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Sweet Weasel Words Posts

Dillinger Grave Exhumation Update

Who would have thought that the simple disinterment of the corpse of a notorious gangster would turn into such a soap opera?

Sure enough, the announced re-surfacizing of the remains of John Dillinger has sparked controversy in the Dillinger community. John Dillinger was married only briefly, and had no children (that we know of). However, he had a sister and a number of half-siblings, many of whom went forth, were fruitful and multiplied. Now Dillinger has yea number of blood relatives in the Midwest, and thrice-yea number of people claiming to be blood relatives. All of them seem up in arms about John Dillinger’s disinterment.

The ostensible reason for this remains-disturbing is to prove once and for all the identity of the body buried in Lot 94, Section 44 of Crown Hill cemetery in Indianapolis. This was announced at the end of July, as I mentioned in an earlier post. Of course, this was of acute interest to me, as I had just published a novel about John Dillinger called Jackrabbit. One of the main plot points of Jackrabbit was that Dillinger had arranged for a body double to cover a getaway to Mexico.

The current imbroglio started when one of Dillinger’s nephews, Michael Thompson, applied with the Indiana health department to disinter his famous uncle’s remains. This was somehow connected with the History Channel, which is working on a documentary about Dillinger. Did money exchange hands? Sure, why not? (Actually, I have no idea. However, I’m a cynical bastard, so I buy in to the notion that HC flashed their big cable-history wad to get things moving.)

Of course, not all of Dillinger’s relatives and demi-relatives were happy about this turn. Dillinger great nephew Jeff Scalf said he it was “despicable” and “appalling” that the exhumation was announced. Scalf has some legal interest in and control of the Dillinger name and image, as he formed Dillinger LLC.

Scalf was presumably fairly happy when Crown Hill cemetery announced its opposition to the planned disinterment. They cited concerns about maintaining the integrity of the grounds and the possibility of upsetting relatives visiting the graves of loved ones during the disinterment. Both seem like legitimate concerns, given that 5,000 pounds of concrete and scrap metal supposedly cap the grave, put there to deter grave robbers. Removal of such an edifice will likely be a major undertaking.

The latest turn in the drama is that Michael Thompson is seeking a court order for the cemetery to cooperate with the planned exhumation. What’s next? Well, I don’t know, but I can’t help but think that John Dillinger is somewhere looking over all this with a cracked grin on his face.

In Today’s Publishing Environment?

I was reminded recently about how I came to the decision to self-publish Jackrabbit. Basically, I didn’t want to beat my head against the wall trying to go the traditional publishing route. It was summed up pretty well in a recent episode of the Simpsons (S30E05; yeah, I’m a huge Simpsons geek). I the episode, a salesman is trying to sell Homer on the merits of a self-driving car:

Salesman: Yeah, you’re free to do whatever you like, Homer.

Homer: Can I text while it’s driving?

Salesman: You can write a novel while you’re driving.

Homer: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! In today’s publishing environment?

The Simpsons, “Baby You Can’t Drive My Car”

I laughed my ass off at that line, and had to explain to my wife why I thought it was so funny: because today’s publishing environment sucks.

Shortly after the first draft, I made a semi-concerted effort to find an agent to sell the manuscript. I quickly ran up against two obstacles: the query letter, and the literary agents themselves.

The query letter is the letter you send to a prospective agent to get them interested in flogging your book to a publisher. Apparently, they get a ton of these things a day, and you really have to put together something compelling to get them to read past the first sentence or two.

In fact, I found a website run by an agent that does nothing but critique people’s query letters. However, in order to get your query letter considered for a crit on the site, there were a whole buncha hoops you had to jump through first. So, in order to supplicate an agent to get help so you could supplicate another agent, you had to write and re-write. Good practice, but the whole process was too “meta” for me. My interest in this fizzled quickly.

The thing that put the nail in the coffin was when I actually met a couple of literary agents. I’ll tread softly here, since it would be counterproductive to alienate some of the parties involved.

There is a fairly prominent writers group in the area, that hosts an annual conference here in town. The admission price is pretty steep, but if you volunteer to work there, they’ll knock 50% off the price. Being a cheapskate, I went the volunteer route. The only drawback was that I had to work four hours a day as part of the commitment.

It became pretty obvious to me that one of the main focuses of the convention – if not THE main focus – was the paid pitches. For twenty-five bucks, you got eight (8) minutes of face time with an agent to pitch your book or screenplay. There was an extensive catalog of agents, and you could pick ones that repped your genre, etc. This went on all day long throughout the conference. Then every ten minutes, they would usher a herd of would-be authors into the same room they used for the lunches, you would find your agent’s table, and give your pitch.

At that point, I did not have a whole lot of extra cash to throw around, so I was reluctant to spend more money than I already had. Still, it seemed like a good thing to at least try, so I found an agent who seemed like a likely bet (repped crime fiction, specifically), signed up and waited my turn.

In the meantime, there were other sessions where people would help you refine your pitch I went to a couple of these, and came up with what I thought was a pretty good pitch. (It ended up being the basis for the blurb for Jackrabbit, actually.) So I was psyched to go and pitch my book, as any agent who was worth half a damn would immediately recognize my brilliance and the book’s sales potential and sign me on the spot.

So I rolled in and gave my pitch, and the agent responded by saying, “Why should I care about John Dillinger? He was a killer.”

Huh?

I was so blown out by this response, that I really didn’t know what to say. I think we ended up arguing for the rest of the eight minutes, although the details are still hazy. I just remember leaving the session in a stuttering rage.

It was one of those situations where you come up with the perfect response ages after it’s too late to employ it. And the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. My response was, basically: “Yeah, people hate reading about killers and criminals. That’s why the bookstore shelves are crammed with bios of Mother Teresa and Albert Schweizer! Not a single book about Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacy to be found!”

I mean, this person was an agent that allegedly repped crime books; she should know good and damn well that murderers sell, big time. This realization made me even angrier – she had gotten me with a “gotcha” question that was completely counterproductive. Fuck that noise! I was paying for her time to the tune of $150/hour. I should not have been treated like I was a student at an MFA crit. If she wasn’t interested in representing that book, she should have at least had the professionalism to say so, and perhaps recommended me to another agent who knew that killers sold books.

Also, Dillinger was never convicted of murder. Accused, yes – but not convicted.

Anyway, that episode pretty much poured piss on the last ember of my desire to pursue a traditional publishing route. Perhaps it was for the best, although I sometimes have to forcibly remind myself of that when I’m going through the promotional paces required get a self-published book in front of readers’ noses. Then again, if it means I don’t have to deal with literary agents, it’s probably worth it.

READ a Book!

As part of my initial book promotion, I’m picking the low-hanging fruit that all self-published authors lean on: family and friends. I’ve even gotten the word out at work, which I was initially reluctant to do. I try to keep a fairly distinct boundary between my work and personal life. However, in this case I figured what the heck, and copped to having written a novel. I figured that it might sell a few more copies, and that Jackrabbit was straightforward enough that any co-workers who read it wouldn’t end up thinking I was any weirder than they’d already sussed out.

One interesting thing that happened was that several of them asked me if I was planning to create an audio version of the book. My initial (internal) response was “Christ, no! I’ve already spent enough time and money getting out the print/eBook version!” Then I thought that I might as well look into what would be involved in actually getting an audiobook version produced. I found a service called ACX that essentially functions as an audiobook Reedsy, and allows authors to audition and hire voice talent (“producers”) to create audiobooks from their print books.

It seemed like the going rate for a finished product was ~$225/hour. I did a back of the envelope calculation, and figured that it would run me over $2,800 to get a finished version. Whew! At this point, I’m trying to make money with this thing, not spend more.

Then I thought I could do it myself. I’ve got a pretty decent voice and some alright audio equipment that I’ve used for a political podcast I used to/sometimes still run. Then I remembered that the reason why I don’t really do the podcast anymore is that producing the episodes was a monster time-suck and also very frustrating. My wife always knew when I was working on an episode by the screamed profanities coming from the basement.

So my verdict on creating an audiobook ended up being, “Christ, no! I’ve already spent enough time and money getting out the print/eBook version!”

Then I started thinking about the people who had asked me about the audiobook. They seemed genuinely interested in knowing what I had written, but entirely unwilling to actually read in order to satisfy their curiosity. I work in a profession that attracts many talented people who are also a little OCD and monomaniacal with respect to their jobs. Also, a lot of them have their own side hustles going and not a lot of extra time to just seat and read a book.

I thought that this is sad. I mean, you do whatever floats your boat, of course. But I have to read, even just a few pages, every day. Usually it’s more than that, and I usually have at least two or three books going at any given time. The thought that someone would be too busy to be able to read text/printed words stuck be as being a little sad, and a little emblematic of the dysfunctional times in which we live. (I hope you noticed how I didn’t end that sentence with a preposition.)

Promotional Rescue

The launch of Jackrabbit has been a hell of an interesting ride, so far. It’s been an absolute thrill seeing something that went from a vague idea five years ago to an actual physical book that I can hold in my hand and use to swat flies. I can remember back twenty years ago, wanting to be a novelist but resenting the hell out of the fact that I had to actually write something. My goal, as I saw it then, was to have my own ISBN number. And now I do – 978-1-7332699-0-2. I just didn’t think I’d have to pay for it myself.

But I’ve already whined about that, so I’ll whine about something else.

To wit: promoting the book. This is something that is proving to be really challenging. I am decidedly NOT good with sales and marketing. At one point, I had my own one-man architecture and consulting business. I managed to limp it along for nearly two years, largely on the basis of connections I had in the local AEC industry and the largess and patience of my wonderful wife. But I hated, absolutely hated, having to drum up business and make cold calls. I figured that was not going to be a good situation for a one-person firm, so I eventually went back and got another “real” job. Also, I needed the health insurance.

So now I am back in the familiar but uncomfortable place of having to promote my own book. I knew that I was going to be in for it when I decided to self-publish (a topic for another post), but thinking about having to do it some time in the future, and actually having to do it NOW are two different beasties. But, here I am again.

Now that I’ve got the self-publishing end of things squared away, I’m focusing my attention on promoting the book, and doing a little online research about the best way to go about doing it. One of the first things I read is that the author needs to begin promoting the book six months before the publication date. WTF?! Back then, I was still writing the bastard; I had no time to think about promoting it. Hell, I have a full-time job and a wife and something akin to a life – there’s only so much more I can do on top of maintaining my so-called life and finishing a manuscript.

Then there’s the fact that nearly all self-publishing promotion involves social media. I don’t much cotton to social media, but I suppose I’ll have to live with it. I knew what I was getting into – but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to deal with it gracefully. Besides, from what I understand, even authors who managed to get their books published are now expected to shoulder a lot of the promotional activities. They need a “platform” – which I guess is what you are reading now.

So, here I go promoting again. I can be thankful for a number of things, not the least of which is that I live in Portland, which has self-published authors out the wazoo. So I have friends and acquaintances who have been down this road before and can offer useful advice. Most important, however, is that I have something that I didn’t really have when I was making those cold calls for my business, and that is faith in the product. This is a good book. I’m proud of what I’ve written, and I’m thankful that I hooked up with a good editor to make ti readable, and a good cover artist to encourage people to give it a try.

Here it goes…

The Ghost of Dillinger’s Corpse

Just a week after I released Jackrabbit, a novel about John Dillinger, he is back in the news again. In fact, he’s all over it. On Monday, it was announced that Dillinger’s nephew had petitioned for the gangster’s body to be exhumed from the cemetery in Indianapolis for examination. Two of the latest stories, from CBS and the New York Times have good information. As August is typically a slow news month, I expect to see more. (Oddly enough, there’s been nothing in Oregonian so far, but it has been in many other small-market newspapers. My Dad called me from Raleigh to let me know that the News and Observer ran a piece.)

The putative reason for this exhumation was initially pretty hazy. Over the last day or so, it has come out that the relatives “have evidence” that it’s not really John Dillinger buried in the grave with his name on the tombstone. This is nothing new – rumors of the “wrong man” being killed in Dillinger’s place have been circulating for ages. In fact, it’s a major plot point in Jackrabbit. I had heard the stories about the “wrong man” since junior high school, and wanted to explore how the switch may have occurred.

Of course, the FBI is standing by their story that they “got their man,” but given the circumstances of Dillinger’s death and some of the events that led up to it, their contemporary accounts may not be entirely believable. Dillinger pulled off a number of incredible escapes that were also incredibly embarrassing for J. Edgar Hoover’s nascent FBI. The worst of these was a shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin several months prior to the Biograph shooting. The FBI agents killed a WPA logger and wounded two others, thinking they were gang members trying to make a run for it. One of their own agents was killed by Baby Face Nelson, who also wounded another agent and a local lawman. IF the FBI had killed yet another innocent person in its pursuit of Dillinger, it would have been devastating for Hoover and the FBI. They certainly had a strong motive to conceal another screw-up, if that’s in fact what happened.

Also, perhaps not coincidentally, the History Channel has a documentary about Dillinger in the works right now. Call me cynical, but I suspect that the History Channel offered a bunch of money to the relatives in question to have them initiate the exhumation in order to promote their special.

While you’re calling me cynical, you might as well call me hypocritical, as I am looking to capitalize on this exhumation as much as the History Channel. In fact, I was thrilled to pieces when this story initially broke. From my point of view, the timing couldn’t be better. I’m also plotting a major promotion to take advantage of the actual exhumation, currently scheduled for mid-September

But I’ve got to admit that it makes me feel a little sleazy, too. Take a good look at the picture above, and consider the carnival atmosphere that surrounded this man’s death. That’s about to be repeated, and I suppose I’ll aim to get my slice of the sleaze. John Dillinger was a colorful character, and a true American in more ways than one. It seems wrong to dig him up for the sake of a cable TV special – or a self-published novel.

John Dillinger was a colorful character, and a true American in more ways than one. It seems wrong to dig him up for the sake of a cable TV special – or a self-published novel.

Of course, Dillinger was a massive publicity hound. He loved the attention that he got in the contemporary press, but it also pretty much guaranteed that he was not going to end his career any way but the hard way. Hell, he’d probably be pleased as punch to know that he’s still grabbing headlines 85 years later. Putative book sales notwithstanding, I’d be just as happy if they left that grave undisturbed.

The Return of John Dillinger

Amazing coincidence in timing here, but word got out yesterday that there are currently plans to exhume John Dillinger’s grave in Indianapolis!

The details are still thin on the ground, but Indy station WTHR reported yesterday that Dillinger’s nephew, Michael Thompson, officially requested to the state Department of Health that his famous gangster uncle’s body be exhumed. The request was granted, with the exhumation (and reburial) to take place on September 16.

Initially, Thompson, the Indiana Department of Health and Crown Point Cemetery were all tight-lipped about why they were going to dig up the Jackrabbit. Reports today have indicated that the History Channel is somehow involved in this effort, and that they are working on a documentary about Dillinger.

The details are still hazy, but I think there’s a good chance that this is related to the plot of Jackrabbit. [SPOILER ALERT] One of the main ideas of the novel is that it wasn’t really John Dillinger that was killed outside the Biograph, but a low-level criminal named Jimmy Lawrence. This theory has been kicking around for years; Jackrabbit was an exploration of how it might have happened.

One interesting piece of Dillinger lore is that Dillinger’s dad had him re-buried underneath several huge slabs of concrete. This was allegedly so that souvenir hunters wouldn’t be tempted to rob the grave. Conspiracy theorists surmise that John Dillinger Sr. (and other family members) knew that it wasn’t their relative in that grave, and that the concrete was placed there to prevent the FBI from discovering their mistake.

This is a very interesting development, and I will be following the story closely. I think a lot of other people will as well – I’ve already seen stories about this on CNN, Fox News, the Associated Press and the New York Times.

In the meantime, you can still download Jackrabbit for free from Amazon until midnight, July 31, by clicking THIS LINK.

Absolutely Free

AS part of the Amazon KDP promotion hoo-ha I agreed to, I can give away free copies of the eBook of Jackrabbit. This will run the last three days in July:

Monday, July 29 – Wednesday, July 31

Just go to the Amazon eBook page and download the eBook por nada any time during these 3 days. Enjoy! (And a good review on Amazon would be appreciated as well…)

Live at Last

Well, the Amazon page for Jackrabbit is live! Right now, the paperback and eBook are listed separately. Amazon assures me, however, that once the Amazon Master Brain twigs to the fact that it’s the same book, both listings will be combined.

Now that I’ve navigated the increasingly complex path of: A) writing the sumbitch, and B) publishing it, I now move on to C) promoting it. This should be interesting, as self-promotion is not my strong suit. We’ll see how this goes…

Eighty-Five Years Ago Today…

On July 22, 1934, the FBI Claimed that they finally “got their man” and gunned down Public Enemy Number One. They claim that s they shot John “Jackrabbit” Dillinger outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Almost immediately, rumors started swirling that the corpse outside the Biograph didn’t belong to Dillinger, and that the Jackrabbit – just like Elvis, Jim Morrison and Bigfoot – was still alive somewhere.

Well, I had hoped to be able to have my new novel Jackrabbit ready for release today, but alas it was not to be. I underestimated the vagaries of the Amazon KDP process, as well as some glitches in the Reedsy Book Editor software.

The problem is that Reedsy doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge the problem. I don’t care WHAT the Chicago Manual of Style says, “i” should not follow “iii” in any pagination scheme. Amazon certainly doesn’t think so, which is why they are refusing to print the book until the page numbers are corrected. I guess I’ll fool around with it some more, but I’ve got an ugly feeling that I’m going to have to drop my Acknowledgements section to get it to behave. Bleah!

So no book just yet, and the best I can do for an eBook is an Amazon pre-order page, since I clearly didn’t read the fine print, and checked a box that I couldn’t subsequently un-check. I’ll get this figured out soon, I hope.