A New Life in Seattle

A New Life in Seattle
August, 2018

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Seeing 20-20...finally

I've seen so many say goodbye to the last decade that I want to do something different--greeting the decade to come. Here are a few plans and updates.

Several years ago, I jumped ship when a pleasant medical records j, ob relocated to a soulless office park in Renton, a hefty commute from Seattle. I took what I meant to be a temporary gig with Whole Foods. But I've continued in retail in several different stores since then. I've reduced my schedule to 4 days a week to buy me more time to write. But the downside is retail hell for a crappy salary.

But I've completed three online medical courses, revamped my resume, and begun applying online.

Result: a phone interview this Thursday for a good position much closer to home.

My new Seattle BOP mystery series has pulled in rave reviews, including a beauty from Kirkus. I've completed the third and am outlining the fourth. But the short form I prefer, 40K words, has met steady resistance from agents. What to do? I know writers who've padded their work shamelessly to meet the minimum required word count of 50-60k words. But I wondered if there might be a better way to reach more readers, make good money doing so, and start enjoying life.

Result: I've completed a new novel of 80K words and have hired a pro to help produce a commanding query letter and synopsis. Furthermore, I've come up with a cool way of unshackling myself from some chains of the past. Further details to follow. For now, I need to follow the plan from this film:


For longer than I really care to recall, I've done little except write and work at a job I don't like. Now that the writing prospects are stronger and an enjoyable job is in sight, this is the year I'll emerge from my monkish shell. On Facebook, I will work toward creating a stronger base of friends in my new genre, mystery, and purging old-time one-way streets. I'll register with Mystery Writers of America, become more involved in Seattle Noir at the Bar, and begin getting out and about. When I've succeeded in selling the book, I'll start attending conventions.

Result: Even having a plan and a commitment to a more open, adventuresome life does wonders for the soul.

Dandy Digs
The studio I've moved to has been a step up from Pioneer Square. But it's too small for me to have visitors and the layout isn't right for my cat plans. 

Result: I've made arrangements with my landlord to graduate into a one-bedroom, ground floor apartment this summer. Probably June or July. And this month I'll start shopping for basic cat necessities.

Travel and Adventure
I miss them dearly. It's been years since I've even been on a train. The writing came first, the writing came first, the writing came first.  Enough said.

Result: My commitment is solid to find a decent-paying job with a better schedule and benefits. And my commitment to sell my 80K word novel plus the 60K sequel in progress will pay off, I'm convinced--paving the way to adventure. Each day I write with a greater sense of urgency and purpose. 

Friday, November 29, 2019

Pay Less Mind to the Length of the Struggle

Recently, a writer friend announced his intention to throw in the towel after decades spent turning out dozens of books. He still couldn't find an agent or pay the rent with Kindle royalties.

I share his pain. But lately, I've begun to wonder if certain struggles might also reflect a failure to adapt. To what? Consider:

1) It's meaningless for anyone to grouse about sending out thousands of queries. Not only has the publishing world changed since the emergence of the Big 5, but the query letter's style has also changed dramatically. Once upon a time, bigger agents receive hundreds of letters a month. Now some receive hundreds a week. And many agents prefer to hunt for new writers at conventions, where writers pay for the privilege of delivering elevator pitches--better yet, speed pitches of 10 words or less. So any query letter had better get down to business right quick. If query after query fails to win even a partial reading, it's time to redo the query--or pay for expert help.

2) Before throwing in the towel, the fighter in the writer must question not his talent--but the way it's being used. The time for a concept may have passed. Or the gatekeepers--high agents and editors--may have grown too timid. Back in the early 90s, when I wrote the first Boss MacTavin mystery, it was so wild and so different that agents feared to send it out, then one publisher sat on the submission for years. Since then, however, there's no shortage of hardboiled heroes. And my one-eyed Southern Scot grew more and more lost in the landscape. I chose to try something entirely different: mysteries unlike any other mysteries around....with a 5'4" hero who learns to walk tall. Result: a strong surge of 4 and 5-star reviews, plus high praise from Kirkus Reviews.

3) Even so, getting a new series going with readers requires not only hard work but more speed. I'm launching the third series entry in January, then plan to finish 2 books a year. Serious series readers are open to new mystery writers--who offer a body of work. At least three to start with; preferably five.

4) The synopsis itself is an art form that not every writer can master. Once again, be prepared to pay for help and put your pride aside. The $250 you may have to pay could make all the difference.

5) Most difficult of all, I think, is the art of adapting how we present ourselves now that we've been around the block and written a number of books. Resist the combined gravitational force of all those years of rejection. Don't let it weaken your posture. Counter with the gravitas of the seasoned veteran who's strengthened by experience...and the new tricks he's got up his sleeve.

6) And, finally, remember that the length of the struggle might work for you. On November 23, 2019, Deontay Wilder put Luiz Ortiz down with a single punch in the 15th round. And he did this after losing the prior 14 rounds on points.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Joker's Billion Dollar Laugh

A movie that shouldn't have 'made it'--or even got made as it was--will have earned a billion bucks this week. And every expert who passed on producing it should have his or her head on a plate.

'Nobody knows anything' in the movie business, as William Goldman said. Too true. But for those with the money, art's about odds. And the odds against Joker amounting to significant numbers were high. The script was a grim one, an origin story unlike any other Marvel movie. Worse still, it was a 'onesie' with no plans for a sequel. The director was best known for his Hangover films. Joaquin Phoenix, though good, was no box office draw. And the budget was...$53 million.

Well, the punchline to that is a kick in the teeth of know-it-alls and blowhards who live for sure things when there's only one in art's uncertain world: now and then bold works of absolute integrity speak to the people as no one else has. And when they do--watch out.

The theaters wouldn't be packed if Joker resonated only with 'incels' or the down and out. It's a portrait of overdue rage at a System that serves the wealthy one percent. And the rich get richer while the poor get you-know-what. Arthur Fleck's example is extreme--he isn't simply pushed over the brink, he's beaten to within an inch of his life and mocked beyond endurance. But this failed clown speaks to us as Howard Beale did in Network.

99% percent are getting mad-as-heller daily. And it isn't that they want their own Jeffrey Epstein islands or seven-figure book deals for novels they've slaved on for years or their own stars on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood. What they want is shown in a pair of scenes in Joker--where he cries out that all he ever needed was a little respect and a chance. And what does he get? In the first scene, he gets a hard punch in the mouth; in the second, a roasting on national TV.

Any viewer, regardless of income, can thrill to the movie's best scenes: Arthur Fleck, in full Joker makeup and dress, dancing triumphantly down those steep Bronx steps...and the poor the 1 percent call clowns rioting in the streets.

Anyone who's been blocked or rejected, shunned or disrespected, can enjoy a silent cheer when Arthur stops clowning around and strikes back.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

James Coburn and his Rogue Quartet

                     1. An Astonishing Announcement

In the heart of the Sixties British Invasion, something astonishing happened. One day like any other day, as our ears were under siege by the Beatles, the Stones, the Zombies, the Dave Clark Five, the Animals, and Herman’s Hermits…and while our eyes were ruled by Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Patrick McGoohan, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, Oscar Reed…an announcement appeared in the Buffalo Evening News:

A hot new film was coming soon. And it would star a 39-year-old, short-haired, American actor described by critic Pauline Kael as looking like the offspring of Madame Butterfly and Lieutenant Pinkerton, her lover in the opera. A kind of way of saying some might see the actor as ugly.

But the film had more in mind than spoofing James Bond movies. Our Man Flint himself was intended to be an American alternative to the British icon. Still, I couldn’t guess what to expect from Madame Butterfly’s lovechild.

                     2. The American Revolution

But the film came to me like a breath of fresh air. Unlike the day’s leading American stars—Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, John Wayne—Derek Flint came across as a two-fisted, articulate Renaissance man. He was a skilled martial artist with degrees from seventeen universities. He was fluent in forty-five languages, including that spoken by dolphins. And what other stud could dance in a ballet when not kicking henchmen to the curb?

Over the top? Even silly? Of course. But James Coburn brought thirty-four other things uniquely his own to the part.

#1-32: His teeth. These were great oversized choppers that, shown in their full glory, could charm you, seduce you…or make you think twice. ‘Top of the world, ma,’ those teeth seemed to sing. The smile conveyed an appetite for life missing wherever else we looked. Sometimes it went into half-hiding and he could be seen, as critic David Thomson states, “smiling privately, seeming to suggest that he was in contact with some profound source of amusement.” Or: the private smile was that of an actor with 60 TV credits and twelve films to his name, including three with Steve McQueen, before becoming an overnight success at very close to forty.

#33. His voice. To call his voice deep is like calling Niagara Falls wet. This was the voice that earned him $500,000 for speaking two words in a beer ad: ‘Schlitz. Light.’

#34. His conquering Je ne sais quoi. That collection of many things rolled into one—from his studies with Bruce Lee to his interests in Zen, from his physical grace to his up there IQ—all adding up to an aura so many have tried to define.

Director Paul Schrader: He was of that 50’s generation. He had that part hipster, part cool-cat aura about him.

Actor Andy Garcia: He was the personification of class, the hippest of the hip.

The Baltimore Sun: With a face designed to illustrate the word "chiseled," dominated by a pair of deep-set eyes and a mouth that seemed markedly out of proportion, he resembled the joker in a deck of cards. And like that wild card, he could be as unpredictable as he was memorable.

Reb MacRath: He was the closest thing we’ll ever have to an American Cary Grant.

                                 3. The Rogue Not Taken

In 1966 and 1967, the years of the two Flint films, he also starred in two films introducing a new type of rogue: Dead Heat on Merry-Go-Round and Waterhole #3. These were clever heist films with a revolutionary twist (at the time): the hip rogue escapes with the money—hard-won with his brains, not his fists. Coburn paved the way for The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968. Before JC, the rules were strict: the thief dies, goes to jail, or loses all the money.

Duffy, 1968, takes place in Tangiers. Here we have a Sixties setting with a retired smuggler giving piracy a try when convinced that it will be a Happening. From greed, the Coburn rogue's moved on to getting back into the groove and acting to be 'with it.' (The film's original title was, in fact, Avec-Avec.)

But the Flint fans failed to follow these or other ambitious efforts like The President’s Analyst or Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (with a screenplay by Gore Vidal, based on a Tennessee Williams play). The latter flop ended his contract with Twentieth Century Fox. And in 1971 he set off to Italy to try his luck, Clint Eastwood-style, with two Italian westerns (Duck, You Sucker and A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die.)

The years ahead would be as wildly checkered as any actor’s ever: from years of dreck (Firepower, Skyriders, Mr. Patman, The Baltimore Bullet, High Risk, Looker, Hudson Hawk…to a few strong leads in films that failed (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Cross of Iron)…to supporting roles in decent films (Hard Times and Bite the Bullet)…to a crippling bout with arthritis through the 1980s…to an Oscar for Affliction three years before his death in 2002.

                              4. The Rogue Quartet Completed

 By the end, however, JC had been around so long in supporting roles and cameos that he’d become invisible as the star who’d invented his rogue. Even kids who didn’t know his name would say, ‘Hey, there’s the old man with the white beard and the big booming voice!’

To realize what we lost in The Rogue Not Taken, we need to redirect our sights to 1973.

That year he added a fourth, crowning film to his classic trio: Harry in Your Pocket. And JC has never been more charismatic than he is as Harry (no last name), the cannon for a team of pickpockets.

But, as Last of the Mobile Hot Shots helped killed off a studio contract, Harry drove his last remaining Flint fans up the wall. No Fu fights. No gunplay. Worse, he's too old to get the girl--and he gets frigging caught at the end!

Not only Flint fans abandoned his rogues. Moviegoers were shocked when Dead Heat's Eli Koch, after lying and scamming for nearly two hours, flies off with his share of the heist--leaving his poor wife behind.

And they were horrified when Waterhole's Lewton Cole hides behind a horse to shoot a man who's challenged him to a duel. They'd barely recovered when Lewton with his great-toothed grin rapes the heroine in a barn. World without mercy! Finally, after scamming everyone who had tried to scam him, Lewton addresses the camera, a sack of gold in hand: "Maybe we take money too seriously...Then again, maybe we don't take it seriously enough!" Off he rides then to more scores and, presumably, more girls in barns.

Perspective: these two films came out a few years before the Flashman novels introduced their rogue antihero.   And the films are more complex than casual viewers have seen. 

Two examples:

1)  In Dead Heat's final shot, Camilla Spav--the betrayed and abandoned wife--is shown to have inherited $7 million. This amount is infinitely more than Eli Koch has stolen. And the irony seems to add a conventional comforting moral. But we need to remember Eli's last line of dialogue, a few seconds before on the plane. When asked by Aldo Ray what he plans to do with his share, Eli says with the strangest expression--half sad and half not: "It all comes down to knowing what you need." With those words, we know he doesn't need or want the wife, the inherited mansion, and all the chains that come with them.

2) Harry in Your Pocket ends with Harry's first-ever sacrifice play. To save his friend and mentor, he allows himself to be caught with a 'poke' rather than pass it a)s he always does. ("Harry never holds" has always been his motto and was the original title.) Most viewers' reactions are bound to be mixed. On the one hand, we can't help admiring Harry's almighty class and cool, the ballet-like precision of the pickpockets' moves. On the other hand, how can't we think of the poor marks who've been robbed? And, if we had a third hand, we'd wonder: Will Harry, who's never been caught before, do any time at all? With those beautiful teeth and magnificent suits, what does his future hold? The greatest threat of all to him may be learning that he has a heart after all.

More than ever, I believe, the Rogue Quartet bears watching. For all the crimes that they contain, the greatest crime by far is that the four were overlooked. As we watch and are hooked, again and again, by the rogue's irresistible smile, it may help fortify us against the current killer smiles of villains in high places.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

How to Properly Anchor Your Book

Books without anchors leave readers adrift.

The simplest anchors may help us keep track of who's who in dialogue that runs on for a page. An occasional He or She said will usually suffice. Or a gesture inserted between two quoted sentences can break the monotony.
'Do you really think so?" Jane stared into space. "I just can't see it that way."

Other anchors inform or remind us where the action's going down or how a room is arranged. How far apart are two seated characters if one of them's holding a gun? If we know that, we'll understand why B doesn't simply charge A. Or: if the narrative's divided between Seattle and San Francisco, perhaps the Seattle portions are told in the first person, the S.F. portions in the third. Or we may devise a subtler way than announcing the place with each change of locale.

The timeline should be carefully anchored as well. And this can be the devil's own business. Bold headers can give us the day or the hour at the start of each new part or chapter:
12:00 A.M.

Or the timeline can be reinforced in a subtler way:
Two weeks after the death of Red Sands...

When details are entirely absent or are in far too short supply, we find ourselves adrift in an airy tale of faceless characters moving in and out of blurry rooms or homes, engaging in dialogue that comes from God knows which. Because of its blurred, dream-like nature, the prose can't help but fail to engage us. For all we know, the characters aren't even wearing clothes.

So then, the solution seems easy enough: when we write, it should always be 'Anchors away!'

Not so fast, though. 

Too many or too heavy anchors can quickly sink your readers

Too heavy: the mannered, nonstop repetition of 'He said' or 'She said.' In its own way, this is as phony as the prideful replacement of each 'said' with a deep purple substitute: S/he articulated...S/he pronounced...S/he uttered...S/he speechified...Variety is wonderful--if it's organic and discrete.

Too many: The equally mannered, nonstop iteration of brands/colors/fabrics/costs of all clothing in alls scenes. The cost and provenance of furniture. Etc.

Let's drop anchor as needed by readers. And let's drop it unobtrusively, simply as we can.

The result will be:

Sunday, September 15, 2019

When It's Time to Both Unfriend and Block

Unfriending in itself, I think, can be a healthy thing. Now and then we all should condense our lists, removing those we never engage with, those who are too militant about their offensive opinions, those who flood us with requests but do nothing in return, or those with whom it seems we have nothing in common. 

There shouldn't be any anger involved in positive Unfriending. And there's no need think of it as taking out the trash. 

No, think of it as pruning: removing the failed to make way for foliage that may have a chance.

Now and then, in fact, we may find it useful to Unfollow but not Unfriend someone we want to hear less from...but whom we want to keep in the loop about any future successes.

But Blocking turns Unfriending into a more extreme act. 

This is for when you've decided that not only do you not want this person as a friend, you want them knowing next to nothing about you. If they've proven that they can't be trusted; if they go off on you at the drop of a hat repeatedly;  if they've shown grave disrespect for you, your beliefs or your work; if their impact on you's negative...then it may be time to Block.

Today's Block may pave the way for a better building block to a better you.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

On Serious Series Writing

There's no need to stand alone--or really any cause to.

Don't kid yourself into thinking that all great books are standalone titles or that you're somehow selling out if you roll your dice on a series of books. Homer's Iliad had a sequel even better than the first. Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote dramatic cycles. Dante's Divine Comedy was a three-part series.

Think of the great series work done in our own time--and almost in every genre: from Frank Herbert to Sarah Paretsky to Michael Connelly to Cale Carr to Stephen King to J.K. Rowling...

Now, it's true that most Serious Literary Fiction does consist of standalones. Though they're harder to sell nowadays, books by writers with good pedigrees and even better contacts do make it through the gauntlet, are well-reviewed, and even score. Occasionally, there are breakaway successes like Donna Tartt's The Secret History.

What are the odds, though, against that when you're trying to pay the rent?

Let's stick to genre fiction and use our common sense.

The agent or editor we approach--as either an unpublished or ruined once-midlist writer--may be on fire about our book. In fact, they may even consider it a masterpiece. But will they able to sell it if they can't convince an editor who must convince Accounting that we're a sound long-term investment? In other words, can they be sure that lightning will strike twice...then thrice...then onward for years to come? They may believe you're a warhorse, able to turn out a novel a year. But readers, they say, are looking for more helpings of a dish they loved...not a completely new kettle of fish. Your unique book starring an Aborigine dwarf detective drove readers wild. But will they buy your next book about chess in ancient Babylon?

It's said that mystery readers are looking to see a real body of work before they'll a new author. They like to see five series entries, with the next on the horizon. Three or four will also work, as long as the blurb and cover are enticing.

I'd written two series of books before going seriously series: four Boss MacTavin mysteries and The Fast and the Furies, a series of theme-related thrillers. I decided to make a clean break while applying everything I'd learned. A new series, Seatle BOP, would be younger and lighter and freer, done in a much lighter style. Still writing from the heart, I bore a wise saying in mind:

Sell them what they want but give them what they need. 


Better yet, it seemed to me, learn to create the need. In a field of hulking Jack Reacher clones and even deadlier femmes, I'd set a hero measuring only 5'4". And no assassin or P.I., he's an insurance investigator. My goal: to create a need for a stylish new brand of excitement.

Thoughts for series-minded writers:
1) Decide at the start where you'll take your stand on the series spectrum, somewhere between thee two extremes: The lighter Sue Grafton/Robert B Paker model, where the series star hardly ages or changes between books...or the Micheal Connelly model with the opposite approach--the changes in Bosch are extreme. I pitched my own camp on the left with SG and RBP.
2) Though the writing's never easy--or at least it shouldn't be--you don't need to reinvent the wheel with every book. You know your setting and main characters, their histories and their quirks. And so you'll experience surges in energy and confidence that bring a new joy to your writing. entry
3) If you don't sell the first entry right off the bat, your appeal will be enhanced--along with your bargaining position--when you've completed two or three. 
4) Plus, you'll be so far ahead of the publishing timeline, that you can work without breaking a sweat.

For further reading, check this out:

All right, kiddos, now play ball!