Friday, December 31, 2010

Looking Below the Line

The Beloved Spouse and I are working our way through The Sopranos again, finished Season 5 last night. At one point, Tony’s sitting in his office at The Bing and Corky mentions, “I have that tape dispenser.” I immediately looked around him and thought, “Someone dressed that set,” and all the minutiae that are involved.

The whole set dressing thing would not have occurred to me had I not read Below the Line, by John McFetridge and Scott Albert. It’s a pastiche of stories—some related, some not—of the goings-on at a Toronto movie set, where an American movie is being made. The book gets into the friction between the Canadian and American sides (the Americans make films in Canada because it’s cheaper, then look down on the Canadians; the Canadians are happy for the business, but frustrated because the American 800-pound gorilla makes it harder to get good Canadian films made), but mostly it’s about all the stuff that has to happen for a move to get made that the audience never sees. (“Below the Line,” in movie parlance.)

It’s a fun book to read—the scene where the transport captain takes the star to a hockey game is laugh out loud funny---and also educational, without hitting you over the head about it. It’s full of conversations about finding locations, the frustrations of being a Production Assistant, dressing sets, and half a dozen other things that have to occur for you to see even a piece of shit at the local multiplex. (The book is, unfortunately, out of print, and not available on Kindle. I found my copy at an online used bookstore.)

Back to The Sopranos. Once TBS points out the tape dispenser, I’m watching for everything. Tony slides down a snowy hill outside Johnny Sack’s yard to escape the feds, and I think “Location scout. MoGib.” Johnny Sack slips and falls in the snow. “Stunt man.” Watch some of the fine work turned in by people who were under the radar as actors when the show was made, and I'm thinking, "Casting Director."

I even caught a goof. Tony meets Johnny outside his house, a foot of snow on the ground. Johnny said to be there at 6:30 AM, he had a plane to catch, and I’m thinking “No way is there that much sunlight at 6:30 that time of year in New Jersey. (I think that’s Continuity, but I’m not sure.)

I love that kind of thing. Some people would ask how I can enjoy the movie, seeing all the wires and engines that make its illusion work. I say it’s the cost of being a writer and wondering how things work under the hood. When I was a musician, one of my best teachers told a class I was in that we had chosen to devote our lives to music, we no longer had the luxury of listening purely for enjoyment; we had to think, “How did he do that? Why was that choice made?” The same holds true for writers, I think. Certainly so far as writing technique goes, and for cinematic choices, as well, since it’s still storytelling. What I’m noticing now is just another level, and it’s fun.

Also, I’m just curious. I see anything, and I want to know how it works, why it’s made that way. This means I’m rarely bored, and sometimes frustrated. That has “writer” pasted all over it, too.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays

Each year goes faster than before,
They’re past before you know it,
So now it’s time for me to rhyme
And prove that I’m no poet.

This year began, as winters do,
With cold and lots of snow,
I’ll not complain, but ‘twere snow rain,
We’d had to learn to row.

The holidays last year did bring
A guest to share our rooms,
‘Twas Kaitlyn, Corky’s grand-daughter,
We hope she’ll be back soon.

Then dormant lay us all till May
When action came exploding
With news and schmooze and trips to Stu’s
All fun, with no foreboding.

We started off in Wilmington,
(That’s in North Carolina)
For Kaitlyn’s mother’s birthday fete,
And few trips have been finah.

Then later in that very month
We flew to Colorado,
Niece Aspen graduated there,
Amid much broo-ha-ha-do.

And in between the two I had
A story writ in print,
An honest-to-Faulkner printed book
With my words dropped right in’t.

(In case you all are wondering,
The plot line dealt with crime,
As this note has made very clear,
I’ll ne’er be paid for rhyme.)

In June I went to Chicago
To celebrate with Stu
His birthday, yes, the Big Five-O
With sightseeing and blues.

The summer’s end saw Corky back
In Flint to see old friends
With Suzie Ovick Diebolt Kna-
pinski her time did spend.

With Eric and with Aaron, too
Some hours she did share,
‘Twas fun, but they were too quick passed,
She sees them both so rare.

With fall came yet another feat,
In Rachel’s sophomore term,
Distinguished scholarship award
Her hard work thus affirmed.

As you can see from in your mail,
Beloved Spouse has been
Creating individual cards,
This poem to put within.

Unique they are, yours and the rest,
None has a perfect twin,
Hand-made and summoned with much thought
The craft she placed herein.

For all these things—and many more—
Our anniversary
Was special, even one day late,
Because we’ve learned to see

How everything must fit its place,
All undue stress be barred,
With friends and family like you,
That’s really not too hard.

We all hope you’ve enjoyed yourselves
As much as we’ve this year,
Now Rachel, Corky, and your scribe
Extend our annual cheer.

To each and every one of you
To find some small delight
For every time you rise from bed
May all your days be bright.

Monday, December 20, 2010


What constitutes a successful book? Is it making the New York Times bestseller list? A six-figure advance? How about a contract with a major house? Any contract at all? Self-publishing and hand-selling a few hundred copies? Or will a book that meets none of the above criteria be a success if you’re proud of how it came out, whether anyone else sees it or not?

The “right” answer is probably, “It depends.” What are your standards? Why did you write the book in the first place? If you wrote it to garner a $100,000 advance and it got $10,000, you might think it a failure. Maybe you would have happy with a contract, until you got one and found out that getting a contract is the easy part. What happens next is like watching sausage get made, and you’re the meat.

I’ve thought a lot about this lately. I have a book that has received excellent comments from its beta readers, and sent out an initial solicitation to several agents. All of those who bothered to get back to me passed. (One was temporarily closed to submissions and said I could get back to her later if I was so inclined.)  This was not unexpected. That first batch were chosen as the cream of the crop, agents for well-known writers. Might as well start there and work down, right?

It was time to start on Level Two over a month ago. I’ve written “Agents” into my calendar several times, and found a reason not to do the research each time. Sure, a lot of it is because finding agents (or small publishers) to submit to and preparing the query packages is a pain in the ass, rewarded with a rejection an overwhelming percentage of the time, and I’m basically a lazy person about such things. Bad combination.

There’s more this time. I felt close to a contract a couple of years ago and started paying more attention to what I’d need to do after I got one. It wasn’t pretty. I’m lucky enough to have a full-time job that pays well. I’m not rich, but I’m not sweating out the weekly bill-paying chore, either. I also enjoy the life I have with my family. I wouldn’t mind more of it, but I can’t complain about my work-life balance.

I would if I got a contract. I understand what I’m about to describe aren’t universal truths, but they’re not uncommon, either. First thing the editor will do after signing the contract will be to suggest changes. Don’t take too long if you want your book to stay on the schedule. Send in the edits until he’s happy, then deal with the copy edits. They may have taken three months to get these ready; you have a few weeks—possibly only a few days—to get them back. Then the galleys. Same thing.

Once the book’s in print there’s marketing. This will not only become a likely time sink, but can get expensive, as many publishers have decided their responsibility toward creating a profitable book ends when the product ships to the warehouse. (Kind of depressing to have something you sweated over for a year or more thought of as “product,” too.) Promotion is up to you, to be done in your copious free time between the job that actually supports your family, and being with that family. Oh, and writing the next book. All for a few thousand dollars, which you may well have to spend—and more—as your self-provided promotional “budget.”

I’m from Western Pennsylvania, and we have a word for that: Bullshit.

Several years ago I came up with a concept I call the “Reward to Bullshit Curve.” (See below.

It’s a simple concept, and it applies to just about everything. As reward moves rightward, the amount of bullshit that can be tolerated increases. Obviously “reward” can be other than financial, or the perpetuation of the species would be in jeopardy. For great reward—money, fame, respect, love—a lot of bullshit can be endured. For the kind of money and acclaim someone like me figures to get out of a publishing contract, not so much.

Based on my experience and research, I would be shocked—shocked!­­—to receive an advance worth even as much as a month’s pay. Now a month’s pay is nothing to sneeze at, and I’d jump at it were my employer to offer it to me. (Fat chance there.) One month’s pay is not, however, a life altering sum of money. It’s a home improvement. Paydown on some mortgage principle. An extra conference or two during the year. If that, after I pay the aforementioned promotional expenses.

For that kind of money, the amount of bullshit to be tolerated is minimal. Anyone who thinks it’s a good deal to put up with more BS from writing than I do from my job for maybe less than one-tenth as money needs to think again. What about non-financial rewards? Ego boost? Not so much. I get all of that I need from the usually good reception The Beloved Spouse gives my competed chapters and short stories, and the comments I receive on blogs when answering flash fiction challenges. I’ve seen my work in print, for money, thanks to Todd Robinson and the now unfortunately defunct Thuglit. It was nice, and it felt good the first time I held it, but that’s over now and improvement in anything means moving forward.

This is where I was earlier this year, when I was ready to quit. (Thanks to my good mate Declan Burke for helping to buck me up by soliciting friends to comment here. It was much appreciated and one of the reasons why karma will find Squire Burke a consistent readership.) I came around, thanks to a couple of well-timed flash fiction challenges where my stories received flattering comments. I like writing. I enjoy thinking of the stories, and deciding on the best ways to tell them. I like building the characters and getting them to relate to each other. Hell, I even like editing. Why quit?

The problem is, novels are what I like writing most, and writing them while knowing what is to come if I am lucky enough to get a contract is intimidating. The publishing succubus was draining the life out of writing for me and I hadn’t even got that far. Writing novels I didn’t want to submit was too masturbatory even for me.

I’d said for years that someday, if I’d decided I just wasn’t going to get published, I’d stop writing and pay to have all the books I’d finished released as POD, one a year, but that would be my acknowledgement that I had given up. I was too hasty. Electronic publishing may make it possible for someone like me to be “published” on my own terms.

Some are asking, “Isn’t this a lot like declaring victory and pulling out?” Yes, it is. So what? It will allow me to continue to write, knowing anyone who wants to read my book will be able to download it for an as-yet undetermined price, probably around $2.99. (I may do a free promo, but I’m not giving them all away. My ego’s bigger than that.) I’ll use Crimespace, Facebook, and this blog to promote, and hope others say nice things about me on theirs. Maybe a blog tour, if I’m lucky.

Will I get rich? No. Will more than a handful of people read them? No. Do I care?


I can write the book until I’m satisfied with it. It can be any length I want. It can be half a dozen long short stories, or two novellas. A series or standalone. Tie two series together. Maybe I’ll get an occasional email from a satisfied reader I didn’t know before. I’ll write at my own pace and take the summers off if I feel like it. I’ll be able to accommodate my work, personal, and writing lives in the proportions that work best for me, answering to no more masters than I feel comfortable with.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

November's Recommended Reads

I've been busier than a one-armed paperhanger at an ass-kicking contest lately, so the list of good books I read in November is tardy. No publishers have called to complain about the lack of the crucial OBAAT endorsement, so I guess I dodged that bullet.

Boyos, David Marinick - First rate crime story in the manner of Eddie Coyle. Marinick's a former Massachusetts state cop turned armored car robber turned writer who knows exactly how to leverage his experience in both previous careers to enhance the third. His characters are presented unapologetically and without judgment, and they talk like guys talking to each other, not for effect. Wacko Curran is a criminal bad enough to be successful in the Boston underworld, with enough fullness of personality to allow you to empathize with him. You'll end up thinking along with him, setting your moral code aside to work with his, not unlike how Tony Soprano sucked in so many people. He's definitely on the list to read more of.

Dancing Bear, James Crumley - I didn't care for The Last Good Kiss as much as I thought I would, and was about to give Crumley a pass. Then I went through a period of several weeks where I tripped over positive references to Dancing Bear every couple of days. I also remembered I was pretty sick when I read TLGK, and that could have clouded my judgment, so I ordered up Dancing Bear. Now I have to read TLGK again. Crumley reads like no one else, and Milo Milodragovitch is a protagonist--certainly not a hero--unlike any other.

Eight Men Out, Eliot Asinof - The true story of how the Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series. One of those stories you couldn't have made up, presented evenhandedly to allow the reader to make up his own mind whether the banned players were wronged, though there's no question where Asinof stood on the question of Sox owner Charles Comiskey. I NetFlixed the movie while reading the book, and truer depictions are rare. Highly recommended not just for baseball fans, but for anyone interested in a snapshot of America 90 years ago, and for the parallels to today.

Discount Noir,  edited by Patti Abbott and Steve Weddle - A collection of over forty flash pieces,  inspired by the web site, "The People of Walmart," created in response to a writing challenge on Patti's blog The stories were of such a high caliber, drew such a broad sample of talented writers, and offered so many different takes on the same germ of an idea, that e-publisher Untreed Reads took it on. A quick and varied read containing something to appeal to any fan of neo-noir, though not necessarily of Walmart.

Terminal Damage, by the writers of "Do Some Damage" - One of the most underrated writing blogs, "Do Some Damage" features eight crime writers discoursing on matters criminal. Terminal Damage is a collection of stories that all deal in some way with airport security. Fewer writers and longer stories than Discount Noir, still containing uniformly good writing and a wide range of takes from the same starting place, with the added benefit of working occasional bits of each other's stories into each other. This will make you want to read more by each of these writers.

Friday, December 3, 2010

What's In a Word?

There's been a lot of talk around writing blogs recently about foul language. When is it appropriate, how much is appropriate, is it ever appropriate, how many readers will you lose because of it, what constitutes foul language. I'm no prude, but it does offend me when people who will gleefully read descriptions of the most horrible violence are then offended because this gruesome killer used a word on that reader's proscribed list.

I understand why some publishers and editors are leery. They in the business of making money, and lost sales cost money. (The discussion of whether sales lose for some reason are gained back by the flip side of that reason can be left for another day.) It's the readers who worry me. To say it's all right for Lucas Davenport's nemesis du annee to rape, mutilate, and kill half a dozen women; he'd better not say "fuck" while he's doing it. There's something disturbing about a mindset that allows for that. I can't shake the image of being attacked bya knife-wielding nut job, screaming for someone to get this fucker off me, and my only source of assistance is such a reader, who raps me across the knuckles as I bleed to death for having a potty mouth.

In the interest of keeping all words in their proper context, and celebrating their flexibility, here's a little primer on the variety of uses to which our most flexible, yet forbidden word, may be applied. This is not safe for work, school, or around those who are easily offended. You have been warned.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

An Interview with Steve Weddle

By day a poetry-writing, gun-hating sissy boy, by night Steve Weddle increases his insidious presence through the web’s mean streets of noir fiction. Aside from his own web site and blog, Steve is a contributor to the group blog Do Some Damage and co-conspirator collaborator with John Hornor Jacobs on Needle, The Magazine of Noir. His short fiction has appeared in such prestigious sites as Beat to a Pulp, Crime Factory, and A Twist of Noir. He is also a regular contributor to online flash fiction challenges, which is what got him started on the downward spiral that culminated in an interview with yours truly, when he became co-editor with Patti Abbott of the e-book collection of flash stories, Discount Noir.

OBAAT: As you’re a co-editor of Discount Noir, tell us a little about how it came to be.

SW: I saw the People of Walmart website and started talking about it on Twitter. I linked up some pics from the site and we all had huge laughs.

Keith Rawson and I thought it would make a great flash fiction challenge. Then we bugged Patti Abbott, as she hosts flash fiction challenges.

Patti’s site ended up with a huge number of great stories. She and I thought it would be cool to see them together, and I enlisted the help of the world’s best agent, Stacia Decker. We then harassed the hell out of some more really talented authors, asking them to contribute flash pieces. Everyone was terrifically kind and generous with their time and talents.

Stacia worked with Untreed Reads on the deal, and soon enough the book was out in the world.

OBAAT: Patti Abbott has had several flash fiction challenges. Why do you think this one gained enough momentum to become a book?

SW: I think this one speaks to people on a number of levels. So many of these sites – People of Walmart, Awkward Family Photos, Passive Aggressive Notes, and so on – already create mini-stories from the artwork they provide. And, as writers, I think we do this all the time. You see a dumb picture and you think up a caption. Or you see a photo of a woman with a purple wig, fishnet hose, and a tanktop that says “Jesus is the Reason” and you just have to write the story.

Also, I think timing has a good deal to do with the success of any flash challenge. You catch folks when they have time. They have to be able to write and read. Lulls throughout the year, you know? Thanksgiving week, for example, would be a bad time to host a challenge like this.

And one of the bonuses from a challenge like this is that you get to hop around to people’s sites and read what they’ve written, see comments from folks you might not yet know, and generally just wander around the internet as if it were some huge party sprawling across the entire neighborhood.

And, of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the talent and reputation of Patti Abbott behind something like this.

OBAAT: It’s hard to say much about a piece of flash fiction without giving it away. What can you tell us about your contribution to Discount Noir, “Code Adam?”

SW: I’d had a couple of stories about this character, Oscar Martello, recently published. One the first week of the year at Beat To A Pulp and one in the first issue of the relaunched Crimefactory. Both are fantastic publishers of fiction, by the way. So I had these Oscar Martello stories and they were fitting in to a nice, longer story I had in mind. Probably a novel. Martello is trying to get out of “the business,” but then he’s pulled in by the murder of his son. I knew he had to get from a job in Kansas to a big meeting in New York City. I already had a story in mind for a stop in Pennsylvania. Stopping at a Walmart in Ohio just made sense, you know? Of course, when doesn’t it?

OBAAT: “Code Adam” has one of my favorite opening lines: “You just don’t have the kind of day I was having and not kill someone.” It sets the tone and establishes expectations for the reader. Do you feel hooking the reader quickly is more important in flash than in a longer work, or will readers hang with a piece they know is flash because it won’t last too long?

SW: Thanks. That’s nice of you to say. I had the line before I had the story. Sometimes it happens that way. And other times the first line doesn’t survive the writing of the story and I have to set it aside for another story. In cooking, first you make a roux. In writing, well, first you get that one line down. And you have to be in control the entire time when you’re writing flash. In a novel, you can develop some ideas that won’t come through for a hundred pages. You’re in control, but it’s more a cross-country race with a novel. Like “Cannonball Run” as opposed to the drag race off Exit 119.

In flash, you’re much more focused on tone, on action, I think. Hooking the reader? Hell, that’s all flash is – the hook. You don’t have time to pull the reader into the boat, fillet his ass, and grill him for dinner. Just hook the reader. That’s plenty.

OBAAT: You’re a founding member of the collaborative blog, Do Some Damage. Where did the idea for DSD come from, and how did the original seven writers come together?

SW: I was visiting my agent, Stacia Decker, in New York a couple summers ago. She was talking to me about other writers. At the time, the only person I knew in the writing world was my agent, really. So she mentioned Jay Stringer, an Englishman over in Scotland. He was a bit of a noob, too, I think. So I emailed back and forth with him and I suggested we find some folks and start up a group blog – with noobs like me and seasoned, published people. You know, to kinda show the different stages of awesomeness? Dopes like me with no track record and nothing to show one day, then another person talking Hollywood deals the next. I’d been reading Murderati and First Offenders and any number of writer blogs. I get these dumb ideas and it’s important that someone is there to explain to me why it won’t work. But Jay thinks it’s a good idea, so we start grabbing folks. Stacia suggested John McFetridge, because she’d worked with him when she was an editor. And Jay knew Russel McLean. And we just started bugging folks. What has surprised me is the amount of engagement from readers. The folks who stop by every single day and comment and move the conversation along. It’s as if we have hundred of bloggers, not just eight. It’s a helluva community, and I’m just awed and appreciative. Nice to be part of something with so many cool people.

OBAAT: The Do Some Damage writers have an electronic anthology of their own out, called Terminal Damage. Tell us a little about that.

SW: Well, we’ve got me there as well as some real talent, right? So we’re thinking we should pool resources and see about this ebook hoohah folks are talking about. Not sure if you’ve heard anything about it, but someone said the other day that ebooks are a big deal. And, of course, the stories had to be linked. So we emailed back and forth until everyone started marking my replies as spam. We had some starts and stops, but did manage to get the TERMINAL DAMAGE out a little after our first anniversary. What I like most about it is that you have people in one story popping up in another. And that each story is so different. Sure, they all take place somehow at the airport. But Joelle’s voice is much different from Scott’s. And Bryon’s stripper is nothing like Jay’s wrestlers. And Dave and John and Russel all come with such different takes on the idea. It was just really cool to see what everyone did within that set of parameters.

And the thing has been selling pretty well on Amazon and Smashwords. Jason Pinter was nice enough to write the introduction. So we put it together – edited and proofed and so forth – and John Hornor Jacobs did a great cover for us, and folks were downloading the book and reading it right away. It was pretty cool to see it all come together. Really nice of people to be so supportive of the project.

OBAAT: You give the impression of being a well-adjusted, intelligent, friendly person with a good sense of humor, yet every time I spot you on the web you’re engaged in some manner of crime. What is it that draws such a man to crime and noir fiction, or is the whole well-adjusted, intelligent, and friendly persona a ruse?

SW: I spend a good deal of time self-medicating, so that could have something to do with it.

I think if Faulkner were writing today, people might call him noir. Melville, too. Dostoyevsky. Good fiction is full of conflict, and, in a sense, crime is conflict at a societal level. I’m not entirely sure I know what the hell I’m talking about, but I think you can have family conflicts and national conflicts. But I’m a country boy. Those were my conflicts. I grew up in a papermill town. I grew up in the woods.

Someone in my family, and I’m not pointing fingers, but someone turned a bunch of hogs loose in south Arkansas many, many years ago rather than pay taxes on them when the government men came around. Never got all the hogs back, either, damn it. If that were fiction, would it be crime fiction? Southern fiction? Noir fiction? Agri-fiction?

Also, I guess, writing is an attempt to make sense of the pain, right? The loss. The emptiness, the hollow feeling that comes in at three in the morning and just pulls the spark out of your soul while you lie there waiting for daylight. Sorry. Time for a glass of medicine. Or my notebook.

OBAAT: Who are your major influences as a writer? Favorite books?

SW: One of the best books I’ve ever read, a book that combines the awfulness of the human condition (whatever the hell I mean by that) and the absolute hilarity of life is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I read this in graduate school, for class, and we devoted an entire semester to it. Read history books to understand the jokes. Studied ancient manuscripts to get the references. I mean, this was an all-encompassing kind of read. Really, really cool. I can’t imagine doing that on my own. But that’s my all-time favorite book. I know I sound like a complete douche for picking that one. You know, like when you say your favorite song is “No Scrubs” by TLC and someone else says, “Oh, mine is “Symphony Number 162 in K Major by Rudebaynov.” Still, I do love me some James Joyce.

The two books I’ve just recently finished that I love are PIKE by Benjamin Whitmer and THE DAMAGE DONE by Hilary Davidson. Great books. In fact, we’re talking about PIKE over at the Do Some Damage book group on if you’d like to join us. And I read THIS DARK EARTH by John Hornor Jacobs, too, and hope everyone gets the chance to see it. Post-apocalyptic awesomeness. And OLD GOLD by Jay Stringer. Great characters and story in that one.

OBAAT: Aside from Discount Noir, where else can people find your writing?

SW: I should be fairly well linked up over at if anyone gives a damn. TERMINAL DAMAGE. Beat To A Pulp. Crimefactory. A Twist of Noir. Places everyone should know for their fantastic stories anyway.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

SW: Right now we’re finishing the proofs for NEEDLE magazine, which is always exciting. This is our third issue and features the first installment of Ray Banks’s brand new novel, WOLF TICKETS. I’m friggin thrilled as hell that we’ve got the opportunity to serialize Ray’s new novel in the next few issues.

Also working on another anthology by some of my favorite writers, something with a country flair. And I’m talking with John McFetridge about a larger project we think might work, something in the ebook publishing realm.

And I’m working on my second Alex Jackson novel right now. I like this one because it starts with a dead stripper. And Alex’s best friend, the internet porn kingpin, is the suspect. So, you know, a book for the kids.

If my agent asks, I’m also working on the Oscar Martello novel she wants. Oh, and Roy Alison novel, too. I have a Roy Alison story coming out in an anthology soon, so I really should work on that book. But, you know, there isn’t enough time to write my stuff and read all the other great stuff. And I’m working on Bill Cameron’s DAY ONE right now. Sometimes, you know, you just have to set aside your own writing to read something great. Still, seriously, DO NOT tell my agent. I told her I’m writing the books she told me to write. So, you know, shhhhh.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

634 at Twist of Noir

Christopher Grant's A Twist of Noir blog is running an interesting series. To commemorate the blog's increasing presence as a venue for short crime fiction, stories 600-700 were commissioned to come in at exactly the number of words as the story's order in ATON's oeuvre. My contribution occupied spot 634, and was required to come in at 634 words. Not 633, and 635 was right out. Exactly 634.

In a fit of imagination rare even for someone of my creative inclination, my story is titled 634. I hope you enjoy it. Take some time to browse around the site while you're there. It's well worth the time.

Many thanks to Christopher for risking the high standards of his blog by inviting me to participate.

Friday, November 19, 2010

My New Kindle

It took me a long time to succumb to the wiles of an e-reader. I’m a traditionalist (read: old), and I like the feel of the paper and the ink on it. I like how new paperbacks smell differently from new hardcovers, and how the smell evolves as the book ages, so you can tell it’s a new book or an old book with your eyes closed. I like the idea of a book providing a connection all the way back to Gutenberg, how I was looking the same symbols on a paper page as had Sir Thomas More, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, and Raymond Chandler.

Then I looked more deeply into Kindles for my mother, whose eyesight now limits her to large print books, or a cumbersome magnification process that binds her to the kitchen table if she wants to read. Kindles, as you may know, can magnify text many times. I bought her the big version and she fell in love with it.

In doing my research, I found that a Kindle had a great benefit to me, as well. There’s a lot of stuff available for it that isn’t in print on paper. Old books, newer books that have gone out of print, and now, books that were created just for the Kindle. (Apologies to other e-readers and their advocates. I have a Kindle, so that’s what I’m riffing on. Insert the name of your favored device as appropriate.) Collections that exist nowhere else. Hopefully, e-readers will one day eliminate the need for books to be of a certain length, lest the purchaser feel cheated. No longer will stories comfortably told in 180 pages have to be stretched to 300. Just sell it electronically for half the price.

My first purchases are good examples. Two collections from the contributors to collaborative blogs I read daily. (Terminal Damage from the writers at Do Some Damage and Fresh Kills, from the contributors at The Kill Zone. A collection that came from one of patti Abbott’s flash fiction challenges. (Discount Noir.) An out of print book I’ve long wanted to read. (Adrian McKinty’s Dead I Well May Be.) A collection of Dashiell Hammett stories I don’t think is available in paper, certainly not for $5.00.

So I joined the 21st Century. I consider the Kindle a complement to my books; I’ll never stop reading books. It will make travel a lot easier, and will help to solve what is becoming an urgent space issue in my office, though I expect I will occasionally buy paper copies of books I first read on Kindle. There’s something about the tactile feeling of a favorite.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

NaNoWriMo NoNo

It’s November, and we all know what that means: NaNoWriMo. (All right, maybe not all of us. Some might have thought of that turkey holiday first. Bud Selig clearly thinks of November as World Series month.) NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writers Month, which, frankly, doesn’t speak well of the writers who named it, if it has to be explained in such a manner.

NaNoWriMo was intended to get people off their tuccheses and write. The goal is to produce a 50,000 word novel in a month. That’s 1,667 words a day on average if you’re counting, and you are, if you’re involved in NaNoWriMo.

The problem I have with NaNoWriMo—aside from the name—is that it encourages people to settle for whatever dreck they think of out of the chute, because they don’t have time to edit anything in a meaningful manner. We have more than enough shitty books already. We need less of them, not more.

Sure, participants can edit their books later. I’ll bet damn few of them do. People with the stamina and self-discipline to do a decent editing job don’t need a gimmick to get them writing in the first place. They sit their asses down and write.

A lot of people enjoy NaNoWriMo, and I don’t want to spoil their fun by acting more of a prick than usual. Have a ball. Just remember one thing: the real writing starts December 1. Assuming you intend to write an actual book, and not merely to participate in the world’s longest writing exercise.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

October's Reads

Not to get all Oprah Winfrey about it, but I didn't read a single book in October I'd recommend to anyone else. I finally reached back and re-read Robert B. Parker's Pastime. Not one of his best, but comfort food for a reader going through tough times. A little Spenser, a little Hawk, and I always liked Vinnie Morris.

Let's hope November picks up the pace a little.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Blinded By the Brilliance of His Own Reflection

Patti Abbott has another of her challenges running, this one a little different. Instead of giving a topic and seeing what everyone can do with it at once, she's proposed a round; the topic is jealousy. Patti went first. My task was to use the character who inspired the jealousy, and write a story about what made him jealous. Subsequent weeks will follow the same pattern.

So, here's my contribution. I'll post links to new stories as they come up each Tuesday. (Apologies to Patti for not getting ahead of the curve last week, and, especially for not commenting on her excellent story that provided me with such tasty fodder. I've kidded about it over the last week or so, but things really have been busy, and my attention span has been more like a taffy pull than a train of thought. I promise to do better.)


"Jimmy! Jimmy! Over here!"

"James! One more, please! James!

Grady Disch watched the media fawn over James Preston and forced a smile. It was Grady's book—a book of poetry, no less—that had them here. The best selling book of poetry since Ogden Nash, not that a cheap comic like Nash was comparable to Grady Disch.

The critics hadn't cared for it. "Warmed-over sentiments that need more time in the oven." "Ostentatious prose with a rhythm." What were poetry critics but unsuccessful poets, and what were unsuccessful poets, aside from jealous? Grady had sales.

What really put the book on the map was the audio version. University of New Mexico Press took the unusual step of releasing an audio book of Grady's poems, and got James Preston to read them. Grady thought Preston was a ham, though a ham with a marvelous speaking voice. True, Preston did appear in last year's Scorsese film, but everyone knew that was DiCaprio's picture. The timing of Preston's breakout performance, coupled with the release of the audio book, recorded while he was still struggling off-Broadway with no public profile, pushed them over the top in sales, and won a Fowler Prize.

A Fowler would never be confused with a Pulitzer or a Man Booker, or even an Edgar. The Fowlers were spawned when university presses banded together in a time of uncertainty and created a series of awards devoted solely to books published by their brethren. Willows Touching the Ground to Reach the Sun had won for best audio book. Not best audio book of poetry; best audio book. Period. It was a coup.

Grady had looked forward to the tour, thrown together when someone at UNMP saw the perfect publicity storm taking shape while it was still a nameless depression. Crowds were ten times those expected, and Grady basked in the acclaim, the adulation, and the women. Mostly the women, one in each city, except for two in Cincinnati, which Grady had not previously considered to be a literary hotbed.

It rankled that Preston got most of the attention, with his slightly longer than fashionable hair, sloe eyes, and perpetual one-day's growth of beard. There was always a reading, and Preston would presumptuously make a show of bringing Grady up to share the applause, as though they were applauding the reading, not the words. Grady could have read the poems himself—he probably read Lies My Mother Told After the Dissolution of Her Second Marriage better, anyway—but Preston surely could not have written the words.

Truth be told, Grady was glad when the tour ended. He was sick of Preston's incessant attempts to hog the stage, and he needed some sleep. A year later they were together again to accept the award. The Fowlers had never seen such media. Where once stood a handful of photographers—at least one paid by the award committee itself—now were over a dozen. Preston had only the week before finished touring for his latest picture, a star turn for Quentin Tarantino, something about Jewish gangsters joining the CIA to hunt Nazis in Argentina after the war. Scarlett Johansson played a former OSS killer who joined a convent in Buenos Aires to atone for atrocities she'd committed and falls in love with Preston while an SS Colonel (Stanley Tucci) stalks them both.

Grady stood near the door, feigning patience, while paparazzi swarmed over Preston, trying to get his good side. To Grady, Preston's good side was the back of his head, walking away, but such was popular taste. A handler caught the actor's eye, pointed to his watch, and Preston made excuses and moved toward the door. Grady stepped forward, hand extended, to enter with his award-winning collaborator. Their eyes met for an instant and Preston said, "Sorry, I have to get inside. Sorry," never stopping, and Grady realized the actor didn't recognize him.

They sat next to each other after Preston gave a performance of acting happy to see Grady, as though he hadn't deliberately snubbed him five minutes earlier. Grady graciously insisted that Preston speak first onstage, where he gave a concise speech honed from years of watching awards shows: short, covering all the bases, and only as excited as he had to be about winning an award he clearly considered himself to have grown beyond.

Then Grady spoke—at length—about the primacy of the written word. How verbal interpretation was but a valiant effort to describe the shapes and relative positions of spots of ink on paper, depending on an interloper between the author—or, of course, poet—and his audience that must ultimately fail. Describing—in detail—the almost telepathic communication between the poles of reader and writer that a speaker could not help but damage through his intercession. He read an excerpt from his newest poem, To Write the Unspeakable Dream, not noticing the audience's increasing restlessness until a stage whispered, "For Christ's sake, Disch," carried into the house and Preston, still smiling at the audience, murmured into his ear, "You might want to start wrapping up, Grady."

The applause that accompanied them back to their seats was a tenth of what ushered them onstage and Grady realized—too late—that even here, among his supposed peers, jealousy and petty emotions reigned. The same men and women who had voted him the prize were now as jealous as the critics they had proven wrong, wounded by his popularity while their volumes sold in the dozens.

Three interviewers, one at a time, asked perfunctory questions of him at the reception, while committee members brought Preston champagne, as though he couldn't get through the adoring throng on his own. Bastards, all. His new volume, From the Fingers of God to the Eyes of the Blind, would establish him as the most important American poet since Frost. Maybe even Browning.

He'd read the audio version himself.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

September’s Best Reads

Damn, I'm late this month. Busy time at work, as a software upgrade at [government agency name redacted] coincided with the end of the government fiscal year, and was a cluster fuck (official techno-governmental term) from the get-go to boot. This kind of slovenly site maintenance probably accounts for precipitous decline in my followers. I'll try to do better.

The Rare Coin Score, Richard Stark. Why does it always take me so long to "discover" what everyone else has known for years? This is my first Stark/Parker novel, and all I can do is slap my forehead for not starting sooner. I don't know where this one ranks in Stark's oeuvre, but it was damn good. If you've never read any of these, don't repeat my mistake any longer than you have to. If you have read one, I'm sure you're read more.

Bad Luck and Trouble, Lee Child. You know it's mind candy and will rot your hypothalamus is you read too much of it, but it's really good mind candy. Not the best Child I've read (The Hard Way or Killing Floor) but still a lot of fun watching him get the band back together, and for the insights into how Reacher's mind works.

Romance, Ed McBain. I sure loves me some Ed McBain. Not the best 87th Precinct novel by a long shot, still better than 90% of what's been written. He invented the genre, and we're still waiting for someone to do it as well. There are lots of good procedurals available now (see below), but no one has ever equaled McBain's chops for how the story is told, and the little asides his narrator dropped in.

Every Bitter Thing, Leighton Gage. Another procedural, this one set in Brazil. He's not McBain (no one is), but his Mario Silva series can be mentioned in the same breath as the 8-7 without embarrassing Gage. (High praise, considering how I feel about McBain.) His cops have actual interpersonal relationships you can see and understand, and his use of the Brazilian Federal Police is inspired, keeping things fresh (Americans don't do things this way), giving his cops access to the best information and techniques available (they're feds, after all), but not having to go through all the convolutions American writers have to in order to justify the FBI's involvement in cases they'd never touch for real. I'll be looking for more of Mr. Gage.

Friday, October 8, 2010

This is How It Starts

The last time I looked, this blog had seven followers; today there are six. That might not seem like much of a difference to you, but what kind of press would it get if Publishers Weekly announced book purchases were down 14.3% last year?

Maybe I should post more? Or, given the caliber of what gets posted here, maybe I should post less. The problem with these numbers is that even a steady decrease will appear as an increasingly plummeting readershp rate. Lose one more and it's a 16.7% decrease! Another gets to 20%!! Holy shit!!!

I have absolutely no idea how to stop this impending catastrophe and get readership levels back where they used to be, which makes me fully qualified to work in the marketing department of a major publisher.

Excuse me. I need to work on my resume.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Grind Joint

I started a new project this week and have a readable draft of the first chapter. Any comments or suggestions are appreciated. (I promise not to post the whole thing like it was a friggin serial; I'm just curious to see if people would want to read more after reading this.




Kenny Czarniak scraped ice off his windshield before he drove work, middle of April for Chrissakes. Punch in by five, get the lights and heat on and do an inspection before the work crews arrived at six. Lots of work to be done, less than a week before the Grand Opening of the Allegheny Casino. Even Kenny thought it was a shitty name. The joint wasn't that close to the river, and the town of Penns River was in Neshannock County, not Allegheny. The creative thinkers who put the deal together wanted to call it Penns River Casino, but the Rivers Casino people in Pittsburgh had a shit fit about trademark infringement and confusing consumers and half a dozen other things, so they changed it. Calling it the Allegheny Casino made it seem closer to downtown than Neshannock, which most people in the Burgh thought was redneck, anyway, and wouldn't come there to gamble. Like they wouldn't figure out where it was once they got directions.

Kenny was on the rag because he was a little hung over, his back and feet hurt from walking around all day, and he was tired of getting up in the middle of the goddamn night to watch other people work. He'd worked twenty-eight years at Osteen Tool and Die until they laid him off a year-and-a-half ago. His boy showed him an article in the Post-Gazette, how a lot of guys his age might reach retirement age before they found jobs, never work again. Every day the mayor was on the news, talking about how Pittsburgh's focus on the education and health care industries made the area recession-proof, which didn't pay Kenny's mortgage during the weeks at a time when Congress held back on unemployment extensions for political reasons he didn't understand. Mostly over whose dicks were bigger, he guessed.

He drove once around the building, looking for anything out of place. He was supposed to walk it, but fuck them. It was too goddamn dark and cold and he didn't feel like it. Thought about how excited Michelle had been when he saw the ad. Join the exciting gaming industry right here in Penns River. Hundreds of jobs. Kenny thought maybe he could be a dealer. He heard they made nice money and good tips. Hell, tending bar would be fine with him. Instead he got the 5:00 to 1:30 shift as a watchman making half of what he made at Osteen's. The good jobs all went to "gaming professionals" from out of town.

The building used to be a mini-mall. Penney's on one end, Monkey Ward's on the other, with a handful of little local shops in between. Nail salon, barber, wing joint, liquor store. They closed years ago, boarded up the windows. The Blockbuster in an outbuilding went tits up last year. The toy store next door saw half a dozen re-inventions before it managed to scrape by as one of those joints where everything was five bucks or less. That and the bank all that were left. Kenny had no idea who had money to put in the bank.

He parked fifty yards away from the service door in back. Room for at least a thousand cars in the lot, the constructions crews wouldn't take up ten percent of the spaces, but casino management wanted the employees to get used to parking remotely so customers could have the good spaces when the doors opened next week. Pulled his gloves on with his teeth and fished the casino keys out of his jacket pocket.

Some assholes had left bags of trash by the door again. Not everyone was in love with the idea of a casino in town and some thought it was funny to pull some half-assed harassment like piling trash in front of the doors. Didn't occur to them the only person they inconvenienced was Kenny, who was just like them and didn't give a shit whether there was a casino in town or not, so long as someone opened a place for him to work.

He looked down to find the key he wanted and when he looked up he saw the pile of trash for what it actually was, a bum sleeping one off. They rarely came this far from the old business district. Too spread out here, a five mile walk to the shelter where some of them took a bus into Pittsburgh to bum quarters off shoppers. Kenny'd nudge him awake and tell him to keep moving, point him west on Leechburg Road, town's that way.

Eight feet away and Kenny saw the off color of the skin on the guy's face. Leaned over and realized the strange coloring was ice crystals. Then he saw the bullet holes, one above each eye, and dropped the keys grabbing the cell out of his pocket.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Man Who Wasn't There

This movie is a gem, one of those films no one but the Coen brothers would make, certainly not with this kind of panache. Perfectly cast, drearily lit, and leisurely paced, it violates every Hollywood rule and shows why those rules are as limiting as they are.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, truly the man who wasn’t there. He rarely speaks, except directly to the audience through voice-overs, of which this film may use more than any other. He has gray hair, and his grayish clothing (this is a black-and-white film) always blends into whatever is behind him. He’s the perfect noir hero: a unassuming man leading one of Thoreau’s lives of quiet desperation. His one indiscretion—poorly choosing the means through which he tries to improve his life—brings down everyone around him as well.

Frances McDormand, a Coen favorite, plays Ed’s wife, Doris. McDormand is a wonderful actress, whose ordinary looks mesh perfectly with how the Coens make movies. Best know as the chief of police in Fargo, she’s also the femme fatale in their first effort, Blood Simple.

James Gandolfini (with hair) plays a crucial supporting role, as do several other members of the Coens’ repertory company, including Jon Polito, Michael Badalucco, and Richard Jenkins. A very young Scarlett Johansson also makes an appearance.

The Coens’ greatest skill here is to make watching things crumble around Ed both fascinating and entertaining. This is a movie not to be missed, the anti-action flick.

One side note: There is not a better living actor than Tony Shalhoub. Best known as TV’s Monk and from his earlier stint as Antonio Scarpacci in Wings, Shalhoub can do anything. His performance here, as fast-talking and -thinking attorney Freddy Riedenschneider is unrecognizable as Shalhoub if you aren’t looking for him. No one has greater range, nor more of an ability to submerge himself into a character. The best character working today.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Hitter at A Twist of Noir

A new short story, "Hitter," has been posted at A Twist of Noir. Stop on over and check out the other good stuff there.

Many thanks to Christopher Grant.

The Hustler / The Color of Money

I’ve long wanted to watch The Hustler and The Color of Money back-to-back. I didn’t quite get to do it—a couple of weeks intervened—but close enough.

I’ve probably seen The Hustler ten times now; every time I find something else to like about it. The story, the acting (Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, and the often overlooked Myron McCormick) is superb throughout. Robert Rosser’s decision to film Walter Tevis’s novel in black-and-white was inspired. The somber tone and dingy surroundings that make the movie would not have worked as well in color.

A few scenes will always stand out. The first marathon pool game with Fats. Eddie’s getting his thumbs broken. His speech to Sarah about his feelings when he’s really on, what we’d now call “being in the zone.” The resignation on the face of Minnesota Fats when he tells Eddie, “You better pay him.” I’ve long thought Sunset Boulevard was my favorite noir film; The Hustler might be better. (The vitriolic discussion as to whether either of those films are noir may begin anon.)

The Color of Money is good, not great. Scorsese was smart to go the opposite route: where The Hustler is all dark and shades of gray, The Color of Money is flash and dash. Nine ball instead of straight pool. He pays proper homage to his predecessor in various ways, thanks to an excellent screenplay by Richard Price, adapting Tevis again, though the film is, apparently, radically different from the written sequel.

The telling differences are just as the older Fast Eddie describes the differences between nine ball and straight pool. Straight pool is a thinking man’s game, every shot sets up the next. Nine ball is for bangers, you can slop the balls in and win. It’s quicker and flashier and better for TV. There’s not as much heart in The Color of Money. Maybe the emotions than come with the sense of loss felt in The Hustler are more powerful than the sense of gain at the end of TCOM. Whatever, it’s a fine movie, but The Hustler is a great one.

A couple of side notes. It’s often said Newman’s Oscar for TCOM was delayed payment for the one he should have won in The Hustler, his lifetime achievement award. Maybe. It’s still a hell of a performance, a mature actor taking the edges off of an older character and showing everything he’s learned in the interim.

And Tom Cruise. Cruise made TCOM during a stretch when I really thought he was about to become the next Paul Newman; I originally saw the movie as passing the torch. Cruise made Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July at about the same time, and he was on his way to becoming the sex symbol who could actually act. No one—no one—confuses Cruise’s career with Newman’s now. Cruise really is Vincent Lauria, immense talent, but an incredible flake too much in love with his perceived persona to realize his full potential.