On the wrong side of history. Again.

I love my state. Let me get that out of the way right now. Call it Alabama the Beautiful, or Sweet Home Alabama, or whatever you want to say. I love the land, from its piney woods to its rolling hills, to the Tennessee Valley, all the way down to its beautiful beaches.

I love the people. They’re a beautiful stew pot of rednecks, entrepreneurs, doctors, farmers, lawyers, writers, artists, layabouts and lunatics. I left for awhile, and I couldn’t wait to get back.

Alabama is my home. And yet.

And yet.

For a place that values its history as much as Alabama does, we sure do end up on the wrong side of things an awful lot of the time. We were on the wrong side of slavery. We left the former slaves in poverty and ignorance. We denied minorities the right to vote. We were on the wrong side of segregation. As recently as 2013, we tried to legislate nearly all of the Hispanics out of the state.

And now, we’re on the wrong side of history. Again.

A federal judge has stricken down Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban, and people here are aghast. How dare we let gays get married? Come on. Making a mockery of your wedding vows should be a right only heterosexual people have! Probate judges have refused to comply with the judge’s order, and Alabama’s moronic chief justice, Roy Moore, has said he will not abide by the judge’s ruling.

(Good luck with that, Roy. You were already removed from office once for failing to follow orders from a federal judge. Let’s see if we can’t make it twice in a row.)

Right now, the judge who struck the law has put a stay on her order to give the state a chance to appeal her ruling. Everyone from the governor to Moore has said they plan to fight this ruling. God forbid we extend equal protection under the law to everyone. Certainly we should never allow a minority to have the same rights as a “normal” person.

I see friends of mine—good people, people I’ve known and loved for a long time—who are upset by this. And I don’t understand it. Frankly, I don’t want to understand it, because at the core of their anger and disappointment is the same fear and bigotry that allowed a man to plant a bomb in a Birmingham church. It’s the same desolation of spirit that allowed protesters to be beaten and killed in Selma during the Civil Rights era.

You can count on Alabama to get it wrong when it matters. You can count on the Yellowhammer State, the Heart of Dixie, to find the worst position on any social issue, and dig in our heels. We find honor in being wrong, and we take pride in having our nose rubbed in the dirt of our wrong-headedness. We will do the right thing, but only if forced to do so. The worst thing of all is that we know we’re wrong about marriage equality. All we have to do is look at our history. We were wrong on slavery. We were wrong on segregation. We were wrong on Civil Rights. We were wrong on the 2013 immigration bill. And we’re wrong now.

I pray one day Alabama will finally get something right. I hope one day we can actually extend civil rights to a minority, and it won’t be a big deal. Maybe you hope for that, too. But don’t hold your breath.

What It’s Like to Write While Having Kids

I’m trying to set aside some time on the weekends to get my blog writing done for the week. This weekend, however, was a complete and utter shitshow. Every time I approached the keyboard, it seemed like some little thing was nagging at me, and as a consequence, I got absolutely nothing done. It led to a lot of (unvoiced) frustration on my part.

This is the writing life with kids. I remember back in my salad days, when I was green in judgment* … I thought I had all the time in the world to write. And so I didn’t. I let wonderful ideas slip past me like they were Ronaldo, and I was the world’s worst goalkeeper.

Soccer. Because I want to be relevant to the kids today, dammit!

But there’s always an excuse. There’s always some distraction. Saturday it was the kids. Sunday it was rearranging/redecorating the bedroom. And the kids. (Oddly enough, redecorating is one of those weird words that I know how to spell, but can barely type coherently. I don’t know why. My fingers just sort of flip out when it comes to the word, slapping down different vowels and consonants in some sort of gibbersih.

This. This right here. That’s what my fingers do when I try to type “redecorating.”

Anyway, back to the writing. I mean, that’s what you’re here for, right? To watch (OK, read) me complain about not writing, right? Here’s what it boils down to: the kids. There are two of them. One is 3-and-a-half. The other is approaching five months old and still doesn’t sleep through the night. They’re tiring. No, that’s not true. They’re exhausting. They’re needy. I remember being single (or newly married) and not understanding why my friends with kids never did anything. It’s because of the kids, man.

They need diaper changes, clothing changes, spit-up cleaned, food to eat (and or with which to redecorate the kitchen), naps (oh God, please take a nap), playtime, movies, puzzles, (please take another nap!) and on and on ad infinitum. It doesn’t end. I’ve never laughed louder than when I realized that we’re raising a pair of tiny little terrorists. And we by God WILL negotiate with these terrorists, if they’ll just give us a little more sleep.

It turns out that we WILL negotiate with terrorists, if they’ll just take a fucking nap already.

So let’s just be kind and say that all of the writing I meant to do for this week went by the wayside over this weekend. I’m sorry. Maybe it’ll pick back up by the time the kids are in college. Check back in 18 years.

*Shakespeare reference. I’m literary, dammit!

How Not to Market Your Novel, Part 1

It’s a lonely, sad world out there for a self-published author. Once you’ve completed your book (and hopefully had it edited by a professional), you’ve gotta market that sucker. But what the hell do you know about marketing, right? For goodness’ sake, you’re lucky to have that English (or communications) degree. Maybe you even found a—gasp—career! I mean, it can happen, I swear.

But because you have no idea how to market your work, you’re going to screw it up. That’s a given. But hopefully you’re not going to be as invasive or weird as this one guy was to me over the weekend.

(Editor’s note: I’m not going to name the author, for reasons that will become clear momentarily.)

I was perusing Facebook the other day (like you do), when a message popped up from someone I don’t know. This person sent me a link to Amazon for their self-published novel, and then just in case I didn’t want to purchase the novel through Amazon, also sent me a link to the book’s Smashwords page.

Let me make sure you realize: I’ve never met, nor interacted with in any form, this writer. He’s not my friend—not even an internet friend. He’s not on my friends list. He had to spend $1 to message me and have it go directly into my mailbox. He didn’t even say hi. Just sent me a pair of links. Not a pair of lynx, because that would’ve been kind of neat. (And a hell of a trick over the Internet, too.) I’m a bit weirded out. I’ve no idea how this guy got my info, nor why he would waste money directly messaging me on FB. And his novel? It’s an homage to Robert B. Parker and John D. MacDonald’s greatest creations. In other words, he’s ripping off someone else’s work. Am I the only one who thinks this is completely weird? Dude spent a buck to market directly to me, and it was a completely wasted dollar.

(Another editor’s note: See? If this guy can find out authors I enjoy and figure out how to direct a message into my FB inbox, I’m DEFINITELY not naming him. He might show up at my house.)

I recognize the need to market your novel(s) if you’re self-publishing your work. But there are way to go about it that won’t weird out your potential sales. Directly messaging someone on FB is NOT the way to go about that. It’s incredibly invasive and, frankly, a little more than borderline creepy. (FYI: do not do Google image searches for “creepy gifs”. I should have known better.)

Directly messaging people on Twitter is not the way to go about that, either, for the record. You can shout “BUY MY BOOK” from the rooftops if you want, but most people are going to ignore you. What else do you bring to the table? Do you interact with your potential audience? Do you come off as a human being or as a marketing machine? More and more, marketing is a two-way street, where you have to have something to offer other than just, well, a book.

If that’s all you have, give up now. You’ll at least save yourself a buck for those direct FB messages.

Now I’m curious: Has this ever happened to any of you? What was your reaction? And, of course, feel free to chime in with horrible book marketing stories of your own.

Starting the New Year with a ‘Flash Bang’ by Kellen Burden

There are books you read where you put it down and think, “Whoa. Where did that come from?” Kellen Burden’s debut novel, Flash Bang, is that kind of book.

From the Amazon.com description:

Sebastian Parks is drowning in a flood of his own creation. Dishonorably discharged from the Army, he’s wracked with night terrors and an anger that he can’t abate. Unemployable and uninterested in anything resembling a normal job, Parks makes his living in fugitive apprehension, finding wanted felons on Facebook and thumping them into custody with his ex-military buddies John Harkin and Eric “Etch” Echevarria. When the body of a teenage Muslim boy is found in front of a downtown Denver nightclub Parks, Harkin and Etch are called on to do what they do best:
Find bad men and make them pay.

Sounds like just another crime novel, doesn’t it? When I nabbed it through Kindle Unlimited, my thought was that I’d spend a few hours going through a kind of by-the-numbers detective/crime novel. However, I got a lot more than I bargained for. Burden tells the story of Sebastian Parks, a down-and-almost-out soldier who can’t find real work due to a dishonorable discharge. Parks and his associates, Harkin and Etch, are all suffering from post traumatic stress disorder to one degree or another, and that was the first thing that stood out to me about this novel.

I don’t know how he knows, but Burden has the language, description, and absolute balls to show what PTSD is really like—how it affects survivors of trauma in everyday situations and relationships all the time. If fiction really is about finding the truth inside the lie, Kellen Burden has done that here. It is pretty awe-inspiring, and intense to read.

Another thing that struck me as true: The “homo, no homo” humor between the veterans. I’ve seen enough of it to understand that the language they use isn’t anti-LGBTQ—it’s just how some guys who have laid their ass on the line for one another end up talking to each other. You love and depend on one another, but you don’t articulate it—or if you do, it’s couched in homosexual sugar-talk. But never say a serious thing about how much someone means to you. That’d be against the rules for guys like Parks and his crew.

I often see authors discuss verb choices, and how beginning writers often need to punch up their action. That’s not the case here. Every word seems crafted, designed to deliver punch after punch after punch until you’re exhausted and beaten down with the sheer brilliance of the thing.

There are few books that I think “Everyone should read this,” but Flash Bang is one of them. I want to stand on street corners and hand copies out to people. That’s how damned good this book is.

A few words about the author and publisher:

One of the reasons I’m blown away by this book is that Burden is YOUNG—early to mid-20s, I’d say. He shouldn’t know the things he knows at his age. Or, at least, he shouldn’t be able to articulate them the way he does. But he can, and that’s a rare brilliance. I’m jealous as hell. He’s a far better writer than I was at his age. Hell, he’s a far better writer than I am now, and that makes me hate him a little bit. But it doesn’t make me hate him enough to skip his next book. This guy is GOOD.

Flash Bang was published independently, and I don’t know what to make of that. The book received an honorable mention in the 2014 Los Angeles Book Festival, and was a nominee for the Global Ebook Awards. This novel is OBVIOUSLY good enough to be a ‘Big Six’ novel. It would have gotten more press, been given wide release. If a writer this good can’t get a book deal—or chooses not to—what does that say about the rest of us who are struggling to find that brass ring?

I give Flash Bang my highest recommendation. It was easily the best novel I read in 2014. Buy it here.

Book Review: The Rented Mule by Bobby Cole

Look, I’m just going to admit it: The Rented Mule by Bobby Cole made me tap out. It made me quit.

It was so bad that I stopped reading it. Shut it down for good, returned it on the Amazon Kindle Unlimited platform in order to get something—anything—else. In my entire life, I’ve had only one other book make me stop reading it and put it away, never to come back.

I’d say the characters were cardboard, but that would be an insult to liquor boxes everywhere. I’d say the dialogue was inane drivel that failed to move the story forward, and that would be true. I’d say that there was more “telling” than “showing” and that would be true, too. There might be a really good novel buried somewhere in the 502 obnoxious (and just plain noxious) pages of The Rented Mule, but Bobby Cole is not the writer who can bring it out.

So that’s it. I’m done with it, after nearly 300 pages. I don’t care enough how it turns out. I don’t want to invest any more of my time on a bad book. I’m 43 years old, and I love to read. But as I get older, I have to have some sort of return on the investment of my time. The best novels make me think, expand my worldview in some way, or at least challenge my assumptions.

Entertainment is the lowest bar. Of course the story should be entertaining. And well-told. That’s basic. If you fail at that, you really have nothing left to offer, and I’m going to stop. Just stop. As far as The Rented Mule goes, I’m reminded of the Christopher Hitchens quote: “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”

I had high hopes for this book. An interesting premise, and a Southern writer who Amazon compared to Elmore Leonard. Well, folks: Amazon lies. While I was rooting for Cole to get this book on track (if for no other reasons than he’s an Alabama native and we share a rockin’ first name.), he just couldn’t pull it off. Whoever agreed to publish this tripe ought to be fired. (And possibly drawn and quartered. At the very least, they oughta bring back the rack for this offender.)

Published by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint, this book is lower than the stuff a lot of quality “indie” writers are putting out these days. Horrendous. Avoid at all costs.

Book review: Murder on Lovers’ Lane by Paula Graves

I bought my friend* Paula Graves’ novella, Murder on Lovers’ Lane, recently. It’s an “indie” novel, but Paula’s published multiple novels with Harlequin Intrigue. So what I’m saying here is that yes, this is an “indie” book, but Paula is a pro, and it’s obvious in several ways that you’re reading someone who isn’t just your ordinary “indie” writer.

Murder on Lovers’ Lane is partner romance—two cops thrown together because no one else really fits with them—of a type we’ve seen before, so Graves isn’t breaking any new ground here. In fact, one of the key audiences for Lovers’ Lane is the TV show Castle. As a big fan of Castle, I was looking forward to reading the book.

Cops Hannigan and Brody go back to college in order to find a serial killer who’s preying on amorous students. They find him—or he finds them—and hey, a new series is born. I’ve said Graves isn’t breaking new ground, but she doesn’t really need to. As long as she’s writing engaging characters (and she is) with logically built stories (and it’s mostly there), this can be a successful series.

A couple of things that make Graves’ work stand out: It’s clean. Even in the best “indie” books, there are typos or misspellings or just flat-out horrid syntax. There’s none of that here. The story comes out smooth and whole, and I think most readers’ complaints will be that the story feels a bit too short. I’d agree with that to an extent. I think Hannigan and Brody probably deserve a larger canvas on which to play.

I can see the comparisons to Castle, and I think they’re apt. You have two people here who adore one another, who are fighting against their attraction with everything they have, even though it’s a losing battle. There’s no doubt that Graves can tell an intriguing story, and I think the characters are worth exploring more from a reader’s standpoint.

My quibbles: I believe in Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker, who each believed in using no other word than “said” to carry dialogue. Other dialogue tags catch too much in my ear now. Graves is a gifted writer, and I’d love to see her be confident enough to let the dialogue stand on its own, without trying to help it out with overblown verbs.

Also. telling the reader that Brody has a “perfect, perfect face” a couple of times throughout the book didn’t do much for me, either.

But other than that? The novella is good, a light romance/suspense story that’s worth spending a little time with. I especially appreciated the creepy American lit professor and her banter with both main characters. At 99 cents right now, Murder on Lovers’ Lane is worth picking up. If I were the kind of guy who gave star ratings, I’d drop 3.5 out of 5 on this one. It’s enough to make me want to see what else Paula Graves has written.

*I want to point out that I bought my own copy of the book, and that regardless of whether I’m friends with an author, my reviews are 100 percent my opinion, whether for good or bad, and I try not to pull any punches.

Short Fiction: The Holdout

The Holdout

Short Fiction by B.W. Mathews

They might as well have been the only two guys in the bar, two thick blocky white men who looked like exactly what they were: a couple of working stiffs who’d gotten off jury duty early and weren’t planning on heading back to work.

The bar was called the Alcove, a hole-in-the wall place just a couple of blocks from the new courthouse. It was quiet, the long bar backed by an equally long mirror. They could look in the mirror and talk to one another, never have to turn their heads.

“I’ll have an old fashioned,” the first one said to the bartender, who didn’t say anything. He lifted an eyebrow at the second one.

“That sounds good,” he said. “Make it two.”

The bartender went away to make the drinks, and the two men did what anyone who’s ever served jury duty do—they talked about the case. Continue reading

I’ll never win Wimbledon

I think I’m going through a midlife crisis.

No, I haven’t run off with a younger woman to Aruba. I haven’t ditched my responsibilities with my wife, my children, or my job–although my wife has had to talk me out of buying a motorcycle a couple of times. I haven’t gambled away the mortgage payment. I haven’t gone off on a week-long drinking spree. I haven’t bought a shiny red convertible. I haven’t done any of those things.

Yet.

I don’t know why this is so hard to take. I’m closer to 50 than I am to 30. Think about that for a minute. By the time you hit your 40s–and I still qualify (barely) as my EARLY 40s–your life is pretty well set. You’re not a ball of potential anymore. You pretty much are what you are. You’re … well … you’re grown up. Set in your ways. Your identity is pretty well static.

There are things now that I know I’ll never do:

I’ll never win Wimbledon. I’ll never be the editor of The New York Times, or The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I’ll never catch that touchdown pass and win the game. I’ll never make one of those “40 Under 40″ lists. I’ll never pitch the Braves to another World Series title. (In my defense, it doesn’t look like anyone else will do that, either.) I’ll probably never have that Porsche roadster. (Where the hell would I put the kids’ seats?) This midlife crisis–mine, I mean; I can’t speak for yours–is all about what might have been, and what will never be.

I’ll never be that young hotshot reporter, editor, or writer again.

Of course, I’m also a better reporter, editor, and writer than I used to be. Experience does make a difference. But the thing is that I’m no longer “potential.” I am what I am, and every fiber of my being fights against that. I’m dying for open roads and vast stretches of countryside no one has ever explored. I look into the distance and wonder what else is out there. And then I look at my close surroundings and see my family: the wife, the kids, the house, the cars, the dogs.

I’ve trapped myself. It’s a trap of my own making, and its bonds are fragile. I know–KNOW–I could break them if I wanted to. But I’ve also changed a great deal in the last few years. At the very least I understand now what it means to love someone else more than I love myself. And that means that I stay in the trap–singing in my chains like the sea.* (50 points if you get that literary reference without having to look it up.)

My wife tells me not to worry about it, but I do. She went out of her way yesterday to remind me that I really am getting better as I get older.  “You are a lot more things than middle-aged,” she said. “You are a daddy and a husband, a friend and a brother, a son, a PR flack. And you are actually starting to hit your stride in those things, I think. You are a better friend and son than you were 10 years ago … you are a better husband than you were five years ago … you are a better daddy than you were three years ago.”

So there are positives to aging, I suppose. But there’s a part of me–a small, but LOUD part–that misses those days when I was wild and blue and young, when I was simply a mass of potential rather than an early-40s middle-aged man with responsibilities and regrets.

I’ll never win Wimbledon, but let’s be honest–I was never going to do that anyway. But it would have been fun as hell to play on the grass.

Short story: Six Rounds

Editor’s note: This is the first fiction writing I’ve done in quite awhile (which is one of the reasons the blog posts have been so sporadic lately). It’s not a perfect short story, but after going back and doing some editing, I’ve come to realize I like it very much. Fair warning: It’s long, especially for something to read on the Internet. Hope you enjoy it.

Six Rounds

By B.W. Mathews

You wanna blame somebody, blame my corner. They coulda thrown in the towel anytime. But they didn’t, so there I was, swinging away with Johnny the Jet. Johnny was supposed to fight for the title next, right? And now he’s not fighting anyone ever again. That poor sonofabitch. I fucked up his career and mine, all at the same time. What I said before, about blaming my corner? Don’t do that. There’s enough blame to go around. Start with me. I ain’t much anymore. I fought my way up from a no-name prospect all the way to a fight for the cruiserweight title. When the champ laid me out clean with a left hook in round three, I shoulda learned my lesson right there. But I didn’t. Instead I went down to light heavy, and won a couple of fights. Even though I’d been KO’ed once, I still had some name value. They put me in with Harley MacGregor for the light heavyweight title, and I did a little better. I lasted seven rounds before MacGregor turned my lights out. That’s how I came to fight Johnny the Jet—Johnny McDaniel, if you don’t follow the fights. I’m still a name, right? “Black” Jack Harrison, but everybody calls me Blackjack. Two-time world title contender. But now that I’m past thirty and on my way down the ladder, I’m just a name. That’s what they call me behind the scenes—a name opponent. In other words, I’m a guy the up-and-comers get to face before they go on to fight for the title. A guy who won’t ever fight for the title again; a guy they expect to lose. I still got a little pride, though, and that’s why you can blame me for what happened. The Jet pissed me off—and that’s why he ought to take some of the blame, too. Continue reading

The Problem with Diversity in Books

A notable readers’ convention, BookCon, has come under scrutiny for its lineup of children’s writers. Thirty of the featured authors are white. A coalition of bloggers, publishing professionals, and authors came together to create #WeNeedDiverseBooks to protest BookCon’s whitewashing (forgive the pun!) of children’s fiction.

First of all, let me say this: I believe in and support good writers. Period. I don’t really care what background an author is–whether they’re people of color or LGBTQ or a different ethnicity or faith than me. I’ve often thought of myself as kind of a blank slate for writers, judging each on the merits of their work.

But it doesn’t work that way. I’m wrong when I think that, and I’ll tell you why.

I can’t be a blank slate when the book industry doesn’t publish people of color. I can’t be a blank slate if a LGBTQ writer gets a smaller ad budget than an equally (or lesser) known straight author. I can’t be a blank slate if white authors aren’t inclusive with other characters. My only caveat is the writing, right? Well, if that’s so–why are my shelves lined with 80 percent white male authors? Why are there only a few dissenting voices on my bookshelves: Khaled Hosseini’s brilliant novel The Kite Runner, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man?

That’s not enough.

Do I read white guys because I am a white guy? Do white guys largely tell the stories I want to read? Is it nature, or is it nurture? I don’t really know. This is a multifaceted topic that makes me question authors, the publishing industry, convention organizers, and my own motives. As a guy who writes, and who wants to be inclusive in his own fiction, I think about this a lot.

One of my literary idols, Robert B. Parker, was very good about being inclusive in his fiction. Forgive Rob, if you can, for being an old white guy. His novels were filled with blacks, whites, Asians, gays, bisexuals, racists, bigots and sexists. In other words, he pretty much had the American experience down pat. Sometimes the “other” that Parker wrote about was the villain. Sometimes the “other” was not. The type of character played no role into defining the character as good or bad. It depended instead upon the story he told. He shaded his characters as individuals, and did it very well. It probably helped that both of his sons were gay. He had an intense understanding of what the “other” in his life was, but it didn’t matter to him. He loved both of his sons dearly, from all accounts, and their sexual orientation did not matter to him. They were simply his sons.

I found Parker to be inclusive in his fiction. It’s a wide world out there, and there are millions of unique voices crying out to be heard. There are writers who deserve the chance to tell their stories–to encourage others like them that they are not alone in their experience. That’s important, and the organizers of BookCon should have seen that to begin with. No one should have had to call them out on this.

As a writer, I try to set aside my ethnicity. I try, but I can’t do it completely. I’m currently writing a novel about a black moonshiner in 1931 Alabama who reluctantly begins a love affair with a married white woman. It’s incredibly challenging to write, but I think the challenge is worth it. The hardest part is to be true to all of the characters.

So this is the author’s problem. Sometimes we forget to put in other viewpoints than our own. We reset to the things that are like us. If we’re white, we often write about white people. And because white authors are published about 10 times more frequently than people of color, white characters–main ones and supporting ones–abound. That troubles me and reminds me that I would rather be more like Robert B. Parker. I can’t say Parker celebrated diversity, because I didn’t know the man. But I knew him through his books enough to know that he was inclusive of people who weren’t always exactly like him.

I wish BookCon could say the same thing.