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What About Scott?

The other day, I published the third installment of a “short” story called Reset. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this was based on a very weird and vivid dream I had about finding myself back in junior high school, but with all of my adult memories and experiences. Very freaky. Freaky enough, in fact, that I spent several months fleshing out a viable story arc. When it was all said in done, the first draft topped out at about 21,000 words (hence the quotation marks around “short”).

At first, I’d thought about trying to whittle the MS down to a nominally-publishable 10,000 words. Then I realized that I didn’t give a whoop if it was “publishable” or not; I had no intention of trying to shop it around, and I could just post the whole damn thing on this website. Which I did.

One of the issues I had was figuring up how the wrap up the story. Basically, I opted for a cliffhanger approach, which met with mixed reactions. About half the readers felt it was a cop-out, while the other half was good with it.

My main problem was what to do with the main character, Scott Gray. Would he go back to his “marginally dysfunctional” adult life and try and pick up whatever pieces he could? Or would he live his life over, avoiding all of the mistakes he made the first time, and using his knowledge of future events to his advantage?

I didn’t care for either of these options, really. Also, there were some other characters in the story who ended up being a lot more interesting than I had originally anticipated (especially Missy McSween). I didn’t want to abandon them if Scott went back to 2019, but I had already plumbed the Memory Lane of the early-eighties nostalgia, and didn’t want to spend any more time there, either.

So I left it up to a coin toss – the cop out, so to speak. However, at no point did I suggest that the result of the coin toss would result in Scott staying in 1982 Pennsylvania, or returning to 2019 Seattle. (Sure, Dr. Wu suggested that, but he’s a bullshit artist.) Basically, I saw the ambiguous ending as a springboard to that self-publishing/authorial goldmine:

A SERIES!

This seemed like a win/win/win idea. I could play around with Scott getting zapped to different alternate realities that could explore different genres (swords-n-sorcery fantasy? sci-fi? Western? hell yeah!) Also, I could see more of the interesting characters and see how they develop. Finally, I wouldn’t have to come up with a satisfying conclusion to the original story. What could be better?

Well, maybe an ice cream cone.

Anyway, it presents a lot of interesting and enjoyable possibilities as a writer. I’m looking forward to working more on the adventures of Mr. Scott Gray, but the next story is going to have to get in line – I’ve got a number of other projects on deck or in the works. But that’s a topic for another post.

***

A Literary Retreat

Sylvia Beach Hotel, Newport, Oregon

This past weekend, my lovely wife NancyAnne and I got to spend time at one of our favorite places anywhere: the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon. We went here on our honeymoon, and have returned on or about every Valentine’s Day ever since.

The hotel is named after Sylvia Beach, who owned and operated the famous Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris between the World Wars. Ms. Beach was a literary titan, well-regarded in Left Bank literary circles. She published James Joyce’s Ulysses and Ernest Hemingway’s Three Stories and Ten Poems.

The hotel itself is a four-story wood frame building situated on a cliff overlooking the beach. It dates back to 1907, where it is one of the last remaining examples of the tourist building boom in Newport. It is located in the hip-n-funky Nye Beach neighborhood, home of many cool shops, restaurants and bookstores.

As a literary-themed hotel, all of the rooms are named and decorated after famous authors: we’ve stayed in the Amy Tan, Alice Walker, Ernest Hemingway and Colette rooms. There are also more whimsical rooms suitable for kids and families, including the Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling and Jules Verne rooms.

The J.K. Rowling room

This year, we lucked out and managed to book three nights in our favorite room: the Mark Twain. This is definitely our favorite room for a variety of reasons: big, uber-comfortable bed, superlative ocean view, a fireplace and a claw-foot tub with a writing shelf to allow for cranking out a few pages while bathing.

The Mark Twain room

Also, there’s a wonderful library on the top floor overlooking the beach that runs the length of the building. The view is fantastic, it’s scattered about with comfy chairs, and every night the hotel provides a cauldron of mulled wine. Also, there’s a great restaurant called Tables of Contents (nyuk). Breakfast for all guests, and the evenings they serve wonderful four-course meals. It’s group seating, so you will in all likelihood end up having to make engage in the Lost Art of Conversation with a stranger. (Unless you end up to a non-responsive software engineer from Hillsboro, like I did.)

So what did we do? We read. A lot. The hotel i conducive to that: no TV, no phones, no WiFi. No problem. Besides, no one goes to the Oregon coast in February with reasonable expectations of spending a lot of time outdoors. Saturday it rained all day, but we were more than content to stay in the room and read, and feed wood into the fireplace. It was wonderful to curl up by the fire and read while listening to the spack-spack of the winter rain on the windowpane.

Sunday, it cleared up a bit, and we wandered around the Nye Beach neighborhood, checking out new places and old favorites. We also went down to the Bayfront area, which is a really interesting combination of working fishing port and seaside tourist area. We came back to a stunning sunset:

Sunset from the Sylvia Beach Hotel

As always, this was an excellent getaway, and we are thankful to the people at the SBH for being so gracious and running such an excellent literary hotel.

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.

***

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

Dummies for Facebook Ads

Wellnow, I just finished up my first experience with buying Facebook ads to promote Jackrabbit, and I’ve come away nonplussed. And that’s being generous.

To be fair, I’ve long had an attitude problem towards Facebook. In fact, I had bailed on it entirely after the Cambridge Analytica news broke. I reluctantly joined back up when it became apparent that it would be impossible to promote the book or really do any sort of business without having a Facebook account. So I held my nose and did it.

That was pretty much my attitude when it came to running ads on Facebook. I was unhappy enough with giving Mark Zuckerberg my personal information, now I was going to have to give him some actual money, as well. We were not amused.

Still, it takes money to make money, and since there was my folding green on the line I felt that some research was required. I read a book and worked through a LinkedIn Learning course until I felt like I had a solid grasp on the basics. I set up the graphics, developed what seemed to be a good target audience, wrote some copy and submitted the ad.

It was rejected.

Facebook has a policy whereby they won’t accept your ad if the text in the graphic takes up more than 20% of the space. My response: so what? If I want to run an ad that is nothing but the words “SUCK IT, MARK” is 96 point Arial Black, what difference does that make to Facebook? Their nominal reason is that ads with a lot of text don’t perform that well, but I suspect that’s just a cover story.

Here’s another bit of Facebook advertising trivia that I found out the hard way: you can’t drive traffic from a Facebook ad directly to an Amazon listing. Do what? I figure that this should be in BIG BOLD LETTERS somewhere on the Facebook ads info page, but I had to go through the entire process of creating an ad only to have it rejected because I had to put a snippet of FB code called a “pixel” on the landing page in the ad. Not surprisiingly, Amazon is not keen on having FB pixels on their site. Go figure.

To accommodate these unexpected challenges, I changed the ad graphic to have less text and pointed the ad at the Jackrabbit page, which now included the Facebook pixel. (Jeebus only knows what that little hunk of code is doing besides tracking my click-through rate.) With these changes, the ad was accepted. I had budgeted the minimum as this was my first ad – five bucks a day for eight days. I submitted the ad and waited for the sales figures to skyrocket.

I was particularly optimistic, as the same week the ad was running, I was also had an article about Dillinger featured on CrimeReads.com, and of course I plugged the book in the article. I figured that I would have a nice little sales bump between the two promotional bits running that week. I waited until the end of the week to check the sales figures, so as not to spoil the surprise. Well, I was surprised all right: that week I sold all of three copies.

Three. Fucking. Copies.

Needless to say, I was disappointed and (obviously) kinda pissed. Even making that assumption that all three sales came from the Facebook ads and not the CrimeReads article (not really a valid assumption, BTW), that means I spent forty dollars on advertising to bring me about seven bucks in royalties.

This is not what you would call a sustainable business model.

So, back to the drawing board. If anyone is actually reading this blog, they will have no doubt detected a certain note of disappointment in my recent posts about how well my totally excellent self-published novel has been selling. Clearly, I’m doing something wrong here. So, once again I will suck it up and spend more time trying to pick apart what I did the first time around that resulted in such a miserable return on investment. No doubt that there’s some other smart guy out there willing to take my money to tell me what I’m doing wrong.

I bet they won’t even care if the text in my ad graphic exceeds 20%.

The Jackrabbit Rests in Peace…for Now

Dillinger’s body prior to burial

The September 16 date for exhuming John Dillinger’s body has come and gone – and he continues to rest in peace, at least for now. In previous posts (here and here), I outlined the effort spearheaded by Dillinger nephew Michael Thompson to have his famous uncle’s boy disinterred for DNA testing. Now it seems as if the planned exhumation is on indefinite hold.

The exhumation was announced shortly after the 85th anniversary of the Biograph shooting that allegedly took down the famous gangster. The Indiana State Department of Health had approved a request by Thompson to disinter Dillinger’s body. The reason given was to establish once and for all whether or not it was John Dillinger in the grave. For decades, rumors had circulated that it hadn’t been Dillinger who was gunned down outside the movie theater in Chicago, but rather a look-alike. This “wrong man” theory had been supported by some fascinating anecdotal evidence, and Thompson claimed that he wanted to prove or disprove the theory.

Shortly after the announcement, it was revealed that the drive to dig up the Jackrabbit was connected with a History Channel documentary on the life and crimes of John Dillinger.

Then things started to get weird. Surprise!

First, there were other Dillinger relatives who were opposed to the exhumation. Dillinger great-nephew Jeff Scalf, who has some manner of legal control over Dillinger’s name and likeness, was adamantly opposed. “It’s my opinion that this effort was done for 15 minutes of fame and 30 pieces of silver,” he said. 

Then Crown Hill Cemetery started to get cold feet. “We also have concerns that the complex and commercial nature of this exhumation could cause disruption to the peaceful tranquility of the Cemetery and those who are visiting to remember their loved ones.” This is a legitimate concern, as accessing Dillinger’s remains would involve a fairly robust construction effort. Concerned about grave tampering, Dillinger’s father had his body reburied under huge slabs of concrete and scrap metal shortly after the initial burial in 1934.

Not to be thwarted, Thompson filed an injunction against Crown Hill to compel them to cooperate with the exhumation. Thompson’s attorneys claimed that Crown Hill’s objections were disingenuous. They stated, “Thompson and others in his family should not be prohibited from confirming the identity of their uncle merely because he is infamous. If identity is confirmed, Thompson and all other descendants of the deceased can put to rest their legitimate questions about identity.” A hearing is scheduled for October 1 to discuss the case.

In the latest twist, the History Channel announced on September 11 that they would no longer be associated with the documentary project. No reason was given. Two days later, Thompson announced that he planned on moving forward with the project. Personally, I’m not sure if that will happen without the History Channel support. I think that the logistics involved in getting around John Sr.’s tamper-deterrent measures may require some outside financing. Perhaps some sort of “angel investor” will appear to fill the void.

The whole thing has been – and continues to be – a soap opera. I’m sure that the lack of consistent explanation from Crown Hill Cemetery and the History Channel about their sudden withdrawal from the project will fuel further conspiracy theories. I suspect that there will be a few more chapters to play out, but I think this drama is headed towards denouement.

At the end of the day, I think that maybe it wasn’t that good of an idea in the first place. Of course, I’d love to really know whether or not John Dillinger is in the grave with his name on it. And as an author who has just published a book about Dillinger, I would welcome the free publicity attendant to such a spectacle. However, the idea of disturbing someone’s remains for the sake of a TV documentary never seemed right.

Let Johnnie D. rest in peace.

Dear Powell’s

One of the things that I really love about Portland is Powell’s Bookstore. The main “City of Books” store is an entire city block downtown. The satellite store out on Hawthorne would put most other bookstores in the shade. So I was excited at the prospect of getting my new novel Jackrabbit into my local Powell’s.

This being Portland, I know a number of other self-published authors, and had gotten mixed messages about how amenable Powell’s was to providing shelf space for local indie authors. My one novelist friend said that they had bought two or three copies, albeit grudgingly. She warned that it was all political, and that you had to know someone to really get them to buy a few extra copies. Another, more optimistic friend said I should just talk to the book buyer, tell him I was a local author, and he’d pick up eight copies, no problem.

I figured I’d try to be official, and call the main business number, and eventually got shunted to a lengthy recording that went on about distribution channels and discount rates and other stuff I didn’t want to deal with. A search through the website resulted in the same message:

This was of no use, so I went by the local Powell’s and talked to the book-buyer on duty. According to my friends who do a little book dealing on the side, Powell’s used to be very generous when it came to buying used books. Then things changed, and they became much more selective about what they bought, and more parsimonious in what they paid. This change in values led to some ugly scenes at the book purchaser desk, and some of the book buyers had to become hard-hearted to be able to do their job. Anyway, the book buyer politely listened to my spiel, and immediately whipped a little leaflet on me with the exact same information as the website and the phone recording, except that is was headered “Dear Author,”

Mentally, I was compelting the sentiment as “Dear Author, Fuck you.” I think it was the snail mail address that drove that point home. Nope, this is so unimportant to us that we’re not even going to bother setting up an email account. Gonna make you waste a stamp.

So I did. What the hell, I’m supposed to be a writer, so I wrote a letter and sent that in. In for a penny, et cetera. I wasn’t particularly hopeful that I would get a response, and was a little bit pissy about it, too. A friend who works at one of the airport Powell’s emailed asking if I had approached Powell’s – “we love our local authors!” she said. Well, ya coulda fooled me, I replied. Like I said, I was pissy.

I’m sure a high-profile bookstore like Powell’s gets approached by numerous self-published writers who want their doggerel in the famous bookstore, and I can understand the need to have some sort of screening process set up to remove the chaff quickly. Still, it would have been nice if there was some bone they’d be willing to throw to us Portland-based scribblers.

Then about a day later, I discovered that Powell’s was already listing Jackrabbit. A friend of mind said she had just received her copy and was looking forward to reading it. When I asked her where she had bought it, she told me that she had ordered it through Powell’s website. I checked, and sure enough, they had the book listed and supposedly had 20 copies sitting in a remote warehouse.

After all the grousing that I had done, turns out Powell’s had been responsible for a sizable chunk of all of the hard copy sales already. How? Amazon. I could tell by the way the description of the book was written that it had come directly from the Amazon website. Then I remembered that I had signed up for something called KDP Expanded Distribution. This allows Amazon to make a book available to booksellers and libraries.

I’m still waiting to see if I will get a reply from my letter. It would be nice if they would actually display the book in one of the brick and mortar stores – preferably the one on Hawthorne with the hard-nosed book buyer. In the meantime, I will just keep flogging the book wherever I can.