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Dillinger Download Days

Yours truly with a copy of JACKRABBIT, in front of the “Dillinger House” on Tucson. John Dillinger was arrested there in January 1934, prior to his amazing breakout from Crown Point jail.

From now until midnight on Sunday, May 17, download a FREE copy of Jackrabbit

Back in January, I went to Tucson to attend a friend’s memorial service. It was a strange trip in a number of aspects, not the least of which was my reason for visiting. I had lived in Tucson for five years back in the 90’s, but I hadn’t been back in over a decade. After having spent that interim ten years in the Pacific northwest, being back in the Sonoran Desert was very odd. On one hand, it was quite familiar from my presious life there; on the other, the desert seemed really alien after a decade in the Pacific Northwest rain forest.

While I was there, I made it a point to visit the house where John Dillinger was arrested in 1934. It’s a small, neat “territorial” house in the old neighborhood just west of the sprawling University of Arizona campus. Although all of the action in Jackrabbit takes place starting immediately after the Tucson arrest, it seemed like an appropriate place to take a publicity photo.

Also, I’ve learned that Tucson has begun embracing its Dillinger history with an annual “Dillinger Days” celebration, featuring reenactments, a historical exhibit, a vintage car show, and a Tommy gun display. Unfortunately, I had missed the fun by a week or so this time, but I would like to make it in the future. January is a great time to get the heck outta Portland for some desert sun.

The Plague Journal

I’m tryin’ to think, but nothing happens!

-Jerome “Curly” Horwitz

I hope everyone is safe and well in these anxious and uncertain times.

One of the questions I’ve gotten quite a bit as the coronavirus pandemic has made its mark is whether I’m writing more now that I’m spending more time at home.

The answer to that question is an emphatic “Hell, no!”

I’m so wound up and stressed out, I can barely read, much less write. To illustrate: I recently got a copy of William Gibson’s latest, Agency. The publish date was pushed back multiple times, so I was really glad when I finally got my hot little hand on a copy.

But I couldn’t read it very well. I’d go over a page or three and then just sorta zone out. After I was about sixty pages in, I realized that I had no idea what the hell was going on. I put it back on the shelf to be read at a less discombobulating time. Instead, I switched to my literary equivalent of comfort food: Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I figure that should carry me ’til mid-May, at least.

As for actually doing any serious writing – forget it. This post here is the first “serious” writing I’ve done since the beginning of March. The only writing I’ve been doing with any regularity has been maintaining a spotty “plague journal,” which consists largely of short entries like “curled up behind the couch and whimpered for two hours.” Such missives will not exactly put me up there with the likes of Defoe and Pepys (who wrote very eloquently about the 1665 Great Plague of London). At least I’m getting some words on paper.

And it feels like I’m kinda tapped out for this post, so I’m going to wrap it up and chalk it up as a win. I hope everybody out there is staying safe and staying well. THis is some scary shit, but it too will pass.

Be brave, be kind.

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%.