Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hell on Wheels

When we weren't paying attention, television actually got pretty good. Cable and basic cable have, in the last few years, bloomed with quality shows.

I don't have cable, don't want it, but I have taken advantage of DVD releases to get caught up on all the good programming happening lately. I'm still in shock that there's so much good stuff. I'm old enough to remember when TV was a huge empty wasteland of shallow, inane sit-coms and cookie cutter dramas. Yeah, there's still bad stuff out there-- I honestly despise "reality shows" with every fiber of my being-- but there are just as many good shows as bad, and that, I believe, is a first.

One such example: AMC's Hell on Wheels. Man, this show sends me.

First of all, we haven't had an ongoing Western on TV, that I know of, since Deadwood. Secondly, Hell on Wheels really, really delivers. In fact, it's better than Deadwood. I'll explain why in a moment.

The story centers initially on Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier on a mission of vengeance. He's tracking the ex-Union soldiers who murdered his wife and son, and his journey takes him to "Hell on Wheels", the mobile encampment of workers, whores, shill artists and hangers-on that follow the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. Once there, Bohannon encounters Doc Durant, the railroad tycoon obsessed with building his 40 miles of rail at all costs, Lily Bell, a widow who's husband (before being killed by Indians) was Durant's surveyor, Elam Ferguson, the former slave now trying to find his place in this new world of so-called freedom, and many other remarkably interesting characters.

It's these characters that make the show work so well. Each one of them is clearly written, each one has his/her own agenda and their individual arcs are concise and fascinating.

This was, I think, one of the problems with Deadwood, that Hell on Wheels manages to avoid: peripheral characters that don't seem to have any real purpose. Very often on Deadwood, especially in its second season, things seemed to flounder around aimlessly. Characters were introduced that didn't have any clear motivation (or if they did, it was rather dull). Hell on Wheels, on the other hand, doesn't have any characters that feel unimportant. Everyone has a role to play, and everyone has an interesting story of their own. That simple thing can make or break a TV show.

With Deadwood, I often got the feeling that the writers were making it up as they went, without any clear idea about where they were headed. That's the kiss of death for an ongoing drama. Every episode of Hell on Wheels feels tight and fast, with a real sense of purpose. You feel like things are moving toward something huge, all the time. And as a viewer, I felt emotionally invested in every single player in this saga.

But there's more than just great character stuff in Hell on Wheels. The show also delivers on all those things that you want to see in a Western. There's plenty of action. Fisticuffs, gunfights, battles with Indians... unlike Deadwood, which seemed dead-set on not giving us any tried-and-true Western scenarios, Hell on Wheels is fairly brimming over with them. It's a show that, even though it has a very modern sensibility, is also firmly rooted in the Western tradition.

Season Two is starting pretty soon, and for the first time in a while I almost regret not having cable. I'll have to wait for the DVD release, just like The Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire. But I guess I can wait if I have to. If it's half as good as Season One, it'll be worth the wait.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Long Black Train: Free

The second Hawthorne story, The Long Black Train, is free today and tomorrow at Amazon. You can download it here

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guest Post: Vincent Zandri

Why Noir?
By Vincent Zandri

A man walks a concrete sidewalk in the steely dark of a cold, wet night. He’s got a lit cigarette dangling from his lips and the collar on his worn, black leather coat is pulled up high to block the biting wind and the memory of a kiss that has left red lipstick tattooed to his neck. It will be the last kiss he ever gets from that woman whose name he is already trying to forget and perhaps will after his fourth of fifth shot of Jack. Meanwhile the rain picks up and the red, white and blue neon blinks on and off again with all the sad rhythm of a breaking heart. Steam rises up from the grates as if the devil has been summoned and the good Lord above is nowhere to be seen. Not in this God forbidden city. Not in Albany.
People ask me why I like to write noir. But it’s kind of like asking me why I like to breathe. It is a genre to which I am naturally attracted, just like I’m a sucker for a tall, meaty, big browned-eyed brunette with long, lush dark hair that drapes down her back hiding a small tattoo of a skull and crossbones. If any kind of literature were to attract me with all the pheromone-like biological power of a wild sex act, it would be noir or hard-boiled mystery. It’s not only the black and whiteness of the genre, the good versus evil, the shadows that paint themselves on the sides of concrete and glass buildings and always with the consciousness of the death that is surely lurking right around the corner. It’s not the sex or the existentialism of waking up alone and hung over in a warehouse loft apartment located in the now abandoned port of Albany. What attracts me to the genre always is one man (or woman) who is up against it all and has no bloody choice but to try and dig his way out of it. It is using violence as a means towards an end. Violence which in all cases is justified and, from an author’s point of view, as carefully choreographed as the ballet for Romeo and Juliet.
Someone once said that the only truly original American literature is the hard-boiled novel. This is of course debatable. But when a literary trailblazer like Ernest Hemingway comes up with noir classics such as To Have And Have Not, The Killers, and After The Storm, you know there must be some semblance of truth to it. It is a genre which is only now emerging from its infant years to something more mature and interesting. We now have vampire noir, historical noir, future/sci fi noir, and even Amish noir. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

I don’t snottily defend noir or tough guy fiction any more than I bite the nose off romance or literary writing. It is all literary to me, as it is all romantic. I validate its existence every time I complete a new novel featuring the likes of Jack “Keeper” Marconi (The Innocent) or Richard “Dick” Moonlight (Murder By Moonlight). Rather, the genre validates me as an American writer who is adding a chapter to a large and distinguished pantheon of writers which includes the publisher of this blog, Heath Lowrance, Dash Hammett, Robert B. Parker, Jim Crumley, Les Edgerton, Charlie Huston and so many, many more. I wish I could say that I will live long enough to read all the noir greats and greats-to-be. Who does? But I will continue to devour as much as I possibly can while I continue to write new noir novels like a man possessed.
And at the end of a long work day of writing a brand new chapter two-fingered style, a bottle of scotch to my right and a lit cig set on the ashtray on the other, only the light from the bare light bulb hanging over my head to illuminate the studio apartment, I will head out to the street. It will be cold and a light drizzle will coat my face while I light up a new cigarette with the business end of my zippo. I’ll pull up the collar on my leather coat and head for the corner gin mill. You know, the one with the electric sign thunder-bolted to the brick exterior that reads BAR in flashing red neon letters. I will be alone with thoughts filled with violence, sexy but dangerous women, and pure loneliness. The kind of loneliness that strikes at the core of your rib cage and leaves a pit in your empty stomach. But then, that’s the point isn’t it? And that’s the life of a noir writer.

Vincent Zandri is the author of the bestselling noir novels, The Innocent, Godchild, and The Remains. His new novels Moonlight Rises, Blue Moonlight and Murder By Moonlight will soon be published by Thomas and & Mercer. For more information on Vincent Zandri and all his novels, go to WWW.VINCENTZANDRI.COM

Sunday, July 22, 2012

In Praise of Brevity: Guest post by Eric Beetner

IN PRAISE OF BREVITY: a long-winded appreciation of shorter books with detours into screenwriting, knife sales and a few cheap shots at my gracious host
by Eric Beetner

While we wait (and wait, and wait) for Heath to finish up his Fightcard entry, he has graciously given over his blog real estate to me to ramble on a while. Rambling is not typically something I do. I’m a reticent kind of guy. I’m sure many coworkers consider me aloof and odd since I go to lunch each day by myself clutching a book under my arm. But that’s their issue, not mine.
And I try not to be long winded in my writing. I have five books out in the world right now and three of them are novellas. I freely admit to reaching for shorter books when I’m book shopping. I enjoy brevity and focus to my writing.
Many times I think the novella is the perfect length for a story. They remind me of movies. No one would accuse a great two-hour movie of being only half a story, would they? Hell, no. Figure if you go by the minute-a-page guideline for a movie script that’s a 120 page screenplay. I’ve written screenplays, sixteen of them to be exact. Some for money. I’m here to tell you, 120 pages of script format is about 60 pages of prose. That’s way shorter than even the 25,000 word Fightcard books (which usually end up more like 26-27 thousand.)

So if you think you can’t tell a fully fleshed out story in that amount of time, I have a several million Star Wars fans who will disagree to your face with a homemade light saber and while you’re writhing on the ground they will taunt you with that Ewoks song.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about Pulp and what is it, how do you know it, how do you write it, etc. It’s taken the place of the What is Noir discussion that is so played out.
I’m not trying to write pulp. Really, I’m not. Most of what I do happens to fall easily into that category, but only because I’m writing to entertain myself first, the audience second. That’s not as snobby as it sounds. I only mean to say I don’t try to write what I think might be the next (fill in the blank), I only write a story I want to read and that is the only way I can be sure to do my best work, because I will feel the most connection to the story I’m telling. See? Not snobby, right?
In my brief, but brilliant flameout as a screenwriter, my undoing came when my then agent started steering me toward what she felt the “market was looking for”. Deadly words for any writer. If you go chasing after the elusive “next thing” or even try to capitalize on the current zeitgeist, you may as well pack a bag, head off into the woods, and search for Bigfoot. You’re about as likely to be successful.
For me, I tried my damndest to do it. I tried to fit my square peg in a round hole, but I couldn’t figure it out. I did not do well being told what and how to write a story. Kudos to those who can, by the way. I do not fault any Hollywood writer or novelist for tapping into what an audience wants. I wanted to be able to do it, really I did. It’s not selling out or anything like that if you enjoy writing it and can please the audience. It takes a highly skilled writer to be a bit of a chameleon. 
If I could write a deep, insightful novel about the human condition that everyone found pieces of themselves embedded into the main character – I’d write that right away. Not gonna happen, though.
I’ve learned my lesson and my limitations.
I’m damn lucky enough to have a job I enjoy that makes me a decent living so I’m not reliant on writing for income. If that ever happened, great. But for now I’m independent and stupid enough to solely write for my own pleasure first and then try to find an audience – something I seem to be inept at doing, but then again I was a film major in college, not a marketing and PR major.
In fact, (told you this was a ramble) I’ve only had one sales job in my entire life and that was selling knives part time in college. I don’t think I was particularly good at it, either. I know I never stabbed a customer while handing them a 10-inch carving knife to look at. And I never was stabbed myself, a risk the manager warned me of only after I had the job. I still want to use that in a book someday. Guy goes into a knife store, asks to see that kick-ass SOG with the six-inch blade. Turns it over in his hands, then stabs the sales clerk (for our narrative a nerdy college kid) and runs out. Free knife.

So I don’t sell well. Kinda like writing a big blockbuster screenplay, it’s not for lack of trying.
Back to the novella. What I’ve tried to do, and what all the writers on the Fightcard team have done, is tell a complete story that cuts out all the fat, gets to the action, and – in screenwriting terms – cuts to the chase.
Now that I’ve written a sequel to Split Decision, my first Fightcard book, you can read SD first and then follow it up with A Mouth FullOf Blood and you get a full novel’s worth of words if that’s your thing. Very soon I’ll even be packaging them together in one print volume kinda like the old Ace doubles from the real pulp era.

If you like ‘em short and tough as nails, check out Dig TwoGraves. If you like your pulp noir vintage-style check out my first two novels with JB Kohl, One Too Many BlowsTo The Head and Borrowed Trouble.
So that’s my sales pitch, buried here at the end.
Really, my best selling point I can give you is that you’ll need something to read while we’re waiting for Bluff City Brawler from Heath. Seriously, what is taking this guy so long? It’s only a novella!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

You Book Snob, You

Sometimes we forget how isolated we are, as readers and/or writers, I think. We’ve surrounded ourselves with like-minded folks, folks who we feel a bond with because we share many of the same loves, literary and otherwise.

In my case, most of the people I talk to (on line and in so-called “real life”) are speculative fiction fans, crime fiction geeks, pulp afficiandos, western readers, horror-hounds, etc.

Basically, people who enjoy GOOD WRITING.

So I’ve gotten used to seeing posts on the old FB about stuff I like and am interested in. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing the latest snarky but spot-on slam against whatever the latest literary fad/atrocity is rocking the world’s boat. Because of that, I’ve become a little removed from the tastes of the average casual reader.

Case in point: yesterday alone, on the social medias (and forgive me for referring to them so often; they really make up a good ninety percent of my interaction with the rest of the world) I saw four different things poking fun at or dissecting that 50 SHADES OF GREY book. I’m fine with that—it is, after all, just the latest in a long line of hugely popular books that most people with taste like to make fun of, including me.


Also yesterday, a friend of mine who is NOT a writer or even a constant reader posted about how much she was digging 50 SHADES OF GREY and couldn’t wait to read the next one. A whole shitload of folks liked her post and commented in absolute agreement. They were amazingly enthusiastic. It sort of reminded me about how insulated we are as so-called serious readers. We are the minority, big-time.

And maybe we’re even snobs? It’s totally possible.

But is being a snob about reading necessarily a bad thing?

We’ve all had this conversation:

“No, I haven’t read that.”
“What? But I thought you were some big reader. You should check it out, I’ll lend you my copy.”
“No, that’s okay. It’s not really my thing.”
“Oooh, I see. Not cool enough for you? Man, you’re such a literary snob. You haven’t even read it but you’ve already judged it, right?”

There’s nowhere to go with that argument. They’ve got you dead to rights. You ARE a literary snob.

Or, in other words, you are someone who has read enough that you know what’s going to work for you and what won’t. You have developed enough sense to spot crap from twenty miles away. You have a fully-functional bullshit detector.

You don’t need to be gored in the testicles by a bull to know that it’s something you won’t enjoy, not one bit.

Addendum: A couple weeks ago, my friend Jason Stuart wrote a great blog post about this same subject. Read it here: Yeah, but have you read it?

So to the fans of disposable flavor-of-the-season fiction, you’re a snob. So be it. There are worse things than being a snob.

The irony of that is that readers of what we refer to for lack of a better label as serious literary fiction turn their noses up at us genre fiction fans.

Here’s another conversation you’ve probably had:

“Uh, no. I don’t think so.”
“I’ll lend it to you.”
“Save it. I don’t read lurid, plot-driven stuff, only character-based, non-linear narrative with no punctuation and pages and pages of interior monologue.”

Seems we’re only the second tier of snobbery, us genre fans (although I should point out that I don’t dismiss so-called literary stuff the same way I dismiss flavor-of-the-season stuff—maybe I don’t know my literary place or something.)

My point is this: we are right. The lit types and the pop-trash types on either side of us are wrong. It’s okay to say it out loud, even if it does isolate you. I for one would rather be isolated with readers with good taste than roaming amongst the herds who don’t get it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cutting to the chase and other things

Who the hell does this Lowrance guy think he is, giving writing advice? He's not exactly burning up the best-seller charts, is he? You know who SHOULD be giving writing advice? That James Patterson guy, that's who, or maybe that chick who wrote that 50 Shades of Masturbation book. Those are writers who know how to deliver what the people want, right there.

So okay, if your goal as a writer is to sell lots and lots of books and become famous and make movie deals and appearances on Oprah, I'm not your man. Can't help, because I don't know the first damn thing about how to get to that point in a career.

But if you want to write solid short stories, well, I've picked up a few things, mostly from writers who are better than me. But they've worked for me. Here are some of them.

Cut to the chase. You know those scenes in TV shows where, when a scene ends, they transition to a shot of , say, a hospital, before catching up with the characters INSIDE the hospital? Just to give you a heads-up on where the next scene is going to take place? Have you ever really required that shot of the hospital? Transitional scenes are just clutter, usually. The reader doesn't care about Jack's scenic drive from one key scene to the next, while he contemplates all the stuff he just learned in the previous 4 pages. To keep a short story really moving, end a scene with a break, and then dive directly into the next relevant moment.

Keep descriptions of people and places brief. I mean, really brief, as brief as you possibly can. Unless Lulu's appearance is really, truly unusual, a single sentence should do the trick. If your character finds herself in a doctor's waiting room, you don't need to describe the color of the chairs, the paintings on the wall, the magazines on the table-- unless, of course, by describing those things you're revealing something relevant about your character (maybe she's weirdly compulsive and counts how many copies of Entertainment Weekly are in front of her, I dunno). One nice trick to describing a room effectively, I've found, is using smell. That's a sense that we often forget about when writing, but it's amazingly evocative. "The waiting room was small and close and smelled like a stable." Ta-da, done.

Ease off on the internal monologue. One sure way to slow a story down and bore the reader is to indulge in a character's introspection and soul-searching. Especially in a short story, nothing kills the momentum more thoroughly. Consider this: when Hammett had to have the Continental Op ponder his current situation, he handled it by writing something like, "I stood by the window, gazed down at the street, and thought my thoughts." That was it. And it totally did the job. We don't need to know everything the character is thinking. All we need to know is that he's thinking. The rest should become apparent by what he does.

Kill all adverbs. You've heard this a million times, I know. And some of you STILL fight this one. "But sometimes adverbs can be useful, not all of us want to be Ernest Hemingway and besides adverbs are colorful and friendly and they MAKE ME FEEL LIKE A WRITER!!" No. Stop it now. While the occasional adverb might be useful, your best bet is to not second-guess where their usefulness will reveal itself and instead kill, kill, kill them. I promise, it will make your story tighter and more emotionally resonant. And while you're at it, try to stick with "said" for dialogue attribution. "Grumbled", "replied", "countered", "argued"... these are all weak compared to "said", and if you're doing it right, the reader will get the tone.

By that same token, mortally wound all similes and metaphors. You aren't Raymond Chandler. Nothing pulls me out of a story more than the writer exerting his writer voice, some clever little metaphor comparing the dame's hair to the after-effects of a nuclear holocaust or the fella's eyes to a pair of black licorice jelly beans left on the sidewalk. These are the sort of things that remind the reader that they're reading a story. And it's especially bad if you're trying to describe something rather complex-- like, say, a fist fight. The more complex the scene is, the more careful you need to be to use clear, brief language and short, declarative sentences.

Watch your tense. I actually see this a lot. Beginning writers have a strange tendency to lose track of whether a scene is past tense or present tense (and sometimes even future tense!). Jack either "went" or "goes". Pick one and stick with it.


Don't moralize. If your story is in third person-- hell, even if it's in first person-- don't tell me that Jack is a bad, bad man. He's a rapist and a killer and a puppy molester, I get it. I don't need the author to point out that he's an immoral, one-dimensional bastard. In fact, why don't you show me another side of him? Why don't you show me Jack taking care of his invalid mama before heading off to drown some kittens? That would actually make him interesting. But whatever you do, don't judge your own character. That instantly makes him a cartoon.

So there you go. Using these tips, I've managed to clear over a hundred dollars this year in my illustrious writing career. Fame and fortune, baby. It all comes down to keeping the story moving and giving us fully-fleshed out characters.

Or you could just go the James Patterson route, I guess, and hire someone else to do it for you. Or write some cheesy, derivative porn, that works too.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Long Black Train

Hawthorne: The Long Black Train is now available on Amazon.

"It's Hell on Wheels. A simpering madman, possessed by dark magic, transforms the night train into a rolling charnel house. And Hawthorne is about to come face-to-face with an evil beyond imagining.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sweet-natured, life-affirming stuff

Some stuff I want to mention:

The anthology PULP INK 2 is out as of today, and I highly recommend it. From the awesome Snubnose Press, it's edited by two of my favorite writer/editors, Nigel Bird and Chris Rhatigan. The contributors list is pretty much a who's who of the best voices in genre fiction these days-- it's got stories from:
Julia Madeleine,
Eric Beetner,
Mathew C. Funk,
Richard Godwin,
Patti Abbott,
Katherine Thomlinson,
Andrez Bergen,
Christopher Black,
R. Thomas Brown,
Court Merrigan,
Kevin Brown,
Mike Miner,
Cindy Rosmus,
James Everington,
W.D. County,
Kieran Shea,
Joe Clifford,
BV Lawson
...and finally me, your loyal and steadfast hack.

My story is called "My Life with the Butcher Girl", and it's a sweet tender love story that will tug at your heart-strings. Fact.

Also, today is the last day "That Damned Coyote Hill" is free. I thought yesterday would be the last free day, but I was wrong, a condition that happens with alarming frequency.

Tonight, Beat to a Pulp will publish on Amazon the second Hawthorne weird western, "The Long Black Train", and I promise you that it is weirder, bloodier and crazier than the first one. Hope you pick it up.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Hawthorne: That Damned Coyote Hill out now

David Cranmer and Beat to a Pulp have re-released the first Hawthorne tale, "That Damned Coyote Hill", on Kindle, as of now. It's .99 cents, but I believe it'll be free for a few days, starting tomorrow, if you want to save yourself a buck.

"The Long Black Train", the second Hawthorne tale, should be out in a week or so.

Thanks, friends, for your enthusiasm about the character of Hawthorne and his dark, Weird Western adventures. There's lots more to come.

Technical Difficulties?

For the five or six of you waiting patiently for the re-release of "That Damned Coyote Hill", apologies. It was supposed to roll out on Friday, but technical issues at Amazon have delayed it. The big power outage and all that. I've been checking it pretty compulsively all weekend and this morning, and still nada. I had a big push for it ready to go over the weekend, but so much for that.

I'll let you know as soon as it's up.