Americans don’t quit enough, a writer may have told me. It might have been, “Americans don’t like quitting,” I am unsure of the exact quote since bourbon was involved. This all came right after they mentioned they had trunked a book they’d been writing for three years. Yeah, I know this is not that surprising in the writing world, but I was still taken back given this writer’s incredible work.
Eryk Pruitt organized a great night of readings and performances at Bouchercon 2019’s Noir at the Bar. It’s only fitting that this son of Texas returned to Dallas from his exile in North Carolina to put a bullet in the head of Noir at the Bar and kill it.
Mike McCrary was the first to read and he chased out any blue hairs that may have accidentally wandered in with, as Pruitt declared, “an eight-minute-long dick joke”. S.A. Cosby was next up with his Anthony nominated short story, “The Grass Beneath My Feet”. I’ve heard Cosby read this story several times, but tonight was different, maybe it was Pruitt watching him from the corner with a 6.5 mm Carano rifle in his hands or maybe it was something else. Cosby brought down the house.
Following McCrary’s laughs and Cosby’s tears was Hector Acosta, but tonight’s Noir at the Bar was unlike all others I’ve witnessed or organized. Instead of wilting against the pressure of such wonderful stories preceding his, Acosta became a willing accomplice in the killing of Noir at the Bar.
Then Pruitt toyed with his audience’s expectations with a reading by Texas poet Opalina Salas. Before you can complain about the place of poetry at a Noir at the Bar, y’all can shut it as Salas enthralled us all.
I don’t know how J.D. Allen even walked up to the mic after Salas’s reading, but she did, and like Acosta before her, Allen fearlessly killed it. Two more Texans, Kathleen Kent and Terry Shames, were up and, obviously, two more great performances.
Last was Joe Lansdale who could have used his stature of being Joe Fucking Lansdale and phoned it in, but Lansdale took stock of the night and wasn’t taking any prisoners either. Lansdale read his essay “Darkness in the East” and here’s a taste.
“You can’t point at noir and call it one thing, but it usually has some of these elements: existentialist attitude, cynical and desperate characters, wise-ass talk, rain and shadows, a lightning bolt and shadowed blinds, sweaty sheets and cigarette smoke, whiskey breath and dark street corners where shots are fired and a body is found, and long black cars squealing tires as they race around poorly lit corners.”
I don’t know how long Pruitt was planning to kill off Noir at the Bar, but a book convention in Dallas was an appropriate place. Years from now, everyone will say they were there when Noir at the Bar died, but only the hundred or so of us will know the truth.
Frequent readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of Marietta Miles’s work, “Route 12” (All Due Respect) and “May” (Down & Out Books). Her new book, “After The Storm”, picks up after the ending of “May”. I had the opportunity to read “After The Storm” a few months ago and found that Miles continues to kill it. She’s seriously good. “After The Fall” comes out on Down & Out Books this fall, so you still have time to read her first two books.
Miles writes about the cover and working with Eric Beetner on the final design.
From the beginning, I had certain things that I hoped would happen with my writing. Having Eric Beetner create a cover for me was on that list of hopes and aspirations. He is open and interested, therefore Eric knew I wanted the cover to be a physical imagining of May. Interestingly, while researching, he was surprised at the scarcity of images depicting women in mid-life. Thankfully, he worked through that challenge and delivered a beautiful cover.
Lastly, before we get to the reveal, here is the synopsis of “After The Storm”.
AFTER THE STORM
The island is left unlivable, and May, like so many others, has become a refugee. Drifting and wandering. Blindly trying to start life over. In this foggy chaos she treads to keep her head above water and to steady and buoy poor Tommy, a boy who might be too far gone to rescue.
Four hundred miles away, in a small dying town hidden high in the mountains, a disregarded teenager named Curtis and his unwilling sister Vicki run from the consequences of his violent proclivities. In a gassed-up Mustang, they head east, to the crystal coast, where they can hide and start over. Just like everyone else.
Thanks for stopping by and viewing the cover reveal for “After The Storm” by Marietta Miles.
Noir at the Bar is what happens when a bunch of ne’er-do-wells get together and read their dark crime stories. Sometimes there’s magic on the stage, other times, well, other times not even the best bourbon can help–it’s not going to hurt, but it sure as hell doesn’t cover up a shitty performance.
I’ve read at two Noir at the Bars (N@B), seen over half-a-dozen others from Canada to Florida, and I have even organized one. (That’s another article on the lessons learned from that.) I have a good idea of what makes a good N@B reading, but I reached out to some N@B veterans, organizers, and performers to get their take. Thanks ahead of time to those that participated: Eryk Pruitt, Steve Lauden, Christa Faust, Shawn Cosby, Jen Conley, Eric Beetner, Jedidiah Ayres, and Ed Aymar. The usual meaningless caveat about anything wrong in this article is the fault of this author and not the kind people who gave their thoughts.
If you have the attention of a pre-schooler, here’s a summary on what it takes to have a successful night at a N@B.
Choose a piece for the actions/attitude it has and not for the good prose–that shit is appreciated on the page muuuuuuch more than read aloud.
Keep it short (unless you’re amazing)
Focus on his last bit, “Keep it short (unless you’re amazing).” Rule of thumb, if you think you’re amazing, you’re not, I don’t care what your Mama told you. So keep it short.
Shawn (S.A.) Cosby is one of the organizers of the Richmond N@B along with Marietta Miles. Cosby read at the inaugural Wilmington N@B and his first novel, “My Darkest Prayer” (Intrigue) was released this year.
Keep your story under 1,500 words.
Don’t just read your story. Perform it.
If you read an excerpt from a novel read one from the first few chapters. It makes listeners interested in buying your book.
Regarding Cosby’s third point, please refer to Ayres’s final point to see if it’s possible.
Try to read a complete flash fiction story if at all possible. If you can’t do that, read the beginning of a novel you are writing or a section that is engaging and, more importantly, complete. If you have to explain too much beforehand where we are in your novel, the audience will have to do too much work themselves. They don’t like that.
Before you read, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Make sure you get the intonations correct and the beats rights. Make sure you project your voice. You want people to remember you and then go read your stuff. They’ll remember you if you’re a great reader.
If at all possible, know your audience. Don’t read a long drawn-out sexual scene that will make people cringe. And when in doubt, watch your curse words. I curse all the time in real life and in writing, but if I walk into a place where I get the feeling it’s a more formal crowd, then I quickly go through my story and do a quick edit. At Shade in NYC, the crowd is more casual and swear words don’t really offend. But I’ve read in other places where I’ve switched out my f-bombs for something else.
All in all, remember, this 5-7 minute spot is there to showcase you and your work. So do your best to hit it out of the park–and remember, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
If you get anything from Jen’s advice, it’s this: fucking rehearse, or, depending on your audience, freaking rehearse.
Choose something nasty, brutish and short. Seriously fucking short. Did I mention short? The shorter the better. And don’t bother with a bunch of set up or plot explanation. Just get in and get out and leave ’em wanting more.
Let me reiterate Faust’s point, keep it fucking short. The number of times I’ve been bored by a N@B author is too many.
Memorize as much as you can of your story. Makes for more engagement with the audience and, generally, a better read. Memorization means that you’ve rehearsed quite a bit, and the story has become overtly familiar to you. That’s a good thing. But still take the story on stage with you, so you’re not awkwardly trying to remember stuff.
Write for the event. This is something Angel Cólon always says, and I think he got it from Johnny Shaw, and both of those guys are worth listening to. Reading an excerpt from your book is rarely entertaining––most books aren’t meant to be read aloud in 5-7 minute segments. They’re not self-contained. A short story, specifically for the event, is better. And you’re not going to sell a ton of books at a Noir at the Bar anyway.
Along that note, KEEP IT SHORT. No longer than 8 minutes, at the most. Nobody wants to sit through a reading longer than that. Don’t assume you’re different. Short, punchy, entertaining, and fun.
Aymar takes the idea of practice one step further. Basically, you can’t practice too much for a N@B gig.
Writing is often a solitary pursuit. Getting up in front of a crowd to read what you wrote is show business. So try to entertain the people staring back at you by reading something that will make an impression. Breathtaking action, funny scenes or cringeworthy violence will work, depending on the kind of stuff you write and how good you are at presenting it. Most importantly, practice reading your selection out loud at home a few times before you do it in front of a crowd.
The things I always tell readers is to practice. This is a performance and the ultimate audience is someone who has never read your work so you are presenting your writing for the first time and want to put it in the best light. Stumbling, stuttering, pausing isn’t the way to do that. Read it out loud several times. That way you can familiar with the rhythms of it. You can look up off the page now and then to connect with the audience.
And don’t be afraid of acting a little. Characters have different voices if you read a piece with dialogue. You have to sell it. When choosing what to read, funny always goes over well or big action. It has to be action that is easy to follow, but if you’ve written it right that shouldn’t be an issue.
And keep it tight. I put time limits on readers for the L.A. events that seems short, and sometimes it can be tough to find a piece that fits into the 3-5 minutes I request. But A) I assume people are gong to go over and this means they’re not going from ten minutes to fifteen, and B ) the crowd likes it short and sweet. Leave them wanting more. (That way they’ll go buy your book) with six readers on a typical night for us, keeping the readings down to about 5 minutes still gives the audience and good night of readings but doesn’t burn them out.
The biggest thing though is the idea to treat it like a performance, not a book report. Be animated when necessary, pause for effect, try out an accent or two. You want to hook a listener.
Here’s a taste.Most of us look the other way when it comes to Amazon. I know I do. Hell, over at Unlawful Acts, I have purchase links to Amazon. I’m a Prime subscriber and I even subscribe to Kindle Unlimited. And that’s something I need to address, something I think we all need to address.
All the regular caveats and such. You’ll notice several short story collections and two books from 2017 I finally caught up with. But first, the Book of the Year.
The rest of the Best listed alphabetically.
Here are some books from 2018 that are worthy of your money as well and, again, listed in no particular order: “Know Me From Smoke” by Matt Phillips, “Welcome to HolyHell” by Math Bird, “The Science of Paul” by Aaron Philip Clark, “Fast Bang Booze” by Lawrence Maddox, “Down the River Unto The Sea” by Walter Mosley, “Accidental Outlaws” by Matt Phillips, “May” by Marietta Miles, “Knuckledragger” by Rusty Barnes, and “Breaking Glass” by Alec Cizak.
One of the things I tried to do in 2018 was review a diverse set of authors. Did I succeed? Not really, the image to the right says it all.
But first, why should I even try to read from a diverse set of authors? Why can’t I be like Jake Needham who stopped by to comment on my July 2018 post about the American Library Association dropping Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from their children’s award? Needham wrote:
If you want to choose the writers you read by the color of their skin or their sex, go ahead. I won’t even try to tell you how stupid that is because you’re obviously all swelled up about your own virtuousness. Personally, I shall continue to choose the writers I want to read by whether their work interests me and what I think of its quality. I don’t give a toss about their race or sex, and I have no interest in listening to you preach at me about how I must. Good-bye.
Here’s the problem, Jake. Most publishing houses publish white writers, so if you only have that to go on, how do you know if the works of writers of color (WOC) interest you or of good quality? If white readers are not searching out writers different from themselves then the readers are only helping perpetuate the problem of white authors being the only voices being heard. I know, it’s confusing especially since major publishing companies are owned by white men. On the plus side Jake, I’ve found that every time I read an author who is not like me, I find that we are more alike than different and the differences are intriguing.
I know one of my problems is that I enjoy reading dark and gritty crime novels about people living on the fringes of society – yeah, yeah, I see the oddity of that statement since most WOC are on said fringes. Sadly, many of the publishers of these books just don’t have the diversity of authors to read.
Also, one of the areas that I have been negligent about is books by LGBTQ+ authors. Though I have not gone out of my way to read LGBTQ+ authors – this needs to be worked on – I have no idea how many LGBTQ+ authors I have read over the last two years. My guess, it’s low, quite low.
So what happened in 2018? The diversity of my reviews was not where I wanted it to be. In 2017, 70% of all the writers I read were white men. So I started working on it for 2018. Was I successful? Not really. Not really at all. Did I move in the right direction? Yeah, but nowhere near enough. I still have much work to doing 2019.
In 2019, I will continue to search our writers different than me which will entail reading some older books and delving into genres I’m not so keen on.
Below is a breakout of the authors I reviewed in 2017 and 2018. Yup, much more work to do.