28 September 2010


Being a writer, I suppose I ought to blog about what I do from time to time. Pretty pictures are all well and good, but if one of them is worth a thousand words, well, there's still all those words.

I've had short stories on my mind for a while. I don't actually read all that many of them and I almost never write them. But a few years ago I was one of the judges on the Edgar Awards panel for short fiction. We had to wade our way through over 600 submissions. This year I was one of three editors of the short story anthology MURDER IN LA LA LAND, put out by Sisters in Crime's Los Angeles chapter. (I'm also on the board - speakers bureau director.) For that, I went over 74 submissions. And, I've recently had my first ever short story published, in DARK VALENTINE magazine. And even more, my second short story will be published next year in an anthology called BANGKOK NOIR.

Here's what I think about short stories. Most of them suck. (But, I'd probably also say that about most books, movies, TV shows, CDs, etc. - so you short story writers, don't take any special umbrage from that.)

Here's why most short stories suck.

They don't get off to a fast enough start. Ideally a short story should grab my attention in its very first sentence, or paragraph, or absolutely no later than about its third paragraph. This is the one thing that made wading through all those 600 plus Edgar and 74 anthology submissions tolerable. If a story hadn't got me in its grip by the end of the third paragraph, I didn't even bother reading any further. There is a slim, very slim, chance that a story that isn't quick off the block might somehow turn itself around and manage to become at least okay, but there is almost no chance it will be any better than merely okay.

They try to do too much. A short story isn't a summary of a novel, or an outline for a novel, or even an idea for a novel. It is a self-contained unit that deals with a small or focused enough story that it doesn't need to be expanded upon. It can deal with big ideas and have broad implications, but it shouldn't leave its reader wanting more - other than, ideally, more, different short stories by the same writer. Some writers use short stories to try out ideas that might eventually find their way into novels. They can develop characters who they later want to use in novels. But if a short story wants to be a novel, write the damn novel.

They do too little. You know the word "story?" Well, it means something. A short story shouldn't simply be a vignette, a slice of life, a snapshot of something. It needs a beginning, middle and end. The plot needs to go somewhere and get somewhere.

Short stories, at least good ones, aren't easy to write. They're hard. Some people have an easier time writing them than novels, but even those people work just as hard on them, if they do a good job of it, as novelists do on their longer stories. I find that on a per-word basis, short stories are harder for me to write than longer pieces.

As for "fucking dialog," it's on my mind this morning because last night I started, for the third time, trying to watch the TV series that everyone else on the planet, other than me, seems to love - THE WIRE.

(For those of you who have a sudden visceral reaction of, "what the hell's wrong with this guy, he doesn't love The Wire?" Get over yourselves. I'll admit I probably am missing a few braincells here and there, but you probably are, too. How do you, after all, feel about the movie CHRISTINE - one of the all time greats?)

I will admit that watching the first episode, for the third time, last night, I liked a lot more about it than I have on previous viewings. I liked the characters. I liked the apparent developing plot lines. I liked the camerawork. I enjoyed much of the dialog.

But something about the dialog bothered me as much this time around as on the previous attempts - all the fucking swearing.

Now do not get me wrong. I have no objection to swearing. Many of the characters in my own books swear, a lot. Some of them in multiple languages. One of my all time favorite scenes in anything ever, was the lengthy conversation in DEADWOOD between Al Swearingen (sp?) and the boss of the Chinese community in the town, in which the only word they used was "cocksucker." I don't even have any objection to gratuitous swearing, or swearing used for no purpose other than to shake up or even piss off the reader.

But THE WIRE is, quite obviously, an attempt at gritty realism. And I'm sorry, but its dialog is lazy. Every single fucking character is swearing in nearly every single fucking sentence of practically every cocksucking, motherfucking, big hard dick in the ear conversation that they have. That is just plain bullshit. It is fuck-stupid, limp-dicked, sloppy television writing code for: "hey, look at me everybody, I'm a gritty realistic drama."

People, real people, don't talk that way. Real people don't talk any particular way. Even real people in small, close-knit communities don't always talk the same way as each other, even when they do share a number of linguistic similarities. I've been around lots of real people in lots of different circumstances in small tightly knit groups and big ones and oddly enough they don't all talk alike all the time. I know cops who barely swear at all and seem uncomfortable when people are swearing around them. I know cops who need a translator for people who don't know all the up to date slang and swear words. Same with crooks.

In writing, all writing, even the kind that gets done for television, one of the most important ways to define characters is through the way they talk. If all of your characters talk the same way, maybe you can create a sense of community between them, (and in THE WIRE, a twisted sense of community between the cops and crooks), but it's at the expense of them as individual characters and at the expense of realism.

So now go ahead all you THE WIRE lovers, let me have it.

24 September 2010


As those of you who have loyally followed this blog over the past few years already know, I love county fairs. I like little rural ones, I like big extravagant ones. I love the "slice-it-dice-it" booths with people selling geegaws and doodads that are supposed to make your life better. I love the lights of the midway and the sounds. I love the really bad for me food. I especially love the remnants of an agricultural past that show up in big city county fairs - like the Los Angeles County Fair. Up until I was about ten years old Los Angeles County was the biggest agricultural producing county in the United States. I remember farms and orchards in the San Fernando Valley.

So, yesterday I made my annual pilgrimage to the Los Angeles County Fair. I went with my writer pal Ashley who is one of the only people I know who shares my love of county fairs. I won't be surprised if she blogs about it, too. And when she does, you can find her take on it by clicking on this sentence.

There are, of course, animals at the fair. Cute bunnies and the terrifying snakes that would like to eat them.For some reason there are more goats at the LA County Fair than any other sort of animal - other than humans. Look closely, this one has very strange horns.They also have animatronic dinosaurs at the Fair.And animals you can win. This guy won this rather large stuffed dragon for his grandkids by tossing rings over Coke bottles.There's a lot of award winning food on display.

There is truly bad stuff for you to eat at the Fair, although there is only so much I can bring myself to consume. I ate some deep fried artichoke hearts - practically healthfood - a couple of fried chicken wings - nothing so strange about that - and, well, we did share a deep fried Klondike Bar which is actually pretty good.
There are colorful murals to relax under; and there was a display called "Frozen Los Angeles" at which they loaned you blankets since it was ten degrees in the freezer room.
As I mentioned, I love what I call the "slice-it-dice-it" booths. The pink lady wanted to clean our rings - I don't wear any. The guy had some sort of miracle spray that cleaned pretty much anything and everything you own without using any water, and keeps it clean for six months.Who even knew that the Women's Christian Temperance Union still existed? Carrie Nation would be so proud.
And there was a troupe of Chinese acrobats. The big crowd with the fan at the bottom were riding around the stage on a bicycle that you can't quite see underneath them.

20 September 2010


The first thing that happens when you tell most people that you are planning to go to Tijuana, Mexico is that they ask you if it's safe. Then, when you assure them that you're no more certain than you would be traveling anywhere, but that you're pretty sure it is, they ask you why you'd want to go there anyway.

Let's get these two questions taken care of right off the bat.

As for safety, if Tijuana were a city in the U.S., its violent crime rate would rank it somewhere in the lowest third of big cities. On any given day there are a whole lot more shootings, stabbings, rapes and assaults in Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Miami or most other big American cities than there are in Tijuana. Sure, shit happens and you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time anywhere. And if you're really stupid when you walk around a big city, you can invite trouble. But, in spite of what the media seems to want you to believe, visiting Tijuana is not unsafe.

As to why you'd want to go to Tijuana, it is for the same reasons why you might want to go to any big city, anywhere.

And it is a big city. Current estimates of its population fall somewhere between two and three million people. It would be the second biggest city in California. It would be in the top five in the U.S. And like in any city of that size, there's a lot going on.

This past weekend I went to Tijuana with the enormously talented and frighteningly energetic - even with an only partially healed crushed (and I mean that in its very most awful bone smashing literal sense) toe - Ashley Ream. She's working on a book in which there are a couple of chapters set there, and she'd never been. So we spent the better part of two days and a night wandering around the city while she took notes and I took pictures - and a few notes as well. (You can read Ashley's take on the whole thing by clicking on this sentence.)

It took us under three hours to drive to the border from my house. We parked on the U.S. side and walked across. I only regretted not having my car in Tijuana a couple of times, and I sure didn't regret avoiding the several hours of sitting in traffic on Sunday afternoon to get back north.

The last time I'd been to Tijuana was about 12 years ago and that was a different sort of trip altogether: a wild, drunken night of revelry that ranged up and down the sleazy tourist hellhole of Avenida Revolucion and into Zona Norte (the red light district.) The pre-op tranny hookers at Molino Rojo had, en masse, become post-op tranny hookers since the time I'd been before that. We stayed in the $34 per night Presidente Suite of the very stale and rundown Hotel Cesar where the mattress was so damp and lumpy that we resorted to sleeping on the not-very-well-vacuumed floor. It was a good thing we were drunk. I think we may have done some other things - a market, a pottery shop, possibly an art gallery - but mostly I recall the hangover. It seemed like a good time at the time.

This trip was different. Only minimal time was spent on or near Avenida Revolucion. We walked past the Zona Norte in the day, only to get somewhere, and the hotel was clean, comfortable and modern. I have no regrets about having done what I did in the past, but I had an equally great - maybe even better - time this time and no hangover to take me to task for it.

Here's some pictures. As usual, you can click on them to blow them up.(The one at the top of this post is one of the hillsides of Colonia Libertad, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Tijuana. There are some interesting places in there, but without my car we couldn't get to them. I took the picture from my hotel room window.)The lobby of our hotel - the Pueblo Amigo. It is also a casino and is about a five minute walk from the border.
There's a branch of this place in Chicago. It has the best carnitas I've ever had in the U.S. The carnitas at the Tijuana branch were actually not quite as good, but they were still excellent. I'm very fond of how Mexican restaurants are fond of signs in which the animal being served up to eat, is cooking or serving itself. They must have very accommodating pigs.There are a number of traffic circles in town, all of which have large statues in the middle. I never quite figured out what this one memorialized, but I was proud of my limited, bad Spanish for getting a laugh out of our taxi driver when I made a joke that it was a monument to Chinese food - chopsticks.
There are quirky design and architectural elements to be seen all over the city.My friend, having never been to Tijuana, did have to at least stroll along part of Avenida Revolucion. If for no other reason than to admire the famous zebra-donkeys. (Apparently it is actually possible to cross breed zebras and donkeys, but these aren't them.)
There was a festival of sorts setting up on Revolucion. Among other things it featured the very sad spectacle of this tiger cub in a small cage on the hot street, within reach of the prying fingers of children whose parents didn't watch them closely enough to make sure they kept their hands out of the cage. A couple of cages down, past the wolves, the monkeys and the parrots - in similar small and too easily accessible cages - there were three near frantic bear cubs.
At the far north end of Revolucion, there is a huge, ugly arch with a clock, built to commemorate the Millennium. It's right by the entrance to the Zona Norte, the redlight district, and also by a square in which mariachi and other bands hang out waiting for someone to come along and hire them. There's a bandstand for free concerts.There's a scene in my friend's book that is set in the Cathedral of Tijuana. It was built in 1902 and is very pretty inside.
At night we had dinner at a fantastic, beautiful restaurant called La Differencia. (Sorry, I don't have a picture of it.) The appetizer of huitlacoche (corn fungus) and Oaxacan string cheese in a crepe with a roasted chile poblano and cream sauce was one of the best things either of us has ever eaten. The duck carnitas with tamarind sauce and fresh handmade blue corn tortillas was extraordinary, as was the chile relleno stuffed with crab with a cilantro and chile verde sauce. The wine, from an old winery in Baja California, was also great. After that we went to a club / restaurant / art gallery place called El Lugar del Nopal. We were the only foreigners - that we could tell - in the place. The crowd ranged from 20 something year old hipsters to people in their 70s. The music was great, fun - a mix of folk and rock in different styles, some of it political, some of it humorous.There are murals, both small and large, painted all over town. We came across this deceptively simple one on the gate of a house as we walked through the residential district after leaving the club.The little details are among the things I most love about walking around in different cities. Here's a window display in a nail salon.
Tijuana's Cultural Center includes a great museum of Baja California history, and at the moment has a special exhibit of art and history and culture and politics about the massacre of students at the University in Mexico City in 1968. It also has performance spaces, an Imax theater and is a fine place to spend a couple of hours.

The Mercado Hidalgo is one of the biggest, most interesting markets in the center of town. There are great places to eat in the market, as well as an amazing variety of produce, household and kitchen goods and other stuff.A very small part of the horrendous traffic getting back across the border on Sunday. Luckily we walked and it took about 20 minutes to get back across.

04 September 2010


Over the years I've been a writer, I have had hundreds, possibly thousands of articles (journalism, editorials, op-ed pieces, letters, blogposts, reviews and such) published. Hundreds, if not thousands of photographs I've taken with captions I've written. I've had five books published and had my work included in two anthologies. In my more whimsical youth, I even had a few poems published.

But I have never, not ever, until yesterday that is, had a short story published.

I'd only written one other complete short story in the past 20 years. It was intended for a contest and while the judges claimed to admire it, it didn't win.

In recent years I have had a lot to do with short stories. A couple of years ago I was one of the Edgar Award judges in the category of short fiction. Last year I was one of the editors of the Sisters in Crime Los Angeles short fiction anthology - MURDER IN LA LA LAND.

And now, at long last, my first ever published short story: AFFAIRS OF ESTATE. It is in the online magazine Dark Valentine. I was even paid for it - ten bucks - and everything.

If you click on the links in the last paragraph or the ones below you'll get to the Dark Valentine website where you need to click on the cover of the magazine to download a PDF of the magazine. There is no direct link to my story - it's on page 25 - but the entire magazine is free and well worth a look.

I plan to write something more, soon, about short stories in general. And I even have another that is going to be published in an anthology of Bangkok Noir next year. But at the moment I'm off to a Chinese movie matinee and lunch instead. So my blather about short fiction will have to wait.

Let me know what you think of AFFAIRS OF ESTATE.