Thursday, March 31, 2022

Breaking News (1 April 2022)

I don’t vaguebook. Avoid it like The Plague. (Camus’s book is too long and depressing.) Still, today is perfect to release information I can’t go into much detail about but is too exciting to keep to myself.


I have an offer to write the memoir of a leading political figure. While this person and I differ in our philosophies, we both understand that whoring oneself out for suitable sums of money is as American as racial prejudice. (Which is among the things we disagree about.)


There are still a few details we need to work out that stem from the previously mentioned political differences, but these are all on the margins and include

·       Climate change

·       COVID prevention

·       Economic policy

·       Energy policy

·       Foreign relations

·       Hair care

·       Immigration

·       Inequality of wealth

·       Marital fidelity

·       Race relations

·       Responsibilities of a role model

·       Taxation

·       Voting

I’d love to say more, but the non-disclosure agreement I have to sign is as thick as a typical Bible, but on legal-size paper. It’s so complete it may preclude release of the completed book.


Such is life. I’m just trying to do my small part in making America great again.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Winter's Best Reads

Nobody From Somewhere, Dietrich Kalteis. Elmore Leonard is dead, but there’s no need to feel a great void. Kalteis’s newest continues in the master’s tradition without being derivative, with the same kind of quick narrative and entertaining dialog.


Contrary Blues, John Billheimer. Not what I expected; this is better. Highly entertaining, plausible, and amusing story set in West Virginia coal country. Billheimer has a style that reads easy as warm milk, and the characters and situations are believable without being predictable.


Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman. Anyone interested in screen writing needs to read this. Anyone interested in how movies get made needs to read this. Anyone interested in good stories well told needs to read this. Did I leave anyone out? A masterpiece by possibly the greatest screenwriter ever.


Hell and Gone, Sam Wiebe. The new Wakeland novel makes Dave witness to a horrifying crime. How much he’ll help the police (if at all), is the main mystery until things break in a manner that forces a decision. Wiebe’s writing makes it easy to forget you’re reading, as the story seems to direct itself straight into your brain.


The Hard Bounce, Todd Robinson. A re-read, but just as good as the first time. Boo and Junior are characters not to be forgotten. Why Robinson can get contracts in France and not the US is an indication of how fucked up US publishing is.


Ordo, Donald Westlake. Funny, melancholy, thought-provoking. The story of a naval NCO who learns his short-term wife of many years ago is now an international sex symbol and how the knowledge changes both of them. Or doesn’t. Westlake really could write anything.


Double Deuce, Robert B. Parker. Much of the book consists of Spenser and Hawk waiting around for something to happen as they’re tasked with providing security for a ghetto project. That’s okay, because there are few more enjoyable things in the canon that Spenser and Hawk passing time, and even fewer better than when they take action.


Bread, Ed McBain. Mid-70s 87th Precinct tale. It may not seem like praise to say there isn’t a lot to distinguish Bread from a lot of other eight-seven stories, but that means it’s excellent. If McBain ever wrote a book that wasn’t worth making time for, I’ve yet to come across it.


D-Day, Stephen A. Ambrose. Detailed examination of the events, planning, and training that led up to the invasion of Normandy, followed by as good a description of June 6 as you’re going to find. Ambrose had a gift for describing both the forest and the trees in a manner that brings out the horrors, and which of them could, or could not, have been avoided. Not a light read, but important for anyone interested in the invasion, or World War II in general.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Interview with Sam Wiebe, Author of Hell and Gone


I met Sam Wiebe at Bouchercon in Raleigh through mutual friends. We shared a table at that year’s Shamus dinner, where I learned he’s as good a guy as he is a writer. Sam is the award-winning author of the Wakeland novels, one of the most authentic and acclaimed detective series in Canada, including Invisible Dead, Cut You Down, and the new one, Hell and Gone. Sam’s other books include Never Going Back, Last of the Independents, and the Vancouver Noir anthology, which he edited. He has won the Crime Writers of Canada award and the Kobo Emerging Writers prize, and been shortlisted for the Edgar, Hammett, Shamus, and City of Vancouver book prizes. His original film/tv projects have been optioned, and his short stories have appeared in ThugLit, Spinetingler, and subTerrain, as well as anthologies by Houghton-Mifflin and Image Comics. You can follow him on Twitter (@sam_wiebe) and learn more about him on his web site.


One Bite at a Time: Welcome back, Sam. It’s always a treat to have you. Give us the quick and dirty on your new book, Hell and Gone.


Sam Wiebe: Thanks so much, Dana. Here’s the pitch:


An act of public violence breaks out on the street in the early morning. Wakeland witnesses the violence from his office, getting a look at the shooters as they drive off. He leaps into action—literally jumping down from the fire escape to perform first aid on the wounded. A hero.


But when he enters the building where the shooters came from, he sees something so beyond his experience that when the police ask him what he witnessed, Wakeland refuses to say.


Soon Wakeland is caught between a ruthless police chief and a pair of gang leaders, all of whom want the shooters found, no matter the cost in human life.


The only way for Wakeland to come to grips with this is to find the shooters—before they find him.


OBAAT: Correct me if I’m wrong, but a common thread through the Wakeland books is that, for all its multiculturalism, Vancouver is very much an exclusive society. Am I right to pick up on that, or am I reading things onto the books that aren’t there?


SW: Vancouver is a far more troublesome place than the postcards lead one to believe. Harm reduction, gentrification, gang warfare and systemic racism—these are at the forefront of Hell and Gone. As Wakeland says, “We are where the West ends.”


OBAAT: Wakeland’s partner, Jeff Chen, straddles a line between his Chinese ancestry and the white Vancouver executive class. Where did the idea for Jeff come from?


SW: I didn’t want Wakeland to have a sidekick—my feeling is, if you’ve got a seven-foot sociopath with bad tattoos and a stockpile of weapons on speed-dial, you’re probably don’t have to do much detective work.


But I did want someone who contrasts and compliments Dave, a partner with a different understanding of the city.


Jeff Chen is a family man, a businessman, the opposite of Wakeland in a lot of ways. Their differences make their partnership all the stronger. If Dave is Steve Wozniak, Jeff would be Steve Jobs.


But Jeff has a secret: the financing for their business came from community leader and suspected gangster Roy Long. When Wakeland finds this out, it will stress their partnership to its breaking point.


: The past couple of books has taken Wakeland south of the border for insights on some particularly bad shit. Is this a metaphor for the US’s pervasive influence on Canadian business and society, or just that the plot logically took you to Baja Canada?


SW: I love America (I’m trying not to sound like the beginning of The Godfather…). My heart lies with the American style of detective novel, the focus on people rather than puzzles. That’s the tradition I write in.


I’ve spent a lot of time in Washington State and Oregon, and I’d just done a road trip to Raleigh when I started Hell and Gone. Culture doesn’t stop at the border, and neither does Wakeland.


OBAAT: Your debut novel, Last of the Independents, yet you abandoned PI Michael Drayton for Dave Wakeland, a partner in a large agency. Why the change in course?




Several reasons, having to do with how Last of the Independents ends, the darker subject matter I wanted to cover needing a different tone, and the nature of publishing. Making Wakeland part of a successful detective agency was a way to open up to different stories.


I look at Last of the Independents as my ‘demo tape.’ But Hell and Gone is the best detective novel I’ve written.


OBAAT: You and I are both great fans of David Milch. (Deadwood, NYPD Blue, etc.) What is it about his work that resonates so strongly with you? (In case you aren’t yet aware, his memoir, Life’s Work, drops in September.)


SW: He deserves much better praise than I can muster on a Tuesday morning, but here goes.


Before I’d really committed myself to writing, I found myself in a college class next to a guy who’d just sold a screenplay. He told me about Milch’s “Idea of the Writer” lectures, which you can find online. As someone who never had a writing mentor—had never really met a novelist until I was in my twenties—those lectures were very helpful to me.


OBAAT: If you could look back and give aspiring novelist Sam Wiebe one piece of advice, what would it be?


SW:  Learn as much about how the business works as possible, so that its ups and downs disrupt your writing as little as possible. It’s easier to “make a living as a writer” if you’re smart with money and averse to debt.


OBAAT: And now for the traditional final question: what’s next?


SW: Hell and Gone is out March 8th, and I’m thrilled with the response so far. I’ve got a standalone thriller on submission, and I’m revising Wakeland 4 right now.


Thanks, Dana!






Thursday, March 10, 2022


 The Beloved Spouse™ and I recently completed viewing every episode of Cheers. For those who weren’t around to enjoy the original broadcasts, here’s an idea of why we watched at least two episodes almost every night.


First, and most important for a comedy, the show is hilarious. Some of the humor may seem dated – and, to some, bits of it may seem inappropriate – but it’s always clever, and, for a show that builds much of its humor on the cluelessness of the characters, much more intelligent than most comedies, with the possible exception of its spin-off, Frasier. (By this I don’t mean droll, or something high-brow that inspires conspiratorial smiles from the viewer. I mean laugh out loud funny.)


The characters are well-drawn, and provide enough variety to help keep the writing fresh for eleven years. Each has his or her own well-defined persona, and they stick to it, though there are still some surprises, just as with the people we know.


This works because the producers cast actors suit their roles and are good at their jobs. I’ve always been a Ted Danson fan, but watching the show now made me appreciate how good he really is. Even his background reactions were always in character and complemented the punch line or situation.


There are a couple of examples of how well the producers chose their actors. Kelsey Grammar (Frasier Crane) and his eventual wife, Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) came in to fill short term needs. Frazier became a regular and eventually got his own show, which ran as long as Cheers; Lilith became regular enough to get a credit.


Necessary replacements provide even better examples. Nicholas Colasanto (Coach), beloved of cast and audience, died after season three, to be replaced by a young Woody Harrelson as Woody Boyd, a character that filled the same role in the repertory company as Coach, but in a much different manner.


The big change, of course, came when Shelley Long (Diane Chambers) left the show. Kirstie Alley came in and picked right up. The writers changed the premise mid-stream and never missed a beat. There has never been a better comedic crier then Mary Tyler Moore, but Kirstie Alley is in her league.


What makes all this work? The writing, of course. No actor can be better than the material, and Cheers is as well-written a show as has ever been on television. It could have fallen into the trap of being a typical workplace sitcom, but the bar setting allowed the writers to leverage one of the core strengths of Barney Miller by providing opportunity for truly eccentric characters to pass through. I can’t remember any examples in the 272 episodes where I thought, “Well, that was wasted.”


Cheers debuted forty years ago. It holds up well despite society’s changing attitudes about such core parts of the show as Sam’s womanizing and Norm’s drinking because, like all classic sitcoms, at its core it’s about people, and these are people for whom the writers have genuine affection. If you’ve never seen Cheers, do yourself a favor and check it out. If you saw it during its original run, stop by again and remember what it’s like to spend time where everyone knows your name.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

It's a Process

Recent posts to Facebook and Twitter about my advancement through the work-in-progress led to several requests for details on my constantly evolving process. I find such requests supremely flattering, because, let’s face it, why should anyone give a fuck about how I write? That people care is validation that I must be doing something right.


So, for what it’s worth, here’s how I’m writing the current book, working title “The Spread.”


The Outline

Yes, I’m a plotter, though I add some scenes, drop others, and re-arranged throughout the process.


I never sit down and think, “What will this book be about?” Ideas for subsequent stories come to mind as I work on each book. I take the notes compiled over the past year, read newspaper articles, and get an idea of where the book is going. I then make slugs on notecards for the scenes I need in order to get there, no more than a sentence or two on each card.


The real fun comes when The Beloved Spouse™ and I lay the cards on a table to put them in order, after which I transfer the information to Scrivener for any necessary re-arrangements easier, no matter how far I am into the draft.


First Draft

One Scrivener file per chapter. Since dialog comes easier for me, the first draft looks almost like a screen play. Speech attributions are a letter to designate which character is talking. Almost everything except dialog is in all caps, using brief descriptions.


Here's the opening from a chapter in “The Spread:”



N. I have something from Gregory Powell’s car that might be of interest.

D. Interest me.

The point is to get the story on file without getting bogged down in details. I add, delete, or re-arrange scenes as I go and think of things I like better.


Another core element of the first draft is what TBS and I call “resting transparently.” It’s a term we got from a series of lectures by David Milch (Deadwood, NYPD Blue) called “The Idea of the Writer.” Among the scores of worthwhile things Milch has to say is a quote from Kierkegaard: “An artist must rest transparently on the spirit that gives him rise.” I “rest transparently” by trying not to think about the writing until about fifteen minutes before I’m going to do it. Then I sit in my favorite reading chair, in a quiet room, and make my mind a blank. My subconscious knows what needs to happen next int the book; I just have to let it out.  Sometimes I need the full fifteen minutes; sometimes fewer than five. Then I hammer out a thousand words or so, typically in under an hour. (This is imperfect, as thoughts about a book crowd into my mind all the time. It’s just that I only let them have their way while I’m resting transparently. Early on, I also fell asleep more than a few times.)


I may go more or less than a thousand words, but I never write for more than 45 minutes to an hour. Again, from Milch: “The ego is the enemy of the imagination.” As soon as I start thinking about whether what I’m writing is any good, I stop.


I do this two or three times a day. I’m retired, so I can spread the work through the entire day if I want.


Then the book sits for at least a month. I won’t let myself look at it in less than four weeks, but somewhere in the next fortnight I’ll start climbing the walls to get back at it. (I start again after six weeks no matter what.)


Second Draft (Re-Write)

I read the entire book and don’t change a thing. I make notes, but that’s all.


Then I open the Scrivener file and a clean Word document. Split the screen, with Scrivener on top and Word below, and retype the entire book. For me, leaving my darlings by the side of the road is much easier than having to kill them. Re-typing everything is an ideal opportunity to decide what needs to come over, and, just as important, what doesn’t.


This draft is where I add the details I only mentioned in passing in the first draft, such as narration and description.


As with the first draft, I write about a thousand words per session, twice a day. I don’t typically need to rest transparently unless the whole chapter consists of a few notes; everything I need should already be there.


Third Draft (Editing)

This is a standard edit. I read and make changes as I go. A chapter or two a day, no more. I’d rather stop feeling fresh and raring to go tomorrow than worn out and dreading the next task. I may also run it through a word frequency calculator to see if some inadvertent favorite words (just, enough, etc.) were overdone.


Then I let it sit again for at least a few weeks.


Fourth Draft (Finishing)

I call this one draft, but it’s actually a four-part endeavor and is probably the most intensive aspect of the process.


Day 1:

Read Chapter 1. That’s all. Just read it. Don’t take notes. All I want to do is remind myself what happens to jump start my subconscious, which will work on it for the rest of the day.


Day 2:

Edit Chapter 1. This is similar to the third draft, but this time I’m doing it with the idea in mind the book is finished after this edit.

Read Chapter 2.


Day 3:

I have Word read Chapter 1 to me a paragraph or so at a time so I can listen to what it sounds like and make changes accordingly. I used to read it aloud to myself, but I’ve found that letting Word do that frees me to be a better listener.

Edit Chapter 2.

Read Chapter 3.


Day 4:

Print out Chapter 1 and read it aloud to The Beloved Spouse™. (This is what I do. you can ask her if she’ll do it for you, but it might cost.) Make notes as she or I catch things, then fix them when I go back to the office.

Listen to Chapter 2.

Edit Chapter 3.

Read Chapter 4.


Days 5 until the end of the book:

Keep at it.


I then have Word’s editor go through the entire book. It’s a much better program than it used to be, though still not perfect. That’s okay. I’d rather have to tell Word to ignore a point of grammar than miss something else altogether.


After that’s done, and only after that’s done, I type “THE END” at the bottom.


That’s how I’m working on “The Spread.” The previous book, “White Out,” (dropping in July from Down & Out Books) was the same except for the narrative placeholders in the first draft. The next book will likely be a bit different yet.


Take what you want from this if you think it will help you. Adjust to suit your needs.


Please feel free to comment, either here on the blog, Facebook, or Twitter.


This is a much longer post than usual. Thanks for hanging in there.


(I know some of you may be thinking “I have a deadline. I can’t write that little each day and take all that time off.” Wah. Having a deadline means you have a contract in hand which means you have guaranteed money. Get over it. The luxury of having a process like mine is one of the few benefits writers such as me get. I’m not apologizing.)