Thursday, July 29, 2021

From the Vault: A Problem and Its Likely Solution

 This week’s post was originally posted May 29, 2019. It’s as true to today as it was then, though perceptions may have changed since. It prompted a pretty good comment thread. Feel free to check it out, and continue the discussion here.



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. (Update: I’m now retired six months. Cat food and Ramen noodles are not on the horizon, so this still applies.) 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? (Update: The novel slated for 2022 release includes two of these three. Guess which two, cocksucker.) 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.


Thursday, July 22, 2021

My Greatest Day of Parenting

 Lots of people advocate various books on parenting. That’s fine. Do what you do. I learned everything I needed to know about raising a child from reading Calvin and Hobbes.


One that sticks in my mind is a strip where Calvin asks his dad (my spirit animal) why old family pictures are black-and-white. My Spirit Animal goes on to explain how those photographs are in color. It’s the world that was black-and-white. MSA explains how color evolved in the 1930s, though it was spotty and grainy at first. When Calvin asks how paintings from hundreds of years ago can be in color, MSA tells him they were always in color. We just couldn’t see it until the 30s.


As a divorced father, I lacked many of the opportunities MSA had for influencing Calvin, so I had to cluster them when possible. One weekend, The Sole Heir was messing with her malfunctioning iPad ear buds. She did a little online research and learned the issue was probably with the magnets and that any local Apple Store would swap them out.


She turned to me as we left for the excursion to ask, “Why do ear buds have magnets?”


“To keep them in your ears.”


That brought her up short. Old enough to know I wasn’t always trustworthy on such matters, not sufficiently mature to reliably recognize when. “I thought magnets only held metal together.”


“You never heard of bone magnets? They keep the earbud close enough to the little bones in your ear so you can hear, but no so close it clogs up your ear canal. That’s probably what’s wrong. These are either too strong or too weak.”


That prompted a look I came to know and love: she knew I was full of crap, but lacked the ammunition on hand to call me on it and win the argument.


We were watching baseball that same evening when the standard disclaimer came on: “Any rebroadcast, reproduction, or other use of the pictures and accounts of this game without the express written consent of the office of the Commissioner of Baseball is prohibited.”


She should have known better after the morning’s earbud episode, but the idealism of youth was strong in this one. “Hey, Dad. What does the Commissioner of Baseball do?”


“He signs all the baseballs.”


A moment’s thought. “That’s all?”


“Watch the game. See how many balls they go through. Multiply that by fifteen games a day. Signing balls is a full-time job.”


I got That Look twice in one day. Maybe the proudest I ever felt as a parent, including at her wedding.



Thursday, July 15, 2021

Fan Letters


I have kidded myself in the past, making comments along the line of how my fan club meets in airplane lavatories. While not a lot of people read my books, those who do are remarkably loyal. For that I am genuinely grateful. Thank you all.


As you might expect, I don’t get a lot of fan mail. It’s not disappointing; I don’t expect much. I have received a couple of messages in the past few weeks that have made me realize I don’t write only for myself. There are people out there who look forward to my next book. One has been so loyal I named a character after her.


I received an e-mail the other day from a reader I have corresponded with in the past. He wrote to tell me the virus gave him a rough year, both health-wise and on the employment front. He went on to say how much he appreciated Leaving the Scene for giving him a break from all the bad that’s been going on around him. Followed that up with detailed comments on the book that made it clear he’d read it.


I tried, but couldn’t begin to tell him how gratifying his message was, so I’ll try again here. (And will fail again.) The writers among you know what a lonely and frustrating thing writing can be. (Not always, but enough of the time.) I spend a lot of time on craft, trying to have a unique voice, but not something that gets in the way of the readers’ ability to move quickly through the book. I don’t make any money to speak of, and I’m okay with that.


What makes it possible for me to be okay with that is the knowledge that my cadre of loyal readers looks forward to what I create for them. No one is going to confuse me with Dennis Lehane or Michael Connelly or James Ellroy in either artistry or sales; that’s fine, too. It’s enough to know there are people to whom I can bring a little entertainment that might help them through the day.


So consider this a heartfelt thank you to all of you who read my books or this blog. Your support is appreciated, and I’m grateful, and lucky, to have you.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

An Interview With Beau Johnson, Author of Brand New Dark

 Beau Johnson is a treat. Outstanding author (most notably of the Bishop Rider short stories), tireless promoter of the work of other, connoisseur of all things cheesy, and a hell of a nice guy. I look forward to Beau’s annual collection not only for the stories, but as na excuse to get him back on the blog.

This year’s entry is Brand New Dark, which drops July 12 from Down & Out Books. (I should also note that Beau has all the best titles: A Better Kind of Hate, The Big Machine Eats, and All of Them to Burn.

OBAAT: Looking back at our previous interviews, I see we’ve been getting together more or less annually since 2017. In that first interview we talked a little about your process, how you’re a pantser but will revise each story ten to fifteen times before setting it aside for a few weeks. Has your process evolved as you become more comfortable in the knowledge “I can do this?” Maybe the first question should be to ask if you have become more comfortable.

BJ:  I guess, yes, this would be our fourth go around, Dana.  As ever, thank you for having me! Always

cool of you to give me time and space. As for more comfortable, I can say yes to some of it and no to other parts. I HAVE settled on twelve revisions as to the number any one piece goes through, however.

 OBAAT: I have to ask: Is Bishop Rider still a prominent force in this collection?

BJ: THE prominent force if I'm honest.  Brand New Dark being my first attempt at a book exclusive to a single character.  Will it be too much?  Bishop's world? His struggle?  Time will tell for sure and yes, these are the things I think about.

 OBAAT: Looking back, I’m shocked—shocked!—to see I never asked you about who has most influenced your writing. So, who have been the greatest influences on your writing?

BJ: Even though I found crime fiction over a decade ago my first love will always be King. Misery being the first book I ever read by the man.  I've been hooked ever since.  But back to crime fiction, I would say I dig quite a few writers out there producing today.  Matthew C. Funk is one.  Shawn Cosby for another.  I would add Nikki Dolson, James D.F. Hannah, Nick Kolakowski, Angel Luis Colon, Laurel Hightower, Jennifer Hillier, Laird Barron, Tom Leins, and just too many others that I will probably kick myself for forgetting once you've gone and posted this.

 OBAAT: What are you working on now, and what can we expect next?

: Well, I never want to jinx things, but if I'm lucky, I might have one more Rider book in me. It would take his story close to one hundred in total and I've always felt like that was a nice round number to end on.  We shall see, of course.  As ever, I guarantee nothing.

 OBAAT: What is the cheese you’ve eaten most recently (or are eating now), and why was it chosen?

BJ: Ha!  We do love cheese, don't we?  Right now just some plain old Old, purchased by my wife because she kicks all the ass. 

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Spring's Favorite Reads


I’m out of the business of talking about which books are “best.” There is too much personal taste involved, and the comparison isn’t even apples to oranges. Depending on the books, it could be steak to pork chops or even eastern North Carolina barbecue versus western North Carolina barbecue. (Didn’t know there was a difference? Heathen.) With that in mind, what follows are the books I enjoyed reading the most in the three months just ended.


Dodge City, Tom Clavin. Rolls the history of Dodge City as a cow town into biographies of Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp, with several entertaining digressions. This was a re-read for me, and well worth the time. Clavin has an engaging style, and the stories are fascinating, even more so because they’re true. If you have an interest in this period and these men, you’ll enjoy this.


Under the Bright Lights, Daniel Woodrell. The first book of the Bayou Trilogy and more of a straight-up crime story than his later works. All of the elements that made Woodrell Woodrell are here, though in a less fully developed form than you’ll see in Winter’s Bone. Few writers are as evocative and economical at the same time.


Blood Relatives, Ed McBain. An 87th Precinct novel from the 70s. I’ve written so much about McBain it’s hard to find something new, but it’s often overlooked how well he shows the changes in society over time without aging his characters at the sane rate. Steve Carella probably hasn’t aged five years in the twenty years between this book and Cop Hater, yet technology and society are contemporary to the year in which the story takes place and it’s never jarring.


Among the Shadows, Bruce Robert Coffin. First book of the John Byron series. Tightly plotted procedural with lots of inside stuff on investigations and how police departments run them. Or don’t, sometimes. Outstanding characters are well defined and delineated, with a dry wit that suits each cop, which makes sense: Coffin is a retired cop and knows this stuff cold. Lucky us, he has the writing chops to be able to tell the story in such an entertaining and enlightening manner. I’ll be back for the rest of the series.


The Ways of the Dead, Neely Tucker. Book 1 of the Sully Carter series. A journalist himself, Tucker knows his way around a newsroom as well as one would expect. What sets him apart is an ability to tell things straight without grinding any axes. Based on a true story that is at least as engrossing as any fictional account, Tucker adds a few ornaments to make The Ways of the Dead unique. Too often plot twists are too convoluted to withstand scrutiny; the big one left me gobsmacked until I thought back and saw how everything made sense. The next book in the series is already queued up to be read.


Every City is Every Other City, John McFetridge. His first book in quite a while, and worth the wait. Low-key humor, engaging characters, and two radically different parallel plot lines all fit together. Gordon Stewart is a film location scout/manager and part time private eye who starts out doing a favor for a friend, finds a body, and gets involved in a case way bigger than he can handle. If you’re looking for a book where you can reasonably think “This could happen” on just about every page, with plenty of opportunities for “I’m glad it’s not happening to me,” then this is the book for you.


Swag, Elmore Leonard. Not his best—he spends too much time having drinks with the “career ladies”—but the opening, closing, and writing are first-rate Leonard, which means at least as good as anyone else, ever.


Blood’s a Rover, James Ellroy. This completes my sequential re-read of the Underworld USA trilogy. There isn’t much more I can write about Ellroy and his work than I have already. Suffice to say he is the most unique writer I have encountered, and I gain something every time I read him. Next year I’ll begin his current series with Perfidia. There’s no rule that says I can only read Ellroy once a year; I do have one that says I must read him every year.


Trouble is My Business, Raymond Chandler. Four of Chandler’s best “long stories” (as he referred to them): “Trouble is My Business,” “Finger Man,” “Goldfish,” and “Red Wind.” I’ve soured on Chandler over the past few years. He spends a little too much time on description in his novels, sometimes reaches too hard in his efforts to be clever, and I’ve read each novel so often I know what’s coming. (It didn’t help that I read his letters a while back and learned what an asshole he was.) I almost skipped him when his turn came up in the rotation, but I reached back for these stories and was glad I did. The shorter format keeps him from rambling, and these are all pretty close to perfect.