Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

Over the last couple of years, job constraints and financial strains have come together to make the family’s usual Beach Week impossible. This year, however, thanks to a couple of really stellar months of e-publishing sales (thank you,  KDP Select! ) We’re going to be able to make it. So, if all goes as planned, this time next week will find me with my toes in the sand and my Big Bag O’Books in a beachfront house at North Carolina’s beautiful Caswell Beach.

And I am ready. Boy Howdy, am I ready. I’m ready to take my watch off and spend some time either lying on the sand or bobbing aimlessly about in the water all day, chowing down on seafood every night, and generally not giving a damn about anything other than whether we need to make a run to Southport for another case of Fat Tire and another gallon jug of sunscreen.

But with the delicious anticipation of a week off comes my usual nagging dilemma: does “getting away from it all” mean getting away from writing as well? For years, I used the downtime to get some work done on the latest project. In fact, the first few chapters of my first book, THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND,  came together during a Beach Week, when I pulled together a few fragments I had floating around and combined them with an idea I’d had on the drive down. Big chunks of both GOOD DAY IN HELL and SAFE AND SOUND were written during Beach Weeks, when I hauled the laptop out on the deck (or into an unused bedroom) and hammered away at the keyboard during the hours when it was just too damn hot to be out on the sand.
But one of the things about this self-publishing gig is that all your deadlines are self-imposed. I don’t have an editor waiting impatiently, except the one in my head. I could take a week off and not fall behind.

Or can I? See, if I don’t write, I feel guilty. That editor may be only in my head, but he’s a judgmental little sucker. The idea of slacking off for a week, especially in mid-project as I am now, has him shaking his imaginary finger at me and asking if I still think I really have the dedication it takes to do this professionally. (Why no, I’m not well. Not at all. Why do you ask?)

On the other hand, maybe a week off will recharge the batteries. Maybe letting some of these ideas simmer in my unconscious will allow them to become deeper and richer.

In the end, I’ll probably end up doing what I always do…compromise and take my notebook and pen along. And I’ll write. Because, as a fellow writer once put it, I write because I can’t not do it.

How about you, fellow Thalians? Have any suggestions about what I should do? Do you take vacations at all? And when you do, do you spend any or all of the time typing or scribbling, or whatever it is you do to get the words and images out of your head and onto the page? Is it possible, or even desirable, to shut it off for a week?

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Is Two Too Many?

by J.D. Rhoades

A week or so ago, an article in the New York Times sparked quite a bit of discussion in the writing world. The article was titled “In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking.” It noted that, with the explosion of e-readers and e-reader apps on mobile devices, readers “used to downloading any book they want at the touch of a button” get impatient for new material from their favorite authors, resulting in authors being pushed by publishers to pull “the literary equivalent of a double shift, churning out short stories, novellas or even an extra full-length book each year.” This led publisher’s representative Bruce Joshua Miller to write a letter warning that authors and publishers who “buy into” this were “devaluing the writing process as well as the product of that process” and risked ending up on the “toxic junk pile along with old e-readers and cell phones.”

As I watched the debate unfold, the question kept nagging at me: is this really such a new thing? I seem to remember back in the day (as we geezers like to put it),  my favorite science fiction writers were publishing novels, short stories, and the occasional novella during the same year. And, as I once wrote elsewhere, my friend Duane Swierczynski, once did a blog series called “Legends of the Underwood,” about some of the old-school paperback and noir writers like Gil Brewer, Richard Matheson, Richard Bachman aka Stephen King, etc. who could write like the wind. Bachmann/King, for example, supposedly wrote THE RUNNING MAN in three days. In those days, multiple books a year by the same author weren’t unusual; Western writer Louis L’Amour was writing as many as four books a year for Gold Medal until Bantam offered him a contract to do a mere three. Much of the stuff produced by the paperback houses, of course, was dreadful, but they also published writers like John D. McDonald, who was cranking out a couple of Travis McGee books a year until he slowed down to one a year in the 70’s.

Now, I confess, when I first saw this article, I said to myself, “I couldn’t  put out two full length novels a year if you held a gun to my head.” But then I thought about it. On a regular writing day, I’m good for a little over a thousand words. Writing five days a week,  that’s about a 5K a week. Most of the writers I know, by the way, write more than five days a week.  A regular mystery novel runs anywhere from 85,000 to 100,000 words. So you could, theoretically, turn out a first draft every 17 to 20 weeks. The key words there are “first draft”. When I said “a thousand words”, I didn’t promise they’d be any good. But should it really take 32 weeks for a second, third, however many drafts you have to do to polish that masterpiece?

But this calculation also presupposes that all a writer has to do is write. One of the secrets of the productivity of the old paperback masters was that they didn’t have to tour, promote, contribute to their websites, or all the things a modern author is supposed to do to keep their fans and their publishers happy. They turned the book in to Fawcett, who printed a mind boggling amount of copies and put them in spin racks in every drug, grocery, and candy store in the country. Do that for me, and I’ll give you two a year, easy. Oh, and pay me enough to quit the day job so I can get all this done.

So what do you think? Thalians, is two a year doable for you? What about one plus a couple of novellas (now that e-publishing has made that a viable form again)? What would make it possible?  Readers, would two to three books a year from the same author delight you or burn you out?  Are authors complaining about doing two books a year trying to safeguard the quality of the writing process or just crybabies?

What’s My Name?

by J.D. Rhoades

Pseudonyms, pen names, noms de plume–whatever you choose to call them, they’re everywhere in the literary world. Lee Child‘s real name, for example, isn’t Lee Child, although that’s what he answers to.

Ed McBain, author of the archetypal police procedural with the 87th Precinct series, was a pseudonym used by “serious” author Evan Hunter, who was actually born Salvatore Albert Lombino, but who legally changed his name to Hunter in 1952, thus making McBain, I guess, a double pseudonym. And of course we have our own Rory Tate, Chaz McGee, and Gallagher Gray, who, if they wish, may tell you their secret identities here.

(Our Sparkle, BTW, insists that “Sparkle Hayter” is her real name. I have no reason to doubt her. I don’t know about this Shaber person, though, and “Gary Phillips” is clearly a name assigned by Witness Protection).

Actually, I guess you could say “J.D. Rhoades” is a pseudonym, even though my last name is indeed Rhoades and “J.D.” are the initials of my “birth certificate” name. But everyone calls me “Dusty” and they have all my life. My first editor, however, felt that “Dusty Rhoades” lacked a certain, shall we say, gravitas for the way they were trying to position me, so “J.D.” it became.

Most often, a writer adopts a pseudonym because he or she has had a poor sales record under one name. In this era where bookstores only have to go to the computer to see if your last book tanked, it’s easy for your name to become poison. But there are other reasons writers adopt pen names.

Sometimes a writer puts a pseudonym on something he doesn’t want to have any public connection with. The famously contentious Harlan Ellison has been known to demand that he be credited as “Cordwainer Bird” on projects he feels he’s lost creative control over and wishes to disown. That’s a partial tribute to another famous pseudonymous author, Cordwainer Smith (born Paul H. Linebarger), with the added implication that he’s “flipping the bird” to the project. Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ pulp serial “Under the Moons of Mars”, which later became the novel A Princess of Mars (and the recent “John Carter” movie), was originally published under the name “Norman Bean.”

Burroughs chose the name because he was afraid his associates in the business world would laugh at him for writing a book about a sword swinging hero transported to Mars where he hooks up with a red-skinned hottie who wears little other than strategically placed  jewelry and whose people are hatched from eggs, even though she still possesses truly amazing hooters.  You can sort of see his point.

(Actually, Burroughs had originally chosen the name “Normal Bean,” to proclaim he was still in his right mind, but a typesetter figured it was a typo and printed it as “Norman.”

Perhaps an author uses a pseudonym when writing in a different genre, as romance writer Nora Roberts (born Eleanor Marie Robertson) does when writing her Eve Dallas sci-fi/mystery hybrids. Everyone knows that “J.D. Robb” is Nora Roberts. It’s right there on the covers.

So why bother? I understand that when the series started, no one knew Robb was Roberts was Robertson. By now, I guess it’s a branding thing: when you buy J.D. Robb, you know you’re getting a futuristic mystery; when you buy Nora Roberts, you know you’re getting romance. This avoids the problem Tess Gerritsen reported when her publisher re-released some of her old romance novels “re-packaged to look like [her] more recent thrillers.” A few irate readers, she reported, bought the book, “discover[ed] it’s a romantic suspense novel, and feel the need to tell me how horrible I am for having perpetrated this crime against them, the consumer.” Because let’s face it, some fans, when they get irate, can get really irate, am I right?

Dan Simmons, on the other hand, seems to have no problem genre-hopping under his own name. He’s written huge, galaxy-spanning sci-fi (The Hyperion Cantos and the Ilium/Olympus cycle), chilling horror tales (Children of the Night, The Terror, and many others), and one of the best hard-boiled PI series I’ve ever read with the Joe Kurtz books.

Which leads me, finally, to today’s question. My most recent work (which is in, I hope, the final editing stage) is very different from anything I’ve written before. It’s a big, galaxy-spanning, science fiction vampire revenge tale, in which the last survivor of a unit of genetically engineered vampire Special Ops soldiers travels from planet to planet, seeking revenge on the people who ordered the destruction of her platoon at the end of the last war. It’s sort of crime fiction, since my anti-heroine and her slightly-more-than-human lover make their way as criminals on the fringes of society, but they do it in space. Be advised, the vampires do not sparkle.

Now, I had a blast writing this, since SF was my first love, dating back to the days when my mom would take me to the library downtown and I’d devour all the Robert A. Heinlein, Lester del Rey, etc. that I could get my hands on. But it’s about as far from my previous “redneck noir” books as you can get. So here’s my query, my conundrum, my quandary, if you will: use a pseudonym and basically start over as a complete newbie in a genre where I’m known little, if at all? Or use one of my “real” names, and trust to the fact that there’s a considerable overlap between the mystery and the SF communities, and hope that people who loved Breaking Cover or The Devil’s Right Hand won’t pick it up, read a few pages, go “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS CRAP OMG WE ARE BETRAYED!!!!”, toss it across the room, and swear vendetta on me and my work forever?

 

Thalians and fans, your thoughts?

Crime Fiction Is People!

by J.D. Rhoades

Back when I was in college (UNC-Chapel Hill), I took some classes in the creative writing curriculum. At the time, I was writing short stories in the genres I loved: science fiction and mystery. My professor was rather sniffy about genre fiction. Mystery, he claimed, was a lesser form of writing because it relied on puzzles and on “tricking” the reader. But he reserved his special scorn for science fiction. Sci-fi, he claimed, could not be real literature, depending as it did on gimmicks and deus ex machina. But, I protested, what about Kurt Vonnegut? What are Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle if not science fiction? He just smiled indulgently and told me that Vonnegut wasn’t really a science fiction writer, he just used the conventions of the genre in literary fiction.

I could have strangled the man. Some days, I’m amazed that I didn’t.

It’s an old and irritating prejudice: genre fiction can’t possibly be real literature. If it’s good enough to be real literature, it’s not genre fiction. I was pondering this recently while reading a book lent to me by a friend, Tim O’Brien’s 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods.

By any measure, this is a mystery story: Kathy Wade, the wife of failed Senatorial candidate John Wade, has disappeared from the cabin where the couple went to regroup after the collapse of the campaign. Did he kill her? Did she run off? Did she die by accident? As the story unfolds, the crimes of Wade’s past come to light. It’s a riveting book, gripping from the first page to the last. It’s brilliantly and evocatively written. And, as I said, clearly a mystery, or, to be even more accurate, crime fiction. Yet in none of the reviews or accolades I’ve read for this book is it referred to as such. That, I suppose, would make it less literary. Less serious.

As Nero Wolfe would say, Pfui.

Another book I’ve read and loved recently is Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing, which I got for Christmas.

Like In the Lake of the Woods, The Most Dangerous Thing deals with the repercussions of an old crime that casts a long and blighted shadow down through the lives of five childhood friends. It’s a fantastic book, filled with complicated and realistic (and seriously screwed up) characters. The prose is simply stunning. I’d put this book up against any so-called ‘literary’ fiction you’d care to name.

Laura, bless her, is unapologetic about calling her books crime fiction. And yet, inevitably, some reviewer has to come along and claim that her work, or some other other work of crime fiction, or sf, or romance “transcends genre”, because it’s well-written, as if being good disqualifies it from being genre.

These works don’t transcend genre; they show us how good the genre can be. They do that because the authors realize that, at their heart, these are stories not about crimes, but about the people affected by them. It’s not the mystery that pulls us in, it’s the people. It’s not the mysteries that bring us back to series characters like Casey Jones, Robin Hudson, Simon Shaw, et. al.; it’s the characters themselves, and often the supporting cast.

Don’t get me wrong, plot is important. But plot alone without characters you care about is…well, it’s exactly the sort of crap that my professor looked down on. And characters without plot…well, it’s exactly the sort of crap that all to often passes for literary fiction these days.

Tell us, if you would, about some books you’ve read that weren’t called mysteries—but should have been. Or some books that you think, in the words of critic Oline Cogdill, don’t “transcend” the genre, but instead elevate it.

HEY! HEY! LOOK AT ME! Or, When the Spear Carriers Start to Sing

My contribution to the new DEAD OF WINTER anthology features Chief Deputy Tim Buckthorn of the Gibson County, North Carolina Sheriff’s Department. Tim was a character from my novel BREAKING COVER (available here for Kindle, here for Nook, and here in paper).  One reader observed that BREAKING COVER ends up being as much about  Tim Buckthorn as it is about Tony Wolf, the supposed protagonist, and he was absolutely right.

Funny thing is, Tim started off as a bit player. He was originally just a redneck deputy who hassles Wolf (who’s been hiding out for years under another name) while Wolf’s just trying to fill up his tank and get a pack of nabs and a cold drink at a country store.

Continue reading “HEY! HEY! LOOK AT ME! Or, When the Spear Carriers Start to Sing”

J.D. Rhoades: TPAC Author

I write dark, gritty crime fiction set in the American South. In fact, our own Katy Munger was one of the people who inspired me to write about the place.

I started calling the style “redneck noir” as a joke. It used to give my editor the hives when I called it that…then the Washington Post picked up the phrase and it stuck. I’m truly excited to be part of this e-book revolution and especially psyched to be associated with such talented and inspiring writers. Check out my Author Page.