Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The First Novel Experience, re-visited



This bit appeared originally at Ed Gorman's blog, a few years ago, in a slightly different form. It seemed like time to re-visit it.


Sometime back, I wrote this book, the one that’s now called The Bastard Hand. I wrote it without any thought about a market or an audience or a future. It was just something that kept eating away at me, wouldn’t get off my back until it was done. It took a long time. I mean, a real long time. But one day I was shocked to discover that I’d actually finished the damn thing. I’d finished it, and I had no idea what to do with it.

If you haven’t read it, I’ll tell you this much: The Bastard Hand is a violent, profane, black comedy-noir-southern gothic. There are no good guys in it, and no bad guys either, not really. There’s just some messed-up people, doing messed-up things. All my personal obsessions got poured into it along the way, and it wound up being a bizarre hodge-podge of genres and influences.

But you know what? I thought it was a pretty good book. I still think so.

For a while, though, it seemed as if I was the only one who felt that way. After the usual editing and polishing up, I did my research and started sending that sucker out to literary agents, one or two at a time. I’d send it off, and sit back to wait for the fame and fortune due me as the creator of this weird literary mess.

I didn’t wait long. The rejections flooded in like a tsunami. There were a lot of the usual “not right for us” sort of things, but also the occasional “no clear market” or “difficult to categorize”. I even got a few “too offensive” and “too depressing” comments.

After about a year of this, I gave up. Just shelved it. This book I’d poured every bit of myself into seemed destined to die alone on some street corner, bumming change from every passing James Patterson or Michael Connelly. But so what? It happens every day, doesn’t it? Some wanna-be strips himself bare on the page, bleeding out his guts, only to be ignored. Sad, but true. I resolved to start working on something new and forget all about The Bastard Hand.

Some time later, I started my blog, Psycho-Noir, more or less just to spout off about books, movies, etc. Maybe even to promote myself a little. On a whim, I posted the first chapter of The Bastard Hand there, along with some short stories and essays I’d written.

And one day… one fine day… I get this e-mail from a guy calling himself Bassoff. Jon Bassoff, from New Pulp Press. Said he liked that first chapter, wanted to know if I’d be interested in showing him the rest. I checked his bone fides and found he’d published 10 or 12 very highly regarded books—and had even done a reprint of an old Gil Brewer!

I sent The Bastard Hand off to him, not expecting anything, to be honest. He’d read it, and write back saying, “Ah, sorry, my mistake. Not quite right for NPP” or, even worse, he’d just “lose” my e-mail.

But that’s not what happened. He loved it.

Weird, huh?

So flash-forward a little over a year, and The Bastard Hand comes out and holy shit, everyone seems to like it a lot. Not just readers of nasty crime fiction, but some of my own literary heroes—Allan Guthrie, Megan Abbott, Dave Zeltserman, Vincent Zandri…

Reviews at genre websites are uniformly positive. People are saying REALLY NICE THINGS.

And I take it all very personally, you know? Because this book was very personal to me, just like most first novels, I’ve been told.

As a bonus, I made some great new friends, people who share a common interest in this thing we call noir. They enriched my life, above and beyond the success of the novel. And many of them went to great lengths to promote my work, and to help me ease my way through the professional stuff (of which I was absolutely clueless).

I've written a number of things since then. But that moment, that weird, invigorating time in my life in which my first novel came out and struck a chord with readers and writers alike, is something I know I'll never get to experience again. It was remarkable, and yes, life-changing.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Horror of the Eye, Redux


Some of you already know this story. 

When I was about three years old, I had an accident that destroyed the vision in my right eye. I don’t really remember any of it, but from what I’ve been able to figure out from my mom and other sources, I’d found a broken Coke bottle in the front yard (we lived off a dirt road where teenagers would often speed by and toss things out their windows) and decided for some reason that playing with a broken bottle was JUST the thing to do. The teen-age girl who was baby-sitting me at the time freaked out when she saw what I had. She moved to knock the bottle out of my hand, and wound up hitting it directly into my face.

The result was a cut iris and a severed muscle on the left side of the eye. I was rushed to the hospital, where, because my mom was poor and didn’t have insurance, I was left waiting in the emergency room for over an hour—in shock.

They didn’t bother to try to fix the damage. For a few months after that, I wore an eye-patch, and oddly enough, had to learn how to walk all over again. My balance was shot, so it was a challenge. I remember, vaguely, walking down the hall and veering off, running into the wall. I also remember laughing about it, until looking up to see my mom in tears. Weird memory.

Since then, I’ve had some small amount of peripheral vision in that eye, but just barely. Cover up my left eye and I can’t see shit, really. And since the muscle was severed, the right eye drifted to the right.

Believe it or not, this messed-up eye never had much effect on my life. When I was a kid, the drifting effect was hardly noticeable. As a teen, when it started drifting more, it still wasn’t too bad—this was the post-punk ‘80’s, remember, and wonky eyes (a la David Bowie) could actually work in your favor when it came to girls (which was more or less my sole concern in those days). 

In the last ten years or so, though, the drifting had grown continuously worse, to the point where I got occasional head-aches from it, and it was more immediately apparent to people I met. I’d gotten a bit self-conscious about it, for the first time in my life. Whenever I saw photos of myself, I was always startled and a bit mortified. The eye sorta made me look like a sleazy psychopath. And I am NOT sleazy.

…which is my long-winded way of explaining why I had the surgery to repair it almost exactly a year ago now. The vision in my right eye is beyond repair, and the cut iris also, but they were able to pull the eye back into place and center it, and you know what? It's made a huge difference this past year. It's uncanny how much things change when you can actually look people in the eye without being self-conscious.

I still look like a sleazy psychopath, but at least I'll look you straight in the eyes while creeping you out.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Mean Review of the First 3 1/2 Books in Stephen King's Dark Tower Series



     I waited a long time before sitting down to tackle Stephen King’s epic series, The Dark Tower. Mostly because I knew it would be daunting. Most of King’s longer work is. I’m a big fan of his short stories—in fact, I would say he’s among the finest practitioners of short stories alive today. His collections EVERYTHING’S EVENTUAL and FULL DARK, NO STARS are brilliant examples of emotional, intelligent and insightful story-telling.
     I mention that just so you know I’m not a “King Hater”. Hell, even many of his novels still work for me, like THE SHINING, THE TALISMAN (possibly my favorite), SALEM’S LOT, and even ODD THOMAS (hello, MaxBooth, you sly dog!).
     Anyway, with that established, you’ve probably guessed from the title of this post that I kinda-sorta HATED THE FUCK out of The Dark Tower.
     Oh, it didn’t start with full-on hate. In fact, I sort of liked it at first. It was a gradual thing, the build up to loathing.
     The first book in the series, THE GUNSLINGER, was actually pretty enjoyable. It was relatively short for a King novel (which means it was normal book size for the rest of us). And the premise was simple: Roland, the Gunslinger, chases the Man in Black across the Wasteland, for what reason we know not at that point. Along the way, he encounters Jake, a boy ripped from our world and stranded in Roland’s, and, in one of the highlights, the two of them journey through a creepy underground passage, fight some horrid monsters called Slow Mutants, and Roland makes a chilling sacrifice.
     I liked it, and began the second book immediately.

     THE DRAWING OF THE THREE was longer and the story considerably more complex, but at that point I was still in King’s corner. I enjoyed the directness of Roland’s mission, crossing over into our world in different eras to seek out, rescue, and utilize the individuals he would need to complete his quest. And there were some genuinely great bits—the thing I remember most about it now was Roland’s rescue of Eddie Dean, a heroin addict and drug mule who would be essential to Roland. King leeched every bit of suspense out of that scene as was humanly possible, and when I honestly thought he couldn’t stretch it any further without snapping, he pulled it off.
     But the first signs of eventual rot began showing around the same time. Eddie Dean was… well, he was one of the most irritating characters I’ve ever read about in my life. I hated him so very much, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what King intended. I think he meant Eddie to be jokey and flip and always ready with a wisecrack to lighten the mood, but he comes off instead as immature, inappropriate, and obnoxious. If I was Roland, and the success of my journey depended on Eddie Dean, I would just kill the fucker and say forget the whole deal.
     The other central character, Odetta/Detta, was almost as annoying.
     In the third book, THE WASTELANDS, Eddie just gets more and more obnoxious, and the story starts to feel more and more bogged down in extemporaneous drivel. World-building, I suppose they call it, and perhaps someone more versed than me can find something to enjoy in all that Tolkien bullshit, but gah… I really, really wanted King to just get on with it. The uneasiness, the feeling that the honeymoon was going to end that I’d started to feel toward the end of the second book, really hit home with the third one. Long bits of it were just no fun anymore. And Eddie, Eddie, Eddie… why wouldn’t he ever shut the fuck up.
     And remember the sacrifice Roland made in the first book? Well, no problem, because in THE WASTELANDS he gets to sorta UNDO it and everything is groovy with Jake again. So that emotional high point in the series is rendered null and void. No worries (although, to be fair, it is hinted that Roland may yet again make the same sacrifice farther down the road if need be. Maybe he does, I wouldn’t know and don’t care now).
     So I finished THE WASTELANDS feeling a bit annoyed and not really keen on the idea of starting the fourth one, WIZARD AND GLASS. But at that point I still felt like I had the strength to carry on and I guess I really wanted to say I’d read THE DARK TOWER series.
     WIZARD AND GLASS starts with our heroes captives of a crazy train who hates them. The train is called Blaine. Blaine the Train.Yep. And Eddie saves the day by being fucking obnoxious Eddie and telling stupid fucking jokes. Blaine the Train pulls a Star Trek and short-circuits, because Eddie is JUST THAT ANNOYING.

     All that took, like, a thousand pages.
     After that, Roland sits them all down and starts telling them a long, boring story about how he fell in love with Susan Delgado and how he got his guns and his mother and father and blah blah blah, and if I had thought the sequence on Blaine the Train had taken WAY too long, this “story-within-a-story” just pushed me right over the edge.
     I literally threw the book across the room and gave up.
     I packed up the remaining books in the series, as well as the ones I’d already read and threw those fuckers in the trash. I waited for the garbage man to make sure he took them far, far away. I suppose I could have just given them to the library, but ONE, I’m sure they already had more copies of it than they knew what to do with, and TWO, why would I do that to my fellow human beings?
     I know a LOT of people who really love THE DARK TOWER, people with taste I admire in most things. My apologies to you lovely people, but I think you might be defective in this one area.
     And for anyone who wants to scold me for being mean to Stephen King, let me remind you again that I’m generally a fan. And honestly, I think he will be just fine, don’t you?

     I guess that’s all I have to say about that. In conclusion, fuck THE DARK TOWER and the Blaine the Train it rode in on.

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Don't you know smoking is bad for you?"

Ed parked the car in the middle of the parking lot and he and Betty walked hand in hand toward the store. They passed a man leaning against a car, smoking a cigarette.
"Disgusting," Ed said, waving a hand at the thin billowing cloud of smoke. "What a vile habit."
The man flicked his cigarette away and grabbed Ed by the lapels. “My smoke bothering you, buddy?” he snarled.
"I…I…" Ed said, as frightened Betty looked on.
"I’m outside, away from everyone, just trying to enjoy a quiet smoke," the man said. "And I still have to listen to whiny, judgmental little fuckers like you." He cuffed Ed on the jaw and shook him back and forth.
"But… but… second-hand smoke."
The man pulled Ed’s face close to his and said, “Oh, are you afraid you won’t live long enough to enjoy another double bacon cheeseburger?” He poked viciously at Ed’s flabby mid section.
"Smoking is bad for you!" Ed revealed.
"You know what’s also bad for you?" the man said. "Not minding your own damn business and bothering other people. You know what? You’re going to have a cigarette now, you bitchy little fuck."
"What?"
The man let Ed go long enough to pull a pack of smokes out of his pocket. He jammed one in Ed’s mouth.
"You’re going to smoke it," he said.
"But I don’t—-"
The man pulled a revolver out of his other pocket and pointed it at Betty.
"Smoke it or your wife dies!"
Ed had no choice but to accept the man’s light and smoke. Sobbing and coughing, he finished the cigarette in four long drags.
Then his lips fell off and he immediately died from cancer.
The smoker lived another four years. He died after being hit by a bus.
Betty died eight years after that, of chronic alcoholism.
The End.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Questions at Curiouser and Curiouser

Amanda Gowin, author of the story collection RADIUM GIRLS, asks me some weird questions over at Curiouser and Curiouser today.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Four more Westerns from Elmore Leonard


Not long ago, I shared my thoughts here on four Western novels from Elmore Leonard, and promised to do the same with the remaining four once I finished up with them. Well, here they are, then:


LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER

Paul Cable, having fought on the Confederate side during the war, has returned with his family to his homestead on the Saber River, only to find that his land has been taken by the Kidstons', two wealthy brothers loyal to the Union. Cable thought he'd left the fighting behind him, but it seems he's now in the for fight of his life, not just for his home, but for the lives of his family as well. He has a possible ally in Southern sympathizer and gun-runner Janroe, but Janroe, who would like to see the Kidston's dead, may turn out to be Cable's worst enemy in disguise.

This one is very strongly about the concept of honor and family; Cable is reluctant to kill, even though Janroe makes an argument that it's STILL a war that's being waged, only without uniforms. LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER has a somewhat relaxed pace for the first 3/4s, even though there are some startling moments of action and violence. It really gets moving, though, in the last fourth, when revelations come to light and loyalties shift.

There are three female characters-- Cable's wife Martha, Luz, the girl who works at the store Janroe has taken over, and Duane Kidston's bored daughter Lorraine-- but all of them are remarkably well-drawn and believable for a Western written in the 1950's. Especially Martha. That was pretty refreshing. Yes, a rescue of Martha and the children takes place at the climax, but Martha has a hand in rescuing herself as significant as her husband. 

Not my favorite Leonard Western, but very solid nonetheless.

THE BOUNTY HUNTERS


Seasoned scout Dave Flynn is partnered with the young, inexperienced Lt. Bowers on a covert mission across the border to hunt down Apache bandit Soldado. But once in Mexico, the pair find themselves in the middle of an unfolding crisis-- corrupt rurales, under the command of Duro, have subjagated a small village where Flynn has old friends, and Duro is making money off so-called Apache scalps brought in by a blood-thirsty band of bounty hunters. But the scalps don't necessarily belong to Apaches; in fact, some of the the villagers themselves have fallen prey to the nasty scalp hunters. Flynn and Bowers must set things right before they can carry out their own mission.


This is Elmore Leonard's first novel, but it's not the work of an amateur by any means. Leonard had already honed his chops writing short Western stories, and the careful structure of THE BOUNTY HUNTERS gives testament to that. It's a fine piece of work, although not really replete with a lot of the things we would come to think of later as Leonard hallmarks. The dialogue doesn't snap the way his later work does, but instead performs a function at all times. The influence of Hemingway is very obvious. 

Like many of his other early Westerns, the last chapter is really thrilling and action-packed, with our heroes seemingly against the wall and in dire trouble, and the whole thing ends on a very satisfying note.

ESCAPE FROM FIVE SHADOWS


Framed and sentenced to hard labor at the prison at Five Shadows, Corey Bowen isn't about to serve out his time quietly, even though every escape attempt ends in disaster. Until two different women take an interest in freeing him-- one, a woman longing for escape herself, and willing to go to any lengths to achieve it; she offers Bowen a way out if he will kill her spineless alcoholic husband in the process. And two, a lovely young girl who believes in Corey's innocence and may have the legal connections to get him out... if he's patient. But Corey is NOT patient, and when an opportunity to bust out presents itself, he sees no other option but to take it.


The characters in this one are finely-drawn and compelling, although not quite as meticulous as his later work. Despite that, ESCAPE FROM FIVE SHADOWS is a thrilling, tightly-plotted western with lots of action and unexpected twists. The ending is maybe a bit too convenient, with everything lining up nicely for Bowen in the last couple of chapters, but you know, that's just the kind of novel this is. Not on the same level as say, FORTY LASHES LESS ONE or GUNSIGHTS, but still a very enjoyable read.

HOMBRE


HOMBRE was a huge leap forward for Elmore Leonard, in my opinion. His first four novels were all solid, well-written Westerns, but with very little that made them stand out from the hundreds of other Westerns at the time. I'm a fan of those early ones for their remarkable compactness and directness of style, but HOMBRE is the first one that feels really different, not just in its themes but in the way Leonard approaches the characters.


It's unique also in that it's the first (and only) one written in first person. Later, Leonard would vow never to write in first person again, but it works really well in this one. It's narrated by a former stage coach company clerk, riding along on an emergency journey with a disparate group of people-- his former boss Mendez, a fiery tempered young woman who has just been rescued from captivity by Apaches, a shady Indian Affairs agent named Favor and Favor's wife, an even shadier gunman with dubious intentions named Braden, and the "Hombre" of the title: the taciturn John Russell. 

Russell is a source of anxiety for the passengers, being a white man who was raised Apache but is now about to give a shot at living in the white man's world. He is barely tolerated by the bigoted Mr. and Mrs. Favor, until the gunman Braden reveals his true intentions; he is part of a gang lying in wait to steal the money Favor had embezzled from his post as an Indian Affairs agent. With their lives on the line, Russell must lead the group to safety across the hostile landscape of Arizona, with the outlaws in close pursuit.

There's some very good action in HOMBRE, but more than anything else this novel is a character study. Of all the central characters, but most especially of John Russell. He is an enigma to the others, a silent and stoic presence who refuses to submit to the opinions of the others or to placate them with false pretensions. They hate him, they fear him, but they NEED him. And by the end of HOMBRE, they finally learn what kind of man he actually is. And it's something none of them could ever even aspire to.

Mark this as one of my favorites of Elmore Leonard's Westerns. Looking at his bibliography, it seems he took a break from writing fiction for several years after this, some eight years, and when he did return to fiction he concentrated mostly on modern day crime thrillers. But between 1970 and '79, he wrote three more Westerns, all far superior to his earlier work in the genre. That great streak started with HOMBRE.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Why I Don't Care.


When it comes to promotion and all the ins-and-outs of publishing, I have a confession to make. I have no idea what I'm doing.

Every once in a while, I'll make an effort to get myself acclimated to the bigger picture, I'll try to pay attention to the latest news in the world of publishing-- i.e. that Amazon-Hatchett thing that was all over social media a few months ago-- but within minutes I'm monstrously bored. Even worse, I still haven't formed an opinion. I'm supposed to have an opinion, right? Damn me, I can't seem to care enough to get one together.

But, more relevant to what I want to talk about, my skills at promotion are minimal.

Okay, that's not the whole truth. The whole truth is, I'm not terribly interested in promotion anymore.

I think there's a mid-line involved in being a writer who is effective at promotion, a sort of point where the needle starts clicking over to the far end and people notice. Anything below that point, you can be rumbling and making your low-level noise, but unless you top it into the red and start beeping obnoxiously, you're just background ambiance.

I don't want to start beeping. I don't like it much when other writers do that (hello, Twitter, you fucking obnoxious whore!). I'd really rather just write, okay?

Here's what I've noticed: when I have a new work I want to make people aware of, I DO announce it, here at the blog and on social media, mostly Facebook, and initial sales will be fairly decent, usually. Not staggering or anything, but enough to make me happy. But if I decide to promote something that's been around for a while and has begun to flat-line a little, the result is usually... well, not much.

And yet... on a regular basis, older works will suddenly and inexplicably spike a little, without any reason that I'm aware of. It has nothing to do with me. I put it down to readers maybe spreading the word a bit, or someone just sorta stumbling across me on Amazon, or someone who maybe read one thing of mine and liked it enough to invest in some of my other stuff.

I'm just guessing. I don't really know. And that's my point. When you work exclusively in the small presses, there often doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to sales patterns. They go up, they go down, they go up again.

I suspect, too, that this ties in a bit to my newly-discovered lack of interest in bad reviews. We've all seen the news lately about a rash of "writers behaving badly", obsessing over bloggers and reviewers who have rightly or wrongly trashed their work, engaging in on-line flame wars, and one even going so far as to stalk his (her?) reviewer. I can't even get my head around that. When my very first bad reviews started coming in (for THE BASTARD HAND; there was a free promotion at one point that put the novel into the hands of thousands of people, some of whom had no business reading a book like that), I was bummed. But I guess you could say I had an epiphany about it not long ago, and that epiphany was that not everyone is going to like what I do, and what's more, it would SUCK if everyone loved me. That would mean I'm doing something really wrong and I'm not pushing myself into unexplored territory the way I want to.

So when I say I don't care about bad reviews or readers who hate what I do, I hope you understand that I'm completely serious. I honestly don't give a fuck.

I DO like your good reviews, though. You have good taste.

I got some great advice a long time ago from a writer I admire greatly, Vincent Zandri. Bear in mind, Vin and I have completely different situations-- he has some pretty strong promotional resources behind him, having a nice deal with Amazon-- but what he told me is still true: Keep putting quality work out there. Develop a catalog of solid books and stories, be dependably good. An audience will find you, eventually.

James Reasoner told me the same thing (I'm a name-dropping sonofabitch today, aren't I?) and he should know. James has written over 300 books. He writes for a living. And you almost NEVER see him promoting his work on social media. He's too busy doing the work.

It took me a little while to really understand what Vin and James were telling me. But I get it now. They are absolutely right.

You're not going to see me going all out on some promotional blitz, unless I have something brand new I want to bring to your attention, or some freebie or something like that. Anything beyond an initial heads-up, I've found, is an enormous waste of time. And non-stop self-promotion, the kind you find on Twitter, is just obnoxious as hell. I'm not saying it doesn't work, maybe it does, I don't know, but it seems like too big a price to pay.

I think I'll just keep writing.

P.S.- That cat picture up there? It seemed relevant at the time. It isn't, really. But people like funny pictures of cats. Sorry 'bout that.