May 2014: A Good Month

Always another shot. Another chance. As long as you’re still breathing.

May’s been a good one. More opportunities, more successes, more dream food. My arms are up and swinging, and I’ve landed a few jabs. I haven’t pulled off any knockout punches, but I haven’t hit the mat, either. Sure.

TakeoutI’ve got several things about to pop. The District of Wonders podcast network has slated two of my works for airing. One of my yarns will soon be running on “Tales to Terrify” and another on “Crime City Central.” The latter’s also considering the idea of featuring “The Hard-Boiled Detective” on a monthly basis. The idea of hearing my stories narrated sounds like a gas. Yeah, that’s a pun. I’d like to find out what kind of following they get, but it’s exciting stuff for me to be in that kind of company. Keeps the juices flowing.

I’ve also got a story about to hit the “Near to the Knuckle” website. That’s an important step to me. It’s an established site that’s well regarded for its niche and its following. Land a story there and you say to yourself, “Maybe I’ve arrived. Kind of. After a fashion.”

There’s Onyx Neon, too. This ebook publisher has just launched a new singles series. I’ve seen the cover design for the first “Hard-Boiled Detective” selection, and it’s a beaut. I’m awful curious to see how this one pans out, but they’ve impressed me a lot.

I shouldn’t leave out the anthologies. “The Hard-Boiled Detective” will soon strut its stuff in “The Shamus Sampler 2” and “Drag Noir.” I’m humbled to be included in the first collection, and surprised I was even considered for the second.

And then there’s the book. The first published collection from “The Hard-Boiled Detective” series. Polishing and editing is ongoing, and better than half-way done. The writing’s the thing, but I’m not so concerned with that. Sounds screwy, doesn’t it? I’m worried about the cover, first, and then pulling together the promotion plan and tracking all those dizzying elements.

In the mean time, the beat goes on, and so does “The Hard-Boiled Detective.” I’m currently wrapping up this month’s trio of tales, somewhat staggered the way all the work adds up. This’ll make 51 short stories to date in the series. You look in the rearview mirror and what you see is familiar, all right. But you don’t exactly recall it, either. Was I just there? Maybe better to  watch the road. Concentrate on traffic. Make up the roadmap on the fly.

Got a dream? Doing anything about it? You better get going.

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The Hard-Boiled Voice

It’s bad business to plug your client. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.

 

Pardon the ego, but I thunk that one up all on my own. Ain’t it a pip? That line’s hard-boiled all over. Goes all the way back to the second yarn in my series. A whole eighteen months old as I write this. Almost. Fifty-one adventures later, it remains one of my favorites. And not so easy to come by.

I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.

I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.

That’s a funny one, the hard-boiled voice. Sometimes it threatens to run right over the voice of the author. Always real, frank. Real frank until it approaches brutal. So much so, on occasion, it’s downright humorous. But never sentimental. It’s got to be plain, straight talking prose with the kind of punch that doesn’t take any prisoners.

Part of the trick’s keeping it simple without letting it go limp. Simple’s one thing, plain’s another. Plain’s weak, dull. Plain’s not the stuff that dreams are made of. Pairing down the length of clauses ain’t necessarily the easiest task. Let alone pairing down the length of long sentences. Or making shorter sentences even shorter.

Did Paul Cain take the form too far? The guy dropped subjects and added more harsh clauses than Agatha Christie had red herrings. And he did it back in the 1930s. Maybe Cain’s too thick for some tastes, but you can’t disagree that his narrative had impact. If you can pull that off, slicing and dicing and otherwise mangling sentence structure, you can drive your prose off the page like drilling through a banana. All it takes is the wit to write dialogue like this: “You want a glass or a funnel?”

 

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.
—Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely

 

One of the best. And one of the best known from Chandler. The king of simile. And doesn’t it play a tad better than That blonde was a real looker? You want simple? You want brutal? All in the same bite? How’s about I felt like an amputated leg. That from Chandler’s “Trouble is My Business.”

Something to spin on, all right. Achieving the hard-boiled voice. Doing it well is a challenge and a half. Doing it well and putting your own stamp on it—that sounds like an other post altogether. Sure.

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No One Sweats the Small Stuff

Easy to over think. Those little gray cells pounding. The brow furrowed, eyes narrowed. Put your left foot in, put your left foot down. Pick both feet up and fall on the ground. Sure.

A big-five agent discusses the merits of first-time writers with the author.

A big-five agent discusses the merits of first-time writers with the author.

The book is distracting. Nothing fatal. But it sure makes for the 5,000-pound Packard in the room. So far I’m on schedule as far as my monthly short story series is concerned. Tales 49, 50 and 51 are falling into place, thank you. And on time, so far. Go figure. But thoughts about the book swim about like an up and coming victim thrashing at the surface of his liquid sarcophagus. The melodrama!

I’m big on perspective. Real big. Why do some people appear to grow wiser? Gained perspective. What gives Marlowe his snap, crackle, pop? A unique perspective. What puts the Mm in Michelangelo?  Perspective, baby.

Which leads me to the maxim: no one sweats the small stuff. If you’re sweating it, must be something big. It doesn’t matter if it’s screwy or compulsive or eccentric, even. If you’re sweating it, it’s gotta have weight. To you, at least. Of course there’s always a catch—whatever it is, is it really so damn important? Maybe you should second guess its ranking.

That’s how I feel as I toil away at my first book. Do you know how many unknowns are involved for the uninitiated author? I’ll spare you the whole known unknowns, unknown unknowns, etc. There’s plenty. Trust me.

  • Should the cover go towards a throwback, pulp-ish take to hook potential readers? Or should it embrace a wider audience with a more contemporary feel?
  • Can I get away with self-formatting?
  • What distribution is smartest? Smashwords? Untreed Reads? Bookbaby?
  • When should I release the damn thing?
  • How the hell do I get anyone to notice?
  • Do I have to blog about Miley Cryus and Justin Bieber?

I tell myself to turn down the heat. After all, I’ve got more strikes going against me than a Chicago baseball team. We’re talking a first book. We’re talking self-published. And we’re talking a collection of short stories, no less. Not exactly the kind of stuff to make the Paris Review sit up and take notice. I expect to have a whole new perspective on those babies. Six months from now. A year from now, maybe. Life’s a revolving door that leads you to another revolving door.

For now, I’m in miniature schnauzer mode. For quintessential dogged determination, there’s a breed for you. Strong and stubborn. I’m putting my head down. Forging ahead. Plowing. Arms up, swinging, but no looking back or stopping to smell the billboards. Hammer it out, the mug in the mirror says. Hammer it out as damn well as you can and move onto the next. The small stuff can go sweat itself to death.

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Word Counts and Books: It Figures

I’ve got enough stories to fill three and a half books. That’s a lot of jack, content-wise. I’ll hit the four-book level this summer. So what do you figure? Would you figure it’s hight time to publish a book? Sure. It figures, all right.

The author at work.

The author at work.

I do the numbers all the time. Numbers of words. I can’t help it. A constant, hard deadline will do that. I bat out three short stories every month for my subscription series. Each yarn averages 5,000 words per. I started it up in February 2013 and I’ve kept it up. Every first of the month, three more yarns. Another month, another trio. Three adventures in thirty days. Week one, write a story. Week two, write another. Week three, the third. Week four, edit and polish and upload. Week five, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

The shortest tale runs 2,200 words. A few stories approach 9,000 words. That’s one heck of a span, but I get away with it. I relish it, too. What a luxury to tell a story in whatever length it takes. Within the confines of a throwback, hard-boiled series, there’s no cuffs on me. The subjects, people and places are wide open. The sky’s the limit. Sometimes I’ve got a clever twist in mind. Or a colorful character. Or a honey of an opening. Then it’s off to the races. My schedule doesn’t afford much time for lingering, malingering or singing the blues.

That’s a whole lot of work. Just on its own. Without the rest of life breathing down your neck. I’m not bragging, just stating the facts. Funny thing, I’m pretty damn used to it by now. Not that I’d ever call crafting words into some creative semblance as routine, but it’s become a way of life. I’ve got that down, after a fashion.

So it’s time to do a book. It figures.

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April 2014

April turned out a pip of a month. It began with a reprint in a regional mag out California way, picked up from there with a second anthology, and of course wrapped up with the next three yarns of “The Hard-Boiled Detective.” I’ve even impressed myself a touch. Sure.

There’s a load of “mystery” writers out there who’ve appeared in the e-pages of Kings River Life Magazine. They opted to reprint one of my series favorites, “The Hard-Boiled Detective Statement No. 18: Pandereos Ajax.” Yeah, I’m big on long titles, or long on big titles. Take your pick. The point is, I’m humbled and proud to join the ranks of so many established authors. I’ve got the same cap, just with a new feather in it. You can catch that story here: http://kingsriverlife.com/04/12/the-hard-boiled-detective/

 

Earlier this year, the third adventure from my series got selected for the “Shamus Sampler 2” anthology coming up from author/editor Jochem Vandersteen. I’m not sure how I snuck my way amongst some of these lauded folks, but I ain’t kicking. That’s for sure.

Then I get the notice that a drag noir anthology—you read that right—plans to run another of my “Hard-Boiled” turns. It’s like catching one of those FM promotions where they go commercial-free for a limited time. So you keep listening, and you keep waiting, and they play another cut. And another cut. You expect some dippy announcer to break in with the latest and greatest in mouth-anti-freeze-gum, but instead they play another cut. The hits keep right on coming and you get downright giddy. If you’re so inclined, dig the announcement at this link: http://www.foxspirit.co.uk/drag-noir-creamy-contents-filling/

Then  you come down to earth when you realize the beat goes on. The work goes on. And that means another trio of tales due by the first of the month. But even that spikes the blood pressure when I realize I’ve knocked out 48 stories in the last 16 months. That’s more than enough content to fill up three books. Nearly four books.

Naturally enough, I’ve got a book in the works. I expect to publish the first collection of “The Hard-Boiled Detective” short stories by this fall. Maybe I can sell a copy or two. Or nine, even. But first, I’ve got to get through May…

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Letting It Rip

boxers3Mostly I let it rip. At least when it comes to my subscription series. Coming up with three, old-school detective stories every month doesn’t leave a whole lot of options.

These yarns don’t write themselves, so I let it rip. And I mean rip. Month in, month out. I’ve been getting away with that in short form writing. To date, I’ve gotten away with it to the tune of 45 yarns. That’s more than 235,000 words, for those of you keeping count.

While we’re at it, let’s put that in perspective. A short mystery novel these days runs from 60,000 to 70,000 words. I’ve cranked out three books’ worth in fourteen months. I’m not saying that makes them good or bad—I’m just saying.

I guess that achievement will impress some people. But that accomplishment doesn’t mean anything it itself. It proves squat. That claim’s neither here nor there when it comes to quality. It doesn’t mean I’ve got anything worth reading, let alone publishing. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

So I keep grinding. The very best I can. One story at a time. You’ve got about four weeks in a month. That gives me one week per story, and one week to final edit and polish. Such as it is. That leaves no time for looking over the shoulder or rearview mirrors. That barely allows time for making coffee, for chrissake. No time for sightseeing. No daydreaming. No dilettante, diva dance steps.

Give me a hook and I’m off to the races. A colorful character, a pointed situation, a splashy opening line. That kicks it off and I wing it from there.

Have you ever planned a murder?
Johnny Shin was gassed.
Five whores, an infant child, and a flask of gin.

Evocative stuff. Catchy. Three different openings to three different stories. I had no clue where each was going. I typed the words and took it from there.

How crazy is that? Does that make me nuts? I fancy I’m creating in the grand tradition of golden age pulp writers. It takes a strong work ethic, sure. No waiting around for muses. No tap dancing until inspiration strikes. You give it your best shot. And another. And still another.

I’m picturing a boxing ring. Writing as the fight game. You train, you work out, you shadowbox until you’re so bleary you don’t recognize your own shadow. Then the bell sounds. You come out swinging. You’re up, you’re down, you’re up again. Put up your dukes and don’t let them drop. Not until that first tale’s in the bag. Then the second. Then the third. Fight fair, fight clean, and never throw in the towel. Sure.

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Hooray for Hollywood Narrative

You want a crescendo, don’t you? That splashy finish? An ending to end all endings?

You’ve seen it more times than you can count. Think about classic Hollywood and you’ll recall a string of examples.

  • The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.
  • After all, tomorrow is another day.
  • He used to be a big shot.
  • Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
  • Oh, Auntie Em—there’s no place like home.

They don’t make ’em like that anymore. Sure. Whether you’re rolling your eyes or not, those are classic examples of ending on a high point. And the same idea works throughout the rest of those features, scene after scene after scene.

Somewhere along the line, especially with the influence of European new wave filmmakers, scenes became flatter. Narrative language and traditions changed. And that’s swell. More is more. More artistic language, more options, more devices, more techniques, more etcetera. There’s no right or wrong in story telling. The bottom line is making it play.

But I miss the old Hollywood construction. The approach was basic, solid, classic. In it’s time, it established an approach that served melodramas and comedies alike. The form can be applied to any art form, including my indulgences with the written word.

Creating top-drawer quality is never easy—a look at most flicks, books or TV shows is proof of that. But the idea behind this old-style story telling is simple enough. It’s plenty obvious, too, but we don’t always think about it. Plenty of authors go on about editing. They talk about cutting out the extraneous, creating dialogue, giving voice. There’s lots of attention given to creating characters and their arcs, how the protagonist has to go through personal change.

That’s a bunch of moving parts to contend with. Continually. Nonstop. They feed each other, affect each other, overlap like crazy. And they can all fit into one, repeated pattern until you reach your boffo crescendo.

That big bang ending still holds true today, most of the time. Once upon a time in Tinsel Town, however, they worked it scene by scene, beat by beat. The accepted standard was that a scene should rise in pitch until its high point, then cut! If you can’t contrive that climax, toss in a comedic character actor, set up a good joke, and go out on that high point.

You wind up with a series of scenes that start quiet or slow, catch fire, and ignite in a flash. One after the other, over and over.  If you do it right, the overall story line, it’s drama or conflict, spirals at the same time until you reach that biggest daddy high point of them all.

Simple, isn’t it? To put it another way, every chapter or section is a mini-version of the whole work. You’ve got a beginning, middle and an end. From A to B to C. From once upon a time to they lived happily after ever. Or not so happily if you’re writing noir. Scene by scene by scene.

The approach is a tough nut in the short story form. And maybe it’s not foremost in my thoughts while I’m working. But I’m pre-wired that way. I like that rise and bang! I want that. I dig that. Pulling it off is like creating a beautiful friendship. Sure.

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Updating the Writer’s Slugfest

“What the hell is going on?”

Not one for subtle openers, my inquisitive writer continued. “You took your father’s razor. You don’t write. No calls. Not so much as a cable or email. What’s the latest, hard boiled-wise?”

I suppose I am due for an update. It’s been a while since I posted any sort of “latest and greatest” report. I’ll make it short and sweet.

In January 2013, I walked out on my nine to five after nearly twenty years of service. I launched my online subscription series, “The Hard-Boiled Detective,” the following month. Ain’t timing funny? Or grand? It certainly keeps astrologers and pathologists busy. I hadn’t planned things that way, but there it is.

I’ve been plugging out three yarns a month ever since. And struggling to keep my head above water, too. The whole experience feels like maintaining a fistfight in a riptide. Very up and down. In and out. Seemingly by its own accord. Sure.

The series reached its first anniversary in February. That’s got to be some kind of achievement. Maybe nothing so noble, but I’m proud of the small, loyal following my nameless detective has developed.

Progress is slow, but there have been signs. Kevin Burton Smith kindly published my fictional interview with Raymond Chandler over at his thrillingdetective.com. The third story in the series has been accepted for Jochem Vandersteen’s upcoming anthology, “Shamus Sampler 2.” Then there’s Kings River Life Magazine’s plans to publish my eighteenth story this spring. I’ve also begun editing a batch of “The Hard-Boiled Detective” adventures, preparing it as a collection in book form.

If only the writing went faster. If only the hours stretched longer. I don’t know about other unknowns, but I can’t imagine this type of undertaking is a rational choice for anyone. Some days I’ve got enough piss and vinegar to fill Lake Michigan. On other days, the words and characters and plots read flat, voiceless. The next monthly deadline looms. I grind on, grind it out, and move on. The stuff of detective fiction and series create its own bloody inertia.

I hadn’t planned things this way. But there it is. And that’s probably just as well. There’s only so much time for so many things, especially when you’ve painted the next story into the proverbial corner. Sure.

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Fiction is Just Plain Naked

It doesn’t get any starker than the written word. Via Gutenberg or der Kindle, the printed page is plain and raw and naked. No razzle-dazzle about it. Nothing frilly. From Homer to Dickens to Twain to Wolfe, you get the same flat page, the same gray effect. The jumble of Arabic characters plays the same from one to the next. A page is a page is a page. Like any other.

All that makes writing one damn pure form. It’s an art form in plain brown wrapper. The very nature of the medium itself is generic. Newsprint is newsprint and 20 pound bond is 20 pound bond. Fonts may vary, sure. But Baby Ray Chandler has no more hold on Arial or Times Roman than Dr. Seuss. “Green Eggs and Murder” would look the same no matter who wrote it.

Maybe it’s not the greatest revelation since Poe discovered the detective story, but this purity struck while catching an old, British cop series. I’ve been watching a lot of these shows, and it hit me how they get away with murder, art-wise. There’s a gazillion things going on while I’m viewing these inspector detectors. There’s the meal I’m shoving into my mouth. There’s construction noise that blots out dialogue and sound effects. There’s a host of distractions that block the sound and pulls my eyes away from the screen.

But I keep watching. Maybe the characters have sucked me in. Or maybe I’m weary enough to blank out and keep watching as a way to filter out the rest of my day. There’s so much going on at one time to keep you lazily engaged. It’s so damn easy. It doesn’t necessarily take a lot to make the program good enough. It takes a lot less commitment to plow through 30, 60 or 90-minute chunks at a time.

But a book. It’s just you and the words. The pages are all the same. The words are all the same. And that’s all the author’s got. You can draw parallels between cinematography and direction and the writer’s techniques, but they don’t play the same. The author’s got those black and white hieroglyphics and nothing more.

I’m not trying to make a case for one art form as any better or worse than any other. The simplicity of writing just gets me. My keyboard’s no better or worse than Little Stevie King’s keyboard. My pen and paper is just as good as Joyce’s. My typewriter’s no less significant than Nabokov’s.

The bare-bones nature of this medium staggers me. Vonnegut’s blank page has got nothing on mine. Sure.

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Hard-Boiled Thought of the Day: Collection #3

A hard-boiled detective yarn takes plenty of snap, crackle, pop. Especially the old-school, throwback kind I crank out for my monthly series. Whether it’s a pointed simile or jaunty dialogue, the pressure’s always on to keep up the pepper. But it can also be a blast. Put a bunch together, and you’ve got some kind of shorthand philosophy, an abbreviated treatise on life and death seen through a pulpified  lens.

  • Blackmail is a bad taste you can never spit out.
  • Bang bang! Right out of the blocks. No time to think. No time to breathe. No stopping for blowing your nose or adjusting your cuffs. Just duck and roll and pray, if praying’s your idea of getting things done.
  • The hole blown into his back could’ve been from a .38. It didn’t matter to him. Corpses aren’t choosey about things like that.
  • But somebody put the squeeze on you. Or on someone you’re close to. Or maybe you just need the money like Howard Hughes needs a crash helmet.
  • His words sealed my fate, but he made it sound like he was forgiving my sins.
  • Don’t go around taking funerals for granted. That last one’s a pip.
  • Janus Piquant couldn’t put it over. Nothing more than a rookie, he was. Whatever league he normally played in, he’d been caught up in something well beyond him. And he couldn’t sell me.
  • “Don’t touch it,” I said.
    She said, “Not for all the ice in Iceland.”
  • Some things can’t be helped any more than a stiff can help being anti-social.
  • The monkey suit clung to him like a bad skin-grafting job.
  • She was as forthcoming as a monk with laryngitis.
  • She gave me one of those pained grins, the kind you spot on loan officers and morgue attendants.
  • He looked about as enthused as a desk sergeant getting a hot tip about a vicious jaywalker.
  • As big as he was, Donovan Creel looked weaker than a blade of grass. He couldn’t sell a pardon to a lifer.
  • You can’t un-pull a trigger.
  • Even though five thousand’s a lot of dough, it won’t necessarily buy you peace of mind. It does make for an awful nice down payment.
  • The sounds of Massin’s flight receded. I eased over to the door and glanced down the alley. Quiet. Emptier than a dead man’s dreams.
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