One Bite at a Time




Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Nick Forte, Professional Investigator

I’ve had a soft spot for Nick Forte from the start. He first appeared in a parody written for friends, where each friend also had a small role to play. He grew into my personal rebellion against the contemporary stereotype of the damaged hero.

Forte is a regular guy, with regular guy issues. A failed musician who spent a few years in an Army band trying to get his chops together, he became a public school teacher in Chicago. After a couple of years he heard the police department was hiring, his teaching time counted toward retirement, and he’d feel safer on the streets, armed, than in a classroom, defenseless. He liked the work but not the politics and discipline, drifted into private investigations. As A Small Sacrifice opens, he has a small office on Printers’ Row, with one employee, a secretary who also does record and background checks.

He’s divorced. (Musician, then cop; damn right he’s divorced.) He’s gotten over losing a wife; his greatest worry now is keeping as close to their daughter as he’d can. He’s not particularly happy or unhappy. He has things he likes to do, things he doesn’t like but has to do, and, in his late thirties, he has a course set for how the rest of his life will play out, or at least the foreseeable future. He drinks in moderation, doesn’t smoke, never uses drugs, and engages in no risky sexual behavior. Keep the tone and change the specifics and this description could apply to 75% of working- and middle-class men.

So why write about him?

The Nick Forte who makes a guest appearance in Grind Joint is not the man who appears in A Small Sacrifice. People tell him he’s a better father than most who live in the home, and he knows it’s bullshit; it eats at him every day. He knows he can’t be there for Caroline as much as he’d like, so he tries to pay it forward. Maybe if he takes an interest in helping others with their children some karmic dividend will accrue and he can sleep easier about Caroline’s fortunes with boyfriends and flat tires.

The problem is, the cases he takes that allow him to feed this need don’t turn out how they should. They’re violent, and, though he gives his best effort, things aren’t put right. As he says in A Small Sacrifice:

There aren’t a lot of happy endings in my business. People don’t often come to me unless something serious is already wrong. A cheating partner or spouse, blackmail, a relative who doesn’t want to be found. I’m supposed to put Humpty-Dumpty back together so life can go on like it never happened.

It never works that way. The fabric of peoples’ lives is too badly torn for the mend job to be invisible. If you’re real lucky, you get justice. If you’re just regular lucky, you may get retribution. The best you can reasonably hope for is some closure.

I wrote four Forte novels before turning to the current series. The violence and unsatisfactory results charge their toll, case by case, until he becomes the man who appears in Penns River to visit his cousin unfazed by a situation even his former MP cousin thinks twice about. His is the story of how a regular man can be worn down by events he lacks the ability to control and the will to avoid. I hope you enjoy his trip. I really don’t know where it ends.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Two Bits of Good News

Paul Brazill runs an excellent blog, titled You Would Say That, Wouldn’t You? It’s always an entertaining source for information, interviews, and writing stuff in general. Today he risks having people take it seriously by conducting one of his patented short, sharp, interviews with me.

Paul’s a good guy, and highly respected within the community. I’m flattered to have been included with the other folks he’s swapped Qs and As with.

“Why would Paul Brazill interview the likes of you?” can’t be far from your mind. My newest Kindle book, A Small Sacrifice, is now available at Amazon. Just in case you might want to risk $2.99 on it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Leighton Gage

Taking a break from relentless self-promotion today to comment on the passing of a good friend I never met.

I was fortunate to be asked to review Leighton Gage’s A Vine in the Blood when it was released several years ago. I’d not heard of him then, but Stephanie Padilla at New Mystery Reader had developed a good sense of what I liked and asked me to give it a try. My first thought was of how much the book reminded me of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Those familiar with me know I don’t toss this level of praise around lightly.

An interview was arranged, where I quickly learned Leighton’s writing was no better than second in his list of talents; he was a true mensch. Gracious with a reviewer who had zero publishing cred at the time, his enthusiasm and good humor were infectious. The interview interaction grew into an e-mail friendship. We didn’t correspond a lot, but when we did the exchanges were entertaining—to me, at least—and enthusiastic. A true gentleman, he was unceasingly appreciative of any mention I gave to his writing, with never a hint he expected a good review, though he never needed worry along those lines; his writing never disappointed.

He was also an ardent supporter of my writing. I still have the emails he sent after reading Wild Bill and Grind Joint; his Amazon reviews provided fodder for the blurbs on this blog. His support, along with several others, went a long way toward convincing me I wasn’t flattering myself by thinking I was a writer. For that alone I owe him a great debt.

I never shook Leighton’s hand, nor heard his voice. I was an admirer of his work and of him as a person, and I hope he thought of me as a friend. He will be greatly missed on multiple levels. My sincere and deepest sympathy goes out to his wife, Eide, who wrote in Facebook:

Should we cry because he died or smile because he lived?

The crying will pass. The smiles will last us forever.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Why a Private Eye?

It’s common to read of the demise of the PI novel. In a post-9/11 world, people seem to be more drawn to escapist, non-stop action thrillers starring the superhuman heroes they’d like—and many in authority would like them—to think of as who stands between regular folk and becoming fodder for the 24x7 news cycle.

So why am I reaching back for books I worked on as much as twelve years ago, if no one wants to read them? It’s not like I made so much money from Wild Bill and Worst Enemies I can write what I want and thumb my nose at conventional wisdom. I didn’t make any money worth mentioning from either book, and I’m not going to retire on the proceeds from A Small Sacrifice. I have no sales to lose. I can write—and publish—whatever I want, and I want to put out some PI novels.

Part of this is to inspire what I hope will be cross-pollination: Nick Forte plays a supporting, but pivotal, role in Grind Joint. (Available for pre-order now; in stores November 21, in case you forgot.) He walked into Penns River as a fully formed character, having already been the star of four novels and a flash piece. All I had to do was plug him into the story and let him have at it. People tend to like the character, and I have more of him to share, at little investment of time and effort. It seems to be a natural.

That sounds like a good reason. It might also be an excuse.

The fact is, I still believe that PI fiction, when done right, is the highest form of crime fiction. As I wrote here several years ago, cops are about closing cases; PIs are about closure. As important as it is to find a legitimate reason for the fictional PI to investigate a crime—they rarely do that, you know—it’s the PI who can dig into the peripheral issues surrounding the causes and the victims. The cop needs an arrest and, ideally, a conviction. That may be when the PI’s job begins.

Or maybe he’s working the other end, where there’s no overt crime to be investigated, but something stinks to high heaven and he’s hired to look into it. Or even something that doesn’t seem like much when he starts turns into way more than he, or his client, bargained for. As one man—possibly with assistance—looking in from outside the system, he is free to observe and comment on things in ways cops and prosecutor can’t.

This is likely why the best PI stories are written in the first person. A wise, late friend of mine told me once the benefit of writing in first person is the ability to characterize the narrator by what he notices, thinks is important, and how he chooses to describe it; the ultimate in “show, don’t tell.” Why do Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Spenser, Elvis Cole, and Ed Loy inspire such loyalty in their readers? Because we lived in their heads and know them as intimately as we know any real person. Maybe more so. And we like tem. They’re not perfect, but we’d like to think we’d respond much as they do to the extraordinary circumstances into which their authors place them.

It’s become a cliché, and sometimes the subject of ridicule—as in Robert Altman’s film adaptation of The Long Goodbye—but I believe Raymond Chandler’s description of the detective hero from his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” best defines the most lasting detectives, and is still what I aspire to, for better or for worse:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

I was not aware of Chandler’s thoughts when I became enamored of detective fiction, nor when I first came up with the idea for Nick Forte. I was all in when I realized Chandler had summed up what I looked for in a detective hero far more eloquently than I could have conceived it.

There are those who would say such a man is an anachronism; Altman said so forty years ago. It’s entirely possible they are right, and I am wrong in believing such a man exists today, or is necessary. If I am wrong, I don’t want to know about it. I’d never get out of bed.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Small Sacrifice – Chapter One

My first Nick Forte detective novel, A Small Sacrifice, will be available for Kindle next week. Below is the first chapter.

 

A SMALL SACRIFICE

CHAPTER ONE

 

I wore my good suit, the one that fit when I didn’t carry a gun. Visiting an old woman with money didn’t require a weapon, even for me.

Shirley Mitchell hadn’t said much over the phone. It didn’t take Mycroft Holmes to know what she wanted. Her son ran Mitchell Construction, the best-known general contractor in the Chicagoland area. Doug’s notoriety didn’t come from the business, not that Chicago’s construction industry lacked for disrepute. Our conversation would likely focus on what made him unique.

I spent most of the drive north on the Edens and US-41 to Lake City thinking of reasons not to take the job. Shirley Mitchell would want me to right what she was sure was a wrong. I had a more mundane perception of a professional investigator’s job. The Thin Man can go on crusades. I had child support payments to make.

A single cloud marred the brilliant sunshine of the first truly warm day of spring. The cloud held steady on a line between the sun and the gray stone house, kept there by cross winds off Lake Michigan. Its shadow dripped like crepe from the corners of the roof. The gloom seemed to breathe as my car’s approach altered my angle of vision.

I had plenty of time to watch the cloud not move. What appeared as a pipe stem from the street became a driveway meandering two hundred yards before curling back onto itself. A fountain surrounded by an English garden filled the loop, its profusion of emerging colors failing to offset the house’s doldrums. No cars in the driveway. The garage to my left could handle at least four, keeping them from cluttering up the front of the house and annoying the homeowners’ association.

The place was flawless as a dollhouse under glass. Every grain of sand in its place between the flagstones on the path to the steps. Not a wilted leaf or limp petal on a flower. I wondered how they kept snow from landing where it wasn’t wanted. Even the birdsongs sounded well-rehearsed, except for the random cawing of a perverse crow.

I rang the bell and turned to let the spring air splash across my face. Trees dotted the landscape in front of the house, oaks and maples that had been there awhile and showed no inclination to leave. Two squirrels with perfect coats chased each other up and down one of the maples. The only thing missing was Snow White walking by with a woodland creature on her shoulder.

The door opened and I faced a slender middle-aged woman with facial features sharp enough to cut a roast. She wore a simple white blouse and a conservative skirt ending at the bottom of her knee. Her bearing said “servant” better than a nametag. She spoke formally without being friendly or unfriendly. “Yes, sir? May I help you?”

“You can let Mrs. Mitchell know Nick Forte’s here.”

“Yes, sir. Would you care to step inside?”

The house was well ventilated, too early in the year for air conditioning. The breeze eased its way through a window like a considerate guest wiping his feet before entering, bringing in the transitional smell that comes when windows are opened for the first time in the spring. Patterns sewn into the curtains created shadowy kaleidoscopes on the floor and opposite wall.

Shirley Mitchell didn’t keep me waiting. Average height for a woman, probably a little heavier than her doctor preferred. White hair piled into grandmother’s curls, matching pearls on each earlobe. The hand I shook had the fragile smoothness of age. Her pallor ran deeper than anything sun and fresh air could fix.

“Hello, Mister Forte. Thank you for coming on such short notice. I know you must be very busy.”

“Not a problem, Mrs. Mitchell. People who call me don’t usually care to be kept waiting.”

“I imagine not. I still appreciate the effort. George Lavelle spoke very highly of you.”

George Lavelle’s daughter once showed the bad judgment to allow a boyfriend to videotape them engaged in activities more Greek than French. She tried to break off the relationship and the boyfriend proved himself more enamored of Ms. Lavelle’s inheritance than of her enthusiastic sexual preferences. He threatened to give copies of the tapes to her father’s acquaintances and business associates unless they came to an understanding. Lavelle asked me to reason with the youth. The understanding we reached bore no resemblance to the young entrepreneur’s original design.

“George is a good guy. I was glad to be able to help.”

“He was pleased with your results, and with your discretion. Would you like coffee or tea? Something cold?”

“No, ma’am, I’m all set, thank you.”

“If you change your mind, let me know.” She dismissed the servant and I followed Shirley into the room from which she had entered.

An old-fashioned sitting room, more comfortable than stodgy. A sofa and love seat near the corner opposite the door with two wing chairs flanking what might be a Chippendale coffee table. The scent of furniture polish strong enough to be noticed without beating you over the head about it. Another smell, too, something familiar I couldn’t place. The sofa had the look of something you could sprawl on for several hours before finding a reason to move. Shirley sat in one of the wing chairs; I took the other.

She wore the expression of a person with something nasty in her mouth, too polite to spit it out. I played with the crease of my slacks to give her time to work up the gumption to tell me what she wanted.

“I don’t suppose it’s much of a mystery why I called you, is it?” she said.

“I could make an educated guess. I haven’t thought much about specifics.”

“Really?” She arched an eyebrow. “I assumed your imagination would have explored every angle by now.”

“It’s not usually a good idea to give your imagination too much freedom in my line of work,” I said. “Not without facts. Imagination wants to get cute. Answers are usually simple. I only let my imagination out to play when I’m stuck.” Passing on the sofa had been a mistake. The chair wasn’t as comfortable as it looked.

“It seems obvious, now that you say so. I suppose logic rules in your investigations.”

“Flexibility rules in my investigations. There’s a place for logic and a place for imagination, just like there’s a place for intuition and a place for hard work. Whatever it takes.” I smiled to take the sting out of what I said next. “You’re stalling me, Mrs. Mitchell.”

“Yes, I am,” she said, the words falling over each other like people fleeing a fire. She picked at the hem of her dress, straightened it, folded it over, put it back the way it was. “You know about my grandson.” She couldn’t quite bring herself to make eye contact.

“Just what I’ve read in the papers.”

“Please tell me what you know.”

“It’s usually better if you tell me what you want, then tell me what you know. It gives me a place to start.”

She stopped fooling with the dress and looked at her hands as if her attention alone could keep them still. “I want you to tell me what you’ve heard, Mr. Forte. I don’t have the heart for it. I’ll tell you if I disagree.”

I shifted in my chair and got almost comfortable. “A year or so ago your six year-old grandson Justin was strangled in his home. His father found the body and a ransom note in the basement. There were some signs of forced entry, but no evidence of anyone trying to take Justin out of the house.” What little color she had slipped away as I spoke. She could never have told it herself.

I hurried on to spare her as much as possible. “The local police botched the investigation. No good leads were ever developed. Your son and daughter-in-law deny everything, and haven’t been as cooperative as the police would like. That makes them the prime suspects.”

“My son is innocent.” It was a statement of fact. “He told the police all he knows.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Nothing to be gained by disagreeing with her. I’d covered the highlights of the case. She’d fill in the rest how she wanted.

Her voice was hollow, without overtones. “Justin didn’t come down to breakfast with the other kids. Michelle called up to him and he didn’t answer. She got the food on the table and went to look.

“She didn’t find him in his room, just the ransom note. Everyone thinks Doug found the note, but it was Michelle. She ran downstairs screaming for Doug. He tore the house apart and found Justin in the basement. Right away the police thought he did it.”

“It’s a logical place to start. The person who finds the body is often the killer.”

Shirley didn’t hear me. “Justin had Attention Deficit Disorder. He wasn’t a bad boy, but he seemed to lose interest in things right in the middle of them.” Each sentence required a breath, another act of will for her to continue. “It drove Doug crazy. The police want to think Justin did something and Doug lost his temper and killed him.”

“What do you think happened?”

“I don’t know. All I know is my son couldn’t have killed that little boy.”

“Could Michelle?”

“No,” Shirley said without hesitation. “Michelle is a good mother. I couldn’t love her more if she were my own.”

“What do you want me to do, Mrs. Mitchell?” Guessing what she wanted wouldn’t qualify anyone as a psychic. I still needed to hear it from her. She was letting herself in for an open-ended commitment and a bill the Pentagon would think twice about if she thought I could do something the local and state police couldn’t. Some PIs live for gigs like that. I manage to scrape by without bleeding old ladies.

“Doug and Michelle have suffered horribly. It’s not enough they had to bury a child. They haven’t even been allowed to mourn decently, for God’s sake. The reporters—” she cleared her throat, swallowed hard—“the reporters wait for them day and night. They’re gone now, but they’ll be back if something reminds them. Last Thursday was a year since it happened. I saw Michelle taking out the trash on the ten o’clock news.” She paused to be sure she had my attention. “It’s not right.”

“You have to understand I’m not likely to find the killer. The physical evidence is gone and the police have already been through the little bit they had. I’m one man. I’m not going to find anything new.”

“The police didn’t look for a killer. All they wanted was proof Doug did it, or Michelle. When they couldn’t prove anything, they said there was no evidence. I think they called it ‘a compromised crime scene.’”

I nodded. “That’s the phrase.”

“No one will find the killer now, I’m sure of it.”

“Then I’m not sure what you want me to do.”

Nothing came out when she tried to speak. She pressed one hand to her breast and took a deep breath, her color almost gone. “I want my son’s good name back. I want him and Michelle to be able to show their faces in town again and have the sympathy they deserve. God can have the real killer.”

Not quite the crusade I worried about on my way here; close enough. “About the only way to prove someone didn’t do something is to prove it was physically impossible, or someone else did it. That’s why the burden of proof is always on the prosecutor.”

I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, focused my attention on her eyes. “The police look for three things: means, opportunity, and motive.” I held up a finger for each one as I ticked it off. “Doug had the means. He’s a big man, more than strong enough to strangle a small child. Opportunity’s easy. He was in the house, no one disputes that. Motive? They’re saying Justin’s attention wandered once too often. They have no credible evidence to suspect anyone else.”

“They didn’t look for any. Doug didn’t kill Justin.” She wiped away two tears slaloming down her left cheek. “My husband left me more money than I’ll ever need. I’d spend it all to give my son some peace.”

“I appreciate your feelings. Throwing your money away isn’t going to help.”

“Are you saying you won’t help me?”

“No, ma’am. I’m saying I don’t think I can. I don’t know that anyone can, but I’m sure someone will tell you different if they smell a big enough fee. I don’t want to get your hopes up.”

Young women cry and get anything they want. Shirley Mitchell had been around. She knew better ways.

“Do you have any children, Mr. Forte?”

“A little girl.”

“How old is she?”

“Seven.”

“Justin would be seven next month. Think of that.” The tears she’d wiped from her cheeks lingered in her voice. “Now think of your daughter all grown up, with children of her own. Can you tell me you’d allow her to endure what my son has lived through and not do everything in your power to help her?”

“No. I’d do whatever I could. I think all you can do now is support your son and his family as well as you can.” She took a speaking breath and I pre-empted the interruption. “Clearing your son’s name is out of my control. I can provide evidence. I can’t force anyone to pay attention to it.”

“I understand. Do what you can and I’ll hope for the best.”

“But I can’t do that. I don’t want to sound mercenary, but I earn my living doing this. I need something concrete to accomplish, or I can’t come back here and ask you to pay me.” My hands got involved in the conversation as I felt my argument getting slippery. “When is his name clear enough? The public doesn’t like to change its mind once it decides someone’s guilty. We’re never going to get a Tribune headline that says ‘Doug Mitchell is innocent. We were wrong and we’re sorry.’”

Her face told me I’d gone too far. Shirley Mitchell was a good woman only trying to do the right thing for her family. I placed the unidentified smell while she made up her mind what to say. It was her. She smelled like my grandmother.

She spoke with an underlying firmness I hadn’t heard before. “You’re right. What I asked for was too vague.” I started to relax. Another mistake. “Here’s what I want. I’ll pay for your time and expenses while you look for evidence showing my son’s innocence. I don’t care what form it’s in, or even if you find any. Would you like that in writing?”

I looked away from her and around the room, collecting my thoughts. Pictures of the family covered the walls and most level surfaces. Two stuck out. Doug and Michelle with the two surviving children, the parents wearing the smiles of people trying to remember what happy meant. The other looked like Justin’s school picture. It sat on a mantel with a small band of black wrapped diagonally on its upper left corner. Shirley had me outnumbered.

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll need it in writing. I have paperwork we can use. I’ll fill in the blanks and you can sign it tomorrow.”

“What are your rates?” I told her. “Draw up the papers to show I guarantee two weeks at your standard rate, plus any expenses you have. I’ll make sure you’re paid.”

“It’s not a matter of money. You understand what it means if I don’t find the evidence you want, don’t you?”

“Yes. It means there’s no evidence. Doug is innocent. Whether you can prove it or not doesn’t change anything. I’ll write you a check for what I’ve agreed to pay you.” She took a checkbook and pen from a pocket of her skirt. I didn’t think she ever doubted she’d need them. “I appreciate what you’re doing, trying to prepare me for the worst while protecting your interests. Do the best you can. I’ll live with the results.”

She held up her hand to stop me from answering. “I need you to help my son. I can’t do it myself.” She tore off the check and handed it to me. “I did more than just ask George Lavelle for a name, you know. He assured me you were a man of conscience and integrity. If you won’t help me I’ll have to go somewhere else, maybe to one of those other men you warned me about. Is that what you’d want for your daughter?”

The check rode in my pocket like a brick.

Monday, July 22, 2013

For-Matters

Now that the cover is done—or will be this week—I need to format A Small Sacrifice for Kindle. The process fills a lot of writers with dread, possibly because publishers used to cite the difficulty of the process as one of the myriad of reasons e-books were so much more expensive than everyone thought they should be. Giving publishers the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure things were much harder several years ago. Now it’s no big deal.

First thing, make sure your Word doc is clean. The Word formatting has to be right, typos corrected, all the good stuff you need to do before submitting to an agent or editor. (Note: paragraph indentations often appear proportionately larger on Kindle screens than computer monitors. You may want to change a half-inch indent to a quarter inch. How will you know? Keep reading.) People who read this aren’t going to care whether you put it together yourself or Macmillan did. If it’s hard to read, they’re going to stop, as they should. You’re not only asking for their money, you owe them consideration for their time. Make it easy as possible for them.

There will also be the Amazonian douche who will read the book, like it well enough, then give you one star because the formatting was shitty. People say to shrug it off, there’s nothing you can do about people like that. Sure there is: don’t send out a book with shitty formatting. Readers who pay for the privilege are entitled to just as much consideration as an agent or editor. Remember, they are the reason you made your deathless prose available to the public in the first place.

Once the manuscript is ready to go, you need all the other stuff that goes with a book. We talked about covers last week. There are several other things you’ll need to make tour book look like the real deal:

Title Page

Also By – anything else you have available. Make it easy for them to find your other books if they liked this on.

Copyright page – Registering the copyright is no big deal, and costs $35. It helps if you need to bring an infringement suit, as there are certain protections included. You’re still legally covered if you just put “Copyright © Year” and leave it at that. (For more on copyright, go to www.copyright.gov.) This is also the place to put your ISBN number, as well as the disclaimer every book needs. (For A Small Sacrifice, I used, “This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.”)

Acknowledgements – These can also go at the end

Dedication

About the Author – usually at the end. This is a good place to put links to your blog, web site, and other social media presences (Facebook, Goodreads, etc.)

When all that is done and looking good, save the file, then save as filtered HTML.

Next you need a computer application. I don’t always format my own work, but when I do, I prefer Calibre. (http://calibre-ebook.com/) It’s freeware and easy enough to use that you can be up and running in fifteen minutes or so. Fill in a few screens, upload the book, and Calibre creates a MOBI file, suitable for uploading to the Amazon web site.

But not yet.

First, copy it to the Documents folder on your Kindle. (You have a Kindle, or at least an app, right? If not, why are you dicking around with e-books in the first place, you rutting dilettante?) Open it and browse, especially the extra material you added above. Make sure it looks how you expect and want it to look. (Remember the comment above about paragraph indents?) This may take a back-and-forth efforts where you edit the word doc, save it as HTML again, then create a new MOBI file for another look. It’s not hard, but it can be a pain in the ass. All told, once you sit down to start saving HTML and converting to MOBI, it shouldn’t take more than an hour.

Then, boom! Done. You’re ready to post to Amazon. I’ll leave that to you. I have pimping to do.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Covering Myself

Now that the touch-up and final copy editing is complete for A Small Sacrifice, it’s time for a couple of things people say the author probably shouldn’t do. Well, I’ve already done my own copy editing (and will guaran-damn-tee you I have fewer typos than the book I just read published by Mulholland), I might as well do the cover and formatting, too.

It’s common knowledge authors are supposed to hire someone to do the covers. I’m not going to argue that, but The Beloved Spouse and I have built two covers we like and have good ideas on the third, and no one has complained about them. Admittedly, they’re for e-books, so we’re not too worried about them leaping off the shelves and grabbing potential readers by the throat, but I’ve seen at least as many professionally made covers that turned me off a book than have enticed me in.

Pictures of people are problematic, so we stick with what I guess would be called landscapes. Wild Bill takes place in Chicago, and a pivotal scene occurs on Navy Pier at night, so the cover is a photograph of Navy Pier at night. Worst Enemies is set in a dying mill town. The cover is a lone smokestack set against a dreary sky. The titles and my name are positioned to frame the images. Neither will win any awards, but I’ve seen worse by pros; they’re not hurting us. A Small Sacrifice ends with a scene near a statue of the Virgin Mary in a cemetery. We found an appropriate picture, but will fade it a little and superimpose the title over it, along with the comment “A Nick Forte Mystery,” so no one mistakes it for a religious book. The Beloved Spouse showed me an early draft yesterday, and I like it.

The internet is full of photographs taken by people who are delighted to grant their permission in exchange for an acknowledgement and maybe a free electronic copy. It takes a little time to find what you like, and you’re not going to get exactly what you envisioned, but, honestly, how often does the author get exactly what he or she has in mind when they hire out the work? It helps to know someone with some PhotoShop chops—or to sleep with one, as I do—but with a little creativity and perseverance, stuff is out there.

You’re a writer. Creativity and perseverance are supposed to be what you’re all about. Don’t be such a pussy all the time. You might surprise yourself.

Next time, the dark and scary world of formatting a Kindle MOBI file. It’s even easier than the cover.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I’m Not Thrilled

I used to love thrillers. Grew up reading them in what I think of as the Golden Age of the genre: Alistair MacLean, Ken Follett, and the master, Frederick Forsythe. To me, the crowning achievement in the history of thrillers is Forsythe’s Day of the Jackal, in which (not really a spoiler alert) the reader is kept on seat’s edge, even though he knows this is not how DeGaulle dies; what the hell happens? (The movie, starring Edward Fox as The Jackal, is just as riveting.)

More than any other genre, thrillers depend on suspension of the reader’s disbelief. Some would say it’s science fiction that carries this burden, but in sci-fi you can create a world with your own rules. So long as you stay within the rules you set up, you’re fine. Need a spacecraft to fly at several times the speed of light and still get radio communications? No problem. Life expectancy of 150 years? Child’s play. Be fair with the reader and you can get away with just about anything. (Play fair, though. Sci-fi fans can be vindictive SOBs.)

Thriller writers have to live in the world we do, with all the limitations of the laws of physics, yet still keep you thinking, “Yeah…yeah, he could do that.” MacLean can have a handful of commandoes who’d never met before parachute into a mountain-top German compound to rescue a captured British general and get him back to England safely, with one spy on the team and another back at headquarters, and the reader thinks, “Damn. These guys are good.” (This is the basic storyline of Where Eagles Dare, another great book and movie combo.)

Not anymore. Modern thriller writers aren’t interested in working around the suspension of disbelief; they’re writing for a public that will believe anything. I was asked to review such a book last week. It hit all the major food groups that make modern thrillers what they are(n’t):

· Protagonists with bizarre backstories. In this, the male lead was raised as a sociology experiment, in a box. Alone. Swear to God. His female partner has a freakish gift for seeing patterns in data and images. And she has a serious martial arts background.

· Of course, they have sex.

· Gruesome levels of detail. No one has a pair of binoculars; they have Nikon Prostaff 12x25 binoculars. Julbo Micropores sunglasses. Two pages are spent describing a character getting out of the car, removing something from the trunk, and walking thirty feet to a motel room. True, she’s taking hi-tech counter-surveillance measures, but Jesus Christ, two pages? Later we’re treated to a page-and-a-half of the hero hitting someone. Once. Yes, with a ruler, but, still.

· The bad guys work for a private company to which much government security and intelligence work has been outsourced. (Okay, I believe that part.) They have an uncanny ability not only to track our heroes, but to get where they’re going first, even when our heroes didn’t know where they were going until they left.

· The scenario is, of course, apocalyptic. The other bad guys—not the ones who are chasing our heroes, who hired them in the first place and are pretending to be good guys—aren’t going to steal a bomb or sabotage a reactor; they stole a reactor.

· The puppetmaster who sets this world-wide operation in motion leaves obscure clues our heroes unfailingly interpret correctly, and in the nick of time. Everyone ends up where he wanted them to go, and does what he wanted them to do, even though the puppetmaster died before the two protags got together.

The end result is a little like The DaVinci Code meets Terminator 2.

To be fair, the author pulls this off pretty well. It is explained why several groups of killers are so easily dispatched. Sure, they’re incompetent, but he tells why such boobs were sent. The writing isn’t nearly so mind-numbingly repetitious as Dan Brown’s. When [author’s name redacted] allows himself to write, and not worry about contemporary conventions of the genre, things zip along nicely.

I’ve tried to be careful not to spoil the plot for anyone who comes across this book; it’s not really a fair review. These kinds of things are not my cup of tea. Anyone who has read the book will recognize it. If you enjoyed it and my grousing harshes your mellow, my apologies.

Thrillers used to be about suspense, and how the story layered it so it built at a pace to hold the audience. Now they blow shit up and kill people, hoping against hope things move so fast, or are so impenetrable to read, there’s no time to realize what’s being described makes no sense.

Maybe this bothers me so much right now because the day I finished reading this book, The Beloved Spouse and I watched the 2011 version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth. More of a suspense story than a thriller, I still spent more time on the edge of my seat during those two hours than during the entire time reading [book title redacted].

Is it just me being more of a grouch than usual? Does anyone else think we need a new name for the thriller genre? “Horseshit” comes to mind, but I’ve been wrong before.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Enter Nick Forte

The proofread/clean-up/light edit for the PI novel I’ll make available for Kindle at month’s end is complete. Took me six weeks and included removing a chapter, adding a chapter, and cutting almost two thousand words from what I’d thought was a tightly-written 74,000-word manuscript. I take that as a good sign, that something written several years ago and edited at my then-agent’s behest didn’t measure up to my current standards. What that says about my standards will be up to any readers I accumulate.

I’m pushing this story out in advance of the November 21 release of Grind Joint for a reason. My first novels—two that will never see the light of day, and three more currently waiting on my hard drive—were about Chicago private investigator Nick Forte. Forte grew up in Western Pennsylvania and went to Northwestern for a music degree. Became a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, then a cop when he decided he’d rather be armed and deal with criminals than defenseless in a room full of high school kids. Liked the work more than the discipline and drifted into becoming a PI.

Forte is divorced, with a young daughter he adores. He has separation and guilt issues, which have not led him into a bottle, but have created problems of their own. One way or another, he’s drawn to cases that involve parents and children, which not only rubs his nerve raw, but become increasingly violent. It’s wearing him down.

While drafting the outline for Grind Joint, I realized Forte could be from the same small town where the story takes place. Even better, his mother is the sister of Grind Joint’s main character, and the two cousins are close. Forte then became a secondary, but pivotal, character in Grind Joint. I’m hoping this earlier story will flesh him out a little, even though the events of A Small Sacrifice take place several years before Grind Joint. Anyone who reads both will see how far he’s slipped. Hopefully, they’ll want to read the other Forte novels to see how it happened.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Grind Joint News

The business trip to [location redacted] for [organization redacted] to [purpose redacted] is complete, the jet lag is pretty much over, and it’s time to get back in the saddle again. Let’s start with a good news / bad news combo:

Good news:

Stark House has announced my first physical, you can buy it in stores, it has pages and a cover and everything book, Grind Joint, will be released in November, in time to solve all your Christmas shopping dilemmas. (Unless the intended recipient has issues with bad language and violence, in which case you might want to buy them something else. Just not a cat mystery. I hate cat mysteries. I’d rather buy my mother a large-print copy of The Cold Six Thousand than a book where a [obscenity redacted] cat solves a murder.) I don’t have an actual drop date yet, but I’ll be sure to let you know, which brings us to the

Bad news:

With A Small Sacrifice available for Kindle in August and Grind Joint coming out in November, I’ll be even more insufferable than usual with my blatant and unconscionable self-promotion. The surest way to avoid this is to buy as many copies as you can of each book as quickly as you can, until I’ve made enough to pay for the exorbitantly expensive washer and dryer The Beloved Spouse bought while I was away in [vacation destination redacted]. Then I’ll chill.