Monday, June 30, 2014

The Free Bin: Pre-Code Superheroines, Deadly Fashion, and Homicide Hunter

I’ve had a wildly exciting week (which you’ll learn more about if you read the whole post), but I still found a little time to read, relax, and scour the net for fascinating stuff.

  • Tumblr blogger Saladin Ahmed has a cool piece on pre-code comic book heroines, rounding up forgotten female characters like Lady Satan, The Veiled Avenger, and a bleach-blonde jungle spirit who might well be the first woman with superpowers to appear in comic form.

  • The Guardian is calling it “the kinkiest secret in the Soviet Union”: a collection of erotic and pornographic works confiscated from aristocrats after the revolution. Deemed “ideologically harmful,” the vast collection of literature, artwork, photos, and film was off-limits to the public, but supposedly enjoyed by high-ranking officials. Because it was kept secret, most of it is remarkable well-preserved.

  • Victorian fashions could be as deadly as they were beautiful. From poisonous arsenic dyes to madness-inducing mercury-laced top hats, just getting dressed could turn a person into lunatic or a corpse. A new exhibit in Toronto is exploring the allure of deadly fashion and the desire for beauty at all costs.

  • The Pablo Neruda Foundation has reported the find of twenty previously-unknown poems by the Nobel Prize-winning writer, calling it “the biggest find in Spanish literature in recent years.” The poems are said to be of high quality, matching that of some of his best works.

  • Actress Scarlett Johansson is reportedly bringing a lawsuit against an author and his publisher because the book features a character that is described as looking like the celebrity. Good luck with that.

  • In personal news, I spent most of last week filming an episode of the ID television series Homicide Hunter. I can’t reveal a lot because of spoilers, but some time around August, you can see me in a pretty plum part as a strip club owner/murder suspect. After the show airs, I’ll be sharing some of what I learned about structure from the show’s script, which dices up real-life murder stories and presents them in a way that makes the outcome a surprise.

Monday, June 16, 2014

On Losing a Manuscript

I suppose it could be deemed ironic that while working on a book about films that have gone missing, I lost my work. 
Photo: Sarah Wynne/Creative Commons License.

It’s not been very long since I returned from my writer’s residency, during which I completed the introduction and three chapters to my book—enough to begin sending out the samples required for a non-fiction proposal. To my horror, one of those chapters has now disappeared. The file is gone. It’s irretrievable, which I’m only just now admitting.

To make matters worse, the missing chapter is the one on which I spent most of my days during my residency, making me feel as if my time there was wasted. The section was on Drakula Halala, a lost Hungarian horror film, and the first to feature a character inspired by Stoker’s Dracula. I knew it would be a challenging entry in my book, so I chose it specifically to work on during my time of solitude in the cabin. I felt a major sense of accomplishment after completing it, because it had a lot of puzzle pieces, and I knew it was one of the most difficult chapters I would write.

So, what happened? I discovered the chapter’s absence when I started putting together my package to send to a publisher. (That step is on hold now, because the other sample chapters are not as strong without it.) I save all my work on Google Docs, where I’ve saved thousands of files. I’ve never had a problem with it, and appreciate that not only can I access my work online or off, but it saves automatically, even saving the previous versions of your work when you edit. Thanks to a glitch, my Drakula Halala file was deleted, and the previous versions disappeared along with it.

Normally, restoring an earlier version of a document is the simple way of restoring an accidentally-deleted file. Barring that, it’s usually found in the trash. Because I had the file opened in two different windows, it seems that I created confusion between the documents, and, not knowing which one to save, Google picked the blank file. It’s unlikely to happen again, as it required an elaborate series of goofy errors, and I know how to safeguard against them now. None of that will recreate my lost work.

While I regret not having downloaded my work immediately (it’s what I was doing when I deleted the file), I realize that almost no method of backing up your writing is 100% foolproof. A computer can be stolen. A house can burn down. Perhaps the only true safeguard would be to send duplicates of all your work to a secure and far-away location (not exactly practical for a freelancer like me with dozens of pieces in various stages of completion).

So, really, all writers risk the permanent loss of a work in progress to some degree.

It helps a little to know that it’s happened to others, and in much more devastating ways. I feel bad for lamenting my one chapter when Jean Genet had the entire manuscript of Our Lady of the Flowers confiscated in prison and destroyed. He simply started from the beginning and did it all again. Ernest Hemingway had a suitcase stolen from a train station in Paris in 1922 that contained everything he had written up to that date, including part of a novel. In my review of My First Book, I mentioned how Robert Louis Stevenson’s original map for Treasure Island was lost en route to the publisher and never found. While he recreated it, he admitted that the second version “was never Treasure Island to me.”

And that’s what gets me in the gut as I’ve gone through stages of grief. Yes, I went through a denial phase (“The file will turn up, somehow!”), and burned right through some anger and depression. Now I’m faced with the task of reconstruction, and it makes me nauseous. On the one hand, I know it can be done. After all, I did it before. On the other hand, I know what it took, and it took a lot, not to mention the fact that I wrote it during my residency, under ideal circumstances which I can not recreate now.

A friend advised me to put it back together a little bit at a time. It’s good advice for when I’m ready. I’m not ready. For now, my plan is to work on other things. I feel like I could face any chapter but that one. Eventually, I’ll write again about Drakula Halala. I’m sure it will be a perfectly fine chapter, but I’ll bet that, just like Stevenson, I’ll always know it’s not the same as what I did before.

Has your work ever been lost or destroyed? How did you handle it? Any advice for beginning again?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Blog Milestone Giveaway: Lawrence Block’s Borderline and a New Mike Hammer Novel

I recently took a peek at my blog stats and noticed that Book Dirt has reached more than 250,000 page views. That’s a quarter of a million times people have stopped by. While some of those views go to people Googling “nude owls” or visiting just to see the yearly weird calendar round-up, many of them go to you: the loyal readers who actually bother to read my reviews of dusty crime novels or my thoughts on bizarre book news.

While I think it’s a pretty cool milestone, you know who else thinks it’s cool? The folks at Hard Case Crime/Titan Books. They’re helping me celebrate the milestone by offering a copy of Lawrence Block’s Borderline to one lucky Book Dirt reader, and King of the Weeds, a new Mickey Spillane novel completed by Max Allan Collins, to another.

Lawrence Block's Borderline. See details at Amazon.

With Borderline, Hard Case Crime has brought out a Lawrence Block title that hasn’t been in print for 50 years. Originally published as Border Lust in 1962 and attributed to the name Don Holliday, the book was written when Block was really beginning to pick up steam as a writer (the great Grifter’s Game was published a year previous, under the title Mona). This one is as raw and gritty as anything you’d expect from Block in the paperback-boom era. Says Booklist: “This one makes the most of its seedy border-town setting, jumping between El Paso and Juárez, as the paths of a gambler, divorcée, hitchhiker, stripper, and psycho killer come together in an inevitable bloodbath.”

Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins' King of the Weeds. Details at Amazon.

Critics were hostile to Mickey Spillane (and his penchant for sex and violence) when Mike Hammer first appeared in I, the Jury in 1947, but 225 million book sales later, readers have had the last word. Spillane died in 2006, but not before making a deal with friend Max Allan Collins to finish his work. That’s exactly what Collins has done, and the latest Spillane novel is King of the Weeds, in which Mike Hammer is tracking a serial killer focused on killing cops. Crime readers know Collins for his Hard Case Crime titles and the great Nathan Heller series that was launched with True Detective, but those less familiar with his work might still recognize his work on the graphic novel Road to Perdition.

Both books are brand spankin’ new releases that only hit the stores in the last few days, so you can be among the first readers.

How to enter: simply leave a comment. If you’re pressed for words, let me know your favorite Hard Case Crime title (or one you’d like to read, if you’re new to HCC).

I’ll draw a different winner for each title on June 3. If you already own one of these, let me know if you’d only like to be considered for one of the titles. Also keep in mind that the winners must share their name and mailing address with me via email.

Good luck, and thanks for being one of my 250,000 page views.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Busy Life of a Freelancer: What I’ve Been Working On

I know, I know, my posts have been sparse the last couple of weeks. I’m working hard at dozens of things, and there are moments when I have so many deadlines at once that I have to remind myself that this is what I wanted (and it is). I hope I can ultimately hone my productivity skills to allow for regular posts during a crunch, but in the meantime, here’s what’s been distracting me:

  • Preparing for a residency. I mentioned before that I have a writer’s residency coming up, which will allow me time and solitude to work on my book on lost films. It’s only a few days away now, so I’m doing last-minute research in order to be ready to just write, write, write.

  • Interviewing Tippi Hedren. Yes, her. It was an incredible and humbling experience, and I’ll be writing it up for a magazine when I get back from the residency. I can’t wait to tell you more.

  • Blogging for a design retailer. One of my regular gigs now is blogging three times a week on design topics. It’s a lot of fun, and I get to generate my own ideas, like this homage to the Olivetti typewriter

  • Ghostwriting. I’m contractually obligated not to reveal that I’m the writer behind some of my work, but of late, I’ve written style guides for a famous shoe company, created recipes and entertaining ideas for a seafood brand, and written what seems like a million city guides for a glitzy travel destination.

And that’s not all. Heavens, no. But that’s a lot of my writing life lately, and it’s of my own making. Yo ho, yo ho, a freelancer’s life for me.

I’ll be absent for a short while during my residency, so peruse the archive if you need reading material, or visit one of the cool sites listed on my sidebar. I could also use advice on maintaining a blog in the middle of a work avalanche, if you have any to leave.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Free Bin: Movie Novelizations, Writing Dialogue, and Luxurious Silence

This week’s collection of articles that have captured my attention includes a few longer pieces. If you’re used to bite-sized web articles, it might take some arm twisting to get you to read them, but consider making some time (or sending them to your Kindle for reading later). They’re well worth it.

An assortment of movie novelizations, jammed together unevenly by me. 

  • “The Endangered Art of the Movie Novelization” is the topic of a Random House article that covers a lot of fascinating ground. Before you say “Good riddance,” take a look. There’s some great background on the history of novelizations (including the fact that the first popular one was King Kong). Frequent novelizer Alan Dean Foster weighs in on topics like being privy to script changes, and the fact that when a director decides to change the ending, a re-write on the novel has to happen in a flash.

  • TV Writer may be for those who write teleplays, but they often have advice that transcends the medium. A recent post on writing dialogue addresses some particular annoyances, such as characters who say each other’s names for no good reason. It’s a quick read, so use the extra time to subscribe to the TV Writer feed. It should prove useful to anyone writing just about anything.

  • “Silence has become the ultimate luxury,” says an article in the New Republic, so much so that we’re willing to pay for it. This comprehensive piece covers silence as a commodity, from Amtrak’s silent cars to noiseless appliances, but it also digs deeper into our preoccupation with eliminating noise.

  • When is a joke too soon? Slate looks at humor that follows tragedy and tries to get to the bottom of why some types of humor work while other jokes fall flat. The Onion’s post-911 headlines generated a lot of positive responses, which they say is largely due to the fact that they chose the right targets for their satire. Timing, then, is only part of the equation. 

  • Does reading literature make you a better bully? The Stanford Center for Ethics says it can. A heightened ability to understand human emotions can make one more skilled at manipulation and harassment. While that doesn’t mean that reading automatically makes meanies, the panel disagrees with the notion that reading automatically improves morals, as some have tried to prove.

Have you read any movie novelizations? Made any jokes too soon? Botched your dialogue or been a bully? Let me know. If not, we can all enjoy the silence.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Book Preview: Upcoming Titles from King, Ellroy, Cronenberg

There aren’t a lot of books I get excited about before they’re even published—my regular readers know that a lot of what I read is 50 years old or more—but there are a few titles on the horizon this year that have me just about peeing my pants. They’re all available for pre-order, so if you’re feeling just as incontinent, go ahead and nab them. They’ll be in your mailbox on publishing day, before all the slugabeds can get them at the bookstore.

James Ellroy’s Perfidia (September 2014)

It’s been years since a new Ellroy novel has come out (five, if you’re counting), so the announcement of a new title is exciting on its own. What’s even more exciting is the fact that Ellroy is touting Perfidia as the first book in a second L.A. Quartet. That means not only three more upcoming books, but also that they’ll undoubtedly have the scope, historical weirdness, and unflinching brutality of the four previous connected books. In an open letter on his agent’s website, Ellroy says we can expect some of the characters to reappear, too. (Read more/pre-order)

Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes (June 2014)

This is one of two books King is releasing in 2014, following two big titles last year (Joyland and Dr. Sleep). While die-hard fans will also want to pre-order Revival, it’s Mr. Mercedes that most intrigues me. I enjoy King the most when he’s focused on real-life fears rather than the supernatural, and this novel seems grounded in reality at its most harsh: a mass murderer with plans to kill again, and the cop trying to prevent another atrocity before it happens. (Read more/pre-order)

David Cronenberg’s Consumed (September 2014)

Even if you’re not among the coolest people who have seen all of Cronenberg’s early films, you’ve got to appreciate him as a writer. He’s successfully adapted the works of some modern literary greats into original screenplays, taking on Don DeLillo (Cosmopolis), J.G. Ballard (Crash), and William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch). Now he’s written his own novel, and while it’s his first, the premise is not only promising, but also suitably Cronenberg-ish. Check out the description that hooked me in an instant. (Read more/pre-order)

Do you plan to read any of these forthcoming titles? Anything you’re anticipating in 2014?

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Free Bin: Procrastination, Amtrak Residencies, and Free Homes for Writers

It’s time for another link round-up of interesting stories I’ve found related to books, writing, and the occasional oddball thingamajig. 

What is the allure of trains? Amtrak wants writers to find out. (Loco Steve/Creative Commons License)

  • A non-profit in Detroit has figured out what to do with the supply of empty houses, and is using them to attract creative types to the city. Write-a-House is renovating homes that low-income writers can apply to lease. The kicker: if the writer stays a minimum of two years, he or she is awarded the lease, for keeps.

  • Amtrak is considering a plan to offer residencies to writers that would allow them to write on their trains during free round-trip rides. The idea is still on the drawing table, but the giddy response from writers predicts that there would be a slew of applications.

  • Who else is giving stuff away? James Patterson is. The author plans to give $1 million to independent bookstores, to use however they like. No word on whether or not it will be broken up into 117 payments. (Yes, that’s a crack about his excessive number of chapters.)

  • The Atlantic ‘s article about writers and procrastination goes beyond the surface, and may even touch a nerve a two. It looks at the psychological reasons behind procrastinating, and why, for writers, it’s “a peculiarly common occupational hazard.”

  • Here’s one for mystery and crime writers: Crime Library examines whether or not one could actually use an icicle to kill a person.

Have you come across any notable book news in your web surfing lately? Are you considering a writer’s residency, or perhaps an icicle murder? Spill it.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Literary Embarrassments: 8 Books the Authors Wish They Had Never Written

It’s a tragedy that throughout history, some authors have deemed their work so horrible that they saw fit to obliterate it. Evelyn Waugh, George Gissing and Nikolai Gogol are just some of the notable writers who have torched their own works. Without the books around to judge, we’ll never know if Gogol’s second and third installments of Dead Souls were any good, or if they instead amounted to the literary equivalent of, say, Dead Souls II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold followed by Dead Souls 3-D. 

The bigger tragedy, though, at least for the authors, is writing something terrible and not burning it. The following works run the gamut in quality, but what they do have in common is the shame of their authors.

Check out these 8 cases of writer’s regret:

1. Neil Gaiman’s Duran Duran biography 

If you click the link, get ready for some sticker shock.

Gaiman may have won a Hugo, a Nebula, a Newbery Award, and a Carnegie medal, but alas, there’s no prestigious prize for 80s pop band fan bios. Duran Duran: The First Four Years of the Fab Five (1984) was the first book Gaiman ever wrote, and he refers to it as his “dark secret.” After the copyright lapsed and reverted back to the author, the publishers wanted to bring out a new printing. Gaiman was thrilled to be able to say “No, thank you.”

2. Martin Amis’ video game guide

With a surprise guest appearance by Christopher Hitchens.

Martin Amis, the Booker Prize short-lister, son of the more famous Kingsley, and world’s oldest enfant terrible, wrote a guide to video games in 1982. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s avoided talking about it ever since. What is most surprising about Invasion of the Space Invaders, besides its entire existence, is that it’s written in much the same style he uses in his fiction.

Writing on Pac-Man, Amis says, “Do I take risks in order to gobble up the fruit symbol in the middle of the screen? I do not, and neither should you. Like the fat and harmless saucer in Missile Command (q.v.), the fruit symbol is there simply to tempt you into hubristic sorties. Bag it.”

Also: “PacMan player, be not proud, nor too macho, and you will prosper on the dotted screen.” The Millions writer Mark O’ Connell says, “I’m no expert, I’ll admit, but I’ll go out on a critical limb here and suggest that this might be the sole instance of the use of the mock-heroic tone in a video game player’s guide.”

Amis writes in the introduction about his first encounter with a video game machine, while hanging out with a “hard-drinking journalist” pal in Paris, circa 1980. The friend in question is believed to be Christopher Hitchens, in what is surely his one and only video game guide appearance.

3. Harlan Ellison’s Doomsman

You've got a better chance of getting this book signed by Lee Hoffman (and she died in 2007).

In a career spanning five decades and over seventy books, it stands to reason that some of Ellison’s work is going to be better than others, but Doomsman is pretty much unanimously thought of as terrible. (Typical GoodReads review: “dreadful, overwrought and sloppily written.”) In fact, a mere four pages after a character’s eyes are poked out in a torture session, Ellison writes that “he looked up.”

Ellison himself hates the book, especially as he says it was “radically altered” by editors. While it’s not impossible to find, it’s reportedly impossible to get signed. Several fans have claimed that, upon being presented with Doomsman, Ellison will tear it up on sight. Some say he’ll pay you for it first, and at least one reader says he tore the Doomsman half of the double novel away and signed just the half with Lee Hoffman’s Telepower. Ellison discarded his own half.

4. Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me 

A departure for Fleming, it's some fans' favorite Bond novel.

If you’ve ever wondered why the movie version of this Bond novel is not just somewhat different from the book, but actually has nothing in common with it whatsoever, it’s because Ian Fleming wouldn’t allow it to be filmed. He sold the rights to the title only, after the book proved to be sort of a bomb. He refused a paperback reprint of the book in the UK, effectively trying to bury it completely.

What’s wrong with it? To start with, a lot of Bond fans don’t like that he doesn’t even show up until about ⅔ of the way through the novel, which is told from the point of view of a young Canadian woman. Critics fell over themselves to pan it. “His ability to invent a plot has deserted him almost entirely,” wrote the Glasgow Herald. The Observer went one better: “I hope this doesn't spell the total eclipse of Bond in a blaze of cornography.”

5. Dan Brown’s 187 Men to Avoid and The Bald Book

A whole penny on Amazon, if you dare.
Inane Dan Brown completists have actually driven up the price of The Bald Book.

Dan Brown may have sold 100 gazillion books, but the critics have never liked him (The Washington Post: “His novels are like high-stakes, 500-page Mad Libs”). As a result, Brown spends a lot of time defending his writing. He doesn’t do much defending of his earliest work, though: he pretends it doesn’t exist. You won’t find 187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman listed on Brown’s website. Written under a feminized version of his own name (Danielle Brown), the novelty book is a slapdash and not-very-funny list of types of men women should avoid, e.g. those who “think farting is cute.”

Soon after finishing Digital Fortress, Brown released another novelty book, this one a collection of bald jokes older than your grandfather (“you’ll never worry about going gray”). While his wife is credited as the author this time, Brown’s literary agent says that it was Brown who did the writing. Perhaps needless to say, The Bald Book is also absent from Dan Brown’s author website.

6. Louis L’Amour’s Hopalong Cassidy novels

L'Amour's denial of writing this series seems rather sad. Read his son's story for a better understanding.

Icon of the western genre Louis L’amour wrote some Hopalong Cassidy TV/movie tie-ins under the name Tex Burns in the early ‘50s. They were very much work-for-hire, over which he had little control, and the end result shamed him so much, he denied writing them for the rest of his life—and for decades, wouldn’t even admit it to his family:

“When asked, he told people that he had never written about Hopalong Cassidy, that he had never written as Tex Burns. At autograph sessions he would refuse to sign the Hopalong books that fans would occasionally bring. And for years he worried that these books which he tried so hard to ignore would be reprinted and brought back into circulation.”

L’Amour’s son has written about his father’s uncomfortable relationship with Hopalong in more detail here.

7. Neal Stephenson’s The Big U

Stephenson's reluctant re-release has cover art more befitting a serious author. This is not it.

Sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson’s first novel was a satire of college life that he himself admits was pretty terrible: “The Big U is what it is: a first novel written in a hurry by a young man a long time ago.” After the later success of Snow Crash, The Big U (which was scarce because no one had bought it in the first place) started commanding outrageous prices on eBay. Stephenson then begrudgingly allowed its reprinting, believing the only thing worse than the book itself was people paying $500 to read it.

8. Philip Pullman’s first novel


Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials is plenty acclaimed, earning him the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize, among other accolades. His first book, though, written in 1972, is one he “adamantly” refuses to talk about, according to his fansite. In fact, he refuses to even name it, perhaps in the hopes that no one will ever find it. (The book in question is The Haunted Storm, but don’t tell Pullman you heard it here.)

Do any of your favorite authors have early titles that they ought to regret? Do you think the above writers are silly for trying to disown their works, or would you do the same?