The Love-Hate Relationship With Northcoast Shakedown

NCShakedown-ebook600A lot of authors are embarrassed by their first novels. Others are incredibly proud of them. After all, that’s the book that got them onto store shelves. For me, it’s both. I worked hard on Northcoast Shakedown. I had it beta read at least a dozen times before I sent it out to make rounds. When the eventual publisher took it, I cackled like an idiot when the first copies arrived at my house.

I had made it. I was on my way. That’s what I believed.

And then the publisher failed. I had three novels in the can. I had dropped an agent who very well could have gotten me past this problem. I was screwed.

By 2008, I had written Road Rules and failed to find a home for it. As Nita and I settled into a new life, I found a box of copies sent to me after the publisher went out. Angrily, I dumped them in the trash and let them rot in Cincinnati’s Mt. Rumpke. My wife called me out on that, but the books were gone. I even went as far as to ask people to burn their copies. I don’t know if anyone did. I do know a few unscrupulous booksellers were charging over a hundred dollars for a copy, which leaves me scratching my head. Who would pay more than $20 for a novel by an obscure writer published by a defunct micro-press?

Eventually, I rereleased on Kindle (and in print.) Most people who’ve read it loved it, but I’m still ambivalent. I think it’s because it’s a mix of success and failure in the same book. I got published, but I didn’t publish well.

Nonetheless, I won’t pull it. It is my first work. People did think highly of it. And who knows? Maybe Nick will whisper in my ear again someday.

87th Precinct Meets The Wire

McNulty and Bunk

Source: HBO

When I began writing Holland Bay,I thought about it as 87th Precinct meets The Wire. I had envisioned the detectives of Holland Bay to be like those of the 87th Precinct in that each subsequent book would feature a different detective. When I first described this to another writer at a Bouchercon, he asked me who my Carella was. I said I looked at them all equally. So he said, “Well, there has to be a first among equals.”

But McBain’s detectives, while not exactly perfect, are not also paragons of dysfunction. Carella is tempted by the fruit of a couple of others, but does not stray. Bert Kling has woman troubles. Meyer Meyer must deal with his baldness and his odd name. My detectives are dysfunctional as hell.

But McBain wrote about cops as the everyman. Even the seedier ones like Andy Parker (whom most of us would like to shove under an express train to Calm’s Point) and Fat Ollie Weeks (the 87th’s own bigoted uncle) are humans with flaws and struggles. But McBain also writes about the job of the 87th as a mission. They are the thin blue line in Isola.

87th Precinct

“87th Precinct Complete” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:87th_Precinct_Complete.jpg#/media/File:87th_Precinct_Complete.jpg

But my approach resembled something more recent: The Wire. On David Simon’s masterpiece of a TV series, not all the gang bangers are villains and not all the cops are good guys. In fact sometimes they’re neither. If Steve Carella is the man every other man wants to be, Jimmy McNulty is what happens when they fail. As smart and dedicated as Carella, he lacks political skill and responds to the stress of his job by drinking to dangerous excess and cheating on the women in his life, including his mistress in season 1. Stringer Bell is a shrewd, manipulative criminal not above murder to further his own ends, but you can’t help but rooting for him. Bell is going to college and running Baltimore’s drug operation like a business, right down to branding the dope and holding business meetings with corner boys.

The main difference is the approach of the creators. Simon admits The Wire, along with Homicide: Life on the Streets and Oz, are angry shows about the decline of the American dream. Quite often the criminals depicted (many of whose real-life inspirations appeared on the show) are actually the ones living the dream only to be killed or jailed when someone lower down the food chain takes them out. Like McBain’s bulls, the cops of the Baltimore PD are flawed, but their flaws sometimes consume them. The cheat on their spouses, drink excessively, lie to their coworkers, and openly try to sabotage the brass, many of whom are barely qualified to carry a badge, let alone run a police department. McBain’s crew is world-weary but conscientious.

It’s this blend that went into Holland Bay. I hope you soon get the chance to see what I did with it.

Hard Pressed In Small Press

800px-Printing_press_(Albion)

By Rodw (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I call it the biggest mistake of my career. At the time, I thought it was a great idea. Usually, that’s how disasters happen. Just watch Tosh.0 and Ridiculousness for clip after clip of examples. What was my stupid writer trick?

I signed with a small press at the height of the print-on-demand era.

I won’t name the press (It’s gone anyway.) and I won’t repeat some of the rants I made when it went under. Suffice it to say, it’s one of the reasons Holland Bay is going to be my last crime novel. So what happened?

Back in the day, I’d worked very hard on Northcoast Shakedown. I talked it up on forums, made friends with some influential zine editors, and even networked with some rather successful writers. It even netted me some agent referrals. So what happened to the fame and fortune?

Well, first off, there’s no guarantee of fame and fortune. In those days, I was rather friendly with publishing guru Sarah Weinman, and often we would lament that a promising author’s career would tank with a rushed second novel or shabby treatment by a publisher. It happens. It’s business. But I think if I had waited two more weeks for a nice lady named Jane Chelius to contact me, I’d have at least had a two- or three-book run to build upon.

Instead, I shopped to several small presses that were getting buzz. One of them was run by a radio guy and his wife who lived waaaaay out on the fringe of the Baltimore-DC area. He had signed a couple of writers from a forum I had joined, and his wife worked for Borders, which helped get the books on the shelves. (I really miss Borders.) My system was to send out the manuscript to certain small presses and get the rejection letters out of the way. Only this guy didn’t. He pulled the trigger. Soon I found myself with a contract (no advance, which should have been a warning sign), and an agent for whom I had no manuscript now to shop.

OK, I thought, I’ll ride out the contract, get some sales, and move on to something New York would like better. Only…

I politely refer to this guy as “someone working out of his garage,” an apt description as several more successful small presses do just that. I signed based on goodwill, and in our capitalistic, opportunistic society, goodwill is sometimes a liability. We soon had problems. Early copies looked rough because he missed his payments to Lightning Source. Some bookstores wouldn’t carry our books because of the returns policy. And print-on-demand smacked of vanity press. I never paid a dime to get into print, but man, I spent a lot of travel money going to signings and conventions. I miss those days when I could hop a plane to New York or spend a weekend in Chicago.

But alas, a company needs revenue to survive. My publisher was long on good intentions, clearly loved what he did, but did not have the business acumen or the cash flow to make it work.

This, of course, is not a knock on small press. Many micro-presses and small presses do rather well. But they live within their means, try not to overreach, and generally don’t make promises they can’t keep. I’d seen what happened to me play out several times before. I remember when Blue Murder Press imploded that many people worried for the publisher once they knew the story. When a small press fails, it’s never pretty. Many publishers, including mine, go into denial. Many writers, including me, lash out in anger. And I’m a planner. I already had a trip to his door planned, three courthouses Google mapped, and the number to the IRS memorized before I got my rights back. Yeah. I was righteously angry. I got the reversion of rights agreement in the mail before I ever left on that trip or called the IRS.

But I moved on, and from what I’ve seen, so did my former publisher. He focused more on radio and film after abandoning his publishing venture. I hope he’s done better since then.

As for my side of it, my biggest crime was being impatient. Two weeks, I tell myself, and I would have been into traditional publishing back when it was really the only game in town.

An Interview With Dave White

Way back when I started in crime fiction, there were two guys I often found myself mentioned with in the same breath. The first was Ray Banks, a noir master and aficionado from Newcastle, England, and one of those guys who turned me onto Tom Waits back in the day. The other was this grad student from New Jersey named Dave White. Dave had a run with Three Rivers Press in the late 2000s, then an interesting indie standalone called WITNESS TO DEATH. He has since signed with Polis Books and brought back his creation, Jackson Donne. Because, as this interview will reveal, he’s not quite done torturing Donne yet. Not by a longshot.
Dave White
It’s been a long layoff for Jackson Donne. Did you have this story in mind when you signed with Polis Books?
 

Yeah.  This is the story I pitched Jason when he started up Polis.  I needed a reason for Jackson to come back, and it couldn’t just be someone hired him to spy on a cheating wife.  It had to be big and personal for Jackson.  So, yeah, this is the story I had started to write when Polis came along.

What about Jeanne Baker? Her death was something that bound Donne and Bill Martin together whether they liked it or not. At what point did you realize she might not have died?
 
About a year before I started writing the book, I was thinking about Jackson Donne again.  Other than some fits and starts with short stories that never went anywhere, I hadn’t done much with Donne.  But, as I’ve told this story before, I was sitting around watching Doctor Who and in the season premiere of Matt Smith’s 2nd year as the Doctor, the Doctor gets killed (sort of).  It was a truly stunning moment for me, not only because it looked like the Doctor died, but also because a show that has been ongoing for 50 years managed to surprise me.
And all of a sudden, I was thinking about Jackson Donne again and what would surprise me and the reader alike.  And it wasn’t about killing someone off, but instead bringing someone back.  That’s when I knew Jeanne was alive.  And then the juices started flowing again.  The story was marinating.  The following winter I started writing the book.  I’m so excited about this book and the pitch–I really think there’s stuff in here that hasn’t been in many (any) other PI novels.  And it really pushes Jackson and his supporting cast into a whole new place with many more possibilities.

In every book, you utterly destroy Donne’s life. Is this guy ever going to catch a break?

Where’s the fun in him catching a break?  The years that pass between EVIL and NOT EVEN PAST are his break.  He’s got it figured out, he’s engaged, he’s going to college… life is good.  But there’s no drama or tension there.  No reason for the reader to keep turning the pages.  Who wants to read about a character having a good day?

That said, he might catch a break sooner rather than later… you’d have to keep reading.  I’m pretty sure one of the next few novels may feature a relaxed afternoon tea scene.
 
You have a passing reference to the events of Witness to Death. Are you building a Dave White Jerseyverse of sorts?
 

Yeah, my books all take place in the same universe.  Jesus, who’s a key character in WHEN ONE MAN DIES (the first Donne novel) is in all my books so far.  I’ve always liked that about Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly and Stephen King to name a few.  You can read any of my books and have a great experience, but if you read all of them, the story is bigger, rich and tied together.  I grew up on Marvel Comics… how could I not do crossovers?

Did you consider going independent with this novel?


WITNESS TO DEATH was an independent success for me.  So, when I originally sat down to write what would become NOT EVEN PAST, I knew going indie was an option.  I also knew that going indie was a ton of work, and since I’d just taken a new job and was back in grad school for a year, I really wasn’t in a hurry to go that route and do EVERYTHING myself.  If I was going indie, I’m not sure NOT EVEN PAST would be available yet, but having a publisher really eased some of my burden in terms of editing and cover copy and opened up some doors that were closed to me, like Audible.com.
So, while I’m not against doing indie (again WITNESS was a huge success for me), having Polis in my corner has made things a bit easier.
 
What attracted you to Polis Books?
 
Jason Pinter, Jason Pinter, Jason Pinter.  He’s so smart and when he explained to me his Polis business plan, I was totally on board.  The man knows what he is doing, and has a long term plan for success.  Every time I asked him a question, the answer he gave made me happy.  So glad to see him and the company doing well and creating a ton of buzz.
NOT EVEN PAST is available now from Polis Books.

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.

Gypsy’s Kiss: Silky

Gypsy's KissA prominent figure in Gypsy’s life is Silky, the shady strip club owner who was a largely unseen presence in “Roofies.” Once upon a time, Silky paid Gypsy to get naked for his customers, She could, of course, earn a little more by doing more for said customers in the private rooms. Being a high-priced call girl during this phase of her career as a sex worker, she didn’t need the money from servicing some sweaty strip club patron in a backroom, particularly since it’s too easy to get busted.

But the events of “Roofies,” where Gypsy uses herself as bait to take out a more predatory club patron, cost Silky a lot of money. Kepler comes out and tells him that he and Gypsy probably saved his business by getting a couple of bartenders arrested for selling roofies and getting rid of someone who could harm his girls. His workers, thinks Kepler. His product, thinks Silky.

But it’s pretty obvious from his first interacting with Kepler in Gypsy’s Kiss that Silky is a narcissist. To him, the bust that sent sexual predator Harry Long to prison was a slap in the face. Ever the paternalist, Silky thinks he was doing Gypsy a favor by hiring her. How, he asks, could Gypsy betray him like that. And never mind that he fired her. He was there for her?

Of course, it looks silly from any sane person’s point of view. What happens to Gypsy, to one of the suspects, and eventually to Kepler is not the work of a stable mind. Of all those with a motive to harm Gypsy, Silky may be the least stable of them all.

Buy Gypsy’s Kiss now at Amazon!

Gypsy’s Kiss: Elaine

Gypsy's KissElaine Haskell started out as Nick’s inside link to TTG Insurance. As originally portrayed, she was a loud, brassy middle-aged mom who started out as a cheerleader for the Cleveland Cavaliers. On a sitcom, she would be that larger-than-life female neighbor who likes to stir things up. And that’s where I left her in Northcoast Shakedown. Then in Second Hand Goods, I decided to expand the relationship a bit. Nick working out of TTG as an independent operator was Elaine’s idea, as giving him secretarial support. So as Nick tries to sort out who, exactly, he’s working for, we find he’s come to view Elaine as a partner in his business and a voice for his conscience. So it comes as no surprise when both Nick and Elaine believe he will be dead that the married Elaine sleeps with him. This relationship only gets more complicated in Bad Religion as Elaine’s marriage crumbles while they try to find out who is defrauding a large suburban church. Which brings us to Gypsy’s Kiss.

It’s pretty clear that Elaine is scared. Changes are coming, and she is the one who has to make them. Her marriage is all but over. Her continued employment at TTG is bleeding the business dry. And then there’s Nick Kepler. He is there for her, but he’s not sure how much longer he can wait for her to make the hard decisions. Enter Gypsy. Elaine hates Gypsy, not just because she is a sex worker but because she sees what Nick cannot see. Gypsy wants Nick for herself.

In a way, Elaine is why this story has to be where Nick’s saga ends. The sexual and emotional tension between Nick and Elaine is there from the moment she first appears. By the time Bad Religion concludes, that tension is so intense that it requires some sort of resolution. But the tension has become central to Nick’s story. Resolving it or changing it would mean the story is over. And so Elaine’s final role in the tale is to give Nick Kepler some long-missing closure, the change in his life he’s been seeking since long before she even appeared in the series.

Buy Gypsy’s Kiss now at Amazon!