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Welcome to Sweet Weasel Words

Welcome to Sweet Weasel Words, home of author Crawford Smith.

I love writing, but am not particularly fond of creating and maintaining websites, so please be patient while I attempt to beat this sumbitch into some sort of order.

My big project right now is publishing a novel called Jackrabbit. This is a historical crime novel about the latter career of Depression-era gangster John Dillinger. This criminal’s life was indeed stranger than fiction – so much so that I had to focus on only the last five months of it to keep from overwhelming myself and the reader. Check out the Jackrabbit page for details.

Junior High Hell

Remember junior high? Didn’t it suck? I mean really, really suck? Sure it did.

A few months ago I had a dream wherein I woke up back in eight grade , but with all of my adult experiences and memories. I spent the bulk of the dream figuring our what how the hell I was going to survive.

It was terrifying.

Normally, I don’t remember dreams at all. The few that stick with me past the alarm clock rarely make it past breakfast. But this dream – whoa! – it sizzled in my consciousness for several days. Finally, just to extirpate the sumbitch, I started writing it down. It took a while to find its legs, and by the time it was all through, it had clocked in at something like 22,000 words. That is a real bastard of a word count, as it is much too long to be a short story, but not nearly enough to qualify as a novel. Instead, it’s in the dreaded literary limbo of “novella.” Ugh.

At first, I thought that if I shaved it down to about 10K words, I’d at least have a shot at shopping around as a short story. Then I thought, fuck it. I didn’t want to shop it around as anything, to be truthful. Trying to get anything in print involves having to deal with rejection emails from the likes of Southeast Montana State Literary Review and Anime Blog. To heck with that; if nobody’s gonna read it, then they can not read it on this blog, and I am thus saved the time sucking up to land-grant literati.

Still, at it’s current length it’s a bit much to read in one go, so I thought I’d chop it up into three short-story-sized pieces and post them one at a time. That way, I could post some content while still engaging in the requisite turd-polishing for the rest of the story.

No doubt I will act the wiseacre later on as I post the other pieces of the story, called “Reset.” Without further bloviation, here’s the first part:

Reset – Part 1 of 3

***

Are You Local?

Jackrabbit on the shelf at Belmont Books

It’s the small victories that sometimes keep you going. After a long and lackluster effort to get Jackrabbit in a brick and mortar store – I finally did! At first, I had been put off with the lack of success I’d had at local bigshot indie bookstores like Powell’s and Annie Blooms…uh, Arnie Bang’s, I finally started looking at other places closer to home.

So I bopped on into my most local of bookstores, Belmont Books. Joe, the proprietor, was extremely friendly and bought a copy on the spot. I groused about some of the difficulties I’d had and he scoffed that he could undercut Amazon AND Powell’s. That’s the attitude!

Better yet, he paid 60% up front, in cash – which lasted me all of four blocks, where I spent it in the Plaid Pantry on lottery tickets and junk food. So kudos to Joe and Belmont Books for walking the walk when it comes to supporting local authors. If you’re in Portland, pay ’em a visit at 3415 SE Belmont St., PDX.

Cover of Jackrabbit, new John Dillinger novel

Why Is This Gangster Smiling?

Because he just heard that Jackrabbit is available for free eBook downloads!

Yes, once again, the eBook version of Jackrabbit will be available for free downloads at Amazon from January 22 through Sunday, January 26.

It’s 1934, and America is in the middle of a crime wave. Once a small-time crook, John Dillinger – a.k.a. the Jackrabbit – has become America’s first modern celebrity criminal. The public avidly follows his exploits, from gentlemanly bank robberies to violent jailbreaks. Many view him as a modern-day Robin Hood, exacting revenge on the banks responsible for the misery of the Depression.

Having achieved the fortune and fame he’s always desired, the Jackrabbit realizes that it has an enormous price. Now, all he wants to do is settle down with his girlfriend Billie and live a “normal” life. That will be tough to do with the FBI hot on his tail. Agent Melvin Purvis relentlessly pursues him across the Midwest, and every cop in the country has orders to shoot on sight. Now desperate to escape the life that he’s created, the Jackrabbit concocts a daring plan to disappear. As the equally-desperate Agent Purvis draws the noose tighter, the Jackrabbit knows that time is running out. Will his audacious scheme work, or will he go down in a thunderstorm of lead?

Download for free until Sunday and enjoy – and if you’d care to leave a review on Amazon, it would be appreciated!

Catch-22 (and other debut novels that blow my mind)

I just finished re-reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for the umpteenth time. I first read it as a freshman in college. My roommate had to read it for his English lit class, and had left it lying around the room. I picked it up and casusally scanned the first several pages, and I was totally hooked.

Heller’s black humor about the plight of U.S. Army aviators during World War Two really grabbed me, as did the anti-authoritarian message. So was the general misanthropy that was pretty much in line with my own uncomfortable 18-year-old’s realizations about how the world really worked, and the motives (and intelligence) of those in power.

I have recently been on a Catch-22 kick, having started watching the 2019 Hulu series, that broke the story up into six ~50 minute episodes. It started out okay, but as it diverged more and more from the original story, I got more and more upset. By the end of the final episode, I was hurling curses at the screen. In my opinion, they really buggered up the ending (thanks, George Clooney). It was so bad, I had my wife sit through Mike Nichols’ 1970 movie adaptation just so she would have an appreciation for the actual structure of the book – and the ending.

Of course, it would be nearly impossible to catch all of the intricate plot twists and the planeload of characters that Heller includes in the novel. The story’s timeline does not lend itself to screen adaptation, as it jumps from event to event with limited cues. I know that entire graduate school theses have been written regarding the timeline of the novel. I once read the book cover-to-cover three times in a row trying to puzzle it out myself (with limited success).

This was shortly after I had started writing my first novel manuscript (as yet unpublished – maybe later this year?) I was blown away by the fact that Catch-22 was Heller’s debut novel. I knew that I would never be able to match his prose and characterizations, but I figured I could pick up a few pointers. (I probably didn’t.)

That got me to thinking about debut novels, and how some of them – like Catch-22 – were just so mind-meltingly good. Granted, Heller worked on that manuscript for seven or eight years before it was published, and he had the literary education and experience to really hone his authorial chops. Nevertheless, as a debut novel, it’s fantastic.

Which led me to the topic of other unbelievably good debut novels that will always make me feel slightly inadequate as an author. Actually, the list is pretty damn long. And even if they do make me feel like Orr paddling away with his plastic-spoon-sized paddle, these titles continue to inspire me to keep cranking away at the keyboard in the hope that someday I’ll be able to produce something a fraction as good as these authors managed to write out of the gate:

  • The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
  • To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  • Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk
  • Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
  • Carrie – Stephen King
  • The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
  • Neuromancer – William Gibson
  • Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  • V. – Thomas Pynchon
  • The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas* – Hunter S. Thompson (this one gets an asterisk as it has long been rumored that this was really nonfiction, but classified as a “novel” to provide legal cover for the author’s, um, proclivities)

I could keep going, as well as mentioning others that I should have read, but haven’t yet (Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, for one). These are the books that keep me writing when it all seems like a foolish endeavor.

***

New Year, Old Story

Greetings and Happy New Year! I haven’t been very active on this blog due to holiday travels, a nasty cold that one of my co-workers gave the entire office right before Christmas, and general laziness.

Right now, Portland is bracing for a “big” snowstorm that probably won’t happen – but if it does, I can actually devote some time to focused writing. I’m still polishing up a “short” story with the working title of Reset. The first draft topped out just north of 21,000 words, which is definitely out of short story range and more like a novella. I had originally thought about wielding a fierce editorial pen to try and trim it down to ~10,000 words, but at this point I don’t think that will happen. There are two reasons for this: 1) my aforementioned laziness, and 2) the way the story wound up left it as a possible springboard for a series. And we all love series, don’t we, gang?

I’m still trying to get my head around further promotion for Jackrabbit (more on that later, perhaps), as well as trying to clean up an older novel manuscript for a story called Fester. Tat is going to require a few bucks for the editor, cover design, etc. – so maybe after we get past tax season (and we get a refund).

I’ve also started research for a story I’ve been kicking around in the basement for a long, long time. It’s about stand-up comedians, and based on the careers of such humor luminaries as Bill Hicks, Andy Kaufman, Lenny Bruce and Doug Kenney. This is a monumental undertaking, and I’d guess that even the first draft would be two years in the making…so, we’ll see.

While I’m still trying to ramp up my creative activities in the new year, I have been able to post an old short story I cranked out while writing the first draft of Jackrabbit. It’s kinda weird and very silly – basically, it’s John Dillinger and his gang going up against a very unusual foe. It’s called Encounter in the North Woods, and you can check it out here.

Happy New Year!

***

Dillinger Exhumation: Dead or Alive?

Mourners at John Dillinger’s viewing in Mooresville, Indiana. Unlike the circus at the Chicago mortuary, these guys at least look somber and respectful.

In all likelihood, the proposed exhumation of John Dillinger is dead in the water. For those who haven’t followed my posts on this (here, here and here), I’ll give a quick capsule review.

In late July, a week after the 85th anniversary of the Biograph shooting (and also the release date for Jackrabbit), it was announced that Dillinger’s nephew Michael Thompson had obtained a permit from the Indiana Department of Health allowing him to exhume the body of his famous gangster uncle. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that this was in some wise connected with a proposed biography of John Dillinger that the History Channel was preparing. The reason for the exhumation was to determine whether or not it was really Dillinger in the grave, addressing the “wrong man theory” that has been kicking around for decades.

Not all of Dillinger’s relatives were happy about this development, and the bickering began in public forums (fora?) as well as in the courtroom. Then things started to go a little sideways. The History Channel, without comment, announced that they were bailing on the putative documentary project. Then Crown Hill Cemetery started making noises about not going through with the exhumation. More complaints were filed in court.

The latest move was that Thompson had litigated against Crown Hill for the exhumation to move forward. That came to a screeching halt last week when a county judge ruled in favor of Crown Hill.

So here we are, largely as I had anticipated, with a bunch of legal wrangling ending in a stalemate. How do I feel about this? Well may you ask! I was agin it until I was fur it. Being a self-referential contrarian, I was vaguely opposed to the idea while it looked like it was likely to happen, but now that it doesn’t look like it will happen, I’m disappointed – and a little pissed.

An interesting quote from the IndyStar article:

“Court finds that the statutory requirements for this section of the statute are clear in that disinterment requires the cemetery owner to give consent before disinterment may occur,” Oakes’ ruling says, according to online court records, “and the statute does not require that the cemetery have a valid, rational, or meaningful reason.”

And it can be argued that Crown Hill doesn’t really have a “valid, rational, or meaningful reason.” The cemetery has said that disinterring Dillinger would be disruptive and potentially upsetting to family members of other Crown Hill residents. While that seems a valid concern, wouldn’t that also be applicable to every other exhumation at the cemetery? It’s really only a matter of degree, and if Dillinger’s exhumation would require more equipment and attract larger media attention, it seems that simple planning would mitigate many of the concerns Crown Hill cites.

In addition to being contrary, I am also somewhat conspiracy-minded. Given some of the weirdness surrounding this exhumation drama, I’m having a hard time avoiding the thought that there is more at work here than meets the eye. First of all, the History Channel pulled out of the documentary project with little fanfare and less explanation. It seems to me that even if the exhumation didn’t take place, the attendant publicity would be a boon for thier project. Second, and most obvious, are Crown Hill’s specious reasons for opposing the exhumation. Finally, and arguably the kicker is the FBI’s unprompted assertion that they really did “get their man” back in 1934 and that the body in Crown Point is really that of John Dillinger.

Now, I’ve never touted Jackrabbit as anything but a work of fiction. As I mentioned elsewhere, I had been familiar with the “wrong man theory” that the person shot outside the Biograph was really a low-level crook named Jimmy Lawrence. The novel started as a thought experiment about how that switcheroo actually occurred. One of the plot points was the J. Edgar hoover and the FBI knew that they had gotten the wrong man, but allowed it to be covered up to avoid embarassing themselves. Given all of the weirdness around the Dillinger exhumation, it doesn’t seem entirely too crazy to think that the FBI knows that it isn’t really Dillinger in that Crown Hill grave, and put pressure on the History Channel and the cemetery to put the kibosh on the exhumation.

Of course that’s just me talking my typical crazy-talk. It looks like we won’t find out for sure, at least in the short term. However, the judge in last week’s ruling dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning that a clever lawyer still might be able to argue that the cemetery is compelled to carry out the exhumation. Until then, however, the conspiracy theories will continue to circulate.

Writer’s Blockhead

Hola, amigos! I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but I’ve been busy channeling the spirit of Jim Anchower.

Actually, I’ve been doing doodley-squat, which has not lent itself to creation of a post. So, since it’s been several weeks that I haven’t posted – or done much of anything else – I figured I could slap together some half-assed post about why I haven’t done anything.

Fist, I’ve almost completely stalled out on promoting Jackrabbit. This lack of activity shows: my last royalty payment was $5.62. Whoopee-ding-dong! I’ve agonized over the process before, and will not belabor the point now. Suffice it to say that indie book promotion is a time-consuming pain in the ass, and I am a lazy sumbitch – a suboptimal combination if ever there was one. Now that we’re past the Thanksgiving holiday and into prime American consumption season, I would be well-advised to get off my keister and try to wave the book around in the face of the book-buying public in the hope of a sale or two. Absolutely. First thing, tomorrow.

And while I might have been acting like a blockhead writer, I don’t actually have writer’s block per se. I just finished up the first draft of a short story called “Reset.” Although at nearly 22,000 words, the story is well past the “short” stage and well into novella territory. That was definitely not my intention; it took a long time (~4 months) for the story to find its rhythm. My goal is to trim that puppy down to about 10K words by January.

Or maybe March.

“Reset” is the result of a very intense dream I had back around April of this year, where I woke up to find that I was back in eight grade, but with all of my adult memories. I know, this is hardly an original notion, and has been covered extensively in films such as “Big” and “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Still, it was fun to write, and bey drastically wielding the editorial pen, I hope to make it fun to read, and eventually post it on the Short Stories section.

As for 2020, I’m not sure in which direction I intend to go. There are a couple of novel ideas I’ve been kicking around, but also perhaps a few more short stories that need to be dispatched first. We shall see.

Read My Shorts

At the urging of friends who generally know what they’re talking about, I’ve decided to put a few short stories up on the site. I was originally a little hesitant, as they’re not as polished as Jackrabbit or some of my longer or more recent pieces.

The first is The Bounce, which was inspired by a coffee kiosk I would pass every morning on my way to work. The draw of the place is that the baristas were clad in skimpy bikinis and lingerie. I always wondered what sort of weird customer interactions went on there, as well as how cold it got in the winter. (They have an awesome heater.)

Also up is Cruising with Melvin and the Furb which is largely based on something that happened in college. It’s basically a standard dumbass-fraternity-boys-on-drugs story, but it’s got a couple of chuckles out of it. The guys from Beta-Beta sure thought it was funny.

There will be more as I dust them off and/or write them.

Go to Short Stories

Going Through Channels

The purpose of this blog is two-fold: 1) provide me a forum in which I can piss and moan, and 2) provide some advice so that others may not have to piss and moan as much as I. Also, I guess – 1.5) provide s repository of useful information for myself that I can use as a reference, as my memory is like a cloth bag full of water.

One piece of advice that I deliberately blew off in the runup to the release of Jackrabbit is thus: plan your book release. Give it at least three months, and preferably more. I didn’t do this for a couple of reasons. The first was that I realized late in the game that I was coming up on the 85th anniversary of the event that was a major plot point in the book, so I rushed to get the book out on that date. The other reason is that I am a lazy bastard, and really didn’t want to think about marketing and promotion ahead of time.

Well, live and learn. If I ever do it again (and I probably will), I’ll spend more time planning how, where and under what circumstances I will release the book.

One of the more interesting lessons learned has to do with the distribution channels through which the book is distributed. Based on my overall need to rush to get the book out, coupled with my inherent laziness, I decided to go with Amazon KDP for the complete publishing service. This saved a fair amount of up-front decision-making, but it did cause some problems later on. So far, the biggest of these is that many indie bookstores hate Amazon with a passion and will not carry self-published books produced through Amazon KDP – an issue I groused about in a previous post.

When I was bandying with a representative from one of those stores, he suggested that I create an account with IngramSpark to contend with the anti-Amazon bias. The issue with that is that I’d already sold my soul to Amazon and signed up for their Expanded Distribution option. This nominally provided more outlets for potential sales – allegedly large booksellers and libraries. Of course, as with most anything in American consumer culture, Some Restrictions Apply. In this case, that meant that I wouldn’t be able to use IngramSpark to distribute the book to finicky indie stores.

This begs the question: what the hell is IngramSpark anyway? IngramSpark is a subdivision of the massive Ingram Content Group, which is a huge book distributor and publishing service provider (whatever the hell that means).

Here’s the interesting part: by signing up for Amazon’s Expnded Distribution option, I’m actually having some books distributed through Ingram anyway. I found this out recently in my ongoing struggle to get Jackrabbit some shelf space in local indie bookstore behemoth Powell’s Books (as I griped about here and here). I looked into the possibility of ditching Expanded Distribution and signing up for IngramSpark, but the whole thing smacked of effort. It’s possible, apparently, but there was a whole rigamarole about relisting the ISBN number and so forth, and I don’t really see how it would necessarily boost my sales at this point. Perhaps I’m wrong, and I’m definitely lazy. I did, however, find a good article about why self-published authors should use both:

This has gotten wordy/whiny enough, so I am just going to sum up the important things I think I’ve learned so far:

  • Always Buy Your Own ISBN Numbers – This is one of the few things I got right out of the gate. Amazon KDP and other services will give you free ISBN numbers, be then they own your ass. The Bowker’s monopoly on ISBN number sales in North America results in a scammy pricing structure, but it beats the restrictions that come with a “free” number.
  • Use Amazon KDP for Early Production – You don’t have to shell out at all, meaning you can tweak the design, upload revisions to your heart’s content, and get it OCD-perfect before you shell out a dime. The author copies are more reasonably priced, as well.
  • Don’t Sign Up for Amazon; Expanded Distribution; Get an Ingram Spark Account – IngramSpark will get your books to bookstores and libraries that hate Amazon with a passion and won’t buy books from them. There are also more printing options, including more paper choices and hardback versions (Amazon KDP is paperback-only). To be fair, the Expanded Distribution network might slip a few copies to self-same Amazon-haters, but IngramSpark is probably better.
  • Amazon’s KDP Select Ain’t All That and a Bag of Chips – KDP Select is a program that offers expanded worldwide distribution for your eBook, as well as periodic special offers you can make on your book.  However, KDP Select restricts your ability to sell your eBook through other channels (WordSmash, Draft2Digital, etc.) The offers are restricted to a handful of days within a 90-day window, so not so hotso. I’d advise going with the other ePublishers.

There: all of my recent kvetching boiled down into four pithy bullet points. My next novel is gonna go so smooooooooooth!

Indie Bookstores Love Local Authors…but Hate Amazon Even More

A week or so ago, someone suggested that I approach a small but iconic bookstore in town about getting Jackrabbit on the shelves and perhaps doing a reading. For the sake of not alienating myself further, I’m going to call the place Arnie Bang’s Books. Arnie Bang’s isn’t a local colossus like Powell’s, but has been around for awhile and has a good reputation. It’s kinda like the “Cheers” of Portland bookstores.

I called Arnie Bang’s about carrying the book and possibly scheduling a reading, and the person I talked to was very friendly receptive …until I let slip that I had published the book through Amazon KDP. At that point, she became quite frosty and cut the conversation short. When I asked as to why, I was told “Amazon is the competition!” End of conversation.

I was, as I mentioned earlier, butt-hurt. I totally understand hating on Amazon’s monstrous global retail monopoly…because I hate on it, too. So does everybody…but it’s just so fucking convenient. I try to buy local where I can – Powell’s for books, Music Millennium for tunage, Fred Meyer for groceries, etc. (The last one’s a bit of a stretch – Fred Meyer was bought out by Kroger in ’98, and they’ve really been acting corporate as hell lately. But I digress…) But if the local stores don’t have what I’m looking for, I’m shopping online the next day.

So I get the hating on Amazon bit, but the part that peeved me was that Amazon’s cut comes out of my pocket. Amazon makes their money on their markup on the author copies it sells me. Arnie Bloom’s would get their 40% of the cover price, regardless if it had been published by Amazon, Lulu Press or even freakin’ Kinko’s.

I took a look at the book, and there is absolutely nothing that indicates where it was printed. I was tempted to just go back to Arnie Bang’s and trying bullshit them into carrying the book, but at that point I figured that my integrity was more important than the handful of bucks I’d potentially make. Besides, Arnie Bang’s would end up making more per copy than I would, so fuck ’em.

I did a little research, and apparently it is not uncommon for indy book stores to refuse to carry books published through Amazon KDP. Hey, it’s their business and they’re free to run it how they see fit. And I’m free to think that refusing to stock a book based on where it’s printed is a self-defeating move. I doubt Jeff Bezos is losing sleep over Arnie Bang’s business practices, but I sure as hell ain’t gonna go back there.