Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

31 July 2018

The Things We Do for Our Art

by Paul D. Marks

We all do various forms of research for our art, our writing. And we all make sacrifices for it. Some are big, some are little. There’s the standard research in books and on the net. Then there’s first-hand research, going to a particular location, talking to people who might have been involved in a certain event, or maybe taking on certain experiences ourselves, etc.

I’ve hung out in dive bars and other dives (including SCUBA dives). And spent years doing things that would make your hair curl and mine, too…if I had any, all so I could have a life and some life experience to eventually write about. Well, maybe I didn’t think of it as research at the time, but in retrospect it came in handy for things I wrote later on. And I’ve turned down invitations to go places, anything from a movie to parties, with friends so I could write—and have lost friends over it. Ah, the sacrifice.

But here I want to focus on a handful of things that I think are kind of funny in retrospect. At least these are a few of the ones that are light enough and that I’m willing and comfortable enough to talk about at this time, but they’re really only the tip of that sacrificial iceberg.

The Den of Nazis: Okay, maybe Nazis aren’t fun, but here goes: In ye olden days, before the
internet, I was doing research for a project set in the near past. I needed info about the daily life and costs of items and such from the 1930s, 40s, etc. Time-Life had a book series called This Fabulous Century. Each volume covered a decade and had that types of info in them. I had a few of the volumes  but not the whole set—how I managed that I’m not sure. Anyway, I wanted to get the rest of the set so I saw an ad from someone selling it. I responded and they gave me their address in a middling L.A. neighborhood, not great, not horrible. I drove down one afternoon. Nice old brick or other classic-type apartment buildings, like something Philip Marlowe would be comfortable in. I go to the people’s apartment. A young woman answers the door and lets me in. I walk into this beautiful old living room with fancy crown molding and gorgeous original wooden floors and the biggest motherfucking Nazi swastika flag hanging on the wall that you can imagine. It took up the whole wall. Now, maybe they were just into humungous historical flags…or maybe something else. The rest of the place was filled with all kinds of other Nazi stuff too. Now I’m wondering if the books were just a scam. Will I get out alive? Her boyfriend comes to me “You want the Time-Life books?”—Yeah, and I want to get out of here in one piece. I also didn’t want the whole set of books as I had some, and, long story short, I bought the ones I needed, the people were actually nice and we didn’t talk politics. I left but it left an impression on me.

Mobbed Up: I had a spec script I was trying to push that dealt with a delicate issue, which I won’t go into here. And there was a nightclub in L.A. at the time that catered to a certain type of clientele that were in my story. So I made an appointment to go talk to the owners as I thought maybe they’d like to finance a movie. In those days I’d talk to anyone or try anything to hawk my stuff—see my Cary Grant and Gene Kelly stories on my website: https://pauldmarks.com/cary-grant-gene-kelly/ , and those are just a couple of my more fun stories. Anyway, I went to the club for my appointment and was led into the back offices where I met Murray: The Gangster. Straight out of Central Casting, gray pin-striped suit, carnation, Brooklyn accent. Well, Murray was interested but he needed to talk to his partners (hmm, who could they be, Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel—well, no, ’cause they were goners by then—though I did grow up across the street from Bugsy’s brother and his family, but that’s another story…) Long story short, nothing came of it in terms of getting financing for a movie, but my then-writing partner took to calling me Murray and on occasion I used that and  another last name as a pseudonym.

Stolen Identity – before it was even a term: I was working for a small newspaper. The editor called me and asked if I had called NASA to request press credentials to attend a Space Shuttle landing. He continued, saying NASA had called him to verify if someone from our paper had faxed them to request press credentials for the landing…using my name. Talk about your “Oh shit!” moments.
What? No. I covered local stories, movie reviews and entertainment, not space shuttle landings. I was alarmed. Was someone impersonating me? Had they stolen my identity? Were they terrorists? What the hell was going on? I called the FBI and talked to an agent with the lowest, deepest voice I’d ever heard, lower than I ever imagined possible. He didn’t seem concerned. But I couldn’t let it go. So, I did some of the best detective work of my career…I called Ma Bell and had them trace the fax number where the credential request came from to a local Kinko’s. Then my Mata Hari (Amy) called Kinko’s pretending to be the secretary to a Colonel Severin. They gave her the name and phone number of the imposter who’d sent the credential request. Then I called NASA and told them about the ruse and gave them the information we had tracked down. Hey, they should have given us medals for this, but they also seemed kind of blasé about the whole thing. But if this had been post-911, I’m sure they would have had a different attitude and a different ending…or maybe not. Who knows? At least I didn’t end up at Guantanamera, I mean Guantanamo.


The Mossad: I was working on a script for a producer (who was also an actor, more on this later). The woman who hooked us up warned me about him ahead of time—I should have heeded the warning. He was a pain in the ass to put it ever so mildly. One time in our previous house where the houses were closer together than where we are now, I was screaming at said producer on the phone. Amy was home and since I didn’t want her to think I was the lone psycho on that call I put it on speaker so she could also hear him screaming at me. I was also concerned that our neighbors would think I was yelling at her as the houses were close, but luckily no cops were called. To say my relationship with this guy was contentious would be the understatement of the century. But we worked together for a while…until things got so bad that one day he threatened to send his friends in the Mossad after me. Quaking in my boots, I couldn’t sleep for years, waiting for the stealthy Mossad operatives, who I’m sure had nothing better to do than to come after me. And, as for the actor part, well, since he is an actor I see him in things now and then and it makes it hard to watch them. On occasion I’ve turned them off. And I’m still looking over my shoulder every day…

The Bondage House: Aside from working for other people on their properties or rewrites I was always trying to find money to do a film of my own. To that end, someone I knew said, Hey, I know a producer and maybe he’d want to invest in your project. This is someone whose work I knew and you might know his movies too. So we went to this guy’s house in the hills and it was a really cool house, kind of like a huge Spanish-Mediterranean castle. But on the inside it was more like a Spanish-Mediterranean dungeon. You walked in the front door and there were very sexily and scantily clad mannequins chained to the wrought iron staircase and anything else you could attach a chain to. There were dressed in leather bustiers and wearing high heels. For some reason I can’t remember anymore, my friend and I got the tour of the house and the chained mannequins were everywhere. This was another one where I wondered if we’d get out unscathed, but we did. And, of course, he didn’t want to invest in my film—he wanted me to invest in his. Ah, Hollywood.

The Joan Crawford House: Or should I say museum? Someone wanted me to meet this guy—I can’t remember his name anymore—who had been Joan Crawford’s publicist before she died. She/my friend thought maybe he could help me raise some money—like I said, always looking for money. I wish we had Go Fund Me back then… Anyway, we go to this guy’s house, a nice, Spanish style house in Bev Hills (my favorite architecture by the way), though not nearly as big as the bondage house, and you walk in the door—no, no bondage gear this time—but the house was totally decked out in everything Crawford. He had several of her dresses displayed, every little thing she’d ever touched it seemed like, cigarette lighters and shoes. It was a total museum and homage to Joan Crawford. If her ghost wasn’t haunting that place I don’t know where it would be. And no, he didn’t end up investing either.

There were also other pleasant experiences like a trip to New Orleans and other places for research and other things. And then the Top Secret things that I’m not ready to talk about. But good, bad and indifferent, we all make sacrifices for our writing. What are some of yours?

***
Broken Windows – Sequel to my #Shamus-winning White Heat drops 9/10/18. A labyrinth of murder, intrigue and corruption of church and state that hovers around the immigration debate. #writers #mystery #amreading #thriller #novels  



Available for pre-order now on Amazon.



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com

28 July 2018

A Million Tiny Steps

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

I'm paraphrasing Jane Friedman here, when I say:
"Success takes a million tiny steps."


People always ask me what's the hardest part of being a college fiction writing teacher.  Is it all the marking?  Having to read student works in genres you wouldn't choose to read?  The long hours teaching at night, at the podium?

I don't teach that way (at the podium.)  I'm a desk-sitter.  But it's none of that.

By far, the hardest part of being a writing instructor is telling my students about the industry.  And in particular, that they aren't going to knock it out of the park with their first book - the one they are writing in my class.

It's hard, because they don't want to believe me.  Always, they point to one or two authors who make it to the bestsellers list on their first book.  "So and so did it - why won't I?"

What they don't know is that the book on the best-seller list - that author's "debut novel" - is most likely NOT the first book the author wrote.  Industry stats tell us it will likely be their 4th book written.  (3.6 is the average, for a traditionally published author.)

My own story works as an example.  My first novel published, Rowena Through the Wall, was a bestseller (yay!)  But it wasn't my first novel *written*.  It was my third.  And before that, I had 24 short stories published, which won me six awards.  (Six awards, students. Before I even tried to get a novel published.) 

Each one of those short stories, each of those awards, was a tiny step.

About that first novel: it was horrible.  So horrible that if anyone finds it on an abandoned floppy disk and tries to read it, I will have to kill either them or me.  It was a Canadian historical/western/romance/thriller with a spoiled, whiny heroine who was in danger of being killed. No shit. Even I wanted to kill her.  The second book was also horrible, but less horrible.  It was a romantic comedy with a "plucky heroine" (gag) and several implausible coincidences that made it into an unintentional farce. 

By the time I was writing my third and fourth novels, I got smarter.  Apparently, I could do farces.  Why not deliberately set about to write a humorous book?  And while you're at it, how about getting some professional feedback?  Take a few steps to become a better writer?

I entered the Daphne DuMaurier Kiss of Death contest.  Sent the required partial manuscript.  Two out of four judges gave me near perfect scores, and one of them said:
"If this is finished, send it out immediately. If this isn't finished, stop everything you're doing right now and finish it. I can't imagine this wouldn't get published."

One more tiny step.

That book was The Goddaughter.  It was published by Orca Books, and the series is now up to six books.  (Six steps.) The series has won three awards, and is a finalist for a fourth, this year. (Four more steps.)

I'm currently writing my 18th book.  It comes out Fall 2019.  Last summer, for the first time, I was asked to be a Guest of Honour at a crime fiction festival.  It may, just may, be my definition of success.

If you include my comedy credits, I have over 150 fiction publications now, and ten awards.

160 tiny steps to success. 

Conclusion:  Don't give up if your first work isn't published.  Take those tiny steps to become a better writer.  Take a million.

How about you? In what way has your writing career taken a million tiny steps?





16 July 2018

No More Mr. Nice Guy

by Steve Hockensmith

Being a slim-ish (off and on) white dude (always) with a mild disposition (usually) and a closet full of cardigans, I've been compared to Mr. Rogers more than once over the years. Even in my early twenties, when I picked up the cardigan habit thanks to a frayed maroon sweater inherited from my grandfather, I didn't take this as an insult. My mom likes to tell the story of my older brother's reaction to the first episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as a 3-year-old -- he turned to her at the end and said, "He's a nice man" -- and I always felt the same way about the guy after I came along. He was a nice man, and Princess Leia and I are simpatico on them.


As an American dude, though, I didn't always get the feeling I was supposed to like nice men. Nice guys finish last, remember, and the guys who came in first, the culture sometimes seemed to say, where macho hard-asses. Your football players, your professional wrestlers, your no-nonsense businessmen, your posturing politicians, your tough-talking pundits, your action heroes, your Mike Hammers, your Batmans.

All the same, I tried to Han Solo it.


And like Han, I can't always pull it off. For him, being "nice men" is tough because he's actually a lovable scoundrel (and, let us not forget, a scruffy-looking nerf herder). For me it can be tricky because even though I have Fred Rogers in my heart I have Larry David in my head. As much as I try to do the right thing, like the anti-hero of Curb Your Enthusiasm I often put myself on that road good intentions are known for because I'm paranoid I've done something very, very wrong. At least once a month I find myself giving some exchange on Facebook or Twitter the patented Larry David Look because I can't quite tell if I was rude, someone was rude to me or everything's hunky dory.


And sometimes it's not paranoia. As a writer, I agonize over every word. But that's not an option when you're dealing with people who aren't figments of your imagination. In the real world, everything that pops out of your mouth is a first draft you had to write on the fly. Many, many, many times I've wished I could go back and edit something I said -- give it a polish so it's not so, you know, stupid -- but c'est la vie. Or c'est my la vie anyway. Hopefully yours doesn't feel so fraught.

What would Mr. Rogers have to say about all these neuroses? "It's alright," probably. "I like you just the way you are." Or maybe "Meow meow chill out, man, meow meow" (if he had his Daniel Tiger puppet with him). He'd keep it positive, in other words. No matter what.

I think that's why Mr. Rogers is having a bit of a cultural moment. There's a new documentary about him, for one thing, but even before that came along I was seeing him pop up in my Facebook feed at least once a day. If it wasn't the clip of him testifying before Congress it was a meme about him suing the KKK or meeting Koko the gorilla (a big fan -- literally). Forget Joe DiMaggio. Where have you gone, Fred Rogers? Our nation is turning its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo.

Like painter/zen master/squirrel enthusiast Bob Ross, who had his own moment a couple years ago, Mr. Rogers represents a gentleness, kindness and all-around goodness that seems so rare these days -- so diametrically opposed to the current zeitgeist -- it's practically revolutionary. And "Viva la revolucion!" I say. I know the moment will pass, but in my own small, flawed way, I hope I can help it last just a little bit longer.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go finish my latest book about theft, blackmail and murder.

02 July 2018

Recognition

by Janice Law

I’ve been thinking about recognition lately, although not in the form so close to writers’ hearts as great reviews, editorial interest, and large checks. I’ve been considering it in connection with inspiration, the most mysterious part of the creative process. In particular, I have been trying to figure out the relationship between the two arts that interest me a great deal, namely writing and painting.

The Big Y florist who tripped the switch
It is not uncommon for people to be serious in more than one art. At least two of our Sleuthsayers colleagues are active in both music and writing. Recent Nobel laureate Bob Dylan paints respectably, while an older laureate, Gunther Grass, did really fine etchings. Going the other way, Vincent Van Gogh wrote some of the world’s best letters, while the term renaissance man (or woman) reflects the wide interests and capabilities of what were often primarily visual artists.

On the other hand, if I have a spell of painting, where I am finishing a picture every week or every other week, I have no ideas for anything creative in writing. PR releases for the local library are fine, but anything requiring imagination as opposed to craft is simply absent.

The change from one to the other is abrupt and apparently not under my control. This makes me think that while writing is basically an auditory art, and painting, a visual one, the roots are the same, and at least in my case, there is only so much of the right neural stuff available for work in either one.
That leads to the question of what inspiration in writing and painting have in common, and that
brings me to recognition. In both cases, I seem to recognize something useful. For example, recently I noticed one of the florists at our local supermarket wheeling out a cart of plants. A little mental click and I knew this was a painting. Why not any one of the dozens of other people in the store that day? That remains mysterious.

But that recognition of the pictorial possibilities had a further effect. I painted a whole series of images of the Big Y store personnel, so that recognition triggered a spate of painting and cut off any literary inspiration. Seven or eight paintings down the road, that impulse dried up.
Then various news stories about the Alt Right led me to revisit a story I had begun a number of years ago and abandoned. Again, I recognized something I could use and the result was the completion of that story and at least two more. The verbal switch is apparently now on. How long will it remain? I have no idea, but at some point I hope to see something that says ‘paint me’ and the cycle will start over.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? I would love to know if painter/ musicians or musician/ writers have similar experiences.

Having two arts is lovely, although there is one drawback. Instead of worrying about a lack of inspiration in one field, one gets to worry about two.

18 June 2018

Hello, Cruel World

by Steve Hockensmith

Hi. My name is Steve, and I'm a blogaholic.

I've been blogging on my website, SteveHockensmith.com, since 2006. I got started because my first novel was about to come out, and blogging was just what one did. I'm not sure what one does as a first-time novelist these days. Post pictures of your breakfast on Snapchat? Start a podcast? Vlog about your breakfast-themed podcast on Instagram? All of the above? None of the above? Thank god I don't have to know. You can only be a "first-time novelist" once. After you get that out of the way, you're just a plain old "novelist," and no cares what you do.

When I started blogging, I had no great message to spread, except an implied "Please be so kind as to consider buying my book." I had no great wisdom to share either. (Those who know me well will quickly confirm this.) I could've blogged about how to become a first-time novelist, I suppose, but I'm not a big believer in writing advice, subscribing instead to the Capt. Kirk Method: "We learn by doing."

Irony alert #1: The actor who originally played Capt. Kirk, William Shatner, is the "author" of many "co-written" novels. So when it comes to writing, he didn't, in fact, learn by doing. He did it by hiring people who already knew how to do it and having them do it for him. But we can't all be William Shatner, can we? Civilization wouldn't survive it.

Irony alert #2: Although I'm not big on writing advice, the most-viewed blog post I ever did is called "50 Dos and Don'ts for Wannabe Writers." It still draws a few eyeballs to my site every day because it inspired a long, bitter, bile-filled thread on Reddit. (Is there any other kind?) The second most-viewed blog post I ever did, by the way, is written in the voice of one of my characters, "Big Red" Amlingmeyer, and is about him stumbling across a video called "Top 10 Spanking Scenes in Cowboy TV Shows." Which means that the Google search "spanking cowboys" now brings a few extremely disappointed web surfers to my site each day. And will now bring them here, as well. Howdy, partners! Better luck next click!

Although I figured out a long time ago that blogging wouldn't actually help me sell more books, I kept at it. Why, if there was nothing I was burning to say and no particular reason to say it anyway?

Damn. Good question. Blogging...

Perhaps for me blogging's been a sort of reverse suicide note.
Hello, Cruel World.

I still have silly little projects to work on and silly little thoughts to think.
So I'm sticking around.


Nyah nyah nyah-nyah nyah! You haven't completely crushed me yet!

Your pal,

Steve
Fortunately, there are bloggers with more to say than that. Case in point: the fine writers here at SleuthSayers. Somewhat to my surprise, they've been foolish kind enough to ask me to blog here on a regular basis. Even more to my surprise, I've said yes. I'll be popping in once a month. Which means I need to up my game, blogging-wise.

Can I do it? We'll see. I know how to get started. It's what all the hip kids are doing on social media these days, I think.

11 June 2018

Motivation or Get Outta That Rut?



Jan Grape and daughter Karla J. Lee
by Jan Grape

I think all writers sometimes feel in a rut. 

I think all creative people sometimes feel in a rut.

Maybe even a lot of people sometimes feel they're in a rut.

My daughter and I were having this conversation the other night.

She works eight or nine hours a day in an office, spending a lot of time staring at a computer screen. Then there's the 20-30-40 minute drive home depending on  the traffic. By the time she walks into her house and put on her comfortable shorts and T-shirt, pours a glass of wine and walks outside to her deck overlooking a river, all she wants to do is chillax. She makes a quick dinner and vegges out in front of the TV until bedtime.

She's a songwriter but has trouble getting motivated to pick up her  ukulele and creating a song. "I think I'm in a rut," she says.

Do y'all know that ukuleles are very popular again? When I was a young girl I would go visit my dad and bonus mom in the summer. I would beg my dad to play his uke and sing. And he would often agree. He played songs like "Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue" or "I Wanna Go Back To My Little Grass Shack" or "Lazy Bones." I love it. Now there are little pockets of uke players all over the country. Think I even saw a singer/player on THE VOICE tv show. (but I digress.) 

I understand being in a rut. I'm retired and have time to write, but I've often listened to my lazy self and after doing a few chores or trying to get my allergies or arthritis pain under control, I wind up vegging in front of the TV and never manage to get a word written on my next story. It seems that I'm in a rut.

It's all about motivation.

 How do you get motivated? What works for me may not work for you but I have to sit myself down and realize that I am in a rut with my life and decide to do something about it. 

Calling a good friend I haven't seen in months and inviting she and her daughter to meet me at a new Tex-Mex restaurant I've been wanting to try. 

Signing up for Yoga class. Signing up to volunteer someplace: meals on wheels, local library, visiting a children's hospital or nursing home each week, helping out at a soup kitchen. Just something to make it out of that rut.  Take a daily walk, learn to quilt or paint or to play piano. You can fill your days with something different.

If you're retired like I am, when you get up in the morning, fix your hair and make up if you're female, shave if male and dress if going to an office. Check your day planner then go to your writing work space.

Several years ago I was at a Bouchercon and Sue Grafton was giving a talk to four or five hundred people and she said if you have sat down at your computer and your writing time is three hours, stay there for three hours. Even if you stare at the computer screen and only write the word THE. Sit there for the full three hours.  Write something, anything and once you do this, hopefully, only one time of three hours with a blank screen, your creative muse will kick in. Because who wants to sit writing nothing for more than one day?  

If you are still working, it's a little different. And you are the only one who can decide what works best for you. Get up an hour earlier to write each day or three days a week. Or set your goal to write four hours a day on Saturday and four hours a day on Sunday. Whatever works for you. 

Just do something during the week that gets you out of your rut. Pack a sack lunch and go outside to eat in the park. Buy a ticket to a concert on a Friday night. Spend Sunday afternoon in a museum. 

You can decide to make your own happiness and to get out of your rut, JUST DO IT. 





29 May 2018

Are the Sensitivity Police Coming to Get You?

by Paul D. Marks, Jonathan Brown, Elaine Ash


Contents:

—Context and White Heat – Paul
—Dude? Why so Sensitive? – Jonathan Brown
—The Right to Write – Elaine Ash
—Paul’s original post
—In conclusion – Paul


“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.”

                                                       —President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Four Freedoms Speech

     Context:

It’s time to revisit a topic that’s very important to me, and I would think it should be to all writers. And though some of it may be repetitive, and it is long, I think it’s worth your time if you’re a writer, a reader, a sentient being.

In March, 2017, I did a piece here about the Sensitivity Police (find it at this link, but also “reprinted” near the end of this new post, http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2017/03/the-sensitivity-police.html ). I don’t get very political on social media. There’s only two things that I talk about in that regard and then not that much. The two things are animal issues and free speech issues. The latter is what this post is about. In a nutshell, I’m a free speech absolutist. There’s almost nothing I don’t think people should be allowed to say or put in print. It can be awful and hateful and offend you or me. But that’s what’s great about this country – you have the right to say what you want. I don’t have to agree, I don’t have to break bread with you, but I’ll fight for your right to say it.

I see things all the time that I agree or disagree with but I don’t see much point getting into verbal firefights about them. I’m not going to change any minds and no one is going to change mine. Mostly, I just scroll past political posts.

This revisit is prompted by an article I saw recently in the Guardian, the British paper. The article was “Lionel Shriver says 'politically correct censorship' is damaging fiction.”  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/22/lionel-shriver-says-politically-correct-censorship-is-damaging-fiction

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Lionel Shriver. And I still haven’t read her works. But I agree with that statement. Again, I am a total free speech advocate. I know the arguments about shouting fire in a crowded theatre or hurting people’s feelings, but I also remember when the ACLU defended the Nazis’ right to march in the Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois. (And for the simpletons out there, No, I’m not pro-Nazi!) And I remember when people would say “I may not agree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” That seems to be a dying sentiment.

I understand that people get offended. I get offended, but I just grin and bear it and move on. Maybe you’d rather fight back, verbally. Fine. Just don’t stop the other from saying whatever it is. I’m against any form of censorship. And it scares the fucking hell out of me!!! Free speech is the foundation of our society. Without it totalitarianism reigns. Yet a recent Gallup poll shows college students aren’t totally behind the concept of free speech — See:

https://medium.com/informed-and-engaged/8-ways-college-student-views-on-free-speech-are-evolving-963334babe40 .

——Or——

  https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/college-students-support-free-speech--unless-it-offends-them/2018/03/09/79f21c9e-23e4-11e8-94da-ebf9d112159c_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fcceb8833c43

As writers sensitivity police should scare the hell out of us. As citizens of a free society likewise. Maybe what we write is uncomfortable, maybe you’re offended. Maybe you should toughen up.

This time around I’m inviting two guests to join me and add their opinions, Jonathan Brown and Elaine Ash. I was originally going to intercut the things that Jonathan, Elaine and I have to say on the subject, but I’ve decided to run all the pieces as a whole. I asked a few people if they’d want to comment from the point of view of wanting censorship of one degree or another. Nobody wanted to go on record. I truly hope you’ll take a few minutes to read everything.

***


     White Heat:

My Shamus Award-winning novel White Heat is a noir-mystery-thriller. It’s about P.I.s trying to find a killer during the 1992 Rodney King riots – that makes it much more than a simple noir-mystery-thriller. While protagonist Duke Rogers tracks down the killer, he must also deal with the racism of his partner, Jack, and from Warren, the murder victim’s brother, who is a mirror image of Jack in that department. He must also confront his own possible latent racism – even as he’s in an interracial relationship with the dead woman’s sister.

The novel looks at race and racism from everyone involved, black and white, and no one gets off unscathed. These things can be a little uncomfortable. Believe me, I know. I was uncomfortable writing some of it. Ditto for Broken Windows, the sequel coming out in the fall, that deals with immigration via a mystery story. These are touchy issues, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk or write about them. And if we do so honestly we might unintentionally hurt some feelings.

To quote from my article a year ago, “It’s getting to the point where we have to constantly second guess ourselves as we worry who might be offended by this or that? In my novel, White Heat, I use the N word. And don’t think I didn’t spend a lot of deliberating about whether I should tone that down, because truly I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But ultimately I thought it was important for the story I was trying to tell and people of all races seemed to like the book. I think context is important. But even without context, as a free speech absolutist, I think people should be allowed to say what they want. There used to be an argument that went around that the way to combat negative speech was with more speech, but that doesn’t seem to be the case today. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, ‘Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly.’”

I did add an Author’s Note warning people: “Some of the language and attitudes in the novel may be offensive. But please consider them in the context of the time, place and characters.” Today we’d call it a Trigger Warning. And I don’t mind doing that, as long as no one stops me from saying what I want to say.

If you don’t defend free speech now because your ox isn’t currently being gored, to coin a phrase, then no one will be there to defend you when it is. And revolutions always come back to bite the head off. Look at what happened to Robespierre during the French Revolution. It’s like that quote from Martin Neimoller during World War II: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

My mind hasn’t changed in the last the year. And now here are Jonathan and Elaine to talk about the issue:

***

     Jonathan Brown: 

Jonathan was born and raised in Vancouver British Colombia. He works as a writer, fitness trainer and drum instructor. His Lou Crasher mysteries recently landed him a two book deal with Down and Out Books. The first novel: The Big Crescendo is slated to be released in early 2019 and the follow up: Don't Shoot the Drummer will be released in 2020. Brown has also written a fictional biography about the life of boxing trainer, Angelo Dundee. The book: Angelo Dundee, a Boxing Trainer's Journey is published by The Mentoris Group and will be released in December 2018. Jonathan and his lovely wife Sonia enjoy life in sunny south Los Angeles. jonathanbrownwriter.com

Dude? Why So Sensitive?

When Paul was gracious enough to offer me a chance to weigh in on the ‘sensitivity reader’ issue I said, “Sign me up, please.” For those new to this phenomenon a sensitivity reader is someone hired by a publisher to read manuscripts with an eye sensitive to one particular race, religion or gender and so on. While the publisher’s heart may be in the right place or if the publisher simply wants to avoid a lawsuit, I think the practice is not only superfluous but also dangerous. Dangerous might be a little extreme, let’s say asinine instead.

Here’s where this jazz is headed. The sensitivity reader(s) will essentially be the politically correct police. The potential to take what might be the next great American novel and water it down to Disney meets Hallmark on Mr. Roger’s front porch is huge. For example, Writer X has a vigilante ex-gangbanger as the anti-hero. He enters the warehouse and finds the banger that killed his family. He raises the Sig Sauer. He closes one eye and lines up the enemy down the gun sight. Finally, he shall have his revenge. As a parting phrase the avenger says, “You’re a dead person of color with ancestry dating back to ancient sub-Saharan Africa!” As opposed to: “You’re a dead nigga!” Pop, Pop, Pop.

Under the sensitivity cop regime urban gang bangers won’t use authentic dialog; terrorists will be of a fictitious ethnicity (thus being limited to Science Fiction) and although books will still have steamy sex scenes the party engaging in coitus shall be genderless—out of fairness to the gendered. Can you imagine? Try this scene:

“Hey baby, want to get it on?”

“Sure, if you’ll just put your—”

“Don’t say it. I can’t wait to feel your—”

“No, don’t say it!”

And so the participants put their matching or perhaps mismatching parts together and…did it. 

The End

Can you feel the heat? No? Yeah, me either. I’m rarely the slippery-slope-guy and I’m truly weary of the expression but I must say the incline will become pretty slick here if we engage in this sensitivity reader censorship parade. And what, may I ask makes a sensitivity reader? How does one become one? Is there a questionnaire? The bigger question for me is why have we stopped trusting our own judgment? Don’t we all have some measure of built-in common sense about sensitivity? I say we do, if I may be so bold as to answer my own question.

If a manuscript becomes ‘green lit’ by a publisher that means an agent and possibly her assistant has read the manuscript. Then, let’s toss in two to four low-level readers at the publishing house and cap this off with one or two of the top brass readers.  Do you mean to tell me that from agent’s assistant to top Banana none of those cats know what is basically offensive and what’s not? I call bullshit. As members of society we all know what is basically offensive but now we’re too afraid to say it, so let’s put it on the sensitivity reader…yeah that guy. Phew, thank god we now have a scapegoat if this thing goes south, right? Grow up people.

If this castration of the arts by ‘sensitivity cop’ flies then Noir literature will become beige, Romance will have gender sensitive sex scenes (which I suppose means all genders will have an orgy all at once, what with inclusion and all…hmm) and Horror films will no longer have the ominous black cat, they will have to be Tabbys, Siamese or Ginger cats…which will be referred to as: orange hued. Imagine:

As I walked down the dark alley I glanced over my shoulder and noticed a six- month old tabby cross my path. It was then that I knew…I…was…doomed! (Insert wolf howl sound effect!)

Let art be art. It’s a good thing the sensitivity cops didn’t tell Picasso how to paint, and didn’t instruct Beethoven to avoid all minor keys and thank god they didn’t force Harper Lee to make the accused, Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mocking Bird a white-male primary school teacher with a sunny disposition.

***

     Elaine Ash:

Elaine Ash edits fiction writers—from established authors to emerging talent. She works with private clients, helping them shape manuscripts, acquire agents and land publishing deals.  www.bestsellermetrics.com

The Right to Write

When Paul asked me to throw my hat in the ring for a post on free speech and sensitivity readers, I gulped. Navigating these topics can be as delicate as tucking a hand grenade inside a wasp’s nest. But, admittedly, I’ve brought this on myself, since I take pride in freedom of speech and feel strongly about the right to write.

One way to look at sensitivity readers is simply as a new layer of vetting that writers must hurdle when they submit to Big 5 publishers. First, let’s refresh  on what some famed writers have had to say about protecting artistic integrity.

“Because if you don't stand up for the stuff you don't like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you've already lost.”
― Neil Gaiman

“Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.”
― Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”
― Oscar Wilde

Taken in context with these quotes, the picture of a sensitivity reader redlining a literary opus looks as clunky as jackboots on a ballerina. Add on that the average pay of a sensitivity reader is $250 per manuscript, and it seems impossible that anyone paid this low could influence a billion dollar-plus industry and force millionaire writers to change their work—but they are.

Do Sensitivity Readers Affect You?

First you have to look at your target publishers. There are sensitive and not-so-sensitive publishers. In general, sensitive would be Big 5 and their imprints; non-sensitive would be medium and small indie publishers. Big 5 science fiction and fantasy publishers trend “sensitive.” YA and children’s markets likewise.

Mystery and crime-related genres have strongly resisted sensitivity. In fact, noir and transgressive genres are expected to be offensive—that’s how they make a larger point. But agents have recently confided to me that it’s getting harder and harder to sell mystery fiction. Does this have to do with sensitivity bias? I suspect so, but have no figures to back up that claim other than the frontline reports of literary agents. In other words, publisher demand has constricted, and I suspect that it’s not for lack of the buying public—it’s because publishers fear backlash and boycotts. (More about this later.)

S-readers are not called in on 100% of manuscripts, but if a publisher sees that a writer of one ethnicity might be writing a character of another ethnicity, they will call on an S-reader to vet the manuscript. The problem with this is pretty obvious. Since the original writer isn’t reporting fact but creating art to make a larger point, the original intent of the art may become skewed. Want to check the rules to make sure you get them right? Err, that could be a problem. There is no sensitivity readers guild to consult, and no published compilation of guidelines.

A Case in Point

Science fiction/fantasy author Mary Robinette Kowal has killed projects over negative feedback from sensitivity readers.  http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/sensitivity-readers/   The problem with this tactic is that the rules she’s trying so hard to abide by are not set in stone, they’re not law. They’re merely someone’s opinion, and opinions change. The court of public opinion can change with the day of the week. Is it even possible to write something that offends no one? I suppose so. The greater question is, Is it possible to write something that offends no one that is worth reading? Stories are supposed to disturb, instigate, provoke thought. That comes with the risk of offense.

What sensitivity readers are really all about comes down, in the end, to cold hard cash, as everything in business does. Looking at a hot topic through the cool lense of business is a way to bring practicality to the subject. If a publisher is afraid that they may become the target of an angry boycott, they’ll do everything possible to avoid it. Until recently, these boycotts had real power. But the recent trend is “boycott backlash” where the boycott-ee suffers a drop-off from advertisers, and then receives a sympathy bump from purchasers who disagree with the boycott. It reminds me of when banning books was all the rage. It only made them more popular. What people are told they can’t have, they make special efforts to get.

Sidestep the Time Wasters

My purview is not to make a case for S-readers or against them. I’m here to point out navigation tactics. As I write this, tens of thousands of manuscripts are waiting for Big 5 vetting when some of them could be sailing into medium-sized publishers and landing deals without added delay.

If you are a first-time author, my advice is to go for a smaller publisher to land your edgy material. If you are an established author looking to make the leap to Big 5, you’d have the best bet with a fairly controversy-free manuscript from the race or gender aspect. “White savior writing” is a thing, and sensitivity readers are rejecting it. Google the term and read about it for yourself.

Meanwhile, many mystery and crime readers are looking for gritty authenticity, using nomenclature that coincides with a hardboiled PI or criminal.  Already, you can see how S-readers may chill the edgy, provocative material that underscores much of the best mystery writing.

Express Yourself

As an editor, I’m about preserving the integrity of the writer’s vision, intent, art and freedom to write. I am not a censor for political correctness. For example, I’m horrified by third-wave feminist Andrea Dworkin’s contention that every act of sex is an act of rape. Would I edit a story with a character in it who held that belief? Most definitely. I’m not a censor, I’m an editor. My job is to preserve the writer’s vision, even if I disagree with it.

My best advice is to avoid writing to trends and never write to satisfy sensitivity readers. Take my client Chrome Oxide, winner of two coveted Writers of the Future awards. He’s a humorist making fun of big government and bureaucracy—using the sci-fi and fantasy genres as a backdrop. He came to me thinking there was zero chance of getting a publisher—self-publishing would be his only option. But there are so many alternative publishers now for everything from comic books to novels, that a good agent, or an editor wearing many hats like me, can find a market.

If your agent says there’s no market for what you’ve written, it’s time to get another agent. For Chrome Oxide I had to go to Superversive Press out of Australia, but the terms were the best I’d seen anywhere. The terms almost made me cry, they were so beautiful. This publisher really, really wanted Chrome’s material.

Only you can assess where your manuscript and platform as a writer stand in terms of attractiveness to publishers who assess writers through sensitivity vetting. It’s a big world with many markets. Ultimately, what does not sell will take a diminished place in the market and readers will find what they’re looking for.

Bottom line, you must write who you are and what makes you tick, not what you guess sensitivity readers will approve. Express yourself freely and then find the market that matches your angle. It’s out there waiting if you look.

***

      Thank you Jonathan and Elaine. And here's my/Paul's previous post:

Here’s the pertinent part from my earlier article (see link above):

And now to the subject at hand: I recently came across an article in the Chicago Tribune titled “Publishers are hiring 'sensitivity readers' to flag potentially offensive content.” That, of course, piqued my interest. And I will say at the outset that I’m a free speech absolutist. If you don’t like something don’t read it, but don’t stop others from saying it or reading it.
http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-publishers-hiring-book-readers-to-flag-sensitivity-20170215-story.html

After all, who’s to say what’s offensive? What’s offensive to me might not be to you and vice versa. That said, I see things every day that I disagree with. I don’t like to say that I find them offensive because I think that word is overused and I also think people tend to get offended too easily and by too many things.

As writers I think this is something we should be concerned about. Because, even if you agree with something that’s blue-penciled today tomorrow there might be something you write where you disagree with the blue-pencil. Where does it end? Also, as a writer, I want to be able to say what I want. If people don’t like it they don’t have to read it. I don’t want to be offensive, though perhaps something may hit someone that way. But we can’t worry about every little “offense” because there are so many things to be offended about.

It’s getting to the point where we have to constantly second guess ourselves as we worry who might be offended by this or that? In my novel, White Heat, I use the N word. And don’t think I didn’t spend a lot of deliberating about whether I should tone that down, because truly I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But ultimately I thought it was important for the story I was trying to tell and people of all races seemed to like the book. I think context is important. But even without context, as a free speech absolutist, I think people should be allowed to say what they want. There used to be an argument that went around that the way to combat negative speech was with more speech, but that doesn’t seem to be the case today. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly.”

And, of course, publishers have the right to publish what they want. But limiting things doesn’t change much. It just goes underground.

The Tribune article says, “More recently, author Veronica Roth - of ‘Divergent’ fame - came under fire for her new novel, ‘Carve the Mark.’ In addition to being called racist, the book was criticized for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.” So now we have to worry about how we portray people with chronic pain. Again, where does it end?

I’ve dealt with chronic pain. Should I be offended every time someone says something about those things that I don’t like. Get over it, as the Eagles say in their eponymous song. The piece also talks about writers hiring people to vet their stories for various things, in one case transgender issues. If it’s part of one’s research I don’t have a problem with that. Or if it’s to make something more authentic. But if it’s to censor a writer or sanitize or change the writer’s voice, that’s another story.

There’s also talk about a database of readers who will go over your story to look for various issues. But again, who’s to say what issues offend what people? Do you need a reader for this issue and another for that? If we try to please everyone we end up pleasing no one and having a book of nearly blank or redacted pages. Or if not literally that then a book that might have some of its heart gutted.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for authenticity but I think this kind of thing often goes beyond that. When we put out “sanitized” versions of Huck Finn or banning books like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which has also been banned and of which Wikipedia says, “Commonly cited justifications for banning the book include sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality.”


The Wall Street Journal also talks about this issue, saying in part, “One such firm, Writing in the Margins, says that it will review ‘a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language,’ helping to ensure that an author writing ‘outside of their own culture and experience” doesn’t accidentally say something hurtful.’ I’m not saying one should be hurtful, but I am saying one should write what they want to write. And if taken to the ultimate extreme then we would only be “allowed” to write about our own little group. And that would make our writing much poorer.

I’m not trying to hurt anyone. But I do believe in free speech, even if it is sometimes hurtful.

We should think about the consequences of not allowing writers to write about certain things, or things outside of their experience. Think of the many great books that wouldn’t have been written, think of your own work that would have to be trashed because you aren’t “qualified” to write about it. There are many things in the world that hurt and offend and that aren’t fair. And let’s remember what Justice Brandeis said.

In closing one more quote from the Journal article: “Even the Bard could have benefited. Back when Shakespeare was writing ‘Macbeth,’ it was still OK to use phrases like, ‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ But that is no longer so. The word ‘idiot’ is now considered cruelly judgmental, demeaning those who, through no fault of their own, are idiots. A sensitivity reader could propose something less abusive, such as, ‘It is a tale told by a well-meaning screw-up, signifying very little but still signifying something. I mean, the poor little ding-dong was trying.’”

***
     In conclusion:

So there you have it, three arguments for freedom of speech.


~.~.~

I’m thrilled – I’m Doubly Thrilled – to announce that my short story “Windward,” from the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes fromSea to Shining Sea (edited by Andrew McAleer and me) is nominated for a Best Short Story Shamus Award – and that the anthology as a whole is nominated for a Best Anthology Anthony Award. Thank you to everyone involved!



~.~.~

My Shamus Award-Winning novel White Heat was re-released on May 21st by Down & Out Books. It’s available now on Amazon.

Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a "...taut crime yarn."



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com