Reconnected with Matthew Scudder

FROM MAY 2014
I’ve been rereading Lawrence Block’s excellent Matthew Scudder series, in order. How wonderfully these novels hold up. I’d first read them as a young man (and then a not-so-young man–the series covers and was written over the course of many years, and it took me many to read them, as halfway through, I’d caught up with  Lawrence Block, reading as he was releasing, so there was a waiting period between books).  Back then, I most connected with the investigations of each new case, Matt’s intelligence, and the spot-on depiction of Manhattan. Scudder was a tough, savvy, cool guy with street smarts and just enough cynicism to stay sane in even the most sleazed-up world. I loved him, but I was focused on the mysteries themselves, always fascinated to see how Matt would figure it all out.

Now, as a middle-aged (plus) man, I’m seeing the books in a whole new light. The plots (while all still terrific), seem less important to me than this detective’s remarkable journey. They’re catalysts for Matt (and Mr. Block) to explore themes of addiction, obsession, perversion, corruption, hatred, violence, loss, age, and death, from the perspective of a man who never stops evolving–as a detective, as a recovering alcoholic, as a lover. Don’t get me wrong; these are still damned fine stories, with well-constructed and suspenseful plots that are seamlessly and perfectly married to the deeper explorations of life (as it should be in all great mysteries). Mr. Block never misses a step.

Lastly, reading them again, one after the other (the literary equivalent of binge-watching a really great TV series), keeps each tale fresh in my mind as I take the next part of the journey with Matt, making that adventure all the more rewarding. If you’ve never read these wonderful books and you love detective fiction, they are a must. If you have read them, maybe way back when, then do yourself a favor: pick up The Sins of the Fathers and start all over again. You’ll be glad you did. When you get to A Drop of the Hard Stuff, you’ll feel you’ve lived someone else’s life. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll have a better understanding of your own, because of it.

An Unexpected Gift

Recently I had to shut down my page on Patreon (a website dedicated to bringing artists and patrons together, allowing patrons to pledge periodic donations to help support the artists’ creative endeavors). One of my reward tiers was to offer free short stories at a certain level of donation. The first week, I wrote a story called OUTSKIRTS for them. But I was unable to finish it by the deadline I’d given them for its release, so when I’d reached a suitable cliffhanger moment, I typed TO BE CONTINUED, and sent it to my patrons as part one of a two-parter.

Life and other things then happened. I chose to close down the Patreon page–for a variety of reasons, and before I’d had a chance to finish part two of OUTSKIRTS. I couldn’t let the story go (or disappoint my patrons), though, and have continued working. It’s grown beyond even a long short story and has become a full-fledged novella. I’ve renamed it RUN LIKE HELL, and I finished it early this morning.

Freeing myself from a strict deadline (something I normally adhere to evangelically, whether self-imposed or by contract), actually tightened my focus and work ethic, not vice versa. I wasn’t expecting that. I thought the thing would drift to the back of my brain, becoming something I’d work on in what spare moments I could find while I prepared my next Jason Chance mystery, THIS ANGEL TOWN for publication next month. Instead, I sent the manuscript of THIS ANGEL TOWN off to my most valued beta reader and wrote the second half of RUN LIKE HELL in a frenzy over three days.  the world of Carrie, Rory, Moss, Adam, and Tiger completely consumed me.

I’m very pleased with the results. The novella is leaner and more muscular than anything I’ve written, with a purity of vision and cohesiveness to its narrative I’m quite proud to have pulled off.

I will, of course, make good on my promise to my Patreon donors and give them first crack at it. Then I’ll publish as a stand-alone novella–right after THIS ANGEL TOWN is released. Adding another piece to the arsenal I’d not expected to have. What a gift.

Posts from Patreon site migrated to Dark Street Press

A collection of past Patreon posts:

I’ve migrated my Patreon posts to the website. And going forward, I will be adding new blogs about writing here.

APRIL 23, 2018

The Creative and the Practical. A Conundrum.

Good morning. It’s Monday, April 23, early, a hint of fog still in evidence across the hills outside my office window. As I do every morning, I’ve just sat down at the computer with my second cup of morning coffee, and have gone through the many daily business issues related to Dark Street Press: checking overnight sales, viewing the click-through-rates for the online ads I’m running, looking to see if new reviews have come in, tracking visitors to the website, seeing if any new subscribers have joined our Reader’s Group on MailChimp and making sure the mail program has automatically sent out their ‘welcome’ emails (as well as follow-up messages to those already in the  group), checking Patreon to see if any new patrons have signed on, then going to BookFunnel to find out if everyone has downloaded available content). 
Some mornings are more encouraging than others. Today is a split: decent sales report, not great CTR on the ads, no new subscribers (therefore no auto-emails sent out), no new patrons, and no new downloads made by existing ones. Psychologically, the work day is inevitably affected on a creative level by the encouraging or challenging news coming in on the business end. Challenging days can make me question the validity of the output. The quality. Am I climbing an insurmountable mountain? Does the vastness of the internet, combined with the multitude of competing authors for attention, make the goal of even modest success nearly impossible? What defines success, even on a modest level? Ask ten people that question and you’ll get ten different answers. Hell, I’ll give a different one depending on the events of the day or my mindset at the time the question is asked.
So, we hope for equilibrium. We try to shake off the discouragement and plunge back into the joy of creation. Or channel the discouragement into the creative process. Life is a balancing act. So is art. 

APRIL 16, 2018

The Fickle Muse, or Dammit, How You Tease Me.

I’d planned to finish This Angel Town this weekend. By end of work day on Friday, I was fairly confident I’d write “THE END” Saturday afternoon. By Saturday, lunchtime, I was ninety-nine point nine percent sure I’d finish it by midday Sunday. 
It’s 9:56 on Monday, April 16 as I write this blog, and I have not yet finished the draft. Nor will I finish today. Why?, you wonder. I’m glad you asked.  
Around 3 o’clock yesterday afternoon, I typed out a sentence in Chapter Twenty-Seven I hadn’t planned on typing. The sentence surprised me as I wrote it. The content was revelatory.  A piece of the mystery I hadn’t known existed had just exploded on the page.
It changed what I thought was going to happen next. 
This is such a good thing. 
If I’m surprised, Jason’s surprised. And if he’s surprised, conventional wisdom says, you’ll be surprised, as well. And it’s something  I knew I could not ignore. It added a wonderful twist, gave the denouement an extra level, and enhanced and expanded the narrative’s climax. It gave me something more to explore before reaching the last line of the last page.
This piece of the puzzle was always there to find, I’m convinced; I just needed to reach a certain part in the story to uncover it (much as Jason does). But, I have to make sure it all works. So I’ll go back through the entire manuscript now–before finishing the draft–looking for things too vague (and things too clear, now) to support the discovery. 
I’m excited to go back and look at the whole thing from a new angle. 
Hitchcock has famously said he had every film he directed meticulously plotted out in his head before starting production. He was often bored once cameras rolled, because he already knew exactly what was going to happen in every shot, every frame. That’s how he needed to work. I was reminded of this as I heard a podcast the other day, in which an author talked about his technique for avoiding writer’s block–a technique that works for him but wouldn’t for me. It involves massive and detailed outlining of a book before starting. James Ellroy works this way, I know. I’m sure many authors, especially mystery and crime fiction writers, do. The author on the podcast divides us into two groups: plotters and pants-ers. Plotters work out the details first. Pants-ers dive in and write by the seat of their pants. 
I am definitely a member of the latter group. Except for The Lost Man, I’ve never plotted out a novel before writing it (The Lost Man being the exception because it lived first as a screenplay, so that was the outline). For me, the journey of finding the story as I write it is a great joy. Snags, stumbles, dead-ends are inevitable (“You wouldn’t have that problem if you plotted it out first,” some would say. “Yes, I would,” I’d replay, “just earlier in the process.”) I relish working my way past/out of/over those occurrences and obstacles. Finding new moments, new aspects of the greater mystery (like the one I unearthed on Saturday) are one of the things that makes the process so exciting. I don’t think I’d feel the same if it happened while writing shorthand as part of an outline process. It wouldn’t be as real to me, or as revelatory. Perhaps one day, I’ll try. Maybe I’ll prove myself wrong. Somehow I doubt it. 
Until next time…

APRIL 9, 2018

April Blues.

When I first decided to self-published, I assumed several foolish things. 
1) When I uploaded the finished, formatted novel to Amazon, all I’d need to do would be to tell my social media friends about it, they would buy it within the first few days of publication, and this would push Amazon’s algorithms to take over and promote it themselves. (ha!)
2) Once Amazon took over, I could turn my attention to writing the next book and not worry about the first (haha!). 
3) I had the right to expect anything from anyone (hahaha!). 
Foolish and arrogant. Shame on me.
The fact that I’d written something didn’t mean people–either by friendship, work connections, or six degrees of separation–would automatically be interested in shelling out money to buy and read it. 
I’d embraced the self- part of self-publishing (and all the freedom that entailed) but not focused on the -publishing part. The work that comes after the book is written, edited, formatting to the industry-standard for a released ebook, and a beautiful cover is designed, is full-time. It’s hard to write a novel, but an author must also work to show it’s worth reading. A novel, like any other product, needs promotion. Marketing. 
Advertising.
So, I rolled up my sleeves and learned the business side. I took courses in self-publishing and marketing (paying way more money than I could afford). I read blogs, books, essays, etc. I built (and rebuilt, and rebuilt) a website (which only now–two years later–is where I want it). I grew a mailing list so I’d have what I thought would be a built-in audience for every new release. (Again, not the case. Never expect anything from anyone.) I tested Facebook Ads. Twitter Ads. Google Ads.  
Six months in, I’d spent (triple x) amount of dollars, and my return on  investment (ROI) from book sales was (single x). Not good business. Of course, they’ll tell you with any financial venture, you’ll lose money the first year. So I keep at it, even though sometimes I’m ready to throw in the towel (and many times ready to just throw up). 
The key to this part of the game is promotion. Marketing. Advertising. No matter how good the book may be, the cover, copy, and placement of its ads must be doubly good. Sensational, in fact. Because in the world of self-publishing, there are no minor leagues–your mystery or suspense thriller (to use my genre) is, right out of the gate, competing with top tier authors like Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and James Lee Burke. 
I’ve had the most success with Amazon Ads. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, you are directing your energy at customers specifically shopping for books. You can target their interests by creating a string of keywords (so you’re not promoting your mystery to a reader looking for a gothic romance). You list authors, book titles, genres, sub-genres. Every time a shopper searches one of those keywords and finds your book, you hope they’re intrigued enough by your ad to click on it and get to your sales page. For every click, you’re charged a small amount. You need to constantly monitor this, because the clicks add up. You pray this translates into sales, but there are no guarantees. Once a shopper arrives at your sales page, your cover and copy must be so enticing, they choose to purchase the book. The goal, of course, is to sell enough books so your ROI is higher than your cost-per-click sum. 
And the competition is fierce.
Simply go on Amazon and look up your favorite author. Then pick a favorite book by him or her. Scroll down the sales page to “Sponsored products related to this item…” You’ll see a string of other books by other authors, the first of maybe 50 strips. At 8 books per strip, that’s 400 books we’re dueling with for your attention. And that’s off only one book. 
It grows overwhelming.
But when I check, first thing every morning, to see how sales were the day and night before, and I see 10, or 5, or even 1 book sold, I feel triumphant (if it’s more than 20, I’m elated). It means I pushed past all that competition with those readers/buyers and got their attention. And I held it enough for them to make the choice to buy. They may hate the book when they read it. They may love it (hopefully they WILL love it). That part, though, is out of my hands. The book is written. It’s dressed. It’s gone out into the world. The purpose of advertising is to make sure it doesn’t get lost there.  
Until next time… 

APRIL 1, 2018

The Long and the Short of It.

Well, it’s been quite a week. Mornings dedicated to the business of Dark Street Press, then a few hours’ work on THIS ANGEL TOWN (I’m within throwing distance of the climax). After lunch each day, I would dive into the first short story I’ve written in a while.
 It was quite a shift, moving from the long to the short. I hadn’t written a short story in several years. The muscles had gone soft. I need to pump them back up. Perhaps the difficult transition is why Outskirts–the name of this new one–grew into a novella.
The first day I rambled for pages, setting things up, introducing characters, shifting locales. It all felt like the first chapters of a novel. But this wasn’t supposed to be a three week journey across the country. It was a weekend jaunt to the beach. I had a lot to do in a lot less time. 
Another analogy: I remember a comment Sting made many years ago, talking about his transition from the Police to a solo career. The Police blasted into the late Seventies ready to save Rock and Roll. The songs were powerful bursts of energy, short and to the point. Sting’s early solo work had strong jazz influences. When asked what he felt the main difference in the two styles was, he said, “In jazz, you can let a flame slowly build. In rock, you have to burn from the first second,” (Or words to that effect–it was a LONG time ago, and my memory hasn’t a whole lot of “burn” left.) But it made sense–to me, at least. And I can apply the theory to fiction. 
Short stories need to burn from the first second. I’m not after Miles Davis’ Bitch’s Brew; I’m trying for Message in a Bottle. 
And I’m not there yet, but I’m closer than I was a week ago. It’s all about the doing. Learning to write and writing to learn. The muscles grow stronger. The memory returns. I’ll be tighter and leaner with the next one. 
At least that’s the plan.
Peace, Dear Readers. Until next week…

MARCH 25, 2018

Sunday, Sunday.

It’s been a busy week. I passed the fifty-thousand-word mark on my new novel, THIS ANGEL TOWN, which means I’m still on schedule for a summer release. Good news! I won’t have to look bad by pushing back the launch date (as has sometimes happened). 
This will be the fourth Jason Chance novel. I published the third one, THIS FAITHLESS TOWN, in October. Normally, I take a few weeks off after publication, while I search for the “next idea.” Sometimes I’ll work on a short story or a screenplay in the interim. Or just do nothing, hoping the sounds and images of a new book will eventually bubble up from the subconscious. 
Not this time. 
Immediately (I mean, the very evening of publication) the bones of the new book slammed into my brain. I saw the hook. I knew how Jason would get pulled into the case. I knew who the killer was (or so I thought). Nonetheless, I forced myself to take a week off, just to catch my breath. THIS FAITHLESS TOWN had been a tough book to write, taking close to a year to finish, with many moments of “It’s not working; I’m going to abandon it.” THIS ANGEL TOWN seemed at the start to be the antithesis. Easy, clear, smooth. 
Famous last words. 
It started off great. After a couple of weeks averaging around a thousand words a day written (normal for me at the beginning, as I settle in), I worked up to my usual stride of two thousand per day (roughly six pages). I set the stage, brought in the characters, and sent Jason into a dark, disturbing investigation that cut close to home. I was off and running. Some days the writing flowed, and I reached my 2k quota early on, free to focus the rest of the day on the business side of DARK STREET PRESS, or reading, or doing nothing. Other days, I was eating lunch at the computer, barely pushing past thirteen or fifteen hundred words by the time I’d finished my sandwich or salad. But the story still moved ahead. 
There’s always a give and take, a push/pull dynamic, when writing a novel. Sometimes you’re leading the narrative, sometimes it’s leading you. THIS ANGEL TOWN started rebelling around page 75. By 100, I had a full-on revolt on my hands. “We’re going this way,” I’d say, sitting down each morning at my desk. “No, we’re not,” the story told me. “You may think that’s where we’re headed, but you’re wrong. I’ve got a better idea.” 
Yet it wouldn’t reveal to me exactly what that “better idea” was, or which way it wanted to go. It simply teased and taunted. Sometimes it just went silent. I felt exactly like my main character–lost in a case that had started to make no sense. So I did what I’d have Jason do. I retraced my steps. I went back to the crime scene and looked at it again, from a different perspective.  
In a mystery, confusing your audience can be dangerous. But confusing your hero can be a gift. It means he’s got to figure his way out of it. He must reevaluate what he thinks he knows. I let Jason’s confusion with the case I’d created for him that I’d lost control of, and my consternation over my muse’s obstinance, take me to a new place. One that surprised me. This is a wonderful thing. It’s good for the story to surprise the author. If it catches me off guard, it’s more likely to catch you, the reader, off guard, as well.
I’m passed that hurdle and cruising forward again. It won’t be a straight run or an easy drive. I can already see up ahead an approaching curve, and I have a funny feeling there’s going to be some big, dark obstacle waiting for me on the other side, lying in the middle of the road, too massive for me to slip around. I’ll probably slam right into it, and crash the car all to hell. 
I can’t wait. 
Until next week…