Saturday, March 24, 2012

Preparing for Left Coast Crime

At the end of this week Susan and I will be in Sacramento, attending Left Coast Crime. For those who don’t know about Left Coast Crime, it’s not the California chapter of the Mafia, but a gathering of mystery writers and fans. We’ll be there as publishers (for Perseverance Press) and I’ll also be there as an author (of Behind the Redwood Door, among others). As an author I’ll be participating in a panel with a group of other writing professionals: Simon Wood (moderator), Beth Henderson, Jill Amadio, and LJ Sellers. Our topic, and the name of the panel: WRITING IS A REAL JOB. The panel will be held Friday, March 30, at 2:45 p.m.

To prepare myself to talk about this subject without getting tongue-tied and modest, I have been thinking a lot about what it took for me to take myself seriously and bravely as a writer.

The real decision was to think of myself as a writer who is also a small-press publisher, rather than as a small-press publisher who is also a writer. That happened in 2005, with the publication of The Poet’s Funeral, which is, coincidentally, about a small-press publisher. That book, published by Poisoned Pen Press, earned me a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and gave me the courage to think of myself as primarily a writer. My work habits didn’t change, though. I’m still a publisher and I’m still a writer, and I’m pleased to be both, because both involve writing. I’m also a free-lance editor and ghost-writer, and I teach creative writing. They involve writing, too. Which makes me a lucky guy. I am a writer, and I work hard at it, because it rewards me in ways beyond income.

Anyway, I hope to see many of you there at Left Coast Crime in Sacramento next weekend. Come to the panel, and/or drop by the Perseverance Press table in the book room.

By the way, I have next week’s blog post scheduled to appear on Sunday, April Fool’s Day. In honor of that date, my blog will be about writing humor.

Meanwhile, a short-short-short story:

Class Reunion
Heads swivelled as she arrived, flaunting her dazzling lowcut gown.
Biff strode across the room and asked her to dance.
In his arms, she murmured, “I remember you. Football captain, major stud...”
“I had a crush on you,” Biff said, “but I can’t remember your name. Give me a hint.”
“We dissected frogs together.”

Saturday, March 17, 2012


Here we are, at a point in time between the onset of Daylight Savings and the Vernal Equinox. This seems like a good time to discuss the concept of time and how time is used, and misused, in fiction. This discussion could get tense.

I’ll start by warning you about the Dreaded Ing. By this I’m not referring to the gerund noun suffix (writing stories can be habit-forming), but to the present participle suffix (when I’m writing stories I get lost in the time zone). It’s sometimes a trap, so beware. I’ll demonstrate with a 55-word story in honor of today, St. Patrick’s Day.

Bad Luck of the Irish
I didn’t realize it was Saint Patrick’s Day until I stepped into O’Malley’s and ordered Bushmill’s. The others in the pub, all dressed in green, were drinking Jameson.
They made it clear I was not welcome.
Hurrying across town to my apartment, I tore off my orange shirt and pants and drew a hot bath.

Okay, the story needs work. But it illustrates the infamous Ing Trap. This poor fellow made a number of mistakes that day, but the worst may have been taking off all his clothes as he was running across town. The present participle, that ing-word, indicates simultaneity. He was undressing out in public while he was hurrying, which is just a little more dangerous than wearing orange into an Irish pub on St. Paddy’s day.

It is a common error to use the present participle to imply a sequence of events. It just doesn’t work.

Onward. Another common error in the time zone is tense-jumping. This hidden trap occurs most often in stories written in the present tense:

That’s a Bunch of Blarney
After work, I stop by O’Malleys for a shot Bushmill’s. For reasons I don’t understand, I get bounced around the bar by a bunch of Irish bruisers.
I hurry home. I have to walk, because yesterday I had loaned my car to my daughter.
They say if you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.

The mistake here is in the words “had loaned.” Since this story is in the present tense, we need only take one step back, to past tense, to tell what happened “yesterday.” “Had loaned” slips us back too far, into the past perfect tense. This common error is one reason writing fiction in the present tense is tricky.

Let’s rewrite the story in the past tense and see what we get:

That’s a Bunch of Blarney, take two
After work, I stopped by O’Malleys for a shot Bushmill’s. For reasons I didn’t understand, I got bounced around the bar by a bunch of Irish bruisers.
I hurried home. I had to walk, because yesterday I had loaned my car to my daughter.
They say if you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.

Well, in this version, the past perfect “had loaned” works. But the word “yesterday” doesn’t.  Another common error: using “yesterday,” “tomorrow,” and their cousins when writing about an incident in the distant past. By the way, look at the last sentence in this past-tense version of the story: it’s in present tense, but that’s okay. They said such a thing on that St. Paddy’s day, but they still say it, and it will always be true (or not).

If, however, I were to write the story this way, I’d be in trouble:

 Uphill Both Ways
After the brawl in the bar, I rushed home. Having loaned my car to my daughter the day before, I had to walk home, and it wasn’t an easy walk, because San Francisco had steep hills.
All the way home I thought to myself: I was never going to drink in O’Malley’s again.

Although it’s technically true that the San Francisco hills were steep on that unlucky day our hapless schnook hurried home, it’s also true that those hills are still steep. So I would have preferred “San Francisco has steep hills.”

Now take a look at that sentence in italic, the interior thought that closes the story. As interior thought, it should have been written in the present tense, even though the story’s written in the past tense. It should be treated like dialogue: I’m never going to drink in O’Malley’s Bar and Grill again.

Are you getting tense yet?

I’ll wrap this up with a riff on the word “since.” “Since” has two meanings. It can mean “subsequent to that point in time” or “as a result of which.” Sometimes “since” can mean both at the same time. “Since when?,” “since why?,” and “since when and why.” The word “since” doesn’t have to be in every story, of course, but the concepts of “since” do need to be in every story. Sequence of events (since when) is essential to plot. And consequence of events (since why) is equally essential.

To understand what I’m talking about, return with me now to the City of San Francisco, home of O’Malley’s Bar and Grill:

Since When, and Since Why
O’Malley’s has been a favorite pub since 1957. [since when] Since it’s next to my job, I’d often drop in for a drink. [since why]
I haven’t been back since St. Patrick’s Day, when I got beaten for wearing orange. [since when and since why]
Since I’m color blind, I don’t know the difference between green and orange. [since why] I wish everyone were color blind.

Thank you for sticking with me through all that. Your reward, whether you want it or not, is one last 55-word story, not set in a bar or on the hills of San Francisco, but set in two time zones and told in two tenses.

Lost in Paradise
Once when I was a kid I got lost at Disneyland. After searching frantically all day, my dad found me with Mickey Mouse, grinning like Goofy.
Nowadays, when I take my kids to Disneyland, I sometimes catch a glimpse of that same lost boy, soaring through the sky on Dumbo’s back, still grinning like Goofy.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Note: Our colleague, brilliant writer Timothy Hallinan announces that  the Kindle version of his novel THE BONE POLISHER is free on Amazon, for a limited time only. Check it out at

Note: the following post is rated D for Dark and I for Irreverent. If it gives you the creeps, you may skip to the usual dessert of 55-word stories at the end. But I hope you’re not afraid of the dark.


The concept of fate is essential to storytelling and fiction writing. And one thing to know, one rule to follow or disobey at your own peril is: Dire predictions come true.

This is true in drama: Chekhov told us that when a rifle is hanging over the fireplace in Act One, that rifle must go off before the final curtain comes down. And when rifles are discharged on stage, someone’s going to get hurt.

The rule works in movies, too. If a character you love starts to cough from some illness, you’d better get out the Kleenex, because chances are that character won’t live long enough to read the credits.

Fate was essential to Greek tragedy. When an oracle tells King Laius that his infant son will one day kill him, he and his wife cripple the child and leave him to die on a mountaintop. Does the infanticide work? No way. The kid grows up, comes back to town, and unwittingly kills his dad and I won’t say what he does to his mom.

In the fairy tale, when the spiteful fairy godmother predicts that the infant princess Briar Rose will, on her sixteenth birthday, prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall asleep for a hundred years, there’s no point in the King’s ordering that all the spinning wheels in town be burned. He’s be better off shopping for a good mattress.

And when the soothsayer advises Julius Caesar to beware the ides of March, he’s not really telling Caesar to call in sick on the fifteenth. What he’s saying is, “Dude. Better get your affairs in order, because come the sixteenth, you’ll no longer be wearing sandals.”

So it’s pointless to try to outsmart fate. The house always wins. To buck fate is to engage in hubris, and the penalty for hubris is always a most unwelcome irony. The so-called Higher Power named Fate shrugs and thunders, “Told ya so.” Of course in real life we can’t help fighting to survive (as we usually should); and because our fiction is about the human condition, our characters are likely to try to beat the odds, even if all they can hope for is a temporary respite.

I guess the lesson to be learned from the knowledge that Old Bony always collects is this: Make the most of what time we have left. And that’s he human condition in a nutshell.

 Here are a few stories about the announcement of things to come:

My Name’s Larry, and I...
I used to be an alcoholic. Booze was all I lived for.
Then one fateful day, my marriage broke up, I lost my job, and I got in a horrible automobile accident.
I haven’t had a drink since that day. That day changed me forever.
I don’t miss the alcohol. I just miss being alive.

Injury to Insult
“You’re foolish to insult a witch,” I scolded.
“You’re no witch.”
“You think not?”
“Prove it,” he sneered.
So I unlaced my bodice.
His jaw dropped.
His eyes fell.
His heart sank.
I kicked his heart, his eyes, and his jaw under the bed, then said to the rest of him, “I rest my case.”

…And Have  Nice Day
Folks, this is your captain speaking. We’re experiencing some difficulty with three of our engines, and we’re going to have to lose some weight.
So I have volunteered to take the parachute and jump. Automatic pilot should keep you flying for a while, and eventually you’ Sort of.
Enjoy the rest of your flight.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


Note: This piece first appeared (this month) in Black Lamb, a monthly literary magazine I contribute to. It's quite long, and some readers may prefer to skip to the end for the dessert: a 55-word story about taking on more than you can handle.

I’ve been passing through Las Vegas since 1960, when you could pay for a full tank of gas with a five-dollar bill and get two silver dollars in change. I ate 99¢ dinners at the Silver Slipper before I was old enough to gamble. I spent a weekend in the Vegas Greyhound station when I was twenty-one, but because I was almost broke at the time I only gambled on penny slots.
The fact is, I’ve never been much of a gambler. But when Susan and I went to Las Vegas in 1990, we made the biggest gamble of our life together. No, we didn’t get married; we had already been married for three years, and that decision had been no gamble. It was a lock, a guaranteed jackpot.
We had also been in business together as publishers for five years. Using the name John Daniel, Publisher, a sole proprietorship I’d established in the 1970s, she and I had combined our skills, our contacts, and our financial assets to build a publishing house that was tiny but distinguished. We had published such treasures as Janet Lewis, Hildegarde Flanner, Nancy Packer, Mary Jane Moffat, E. S. Goldman, Carolyn See, John Espey, and, most recently Jess Mowry, plus others you may not have heard of but who had dedicated, devoted, book-collecting fans.
It was a bit embarrassing that the American Booksellers’ Association would chose Las Vegas, the epitome of nonliterary pastime, for their annual convention. But they did, and they did it to the hilt. One publisher got to have it both ways by hosting a “bad taste party” at Caesar’s Palace. Susan and I didn’t go to that one, but we went to one just as weird, a party thrown by Random House at the former Las Vegas residence of Elvis Presley, promoting a new piece of fiction by Jackie Collins. Talk about class.
While we were in Las Vegas for this business convention, Susan and I didn’t do all business, and in fact we actually indulged in the goofy game of video poker, a relatively new high-tech version of old-fashioned slot machines. Video poker did not require the gambler to use any right-arm elbow grease, and this new-fangled no-arm bandit fostered the fantasy that thought and talent might improve the gambler’s chances. (By the way, it was still “gambling” in 1990, not the euphemistic “gaming” it has since become.) So we spent twenty dollars a night—a ten-dollar roll of quarters for each of us—and played at adjacent stations, amiably competing for who could run out of coins last.
But that wasn’t our big Las Vegas gamble.
Amidst all this Hype, Glitz, Hokum & Schlock (Is that the name of a law firm, or what?), we decided on the floor of the convention hall to take our business seriously and make it grow.
To grow we needed big-time book distribution. We had, only weeks prior to the ABA, been dumped by our small press distribution company, Texas Monthly Press, leaving us without a venue to show off our wares at the Vegas ABA. As it happened, Texas Monthly Press had been bought by Gulf Publishing, which had bought the booth at ABA but decided not to use it. Since TMP was breaking their contract with us, we had the chance to forgive them in exchange for their entire booth—free. No hard feelings. So long, Dearie.
Then, free of TMP, we had quickly made arrangements to be distributed by National Book Network, a strong and rapidly growing distributor of mid-sized publishers. It was an expensive contract, but the best offer we had. So, even before we got to Las Vegas, we had made the first steps in our scramble up the slippery mountainside. We now had a prominent distributor, and we had a booth all to ourselves in the choice part of the convention hall, which happened to be back-to-back with NBN, our new distributor, on the aisle behind us.
So part of the Big Gamble was already under way when we rented a Ford Taurus station wagon; filled it with books, posters, and convention supplies; and drove over the Halloran Grade on Interstate 15. As we descended into Las Vegas, we passed, way out on the outskirts of town where the sidewalk ended in the desert, a new casino under construction named Excalibur, which looked like Camelot on steroids.
We got to the convention center on a Thursday afternoon, and the big affair lasted until Tuesday morning. It was grueling. It was thrilling. It was a roller-coaster of adrenalin and exhaustion. We worked the floor hard, shaking hands with friends old and brand new. We cruised the aisles for handouts, ideas, and contacts. We worked just as hard at the parties as we did on the convention floor, laughing, swapping business cards, and listening for more ideas.
With every day that passed—and those few days felt like two weeks—our resolve to grow grew stronger. We had gambling fever. We said to each other, over and over, “Maybe we should…” and “What if we tried…?”
Tuesday noon arrived, the convention was over, and it was time to dismantle the Emerald City. As we knocked down our display and schlepped our wares to the Taurus, we were exhausted physically but still high on the changes we were going through, knowing we were on the verge of a growth spurt. So instead of driving all the way back to Santa Barbara and our one-room office on lower State Street, we decided stay the night in Nipton, a two-building dot on the map of the Mojave Desert, ten miles off the Interstate on the California side of the state line. One building was a four-room hotel; the other building was the store where Nevadans came to gamble. It was the closest place to Las Vegas where a hard-core fool could lose money to the California lottery.
We stayed in the Clara Bow room of the Nipton Hotel, named after the sexy silent star who had once owned the entire town. Freight trains roared through about once an hour, sounding like banshees on roller blades. The late-afternoon light on the New York Mountains was crevassed with purple shadows. The stars at night were ablaze. Morning was still and silent, except for those wonderful fast freights rattling by. Noon was hot and alive with the buzz of desert life, if only you listened hard enough to hear the lizards crawl.
We decided to stay another night.
We made lists. We went over our notes, over and over. We made phone calls from the pay phone outside the store. We flexed the muscles of our imagination. The gamble was only half placed, so it was time to bet all the chips we had on the future of our business.
We decided to incorporate, to become Daniel & Daniel, Publishers, Inc. Health plan, the works.
We decided to do everything our new distributor, NBN, suggested that we do, which meant a lot more work for us. And more expense.
We decided to hire a staff, starting with a production manager/designer and a marketing director. Payroll taxes.
We decided to rent a bigger office in the center of Santa Barbara.
More warehouse space.
Two more computers.
A company vehicle, big enough for hauling forty-pound boxes of books.
We made more phone calls, loaded the station wagon, and zoomed out of the desert, back to Santa Barbara, and into the big time.
Les jeux sont fait! The chips were down, the dice were tossed, and here goes nothin’. What were we doing? Would we go broke? If so, what would we do? Go back to clerking in bookstores?
Or would we win big? Would we publish best-sellers? Would our brilliantly reviewed novels be bought by Spielberg? Would our authors get on Johnny Carson? Would Daniel & Daniel become a household name among publishing houses? Would some big publisher (hello, Random House?) buy us out and put us out to green pastures?
So. How did we do? Bars? Cherries? Lemons?
A bit of all of the above. Yes, we did grow measurably. We moved into a two-room office, and later into a four-room office, and eventually into a giant cavern of space in an arty building on Lower State, which was hard to heat in the winter, impossible to cool down in the summer, but huge enough to handle the growing accumulation of equipment and staff.
We hired a staff, starting with a production manager/designer/typesetter. Then we added a receptionist who also worked as Susan’s assistant in the marketing department. Next we split that job into two, so we had a receptionist and a marketing director. Then our production manager started using one or two interns. The place was buzzing.
We went from publishing ten books a year to publishing about thirty-five. A good number of these books were published under a separate imprint, Fithian Press, which was reserved for author-subsidized projects, which was how we earned enough income to keep this whole boat floating.
We made more and more money.
We spent even more and more money.
It more and more resembled gambling addiction. We had to keep covering our bets, and the bets kept getting bigger. Businesses have growing pains, just like teenagers, and this one was outgrowing its britches with every passing season. We had to publish more and more Fithian Press books to be able to afford the expensive losses we incurred by having our literary A-list distributed by NBN. We were working our butts off just so we could stay in business and work our butts off harder. We were riding on a wild horse. And, as long as we’re tossing metaphors in the air, we were swimming in deeper and deeper water.
We did incorporate, and we did buy a company vehicle. Those bets paid off. We established a payroll, with benefits for us and our staff, and that was good, and given our size it was necessary, but it was costly. More quarters into the slot machine than quarters coming out. Being distributed by NBN was a disaster. They oversold our books, earning huge commissions, then charged us for the returns when the sold books came back. NBN might have been a good distributor for other publishers, but for us it was an unwise bet. One of those bets when you know you have to quit while you’re behind, and there was an extra charge for quitting.
None of our authors got on Carson or any of Carson’s successors. We had no best-sellers, which was fortunate because we would have had to go into debt to finance the reprints. No big company came knocking on our door to buy us out.
By 2002, twelve years after the Las Vegas ABA where we had placed our big bet, we decided to cash in our remaining chips and face the fact that when you gamble in Las Vegas, the house always wins. It was time to downsize.
We got rid of the payroll, we moved into a tiny office and then into home offices for just Susan and me. We’re back to publishing about eight books a year. We now call ourselves semi-retired, which means we only have to work half-days, and we get to decide which twelve hours a day to work.
Yes, we still work as hard, but we worry less. We’re done taking chances. Getting to this point was a roller-coaster of a twelve-step program. From now on, if being in business means taking big gambles, in the words of Samuel Goldwyn, “Include me out.”
But I’ll say this much about that 1990 ABA in Vegas. It gave me all I needed for the most successful novel of my writing career, The Poet’s Funeral. Set in Las Vegas at the very same convention, it’s a send-up of every aspect of the publishing business: the authors, the agents, the editors, the publishers, the publicists, the critics, the distributors, the booksellers, the readers and collectors.
That book was my love song to the gambling industry that defined my working life.


It felt light as he drew it from the stone and held it high, dreaming of the Grail.
But when he looked farther into the future and saw a round table in splinters and his dreams trashed by civil war, the sword grew heavy in his hand.
By then he could not put it down.