This Is Not a Playlist

About a week ago, the redoubtable Adrian Shotbolt (aka The Grim Reader; he also threw Bones Are Made to be Broken a good review last year) asked me about how music influenced my writing and I jumped at that topic in half a minute.  Music is huge with me, to the point that for a significant portion of my teens and twenties, I was an insufferable prick about it.

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Don’t worry–I’ve gotten better.  (“At being a dick, Anderson?” someone yells in the back?  Like, dude–what are you even doing here today?)

Anyway, I won’t rehash all that here, because you should really go read the article over at Adrian’s page; it’s top-notch writing, the best, the best there is–also, he writes really awesome reviews.

What I am going to do is pull the songs for the stories I referenced because, fuck, I love those songs.

1 – “Passive” – 44 Lies by 22 Liars

This is the most straight-forward of the stories, a flash piece I wrote on a whim one night when I was avoiding working on something else.  The “wake up and face me” part pretty much nails it, but I, when hearing the song, saw this one-sided friendship, so lopsided that the “higher” person in the partnership is like this benign villain, fucking things up for our “hero” through nothing but simple existence in the hero’s orbit.

2 -“Crawling Back to You” – Savage Beasts (Grey Matter Press) / Bones Are Made to be Broken

The penultimate track of Tom Petty’s 1994 album Wildflowers, I’ve loved this song since I first heard it on the highways of Ohio back in 1996.  I’ve talked a lot about that song over the years; there was a reason I used “Crawling Back to You” to kick off the stories in Bones Are Made to be Broken.

When it came to the story, I wound up mixing the wariness and weariness in Petty’s lyrics with the nihilism of Near Dark (I’m writing this on the day I learned of Bill “Severen” Paxton’s death, so, yeah, that hurts).  Something about the relationship between a vampire and his familiar struck a cord with me; relationships are fucking hard, gang, and anyone who’s been a successful one (platonic or intimate, I mean) can tell you that.  When the relationship is toxic and near-eternal due to circumstances, you have a fucked up situation.  I wanted so much for Patty, the protagonist in the story, to succeed, if only because I’ve known people like her in real life, people who you know have the common sense to get the fuck out, but just can’t.

3 – “The Universe Is Dying” – You, Human (Dark Regions Press)/ Bones Are Made to be Broken

Quick trivia – the version of “The Universe Is Dying” in You, Human and the one that appears in Bones Are Made to be Broken are different.  I took all the stories I reprinted through a revise and/or slight-rewrite, but I was never happy with the ending to the original version and agonized over the last paragraphs for far longer than I should.  I ultimately got it (he says, nervously), so  when I think of “Universe” in “official” terms, it’s the reprint in Bones I think of.

On the surface, “Jimmy” is the biggest influence–two characters named Jimmy, a location in Ohio, the past calling back to the present–and “A Long December” is explicitly named in the story.  I based the story’s emotional heft off the death of my own grandmother in December of 1996 (in the story, the death is my wedding anniversary–don’t read too deeply into that), which hit me hard, not because it was my first experience with death, but because my grandmother was one of my biggest influences growing up (my jet-black gallows humor comes from her and her side of my family).  So, a lot of the story–including the town, house, and hospital, are actually landmarks in Oil City, Pennsylvania, with a name-change.

Because of that “Happy Anniversary” is the biggest influence when you go deeper.  When Pierre sings, “I can feel it in my bones tonight” and “Send the kids my love, happy anniversary”, it rocketed me to the hospital room I was writing about, and holding that hand with the paper-thin skin.  In fact, I’d had the rough idea for “Universe” for years, since first hearing “Jimmy” in 2000, but I needed “Happy Anniversary” to get me in the emotional groove.

4 – (Bonus) “Bones Are Made to be Broken” – Bones Are Made to be Broken

I’ve written before on how seeing illustrator Pat R. Steiner, juxtaposing my toss-away title Bones Are Made to be Broken with the image of a woman in the water jumpstarted the idea for the novella, mixed with my own experiences growing up in the early-1990s with a single mother and a bad divorce.

I wrote the story, but it was a shallow novel–meaning, the first draft totalled 59,000 words, but didn’t have the punch I wanted it to; it felt more like a poke.  I knew I was going to have to rewrite.

When I started rewriting, I happened upon this song because I follow Pierre on Twitter–and I immediately knew what I had been trying to talk about.

“Bones Are Made to be Broken” is horror to me although there are no monsters or killers and even the villain, the ex-husband, is not particularly villainous and you can see where he’s coming from.  It’s about a single, broken person, charged with not damaging their child.  Fuck, it’s mainstream.  I make the joke wondering when the Lifetime channel is going to option the fucking thing for a Movie of the Week.

But it is horror, and a gut punch, and about the lengths we will go to to protect our children, even when dealing with mental illness and nervous breakdowns.  When I heard “Everything That Hurts”, that subtext finally articulated itself to me (I’m one of those who see stories as found things, and it’s a writer’s talent that pulls it from the mental soil like an artifact).  I wrote the chorus at the top of the document and rewrote the story from scratch, not once looking at the first draft, and managed not only to add and revisit scenes with greater clarity, but also bring the fucker home at 20K fewer words than the original version.

All because of that song.  Thanks, Justin.

So, there you go.  Enjoy the tunes.

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You can get the eBook and paperback of Bones Are Made to be Broken on Amazon.

You can pre-order the deluxe and expanded (by about 10K, roughly) limited hardcover at the main Dark Regions Press site.

You can add Bones Are Made to be Broken to your Goodreads shelf:

Bones are Made to be Broken
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Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands: Jonathan Maberry’s The Dragon Factory

(Quick note: Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

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NOTE: Before I get into this, I’m going to warn everyone now: I’m going to spoil a plot point.  I have to in order actually review it.  So, if you haven’t read this book originally published seven years, get the fuck out now.  Only warning.

Okay, good.

Anyway.

Fuck, I struggled getting to this review.  Not the book itself, which I’ve read before, but writing the review, because I knew…well, it wasn’t going to be terrible, but, for me, The Dragon Factory is the weakest link in the Joe Ledger chain.  Also, I like to think Jonathan’s a friend, so me nitpicking feels fucked up.  Yeah, yeah, I know–“If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all” but that logic falls apart immediately if you set yourself to always be bluntly (not necessarily brutally, but that can happen) honest.  And I try to be honest as much as I possibly fucking can.  Life’s too short, otherwise.

In any event, here are the deets on The Dragon Factory: This is the second novel in the Joe Ledger series, a run of stories told about former Baltimore PD detective Joe Ledger, who gets recruited by the shadowy Mr. Church–sometimes called Deacon, or the Sexton, or Mr. Bishop–to join the Department of Military Sciences, a Men-in-Black-style government agency that only comes in when everything’s hit the fan.  He leads his Echo Team into battle, leaving a trail of bodies trying to uncover and stop this plot or that plot.  The first novel, Patient Zero, dealt with zombies.

The Dragon Factory takes place a few months after the events of the first book and we find Ledger & Co.–Church, Joe’s psychiatrist Rudy, his colleague and girlfriend Major Grace Courtland, Dr. Hu, Bug, and a handful of others–dealing with the endgame of a modern times Final Solution, where white supremacists find a way to weaponize various genetic disorders to eliminate a number of ethnic groups.

Sounds kinda fucked up, right?  Also, oddly prescient in these Trump Presidency times, but whatever.  Maberry is a fun pulp writer in the best tradition, but he doesn’t pull his throw when shooting for the moon.

Everything that was good about Patient Zero is on full display here–snappy, writing, that, to quote myself, “a propulsive, yank-you-forward style, the chapters and paragraphs short and punchy, producing a staccato rhythm that can pull you in like a really good drum solo”; the book is fun and engaging and his character’s well-rounded–almost to the point of overshadowing Ledger and his own sarcastic personality (I always saw Ledger as like the kid brother to Nelson DeMille’s John Corey–at least the early John Corey novels).  It’s the exact type of sequel one would want.

Which is where, for me, we run into trouble.  It’s not something I noticed when I first read the book, years ago, but subsequent readings have underscored it and, to me, The Dragon Factory always feels like Maberry’s rubbing his shoulders against the limits of a series.  I’m not the biggest fan of series–they, when they stumble, become a matter of fan-service, leaving the stories and characters pale imitations of what they could be–because there’s a certain formula to the series.  Unless the book is marked as the last one, you know the hero’s going to live.  You know, a fair number of books in, that so-and-so among the characters is going to live to be the hero’s support system.  This lowers the stakes and, thus, the emotional investment.  Running into this, the writer has to go for broke on literally everything else to make it worthwhile or risk the series becoming the written equivalent of NCIS–and no one wants that kind of low-level, no-stakes, you know what’s going to happen because nothing changes, story.

Maberry to his credit bumps against this constantly and isn’t satisfied with mere fan-service, but the limits of a series are there.

Which runs into my really big problem with The Dragon Factory–(here’s that spoiler I warned you about so, seriously, fuck off)–the death of Major Grace Courtland.

Maberry is no slouch when it comes to characters and even his bit players feel like they have a pliable, livable backstory to them.  Even when Courtland was introduced in the first book and she (very much predictably) became Ledger’s love interest, Maberry wasn’t satisfied just to have a soldier with tits or, even worse, a useless mannequin who somehow found herself on the battlefield.  Courtland was a big draw and a satisfying inclusion to the book.

But, in action movies, heroes lose their love interests.  The Ledger series is, while inverting shit here and there, an action book.

You know Courtland’s going to die.  You can feel, in the text, Maberry bracing (himself as much as for us, I think) for her death–the sudden opening of feelings between the two, the escalating series of obstacles keeping the two apart.  When hitman Conrad Veder finally punches her ticket, the reader saw it a mile away.

And that sucks.  Two books in and a character that could’ve had equal footing with Ledger is gone in that predictable transitioning-to-the-third-act-of-First-Blood-Part-II.  Nothing saves that.  It gets compounded by the fact that we learn, in the third novel The King of Plagues, that Ledger finds and kills Conrad Veder, but it happens entirely off the page, prior to the events taking place in the novel.  I have a nitpick about that, but I’ll save it for the actual review of Plagues.  To me, it just felt dismissive of an actually really good character, and that compounded the suck-it-tude of Courtland’s death to begin with.

In the end, The Dragon Factory isn’t a bad novel and this is my third or fourth time reading it, but, when lined up against the other Ledger novels, you feel the sophomore-effort drag to the story and events.

Next, Maberry goes full-tilt-boogie into mind-fuck pulp fiction land with The King of Plagues.

Beta-Reading and Not Being a Nice Person: A Primer

The biggest and best lesson I ever took away from the writer’s group I attended years ago was this: Don’t be the nice guy.

This would seem counter intuitive, I guess.  People usually attend a writer’s group to find a welcome space for a creative endeavor, a place where they can “be” writers–whatever the fuck that means–and to seek encouragement.

The writer’s group I attended between 2006 and 2010 did not subscribe to that theory.  Thank god.

See, this writer’s group had a simple theory behind it–if you’re bringing work to the table, you ultimately want to submit that work to an editor for acceptance and payment.  Most editors are overworked and few are paid for their time.  They can’t and won’t hold your hand through the minor and major reasons why they rejected you.

This is where the writer’s group came in.  The eight or ten people–most of them writers, a few who have edited things, one a librarian–put on their editors-at-large caps and pulled out their knives.  They cut your story down–nicely, but, if something didn’t worked, they told you in exact detail, no pulled punches.  Occasionally, this yielded some mean comments, to the extent that someone, privately, had to be told to cool it, but not often.  At all times, the writer had to sit there and listen and only ask questions for clarification.  They could not argue.  They were told this from the jump, as well as the fact that, as with editors of anthologies and magazines, these were just the opinions of that person.  Take or discard what you wanted.

But the important thing was the criticism–the hard, specific point any one person made within the piece being examined.

There are a lot of problems with writer’s groups, particularly when it comes to perception and reception–the feeling of producing so you feel like you’re contributing, keeping in check your own views on writing versus the actual writer’s, the tendency to criticize something on the fact that you may not read that specific genre–but I never left that lesson behind.

Don’t be nice.  If there’s a problem with a piece, don’t dress it up and obscure it with (almost certainly over-extended) niceties, don’t think about the writer’s feelings.  In all honesty, fuck the writer’s feelings.  The only thing that matters is the story–what the writer is trying to get at.

So, I don’t beta-read for many people.  I actively avoid it, and, when approached–as I periodically am–I always wonder if they want the hard shit, or they want the equivalent of a pat on the head and a “good job!”  I get it–artists are neurotic as fuck about what they do because it is inherently personal.  No matter how hard or punk rock a person tries to be, we’re all knees-shaking middle school boys about to step onto the dance floor for the first time and we’re all terrified someone’s going to laugh.  I get that.  I’m like that, myself.  Art makes everyone thin-skinned.

But, when I beta-read, I don’t care.

I have a cadre of tight beta-readers–people whose opinions I trust to be honest (if unpleasant) and people who can trust I will do the same.  If I make one of them cry or laugh or feel something, it’s a pretty good barometer.

Recently, I was asked to beta-read Damien Angelica Walters’s 2nd story collection Cry Your Way Home, due out this September from Apex.  Damien and I go way back and we’ve been beta-reading each other for years.  She wrote the introduction to my book Bones Are Made to be Broken; I ended up as an oblique easter egg in a novel.

Beta-reading a collection is not the same as a single story; you’re not looking for mistakes or problems with characterization, flow, or development.  Instead, you’re looking at the overall flow, the balance of this-type-of-story versus that-type-of-story so that the entire book feels cohesive.

This is not as easy as it sounds (and also why I don’t actively pursue editing jobs as much as I did years ago; too emotionally exhausting).

A lot of the pieces in Damien’s book are well known and I’ve beta-ed them before; reading them again was like visiting with old friends.  She had a list of maybes, along with a list of definites and wanted my view on both.   Knowing Damien’s style, I girded myself for gut punches and still fell for them–as I hope you will too.  Sometimes reading Damien’s work is like being transported to a slightly-fantastical place while under the influence of a mild fever–you can recognize a lot of your world, but the odd parts are even more enhanced due to your mental state.  That’s how Damien bites you.

So, I read the pieces, one by one–starting with the pieces she would, quote, “die if they weren’t included” in order to get a feel for what she was looking for.  And then, having that idea in place, moved on to the maybes.  These were stories that, if it was my book and they were my pieces, I would cut.

This isn’t easy and here’s the hard truth of beta-reading for the beta-reader (which is nothing more than an unnamed editor): you don’t keep everything you like.

This is the truth of writing, as well.  Sometimes you cut the line you love, merge the character you most identified with, streamlined this subplot that you feel added depth to the narrative.  There are a host of reasons why, but the best and only reason, really, is that it helps the book.

To do that as a beta-reader means you have to say, “I like this.  Cut it, anyway.  And here’s why.”  If that’s hard for your own shit, have fun doing it to someone you respect and love and admire.

But you do it because you were asked to and, ultimately, you want your colleague to do well.  Art is not a zero-sum game, and never will be.  I want Damien or anyone I beta-read to succeed.  I want the story or the book to be read and appreciated over and over again.  It doesn’t matter if it’s my work or not.  Art is just as personal to the audience as it is to the creator.

So, I read Damien’s books–the definites, the maybes, the old friends–and made my suggestions in as clear and definitive view as I could.  I hated doing it and thanked the gods that she concurred with many of my opinions (Damien’s sharp as fuck), and, like with her novel Paper Tigers last year–you’re going to want this goddamned book.  I hope Apex gets their pre-order up soon because, when it does,  order the damned thing.  You will not regret it.

Also, go buy Paper Tigers.

And, what the hell, go buy Bones Are Made to be Broken.

Cheers.