Thursday, January 30, 2014

Runaway Town, by Jay Stringer

I’ve been a reader of Do Some Damage since its inception; there’s no finer writers’ collaborative blog to be found. I came across Jay Stringer there, and was shocked—shocked!—when he announced the next book in the Eoin Miller series (Lost City) has been released, as I had yet to get around to reading its predecessor, Runaway Town. I immediately bought a copy and bumped it to the head of my ever-burgeoning queue.

Good decision.

Runaway Town is a example of why, when done right, the PI story is the highest form of crime fiction. Miller isn’t a PI—It’s hard to say what he is exactly—but he fills that role in the story. He’s Roma—British gypsies—which makes him a bit of an outcast from the get-go. Used to be a cop, now is officially a “football coach” at a boys club run by the Gaines crime family as one of their many beards. He used to work for Channy Mann, the Gaines’s chief competition, until he killed Channy’s brother. (Which was when I realized Runaway Town was the second book in the series, so I’ll be looking for Old Gold, too.) Things are complicated.

They don’t get any better when Veronica Gaines, the head of the family, asks him to find a rapist who has been terrorizing immigrant girls who belong to a support group that is also a Gaines beard. The victimized girls are illegals, afraid to go to the police for fear of deportation. Meanwhile, Channy wants Miller to set up Veronica to be killed. Add some family issues and a political party with a virulent anti-immigrant position and Miller has his hands full.

So does Stringer, and he pulls it off marvelously. Runaway Town is that rare bit of fiction—any genre—that tries to be about more than one thing and succeeds. Miller deals with and examines issues of family, loyalty, and trying to do the right thing while struggling with what’s possible and practical. It’s a mess. Never so much the reader loses track, but plenty to keep one wondering how the hell Miller’s going to get out of this.

Miller is a fascinating protagonist. He’s flawed, fighting an addiction to painkillers he doesn’t want to acknowledge, and he’s in over his head. He had no desire to be a hero, and is as brave as he has to be, which turns out to be a considerably amount. The irony of his story is, once he has identified the rapist, he has to decide whether to call the police, turn him over to Gaines, or resolve the situation himself. His reflections are reminiscent of Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone: no matter what he does, he’s wrong on some level.

Runaway Town has a few endings. Not because Stringer plays tricks with the reader, trying to fool you into thinking, “ah, this is the one.” He’s wrapping up what are essentially three stories. Stay with him. He doesn’t cheat, but you also won’t see them ending quite as you expect. He creates satisfying resolutions and still leaves things open for the next book.

There are a lot of excellent writers and excellent books out there; readers should rejoice. Jay Stringer and Runaway Town are one of each, and the rejoicing can begin as soon as you start to read.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Bitch, by Les Edgerton

True noir is hard to find. By “true noir,” I mean the classic story of a person who is not necessarily bad, but can be nudged in that direction, either through opportunity, or forced by events. This person makes decisions that go sour, though the options at the time ranged from bad to worse; the die was cast with the first unfortunate choice. The stories are engrossing because readers can’t help but wonder what they would do in the same situation, and are relieved at the end because they didn’t have to do it.

Today we have plenty of neo-noir and “thrillers.” Too much neo-noir consists of bad people reveling in their own depravity. Bad things happen, and they’re often okay with it. The “protagonist” may, or may not, face consequences. Readers rarely empathize, because the reader would never be in circumstances remotely similar; too many unconscionable decisions were made in the backstory. The stories are often more schadenfreude than noir.

Modern thrillers often have protagonists with noir potential, but the opportunity is lost when the protagonist invariably chooses the option most likely to make the situation worse at every opportunity. Readers wonder what they would do for a while, until—if you’re like me—they start to root against the protagonist because he/she’s too dumb to be allowed to reproduce.

The Bitch is true noir.

Jake is a two-time loser. Another felony conviction will mark him a habitual criminal, which carries an automatic life sentence. (The “bitch” referred to in the title.) He learned to cut hair in prison and found he had a talent for it. He’s gone straight, married a woman who accepts his past and loves him for his present and future, and whose family has done the same. Jake and Paris have saved enough money to open their own shop in a few weeks; Paris is pregnant.

Enter Walker Joy, Jake’s old cellmate. Walker saved Jake’s life once in the joint, and he’s calling in the marker. Walker has not gone straight, lost some diamonds, and needs the help of master burglar Jake to make things right. Jake is torn, and doesn’t have as many options as he at first thinks.

What happens next put me in mind of the classic A Simple Plan. Decisions are forced on Jake that continue to escalate the situation. He chooses as best he can from limited options, all foul. Every decision is framed by the fact he can never cut his losses and turn himself in; The Bitch looms. Only his conscience acts as a governor on his behavior; the law’s position is set in stone, no matter what else he does.

Les Edgerton has written a story that is effective on multiple levels. Time and again the reader will see a new crisis and realize almost simultaneously with Jake what has to be done, cringing as it happens, not knowing what else could be done and still avoid The Bitch, which will cost him Paris and his child forever.

As if the engrossing personal situation isn’t enough, Edgerton weaves social commentary into the story without ever preaching about it. Habitual Offender laws have become commonplace, society’s way of dealing with people who just don’t seem to get the message. I had no problem with them—when properly applied—until I read The Bitch and realized a two-time loser has no reason not to go all the way once an act worthy of Strike Three has been committed. He’s already getting the maximum sentence; anything else he does to evade capture is without risk.

The Bitch is a fascinating story of how close any of us might be to the edge, where a single event could change our lives forever for the worse. True, few of us are twice-convicted felons, but it’s only the scale of Jake’s misfortune that differs. We’re all one phone call--chance meeting, lost job, medical emergency, car crash, random act of violence—away from a situation where every option is a bad one, and the most likely favorable outcome is to slow the rate at which your life circles the toilet while hoping for a miracle.

Read The Bitch. If it doesn’t affect you on multiple levels, read it again. You weren’t paying attention the first time.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Too Many Balls in the Air, Not Enough Hands

Random thoughts on a day too busy to write a real post.

The Beloved Spouse has a friend who purchased a copy of Grind Joint weeks ago. She asked yesterday if he’d had a chance to read it. He said just two or three pages, he’s been busy, but he likes it so far. I told her to say I’m curious to see how he liked the orgy scene, to let me know. I expect a full report by morning.

** ** **

The nice thing about someone of my size is, even if things at work fall apart completely, I can always find a job as a bouncer at Leisure World.

** ** **

I know as much about marketing as Ted Cruz knows about government.

** ** **

Sometimes I read the news and consider becoming religious enough to believe in a hell some people can burn in.

** ** **

Whoever thought it was a good idea to cast Scarlett Johansen in a movie and use only her voice needs a serious ass kicking.

** ** **

E-readers are great. They allow access to books that might otherwise have gone out of print, provide an affordable price for experimenting with new authors, and, not least in my case, avert a host of space problems. A while back over twenty vintage Ed McBain titles went on sale for $1.99 each; they were on my Kindle ten minutes after I found out. (Including one I already owned a hard copy of. Damn.)

E-readers weaknesses, too. Some books don’t read as well on them. Reference books, for instance, as it’s harder to flip between non-consecutive pages. Tables, especially large ones, don’t lay out as well. (The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers has statistical sections I skipped over; too much trouble to decode.) I read George V. Higgins’s Cogan’s Trade a few weeks ago and had trouble keeping the speakers straight. Higgins’s continuous dialog lay out better on a printed page. (Possibly on the larger Kindles, too. I have the standard size.) The solution is easy: don’t buy those kinds of books for Kindle; get the real book.

There’s one more key weakness for an e-reader, one that can’t be overcome. Last week a box from Amazon arrived in the mail, a day earlier than expected. Watching books download to a Kindle cannot match the anticipation of cutting open a box, knowing the first thing you’ll get is that new book smell, followed by holding your new books in your hand. The tactile sensation can’t be replicated.

To go another step, an Amazon delivery can’t replicate the joy of browsing a bookstore, looking for unexpected treasures. (Not even when it’s a day early.) My problem is there aren’t a lot of independent bookstores convenient to me; the nearest store featuring crime fiction is over 80 miles away, across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. (Given my two phobias are heights and water deeper than I can stand in, it takes more than book shopping for me to drive across that bridge.)

Another problem for me is that few stores carry the writers I most like to read; I’m not a best-seller kind of guy. I found a nice independent bookstore in Arlington VA while making the rounds trying to place Grind Joint, and it has a nice mystery section, though very few of the writers I look for. I’m keeping a list handy of the more mainstream people I want to read to do my bit for the indies, but the bulk of my purchases are through Amazon, one way or another. I doubt I’ll burn in hell for that, though it is yet another reason why I’ll have to fly stand-by out of Purgatory (PRG).

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Peter Rozovsky’s peerless blog, Detectives Beyond Borders, had a thought-provoking post yesterday. Peter does this several times a week, but the thoughts he provokes are often for more eloquent minds than mine to articulate, so nothing happens here.

This post was titled, “What separates the superlatively great from the merely very good?” The post ends with one of Peter’s periodic displays of gauntlet throwing: “What distinguishes a great author from one who is merely good, even very good? Examples welcome.”

My comment: This may lower the level of discourse, but, to me, the mark of greatness is when a writer can consistently give me moments or entire novels where, after reading, I shake my head and think/say, "Damn, I wish I'd written this." Anyone can do it once in a while, but some do it so often I expect it. Those are, to me, the greats.

This was, in fact, somewhat lower than the accustomed level of discourse on Peter’s blog, but, were it not for the likes of me, how would you appreciate those who actually know what they’re talking about? Peter threw me a lifeline with, Dana, the question then becomes: What defines that writing that makes you thing, "Damn, I wish I'd written that!"? It's elusive, isn't it, and each writer who achieves it probably does it in his or her own way, revealing new possibilities. If we could nail it down, we'd be doing it ourselves.

I immediately thought, “F. Murray Abraham!” A worthy comment immediately came to mind, but, needing a blog post for today and being a selfish prick, I saved it for here. (At least I gave credit.)

You may remember F. Murray Abraham as the actor who played composer Antonio Salieri in the movie Amadeus. (If you saw the movie, you remember him; it was a brilliant performance.) Salieri was a contemporary of Mozart, and had established a nice reputation for himself when the wunderkind came to Vienna and pushed him aside, not just for the time being, but for all of history.

Salieri was a fine composer. You’ll hear music every day on classical music stations not as good as his, written by composers better known. A musicologist can compare his scores to Mozart’s and see no material differences. Put one score of each composer side-by-side (assuming neither piece is known to the observer) and one would be hard pressed to say which was whose.

Listen to them, and everyone knows in a heartbeat which is Mozart’s.

I sang in my college glee club for a year. The conductor was Bob Lloyd, a small, energetic man who was primarily the oboe and saxophone teacher, but loved him some glee club. Mr. (later Doctor) Lloyd was always going on about “singing into the wire,” making a face while pushing his index finger forward to show intensity. What he looked for was “stuff,” which he indicated by rubbing his thumb across his first two fingers in a symbol also used to designate money. “Stuff” was what turned a competent reading into a Performance. It elevated pedestrian material, give it charisma, because it was…it was…it was undefinable. You knew it when you heard it. Hell, you felt it when you heard it. He never had to tell us when we’d achieved Stuff; everyone in the room knew.

Every principal trumpet in every major orchestra plays his (or her) ass off; Georges Mager, Bud Herseth, Charlie Schlueter, Bill Vacchiano had Stuff. That’s why their names resonate with trumpet players years after their careers, and even their lives, are over. Good players play a piece with the attitude, “This is how I think it goes.” Great players sound like, “This is how it goes. Period.” Even when different conductors ask them to do it different ways, the end result is, “This is how it goes.” Stuff.

Great writers have Stuff. (Unlike me, they could probably define it.) Like Salieri and Mozart, they use many of the same conventions, grammar, tropes, and archetypes as the rest of us, yet you know as their prose falls on your reader’s ear they’re different. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain, James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, Declan Hughes: their grocery lists are worth reading. Every book is filled with examples of “I wish I’d written that” until you get to the end and can’t decide whether to be elated over having been in their world or depressed by the knowledge you will never, ever be able to do that.

And then you get back to work, because anything that can be done that well is always worth getting better at.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Twenty Questions With Jim Winter

Jim Winter is an eclectic creature. Computer programmer by day, writer the rest of the time. A nice guy and such a good writer even this Pittsburgh boy can’t despise his Cleveland origins. (Well, maybe his origins, but not him.) Jim is the creator of the Nick Kepler series of PI stories and novels. His Road Rules made my list of Best Reads for 2011. (Holy shit, has it been that long?)

Jim is also curator of the beyond eclectic blog Edged in Blue, where he discusses everything from his writing to writing in general to rock bands to presidential history. (No kidding. I looked forward to that monthly series so much I wish we had more presidents.)

A year ago Jim released all the short Kepler fiction in an e-anthology, The Compleat Kepler. This year he returns with 22 non-Kepler stories of “life going horribly awry,” titled The Compleat Winter. He took time from all of the above to submit to Twenty Questions.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about The Compleat Winter.

Jim Winter: The Compleat Winter is a collection of all my non-series shorts over the years. That’s not entirely accurate. There are bits and pieces of a few embryonic series I played with now and then. There are also some shorts that I wrote to get my head around Holland Bay, which the novel sitting on a beta’s hard drive at the moment.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write The Compleat Winter, start to finish?

JW: Considering it’s a collection, about 12 years. The earliest story was written in 2001. The most recent in 2013.

OBAAT: How did The Compleat Winter come to be published?

JW: I thought about releasing all these, and the Nick Kepler stories as well, as single shorts. It’s an idea I may revisit someday, but for right now, I wanted to get them all into one place. There was one story that came from a challenge to make a short story out of a blog post. I wrote the first part as the post, then formatted it to look like Typepad comments. Unfortunately, not even the Wayback Machine has it anymore.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?

JW: It’s cliché, but I’ve been going through Stephen King’s body of work chronologically. For all his excesses, the one thing he has never failed at is creating a sense of place. None of those towns in Maine or Colorado (except Boulder) exist, but they seem real. I also try to read Mark Twain as much as possible anymore. He’s the original American smartass.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?

JW: King, obviously. Twain. Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker taught me a lot about brevity.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?

JW: I generally don’t outline short stories unless it’s a compelling concept that doesn’t really work at first. I wrote Second Hand Goods without an outline, but I everything else long that I’ve written has been outlined. There’s a non-crime project I’m working on now that I’ve gotten away from in the past week. Without an outline, there would be no way I could get back into it.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?

JW: I try not to edit too much on the first pass. If I’m away from the story for longer than a day or two, I’ll go back through and try to weed out contradictions or continuity flaws before getting back to work.

Once the draft is done, it goes in the drawer for weeks, maybe months. I also accept that the second draft may be a rewrite from scratch. That’s a recent development, but I’ve found if you come back to your first draft rather hostile to it, you end up creating a better story for your trouble.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?

JW: Never fall in love with your first draft. Ever.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.

JW: I run. I’m a bit of a computer nerd. Lately, I’ve been having fun playing with graphics.

OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?

JW: The latter tends to give you the former if you get enough of them.

OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?

JW: I’d have to find some other creative outlet. Maybe I could finally learn piano only 40 years after I promised my mother I’d take lessons.

OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.

JW: Hybrid. If I was starting out now, I’d have a solid critique circle and self-pub some novellas, get the attention of some smaller presses and work my way up.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?

JW: Beer. Liquor’s fine, but it can kill you.

OBAAT: Baseball or football?

JW: Anymore, I’m a football guy. If I were English or Irish, I’d be a soccer hooligan. Right now, I’m rooting for the Broncos despite growing up a Browns fan because I think Brady needs to feel the pain of The Drive and The Fumble. Plus Peyton Manning should go out on a high note.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

JW: Well, the other writer who shares my skull is banging out the draft of a science fiction novel that’ll probably get a massive rewrite this summer. In the meantime, I’m awaiting the red ink on Holland Bay so I can move on to the next step with it. It’s going to be great: 87th Precinct meets The Wire.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Cheap Thrills and Cheaper Writing

Among the few regrets I have from last year’s Bouchercon is my inability to attend the New Noir panel, moderated by Reed Farrel Coleman. (Schedule conflict.) During the panel, Coleman noted a trend toward violent misogyny in crime fiction, and asked each panelist for their thoughts. Hilary Davidson turned hers into a blog essay. She covers all the key points, and well, inspiring a couple of thoughts of my own.

From a writer’s—and reader’s—perspective I dislike the exploitation of female victims because it’s lazy writing. To me, a serial killer of women is not a worthy antagonist. (There are rare exceptions.) He preys on those weaker than he. He’s a bully of exponential proportion. The motives for his crimes exist only in his head. What point can be taken from the story? These tales consist of a series of prurient titillations far worse than any non-violent pornography, each worse than the last, until the writer runs out of imagination and the killer is caught. I have no doubt children and pets would be tortured to death in their books if the authors thought the audience would stand for it. (And I have no doubt such books are written for an underground market.) They don’t interest me to read, nor to write.

(Note: many authors have used a serial killer plot, myself included. I’m talking here about those who write, or read, little else. The one-off writers are not among the most gruesome, as they have a point to make, make it, and move on. Torture porn is not their thing.)

Who reads these books? Primarily women. How do I know? I’ll admit, this is through inference, but a well-reasoned one. First, a large majority of crime fiction readers are women. For these books to remain as popular as they have, women must be reading them in substantial numbers. Second—and, admittedly, anecdotally—I attended a panel on this specific topic at the Indianapolis Bouchercon in 2009. Held in the ballroom, it drew at least five hundred people, and over 90% were women. It was the most disturbing sessions I have ever attended, and I hope never to be in another like it.

First, it was decided misogynistic torture porn was a vile and loathsome creature, much to be reviled. The fact that it existed, in no small part, because women read it and write it was not germane, and a questioner who dared raise the point (not me) took a severe verbal beating. (One panelist, a well-known writer whose work I enjoy, was so harsh I can’t read her anymore; I keep thinking of what a bitch she was to that poor guy.) It’s permissible for women to read them because…well, I never did figure out why reading them was okay. Something to do with feeling safer because the killers always get caught in the end, or some such horseshit. It didn’t make any sense to me then, and, frankly, the position’s advocates weren’t all that ardent in its defense. As for defending the writers, who are also often women? That’s where the sales (read: money) are. Sure they have to write it.

I’m the father of a daughter, and an ardent believer in equality of the sexes in all areas, with the understanding there are inherent differences that do not make either lesser or greater. (Unfortunately, in this country that pretty much makes me a feminist.) It disturbs me to hear women say the women readers are basically happy to feel a vicarious “at least they catch these guys before they kill me” thrill, and the authors are whores, willing to do whatever pays. (Harsh, but not unprovoked.)

I haven’t quoted “The Simple Art of Murder” for a while, so here goes: Chandler attributes much of Hammett’s influence to “[giving] murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.” Updating the means at hand to whatever our modern serial killer uses, and we see this form of writing is not an advance at all, but a step backward, a perversion of the traditional mystery. I have little time for traditional English mysteries, with the exception of an occasional Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe. The cases don’t interest me much, but at least the characters are fun. I have no interest in reading their slasher counterparts, where I feel like I need a bleach shower to feel clean again.

A writer who wants to interest me needs to work for it. Give me an interesting story, not a gruesome plot. Give me characters I can empathize with at some level, good guys and bad. Enthralling dialog, and action where both parties participate more or less equally. That I’ll read.

Hilary Davidson makes one point ion her essay I’m not sure I agree with, though I may be misreading her. (Like being misunderstood by me makes her unique among women.) Late in the piece, she writes:

Crime fiction has had a fraught relationship with women in the past. The hard-boiled, hackneyed 1940s concept of a femme fatale is as old as Eve: soulless temptresses who manipulate men and precipitate their falls. These ladies are bad because women are born bad.

I’ve never felt that way about femmes fatales. To me, they have always been strong characters, the man’s equal. No more or less likely to be bad than a man, and not to be held more or less accountable for their badness, or lack thereof. People, in other words. Physique, certain bits of hard wiring, and culture make them more likely to be victims than men. It debases us all to take unfair advantage of that, in life or in fiction.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Movies Recently Watched, January (As Opposed to “Recent Movies Watched,” of Which There Are None

My recent luck with movies has not been as good as with books, LA Confidential aside. Here’s what The Beloved Spouse and I have seen over the past few weeks, in no particular order.

Lawless. Not sure what to say about this. The acting is excellent, the story is compelling, production values are first rate; I can’t find anything wrong with it. Yet…something is missing. Shia LeBoeuf is better than I expected, and Guy Pearce has become one of my small handful of favorite actors; Tom Hardy was a revelation. With all that, this is a movie that manages to be less than the sum of its parts. (We watched the bonus features, as these will sometimes provide an insight that might have been missed. Not this time.) Lawless was good—I’m not sorry I watched it—but it should have been better.

Cinderella Man. Stumbled across this on cable. Just as I was about to turn away due to the unrelenting suffering of the Braddock family, director Ron Howard shifted gears and gave us an uplifting story that not only doesn’t get any sappier than it has to, it’s history is defensible. (At least by Hollywood standards.) Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti are excellent; I still don’t know how Renee Zellwegger gets work.

Stand-Up Guys. Al Pacino, Christopher Walker, and Alan Arkin as three wise guys well past their prime. They are as good as you’d expect, and this film has its moments, but not enough of them. The director and screenwriter would have been better served letting these three old pros have their heads. It would have been worth watching just for that. I can’t say not to see it, but only if you’re stuck for anything else, and in the mood for nostalgia night.

Purple Violets. Has the distinction of being the first movie released through iTunes. That is its only distinction. Eminently missable, and I’m an Edward Burns fan.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Talking With Mike Dennis About Audio Books

Mike Dennis is no stranger to readers of this blog. A frequent commenter, his novel, Setup on Front Street, made my Best Reads of 2011 list. The Take made one of my monthly lists this year, and his short story, The Session, is one of the small handful of best short stories I’ve ever read, regardless of genre.

It was a treat to sit next to him on this year’s Bouchercon panel, moderated by Peter Rozovsky. The topic was hard-boiled and noir writing styles, and, as anyone who’s read Mike’s work is aware, Mike knows what he’s talking about.

I was delighted when he approached me to inquire into collaborating on an audio version of Grind Joint, and jumped at the chance. It’s been fun and informational to hear everything filtered through someone else’s interpretation and vision, and it’s been a pleasure working with him.

It occurred to me there may be other authors, and readers, who might wonder how to get in on the audio book biz. Mike was kind enough to take time from his schedule of writing and recording to answer some questions I hope you’ll find informative.

One Bite at a Time: How long have you been reading for audio books?

Mike Dennis: First of all, Dana, let me thank you for giving me this opportunity to appear on your blog. I do appreciate it.

I started narrating audiobooks about nine months ago.

OBAAT: What got you into it?

MD: All through my musical career, which spanned 30 years, people told me I had this great “radio” voice. Even radio DJs told me that. I never had any desire to be a DJ, though, because I always figured they wanted to do what I did, which was play music. Along the way, however, I did pick up a few commercials here and there, but nothing to rave about. I knew I had a good voice for that kind of thing, but I never really knew how to capitalize on it.
Then, a girl I knew from my years in Las Vegas, who had started an audiobook publishing company, put out a call for male narrators for audio short stories. I told her I’d like to take a whack at it and she went for it. Since then, I’ve branched out into novels. I’ve even done a novel-length non-fiction book.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of what’s involved to actually get the words from the page into an audio file.

MD: There’s a lot more to it than I initially thought. First, it helps immeasurably to have a well-written, properly-edited book. I have to read the material with feeling, something I was never used to doing, since I seldom read anything aloud. The material has to be read at a certain pace, so the listener can follow it easily and yet not be put to sleep. I have to grasp the meaning of each sentence and convey what the writer felt when he wrote it, so the better the writing, the easier this is.

Then there is the problem of dialogue. I have to come up with a distinct voice for each character and keep it consistent throughout. That’s harder than it sounds, because when I have multiple female characters, for instance, I have to really give them each a different voice without sounding too masculine. If there are regional accents involved, that can slow things down quite a bit, also. In every case, the dialogue has to sound natural, like people actually talking to each other.
After I get the material recorded to my satisfaction, then it has to be edited and mastered, and that’s where the time is really consumed in huge gulps. Getting rid of little unwanted noises, clicks, and pops is a big deal. So is proper equalization. My voice is very sibilant, with sharp, cutting esses, and that has to be dealt with accordingly. The book has to sound good over expensive headphones as well as cheap headphones, and that can be tricky.
Preparing a finished product of a high caliber, that can compete with bestseller audiobooks, is a big challenge, with quite a steep learning curve. I had no one to really guide me in those first few months, but I worked hard at it and now I’m very pleased with the quality of the product I’m turning out.

OBAAT: How much equipment is involved?

MD: I have an ElectroVoice RE-20 microphone, a Centrance Micport Pro preamp, a pop shield on a boom stand, and a thing called a Porta-Studio, which is an ingeniously-designed collapsible box, about 18” wide by 14” high by 24” deep, with foam baffling all through the inside. The microphone is placed inside this box on a small stand, creating a “dead zone” for better recording quality. I sit in front of this open box and speak into it.

When I first started, I had another microphone, which was a perfectly good one, but I learned through trial and error (mostly error) that it was not suitable for my voice, so I got the ElectroVoice a couple of months ago and it’s made a big difference.

OBAAT: About how long does it take to record a minute (or an hour, if that’s an easier comparison) of usable audio?

MD: That really varies with each narrator and each project. In my case, it will take me an absolute minimum of three hours to produce one finished hour of an audiobook. It has taken me as long as five or six hours on some projects.

OBAAT: What do you like most about reading for audio books?

MD: Being able, in my own small way, to interpret the writer’s material for the potential listening audience.

OBAAT: What’s the biggest headache?

MD: For me, it’s reading a book or a story that is poorly written, with many typos and stilted dialogue. The second biggest headache is editing. I really don’t look forward to it (although I always put my shoulder to it), and I’m thrilled when it’s done.

OBAAT: Working as both an author and as a reader, what advice to you have to offer authors who might want their books to be available on audio, as well as anyone who might be interested in reading for audio?

MD: First and foremost, for writers I would recommend finding a narrator whose voice you think suits your material. Just because someone did a great job on John Grisham’s latest legal thriller doesn’t mean he would be the best for someone else’s crime novel.

Check out samples of audiobooks in your genre. Wait till you hear a narrator who “sounds” like your material. Then contact him and ask him to do an audition sample of your novel.
For would-be narrators, I would definitely recommend acquiring professional-level equipment before you even take a first step. You can’t just speak into your computer. You’re competing with professionally-recorded audiobooks, and you have to be able to stay up with them, to produce at a relatively high level right out of the chute.

Having said that, such equipment can be had for under $1000, and it’s all a one-time expense. If you want, of course, you can spend thousands more and get a better sound, but for starters, you can get by with less than a grand.
Listen to audiobooks and hear what they’re doing. Buy an audiobook of a novel you really like and listen closely to it. Check out how the narrator does it. Try to pick up his/her tricks. Most importantly, go for that sound.

Thanks to Mike for the time and insights. This is one of the things I like most about interviews: I learn stuff all the time.

Anyone interested in working with Mike can contact him via email. (

Friday, January 10, 2014

Vision and Execution

New Year’s Eve was spent watching the two-disc special edition DVD of LA Confidential with The Beloved Spouse, who bought it for me for Christmas. LA Confidential is about the perfect crime movie. Production values, locations, cinematography, casting, acting, screenplay. Go on down the list and find the weak link. I dare you. I could watch this once a week for a long time before I get tired of it. (Remember how I was about The French Connection a few months ago? I like LA Confidential even more.

Find a copy with the extra features if you can. A few things are repeated in multiple segments, but you’ll have a hard time finding a more comprehensive description of how a film got made, from adapting James Ellroy’s novel (novels, actually, as more than one is used), casting, fighting the studio about the casting, budget; you name it, they touch on it.

Two fights stick out. The studio said people don’t like ensemble casts. (Period movies were frowned upon, too.) Focus on Bud White (Russell Crowe) and ditch Exley (Guy Pearce) and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey). Director Curtis Hansen said he needed Exley. The studio said, fine, keep him; ditch the other two. Hansen finally won.

Then he had to cast the parts. Long story short, he wanted two unknown (at the time) Australian actors to play the leads in a remarkably complex story. Hansen’s spot on reasoning was, he didn’t want the audience thinking, “Oh, that’s [insert star’s name here.] I wonder what he’s going to do.” He wanted them thinking of White and Exley, not two actors.

Kevin Spacey and James Cromwell are the flip side of the argument. Spacey’s star was in full ascendance: in the previous two years he’d made The Usual Suspects, Se7en, and A Time To Kill. He’s the guy the audience knows, so you’re shocked when Dudley Smith (Cromwell) kills him out of the blue. Maybe even more than you are to see the heavy was the kindly farmer in Babe, as this was what Cromwell was known for at the time.

La Confidential shows movie studio executives are a lot like book editors and marketers; they always know what won’t sell, rarely what will. The fact that they’re wrong at least as often as they’re right—whichever side they come down on—says a lot about the financial status of both industries. What LA Confidential shows is virtually any combination of “deal breakers” can be overcome, given the proper vision and execution.

Vision and execution. Know exactly what you want to do, and do it as well as you can. Doesn’t matter the topic, that’s good advice.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

An Author’s Event Planner

I’ve been to quite a few author events over the years. Some went well; others didn’t. Some of the writers had done hundreds of them, and it showed, not always for the better. A couple were personable and comfortable, doing brief readings and answering questions enthusiastically, even though they must have heard most of them a hundred times. (“Where do you get your ideas?”) A couple looked like they’d done hundreds of them and were mailing it in.

Now I’ve done a few events of my own, and watched panels and the signings of others with a different perspective. I’m lucky in two ways. I’m one of those strange rare people who enjoys public speaking. This is a huge hurdle for many, and I appreciate how fortunate I am not to have to worry about it.

I’m also a classically trained musician. Author events are performances. It’s not the wage slave and father who leaves the toilet seat up and can belch the alphabet the audience wants to see, or even cares about; they came to see an author. The trick is to be yourself. Not the scratching your ass in the bathroom self; the author self.

This should be easy: the author self is just as much you as the other disgusting elements. It’s the performance part that makes it hard. Most of us don’t perform publicly that often, or ever. The performance can’t seem phony, or you’ll seem like a phony, and no one likes phonies. (Anyone who says they do is a phony by definition.)

So how do you give a performance that doesn’t come across as a performance—which would be phony—if you have no performance background? Same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice. Which is, in its purest form, preparation.

First, know what you want to do before you get there. Seems like the simplest thing in the world, but a lot of people don’t do it. They have an idea of what they want to do, but the audience hasn’t given you two of their most valuable possessions—their time and their money—to watch you figure it out as you go. You’re taking their money, in the form of paying for your book. Be a professional.

After consulting with Laurie Stephens of the Mystery Lovers Bookshop, my launch event broke into three parts: a brief (five minutes) talk about how the book came to be written; a short reading; and questions from the audience.

How did the book come to be written?

The fraternal twin of the dreaded “Where do you get your ideas?” Never underestimate the fascination readers have with how authors create books. We tend to talk with other authors, with whom this is a settled topic. Readers don’t know that. Give them the lowdown on how you came up with and developed the story, They’ll love you for it.

Oh yeah, and write it down. Not word for word, but have a detailed outline for reference. If you create, edit, then rehearse it a few times, you may not need the outline, but it’s the preparation that makes it superfluous. Remember, they didn’t come to hear an extemporaneous speaker; they came for an author. Authors write shit down.

Is The Book Any Good?

The critical question, and the only answer you have is the book itself. Take five minutes or so and read a chapter. (Two, if they’re short.) The first chapter is always nice, but if there’s another that gives a better feel for the style and tone of the book, read it. The first chapter of Grind Joint is only a few hundred words long. I read that and Chapter 3, where Doc interviews the guard who (spoiler alert!) found the body. It’s also fairly short, but it shows the kinds of people the book is about, how they talk, and a bit of the style. It also, hopefully, helps to set the hook.

This is part of the performance; don’t drone through it. I printed both chapters in 16 point font, double spaced, and read then aloud several times in the week leading up to the event. I marked the pages with orange ink to show where I wanted pauses, which words should be stressed, which laid lack, and to remind myself to leave space between narrative and speech, between speech and attribution. The listening audience can’t see the quotation marks; they have to be implied. Also critical: take your time. If you’re like most people, you read aloud about 50% faster than you think you do, maybe more when reading your own work, because you know what comes next. They don’t. Cut them a break.


Everything else primes the pump for questions; a dearth of them can doom the event. The audience knows how the book came to be written and what it sounds like; now they want to know you. Monosyllabic answers are death. They stifle enthusiasm, and may be perceived as disrespectful to the questioner, who came out in shitty weather to ask you this question when they could have stayed home warm and dry and watched Castle, and you dismissed it with a word. Don’t ramble, but give each question the courtesy of a full reply.

Some people are naturally funny, some aren’t. Play to your strengths. If you’re funny, don’t shy away. (Just be careful you don’t think you’re funnier than you are.) If you’re not comfortable with the idea, it’s possible to be personable without being Louis CK. Be yourself. If an appropriate story comes to mind, tell it. You’re a storyteller; that’s why they came out.

A bit of subterfuge may come in handy. In any group, people are often reluctant to go first. This is especially true of readers, who are often introverts by nature. Everyone will feel uncomfortable if the hostess asks for questions and everyone sits there like guests at a Marcel Marceau tribute. I was lucky: Laurie Stephens got the ball rolling with a couple of questions for me, and things flowed from there. (Authors, if you can get an event at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont PA, go for it. Everyone will treat you like you’re Robert Crais, and they know how to pull off an event.) Not all hostesses are as accommodating, so don’t be afraid to use a plant. If someone you know is there, give them a softball question to ask in case things slow down. Once the seal is broken, questions may pour out. (This can also come in handy if some long-winded person is in the process of hijacking the show.)

If there’s one critical takeaway, it’s this: It doesn’t matter if you traveled a great distance to get there, or it’s the last event of a tour, or you’re tired, or you’re sick or hungry or have to pee or if three people showed up and you brought two of them with you: they get your best show, every time. You wouldn’t turn in less than your best work when submitting the book; it’s the same thing.

The people at your event are paying you the most sincere compliment. They have left their homes and a myriad of other things they could have done, traveled whatever distance, spent their limited time to listen to you, spent their limited cash to buy the book, and will now almost certainly spend several more hours reading the book. This is how you have chosen to earn money, and it doesn’t work without them. You owe them that much.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

My Best Reads of 2013

I don’t like writing Top Ten lists. It’s too hard to draw the line, but 2013 was such a good reading year for me, this post would be too long if I wrote a blurb for each worthy book. So, here are the Top Ten, plus some honorable mentions. (Books listed in the order in which they were read.)

The Cold, Cold Ground, Adrian McKinty. If there’s ever been a better historical mystery written, let me know. McKinty weaves Sean Duffy’s story into The Troubles in a way that would make James Ellroy jealous, if James Ellroy still read fiction, and were prone to jealousy.

Cheapskates, Charlie Stella. His best riffs on greed, duplicity, and amoral conduct in general. Funny in an Elmore Leonard “these guys are serious” way. Great fun.

I Hear the Sirens in the Street, Adrian McKinty. The second in the Duffy trilogy, and as good as Cold, Cold Ground, though the impact may have been lessened because the setting wasn’t such a shock to me. This time he works John DeLorean into the story and pulls it off. I’ll be all over In the Morning I’ll Be Gone when it’s available here in the States.

American Tabloid, James Ellroy. I read the Underworld USA Trilogy out of sequence, which is fine, as I like him better with each book I read (The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s a Rover, American Tabloid) .Moving onto the LA Quartet this year.

Masters of Atlantis, Charles Portis. Hard to think of two more different books written by the same guy than True Grit and Masters of Atlantis. Not only has Portis done it, one’s as good as the other, and they’re both very good. If you’re looking for something to read that’s just flat-out fun for a change, you can’t go wrong here.

Prohibition, Terrence McCauley. 2013 was the Year of Historical Crime for me. McCauley writes of New York in the Twenties in the style of the old pulps, including enough modern touches to keep the writing from sounding dated. Highly recommended, along with its successor, Slow Burn. I put Prohibition in the Top Ten because it’s the first of the two, and sets the stage.

The Walkaway, Scott Phillips. All the great stuff you’d expect from Phillips. And then I found tears rolling down my cheeks in a restaurant while reading the ending. Brilliant.

The Onion Field, Joseph Wambaugh. Two young cops are kidnapped in 1963. One is killed; the other escapes. The best non-fiction crime book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read In Cold Blood twice.

Black Rock, John McFetridge. Montreal in the 70s. Constable Eddie Dougherty assists on a possible serial killer investigation while Francophones threaten to blow up the city. Things in Montreal weren’t as bad as Belfast, but McFetridge puts you right there. Hopefully only the first of a series.

Ratlines, Stuart Neville. John Kennedy is coming to Ireland and someone is killing Nazis hidden by the Irish government. Albert Ryan is tasked with stopping the killings and keeping the whole thing quiet so the Kennedy trip isn’t called off. Otto Skorzeny plays a key role in a book reminiscent of Day of the Jackal.

Honorable Mention

The Hard Bounce, Todd Robinson. About time this guy got a novel published. Hopefully the first of many.

Slow Burn, Terrence McCauley. Follow-up to Prohobition, and as good, yet different.

The Devil Doesn’t Want Me, Eric Beetner. A good action movie waiting to be made.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson.

Dirty Words, Todd Robinson. Todd’s stories alone are as good as any of the Thuglit anthologies, and more consistent.

Road Kill, Zoe Sharp. Charlie Fox and bikers. What could possibly go wrong?

Vespers, Ed McBain.

Crooked Numbers, Tim O’ Mara. Get in on this series now so you can be one of the cool kids later, who gets to say, “Tim O’Mara? Know all about him,” and the latecomers will be jealous.

Saturday’s Child, Ray Banks. I’m jealous of everyone who figured out Banks was the good before I did.

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley

I’d Know You Anywhere, Laura Lippman

Best Re-Reads

Deadwood, Pete Dexter

Get Shorty, Elmore Leonard. The bad news is, just about everything I’ll read by Leonard from now on will be a re-read. The good news is, I can read Get Shorty twice a year and not get tired of it.

The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler. Marlowe gets out of LA for some fresh air.

American Civil War Trilogy, Bruce Catton. History may not repeat, but it rhymes.

Special Notice

Vivid and Continuous, John McNally. As fine a book on writing as I’ve read. Practical, unpretentious, and entertaining all at once.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

December’s Best Reads

In the order in which I read them:

Crooked Numbers, Tim O’Mara. The second book of what is shaping up to be an excellent series. He has a franchise brewing here. Don’t be surprised to see Raymond Donne on television someday. You heard it here first. (Unless you already heard it elsewhere. This is the first I’ve heard of it.)

Saturday’s Child, Ray Banks. All the Cal Innes stories were offered on sale for Kindle a few months ago; I’m working my way through them. I’m a big Banks fan, and this early work was no disappointment.

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley. I tried reading Mosley about ten years ago, couldn’t get into it. Either I’ve grown, or he’s gotten better. Considering this was written before I first read him, my money is on Option A. Easy and Mouse are now in the rotation.

I’d Know You Anywhere, Laura Lippman. Not sure what to say here. A psychological thriller on multiple levels, wonderfully written and crafted (as usual) by Lippman. Still, I feel I like this book better now than when I was reading it. Some of the characters’ motivations are suspect, though things work out in the end. I almost put it down a couple of times, but I had to see what happened next, which is a pretty good enforcement of any book, when you think about it.

On Monday I’ll list my best reads of 2013. I know everyone else has done this already, but I’m not into this whole instant gratification thing.