FFB: Our Man in Havana

ourmanGraham Greene seems to stay in the mind of a good number of people, but he seems to have fallen off the popular radar for sure. I am somewhat abashed to admit that it was only recently that I finally picked up Our Man in Havana on a whim at the library (my usual brainstorming activity). I haven’t even seen the Carol Reed film with its stellar cast apart from a few clips here and there.

Hmmm, looks like there’s a TOA/V I’ll need to do as well.

Greene books I tend to either dive in at once or never get there at all. Happy to say that this is one of the former. Despite the cringingly archaic casual racism of the first page the hangdog humour and laconic air of despair suck you in immediately. Jim Wormold is not one of the winners of the world and you know that things are going to spin out of control before he realises it, because life is pretty much a baffling trial to him before events get complicated.

Espionage shenanigans in Cuba could be the stuff of serious drama (and of course have been) but Greene’s touch here is so deft and light that you can’t really feel the terrible weight of the events though terrible they must be. Cuba maintains a seedy sort of presence and the ridiculousness of the spy trade comes out brilliantly in Greene’s satirical take.

Some quotes to give you an idea of the delight you’re in for:

“We none of us have a great expectation of life nowadays so why worry?”

“You should dream more, Mr Wormold. Reality in our century is not something to be faced.”

“Seeing her walk, you could almost believe in levitation.”

“Worlmold thought, if the overdraft had been fifty thousand instead dollars, he would have called me Jim.”

“In a mad world it always seems simpler to obey.”

“Childhood was the germ of all mistrust…Schools were said to construct character by chipping off the edges. His edges had been chipped, but the result had not, he thought, been character — only shapelessness, like an exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art.”

If you haven’t indulged in this, do pick it up. It’s a classic for a reason and great fun.

Bloody Scotland / Bouchercon

bloodyscotI’m going to be on the road a lot the next few weeks. Saturday I head off to Bloody Scotland — alas, only for the day — and then Tuesday I’m Stateside bound, back to NY for a few weeks to see my pals and enjoy Bouchercon. I’ll apologize in advance because I know I won’t see everybody while I’m in NY (sorry!) but I hope to see as many of you as I can. Maybe I can talk Bertie into us giving a housewarming party…!

As much for myself (so I can find it later) as for anyone who wants to catch up, here’s my planned activities at the cons so far:


Dark Deeds: Louise Welsh & Denise Mina
10:30 AM – Albert Halls

Picture This: Denise Mina
2:00 PM – Academy Suite

Keeping Secrets: Charles Cumming & Chris Morgan Jones
3:30PM – McLaren Suite

The Great, The Good and The Gory: Stuart McBride & Val McDermid
5:00 PM – Albert Halls

Thrilling Tales & Psychological Twists: Zoë Sharp & Julia Crouch
6:30 PM – McLaren Suite


Programming Schedule/Authors Choice Schedule

Mavens of Mayhem Bouchercon/SinC Reception
Wed 6:00 PM – Book House, Stuyvesant Plaza

Pre-Bouchercon Get Together
Wed 8:00 PM – City Beer Hall

Close to the Borderline: Pulp fiction, baby!
Les Edgerton, Frank DeBlase, Jack Getze, K. A. Laity, Howard Owen, Josh Stallings
Thu 1:20-2:15 – Room 3

Sisters in Crime Breakfast
Fri 7:30 AM – 74 State

Weird Noir Carnival: Fox Spirit Books
K. A. Laity, Jan Kozlowski & Chris L. Irvin
Fri 1:30-2:00 – Room 5

This is just the *I have to be there* events. I haven’t looked through the schedule and I know a lot of pals are on panels, so I will sort that. In general I’ll probably be found at most panels labeled “noir” or ones featuring my fave writers. Please let me know where you’ll be or if you see something I won’t want to miss, point it out to me! There’s so much going on. When in doubt, look for Chastity Flame!

Chas 3 X 3 PC web

Introducing Graham Wynd

Missing MonarchsI cannot believe it is July already! I have been so busy that time has simply sped by and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. I’m doing my best not to be tempted into adding to my already too long to-do list, but there are always opportunities too good to miss (like writing about medieval women for girls at the fabulous Dundee-based Jump Magazine).

But I want to introduce you to Graham Wynd — who is me, of course. I’ve decided I needed to create another pseudonym to identify my crime writing. Perhaps ‘need’ is a bit strong: I found it advisable to try to distinguish the rambling incoherencies delightful flights of imagination that get published under my own name from the fairly straightforward crime writing.

The biggest problem I have faced as far as gaining a readership (I have been told repeatedly) is that each new book I do is nothing like the previous books that I have written. I can understand this (just as I am also seemingly incapable of not writing new and bizarre things) and while I have tried to stick to a series with the Chastity Flame books, I am also trying to build up a set of mimetic crime stories as ‘Graham’ too.

First up will be a couple of tales with Fox Spirit:

Extricate is a noir novella set a few decades in the past, a grim tale of betrayal and sexual obsession. Think Jim Thompson and James M. Cain territory (okay and a few Peter Cook references for no reason at all).

‘Headless in Bury’ is a flash story in the Missing Monarchs Fox Pocket anthology coming soon. It’s based on the murder and miracle of King Edmund the Martyr, who was killed by Vikings, but modernised and noired up a bit.

Drop by Graham Wynd’s home on Facebook and give him a ‘like’! Where did the name come from? Hmmm…

Graham Wynd

Writer Wednesday: Finish That

Al's getting a makeover

Al’s getting a makeover

Last week I urged you to send things off, to brave the market and try your chances. Some of you have not done that — in fact, some of you may never do that, because you have trouble letting go of a story.

Are you an inveterate tinkerer?

I know some people who have been revising the same novel for years. This is not a sign of craftsmanship. At the very least it’s a sign of delaying — and at worst it’s a sign of neurosis. Certainly part of it is fear: because the next step is sending it out there were it may be trashed, sneered at or worst of all, ignored and rejected by form.

You’ll survive. And the sooner you start building up a healthy level of skin thickness that all creativity requires, the sooner you’ll be able to brush off inconsequential comments and recognise the helpful ones. Constructive criticism allows you to understand how the story in your head is not making it to someone else’s head. Ah ha, you say, I need to spell out a little more here or cut this part that is clear and rejigger this other section.

No matter how long you’ve been writing, you’ll need to keep receiving and evaluating feedback. And you’ll be less crushed by it — and chances are, you’ll also be a much better writer. So why are you still revising that story/novel/script? Because you think it’s not done. Why are you wrong?

It’s as good as it will ever be.

This is likely true if you’ve been revising for a long period of time. What’s ‘long’? Well, that is tricky. I get bored really quickly, so my revision periods tend to be short. Times vary. If it can be measured in years it’s too long! Seriously. Send it off and see how it goes. The news may be good — and an editor may have specific suggestions for a last round of tinkering.

It’s just not good.

When you spend a lot of time on a story, you become invested in it. This is one of the things that leads to endless revision. Sometimes you write a story and then recognise, “Hey, I just copied my favourite writer’s brilliant idea” or “This was just my revenge killing of X” (it happens) or “wow, this is a real cliché of epic proportions” (literally). Revising it will not help that basic fact. Make a folder called “The Trunk” and put your story in there. You will not ever use anything in the trunk, but when you look through it on days when you feel dispirited, you will realise how much better a writer you have become.

You can’t seem to actually write an ending.

This is difficult, no doubt about it. On the plus side, publishers love writers who can write series that go on infinitely (television even more so). But you need to be able to write a conclusion that gives readers enough of a satisfaction that they can take a breath and feel a sense of closure. If you can’t seem to come to an ending, this is when you could most use an editor, a writing coach or a writers group to help you find it. As your flight attendant will tell you, some exits may be located behind you. The ending may be a few chapters back and you just missed it because you were enjoying your world so much. Find it.

Stories have a beginning, middle and end. The writing process should, too. Write, finish a piece, send it off, start another. Or if you’re like me (not recommended), start lots of things at various times, juggle your efforts between them unpredictably, but always finish each one!

Writer Wednesday: Submit Your Work

2013-05-20 14.20.10Writing is important; just as important is exposing your work to light. The act of writing is an end in itself: it releases the natural creativity we all have. I always say that I never know how I feel about something until I’ve written about it. Writing organises your thought. But it need not be the end of the process.

Submit your work to markets to find like minds. Too man writers (especially, given our unequal societies, female writers) live in terror of having their work assessed by editors and publishers. If you have a tendency to keep revising over and over and over, you may be avoiding that important step.

Screw your courage to the sticking place and submit your work. Yes, you’ll get rejections. They won’t kill you, trust me. How many things can you succeed at the first time you do it? Nothing worth doing. Toughen your skin and pay attention to any feedback you get.

There seem to be largely two groups of would-be writers: those with an inflated sense of their ability and those with no confidence in their ability. I’m not really bothered about the first kind (they’ll take care of themselves); if you’re the second kind, you need to get in the habit of submitting, getting rejections, and resubmitting after revisions or better market research.

I just finished making the final selection of stories for Fox Spirit BooksNoir Carnival anthology. I had a number of stories rejected because they were not at all noir, though they may have featured a carnival of some kind. Editors have rules for a reason, so remember:

Read submissions guidelines. This should be part of your research for markets in the first place! Know what the editor’s actually looking for and the nature of the publication. If you’re submitting a traditional horror story to a market that prides themselves on being ‘edgy’ you’re likely to get a rejection. Find the market that welcomes your work.

Follow submission guidelines, including format, word count, and file type. They are there for all kinds of reasons; failure to follow them may lead to immediate rejection by an editor whose patience has been tried.

Get back to work writing new things. Don’t sit waiting for a reply. Get on to the next thing. Always be writing! Good editors will do their best to work through submissions in a timely manner, but there are often circumstances that interfere. Many editors have to juggle other responsibilities just as writers do. If the wait has been longer than the stated likely time period, follow up with a polite email asking for an update.

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.”
Barbara Kingsolver

Writer Wednesday: Postcard Fiction Winners!

2013-05-07 10.49.25

I’m happy to announce the results of the 2013 Postcard Fiction Contest, images of the winning entries above. My grateful thanks to everyone who sent in a postcard. I’ll just copy the stories here. Second runner up with “The Right Time” on a WTC postcard is John Williams-Searle:

The Right Time

When the elevator stopped between floors, the stockbroker looked up, annoyed and then startled.

“What are you doing here? You’re dead.”

A man in chef whites shrugged.

“Guilty as charged. It was mid-September and I was late for work. I hated that place. Crushing debt. My wife insisted we look at vacation homes. My kids were brats. I just stepped out.”

I knew it! How many people did that? My wife and I argue about it. She says I’m an idiot.”

“Wives do that. The life insurance helped mine forget. She recovered in the Hamptons and I make omlets.”

“I went to your memorial service. She seemed distraught.”

There was a slight lurch as the elevator started moving.

“Well, now you know. What are you going to do?”

“Hope I’m in the right place at the right time.”

First runner up, AKA Miss Congeniality, comes from Seumas, who sent his entry on a lovely picture of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi:

Singing in the Rain

Nothing keeps the sleet from seeping down yer neck. Forgot my umbrella and not even a shop doorway to huddle against waiting for the bluudy bus. The busker laddie’s got a wee brolly rigged up, sticking out from a crack in the wall, fifteen feet away from the stop. He strums his guitar and sings. Danny Boy. Even through the wet, ye can hear the haunting, crackly timbre in his voice. My Da’s favourite song. Long gone now, poor bastard. God, I can  hear him sing it, too. My cheeks are soaked, and it’s not the rain. I drop a few coins in the case. Here comes the bus. Bugger it. I can get the next one. Love you, Da…

And now for the drumroll —

WINNER and champion who will receive the $25 prize — all in pennies! Only joking — or am I?  On a Frida Kahlo postcard and shamelessly playing to the judges with a gratuitous Fall reference, it’s mbilokur:

Sweet Bitters

The skull in her hands stares at her, eye sockets like big empty shot glasses. “It is your death,” says the Brujo. “See? It even has your name written on it.”

“But I asked for a different…treatment…”

“Heh. The skull is a giant pill. Pharmaceutical joke. Either way, you must devour your death, or your death will devour you.”

“But the treat– I ordered the Mandrake Anthrax, not the…”

“Feh! That’s how you ended up here in the first place!”

A tongue flicked across the sugary teeth, or maybe it was a worm.

“Please, just one more taste…”

She feels the skull’s jaw opening as her surroundings fade to black…”

Congratulations to everyone who entered — it was a delight to read your entries and to receive such lovely postcards from different places. Thank you all for entering and why not send a little postcard story to your friends more often?


Music for Writers

Fall Fans

Wild claims from MES

Do you write with music?

Frank Duffy asked me to be a part of a project over at the Horrifically Horrifying Horror blog looking at how (or if) writers use music for writing. I get to appear with a bunch of heavy hitters including Lisa Tuttle, Dennis Etchison, Christopher Fowler, Steve Rasnic Tem, Howard Linskey and the lovely Mr B.

Yes, you will not be surprised to hear I write about The Fall — but about a lot more, too!

There’s a wide variety of responses. Ian Ayris talks about needing complete silence — until he was stuck on a final, pivotal scene for his novel and then music helped him over the sudden block. Tim Grimwood recalls how his dark imagination was unlocked by a modern interpretation of Macbeth that included Black Sabbath as a soundtrack. It seems Stephen Bacon shares my love of story songs.

A lot of folks speak of their love for soundtracks: they are good stuff. Often it’s easier to write to something without lyrics. The music buoys you over the words in your head, while singing might actually distract you from them.

Do you use music while you write? Why not drop by and add your voice to the conversation:

Music of the Night: Writers on Writing to Music, collected by Frank Duffy