Joe Cool

by J.D. Rhoades


I’m not as cool as I used to be.

I was reminded of this the other night as I was watching one of my favorite shows these days. It’s called “Live From Daryl’s House.” Each half hour episode is hosted by Daryl Hall. Yeah, that Daryl Hall, formerly of Hall and Oates. Hall invites a different artist every week to his actual house in rural New York for dinner and music with his band of excellent sidemen. The guests range from veterans like Smokey Robinson and Booker T. Jones to up and coming acts like Plain White T’s (the duo who brought you “Hey There Delilah”) and Sharon Jones (of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings). The show started as a webcast, and you can still catch it online, but it’s also now on the music network Palladia. Everyone seems to be having a good time just kicking back and playing some good music, and I really enjoy it.

But you know, there was a time when I would have turned up my nose at the idea of watching anything hosted by someone as “Top 40” as Daryl Hall. In the 70’s, Hall and Oates weren’t cool enough for me. They didn’t rock nearly hard enough for a kid who was into Zeppelin, AC/DC and Aerosmith. By the 80’s, I was wearing my ripped jeans and my Clash T-shirts and cranking up the Elvis Costello and Lou Reed. I confess, I even looked down my nose at some of the bands I’d previously loved, who I now regarded as dinosaurs (at least in public–I’d still put on the great big black Koss headphones with the foam earpieces and drop the needle on my worn copy of “Physical Graffiti” from time to time, but only when I didn’t think anyone else was around).

In short, like a lot of young men in their late teens and early twenties, I was too cool for some kinds of music. Which is to say, I was an insufferable snob, a hipster before that was the word for it. I’m not saying I actually coined the catchphrase, “oh, yeah, they’re my favorite band. They’re kind of obscure though, you probably never heard of them.” But I did say stuff like that. I’m not saying I’m proud of it.

But in the past few years, I guess I’ve mellowed. Okay, I still think “Rich Girl” is annoying, but I can listen to a song like “Sara Smile” or “She’s Gone” and recognize them for the wonderfully emotive bits of blue-eyed soul that they are. And I play my AC/DC records right out in the open again (to the accompaniment of much eye-rolling from the wife and kids. They’re still cool, you know).

Sad to say, once I started writing mysteries, I slowly drifted back into the same old trap. I was a noir and hardboiled guy, pure and simple. I loved Ken Bruen, Jason Starr, Duane Swierczynski, Allan Guthrie. The closest I ever got to mainstream was Elmore Leonard. When I read “the classics” it was likely to be something like Jim Thompson or James M. Cain. Bestsellers? Traditional mysteries? Or even cozies? Child, please. I was way too cool for that.

Thank God, it took me less time to get over myself this go-round, and I have the knockout writing of writers like William Kent Krueger (who, as I wrote back in 2007, “saved me from noir snobbery”), Margaret Maron, and Laura Lippman, to name just a few, to thank for it. I can read a Christa Faust, then turn around and read a Dorothy L. Sayers and love ’em both.

No, I’m not as cool as I used to be. Thank God.

So ‘fess up. Were you ever too cool to enjoy something you find yourself digging now?

On (Not) Writing

“So, what are you working on?”

When people find out you’re a writer, they tend to ask this question a lot. Sometimes I’m glad to answer: “I’m working on my fourth Jack Keller book,” or “I’m working on my sci-fi vampire space opera.” Other times, the question makes me flinch, because the project’s at an early stage where I’m not really quite sure what the heck it is yet, and it feels like if I say something out loud, it’ll congeal into something unformed and unready, like an experiment that comes shambling out of the lab too soon as something grotesque and horrible.

Lately, however, I’ve had to answer that question “nothing.” Because I haven’t been writing any fiction at all. I’m writing my weekly newspaper column, but that’s about it. Looking back, it’s literally the first time I’ve been able to say that  in the last ten years. I’ve always had some project in the works. Oh, sure I might have been procrastinating on it, but for the past ten years, I’ve always at least had something to feel guilty about not writing. So why am I on hiatus now?

Well, every time I finish a book, I always say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written. This one, however, really took it out of me. To begin with, I accepted one of the shortest deadlines I’ve ever had, because I really wanted to work with Jason Pinter and his new venture, Polis Books. I saw that Jason was not only putting out some exciting new stuff, he was also doing reissues of great, neglected works like the ones in Dave White’s Jackson Donne series. So when he responded to my query asking if he would be interested in re-issuing the Jack Keller series by shooting back “would you be interested in writing a fourth one?” I said, “oh, HELL yeah.” After all, I’d had a fourth one in the works when I parted ways with St. Martin’s. So all I had to do was dust off the old notes and the 10,000 or so words I’d written as a starter and it’d be smooth sailing all the way, right? I think I may have even said the words that have gotten me into the most trouble of any throughout my life: “how hard could it be?”

As always, the answer was “harder than it looks.” Getting back into Jack’s head was more difficult than expected, especially since the events at the end of SAFE AND SOUND left him kind of a wreck. The other characters didn’t seem to want to come alive, either. But slowly, they did, and things proceeded as well as can be expected for a first draft.

Then, right before Christmas, my father died. I don’t want to go into too many details, but he did not go easily or painlessly. It was, in fact, thoroughly emotionally shattering for everyone concerned, and getting back to the computer after grueling hours at the hospital with my mom proved to be impossible. Then, when that was finally over, it was (oh joy) the holidays, and then at the first of the year, I launched into a busy trial schedule at the day job. But finally, I pulled it together, got back on the horse, pulled a lot of long writing and revising sessions, and managed to stumble to the finish line, or at least eke out a decent draft, which I turned in only three weeks late. It’s the first deadline I think I’ve ever missed. When it was over, I was drained, emotionally and creatively. I needed a break, and the rest of life wasn’t giving me one, so I took one from writing while waiting for my editor’s notes to get back to me. That process has taken longer than expected (for what turned out to be some very exciting reasons), so the hiatus went on longer than expected as well.

So what have I been doing while not writing? Well, I’ve read a lot. Watched a lot more TV than I usually do. Walked the dog. Played a lot of computer games I haven’t played in years. Probably drank more rum than is strictly good for me. Eventually cut back on that. In general, though what I’ve mainly been doing is feeling kind of aimless, restless, bored and oddly anxious, as if I’ve forgotten to turn the stove off or as if I can’t remember where my car is. I guess I’m one of those people who writes because not doing it is like having an itch you don’t scratch.  So I suppose it’s time to get back to it.

Thalians, guests, and others: how do you typically react to the question “What are you working on?” And while we’re on the subject, what ARE you working on? What’s your longest hiatus, and what are you like when you’re not writing?

New, Hot, Scary

McBleak-ExtractorsMeet Malcolm Cavanaugh Bleekston, most often called McBleak. He appears to be a one percenter, hobnobbing with other millennials of his ilk; excursions on yachts while extolling the virtues of banksters, and enjoying the fruits of his non-labors while the rest of us hustle to put food on the table and keep the wolf from the door.

In the novella The Extractors by Gary Phillips, he lays plans to take a greedy man’s gain while wondering if his girlfriend, who comes from inherited wealth but is dedicated to using her resources to make a difference, is beginning to see through his façade – and if so, can he bring her to his side or will she turn on him?  But nothing ever goes as planned, and McBleak has to think fast on his feet or his life might be extracted from him.

Available for $2.99 on its own app bookxy across all platforms as well on Kindle, Kobo, etc.

• • • • • • •

Also in Southern California, Taffy Cannon has been lurking at the library.

I was just on a Noir panel for the Oceanside Library’s Big Read program with Lisa Brackmann, Alan Russell, Ken Kuhlken, and Debra Ginsberg. On April 5, I’m moderating a mystery panel at the Carlsbad Library with Denise Hamilton, Vince Aiello, Isla Morley, C.E. Poverman, and Matt Coyle.

• • • • • • •


It’s back to France this summer for the five Bennett Sisters, last seen in Lise McClendon‘s Blackbird Fly. The new book will be out in May (called The Girl in the Empty Dress) but in the meantime you can read installments of Blackbird Fly for free on Wattpad. Suspense, wine, & intrigue. There’s a snazzy new cover too, redesigned by the amazing Lisa Desimini.

Ready to read it straight through? That can be done!

Kindle Nook KOBO Paperback Audio

• • • • • • •

JD Rhoades reports in with exciting news. Look for his new thriller, Devils and Dust, coming soon.

I’m pleased to announce that Polis Books the digital imprint started by bestselling author and former St. Martin’s Press editor Jason Pinter, will be publishing six of my books this spring: all three books in the Shamus award-nominated Jack Keller series (with spiffy new covers, naturally) , then the thrillers BREAKING COVER and BROKEN SHIELD, all leading up to the release of a brand new Jack Keller novel, DEVILS AND DUST. I’m totally psyched to be working with Jason and Polis.

• • • • • • •

Kate Flora, 2013 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction winner, has been busy. She reports in on three upcoming book releases.
My crime story, Girl’s Night Out, will be published as an e-book by Shebooks, an exciting new internet publishing venture featuring fiction, memoir and essay, by women and for women, in April, 2014.
My Canadian true crime, Death Dealer, which was five years in the making, will be published by New Horizon Press Books in September. Death Dealer fascinated me because while the killing took place in northeastern New Brunswick, it would involve search and rescue teams and game wardens with trained cadaver dogs from the neighboring state of Maine to locate the victim’s hidden body. Two full first degree murder trials, and many appeals later, the killer was sentenced to life is prison.
The fourth book in my Joe Burgess police procedural quartet, And Grant You Peace, will be published by Five Star in October.

This Is the End

“I hate writing. I love having written.” –Dorothy Parker.


I wrote those words today, and I have to ask: are there any sweeter words to a writer? Those last two words that signify that that’s it, the story’s done, th-that-that’s all folks!

For some writers, of course, that’s just the beginning. There are rewrites, edits, proofreading, and more rewrites. I do all of that. But my practice is not to put those magic words on the page until all that’s done and I’m ready to either start getting the thing uploaded (if I’m self-publishing) or send it off to my agent or editor (if I’m going through a publisher, as I am with the one I just completed).

But how do you know when it’s done? How do you know when to stop fiddling and fussing with it and put those fateful words on the screen, save the file with the word “FINAL” in the title, and release the monster on an unsuspecting world?

Sometimes, the question is easier than others, like when you have a deadline, or when (like me) you’ve blown said deadline because pretty much your entire December was an unrelieved personal nightmare.  But even when I know it’s got to go, my finger still hesitates when pushing the “send” button. I always feel like there’s one more thing that I should change, one more scene I could tighten up, one more line of dialogue I could have rewritten one last time in an attempt to kick it up from merely very good to awesome.

There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about Bruce Springsteen and his classic album “Born to Run”. I’m a Springsteen fan, and I think it’s one of the best rock albums ever made. I’ve worn out multiple copies over five different formats. So I was kind of shocked to hear that Springsteen almost didn’t release it. He spent months messing with it, re-recording, re-mixing, chasing the sound he had in his head that he couldn’t quite seem to get down on tape. The title track alone reportedly took over six months to get right. Finally, in despair, Springsteen proposed to his producer, Jon Landau, that they scrap the whole thing and start again. “Listen,” Landau is supposed to have said, “you think Chuck Berry was in love with everything he ever released? Put the damn thing out there.” So he did, and rest was history.

I said I was shocked to hear about Springsteen’s travails in getting the record out, because I heard the story before I was writing on a regular basis. After the first time I spent weeks agonizing over whether the book was actually polished enough to let anyone who didn’t love me see, I understood.

So, is this next one my “Born to Run”? Who knows? One of the side effects of all this editing and rewriting is that I’ve spent so much time second-guessing that I can’t tell what’s good about it and what’s not so good. Quite frankly, I can’t even stand the sight of the damn book anymore, which is my usual criteria for writing “The End.”

As for the book itself, it’s the long awaited fourth Jack Keller novel, entitled DEVILS AND DUST.  I’m tremendously excited to be working with writer-turned-publisher Jason Pinter and his new venture Polis Books, which will be re-issuing the first three Keller books, then the new one, as e-books.  Look for them wherever e-books are sold.

So how about you, fellow Thalians? When do you know when it’s done?

Who Do You Trust?

by J.D. Rhoades


Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, they’re part of any working writer’s life. Back when I was in dead-tree publishing, the joy of seeing a new book released was always tempered at least a little with the dread of opening the Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus website and praying they didn’t savage it too badly. I even left a perfectly good beach house on a lovely sunny day to drive into town and find a café with WiFi (smartphones with ‘net access weren’t everywhere in those days) and check out the PW review for Breaking Cover that was coming out that day.

To my relief, it was a good review, and the majority of mine in various publications have been generally positive, although the aforementioned Kirkus did always seem to find a way to kick me in the teeth, even in a “good”  review.

Like everything else in this business, the review landscape has changed with bewildering swiftness over the last few years. One newspaper after another dropped their review section. Kirkus folded, then was bought and resurrected with a “pay for reviews” model, swearing all the time that you weren’t necessarily paying for a good review. Professional book reviewers became more and more rare, even as website after blog after tumblr sprang up, offering the opinions of everyday readers. And, of course, people turned to the Amazon reviews on a book’s pageand to sites like Goodreads.

So is this a good thing? Well, as with so many things, the answer is, “it depends.” I’m a great believer in the idea that the more voices get heard, the better. On the other hand, not all voices are created equal. Most amateur reviewers are thoughtful readers who can clearly and cogently express what they find good or bad about a particular book in such a way that the reader of the review can make up their mind about whether to try it. Some reviewers, particularly anonymous ones, seem to be in a contest to see who can be the meanest or most cutting. And some are just batshit insane. That’s the Internet for you.

In addition, it soon became obvious that it was childishly easy to game the Amazon review system. In 2012, a furor erupted when investigative work revealed that thriller writer R.J. Ellory had been using “sock-puppet” accounts—false names and internet personas—to not only give his own work glowing reviews, but to attack the works of others. Fellow Brit Stephen Leather asserted defiantly that not only had he used sock-puppet accounts to promote his own work, but that it was “common practice.” A backlash ensued during which authors (including myself) signed a pledge not to use such tactics, followed by a counter-backlash by writers like Barry Eisler, who, even though he’d also signed the pledge himself, wrote that upon reflection, it was “disproportionate,” and that the document itself was “devoid of evidence and argument, relying instead only on an unsupported conclusion that purchased reviews and sock puppet reviews are ‘damaging to publishing at large.’” It should be noted that Eisler was not himself promoting sock-puppetry, he just had a problem with how it was being addressed in this instance. Meanwhile, Amazon went on a frenzy, deleting thousands of reviews that seemed to be from friends or family members of the authors or even ones from fellow writers. They did not, however, delete reviews from people who had clearly not read the book, stating that “We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review.” Well, then. Glad to see they care about the integrity of the review process.

Wait, it gets worse. Now, social science researchers are confirming that people’s evaluation of a work is inevitably influenced by evaluations they see before it. In one experiment, researchers “allowed people to download various songs and randomly assigned people to see the opinions of others who had downloaded these songs. Sometimes a particular song was shown to be well-liked by the masses, and in other versions of the study, that same song was shown to be disliked. Regardless of quality, people evaluated the songs they believed to be well-liked positively and the songs they believed to be disliked negatively.” In another, the researchers went to a website, like Reddit,  where certain comments could be “up-voted” or “down-voted” by clicking a button. They up-voted some and down-voted others at random, and discovered what they called “significant bias in rating behavior and a tendency toward ratings bubbles.”  In plain English, up-votes tended to create more up-votes, and down-votes more down-votes. Interestingly, “people also ‘corrected’ the down-voted comments by up-voting them more than baseline levels, but even this correction never spurred them to the level of positivity that artificially up-voted comments attained.”

So what do we make of all this? In a world where self-publishing is exploding, Sturgeon’s Law (“95% of everything is crud”) applies, and professional reviewers are being supplanted by talented amateurs mixed in with some trolls, lunatics, and sock-puppets, who do you trust? In a market flooded with material that desperately needs curation, how do you make decisions when any stranger can be a curator?  I have some thoughts of my own, but let’s hear from the Thalians…

In Praise of Pen and Paper

For years, I’ve said that if it wasn’t for computers, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. I say this because I am an abysmal typist. Back when I was in college, writing any kind of paper (or story, or script) was absolute torture for me, because I simply could not make my fat, clumsy fingers go where I wanted them to go on the typewriter keyboard. (Yes, I’m that old).

You dad-blamed kids today don’t know how good you have it. I bought Wite-Out by the case. I spread so much of it on the pages that they’d be all stiff and crackly when I actually turned the paper in. People learned to cover their ears near my room if I was working on a term paper, because I’d be turning the air blue swearing over all the typos I was making.

Then my roommate brought home one of the first Macintosh computers and let me use it. When I started using the computer’s crude (by today’s standards) word processor, it was a revelation. Misspell a word? No worries. Just backspace over it and retype. No messy white stuff, no tiny stiff brush to muck about with. Decide that the third paragraph would work better as the first? No worries. Cut, paste, and there you go. When I entered law school, the school’s computer lab made writing briefs and other papers…well, not easy, but at least tolerable.

So, for years, all my writing was done with keyboard and screen. I usually had some sort of notebook nearby, but that was for jotting down thoughts, ideas, maybe a quick outline of what was coming up in whatever project I was working on. I read that other writers, like Neil Gaiman and Tess Gerritsen, do their first drafts in longhand, and I just shook my head. How tedious, I thought. Why make all that extra work for yourself, since you’re going to have to re-type it all anyway?

Round about the time I was writing STORM SURGE, however, I began experiencing real problems getting things out of my head and onto the virtual page. It seemed like I’d spend hours and have nothing to show for it but a paragraph. It wasn’t writer’s block, exactly, but ut was the next thing to it.

I tried a lot of things: writing in different places, taking long walks, taking long showers, even changing the font to try and jolt myself out of whatever malaise I was experiencing. All of them helped, a little. But the thing that seemed to work best was getting away from the computer altogether and writing in longhand. I’d picked up one of those nifty Moleskine notebooks (after reading that Neil Gaiman swore by them), and, like most people with a cool new possession,  I wanted to use it. As I began composing in longhand, I discovered some advantages of writing that way:

1. The notebook, obviously,  isn’t connected to the Internet. This keeps those pauses to reflect and imagine what comes next from turning into 15 minute sessions of checking e-mail, then checking Twitter, and so on and so forth.

2. When I’m writing in longhand, I don’t keep looking at my word count to see if I’m making my goal for the day. This helps keep me thinking about the scene and letting it develop naturally.

3. Writing on quality paper with a nice pen just feels good. It’s a very sensual experience, much more so that the mechanical rattle and clack of fingers on the keyboard.

4. I haven’t really done a whole lot of research on this, but it seems to me that writing by hand tickles a different creative center of my brain than typing does.

5. Not having the luxury of the backspace key knocks me out of the habit of going back and rewriting a sentence or paragraph, then rewriting, then rewriting again, until it gets to the point where I’ve stopped moving forward altogether. In longhand, as the poet wrote, “the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.” If I’m not happy about something, I just go “screw it, I’ll get it in the rewrite.” Writing in longhand gives me permission to suck. Because make no mistake about it: what I write in longhand really sucks. It’s terrible. It’s clumsy, stilted, with word choices that run from the questionable to the laughable. I don’t care. I’m getting stuff on paper, and it’s easy to fix it after I’ve had a day or so to think about it and I’m ready to put it into the computer.

6.  It may seem like a paradox, but because of all of the factors above,  I actually write faster if I write a scene or a chapter twice: once in longhand, then later typing it into the computer.   When it comes time to do the re-typing, I’ve already thought of my revisions, I’ve already decided which way the scene should go (and it may be totally different from the way I wrote it the first time), so I just get on the keyboard and hammer it out. No pauses for reflection (well, not many), no temptation to turn away (well, not much).

I still haven’t gotten to the point where I’m writing entire manuscripts in longhand, a la Gaiman, Gerritsen, or Neal Stephenson, who wrote his mammoth Baroque Cycle in longhand on loose paper. Check out what THAT looks like:

Right now, as I said above, I’m doing a chapter, or sometimes a scene, at a time, putting it into the computer at the next session, then back to the notebook for the next bit.  I may get to the point where I divorce myself from the computer entirely for the first draft, but I’m not quite ready for that.  But if you’re wondering what to get me for Christmas…

So, who else writes the first draft by literally taking pen in hand? Who thinks they might like to try it?