Wednesday, May 29, 2019

A Problem and its Likely Solution

Readers may think this post is a whine. I hope writers will not, most of you having had this conversation with yourself a time or two and understanding why it needs to happen, though maybe not as publicly as this.

Why don’t my books sell better?

The reviews are good, given their limited numbers. (Sincere thanks to all of you who have reviewed any of my books, regardless of your opinion. I appreciate you taking the time.) People approach me with unsolicited praise at conferences, so I feel secure that the books hold up. I take my craft seriously and folks seem to appreciate that.

More than one agent has said that I might have had a nice career as a mid-list author thirty years ago. Part of that compliment—and I do consider it as such—is because thirty years ago there was the possibility of making a living as a mid-list writer. If I’m being honest with myself—which the situation demands—I have to admit part of that is because I write the kinds of books that were popular thirty years ago, before serial killers and sociopathic spouses and constantly raised stakes took over the business.

I’m not complaining, just observing. The market is what it is and it always will be. I posted last week about bestsellers and I’m not here to complain about people’s tastes. I read exactly the hell what I feel like reading, too. Life is too short to worry about what books someone else thinks one should read. The question here is, “What can I do to get more people to read my books?” Or even, “Is there anything I can do?”

Shall I move away from the private investigator and small town procedurals into more high-octane stuff? I’ve seen friends shift gears in a similar manner and do very well. There are two things that have to be determined before answering:

1) Do I want to do it?
2) Do I have the ability to do it?

I am among a fortunate few writers who doesn’t need much—any—writing income to live a comfortable life, at least by my limited standards, as the current day job pays the bills and then some. This frees me to write whatever the hell I want, but it also removes a sense of urgency I might feel if I needed writing income. That’s okay. Frankly, I don’t do my best work under that kind of pressure; I’m a plodder.

I write what I do because I like it and I know I’m good at it. The fact that it doesn’t sell much is an inconvenience, not a crisis. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t rankle.

A few years ago I realized both my current series read like novels based on 70s crime movies. I love 70s crime movies, so to me this is not a bad thing. Of course, 70s crime movies were popular forty to fifty years ago, so having that as my wheelhouse is a distinctly limiting factor.

Can I tweak the series to bring them a little more in line with popular tastes without losing the things I like about them? More action? Less foul language? More linear story lines? All are possibilities that may well align more closely with my gifts than the radical departures considered earlier.

Paraphrasing Mencken, all these questions have answers that are simple, clear, and wrong. Some would work for others but not for me because of elements missing from either my personality or talent. All I can hope for is to achieve a balance that will keep me on the right side of the Reward vs. Bullshit Curve.

And, as so often happens when writing, Serendipity smiles upon me. After finding the nine-year-old post I linked to in the previous sentence, I decided to read it again. I’m way more accomplished now than I was then, and I thought of myself as successful when I wrote that piece.

So I’ll just keep plugging away. Try a little of this and a little of that. Don’t double down on something that isn’t working without a damn good reason to do so. Benoit Lelieve over at Dead End Follies recently had a great post about the hazards of trying to make a living doing what you love. Go on over and have a read; he nails it. His timing is impeccable from my perspective, reminding me as it did that because I have a reliable source of income I never have to worry about forgetting why I write.

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Effects of Bestsellers

There were no takers for today’s Diversity Friday slot, so I’ll fill it myself. If you’re reading this—and I sure hope you are or I’ll feel like a real dumbass asking you to do something—and are a woman, writer of color, LGBTQ, or basically anything other than a cisgender white male, please drop me a line at danakingcrime (at) gmail (dot) com and we’ll find an open spot for you. If you know a writer who fits any of the above descriptions and who might like an opportunity, please invite them to contact me. My goal is to feel guilty because I can’t accommodate everyone in as timely a manner as I would like. Work with me here.

Now to our regularly scheduled program.

Last Saturday was the tenth annual Gaithersburg Book Festival, a gem of an event that takes over downtown Gaithersburg MD and invites authors from all over the world. It’s become a must-go-to event for The Beloved Spouse™ and me the past few years and I recommend it without reservation for any readers.

Friend of the blog Ed Aymar was part of a thought-provoking panel that included John Copenhaver, Julie Maloney, and moderator Hannah Oliver Depp. Each author has a book out that handles some dark element of life we all wish didn’t exist, but does. As thought-provoking panels are wont to do, this one got me to thinking, though not necessarily in the way the panelists might have expected.

What makes a best-seller, and what do bestsellers say about us? Even more, how do the books affect us?

Bestsellers are, by and large, about events bigger than life. Donald Maas may not have invented the phrase “raising the stakes” in his Writing the Breakout Novel, but if he didn’t, he cemented it in the public consciousness. Maas is still the gold standard—he’s presenting his Breakout Novel spiel at a pre-Bouchercon event in Dallas—and books still break out because the situations become more dire; now things even start there and manage to get worse.

Human trafficking. Kidnapping. Remorseless and amoral drug cartels. Sociopathic spouses. Serial killers. These are the grist for the mill of mystery and thriller sales. When asked why these topics are so popular, the standard answer is that they provide safe havens for readers to explore the worst the world has to offer, but from a distance (our homes, where we feel safest), and with the knowledge that things will turn out at least relatively well.

What no one talks about is what effect such reading has on the life the art claims to imitate. I will not dispute the horror of human trafficking or drug abuse or serial killers or learning how vile the person is who sleeps next to you. All of these happen. What people seem to have lost is the perspective to remind themselves they don’t happen very often. With a modicum of care, one is more likely to be killed by a cow than kidnapped or tortured to death. (Don’t feel too safe. Cows kill more people than do sharks. That’s why I still eat steak, before the brutal bovine bastards decide it’s my turn.) It’s just that the kidnappings and torture killings are what makes the news and the bestseller lists, creating the impression the world is a far more dangerous place than it is.

Do I exaggerate? The “CSI Effect” is well documented, where juries demand DNA and trace evidence and hair samples and shoeprint matches because they see all that on the modern crime shows and think things really work that way. We have a surgical image of war in part because of what I call the Tom Clancy Effect, where all this marvelous hardware works exactly as it’s intended, every time. I saw a knowledgeable speaker asked once if our weapons actually worked that well. “In theory,” he said. “In practice something always goes wrong.” A complex military endeavor is as likely to turn into the abortive rescue of the Iran hostages in 1980 as the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

It’s fun to watch movies or read books where intricate conspiracies spin out. Just don’t start thinking things work that well in the real world. The writers always have the godlike power for the conspirators to catch a convenient break, or for something to go wrong enough to raise the stakes. The child kidnapped for sale as a sex slave just happens to have a father with a unique and relevant set of skills and a stepfather rich enough to place Dad wherever he needs to be in a matter of minutes.

This is all well and good so long as everyone remembers that life isn’t like that. Do all these things happen? Sure they do. Are they horrible? Goddamn right. The question folks seem more likely to forget to ask anymore is “How likely is it?” what are the odds your child will be whisked away by a stranger in the United States? About 1 in 300,000.

Too many of us live fear-based lives; it’s more apparent in political campaigns all the time. The Beloved Spouse™ knows an intelligent man who comes heavy to the movies because he’s afraid to be caught there unarmed when the shooting starts. How many people are killed by gunman in theaters each year? One is too many, so too many. What are the odds one of them will be you? Infinitesimal. Be safe. Be vigilant. Do not be paranoid.

Nothing is guaranteed in life. A security system will not prevent someone from stealing your car or breaking into your house if they want to badly enough. The best we can hope for is to dissuade those who aren’t dead solid serious about it. The best we can do is not to let the fears we allow to be induced in ourselves, whatever their origin, to get the better of us.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Don't Read Shitty Books

Among the first—and best—pieces of advice every fledgling writers hears is, “Read. Read everything. The good stuff will inspire you and the bad will teach you what not to do.” While that’s sterling advice for a newcomer, I have an addendum that applies to writers who have found their way enough to become comfortable with their own voice:

Don’t read shitty books.

That’s good advice on a superficial because life’s too short. None of us has time to read everything we want to. Why waste precious reading time on something you don’t enjoy? Reading should always be a pleasure. True, academic or training texts often are not, but that’s the fault of the author. Even technical journals can be fun to read if done right. Not necessarily “ha-ha” funny, but not drudgery, either.

When it comes to fiction, though, enjoy everything you read. “But wait,” you say. (I heard you even if you didn’t yourself. I’m good like that.) “Haven’t you said that once one commits to being a writer one can never read solely for enjoyment again?” Yes, I have. “Isn’t this a direct contradiction, you hypocritical prick?” No, it’s not, and you need to take a deep fucking breath before this gets testy. (I’ve been bingeing Deadwood in preparation for the movie. Sometimes it shows.)

My position is unchanged. Once you commit to being a writer, you lose the luxury of reading solely for pleasure. Some part of your mind has to be analyzing the work. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the reading of it. In a really good book you should enjoy even the analytical part, as appreciation for recognizing something done well, and wondering how you might improve yourself by this insight.

Shitty books are more inclined to lower your standards. The last thing you want when reworking a tricky passage is to remember the most recent piece of dreck you read and start to figure, even subconsciously, “This is already better than the book I’m reading now.” Down that path lies shitty writing with your name on it.

I know some friends who don’t read fiction when they’re working on a book. I see their point but disagree. Too many times have I been plodding along in a rewrite when I’ll see just the right thing in a novel and know exactly what to do next. Not plagiarizing. Noticing a technique that will work. Maybe a different POV character. Show by looking back through dialog. Scene reversal. Could be anything. 

The absolute last thing I want is for some shitty book to have that kind of influence, even subliminally. This takes eternal vigilance. Shitty books abound in nature, as natural as black mold on a wet wall. That’ll make you sick. Stay away from it. I’m not saying if the first page doesn’t grip you by the nether regions and drag you along you should quit, but if you’ve read 20 – 50 pages and have to talk yourself into continuing, leave. Even better, get the fuck out. (Which is leaving with extreme prejudice.) You’ll be happier and your writing will be better for it. 

Friday, May 10, 2019

Graduation Day

This is Diversity Friday, though a decided dearth of diverse dramatists may have dried up the design before it achieved critical mass. Digging deeper into the depths of alliterative depravity, the blog takes the day off from writerly interests for a family outing, as today The Sole Heir becomes a doctor, as in M.D.

I try not to make this blog too much about me; asking people to suffer my opinions already tests the limits of both human endurance and compassion. Today I get to swell my fatherly chest a little as I take a few minutes to tell the world how proud I am of this young woman. People have asked me for years what my favorite age is for her when I look back and I have always said, “However old she is now.” Never has that been more true than today.

Congratulations, Dr. Blewett.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Favorite Reads for March and April

Events overtook my shout-outs for my favorite reads in March so we’ll catch things up here.

Trigger, David Swinson. The third of the Frank Marr trilogy finds Marr trying to clean up his act. Well, a little. The thing with Marr is that he likes how he is but comes to realize he’s paying too high a price in other aspects of his life to continue to indulge in the “WWHSTD?” lifestyle. (What Would Hunter S. Thompson Do?) Here Marr’s helping his old police partner defend himself in an officer involved shooting that looks dirty. Marr wants to help but is less than enthusiastic about the prospects until he runs into a former adversary he almost killed in The Second Girl. Watching Marr trying to bring a former banger along as a partner gives the reader insights Marr can’t get into on his own even in a first-person narrative and makes this book stand out. I still like The Second Girl best of the three, but that may well be because it was so unlike anything I expected.

November Road, Lou Berney. A worthy successor to The Long and Faraway Gone, a book that won so many awards organizations had to invent new ones. The story takes place immediately after the Kennedy assassination as a mid-level New Orleans mobster who was peripherally involved realizes he’s a cut-out and hits the road, where he hooks up with a housewife who’s had enough and is taking the kids west to no one knows what. He needs her as cover, she’s in over her head and doesn’t see through him until it’s too late. There are few around who tell a story as well as Berney and though I wasn’t crazy about the ending I’ll still bet November Road end up in the ten best books I’ll read this year. (I don’t like saying something doesn’t work for me and not saying why, but that would be a spoiler in this case.)

I Will Find You: Solving Killer Cases from My Life Fighting Crime, Joe Kenda. Kenda is a retired Colorado Springs detective with a homicide clearance rate of well over 90%. The show based on his career, Homicide Hunter, is a staple of Investigation Discovery’s programming. This memoir moves from his younger days in Western Pennsylvania (less than an hour from where I grew up and based Penns River) through his career in Colorado Springs and his early retirement. Kenda shows more personality in the book than the TV show allows, including a dry wit that he uses in just the right amounts. An informal and entertaining book that should be read by anyone interested in how law enforcement actually works.

American Tabloid, James Ellroy. While not the Great American Novel, is it certainly a great American novel, and the Quintessential American Novel. Here’s to all the rogue cops and shakedown artists and wiretappers and soldiers of fortune and faggot lounge entertainers who shaped American history as we know it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Terrence McCauley, Author of Dark Territory

Among the highlights of my writing career was a Bouchercon panel assignment in Albany circa 2013. (Editor’s Note: The Oxford English Dictionary has called to complain about the use of the word “career” to describe my writing activities, to which I say, “Bite me, you Limey gobshites. I got your Brexit right here, pal.”) Moderated by the lovely and talented Peter Rozovsky, it included Eric Beetner, Mike Dennis, Jonathan Woods, and today’s guest Terrence McCauley. I’d read Terrence’s book Prohibition and was delighted to run into him in the booksellers’ area before the panel, where we chatted and he gave me a copy of another of his Prohibition-era books, Slow Burn. We became friends and remain so even as I have come to understand there’s nothing the prick can’t write well, from period crime novels to techno-thrillers to crossovers of the two and now, Westerns. We’ve talked about his previous writing before, so today we’re going to focus on Westerns.

One Bite at a Time: Your Prohibition- and pre-World War II-era books are well received, as is the University series of techno-thrillers. What took you over to Westerns?

Terrence McCauley: I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the genre. On the one hand, I love the true history of that time in our nation’s history. The drama, the danger, the rawness of it and the wickedness, too. I never liked how it was portrayed in movies or television shows because I think they whitewashed a lot of things and flat out lied about the way people lived back then. Like the whole showdown on Main Street at high noon. Those kinds of things didn’t happen very often, if at all. I wanted to write a western that was closer to the kind of story I wanted to see. Almost every type of story has been told about the west, all the way from the unrealistically patriotic movies of John Ford to the equally unrealistic revisionist history of later years. I wanted to tell a story that was about people, not stereotypes. People seem to have liked it.  

OBAAT: I haven’t had a chance to read Dark Territory yet, but Where the Bullets Fly is a fascinating mix of modern sensibilities and sensitivities while also serving an homage to classic Western tropes. Was that the plan, or did it just come out that way?

TM: I wrote the kind of story I wanted to see, but rarely did. The western expansion was a far more diverse time than people realize and I wanted to write a story that showed that diversity without pandering to current audiences seeking diversity where there was none. For example, there weren’t many women gunfighters, so I don’t have such characters in my westerns. But the women weren’t shrinking violets, either, and I write the same type of strong female characters in my westerns as I do in my other books. There were, however, black lawmen at the time, most notably Bass Reeves among others. My Billy Sunday character harkens back to that. After introducing him as an essential character in Bullets, I have him branch out even more in Dark Territory and in the third Mackey book, tentatively titled Blood Warrant that I’m working on now. I plan on continuing to add more realistic, diverse characters to the mix in my westerns because I always seek to avoid stereotypes and want to keep my work as interesting for me and for the reader.

OBAAT: How hard was it to fall into a style that suited a Western after writing the University series? I know The Fairfax Incident came between but that’s closer to the University than to a Western.

TM: I’ve found it to be more restorative than anything else. It keeps me from getting stale. Too many books of the same type in a row tend to bore me and I deserve better. So does my audience. That’s not to say I’m done with the University Series or Charlie Doherty or Terry Quinn or James Hicks or any of the characters I’ve created. Far from it.

But I enjoy the challenge of changing up tone and setting of my stories. Writing about the 1930s for me is like a bowl of ice cream. I love every second of it and I love it more with each passing page. Fairfax wasn’t an easy book to write, but it was a joy to do it.

Writing about Hicks and the University Series has become easier as I’ve grown more familiar with those characters and what they can do.

Westerns are a different pace entirely. Everything took longer back then and present special challenges. One couldn’t just pick up a phone and call. They couldn’t hop in a car or board a plane and get from point A to point B quickly. Even the shortest trips took the better part of a day at least and required planning. Horses needed to be fed and tended to. They got sick and injured, too. Death was always just a cold or an infected cut away. It was a deliberate time and only deliberate people survived it. So, in some ways, my westerns are different from the rest of my work, but there are also many similarities.

OBAAT: What or who are your primary influences as a writer of Westerns?

TM: The movies played a huge role in my interest in westerns, just as they played a role in my interest in the 1930s. But, like the 1930s, once I began doing research into the actual era, I found a world the movies only scratched.

However, my first real interest in westerns came from a short story I had to read in high school called, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”. It was a story that broke all of the expected tropes in westerns and showed me that there was much more to the genre than I had seen in the movies.

But the movies that had an impact on me were huge. Yes, The Searchers is flawed and could have done with a sharper editor’s blade, but several of the scenes in it were iconic as was the ending. (The book is excellent, by the way, and differs from the movie in several key areas.) The Outlaw Josey Wales was right up there with another anti-hero and epic scenes filmed by Clint Eastwood. 

OBAAT: You and I have known each other as members of the crime fiction community since we shared a Bouchercon panel in Albany in 2013. I know you’ve been to at least one major Western conference. What are they like? Similarities? Differences?

TM: I attended the Western Writers of America conference in Billings, Montana in 2018 and absolutely loved everything about the experience. I love Montana, the scenery and the people. The convention was much smaller than Bouchercon, but fantastic. People who think the genre only encompasses books about cowboys and Indians and bandits and sheriffs really need to take a look at the number of categories they have for the Silver Spur Award to see how wrong they are. The amount of scholarship in that community is so deep, it’s almost impossible to believe. Sure, they cover western history and fiction, but they also cover modern subjects as well, such as organized labor and environmental issues facing the west. People’s political views were all over the map, too, and they didn’t mind welcoming the bald guy with glasses and the thick New York accent into the fold. They couldn’t have been nicer to me and my wife, Rita, and I’m proud to be a member of the organization.

To the contrary, I’ve seen a lot of bitterness and piety in the crime fiction community lately and it saddens me. There’s a mob mentality that seems to spring up right before a convention that creates a nasty undercurrent throughout the event. A controversy is born, sides are chosen and armies of right and righteousness take to steed and charge into battle.

At least on Facebook and on blogs and on Twitter, anyway.

It’s a trend that’s not fair to conference organizers, volunteers or to attendees. Unfair accusations get thrown around like they don’t mean anything, but they do. We have to be mindful of people who seek to burn things down simply to have the joy of licking the ashes. The ruins be damned.

For example, last year’s Bouchercon was dominated by the #MeToo movement and respect for women. It’s a just cause that can never receive enough support or attention. Anyone who believes it’s not a problem that deserves to be stomped out wherever it takes place is a fool. Some attendees even wore stars on their name tags to show they cared and could be a safe space for women who needed help. My wife and I even volunteered for the program, but no one got around to giving us a star. We kept an eye out anyway.

But the luster of those stars dimmed when it actually came time to actually do something about defending female attendees or female staff members of the hotel. One particular participant was on a drunken tirade the entire weekend and none of the brave souls with stars stepped in when he was nasty to women or to female staff members. Many members of this star force probably remained quiet because a) the offender was a friend of theirs and b) because the guy who drank actually posed a physical threat. Posting one’s commitment to defending women on line is one thing. When faced with a raving drunk who could knock you on your ass? Well, that’s different. It’s far safer to stay in the crowd and sip your pilsner and talk about your training than actually putting it into practice.

The drunken offender was obviously going through a lot and needed some kind of assistance. But I abhor grandstanding phonies who either brag about their bravery online only to shrug when it’s needed. I hold people who use a crisis they helped to create as a way to sell books in particular contempt. “Take a stand against predatory men and fight for women.” Great idea. Sign me up, until: “And the best way you can tear down the patriarchy is to buy my book right now.” Huh?

There have also been a lot of ugly accusations thrown around concerning racial diversity in our genre. I’ve had good friends smeared on both sides. Their motives have been questioned and it’s horrible. But good things come out of turmoil and I’m glad to see a dedication to increasing the diversity in our gene. It won’t happen immediately and we can’t get there soon enough, but I’m glad many members of our community are taking steps to moving it in the right direction.

My take on controversies at conventions is simple. If you see or hear of someone stepping out of line or doing something horrible, do something. Call them out on it directly, or get someone else to do it. Demand answers. You’re entitled to them. If not, then remain content to talk about craft beer and social injustice and stay in the corner where you belong while the people who are actually trying to improve things do their work.

OBAAT: Dark Territory followed Where the Bullets Fly by only six months. Is this a sign of a permanent shift toward Westerns? Two books you got ideas for at once and had to get off your chest? Or do Westerns seem to come quicker for you?

TM: Where the Bullets Fly was actually written ten years ago before I was published. I had it on my computer for a long time while I waited to see if the genre might rebound. When my agent asked me for a list of all my work, I figured he’d ignore the western. To my surprise, that’s what he focused on. The good people over at Kensington were interested and they bought it. They asked for Dark Territory so quickly because they knew I was in between projects at the time.

Writing about the west comes quicker to me now than it did when I started Bullets. I know these characters now. I’m comfortable with them and the world they inhabit. Writing about Aaron Mackey and Billy Sunday and the evil James Grant is easier because I know them now, but it’s by no means easy. I try to make each book a bit different than the last, so each work presents its own new set of challenges.