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.

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.

Holland Bay Away! Almost

red-inked manuscript

(C) 2008 Nic McPhee, used under Creative Commons

The manuscript is tweaked. The final new scenes have been added. Holland Bay is ready to return to the agent.


Before you sub it, proof it. (And I’m sure there are a few short story editors seeing this and saying, “When the hell has Winter ever proofed his work?”) The last thing you want to do is send in a manuscript with an ungodly amount of typos in it. And there will be typos. You can’t get them all. Maybe a copy editor or the poor intern stuck proofreading the final edit can get them all. My TBR stack says no, they don’t always get them.

A funny thing happened on the way to this latest final draft. (It’s not really final until it’s published.) I’m actually making more corrections to scenes she’s already looked at than the new ones. It’s not absolute. The new scenes have missing words in places or lines where I typed too fast and scrambled the word order. Those are typical early draft errors. But things like word choices in the older scenes are cropping up. Referring to something as “it” instead of “he,” “she,” or the dreaded singular third-person “they.” (Actually, my agent won’t accept them. “Dick,” being independent, can use it all he wants.) It’s not a bad thing, but it strikes me as odd that I’m proofing scenes I’d already written and vetted before I began this latest round of revisions.

Some time before this weekend, I will send Holland Bay back to my agent. If she likes it, you’ll know who she is soon enough. If she doesn’t…


Gypsy’s Kiss might not be my last independent release.

Putting Back In

red-inked manuscript

(C) 2008 Nic McPhee, used under Creative Commons

I spent December reducing Holland Bay down to two POV characters. This also had the effect of paring down the manuscript from 90,000 words to 60,000. The ideal size of a book from a first-time trad published author, which is the set of rules I have to play by, is between 70-80K. The nice lady who wants to be my agent said 75,000.

So back in went a couple of subplots. Was it hard?

The hard part was creating original scenes to revamp the altered main plot lines. One character, a corner boy moving up in the city’s drug operation, had scenes written to put him in earshot of the higher ups to preserve the politics of gangland business. Only a few scenes were altered to raise the profile of the other protag, a female cop named Branson. I did preserve a minor POV plot by a stripper who works for the city’s drug lord as what happens to her and her reaction to it plays a pivotal role in the story’s climax. I also put back in a reduced subplot featuring Branson’s eventual partner as he interacts with her more in the later. Finally, I stripped down a minor subplot from late in the previous version featuring a shooter from a rival gang.

As of Sunday morning as I write this, the manuscript is back up to 71,000 words. Can I add more?

Yes. I have to be careful, however. Done wrong, it’s padding. Done right, it’s bringing the reader deeper into the story. And, of course, I have to remember not to think of this at the final version. In traditional publishing, it ain’t finished until it’s published.

And we’re still a ways off from that happening.

Reworking Holland Bay

Over the past week, I’ve been reworking Holland Bay. What was once a sprawling, incoherent mess is getting whittled down to two primary POV characters. I’ve been asked to do this by an agent whom I’ll name when the agreement is signed. As of this writing (Sunday evening), I’ve already cut 40 pages from the previous draft.

I know there are a bunch of more experienced writers and quite a few neophytes who just read that and now look something like this…

Scared_GirlI feel your pain. There was a time in my life when I looked upon such requests as “BUT I ALREADY WROTE THE BOOK! I’M DONE!” Of course, if you go traditional, you’re not done until the book goes to press. Your agent will want changes. Your editor will want changes. Your copy editor will want changes. Sure, independent publishing cuts out a few of those layers. It’s also why indie publishing is, as Chuck Wendig terms it, a “shit volcano.”

But in this case, I can’t really argue. I started out trying to merge The Wire with Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct. Only here, Carella and Jimmy McNulty have been combined into a thirty-something woman who’s burned out on her job. The problem with the original is that the POV characters multiplied like jack rabbits. The draft I had Brian Thornton edit for me had fewer POV characters, but it still had a number more appropriate to a season-long television show than a 90,000 word novel.

For my main police character, I’ve only had to write one additional scene to keep the story intact. There is a gangbanger, though, who has had to take on new scenes to make up for the loss of some other characters’ scenes. Otherwise, the story holds up well.

I am sad to see some scenes go. A whole subplot about Branson’s eventual partner has been cut out. But if this sells, it’s going to be a series. I can always put him through the wringer in a later chapter. One cut actually saves me some trouble. A character looked way too much like a familiar character from one popular police show, something I never could get him away from. The character remains, but he’s going to be a mystery. With fewer scenes, and none from his point of view, he’ll be kind of a cypher. Is he really a good guy trying to get out of a bad life? Is he a villain who works behind the scenes? If this is successful, I have at least six more books to tease that out.

Hopefully, I’ll have some good news about this come February. Until then, back to work.

Get Into Jim’s Shorts: October Edition

Boxer briefs

CC 2008 Luis2402

It’s Rocktober! Which means it’s time for a new short story, this time with a Halloween theme (and maybe even the Day of the Dead, which takes place on November 1.) If last month’s contained hints of the setting for Holland Bay, this month’s story actually takes place in the titular neighborhood.

Entitled “Trick or Treat,” three diminutive gangsta wannabes get in touch with their inner Omar Little. (Remember him from The Wire?) Two minor characters from Holland Bay put in an appearance. They also drop hints about the novel’s storyline.

If you like the story, feel free to drop a line in the comments section. Enjoy.

Done With The Red Ink. Now What?

red-inked manuscript

(C) 2008 Nic McPhee, used under Creative Commons

I finished my own pass through Holland Bay last week. One thing I learned is that I really should have printed it out last time. There are things like missed words and sentences that were cut and pasted together that needed tweaking. And of course, I had all that repeated information I needed to weed out.

I’m not sure why we don’t see these things when we reread electronically. It’s the same text, and every word processing app worth mentioning displays it as black text on a white background. Yet there is something about having to flip pages and marking them up with a red pen that lets us catch more errors. When it comes time for me to edit other people’s work, I’ll probably print out their work. I’ll have to put the notes in electronically, but I don’t see that as an issue.

So, I’m done, and all I have to do is put in the revisions. Right?

Wrong. I’m trading edits with someone. Deep edits. The kind you pay a professional about a lot of money to have done. To simply go on my own is asking for trouble, and I’ve got too much into Holland Bay not to do the work. Holland Bay is going to be the first novel I take down the traditional route since I shopped Road Rules about eight years ago. Some might ask why I would do that when independent publishing is all the rage.

Simple. Independent publishing requires a lot more work than I have time to do. I not only have to write the book, I have to have it edited, formatted for both print and ebook (and two formats on top of that), and sell the thing. It’s hard because I live in a town where the crime fiction community is nil. Hence “My Dick is writing a novel.” I can do science fiction much easier here than I can crime.

Plus crime is so fragmented these days, and no one wants to cross genres, or should I say subgenres. Noir fans aren’t interested in police procedurals, and police fans want nothing to do with PI fiction. PI buffs can’t stand cozies, and the cozy fans don’t like the Elmore Leonard/Carl Hiassen capers.

But crime is a writer’s genre. While we get very insular about what we read, it’s not unusual to go to Bouchercon and see Lee Child and SJ Rozan sharing a drink. When your chosen field operates like that, you almost need a traditional publisher to take on the task of marketing and spreading the word. Once you’re out there and known, then indie pub becomes doable. For me, it’s more like the guy in the Greek myth rolling the stone up the hill only to have it roll back down from just shy of the top.

I suppose part of this is my fault. I chose to set Nick Kepler, my original series, in Cleveland, a city four hours away and one where I haven’t lived since 1990. By the time I had a feel for Cincinnati, I’d already written the first three Kepler novels. Starting over again wasn’t feasible. I suppose I could do it now. Cincinnati would love it if someone would set a series here. In crime, that hasn’t happened since Jonathan Valin’s last novel in 1995.

I digress. Holland Bay, set in a fictional Lake Erie city based on elements of both Cincinnati and Cleveland, is a bit of a sprawling story. My touchstones were The Wire and Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. The city derives its name from the old mystery-based soap opera, The Edge of Night. Edge, up until its final two seasons, featured a shot of the Cincinnati skyline in its opening credits. So how to market that? Well, a bigger publisher or one with decent marketing can play with that. Right now, I need to make the book worth their time. And yours. Because sooner or later, this epic is going to get out into the wild, and I want it to do well.

I hope to have this thing packed off to an agent (Not saying who just yet. Not until the paperwork is signed.) by mid-summer. By then, I’ll be back into the SF novel and even blogging as “Dick,” who himself will have a funny name for me. (Not “Dick.” That joke’s worn a bit thin.)

And of course, there’s one or two more Keplers I’d like to finish. You didn’t think I forgot about him, did you?