"You know what? The bastard blows me out of the water. This guy writes Maine like Ardai writes New York. If you're not reading him, you don't know what you're missing." --Chris F. Holm, author of The Big Reap, The Wrong Goodbye and Dead Harvest.

"Bagley's got the poet's eye, but that doesn't mean everything is prettier in his work. It means the ugly stuff is more vivid. More intense. Like a sudden switch from analog to HD. And that's a trait to very much admire in his work." --Anthony Neil Smith, author of Hogdoggin', Yellow Medicine, The Drummer and Psychosomatic.




Thursday, July 31, 2008

Working Titles And Working Toward A Title

I hate coming up with titles. Every now and then, I begin with a title (“Pandora,” for example) and the story more or less flows from it. Sometimes the title I picked sucks and an early reader will suggest a better one (“Mrs. Viles” became “In the Ditch” thanks to James Patrick Kelly). More often, the title occurs to me as I’m working (Bitter Water Blues).

Now that I’m writing the sequel to Bitter Water Blues, I feel like it should have at least a working title. Why? Beats the hell out of me. Sandra Ruttan blogged a little about this just the other day. My working title for the novel has been Mean Green. I liked it when I first came up with it months ago. However, since this new book has become my main focus, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with that title. It took me a few days to figure out why.

Let me slide some names past you: Evanovich, Grafton, Mosley, McDonald. I don’t want to get stuck writing books with what I call “theme titles.” Mosley’s "Easy Rawlins" series is brilliant, but what a drag it must be to always have to put a color in your title (except for Six Easy Pieces). I don’t read Evanovich, but what do her titles tell you about the books? Nothing. It’s just a label on a package. Know what I mean? Different sort of example, but you don’t get people going into bookstores and asking for Duma Key. Instead, they ask if you have “the new Stephen King.” It’s the same with “the new Janet Evanovich.” Or “the new Sue Grafton.”

It isn’t that I think my books will ever get so popular as to turn me into a brand-name. I just don’t want to be bound by theme titles. Bitter Water Blues. Mean Green. “Oh, he’s the new guy with the color titles.” Yeah, yeah, publishers want to reduce everything to marketable packages. But suppose Evanovich turned in her next Stephanie Plum and novel and said, “I’m sick of the numbers thing.” What will Grafton do once she finishes Z is for Zoophile? Retire?

Mysteries do have a tradition of titles that serve to unify a series.

Death of an IT Guy. Death of a Substitute Spanish Teacher.
Death in East Overshoe. Death in Hog Holler.
Uncle Bumpy and the Case of the Spurious Caviar. Uncle Bumpy and the Case of the Deadly Truffles.


Tradition. Okay, I get that. But the fact that something has become a tradition does not make it a good thing. I’m not even going to use Mean Green as a working title anymore because its presence forces me into a certain mind-frame (I must write toward this title). Writing is an organic process. At least, it is for me. Committing to a title before the novel is written forces it into a frame. Fuck that.

Yeah, I talk tough now, but then an editor will come along and change the title anyway.

So what do you think? Do you even care about book titles?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Finally!

Revision.
Re-revision.
Re-re-revision.
Re-re-re…well, you get the picture.

All that’s finally done. I just e-mailed Bitter Water Blues to an agent who requested the full manuscript. 83,000 words of nasty country noir. I spent the weekend doing rewrites and now Bitter Water Blues has a brand-new ending. I’m happy with it (though happy the ending is not).

Five years. That’s how long it took me to finish this novel. It’s my first and I wanted it to be just right. A well-known writer whom I respect told me to take my time. I sure as hell did that. It went through a lot of changes.

The adrenaline buzz is winding down and now my ass is starting to drag. My eyes are burning from staring at this damn monitor. I’m taking a couple of days off before getting back to work on the sequel, tentatively titled Mean Green. See, I’m warmed up now. No more second-guessing myself. The first draft of Mean Green should be ready before winter.

I don’t believe in luck, but wish me some anyway.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Deep Thoughts from Tough Guys: Make-That-Deadline-You-Lazy-Bastard Edition


“For the first time it came to me that we’re damned every bit as much by the things we don’t do as by the things we do.”

—Lew Griffin in Black Hornet, ©1996 by James Sallis.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Forgotten Books Friday


Gunsights by Elmore Leonard (1979)

Except for Lonesome Dove and Blood Meridian, I had not read a western since my freshman year of high school. Back then, I read a lot of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey; not because I was a huge fan of the genre, but because westerns and the Bible were all the Jesus freaks with whom I lived would allow. Why were westerns acceptable? Beats me. Sometimes it’s best not to probe too deeply into the workings of twisted minds.

I was writing, too. I found an old manual typewriter at a yard sale. Five bucks. I had no money, got no allowance. So I asked Mr. and Mrs. Jesusfreak to buy it for me. They said, “We’ll pray about it.” I knew what that meant. They would pretend to clear it with God first, but in the end I’d have to crawl for it. So I crawled. Don’t ask for details. I got the typewriter, though, and my bottled-up anger ensured I always hit those sticky keys hard enough. Fifteen years old and already growing bitter about the things I had to do to learn my craft.

Since I was reading westerns, I tried my hand at writing one. My memory of the story is positive, though the details are sketchy. It was full of worn-out western tropes: a range war, the lone-wolf hero, the tough but vulnerable woman who falls in love with him and the evil railroad baron who wanted all the land and the girl. I was happy with it and started writing another.

Then Mrs. Jesusfreak read that first story. Before the day was over, she had burned the manuscript in the woodstove and confiscated my typewriter. What did I do wrong? I had used the word “virgin” when referring to a fresh snowfall. Mrs. J. declared the story “obscene” because of that. Obscene? Clichéd, sure, I'll confess to that. But obscene? Fuck.

Oh yeah, they also forbade me from reading more westerns. From then until I finally got to move out several months later, I was only allowed to read the Bible (they didn’t know that I spent every study hall in the high school library, finding shelter in books by Stephen King, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft). For some reason, I never did get back into westerns. I’ve always liked western movies, but the novelists stayed off my radar.

Now jump ahead almost twenty-five years to this spring.

I watched the DVD of 3:10 to Yuma (the new version) and decided it was time I read some of Elmore Leonard’s westerns. On the surface, Gunsights is the story of a copper war in Arizona. It has plenty of action and works just fine on that level. Beneath that, though, it is about people who have been driven to a certain point and refuse to give up any more ground. It is also about two unlikely friends, by chance on opposite sides, who everyone expects to shoot it out any minute. The plot twists and twists again, just as in Leonard’s crime novels. Nothing is certain, right up to the last page. Fans of Get Shorty (1993) will enjoy seeing Bo Catlett’s namesake ancestor in action, too. I can’t say Gunsights ranks up there with Leonard’s best, but it’s gotten me interested in his other westerns. I’ll also have to check out some of the books that James Reasoner has been recommending.

As always, you can find links to the rest of this week's selections (and a master list of all books so far) at Patti Abbott's blog. This is, I think, the fourteenth week of Forgotten Books Friday.

Like a Cut Cat

I like revision. Always have.

I realize that makes me a weirdo, but there you go. Too many writers view the process as a necessary evil. It’s kind of like a root canal in that regard. You know you have to go through with it, but you also know it’s going to hurt like hell. That’s the wrong attitude.

I’m at the tail end of the revision phase with Bitter Water Blues right now. The trick is to tweak sentences, find words that work better than some you used, trim the fat and make sure the continuity is smooth without letting the novel feel too polished and slick. Raw, but not too raw.

Kill your darlings.

There’s the hardest part. One scene in particular was a favorite of mine, but it did not fit the novel. Bitter Water Blues is told in close third-person, with three major and a couple of minor P.O.V. characters. The scene that ended up going featured the husband of one of the main characters, and it was his only P.O.V. scene in the entire manuscript. Also, the wife had already been changed so much as the book took shape that the scene no longer fit their relationship. As much as I loved the scene, I knew it was a drag on the novel. So I deleted it with no regrets.

The man called Tribe was kind enough to run a version of this scene (under the title “Cat Crimes”) on Flashing in the Gutters back in September 2006. I found the file this morning and opened it. Rereading the piece, I have to say I still like it but I know cutting it from BWB was the right decision. No harm in posting it here, though. Some of you will recognize this, but hey, it’s summer: time for reruns.

***

After fifteen minutes of careful scrubbing with damp paper towels, Jim Philbrick gave up trying to clean all the cat shit off his brand-new Kameleon 8-in-1 Universal Remote Control. It came off the housing easily, but the mushy ochre mess oozed into the tiny spaces around each button and there was no way in hell it was coming out. Jim slid open the door and chucked the remote out into the backyard. It hit the chain link fence around the basketball court but didn’t break. Jim threw the dirty paper towel, too, but it just fluttered onto the deck.

“Cocksuckingmotherfuckingnogoodgoddamnsonofabitchingcat.”

Jim stomped back inside. The doily was still on the coffee table. He’d set the remote’s signal to match his TV, VCR, DVD player and cable box and left it on the doily. Now the remote was lying out on the grass and the doily was caked with cat shit. At least the cat got something of Laurie’s this time. Forget the eighty-five bucks the remote cost him. The money didn’t matter so much. It was the goddamn principle of the thing.

He’d bought the remote on his way home from the office because he was tired of using four different devices. It took him half the morning to get the damned thing programmed right. When he’d finished, he’d set it down on the coffee table just long enough to get himself a sandwich and a glass of iced tea before settling down on the couch for serious channel-surfing. Just long enough for Jasmine to stroll in and squat on the new toy.

Laurie’s stack of Cat Fancy magazines sat on one side of the doily and a couple of her mystery novels were on the other. Laurie’s favorite things in life were cats and mysteries. Most of all, she loved cat mysteries. She had all of Rita Mae Brown’s books, “co-written” with a cat named Sneaky-Pie. She had all of Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who… series, books with asinine titles like The Cat Who Knew Shakespeare or The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern. In hardcover.

Jim had an idea for a new book in the series: The Cat Who Took a Dump on the Brand-New Universal Remote that Cost Me $79.99 Plus Tax at the Radio Shack. It wouldn’t be a whodunit. Laurie only had one cat –and she’d settled for only one because Jim was allergic—a fat Persian named Jasmine.

Jasmine. Even the name pissed him off. Jim believed that all animals, for better or worse, had personalities. Like some people Jim knew, Jasmine was a sneaky, rotten little asshole. When Laurie was home, the cat walked around like it owned the place, giving Jim the look. She had a flat, arrogant face and her eyes showed contempt for every living thing except Jim’s wife. The cat would sit purring in Laurie’s lap and look across the room to Jim as if saying, “You got a problem?”

Times like now, when Laurie was at some committee luncheon or off banging her realtor boyfriend at one of his empty listings, Jasmine slunk from room to room, avoiding Jim and shitting on any of his possessions left lying about. Laurie refused to believe her precious Persian would do it, even when confronted with the reeking evidence. She always said, “It’s your own fault, Jim. You upset Jasmine so.”

His hatred of her gave Jasmine some kind of feline anxiety disorder and disturbed her bowels? Jim wanted to disturb her bowels with a baseball bat. He looked for the cat now, getting down on the floor to peek under the sofa, the chairs, end tables. Nothing. The boys kept their bedroom doors closed, so she wouldn’t be upstairs. He tore through his and Laurie’s room. There she was, hiding in the closet on a stack of spare blankets. Even when he had her cornered, Jasmine gave him that look, the I-can-shit-on-your-stuff look, the I-don’t-care-who-knows-I’m-fucking-around-on-you look.

Smiling at Jasmine, Jim reached for the strongbox on the top shelf. He’d come up with a new title for his book: The Cat Who Ate a Fucking Bullet.

©2004 by Patrick Shawn Bagley

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

My Summer of Bruen

If there is a bridge between fiction and poetry, it is built from the novels of Ken Bruen. Though most of us hicks have a hard time articulating this, we understand that beauty and pain walk hand-in-hand. It’s there in the works of Woodrell, Wolven, Hendricks and Crews, too. But nobody gets it on the page like Ken Bruen. Thanks to Julie at my local public library, I have torn through the Do Not Press editions of:

A White Arrest
Taming the Alien
The McDead
London Boulevard
The Hackman Blues

I just reread All the Old Songs and Nothing to Lose and “The Time of Serena-May” from A Fifth of Bruen (Busted Flush Press). Knocked the fucking wind right out of me. If I ever get to be half the writer Bruen is, I’ll be happy. Don’t even think about the fact that those were early works and he hadn’t yet hit his stride.

The latest in the Jack Taylor series, Sanctuary, is just out—or about to come out—and it’s the one book I have to read this summer (not to slight the new releases by J.D. Rhoades, George Pelecanos, Tony Black, Victor Gischler, John Connolly, Tana French, Robert Crais or James Lee Burke). When I think of Jack Taylor and everything he’s lost over the course of seven novels, I think about these two lines from Li Po’s “Taking Leave of a Friend.”

Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.

The next time some douche bag tells you that crime fiction can’t be art, hit him with a copy of Rilke on Black or American Skin. Then make sure he reads it. That will shut his mouth for a while, and the next time you hear from him it will be to ask if you have any more Bruen.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Not the Usual (Poetry) Suspects

“You ask me, those guys are doing God's work, taking poetry back from the beret set.” —Chris F. Holm

I know what you’re thinking. Yeah, I do.

Ewww, poetry. I hate poetry. All that stuff about Greek urns, lilacs in dooryards and Hiawatha. Symbolism? Rhyme and meter? Rod fucking McKuen. Booooooring. Poetry sucks.

If you believe that’s all there is to poetry, then I pity you. You’re missing out on a lot of great writing. You’ve missed Charles Bukowski, Hayden Carruth, Victor Hernández Cruz, Martín Espada, Louise Glück, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Tim Seibles, Ann Sexton, Charles Simic, Patricia Smith, Christopher Watkins, James Wright, Kevin Young and far too many others. But it’s not too late, my friend.

One way to wrap your head around some of the good stuff is to order your very own copy of The Lineup: Poems on Crime. Our first annual anthology has poems by the likes of Ken Bruen, Sarah Cortez, Daniel Hatadi, R. Narvaez and Sandra Seamans. Do you think Ken Bruen would write poetry if it did not kick serious ass?

But crime poetry? That’s just, like, weird.

You’ll find everything you love about crime fiction in these poems: murderers, shylocks, dope fiends, bent cops, good cops, punk-ass kids, kidnappers and just plain old normal folks who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As far as I know, The Lineup is the first-ever anthology of crime poems. It’s literary history in the making. This is noir poetry, buddy. The hard-boiled stuff. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to read, too.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Life of Crime: The Summer of ‘76


I was seven-and-a-half years old. That half was a big deal back then, and I liked to stress it whenever anyone asked my age. Seven-and-a-half was practically eight, while being only seven was the same thing as telling people you still wore Pampers.

Summer vacation had just started, the morning was bright and warm, and I was loose on the streets of Utica. I didn’t have any plans. I wasn’t going anywhere. Just being out of the house was enough. My mother, stepfather, younger brother and sister and I lived in a crummy apartment on a street the name of which I no longer remember. There were too many of them; too many shithole apartments in too many shitty neighborhoods. We moved a lot, sometimes at night so we’d have a head start on the landlord or the cops, but always within Utica or Rome. After a while, all these places sort of blended into one.

My stepfather worked when he could and got drunk when he couldn’t. He wasn’t such a bad guy when he was sober. Get a few drinks in him, though, and I turned into a punching bag. Afterwards, he’d be weepy. He would hug me and breathe liquor fumes in my face and tell me that it was for my own good. He was making a man out of me, just like his father had done for him. Other times, his drunk would be a happy one and he’d keep the whole house up all night singing and dancing. Fifteen years later, when I read “My Papa’s Waltz” and Ham on Rye for the first time, I knew Roethke and Bukowski had lived every word they wrote.

Bad as he was, my mother was worse. She flew into blind rages over the smallest of things. Punching, kicking, choking, slapping, scratching were standard. Then there were the times when she threw me down a flight of stairs, held my head underwater in the toilet bowl, beat my head against the wall or picked me up by the ears and shook me until blood ran down the sides of my neck. Mom never showed remorse or offered tearful justifications. Whatever she did, I was to blame. And when they weren’t beating or berating me, they fought each other.

So this particular morning, my mother sent me outside and told me not to come back until lunch time. It was a relief to be wandering the streets alone. I might run into some kids I knew from school, but I hadn’t been around the neighborhood long enough to make any friends. My only real friend was a kid named Chris who lived down the street from my Grandma Johnson’s place in Herkimer, about fifteen miles away.

I had a quarter burning a hole in my pocket. There were little mom-and-pop stores every few blocks, and I walked way beyond my usual boundary before stopping at one to buy a Popsicle and some penny candy. I even got some change back. I went outside, gobbling up the Popsicle before it could melt and then hitting the candy.

Back to wandering. I don’t remember how much time passed, but I walked in a circle and eventually ended up at another corner store not far from home. This was the place my mother usually sent me on errands when she needed a quart of milk or some crackers or Spic ‘n’ Span (a psychotic welfare case she may have been, but my mom always kept our apartment clean). I had a few cents left, so I went inside.

The first thing to catch my eye was a tall wire spinner full of comic books. I loved comics and still do. My favorites back then were Batman, Justice League of America, Detective Comics, Richie Rich, Casper and Wendy, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and I bought them whenever I had enough money. But I zoomed in on an issue of The Incredible Hulk that morning. I had heard of the Hulk, had probably seen him as a guest star in one of the other Marvel titles I sometimes read, but had never picked up one of his comics.

I opened it and began reading. I don’t remember which issue it was, or even what the story was about. What struck me at the time was the character of Bruce Banner. Here was an adult—skinny, weak, harassed—who when pushed too far turned into this rampaging expression of his anger and frustration. It scared and fascinated me at the same time. I felt like Banner: hounded and beaten but too weak to fight back. What would it be like to unleash my rage, to punish my stepfather and make him go away forever, to make my mother act the way a mother should?

I had to have that comic book.

But it cost twenty-five cents and I only had about eight cents left. It didn’t matter. I had to have the comic. I needed it more than anything else in the world. I looked around. There were no other customers in the store. The owner stood behind the counter, reading a newspaper. He didn’t seem to notice me.

I’d never stolen anything before. How tough could it be to swipe one comic book? There was the door. Right there, just a few feet away. I could be halfway home before the guy even noticed I’d left. Easy. Nothing to it.

Keeping the comic open and pretending that I was still reading it, I walked toward the door. It was a perfect plan. If the owner stopped me, I could act innocent, make like I was so absorbed in the story that I just didn’t realize I’d gone outside. Man, was I crafty.

I opened the screen door with my foot and stepped onto the porch. So far, so good. I walked down the steps, still holding the comic up in front of my face, staying cool even though I wanted to run. The screen door banged open just as I was about to turn and go down the alley.

“Where the hell you think you’re going, you little shit?”

I didn’t run. I looked around like I had no idea how I’d ended up here. The guy grabbed the comic out of my hands. He didn’t wait for my explanation and I knew then that he’d already heard every bullshit story a little kid could dream up. I stood there trying not to cry. If he made me give him our phone number so he could call my parents, I was dead. Every beating I’d ever had up until that day would seem like a joke compared to what I’d get.

“How old are you?”

“Seven-and-a-half.”

“Want to get locked up in reform school until you’re eighteen?”

“No.”

“Then don’t you ever come back to my store again,” he said. “I see you in here, I’ll call the cops and they’ll put you away for ten years.”

He turned around and went back inside. I was so relieved, I started crying anyway. Ten years for stealing a twenty-five cent comic book was bullshit, but what did I know? The guy wanted to scare me and it worked. I cried all the way home. Then I dried my eyes and went to sit on the stump in the backyard we shared with the other tenants until it was time to go in for lunch. What my mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me.

As it turned out, I hadn’t caught that much of a break when the guy let me go. My mother liked sending me on little errands to that store because it near our apartment and she had a good idea of how much money she needed to give me. But I couldn’t show my face there anymore.

The only other place close enough was a chain grocery store. It was three or four blocks farther away, and the prices were a little cheaper. That meant my errands took longer and I was coming home with more money than there should be in my pocket. All I could do was keep the extra coins and try to come up with a story about what took me so long. Sure, I now had more money for candy and comics, but guilt and worry raised the cost.

Things went on like this for the rest of the summer, until we moved again. That move took us to second-floor apartment right across the street from Roosevelt Elementary School. I remember the place well because it was to be the last time the six of us moved anywhere together. My youngest brother was born while we lived there. The fights got worse.

By the spring of ’77, my mother was dead by her own hand and we kids were split up between my stepfather (the two youngest, who were his) and Grandma Johnson. She gave us a good home. Herkimer was far from the worst place to be a kid in the seventies. I tried to avoid trouble, but it never had a hard time finding me.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Wanted

Gerald So has posted the submission guidelines for next year's edition of The Lineup: Poems on Crime. Our reading period begins soon, so get crackin'.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Whoops, Apocalypse!

With all the excitement around the release of The Lineup (well, it’s exciting to me, smartass), I almost forgot that yesterday was the official on-sale date of Victor Gischler’s brand-spanking-new novel, Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse. Despite his inexplicable and unrepentant love for ABBA, Mr. Gischler is one of the ass-kickingest writers out there. Some folks think the world is going to end next month, so you’d best get your hands on Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse right now. At least you’ll die happy.

All Lined Up


The Lineup: Poems on Crime is now available from Murder by the Book in Austin, TX and online from Lulu.com. Our first annual issue delivers twenty-five poems by fourteen hard-hitting poets for just $6.50 plus shipping.

“The Lineup is packed with passionate portraits of lust, revenge, guilt, obsession, regret…all the good things in life. Some of these poems will make you smile, others will put a lump in your throat. And some will stay with you for a very long time after you’ve closed the book.”
—Sean Chercover, author of Big City, Bad Blood and Trigger City.

This debut issue features poems by Patrick Shawn Bagley, Ken Bruen, Sarah Cortez, Graham Everett, Daniel Hatadi, Daniel Thomas Moran, R. Narvaez, Robert Plath, Misti Rainwater-Lites, Stephen D. Rogers, A.E. Roman, Sandra Seamans, Gerald So and KC Trommer. The Lineup: Poems on Crime is published by Poetic Justice Press and edited by Gerald So (fiction editor of Thrilling Detective e-zine), with Patrick Shawn Bagley, R. Narvaez and Anthony Rainone.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Gone Fishin'

Metaphorically speaking, anyway.

The blog's going dark for a while.