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.

Friday Reviews: Once A Warrior by Anthony Neil Smith

Once a Warrior

Anthony Neil Smith

In the two years since the events of All the Young Warriors, would-be jihadist Adem has come home to America, gone back to school, and decided to forget he was ever “Mr. Mohammed,” negotiator for Somali pirates. His father, Mustafa, works at Target. Or did until he had a spat with management, getting himself fired. Unfortunately, Adem isn’t in American anymore to help out. Why?

Under the guise of making a pilgrimage to Mecca to bolster his new-found faith, Adem has gone in search of Sufia, the girl he left behind. He finds clues, using his old identity to fish for information. But it turns out to be a trap. Many people want him to become Mr. Mohammed again: A terrorist, a pirate leader, and the CIA all have their reasons. Adem soon finds himself trapped by forces beyond his control, forced to play a part he despises simply to survive. Worse, a CIA operative reveals Sufia’s true nature: She hates Adem and hates America and simply wants to fight the holy war. But Mustafa has a plan of his own. His niece has been sold into slavery as a prostitute. Mustafa takes over his old gang, the Southside Killaz, to get her back.

Neither Adem nor Mustafa are really that good at making decisions. Adem’s scrapes with death and runs from those trying to control him reflect an inability to realize he’s been watched from the moment he returned to America and is still being watched. Mustafa starts a gang war he has no plan to end all to recover a girl who might have been sold away for reasons he does not want to fathom. In Mustafa’s case, people die trying to help him for reasons he can’t quite grasp (much to their frustration.) Both men are single-minded on a vision of themselves as heroes trying to save a damsel in distress. It’s sort of like Don Quixote jumping into a gang war with no Sancho to back him up.

Thursday Reviews: City Primeval by Elmore Leonard; The Baddest Ass by Anthony Neil Smith

City Primeval

Elmore Leonard

Clement Mansell kills a judge nobody likes. And by nobody, I mean the State Supreme Court of Michigan has him removed from the bench. In a fit of road rage, Mansell kills the judge and his girlfriend of the evening. Does he feel remorse? Why would he? He’s killed nine people at this point, and he’s proud of it. When questioned by homicide lieutenant Raymond Cruz, he even brags about it. What can the police do? They have to prove it, and he’s not signing his acknowledgment of his Miranda rights.

Then he challenges Cruz to a duel, just like Gregory Peck in High Noon. Cruz, who exists in a sort of Rust Belt version of the 87th Precinct, finds himself drawn to the Peck comparison. He wants to take down Mansell, even sets up Mansell to fall, and yet…

While Cruz is a modern cop fixated on the idea of a Western law man, Mansell is very much the irredeemable villain from a Western, even relishing the role. He’s a sociopath, all greed and no empathy. And like so many sociopaths, he is always shocked when something doesn’t go his way.

It’s not surprising this story almost parallels High Noon. Leonard began his career writing Westerns, including The Law at El Randado.

The Baddest Ass

Anthony Neil Smith

Billy Lafitte returns, doing time in a North Dakota federal pen. There’s a price on Lafitte’s head. A guard named Garner knows that a lot of cops, a lot of bikers, and a lot of prisoners want him dead. A prisoner named Ri’Chess (pronounced “Righteous”) wants to make it happen, seeing a big payday out of it. And a cop named Colleen is gunning for him, blaming him for the death of her fiancee. Colleen is willing to do anything, even giving herself to Ri’Chess during a conjugal visit to get the deed done. However, when a riot is staged to cover Lafitte’s death, it goes entirely wrong in three ways. First, Lafitte’s former mother-in-law brings his son Ham to see him. Second, Ri’Chess uses the riot for his own agenda, changing the time table to suit himself and his posse. And the third?

The forget that people tend to die around Billy Lafitte, particularly when he’s cornered.

Lafitte is definitely dirty. He even admits it. Yet it seems always he’s blamed for the havoc others cause. Near the end, Colleen realizes that Lafitte’s perennial nemesis, Rome (who does not appear, but is a presence nonetheless) is probably the cause of most of the chaos around Lafitte.

Smith has amped up the action. The prison setting lends itself to Lafitte’s now almost Schwarzenegger-like bad-assery. What sells it is that Lafitte has less and less to lose with each successive installment while his rivals continue to be too arrogant for their own good. There are some uncomfortable moments in this one. What Ri’Chess’s sidekick, Jean Robert, does to prisoners had me squirming in my seat. The levels of Hell Smith puts Lafitte through makes him the ultimate antihero.

Guest Post: Anthony Neil Smith – One Slick Bastard

I’m off to Conference Room M for an IT meeting today. Conference Room M is Maloney’s, a west side bar, where I plan to hide from people bugging me about where their Start button is. In the meantime, Neil Smith talks smack about his bad-ass new book, The Baddest Ass.

BaddestAss600So Jim writes me and is all like, “Hey! We should trade blog posts because I’ve got a slick bastard of a new novel out, and you’ve got a slick bastard of a new novel out, so YEAHAAAARGH AND HAPPINESS!” And I was all like, “Me also YEAHAAAARGH AND HAPPINESS! Let’s do it because YEAH, GODDAMN IT!”

And then I realized: I had nothing to write about.

I mean, I wrote The Baddest Ass last year, and since then I’ve written a whole other new slick bastard of a novel, and now I’m working on another whole other new slick bastard of a novel. So you should all feel lucky I even remember the title.

In times of need, I turn to my readers. And they ask for free stuff. And I tell them I won’t write any more books unless they pay up. And also, ask me shit so I can write this blog post for Jim. And they come through for me almost every time. I love you slick bastards.

*

Livius Nedin (of BOOKED podcast fame) asks: “There seems to be less Lafitte in The Baddest Ass than in previous books. Was this a conscious decision?”

Well…not at first. I always end up approaching the Lafitte books as a “point of view” challenge. Who has the POV, and how does that person see Lafitte? In the first one, he tells his own story. In the second, we see the POV of several characters, including Lafitte. In this one it started out as a possible second person book inside the head of Bryce West, but then the story changed. So I decided that this book was about how others see Lafitte, but without giving the reader a look into Lafitte’s head. He’s walled off. So that means he can only be on the scene when the POV characters are around him. And next time (let’s just admit it—I want to write more Lafitte), I might limit that access even more.

And another thing: why the fuck haven’t you slick bastards invited me back to Booked podcast for this one yet? What did I ever do to you, not counting the time I punched your slick bastard uncle in his drunk mouth for saying how much he loved that shitty new Van Halen album?

Dave White (who writes things) asks: “Have you ever considered a YM prequel?”

Ya know, I tried to write a couple of prequel short stories with Lafitte and his partner Asimov, and I even posted a bit of one on the blog, but I just couldn’t finish. Just wasn’t interested enough. I promised one of them to those slick bastards at Crime Factory and then just crashed and burned. So maybe one day, but the idea of a direct prequel just doesn’t interest me so much. I’m never a big fan of those in books or movies. Something with a kinda-sorta connection, though? I like those, and I’ve had an idea in the back of my mind for a big novel featuring a character from Hogdoggin’. We’ll see.

Dan Vierck (who also writes things and is a new father) asks: “What’s the closest BL has been to getting his cuss together? To being William Lafitte? Is that not in the cards for him? Does he not want that?”

First, I have no idea what “getting his cuss together” means, so that means you’ve grown smarter than me, and I hate you, you slick bastard.

I thought about having someone call him “William” in the prison book, but then forgot and never bothered.

In Yellow Medicine’s first draft, there was a redemptive moment. There was a possibility of him continuing to be a cop. But as I read back through, things changed. The story didn’t feel like it wanted to go that way after all. So my agent and I went through a bunch of different endings, struggling to find what made sense for all that came before. Instead of redemption, it was a choice. An open-ended choice. It was Kurtz about to peer into “the horror”, or not. Or something. That’s a real book, right?

R.J. Stroud (Twitter superfan) asks: “Were you inspired/influenced by a favorite novel or character when you created Lafitte?”

Yeah, it was The Shield and Vic Mackey. No matter what he did wrong, you still (kind of) rooted for the guy. Right up until the penultimate episode when he got immunity and laid out EVERY BAD THING HE’D EVER DONE over those past seven seasons. Once you heard that, you were like, “Oh no. I was rooting for all that?” So why did we? One reason was because he made the excuse of it being for his family. He had two kids, one autistic. He had already thrown away his marriage, and now he claimed that he was doing all the “side work” to help secure his family’s future.

With Lafitte, I wanted to take away the safety net of the family. I wanted him to have already lost that stuff and have a chance to start over. So of course, he’s just baaaaaad. But if he’s so bad, why is he so compelling, especially in his own words? I jumped into the deep end from there.

Also, I had just moved to Minnesota, was in a rotten mood (around here, “Minnesota Nice” is an elaborate prank), and started filtering that into a character who had the balls to do something about his own rotten mood.

Of course, since then, I’ve fallen in love with the state (thanks to my wife, especially), even though there are still some mean cusses down here in Marshall. Chilly bastards, I tell ya.

R.J. Stroud (again) asks: “If you could choose only one song to be in a film adaptation of a Lafitte novel, what would it be?”

I hear awesome songs all the time that I wish I could hear while watching a Lafitte flick. And I usually put together a whole lot of stuff to listen to while writing a Lafitte book. But one that seems perfect would be “Go It Alone” by Jason Isbell right as Yellow Medicine fades and the closing credits start. Oh yeah.

Dana Yost (poet, editor, and intrepid journalist):  Can you name five personal traits/habits shared by you and Billy (three seemed too easy, ten too many, so five)?

Okay. First, we both like cheap red wine. Second, we both lived in a weird house in Yellow Medicine County with a creepy vibe. Third, we both carry a lot of attitude, even if it’s mostly for show. Fourth, we get annoyed with slick bastards like you asking personal questions. And fifth, we both hated Minnesota at first. I have now come to love the living hell out of this slick bastard state, whereas Billy, ya know, will never love any place like he loved Mississippi.

R. J. Stroud (third times the charm) asks: “Other than Sam Rockwell, who should play Lafitte on the big screen?”

Really? Are you serious? Is there anyone other than Sam Rockwell who is right for Billy Lafitte?

Well, you slick bastard, I’ve got one other unconventional choice: Johnny Knoxville.

But by now you’ve seen the book trailer that Paul von Stoetzel did for The Baddest Ass, and that guy who plays Lafitte for ten seconds (Shad Cooper!), he could pull it off, right?

Now, sit down and let someone else ask a question, alright?

Jay Stringer (another writer of things for a very very very very small publisher called Amazon…like the river):  What is Billy’s opinion on the price of ebooks? Does Billy think there is too much swearing in crime fiction?

Billy has no opinion on ebook pricing. If those slick bastards can get away with gouging the readers, he’s probably all for it and wishes he had found a con like that which would’ve kept him out of trouble.

As for cursing, yes. Billy thinks there is way too much cursing in crime fiction. After all, he believes only old people bother reading books, so we should all have a little respect for our elders.

ANSblastedb&wR.J. Stroud (oh, for fuck’s sake) asks:  “If you could go back in time and change one aspect of Lafitte’s personality, what would it be?”

Yeah, that’s a hard one…um, listen, maybe it’s time for someone else to have a chance. I’m just saying.

R.J. Stroud ( it’s starting to get a bit uncomfortable) asks: “If you could use another author’s fictional character in a Lafitte novel, who would it be?”

Lafitte might need to hire the Lincoln Lawyer. [Smith looks around the room] Anyone else? Seriously? [ Smith takes a long drink from water bottle. Refuses to look R. J. Stroud eye to eye]. This has been real fun and all—

R.J. Stroud (…….) interrupts: “Can you recommend another series that most closely resembles your Lafitte novels?”

Um, dude, like, Fifty Shades of stuff, I guess… [Smith glances at his watch, except he doesn’t wear a watch.] Um, security! Hey I’m running late here—

R.J. Stroud (restraining order now in effect) shouts: “Okay, okay. The only other thing I was going to ask was if Lafitte would ever be caught dead on Twitter. Ha, ha. Yeah.”

[Smith slips out the back way as the security guards head towards the questioner, Tasers drawn…]

Three Awesome Writers

I have to give a shoutout to three guys who’ve shown me the love over the last decade. Oh, there’s more. There are even names I can drop. But these three have been going above and beyond for Northcoast and Road Rules lately, and I need to give them their props.

First up is Gerald So. I’ve known Gerald since about 2002 or so, when he first took over for Victoria Esposito-Shea as fiction editor of Thrilling Detective. Gerald and I became good friends over the years, kvetching about various foibles in the writing community, bouncing ideas off each other, and even critiquing each other’s work. Gerald’s moved on to doing a poetry site and put out the poetry mag The Lineup with various other editors for a few years. Gerald often retweets some of my inane promotional tweets for Northcoast. I can’t thank him enough.

I also can’t thank this guy enough. Anthony Neil Smith published my first short story in 2001, “A Walk in the Rain,” in one of the early editions of Plots With Guns. He punished one of the later drafts of Northcoast Shakedown before it landed in bookstores. Neil is a good bud and a terrific writer, and it was Neil who convinced me to try the 99 cent route with Road Rules. I try to promote anything of his that comes out (I read it first, but it’s always a good risk.) and have yet to be disappointed. Neil’s taken a little ownership of Northcoast as he gave me some of the most detailed notes on the early manuscripts. I never asked. He just does it.

Joining him is his former partner in crime at PWG, Victor Gischler. Vic writes some strange, strange shit, starting with his debut novel, Gun Monkeys, the finest novel involving exploding pastries ever written. Vic was among those who looked over my early work and passed judgment upon it. He also gave Road Rules a blurb and has been tirelessly pimping Northcoast.

There are more, of course. Early on, writers like Steve Hamilton took an interest. Ken Bruen was probably my first die-hard fan. Laura Lippman has provided me with several much-needed reality checks over the years.  JD Rhoades not only wrote the intro to Road Rules, but he even tried to get me in with his agent at one point. And I can’t forget Li’l Sis, whose help and support go back long before I started writing seriously.

Still, Gerald, Neil, and Vic have been getting the word out about Northcoast, and I wanted to recognize them for their help. Thanks, guys. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.

Ebookery: Anthony Neil Smith

Anthony Neil Smith has a long history in crime fiction. He cooked up the ezine Plots With Guns back in 2000, which he’s been running either as publisher or editor since that time, with a brief hiatus mid-decade. He’s also behind some of the raunchiest noir of the last ten years: The Drummer, Yellow Medicine, Choke on Your Lies, and the finest noir novel to feature an armless, legless woman as the primary villain, Psychosomatic. Neil Smith has been anything but conventional. And now he’s into ebooks in a big way. I interrogated him recently about his efforts.

You made your rep first with Plots With Guns, then in independent press – Point Blank, Two Dollar Radio, Bleak House. Was diving into ebooks a natural for you?
Nope. I had to be dragged in kicking and screaming. Or, I was the one who covered his ears and sang “La la la” until a fellow writer told me how many of the damn things he was selling. I mean, I just wanted to be read! So once I got into ebooks, I began to love it. It’s a lot of fun.
You dipped your two in the water some years back with To the Devil, My Regards, which you wrote with Victor Gischler. Did you think ebooks would become as viable as they are now when you published it?
I thought, actually, that the damn things were a failure. No one wanted either version we published (one with Blue Murder as a subscription model, and the other as a download for Palm Pilots and other handheld things from Coffee Cup press), so we laughed it off, thought it was a fun experience, then put it away. No one said word one about ebooks after than for a while, at least not that I saw. Then suddenly there are Kindles and Nooks and shit, and people were buying books. I was surprised. Guess I always saw it coming, though, if I think about it for ten seconds.

Your first original ebook (after To the Devil…) was Choke on Your Lies, which has a rather eye-catching cover. What was behind your decision to self-publish it?

My agent sent it out to some publishers, but we got no love for it. It was a bit “risky”, not a mainstream book, so I thought about my options: send it out to small publishers and wait a year for an answer (then another year if someone actually took it), or sell it in the e-reader market on my own. Since my agent, Allan Guthrie, was selling a ton of his novellas on Kindle, I asked if he thought I should give it a whirl. He liked the idea, so I got it up there. And even though that means zero mainstream print reviews (they’re instead all on the Amazon site and some blogs) and grassroots promotion, I’m still happy with its progress.
By the way: the model on the Choke cover is Erin Zerbe, who has wonderful pics all over the internet. I’m hoping to have her return for the next book’s cover, too.

Tell us your ebook strategy.

Right now, it’s still “build your audience”. At all costs, I want more readers. I’m a story teller, and I like people to read the things I write. So I’m willing to let my backlist sit at 99 cents each as a way to interest readers who haven’t heard of me yet. They can buy everything I’ve written for six bucks.  There’s no use making a little extra money per ebook if it means hardly anyone is reading. So I’m letting it ride. Eventually, I’ll have to charge more, but the market is still searching for the sweet spot–the amount we’re willing to pay so that the writers and publishers actually can afford to keep doing it.

Do you see a future doing print at this point?

I hope so. I don’t know how, but I see paperbacks as still *the* best way to publish a book, and I hope I am somehow able to find a larger publisher willing to take me on and support my career that way. We’ll see.
What do you have in the pipeline?

I’ve got a thriller coming out as an e-book this Fall. I can’t say more than that right now except to say it’s *not* self-published. Looking forward to sharing more when I can. And I’m working on a couple of projects that I hope to show the world next year.

Repost: Take Your Medicine

Note: A couple of years ago, Anthony Neil Smith, who wrote the intro to “A Walk in the Rain,” released Yellow Medicine, a nasty yet poignant slice of psychobilly noir set in northern Minnesota through Tyrus Books. Neil’s gotten into ebooks in a big way, calling me out the other day on my rant about the 99 cent vs. $2.99 controversy. Neil is in the 99 cent camp. So what do you get from Neil for your 99 cents?

Read this, then go buy it. It’s only a buck, so you have no excuse. None. Do it now! – Jim

Yellow Medicine by Anthony Neil Smith

[Full disclosure: Neil Smith published my first short story. He also owes me a beer. Bet he didn’t know that about the beer, did he?]

Deputy Billy LaFitte is trying to start over in rural Minnesota. A former Gulf Coast cop, he was brought down by graft and divorce in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. His ex-brother-in-law Graham, the sheriff of Yellow Medicine County, throws him a lifeline, bringing him north.

Not that Billy’s found God or learned his lessons. He still shakes down meth dealers for protection and occasionally helps himself to a female suspect if she’s willing. But Billy has his friends, too, including psychobilly bass player Drew.

When Drew, a friend with benefits, asks Billy to get his boyfriend out of a jam, he agrees, figuring a night with Drew would be a fair enough exchange. Unfortunately, when Billy chases Ian into hiding to keep him from the bad guys, the bad guys, two Malaysian drug distributors, show themselves, making Billy an offer he has to refuse.

Billy says no. The bodies pile up, and Malaysians make sure the finger is pointed at Billy. If Billy would just come clean, it’d all be over. But Billy’s instinct is to cover his ass while trying to clean up the mess. By the time it’s all over, Billy finds himself face-to-face with Muslim terrorists (although not very bright ones) and an ambitious rogue federal agent named Rome, for whom Billy’s head on a platter is the ticket to a cushy office in Washington.

Smith works best with the morally questionable protagonist, of which Billy LaFitte is the latest. He doesn’t shy away from painting him as a bad guy in the beginning, but then just as easily gives us a reason to care. Drew, for instance, is more than an easy night in the sack for Billy. He’s in love with her, even if that love isn’t returned. Moreover, as the death toll rises, Billy starts seeing himself as Drew’s protector.

One interesting aspect of the story the role dogma plays. The terrorists are dogmatic to the point where they will justify anything, even sins of the flesh (One terrorist is caught with a cute blonde girlfriend in Detroit). However, their devotion to the cause has cracks. One character doesn’t like his leadership role challenged. Several are shown to be so zealous that they don’t think things through.

LaFitte’s former in-laws, too, are dogmatic. Flashbacks depict Billy’s father-in-law spouting scripture to destroy his marriage. And yet…

As with the homicide detective from Smith’s novella with Victor Gischler, TO THE DEVIL, MY REGARDS, we have a man for whom faith and dogma are merely tools to get through life. Graham, Billy’s former brother-in-law and his boss, thinks Billy is redeemable, and at some point, Billy starts to believe him. However, over a dozen people are dead by the time he realizes this.

But if there’s one person in all this who is truly evil, it’s Agent Rome. Rome is a Homeland Security agent who doesn’t care if Billy is innocent or not. He has himself a home-grown terrorist, and if he can paint Billy as a collaborator and a traitor, he can write his own ticket.

In the beginning, Rome seems to be an ally, working undercover at a Sioux casino. When he reveals himself, he claims to want to get Billy out of a jam, but soon, all he cares about is running Billy into either witness protection or federal prison. And he’s not above anything to do it, including, possibly, murder.

Of all of Smith’s novels, YELLOW MEDICINE is the most complex. Like the previous two, he gives us a sharp sense of place, this time cold, damp norther Minnesota. LaFitte is probably his most complex character to date. All in all, probably Smith’s best novel yet.