Thursday, July 24, 2008

The kind of books I like

Click here to read my reviews of Sleeping Dogs by Ed Gorman, Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald Westlake, Dirty Money by Richard Stark (Westlake) and Zero Cool by John Lange (Michael Crichton).

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lessons learned from trenches: Part 11

Writing Again

In 2002 I also started writing again, and the first thing I worked on after this 5-year break was a short crime story, More Than a Scam. This could be the first and only Nigerian-email scam story, and the way it came about was after getting yet another scam email, I posted on a yahoo hardboiled writers group that it would be an interesting topic for people in the group to write stories about. No one took me up on that, so I decided to do it. At first I was planning to do the same as my fictional writer in the story---trade emails with these scam artist and write up the exchange as a story. Instead, I went a different direction and wrote a noirish crime story with my protagonist having his own ulterior motives for participating in this scam. I knew it was a good story when I was done, and it ended up making honorable mention in the 2003 Best American Mystery Stories anthology, with Otto Penzler mentioning to my agent at the time that he was disappointed the story wasn’t selected by his editor for that volume as one of the top 20.

By nature I’m driven to create things. That’s the reason I spent over 20 years as a software developer, why I started Hardluck Stories, and why I write. Back in 2002 one of the things I tried creating was a Yahoo group to match short crime fiction to publications. The way this would work is writers would post a one-paragraph description of the story they were trying to sell, as well as a bio, and editors would contact them off-list. I think I called this group the Short Mystery Fiction Warehouse. It seemed like a good idea, but none of the paying magazines participated, only non-paying web-zines. Some stories ended up being placed through this, but it didn’t work out the way I had hoped and after a short time I shut it down. At the time I knew More Than a Scam would have a good shot with both AHMM and EQMM, two magazines I wanted to break in to, but I wanted to support this fiction warehouse concept so I made the story available through it, and a web-zine Mysterical-E ended up asking for it. The people I dealt with at Mysterical-E were professional and treated my story well, but it was a mistake not trying for the higher markets first. These days if a web-zine or low-paying market that I respect asks me for a story, I’ll provide one to help support them, but whenever you have a story that’s a good fit for a top market, always submit to them first. Always.

With the reaction More Than a Scam was receiving I thought I hit upon a formula for success—choose a topical theme. Well, maybe for short stories, but it doesn’t quite work out well for novels, as I’ll be discussing in a future lessons from the trenches.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

taking this week off

I sent off my third book (Killer) to Serpent's Tail yesterday, and am celebrating by taking off today to get a Maine lobster roll up in Kennebunkport, among other things. Lessons learned in the trenches will be back next week. In the meantime, feel free to leave any questions that I can answer about running a web-zine, breaking into publishing with dark crime fiction, or anything else writing-related, and I'll see what I can come up with.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

11,000 gallons of gasoline on fire

This happened a few miles from my home last Saturday.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 10


In the early 90s I was working for Digital Equipment Corporation (once over 130,000 employees, now no longer exists), and during a trip to Palo Alto a friend of mine working for their Western Research Lab showed me a demo of an early Internet browser (xmosaic) when at that point the Wide World Web consisted of six demo web sites. I’d like to say that I thought of then someday starting a crime fiction web-site, but my thoughts were more business oriented—I considered at that time buying a Cisco router, a workstation, and starting what would’ve been one of the first ISPs and dedicating it to field service personnel, something that would allow them to access technical manuals anywhere they had access to the Internet. If I had done that I’d be very wealthy right now, but I chickened out. But a few years later as the web became more popular I started thinking of building a crime fiction web-site, and in 2002 I started Hardluck Stories. The name originated from my novel, Fast Lane, where early on I have a street pimp named Rude complaining to celebrity detective, Johnny Lane, about his newspaper column which details his PI exploits:

“Maybe I should talk to your editor. If he’s going to publish crap like ‘Fast Lane’, maybe he’d be interested in something good. Something real. The Rude Streets, stories of the Hardluck.”

Originally Hardluck was a site to promote hardboiled and noir books. Each book on the site had links to an author-written essay about the book—why the writer wrote it, what inspired it, etc., and a short story by the author. This concept would allow readers to discover new writers by reading these essays and short stories. I had a dozen or so authors participating in this, but it didn’t take off the way I had hoped, and eventually the site mutated to a quarterly hardboiled/noir fiction web-zine whose six-year run has just ended. My reasons for starting Hardluck were varied—it was partly to help me promote my self-published book, partly to give myself a creative outlet since I wasn’t having much luck at that time finding a publisher for my books, and partly to help out newer writers like myself. What differentiated Hardluck from the other web-zines and publications, at least at that time, was that I was going to be using a different guest editor for each issue. I had several reasons I wanted to do this: 1) so that the web-zine wouldn’t become cliquish, which I was noticing with some of the crime fiction web-zines back then—I wanted to make sure mine would be fair and not just me publishing friends 2) I wanted to keep the web-zine fresh and introduce ideas that I might not have thought of myself 3) I had gotten to know Vicki Hendricks through her guest-editing an issue of PlotsWithGuns and picking one of my stories, and I wanted to create the same type of situation for other guest editors and newer writers. I think it was due to this constant injection of new ideas from my guest editors and fairness in selecting submissions that caused Hardluck to increasingly get better submissions, to where in my opinion Hardluck was consistently putting out one of the highest quality short crime collections I’ve seen either on the web or in print.

In some ways starting Hardluck contributed to my first book escaping the stench of self-publishing and ending up with Point Blank Press. In a lot of ways this is one of those space-time continuum thingies that they’d have on Star Trek and other sci-fi shows. While I was doing this I got to know another frustrated noir writer—Allan Guthrie, and I ended up publishing his first short story, as well as the two of us showing each other our unsold novels and other works and trading ideas about them. That first publication of Al’s story triggered others, and the next thing I knew he was starting up what became Point Blank Press with JT Lindroos, and the first book Al commissioned was In His Shadow, which wisely had it’s name changed to Fast Lane. So I published Al’s first story and he published my first book—while I had sold the Italian rights to In His Shadow first to Meridiano Zero, Point Blank beat them to the punch by publishing their version several months before the Italian version was out.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 9


In 2001 the computer networking startup I was working at was bought by Lucent Corporation, and it looked like I was going to make a lot of money. It didn’t happen—by the time we could sell our options Lucent stock had tanked and I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to buy call options to lock in my gains, but the experience did make me think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and it came back to writing. I had two books, In His Shadow (Fast Lane) and Bad Thoughts stored away, both of which I thought could be published. Around this time iUniverse and MWA had set up an arrangement where MWA members could have there books self-published free with iUniverse under their Mystery and Suspense Press imprint. I had convinced myself that the publishing world was a private club closed to me, that it was pointless sending my books out again, but if I sacrificed one of my books to self-publishing, I’d be able to get enough positive blurbs and comments on it that I would be able to find interest for my other book. This was wrong thinking on my part—once again the publishing world had changed from ’97 to ’01. There were more legitimate small presses I could’ve considered, plus some excellent UK houses like Serpent’s Tail and No Exit Press which I had never tried, as well as some of the NY houses being more open to darker material than they were a few years earlier. I decided that of my two books, Bad Thoughts was the better of the two, so I joined MWA as a full member since I was eligible from my New Mystery and Hardboiled sales, and I had In His Shadow self-published with iUniverse under the MWA program. I had no expectation of sales—my sole reason was to use the book as a kind of resume to get Bad Thoughts sold, and while some good things came out of it, it was a mistake. I don’t want this to become a debate over self-publishing, I know with some people it’s pretty much like debating religion. I’m simply going to state my observations after having gone through it, as well as my sentiment that no serious writer should ever take this step, but beyond that I’m not going to enter into any debate over self-publishing. Here are a few general observations before going into more specifics:

Most bookstores obviously won’t sell these books except possibly under consignment basis. The reason for this—outside of the general opinion that most self-published books are crap—because of the no return policy PODs typically have, as well as the low discounting.

Major newspapers will not review self-published books. All you do is open yourself up to frustration trying—I had a reviewer at the Rocky Mountain News who liked In His Shadow and submitted a good review for it, only to have her editor pull it because of their policies on self-published books. The reason major papers won’t review self-published books, outside of the general opinion that they’re all crap—they’re not going to be in bookstores, so why review them?

Most legitimately published writers look at self-published books as crap, as well as most of the industry, and you’re going to be looked at as a joke or pathetic going this route.

A first-time writer only has a chance to be a first-time writer once. The industry treats first-time writers specially—both with reviews, awards and attention, and I can’t think of a bigger waste for a writer than to throw away this opportunity by self-publishing.

I self-published In His Shadow in ’02, and have no complaints with iUniverse—they did everything that they were supposed to, in fact, they even did a little more by getting the book reviewed by Publishers Weekly. Again, I never looked at this book as published, just as a 263-page resume, and I started sending out letters to see if I could get some people to take a look at it, and found a few very generous people in the industry who were willing to—Gary Lovisi, who published my second story, Next Time, in Hardboiled, Bill Crider, who I appeared with in New Mystery #2, and Vicki Hendricks, who selected a noir story of mine when she guest-edited an issue of PlotsWitGuns. All three of them ended up liking the book and writing me very generous blurbs. With those blurbs in hand, I bought a small ad in Mystery Scene, which ended up getting Jeff Gelb contacting me, asking if I could send him a copy, which got me an invite to his Hot Blood 12 anthology, and my first anthology sale. Jeff also ended up recommending the book to Joe Hartlaub at, where I ended up with a very nice review. I actually ended up with a lot of good reviews on the web and in a couple of small newspapers—as well as a mixed review from PW. All this led to my book being discussed on the Rara Avis hardboiled/noir fiction discussion list, which led to Luca Conti, who was translating for the Italian publishing house, Meridiano Zero, buying a copy, recommending it to his publisher, and me selling the rights to them. So there you have it, that’s how I ended up selling to the Italian rights of my first book before ever selling the English.

This led to more stuff which I’ll talk about in future lessons learned, but it was still a mistake self-publishing, and I would’ve been much better served either finding a small press for In His Shadow or writing more books until I could break into a NY house. In my general observations above, I used the word crap a lot—that is not necessarily my view on self-published books—I’ve been there, I under the frustration and temptation to do it, but you’re kidding yourself if you think that’s not the way most people (authors, editors, reviewers, bookstores) view self-published books. Shortly after I started getting blurbs and reviews for In His Shadow I had someone from iUniverse call me about a program he was trying to start up to get the worthwhile books they print (can’t call it publishing!) into chain bookstores, as well as more attention. He was calling me to let me know that he was trying to get In His Shadow in this new program, and that I should be patient and not try to find a legitimate publisher for it. During our phone call, he mentioned out of the 1000s of books that they print, maybe 100 of them deserved to be published. This alone should tell you how small the odds are on having any self-published book looked at seriously.

With the small buzz I was getting for In His Shadows--over a dozen positive reviews, print ads, blurbs, discussions on Rara Avis, PW Weekly review, how many copies of In His Shadow did I end up selling? Maybe 200. And the book still haunts me like a bad case of herpes--after canceling the contract once I sold it to Point Blank Press in 2003 (published under the new name, Fast Lane), the book still shows up on