An Update on the Classic Crime Novel

My new novel, Impala, is a thriller in the vein of the classic crime novels of the thirties, forties, and fifties. The best of those novels follow a pattern that goes like this: An intelligent but flawed character gets in trouble after he gives into to some desire or compulsion, like lust, greed, or revenge. He finds himself surrounded by people and powers that will not let him go. His attempts to extricate himself from his troubles only lead to deeper trouble. He’s usually involved with a woman who is either in love with him or betraying him, but either way, their fates become inextricably intertwined. Finally, these stories always convey a mounting sense of inevitability, as if the fates of these specific characters in these specific circumstances could have only one inevitable conclusion.

Impala

Impala – Available September 21, 2016

The best of these novels—such as Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angelalso share a fundamental aesthetic of leanness. There are no superfluous chapters, scenes, or words. If you haven’t read them, you’ll be surprised at how much story these authors can pack into 200 pages or less. Leanness and tautness are essential to a good thriller. You don’t ride a roller coaster in a cushy reclining chair. You might also be surprised, when you return to reading contemporary mass-market mysteries and thrillers, how larded they are with description, back story, and events that don’t add much to the story.

Pop1280

Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280

Many of today’s 450-page bestsellers would have more impact if they were pared down to 250 pages. That kind of editing is hard work, and I think it requires a mindset that many novelists and editors don’t have, but many playwrights, screenwriters, and poets are forced to have. It you wrote a 450-page screenplay, the resulting movie would run for 20 hours. Playwrights, screenwriters, and poets put a lot of effort into reducing characters and scenes to their essence, because they have to. And it’s interesting to note that Kenneth Fearing was a poet, while Thompson and Cain wrote screenplays. Chaze was a news reporter who had to file stories daily, so he was used to getting to the point.

 

The Big Clock

Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock

With the exception of The Big Clock, each of these four books was considered pulp when it was published, and received little attention and no respect from the literary establishment. Today, they’re all considered classics, with The Big Clock and Black Wings now available under the New York Review of Books imprint, which has also rescued a number of other brilliant but overlooked works.

When I was in college and graduate school, I was very much into literary fiction, which I’ll define loosely as fiction one appreciates for the quality of its prose, the depth of its insight, and the development of rich and nuanced characters and themes. Commercial fiction and genre fiction tend to focus more on plot, and when you read it, you’re much more interested in whether the main character is going to get shot than in how subtle idiosyncrasies of that character’s psychology may be a comment on the social, political, and economic conditions of his upbringing.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice

It’s interesting to look back on the classics I read as a student, and to see that many of them were considered pulp fiction (or worse) when they were published. All of Charles Dickens’ novels were published as serials in bi-weekly penny papers, and initially had the taint of being written for the uneducated masses, whose coarse tastes weren’t capable of appreciating refined writing. Many of the classic crime writers, employed by the dime-store pulp publishers, had the same taint.

But these writers all tell compelling stories in clear, engaging prose that almost any ready can identify with. That, to me, is one of the hallmarks of good writing. Clear prose looks simple on the surface, but it actually takes a lot of work to produce. You can’t get to clarity until you’ve sorted through a lot detail. You probably know this from your own life. Think of times when you’ve tried to explain some emotionally important event to a friend. The first time you tell the story, it’s a flood of jumbled words that may go on for 20 minutes without really conveying the essence and impact of what happened. After weeks and months, and sometimes years, you can tell that story fairly clearly, in fewer words, with greater impact. But your mind needed that time to clarify what it wanted to say.

Black Wings has My Angel

Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel

Computer programming and writing are similar in this regard. There’s a parable of two programmers who are asked to write the same program. One programmer starts writing code right away, while the other spends many weeks meditating on the problem that the program needs to solve. The busy programmer churns out an enormous volume of confusing, complicated code that eventually solves the problem. The thoughtful programmer doesn’t write a single line of code until he has boiled the problem down to its essence. He then writes a very short, concise program of crystalline clarity that solves the problem.

The busy programmer’s boss looks at the enormous amount of code his employee has written and, overwhelmed by the complexity of it, says “Wow! You did a great job on what was obviously a really hard problem.” The thoughtful programmer’s boss looks at his employee’s work and says, “There’s not much code here, and from the simplicity of it, it looks like the original problem wasn’t that hard. Why did it take you so long?”

When I look at a lot of today’s literary fiction, I sometimes think the whole literary establishment suffers from the same problem as the busy programmer’s manager, mistaking complexity for genius. I find much of today’s “literary” work to be unreadable because it’s wordy, slow-moving, lacking in substance, and worst of all, larded with unnecessary description and metaphor.

You’ve probably had a teacher or professor somewhere along the way whose lectures left you swimming in confusion, and you thought, “Wow! They are so brilliant, my mind can barely grasp a tenth of what they’re saying.”

Actually, I think that person was just a poor communicator, and perhaps unable to clarify ideas even to himself. You should have come away thinking, “Wow! My grasp of the subject is so much deeper and clearer than it was yesterday.”

That kind of clarity—focused words that build over time to impact the mind and the emotions—is what the old crime writers were good at. It’s one of the distinguishing characteristics of enduring popular fiction.

Impala tries to follow in that vein, though of course, crime today is different from what it was in the mid-twentieth century. Much of it has moved online, and the characteristics of the successful criminal have changed, with intelligence, cleverness, and stealth replacing force, intimidation, and ruthlessness. (Though those latter three have their place, when push comes to shove, as it often does in the world of crime. Impala‘s protagonist learns this the hard way.)

If you’re interested in learning more about the illicit markets of the dark web, which is where all the trouble starts in Impala, The Economist’s article on cryptomarkets provides an excellent and fascinating)introduction.

So far, the reviews for Impala have been very good. They’ll be available online closer to the release date in September, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the general public responds to the book.

 

Iceland, June 2016

I’m sitting here in Keflavik airport on a Tuesday afternoon, waiting for a flight back to the US. I stopped here for a couple of days on the way home from Dublin, and I’m glad I did. When you fly into Iceland, the first thing you see is the huge lava field of the southwest coast. It’s a broad, flat plain of lichen-covered rock, with huge swaths of purple. The color comes from Alaska lupine flowers, brought to the island in 1945. There are now millions of them along the coast and in the interior plains and valleys. They seem to grow even in the stoniest soil.

iceland_alaska_lupine

I took a day tour yesterday and saw too many cool things to note. But one I really liked was this simple wall of rock.

iceland_na_tectonic

This is the eastern-most edge of the North American tectonic plate. There’s a big lake next to it, and on the other side of the lake is the western-most edge of the Eurasian tectonic plate. The two are moving apart at a rate of 2 centimeters each year. The lake between them sits in a plain about 4 miles wide and is warm year-round. You can even go snorkeling in it.

The most dramatic sight on the tour was Gullfoss, the great waterfall that drops into a huge canyon. The photos from my phone can’t do it justice, so look around for some photos on Google.

iceland_guldfoss

I enjoyed Reykjavik quite a bit. It’s a waterfront city surrounded by mountains, similar to Seattle and Vancouver. I think this is the first city I’ve ever visited that doesn’t have a slum. I spent many hours walking, and from what I saw, it looks like the dead people have the nicest neighborhood in town.

reykjavik_cemetery

I saw this public service announcement in a few places around town. A bartender explained that many bars and restaurants have a policy of expelling men who won’t stop hitting on women, or won’t take no for answer. The staff considers that service to be part of their job.

reykjavik_psa

That’s a little different from the pubs in Ireland, which might actually encourage problems with beers like this.

dublin_cute_hoor

The best sign I’ve seen on this trip was at the entrance to the Lincoln Inn in Dublin. One arrow points into the cafe, the other points back out onto the street. This sums up a lot about our world.

dublin_happiness_reality

 

Ireland, June 2016

I arrived in Dublin on June 12 for the 2016 Open Repositories conference at Trinity College. By coincidence, my brother Paul arrived the same day from Seattle, on unrelated work, and had a room in the same hotel, two doors down the hall from mine. We met in the lobby around 5pm and were approached immediately by a drunk American woman in her 60s who asked Paul where his wife was. When he said she was at home, the woman said, “Well then, maybe you’d like to join me for a drink.” (She already had one in her hand.) Paul said no thanks, and the woman turned to me and asked where my wife was. Also at home. She invited me for drink, but I declined. Then she started cursing the “eighty year old losers” in her tour group and walked off, but not before reminding us both that we could find her at the pub next door at 8pm.

The pub next door was The Bleeding Horse, though the sign says something a little different.

TheBleedingHorse

The Bleeding Horse is a bustling place, and I had my first pint of Guinness there. It’s true what they say: it does taste better in Ireland. I’ve been a big fan of Guinness for years. I even named our first dog after the beer. In the US, Guinness has a faint hint of bitterness, which may come from being pasteurized. In Ireland, it’s smoother and sweeter. Not sweet like sugar, but sweet like cream or pure, cool water.

I was surprised at how close some Irish accents sound to American accents. Many people here sound like they grew up in Maryland or Pennsylvania. A local told me they call it “the mid-Atlantic accent,” and you only find it around Dublin. There are many other accents in Dublin as well, and once you leave the city, the accents change substantially from one town to the next.

Another thing that struck me was this statue of George Salmon at Trinity College.

GeorgeSalmon

Salmon was the provost of Trinity College, and his statue occupies a place of honor, just inside the main gate. Statues of leaders in England, France, and the US generally try to portray a sense of energy, strength, nobility and grandeur, as if the subject were a visionary, larger than life and above the fray of common strife. This statue makes no such pretensions.

The man’s posture is slack, but his face is attentive and benevolent. You can see the accumulated weight of daily cares in his face and in his slightly disheveled dress. Maybe his appearance isn’t as important as his actions, his attitudes toward others, and his willingness to be a part of life’s struggles alongside everyone else. This man has been entrusted with power and influence, and he is clearly not “above it all.”

The entrance to the dining hall near the statue displays this quote from the Irish surgeon Denis Burkitt:

Attitudes are more important than abilities, motives are more important than methods, character is more important than cleverness, and the heart takes precedence over the head.

This isn’t a nation the celebrates power. Not in its public art, anyway. As Jonathan Swift wrote centuries ago:

Poor nations are hungry, and rich nations are proud, and pride and hunger will ever be at variance.

On a tour through Connemara yesterday, the guide described the great famine of 1845-1852. Irish peasants worked the land on the estates of British landowners, harvesting food they themselves couldn’t eat. The paid rent to the same landlords who employed them, the poorest of the poor survived mainly on the potatoes they grew themselves.

When the potato crop failed due to blight, the people had nothing to eat. When they were too weak to work, they lost their meager incomes, and then their homes. Ireland had 8 million people in 1845, and lost a million to starvation and another million to emigration over the next few years. The population never really recovered. Today it’s still around 6 million.

The tour guide noted that, while the potato crop was wiped out by blight several years in a row, other crops and agricultural products (beef, lamb, etc.) did not fail. But those were shipped to England, under armed guard, along the roads and through the ports where the people who harvested them were starving. That’s a pretty stark image of how capitalism and colonialism work.

If you want some more images, take a look at these. The first is of Kylemore Abbey, in Connemara.

KylemoreAbbey

This was a private home built by a wealthy British industrialist for his wife. Construction started in 1867, in a region of Connemara that was once home to about 500 people per square mile. After the famine, it was almost empty. Even now, there are more sheep in the region than people.

And here is a group of sculptures from central Dublin, showing what life was like for the masses in those years when Cannemara was emptying out. This is the most haunting and moving public art installation I have ever seen. I won’t comment, because the images speak for themselves. But it says a lot about a country and a people, when they are willing to acknowledge this right in the heart of their richest city, in an area surrounded by banks and upscale shopping.

Famine10 Famine09 Famine08 Famine07 Famine06 Famine05 Famine04 Famine03 Famine02 Famine01

These are stark images of a tragedy that cultures and institutions conspired to let happen not so long ago. It was the result of a system of laws and institutions designed specifically to ensure the flow of wealth in one direction, and a culture that reinforced the moral stigma of poverty to overcome natural human sympathy and decency.

I work in the tech industry, and I see all this happening again. Knowledge and information, which are the capital and currency of the 21st century, flow from all directions to a handful of powerful players who keep getting richer in the winner-take-all tech economy. Meanwhile, those who aren’t prepared for, or can’t conform to the world of thinking machines find themselves working harder and harder for less and less.

I look at those sculptures, and I hope it never comes to that again. But we certainly haven’t set things up to prevent it.

 

How To Make a Mess of Things

The other day, I was trying to buy a new phone and sign up for a mobile service plan online. I added a phone to my cart, and then when I selected a payment method, the page disappeared, and I found myself looking at a different page full of phones I didn’t want.

“OK,” I said. “Let’s try that again.”

Another try, and I got the same result. So I tried again without specifying the payment option. After I added the first phone to my cart, the site asked if I would like to purchase a second phone. Yes. I put the second phone in the cart, and the first one disappeared. Again, and again, and again. There was just no way to get two phones in the cart at the same time. And the service plan I had selected kept changing, even though I wasn’t changing it.

How can a major corporation run a website that’s THIS bad?

Well, I happen to be a programmer who has built a number of sites like this, so I have some idea of what’s going on. I know from someone who worked at this company that they outsourced development of the site to a major contractor, who brought in a huge team of programmers to build it.

This is the root of the problem. Try getting hundreds of people to collaborate seamlessly on ANY project. Try getting hundreds of people to build a coherent product of ANY kind.

Imagine you want to write a 500-page novel, and you need to do it quick, because every day it’s not out there selling on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, you’re losing money. (This is how corporate managers think.) You need to hire someone right away. But it would take a writer months to crank out 500 pages. Maybe weeks, if you keep the pressure on. But still, that’s just too long.

So how about we hire 500 writers and have them each write a page? Brilliant! We’ll have our novel by noon!

We just have to give the writers a few parameters. We’ll say it’s a Romance novel, because Romance sells well, and the formula is pretty straightforward. You have a woman who is lonely or unfulfilled. You have a new guy appear on the scene who is single. They meet under less-than-ideal circumstances, there’s lots of tension between them, and the reader knows they’re meant for each other, but they can’t be together because…

I don’t know, just throw some obstacles in their way. Maybe 400 pages worth of obstacles, but make sure we get to know and like the characters while their being obstacled to death. Then — THEN! — though fate and luck and force of will, they get together, and it’s oh so satisfying! Your readers are delighted, and they can’t wait for your next book.

We’ll put our 500 writers in the lunchroom, and we’ll assign a manager to walk around and make sure they’re actually writing and not wasting company time on Facebook. We’ll give them these parameters:

Heroine: Rebecca, a passionate but repressed red-headed librarian, age 30.

Hero: Maxibillion, a wealthy maverick technologist from the Scottish Highlands with a devil-may-care attitude and nothing on under his kilt, age 34.

Location: Portland, OR

We’ll call the book Maximum Satisfaction.

At 10:00 AM the writers are in the lunchroom and they have their instructions. OK, everyone, pens to paper, and… GO!

At noon, the proctor collects the papers, and voilà, we’re done!

Except we’re not, because the story doesn’t make any sense. Rebecca is sensitive, and then she’s not. She met the blonde-haired Max in a coffee shop on page 10, and when she meets him at the pool on page 30, she’s smitten by “the tall dark-haired man she’d never seen before.” The whole book is riddled with these inconsistencies. There are no transitions, and the tone changes from page to page. Chronologically, it’s a mess. You might as well throw all the pages up in the air and read them in whatever order they land.

Those damn writers! Why do they screw everything up?

We have to call them all back in, and we’re going to make them read the entire novel and identify all of the problems and inconsistencies. Then we’re going to outline the entire plot, scene by scene. We’ll workshop it. Then we’ll assign each writer a page and have them get to work. If the guy writing page 400 needs a bearskin rug in the living room, he’s going to have to coordinate with the guy writing page 20, where the living room is first described.

Each writer will have to consult with each of the other 499 writers to ensure that his page is consistent in fact, spirit, character, and tone with what the others have written. This will require a great number of meetings. We’ll have to cater lunches and pay overtime.

18 months into our project, we see Lonely Red sitting at the top of the bestseller lists. The passionate librarian has snagged her kilted billionaire to the delight of readers everywhere.

But this is not our book! According to the three dozen managers who are now overseeing the project, our book won’t be ready for at least another 18 months. And this Lonely Red, this bestseller that was OUR original utterly unique once-in-a-lifetime idea, was cranked out by some lone self-published author in just nine months! What the hell?

As absurd as this story sounds, this is how many large organizations develop software. They look at developers as interchangeable commodities, ten of whom should reasonably be able to produce ten times as much software as a single programmer working alone.

When they have a big project, they put together a big team, and then find that communication and management are more difficult and time-consuming than the original problem their programmers set out to solve. Though Fred Brooks exposed these issues over 40 years ago in The Mythical Man Month, some organizations still don’t get it.

In the 2000’s, many companies doubled down on their big-team philosophy by choosing the Java and C# programming languages. The hallmark of both those languages is their restrictiveness. They were designed primarily to prevent mediocre programmers from doing bad things on big projects, and they came with Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) to help enforce consistency.

If our 500 writers had IDEs like the ones the Java/C# developers use, the guy writing page 400 would not be able to say Rebecca’s raincoat is green, because the guy who wrote page 20 said it was black. The IDE knows this, and will put a squiggly red line under the word “green” when the page-400 writer types it.

So now, at least, our book is consistent, and the manager who made everyone use the IDE will get a raise for having solved an entire class of problems in one fell swoop. A $200 IDE license for each of our 500 writers cost the company $100,000 up front, but will save $200,000 in editing and proofreading over the life of the project. Which is now at least 36 months from completion. And even though the book is still going to suck compared to Lonely Red, it WILL be error free!

In his 2010 book, The Design of Design, Brooks notes that virtually every major creative and innovative work of the last century has been the product of a single mind, with a few rare exceptions coming from two well-matched minds. (Brooks lists Apple, Inc. as an example of the latter, with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak being an extraordinarily fortuitous match.)

In the software world of the past decade, most people working outside of Large Dysfunctional Organizations (LDOs) have recognized that smaller teams of talented people will vastly outperform large teams that have huge communications and organizational overhead. The non-LDOs have also recognized that the creative and innovative aspects of programming flourish under less restrictive programming languages, like Ruby, Python, Go, and Clojure. Instead of the Java/C# design principle of “don’t trust the programmer,” these languages were designed to let programmers express themselves freely, clearly, and simply.

Is it any wonder then, that for the past ten years or so the startups have been running circles around the LDOs?

I came away from that website the other day thinking about all this. And about how, in the past, I’ve worked with teams of 3–5 developers to produce fully functional, high-traffic retail sites that work quite well.

In the end, I wound up going with a different cell carrier, because if a company can’t even take my money when I’m trying to hand it to them, what kind of service can I expect them to provide?

By the way, LDO Publishing’s Maximum Satisfaction will be published under the pen name Duke Newcomb sometime in 2016 2017 2018 the future. While you’re waiting for that, enjoy the next seven books in the Lonely Red series.

Impala Summary Poll Results

Last week, I asked readers to vote on a blurb for my next book, Impala.

Two thirds of the respondents favored the “Summary” blurb, which described the main character and his predicament in straight expository prose. One third preferred the “Flavor” blurb that gave a good sense of the books’ style and tone, and encouraged the reader to piece together what the book was about.

The readers who preferred the Summary blurb said they liked knowing what the book was about, and they’d be likely to buy it because it gave them a good sense of what the book was about, and that’s what they want to know before they read. The readers who preferred Flavor option were much more passionate in their support because the blurb made them think and gave them a sense of what reading the book would be like.

Sooo… following my cousin Eve’s advice, I wrote a new blurb that gives a bit of summary information along with some flavor. You’ll find it on the Impala page.

Q&A: On Writing

What do you try to accomplish in your writing?

The first thing, I guess, is to write something I would like to read. I like books that make me think and feel. I like books that are emotionally and intellectually honest, that tell a good story, but also strive for depth. I like to see the author’s heart in their work, and to get a sense of the flavor of their mind. So I try to put all that in my work.

How would you describe your writing style?

At the sentence level, I would say it’s journalistic. Journalism focuses primarily on the questions of who, what, when, why, where, and how. For me, the substance of a story and its characters are in those questions.

Some writers practice a more florid style, evoking emotion and meaning through rich description and metaphor. The ones who are really good at that are justly revered as masters. But there are few masters, and lots of writers who lard their prose with pointless description and clichés, which are metaphors that have lost their meaning through overuse.

I look at writing the same way I look at cooking. If you have really good ingredients, your job is to let their flavor and texture come through. They can stand on their own. You don’t do that by smothering them in sauces and spices. Bad ingredients need smothering to distract you from the fact that they’re bad. Bad stories often employ lots of adverbs, adjectives, metaphors, and similes for the same reason.

If you’re willing to do the hard work of getting to the heart of a scene, a character, or an event, you find yourself using mostly nouns and verbs. The story has a stronger impact when you put it in concrete terms.

When did you start writing?

When I was a kid, around seven or so, I used to write episodes of my favorite TV shows. At fourteen, I started writing fake news stories. The kind of stuff you see in The Onion.

I attended a Jesuit high school in Washington, DC, and we spent an entire year writing sentences. We had a workbook called Links to Forceful Writing that was full of exercises where you’d have to arrange a set of ideas into a single sentence. And then rearrange it, again and again and again, changing conjunctions, swapping out dependent and independent clauses.

I learned from that not only the mechanics of writing, but also how little variations in sentence structure can shift the focus of the reader’s attention and affect their ability to absorb detail.

We spent an entire year arranging and rearranging sentences. I don’t know if any school does anything like that today, or if the standardized tests even allow teachers to take the time to do that kind of teaching. But I credit my ability to think deeply to the Jesuits, and my ability to write clearly to Anne Obenchain’s Forceful Writing workbook.

In college and grad school, I studied English and American literature. Later, I taught myself to write software, which is what I do professionally. I put writing aside for many years, knowing I’d come back to it. When I finally did, I was surprised at how much the practice of software development helped me in the practice of writing.

How did developing software help you as a writer?

Big software projects, like novels, are too sprawling and complex to tackle all at once. You have to break them down into smaller, more manageable pieces. You write the pieces, and then you put them back together to make the whole.

Much of the art of writing, both software and literature, lies in figuring out how to break the whole into parts. Which pieces do I need? How do I know they’ll fit together when they’re done?

The pieces you need are the ones you can actually write. If you write in short bursts, you need chapters you can write in a single sitting. As for fitting them back together… well, the reader actually does most of that work. Just give them the right cues when you make transitions. Help them get grounded in time and place before you lay another scene on them.

There’s a saying in the software world that your source code represents your best understand of the problem at the time it was written. That saying implies that your understanding improves as time goes on. It does. That’s why existing software is constantly being rewritten.

The same is true of writing. Your first draft represents your best understanding of what you’re trying to say. As soon as you get that out, you understand a little more clearly what you’re trying to do, and you rewrite.

Rewriting is probably the hardest part of the process, but years of writing software helped me get comfortable with it. It helped me understand when I’m forcing things and when I should walk away. It helped my understand the rewards of patience. I got used to the practice of spending a year or more on a single project, just to get all the pieces right.

In software, you have to be able to keep track of how numerous details fit into the big picture. And those details change all the time.

After you’ve been writing software for many years, you get so adept at managing all the pieces, you can do it in your head. You wind up working out a lot of design issues while you’re walking or biking or showering or cleaning the house.

For fiction, I do all the essential writing in my head, because it’s so easy to rearrange things there, and I don’t have to commit to any of it. It’s all open for revision, and I can try it a thousand different ways before I set it down on paper. By the time I sit down to write, I know the core of what I want to say.

I also write out of order. In software, your program might need to read a configuration file as soon as it starts up, then connect to the internet and perform a handful of other tasks. But you don’t write the program in the order that it executes. You identify the essential operations, and you write those first.

It’s the same with fiction. Certain chapters and scenes are essential. They’re the turning points in the story, or the parts that reveal character. When I understand them, I write them. Those scenes require inspiration. You can’t force them. So whichever part I’m inspired about is the one I work on.

The bulk of fiction writing, though, is like brick laying, and it just requires a lot of patience. When people read a really good book, they tend to think of the author as this brilliant architect. But remember that the architect just drew a picture of the building. The guy with the trowel and the mortar and the aching back and the calloused hands actually built it. That’s the writer.

What are you working on these days?

The final edits to Impala. I’m interested to see what readers think of that one. It’s funny how you can work on something for a year and have no idea how people are going to receive it.

A Cool App with Real World Value

I don’t often write about my day job here, but I have to say, it’s always nice to see a project you worked on having an impact in the real world. Several years ago, an entrepreneur named Phil Reitenour had a scary run-in with an enraged driver. That gave him an idea. What if someone built a mobile app that could stream live audio and video of an unfolding emergency directly to a security monitoring station? Better yet, what if it could stream that data to the nearest police or public safety office? What if it could even show security personnel your movements along a map as the incident unfolded?

Phil founded a company called EmergenSee and built a prototype of an app that does just that. The prototype worked, but that initial version wouldn’t handle a high number of concurrent users, which would be a problem in an event like a bombing or a riot. So EmergenSee hired the company I used to work for, and we rewrote the app so it could scale up to heavy user loads.

Now it’s used by organizations all over the US. Universities, for example, can define an area they want to monitor, simply by bringing up a map in the app and drawing an outline around the campus. When someone on campus opens the app and starts recording, the video, audio, and location data appears immediately on the computer monitors of campus security. This can be really useful for a woman walking alone late at night. The campus police instantly see and hear what’s going on, and they know exactly where she is. This is what they see:

emergensee

The app has some other cool features. Organizations can push out alerts to subscribers to warn of dangerous situations. Users can set a timer that will automatically alert security, and tell them where they are, if they don’t arrive home within an expected time frame.

This is one of the cooler and more useful projects I’ve worked on in my 18 years as a software developer, and it looks like they’re finally starting to get some attention. Verizon recently awarded them $500,000 to help develop and market the product in their 2015 Powerful Answers Award contest.

If you’re interested, you can get a free version in the App Store or on Google Play. The free version lets you specify personal emergency contacts, and when you begin an “incident,” your contacts will get an alert and be able to watch the incident in real time, with a view that looks just like the one above.

 

Q&A on Warren Lane

Where did the name Warren Lane come from?

Warren Lane is the name of a tiny street in Charlottesville, VA. It’s only a block long. I passed by it one day in 2006 when I was biking to work and the first thing that popped into my head was, “That’s the name of my first book.”

For many years, I told myself that I’d write a novel someday. Now I had the title. Two words down, fifty thousand to go.

Did you know then what the book was going to be about?

No. I had no idea what it would be about.

So what made you finally write the book?

An old friend who had helped me through some hard times had cancer, and I knew she didn’t have long to live. She was a librarian and an avid reader. I had made a promise many years before that I would dedicate my first book to her. So now I had a sense of urgency. I wanted to get it done.

Did your friend like the book?

I think so. A few weeks before she died, she was making annotations in the margins of the draft I sent her, and when her husband asked her what she thought of it, she said, “He knows I’m on my deathbed. And he sends me a f***ing manuscript to edit!”

Where did the story come from?

I still don’t know. These characters appeared in my mind, and they were all very present. Very real. The good-hearted young man who drinks too much because he doesn’t quite believe in himself. The gifted young woman who’s too promiscuous and self-destructive. The sensitive, intelligent woman who chose what she thought was a good path, and then finds herself in middle age struggling with the questions, “How did I get here? And where am I going?”

To me, the story is about the characters, who are all slightly damaged and dysfunctional, but very human and likable. The most interesting people I’ve known have all been lost and struggling. They’ve all been seekers, and they often make really bad decisions that complicate their lives. But if they’re lucky, that’s how they find what they’re looking for.

The book is a twist on the traditional detective story. It has a strong, fast-moving plot, but as you read, you find you’re more interested in what’s going to happen to all these characters than in simply unraveling the mystery of what Will is up to.

I’ve talked to many readers, and the one thing that all of them have said is that they don’t know how things are going to work out. They get eighty, ninety percent of the way through the book, and they don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Where did the name of your press come from? Stolen Time Press?

I have a full-time job, a wife, and three school-age kids. When you’re at that point in your life, you find that all your time is owed to someone else. Any time you take for your own projects is stolen time.

Who did you steal time from when you were writing Warren Lane?

Ask my wife, and she’ll say from her. Ask my kids, they’ll say from them. Ask me, and I’ll say I took it out of my sleep. Everyone’s a victim. Or, what is the word? Contributor. Everyone gave up a little something for this book.

Warren Lane is available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Apple and Kobo. The ebook is on sale for $0.99 March 20-27, 2016.

On Being a Self-Published Indie Author

Are you a self-published indie author by choice, or are you one of those losers who couldn’t get a book deal?

Yes.

What’s the process like? What happens between conceiving a book and getting it into the marketplace?

You get an idea, and you turn it over in your head for a while. You write a draft, and you think it’s great, so you show it to some friends. Then you think it sucks.

You do some major revisions, throwing out whole chapters and adding new ones. When you get to the fourth or fifth draft, you give it to an editor. Ideally, it should go through a developmental edit and a copy edit. The dev edit addresses big issues like plot development, pacing, character development, and themes. The copy edit addresses line-level issues, like sentence structure, clarity, and word repetition. Then proofreading catches typos, spelling errors, and other minor issues.

I’m lucky because my wife is designer, and in fact, she used to design book covers. She reads the book and comes up with a bunch of design comps. We go through them and pick one to develop. Sometimes she posts the comps on Facebook and asks people to vote on their favorites.

A good cover is a big deal. If your cover is alluring and gives some sense of what the book is about, people are willing to look at it. If you have a bad cover, particularly one that looks amateurish, people will assume you didn’t put much care or effort into the project, and they won’t look at it.

After we have the cover, my wife sets up an Adobe InDesign project with the interior layout and pours in the text. Then I fiddle with it for a long time, breaking the chapters into sections, making sure the formatting is correct, fixing widows and orphans.

When we have the cover and the interior ready, I assign an ISBN and upload the files to Ingram Spark and order a proof copy, which I actually read, cover to cover. I correct whatever errors I find, send the new PDF to Ingram, and then the book can go into production.

By then, it’s been a year or so since I first sat down to write the thing.

I’ll order a few dozen copies to send to friends and reviewers. Then I’ll create the e-book copies from InDesign and upload them to Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo. I stopped selling through Google, in part because they kept changing the price of my book without telling me, and their price changes forced price changes on Amazon that I couldn’t control.

I chose Ingram over CreateSpace because Ingram lets you price your book on standard terms and accept returns. Bookstores require that, or they won’t stock your title. And Ingram is one of the two big suppliers in the US. Bookstores already have a relationship with them.

The production process is long and tedious. You’d better like the book you’ve written, because you’re going to be looking at it a lot.

And that’s just getting the book into production. Then you have to sell it. That part is really hard, especially for an Indie writer who doesn’t stick to any particular genre.

What kinds of challenges do indie writers face in selling their books?

The biggest problem is just getting people’s attention. Many people who would have been readers in prior generations are not readers today. They’re watching Netflix, or playing video games, or spending their leisure time on Facebook and Instagram. In the 1950s and 60s, those people might have been reading one or two books a month. Now they might be reading one or two books a year.

Then, keep in mind, when you write a novel, you’re creating a product that nobody asked for. And it takes, like, a year. What sane person does that? Would you spend all day cooking a big meal on the off chance that a bunch of people might stop by for a dinner party?

You get your book out there, and then you’re competing with millions of other titles on Amazon. Literally millions!

If you’re writing in a popular genre like Romance, Mystery, or Thriller, there are actually quite a few channels to help you reach your target readers. Paid promotional sites like Just Kindle Books and Kindle Nation Daily can promote your title to their huge mailing lists. It costs money, but it does help you build a readership.

If you’re not writing squarely within some well-defined genre, you’re going to have a hard time. I learned that the hard way with my first book. There are no readily available marketing channels for general fiction.

One of the most frustrating aspects of being self-published is that many high-profile publications whose reviews could help put your book in front of a large audience will not even consider self-published books. They say so outright in their review policies. Even some of the more popular independent bloggers won’t look at self-published work.

I get why that is. There are too many books out there, and most of them are really bad. Most reviewers don’t want to open the floodgates and drown themselves.

As a self-published indie author, you also don’t have access to the kind of paid placements the big publishers can buy. You can’t purchase prime listing space on the Kindle storefront, or on the new titles shelf at Barnes and Noble. Not because of the cost. Because they won’t sell that placement to indies.

So you have to go out and find as many small channels as you can, like bloggers with modest followings who review books like yours. You share things out on Facebook or Twitter and urge your friends and followers to pass them along. You write a blog to give people a sense of who you are, and you give away books to help build a readership. You have grassroots and guerrilla tactics, and you have to learn to use them.

In many ways, I think it’s a better system for writers and readers. Success shouldn’t be easy, because easy things attract lazy and untalented people, but it should be possible. The old system, in which agents and publishers had to guess what was worthy of publication, was never all that efficient, and its errors of omission–what was excluded from publication–were worse than its errors of commission–the published works that didn’t sell.

Publishers had no interest in the Pulitzer Prize winner A Confederacy of Dunces. One of Elmore Leonard’s finest novels, 52 Pickup, received more than eighty rejections, even though he was an established author with a proven sales record. And J.A. Konrath’s novels were rejected over five hundred times–five hundred!–before several million readers got together and overruled the entire publishing industry.

I’m not saying the publishers short changed anyone. Most of what they turned down was probably crap. And who knows how many good books are lost in the current sea of publication?

Being an indie author today is a lot like being a standup comic or an indie musician. You can take your work directly to the people, though you usually have access only to small venues and limited audiences. If your work sucks, people will tell you. But at least you heard it from them. If it’s good, they’ll tell you that too, and they might even buy the next thing you put out. But you have to keep working. Getting people to read your book requires a combination of talent, quality, exposure, and persistence.

What do you like about being an indie author?

Being able to write whatever I want. And the sense of satisfaction when something turns out well. I like working with my wife on the design. I like to hold the final product in my hand. I like to send copies out to my friends.

I’m not in it for the money, because there is none. In fact, like most hobbies, you put more money into it than you get out of it. But when you send a book to someone you like, and they say, “Hey, I really enjoyed that,” it’s priceless.