Sunday, June 29, 2014

Guest Post on Addiction by Mark Matthews

Hi folks,

A writer pal of mine, Mark Matthews, has recently written a post on his blog about addiction and how writers can write about characters who are jonsing realistically, and since there are at least a couple of writers who use such characters in their fiction who gather here (as well as a few people who've been addicted themselves...), I thought it might be beneficial to look at what he has to say.

Here's Mark:


Around 9:37 am today I am  22 years clean and sober. Yep. 22 years. What the hell is that? Crazy huh. (I’ve blogged on this subject a lot over the years, such as here and here.)  I like to think the hell I put myself through helped me gain the perseverance to run marathons and write books, despite all the forces in the universe trying to stop me.

Substance abuse and addiction play a major role in many of my books. On the Lips of Children features a crystal meth addict living in a drug-smuggling tunnel who snorts bath salts. STRAY is loosely based on my experience working as a therapist in a treatment center.

And my latest release, MILK-BLOOD, features heroin addiction in a way I am pretty confident you have never seen before.

None of my books preach or try to deny anyone the choice of their drug or drink. Hell, if I could get away with it, I’d be drinking right now. But I can’t. One shot of vodka and I’m drinking for days and then using any substance I can get my hands on. My insides bleed out of my ass (literally). Strange days indeed, and the glory is, writers can make their characters bleed out just the same.

So, for my 22 year sobriety anniversary, I’m putting out a post called:

“Getting Your Character High: Writing About Addiction”
Here we go…

Torture your protagonist. Toss them into a pot of boiling water, and make the best parts come bubbling up to the top. There are lots of ways to do this, but one of the greatest and oft-used ways for authors is to write some drugs or drink into their system. Wether they have a longstanding addiction, are in recovery from addiction and relapse, or take their first hit of that strange looking pill, a character under the influence is a pivotal point in many stories. Substances turn a character inside out.  The filters are gone, the emotions are exaggerated, impulse control is low, libido may be ablaze. Memories and demons and actions they will later regret come rushing in.  

Getting your character high is similar to dropping them into that pot of boiling water. Here’s some things to consider:

What You Drop In Matters
All Substances are not equal.  A tiny dot of crystal meth holds much more power than a drop of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the variances are tremendous. I’ve been around drinking in my sobriety without a problem, but I never want to be in the same room as meth again, for if I do not leave, there will be blood. Social marijuana use, social alcohol use, and social crack use: One of these things is not like the other. 

Amounts and Terms
Get it right. To make it feel truthful, characters should use the right amount, the right away, with the right terms. “Weed” is the common vernacular for marijuana, right? And Dope doesn’t mean “Weed” in my parts, maybe nowhere. Dope is particular to just heroin.  Of course, if you are writing fantasy or science fiction, this all changes. Spoiled milk got the aliens high in “Alien Nation”, NZT-48 was an intellectual buzz in “Limitless” and Hobbits love their pipe-weed. Oh, the places you will go, just have inner-world consistency, and have some fun.

If your character is getting high, or trying not to get high, then go to an open AA/NA meeting.  Find some YouTube videos of people using.  Listen to songs that capture the tone of the specific substance. (RIP Lou Reed).  I’m not saying to go snort some coke, but, go snort some coke. No, don’t’ snort coke. Ask someone who snorted coke to edit your work.  Or of course you could just snort some coke. (No, don’t!)

Addicts love rituals. Your character can be on the outside looking in, and intimidated and beguiled by the strange world, or it can be part of their lexicon. Alcoholics love the ding of the bell as they enter the party store, the smell of old mop soap, seeing all those little stogies at the counter. Heroin addicts come to welcome the prick of the needle into their flesh, and the comfort of patting their front pocket and knowing there’s a pack of dope inside. Get this right, and the passages will read true to the reader. 

The scariest moment is always just before you start
When recovering heroin addict Jane Margolis met Pinkman in Breaking Bad, you knew something had to give. Laying out the temptation and creating the set-up is a great plot builder.  If you can get readers screaming at your characters in their head, "don't do it, don't do it, no! don't!" you've won them over. A character we care about acting against their best interest is reason to read on.

One generic scene I personally hate is the character trying to stay sober, sitting at a bar stool pondering over unresolvable troubles, and in front of them is the drink they just ordered. They twirl the shot of whiskey and stare, deciding if they should drink it. I can believe a lot of things, but not this. Once you are at that point, you are already drunk. Cravings are intense, and if you’ve gone that far, you’re not going to turn anything down, and certainly not pause. It’s like taking a laxative, and trying not take a shit. You may hold on for a while, but eventually you will give in, and then it will get messy.

But that moment before decisions are made can make the reader's heart stop and their interest zoom in. 

All You Have to do is read the labels
Substances work with much better consistency than most things in our life.  In fact, the reason drugs are so enticing is that they work. Want to feel a certain way, there’s something out there for you.  Anything your character wants can be found in a drug. Confidence, creativity, strength, expansion of consciousness.  Eventually  the drugs will do the opposite that you hoped for, but while the character is falling into the pits of hell, it can feel like flying.

      "Most people don't know how they're gonna feel from one moment to the next. But a dope fiend has a pretty good idea. All you gotta do is look at the labels on the little bottles”

Perceptions and Prose
When characters uses substances, perceptions are altered, and this is where your prose should change. First person point of view will certainly change the most, followed by third person limited. The deeper you are in the POV the more affected the prose will be. 

Make the sentences reflect the substance: Drunkards will have big, bold dreams, or violent impulses. Any good drunk is always telling you how much they love you or how much they hate you.  Heroin will make you feel soft and warm, like a return to the womb where everything is beautiful and has its place; the ants in the grass are just doing their thing. Cocaine will have your brain and tongue electric with tangential philosophies. 

Of course, the pain of craving for and detoxing from these substances will have a visceral effect unique to the substances. Making your characters detox and crave is twice as much fun as getting them high. The possibilities are endless, and characters going through the cycle of addiction transform as much as any werewolf.

Thought patterns and Narrator Reliability.
Characters getting high will rationalize insanity until their choices seem perfectly reasonable and actually preferable. Their internal dialogue will be filled with lies. What's more fun writing than that?

Similar to this, there’s tons of options to hide an addicts true intent with behavior that may seem contrary to expectations.  Addicts lie, they deny, then they die. 

There’s a great passage in Michele Miller's upcoming novel (and ABNA semi-finalist), Lower Power, where a craving crack cocaine addict can’t find a way to afford any drugs so instead he goes to visit his son. As we travel alongside him, we think this could be a redeeming quality, until he steals the very  necklace he gave his son from around his neck to pawn for crack money. That’s verity. Parents get high everyday by selling back their kids Xbox games to Gamestop so they can get a 5 dollar crack rock.
Unlike the pits of hell for murderers and rapists, there are no fences in the pits of hell  for addicts, for if an addict tries to climb out of their pit of hell, another addict grabs them by the ankle and pulls them back down.  Want to put your character around some nastiness and see how they respond, send them to a crack house or a dive bar. It’s a pot of bubbling madness in there, and your character's madness is sure to boil right out of them just the same.

So there’s some thoughts. Not sure if anyone is listening as I look around the table, but that’s okay, this sharing is important for me and I'm grateful for the chance.  I’d love to write a post on how to write someone newly sober since sobriety to me has been stranger than any fiction or any addiction. It took a lot more courage to live stone cold sober 24 hours a day than to clutch onto that 40 ouncer like it’s my baby bottle. 

For a great read on a newly sober person navigating reality filled with some wonderful humor, try “Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety by Sacha Scoblic.

For a great story on addiction that I think will blow your mind to pieces, check out

$2.99 for kindle 
$6.65 paperback

Thanks, Mark. Keep collecting those white chips!

Blue skies,

Saturday, June 28, 2014


Hi folks,

Just some trivia to share with you. My buddy, Angie Felabom, recently sent me a couple of old clippings she ran across from when she and I and her husband were in college together. This brought back a bunch of memories!

And, yes, I had hair...

Blue skies,

Thursday, June 26, 2014


Today, I happened upon a posting in the comments section of an Amazon review I’d recently given on Dana King’s book GRIND JOINT. It’s by a guy who for some reason doesn’t use his name but goes by “Mr. Wizard”. Normally, I ignore the trolls who seem to populate the Intergnat, but felt I had to say something about this as it challenges my integrity. And, my integrity is important to me, which is one reason I don’t hide behind some chickenshit alias…

Here’s what the Wiz (who lives in Monterrey, California, which explains a lot…) said:

MrWizard says:
This perhaps would be a more persuasive review except that the reviewer has posted 44 similar superlatives, none rated less than 5 stars, since 2009. Apparently there's not a book he's read for which he has not had the same exuberant praise.

First, to provide some context, I read an average of three and a half novels per week. Each and every week. That means that since 2009 I’ve read approximately 800 novels. In my house are literally thousands of novels and my Kindle is packed full. I buy novels, but I also receive novels from friends and publishers to read, sometimes to review or blurb. Forty-four reviews for approximately 800 novels read seems about right to me and that’s because of my personal review philosophy.

Which is, I won’t write a review unless I think it truly is worth five stars.

Whether that’s a good philosophy or not is open for debate. It’s just my personal philosophy.

See, I’m a writer, which means I kind of know what goes into writing a novel and then finding an agent and then finding a publisher and then finding readers. It’s hard, boobie. There’s just an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears (and luck!) involved. It’s actually a wonder there are as many books published (legitimately—I’m not talking about self-publishing) as there are.

With my first novel, I suffered 85 rejections. That’s in the pre-Intergnat days when one had to send the mss via snail mail and provide postage not only for sending the work but for the return postage. At a time—for me, anyway—in which we didn’t know where the rent or food money was going to come from, most weeks, and could ill-afford the money spent on postage. And wait weeks and months for a reply. And, when it did find a publisher, it was only because of the advice literary agent Mary Evans gave me and the rare good fortune it had in landing on the desk of a person who wasn’t going to even read it before sticking in the rejection slip, but whose secretary had spilled her coffee and was preparing a new cup and she decided to read a page or two while waiting on her java. Those are the kinds of things that are behind many books that find their way into print. Not to mention I’d spent a year and a half writing and rewriting it…

So, yeah, when I pick up a book, I know I don’t know the history of that book, but I do know that it most likely wasn’t whipped out in a day and a half and there was probably more than a bit of sacrifice behind it.

Sorry, but I’m not going to be the guy who takes a few hours to read it and then slap a two- or three-star rating on it. I just won’t publish a review that I don’t think is deserving of a five-star rating. This guy—Mr. Wizard—seems to be like more than one person among us—he judges others’ lives by his own. I venture a guess that he reads about 44 books in five years and reviews every single one. Which is what he seems to think that I’ve done. Sorry, panther-breath—that’s not even a third of a year’s reading for moi.

In fact, there are a bunch of writers who I know and whose books I’ve read that I haven’t reviewed publicly. Sometimes, that’s because I don’t feel I could honestly give them a five-star review. Not always—often I do think it deserves such a rating, but if I reviewed every single book I read I wouldn’t have much time for reading other books and that’s how I’d rather spend my time. In fact, when I find an author I like, I usually end up reading every single book he or she has published, but I usually only review one book. It’s just a time thing.

There are several writers who’ve asked me to review their books and I read them and told them (in private) that I wouldn’t put my name on it—that it simply wasn’t that good. That’s not something I enjoy doing and I’m pretty sure they didn’t enjoy hearing. But, it’s that integrity thing. And, more than one of them wrote another book and asked me to review it and that book was great and I gave them a review. A five-star review. They’d earned it.

Reviews are a funny animal. My idea of the perfect and best-written book of all time is THE STRANGER by Albert Camus. Recently, I went to Amazon and read a few of the reviews for it. One (well, more than one!) reviewer gave it three stars. Three stars! I looked up this reviewer’s history and saw she’d reviewed books like FIFTY SHADES OF CRAP and James Patterson novels and gave them five stars. That kind of illustrates the literary acumen of some reviewers perfectly. I don’t have any problem with her giving five stars to FIFTY SHADES, but I do kind of have an issue with giving a book of true genius three stars. But then, as my old pappy used to say: “Consider the source.”

Which might have been the trigger for Mr. Wiz’s comments. I kind of dissed those kinds of books in my review of Dana’s book. Perhaps he feels those are examples of good literature… Who knows? The only thing I know is that as a rule, someone who doesn’t have the trouser beans to use his real name behind his comments is what we used to call, in the days before political correctness—a chickenshit. (My apologies to chickens everywhere…)

Am I pissed? Well… yeah. Mostly, I’d just like to meet Mr. Wiz and whiz on him…

Rant over… but one last thing. If I review a book on this blog or anywhere and give it five stars, I’ve not only read a pile of books I didn’t review, but that it absolutely was a five-star read for me.

You can count on it.

Blue skies,

P.S. I'm aware that the common wisdom is to simply ignore these kinds of assholes but sometimes they're just so much of a punk that it's hard to. And, I'm not commenting on a bad review he gave me, but to his challenging my integrity, so hope that counts for something.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Dana King freebies!

Hi folks,

Awhile back, I posted a review of Dana King’s novel, GRIND JOINT, which I loved. Recently nominated for a Shamus award, Dana King is making all four of his e-books available for free on Kindle from June 25 – 29. A Small Sacrifice is the nominated book, the story of private detective Nick Forte and what happens when he tries to clear a man’s name and discovers why it had been muddied in the first place. The other freebies include two books from Dana’s Penns River series, set in an economically depressed Western Pennsylvania town: Worst Enemies, and Grind Joint; as well as Wild Bill, the story of how an FBI investigation into Chicago’s organized crime goes awry when a mob war breaks out.

Here’s my review of GRIND JOINT, as originally posted:

I read tons and tons of books. Last count, I’m averaging 3 ½ novels a week. That’s a lot. The truly great ones I try to provide reviews for. At last count, I’m about 15 books behind. Here’s one I read several weeks ago and just re-read it. For the third time. That kind of tells you how I liked it, I think. But, if that wasn’t a bit enough clue, here are some other thoughts I had about it:

GRIND JOINT by Dana King

One of the best novels I’ve read this year. Period. I’d read three of King’s novels previous to this one and waited and waited for it to become available on Kindle and finally I went ahead and bought the paperback copy, simply because I couldn’t wait any longer. (Note: get the other three—they’re as good as this one is.)

I’m glad I did. Not so much because I finally got to read it—that’s a for-sure plus—but because I’ve now got a physical copy. That’s important because there are dozens and dozens of techniques I want to steal for my own writing and to pass on to my writing students and this just makes it easier to bookmark and make the theft and get out before I’m caught.

In some of the reviews I’d read of GRIND JOINT, it was often mentioned that King was bringing back to life the subgenre of mafia crime books. I guess I’m out of touch—I never realized it had died. Well, if it had, this definitely gave the genre new life. And, if it hasn’t, this is pumping steroids into it. Make room at the table, Mario Puzo…

Reviews very often aren’t about the book itself so much as they are about the reviewer. Some see that as a negative. Not this reviewer. Sure, the plot is complex and sound. Sure, the characters are entirely interesting and plausible. Sure, the world it contains is realistic and well-drawn. But, I read differently than someone who’s not a writer and is just looking for a great way to kill some time. GRIND JOINT does that for sure, but what impressed me more than anything is that I consciously looked for weak places—places I could set it down easily and go and do something else. Well, very few books are capable to achieving that kind of effect on me… but this one did. It’s simply Grade A, Top Quality, Sterling Silver. 24-Carat Can’t-Put-It-Down. Trust me on this. Better: Don’t trust me. Grab a copy and see if I’m not right. I couldn’t find a single page anywhere in it that didn’t grab and hold my interest. Not a single page.

If you like an insider’s look at the criminal world and are intrigued at stories that reveal how people “in the life” think and what drives their actions, this is the book for you. If you enjoy stories that draw back the curtain on the seamy side of town as well as on the good side of the tracks, this is the book for you. If you get your adrenaline going when you encounter tales where you see behind the curtain, this is the book for you.

If you prefer novels about vampires and fifty ways to make your eyeballs bleed and your trouser worm get exercise, and characters that are 6’8”, Hollywood-blond, can bench-press Buicks, go 24 hours without sleep, food or water, and can defeat 9,000 ninjas in warehouses (why are these guys always in warehouses?), and only need a toothbrush and a micro chip inside them that draws bad guys to their vicinity like six-year-olds to chicken nuggets to make their lives complete, then this probably isn’t the book for you.

On the other hand, if you’re like one reviewer who said she finished reading this book “on a gurney in an emergency room with crying kids, a car accident victim and a loud drunk” keeping her company, and she “barely noticed them,” then, yeah, this is your kind of book.

It’s exactly like that.

Here’s a short description of the four free books:

A Small Sacrifice. Nominated for a Shamus Award for Best Indie PI Novel, it’s the story of Chicago investigator Nick Forte, who is asked to clear the name of a man who has been publicly vilified as the murderer of his young son. Forte learns, while Doug Mitchell might not be guilty, he’s no innocent, and the circumstances place Forte and his family in jeopardy.

Grind Joint. Named by The LA Review of Books as one of the fifteen best noir reads of 2013, Grind Joint is the story of what happens in a small, economically depressed Pennsylvania town when someone gets the bright idea of solving their financial woes by building a low-roller casino. The local cops find themselves up against more than they bargained for when the Russian mob takes an interest. A Small Sacrifice’s Nick Forte plays a supporting but pivotal role.

Worst Enemies. The first of the Penns River books, the story of what can happen when someone takes the scenario of Strangers on a Train way too seriously. Detectives Ben Dougherty and Willie Grabek have to solve two murders organized by a person who is close to both victims, yet operates at some distance.

Wild Bill. A standalone tale of FBI Special Agent Willard “Wild Bill” Hickox, who’s ready to retire but wants to put the cherry on his career by bringing down Chicago’s Number One crime boss. When a gang war re-arranges all the players, Will must choose between duty, experience, and a combination of the two if he is to ride off into the sunset as planned.

Blue skies,