Sunday, February 24, 2019

Look for the Unexpected

Frank Zafiro (if that is his real name, which it is not) stopped by a couple of weeks ago to talk about how serendipity plays a role in what gets written next. Frank and co-author Jim Wilsky thought they were finished with the Ania trilogy, which was logical, having written three books. The vagaries of publishing opened a door, an idea presented itself, and the Ania trilogy now has a fourth book. It’s nice when a plan comes together, and even nicer when the plan presents itself, unbidden, from out of the ether.

Writing is like that, mainly because life is like that. We can make all the plans we want but should always prepare for the unexpected. That advice means to be ready to take care of what pops up that puts the plan at risk, but it should also keep us willing to adjust the plan in the event something better comes.

This is why it’s good to revisit things, whether novels, non-fiction, how-to-write books, movies, good television, whatever. It’s also a good idea to get ideas from various sources. Musicians should always study with various teachers even if perfectly content with who they have and only looking for a temporary change of scenery. The other teacher may see something in the student the regular teacher missed. Might suggest something different that works. Might even suggest the same thing but in a different way that makes more sense.

More to the point of my revisiting example, either teacher may suggest something to the student in the same way as the other did but a couple of months or years later when the student is better prepared to accept, understand, or leverage that information. We’ve all seen movies or read books that didn’t quite move us only to revisit them twenty—or even two—years later and see how outstanding they are. The book or movie didn’t change. We did. We learned and grew and had new experiences. Maybe the work of art had layers we couldn’t appreciate at first because we were caught up in the surface level.

It’s a running joke among a few of my friends that I now watch LA Confidential several times a year. I’ve seen it at least twenty times. It’s not one of the “comfort” food films I drag out when I want to settle in for the evening and relax and feel good. (You’re going to ask, so I’ll tell you: The Big Lebowski, Get Shorty, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Animal House, Monty Pythion and the Holy Grail, and a few others.) Every time I watch LA Confidential I see something new in it, or something I’d seen before that prompts a different thought process. That’s where the true genius of the Curtis Hanson – Brian Helgeland collaboration comes out. They took an overly-detailed mess of a gloriously-written book and created a precisely-detailed film that succeeds on every level. I’ve found a few flaws, but none that detract from my enjoyment.

Writing is planning and attention to detail. Even the most hardcore plotter must keep in mind what happened already and the most dedicated pantser cannot ignore what has to come later, especially when editing. Those considerations may seem like restrictions—and they are—but they’re also opportunities. I can’t begin to guess how many times I put something in a first draft because it struck me as a nice thing to add that gave me a new direction for the story well down the road. Could be something as simple as a unique eye color or hairstyle or even a reference to a minor character’s occupation when their job could have been anything; I picked this at random. Later I’ll be chugging along and realize, “Oh, shit! Dudley Wishbone works (or worked if he’s the victim) at the lumber yard!” and everything after that realization is affected, though not always directly.

I still plot everything I write; Scrivener has been a boon to my messy process. Even more so because of the changes of direction my books so often make well after I think the outline is finished and I’m well into the writing. Pay attention to the opportunities that present themselves. They don’t do it often, and they rarely come around a second time. As I said in the post I wrote for Elizabeth White when she was kind enough to provide space for me to promote Ten-Seven*: Pay attention.

(* -- Just because I’m not beating you over the head about it every day doesn’t mean Ten-Seven has gone out of print. It’s still available at all the fine booksellers noted here.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

What About Otto?

I make an honest effort not to respond too quickly or intemperately to what I see on Facebook or in blogs. For someone with my personality (Borderline Asshole Disorder, or BAD) not responding too quickly helps a lot with remaining temperate. It’s akin to a comic I saw many years ago—I wish I remembered who he was—describing why there are waiting periods to buy a gun: “What do you mean I have to wait three days? I’m mad now!

There was a post on the always worth reading Do Some Damage blog last week that got me to thinking, so I let it ferment for a while. (Some would argue my thought process is more like composting than fermentation. I have an answer to that, but I’m being temperate today.) David Nemeth’s thoughts on “What to do About Otto” Penzler have rattled around in the empty caverns of my mind ever since.

Full disclosure: I do not know Otto Penzler. I have never met him. The totality of my interaction with him is to have shared a crowded elevator at Bouchercon. I have never been to the Mysterious Bookshop. I obviously know who he is, as I’ve been involved in the crime writing community for quite a few years. My purpose here is not to defend Otto Penzler. He means nothing to me personally.

That said, I would like to give him a fair shake, if only as an intellectual exercise. Penzler is currently under assault on two fronts. One for his spirited—overwrought, even—condemnation of MWA for removing the Grand Master designation from Linda Fairstein in light of her involvement in the Central Park Five case. This rolled into accusations of misogyny with the resurrection of comments Penzler made near to the startup of Sisters in Crime.

In the interest of fairness let’s take a look at both situations.
  • The written position Penzler takes in each instance is indefensible, especially considering the vitriol with which they are written;
  • That said, the SiC comments are over thirty years old; I don’t know if he holds those same opinions now, as
  • His credentials as a misogynist were hardy burnished by standing up for Fairstein as he did.
What I don’t know is what kind of support Penzler and the Mysterious Bookshop have provided to female writers and writers of color. Maybe David does, and has figures. If so I wish he would have made them available before calling names that don’t easily rub off.

David Nemeth is a friend of mine who writes an excellent blog of his own; a lot of thought went into deciding whether I should post this. Still, making inflammatory statements without all the facts is not the way to advance a conversation. We should all strive to be better in this regard.

Friday, February 15, 2019

"Why This? Why Now?" A Guest Post by Frank Zafiro

If only I could tell you how many women have said those exact words to me. Fortunately the rest of you are in luck, as today we have what’s called in the publishing industry “a treat.” Frank Zafiro has stopped by to talk about writing, collaboration, his Ania series, as well as his newest and most precedent-setting series The Grifter’s Song. I could go on a while here, but Frank will tell all of it better than I could.

Why This? Why Now?

So far, I’ve written more than two dozen books. Most are crime fiction. Roughly half have been collaborations. And like probably every other writer I know, these books represent about one percent of the ideas I’d like to turn into books and get out into the world.
That being the case, it might seem a little surprising to some that I chose in 2018 to re-visit the seemingly completed Ania trilogy that I co-authored with Jim Wilsky. Starting with Blood on Blood, this hard boiled series was written in a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters. I wrote one character (Mick) while Jim wrote the other (Jerzy). These two half-brothers find themselves walking a tightrope between cooperating and competing with each other while in pursuit of the diamonds their father hid after his last heist. When Ania, a siren grifter, enters the scene, things get even dicier.
Ania is the thread that links the books of the series, as it continues in Queen of Diamonds, where Jim and I wrote the characters of Cord and Casey, respectively, as they face off in a high stakes poker match where Ania seems to be the prize. The series ends in Closing the Circle, as both John and Andros pursue the wily grifter from Chicago to Vegas and out to northern California. The trilogy most definitely gets wrapped up, and that was 2013, so why revisit it in 2018?
Well, there’s three reasons, really. There’s a business reason, there’s an artistic reason, and there’s an inspiration reason.
The business reason is simple. The fine folks at Down and Out Books decided to re-issue the series under their banner, complete with new covers. That alone got Jim and I talking about the stories again, and the possibility of maybe writing another one. After all, having a new book to add to the re-released trilogy makes some marketing sense, right?
But it was the artistic reason that really took hold. Both Jim and I had long wondered about our mysterious antagonist. After spending time with her for three books, we still didn’t know as much about her as we’d like. Who was she? Where did she come from? How did Ania…become Ania?
That led to some discussions and some exploration, and that led to a new book – a prequel aptly titled Harbinger (you can thank Jim for three out of four titles for this series. My lone contribution was the first book). In it, we discover at least part of the Ania origin story, through the eyes of Boyd and Hicks, presented in the same dual first person narrative of the previous books. Boyd, the pragmatist, and Hicks, the beach bum, both find out who Ania is, and how she became the sensual con artist that she is. Along the way, we discovered a twist neither of us saw coming.
So that’s the second reason to come back to a series that has been completed – that artistic need to ferret out answers to questions that were still interesting to me. Luckily, Jim had some of the same questions, and found them just as worthwhile to answer.
But a third reason emerged, and one that I was completely unaware when my conversations with Jim started. You see, spending time with Ania was inspirational in the sense that it got me excited about another pair of grifters whose story I wanted to get out into the world – Sam and Rachel.
Called A Grifter’s Song, the tale of Sam and Rachel is one of two grifters, deeply in love, and deeply in trouble. Having tried to rip off the mob and failing, they are on the run. Each episode takes place in a different locale, involves a different con, and is a complete story unto itself. But in addition to whatever perils they might face from their current job, the specter of the pursuing mob is always there as well.
As I initially envisioned it, I’d write all of the novella-length episodes and release them about once a quarter. Once the saga was complete, I figured I’d collect them into a compendium of some kind. Writing Harbinger moved the project of A Grifter’s Song up my queue significantly. The first episode, The Concrete Smile, started knocking, and then pounding, on my door.
Working on Harbinger with Jim was a reminder of how much I enjoy collaborating with another author, and how satisfying it can be. The entire process feels akin to how attending a mystery conference or just having coffee with another writer drives up the motivation and excitement about your own work. With that in mind, I took a look at the format of a proposal Gary Phillips had made, to which I had submitted a story idea. The format was also novella-length, with multiple episodes, but….every episode had a different author.
I realized that would be a much more satisfying way to go with A Grifter’s Song. It would keep the stories fresh and different. Best of all, it would be collaborative. So I did what all smart artists do, and promptly appropriated the idea for the format. Instead of me writing each novella, I’ll write the first and last of the series, and ten other authors will write the rest.
I pitched the idea to Down and Out Books, who jumped on it. Eric Campbell and I worked out that the series would take place over two “seasons” of six episodes each. He created a subscription model that included a discount for anyone who subscribed to the whole season. I agreed to write an additional story that only subscribers would get, and set about recruiting writers.
Gary Phillips, of course, was the first email I sent. That only seemed fair, right? And Jim Wilsky had to be included, too, since it was our work on Harbinger that got this project going for me. Add in two other authors I’ve collaborated with successfully (Colin Conway and Lawrence Kelter) and the always edgy J.D. Rhoades, and the first season was set. The second season took a little longer, mostly because of how selective I was, but finally rounded out as well. Season two will include Eryk Pruitt, Scott Eubanks, Asa Maria Bradley, Holly West, and Eric Beetner.
True to form, Eric Campbell commissioned some beautiful covers for the series. The tattered paperback novel look that Zach McCain put together really captures the feel of the stories, and ought to at least engender a second look from any crime fiction fan.
The idea of A Grifter’s Song isn’t new. Cons and heists are as old as the noir sub-genre itself. A man/woman team is classic noir. My intention wasn’t to create something completely new. If anything, my hope is that the series will be a modern homage to some of the great works of Richard Stark (maybe not the Parker novels, but the Alan Grofield ones like Lemons Never Lie) and Lawrence Block’s The Girl with the Long Green Heart (and you owe it to yourself to listen to the Alan Sklar narration).
What is new, though, is the subscription model. The collaboration aspect isn’t common, either. I’ll be interested to see how both fare in what is a capricious marketplace, but I’m proud of the fact that Down and Out Books and all of these authors are taking a stab at something a little bit different.
And really, when it comes down to it, that’s why I’m doing this, and that’s why now.    

Monday, February 11, 2019

Shit The Beloved Spouse Asks Me

The Beloved Spouse™ sometimes asks questions that deserve broader distribution than just replying to her. This is the first in what may become a series of how I reply and why.

The Set-Up:
Discussing TV shows we consider to be “in the rotation,” i.e. series we liked enough to buy the DVDs so we can watch them over and over again. We decided the two best pilots were The Shield and Justified for how well they were good episodes in and of themselves, yet set up the rest of the series without making the machinery for doing so too obvious. I mentioned how Justified did such a great job in the first few minutes by creating a situation where Raylan provokes Tommy Bucks into drawing so Raylan has an excuse to shoot him. No one is crying over Tommy Bucks and the Marshal’s Service certainly isn’t going to go public with how their man provoked Tommy into letting Raylan shoot him, but they’re not going to encourage that kind of behavior, either, so Raylan is given a variation on what I call The McNulty Dilemma: “Where don’t you want to go?” The whole series runs from there.

The Beloved Spouse™’s Question:
What happens if Tommy Bucks just lays his hands on the table and refuses to draw?

My answer:
Tommy has to draw. The story depends on it. This is the best part about being a writer: Everything your character does to provoke a reaction works, unless you (the writer) have a good reason for it not to. There is no story if Tommy lays his hands on the table, so he cannot. Ergo (i.e., e.g., fuck you) he had no choice.

One of the best teachers I ever had was Lawrence Seely for 12th Grade AP English. We studied Hamlet and Mr. Seely cut right to the chase with the eternal question about Shakespeare’s play: What does it take Hamlet so long to do what he knows he has to do in the first scene? Seely’s answer: Because then the play is fifteen minutes long and no one will pay to see that. The trick is in making Hamlet’s dithering seem to be the actions of a real person, beset by all the insecurities and indecision we are all heir to.

We can talk about how stories get away from us and how our characters talk to us and we let the story go where it wants, but before we get all New Age about it let’s remember one thing: when writing a story, the author is God. If we let the voices in our heads dictate where the story goes, it’s because we choose to, not because they have any real say in it. We can alter the space-time continuum or the law of physics with the stroke of a pen so long as we set things up so people will believe it. Let’s see a real god do that. Pikers, all of them.

The key is the pact we all must make with ourselves before we sit down to write a word, when we promise to use these awesome powers only for good.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

January's Favorite Reads

Police Craft, Adam Plantinga. Plantinga has become the go-to source for people who want to know about police work from the cop’s perspective. Packed with information and routinely entertaining, any writer of police procedurals, or even just books with cops in them, needs to be well familiar with Police Craft and its predecessor, 400 Things Cops Know.

Eight Ball Boogie, Declan Burke. It had been too long since I read any of Burke’s work, mainly because he hasn’t put out anything new in a while so there was little to remind the public of him. This is why I keep a list of writers I want to be sure to get to periodically. Eight Ball Boogie is Burke’s first, and the first of his Harry Rigby books (the sequel, Slaughter’s Hound, is just as good) and it was a pleasure to re-familiarize myself with his work. Burke is one of those rare authors who can write anything. Whatever you know of his previous books tells you nothing of the next, except that it will be excellent. Eight Ball Boogie is Chandlerian in a way and Burke turns a phrase and simile as well as anyone. If you haven’t read him, you really ought to.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Elgin Bleecker, Author of Lyme Depot

Elgin Bleecker is one of the unexpected side benefits of maintaining a blog. We met through his comments here at OBAAT, struck up a correspondence, and then a friendship both professional and personal. Elgin is a former journalist. Lyme Depot, which dropped at the end of January, is his first novel.

One Bite at a Time: Elgin, it’s a pleasure to have you as a guest on OBAAT. Tell us a little about your new book, Lyme Depot.

Elgin Bleecker: Thanks for inviting me, Dana. Lyme Depot is a crime story, a country noir about two young men, brothers. One is in the county lockup, but doesn’t plan to stay there long. The other, the younger one, out of loyalty, is trying to help his brother, but is unaware of the escape plans or of new criminal charges about to come down on the older. It is two parallel stories and both are chases – the older brother is being chased by sheriff’s deputies, the younger is chasing the truth about the older. I called it a country noir, but some of it could be called country noir lite, because there is a bit of dark humor mixed in with the action. But there is nothing funny about some of the violent scenes, which, I hope, will shake readers.

OBAAT: You and I have chatted in the past about where I got the idea for Penns River. What’s your connection to Drum County?

EB: Drum County is a fictional combination of several places I know. So many counties in middle America seem so peaceful and picturesque. But beyond the surface appearance, there is always crime. The crimes range from comical stuff, like someone risking arrest and jail for breaking into a garage and stealing an old power lawn mower, to serious stuff like fights that end in stabbings or shootings, domestic violence, and drugs. Drugs are and have been a problem. But I purposely set Lyme Depot in a time before the current opioid crisis.

OBAAT: Lyme Depot requires you to balance multiple story lines and points of view. How do you do this? Outline? Seat of the pants with revisions as needed? Something in between?

EB: Getting the two parallel stories of the brothers to work together took a lot of planning. Once I had the basic idea, knew what each of them would be doing, and how the story would wrap up, I made a point of carefully plotting where they were, who they would meet along the way, and how long it would take them to get from point to point. I even sketched a map of Drum County so I could keep track of everyone’s movements – the brothers, the sheriff and his deputies, and other characters they come in contact with. That sounds a little mechanical, but there was plenty of room for invention as I went along. In fact, I would like to do stories about a couple of the characters who suddenly “arrived” in the novel to my surprise as I was writing.

OBAAT: I hate to ask authors to answer the “If you like _____________, you’ll like me,” but clearly we all have authors who influence us and to whom we’d be flattered when comparisons are made. Who is it for you?

EB: Whoa, Dana, I would hate to compare myself to any of the authors I admire. So, I’ll take a cue from the politicians on the Sunday morning news shows, and give you an answer that ducks the question but connects to the idea of influence.

I have been a fan of comic novels for a long, long time, from John Kennedy Toole’s gold standard, A Confederacy of Dunces, to Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy – The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van. I love the comic crime novels of Carl Hiaasen. So, I suppose I had those and more in the back of my mind when it came to Lyme Depot. An eye-opener for me were the Harlem crime novels of Chester Himes with their realistic setting and their exaggerated characters and absurd, over the top action and violence.

But I was also thinking about Daniel Woodrell and his country noir tales. I am partial to the classic noirs, particularly the post-World War II novels. I may have been thinking about some of Lionel White’s precisely planned heist stories.

OBAAT: What did you do before you took up writing fiction and how did it prepare you to write what you do?

EB: I was a journalist for many years. I’ve also worked in advertising and marketing. But it was my time as a newspaper reporter that contributed most to writing Lyme Depot. Journalism is a great job. The pay is crap. But the experience is worth a million. I was lucky. I got to cover sheriffs’ departments, big city police, small town cops, local politicians, various courts – now that is where you really see a lot. Even if you aren’t there for a specific case, just sitting in on arraignments you will see a variety of people, their lawyers and often their families. In one way or another, that experience found its way into Lyme Depot.

OBAAT: The list of journalists who have done well as authors of crime fiction is lengthy the noteworthy, including such names as Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Brad Parks, and Bruce DeSilva. Aside from the whole “making things up” business, what was the hardest part of the transition for you?

EB: Almost everything about the transition was different and took some getting used to. But the toughest transition may have been making the character’s motivations clear and understandable. I tried not to jump into their minds to explain. I wanted it to come through action and dialogue. And that was a challenge to do realistically.