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.

Plots With Guns

Plots With Guns logoWhen I started out, I sent one of the first Kepler stories I’d written to an unlikely zine. Entitled Plots With Guns, it had a simple premise: We want stories with a gun in it somewhere. One story, which wound up in a 2006 collection, centered on a nail gun as a murder weapon. My story, concerning PI Nick Kepler’s efforts to dispose of the corpse of a childhood friend’s abusive boyfriend, had a few aspects that might not have worked in, say, Thrilling Detective. You could feel the damp atmosphere of Nick’s lonely walk along a stretch of rural highway, the anger he had toward the doomed Joe Kopinsky after seeing fellow bar rat Angie’s bruises and black eye. The story also had a back-and-forth narrative, revealing more and more of why Nick was walking along Cleveland’s Route 3 on an April night. That, I did not know, was exactly what mastermind Anthony Neil Smith was looking for.

Neil and cohort Victor Gischler have a deep love of noir (before the term became meaningless) and unconventional story telling. As grad students in Mississippi in the days just before 9/11, they hatched an idea to present these tales of bleak situations, screwed characters, and occasionally novel revenge plots. How unconventional? Consider that Gischler’s debut novel begins with the murder of a gang boss by planting a blasting cap in his cream stick (which is both horrifying and the funniest thing I’d ever read up to that point.) Plots With Guns was mostly Neil. Vic came along for the ride, but Neil needed more hands-on help and recruited various partners in crime. Along the way, he discovered a few writers who’s profiles in the crime fiction community rose in the middle of the last decade, including some idiot from Cincinnati named Winter. But I refer to guys like J. Michael Blue, a refugee from the old Blue Murder zine, Ray Banks, Ed Linskey, and Kent Gowran. It was via Plots that I became aware of an Irish writer named Ken Bruen, who for many years would be a sound friend and mentor.

Neil shut down the zine late last decade, deciding it was time to move on. New zines, like Thug Lit, arose, but the call was too strong. Neil had to resurrect it once his life in Minnesota settled and he reached a groove with his Billy LaFitte novels. Eventually, he recruited new acolytes to run the zine while taking on the role of publisher.

Plots may or may not continue under a new publisher in the coming years. I hope it does. It’s a different type of storytelling, one that would make Tarantino proud. Crime fiction needs a little “Fuck you” to keep it honest. Plots With Guns has always provided that.

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.

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.