One Bite at a Time




Friday, December 31, 2010

Looking Below the Line

The Beloved Spouse and I are working our way through The Sopranos again, finished Season 5 last night. At one point, Tony’s sitting in his office at The Bing and Corky mentions, “I have that tape dispenser.” I immediately looked around him and thought, “Someone dressed that set,” and all the minutiae that are involved.

The whole set dressing thing would not have occurred to me had I not read Below the Line, by John McFetridge and Scott Albert. It’s a pastiche of stories—some related, some not—of the goings-on at a Toronto movie set, where an American movie is being made. The book gets into the friction between the Canadian and American sides (the Americans make films in Canada because it’s cheaper, then look down on the Canadians; the Canadians are happy for the business, but frustrated because the American 800-pound gorilla makes it harder to get good Canadian films made), but mostly it’s about all the stuff that has to happen for a move to get made that the audience never sees. (“Below the Line,” in movie parlance.)

It’s a fun book to read—the scene where the transport captain takes the star to a hockey game is laugh out loud funny---and also educational, without hitting you over the head about it. It’s full of conversations about finding locations, the frustrations of being a Production Assistant, dressing sets, and half a dozen other things that have to occur for you to see even a piece of shit at the local multiplex. (The book is, unfortunately, out of print, and not available on Kindle. I found my copy at an online used bookstore.)

Back to The Sopranos. Once TBS points out the tape dispenser, I’m watching for everything. Tony slides down a snowy hill outside Johnny Sack’s yard to escape the feds, and I think “Location scout. MoGib.” Johnny Sack slips and falls in the snow. “Stunt man.” Watch some of the fine work turned in by people who were under the radar as actors when the show was made, and I'm thinking, "Casting Director."

I even caught a goof. Tony meets Johnny outside his house, a foot of snow on the ground. Johnny said to be there at 6:30 AM, he had a plane to catch, and I’m thinking “No way is there that much sunlight at 6:30 that time of year in New Jersey. (I think that’s Continuity, but I’m not sure.)

I love that kind of thing. Some people would ask how I can enjoy the movie, seeing all the wires and engines that make its illusion work. I say it’s the cost of being a writer and wondering how things work under the hood. When I was a musician, one of my best teachers told a class I was in that we had chosen to devote our lives to music, we no longer had the luxury of listening purely for enjoyment; we had to think, “How did he do that? Why was that choice made?” The same holds true for writers, I think. Certainly so far as writing technique goes, and for cinematic choices, as well, since it’s still storytelling. What I’m noticing now is just another level, and it’s fun.

Also, I’m just curious. I see anything, and I want to know how it works, why it’s made that way. This means I’m rarely bored, and sometimes frustrated. That has “writer” pasted all over it, too.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays

Each year goes faster than before,
They’re past before you know it,
So now it’s time for me to rhyme
And prove that I’m no poet.

This year began, as winters do,
With cold and lots of snow,
I’ll not complain, but ‘twere snow rain,
We’d had to learn to row.

The holidays last year did bring
A guest to share our rooms,
‘Twas Kaitlyn, Corky’s grand-daughter,
We hope she’ll be back soon.

Then dormant lay us all till May
When action came exploding
With news and schmooze and trips to Stu’s
All fun, with no foreboding.

We started off in Wilmington,
(That’s in North Carolina)
For Kaitlyn’s mother’s birthday fete,
And few trips have been finah.

Then later in that very month
We flew to Colorado,
Niece Aspen graduated there,
Amid much broo-ha-ha-do.

And in between the two I had
A story writ in print,
An honest-to-Faulkner printed book
With my words dropped right in’t.

(In case you all are wondering,
The plot line dealt with crime,
As this note has made very clear,
I’ll ne’er be paid for rhyme.)

In June I went to Chicago
To celebrate with Stu
His birthday, yes, the Big Five-O
With sightseeing and blues.

The summer’s end saw Corky back
In Flint to see old friends
With Suzie Ovick Diebolt Kna-
pinski her time did spend.

With Eric and with Aaron, too
Some hours she did share,
‘Twas fun, but they were too quick passed,
She sees them both so rare.

With fall came yet another feat,
In Rachel’s sophomore term,
Distinguished scholarship award
Her hard work thus affirmed.

As you can see from in your mail,
Beloved Spouse has been
Creating individual cards,
This poem to put within.

Unique they are, yours and the rest,
None has a perfect twin,
Hand-made and summoned with much thought
The craft she placed herein.

For all these things—and many more—
Our anniversary
Was special, even one day late,
Because we’ve learned to see

How everything must fit its place,
All undue stress be barred,
With friends and family like you,
That’s really not too hard.

We all hope you’ve enjoyed yourselves
As much as we’ve this year,
Now Rachel, Corky, and your scribe
Extend our annual cheer.

To each and every one of you
To find some small delight
For every time you rise from bed
May all your days be bright.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Success

What constitutes a successful book? Is it making the New York Times bestseller list? A six-figure advance? How about a contract with a major house? Any contract at all? Self-publishing and hand-selling a few hundred copies? Or will a book that meets none of the above criteria be a success if you’re proud of how it came out, whether anyone else sees it or not?

The “right” answer is probably, “It depends.” What are your standards? Why did you write the book in the first place? If you wrote it to garner a $100,000 advance and it got $10,000, you might think it a failure. Maybe you would have happy with a contract, until you got one and found out that getting a contract is the easy part. What happens next is like watching sausage get made, and you’re the meat.

I’ve thought a lot about this lately. I have a book that has received excellent comments from its beta readers, and sent out an initial solicitation to several agents. All of those who bothered to get back to me passed. (One was temporarily closed to submissions and said I could get back to her later if I was so inclined.)  This was not unexpected. That first batch were chosen as the cream of the crop, agents for well-known writers. Might as well start there and work down, right?

It was time to start on Level Two over a month ago. I’ve written “Agents” into my calendar several times, and found a reason not to do the research each time. Sure, a lot of it is because finding agents (or small publishers) to submit to and preparing the query packages is a pain in the ass, rewarded with a rejection an overwhelming percentage of the time, and I’m basically a lazy person about such things. Bad combination.

There’s more this time. I felt close to a contract a couple of years ago and started paying more attention to what I’d need to do after I got one. It wasn’t pretty. I’m lucky enough to have a full-time job that pays well. I’m not rich, but I’m not sweating out the weekly bill-paying chore, either. I also enjoy the life I have with my family. I wouldn’t mind more of it, but I can’t complain about my work-life balance.

I would if I got a contract. I understand what I’m about to describe aren’t universal truths, but they’re not uncommon, either. First thing the editor will do after signing the contract will be to suggest changes. Don’t take too long if you want your book to stay on the schedule. Send in the edits until he’s happy, then deal with the copy edits. They may have taken three months to get these ready; you have a few weeks—possibly only a few days—to get them back. Then the galleys. Same thing.

Once the book’s in print there’s marketing. This will not only become a likely time sink, but can get expensive, as many publishers have decided their responsibility toward creating a profitable book ends when the product ships to the warehouse. (Kind of depressing to have something you sweated over for a year or more thought of as “product,” too.) Promotion is up to you, to be done in your copious free time between the job that actually supports your family, and being with that family. Oh, and writing the next book. All for a few thousand dollars, which you may well have to spend—and more—as your self-provided promotional “budget.”

I’m from Western Pennsylvania, and we have a word for that: Bullshit.

Several years ago I came up with a concept I call the “Reward to Bullshit Curve.” (See below.



It’s a simple concept, and it applies to just about everything. As reward moves rightward, the amount of bullshit that can be tolerated increases. Obviously “reward” can be other than financial, or the perpetuation of the species would be in jeopardy. For great reward—money, fame, respect, love—a lot of bullshit can be endured. For the kind of money and acclaim someone like me figures to get out of a publishing contract, not so much.

Based on my experience and research, I would be shocked—shocked!­­—to receive an advance worth even as much as a month’s pay. Now a month’s pay is nothing to sneeze at, and I’d jump at it were my employer to offer it to me. (Fat chance there.) One month’s pay is not, however, a life altering sum of money. It’s a home improvement. Paydown on some mortgage principle. An extra conference or two during the year. If that, after I pay the aforementioned promotional expenses.

For that kind of money, the amount of bullshit to be tolerated is minimal. Anyone who thinks it’s a good deal to put up with more BS from writing than I do from my job for maybe less than one-tenth as money needs to think again. What about non-financial rewards? Ego boost? Not so much. I get all of that I need from the usually good reception The Beloved Spouse gives my competed chapters and short stories, and the comments I receive on blogs when answering flash fiction challenges. I’ve seen my work in print, for money, thanks to Todd Robinson and the now unfortunately defunct Thuglit. It was nice, and it felt good the first time I held it, but that’s over now and improvement in anything means moving forward.

This is where I was earlier this year, when I was ready to quit. (Thanks to my good mate Declan Burke for helping to buck me up by soliciting friends to comment here. It was much appreciated and one of the reasons why karma will find Squire Burke a consistent readership.) I came around, thanks to a couple of well-timed flash fiction challenges where my stories received flattering comments. I like writing. I enjoy thinking of the stories, and deciding on the best ways to tell them. I like building the characters and getting them to relate to each other. Hell, I even like editing. Why quit?

The problem is, novels are what I like writing most, and writing them while knowing what is to come if I am lucky enough to get a contract is intimidating. The publishing succubus was draining the life out of writing for me and I hadn’t even got that far. Writing novels I didn’t want to submit was too masturbatory even for me.

I’d said for years that someday, if I’d decided I just wasn’t going to get published, I’d stop writing and pay to have all the books I’d finished released as POD, one a year, but that would be my acknowledgement that I had given up. I was too hasty. Electronic publishing may make it possible for someone like me to be “published” on my own terms.

Some are asking, “Isn’t this a lot like declaring victory and pulling out?” Yes, it is. So what? It will allow me to continue to write, knowing anyone who wants to read my book will be able to download it for an as-yet undetermined price, probably around $2.99. (I may do a free promo, but I’m not giving them all away. My ego’s bigger than that.) I’ll use Crimespace, Facebook, and this blog to promote, and hope others say nice things about me on theirs. Maybe a blog tour, if I’m lucky.

Will I get rich? No. Will more than a handful of people read them? No. Do I care?

No.

I can write the book until I’m satisfied with it. It can be any length I want. It can be half a dozen long short stories, or two novellas. A series or standalone. Tie two series together. Maybe I’ll get an occasional email from a satisfied reader I didn’t know before. I’ll write at my own pace and take the summers off if I feel like it. I’ll be able to accommodate my work, personal, and writing lives in the proportions that work best for me, answering to no more masters than I feel comfortable with.

Success.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

November's Recommended Reads

I've been busier than a one-armed paperhanger at an ass-kicking contest lately, so the list of good books I read in November is tardy. No publishers have called to complain about the lack of the crucial OBAAT endorsement, so I guess I dodged that bullet.

Boyos, David Marinick - First rate crime story in the manner of Eddie Coyle. Marinick's a former Massachusetts state cop turned armored car robber turned writer who knows exactly how to leverage his experience in both previous careers to enhance the third. His characters are presented unapologetically and without judgment, and they talk like guys talking to each other, not for effect. Wacko Curran is a criminal bad enough to be successful in the Boston underworld, with enough fullness of personality to allow you to empathize with him. You'll end up thinking along with him, setting your moral code aside to work with his, not unlike how Tony Soprano sucked in so many people. He's definitely on the list to read more of.

Dancing Bear, James Crumley - I didn't care for The Last Good Kiss as much as I thought I would, and was about to give Crumley a pass. Then I went through a period of several weeks where I tripped over positive references to Dancing Bear every couple of days. I also remembered I was pretty sick when I read TLGK, and that could have clouded my judgment, so I ordered up Dancing Bear. Now I have to read TLGK again. Crumley reads like no one else, and Milo Milodragovitch is a protagonist--certainly not a hero--unlike any other.

Eight Men Out, Eliot Asinof - The true story of how the Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series. One of those stories you couldn't have made up, presented evenhandedly to allow the reader to make up his own mind whether the banned players were wronged, though there's no question where Asinof stood on the question of Sox owner Charles Comiskey. I NetFlixed the movie while reading the book, and truer depictions are rare. Highly recommended not just for baseball fans, but for anyone interested in a snapshot of America 90 years ago, and for the parallels to today.

Discount Noir,  edited by Patti Abbott and Steve Weddle - A collection of over forty flash pieces,  inspired by the web site, "The People of Walmart," created in response to a writing challenge on Patti's blog The stories were of such a high caliber, drew such a broad sample of talented writers, and offered so many different takes on the same germ of an idea, that e-publisher Untreed Reads took it on. A quick and varied read containing something to appeal to any fan of neo-noir, though not necessarily of Walmart.

Terminal Damage, by the writers of "Do Some Damage" - One of the most underrated writing blogs, "Do Some Damage" features eight crime writers discoursing on matters criminal. Terminal Damage is a collection of stories that all deal in some way with airport security. Fewer writers and longer stories than Discount Noir, still containing uniformly good writing and a wide range of takes from the same starting place, with the added benefit of working occasional bits of each other's stories into each other. This will make you want to read more by each of these writers.

Friday, December 3, 2010

What's In a Word?

There's been a lot of talk around writing blogs recently about foul language. When is it appropriate, how much is appropriate, is it ever appropriate, how many readers will you lose because of it, what constitutes foul language. I'm no prude, but it does offend me when people who will gleefully read descriptions of the most horrible violence are then offended because this gruesome killer used a word on that reader's proscribed list.

I understand why some publishers and editors are leery. They in the business of making money, and lost sales cost money. (The discussion of whether sales lose for some reason are gained back by the flip side of that reason can be left for another day.) It's the readers who worry me. To say it's all right for Lucas Davenport's nemesis du annee to rape, mutilate, and kill half a dozen women; he'd better not say "fuck" while he's doing it. There's something disturbing about a mindset that allows for that. I can't shake the image of being attacked bya knife-wielding nut job, screaming for someone to get this fucker off me, and my only source of assistance is such a reader, who raps me across the knuckles as I bleed to death for having a potty mouth.

In the interest of keeping all words in their proper context, and celebrating their flexibility, here's a little primer on the variety of uses to which our most flexible, yet forbidden word, may be applied. This is not safe for work, school, or around those who are easily offended. You have been warned.

video

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

An Interview with Steve Weddle

By day a poetry-writing, gun-hating sissy boy, by night Steve Weddle increases his insidious presence through the web’s mean streets of noir fiction. Aside from his own web site and blog, Steve is a contributor to the group blog Do Some Damage and co-conspirator collaborator with John Hornor Jacobs on Needle, The Magazine of Noir. His short fiction has appeared in such prestigious sites as Beat to a Pulp, Crime Factory, and A Twist of Noir. He is also a regular contributor to online flash fiction challenges, which is what got him started on the downward spiral that culminated in an interview with yours truly, when he became co-editor with Patti Abbott of the e-book collection of flash stories, Discount Noir.


OBAAT: As you’re a co-editor of Discount Noir, tell us a little about how it came to be.

SW: I saw the People of Walmart website and started talking about it on Twitter. I linked up some pics from the site and we all had huge laughs.

Keith Rawson and I thought it would make a great flash fiction challenge. Then we bugged Patti Abbott, as she hosts flash fiction challenges.

Patti’s site ended up with a huge number of great stories. She and I thought it would be cool to see them together, and I enlisted the help of the world’s best agent, Stacia Decker. We then harassed the hell out of some more really talented authors, asking them to contribute flash pieces. Everyone was terrifically kind and generous with their time and talents.

Stacia worked with Untreed Reads on the deal, and soon enough the book was out in the world.

OBAAT: Patti Abbott has had several flash fiction challenges. Why do you think this one gained enough momentum to become a book?

SW: I think this one speaks to people on a number of levels. So many of these sites – People of Walmart, Awkward Family Photos, Passive Aggressive Notes, and so on – already create mini-stories from the artwork they provide. And, as writers, I think we do this all the time. You see a dumb picture and you think up a caption. Or you see a photo of a woman with a purple wig, fishnet hose, and a tanktop that says “Jesus is the Reason” and you just have to write the story.

Also, I think timing has a good deal to do with the success of any flash challenge. You catch folks when they have time. They have to be able to write and read. Lulls throughout the year, you know? Thanksgiving week, for example, would be a bad time to host a challenge like this.

And one of the bonuses from a challenge like this is that you get to hop around to people’s sites and read what they’ve written, see comments from folks you might not yet know, and generally just wander around the internet as if it were some huge party sprawling across the entire neighborhood.

And, of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the talent and reputation of Patti Abbott behind something like this.

OBAAT: It’s hard to say much about a piece of flash fiction without giving it away. What can you tell us about your contribution to Discount Noir, “Code Adam?”

SW: I’d had a couple of stories about this character, Oscar Martello, recently published. One the first week of the year at Beat To A Pulp and one in the first issue of the relaunched Crimefactory. Both are fantastic publishers of fiction, by the way. So I had these Oscar Martello stories and they were fitting in to a nice, longer story I had in mind. Probably a novel. Martello is trying to get out of “the business,” but then he’s pulled in by the murder of his son. I knew he had to get from a job in Kansas to a big meeting in New York City. I already had a story in mind for a stop in Pennsylvania. Stopping at a Walmart in Ohio just made sense, you know? Of course, when doesn’t it?

OBAAT: “Code Adam” has one of my favorite opening lines: “You just don’t have the kind of day I was having and not kill someone.” It sets the tone and establishes expectations for the reader. Do you feel hooking the reader quickly is more important in flash than in a longer work, or will readers hang with a piece they know is flash because it won’t last too long?

SW: Thanks. That’s nice of you to say. I had the line before I had the story. Sometimes it happens that way. And other times the first line doesn’t survive the writing of the story and I have to set it aside for another story. In cooking, first you make a roux. In writing, well, first you get that one line down. And you have to be in control the entire time when you’re writing flash. In a novel, you can develop some ideas that won’t come through for a hundred pages. You’re in control, but it’s more a cross-country race with a novel. Like “Cannonball Run” as opposed to the drag race off Exit 119.

In flash, you’re much more focused on tone, on action, I think. Hooking the reader? Hell, that’s all flash is – the hook. You don’t have time to pull the reader into the boat, fillet his ass, and grill him for dinner. Just hook the reader. That’s plenty.

OBAAT: You’re a founding member of the collaborative blog, Do Some Damage. Where did the idea for DSD come from, and how did the original seven writers come together?

SW: I was visiting my agent, Stacia Decker, in New York a couple summers ago. She was talking to me about other writers. At the time, the only person I knew in the writing world was my agent, really. So she mentioned Jay Stringer, an Englishman over in Scotland. He was a bit of a noob, too, I think. So I emailed back and forth with him and I suggested we find some folks and start up a group blog – with noobs like me and seasoned, published people. You know, to kinda show the different stages of awesomeness? Dopes like me with no track record and nothing to show one day, then another person talking Hollywood deals the next. I’d been reading Murderati and First Offenders and any number of writer blogs. I get these dumb ideas and it’s important that someone is there to explain to me why it won’t work. But Jay thinks it’s a good idea, so we start grabbing folks. Stacia suggested John McFetridge, because she’d worked with him when she was an editor. And Jay knew Russel McLean. And we just started bugging folks. What has surprised me is the amount of engagement from readers. The folks who stop by every single day and comment and move the conversation along. It’s as if we have hundred of bloggers, not just eight. It’s a helluva community, and I’m just awed and appreciative. Nice to be part of something with so many cool people.

OBAAT: The Do Some Damage writers have an electronic anthology of their own out, called Terminal Damage. Tell us a little about that.

SW: Well, we’ve got me there as well as some real talent, right? So we’re thinking we should pool resources and see about this ebook hoohah folks are talking about. Not sure if you’ve heard anything about it, but someone said the other day that ebooks are a big deal. And, of course, the stories had to be linked. So we emailed back and forth until everyone started marking my replies as spam. We had some starts and stops, but did manage to get the TERMINAL DAMAGE out a little after our first anniversary. What I like most about it is that you have people in one story popping up in another. And that each story is so different. Sure, they all take place somehow at the airport. But Joelle’s voice is much different from Scott’s. And Bryon’s stripper is nothing like Jay’s wrestlers. And Dave and John and Russel all come with such different takes on the idea. It was just really cool to see what everyone did within that set of parameters.

And the thing has been selling pretty well on Amazon and Smashwords. Jason Pinter was nice enough to write the introduction. So we put it together – edited and proofed and so forth – and John Hornor Jacobs did a great cover for us, and folks were downloading the book and reading it right away. It was pretty cool to see it all come together. Really nice of people to be so supportive of the project.

OBAAT: You give the impression of being a well-adjusted, intelligent, friendly person with a good sense of humor, yet every time I spot you on the web you’re engaged in some manner of crime. What is it that draws such a man to crime and noir fiction, or is the whole well-adjusted, intelligent, and friendly persona a ruse?

SW: I spend a good deal of time self-medicating, so that could have something to do with it.

I think if Faulkner were writing today, people might call him noir. Melville, too. Dostoyevsky. Good fiction is full of conflict, and, in a sense, crime is conflict at a societal level. I’m not entirely sure I know what the hell I’m talking about, but I think you can have family conflicts and national conflicts. But I’m a country boy. Those were my conflicts. I grew up in a papermill town. I grew up in the woods.

Someone in my family, and I’m not pointing fingers, but someone turned a bunch of hogs loose in south Arkansas many, many years ago rather than pay taxes on them when the government men came around. Never got all the hogs back, either, damn it. If that were fiction, would it be crime fiction? Southern fiction? Noir fiction? Agri-fiction?

Also, I guess, writing is an attempt to make sense of the pain, right? The loss. The emptiness, the hollow feeling that comes in at three in the morning and just pulls the spark out of your soul while you lie there waiting for daylight. Sorry. Time for a glass of medicine. Or my notebook.

OBAAT: Who are your major influences as a writer? Favorite books?

SW: One of the best books I’ve ever read, a book that combines the awfulness of the human condition (whatever the hell I mean by that) and the absolute hilarity of life is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I read this in graduate school, for class, and we devoted an entire semester to it. Read history books to understand the jokes. Studied ancient manuscripts to get the references. I mean, this was an all-encompassing kind of read. Really, really cool. I can’t imagine doing that on my own. But that’s my all-time favorite book. I know I sound like a complete douche for picking that one. You know, like when you say your favorite song is “No Scrubs” by TLC and someone else says, “Oh, mine is “Symphony Number 162 in K Major by Rudebaynov.” Still, I do love me some James Joyce.

The two books I’ve just recently finished that I love are PIKE by Benjamin Whitmer and THE DAMAGE DONE by Hilary Davidson. Great books. In fact, we’re talking about PIKE over at the Do Some Damage book group on Goodreads.com if you’d like to join us. And I read THIS DARK EARTH by John Hornor Jacobs, too, and hope everyone gets the chance to see it. Post-apocalyptic awesomeness. And OLD GOLD by Jay Stringer. Great characters and story in that one.

OBAAT: Aside from Discount Noir, where else can people find your writing?

SW: I should be fairly well linked up over at steveweddle.com if anyone gives a damn. TERMINAL DAMAGE. Beat To A Pulp. Crimefactory. A Twist of Noir. Places everyone should know for their fantastic stories anyway.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

SW: Right now we’re finishing the proofs for NEEDLE magazine, which is always exciting. This is our third issue and features the first installment of Ray Banks’s brand new novel, WOLF TICKETS. I’m friggin thrilled as hell that we’ve got the opportunity to serialize Ray’s new novel in the next few issues.

Also working on another anthology by some of my favorite writers, something with a country flair. And I’m talking with John McFetridge about a larger project we think might work, something in the ebook publishing realm.

And I’m working on my second Alex Jackson novel right now. I like this one because it starts with a dead stripper. And Alex’s best friend, the internet porn kingpin, is the suspect. So, you know, a book for the kids.

If my agent asks, I’m also working on the Oscar Martello novel she wants. Oh, and Roy Alison novel, too. I have a Roy Alison story coming out in an anthology soon, so I really should work on that book. But, you know, there isn’t enough time to write my stuff and read all the other great stuff. And I’m working on Bill Cameron’s DAY ONE right now. Sometimes, you know, you just have to set aside your own writing to read something great. Still, seriously, DO NOT tell my agent. I told her I’m writing the books she told me to write. So, you know, shhhhh.