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?”


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.

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.

Thursday Book Reviews – Adams Vs. Jefferson,

Adams Vs. Jefferson

John E. Ferling

Think the 2012 election is contentious? Try 1800. Much of what we take for granted about our republic today had not even been thought of at the start of John Adams’ term as president. In the early days of the Constitution, America had moved from throwing off the yoke of a foreign king to a new battle: Whether America would be run by an elite few consisting of New England merchants and southern planters or would it truly be a government for, of, and by the people.

If I had to title this book, however, I would not have called it Adams Vs. Jefferson. The battle between the first two political parties, the original Republican (or Democratic-Republican) Party and the Federalists, was really a battle between Jefferson, the idealist, and Alexander Hamilton, the scheming pragmatist. Both men’s flaws were on display in the lead-up to the election of 1800, and Adams seems more caught in the cross-fire. So while you’re tea partying your way to the polls or occupying whatever capitalist temple annoys you, keep in mind that pretty much everything you assume about the Founders, the republic, and democracy itself is most likely wrong.

Suicide Squeeze

Victor Gischler

The master of smart-ass noir returns in this tale of one of his early characters, Conner Samson. Samson began life having everything handed to him. He was a star athlete who was assumed to be destined for a career in the major leagues. That’s the back story. The present is Conner trying to pay off his bookie and wondering if it’s time to look for work again. He finds a job repossessing a boat called the Electric Jenny. When Conner goes after the boat, he finds himself entangled with a Japanese billionaire obsessed with getting his hands on a rare Joe DiMaggio baseball card signed by DiMaggio, Marylin Monroe, and Billy Wilder. It’s a classic collision of the evil and the stupid, and all of them trip over themselves in yet another Gischler comedy of errors.

Thursday Book Reviews – 10/4/11: Carte Blanche, Pistol Poets, The Path to Self Publishing Success


By Jeffrey Deaver

Following EON Productions’ reboot of James Bond with Casino Royale, Ian Fleming’s estate does the same in print with Carte Blanche, the first original Bond novel since Sebastian Faulks Devil May Care. To succeed Faulks and longtime series author Raymond Benson, they recruited Jeffrey Deaver, no slouch as a thriller writer, to reimagine Bond as a present day agent. The Bentley Continental is still present, as is the curmudgeonly M (Admiral Miles Messervy of the original novels and movies, not the Judi Dench-based character, though she certainly would fit in here), Moneypenny, the CIA’s Felix Leiter, and Q. Only his name is not Q. He is an Indian technical wiz named Sanu Hirani.

That’s not the only change. MI6 is not front and center. Bond works for a super-secret, questionably authorized organization with the bland name Overseas Development Group. Why? Well, you can’t be a secret agent in MI6 these days. Hell, the headquarters showed up in the last four James Bond movies.

In a nutshell, our new Bond, mid-30’s and a veteran of Afghanistan, is assigned by M to find out what garbage mogul Severn Hydt is up to. Hydt is one of the strangest Bond villains ever, a man with long fingernails and an unhealthy, almost sexual obsession with death and decay. It’s this fetish that throws Bond and Felix Leiter (pre-shark bite, we assume) onto the wrong trail while trying to stop what’s been labeled “Incident 20.”

The women in Carte Blanche are certainly worthy of a Fleming novel, from Ophelia “Philly” Maidenstone, Bond’s analyst coworker in the ODG, to tough-as-nails South African cop Bheka Jordan to the clearly Flemingesque Felicity Willing. But the regular characters seem almost cursory. M has one or two good scenes. Moneypenny is talked about more than portrayed, and Mary Goodnight is so generic I wondered why Deaver included her.

It’s a fun novel about a guy named James Bond, and it’s clearly better than anything John Gardner foisted upon us in the 1980’s, but it lacks some of the edge that the Fleming Bonds and even Faulks’ retro effort had. But since Deaver isn’t trying to force-fit Daniel Craig into a storyline that originally predated Sean Connery, it wouldn’t hurt to see what he does next. Read this more for Deaver than for Bond.


By Victor Gischler

Full disclosure: I never took up golf as a favor to Vic so he would never lose a golf game to me. (Actually, the few times I’d played, he would have nothing to worry about.)

This is Gischler’s second novel and one from his Plots With Guns days. Visiting professor Jay Morgan starts his day off badly. His latest one-night stand has OD’d in his bed. Meanwhile, St. Louis drug lieutenant Harold Jenks assumes the identity of a grad student after a mugging goes bad. What do these two things have to do with each other? Well, Jenks and Morgan run afoul – separately – of the college’s cross-dressing dean, Fumbee, OK’s local drug dealer, and a private detective who is as depraved as he is inept. On the upside, an aspiring novelist thinks sleeping with Morgan is the perfect way to start her career. Make sense?

Of course not! It’s a Gischler novel. Chaos reigns, and you spend about 340 pages trying to figure out which character is the punchline to this joke. (Spoiler alert: All of them.) A worthy successor to Gun Monkeys.


Michael R. Hicks

In this modern era of ebooks and independent writers, you won’t be able to swing a dead cat without hitting someone who wants to sell you a book on how to sell a gazillion copies. I’ve read two in recent weeks, one of which had lots of exclamation points!!!!

Michael Hicks, a science fiction writer going to the indie route, did not abuse the exclamation points. And before I spent an admittedly small amount, I actually checked his Amazon rank for his In Her Name series. After all, how many books on getting published, selling a gazillion books, and writing that bestseller have we seen over the years by writers who never wrote a bestseller (and worse, dispensed their advice via PublishAmerica or iUniverse)?

Hicks’ advice is similar to that of ebook bestseller John Locke’s, but Hicks is more specific, doesn’t beat around the bush, and isn’t dogmatic about how to go about one’s business. One of Hicks’ principles is self-improvement. You need to work on the author before you work on the story, and you need to have a story before you can even worry about marketing. He also warns against being obnoxious in self-promotion, essential for the independent ebook author.

I took the risk on his book because it was cheap, and Hicks has sold a few books. But I downloaded a couple of his novels because his marketing book had something I’ve seen too many supposed writing guides lack: Hicks can write.

Review: Vampire A Go Go By Victor Gischler

Allen Cabot is a man who is almost not present in his own life.  Nonetheless, he is tapped by the cantankerous Professor Evergreen to spend the summer with him in Prague to research a paper on Kafka.  However, he is kidnapped first by several punk wizards, then by machine gun-toting Jesuits, all trying to prevent Evergreen from getting what he’s really after:  The philosopher’s stone.  Yes, the famous holy grail of alchemists rumored to turn lead into gold is somewhere in Prague, only it isn’t for transmuting lead.  It’s the secret of eternal life, and a few hundred years earlier, it was the pet project of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, who was a bit of a whack job.  Just ask the story’s sometime narrator, Edward Kelly.

Oh, did I mention Kelly died of radiation poisoning about 500 years ago?  Yeah, but he’s still very much involved in the story.

Vampire a Go Go is full of Gischler’s trademark smart-ass prose.  It’s a little more disjointed than his crime fiction, partly because it flips back and forth between 1598 and the present.  However, it has that same gonzo vibe that made Go Go Girls of the Apocalypse work so well.  Time for Vic to stick his finger in the eye of Star Trek.

Just as long as he doesn’t give quit the same finger Edward Kelly gave back in 1601.

Victor Gischler’s Prices Are In-SAAAAANNNNEEEE!!!!

This just in from Victor Gischler, author, raconteur, failed mandolin player:

Hello directors, producers and screenwriters. Let’s talk film options. THIS IS A CONTEST.
Regular readers of this blog know that my novels Gun Monkeys and Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse have been optioned for film, and as soon as I can let other various cats out of other bags, I might be able to announce other bits of news along these lines. I’m also into some screenwriting as I’ve mentioned before HERE. I love — LOVE — the idea of one or more of my novels being adapted for screen, love the idea of how a director or an actor or actress might interpret my story. Obviously, if these films were actually made, I’d pocket a nice bit of change, but more than that is the excitement of actually seeing it happen. So let’s do it. Let’s make a movie!
I’m not kidding when I say I am frequently approached (via e-mail) by people who would like an option or would like to write a screenplay based on one of my novels. I’m always flattered and always surprised, but I always seem to be turning them away which sort of bums me out. I hate to say no to someone who’s so excited about my work. But the fact is I make my living as a writer now, so I have to be careful with my most valuable commodities — the rights for my novels. Also, the simple fact is that most people ask about books which have already been optioned.
But I got a bunch of short stories that are just getting dusty. So here is the contest. Consider which of my short stories you think could be adapted to a feature film. I’m going to list a few of my favorites below, but any of my short stories is up for grabs. I actually toyed with adapting a few of them myself, but I’m seriously pressed for time these days. In fact, I did adapt one of my own short stories “Silent Harvest” which appeared in the anthology North Florida Noir. I fleshed out minor characters, added and expanded scenes, and viola I had a nice little indy feature screenplay. The script was optioned (and recently renewed) by an energetic producer in NYC.

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It, And I See Naked Chicks!

Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

If Cormac McCarthy and Hunter S. Thompson crashed Kinky Friedman’s house, dropped acid, and wrote a book in one night, it would probably be GO-GO GIRLS OF THE APOCALYPSE. Instead, Victor Gischler wrote it.

GO-GO tells the tale of Mortimer Tate, a man who saw the end of his marriage – and the world – coming and hight-tailed it to the Tennessee mountains to wait out the worst of it. Eight years later, still living in a cabin with a cave nearby loaded with supplies, Mortimer runs across three men out looking for food. He later finds out they were cannibals, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Mortimer’s first human contact after that is a man he dubs The Beast, a huge man who wants Mortimer’s stash and is willing to put Mort on a leash to get it. Fortunately, the third person he meets (The Beast’s pet girl Sheila being the second), a cowboy wannabe named Bill, drops The Beast and helps Mortimer find civilization.

Or what’s left of it. Electricity is a scarce commodity generated by indentured servants on bicycles. Society revolves around a chain of go-go joints with their own currency, Joey Armageddon’s Sassy-a-Go-Go. With a case of real booze, Mortimer soon becomes a platinum member and, apparently, a very wealthy man. Booze in the post-apocalyptic world – with the exception of Jack Daniels still be brewed by armed fanatics of the recipe – is pretty bad.

Mortimer soon embarks on a quest to find his ex-wife Anne. He is joined by Bill and eventually Sheila. Along the way, he battles the cannibalistic Red Stripes, locates paradise on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, and makes his way to the Lost City of Atlanta with the help of “Old Ted.” Old Ted claims to have been a big shot in the pre-apocalypse and is none too happy to see what they’ve done to CNN Center.

Gischler’s apocalypse is believable, if only because parts of it are already in the news. No one thing destroys the world. Europe has a famine. Washington is blown up by terrorists. China is blown up by Russia, who is blown up by China. Civilization doesn’t so much end as it just grinds to a very rapid halt.

And yet while frightening and very possible, Gischler’s dystopia is also laugh-out-loud funny. A lone insurance salesman goes on a quest to find his wife and possibly stop a brewer of really bad beer from taking over the world with the last gasoline to be refined in all America. All the while, it’s a chain of saloons full of booze and naked women and punk rock bands that is sewing the seeds of a new world order. As Joey Armageddon puts it, the Dark Ages had the Catholic Church. The modern dark age has his go-go girls.

A very fast read that’s a cross between Mad Max and steam punk written after a three-day bender.

View all my reviews.

Attention, Slackers…

I have finished Neil Smith‘s Yellow Medicine and hereby order all of you to do the same.

I am now reading Victor Gischler‘s Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse, possibly The Great Gatsby of our generation.  Make your children read it.  In fact, pregnant women should read it to their fetuses*.

Then I’m gonna read Reed Farrell Coleman‘s Empty Ever After, because dammit, a man’s got to know his limitations.  And who better to show me those limitations than Moe Prager?

Now you know how to spend your summer vacation.  Get crackin’.  It’s almost August.

*Warning:  May cause irrational pre-natal fear of lemurs in newborns.  Consult your physician or Steve Wilkos before reading to unborn fetuses prior to third trimester.  Use only as directed.  Terms and conditions may apply.  See dealer for details.  Offer void in Albania, Dubai, and the parts of Pakistan both Obama and McCain want to bomb.