First Draft of a New Novel: “gate 76”

A few months ago, my wife brought home a book by Micheal Tolkin called Among the Dead. Tolkin was the author of The Player, which was made into a film directed by Robert Altman, and like The Player, Among the Dead is a dark satirical look at the vanity and egotism of the bit players in the entertainment industry.

Among the Dead begins with a man missing a flight that he was supposed to be on with his wife. The plane crashes, and the rest of the book is an examination of the man’s thoughts and character, and of his failure to deal with or even care about the real consequences of what has happened. The man himself, with his shallowness and lack of empathy, can be counted metaphorically among the dead.

When I read it, I thought, “This book would have been a lot more interesting if the woman hadn’t gotten on that plane.” I explained the idea to my wife, but she didn’t quite get it. So I wrote the first chapter of the book and showed it to her. I said, “See? Now that’s an interesting story.” I had no intention of finishing it. I just wanted to show her what a good premise that would be. But after reading the first chapter, she was hooked. She said, “You have to finish this! I need to know what happens.”

So I did. You can read the first chapter here.

The manuscript is complete, and I’ve started to get feedback from beta readers. It will go to the editor in a few weeks, and then I might try shopping it around to publishers.

The Deep Blue Good-By

Two things struck me while reading John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-By. The first was the quality of his writing, which can be witty and insightful, and is never cliché. The second was how, especially in the case of this book, the hard-boiled detective genre can pander to male fantasy in the same way romance panders to women.

In this book, every young woman between puberty and thirty practically throws herself at the protagonist, Travis McGee, who who lives on a boat and seems interesting and likable in some regards, but just doesn’t seem to have that much going for him. It’s easy to mock those cheesy romance novels that sell for 99 cents on Amazon, where every guy seems to have tattoos, six-pack abs, a rebel bad-boy streak, and a ready erection. But in MacDonald’s book, which has been widely praised as a work of art, every woman is just a hole waiting to be filled. Every woman is well-built, willing, tipsy, and half nude, when she’s not completely nude.

I get that this was written in the early sixties, when the birth control pill first appeared, and women were exploring the newfound freedom of sex-without-consequences. This was about the same time as Mad Men, and with regard to male-female relations, The Deep Blue Good-By has a skewed perspective similar to the one portrayed in Don Draper’s world.

I get the whole living-on-a-boat thing. I’ve seen enough of that lifestyle in South Florida and in the Caribbean to have a first-hand knowledge of the dissolute ways of the sun-drunk layabouts. They drink a lot, and they have more sex than mom and dad who come home tired from the office at 6PM. But seriously, no matter how bored a woman gets, it takes more than just a complete stranger showing up at her door with a bottle of liquor to get her interested. You might run across one woman, once in a great while, who’s willing to jump in bed with whoever happens by on a lazy afternoon, but the next thousand won’t be like that.

In MacDonald’s book, they’re ALL like that. Even the ones who just got raped. And that’s just wrong. That just doesn’t happen.

Travis McGee is living the ideal guy’s life. He has no job, but enough money to get by. He has no responsibilities, no commitments, no emotional ties, and whenever he wants a little action, he just strolls on over to one of the neighboring houseboats, where there’s always a party, and picks out a woman to bring home. And he actually complains that they’re not fulfilling. Just flip the genders of the protagonist and harem here, and you have a romance novel. Except that a romance novel ends with the traditional woman’s fantasy, where the main character gets to keep her one-and-only forever on after. This one ends with the traditional man’s fantasy, where the guy ends up unattached with nothing to get in the way of his continued booty hunt.

Other books in the classic pulp/crime genres include a good bit of sex as well, but it’s not quite so over-the-top as here. Jim Thompson’s protagonists usually have a steady, adoring girlfriend, and a second woman on the side. But in Thompson’s case, the protagonist is usually somewhat insane, and his “other woman” is insane in some catastrophically complementary way, like nitro and glycerine. Many of the better books in the genre, like Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel and Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, follow a formula in which one particular man plus one particular woman equals disaster.

The overall plot of The Deep Blue Good-By is nothing ground-breaking. It’s genre fiction, after all, and a hard-boiled detective novel ends with the wise and cynical detective outsmarting the wily and dangerous bad guy. Plots aren’t that big a deal in genre fiction. They have to have twists, but we all know how they’re going to play out. Romance novels end with the woman getting her man, just as surely as thrillers end with the good guys sticking it to the bad guys. It’s how it all plays out that keeps our interest.

And McGee, for all his flaws, is consistently interesting. When you dive into this novel, you dive into his world, and you get to live there for a while. Although McGee can be quite insightful, you know his view of the world is skewed and unreal, just like you know the world in a Carl Hiaasen novel is skewed and unreal. You’re there for the ride, and McGee makes the ride worth the effort.

MacDonald’s rich style brings characters and places vividly to life. However, it’s a bit too elaborate for some of the action scenes. Sometimes you get to the end of a thirty-word sentence, and you wonder, “Wait, did he hit the guy or not?”

If you want a little flavor of his writing, and of McGee’s perspective and insight, the long paragraph below is a shining example. McGee has just been flirting with a waitress in order to get some information out of her. She’s very young. Nineteen or so. And of course, she comes out of the encounter desiring him (of course!), but he’s not interested.

The references to rabbits and bunnies are double-edged. McGee has already talked about people breeding like rabbits, and the vast space America still has to absorb its booming population. He’s also referred to some of the young women he’s picked up from the houseboat parties as rabbits, because each one is just a quick, impersonal lay.

Here’s what’s going through McGee’s mind when he walks away from that 19-year-old waitress he was just flirting with:

Bless them all, the forlorn little rabbits. They are the displaced persons of our emotional culture. They are ravenous for romance, yet settle for what they call making out. Their futile, acne-pitted men drift out of high school into a world so surfeited with unskilled labor there is competition for bag boy jobs in the supermarkets. They yearn for security, but all they can have is what they make for themselves, chittering little flocks of them in the restaurants and stores, talking of style and adornment, dreaming of the terribly sincere stranger who will come along and lift them out of the gypsy life of the two-bit tip and the unemployment, cut a tall cake with them, swell them up with sassy babies, and guide them masterfully into the shoal water of the electrified house where everybody brushes after every meal. But most of the wistful rabbits marry their unskilled men, and keep right on working. And discover the end of the dream. They have been taught that if you are sunny, cheery, sincere, group-adjusted, popular, the world is yours, including barbecue pits, charge plates, diaper service, percale sheets, friends for dinner, washer-dryer combinations, color slides of the kiddies on the home projector, and eternal whimsical romance–with crinkly smiles and Rock Hudson dialog. So they all come smiling and confident and unskilled into a technician’s world, and in a few years they learn that it is all going to be grinding and brutal and hateful and precarious. These are the slums of the heart. Bless the bunnies. These are the new people, and we are making no place for them. We hold the dream in front of them like a carrot, and finally say sorry you can’t have any. And the schools where we teach them non-survival are gloriously architected. They will never live in places so fine, unless they contract something incurable.

That paragraph shows many of McGee’s most fundamental characteristics. He feels both empathy and contempt for the troubled people around him. He laments the unfulfilled promise of their lives, but he doesn’t mind taking advantage of them when it suits him. Even in the end, when he restores a tiny measure of justice to a badly wronged woman, he’s just gotta get a piece of booty for his trouble, because, hell–it’s what she wants.

I look forward to reading more of MacDonald’s work. I just hope that in subsequent novels, McGee’s blood starts flowing a little more toward his heart and mind, a little less toward that other place.

 

An Award and a Sale

Impala won first place for genre fiction in the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. They announced it in the March/April issue of the magazine.

 

Writer’s Digest Awards

That comes on top of Amazon naming the book one of the best mystery/thrillers of the month in September, 2016, and IndieReader naming it one of the best of the year. It’s nice to get a little recognition.

Impala will be on sale for $0.99 during the week of Feb. 20-25, 2017.

 

Thirty Years a Detective

30yearsadetective

Although this is by no means a great book, it is well worth reading as a historical document. The book is not a biography or autobiography of Allan Pinkerton. If you want that, look elsewhere. It is a fascinating description of the practice of crime in 19th century America.

This book’s main flaws are 1) it often reads like advertising or even propaganda for the abilities of the Pinkerton agency to thwart crime and protect moneyed interests, and 2) the prose is wordy and overwrought, even by 19th century standards.

There is more than enough interesting material in here to excuse both of those flaws. As one Goodreads reviewer notes, Pinkerton (or his ghostwriter) tends to write that many of the criminals in this book were geniuses, or somehow super-criminals. Actually, many of them were, which is why they’re included in this volume. If the book described the cat-and-mouse game between smart, resourceful detectives and crude, run-of-the-mill criminals, it wouldn’t be too interesting.

There’s an entire chapter on “burglars,” which in this book refers specifically to those who crack bank safes (as opposed to typical house burglars). Of the safe-breaker, Pinkerton says:

…experience has demonstrated beyond question that he is possessed of more than ordinary mechanical knowledge, and that his energy and patience are phenomenal. Nor is there any reason why this should not be so. The burglar is trained to his vocation by the hardest discipline known to man.

Pinkerton goes on to say:

So exceedingly proficient have many of them become in the art of safe-opening, that I have known of more than one instance where burglars have been taken from their prison cells to open safes and vaults whose owners have forgotten the complicated combinations…

The “safe-openers” of the 19th century were akin to the hackers of the 21st century. They had to outwit the most sophisticated security designs of the cleverest minds of the era. But unlike today’s hackers, they had to do their work onsite, in the dark, almost always between the bank’s closing on Saturday evening and when its reopening on Monday morning.

Like today’s best hackers, the safe-openers worked with a set of specially-made tools, often of ingenious design, and many of which they built by hand specifically for the task. The best of these criminals carefully studied safe manufacture and design, knowing that they could defeat the security of the safe only by attacking it at its weakest point. Pinkerton provides illustrations and descriptions of some of these tools, and describes how they were used in specific heists.

A number of bank burglaries described in the book depend less on cleverness than on perseverance. Sometimes burglars, like hackers, ignored the obvious point of attack and found a way into the vault that no one would have ever anticipated. (If you’ve seen the film Sexy Beast, you’ll have an idea of how this type of burglary works. It depends on tremendous audacity, patience, and perseverance.)

The book also contains a long chapter on counterfeiting, which describes a number of fascinating characters. Counterfeiters are by nature patient, subtle, wily, wary, detail oriented, and highly skilled. Compared with common thieves, who rip people off one at a time, counterfeiters operate on a huge scale, and by the time anyone recognizes that false currency is in circulation, the perpetrators are gone.

Thirty Years a Detective is most interesting as a description of how crime was practiced in the 19th century, and how it was detected. In this book, as in The Expressman and the Detective, Pinkerton shows that there is a fine line between the top-notch detective and the top-notch criminal. Both are deceptive and elusive. Both employ similar tactics to case their targets. Both are preoccupied with the questions “How does one deceive an honest citizen?” and “What weaknesses in the system can I exploit for gain?”

The criminal works forward from these questions to engineer his crime. The detective works backward to figure out what was done, how, and by whom. The criminal merely has to commit the act. The detective has the much tougher job of proving it was done, who did it, and how. In this book and in others, Pinkerton admires and laments the misapplied genius of his toughest adversaries, and it really is an interesting read.

In Memory of O’Neil McGean

oneil_mcgean

I knew O’Neil since I was about 12 years old. We called him Neil back then. He was about 16 years old, and my mother used to have him come to the house to watch my brothers and me when she went out. Neil’s main job was to keep my older brother, Dan, from beating the crap out of my younger brother, Paul. Neil was very good at distracting Dan, who was 13 at the time, and the two became close friends.

After he graduated high school, Neil worked for the small business my mother owned and ran. The company collected data from the Labor Department and from the Securities and Exchange commission, verified it and cleaned it up, then published it in volumes that were sold to professionals in the financial industry. Neil’s job was to call the companies that had filed documents with Labor and SEC, and verify that all the data was still accurate. He was good at it, because he was good at talking to people.

After he left that job, he started working at the Charles Jourdan store on Wisconsin Avenue, near Friendship Heights. How he pulled that off, I still do not know. The guy didn’t shave half the time, he didn’t dress particularly well, and he seemed to always have a toothpick or a plastic straw hanging out of his mouth. (Maybe some of his other friends from that time will remember how, whenever he went to McDonalds he always came out with a pocket full of straws. He’d stick one in his mouth and chew on it for a while, and then when he got sick of it, he’d unwrap another one, like it was a fresh cigar.) Anyway, this somewhat slovenly guy somehow wound up being so good at selling high-end shoes to rich women that they promoted him to manager.

He stayed there for quite a while before he decided it was time to move on. And what’s the logical next step in that career path? Why, landscaper, of course! He left the fancy shoe store and started rooting around in the dirt. In the summer of 1988, we were both working again at the same company. I forget the name of the place, but the headquarters was in Rockville, and they had a fleet of 30 or 40 white pickups, along with a few larger trucks. About 90% of the business was mowing, so that’s what 90% of the employees did every day.

We used to roll in a little before 7 A.M. Neil and I drove separately, but we both liked to get there early because there were only three or four fast self-propelled mowers and whoever got there first got to take them for the day. We were also both pretty particular about which truck we drove, and the trucks too were first-come, first-serve. Almost the whole fleet was Dodge, and the Dodge trucks of the late 80’s had the brake release directly above the parking brake pedal. When you pulled the release, the pedal would shoot up and crush your fingers. I always tried to take one of the Ford trucks to avoid getting my fingers crushed. Neil seemed to favor one really old truck that reminded me of Sanford and Son. (It wasn’t quite that old, but you get the picture.)

Each morning, we’d be assigned a partner, and we’d go out in teams of two, with a list of 20 or 30 lawns to cut. Neil and I were both very efficient, and they’d give us the longest lists. We’d take the fast mowers and head out with our partners.

One day, after the rains had made the grass unusually tall and thick, I remember Neil had his truck all loaded up with two mowers and a trimmer and blower, and he was pacing around the shop and cursing because he had a huge list and his partner had not shown up.  Neil called the guy’s house, but there was no answer.

I headed out with my partner, and we had a lot of trouble getting through the high, wet grass. We typically ended our days at the Montgomery County Transfer Station up in Gaithersburg, where we’d dump our truckload of grass. Actually, we had pitch the grass out with pitchforks. Unlike the dry yellow grass of late summer, the tall green grass would get heavy in the truck bed. We’d start pitching it out, and when we dug down to the middle of the pile, it would be steaming. The decomposing grass got so hot that if you fell on it (which I did many times), it burned your skin.

On that particular day, my partner and I were in the transfer station before noon, unloading more than a full day’s worth of clippings. We were only half way through our list, and we knew we’d be back later with another full load. A couple other trucks from our company were unloading next to us, and trucks from other companies were streaming in as well. Everyone was having the same problem.

We usually started around 7 AM and finished around 3 or 3:30. That day, my partner and I finished the last yard around 5:00, and we had a long drive from Bethesda to Gaithersburg to dump our grass. We were on River Road, rolling up to a red light, in the left turn lane so we could make a U-turn. Neil’s truck was up ahead, already stopped at the light, and he had a mountain of wet, heavy grass piled high above the top of the cab. His mower was on top of that mountain. I have no idea how he got it up there, but I imagine he was cursing the whole time. The back of the truck was sagging so low that the wheels were almost scraping against the wheel wells.

I pulled up next to him, and I said, “Hey Neil!”

He was angry and tired, and his face was sunburnt.

I couldn’t help teasing him. “Did you get through that whole list?”

He said, “I have one more to go.” Then he held up his middle finger and repeated. “One.”

I said, “Where’s your partner?”

“Looking for a new job.”

That was about the most annoyed I’ve ever seen him. Then he started laughing.

When the light turned green, I started my U-turn. He hit the gas, and his overloaded Sanford and Son truck stalled. As I headed up the road in the other direction, I heard him yell, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck!!!!!!”

I didn’t see him again until the next day. He came in a little late, which was unusual for him, and he walked right up to me, laughing, and he said, “You know what happened yesterday? Right after I saw you? Like one minute after I saw you?”

“What?”

He told me he got the truck started again after the stall, and it took a while to get the thing up to speed because it was straining badly under the load. He was approaching a yellow light, which he wanted to run, because he wanted to finish that last lawn and get that miserable day over with as soon as possible. He sped up for the light, trying to squeeze through, and assumed the driver of the school bus in front of him would do the same. The school bus stopped, and Neil said that it wasn’t until he slammed on the brakes that he realized an overloaded truck takes a lot longer to stop than an empty one.

He was laughing when he told me, “I rear-ended that bus so hard, I snapped the truck right in half.” The frame of the truck broke just behind the cab, the mower flew up over the bus, and 2000 pounds of grass went all over the road. Neil wasn’t hurt, and there was no one on the bus but the driver. The cops were pissed about having to clean up all that grass in the middle of rush hour, and Neil wound up stuck at the accident scene for an hour or two. After that, he went out and got drunk.

Somehow, improbable things were always happening to him, and he would report them as if they were nothing out of the ordinary. Like the time he found an envelope in the alley with $2000 or $3000 in it. Neil, the good Samaritan, turned the money over to the police, because he thought whoever had lost it really needed to have it back. He asked the cops what would happen to the money if no one claimed it, and they said in that case, it would be his.

A few months went by and no one claimed the money. When Neil tried to get it back, the cops said they were keeping it. He was pretty pissed about that. He said that if he ever found a big wad of cash again, he’d just put it in his pocket and keep his mouth shut. He also said, “You know, I wish I could have learned that lesson with, like, fifty dollars.”

In 1993 and 1994, Neil had his own landscaping business, and for several months, I was his sole employee. We liked working together, because we were both efficient. We’d spend the days out in Montgomery County, cutting grass and cleaning up yards, then pick up a six pack on the way back into DC.

I’d see him now and then in the evenings walking by the Fox and Hound on 17th Street, where I used to drink at the sidewalk tables with my friends. There was one point when we weren’t doing any work, and I hadn’t seen him for several weeks. Maybe it was winter. I don’t remember. But when I finally did run into him and asked where he’d been, he said, “I was walking down the street, and I got this sharp pain in my side, and then I just doubled over and passed out. Right on the sidewalk. I woke up in the hospital, and they told me they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, so they just took my appendix out. That must have been it, because I feel fine now.”

I think he was living down near 9th and O Streets around that time. He had bought a house in a neighborhood known for its drug dealers and prostitutes. This was during or near the end of the crack epidemic in DC, when the city was the murder capital of the US. There was a crack house across the street, and Neil would watch the dealers and the addicts quite openly, and report to the police who was there and what they were doing. The cops raided the house so many times, they finally shut it down. The dealers and the users were so sick of being harassed, they just left.

Neil spent a lot of time cleaning up the yard, because he wanted the house to look good, and he wanted to provide a visual symbol that someone cared about the neighborhood, as well as an example that showed that if you try to make things better, they will eventually get better.

Anyone who lived in DC in the 70s, 80s, and 90s knows that it was a city of deep racial tension. In the late 80s and early 90s, DC was had the highest per-capita income of any major city in the US, and the highest poverty rate. Think about that. The white minority had more money than almost every other group in every other city in the US. The black majority had almost nothing. And there was a lot of mistrust and resentment on both sides. The city’s own mayor, Marion Barry, once publicly refused to plow the streets of Northwest DC after a blizzard (even though he had plowed out the rest of the city), because, as he put it, “Those people didn’t vote for me.”

Down at Ninth and O, Neil was the only white person in a tough neighborhood that was many years away from becoming gentrified. On the one hand, his convictions were powerful enough that he would risk his personal safety almost daily to shut down the crack house across the street. On the other hand, he often felt in danger. He told me that he used to weed his garden with one hand while he held a pistol in the other, just so people knew he had a gun. (And by the way, handguns were illegal in DC back then.) When his neighbors said hi, we would smile and wave back with his gun hand.

The gun, and the fact that he so frequently talked to the police in front of his house, led many of the neighbors to believe that he was a cop. After a while, they started addressing him as “Officer Neil.” He thought that was funny, but he also liked that it provided some protection, and made people less likely to mess with him.

He told me that one day, one of the neighbors came banging on his door, crying. She said her boyfriend had just beat her up, and she wanted Neil to come over and arrest him. Neil said he didn’t want people to know he wasn’t a cop, so he put his gun in his pocket and went over to the woman’s house and starting talking to her angry, violent boyfriend. He actually managed to calm the guy down. Anyone who knew Neil knows he could connect with anyone, in any situation, because he was a good listener, he was empathetic, and he was a straight talker. There was never any bullshit with him. He got the guy to leave, then he talked to the woman about filing a formal report and getting a restraining order.

Somewhere in this time frame, Neil was living with a guy named Brian, who I think was first guy Neil was really in love with. I don’t remember if that was just before Ninth and O, of if that was at Ninth and O. Neil and Brian had this giant Saint Bernard that was always slobbering on everything, and the only toy the dog would play with was a 16-pound bowling ball that he pushed around the house with his nose. The dog would nudge the ball down the basement stairs, and watch it thump down each step, one by one. Then he’d slowly turn his giant head to Neil, as if to say, get that for me, will you?

Over the course of twenty minutes, Neil must have hauled that bowling ball up the stairs a dozen times. His fingers kept slipping out of the holes because they were filled with dog slobber. Finally, he said to me, “You see how backwards this is? Most people throw the ball, and the dog has to get it. Some of my friends say this dog isn’t very bright, but you can see who’s running the show here.”

I only saw Neil upset twice in my life. Once was after he and Brian split up. He didn’t go into details, but I could tell the end of that relationship really hurt him. The other was on a drive home after a long day of landscaping, when we were both covered with dirt. We stopped at a little grocery store off of Connecticut Avenue in Kensington and picked up a six-pack of Budweiser. We were drinking them on the drive back into city, joking and having a light-hearted conversation.

As we were going around Chevy Chase Circle, I mentioned something about him being left-handed. He got upset, suddenly and inexplicably. And he glanced over toward Blessed Sacrament, just east of the circle, and there was a lot of emotion in his voice when he said, “Those fucking nuns used to smack my knuckles with a ruler when they were teaching me to write. They said, you’re using the wrong hand. Use the other hand, like everyone else. Why couldn’t they just understand I was made that way?”

When I first met Neil, he was still in high school, still dating girls, or at least flirting with them, including my cousin, Regina. He was probably beginning to suspect by then that he was gay. I don’t know if coming out was a struggle for him, but I know that, on some level, the nuns got to him. If being left handed was unacceptable in the eyes of the God they represented, how much worse was it to be gay? When he finally chose to come out, he chose to be the person God made, and not the one anyone else was telling him to be.

The honesty that everyone who knew him could sense in everything he said and did started there, in his acceptance of himself, and pervaded every aspect of his character. He was honest to the point of trying to give back an envelope full of cash to someone he had never even met. And in the end, he was robbed and killed by people who just wanted to take from him the money he didn’t really care that much about. His first love, Brian, who was also an unusually generous and open person, came to same end just a few years ago. Someone killed him just to get his bank cards and empty out his accounts.

All I can think is, what the fuck? That would be Neil’s response too. I can hear him saying it. He had a perfect facial expression to go with that question. If you took a photograph of him when he uttered those words, you could show the photo to anyone and ask, “What is this man thinking?” And the viewer would respond without hesitation, “What the fuck?”

Neil, I am glad to have known you, and I am sorry you are gone. There is no replacement.

 

Impala Wins Writer’s Digest Award

I just got news that Impala won first place for genre fiction in the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. The genre fiction category covers all genres (mystery, thriller, sci-fi, romance, historical, etc.). The announcement and the book will appear in the March/April 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest.

Impala Is Here!

In addition to Amazon.com adding Impala to its list of best of the month list for September, they also added it to this week’s Kindle Select 25 list.

I got word yesterday that Bibliolabs and Library Journal added Impala to their Self-E Select list as one of the notable indie titles of the month. They’ll help make it available through local libraries around the country. Since Kirkus also featured it in their September issue, I’m interested to see if libraries pick up the paperback.

In other news, I wrote a guest post for Elizabeth A. White’s blog the other day about Impala and the tradition of classic American crime novels. And today, The Feathered Quill posted an interview with me along with a nice review of Impala.

IndieReader and Reader’s Favorite both gave the book five stars. Now I’m waiting to hear from actual readers.

If you read it, please leave a review on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or Goodreads, or wherever you like to post your opinions. Reader reviews are usually the best testimony, and I’d like to hear from you.

You can buy Impala at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

indieapproved 5star-shiny-web self-e

Writing and Selling

My new book, Impala, was finished in May–not just the writing, but the editing, proofreading, design, and layout. I decided to have it ready four months before release so I could do some of the promotional work that traditional publishers do: get the book into the hands of reviewers, talk to bookstores and news outlets. The ebook market is quite competitive, and like the app market for smart phones, it often seems like a race to the bottom. The writers and app developers who appear to be winning are the ones who are working really hard to sell their product for 99 cents, or to give it away for free in hopes of drawing attention to their paid works.

In the book market, hard copies still account for the bulk of sales, so I wanted to spend some time trying to get Impala into stores. Few of the ebook authors cranking out formulaic series put much effort into selling physical books, so I thought there might be a little less competition there. I’ve also noticed that the indie titles that tend to sell well on Amazon belong to genres where people tend to read quickly and in high volume: romance, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy and horror. Amazon is to Kindle readers what 7-11 is to stoners: a place to find something quick, cheap, tasty, and forgettable that will tide you over until the next time you get the munchies.

The first step in selling to bookstores, so I thought, was getting good reviews from the reputable sources that booksellers actually read: Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, local and regional newspapers and magazines. To make a long story short, most newspapers and magazines state explicitly that they will not accept self-published work. Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist say they welcome your submission, but they may or may not review it, and if they don’t review it, they don’t give any explanation why.

I spent a few hours a week for many months reading independent book review blogs, and made a list of bloggers who might like my book. I wrote individually crafted emails to each of them, but only one agreed to look at Impala. In fact, she was the only one who even acknowledged receiving my email. Many independent bloggers also now also say they will not review self-published books. I understand that, because there’s a flood of them now, and no one wants to wade through that slush pile in their spare time for free.

In the end, phase one of my strategy yielded a number of very good reviews, but not all of them came from the prestigious sources I was after. While the book was out for review, I started talking to bookstore owners and managers, and I learned a few things there as well. If you’re an unknown author, they don’t want your book taking up limited shelf space unless 1) the book takes place in their town or pertains directly to some local interest (like a book about farming in farm country), 2) you’re willing to do a reading or event in their store, and 3) you have some general marketing plan that shows you’re serious about promoting the book. The marketing plan should include a series of appearances on radio, at bookstores, and events, etc.

My first book, Warren Lane, is published through Ingram and listed in Ingram’s catalog under standard terms, which means a 55% wholesale discount, and the book is returnable. I went into a few stores and asked the manager to look the book up in their system to see how it appeared, then I asked them if there was anything in the listing itself that would prevent them from ordering the book. They all said, “Well, it’s Print On Demand (POD). We don’t stock those, but if a customer comes in and requests the book, we’ll order a copy.” That left me thinking that most customers would just order the title online from Amazon or Barnes and Noble and have it shipped right to their house.

Print On Demand makes sense, both economically and environmentally. When putting out a new title, publishers have traditionally guessed how many copies they could sell, and then ordered a print run of 10,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 copies. They distribute those to bookstores and regional warehouses, and hope they got the number right. If the book sells better than expected, they order another print run, and hope they can get the title back onto store shelves before the first printing runs out. If the book doesn’t sell, they wind up shredding thousands of copies, losing money and wasting trees.

Print On Demand neatly solves the problems of having enough copies available and avoiding returns, but it has a stigma, as Brook Warner notes. Even though the big publishers now use POD for parts of their backlists, bookstore owners think POD means either 1) the author is self-published and therefore won’t sell, or 2) the publisher didn’t have enough faith in the book to issue an initial print run, so why should they take a chance on it?

Indies face yet another problem in bookstores. Traditional publishers send book reps out to stores to sell new titles months before they hit the market. The book rep meets face-to-face with the store owner to discuss upcoming titles. The rep and the manager have a trust relationship. They may talk every few months. As an indie author, you’re trying to get shelf space from someone who’s never heard of you, and the space you’re trying to get may have been reserved months ago.

All these obstacles led me to focus once again on online sales. I had learned a number of things about the online market after publishing Warren Lane. First, the promotional sites like Just Kindle Books and Kindle Nation Daily catered to readers of genre fiction, and if your book didn’t fall neatly into one genre, it’s going to be difficult to market. Second, the books that sell well are not necessarily well written or insightful or memorable in any way, but they do give the reader what they’re after. (I noticed that most of the hot-selling genre fiction on the promotional sites fell into the Romance category. I used Amazon’s Look Inside feature to read the opening chapters of some of those books, and I got a little education there too. I had thought “Romance” meant something like courtship and Prince Charming and happily ever after. Instead, I learned that women like to read porn, instead of watching it like men.)

Finally, most successful indie authors are writing series within one or more genres. They have a detective or a fantasy hero or a spaceship and crew that readers follow from one adventure to the next. The book covers in each series have a similar look, so readers can identify them, and once the series has two or more titles, the author will give away the first book, or sell it for 99 cents, to bring in new readers. That’s a good strategy for writers, and it makes economic sense. The software market these days follows a similar pattern, with free and paid versions of the same app, “freemium” web services that give you bonus features if you’re willing to pay, and open source software that companies give away, making their money through customization and support instead of sales.

What’s disheartening to me is what the genre-series model says about readers: that they only want what’s familiar, and if the book they read today isn’t just like the one they read yesterday, they might be disappointed. I’ve never quite understood that kind of reader, because I’ve always been that kind of reader. I read to find new insights, new depth and perspective. Bookstores tend to be full of books that offer those things, while the hot-selling indie titles on Amazon tend to be closer in spirit and substance to the mass-market paperbacks at the grocery checkout.

So if you’re an indie author and you’re not interested in writing a commercial series, you’re in a bind. Your real readers are in bookstores, but getting into those is difficult.

I had been lamenting this after publishing my first book, and as I was beginning to promote my second. Then, recently, I came across a series of books by Chris Fox, which embraces all of the things I had once lamented about the online book market. In a book called Write to Market, Fox describes the process he followed to produce a top-selling ebook. First, identify a sub-genre on Amazon that has strong sales and is underserved. That’s one in which the top few sellers are selling very well, but the tenth and twentieth best-selling items on the list are not moving many copies at all. After identifying a sub-genre, Fox read the top few titles and figured out their formula. In his case, he found books about spaceships with maverick captains having to fend off some alien threat that might wipe out the whole human race. The final part of Fox’s advice is to write a book that follows that formula, give it a cover and a blurb similar to the covers and blurbs of the best sellers, do a little marketing, and collect your paycheck.

Fox says he took a lot of flack for the process he described in Write to Market, with a number of readers and writers calling him a cynic and a sellout. I actually think he’s really smart. If you want to make money, you’ll do much better embracing the market than complaining about it. And I agree with his point that if you choose a sub-genre that you actually enjoy reading, you can still write a unique and compelling book, despite the fact that you’re following a formula. Think about how many painters have done landscapes and battle scenes, and what a different feeling you get from two people presenting two different views of the same subject.

If you look at fiction from a business perspective, it looks like a bunch of people creating products that no one asked for, and then wringing their hands because no one is buying what they made. Most businesses, from home building down to cupcake baking, first ask, “What do people actually buy?” And then they say, “OK, we’ll make some of those.” Writers and painters and musicians, especially the more intellectual ones, think their creations are special and that they’re entitled to an exception to the market rules. I’m guilty of that myself sometimes. We might as well expect the law of gravity not to apply to us.

So Fox’s books got me thinking about why I read and why I write. What do I look for in a book, and what do I try to create in a book? Fox has another book called 5000 Words Per Hour, which describes why and how you should write 5000 words per hour if you want to make it as an indie author. (For the why part, the short of it is that Kindle readers like series, and they’ll binge read if they can. The faster you can put books in front of them, the happier they’ll be. As your sales increase, you become more visible to new readers on Amazon, creating a cycle of sales growth.)

Now I can probably write 5000 words per hour. I can certainly type that fast. After all these years as a software developer, I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the keyboard. But I know I couldn’t produce the work I want to produce if I were writing at that speed. I tried to formulate the reason why, but I couldn’t quite do it until yesterday, when I was looking at paintings in the art museum in Richmond.

I was admiring the work of Kehinde Wiley, who himself has something of a formula, and when I looked past his message to the quality and detail of his work, I was finally able to describe why I can’t be a 5000-word-per-hour genre writer. It comes down to this: There is no story we can tell that hasn’t already been told. The stories that stick with us are the ones that are told in a way that moves us. They have a little more heart, a little more depth and style than what we’re used to finding. In telling yet another version of a story we’ve heard before, they reveal a something new, reaching us in a way the other tellings didn’t.

I like writing that shows a willingness to open up and look deep, that shows attention to composition and detail, building not just the story, but an overall experience in the reader’s mind by working on many levels at once. That kind of writing doesn’t really happen at 5000 words per hour. In the online writing market, choosing the challenges of depth and detail means giving up your shot at being a first-tier seller. You’re aiming at a smaller, pickier audience that’s harder to find, and the chances of them discovering you without the marketing channels available to traditional publishers is slim.

So for now, I look at writing and earning a living as two different things. Software pays the bills, and when I have time to do it, writing is the creative outlet that keeps me going.