Tuesday, April 25, 2017

River City Re-Issue

Gray Dog Press, the publisher of the River City series in paperback since 2010 has stopped publishing fiction. As a result, the print rights to this series have reverted to me. Since I already publish the ebook version, I've decided to re-issue the print version myself. So over the next couple of weeks, the first four books of the series will become available again in print, complete with new covers. As part of branding the franchise, the three River City short story collections will also get new covers.

All of the covers have been designed by Eric Beetner. Two of the covers (Under a Raging Moon and Beneath a Weeping Sky) feature photographs by Matt Rose. This is the same team that I plan on asking to contribute to the cover for River City #5 (In the End), which I'm currently writing, as well as #6 (Place of Wrath and Tears), and #7 (Still Untitled).

I'm going to release these covers over the next few days on my Facebook page, so keep an eye out! But here's the first three anthology covers right now...

Saturday, April 22, 2017

New Story Accepted! (and other news!)

I am happy to announce that my short story "Titus, My Brother," was accepted for inclusion in the military fiction anthology The Odds Against Us

The anthology is a crowd-funded project from Oren Litwin, and should be out late 2017/early 2018. I'm joining a fine cast of writers, including two of my old friends, Jim Wilsky and John Floyd.

My story is a little bit of a departure from my usual fare of crime fiction. In keeping with the theme of the anthology, it is military fiction, set in first century Britain, during the Roman colonization (or occupation, depending on your point of view). Boudicca has just led the Iceni in an uprising against Rome, and a depleted Roman legion is marching to Camulodunum to put down this rebellion (or push for freedom, again depending on your perspective). For those who like a good battle story, I think you'll enjoy it. For those that like to look for subtext, I think you'll see a couple swirling around in the underbrush of this tale.

In other news, I've been invited to be part of a Lawrence Kelter-edited anthology project that will be out around the same time. It hasn't been officially announced yet, though, so I'm not sure how much information I'm able to share yet, so I'll get back to you on that.

Another unannounced project that I know will happen one way or another is one I'll be editing and also providing a couple stories. It's a series (call it a season if you like) of novellas featuring a pair of grifters on the run. Some of your [or mine, at least] favorite authors will be contributing, though some of them don't know it yet. More on this further on up the road (for those of you playing Zafiro Bingo, you may now fill in the box marked 'Springsteen Reference').

Answering Questions at Auntie's on 4/9/17
My appearance at Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane on April 9 was a successful one. This place has been an independent bookstore since 1978, and remains viable in a wildly different marketplace than when it came into existence thirty-nine years ago. Great people, great atmosphere, and always a fun time. If you were one of the people who made it out on a Wednesday night, thank you!

My next stop is in Seattle at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop on Saturday April 29 at 12 PM. I haven't been to SMB for a few years, so it's exciting to be coming back. Hope to see a lot of you. The reason I'm there is to promote and sign copies of my most recent release, The Last Collar, written with the aforementioned Larry Kelter.  But hey, I'll sign anything, talk about anything, or just hang out. It is the final weekend before Independent Bookstore Day on May 2, so come celebrate early. If you haven't seen the inside of SMB yet, you're missing out on the coolest store in Seattle...period.

On Monday, May 1st, I'll be back in Seattle, taping an interview for "New Day Northwest," a Seattle TV program. I'm not sure of the air date, but it should be soon. This will actually be my first TV interview as a writer since KXLY's Robyn Nance did a feature on me years ago in Spokane called "Crime Fighter, Crime Writer" and I'm looking forward to it.

And last but not least, the news that more people probably care about more than all of the previous...I've started work on the next River City novel. It's called In the End and it is book 5 in the series. It will definitely be out this year. Books 6 & 7 should follow pretty quickly after that.

What's this one about? Well, more on that as we get closer. But expect Katie MacLeod to play a larger role than 2011's And Every Man Has to Die (book 4). Chisolm and Sully are in there, along with Detectives Tower and Browning, and the rest of the supporting cast....yes, including the weaselly Lieutenant Hart.

More to come. Hope to see you in Seattle!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

G Strikes Again!

G is a young writer who emailed me with some questions about the craft. Since the questions were intelligent ones that bear discussion, I offered to answer them in an ongoing series of blog posts.

Today's question: What's the best way to set a book up for a sequel without making it obvious? One of the big things about my book is that it's part of a series. From my research, I've learned that most first time authors have a lot more trouble publishing when their book is first in a series. 

It's a great question.

There are two kinds of series. One kind is when you follow a character from book to book as s/he encounters stand alone adventures. There are recurring secondary characters and the main character may grow and change over time, and there may even be a plot string or two that occur over the course of the series, but for the most part, each book can stand completely on its own. The fact that it is part of a series is great but reading one doesn't necessitate reading a second or third in order to get the whole story. Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder series or Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series are both great examples of this. I'll call these a Character Series.

The other kind of series is the purposeful series in which the overarching story plays out over more than one book. Think G.R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. Let's call this a Story Series.

In writing a first book in a Character Series, the biggest focus should be on that single book. Make sure it is a great book that stands on its own two firm feet. Ensuring that there is room for a second book is only a small part of a book like this, not the main focus. This book, and each of the others in the series, stands alone and you could pick up any of them and get enjoyment from it without having read any others in the series. 99% of the effort should be on the book at hand, and 1% about setting up future books or continuing existing series plot threads.

Interestingly, when Block finished When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, he thought the series was over because Scudder had faced the fact that he was an alcoholic. Then he realized he had a lot more Scudder tales to tell, so he picked up the thread again, and we got more books that stood alone as mysteries. But we also saw Scudder venture into sobriety, and eventually marry.

In a Story Series, you know going in that there will be a sequel(s), and that the sequel(s) is necessary to tell the entire story. But the first book still has to be a satisfying segment of the story. One way to accomplish this is to have an intermediate goal for the heroes to accomplish, and the first book is about striving toward that goal. A reader can enjoy some aspect of a finished goal that way, but the ending should also set up the next big step in the series, too. Think about how Star Wars ended...the Death Star destroyed, but the rebellion still not over. A battle won, but not the war.

This is a very simplified explanation of what some very talented authors accomplish with strong craft, but hopefully it points G (and anyone else contemplating the same question) in the right direction.

Of course, I welcome any further thoughts on this question...

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Where'd the TIme Go?

I got an email recently from Cindy Rosmus, the editor of the online magazine, YELLOW MAMA. She wrote to tell me about their 10th anniversary issue, being published on Valentine's Day 2017, and asked to reprint my short story "Cassie" in that issue. More specifically, she said that she was going to run her five favorite stories from that first year, and "Cassie" was one of them.

First off...cool, huh? When she asked if that would be okay, I sent a fast, enthusiastic "YES!"

So my first thought was that it was cool that she wanted to include "Cassie," and the second thought was that it was even cooler that it was one of her favorites.

Then I got to thinking...tenth anniversary? Tenth? It seems like only a short time ago when that story went live, and here I am, about forty stories and twenty novels down the line.

Where does the time go?

That was rhetorical. You don't have to answer.

"Cassie" is a short story featuring Stefan Kopriva, who is a pivotal character in the River City universe. He's one of the main protagonists in the first two River City novels, the main protagonist in three novels of his own, and featured in a couple of short stories, including this one. Chronologically, "Cassie" takes place after the events in Waist Deep but before those in Lovely, Dark, and Deep. It is one of the few stories that I've written that includes some graphic sexuality (if you're keeping track at home, "Good Shepherd" and "Gently Used" are two others). The sexuality included in this story made it a little more difficult to place, and resulted in a couple of rejections based on content. So when Cindy decided to take a flier on "Cassie," I was pretty thrilled.

If you're interested in this story, it's out there now and you can probably find it. But I'd suggest you bookmark YELLOW MAMA and when the Tenth Anniversary issue goes live on 2/14, give "Cassie" a read along with the other gems Cindy picked.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Another Q from G

If you're wondering what 'Q' is, your first guess was correct:  question.

If you're wondering who 'G' is, you can check out my previous post about it, but the short version is the G is a young writer who emailed me with some questions about the craft. Since the questions were intelligent ones that bear discussion, I offered to answer them in an ongoing series of blog posts.

Today's question: How do you tell a backstory without having a flashback or outwrite [sic] telling it?

(Sorry, I couldn't resist including the original typo from G's email...even though we all know it is a typo, it seems like it somehow ought to be correct, doesn't it?)

Anyway, this one seems like a simple question, and I suppose it has a simple answer, but the execution is everything.

For starters, I think most writers would agree that we know waaaaaaaaay more about each character than the reader ever learns. We know these back stories intimately. And because we know them so well, and because they excite us so much, and because, dammit, we did the work to create (or discover, depending on how your muse prefers to work) these stories, and because they are frickin' amazing...we want to include every little detail.


Back story is like the spice in a meal, not the meal itself. It flavors the meat, but it isn't the meat. The meat is the story you're telling in the here and now, and that's where the focus should be.

Oh, but yes, I know...the back story is crucial to this character's persona, or her motivation, or you name it. And maybe that's so. I'm not saying the back story shouldn't be there. It absolutely should. But like seasoning on the meat, it enhances. And a little can go a long way.

Let's say your character has a hard time with intimacy, and recently endured a hard breakup. How much of that back story do you need to tell? The answer, of course, is that it depends. If the story you're telling is about reconciling with that partner, probably a lot more of the back story needs to be told than if the relationship and subsequent breakup is merely a part (albeit an important part that affects her immensely and drives her motivation) of the character's history but won't be revisited in this story. Because remember, this story is the one you're telling.

In The Backlist, my novel with Eric Beetner, one of the main characters, Bricks, has recently suffered exactly what I just described:  a tough break up. And the breakup reinforces the fact that she has intimacy issues. But the story is about something else entirely, so how much to devote to the loss of her recent love?

Well, in a book of about sixty thousand words, I spent less than two hundred giving that part of her back story.

Of course, there was more to her back story, especially with her mother and her father, but these also came about organically. Probably fifty percent of the back story centering on her Pops comes out in dialogue with other people, and most of the rest in scattered references she makes throughout the book.

Back story can be the most effective when it is told (or better yet, shown) in revealing snippets of conversation (whether dialogue or internal monologue), and not all at once. Creating a little mystery about the backstory isn't a bad thing at all. In fact, it can be intriguing.

Ultimately, unless the key to the story you're telling now is about resolving these past events in the character's life (and maybe not even then), what the reader needs to know is the flavor of those events and a couple of salient facts. Too much emphasis on the backstory might be an indicator that you're telling the wrong story now.

So go easy on back story. Reveal enough to meet the needs of characterization and/or plot points, but don't be afraid to let it dribble out in intriguing bits through dialogue. Oblique references and hints are fair game here. After all, the reader doesn't have to know everything...and certainly not right away.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Happy Accident and a Little Obsession

As you will know if you follow this blog, some of my projects are collaborations. For example, I just finished a third Bricks and Cam Job with Eric Beetner earlier this month, and am also working on one called FALLEN CITY with my The Last Collar partner, Lawrence Kelter.

The chapters in both of these collaborations flew back and forth pretty quickly. Eric and I got off to a slow start, mostly because of me, but once we got rolling, we rolled like a freight train. Larry and I were a little sporadic at first, too, but experienced the same phenomenon once things were established -- we flew. In the last couple of weeks, that freight train has positively morphed into a high speed bullet train.

So it was no surprise to me when I got back a pivotal chapter from Larry late last night (even later for him on the East Coast). Although I was seriously considering going to bed when the file arrived in my mailbox, I decided to at least read it. So I did, and it rocked, and as always got me even more excited about the story. That led to doing the revision piece that we always do on incoming chapters. Nothing big, just catching typos and doing some minor polishing. When that was done, I felt like I was in the groove, so I started my new chapter. It was to have two scenes, and I burned through the first scene, creating some conflict and feeling maliciously good about it. I was about a third of the way, maybe even halfway, through the second scene, when something weird happened.

It's still kind of a mystery to me. I must have inadvertently had a key depressed or something while I moved the mouse up to the task ribbon to switch it back to the HOME setting. I wanted to be able to italicize with the click of the button (yes, I know I can CTRL-I, but sometimes I like to click the italics button instead, okay?). Anyway, I used the mouse wheel to try to change it and my tired, clumsy fingers may have even depressed the left mouse button.

Can you see the disaster coming?

All of the sudden, Word closes and I'm staring at my desktop. My first thought was probably the same one you had -- immediately after uttering a favorite curse word, of course.

"When did I save last?"

I opened the file up again, scrolled down and...time for that favorite curse word again. No partial second scene. No completed first scene. No revisions.


At that point, I just went to bed. I told Kristi what happened (she painfully endured the "And then I used the mouse wheel" description that she said was taking forever...and in truth, it kinda did) to vent a little, and we hit the sack. Being the great wife that she is, though, she said, "Why don't you go rewrite it while it is still fresh in your mind?"

But I refused. Stupid Word document wasn't going to me to jump through hoops.

After pouting for about five minutes, I realized she was right. Also, there was no way I was falling asleep, even though it was after eleven. So I kissed my wife and got back up. I grabbed some water and for consolation's sake, a few 'Nilla Wafer Minis. And by a few, I mean two gargantuan handfuls. But I stopped at two. Because that was all that was left in the box.

I did some Google research, asking if there was any way to recover an unsaved Word document. The first answer I found was in one of those help forums like Answer.com or something. Some idiot didn't save his document and wanted to know if it could be recovered. Some smug asshole replied that if he didn't save it, then there was nothing to recover. No help at all.

Luckily, there were about forty million other hits, and a couple of them had actual suggestions worth trying. I explored a couple of dead ends and finally landed on one that said if I had the autosave feature turned on, then I could find the auto-recover document at a particular location in my file directory. I crossed my fingers and went there. Lo and behold, an auto-recover document with a time stamp on it that seemed hopeful. I clicked on it, opening it with Word when prompted (why did I have to select Word? What else would I open it with? Excel, just for fun? Excel is never fun).

The first thing I noticed was that it opened with the Track Changes margin visible to the right. That meant some of my changes were intact, because I always made it a point to accept (or rarely reject) the changes Larry made on my previous chapter before going into his new chapter. So that was good news.

I scrolled down and saw that all of my revisions were there, and the beginning of my first scene. True, my protagonist was cut off right before he says something nice to his wife (who is piii-iiissed at him, oh!), but I probably only lost ten minutes of work, or less. Just spitballing, but I felt like that was a good estimate, since I noticed the setting on the Auto-Recover option was to save every ten minutes.

Still, that was a lot of lost material, because I had been rolling. I closed my eyes to envision the rest of the scene at the apartment, and the beginning of the second scene, which occurs at a crime scene. Then I started tapping the keys.

I finished the first scene, and drove right into the second. I got to the point where I'd left off and just kept rolling.When it came time to send it back to Larry, I did what we usually do for each other, inserting a page break and typing in the next chapter number. Then I sat there, staring at the screen, because I knew that his next scene, which I was looking forward to, didn't have any ripples into the final segment I was to write next. And my final segment was the end of the book, a time any writer knows is exciting.

So after a little deliberation (very little), I added another page break, was nice enough to type in the chapter heading for myself, and I started tapping the keys again. I wrote what I thought would be the final scene of the book, wrapping up some loose ends and putting a ribbon on things from the perspective of the main protagonist. It went well, I thought. Of course, it was late and I was both tired and mildly biased. But there was some irony, some mild self-awareness, and some love, both of the married and fraternal kind. I also happily tied it back to the very first scene in which the reader meets the protagonist.

When I was done (and had hit SAVE), I sat there a little longer. There was one nagging little loose thread dangling, and it was bothering me. It involved a character that could easily be categorized as the second only to the main protagonist in terms of screen time. And while Larry and I wanted to leave his fate a little bit shrouded (who knows if this will be a one-off or a series, at this point?), there was a part of his story-line involving his family that I didn't want to leave unresolved.

Besides, like I said, I was rolling. I felt like Bruce Springsteen, getting ready to introduce the band near the end of the show right in the middle of the song "Light of Day." Just chanting, "100 miles, 200 miles, 300 miles, train keeps on rollin', goin' 400 miles, 500 miles..."

So I kept writing. Since we had a prologue, I decided to go beyond our original plan and write an epilogue. Nature and art like symmetry, right? I took the approach of keeping the narrator's identity unstated, though it will be obvious to the reader who it is. The epilogue ended up only 366 words, but it did exactly what I needed it to do.

Then, finally, I was done. The bottom right corner of my monitor told me it was after two in the morning, which didn't used to seem so late, but seems positively rebellious now. I did a quick read-through, tweaking and polishing and correcting along the way, which took another ten minutes or more. Then I hit SAVE repeatedly, gave my monitor a sturdy middle finger, and exited the document.

And immediately opened it again to make sure it was all still there. If I was really crazy, I would have muttered an apology for the finger part, but just because I'm a writer doesn't mean I'm full out whacked.  So I only thought the apology.

Still there. All good.

I closed the file and went to bed. I fell asleep fast, and hard.

Now who know what will happen...I haven't heard back from Larry as of this writing, but it is well within his normal window for reply. He may read my two in the morning ravings and hate them. Or he may not agree to an epilogue. It is the ending, after all, and endings are important. But I think he's going to dig it. Because sometimes bad luck can turn to good luck, and a happy accident can end up putting you in a good place, if you're willing to contribute a little of your own obsession.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In with the New, Free with the Old

Starting with the new...

While Larry Kelter and I pound away at our WIP called FALLEN CITY (and we're nearing the end of our first draft!), our first collaboration, The Last Collar, has been released by Down & Out Books.

What's it about?  Welll...

The demons that drive John “Mocha” Moccia to obsess, to put absolutely everyone under a microscope, and scratch away at every last clue, make him the best hard-nosed detective in Brooklyn homicide. But these same demons may very well write the final chapter in his career.

He isn’t the kind of detective to take no for an answer, but in his most recent case answers are damn hard to come by. Partnered with the conscientious Detective Matt Winslow, Mocha endeavors to solve the murder of the wealthy and beautiful Jessica Shannon, a woman who had every reason to live.

As Mocha and Winslow strive to push forward the hands of time and solve the murder, their imposing lieutenant breathes down their necks, suspects are scarce, and all of the evidence seems to be a dead end.

With the last precious grains of sand falling through the hourglass, Mocha pushes ever forward, determined to make an arrest, even if it means this collar will be his last.

The first review I came across is a positive one, saying, "Not all police procedurals are created equal. Some reach beyond the standard cliches. The Last Collar delivers what we expect and much more … a seamless, enjoyable read."

A good start!

As I mention in my blog series on crime novel collaboration, I was a little nervous that both of us writing a single first person narrative would result in a choppy voice at best, a schizophrenic one at worst, but at the end of our revisions, I was glad to see that my concerns were not realized. Quite the contrary, actually, as it was difficult by the end of the journey to be one hundred percent sure which passages I wrote as opposed to those I only revised and edited. That's a good thing, and probably why the reviewer used the term 'seamless.'

Now, onto the old...

On the free front, my magnus collection of all of my short stories, Tales of River City, is free from January 20-24 (which means that the day this post goes live is the last day you can get it for free, so move-ah your butt-ah!). Tales of River City contains Dead Even, No Good Deed, The Cleaner and a clatch of additional stories that aren't collected together anywhere else, for a grand total of 61 stories. If short stories are your thing, especially crime stories for the most part, and if you dig River City, the this collection is for you. And. It. Is.


All in all, not a half-bad day to be a Frank Zafiro fan, no?

[This is where I would insert an emoji of some kind if I weren't a good enough writer to have already conveyed the literary mixture of serious promotion with mild self-deprecation].