Thursday, July 30, 2020

Resting Transparently

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 24, 2020

Favorite Reads Since Last Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 17, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 10, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 3, 2020

An Open Letter to Writers' Organizations

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

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

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

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

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