an innovator throughout his career but his soundtrack for The French Connection may be his masterpiece. (Ellis died in 1978 at the age of 44. I’ll always be sorry I never saw his band in person.)

The French Connection and the first two Godfather films hold positions in the cinematic pantheon of crime stories not unlike the relationship of Beethoven symphonies to Mozart’s. The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 perfect the conventions that have come before. The French Connection throws open the door of what is to come. There is a little overlap, but once that genie is out of the bottle there’s no going back.

 (* - Note to readers not of a certain age: There was a time when a person could pay for one movie and legitimately see two.)

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Have a Nice Weekend

Life has intervened. I got nothing for you this week. See you next Friday. 

Thursday, August 13, 2020

First Cousins

“Write what you know” is the hoariest piece of writing advice. Also the worst, when taken too seriously. Used responsibly and wisely it can add depth and nuance to any project.

 I got comfortable writing what I knew when I began the Penns River books. Previous efforts involved things I’d learned or come to know. Penns River I knew. I never had to learn it. I grew up there. Many of its qualities, better and worse, are as ingrained in me as my hair color.

 Like hair color, what you “know” changes over time. Perspectives that made perfect sense in your twenties now seem silly or even embarrassing. That doesn’t mean you deny their existence. Keep them in your toolbox. A character come along sooner or later who suits your discredited ideas. Not only can you use them, you get to look at them from the outside. There’s potential gold there.

 I wrote a few weeks ago about David Milch’s talks on “The Idea of the Writer.” In one he discusses the concept of looking for the first cousins of ideas. I’m still finding my way around this at the story level, but it’s already paying dividends on the character level as a great way to keep from being too “on the nose.” It’s particularly useful when dealing with a personal experience too painful or too close to write as well as you’d like. Often those situations become either preachy or heavy-handed, or the characters start to wallow in the writer’s self-pity.

I moved back into my parents’ house a few years ago when my mother couldn’t handle the day-to-day needs of Dad’s home hospice care. I wouldn’t trade most of that month for the world, as it was an opportunity for a son who’d moved away to show he cared about, and for, his parents. That said, I wouldn’t wish Dad’s last few days on anyone. Nor would I wish it on anyone’s family. (Home hospice care is a wonderful thing. The doctors, nurses, and clergy truly are angels on earth. There also comes a time when the professionals need to take over, both for the comfort of the patient and the sanity of the family.)

 I can’t write that story, nor work it into a larger piece. I can find its first cousin. I know what it feels like to watch someone you love become les vital until what’s left is hard to remember as anything except what he’s become. I know the odd mixture of relief and guilt that comes when he finally dies. That’s the “what I know” to write about.

 A friend of mine wrote a first-rate story for our writers’ group years ago about a homeless man. The story gripped everyone from the start until the ending, which fell flat. The consensus was to leave everything else alone and fix the ending. Suggestions flowed like a spring, as so often happens when critiquing something that’s thisclose.

Within minutes, our friend was almost in tears. It was a true story. The homeless man was her brother. She was way too close to make any changes without feeling like she was betraying him.

 The ending was weak because it was too on the nose, which made it land heavy. What she needed was the first cousin for it to kick ass. I wish I’d known about it then. Everyone could’ve left happy that night. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

What to Write?

“Don't ever write anything you don't like yourself and if you do like it, don't take anyone's advice about changing it. They just don't know.”

 --Raymond Chandler

 This applies on both the macro and micro level. You’re going to spend a lot of time with whatever project you select; it better be something you’ll enjoy reading. And reading. And reading again. I went through my most recent book nine times, with another pass pending when the edits arrive. How can I expect someone else to enjoy the read if I felt it a chose to write?

This is the primary reason I’ve never tried my hand at a thriller. I don’t often read them. I like more realism than contemporary thrillers tend to provide. I’m not ripping those who do enjoy them—we’re all entitled to our own tastes—but the work would be drudgery, which means the reading will almost have to be.

 (Editor’s Note: He does sometimes entertain the idea of writing a satirical thriller, but he hasn’t even bought it a drink yet.)

 The micro level is just as important. I recently wrote about the inherent conflict between authors and editors. I stand by everything I said there, but I should have been a little more resolute myself. I sent an e-ARC to a loyal reader (yes, I have some) who wrote back to express his appreciation of a particular line, which I had cut from the final version at the editor’s suggestion. I liked the original better myself but I didn’t stick up for it. That’s my fault but it’s okay for two reasons:

1) I learned my lesson and will not make that mistake again;

2) I was able to get it changed back before the book went to press.

 “Maybe your books don’t sell because you obstinately avoid the mainstream of public taste,” id the obvious question.

 Maybe. Probably. So what? Not everyone has the skill set to write in a certain genre or style. Leonard Bernstein is possibly the greatest musical polymath this country ever produced. He went to his grave lamenting his inability to write a hit song, and had great respect for those who could do it. No one is going to ask Tom Brady to play linebacker; that’s not where his gifts lie. Even if he wanted to and was young enough to learn the position-specific skills, that’s not what he was born to do. As Captain Dudley Smith said to Bud White when White asked if he was going to work cases in the Homicide Division: “Your talents lie elsewhere.”

 I am a massive fan of Dennis Lehane’s The Drop, both the book and movie. They’re master classes on how to develop and tell a story. The movie had a small budget and still lost money in the United States despite having Tom Hardy (when the movies on either side of The Drop were The Dark Knight Rises, Locke, Child 44, and Mad Max: Fury Road)and James Gandolfini in his final role. Foreign receipts pushed the film into the black but the money men can’t have been happy.

 This is what Lehane said about the film in an interview with Boston Magazine: “Everybody was always on board to kind of make a gritty, down-and-dirty, 1970s-influenced film. The commercial considerations didn’t override the film. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, we have to slap on a happy ending,’ or ‘Oh, we have to do this because market research.’”

 I get that. I love 70s crime movies. That’s probably why, without any conscious thought or effort, I write novels that could easily be 70s movies. I’m well aware the population at large isn’t much interested in seeing films like that anymore. This is my wheelhouse, for better or worse.

 Maybe my favorite book I’ve written is the standalone I wrote between the Nick Forte and Penns River series, Wild Bill. It’s the story of how a mob war in Chicago ruins a large FBI investigation. I showed it to an agent everyone thought I should work with. Met her a Bouchercon where she told me she liked the book but

1) No one cares about Italian gangsters anymore. Maybe if they were Russian.

2) It needs more unexpected violence.

(She also didn’t like it enough to send me any of this feedback. I had to find out at the bar.)

 Maybe it did need more unexpected violence to sell, but that would have been a different book. It did have half a dozen corpses but they weren’t the point. What mattered was how and why they got that way.

 Could I have re-written it to accommodate her suggestions? Sure. Would that have increased its changes for a sale? I think not. I’d be writing someone else’s book, and I give readers credit for being smarter than that. They’ll know something is a quarter bubble off level. Wild Bill was the book I had in me and I wrote it the best I know how. I still think it’s the best constructed book of the eleven I’ve seen published.

 I sometimes toy with the idea of getting an agent to shop the Penns River books for a streaming series. My ego is large enough to think they’d make a good one. What’s tricky is that I’m the square peg in the round hole. I have no screenplay, so I have to go through literary agents who will look at my sales figures and pass unless I want to try something else. Down & Out Books lets me write what I want. The books are better, and I’m happier, because of it.


Thursday, July 30, 2020

Resting Transparently

No one knows how writing happens. “Sit your ass in front of the keyboard” is less about writing than typing. “Plotting” vs. “pantsing” deals with the mechanics of story. Where does creativity come from?

If I knew, you think I’d be telling you for free?

The best I can do is refer to a series of videos in which David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) talks about “The Idea of the Writer.” Recorded at the Screen Writers’ Guild auditorium during a writers’ strike, Milch held court for a couple of hours each day for a week about the creative aspects of writing.

These are rambling discourses, covering subjects as diverse as chemistry,

I have always been more left-brained than it’s probably good for a creative person to be. Charlie Stella described my writing style as “documentary,” and that’s fair. I’ve always thought I did my best work describing things that had already taken place in my mind.

This caused first drafts to require more heavy lifting than I like to do. I’ve used the term “mining” to describe my first drafts, no one’s idea of a pleasant experience. Editing was where I had my fun.

The current book—Number Seven in the Penns River series—is the first time I’ve made a conscious choice to change, thanks to Milch. I’ll write more about his talks as time goes on, but two takeaways not only shifted my attitude about the first draft but make me look forward to each day’s production, so much so the blog has to fight for time. (Apologies to Patti Abbott. I haven’t forgotten about the post I owe you.)

Most important for me (filtered through my experience and personality) is the concept that all art must rest transparently on the spirit that gives it rise; the artist must therefore do the same. It’s a concept Milch adapted from Kierkegaard’s definition of faith as the opposite of despair: "In relating itself to itself, and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it."

Milch’s faith is in his Higher Power, learned from years of working his twelve-step program. Mine is in knowing I can take as many passes as I want to make things better. It’s all about removing the ego, which is the enemy of creativity. As soon as I start thinking too much about what I’m writing, or whether it’s any good, I stop. It’s impossible to rest transparently when thinking about the potential effect of the art on others, and how they may respond; the writer creates what he creates. The reception is beyond his control.

How to get to a state of resting transparently is up to the individual. I need my increasingly vague and flexible outlines to remove worry I’ll write myself into a corner that requires either an implausible resolution, or throwing away thousands of words of work. (Which I’ve done and it’s no fun.) Like all writers, I depend on a certain amount of inspiration, a Muse for lack of a better word, to do my best work.

The German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé discovered the ring structure of the benzene molecule after twenty years of work. The solution came to him in a dream of a snake swallowing its tail. In Milch’s telling, his peers gave Kekulé a ribbing. “Why did you work twenty years on this? A dream was all you needed.” Kekulé’s reply was, “Visions come to prepared spirits.” That’s the key: how to prepare the spirit. Everyone does it in their own way

Milch swears he never thinks about writing except when actually doing it. How the ego influences that is a post of its own. He battles with OCD and would wrap himself in knots if he thought about the craft too much. His energy goes directly into the work.

The Beloved Spouse™ can attest I am not above overthinking things myself. I have made a major effort not to think about this book unless I’m working on it. I read the chapter’s brief slug in the outline or review the last few paragraphs from the previous day, and jump in. Not only is it easier and more fun, based on feedback from TBS it’s at least as good as the other first drafts she’s

A surprising benefit is how often ideas now come to me unbidden. Last weekend I went grocery shopping and a few disparate thoughts and events coalesced and the next Nick Forte fell together by the time I got home. More came to mind as I told TBS about it. Another useful event dropped in on me the next day, vision coming to a prepared spirit.

I’ve never been more enthusiastic about writing, other than right after conferences. I’m rushing through this so I can get back to the book. (After I add the notes to the file for the next Forte.) It’s messy, but I have faith all will get sorted out, and that’s what really matters.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Favorite Reads Since Last Time

It’s been a while since I passed along my favorite recent reads, so let get right to it.

Remo Went Rogue, Mike McCrary. Every time I see Mike McCrary on a panel I decide I need to read him, and I never get around to it. I saw him at Bouchercon in Dallas, walked up and asked who to see in the bookstore so I could march right down and get one. He told me he’d been unable to work anything out, but I was welcome to the copy of Remo Goes Rogue he’d read from on the panel. Free. Gratis. He even autographed it. That’s the kind of guy Mike McCrary is. And the book kicks ass, too. He always stops just before things get too over the top, but no one hangs you on that precipice as well, or for as long, any better than he does. Great fun. I’ll be back.

The Hook, Tim O’Mara. Former cop turned schoolteacher Raymond Donne is back (finally) and hasn’t missed a beat. The Donne books are of a genre I don’t much care for, the amateur sleuth. This series has a difference. Raymond is from a family of New York cops. His uncle is Chief of Detectives. Raymond himself was on the job until an injury forced him into retirement. When trouble breaks out in or around his school, certain instincts kick in, and he has the skills do know what to do. He has help: His girlfriend is a reporter—and believable friction results there—and his best friend runs a small security business. Add a wordsmith of considerable talent to the mix and you have a series that has not earned near the acclaim it deserves. Start here or anywhere. You’ll be hooked. (See what I did there?”

The Second Girl, David Swinson. This a re-read, and one I looked forward to. This one made Swinson’s name, and deservedly so. All three Frank Marr books are outstanding, but this is still my favorite, if only because of meeting a character unlike anyone else I’ve read.

400 Things Cops Know, Adam Plantinga. I review this one whenever I start a new book. Every crime writer needs this one, even if the cops aren’t the main characters.

The Cold Six Thousand, James Ellroy. Yet another re-read, as I work my way through the Underworld USA trilogy a second time. This was my first Ellroy, and I had no idea what to expect; it was the most unpleasant reading experience I ever had. Now I see it as the masterpiece it is. I’ll have more to say about TC6K when I have a chance to do it justice.

Police Craft, Adam Plantinga. Everything I said about 400 Things Cops Know applies.

Burglars Can't be Choosers, Lawrence Block. My first exposure to Block was years ago, in a Keller anthology. I’m not a fan of hit man novels—I detest most serial killer stories, and a professional hitter is just someone who figured a way to make a living doing what he’d do for free. I got tired of hearing about how good Block is and was in the mood for something lighter, so I started at the beginning of the Bernie Rhodenbarr series. Smart and full of wit, now I understand how Block came to occupy the position he has. Now I’m all in and expect I’ll like Matt Scudder at least as much.

Left Turn at Albuquerque, Scott Phillips. Everything one would expect from the author of The Ice Harvest. A lawyer who’s not close to as smart as he thinks he is comes up with a caper to solve all his problems. Problem is, he can’t do it alone, and his issues with impulse control make it difficult to pull off a long con. Always witty and laugh out loud funny in spots, this one’s a gem.

Friday, July 17, 2020

S. W. Lauden, Author of Good Girls Don't

You want to know what kind of guy S.W. Lauden is? He wears a ball cap almost all the time due, I believe, to some follicle desertion issues. One day at Bouchercon a few years ago I noticed him without the hat and spent close to a minute perusing and touching his, making the comment, “I don’t know why you wear a hat all the time. You have a very attractive head,” and he did not punch me in the face. That’s the kind of guy Steve Lauden is.

He’s also wormed his way into becoming one of my favorite writers. He co-edited the essay collection, Go All The Way: A Literary Appreciation of Power Pop. His crime fiction novelette, That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist, was released in 2019. The follow up, Good Girls Don’t: A Second Power Pop Heist, dropped last month. His Greg Salem punk rock PI series includes Bad Citizen Corporation, Grizzly Season and Hang Time. S.W. Lauden is the pen name of Steve Coulter, drummer for Tsar and The Brothers Steve. (Holy shit! I didn’t know that. I thought we were friends and now it’s like I don’t even know him. No matter. I’m going to consider Steve Coulter his gig name. I’m old and I don’t like change.)

One Bite at a Time: Hearing you’d written a sequel to That’ll Be the Day was the best news I got that day. What’s up with the Sharp brothers in Good Girls Don’t?
Steve W. Lauden: You’re too kind, Dana. I feel lucky to say that stopping by
your blog has become a bit like playing the same nightclub in a certain city every tour. Something you look forward to in the whirlwind of activity. Thanks for having me back.
In the second book, Jack and Jamie are headed to LA (with their drummer, Chaz) to record a reunion album. The whole elaborate affair’s being funded by Russell Patterson who is both their biggest fan and their worst nightmare. Like any good wannabe music mogul, he’s paying the bills—but exacts his pound of flesh. In this case, he wants the Sharp brothers to steal a famous guitar that’s on display at a Hollywood music store. Things get out of hand pretty fast from there. Bullets fly. Blood spills. Hi-jinx ensue.

OBAAT: No one writes musicians on the borderline of careers better than you. How has your experience as a musician helped you to bring these characters to life in believable and sympathetic ways, even when they may not on the surface seem like sympathetic characters? (No offense with that “borderline career” crack.)
SWL: Ha! “Borderline career” describes every career I’ve ever had, and there have been quite a few. When it comes to writing about musicians, it’s a matter of “write what you know.” I’ve been playing drums in bands on and off since my early teens, and been a huge music fan since before that. Translating my love of music into crime fiction is easy because the music industry has always been filled with egomaniacs, conmen and thieves. There’s a reason “sex, drugs and rock & roll” is in that order—music comes last.

And thanks for saying I create “sympathetic” and “believable” characters. I think that’s something we all have to worry about in a genre where action and violence sometimes overshadow personality (especially on the hardboiled end). As a reader I need to connect with the characters (even if I can’t sympathize), so I think I use that as my own personal guideline.

OBAAT: You still gigging?
SWL: Yes! Not a ton, but I played a few shows with The Brothers Steve in 2019. I’m guessing 2020 is pretty much a wash, but we’ll probably do more shows when bars and nightclubs open back up. I’ve also gotten to record a little lately, which is fun. We should have some new music coming out in the next few months.

OBAAT: I think we can agree you have some fucked up situations and characters in your books, such as Russell Patterson’s “collection” and my personal favorite, the cocaine-dealing pirate impersonators in Crossed Bones. The synopsis for Good Girls Don’t refers to a violent gang of rock & roll memorabilia collectors. Outrageous as these set-ups seem, you not only always pull them off, but they make sense. Do you have some sort of internal governor that keeps things form getting out of hand, or do you let them play out and hope for the best?
SWL: I’m always pleasantly surprised when somebody connects with the over-the-top characters in Crossed Bones. I don’t think that book ever really found its audience—or maybe you’re it! And I agree that those cocaine-dealing pirate impersonators are distant cousins to Russell Patterson in my Power Pop Heist books. I think it boils down to my love of absurdity. That’s a big part of my personal humor and something I’m always on the lookout for in everyday situations. Maybe it’s a social coping mechanism, but I have always found the strangest things funny, especially in mundane or serious situations. It’s honestly something I’m still learning to control in my writing. If anything, I probably start off going over-the-top with some of the cartoonishness and calibrate from there.

OBAAT: No one else comes to mind when I read your stuff. Who do you consider your primary influences as a writer?
Not even legendary producer Bruce Dickinson
ever asked Steve Lauden for more cowbell.
SWL: I think that whatever style or voice I have managed to develop might seem unique (or strange?) in the context of the genre because I never specifically set out to be a crime author. I love crime fiction, but I’m no die-hard genre historian. My love of reading and writing was very much born in literary fiction, the kind of stuff you’d encounter in high school or college literature courses. I often mention Kurt Vonnegut as an all-time favorite, but books that blew my mind were mostly by authors like Umberto Eco, Charles Bukowski, Katherine Dunn, Mikhail Bulgakov, E. Annie Proulx, Neal Stephenson, Jorge Luis Borges, Robin Sloan—stuff like that.

I definitely read my share of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett growing up, but it wasn’t until I got into Norwegian crime fiction that my attention really turned to the crime genre. I also love Don Winslow and Kem Nunn. More recently, I’ve gotten into Attica Locke, Ryan Gattis, Alison Gaylin, Scott Adlerberg, and Marcus Sakey. I’d say that Blake Crouch is my favorite current author, but his last few books are hard to classify. I also read a crazy amount of non-fiction about music, musicians and bands.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
SWL: I have two standalone novels written. Trying to decide if I’ll shop those to agents and publishers like my other books, or self-publish them like my Power Pop Heists. And I’m working on a couple non-fiction projects, along the lines of the essay collection I co-edited last year, Go All The Way: A Literary Appreciation Of Power Pop. Staying busy.

Friday, July 10, 2020

An Interview With T.G. Wolff, Author of Driving Reign

TG Wolff writes thrillers and mysteries that play within the gray area between good and bad, right and wrong. Cause and effect drive the stories, drawing from 25+ years’ experience in Civil Engineering, where “cause” is more often a symptom of a bigger, more challenging problem. Diverse characters mirror the complexities of real life and real people, balanced with a healthy dose of entertainment. She holds a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering and is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.

One Bite at a Time: Give us the hundred words or fewer rundown on the new book, Driving Reign.

T.G. Wolff: Nothing is simple. Cleveland homicide Detective Jesus De La Cruz
finds out the truth of that when he investigates an apparent suicide as a favor for a friend. The threads he tugs are wound through a sex scandal, a deadly drug dealer, a conceded college jock, and a holier-than-thou matriarch. The facts have Cruz wondering if there is such a thing as an innocent man- or woman. Truth is a rope, tied in a noose. As he closes in, the knot tightens, but who will pay the price? A killer or a member of Cruz’s own family? (Editor’s Note: 97 words. She can come back whenever she wants.)

OBAAT: Driving Reign is the second book in a series called the de la Cruz Case Files. Did you plan to write a series from the start, or did you get the first book finished and decide you have more to say in this universe?

TGW: I knew this one was a series. This structure is the kind where the main characters continue to grow but each main mystery is independent. This is one of my favorite type of series to read.

Knowing it was a series allowed me to be patient when revealing backstory and developing the characters. I was able to plant seeds that will grow into future side plots and maybe even a main plot or two. With this being the second book in the series, those seeds are already turning into something fruitful.

OBAAT: We both write procedural series, so we have some shared experiences. What is it you like best about a series? Is there anything you find limiting?

TGW: In series, I am usually strongly drawn to the characters. I want to be part of their next adventure. This is exactly what I try to give my audience. In my head, every character is the star of their own show, which allows even minor characters to be interesting and contributing.

If there is something about a series that can be limiting, it is that you have to live within the world you created. Some storylines just do not fit Jesus De La Cruz. Or, maybe it is better to say, if he had those storylines, they would have very different outcomes than if another character owns them.

OBAAT: Who are your primary influences, either literary or visual?

TGW: My two earliest influences were Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe (no relation) and TV’s Lt. Columbo. With Wolfe, you have the continuing characters I talked about liking. You also have smart, solvable mysteries. I like knowing everything Archie knows. With Colombo, you know more than Colombo knows, and yet it was never boring to watch him cover the curve. The other thing both have in common is a minimum of violence. I know that is oxymoronic with murder mysteries, but graphic violence doesn’t do much for me. I’m interested in the puzzle. I write the same way.

OBAAT: Good point about Columbo. For me the fun is trying to guess when Columbo figured it out, and how he’s going to turn the tables to get a confession. Since we’re talking about television, you’ve decided that tonight you’re going to watch a movie you’ve never seen before. What is it, and why did you chose it?

TGW: Wait- you mean I’m allowed to touch the remote control? I can pick anything I want? (Kidding, not kidding). Lately when I do sit in front of a TV, I am still picking mysteries, but with a twist. Just yesterday, I watched an Agatha Christie mystery in French. (No, I don’t speak French). Through Roku, I have found the adaptations of the M.C. Beaton’s Hamish MacBeth stories (interesting, but very slow), Bosch (too dark, literally, couldn’t see a damn thing) and Harry Dresden (should be awesome but wasn’t, that’s why it only lasted one season). I tend toward mysteries or comedies, staying far away from reality. There’s too much of that in the world.

OBAAT: You also put out a podcast that’s different from anything I’ve heard elsewhere, called “Mysteries to Die For.” Tell us a little about that, and where you got the idea.

TGW: My teenage son, Jack, is a natural musician. He was playing around on the piano with bass lines one day. I was working with my 2019 release Widow’s Run, which I honestly wrote to be read out loud. I started reading as Jack played and it worked. When I was promoting Widow’s Run in 2019 (pre-COVID), Jack and I performed the first chapter at Centuries and Sleuths bookstore in Chicago. It also worked well. After months of stalling because it was work to figure out how to podcast, we launched in March 2020. The first half of the season is Widow’s Run. The balance will be performances of public domain mysteries and those that authors allow me to perform.

This has been a great adventure. Jack is writing music and/or adapting classical pieces (to avoid copyright issues). We get deep into characters to find their bass lines. He has explored areas I never expecting him too including Russian national music, deep roots gospel, and rap. It’s special when a middle-aged white women and her kid are making dinner while listening to Enimen’s first album and discussing the appeal.

OBAAT: The classic final question: What’s next, and what are you working on now? (In case they’re not the same thing.)

TGW: My next release from Down & Out will be in February 2021, Suicide Squeeze, A Diamond Mystery #2. I’m working on Cruz’s next story – no title yet – slated for February 2022. I’m three chapters in and enjoying the writing. For the podcast, we have a few more months until the Mysteries to Die For is finished with Widow’s Run. Then we will start in with classics. I think the first will be Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” One of my favorites!

Friday, July 3, 2020

An Open Letter to Writers' Organizations

As usual, I’m a bit late here, but I wanted to get my thoughts together about the recent International Thriller Writers controversy. Not even ITW so much, as what this debacle says about writers groups in general.

Writers’ organizations such as ITW, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, etc. do not require two houses of Congress and a president to set standards for membership. There is no need to content ourselves with saying how something is terrible and needs to stop, the horror, the horror, then install window dressing and walk away. It’s time to establish who our organizations and events belong to. Consequences are in order.

Understanding that lawyers would have to fine tune this, here’s a proposal for organization membership and event attendance:
  • A Code of Conduct for all members, clearly stated and easily found on the web site. The Code will cover inappropriate sexual behavior, as well as racist, homophobic, transphobic, or religious discrimination. The Code shall make clear this is not a bar to civil discussion of such topics. Context always matters.
  • Conference attendees must check a box to certify they have read and agree to abide by the Code of Conduct before the system can accept their registration.
  • Credible complaints will be forwarded to a standing committee on conduct, which may do any of the following after an investigation:
    • Nothing. The committee will inform the complainant of the reasons why. (Example: “You became uncomfortable after finding yourself involved in a discussion of the invective used in James Ellroy’s works describing life in the 50s. No one called you, or anyone else, any of these names. No sanctions forthcoming.”)
    • Probation. Prohibits the accused from attending future conferences for a prescribed period of time. They are still a member and may participate in other activities until the probation period is over. Probation can be conditional (“on probation until the matter is disposed of”).
    • Suspension. The accused may not attend any events, nor enjoy any of the benefits of membership, for a prescribed period of time.
    • Banishment. Permanently bars the accused from any aspect of the organization. This should apply only in extreme circumstances, though repeat offenders should also be subject to permanent banishment.
  • Members who are on probation, suspended, or banned will have their names posted on the group’s web site. The reasons will remain private, but their names will be available for those who may attend a conference to which this person still has access, so people know who to look out for. The Code of Conduct each attendee must acknowledge prior to registration will clearly include this provision so there are no misunderstandings.

It’s no longer enough to know there are bad actors out there and maybe they’ll face some arbitrary consequences if they misbehave. The consequences have to be clear and public. It does little good to ban someone from ThrillerFest for sexual misconduct only to keep their name secret so they may prey on others at Left Coast Crime or Bouchercon.

This isn’t about punishing the guilty. It’s about keeping everyone else safe. Not just good thoughts and boilerplate platitudes so they’ll feel safe. Taking action to actually make them safer. I’m a six-foot-one-inch, 240-pound straight white man. I have never, not once, felt anything but safe at a conference. Everyone needs to be able to feel that way. To paraphrase Harry Bosch, “We’re all safe, or no one is safe.”

Friday, June 26, 2020

Jochem Vandersteen, Author of Crimes And Riffs: Roadie, Metalhead, PI.

This is Jochem Vandersteen’s fifth interview on OBAAT and each one has been a pleasure. Born and living in The Netherlands, Jochem is as ardent an advocate for American private eye fiction as anyone living. A good review or year-end mention on his  “Sons of Spade” are notable accomplishments and I’m proud to have received both.

Jochem is a writer of note his own self. In addition to two anthologies of PI fiction. (The Shamus Sampler and The Shamus Sampler II), Jochem has published short stories and collections featuring protagonists Noah Milano, Vance Custer, Mike Dalmas, and his newest creation, Lenny Parker. Jochem treads the line between homage and moving the genre forward with aplomb and I’m always interested in what he’s up to. Now you can catch up with him, as well.

One Bite at a Time: Jochem, it’s always a treat to have you on the blog. I hope everything is well with you. Your new book is a collection of your Lenny Parker stories, Crimes And Riffs: Roadie, Metalhead, PI. Talk a little about what readers can expect in the stories. We’ll get to Lenny in a minute.
Jochem Vandersteen: You can expect longer short stories (not yet novelettes
though) divided into small chapters. I first published those at my blog, “Sons of Spade.” They are to a degree standard PI stories but take place partly in the heavy metal subculture and have sometimes a humorous feel although stuff gets dark sometimes as well.

OBAAT: Lenny Parker is described as a “roadie, metalhead, PI,” with PI coming last. Where did you get the idea for him and how did he get into the PI business?
JV: They say you should write what you know. Well, as a metalhead myself and writer for a Dutch webzine about heavy music I know all about the world of heavy metal. I really wanted to set a story in that world. Inspired by other private eyes with part-time gigs I figured a roadie would be a good job that wasn’t full-time enough so offered some chances for the character to do some PI work as well. From that Lenny Parker was born. Lenny started his PI work at a larger PI form, gaining the experience legally needed to start your own PI firm there. At times the daughter of his original boss acts kind of like his muscle and even brains when Lenny needs some of that.

OBAAT: You are as dedicated a devotee of PI fiction as anyone I know, and the entire field respects you for it. I remember what a thrill it was when one of my books made your year-end list in “Sons of Spade” and when you invited me to contribute a story to the second Shamus Sampler collection. What originally drew you to this uniquely American genre and how does it maintain its strong appeal?
JV: I’ve always liked heroes. While I like superheroes I found in the PIs a more relatable kind of hero as a young man. Aside from that I like fast, action-packed reads but detest long fight scenes and a focus on hardware. I like dark stories, but need some lighter moments as well. I like stories that are ripped from the headlines but don’t beat you down with morals. The private eye genre offers me all of that.

OBAAT: Have you ever thought of writing a PI who must go down the mean streets of Amsterdam or Rotterdam?
JV: Not really. I’m not even a fan of PI stories that take place in other places than the USA. I think the PI is as connected to the States as the cowboy is. I have been tinkering around with characters in my home country but if those ever come out they will be in my own native language and not feature private eyes.

OBAAT: You like protagonists who have unorthodox backgrounds. Noah Milano is the scion of a mob family. Vance Custer is a literary Travis McGee who will take on a case if for the book rights. (What’s not to love about a badass writer?) Lenny Parker we already talked about. What draws you to these kinds of characters and how do you come up with them?
JV: You need to do something original to stand out when you want to tell traditional tales but stand out. That is why I try to think of original angles to the backgrounds of my characters. You forget to mention my vigilante character Mike Dalmas who is blackmailed by the cops to take on some missions for them. I guess these kind of things are what I look for in other characters as well. It’s what drew me to Steve Ulfelder’s Conway Sas, A.J. Devlin’s Jed Ounstead and Steve Hamilton’s Nick Mason or even Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. All fairly standard lone wolf PI-like types who either have a different background or just something different / special than just a fedora and an office with their names stenciled on the door.

OBAAT: You’ve focused on short stories. Any plans for a novel?
JV: Writing a novel takes a long time. With a fulltime job, writing reviews for my blog and for the Dutch webzine I don’t have much of that. I like short stories and novelettes. I can get to the point, leave out the parts people skip and tell as many stories as I can. I have been doing a few false starts on a novel though. So yeah, I might write one in the future. I have started a few that might make it to the finish line.

OBAAT: What’s next?
JV: I will continue writing Lenny Parker episodes on my blog. That is something that comes pretty much without effort. I hope the sales of the collection will give me some extra energy to write more and finish that novel we were talking about.