Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Vegas Knockout

The Vegas Knockout is the second of Tom Schreck’s books I’ve read. I picked up a copy of TKO after hearing him speak at the Indianapolis Bouchercon and liked it enough to give him another try. Nice work, me.

The Vegas Knockout is another tale of never-was fighter Duffy Dombrowski and his basset hound, Max. Duffy’s alleged “real” job is as a social worker. That gig often interferes with his love of boxing. When the two butt heads, boxing wins. So, when Duffy is offered a chance for a couple of weeks’ work as a sparring partner for heavyweight contender Boris Rusakov—in Vegas, no less—he’ll do whatever he has to do to make it look as though he’s in a training class when he’s really in Vegas getting his ass kicked.

Vegas isn’t quite what Duffy expected. First, he has to find a way to get Max on a plane without loading him into baggage. (I’d tell you why, but that ruins a fun elements of the book, so read it and find out for yourself.). His accommodations are also not quite what he expected, though he gets over it. (Details omitted for the same reason as above. I don’t like to risk spoiling anything in a review.) He is able to coax his New York drinking buddies to come out. That has its fair share of surprises, too.

The plot is complex enough to hold your attention without becoming confusing. Some elements require a little more suspension of disbelief than I am accustomed to, but Schreck is aiming for a tone closer to Donald Westlake than to Richard Stark. Duffy is an engaging character. Funny, a loyal friend, not quite as bright as it would pay him to be. Max is a force of nature. Together, they create memorable scenes.

The scenes in the boxing gym are what make The Vegas Knockout stand apart. Schreck works sometimes as a boxing referee and knows how things work. He’s able to show all the warts and still not make Duffy’s love of boxing seem foolish. Duffy knows this sparring gig may be the pinnacle of his career. To many he’d seem a failure. To him, he has rubbed elbows and shared a ring with some of the best in the world. He understands the camaraderie of the gym in a way no one from the outside can fully appreciate, and will have the memories forever. That’s enough.

The Vegas Knockout is a funny book, full of engaging characters that cover the spectrum of human likeability. What makes it more than a piece of fluff is how Schreck uses Duffy’s love of boxing to stand in for any devotion truly held. Duffy is a success because everyone should have an opportunity to love something as much as he loves boxing, and the maturity to understand it’s okay if it doesn’t always love you back. Duffy’s success is in his journey, just as the greatest fun in The Vegas Knockout is in the reading.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

But What’s It About?

The current work in progress has been, without question, the biggest pain in the ass of any writing project I have ever undertaken. It started in the fall of 2011 as a PI story. By early spring things still weren’t coming together so I re-crafted the plot to become the next installment in my Penns River series and started over from scratch last fall.

I usually knock out a first draft in three, three-and-a-half months; this one took over six. The ending changed three times in the last three weeks. At least half a dozen new chapters will have to be in the second draft—including the final—as the original outline has not held up well to events on the gound.

I read chapters to The Beloved Spouse as they’re ready. She always catches things that need to be fixed, but this go-round has left me with the nagging feeling of having well-written scenes that don’t add up to a book. The end result is—to paraphrase Delroy Lindo in Get Shorty—I can’t wait for this book to be over. I always feel that way, but it’s usually four or five drafts in, and is my indicator things are about as good as they’re going to get. I know that’s not true here.

Enough bitching. All of the above are good things, because I’ve learned a valuable lesson. I gave up on the PI version when I realized the core element of the story—a religious-themed shopping center named Resurrection Mall—didn’t fit well with my PI character. It was better suited to be something built in Penns River, as a counterbalance to the casino introduced in Grind Joint. (Available Spring of 2014 from Stark House. I’ll probably mention that once or twice again.) Writing from that perspective has been easier, but there were still issues. I’ve finally figured out what they are.

The nagging concern that I had a series of good chapters in search of a book got me to thinking a key question for any book: what’s it about? I’d been writing with the idea the book was about Resurrection Mall, and Ben Dougherty was the main character. Uh-uh. It’s about life in a perpetually economically depressed community; the main character is the town. Making sure the narrative thread is continuous should not be my primary concern. The story can be told as a series of small town vignettes, each relevant to the core, but relevant in different ways, and the relevance may not be immediately obvious. It’s still going to be a lot of work, but I know where I’m going now, and it will be fine.

Stephen King says in On Writing that the trick for him is to find out what a book is about. On Page 201 he writes:

Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know), but it seems to me that every book—at least every one worth reading—is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somehtings yours is about. Your job in the second draft—one of them, anyway—is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions.

I usually plunge more or less straight into second drafts.For me, half the reward of finishing the first draft is having an opportunity to fix it. This time, the process is different. I’m taking a week to read the entire first draft with the purpose of re-writing the outline to reflect what’s there, not what was intended. Take some notes and take a look at the forest for a change. Sub-plots will be altered or removed. Some chapters will be added, some cut, and others will be dramatically shifted in focus. It’s going to be as big a pain in the ass as any project I’ve ever tried. It’s also going to make for a better book.

This will end up a my most ambitious project, though it did not start out that way. It might work, or it might not. I’ll stay with it until it’s as good as I can make it, then you can decide whether all the effort was worth it.

Just like always.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Yet Another Benefit of E-Books

I’ve said for as long as I’ve been paying serious attention to e-books their greatest benefit to writers and readers is how they remove the demands of length from books. Traditionally published books could most economically be printed in “signatures” of 32 pages. This is why you so often saw blank pages at the beginning and end of books. (Sometimes still do.) They’re trying to get to a multiple of 32. E-books don’t care.

Price points are different, too. Publishers need to recoup the costs of publishing, binding, and shipping. (Including returns.) Those costs aren’t a great deal less whether the book is 160 pages or 320. The catch is, no one wants to pay $28.95 for a 160-page book. (As sales figures show, there may not be all that many people who want to pay $28.95 for a 320-page book, either, but that’s a different discussion.)

The two above points mean authors may be asked to either cut a long book, or more likely, to pad a shorter work. Cutting or adding material due to literary concerns is a good thing. Every story has an optimal length. Part of the writer’s chore is to figure out what that is, and match it. Cutting or padding for marketing or logistical concerns is never a good thing, but sometimes necessary. Even I understand that.

Not with e-books. They can be any length, and the price can be set accordingly, as there are virtually no physical production costs. No printing, no shipping, and—praise God—no returns. If your story requires 153 pages to tell, that’s how long the book is. Instead of charging $12.99 (or whatever the traffic will bear today for a full-length novel), charge $8.99 for it. Or $5.99. There won’t be any more assumed physical costs. E-books remove authors from the tyranny of length, Ray Banks caught this wave before a lot of people. I suspect someone like Scott Phillips will benefit, as well.

I recently discovered another oft-overlooked benefit of e-books, when Declan Burke re-released The Big O. Originally published in paper, the book received about one-tenth the notice it deserved before turmoil in the publishing industry cast it adrift in the stormy seas of unsupported books. Dec retrieved the rights and has recently brought it out as an e-book available for 4.99. (You choose the currency. Depending on where you buy it, it can be dollars, pounds or euros.)

This is good news for everyone. Obviously for Dec, as it gives him a well-deserved second chance for the book. (The final line in my original 2008 review, cut from my recent e-book piece, reads, “It's just as well Harcourt couldn't get it out in time for beach season; too many people would be staring, wondering what the hell you were laughing at.”) The Big O reminds me of a story Elmore Leonard could have written, if Donald Westlake had written the outline. It’s out of print in paper, but now Dec can re-launch on his own.

It’s good news for readers, too. Those of you who missed it—and you had to look hard to find it in the States—can now have Amazon drop one onto your Kindle in seconds. For cheap. You won’t spend a more entertaining 4.99 whatevers this year.

The best news may be for other authors. Publishers are getting hip to the potential and are looking for ways to keep rights from ever reverting back to authors, but books written before they wised up to e-books are fair game for their authors to re-launch. Keep your eyes open. With luck, all those gems noted in Books to Die For that fell out of print will soon be available for a relative pittance. These are books publishers decided had lived their natural lives, leaving serious readers to troll used bookstores and web sites, and less dedicated readers out of luck altogether. No more.

Good luck, Squire Burke. Not just for The Big O—though it deserves it—but for helping to break the path others may follow.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How To Query an Agent

The always readworthy blog Do Some Damage has a post today on the ever-popular topic, “How To Query an Agent.” My comment got a little lengthy, enough to make it a blog post of its own:

I'm amazed at how many people are looking for the "secret" to getting an agent. It's as obvious as a tarantula on a slice of angel food. (Apologies to Raymond Chandler.):

· Write a book they'll think they can sell. That means it's the best writing you can do, and has a chance of getting a publisher's attention. The writer may not be the best judge of either.

· Meet them halfway. Follow their guidelines. It will help to place yourself in their position: getting dozens of submissions a day. Everyone has ways they work best. The agent's guidelines reflect theirs. Do what they ask, just as you'd like anyone asking for your attention to do for you.

· Give them respect (they are professionals), but don't kiss ass (so are you). If their guidelines are too arbitrary and stringent for your tastes, don't submit. If they will only reply if they are interested, don’t submit. (That's my pet peeve. Emailing a rejection takes under thirty seconds. They can spare the time.)

· A query is like a job interview. True, if a contract is signed the agent theoretically works for you, but it has to be a mutual thing. If you don't put your best foot forward, you can't get a fair assessment, and it will be your fault.

Last, but most important: Stop whining. It doesn't help, and no one wants to hear it.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Big O, Resurrected

August of 2008 was a good month for me: I was asked to review Declan Burke’s The Big O. My first Burke, it will always hold a special place for me. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and was treated to writing not quite like anyone else’s. Influences are evident—Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake come to mind—but no one had Burke’s unique voice and willingness to keep everyone unsure of what’s going to happen next.

I’ve since read all of Squire Burke’s novels. The promise shown in The Big O—and its predecessor, Eightball Boogie—has not gone to waste. Absolute Zero Cool and Slaughter’s Hound build upon his previous work to display a considerable and growing talent worthy of mention in the same breath as Ken Bruen and Declan Hughes.

The Big O did not receive the play it deserved in this country; it’s hard to believe Harcourt never even thought to release an e-book version. Burke has taken care of this oversight by releasing The Big O for e-book in the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland. ($4.99 / £4.99 / €4.99) Below is my original review, as it appeared in New Mystery Reader in September 2008.

* * *

Irish author Declan Burke is regularly compared to Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, even though The Big O is only his second novel. Anyone that new receiving that kind of praise has earned a skeptical eye, just as Leonard and Westlake have earned their legends. Burke and his cast of losers are up to it.

Karen King works days for a defrocked plastic surgeon named Frank Dolan; by night she pulls armed robberies for extra cash. Ray Brogan surprises her during a job and doesn't flinch when she draws down on him with a .44. They're a good match: Ray's also a two-career man, alternating between painting murals in children's bedrooms and his more lucrative gig as a kidnapper for insurance fraud scams. Karen's boss, Frank, can't operate anymore after several customers woke up looking like losing boxers. His ex-wife, Madge, is going through the female equivalent of mid-life crisis. Rossi Francis Assisi Callaghan just finished a five years jolt as a three-time loser. His idea of going straight is to open a co-op for cons, where they can fence their swag under the guise of a charity. His getaway driver, Sleeps, is narcoleptic. Detective Stephanie Doyle thinks she has a handle on an investigation, if only she could be sure what she's investigating. Then there's Anna, a true force of nature, Burke's version of Chekhov's gun over the mantel; once you get a full grasp of her, you know something has to happen.

The story launches—"starts" is too tame a word—with Frank's plan to have Madge kidnapped so he can defraud his insurance of half a million pounds. He doesn't want her hurt, though the half million would go a long way toward helping him get over it. He contacts Ray's "agent," to set the scheme in motion. Ray doesn't know Karen works for Frank when she points her gun at him; Karen doesn't know Ray's also working for Frank, in a manner of speaking. Rossi manages to touch them all, usually inadvertently. Everyone has an angle, and no one is as smart as he or she thinks they are.

Burke has a deft touch for keeping the reader only far enough ahead of the characters to build anticipation while still keeping the results a surprise. The characters and their plotlines are incestuously intertwined. Everyone knows, or gets to know, everyone else, whether as friends, lovers, or victims; sometimes more than one. This could be a failing in a book that takes itself too seriously; no worries here. The Big O is virtually a satire of noir fiction, cynically disdainful of everyone's plans. You know nothing will work out the way anyone wants it to.

It's the anticipation of how badly fouled up things will get that keeps the story moving. At times it's like reading a description of a Marx Brothers or Three Stooges short. People coming and going, no one sure what the others are up to, and not planning as if they'd care if they did know. Burke's voice and writing style are indebted to Elmore Leonard, as are the characters, but Leonard never plotted so intricately. That's where the Westlake influence comes out, as complicated and interconnected plot lines are kept moving with humor and improbability that never quite becomes implausible. Burke isn't one of those writers for whom humor is an abstract concept that tickles a small part of the back of your mind, and you think, "Oh. That was clever." The Big O is laugh out loud funny when he wants it to be, which is often.

A couple of things don't work as well as they might. One can hardly be helped: bits of terminology don't make their way across the Atlantic as seamlessly as others. There are times a Yank might fancy a glossary; it will pass as you get deeper into the book. Of a little more concern is the final scene, where the complications here are a little harder to follow, and the (appropriately) diminished humor can't cover a couple of bumps, and one twist too many. Still, he treats the ending with the respect it deserves, and doesn't the power of what's happening by keeping the laugh machine running full speed.

I came to The Big O with high expectations and had them exceeded. From the coolest cover of any book published this year (with the possible exception of Christa Faust's Money Shot), through the twists and turns of its cast of not-always-lovable losers, The Big O is big fun. It's just as well Harcourt couldn't get it out in time for beach season; too many people would be staring, wondering what the hell you were laughing at.

* * *

I’ve read about three hundred books since then. Few have blended humor, violence, and suspense as well as The Big O. This is not Tarantino’s vision of comedic violence, laughing at things that make you feel squeamish about yourself later. This is a series of crimes undertaken by criminals who aren’t as smart as they think they are. They do stupid shit, and it’s funny. The Big O is still one of my favorite books, and I expect it will be for as long as I’m reading. Do yourself a favor and get over there.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Guest Blogger: Melanie Florence

Melanie Florence is a long-time friend, whom I met when we were both regular attendees at meetings of The Writers of Chantilly, a group that meets twice a month in the Chantilly VA library. Melanie and I had something in common right away: we were not there for purely recreational writing. While some had to be goaded into contributing to the annual anthology, Melanie was among a small cadre who wrote with no assurance of publication, honing her craft with an eye toward public release. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to welcome her as today’s guest blogger here at OBAAT, to tell us about her new book, Red Flag Warning.

How I Got to Red Flag Warning

As the bossy older sister of a large family, I was a born teacher. Throughout the years I’ve taught by demonstrating, lecturing and writing. But, to be able to teach effectively, I first must learn. My preferred methods of learning are doing it or hearing about it first, then reading about it. Once I came to a general understanding of the subject, my creative side would often find a twist to write about it.

I started writing when I was young. I had a diary that I named Daphne. I poured my heart out with each day’s entry until the day I found its lock broken. In embarrassment and anger, I burned it in the fireplace. Next, in my early teens, I began a novelette about my babysitting adventures. For several months I pecked it out on the typewriter, stacked page after page into a pile, and then lost interest. Years later I searched for it in our family home and came up empty. My dollhouse, china tea set, novelette, and stuffed animals were among the casualties from one of my mother’s purging binges. In my early twenties, I kept a journal of my eight month-long European trip. At least I still have that!

Although I have always been an avid reader and a writer to some degree, I pursued botany and plant ecology in college and in my career because I am awed by nature’s beauty and complexity. I set my writing aside until we moved to an isolated community that was so boring and confining that I had to escape by teaching myself how to write. I had always loved murder mysteries so I began two of my own. The first manuscript described my too real failure to obtain a high school teaching job—so I killed off the Superintendent (figuratively, of course). The second manuscript described the conservative politics that drove me crazy there—so I killed off one of the town councilmen. They remain in several versions as boxes on a closet shelf.

When we moved to Virginia, I joined the Chantilly Writers Group and learned how to write with an active voice. Dana King, especially, took the time to go through my first manuscript page by page and show me how to do it. In Virginia I also began writing a third murder mystery. With that mystery I had finally melded biology and writing—and found my calling. The result is Red Flag Warning, a murder mystery depicting the state of much of our western forests today—tinder-dry and ready to burn. Several people read my manuscript and urged me to get it published. So I did.

Meanwhile I’ve found the time to write short stories that lean more toward fantasy/science fiction, literary and young children. I wrote a poem (with my sister, Lynnette) that I later illustrated and published as a children’s book called The Animal Parade. I have plans to simplify and illustrate a short story I wrote a few years ago and turn that into another children’s book. With children’s books, I can draw and write in snatches. But not so with full-length books.

My main reason for writing is selfish. I totally enjoy being immersed in a story that runs through my thoughts day and night. It’s like living two lives at once. I don’t need to be famous or make a lot of money, although I do like to have readers that appreciate and enjoy the story.

* * *

Thank you for the kind words, Melanie. The check is in the mail.

 Red Flag Warning is available in both paper and for Kindle at Amazon.