May Reading List – I Still Haven’t Read Lonesome Dove…

This is the monthly reading list I send out to email subscribers. If you like what you see, you can subscribe here or through one of the banners on this site. 

Thanks for reading, 

— Charlie

Spring is here, and I’m blogging again. My goal is one post per week, and so far I’m on track. My self-imposed deadline is on Friday. It’s a nice way to unwind with some thought-for-the-day writing for myself. I spend my work week writing to help my clients‘ websites stand out–it feels good to do the same for my own site.

In April, I wrote about:
Writing rough drafts by hand
Net 30 payments
and Writing tips from Sex and the City

I know I said I was gonna take on Lonesome Dove next, but I’ve decided to make it a summer read after going on a Hemingway tear inspired by the new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary. So far, I’ve only seen the first episode–he’s just become a literary success and hasn’t transformed into Hemingway the caricature yet. Looking forward to the next two parts.

In this month’s reading list, I also have a book on how to have good ideas on a regular basis, a punctuation guide that will make you laugh out loud, and Hemingway’s burger recipe.

Light Years by James Salter – I don’t know how I made it this far as a student of American literature without encountering James Salter. He’s been called the author who “freezes time” and has a reputation for writing the best sex scenes in American letters.

A Farewell to Arms (the Hemingway Library Edition)  by Ernest Hemingway – I’m rereading this one for the first time since college. This new edition includes all 47 alternative endings, complete with strikethrough and markups by the author.

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway – As I watch the PBS documentary, I’m revisiting some of my favorites: “Big Two-hearted River,” “Hills like White Elephants,” “Indian Camp,” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Hemingway on Writing

Hemingway’s burger recipe

One True Podcast – a podcast by the Hemingway Society.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves – A guide to punctuation that’s as funny as it is useful.

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young – A book about the process of coming up with good ideas on command, written by a 1930s adman. This slim volume popularized the practice of walking away from a problem to let your unconscious mind solve it.

I was recently gifted a subscription to Monocle by my buddy Dan.

Subscribe to The Hustle if you haven’t already.

Matt Ruby on the freedom of low overhead and other life lessons.

Time, Tarkovsky, and the Pandemic.”

Five (very) short stories by Lydia Davis.

How climate change impacts Japanese poetry.

Don’t be a cog.

Some history of the origin of keyboard layouts from The AtlanticWikipediaForbes, and the Smithsonian.

These videos from Vooza are hilarious.


 

April Reading List – Farsickness

This is the monthly reading list I send out to email subscribers. If you like what you see, you can subscribe here or through one of the banners on this site. 

Thanks for reading, 

— Charlie

The German word fernweh means homesickness for a place you haven’t beenliterally “farsickness.” This week I’ve got some fernweh going on as I read about two places that have always fascinated me from afar–Appalaicha and Afghanistan.

I’m also feeling plain old home-sick as I watch this tearjerker of a book promo in which my dad and I talk about our collaboration and his life story.

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
A charmingly plotless autobiographical novel that reads something like Huck Finn meets Ulysses. If you’re new to McCarthy, this is not the place to start. If you’re already into him, this is a palate cleanse with a lower body count than his other books. I’ve also been listening to the Reading Cormac McCarthy podcast and his conversation with Werner Herzog. The second episode of the Reading podcast has some fascinating context about Appalaicha and the Tennessee Valley Authority. I’ve also been brushing up on McCarthy’s punctuation rules.

Boys in Zinc by Svetlana Alexyavich (Zinky Boys in the U.S.)
An oral history of the Soviet/Afghan war by the Nobel Laureate whose chronicle of Chernobyl became the HBO series. This is one of the most disturbing accounts of war I’ve ever read. As my buddy, Dan, who recommended it said: it’s like the Vietnam War if America had no budget and an endless supply of vodka. Reading the accounts of disabled veterans, I can understand why my dad feels so grateful to have come home to America and why he worries about what became of wounded veterans on the other side who didn’t have the benefit of our healthcare system or our appreciative culture.

The Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Phillip Kapleau
A foundational text of Western Buddhism. I’m rereading it for maybe the tenth time.

After Ikkyu By Jim Harrison
Zen poems with a Big Sky Country twist. Inspiration as I get back in the habit of writing a haiku every morning.

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon
A guide to screenwriting that deliberately breaks with the stuffy, over-serious tradition of screenwriting theory. It helps that the authors are screenwriters and not story theorists like so many who pedal screenwriting advice.

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout –
An illustrated guide to marketing from the early 1990s. Many of the examples are dated, but the principles hold up. This is a must-read for anyone interested in copywriting. It’s also a prime source of vintage Trump-bashing. The authors use the Donald as a recurring example of how not to build a brand.

This week, we lost literary immortal Larry McMurty. My next read is going to be Lonesome Dove. But in the meantime, I’ve been checking out his blog.

Writer Emergency cards come in handy when you get stuck.

William Faulkner’s writing advice helps too.

In one of my favorite newsletters, comic Matt Ruby dispenses travel wisdom.

And this podcast talks about long-distance hiking in your own backyard.

The cinematography of There Will Be Blood.

Ryan Holiday on  100 very short rules for a better life and how to learn anything.

Peter Matthiessen on Zen meditation.


 

Show Your Work!

 Yesterday’s blog post started as a long caption on Instagram, under a photo of my writing tools. I was sharing my stoke over starting a new novel–in the only way I can since I won’t say what it’s about until I have a draft–but I was also answering a prompt from Austin Kleon’s handy little book,  Show Your Work! In this guide to putting your stuff out in the world, Kleon dispenses powerful and simple advice like “share something small every day.”

 

 

Show your Work by Austin Kleon share something small every day

 

Yesterday, I was doing just that—as I am in with this post. Both days I felt like I had nothing to say, and I’m sure I’ll have to slay that dragon again tomorrow. What got me writing was letting go of the need to create from scratch, opting instead to document what’s right in front of me.

 

In the third day of writing a novel, I don’t have any creative writing that’s ready to share. But I can talk about my process, my tools, my creeping insecurities, and the books on my nightstand—including the one that inspired me to write this post in the first place.

 

Kleon offers specific advice on how to do this:

 

“Once a day, after you’ve done your days work, go back to your documentation and find one little piece of your process that you can share. Where you are in your process will determine what the piece is. If you’re in the very early stages, share your influences and what’s inspiring you. If you’re in the middle of executing a project, write about your methods or share works in progress. If you’ve just completed a project, show the final product, share scraps from the cutting room floor, or write about what you learned. If you have lots of projects out in the world, you can report on how they’re doing—you can tell stories about how people are interacting with your work.” (Kleon, 48.)

 

He also shares a graphic outlining what to share and what not to share:

 

Austin Kleon show your work share something small every day

And that’s the problem: I sort of conflated sharing with oversharing, as if showing friends and followers where I work is the same thing as a selfie-reel or pictures of my lunch.

 

At first glance, that attitude might seem profound, like a humble stand against the self importance and the vapidity of social media. But really, it’s just control freakery in disguise. Part of sharing one’s stuff is letting it go. I don’t dictate the terms of how others experience my work. I don’t get to micro-mange their response. And that’s a good thing, because the response to my post was better than anything I could have arranged for myself:

 

I connected with some new writers, who must have found me through the hashtags.

 

A buddy of mine asked to be a character in the novel—he doesn’t know he already is.

 

One friend noticed the crime writing hashtags and asked me all about that genre—something she didn’t know I was into. And she, in turn, told me about fantasy writing and world-building, something I didn’t know she was working on.

 

Another friend, who I haven’t talked to in a while shared what he learned about long projects from his marathon training. We ended up talking about his next race. (What up, Pete!)

 

None of this would have happened if I hadn’t gotten over myself and put my scrap of the day out into the world.

 

show your work by austin kleon

 

Sarah M. Chen’s Redondo Beach Noir

When a booze cruise goes wrong, Finn Roose, L.A’s most debauched restaurant manager, finds himself at the center of a missing persons case, unable to lie or charm his way out of it. To clear his name, he must navigate the seedy underbelly of Redondo Beach while holding down a job as part of its sunny, touristy facade.

Cleaning Up Finn is Sarah M Chen‘s debut novella. Smart, sleazy, and succinct, at a lean 168 pages, Finn harkens back to the golden age of crime paperbacks in page count as much as content. Along with her fellow authors at All Due Respect Books, Chen  is writing the next chapter in American pulp.

 cleaning up finn sarah m chen novella on the beach

What is it about the South Bay? For an otherwise under-celebrated part of L.A, it seems like the beaches have been all over noir and crime fiction:

You’ve got Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Tarantino’s  Jackie Brown (adapted from Elmore Leonard and West Palm Beach.) Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction says he lives in Redondo (to which The Wolf replies “move out of the sticks!”)

Even the Patti Smith song “Redondo Beach”  has a dead girl in it. I’m sure there’s others…

Despite the sun and sand, there’s definitely a dark undercurrent to the South Bay that I think people like Quentin Tarantino gravitated toward as I did. Quentin Tarantino grew up in the South Bay, in Torrance specifically, and worked at a local video rental store (remember those?).

 

The South Bay has its vices but they’re disguised in sunshine, surf, and sand. I find that contrast fascinating and filled with possibilities. It’s a lot like Hollywood where you have the glitz and glam of the movie industry harboring the desperation underneath. But whereas Hollywood is seedy, you may not necessarily think of beach life as seedy but it’s definitely there. People either don’t think to look or don’t want to.

Finn is the ideal hero for the stories I like to write. He’s human and real and tends to make awful decisions. We all know people like Finn, someone you wouldn’t want babysitting your kids or even watching your dog. Those are the people I like to write about.

 

Hermosa Beach also had a big punk scene back in the day that made it cool, rebellious. But once the pier became a pedestrian plaza in ‘97, bars and clubs popped up like a spreading rash threatening to obliterate the mom and pop places, the dive bars, the artsy coffee shops, and the indie bookstores. Now it’s a more commercial party scene with DJs spinning top 40 instead of jazz and punk. This culture clash plus the illusion of an easy beach life makes it a perfect setting for a crime novel.

 

In early drafts, Finn was a short story set in Maryland. I kept moving the location around based on the guidelines of the market I was submitting to. When I had an opportunity to write a novella, I immediately thought of Finn. I felt there was more to Finn than a short story. When I sat down to expand it, I knew it couldn’t be set anywhere else but the South Bay.

 

And it’s home, right?

I’ve lived in the South Bay for over 20 years so consider this my adopted home. I grew up in Southern California, but in Orange County, which is more conservative with cookie-cutter track housing.

 

I fell in love with Hermosa Beach’s funky bohemian vibe when I first visited in the late 80s/ early 90s and knew I’d live here eventually.

 

I like that Finn’s still a dog at the end, even though he makes the right choice. We all know a guy like Finn whose fooling around gets him in trouble. I loved the way you just kept pulling that thread instead of forcing some moral awakening.

 

I really wanted to be true to Finn’s character and not make him into something he’s not or isn’t capable of being no matter how much he tries. I initially had a different ending where Finn changed but it felt forced. Of course he’d go right back to his innate douchebag self because that’s his nature. You can try to change behavior, but inherently, we are all who we are inside.

 

It’s funny because I have a friend who thought Finn had a happy ending but then her boyfriend read the book and he said, “Are you kidding? That’s not a happy ending at all. He goes right back to the way he was before and learns nothing!” It’s all about perspective. From where my friend and I are sitting, it’s a happy ending because, although he may not get away with it much longer, Finn remains true to himself.

 

Finn is the ideal hero for the stories I like to write. He’s human and real and tends to make awful decisions. We all know people like Finn, someone you wouldn’t want babysitting your kids or even watching your dog. Those are the people I like to write about.

 

 

Back in the day, hardboiled fiction benefitted from serialization and radio programs. Now you have blogging and podcasts and all sorts of new publishing platforms. Do you think we’re headed for a noir revival–“new neo-noir”–Is that revival already here? 

 

That’s a tough one. I think because that’s my niche and what I like to read, I feel like noir is a popular genre but really, once I leave my little bubble, it’s not.

I’m also a bookseller and I know noir titles don’t sell as well as lighter or more commercial stuff. I think short story platforms like Great Jones Street  helps to introduce the noir genre to a broader readership. I also think part of it’s geographical. I know noir is very popular with the French and sells well over there.

 

Why the novella form? What was it like working with that page count?

 

I had a contract with a fledgling publisher that was only publishing novellas. It was my first time writing one and as I said, I decided to expand my short story. I’m not sure if that made things easier or more challenging than writing a novella from scratch. I had to figure out which parts I wanted to expand, which characters to explore, and tack on a middle and third act.

 

I’m used to writing tightly because all I had written before were short stories and flash fiction so the shorter the better for me.

 

Sarah m Chen novella author

 

You’re involved with some conferences and a pretty rad sounding crime fiction community. Care to give some shout outs? Where should people go to find great contemporary noir and hardboiled titles?

 

Yes, it’s a fantastic community and I’ve met so many wonderful writers who I call friends. I admire their work and it’s exciting and inspiring to be involved with such talent.

One of my favorites of 2017 is She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper. It’s told from multiple POVs but essentially it’s eleven-year-old Polly’s story. Her ex-con father is on a mission to protect her from a white supremacist gang and it’s brutal yet strangely hopeful.

 

Steph Post’s Lightwood is another one I really dug from early 2017. It’s another story of a criminal family but in this one, Judah Cannon is the protagonist who gets out of prison. He wants to stay out of trouble but his father has other ideas. It’s set in Florida and is straight down and dirty Southern noir.

Quentin Tarantino grew up in the South Bay, in Torrance specifically, and worked at a local video rental store (remember those?).

Marietta Miles is another writer I admire. Her novella, Route 12, is disturbing and poetic. I’m looking forward to MAY, her book coming out with Down & Out early next year. I’ll read any short stories by Jen Conley and everyone should check out her collection, Cannibals. Same with Patti Abbott. Her short stories are some of my favorites and I was so excited when she started writing novels, beginning with Concrete Angel. Greg Barth’s Selena trilogy is some of the most depraved crime fiction I’ve read, yet he has a way of creating characters that you despise and root for at the same time.

 

For great noir, and not to be biased, but I think my publisher All Due Respect Books is putting out some of the best noir in the marketplace. I was thrilled ADR became an imprint of Down & Out Books as D&O also has some of my favorites like Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay.

 

And if you want to get up to speed on what indie publishers are putting out these days, check out David Nemeth’s Small Press Crime Fiction: Incident Report blog. It’s always chock full of the latest hardboiled and noir titles that you may have missed.

What’s next for you? What’s now?

I have some short stories coming out in early 2018. One that came out recently is my story “Masterpiece” in Killing Malmon with Down & Out Books, edited by Kate and Dan Malmon, reviewers for Crimespree Magazine. This is a collection of 30 stories where the only guideline was that Dan Malmon must be killed. All proceeds benefit the MS Society and I was thrilled to be invited to participate.

Killing Malmon Sarah M Chen

I’m in another anthology called The Night of the Flood which I edited along with E.A. Aymar. This was a really fun project to be involved in as fourteen of us wrote interconnecting stories that took place over one chaotic night in a fictional Pennsylvania town. Bestselling and award-winning writer Hank Phillippi Ryan wrote the intro and it will be out March 2018.

 

Other than that, I’m revising my current WIP, a novel featuring a college dropout slacker whose life is in danger thanks to the unwanted return of her estranged father. It’s set in—where else?—the South Bay.

 

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What I’ve Been Reading–one Month into my Book Diet

Last month, I started a “reading diet.” The idea comes from Ray Bradbury who recommended that the aspiring read one short story, one poem, and one essay every day, and one novel per week.

I’m reckoning with something I wish I had known a long time ago, that reading is part of your workday as a writer. It’s not laziness or procrastination, it’s not passive, and it’s not optional. You can read more about my first two weeks of this experiment here.

This is  what I read in the second half of March.

What I’m reading

Stories from:

 

 

 

Essays & Non-Fiction:

 

  • “Heroin/e” –Cheryl Strayed

 

 

 

 

 

Poems From:

Novels:

  • I started Proust’s Swann’s Way but swapped it out for John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces after about 20 pages. The former is much harder to read without the snotty English major zeal I had the first time around.