James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke is my favorite living writer (and he is a writer…he continues to write into his 80s). He’s also my literary hero. Those two things aren’t necessarily inclusive, but  for me Burke is both things.

The hero part comes from his persistence in getting his novel The Lost Get Back Boogie published. Burke was published in his twenties and met with some critical acclaim for his literary novels. Then, he went nearly a decade without being published. Boogie was rejected over 100 times by editors before finding a home with LSU Press. It went one to be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  His next novel was The Neon Rain, a literary detective novel which paved the way for his best-selling career. He’s also my hero for being a “literary” genre writer. He is without any doubt in my mind the greatest living  American writer of prose. Seriously, I’d put his craft up against Pynchon, DeLillo, Morrison and McCarthy any day. Burke comes out on top in this reader’s mind.

In today’s environment of ghostwriting and collaborative, Patterson-esque writing, it would be easy to conclude that 80+ year old Burke may go down that path. But only if you have never read his work. His voice (see yesterday’s post) is so compelling, so unique that it simply cannot be replicated.

No, we will know when Burke has stopped writing. Unfortunately, it will be when he has passed.

There are plenty of reasons that he is my favorite writer that has nothing to do with him being my hero, though.

He writes vividly of setting. (One of those settings being lush, south Louisiana)

His characters are colorful, larger than life beings.

He writes unapologetically of the violent tendencies of man. And he does so in a way that makes you realize that the violence victimizes the inflictor as much as the victim.

His explorations of evil are downright Biblical.

He believably covers themes of the struggles of the poverty stricken in the face of greed.

He does all of the above in the mystery/crime genre framework.

 

April Writing Stats

April 1 – 1038

April 2 – 1072

Total – 2110 words

 

 

 

 

Voice

greyscale photo of man singing
Photo by Thibault Trillet on Pexels.com

Of all the elements of writing (fiction), the one which I hold highest is Voice. Maybe your characters are two dimension cut-outs or your plot is like a train rolling down the tracks or maybe your setting is paint by numbers… if the voice is compelling you’ve got me.

It shows up in the characters…it shows up in the author. And there isn’t much anything you can do to build it in my opinion.  Which comes across as “either you got it or you don’t.”

Talent.

I’m not sure that’s the case. I’m sure some authors’ voices appeal more to my taste. Some, dear reader, appeal more to your taste. But I think more than anything else in writing, your voice is like fingerprints… we all have a voice.  The trick is to use it. Believe in it. And protect the hell out of it. And if your voice doesn’t appeal to every reader. Amen.

When I write a thousand words in an hour without any thought of where it’s going just listening to the characters and tapping away at the keys, and then cycle back and see there’s only some typos to touch up, maybe a little extra depth, etc, but damn this is pretty good!  That isn’t a random act of fate (okay, maybe it is)… it isn’t a  mistake.  It isn’t the 9-iron you blade thin from 140 yards out that rolls up and tucks in next to flagstick. It’s the power of Voice, without the shackles of critical writing…free of re-writing and style manuals.  It is the artist. It is me.

If I leave well enough alone…

 

April Writing Stats

April 1 —  1,038 words

What I Am Watching – I Am the Night

Last week, I binge watched the TNT mini-series I Am the Night. The fact that I binge watched it, probably tells you that I enjoyed it.

<Possible Spoilers>

The Black Dahlia connection was what got me to the couch, but it isn’t what kept me there. After all, there have been plenty of Dahlia stories over the years. I Am the Night shares the downright creepiness of all of the Dahlia stories, but it’s really where it departs from the typical Dahlia telling that it shines.

You see, the Black Dahlia is only flimsily connected to this story. In fact, if you haven’t heard the name George Hodel before and you come at the series without any of the hype, you may not catch on to a Dahlia connection until late in episode 2 or maybe episode 3 (I don’t recall).

This is really the story of Fauna Hodel, and her search for answers to her mysterious origins. And let me tell you, those mysterious origins are almost as creepy as anything else you heard about the Dahlia case.

The acting is strong.

It’s a period piece. I like period pieces.  The fact that it is set in the 60’s and not the 40’s is one of those departures I mention above.

It’s attached to a historical unsolved crime.

Those are all reasons I loved the show.  But my recommendation comes with a caveat… if any of these things bother you to a point you can’t enjoy a story, think twice.

Inter-racial relations.  Incest. Mutilation. Queasy sex.

It’s a very uncomfortable story, but it is fascinating and you will be rooting for Fauna by the end.

— TD

If you need a reprieve from the darkness, my books about corrupt NCAA recruiting schemes and a murdered nun with a shady past pale by comparison.

Universal links:

Everything is Broken

and

North County Girl

 

What I am Reading – Longarm

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Yes, I read Adult Action Westerns (blush). For those that don’t know, the Adult signifies that there are typically two or three scenes per book that would make Larry Flynt blush. Yes, it’s formulaic. And they usually have very little to do with the story. And for this reader they are uncomfortable to get through.  But…

These are the modern day equivalent of the Pulp Western. The action part of the books is fun. They can pretty pretty easily be read in a single night (they’re usually 40-50k words). And in the right hands, the storytelling is strong.

The traditional publishing companies dropped all the Adult Action Westerns several years ago, at the same time they all but finished publishing Westerns in general. Longarm was one of the most popular of the lines. It followed the adventures of U.S. Marshall Custis “Longarm” Long over approximately 400 novels…all written under the Tabor Evans, pseudonym.  Because, they are written by many authors (and more often than not, it’s impossible to discern who the writer is), the quality can be uneven.  But one of my favorite modern pulp yarn spinners, James Reasoner, has written a great many of them, and I have set about collecting those.

For those who aren’t aware of Reasoner, he, by his own count, has written over a million words a year, 14 years running.  As a result of this productivity, he has has had over 300 of his novels published during his career. Many, like Longarm, under an imprint’s pen name. As you might (or should) expect, that much practice has made Reasoner a very skilled storyteller.

The book I just completed, Longarm and the Border Wildcat (#229), was no exception. Longarm is assigned to the Texas border town Del Rio to essentially as body guard to U.S and Mexico diplomats meeting there to agree on border disputes.  Longarm is partnered with a Texas Ranger, who is all Texan. Of course, all hell breaks loose when a group of outlaws raid the town from south of the border.  And I won’t spoil any more of it, other than to say it’s one of the better ones I’ve read in the genre (certainly the series), and that Longarm’s “relations” do have a bearing on this story…so grin and bear it and read the “50 shades”-stuff.

Side note – 50’s crime paperback legend Harry Whittington wrote a handful of Longarms early in the run. I lucked out and found a few of these collectibles at a reasonable price on eBay, and they are on their way.  I look forward to reading to see how they stand up to the Reasoner entries.  Lou Cameron penned Longarms are generally pretty good as well.

— TD

Tabletop RPGs and Writing

 

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Every Friday night I run a Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) game for my son and his buddies using the edition of the game I first played back in 1981.

Every other Sunday I run a game for my son and his buddies and some of my gaming buddies (read other 40-something geeks).  We use the current (5th) edition of the game.

The Friday night game started with an old-school, open sandbox style module, but quickly has devolved into me completely making stuff up as I go.  I do probably less than 15 minutes of prep for this game every week.

The Sunday game, I am running one of the published adventures for the 5th Ed. game. As written, it’s very railroady.  And focused on running the players through a story.

The roleplaying game phenomena has an interesting timeline, which I won’t go much into, other than to say it has produced some distinct styles of play.  I’ve spent plenty of time in the “collaborative story-telling” school of play (hell, one of the more popular RPG systems is called The Storyteller System), and as much time in the “it’s a game stupid” school.  And in all the space in between those two extremes!

Oddly, I find myself mostly in the game-ist side right now.

Why oddly?

Because I am currently writing a post about the similarities in my writing process and my gaming table.

Right… I probably should get to that.

What I have found… I’m at my best when I am mostly winging it at the table.  This shouldn’t be much of a revelation.  The best game I’ve ever run was nearly 10 years ago (yes I remember a single night of gaming a decade ago), and I’ve come to refer to as the Doppleganger Murder Mystery extravaganza.  For that game, I created a handful of 7-sentence non-player characters. Gave the players a situation, and let them have at it.

Today, in that Friday night game, I’ve been known to create the dungeon whole-cloth as I’m drawing it out on the map for the players.  No prep whatsoever. Just, what would be cool right now?

Sunday game with the pre-written adventure?  We’ve spent 3 sessions in the “episode” that allows the most free-styling in the whole adventure.  And next session will be in that episode at least partially as well.  I don’t think there’s any coincidence there.  (I obviously don’t want to leave this place).  But even when we are “on the rails”, my favorite parts (and I think the players’) are random encounter rolls and when the players completely go bat-shit crazy off the tracks.

What this all comes back to… why am I surprised? Even as a Dungeon (Game) Master, I want the experience to match the players’. I don’t want to know what happens, and I certainly don’t want to know how things end.  It’s a game after all.  Not a story. <grin>.

But since, we’ve mentioned story. When I’m the Dungeon Master of my novels, stories, etc. I don’t want to know how the games end, either.

In both cases, with players and readers… I strongly believe, if I don’t know where things are heading there’s a good chance they don’t either.  If they do?  More power to them. They’re smarter than me.  And I’m okay with that.

— TD

Both of my books are widely available, and I would love to have you as a reader.  Universal links:

Everything is Broken

and

North County Girl

 

More Critical Reading

Simple, lazy post today.

If you’re interested in reading some more thoughts on Critical Reading give Harvey’s post a read:

https://hestanbrough.com/the-daily-journal-sunday-march-17/

I commented on his post regarding the re-reading enjoyable pieces…if you re-visit the Reading for Pleasure post, you’ll see that conceptually we do the same thing (i.e. in our own way).

A lot of interesting insight into how Harvey copy-edits…and what he expects of first readers.

Thanks all readers for the interesting comments on yesterday’s post.

— TD

 

 

Critical Reading

This is a continuation, of sorts, of the infamous Critique post and the less controversial Reading for Pleasure post.  I guess the flip-side of seeking Critique is participating in Critique as a reader.

I take that back. It’s not really a flip-side.  My position is the same.

The problem is the same. And in the Reading for Pleasure post, I pretty much laid it out. I’ve spent years tackling a reading critically problem.  It surfaced when I started “learning” to write, and going to peer critiques. Here’s the thing… critiquing is mind numbingly easy.  When you start from a position of trying find what’s wrong…you will.  Give me a week with Shakespeare, Gatsby, Hemingway… I’ll find something to criticize. But, good Lord, why would I want to do that?

The Lonesome Dove post showed that I haven’t completely conquered this demon, though I wasn’t overly critical… and I am REALLY enjoying this book.

So the selfish answer is I don’t want to critique because it is no fun. I read to be entertained.  The other collateral damage I’m trying to avoid is that reading critically means less time in my creative mind… not to mention, giving criticality that kind of power over my reading gives it an “in” when I sit down to write.

What does this means for fellow writers?  Do I not want to read your stories, poems, essays?

I do.  I want to read and enjoy them. I would be honored.  If your stuff is on the market, I’ll most likely purchase it (or borrow from library) and read it. If I don’t purchase it, and you share your work with me, I will be grateful and thank you for the opportunity to enjoy your work.

Unfortunately, if you come to me and ask me to share “what’s wrong with it?”  I won’t be able to help.  That’s critical reading, and I won’t purposefully take on that task for the selfish reasons I mention above.  I will, however, share one of my core beliefs:

The greatest quality an artist can have is belief in oneself.

–TD

 

More Sugarman

A little more on Sixto Rodriguez. I was fortunate enough to see him (front row, center) about five years ago with one of my oldest friends.  It was a fantastic experience. The positivity that emanated from him was contagious. Many of his songs are not exactly shiny/happy songs, but he delivered them with joy. He was a man, who truly loved his art and performing for his listeners.

I often think about that…love my art and sharing with readers.  That is what it’s all about.  The purpose = entertain myself and (hopefully) others.

— TD

 

 

Searching for… Discouragement

I’ve seen a lot and heard a lot about artists getting discouraged over the last couple of weeks.

It reminded me of something I took away from the film Searching for Sugarman.

<Possible spoilers to follow>

This documentary on the surface tells of one South African man’s search for the truth about South African pop icon, Sixto Rodriguez, a late sixties American musician who released two albums that nobody listened to in the States.  In South Africa, though, somehow those albums arrived in country during apartheid, and Rodriguez became the “voice of a generation.”  Bigger than Elvis.  Part of the allure was the urban legend, that Sixto, so depressed over his lack of success, committed suicide on stage at his last concert.  (In this day and age, the legend would be de-bunked before it was told to the second person.) Of course, the narrator discovers the error of this legend, and locates Rodriguez living very humbly in his hometown, Detroit.  A South African tour is planned and Rodriguez performs to sell-out crowds of 30,000 +.

It is fascinating and unbelievable and the kind of story you would call Disney out on… and it’s evidently (mostly) true.  And Sixto Rodriguez is a musical genius. I still remember the first time I played Cold Fact for my brother, Dennis. He nearly fell off his chair, he was so blown away.  It was one of the few times where our musical tastes aligned.

Dennis’ favorite Rodriquez tune:

As fascinating and uplifting as the film is.  One thing is left unsaid.  For something like thirty years, there was no new Rodriguez music. Actually longer, because even though his obscurity has faded away, we are still left with only those two masterpieces. It may be that Rodriguez continued writing music and playing… though it’s pretty much portrayed in the film that none of his neighborhood friends knew he was a musician.  The point is one is left with the conclusion that so discouraged by his lack of “success” Rodriguez stopped creating.  And that is a tragedy…not just for Sixto Rodriguez, but for any artist.

I don’t think that was an intended take away from the film, but it’s a bittersweet theme I acknowledge more with each viewing.

Discouragement comes at us from all corners. In the news of late, we see a lot of bullying of YA authors by so-called Social Justice Warriors with the intent of convincing the authors to pull their work off the publishing schedule.  My friend, Carrie-Anne Brownian, recently blogged on this, and it’s worth a read.

There’s always a plethora of posts (and stories told to me) by authors depressed by critical feedback they’ve received (which by the way is essentially what the bully mentioned above is…overly critical feedback based on Advanced Reader Copies). Some of these posts are so discouraging, because it’s obvious the creators are doubting themselves to the point of nearly quitting…or at the very least giving up the current work in progress.  Good Lord, do not do this! (and that is the only thing in this post that should be considered advice)

Then there’s low sales or rejection letters. All I can say on that is the sure-fire way to fail is to keep the work in a drawer.  Yes low sales can be discouraging. The flip side is true, too.  When you see a bump in sales, it’s like free-basing on dopamine.  And you know what?  For the most part, I can’t figure out what causes spikes and valleys.  I do know not writing…not creating…not putting it out there, will kill sales.  But I also think you have to be okay with the lack of visibility, the fact that no one cares (like you), and the lean times, because in the end, writing is fun and tracking sales is not so much.

So what do I do?  For one, (I wrote on this in the Resistance post) I recognize that ultimately what keeps me from my work is internal.  Not external.  So, I tell myself that those who attempt to tear me down, generally, do so to try to bring me down to their level.  And I avoid these people and exercises. If some external force keeps me from my writing that’s on me, not them.  I recognize that sales are mostly out of my control, so I don’t set goals around sales.  My goals are things that are completely under my control.  And I write the best I can and put the work out to find my audience, and realize that I will get better through writing (practice).  If I keep doing that, hopefully, no one will look back and say what happened to the last 10/20/30 years…how come there is no work?

That he not busy bein’ born is busy dyin’ — Bob Dylan

–TD