the awesomeness of Stranger Things – and recommended reading

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dunt dunna dunt dunt … my Winona

I loved the NetFlix original series Stranger Things. It’s only 8 episodes long, but never feels rushed. The Duffer Brothers did a great job, giving us characters we care about and a monster that truly terrified me. It’s set in the early ’80s and begins with four young kids playing a Dungeons & Dragons game. After the game ends one never makes it home. The cast is excellent, the police are not jerks or incompetent, and even the bullies have depth. It’s not perfect but it’s very close. And it doesn’t have a smarmy facade of nostalgia, the early ’80s were good and bad. A little anachronistic in behavior, but that’s expected.

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I recently read a list of “you might like…” books and wasn’t satisfied. It had the usual literary-friendly pre-genre picks like Arthur Machen and some other great books like Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, but … they really aren’t anything like the show. Stranger Things owes a lot to the following sources: Firestarter by Stephen King, also It and  Carrie and its clone The Fury, and Stand by Me. The works of H.P. Lovecraft. PoltergeistAkira, and the video game Silent Hill. There are nods to Aliens and the nerdy kids who all ring perfectly true reference things they love like The Hobbit and the Star Wars movies. And their favorite teacher is a clueless science nerd, who shows his date The Thing on VHS.

Here are some books I’ve read that reminded me of Stranger Things in a good way:

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons. There are scenes in this novel that still haunt me. It’s similar to It, but so much more concise and darker. Four young kids growing up in a town haunted by the evil of its past, which they must confront to save their lives.

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale. Not quite as perfect as his masterpiece The Bottoms, but when a local girl goes missing, her oddball friends go on a Huck Finn-like adventure to find her, while avoiding the evil Skunk who haunts the swamps of the Sabine River. The Bottoms has young Harry witnessing a murder and trying to save a black friend from being lynched for it, and is possibly Lansdale’s best.

In the Woods, by Tana French. The first one by the master crime writer is darker and more haunting. Before Rob Ryan was police, as a young boy he was found tied to a tree in the woods near an ancient altar. The other two boys were never found. Now the land is about to be razed for developments and he goes seeking answers, as he remembers nothing of that night.

The stories of Laird Barron. The Children of Old Leech are even worse than the otherworldly Thing in Stranger Things and they also love to hide in the boles of trees. Start with The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All.

The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley. Another creepy childhood tale of a family’s yearly visit to an old Christian shrine in the hopes of healing their learning disabled youngest boy. The miracle occurs, but the source is something far more sinister.

My own short novella The Summer of Blind Joe Death is a weird tale set in ’20s Appalachia, where two young boys face the greatest evil there is.

And if you want to read a Megan Abbott novel about a missing child that will haunt you, it’s The End of Everything you want. One of my favorites.

Have you watched the series? What did you think? And what books or series would you recommend, to those who loved it?

 

 

 

Hap & Leonard episode 2: “The Bottoms”

Don’t get too excited, the only ‘bottom’ you see doesn’t belong to Trudy (Christina Hendricks). Another fine foray into Lansdale’s world. Full review at Criminal Element.

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Hap and Leonard, and Joe schooling me

I’ll be reviewing the new Sundance series based on Joe Lansdale’s books, Hap & Leonard, for Criminal Element. The first episode gets the tone and the characters just right. Hop on over to Criminal Element for my full review. I’ve been a fan of the disastrous duo since Savage Season, all the way to Vanilla Ride. I have some catching up to do, there’s a new one called Honky Tonk Samurai that just hit the stores.

Here’s Joe putting me in a fingerlock at Bouchercon in Albany, 2013.

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Who Asked You? 5 Writing Habits That Work For Me

I do not consider myself a success.

That is not self-deprecation, nor am I trolling for compliments. It is a state of mind, meant to stave off complacency, the enemy of all artists, writers in particular. I resumed writing regularly in November 2010, and three years later I have had 50 stories published, published three anthologies, and written one novel, with another novel and story collection nearly completed. I’ve won a Bullet award, had an anthology nominated for a Spinetingler, I’ve made dozens of new friends in the crime fiction community, and one of the stories I edited- Dave White’s excellent “Runaway” in the Protectors anthology- was listed as a distinguished story in The Best American Mystery Stories 2013.

Not bad. But it’s never good enough.

This from nothing. It began with a big bang of enthusiasm after I was coaxed into writing a novel in one month for NaNoWriMo 2010, which I called “Beat the Jinx.” Two revisions later I call it Bury the Hatchet, and I am about to unleash it into agent slushpiles everywhere.  How did I do it? Same way I went from being a chubby weakling into the man-ape hybrid you see before you, who outwrestles athletes half his age and can lift over a quarter ton.

By observing successful writers I admire and cultivating their habits:

Drive

Friends have called me the most driven writer they know. I  write nearly every day- 3-5 hours, until I feel tiredness at the edge of my eyes, when I know any further effort will have diminishing returns. But in my mind, I’m a slacker. And that keeps me driven.

If writing is a chore to you, perhaps writing isn’t for you. Let’s face it, it is work. But it should be a pleasurable work, like building one of those cakes that look like they require a degree in architecture. There will be failure and struggle as you learn by doing. But you get to lick the spoon. Write every day for a month. Pick a time that works, whether you can devote a half hour or three hours. Say you will write for 5 minutes. You will usually write longer. Force yourself to do it for three weeks to a month and it will become a habit. When you skip, you will feel a pang of guilt. You will scribble things down whenever you can. If you don’t know what to write about, maybe you’re not a writer. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s what you do with them that matters. In the beginning, I said “yes” to everything. Guest blog, interviews, anthologies, moderating. It forces you to write and make deadlines. Now I have to say “no” to new projects I want to participate in, to meet my commitments.

Patience

How does this jive with drive? I just told you to get off your ass and do, do, do. But be patient while you improve. Be patient while your stories sit in editor’s inboxes, waiting to be read. Be patient as you get rejections. Be patient as your rejections improve from form letters, to “Best of luck, it’s not for us,” to “we just published one like this,” to “if you edit this, this, and this, we will reconsider.” Be patient with editors. Remember, it is your responsibility to translate your thoughts into words that others can understand. If they don’t “get it” they aren’t necessarily dense; maybe what you wrote is unclear. If you trust the editor–and why else would you submit to a market, unless you enjoyed what they published and think the editors will like your work–you will work with them. You should also sit on a story before editing it, to approach it with a clear head. Don’t ship it off right after you type “The End,” no matter how excited you are about it. In the afterglow, you’re not in a right mind to edit.

Focus

This goes hand in hand with Drive. It is the one I struggled with the most. I am easily distracted, and I love starting new projects. But unfinished projects are nothing. They are a waste of energy. Must you finish everything, even a story you realize is bad? In the beginning, yes. Make something of it. A bad story can be fixed, an unfinished one is useless. No one wants to believe that writing takes practice, despite the mantras of “10,000 hours of practice before learning,” or “you must write a million words of crap before you’re a writer.” How do you expect to improve without failure? I wrote 50 stories, a novel, and edited two anthologies while I was supposed to be revising my first novel, Bury the Hatchet. I have all sorts of excuses for this. My writing has improved due to all those projects, and the novel has benefited, but if I had finished it first, that improvement would still have occurred. Do not let distractions drag you from finishing your work. Starting something new when you are in the middle of the hard work of finishing a story is just procrastination in disguise.

Perseverance

Sometimes, you hit a wall. With deadlines, writers often crash through these walls and finish the story in a way that works, but shows the wreckage. I’ve noticed this in many novels, even stories I’ve enjoyed. “Oh, you painted yourself into a corner there.” Then they cut a window into the wall to escape, and the house is still a house, and pretty from most angles, but there’s a weird window that sticks out. But at least you didn’t have to paint that room twice, right? WRONG! Fix the damn story problem. It will take perseverance. First to finish a story, and again to fix it. Writers have all sorts of vile analogies for revision. You get sick of your own story. And it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be better than “good enough.” If you’ve read enough good books, you will get a feel for it. If you say to yourself, “No one will notice,” that’s a big hint that it needs work. Or if you skim that part and get to the good bits. With me, I get a queasiness, a desire to shirk. And I bold that section for later, if I have no idea what the hell to do. But I always go back to it. Thanks to my friend Wayne Dundee, author of the Joe Hannibal PI novels and creator of Hardboiled magazine, for “persevere.” That’s how he signs his letters. And it encapsulates everything. If there’s one habit that’s most important, it’s this one.

Enthusiasm

Do you love books? Do you love reading a great story, and wishing you could write it? I hope so. You can’t be driven 24/7.  If you find yourself sneering at everything you read and saying you could do better, you might need a break to recharge your enthusiasm. Ever read something you know damn well you could never have written, and yet feel outrage that THIS won the Nobel Prize/Edgar/Hot Poop Award? While your genius went overlooked? It has been known to happen. It means your enthusiasm level is critically low. Read a book by a favorite writer, for enjoyment only. An old favorite. Or stop reading for a week and watch movies you love. Read or watch the stories that inspired you to be a writer in the first place.

What happened? You may have fallen into a validation trap, where you write to hear the applause of the audience. For a time, I found it easier to write quick stories and get the thrill of an acceptance, rather than buckle down and finish a novel. My friend Josh Stallings had the opposite problem- he loves writing novels, but convinced himself that he couldn’t write short fiction. After several of us cajoled and harried him into writing for us, he wrote several excellent stories, which broadened his audience for the Mo McGuire novels. It also supercharged his enthusiasm. He wrote his breakout noir memoir ALL THE WILD CHILDREN, and Mo #3, ONE MORE BODY, will be out soon.

Yes, “only writing is writing.” But writing takes more than typing, and keeping the brain happy–but just a little bit hungry–is part of the maintenance.

I hope this helps. I learned it by mimicking the writers whose careers I want mine to emulate. People who worked hard and were rewarded. Lawrence Block, who has always been an inspiration. He’s 84 and just hammered out another novel while on a world cruise, just to see if he could do it. Joelle Charbonneau, who juggles three series and still has time to blog, tweet, go to conventions and live a busy life. Joe Lansdale, who says he writes 3-5 pages a day. Last time I checked, he’s written 35 or so novels. Plus he runs a dojo. Perseverance personified. He also posts excellent no-BS writing advice on Facebook. George Pelecanos, another prolific author, said he writes 4 hours in the morning and edits at night. Whatever works- the common element is they go the distance, they write whether they feel like it or not, and get the job done.

Now it’s your turn.

Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT is out!

The anthology I’ve been working on since January, to benefit PROTECT and the National Association to Protect Children, is now available.

PROTECTORS includes a foreword by rock critic Dave Marsh, and fiction by Patti Abbott, Ian Ayris, Ray Banks, Nigel Bird, Michael A. Black, Tony Black, R. Thomas Brown, Ken Bruen, Bill Cameron, Jen Conley, Charles de Lint, Wayne D. Dundee, Chad Eagleton, Les Edgerton, Andrew Fader, Matthew C. Funk, Roxane Gay, Edward A. Grainger, Glenn G. Gray, Jane Hammons, Amber Keller, Joe R. Lansdale, Frank Larnerd, Gary Lovisi, Mike Miner, Zak Mucha, Dan O’Shea, George Pelecanos, Thomas Pluck, Richard Prosch, Keith Rawson, James Reasoner, Todd Robinson, Johnny Shaw, Gerald So, Josh Stallings, Charlie Stella, Andrew Vachss, Steve Weddle, Dave White, and Chet Williamson.

The book is now available for Kindle, and the pages at Barnes & Noble and Kobo will be live soon.

For updated order information, including how to order it directly through Paypal (generating the largest donation; you can upload the Kindle or ePub file to your reader, or read it on your PC) go to the PROTECTORS Official Web Page.

The book will also be available for the Apple iPad and on Smashwords. Our designer is working on the print edition, which will be available at Amazon and in bookstores.

The wait is over… go be a Protector!

The Protectors Anthology is coming…

For a year, I’ve been working on a follow-up anthology to Lost Children, the charity anthology inspired by Fiona Johnson‘s flash fiction challenge, hosted at Ron Earl PhillipsFlash Fiction Friday. It is nearly complete, and will be available September 1st. Here is the full list of contributors. 100% of proceeds will go to PROTECT and the National Association to Protect Children – the army fighting what Andrew Vachss calls “the only holy war worthy of the name,” the protection of children.

Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT

Stories by:

Patti Abbott
Ian Ayris
Ray Banks
Nigel Bird
Michael A. Black

Tony Black
R. Thomas Brown
Ken Bruen
Bill Cameron
Jen Conley

Charles de Lint
Wayne D. Dundee
Chad Eagleton
Les Edgerton
Andrew Fader

Matthew C. Funk
Roxane Gay
Glenn G. Gray
Jane Hammons
Amber Keller

Joe R. Lansdale
Frank Larnerd
Gary Lovisi
Mike Miner
Zak Mucha

Dan O’Shea
George Pelecanos
Thomas Pluck
Richard Prosch
Keith Rawson

James Reasoner
Todd Robinson
Johnny Shaw
Gerald So
Josh Stallings

Charlie Stella
Andrew Vachss
Steve Weddle
Dave White
Chet Williamson

40 stories. One cause: PROTECT

In a few weeks, the e-book will be available across all formats. The print edition will follow.

Cover art by Kim Parkhurst. Interior design by Jaye Manus. Cover design by Sarah Bennett Pluck. Print design by Suzanne Dell’Orto. Edited by Thomas Pluck.

I would like to thank everyone who submitted stories for the collection, and everyone who assisted me with this project, and everyone at PROTECT.

Edge of Dark Water

One of my favorite books is The Bottoms, by Joe Lansdale, about a young boy growing up poor near the Sabine River. This story is also set on the Sabine, with teenagers yearning to break free from their blood families and make one of their own. It’s the kind of tale only Lansdale can tell. Southern gothic through his unique and absurd lens, characters as big and real as the dirty Sabine river that flows through the heart of it. I loved it, and was dismayed at how quickly I read it. I’ll go back and savor it a second time. Some called it Young Adult, as if that’s a genre now. Sure, older teens would like it, but it’s just a damn good story, with a lot of heart. I haven’t said a damn thing about the story, because it’s so good, like a dark American fairy tale, except all too real. You can discover it for yourself. It’s a lot more than any synopsis can capture.
I really enjoyed this one, and not just because the story grips you. I wanted to read more about Sue Ellen, and Jinx, and Skunk. Any time Mr. Lansdale writes about the folks of the Sabine, I’ll be there. But Sue Ellen has fire, and I hope she has more stories to tell.

Amazon: Edge of Dark Water