A Writer’s Journey: In the Beginning

Monkey typingLast week, I announced I was retiring from crime fiction. I wish that was after a ton of sales, movie deals, and a series based on my work. I’d love to retire for real in my forties, though something tells me I’d just go find something else to do.

But retire from the genre I am, and I thought I’d go back to when I started this journey way back in 1999. New Year’s Eve, specifically.

Author Jennette Marie Powell, back when she was “that girl who introduced me to my (now-ex) wife,” announced she had written her first novel and signed with one of the first ebook publishers. “So when do you finish yours?”

Um…

I’d written a lot in the 1990s, but I was stealing Gene Roddenberry’s characters and situations. Call it fanfic. Call it plagiarism. Call it slacking off (which is probably the most appropriate description), it was wasting my talents. At the time, I had some scraps of notes and some scenes written for a Cleveland-based private detective named Nick Kepler. In the mid-1990s, I’d discovered Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series and found an arrangement for Kinsey Millhonne in her early adventures that would work well for Kepler as well. Nick would not lease an office. He would do claims investigations for his former employer in exchange for help from a secretary and free office space. And then one afternoon, as a contractor did work on the balconies of the apartment complex where I lived back then, Eddie Murphy popped up on Comedy Central doing his “Kill my landlord, kill my landlord” bit. And I thought, “How do you do that and get away with it? At least long enough for a private detective to figure it out before the cops?” So a story started to form. In fact, somewhere downstairs is a 14-page outline of the original story to Northcoast Shakedown.

But I had one problem. I didn’t know the character. Who was he? And what tropes did I want to avoid? Well, for starters, every writer and his first cousin were doing the psycho sidekick bit made famous in the Spenser novels. It worked for me in Spenser, even when Spenser did not, because it was Hawk. And Hawk was his own character, not an archetype. At least not in the beginning. But I didn’t think it’d be very original if I recycled what was now a cliche one more time.

I had a couple of ideas for shorts, both coming from real life incidents. In one, a deputy sheriff who worked out at the same gym as me at the time came in angry about an altercation he had with a motorist. The deputy was white (and generally a quiet guy). The motorist had been black. Race had, as it so often does, entered into it, and my fellow gym rat dropped an ‘N’ bomb while we sat at the smoothie bar. That pissed me off, but it was the genesis of “Race Card” and the character of Wolf (who might have made a decent psycho sidekick.)

The second involved reconnecting with a high school friend who was making a run at a recording career. My friend had married an abusive man while in the service and ditched him one night after one too many beatings. It was either that or kill him. My friend married her high school sweetheart (another old friend) and had a nice life at the time. But what if she’d killed him? And the childhood friend wasn’t some computer nerd now living in Cincinnati but a freelance insurance investigator?  Thus “A Walk in the Rain” was born. That one took one rainy evening in April of 2001. It landed in the second or third Plots With Guns, back when Neil Smith and Victor Gischler were still geeky grad students with delusions of noir godhood on their minds. (Neil’s always been a sound friend and a good writer. Vic has emerged as an off-beat fantasy/scifi writer and respected comic book writer.)

So I was ready to become a bestselling author. Right?

Well, that’s what I thought. And that led to one of many decisions I probably should not have made, but I’ll tell you about that at the end of the farewell tour this summer.

Holland Bay: Changes To Plans And More

I’ve talked here a lot about Holland Bay, at various times calling it the Magnum Opus. What I did not talk about was the end game. I started Holland Bay at a time when I had dismissed my previous agent. It actually began when a friend took ill and was in the hospital. I started feeding him random scenes that coalesced around pieces of three other projects I’ve since abandoned. Over time, two things happened:

I no longer wanted to write crime fiction, and I felt compelled – my wife says I was obsessive about it – to finish Holland Bay. In the meantime, I began indulging my original love of science fiction. When a friend said he could get me in with an agent, I had an endgame. If this agent took the book, my crime fiction career would carry on, and the experiment would be a success. If she took a pass, I would just go indie with Holland Bay, call it a career, and carry on with science fiction.

She took a pass, and you will be getting Holland Bay sooner rather than later. End of May if all goes well. Then I will be retiring from crime fiction.

A couple of people were upset when I told them of my decision. I didn’t give the book enough time, or I’m not doing enough around social media. My decision wasn’t about the book, it was about the time I put into a genre that hasn’t paid off for me despite all the friends I made during that time. And as for social media, Jim Winter’s been around for 15 years and not paid his rent on my hard drive and my file cabinet. I just don’t have the energy to reinvent something that hasn’t garnered that much interest.

So I’m going out on top. I’ll be talking here about Holland Bay over the next few months. We’ll have some fun with it. There is a verrrrry slim chance that, if it does well enough, I’ll carry on. But the more likely scenario is that I’ll start shuttering the brand after the end of summer. By then, I’ll be telling you about my efforts around science fiction and where to find me after that.

So instead of the “I quit!” tantrum I threw back in 2010 (and since deleted), let’s consider this my farewell tour. Notice how Kiss’s farewell tour has lasted ten years? Then again, they play arenas. This is more like playing the coffee bar or Panera Bread at lunchtime. But like that Kiss tour, it could last ten weeks or ten years.

Growing Up Cleveland, Living In Cincinnati

640px-Cleveland_Skyline_Aug_2006I was born in a small farming town about 35 miles south of Cleveland. All our TV and radio came out of Cleveland. To us, the world was Cleveland. We lived by it. We died by it. Which meant we suffered through the second longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball history. When I graduated high school, the Cleveland Indians were owned by a dead man and usually mathematically eliminated from the pennant by the end of February. The Cuyahoga River burned when I was 3. (I don’t remember that. I do remember the moon landings that year.) Snow from Thanksgiving to St. Patrick’s Day was a fact of life. In fact, many of us had “winter cars,” an old beater you got for chump change in the fall and kept until the salt and snow melt dissolved it by spring. As I got older and traveled more, I found that Cleveland had a lot more in common with Chicago and New York than it did the rest of Ohio.

Then I moved to Cincinnati back in 1991. It was a strange city to me that got stranger by the day. Here I learned that the West Side was a foreign country. Or maybe everything this side of I-75 was a foreign country. I learned chili was thin, watery, scooped over spaghetti, and piled with mounds of cheddar cheese. I learned that “please?” means “Excuse me?”

I grew up near a city of heavy industry where the unions still hold sway, last names often end in vowels, and ethnic humor is often penned by the groups made fun of in the jokes. I now live in a city once described as being “as far north as you can get and still be south.” Instead of a tumultuous inland sea someone laughingly called “a lake,” Cincinnati sits on the Ohio River, usually placid, occasionally prone to flooding but never fire.

Cleveland goes through pronounced boom and bust cycles. When the steel industry in the US collapsed, it hit the town hard. The auto industry’s fortunes did little to improve their lot. But still, Cleveland often markets itself on comebacks. It felt the Great Recession when many people were still overmortgaging McMansions in other cities. And yet it was also one of the first places to notice the current recovery.

Cincinnati’s pace of progress is maddening. Where Cleveland’s response to news that a stadium and an arena would replace part of a rundown neighborhood near downtown was to push out the pawn shops, gun stores, and check cashing places for bars, nightclubs, and retail, Cincinnati built two stadiums and a museum on the riverfront, then let the so-called Banks sit empty for ten years. The Banks, however, are a thriving place. It just takes time. The place is staid, conservative, and takes things slowly. Mark Twain once said if the world ended, he would just move to Cincinnati since everything happens here ten years later. But because of this, the city tends to weather booms and busts better. It doesn’t become a mecca during periods like the dotcom boom, but it withstood the Great Recession much better than most cities.

I held onto my identity as a Clevelander just into my forties. But I’ve now lived more adult years in Cincinnati than I did in Greater Cleveland. Twenty-four years in one place makes you a part of that place. I even know some of what happened here when I grew up more than those who lived here back then.

cropped-cincinnati-skyline.jpg

Nothing Like Having A Stranger’s Knife At Your Throat

Barber shaving with straight razor

(CC) 2006 Hendrik Dacquin

For women, it’s the mani-pedi or the hairdresser. Both men and women, often together, can enjoy a massage, but that gets expensive. So what’s a dude to do when he wants pampered?

Me? I like to let a complete stranger hold a knife to my throat. No, it’s not kinky. I won’t discuss what kinky stuff I like here (other than to say the safety word is “bananas.”) What I mean is having a straight razor with lots of hot foam on your face. If the barber does it right, they use hot towels before and after. If not…

There’s nothing quite like a straight razor shave. I won’t do it myself for much the same reason I stopped trimming my own facial hair. Add to that the danger I could easily slit my own throat, and you have all the reason in the world to have a professional clean up the man mess on your face.

I used to trim my own beard. I also used to buy the $9 pack of cheap razors to shave every other day. But a funny thing happened. I noticed the Dollar Shave Club was pitching a set of four razors for $6 a month sent directly to your home. The razors weren’t those el cheapo things that come in a bag and have to tossed every time anyone with hair enters the room. I noticed my wife shaves her legs with a sturdier razor and uses a cream not specifically designed for legs or… You know. She said, “Try that on your face” last time I ran out of shaving cream.

I did. It’s the cold version of the stuff they use in barber shops and not all that different from the shave butter Dollar Shave Club pitches. Hmm…  But the razors still sucked, so the next time I went to the store, I bought a set of these Bic triple-blades with the thick handles. My face is always smooth even when I skip a day, and I haven’t bought new blades in about six weeks. Cheaper than Dollar Shave. (Yes, I’m talking about a product I don’t use at all. But it looks like a good deal, and a lot of my friends use them. So they get the props. And buy a Jetta. And a Surface Pro 3. And the new Foo Fighters album.)

So one Saturday afternoon, I thought to myself, “What would a straight razor feel like?”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it feels wonderful. If they don’t use the hot towels, it can be a little unsettling. When they do, it’s magic. And either way, my face feels awesome when I’m done. So I make it a point to go every couple of weeks to get a shave with my beard trim. I go to an old-time barber shop here in town that’s a throwback to the 1950’s almost. You can even get a beer while you wait. This is a place where they watch Fox News, talk guns and ammo (complete with a flyer for a local shooting range in the window), and complain about how spoiled kids are these days. On Facebook, this is every bit as annoying as that tree-hugging liberal you work with who won’t shut up. But, like when you go to the coffee house and meet the hippie types running it, you don’t mind having one of these folks put a sharp instrument near your jugglar. Here, it’s the atmosphere. And like that coffee shop run by the artsy types, it puts you at ease. Everyone is themselves. And if not, they’ve got sports on most of the TV screens.

If I’m lucky, I get Donna to do my shave. Donna doesn’t ask. She just goes right for the hot towels and wraps your face in them. By the time the blade hits your skin, you are so relaxed and you barely feel a thing.

So you ask, what do men do when they don’t really do the spa? They get a knife to their throats. It’s so relaxing.

But I can’t help but remember this video whenever I go…

Winter’s Final Screw You

Dali's Persistence of Memory

Photo by ahisget, used under Creative Commons

No, not Jim Winter’s final screw you. I mean winter, the season. Snow and single-digit temps in March? Are you kidding me?

Then there’s the switch to Daylight Savings. Frankly, I wish they would just leave it on Daylight Savings. It’s not worth the extra hour of sleep in the fall since you lose it in the spring anyway.

Supposedly, there’s a move afoot to divide the continental US into two time zones and do away with the time change. I really wish this would gain some traction. For starters, I loathe Standard Time. By the time I get home from work between Thanksgiving and Groundhog Day, it’s dark. WTF?

I know a lot of people don’t like getting up in the dark. But you’re going to work? Who cares? I’d rather have my long evenings. I just feel more motivated.

And this year, with the polar vortex taking one last swipe at the country before winter gives way to spring, I’m just ready for the dark part of the year to end.

Windows 10: We Wants It

Windows 10 on laptop

Microsoft

Let’s face it. Microsoft consistently manages to mail it in every other version, a tradition dating back to Windows 95/98. Remember Windows ME? You don’t? It causes fits of laughter even within Microsoft. By the people who worked on it.

But then Windows XP, despite its leaky security, was so stable that there are still XP installs out there. (If you have one, you really need to upgrade. It’s a hack waiting to happen now that it’s not patched and updated. And IE6. Ick.)

But then they updated to Windows Vista. Um… What the hell was that? Missing drivers, balky interface… And what were these fences? Did anyone ever figure that out? No! They just upgraded to Windows 7. And Windows 7 was awesome! This blog post was written on a Windows 7 machine. Technically, Windows 7 is actually Windows 6.5. XP was Windows 5. Windows 8 was even officially dubbed Windows 7 during its early development. It’s really Windows NT 7.0 or 7.1 if you have the updated version.

But then Steve Ballmer decided that, because Apple upgrades OS X frequently, Microsoft needed to do the same with Windows. Enter Windows 8, which did away with the Start button as we know it and gave us…

Tiles? Some genius decided that your laptop should look just like your tablet or your phone. Yeah, this from Steve Ballmer, a man who introduced corporate cannibalism as a management technique to Microsoft. Users hated it. I have it on a Surface Pro, and for a touchscreen machine, it’s not bad. But…

I have a laptop and a tower. I use another tower at work. The tiles work great on the Surface and my wife’s phone. On full-blown PCs and servers? Not so much.

Well, Ballmer’s gone. Satya Nadella, a techie like founder Bill Gates, is in charge. And all this nonsense about “one experience across all devices” is gone. Windows 10, available in preview, is almost ready for prime time. The Start button is back. Internet Explorer is about to be replaced. All the under-the-hood goodness that makes Windows 8 run well is in Windows 10 without the ugly interface. (Still, this is technically Windows NT 8. What happened to 9? Microsoft is afraid you’ll confuse it with Windows 95.) And the tiles?

Gone!

They’ll be on the phones, maybe on the Surface (I hope not.), but your PC will remain your PC.

This is something Ballmer should have picked up on. Apple uses iOS for iPads and iPhones. PCs and laptops use OS X. Chromebooks use the ChromeOS. Tablets and phones use Android. Same code base in both cases, different interfaces and functionality. No one wants the iPad interface on a Mac, and no one wants to use Android on a netbook.

Best of all, if you have Windows 7 or Windows 8, Microsoft will let you have Windows 10. Free. They want everyone on one version of Windows. Easier to support. Easier to secure. Easier to upgrade.

About time, Microsoft.