One Bite at a Time

"The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is ruining the quality of our suffering." --Tom Waits

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Twenty Questions With Rich Zahradnik

Rich Zahradnik was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1960 and received his B.A. in journalism and political science from George Washington University. He was a journalist for over thirty years, working as a reporter and editor in all major news media, including online, newspaper, broadcast, magazine and wire services. He held editorial positions at CNN, Bloomberg News, Fox Business Network, AOL and The Hollywood Reporter.

In January 2012, he was one of 20 writers selected for the inaugural class of the Crime Fiction Academy, a first-of-its-kind program run by New York's Center for Fiction.

As a novelist, Rich is the author of the critically acclaimed Coleridge Taylor Mystery series, of which the second volume, Drop Dead Punk, won the gold medal for mystery/thriller e-book in the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist in the mystery category of the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. The first book in the series, Last Words, won the bronze medal for mystery/thriller ebook in the 2015 IPPYs and honorable mention for mystery in the 2015 Foreword Reviews IndieFab Book of the Year Awards.

Rich He lives with his wife Sheri and son Patrick in Pelham, New York, where writes fiction and teaches kids how to publish newspapers. His new book is the third installment of the Coleridge Taylor series, A Black Sail.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about A Black Sail.
Rich Zahradnik: It's Book Three in a series featuring police reporter Coleridge Taylor, who works in the dirty, busted, burning, crooked New York of the 1970s. (Sort of a dystopia, only in the past.) A Black Sail is set during the Bicentennial celebrations, when 16 tall ships of sail and 53 naval vessels called on New York to be a part of the festivities over the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. These events provide a backdrop to Taylor's efforts to solve the murder of woman whose body is fished from New York Harbor with packages of heroin strapped to it. He'd much rather work that story than write about pretty ships, but is forced to do both.

OBAAT: Readers love to ask where authors get their ideas and most authors reply with something along the lines of “we’re tripping over them. The trick is to find the idea that works best for me.” What made this idea worth developing, and how much development from the original germ was required?
RZ: This one was easy. I’m writing a crime series that started in 1975. The third book was going to fall in 1976. I love sailing ships, though I know very little about them. I’ve read all but one of the Patrick O’Brian historical novels. I decided to set the mystery in A Black Sail in and around the Bicentennial events that brought 16 ships of sail to New York Harbor. It let me indulge my personal interest while telling a New York crime story.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write A Black Sail, start to finish?
RZ: Six months.

OBAAT: Where did Coleridge Taylor come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
RZ: He comes a little from my journalism career, but we are quite different. He’s a much better reporter than I ever was and has worked the police beat far longer than I ever did. His focus, almost his only focus, is the story he’s on, whereas I was always distracted by other things, like writing novels.

OBAAT: In what time and place is A Black Sail set and why was this time and place chosen?
RZ: New York City, 1976. The city because I’m a New Yorker (of course). The time because I wanted to write a mystery without all the “modern” instant DNA matching, facial recognition in seven seconds and video cameras everywhere that appears in “today” stories. Much of that stuff is sci-fi invented by TV. I wanted a shoe-leather-and-phone-booth mystery.

OBAAT: How did A Black Sail come to be published?
RZ: My agent Dawn Dowdle sold the first book, Last Words, and ideas for three more in the series to Camel Press in Seattle. A year ago, they extended the series to six.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
RZ: Mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, YA (many of the sub-genre), middle grade and some classics (Dickens, for example). Writers: Michael Connelly, Derek Raymond, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, Charles Dickens, William Gibson, Michael Chabon, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
RZ: I read avidly when I was a kid and was fascinated with how books transported me, put entire worlds in my head. I wanted to figure out how to do the same thing for others.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
RZ: Though I didn’t cover the police beat lots, I did it some, plus I handled a fair amount of white-collar wrong doing. Plus, I’ve always read crime. Like since Hardy Boys. Writers read.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
RZ: Putting those movies in people’s heads.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
RZ: An English teacher named John Rehl, Tony Hillerman, Chandler and Hammett, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, both of whom I got the chance to meet and speak with. Bruce Springsteen and every folk singer who’s told the world real. “Winter’s Bone,” “The Last of the Mohicans.” Movies by Ken Loach, Jim Jarmusch, and John Sayles.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?
RZ: I’m a half pantser. I outline the first few chapters—a few sentences on Scrivener cards—write, outline some more, stop in the middle to reorganize, then go on again. I could never outline in entirety, as I get too antsy to write the initial scenes I see and they often lead to other ideas.

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?
RZ: I write a first draft to the end, hardly looking back except to check for continuity. I dread the second draft. I do four revisions (two on screen, two on paper read out loud).

OBAAT: Endings are hard and can make or break a book. Americans as a whole tend to like happy endings, and those are the books that tend to sell best. What do you look for in an ending?
RZ:  Yeah, the good guy has to win in the current series, though in the latest book he learns some tough lessons.

OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
RZ: Mystery lovers, which probably means those over thirty or forty, mainly women. My books are called historical, though I think they feel a bit different because the Seventies was such a crazy decade and near to us in time (or me at least). I try and give the reader a mystery they can’t solve until the end set at a thrilling pace that really speeds up in the third act. So it’s for folks who like that sort of story.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
RZ:  Don’t. Give. Up. I’m here today because of all the people I met along the way at workshops, conferences, reading groups who didn’t stick with it. It’s often hard and long, but those who stay in the game, get there.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
RZ: Story/plot: People reading a mystery want to follow a whodunit. The story’s got to keep them engaged. Story’s the game.
Characters: But if your characters are cardboard or boring, they’ll bail on you, no matter how intricate the plot. Intriguing complex characters are required in series books—in all books. (Setting goes in here for me because I try to make New York City another character in the book, much like Hillerman did with the Navajo Tribal Nation.)
Tone: Tone is a part of voice and the books that get noticed, even in crime, are those with a distinct voice. I’m working on this hard, usually in revision.
Narrative: Same as plot to me.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
RZ: Slaughterhouse 5: It’s got time travel. It’s funny. It’s tragic. It’s an anti-war novel. Written by a World War II veteran, which makes it politically bulletproof. And it covers an incident many didn’t/don’t know about—the fire bombing of Dresden.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
RZ: As a volunteer, I teach kids from fourth to 12th how to publish newspapers here in Pelham and in schools in New York City.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
RZ: Book 4 of the Coleridge Taylor series, tentatively titled The Summer, Hot and Dark. It’s set in 1977, which means Son of Sam and the July blackout.

OBAAT: One last question. Having read your bio, I have to ask: You ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?

RZ: I can double down on that one. Not only was I born in a city made  famous in a line from one crime film, but I now live in one featured in the title another, The Taking of Pelham 123. Though to be accurate, as I must, the Pelham in the film title refers to the No. 6 train stopping at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, on the other side of the Pelham town line. (The Bronx has a lot of Pelham place names, going back to the Pell family, lords of the manner). So born in one crime film reference, live in another.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Free Stuff From Worst Enemies, Available Wednesday

Everyone is inundated with promotion. I’m as guilty as the next author. We’re all looking for some way to get our book to stand out among the hundreds of others you’re bombarded with every day. It’s not like we want to irritate you with something we think is a clever way to cajole you into buying our deathless prose. We have to do something, or the book we spent a year working on will slip out of the public consciousness without a trace. I’m not complaining. As Hyman Roth said to Michael Corleone, “This is the life we’ve chosen.”

The only thing an author has control over is to write the best book he or she can; it’s up to the audience to decide whether to buy it or not. So, I held up my end. I gave you my best effort. Is it worth your time and money? Only you can say. To help you out, here’s Chapter 1 of Worst Enemies. Free gratis, as Al Swearengen would say. If you want to read more, the book drops Wednesday from Down & Out.


Until I got married, I was my own worst enemy.
- Unknown


Tom Widmer needed to pay attention. It’s not every night someone tells you how to kill his wife.
Hard enough to hear in Tease as it was, the tekno/disco/hip-hop cranked to Volume Eleven, so loud the pulsing in his eardrums ruined the floor’s foot massage. Chastity’s nipple in his ear didn’t help. She had the rest of her tit wrapped against his cheek like she was about to go off shift in fifteen minutes and needed to get him into the VIP Room now, which she was and did. This was her go-to move when time got short: sit on the arm of his chair, slip the teddy or camisole or whatever they call that thing she wore off-stage out of the way, then ease it in. Usually he didn’t mind. Usually it cost him an extra fifty for a trip to the VIP Room. Not tonight.
Tom turned his head and Chastity gave him a mouthful. He couldn’t resist a quick lick before he pulled away. “I’m sorry, baby. Marty and I gotta talk. Maybe later.”
Chastity pulled a pout. “I go off shift in fifteen minutes, Tommy. Can’t it wait?”
Tom looked at Marty and saw no, it couldn’t wait. “Sorry, babe. Next time.”
“You’re just a tease.” The smile that never reached her eyes didn’t hide the irritation in her voice. Fifteen minutes wasted. She made a show of tucking the nipple away and ran her tongue around his ear. Bit the lobe for good measure. “Next time. You’ll be sorry you passed.”
Marty waited for her to get out of hearing range, about three feet. “Can I have your attention now, or do I have to wait for your dick to get soft again?”
“You’re sure it has to be tomorrow?” Tom swallowed the bottom half of his gin and tonic, looked for the waitress.
Marty put his hand over Tom’s and forced the empty glass onto the table. “Pay attention. This has to be done before Monday. She hired a lawyer. You understand me? She already hired a fucking lawyer. Once they serve me with papers, there’s no way anyone will believe a burglar killed her. Thursday’s my regular night out and we have this thing with her family over the weekend. It has to be tomorrow.”
“That’s not a lot of time to plan.”
“Fucking A, and I got tired of waiting for you to do it. Everything you need’s in the car.”
“My car?”
“No, dumbass, in my car. How the fuck would I get it into your car?”
Tom really wanted that gin; the tonic had become optional. He’d had fun the past few months, basking in young pussy while he and Marty talked about killing each other’s wives, a couple of lap dances for the road. He figured his divorce was almost as close as Marty’s, and Marian would get half of what was already only half as much as it had been, the market’s death by a thousand cuts bleeding him every day. The sun would shine brighter in a world without Marian.
Now Marty was good to go. Carol had a lawyer and Tom didn’t know for a fact that Marian didn’t. Marty was right: once papers were filed, neither wife could catch cold without her husband falling under suspicion. Of course, wife killing was much more entertaining as an abstraction, and Tom had never killed anything more evolved than an insect in his life. Buried the whole cage when the kids’ pet hamster died so he wouldn’t have to touch Fluffy. Still, it was now or never. Kill her or face the idea of living like an intern again, running the copier for guys whose cufflinks cost more than his car.
Marty was talking. Probably had been, now that Tom thought about it. “You gotta be there at ten o’clock. Earlier and she’ll still be up. Later and it’s too close to when I come home.”
“Huh? Wait. Run that first part by me again.”
Marty squeezed Tom’s wrist until he grimaced. “Pay attention, dickhead. You fuck this up and I’ll come after you myself. There’s no way you’re doing this half-assed and taking me down with you. You listening to me?”
Tom nodded, tried to make eye contact with the waitress without moving his head. She wanted fifty bucks, he’d give her fifty bucks. A hundred. Just someone bring him a drink, for Christ’s sake.
Marty didn’t need a drink. “One more time. The stuff’s in the car. Black pullover, black jeans, black shoes and socks. One of those head things like Hines Ward wears when it’s cold.”
“What? You mean like a helmet?”
“No, not a helmet. Jesus Christ. Are all stockbrokers this dumb? No wonder the economy’s in the shitter. It’s like a skull cap, tight, pulls over your head, covers everything except your face. Race car drivers wear them.”
“If you say so. At least you’re listening. Put everything on, darken your face up some—”
“How should I do that?”
“Do what?”
“Darken my face.”
“I don’t know. Use some charcoal from the grill.”
“We have a gas grill.”
“Then buy some charcoal. Jesus Christ. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars here. Spend three bucks on a lousy bag of Kingsford.”
“It’s not the money. How am I going to explain the charcoal when I have a gas grill? It won’t look right.”
Marty rubbed his forehead with a thumb and index finger, closed his eyes for a couple of seconds. “What are you, autistic? Throw the rest of the bag away. It’s just charcoal. It ain’t like they got serial numbers on them. Use dirt if you want to. Just darken up your face.”
Tom had a thing about being dirty, showered before and after work every day. Sanitized his hands after he blew his nose, snot on them or not. Right now he’d swim naked through a pig trough if someone would just bring him a beer. Lite beer, even.
“Look at me, you son of a bitch.” Marty grabbed Tom’s cheeks between a thumb and forefinger. “I’m desperate here. This has to happen, and it has to happen tomorrow. You don’t do this and I’ll ruin you. I’ll tell your wife what I know and she’ll get half of what you got left plus child support. And you’ll probably lose your license. Then what are you gonna do?”
 “How you figure to get my license?” Marty could tell stories about Tom lawyers would line up for like politicians at a microphone. Being a randy drunk couldn’t cost him his stockbroker’s license.
“Remember that time you told me about that old broad—what’s her name?—Finnegan? How you used money in her account for what you called ‘leverage’ to float that hedge fund thing a few years ago? You made a bundle off that, didn’t you?”
“She didn’t lose a dime.”
“She didn’t make any, either. You told me how you got her to sign shit she wasn’t sure what it was? Got to be records of that, right? You move money around, something she has to sign for, I can’t believe they just throw the paperwork away when the money gets moved back. I’m no stockbroker, but they must be pretty fussy about their bookkeeping. I mean, it’s money, right? No other reason for a stockbroker to be in business.”
Fuck. Fuck. Marty told anyone about that and it was over for Tom. He’d be lucky if his old man could get him a job delivering uniforms. If he didn’t go to jail. He opened his mouth to talk. Marty beat him to it.
“Wait. Don’t say it. How do you know I won’t tell anyway? Right? That’s what you’re thinking. Well, think again. You already have me dead to rights for solicitation of murder. That’s a capital offense. If we quit dicking around and go through with it, both of us have enough on the other guy that neither one can afford to talk.” Marty cocked his head, raised his eyebrows. Showed the palms of his hands like he’d just said something so self-explanatory a retard would understand. 
Tom was drunk, not retarded. He understood perfectly that he was well and truly fucked. Didn’t matter anymore whether he killed her or not. Don’t kill her and Marty would ruin him, maybe even send him to jail. Much as Tom disliked getting dirty, he liked the idea of taking one up the ass even less. Kill this woman he’d never met, never ever seen, who’d never done him any harm, and he knew Marty would hold up his end of the deal. Just watching him, the way he acted when he talked about it, Tom knew Marty wanted to do Marian. Hell, he was looking forward to it. Then Tom would be out from under forever.
Maybe he should pretend she was Marian.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity - Part II

Sorry to leave you hanging with the happenings at the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference. Let’s jump right back in.

Saturday 10:45 Music, Quiet, or TV? What keeps you motivated while writing? Weldon Burge, moderator.
  • Weldon Burge listens to heavy metal when writing horror.
  • Liza Brown likes to have “How It’s Made” on television. The voice of the narrator is soothing to her.
  • Rick Ollerman prefers jazz, mostly bop. Nothing with words.
  • Kathryn O’Sullivan wants silence, with a location that allows her to look out a window and see some nature.

Saturday 1:15 Fan Mail. Austin Camacho, moderator.
Alexandra Sokoloff takes feedback from readers. She’s actually rewriting some character relationships in her TV pilot based on The Huntress series to reflect reader comments.

Craig Robertson once got a letter from a fan who bought a copy inscribed, “To Daddy. Christmas 2014.” The reader was concerned Craig’s father didn’t care for his work, but it was someone else’s father. As Craig said, “I stopped referring to my father as “Daddy” long before 2014.”

Unexpected knowledge from Allan Ansorge: The tradition of signing books came from the days when literacy was a rare skill and one soldier would read books to the others. It was the reader who signed the book, not the author. (Editor’s Note: Not that knowledge is unexpected from Allan. He’s full of it. This particular morsel was unexpected.) (Editor’s Note to the previous Editor’s Note: Knowledge is what Allan Ansorge is full of. Any other inference a reader might draw from that comment is regrettable.)

Allan Ansorge gets letter from people who want to be his editors. He forwards these letter to his editor, where they are, I’m sure, greatly appreciated.

Saturday 2:15 One Star, Five Stars, or Blacklisted? The Effects of Reviews. Marcelle Thiebaux, moderator.
This panel morphed into a discussion of marketing ideas that do not condense well into sound bites. Suffice to say it was far more informational than I had expected, and I learned things I will be using soon and often, including The Secret to Writing Success™ according to Jeff Markowitz: A woman once asked him to sign her book. While he did she asked if he’d like to know why she bought his book.

“Of course,” Jeff said.

“I looked through it and saw it had a lot of italics.” And there you have it. The secret to literary fame and fortune, spelled out in a few short words! You’re welcome.

Saturday 3:15 Suspense, Action, or Conflict? The prime elements of a novel. Michael Black, moderator.
Participation in this panel was, without a doubt, second only to my first book launch as the most enjoyable experience of my writing career to date. Heartfelt thanks to Michael Black, Austin Camacho, and Reed Farrel Coleman for making this such a treat.

Saturday 4:15 Insights from a Librarian on How to Get Into the “System.” Karen Hagerman, presenter.
Again, a presentation that did not lend itself to sound bites. Key takeaways were
  • All libraries post their materials selection policy on their web sites.
  • Libraries get large discounts from the big distributors, but they are not restricted to buying only from them.
  • Check your local libraries’ web sites for how to get on their Local Authors shelf.
  • Resources to investigate:
    • SELF-e
    • BibioBook
    • OverDrive

Keynote Speaker: Alexandra Sokoloff
Alexandra Sokoloff has been successful as a screenwriter, a novelist, and was in early on the benefits of e-books. She outlined her career and showed a good balance of what can be accomplished, never letting anyone forget it’s hard work. What stuck out in my mind was how she paid her dues as a reader when she first got to LA, which allowed her to see what worked in scripts and what did not. No question a wealth of talent allowed to put those lessons to good use, but even with talent, success requires one puts in the time.

Sunday 10:45 Self-publishing discussion. Alexandra Sokoloff, originator.
Another wonderful quality of C3 is the organizers’ willingness to turn on a dime, and the atmosphere the con breeds. Alexandra Sokoloff picked up a vibe that lots of people had an interest in a self-publishing wrkshop and—voila—it happened. Thanks to Alexandra and her co-presenters, Cerece Rennie Murphy and Glenn Parris, for not only providing lots of fodder, but encouraging a spirited back-and-forth with the audience. Highlights:
  • Authors can edit their Amazon keywords and categories on the fly. Check into what more successful writers of similar topics use and learn from them.
  • Limited giveaways through Amazon work best with series books, as one book given away may lead to other purchases.
  • No one had much good to say about Barnes and Noble/Nook or Smashwords in the area of author support. Rumor has it Smashwords may be getting better.
  • Amazon’s ACX audio book platform allows authors to audition potential readers and create e-books with minimal effort. The catch is the author does not have the flexibility she would have with a print or e-book.
  • Book Bub is the 800-pound gorilla of the marketing business, but they’ve become expensive, possibly prohibitively so for a new author.
  • Cerece and Alexandra have used good e-book formatters for as little as $30. The freeware Calibre is good—I use it myself—but Cerece found a professional was very helpful in adding Japanese characters to her books.

In summary, an outstanding conference on all fronts. The facility was perfect for the size con this was, the food was excellent, the panels showed a high level of entertainment and information, and the bar situation was the best I’ve seen at a C3 yet. Keynote speakers Reed Farrel Coleman and Alexandra Sokoloff went above and beyond to ensure all attendees had a great experience. Special Guests Cerece Rennie Murphy and Donna Andrews also added energy and insights. Congratulations are due Austin and Denise Camacho, Sandra Bowman, Cynthia Lauth, Carol Markowitz, and everyone associated with the conference for pulling off a damn near perfect event.

On a personal note, it was a treat to get to renew/begin acquaintances with Donna Andrews, Allan Ansorge, Weldon Burge, Reed Farrel Coleman, Belinda Gordon, Puja Guha, B.R. Kingsolver, Millie Mack, Jeff and Carol Markowitz, James Noll, Rick Ollerman, Kathryn O’Sullivan, Craig Robertson, Alexandra Sokoloff, and Sandra Webster, as well as the aforementioned conference organizers who make C3 more of a pleasure each year. I’m ready for 2017 right now. Hope to see as many of you as possible there again.

Monday, October 17, 2016

September's Best Reads

September was a whirlwind of travel and conferences, containing both Bouchercon and the beginning of C3. October has been stay at home busy, looking back with conference summaries while moving forward with new book releases. I’m not complaining, but that’s why it took me halfway into the month to talk about the best books I read in September. (I know how much you look forward to these posts. Go ahead. Admit it. No one will judge you.)

A Detailed Man, David Swinson. A little overlooked amid the acclaim for The Second Girl, Swinson’s premier effort is solid. It’s got some Wambaugh in it, showing what it’s like for a cop who has no real home in the department, working cases as they come. (The title has double meaning, referring not only to the protagonist’s attention to detail, but to the fact that he’s on a detail, or temporary assignment.) Swinson does a nice job of keeping multiple balls in the air without confusing the reader, while showing how easy it can be for a cop to become overwhelmed. The Second Girl is a home run, but A Detailed Man is a stand-up double and would be a great way to pass the time while waiting for Swinson’s upcoming Frank Marr book to drop next spring.

Hustle, Tom Pitts. Two young street hustler drug addicts come up with a plan to get off the streets by blackmailing one of their more affluent johns. Pitts has a gift for describing a degrading and hopeless life without turning it into misery porn. Big Rich and Donny have hopes—likely false—but they’re all the boys have. Of course, there’s more to life than watching their scheme come together and things go terribly wrong. Pitts manages to create empathy for two characters who, frankly, won’t have a lot of people who relate to them. The story had just enough twists and everything is well prepared and executed, showing Pitts’s unique ability to create distinctive characters and setting while working out a complex plot. Hell of a book.

Flash Boys, Michael Lewis. An expose of how high frequency traders use microseconds in computer transmission delays to essentially skim money from the stock market without contributing anything to the process. Read this and you’ll have to fight off an urge to stuff your 401(k) in a mattress. Lewis has a gift for writing technically challenging subjects in terms an intelligent layman can understand and do it with wit. I’m going to have to work my back though more of his stuff.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity

The Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference shifted its venue this year from Hunt Valley to Columbia MD, a moved I applauded immediately as it shortened my travel by more than half. This prompted The Beloved Spouse to come with, which inspired us to get a room so there would be no conflicts over how much one of us (okay, me) would spend at the bar.

This was my third C3, and easily the best from my perspective. A distillation of panels follows:

Friday 1:00 Writing Outside the Box: Crossing Genre Lines to Tell Your Story. Dana King, moderator
The organizers showed remarkable—maybe even foolhardy—courage by opening the conference with me moderating a panel. Not just any panel. I brought my hard-boiled, gritty crime fiction sensitivities to moderate two others whose self-descriptions include “paranormal, horror, and romantic suspense” and “romance, paranormal thrillers, and science fiction.” Panelists Sandra R. Webster and B.R. Kingsolver showed great good will and remarkable patience and we put on what I heard was a pretty good show.

Friday 2:00 Mysteries – Noir, Cozy, Police Procedural, Detective, etc. What makes them so different? Allan Ansorge, moderator
My reward for surviving the moderator’s gig was getting to share a panel with Donna Andrews and Mille Mack. Allan Ansorge had to do the heavy lifting this time. I got to run my mouth and let him worry about keeping things moving, which he did admirably. If the audience had half as much fun as I did, they left happy.

Friday 3:00 Reed Farrel Coleman: Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing
“Master classes” such as this can often devolve into discussions—or rants--about the publishing industry. Reed didn’t ignore this altogether, but made it plain the craft must always come first. Some salient points I hope my notes did justice to (understanding each point had fuller discussion):
  • Writers are in the entertainment business. Never forget that, regardless of genre.
  • He doesn’t believe writer’s block exists, at least not for beginners. Pretentiousness does, however. Have you ever heard of professor’s block? Lawyer’s block? Garbage man’s block?
  • He always looked at writing as his job, no matter what paid the bills at a given time. (A poetry teacher once made the class raise their hands and take an oath that they would always think of themselves as writers no matter what else they were doing.) Among the things that paid the bills were selling baby food and cars (not simultaneously), freight forwarder, and delivering heating oil.
  • No one should ever say they “want to be a writer.” You just be a writer. It’s not like astronaut or cop or lawyer, where you have to be certified.
  • This is your job. You have to do it every day.
  • Few people can tell you “yes.” Many can tell you “no.” Editors aren’t fired for saying “no.” They’re fired for saying “yes” to something that doesn’t work out
  • The best way to get better is to be honest with yourself about when you’re doing your best work.
  • It’s hard for you to tell if your book is good; you’re too close to it. All you can tell is if you did your best.
  • When deciding to accept editorial advice, always remember: in the end, it’s not the editor’s name that goes on the book.
  • The problems with a book are usually in the seeds. He reads the entire book every day before starting to write, at least for the first 25 – 50 pages. Hemingway and Daniel Woodrell read the whole book every day before starting with new work.
  • Copy editors should never correct grammar inside quotation marks unless it’s unintelligible.
  • Always know what the book is about before writing it so you can stay on track. You can always go on a detour or take a siding, but you have to know the primary direction.
  • Ideas don’t sustain books. Good writing sustains books.
  • He takes a week off after finishing a draft before starting edits.
Yeah, that’s a lot; it was an action-packed 45 minutes. That said, educational benefits aside it was a treat to see someone so obviously enthused about his profession.

Friday 4:00 Humor: What is and Isn’t. Belinda Gordon, moderator.
As could be expected from the title, this was great fun.

Jeff Markowitz never cuts a funny scene because it “gets in the way of the story.” If he thinks the scene is funny enough, he’ll re-write the story.

Donna Andrews: There will always be someone who doesn’t think something is funny. (Editor’s Note: I was not aware Donna knew my second wife.)

Donna Andrews: Comedic timing comes from precise wording.

Leaving a scene short of the punchline then coming back much later is a favorite technique of Jeff Markowitz.

Allan Ansorge: The best way to write comedy is with something plausible but impossible. It can be bizarre but will work if you sell it properly. He also thinks his reader’s letters are often funnier than what he wrote.

Keynote Speaker: Reed Farrel Coleman
Among the joys of any C3 con is the opportunity to have dinner together, as the registration fee includes all meals. Reed Farrel Coleman served as after dinner speaker on Friday. His talk covered some of the same ground as the 3:00 session, but with a different slant. By the end everyone—including readers—was primed to get some writing done.

Saturday 9:45 Violence in Genre Fiction: What’s the secret of writing a great fight scene? Michael Black, moderator.
Talk about hitting the ground running.
Reed Farrel Coleman: Real fights generally occur when one guy is pretty sure he can take the
other, or someone’s tempter explodes. They last about two punches, then both parties wind up on the ground for a test of wills.

Craig Robertson: Fights are like sex. The buildup is key and they last longer in fiction than in life.

Craig Robertson: Describing a fight should be less about the technique than in getting the reader involved in the action.

Reed Farrel Coleman: Footwork is key in a fight. When he has a technique question, he calls Tom Schreck, a fellow writer who is also a boxing judge. (Editor’s Note: Tom Schreck is a fine writer in his own right. His Duffy Dombrowski series is great fun.)

Reed Farrel Coleman: Knowing how to choke someone is a good way to overcome a size disadvantage. A person will pass out long before they die.

Reed Farrell Coleman: You can’t sustain a fight scene as long in a book as you can in a movie.

Craig Robertson: The less I show, the more people get scared. Readers fill in the blanks with what scares them.

Both Reed and Craig agree that movies do a disservice to the aftermath of a fight. A person hit hard in the head does not remember getting hit. Fights have consequences even for the winner. Writers need to tailor the fight scenes so the characters involved can still do what’s required of them in subsequent scenes. PTSD is an issue no matter who wins the fight. Repercussions are always present. Psychological trauma can result even when nothing bad happens physically.

I need a break. We’ll have more next week.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Worst Enemies and Grind Joint Re-launch October 26!

You may have noticed things are different here at OBAAT. With Down & Out Books announcing the October 26th re-launch of both Worst Enemies and Grind Joint, it’s time for the Relentless Self-Promotion Machine™ to get cranked up for another assault on your sensitivities and good taste.

Never heard of either of them? You must be new to the blog. Not wishing to be remiss, this should catch you up.

Penns River is an amalgam of three small towns in Western Pennsylvania where I grew up and still have close family ties. (My parents live in the same house I grew up in, bought in 1960, a couple of weeks before Bill Mazeroski’s home run won the World Series.) My memory of the local economy is a constant stream of mills closing and jobs lost. A lot of people my age—me, for example—left for brighter economic futures.

Pittsburgh recovered to become a hub of medicine, education, and finance. The North Hills and South Hills came back with it. Not so much farther up the Allegheny, where population fell along with the economy. Land that used to be a diary farm, with the easiest access to the expressway that runs into Pittsburgh, is now a relatively affluent bedroom community with homes on two-acre lots. The people who live there neither earn nor spend their money locally.

Worst Enemies spends a lot of time around those houses. Tom Widmer makes good money in Pittsburgh’s financial industry. He and his wife Marian spend it just as fast, if not faster. Neither really wants the other around anymore. This is a murder story. You can see where this leads.

Not two miles away as the crow flies sits what used to be a busy shopping center. Montgomery Ward on one end, J.C. Penny on the other, with a connecting waist of small local businesses. Wards closed in 2003; Penney’s two years later. Nothing replaced them. The city is in constant dispute with the owner and has declared the remaining hulk to be unsafe. The owner refuses to do anything with it, including sell it. The city can’t afford to seize it under eminent domain. It decays a little each year, a monument to failure.

Grind Joint’s focus is here. A real estate developer who missed out on the big money when
the commonwealth legalized casino gambling in Pittsburgh had taken over the building and renovated it into a low-roller casino; a “grind joint,” in the parlance of the trade. The casino brings problems of its own. The feeder streets lack the capacity to support the traffic, and ancillary businesses spring up around it that draw crime the way clover attracts bees.

You wouldn’t think organized crime would be an issue in such a town. Ordinarily it isn’t. The towns that inspired Penns River were once hotspots of mob activity, with afterhours clubs and pretty much any action anyone could want. The underboss of the Pittsburgh crime family—a national figure in his day—lived there along with his brother and his crew. The leader of what’s left of the Pittsburgh mob still lives in the fictional Penns River and has declared it a crime-free zone as a way to build goodwill in a town where everybody knows who—and what—he is, but the old-timers still remember the good old days when the Mob had an even bigger presence and life was good.

Tasked with maintaining order among these disparate forces are fewer than 40 cops, hindered by a city government in thrall to whatever might bring some money back to town. There aren’t enough of them, most of those who are there didn’t sign on for this kind of duty, and no help is on the horizon.

Those are the stories I hope to tell in Penns River.

The books are available for pre-order now; the formal release date is October 26. Full information on ordering is on each book’s page at the Down & Out web site:

I’ll have more on both books as the date approaches.

(Editor's Note: Thanks are owed to everyone connected with Down & Out Books; they're day is coming. I do want to point out the brilliant cover art provided by the indefatigable and seemingly ubiquitous Eric Beetner. Well done, sir, and thank you.)

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Blood on the Bayou - Wrap-up

Not only is Bouchercon over (Has been for like two weeks, dude. Pay attention.) but these recaps are coming to a close. Below are my thoughts of things that didn’t happen in panels, in no particular order.

The new system for dispensing free books rules. This was far and away the best method I’ve seen yet. I come away from most Bouchercons with nothing new to read from the free assortment. This year I drove home with nine books. (The Beloved Spouse let me have three of her tickets.)

In another feature I first saw in Indianapolis 2009, the continuing conversation did not fare as well. This is a wonderful idea and fun for everyone involved, but its marketing was insufficient—I was unaware of it until arriving at the conference—and the location needs to be more in the flow of things. Keeping it on the Fourth Floor away from everything but the Green Room meant no innocent foot traffic ever wandered by, saw what was going on, and stayed. Let’s hope future planners see the value of these, but display them more prominently.

The elevators at the New Orleans Marriott are unlike anything I have ever seen. ‘Nuff said.

Possibly the best decision we made all week was to have dinner with John McFetridge and his lovely wife, Laurie, on Wednesday before things got frantic. Things did get frantic later in the week, and it was great to have time to sit and talk with them. Of course it was John’s idea to do it early, but I was smart enough to agree with him.

Speaking of food, I highly recommend the Chartres House. We made a deal not to look for any frou-frou restaurants and eat at local—well, local joints. We did very well. The Chartres House was excellent in a relaxing atmosphere. Lunch at Mena’s was outstanding both days. (Po’ boys for me; muffelatta for The Beloved Spouse.) Mother’s was exactly what we wanted, and going to Café du Monde for my first beignets was perfect. For a man who planned to eat pretty much nothing but red beans and rice, the varieties of said delicacy were outstanding everywhere we went.

Speaking of food, I saw something I dare say few, if any, of you have ever seen: Lee Child getting chicken in Popeye’s.

Friday evening was an adventure both before and after the Shamus banquet. On the way there in a cab with The Beloved Spouse, Peter Rozovsky, and Absolutely Kate PIlarcik, I managed to lose my wallet in my pants. I feel almost as laden as a paratrooper when I go to Bouchercon, carrying glasses, keys, wallet, cell phone, business cards, notebook, pens, mints, and change; with at least ten pockets, 5.11 tactical pants are perfect for me, and they never look bulky like cargo pants. Problem is, when I got into the cab I had my wallet in my hand and had to crawl into the back of a minivan. I put the wallet in a front pocket, forgot it was there while giving directions to the cabbie—who did not know how to get to a hotel three blocks away—and the damn pants hold things so discretely I never felt the wallet in the unfamiliar pocket. A couple of frantic minutes ensued as I crawled all over the floor looking for it. I was about to run back to the Marriott to see if I’d dropped it there when my hand brushed against the mystery pocket and the evening was saved.

Upon returning to our room we found the temperature to be 80 degrees. The Beloved Spouse called the front desk and requested maintenance. Receiving an affirmative answer, she said I should go on down to the bar if I wanted. I took my time, not wanting to be too obvious about wanting to get there while there was still beer left. Walking past the thermostat, I noted the temperature was now 81 degrees. “That’s your body heat,” she screamed. “Get the fuck out!” This tender display assuaged much of my lingering guilt over leaving her there. True romance such as ours is hard to find.

The party at House of Blues was great fun, even though we couldn’t stay long. They could have renamed the Voodoo Room the Womb, as that’s the only other place I’ve ever been that was as hot, humid, and crowded.

There’s never enough time to see everyone you’d like to see at Bouchercon, nor to spend as much time as you’d like with those you do catch up with. The trick is to make the most of those you do get to see. So, in addition to the organizers, I like to thank the following people for conspiring to make this probably my best Bouchercon of the seven I’ve been to: Scott Adlerberg, Eric and Gretchen Beetner, Jim Born, Rob Brunet, Rebecca Bush (at least that’s the name she’s going by now), Eric and Christy Campbell, Colin Campbell, Joe “Eight-Page Letter” Clifford, Jacques Filippi, Ian Graham, Michelle and Tommy Isler, Stewart and Debbie Laidlaw, Terrence and Rita Ramirez McCauley, John and Laurie McFetridge, Craig and Emily McNeely, Tim O’Mara, Scott Parker, Dale Phillips, Jeff Pierce (bonus points for us recognizing each other this time), Absolutely Kate Pilarcik, J.D. and Lynn Rhoades, Peter Rozovsky, Charles Salzberg, John Shepphird, David Swinson, and Lance Wright. I know I left some out; no offense intended. Considerable amounts of Bass passed through my digestive and urinary systems.

I’ll see you all—and then some—next year in Toronto, eh?