26 May 2018

Top Ten Peeves of Writing Teachers

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl) 

Recently, a jovial colleague asked me if I was a good teacher or an evil one.
I'm definitely on the kind side of the equation.  The last thing I want to be is a Dream Killer.  But even the kindest, most dedicated writing teachers can get frustrated.  So when a colleague suggested I rant on these pages, I gracefully accepted.  (With the sort of grace that might be associated with a herd of stampeding mastodons.)

So here are my top ten peeves as a writing teacher:

THE OBVIOUS

1.  "I don't need no stinkin' genre" - aka Students who turn their noses up at the genres.

In addition to basic and advanced writing skills, I teach the genres in my Crafting a Novel course.  Meaning, we deconstruct each of the main genres of fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, western, literary...) to see what publishers expect.  This is particularly important when it comes to endings.  Mickey Spillane said those famous words:  "Your first page sells this book.  Your last page sells the next."

Most publishers categorize the books they accept into genres.  Most readers stick to a few genres they like best for their reading pleasure.  So it stands to reason that if you can slot your work into an already active genre, you have a better chance of getting published and read.

Many students refuse to classify their work.  They feel it is 'selling out' to do so.  (Yes, I've heard this frequently.)  They don't want to conform or be associated with a genre that has a formula.  (One day, I hope to discover that formula.  I'll be rich.)

So I often start out with half a class that claims to be writing literary fiction,  even though not a single student can name a contemporary literary book they've actually read.  *pass the scotch*

2.  The memoir disguised as fiction.

These students have no interest in writing fiction. They really only want to write one book ever, and that is the story of their life.  (Ironically, many of these students are only twenty years old...sigh.)  But they know that memoirs of unknown people don't sell well, so they're going to write it as a novel.  Because then it will be a bestseller.

Here's what I tell them:  What happens to you in real life - no matter how dramatic and emotional it is for you - usually doesn't make a good novel.  Novels are stories.  Stories have endings, and readers expect satisfactory endings.  Real life rarely gives you those endings, and so you will have to make something up.

If you want to write your life story, go for it.  Take a memoir writing class.

3.  "My editor will fix this" - Students who think grammar and punctuation are not important.

Someone else will fix that.  They even expect me - the teacher - to copy edit their work.  Or at least to ignore all seventeen errors on the first page when I am marking.  *hits head against desk*

I should really put this under the 'baffling' category.  If you are an artist or craftsman, you need to learn the tools of your trade.  Writers deal in words;  our most important tools are grammar, punctuation and diction.  How could you expect to become a writer without mastering the tools of our trade?

4.  The Hunger Games clone.

I can't tell you how many times students in my classes have come determined to rewrite The Hunger Games with different character names on a different planet.  Yes, I'm picking on Hunger Games, because it seems to be an endemic obsession with my younger students.

What I'm really talking about here is  the sheer number of people who want to be writers but really can't come up with a new way to say things.  Yes, you can write a new spin on an old plot.  But it has to be something we haven't seen before.

There are just some plots we are absolutely sick of seeing.  For me, it's the 'harvesting organs' plot.  Almost every class I've taught has someone in it who is writing a story about killing people to sell their organs.  It's been done, I tell them.  I can't think of a new angle that hasn't been done and done well.  Enough, already.  Write something else.  Please, leave the poor organs where they are.

THE BAFFLING

5.  The Preachers:  Students who really want to teach other people lessons.

And that's all they want to do.  Akin to the memoir, these students come to class with a cause, often an environmental one.  They want to write a novel that teaches the rest of us the importance of reuse and recycle.  Or the evils of eating meat.

Recently, I had a woman join my fiction class for the express purpose of teaching people how to manage their finances better.  She thought if she wrote novels about people going down the tubes financially, and they being bailed out by lessons from a friendly banker (like herself) it would get her message across.

All noble.  But the problem is:  people read fiction to be entertained.  They don't want to be lectured.  If your entire goal is to teach people a lesson, probably you should take a nonfiction course.  Maybe a PR one.  Or here's a novel <sic> idea: become a teacher.

6.  Literary Snowflakes - Students who ignore publisher guidelines.

"A typical publisher guideline for novels is 70,000-80,000 words?  Well my book is 150,000, and I don't need to worry about that because they will love it.  Too bad if it doesn't fit their print run and genre guidelines.  They'll make an exception for me."

I don't want to make this a generational thing. Okay, hell yes - maybe I should come clean.  I come from a generation that was booted out of the house at 18 and told to make a living.  'Special' wasn't a concept back when we used slide rules instead of calculators.

Thing is, these students don't believe me.  They simply don't believe that they can't write exactly what they want and not get published.  And I'm breaking their hearts when I tell them this:  Publishers buy what readers want to read.  Not what writers want to write.

7.  Students who set out to deliberately break the rules in order to become famous.

There are many ways to tell a story.  We have some rules on viewpoint, and we discuss what they are, the reasons for them, and why you don't want to break them.  The we discuss why you might WANT to break them.  Apparently this isn't enough.  *sobs into sleeve*

I have some students who set out to break every rule they can think of because they want to be different.  "To hell with the readers.  I'll head-hop if I want.  And if Gone Girl has two first person viewpoints, my book is going to have seventeen!  No one will have seen anything like it before.  They will think I'm brilliant."

Never mind that the prose is unreadable.  Or that we don't have a clear protagonist, and thus don't know whom to root for.  e.e.cummings did it.  Why can't they?

8.  Students who come to class every week but don't write anything.

They love the class.  Never miss a week.  But struggle to complete one chapter by the end of term.  Not only that, this isn't the first fiction writing class they've taken. They specialize in writers' workshops and retreats.

It seems baffling, but some people like to hobby as aspiring writers.  They learn all about writing but never actually write.  Of course, we veterans can get that part.  Writing is work - hard work.  Writing is done alone in a room.  In contrast, learning about writing can be fun.  Especially when done in a social environment with other people.

THE 'I COULDN'T MAKE THIS UP'

9.  Other writing teachers who take our classes to steal material for their own classes and workshops. *removes gun from stocking*

Not kidding.  I actually had an adult student come clean about this.  By class seven, he hadn't done any of the assignments and admitted he was collecting material to use for the high school creative writing class he taught.  I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

10.  Students who don't read.

This is the one that gets me the most.  Last term I did a survey.  I asked each student to write the number of books they had read last year on a small piece of paper and hand it in.  I begged them to be honest.  They didn't have to write their names on the paper, so I would never know who had written what total.  Here's the tally of number of books read:

Highest number by one person:  26

Lowest number by one person:  0-1

Average:  7

Yup, I'm still shaking my head over that low.  He couldn't remember if he'd actually read a book or not.  (How can you not KNOW?)

And these people want to be writers.  *collective groan*

To be clear here:  I read 101 novels last year.  I read for one hour every night before bed and have done so for years.  That's seven hours a week, assuming I don't sneak other time to read.  Two books a week.  And that doesn't include the hours I spend reading student manuscripts over three terms.


If reading isn't your hobby, how can you possibly think you can write?  Why would you want to??


FINAL THOUGHTS

Here's what I've learned:  Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college credit course.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that escape, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  When I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.

There is no greater high.

Melodie Campbell writes capers in between marking assignments.  Or maybe to avoid marking.
The B-Team is her latest.  You can get it at all the usual suspects.

on AMAZON





25 May 2018

Suspense In Stories That Aren't Suspense Fiction

By Art Taylor

In a couple of weeks I'm going to be leading a presentation and workshop at the 4th Annual Spring Writing Intensive at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. The session is about crafting suspense, and it borrows its title from the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine blog—"Something Is Going To Happen"—but when I was planning this with the program's organizers, they threw in a surprise: They had already scheduled a session on genre fiction, and they didn't want mine to be focused on mysteries.

Crafting suspense but not in the mystery genre?

Well, I'll admit some surprise at the request—but only since people who ask me to present at these kinds of gatherings usually want me talking about genre fiction. Truth is, I think the broader scope here actually makes for a more interesting discussion—about the range of different approaches available for capturing a reader's curiosity, introducing the stakes of a plot, getting that reader invested, getting him or her to turn that next page.

Here's the full description of my session:

Hooking your readers with a killer opening—that’s a must. But how do you get them to turn not just the first page but the next too? and then the next? …and the next? Crafting suspense may seem like the special province of crime fiction writers, but literary writers and genre writers both can profit from heightening tension, escalating conflict, tossing in the unexpected left turn, and generally keeping readers focused on the idea that “something is going to happen,” (to borrow the title of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s weekly blog). This session draws on work by writers including Patricia Highsmith, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, and Scott Turow to illustrate various techniques for incorporating suspense into your own work.

...though as I'm prepping for the session itself, and here with a couple of recent events, I'm considering substituting a couple of authors for those mentioned above.

I'm writing this post just as news comes out about the death of Philip Roth, one of my own favorite novelists, and earlier this week I picked up the collection Last Stories by William Trevor, who died in 2016—another favorite writer and one of the great masters of the short story, not just now but ever. Neither of these writers is known for flashy, grabby openings; in fact, the New York Times' book review of Trevor's Last Stories commented directly on his low-key approach: "Most notably, his stories open with comments so blandly informational, so plain and unnoticeable, that they arouse no expectation and appear to promise little."

And yet, I find myself drawn in quickly to Trevor's stories, to stakes which are at once high but muted, their intensity downplayed but maybe all the more engaging for it.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Trevor's "Making Conversation" from this final collection:

'Yes?' Olivia says on the answering system when the doorbell rings in the middle of The Return of the Thin Man. The summons is an irritation on a Sunday afternoon, when it couldn't possibly be the meter-man or the postman, and it's most unlikely to be Courtney Haynes, the porter.

A woman's voice crackles back at her but Olivia can't hear what she says. More distinctly, the dialogue of the film reaches her from the sitting room. 'Cocktail time,' William Powell is saying, and there's the barking of a dog. The man Olivia lives with laughs.

'I'm sorry,' Olivia says in the hall. 'I can't quite hear you.'

'I'm not used to these answering gadgets.' The woman's voice is clearer now. There is a pause, and then: 'Is my husband there?'

'Your husband?' Frowning, more irritated than she has been, Olivia suggests the wrong bell has been rung.

'Oh, no,' the voice insists. 'Oh, no.'
The opening scene continues on for three more short paragraphs, but this is enough, I think. The opening scenes set the stage for all that follows: Two women connected by the husband of one of them, their conversation about those connections (though the title "Making Conversation" refers to something else entirely). The pace is leisurely, it would be charitable to say—a sketch of a Sunday afternoon, a small interruption. So is there... suspense?

Certainly there are questions raised here, both within the scene and pointing further ahead. What was said in that crackle that Olivia doesn't hear? Is the woman at the wrong address? Does Olivia know her husband? Is he perhaps even the man sitting there watching Return of the Thin Man?

Spoiler alert, that's not him, but as for Olivia knowing the woman's husband at all....

Conventional approaches to suspense might require the drama to be amped up more forcefully. Not a ring of the doorbell but a blaring of it—the bell pushed and held. Or someone pounding on the door itself. Not a voice lost in a crackle but a voice screaming, shouting, demanding. The irritation would become anxiety or fear. That word insists would need to tremble with a little more menace.

And yet I find myself drawn forward—and the story amply rewards, mysteries in bloom, though perhaps not the kinds of mysteries we think of with genre fiction.

As for Philip Roth, I just reread the opening of my favorite of his books, The Human Stain. I'll quote the first two paragraphs—and you can find the full first section of the opening chapter at the Random House website here:

It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college. Twice a week she also cleaned the rural post office, a small gray clapboard shack that looked as if it might have sheltered an Okie family from the winds of the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s and that, sitting alone and forlorn across from the gas station and the general store, flies its American flag at the junction of the two roads that mark the commercial center of this mountainside town.

Coleman had first seen the woman mopping the post office floor when he went around late one day, a few minutes before closing time, to get his mail—a thin, tall, angular woman with graying blond hair yanked back into a ponytail and the kind of severely sculpted features customarily associated with the church-ruled, hardworking goodwives who suffered through New England's harsh beginnings, stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it. Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.
No rush of suspense here—none that I can see—and not even drama in the sense of conventional scene-building. It's all exposition and description. But the foundation for tension is laid: in the words affair and confided, for example; in the contrasts between the idea of an affair and the description of "church-ruled, hardworking goodwives" and "stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it"; in the contrast between miseries "concealed" and a face which "hide[s] nothing"; and then in the disparity between the main characters' ages—71 and 34—and their educational backgrounds, a classics professor and a high school dropout.

Needless to say, undramatic as all this is, there's plenty of drama ahead.

But does this count as suspense as well?

How about if you add in the chapter title looming over this bit of confidence? "Everyone Knows." 

Such are the questions I'm going to try to explore in my session at St. John's—perhaps not with these passages, which I've chosen mainly because Trevor and Roth have been on my mind today, this week, but with similar ones, looking to see how writers introduce small bits of tension and conflict from the start, how they raise the stakes bit by bit, often in excruciating ways, and, of course, what we other writers might learn from these moves.

Anthony Award News


A bit of news since my last post here: I'm honored that my story "A Necessary Ingredient" has been named a finalist for this year's Anthony Award for Best Short Story, alongside stories by my fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman and by Susana Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, and Debra H. Goldstein. As I've mentioned before, my story was part of the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, co-edited by SleuthSayer Paul D. Marks, also a finalist for an Anthony in the anthology category, and featuring stories by several more of our SleuthSayers family. Been a great year for this anthology, and I'm thrilled to have been invited to be part of it. Oh! And I hope you'll enjoy the story itself, which you can read here for free.

See you all at Bouchercon in just a few months!

24 May 2018

It's Vegas, Baby...

by Eve Fisher

For those of you who haven't heard, Las Vegas has an ice hockey team!  Just simmer in that thought for a minute.  The baking oven of the Nevada desert air, the frosty ice of the skating rink...  Now, on with the story.  The Golden Knights expansion team took to the ice this season...  and is going to the Stanley Cup.  Yes.  Which is a great story, except that it may break the bank in Vegas.

Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup run unlike anything we’ve seen
Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and William Karlsson
celebrate their second-round Game 5 victory over the Sharks.Getty Images
NOTE:  The way it's being hyped, you'd think that this has never happened before, but it has:  In 1967-68, the St. Louis Blues began as an expansion team and made it to the Stanley Cups - where they lost all four games, bing, bang, badda, boom.  
But back to the money.  As the New York Post put it, “When [the Golden Knights were] at 300-1, we wrote a ticket for $400, which pays out 120 grand,” said Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports operations for Westgate Casino. “I can’t give definitive numbers, but every book is going to lose a healthy six figures if the Knights win the Cup. Some places are whispering seven.”  (BTW, if you're thinking of laying a bet down now, the bookies dropped the odds a long time ago.)  On the other hand, they're making a ton of money off the people who are pouring in to see the miracle team.  The Rampart Casino offers merchandise giveaways, food vouchers and opportunities for mid-game wagering each time the Knights play. Westgate shows every Knights game on its 240-foot-wide video screen.  “We want people walking through the door,” Duane Colucci of the Rampart Casino said. “Whether or not they’re betting on the Knights, they’ll play video poker, they’ll grab something to eat.”

BTW, the last time that a game threatened to break the bookies was in 2015-16, when the British football (soccer, for us Americans) team, Leicester City, took everyone by surprise. The team was 132 year old and had never won a title. They were so bad that bookmakers gave them 5,000–1 odds .  But they did.  They won.  And the bookmakers lost up to £25 million.  One lucky bettor placed £20 at the original odds and won over £100,000!  The largest payout was £200,000 to someone who wagered £100 on the team in October when the odds had improved to 2,000–1.
NOTE:  Winning over odds that long, and a record that dismal, led to claims that spiritual forces worked for Leicester, including the club's Thai owners employing Buddhist monks to bless the players, and the reburial of the recently recovered remains of King Richard III (whose remains had been found in a parking lot in Leicester in 2012) in the city's cathedral in March, 2015.  (Wikipedia
Anyway, the Vegas bookies aren't facing odds that bad.  And even if they were, Vegas always figures a way to play the odds.  And to shift their services to a new customer base.

Today, Vegas is all about "Sin City", and "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."  In the 1990s, it marketed itself as "Family Friendly", which I still find hilarious.  And in the 60's...

The Rat Pack at the Cal-Neva Casino
Wikimedia
Well, the 60s were the last time I spent much time in Vegas.  I was a kid, and my parents would drive up from Southern California to either Vegas or Lake Tahoe to do some gambling.  That was back in the old days, when the mob ruled Vegas, and the Rat Pack ruled the Strip.  I don't remember the name of the casino my parents liked, I just remember that it was huge.  When I was 7-12 years old, I (and the other children who were idling away the time) would run amok among the slots and blackjack tables, or sit and people watch, or just play.  In some ways, it was a much safer, more innocent "Florida Project".  And it was very safe.

Twenty years ago, a child was lured into a Vegas casino restroom, where she was sexually assaulted and murdered.  I turned to my husband, horrified, and said, "That would never have happened in the 60's."  And it wouldn't.  We might have been running loose, but there was always someone keeping an eye on us, wherever we were.  Those large men in suits standing around everywhere weren't going to let anybody touch us.  And if we got too near a door, they'd stop us and ask, "Hey, where are your parents?"  We'd point somewhere or say, "Keno table" or something, and they'd herd us back there, and / or hand us off to a young woman in tight clothing who'd feed us more ice cream.  It wasn't bad.
NOTE:  I understand that today Nevada law prohibits children 100%, absolutely, no exceptions from being on the casino floor.  Maybe that law was on the books back in the 60's, too, but I sure don't remember them acting on it.  Granted, my parents were day gamblers...
Since then, the only other time I was in Vegas was in 2006, when my husband and I met up with another couple (from New York City) to go on a tour of Canyon Country - Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon.  Vegas was the perfect hub to meet in, rent a car, and drive out.  But we had to spend one night there, because our flights arrived at such different times.  Frank & Theresa had a friend who told them about a cheap hotel off the Strip, and we decided to stay there.  It was cheap, all right.  It didn't have bedbugs or cockroaches, but I wouldn't have sat down on that worn brown carpet for love nor money.  (When bedtime came, I leaped out of my shoes and into the bed, with nary a toe hitting the rug.)  The main center for entertainment in the hotel was its own mini-casino down in the lobby, and an elevator large enough to hold a coffin and pallbearers, reeking of beer and cigarettes from the uncountable number of topless drunks (of both sexes) constantly going to or from the casino.  Loud, proud, and endlessly fascinating.

But we were hungry, and the hotel had no dining privileges.  We went down to the Strip for dinner, and the food had certainly gotten more expensive - and to be fair, better - than the 1960s.  Afterwards, we walked around for about half an hour in the stifling heat (90s in the dark) to see the outside casino shows.  (Near-nudity, lights, flames, and the occasional pole dance.  Not too different from the hotel, actually...)  Then we got in the car and drove around counting Elvis impersonators and checking out wedding chapels.  The next morning we went down to the Denny's within walking distance and hung with the locals.  Not an Elvis impersonator amongst them, and only a reasonable number of sonic boob jobs.

After that, we headed off into the desert, and wondered again, where was all the water coming from?




BTW, as many of you may know, the Supreme Court has cleared the way for states to legalize sports betting. "Immediately after the ruling, the stock price for Caesars Entertainment [Nevada] rose 6%." (CNN)

2nd BTW, in 2019, the Oakland Raiders are moving to Vegas, where they'll be known (of course) as the Las Vegas Raiders.  First official NFL game will be in 2020.  

I think the bookies are going to make their money back. 




23 May 2018

Overload

David Edgerley Gates


Information overload is an established phenomenon in the intelligence trade. You can never know too much? You can listen in on way too much, and understand far too little. Former spy chief Gen. Michael Hayden (director of both NSA and CIA) once remarked that his analysts actually managed to process something like three to five per cent of intercepted traffic, if that. This in the wake of the surveillance scandals, his point being that your eyes - or ears - are bigger than your stomach. One recent estimate is that NSA collects 1.7 billion communications a day. The volume is paralyzing. You can't get a grip on it.


I ran across a quote from a guy named Herbert Simon. "What information consumes is obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. ...[A] wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." Which is where metadata techniques come in, pattern recognition, indexing metrics, some kind of Dewey Decimal system. You're not even trying to catalogue content. At this juncture, the best you can hope for is an address book, a directory of unlisted numbers.

This information paralysis of course applies to the assorted dishevelments of the Trump administration. The signal-to-noise ratio is deafeningly high, which makes it hard to identify actual targets. NORAD used to have a similar problem, on the Distant Early Warning line. Are those incoming Russian bombers, crossing the Arctic circle, or a flight of geese? Their radar couldn't discriminate. It created an anxiety threshold, a constant. You had to be on the alert all the time, checking your perimeter.

We also know there are disinformation procedures, decoys and deceptions. A famous example is the phantom invasion force built up around Patton before the launch of D-Day, to mislead the Germans into thinking the attack would come at the Pas de Calais, not Normandy. Any career intelligence professional would have to wonder, how much of the chaos in the Trump world is deliberate, or diversionary?

Basically, what I'm suggesting here is a coping mechanism. If you treat the Trump experience, or episode, as an intelligence exercise, an assessment, the way old Russia hands at CIA and State used to game out the Kremlin's intentions, or Sinologists would read the runes about Mao and the Chinese - as if, in effect, it were a foreign country, an alien culture - you can attempt a penetration, a covert operation in a Denied Area. You don't try and deconstruct every utterance, you think in terms of deeper grammar. The volume of traffic is a distraction. You look for signifiers, the moss on the north side of the trees.  

Take the Stormy Daniels imbroglio. At first glance, it's a sideshow, nothing to do with the main event. But then it develops that Cohen banked Vekselberg's front money in the same account he used to pay Daniels? OK, time out. Cohen's a moron. He's as likely a consigliere as I'm likely to ghost a series of Stormy-branded thrillers, Money Shots.

In other news, with everybody focused on the Russians, we have the embargoed Chinese telecom ZTE back in the US market, hand in glove with an announced 500-million-dollar Chinese government loan to jumpstart construction on an Indonesian theme park that includes - wait for it - a Trump golf course and hotels. Soybean futures are safe again?

Lest we forget, there's Erik Prince, late of Blackwater, whose mission appears to be clandestine comms and advance man. He's also floated the notion that the combat presence in Afghanistan and Iraq could be taken private. We're now hearing about a meeting between Prince, George Nader, and a guy whose name is new to me, Joel Zamel, pitching a social media manipulation campaign to Donald Trump Jr., that would be bankrolled by the Saudis and the Emirates. Wait, what?

Not least, the Aztec Two-Step that seems to characterize Trump himself, an inconsistent struggle with cognitive dissonance. It's still not entirely clear whether Trump is playing with a full deck.

Enough already. We have a surfeit of detail. How do you give it any coherence? I'm suggesting you could diagram it out. In the intelligence world, this is known as an Order of Battle. Suppose, for the sake of argument, we were talking about the Warsaw Pact and its offensive capacity in an attack on NATO and Western Europe. At one time, this was a very real intelligence target, and we devoted a lot of resources to it. You begin by developing a baseline, infantry, aircraft, and armor, re-supply and support units, communications, chain of command. Then you monitor their activity. What compromises routine? This gives you background, so you can identify a break in routine, a heightened alert status or ready condition, any significant change in the threat posture.

Applying this to the Trump world, there's an immediate benefit. You distance yourself. You don't let it suck all the air out of the room. You don't take it personally. Establish a baseline, cultivate context. Don't miss the forest for the trees. For all its ambiguities and improbabilities, its fabrications and false flags, it's not that impossible a tangle. Messy, yes. Impenetrable, no.

Spycraft is mental discipline. It's not proof against hysteria, and it can't remedy willful ignorance, but it's a compass heading, possibly even an exit strategy.  

JUSTIFY: the Old Spook and the Flowerspy at a rainy Pimlico, Preakness 2018



22 May 2018

Noir at the Opportunity Bar

by Michael Bracken

Eeek!
In late March 2003 I lost my job. Well, I didn’t actually lose it, to steal a Bobcat Goldthwait joke, I knew exactly where it was, but when I went back there, someone else was doing it. Within a week, I was offered, and I accepted, a freelance editing gig that provided me with an income foundation sufficient to jumpstart my third attempt at full-time freelancing.

In January 2018, a few months shy of 15 years together, that client and I parted ways. Our parting was amicable, leaving open the possibility of working together again in the future, but the immediate impact was an income loss exceeding $13,000/year.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

Losing that client also freed up 10-plus work hours each week, and I’ve been surprised at how many opportunities have arisen since January, most of them related to writing crime fiction, and many of them opportunities I might have turned down for lack of time had they come only a few months earlier.

One of them was an invitation to participate in Noir at the Bar Dallas on April 18.
Michael Pool and Michael Bracken

Michael Pool—novelist, short story writer, and editor/publisher of the recently deceased Crime Syndicate Magazine—extended the invitation, and accepting meant nearly 10 hours away from home and an unknown amount of time prepping for the event.

Of course, I accepted.

Although I attended an in-hotel Noir at the Bar at the New Orleans Bouchercon and part of the Noir at the Bar Bouchercon at the Rivoli in Toronto, I’d never participated in one. I have, however, done readings at science fiction/fantasy conventions, only one of which—a midnight, adults-only reading of erotic science fiction to a packed room at Archon many years ago—turned out well.

The other readings—all half-hour solo acts—drew audiences of one, two, and half-a-dozen.

PRACTICE MAKES NEAR-PERFECT

I chose to read “Texas Sundown” from Down & Out: The Magazine #3, an 1,800-word noir story written in first person. The first time I read the story aloud it fit within the seven-to-nine minutes authors were expected to fill. During each subsequent read-through, though, the story grew longer and longer, until I realized I had stopped rushing through it and was adding dramatic pauses.

To wrangle the story back into my allotted time, Temple helped me excise words, phrases, and entire sentences that read well on the page but which were unnecessary when the story was read aloud.

SHOWTIME

Temple and I left home early, knowing a less-than-two-hour trip would likely take far longer given traffic on IH35. Sure enough, we encountered near standstill traffic as we neared Dallas. We exited the highway, navigated side streets, and arrived a few minutes early for our 5:30 dinner reservation at Smoke.

After a leisurely dinner, we made our way to The Wild Detectives, where Noir at the Bar Dallas was scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. The Wild Detectives is an older home in the Oak Cliff neighborhood converted into a bookstore/bar, with an eclectic selection of reading material and seating both inside and outside.

Temple and I arrived early. We claimed one end of a picnic table near the outside stage in what had been the home’s backyard, and I goofed around onstage before any other presenters arrived. Soon, Temple’s daughter Emily, who knows I’m a writer but who had never read any of my work, joined us, as did the other presenters, their families, their friends, and audience members attracted to the event.

Texas weather is quite fickle, often inappropriate for outside events where sweating is discouraged. That evening, it was perfect: dry, cool, and comfortable, an uncommon combination. The backyard was packed, the audience was appreciative, and all of the authors brought their A game.

Michael Pool was both the host and a presenter for the evening. Tim Bryant, Eryk Pruitt, Clay Reynolds, Carlos Salas, LynDee Walker, and I were presenters. The first three authors read their work while the sun was dipping low in the sky. After a break, and after the sun had set, the last four authors read. Background sounds throughout the evening included sirens of all kinds—appropriate for a reading by crime fiction writers—and in the alley behind the fence blue lights flashed as if a patrol car or emergency vehicle had parked back there. Afterward, we talked with each other and with audience members.

Reading “Texas Sundown”
Unlike some of the authors, I brought nothing with me to sell because I don’t usually tote books around. I did have and did distribute a flyer prepared by Lance Wright at Down & Out Books that promoted, on the top half, Coast to Coast: Private Eyes From Sea to Shining Sea, Passport to Murder, and Down & Out: The Magazine #3, all of which contain my short stories. The bottom half of the flyer was devoted to Michael Pool’s first novel, Texas Two-Step.

FINDING BALANCE

Will I participate in another Noir at the Bar if invited? Absolutely!

I met several writers new to me, heard great stories and poetry presented in an entertaining fashion, and learned that I can—with appropriate practice—read in public without embarrassing myself.

Did I have to lose a major client in order to participate? Probably not, but it would have been much more difficult to take advantage of this opportunity—and the many others that have recently come my way—if I had to shoehorn it into an already packed schedule.

Being a freelancer means learning to balance opportunity and revenue in a meaningful way. Sometimes the work we most enjoy is the least remunerative.

Seeking nothing but dollar signs can have us no better off than we were as wage slaves, doing work we don’t enjoy just to put bread on the table. Doing only the things we enjoy, however, can mean having no bread on the table at all.

I’ve been lucky. I like my clients and I enjoy most of what I do, but I’m even more enjoying some things—such as Noir at the Bar Dallas—I’ve been able to do with the extra 10 hours I have each week.

(And don’t cry for me. Nearly half the lost income has already been replaced thanks to existing clients.)


Richard Krauss interviewed me for the June 2018 issue of The Digest Enthusiast. The wide-ranging interview fills 17 pages, reveals my pseudonyms, and touches on work written in a variety of genres. And, yes, that's me on the cover.

My private eye story “Itsy Bitsy Spider” was the story of the week at Tough, April 23, 2018.

21 May 2018

Sticking It Out

Guest starring Brendan DuBois
Jan Grape invited a guest whom we are honored to have with us today. Brendan DuBois is the award-winning author of more than twenty novels and nearly 160 short stories. His latest mystery novel, HARD AGROUND, was published this past April by Pegasus Books. His next novel, THE NEGOTIATOR, is set to be published this August by Midnight Ink. He's currently working on a series of works with bestselling novelist James Patterson, with publications set for early 2019.

Brendan's short fiction has appeared in Playboy, The Saturday Evening Post, Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and numerous anthologies including THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES OF THE CENTURY, published in 2000, as well as THE BEST AMERICAN NOIR OF THE CENTURY, published in 2010.
His stories have thrice won him the Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, two Barry Awards, a Derringer Award, and have also earned him three Edgar Allan Poe Award nominations from the Mystery Writers of America.

Brendan is also a Jeopardy! game show champion.
— Jan Grape and Rob Lopresti


Sticking It Out
by Brendan DuBois


Last month I had the fun and privilege of going to Manhattan for the Edgar Allan Poe Awards ---- or as we call them in our house, Passover (hah-hah-hah) --- and had a fabulous time. The best part of Edgars week is catching up with old friends and making new ones, hobnobbing with agents and editors and other writers, and reinvigorating ones sense of being part a great writing community.

On one afternoon, I attended a wonderful reception at Dell Magazines --- publishers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine --- and among the attendees were two old friends of mine, writers Doug Allyn and S.J. Rozan.

As we talked, laughed and gossiped with editors Janet Hutchings and Linda Landrigan, assistant editor Jackie Sherbow, and authors Jeffrey Deaver and Peter Lovesey, it was a just reminder of how far I’ve come in publishing. When I was just a kid, writing short fiction at the age of twelve, I dreamed about coming to Manhattan and hanging out in publishing offices.

At some point, some of us realized that three of us --- Doug, S.J., and myself --- had all gotten published by either Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock within a year or so of each other back in 1986. I think the three of us looked at each other and all thought the same thing: thirty years! And look how good we all looked! And we are still getting published in both magazines, as well as novels and other works.

Later that week, I joined up with S.J. and Doug at the Dell Magazines table during the Edgars banquet, and as part of the ceremony, there’s a slide show depicting past Edgar winners, and when it came to the 1980s and 1990s, the three of us commented on fellow short story authors who had won Edgars, had published for a few years, and then… disappeared.


What happened?

The three of us discussed this a bit, talking about these past friends and co-authors, and while a couple of them had died over this time period, what of the others?

I don’t know about Doug or S.J., but I felt a slight shudder pass through me. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and to be a published author back in 1986 was one of my greatest accomplishments. How could someone just… stop? Give up? Never return again to writing?

And what could someone do to prevent this from happening?

What are the keys to having a lengthy writing career?

Some thoughts:

You have to possess something more than just talent. You need drive. Something inside of you pushing you. Many years ago, when I was in college, a good friend of mine had submitted a short story to The New Yorker magazine. It was rejected, but it was a personal rejection, a typewritten note from an editor, encouraging her to submit again. And what did she do? Nothing! She just shrugged and went on with her life, finding joy and satisfaction in something else.

I’m still gobsmacked that she had done that. But you know what? Her life, her decision.

You have to have a thick skin. Rhinoceros skin? Try two rhino skins. Writing is a hard, tough, and lonely business. Here’s a news flash: nobody cares if you write or not. Nobody. It’s all up to you… and you have to realize that in the outset, you’re going to get rejected. Lots of times. Rejected in creative ways you never knew possible.

And some of those rejections will be harsh and deeply personal. And you have to smile, shrug it off, and keep on writing.

Then… you get published! Yay!

And then you really need a thick skin… maybe three rhino skins. The reviews will come in, and some will be great, and some will be awful. And as humans do, you’ll tend to ignore the good reviews and obsess on the negative ones.

Don’t.

As someone once said, opinions (and reviews) are like certain bodily orifices. Everybody has one. There are a number of fine, dedicated and thoughtful reviewers out there, but alas, it’s the mean ones that stick in your mind.


My trick is this: good reviews come from reviewers who know exactly what I was trying to do in a piece of writing. And bad reviews come from ignoramuses who missed the whole point of my story.

Still, again, you need a thick skin. Maybe even four rhino skins!

You have to be willing to stretch yourself, try different things, different approaches. My first published short stories were of a kind, following certain tropes and approaches. But as months and years went by, I decided to experiment.

You can’t keep plowing and re-plowing the old fictional fields. Editors and readers then get bored. So I wrote first person. Third person. Even a couple of second persons. Then I wrote from the point of a view of a woman. A young boy. A… dog! Yes, a dog.

You need to be trying new things, new ways of telling a story. Sure, there’ll be rejections, but in the end, you’ll be your stretching your talent.

You have to seek out new markets, new opportunities. Back in the days when I first started writing short stories, I used a typewriter. Found my markets via Writer’s Digest Guide to Markets. Sent out my stories in a nine-by-twelve manila envelope, with an SASE contained within. And I’d walk up to my mailbox, shooing away the baby dinosaurs as I did so.

Now it’s all electronic. And there are lots of new markets out there, lots of new publishing opportunities. When I first started out, self-publishing was considered icky, the sign of a loser. Now? I self publish novels that I’ve retained the rights to, and have self-published a number of original anthologies of my own short fiction.

Opportunities had changed, and so had I.

And, lastly, you still have to love it.

Not to mention that there aren’t setbacks, or disappointments, or career plans that founder on the shoals of reality and publishing.

But still, I can’t go without a day without writing.

More than it’s what I do, it’s what I am.

My friend Doug mentioned this at another ceremony during Edgars Week, where Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine gave out the Reader’s Choice Award. He said something to the effect that decades later, he still loved being in the writing game, that he still loved it.

And so do I.