Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Western Is Not Dead, Just Updated

There was a time when Westerns were wildly popular. Novels about life in the Old West, films about the cowboys and Indians, and even television shows set in the west were all the rage. You couldn't turn around without bumping into one.

The genre faded, and you rarely see a Western novel in the book store or hitting the best seller list. It's outdated, you might hear a publisher say. No one does Westerns any more. That's so 1950s.

Maybe the genre isn't quite dead. Maybe it's undergone a slight modification, a face-lift if you will.

The Wild West is alive and well and it's living on the south side of Chicago.

A woman out visiting relatives with her mother, her son, and a couple of unnamed male companions was shot in a drive-by the other day. Chances are it was her companions who were targeted, but the average gunslinger isn't taking the time to aim. Two innocent women were killed in the exchange, but they were not the only ones to die that weekend. Every Monday we are presented with a list that tallies the dead and injured, the butcher's bill of gang members and those unfortunate enough to be nearby when the shots rang out.

Waiting for the posse to ride into Englewood

The format of the typical Western is rather straightforward. There is a good guy trying to tame the town by stopping by the bad guys from taking over and doing all the things that are illegal and uncivilized. How easy would it be for a writer to use that format and change the characters from cowboys in white hats to ordinary homeowners in Chicago's Englewood community? Are those folks not asking for the same thing as the townspeople of the Old West asked when they demanded that a sheriff be installed to bring law and order?

The stories of the Old West, such as those written by Zane Grey, were all about the conquering of savagery. Riders of the Purple Sage could be re-written today and the setting changed to the west side of Chicago and the genre would be resurrected. Of course no one would call it a Western. It would become urban fiction, but it would be little more than a cosmetic change.

You want cowboys? How about setting a novel in the Back of the Yards, a tough Chicago neighborhood that got its name from its location, behind the Chicago stockyards. They had plenty of cowboys on hand in those days. Now there's plenty of gangsters shooting guns at each other. Not unlike rival thugs in your average Western, shooting at each other to get rid of the competition so that one gang could reign supreme in the lawless department.

Westerns play out every weekend in some parts of Chicago, not unlike the violence of the Old West played out while people in civilized cities sat safely in their parlors or sat on their front porches reading about the violence. The characters don't ride horses any more, but they still ride out in search of rivals.

And like the innocent characters in a Western novel, the residents of Chicago's depressed communities are sitting around waiting for the posse to show up, or some new sheriff or anyone capable of enforcing the law so that they can enjoy the peace of civilization.

The Western is not dead. It's alive and well and disguised as urban literature. There are stories to be told, if anyone cares to sit down and do some writing. Just copy the style of the once popular genre, changing the key ingredients to provide the updating that brings an old story into the modern context.

Don't forget to include the law enforcement component that will seem like pure fiction to the people who are living with the violence. They're still waiting for the posse to come riding into town to restore order.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Art Of The Query Letter

Even though submissions to Newcastlewest Books are by recommendation only, we still often find queries in the inbox. So many people have a story to tell and they look for an outlet, often without studying the art of the query letter that will open the door.

It's not unlike trying to unlock a safe without first learning the combination. The numbers are there for you if you go look for them, but there are those who think they can manage on their own.

The first step on the rocky road to publishin' is the creation of a query letter. It is a piece of business correspondence, not a chatty e-mail. By custom, the query letter is 250 - 300 words long.

That's it. 250- 300 words to market your manuscript. To say it's no easy task is a bit of an understatement.

Begin with a hook, something to catch a reader's attention, but be sure the hook introduces your story. Like I said, not easy. In two or three sentences you have to distill the essence of the conflict you've written about, and do it in a way that makes the reader want to read the next paragraph.

The middle of the query is a synopsis, in a way, although you don't have to give away the ending of the story. You do have to introduce the characters and show why a reader should care about them. What is at stake for the protagonist if he or she fails to stop an attack or find the lost locket or marry the duke?

Nothing is better than reading other query letters to get a better understanding of the form and style. Perhaps one of the best places to go is the blog written by literary Janet Reid. Query Shark can be bruising, but if you want to get published you'd best develop some scar tissue and thicken your hide. 

Need more help? Turn to your fellow queriers, who gather at writer forums to share and critique. AgentQuery Connect is an excellent stop on the road to crafting a good query letter.

Study up and learn what is expected in a query instead of throwing out some long-winded marketing mash-up that might sound brilliant to you but will get a rejection immediately. Things like attachments are not allowed, even if you know yourself to be honest and upright and not a hacker. The stranger you're sending that attachment to doesn't know that. They won't open your query and you're more likely to get trapped in a spam filter.

Once you've got the query letter process down, it's time to start sending it around. And then you'll learn about things like novel length and word counts and the sad fact that no one is going to ask to see pages of your 150,000 word opus. Even the first Harry Potter book wasn't a door stop.

Do your homework before you approach literary agents or publishers. It saves a lot of headaches and disappointment.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Is It Time To Canonize A Pedophile Priest?

The Pope is off in the States canonizing a missionary because the Hispanics need one of their own. That's the usual line of thought that goes into the process. Sainthood is a sort of gift to be bestowed on special interest groups, not unlike your local politicians finding the funds to construct a new roadway that the local people have been clamoring for because the voters up there in Roscommon got one and where's our piece of the pie?

So His Holiness has decided that there's no need for the requisite proof of two miracles to advance Junipero Serra to sainthood because the Latinos need to be thrown a religious bone.

As for the native population that was decimated by Father Serra and his merry band, well, they aren't such hard-core Catholics as all that. And they certainly are not as large a special interest group as the Mexican-Americans.

Besides, this canonization is all about recognizing past sins so that we can all move beyond them and seek forgiveness. Never forget, and never repeat. Saint Junipero Serra will become the patron saint of brutal conquerors who have long needed such heavenly hands to hold.

If it's all about recognizing past sins so that they will not be repeated, isn't it about time that Father Brendan Smyth was fast-tracked?

Don't the pedophiles need a patron saint of their own as well?

Junipero Serra converted native peoples whether they liked it or not, and in the process he brought along all sorts of new diseases that devastated the population. Instilling Catholicism required the removal of native culture, which the descendants of those tribes don't appreciate to this day. So by making him a saint, the Pope is saying to Americans, look at how poorly your ancestors treated people and look at how poorly you treat Hispanics today. At least that is the opinion of Steven Hackel, who wrote a biography of the missionary.

Except that Junipero Serra migrated to California from Mexico and then abused the locals, so if the Pope is trying to send the Yanks a message about their attitude to illegal immigrants, he has gone far off-track. Looking at the history, the story of Father Serra pretty much reinforces the message of those who want a big wall built to keep the Mexicans out.
If we're canonizing sinners to atone for the sin, you can't top Fr. Brendan Smyth for the crime of child abuse

At any rate, this canonization is all about atoning for sin by making the sinner a saint. The Catholic Church is supposed to be atoning for the sins of its pedophile clergy, right? So it stands to reason that Brendan Smyth should be beatified at once and canonized in the morning.

He may have been the most prolific pedophile in the clergy, abusing hundreds of children by his own count. He was moved from place to place as his abuse became known in the parish where he was posted, as the Church fought valiantly to cover up the crimes with obfuscation and guilt and the occasional bribe. The history of those days is grim, and the pain is still resonating.

Let's really get serious about examining the sins of the pedophiles within the Catholic Church, and at the same time give the clergy one of their own to serve as an example of a great sinner who still, despite his proclivities, managed to say the Mass and baptize the babies and marry the happy couples while preaching against sins like fornication.

If it's good enough for Junipero Serra, why can't the Irish clergy get a small slice of the sinner's pie?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Improbability of Love: A Book Review

Overhead in an office at Penguin Random House:

---So this Hannah Rothschild, she's one of the Rothschilds, the bankers?

---She is indeed. Powerful family, and they lost a great deal of their art collection to the Nazis. So she writes from what she knows. And it's more than that. People are intrigued by the art world because it's foreign to them, and they know they'll never be part of it because it's such an exclusive club filled with the super-rich. I liked her Russian oligarch character, having to pay bribes back to the Leader, as he called him. Brilliant touch.

---But someone has to tell her.

---The story's a delight, isn't it? There's the plotline in which the long lost work of Watteau is found in the junk shop, but as the story progresses the painting's provenenance is revealed and the tale develops on an unexpected trajectory. Ms. Rothschild made one of her characters a former Nazi hiding in plain sight, and he's trying to keep his secrets. And the protagonist, Annie, she's in the center of a love story, with her lost love and arrival in London as her way of starting a new life. There's plenty there to keep a reader's interest. It starts out lightly enough, with her purchasing the painting and then wondering if maybe it's a valuable treasure that can save her from financial ruin. Then the next thing you know, the shop is firebombed and the reader gets a hint that the novel won't be quite such a soft bit of fluff as it first appeared.

---But there's a prologue and it's entirely unneccessary. It's a waste of time for the reader and only confuses them with all those character names. The characters appear in the body of the novel and they don't need to be presented up front. And that bit with the picture itself acting like the omniscient narrator, sort of a voice of God from on high. There's a huge info-dump, and it's grand that Ms. Rothschild knows all about provenance and tracing ownership but people don't want to read that. Someone has to tell her the book needs a good trimming.

---Did you read the section where Annie runs afoul of the powerful art gallery owner? Do you not think that Ms. Rothschild just might be writing from some personal knowledge there? You want to tell her the book needs editing, go right ahead, but if you end up floating face up in the East River, well, don't say you weren't warned.

---It's her first novel. And it's a fun read. It could be five-star worthy if she would cut out the prologue and get rid of the talking picture parts.

---I'm not telling her.

---Pity. I hope someone tells her so that when she writes her next book it will be excellent instead of just good. She has a talent for writing this sort of thing. There's humour and heart, and the action near the end when everyone is trying to track down the missing Watteau, it becomes a page turner.

---The novel will just have to go out as is, and let the readers tell her in their reviews. She can't go after everyone, can she?

---I hope not. You don't think this room is bugged, do you? That she'll find out and that will be the end for us? We'll never get a loan from any bank because the Rothschilds will put us in their black book. Or worse....

Friday, September 18, 2015

Air Marshal Incognito

You aren't supposed to know who the air marshal is when you board a plane. That's the point, isn't it? The potential hijacker or crazed loon should not be able to identify the person most likely to take them down, and so the air marshal flies under the radar, so to speak.

That being the case, the air marshal has to have a secret identity at the ready in case some friendly traveler sits down next to them and strikes up a conversation. And what do you do for a living that brings you here to this flight, is it business or pleasure, etc., etc., and the air marshal must protect his or her identity with some ready answers.

Three such air marshals based in Chicago are coming under fire for just doing their job.

The three in question came up with the perfect cover for their covert operations. They said they were pornographers. Who wants to sit next to one of them, right, and more to the point, who would want to have a friendly chat about smut? There's a real conversation-ender for you.

They went about setting up their secret identity with commendable spirit. Not only did they say they were producing porn films, but they went and hired prostitutes and actually created some homemade sex films. Take that, doubting travel companion. The closeted air marshal could just whip out his government-issued phone and show you his oeuvre.

As it turns out, it is illegal for federal employees like air marshals to hire prostitutes for any reason. It is also illegal for them to tape sex acts on government equipment. The Feds are particularly sensitive to such rules infractions because the Secret Service really humiliated everyone with their escapades, and the authorities prefer not to have to deal with another similar scandal. It wouldn't do to have taxpayers look at threats to shut down the Federal government and say, go for it we'd be better off without the clowns who pass for a defensive line against terror.

One of the three marshals has turned in his badge, while the other two apparently feel that they did nothing wrong. They were supposed to work incognito, weren't they? An agent forced to prove his cover story has to do what he or she has to do, and if that means hiring prostitutes and then filming the action, well, how is that grounds for dismissal?

Their boss, Roderick Allison, has assured Congress that this is a one-off incident and he's working to get the other two agents fired. Such activity, he testified, is not representative of air marshal culture. So we are all to believe that the rest of the force can come up with much better false identities, and excessive creativity is not tolerated.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Rise Of Craft Beers Explained

Hops - No IPA is compete without it
Everywhere you turn, someone is starting up a brewery to produce beer that has more taste than the flavored water that passes for beer at the big conglomerates. The young, who have the stamina to drink enough beer to make a difference in the market, are turning up their noses at the offerings of Anheuser-Busch InBev or SABMiller. And they're wise, too, very much aware of the brand names used by those big conglomerates to make a person think they're buying a craft beer when in fact it's just another mass production out of a massive factory.

The big brewers are losing market share to the countless little start-ups, and so the suits look to cut costs as they attempt to work their way back into the hearts, and stomachs, of Millenials. Bigger is better, so the thinking goes, bigger means more efficiency and more synergies to be realized.

And for those who get themselves synergized out of work, they can always just go start up their own little craft beer brewery, right?

Anheuser-Busch InBev is making a lot of noise these days about buying up its nearest competitor, the equally massive SABMiller. The two corporations are themselves the product of several mergers of smaller operations, with each acquisition meant to reach the top of the beer market. What happens when one large entity controls a market? That's called a monopoly, and when a corporation grows into a monopoly, it gets to largely set the price for its goods and the buyer can either do without or pay up.

Wouldn't it be grand, the corner office holders were all over it, increasing profits and boosting a sagging bottom line. If only they were not looking over their shoulder at SABMiller, they could raise the price a bit and wouldn't the Christmas bonus look a bit more cheery.

You might think you can fight back by not purchasing Budweiser, but a long string of mergers has put most of the major brands under the umbrellas of the two biggest brewers. The only way left to show that you won't accept cheap beer sold at a premium, considering the quality of the product, is to buy from a craft brewer who is local to your area so you know they aren't hiding their parentage.

Time to get creative and maybe get rich?
Small craft brewers understand the desire of beer drinkers to quench their thirst with quality products, beverages that are made in small batches with someone who is genuinely interested in the quality of the product keeping an eye on the vats. They play up their smallness and local origins, offering tours of the facilities and touting their local roots. The brew master could be someone you know, or someone you met at university. He or she is not just another factory hand toiling for SABMiller in obscurity, with no real stake in how the beer tastes after it leaves the factory.

Instead of improving the goods, which would be cost-prohibitive, the top two brewers snap up craft houses that are keen to expand because their product is so popular but they lack the facilities to meet demand. Then the drinkers get wise, insist that InBev or whoever has just ruined their favorite brew, and move on to the next latest small brewery.

What's left? Decrease costs by merging and shrinking the population of employees, with their expensive salaries and benefits.

Meanwhile, the next generation of beer drinkers discovers that there are more tastes to beer than a Budweiser or a Stella Artois. There are recipes that are best in small batches, and if it costs a little more, it's worth it to drink one good beer rather than five poor ones.

Whether the proposed merger of Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller will pass muster with the U.S. anti-monopoly authorities remains to be seen. The two titans may be relegated to battling it out, snapping up craft brewers who can take their windfall and set up another craft brewery that will out-compete the industry giants because the craft beer is what the public wants these days.

Maybe it's time that I gave up the writing and started inventing beer recipes?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Coming In December

Available 8 December 2015
Newcastlewest Books is excited to introduce debut author Sean Gleason, a brilliant writer with a gift for wry humour and witty prose.

His first novel will be published on 8 December, and it will make the perfect holiday gift for your fiction-loving relations. As the lay-down date approaches you'll find the book listed at all your favorite online bookshops, but for now you can sample a little of the story here. You can pre-order a digital copy, with hard copy pre-orders to come soon.

SAINTS OF THE NEW IRISH KITCHEN will feel like a romantic comedy, but in this case, the romance is between a woman and a restaurant. The story of the driven chef Martie Smurfit plays out against a backdrop of financial difficulties coupled with a bit of underhanded subterfuge as she manipulates an unaware building contractor into making her a full partner in the restaurant that has brought him to the brink of bankruptcy. All is on track until a man from her past shows up and threatens to expose her many secrets, any one of which could get her fired.

Martie's biggest secret is her sexual orientation, a very timely subject these days. Indeed, history is currently being made in regard to equality, and Sean handles the topic with a deft touch. Like any good rom-com, Martie's quest for secrecy leads to unintended consequences that threaten to upend her plans. An Irish gangster turns up, using her business partner to launder stolen bank notes, and when she steps in without thinking things through, the fun really starts.

Fans of Marian Keyes' style will enjoy SAINTS OF THE NEW IRISH KITCHEN, as will anyone looking for a page-turning story that will make the reader laugh out loud.

So go download the sample, and get ready for a pleasant read on a winter's weekend.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

It Was The Greed That Did Him In

A man who cannot see has limited options when it comes to career choices. For Paul Mahoney, partially blind, the best choice was to launch his own business that he could run from home.

As a handicapped individual, he received some assistance, although two thousand pounds per annum is far from enough to support an adult male. He lived with his parents, a shy and retiring lad with a computer and a brilliant idea. He could earn a living using his computer. His eyesight problems were not so enormous when he had modern technology to give him a little help, and he did not have to meet the public if he worked in some technology-oriented way.

So he became a salesman, selling advertising space on websites.

The websites that paid him so well for his efforts were, however, quite illegal.
A self-made man not limited by his handicap. Limited by the law, but what's a man to do?

Mr. Mahoney discovered that people like to download things for free, especially newly released films not yet available on DVD. It's expensive to go to a theatre, and as for waiting for the disc to become available for rent, who wants to wait when everyone is talking about that latest movie sensation? Websites exist to provide pirated editions for those who dare to download things without worrying about also downloading malware or other unpleasant things. There is a demand for stolen goods that cost nothing.

How do those interested in viewing such a film find the places where those films can be viewed? And if one is a marketing specialist, how do you reach those who must see the newest film at a discount? Mr. Mahoney became their link to the target demographic, setting up websites that showed potential viewers where to find what they wished to see.

And then he sold advertising space on his websites.

He did so well at his chosen profession that he's thought to have generated three hundred thousand British pounds from his home-based business in Derry. Over the course of six years, during which he had to evade authorities and ignore court orders to stop, he made all kinds of cash that he stashed in the family home because the man's a recluse and you can't buy things over the Internet with cash.

There's only so long you can thumb your nose at government officials, and Mr. Mahoney has reached that limit. He has just been sentenced to spend some time in prison for his act of piracy, where he won't find it quite so easy to maintain his reclusive lifestyle.

Whether or not the Prison Service will allow him access to computers remains to be seen, but given the chance, Mr. Mahoney might start up another website and carry on his life's work. There's not much a partially blind man can do and a prisoner needs to be kept busy. Idle hands are the devil's workshop and all that.

The question remains, however. If Mr. Mahoney had not accepted the public assistance that he clearly did not need because he was doing well on his own, would he have been sentenced to a term in prison? Was it greed that did in him, or did he think that the checks from Her Majesty's coffers were good cover for his clandestine operation? Maybe it was not greed, but being too clever, that spoiled his empire.

Monday, September 07, 2015

America's Bank: A Book Review

With all the current chatter about banks and bank bail-outs, Roger Lowenstein's AMERICA'S BANK is a timely read.

The book is not for everyone, diving into the deep end of the financial pool as it does, but for those who wonder how America's banking system got to where it is today, the book is highly informative. Mr. Lowenstein presents the decade-long political struggle to re-introduce a federal bank, something that Europeans take for granted but one that was lacking in America for most of its existence.

On the heels of yet another financial panic in 1907, a regular occurrence in a nation that was adamantly anti-centralism, several influential bankers and politicians came together to battle against that attitude. The author does a fine job of showing how big egos collided as financiers wrangled with America's elected representatives to bring about a central bank to organize monetary policy in the European mold. The story is intriguing, although perhaps too inclined to look to our modern era as the backdrop for the Edwardian period prior to the First World War.

In general, I found the book fascinating, with its explanation of how disparate lines of thought were brought together for disparate reasons, with all the give and take expected of legislative combat. The drive to win credit after the successful introduction of the Federal banking system is not forgotten in the epilogue, and caps off a tale of ambition and a burning desire for acclaim that saw the many authors of the bill all proclaiming themselves the sole winner who had to vanquish his foes.

I am left with one question, however, that Mr. Lowenstein does not address. With so much of the anti-central bank animus ascribed to President Andrew Jackson, why, then, is it Alexander Hamilton's image that's suggested to be removed from the currency to make room for a woman?  

Disclaimer: Penguin provided a free copy of the book through the First to Read programme, so there you go.