Why Crime? And Why Go Back To Sci-Fi?

Back in 1999, when I contemplated going pro, I had a decision to make. I could do science fiction, since that was where the sandbox I’d been playing in lay. Or I could do crime. At the time, science fiction was actually in a low cycle. The shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble were dominated by franchise tie-ins: Star Trek, Star Wars, Pern novels if you wanted something original.

On the other hand, crime was literary. It had a long and storied history. PIs were big. Thrilling Detective!

The real reason I went the direction I did? The best I could do was retread Star Trek, and Star Trek was starting to run on fumes at that point. Anything I could come up with would just be another thinly disguised version of the show. But crime?

Hey, Cleveland didn’t have a PI. (OK, it had one, which still made it a novelty.) I had a character. Plus, I was just so freakin’ bored with science fiction. By going into crime, I discovered not only the PI masters, but new writers like George Pelecanos and Laura Lippman. I read Mystic River and discovered everything a novel could be if you put enough into it. So I went crime.

I won’t rehash here the reasons Holland Bay will likely be my last crime novel. But why science fiction? Why did my Dick write a novel. (Oh, you knew I was going to trot out that old joke, didn’t you?)

There was something I remembered from the 1990s. Nerds, when they find something they love, latch onto it. And there’s something about being the guy that creates something like that. Everyone from Ursula K. LeGuin’s thoughtful work to Gene Roddenberry and J. Michael Straczynski have created worlds their fans care about. And there’s something about being the creator of those worlds. It’s fun building those worlds.

Will I continue with crime? It depends on what happens with Holland Bay. And right now, Holland Bay is getting it’s last chance.

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Getting Found

Reading at the beach

By El coleccionista de instantes [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The other night, I got a message on my phone about Bad Religion. It surprised me. Not just because it was about one of the Kepler novels, either. I had not heard from this woman since I graduated high school. I’d been pretty good friends with her brother. We were scifi nerds together, watching Star Wars and Star Trek together. He favored Japanese monster movies. I was snooty and leaned towards 2001. But that was high school and several presidents ago. We had all moved on.

My friend had gotten married, moved to another state, and, like me, moved into IT. Aside from the odd Facebook post, I doubted we’d ever really meet again unless the stars aligned come class reunion time. So imagine my surprise when, after nearly [*redacted*] decades, I get a Facebook message out of the blue.

“Just finished Bad Religion. Very good! Looking forward to the rest! Way to use that crazy imagination of yours.”

My friend’s brother and I used to do our own version of Star Trek as kids, often in each other’s basement. Yes, before that one room was my bedroom, it was the bridge of a starship. We also used to drop action figures into glasses of water and put them into my parents’ full-sized freezer. Why? We were putting Mr. Spock and Luke Skywalker into “suspended animation.” (We also got into fights over Judy from Lost in Space. We were dorks.) So, yeah, the crazy imagination goes back decades and spans multiple genres. Don’t laugh. I very nearly became a vampire writer in the late 1980s.

But to hear from my friend out of the blue was amazing. I asked for (and got) a review on Amazon. At a time when crime was beginning to look like a dead end, I got some validation from a very old source. It sort of confirms what I’d forgotten from back when Northcoast Shakedown was an honest-to-God published book: You have to talk to people about your book. Not get in their faces or make every conversation about it, but genuinely talk about this thing you created and sweated over. Show them your enthusiasm. Thank them if they liked it. Be genuine.

The Original Blog

Back in the day, I got bit by the blogging bug. Back then, social media (which wasn’t even a thing yet) meant AOL or the ancient Usenet forums. But if you were a writer, you needed a blog. And I noticed that both Sarah Weinman’s Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind and John Scalzi’s Whatever looked like newspaper columns with comment sections. (I really hate the comment sections on news sites now.) Well, I always wanted to be Dave Barry.

So I signed up for a Blogger account and announced to all and sundry that I would blog about… Whatever. Sometimes I reviewed and interviewed. Sometimes, I just blathered on about whatever struck me as interesting. I entitled it Northcoast Exile.

Only Blogger was, to put it mildly, crappy. But for $15 a month, you could have a Typepad account. So I moved Northcoast Exile over to Typepad, and the thing just blew up. I couldn’t import the old blog (one of the reasons Blogger sucked.) But it was so much easier to grab content and share it. So much easier to link content. I met a lot of writers because I was up to 500 hits a day. Not John Scalzi numbers, but respectable. The blog was personal. I think that was its biggest appeal.

But eventually, I had to justify spending $180 a year on a blog that didn’t pay off on anything. Plus I noticed that people began sending me emails of “Hey, are you okay? That rant was kind of intense even for you.” I eventually turned off the old Northcoast Exile, saving what I thought were the best bits. I moved over to WordPress, which provided both more opportunities to sharpen my tech skills (Dick’s blog is self-built and self-hosted on a standalone WordPress install.) and at the same time not have to deal with any of that.

Besides, I’d picked up a couple of trolls on the old blog and, in one case where a commenter did not have a concept of personal boundaries, a cyberstalker. The irony is the cyberstalker once told a friend of mine that a cyberstalker was a sign of success and that he wished he had one. (And now I know whom Tina Fey used to model Jenna on 30 Rock.) And then there are the anti-blog rants of the mid-2000s that sound like the anti-Facebook rants of today. One idiot used to blog about how he hated blogging. (Well, then don’t blog, dumbass. You don’t need twelve steps for that.)

The audience dropped off when I launched Edged in Blue. I think people were ready to move on. My network of fellow writers had started to dwindle, and it became unclear as to when I would have another novel to offer. Besides, the day of the blog as a writer’s primary face has passed. John Scalzi came out of it getting massive hits everyday and a couple of bestsellers. A writer still should blog, but it’s doubtful daily content is necessary or even wanted anymore.

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.

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.