Friday, January 13, 2017

Perfection: the relentless pursuit

Of course, we'll never get there.

But there is the relentless pursuit. I think it gets worse as you get older...the desire to get things right, perfect. If not the first time than the last time. Or die trying.

I'm about to board a flight back to NYC so I'll make this quick. But I'm reminded of an old video I caught on You Tube of Genesis playing a concert circa 1985. There's this long, and dynamic medly based on the song The Cage, and it goes on for maybe 20 minutes or more with tons of drumming on Phil's part. It's an amazing display of musicianship with a variety of tempos and time signatures. It's not for amateurs.

Towards the end of the piece, Phil must exit his drum kit in order to take over the lead vocals once more. It occurs at the song's most dramatic point, when things slow down and a lush tune called "Afterglow" begins. But here's the thing: you would think Phil would simply get up from his drums, head over to center stage. Which he does. But before going there, he pulls out his drum key and takes maybe three seconds to tune one of his tom-toms. He doesn't go nuts over it, but he takes the time out to adjust it enough to suit his sense of perfection.

Now just imagine the tens of thousands of screaming fans in the crowed and the ear blistering music going down, and yet, Phil feels the need to tweak the tom-tom before the song's ending. Something he could have easily let go. Something that would have gone totally unnoticed. Imagine if you will, people driving home from the concert complaining, "Great show, but Phil's ten inch rack tom was out of tune." You get the point.

My latest, THE CORRUPTIONS, was to be released in hard-cover this past week, but the galley's aren't perfected yet. Not yet tweaked enough. I don't know if perfection will ever be reached, but the publishing folks at Polis Books were good enough to delay publication for a couple of weeks, until we get it right. One of the reasons I'm flying back early from Europe is to make sure everything, including the launch goes perfectly. In fact, one of the characters the novel is based on, David Sweat who broke out of Dannemora Prison back in June of 2016 is anxiously awaiting publication of the novel inside his solitary confinement cell at New York's Five Points Max. Sweat and his partner pulled off one of the most perfect prison escapes in the history of humankind's organized incarceration. My story is a fiction, and only inspired by him, but hey, all the more reason to get it right.

Get it perfect.
As perfect as I can. 


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Richard Godwin: Hard-Boiled Enigma

The hard-boiled enigma, Richard Godwin
He is an enigma.
A tall, wiry man who is as comfortable surrounded by the surviving members of the Sex Pistols as he is London's most gifted literati. He no doubt dominates the conversation when engaged with both respective groups, or any group or gathering for that matter. He's that smart, that gifted, that interested.

He's also prolific and versatile, having written...well I'm not sure how many novels Richard Godwin has written in his 52 years, but I'm sure it's a lot. His style and themes are as diverse as our big blue marble of a planet. There's the dystopian Paranoia and the Destiny Programme,  the horrific Mr. Glamour, the violently raw Apostle Rising, and even the sexy One Lost Summer.

His short work has appeared in more anthologies and journals than one can shake a pen at (29 according to his official bio), and he's a regular at popular underground noir and hard-boiled magazines like Pulp Metal Magazine and Crime Factory. His work might not be readily visible on the New York Times bestseller list, at least not yet, but I'm not sure that's what he's going for. Richard Godwin doesn't just write stories because he hopes to make a buck. He is instead painting a picture not necessarily of a event as it happens, but rather, as it could happen. What he's interested in is the violent, horrific and at the same time, erotic human experience. He's a writer, but he's also a philosopher, a descendant as much from John D. MacDonald as he is Albert Camus. It would be interesting to open up his head to see how his mind works, how the gears spin, what kind of instrumentation God provided him with. But then, I'm not sure I want to go there. I might be too frightened by what I see.

And of course, Godwin doesn't just limit himself to novels and short stories. He also writes poetry and plays. Having never read the former, or experienced the latter, I can't tell you precisely what to make of them, but if his fiction is any indication, my guess is that the participant will be exposed to a raw and thoroughly brave presentation, that will leave him or her sweating bullets. But then, I risk making all this sound like a love letter. 

Despite his title, Mr. Glamour, Richard is a decidedly private man. At least, that's my assessment. He bears a little more anxiety than the average writer, meaning he doesn't trust publishers, big or small, as far as he can toss them. We share this sentiment, perhaps because we've both reached middle age in an occupation better known for its casualties than successes, or maybe because we're just two stubborn coots who don't know when to come in out of the rain. Those rainy days, by sheer luck or Providence, are fewer and fewer these days, thanks to income streams that are in direct proportion to prolific output than they are anything else. But hey, we'll take it.

Richard Godwin, for all his distaste of the unsavory business aspects of being a writer, is not without joie de vivre. He travels so much, speaking about writing and about the writing life, there should be a special Godwin Noir Space devoted to him at every major international airport. And the funny thing is, I've found myself within a very reasonable proximity of him (say within twenty miles) on several occasions, and yet I've never met him in person. But that doesn't mean I feel like I don't know him. We email, talk on the phone, text, commiserate, strategize, share advice, gossip, or just plain laugh together. I haven't been properly introduced to the man, yet I know him like a brother from another mother.  Or maybe I don't.

So now we have a Richard Godwin "reader" in the works from Down & Out Books. It only makes sense for a publisher to figure out the benefits of offering noir readers the chance to sample some of the best hard-boiled prose being banged out with two fingers on both sides of the Atlantic. Back when I was a young writing student at Vermont College during the mid 1990s, any author who boasted their own "reader" was an author who had not only made it, but was revered by their peers. I certainly revere Richard Godwin. Not that I know him as much as I pretend to. Because, like I said, I've never actually met him in the flesh. I guess it's more accurate to say, I know the work, and the work is, well, killer. But as for the man, who knows. Like I said, he's an enigma.



Friday, December 30, 2016

Writing Reflections, Directions, and Resolutions for 2017

The T&M gang on the day THE REMAINS hit the top spot
The quiet and the solitude of my apartment in Florence is shattered by an ambulance that tears down the street, its Waaaa Waaaa wailing horn piercing my eardrums even though I'm seated at my desk inside the building. Soon as the ambulance has passed, some of the refugees who live across the street toss empty beer bottles against the walls. They are afforded fifty euros per day by the Italian government, and in this case anyway, they spend a lot of it on booze. Go figure. The other night I was woken out of a sound sleep to two men of Middle Eastern decent trying to kill one another with knives.

Times are changing. Not always for the better.

It gets me thinking about the new year that lay ahead. What new publishing and writing challenges will it present, and what new opportunities will there be to take advantage of. The first half of 2016 was stellar, on a personal level. THE REMAINS hit the number one spot on the Overall Amazon Kindle Bestseller List and remained in the Top 100 for about a month. For a novel that's four years old, I couldn't have asked for a better situation. In turn, I published the second in what I anticipate as the Rebecca Underhill Trilogy just last month, THE ASHES and it's doing very well (Curiously, the publisher tagged this sequel as having come too late. We'll see).

THE SHROUD KEY also nailed a Top 50 spot early in the year and just three weeks ago, it hit the Top 80 once again. It also went to the Top Ten in Kobo, iBooks and Nook. These books, along with several others, are my bread and butter books. My 'go to' books in terms of my steady income. At the same time, I saw the release of ORCHARD GROVE in hardcover, and for the first time in years, I actually did some book signings at real brick and mortar bookstores. That novel received rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, BookReporter, Library Journal and a starred review at Booklist. Now there's talk of a film option which I'll know more about early in January.

My only disappointment, if you wanna call it that, came with the publication of WHEN SHADOWS COME in April, when it sort of stalled out of the gate. The problem? Its editor left at the precise moment the novel was published. Other changes also were occurring at the house, and this never bodes well for a novel. It simply gets lost like a mother who suddenly decides to leave the supermarket without her groceries or her kid. I've been through this kind of thing before at another large house and it took not weeks or months for the book to recover, but years. In this case however, "SHADOWS" has picked up some steam especially in light of it having been named one of the Best Books of 2016 in the Thriller category by Suspense Magazine. In my mind, that's validation enough. Enough for now, that is.
Congrats "When Shadows Come!"

So what do I see happening in my writing life going forward? As a hybrid author, I see myself seeking out more traditional book deals. By this I mean hardcover and trade paper on top of eBook. To this point, Polis will be publishing THE CORRUPTIONS in harcover, the new Jack Marconi PI thriller at the end of January (I'm leaving Italy a little early in order to jump on the promo bandwagon for this one). Next year, they will publish THE DETONATOR, a killer standalone. I see more foreign rights being sold, and if I'm bold enough to say so, 2017 will be the year for film and TV.

As for the indie side of things, I will be putting out at least two more Chase Baker action/adventure pulp novels. Perhaps even a third. I will also be introducing two more serial characters. The first is another PI and the second is a CIA Field Operative. I guess I'm prolific enough to take on a pen name or two like that other infamous Albany born and bred hard-boiled author, Don Westlake. But right now, I don't see the point. Like Popeye says, I am what I am.

But in terms of indie sales, I see it getting harder and harder for authors who don't have a decent platform already established to get ahead. There's simply too many authors out there vying for a limited number of reader's attention. All the more reason to build up that mailing list, and to form a tribe of readers who will support every new release. I make a point of being good to my subscribers because I'd be nothing without them.

I'll also be concentrating on having all my indie books produced for Audible. Many of the Chase Bakers are now available on Audible and all of them will be by the end of the year's second quarter. Same goes for the Moonlights that I own outright. While I adhere to strict promo schedule, I still believe that the best promo policy of all is to write more books, novellas, and stories. When the one steady trade journalism gig that I maintained died this past August due to a corporate takeover, I thought about searching for another one. But then I thought, why not put 100% of my efforts into writing fiction for a while. Then, if I want to pick up another journalism gig, I can. And that's what I've decided to do. It's my resolution, if you will. Already my word count has picked up by at last 500 words per day. Noting to shake a stick at, if you'll pardon the cliche.

That said, it's probably time I get back to the rough draft of my newest book. A writer should write and not blog or talk about writing. I'm sure you would agree. Happy New Year to you and yours, and if you're a writer, look forward to writing harder this year and writing smarter. If you're a reader, get ready for some good books. And thanks again for your support.


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Jason Michel: Noir Drifter

Jason Michel fits the noir bill to the T.
Gruff and scruffy, his salt and pepper hair is cropped almost to the scalp, which itself shows signs of scarring. The result of a knife fight maybe, or his having been tossed out of a train car during one of his many adventures around the globe.

My kinda dude.

The forty-something noir writer and publisher of the underground but universally hailed Pulp Metal Magazine, originates from Wales, but as far as I can glen, he's never enjoyed the many splendors of a proper home.

He's a drifter.

For certain, I know he lived in Bangkok for a few years, and Paris for a long time, along with other ports of call. He's not a big or imposing guy, but he carries about himself an aura of self assurance that would make a man twice his size think again about engaging in a scrape. It's the eyes, the stare, the roaring silence. He now lives in Florence but as usual it's "Just for a while, I don't know how long..." That is, until he heads somewhere else. The U.S. maybe. Who knows. Such is the code of the noir drifter.  

Jason and the author enjoying a cold beverage at the Goose Bistro in Florence
I'm sure wherever he chooses to live for a while longer, he will still be putting out some of the most poetic noir pieces this side of 1950's Paris. Such as the one you can listen to below which is lifted from his new novel, The Death of Three Colours. And as for the cool background music, its comes from his brother's musical project, Little Deaths. Obviously the noir thing runs in the family. So too do the eyes. Those frightening eyes.

 Listen to Jason Michel read HERE

 For more on the music of Little Deaths go to their Facebook page HERE 

 "Jason Michel is an author and The Dictator over at the irreverent PULP METAL MAGAZINE and has his own Neo-Noir podcast - The Black-Hearted Beat"


Thursday, December 8, 2016

Florence Adrift

I've been coming to Florence for a year shy of a decade to write. On more than a few occasions I've recounted how it's been one of my dreams to have the opportunity to write in a place like Florence (or Paris, or Rome, or a Greek Island, for that matter) for an extended period of time while living the Bohemian lifestyle of making art during the day, drinking wine and eating the food in the evenings. I've experienced all that and more. Luck and Providence have shined down upon me, and I'm forever grateful.

You're sensing a big But here, aren't you...

Okay, here it is. Buttttt....this time around I'm sensing something different in the air. Perhaps it has something to do with the political climate...the global political climate shift, the demise of the left and the rise of the populist movements in the US, Britain, and now, yes, Italy (I saw a photo the other day snapped this past April that showed Obama, Cameron, Hollande, Merkel, and Renzi standing on a balcony together, confidant smiles on their faces, all of them having little conception of the fact that they would all be gone, minus one, in just a few months time). Or perhaps it has a lot to do with my present stage of life. I think they call it the 'sandwich generation' when your young adult kids are still unsettled and your parents, or parent in my case, also requires attention. But, and I'm going to be perfectly honest here, the peace I'm normally accustomed to in Tuscany has thus far eluded me.


--While jogging in the park the other day, teams of police were rounding up African immigrants/refugees, all of whom were resisting, tossing empty beer bottles and angry fists at the cops. It was a frightening scene.

--American college kids walking, or should I say swaying, their way home, a couple of them literally vomiting in the streets.

--The cash register attendant(s) at the local grocery store who is so nasty and so obviously hateful of my Americanism, that the simple banal process of purchasing a few items is a humiliating experience.

I'm not going to belabor the point because there's still so much to love about this place. The food, the drink, the culture, the Noir at the Bar reading I participated in just last week...a terrific success and a blast. But there's something not quite right and it's tough to put my index finger on it. Perhaps it's just me and where I'm at in life. People change and sometimes the cities you live in change along with it, in every bit of that moveable feast sense of the word. Or, maybe, just maybe, you change and the city you've grown to love stays the same. In fact, maybe you're the problem. Maybe it's had enough of you and it's time to move on to a new city in which to write. A new experience. A new inspiration.

Or, perhaps I'm looking at this all wrong. Perhaps I need to shed those things that are getting in the way. Peel away the layers of skin that are bothering me. Freeing myself from the ever increasing weight that makes me feel at times, like I'm drowning in a sea of other people's needs and frustrations. For sure I should be turning off the goddamn internet when I'm working.

You can't be all things for all people, no matter how much you love them. You can only be you. Florence has always allowed me to be me, to write well, and to live well. It still is that place, but like a boat that's become untethered, I feel it drifting away. Think I'll grab the line and pull her back in.


Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Big Backlist is Really Your Frontlist

Over the course of my twenty year career in  professional publishing, if there's one thing I've learned, it's never what you've done or accomplished, it's always what you're about to do that's important. Publishers big and small, are always looking for the next big thing, the next big book, the next bigger than God author who is going to break out and amass great wealth for publisher's bank accounts.

And every year there is usually one writer who fits this bill. Almost always, the publisher creates the myth of the next big thing by tossing a huge advance at the poor soul (he doesn't realize he's a poor soul yet because he will of course be broke and needs the money badly), and the press will greedily snatch up news of the sale, the rationale being, if the book is worth so much money, it's got to be great!

Problem is, most writers don't earn out their advances, even humble ones. I was one of those mega six figure advance debut authors once upon a time and it nearly cost me my career in the short run when the six month bottom line turned out to be redder than Rudolf's nose. That's right, not six years, but six months. But for publishers, the point is not necessarily an author earning out a big advance right away as it is creating a buzz over something new. A book that is so fresh and unique it somehow deserves our utmost attention. Attention should, theoretically speaking, translate into sales.

But what about an author's backlist?

According to a new essay by marketing genius Seth Godin, the aptly misnamed backlist is really the true money maker for both author and publisher. These are the books that sell perpetually for both author and publisher year after year after year. Yet, according to Godin, publishers only invest about 2% of their annual marketing budgets to any given author's backlist and the rest goes to someone or something that's new, and never been done before. Thus the old conundrum, it's never what you've done, but what you're going to do.

Another thing I've learned about publishing is that publishers, and especially their marketing departments, tend to think short term. If they don't think a book will sell well out of the gate, no matter its merits, it's rejected. These days a book has to conform to the algorithms established by the computer software or it's "Thanks but no thanks." Problem with this philosophy is that some books take time to sell.

That debut novel for which I received the mega advance, The Innocent? It didn't take off until a decade later when, for some inexplicable reason, it sold more than 100K copies in a matter of a couple of months. By then another publisher had bought it, and then yet a third publisher snatched it up along with the offer of a rather generous advance.

But how can that be? 

The Innocent, as a viable book project was done, over, roadkill, six-feet-under, washed up, "You had your chance, kid, now beat it." You get the picture. Yet the book defied publisher (and marketing department) logic and suddenly took off. There was no rhyme or reason to it.

Eventually all my books become backlist books.

It only takes a few months these days for a book to be considered old. A fruit fly has a longer life than a new novel, no matter what the advance. Bookstores, the ones that are left standing, only have so much space. But thanks to ebooks, backlist books can now be promoted right up front with an author's new releases (this means backlist books produced in paper and audio as well).

A few independent minded publishers see the value of actively promoting backlist books. Amazon imprints are one of these. Thomas & Mercer continually promotes The Remains even though it was released in late 2012. It sells tens of thousands of copies per year, and during one year in particular, hundreds of thousands. Because of that, I just published The Ashes, the novel's sequel and next year I'll publish the third book in what's become The Rebecca Underhill trilogy. I'm not looking forward to the followup books to The Remains being frontlist hits (although that would be nice), but what I'm aiming at are those existing fans and future fans of The Remains who will be wanting more of the story. Those are the readers who will gravitate to the next two books in the trilogy.

It dawned on me recently...wait, scratch that...allow me to rephrase. The realization hit me over the head like a sledge hammer the other day while I was banging out a news story, that as a freelance writer and journalist, we only get paid for our time and once the story is published it's already old news. In other words, like that brand spanking new car you just shelled out thousands for, once you drive it off the lot, it's immediately lost both its original luster and it's top worth. And even that freelance payment has become so reduced thanks to free media outlets (like this one), that it's becoming harder and harder to justify the freelance writer occupation. It just doesn't freakin' pay anymore.

But by publishing more and more novels, novellas, and creating a backlist that's masked as your can create the gift that keeps on giving. Some books will appear to sell poorly out of the gate but that given time will grow into steady sellers. Some books will kill it out of the gate and then die a slow death. That is, until you repackage it and republish it, thereby breathing new life into it. And other books will sell respectably well out of the gate and sell steadily for the rest of your days, your children's days and their children's days and so on and so forth.

As a hybrid author, I can state with confidence that the writing business has finally become an occupation that's not necessarily concerned with what I'm going to do, but a hell of a lot more focused on what I've already accomplished. For me, the past is indeed prologue. 



Friday, December 2, 2016

La Dolce Vita

Henry Miller in his Paris apartment in the 1930s
Ahhhhh, the good life....

I'm the last one to bitch, because I can't think of any writer...and I mean any writer worth his or her salt-of-the-earth...who doesn't start out in this racket dreaming of one day moving to Europe for a while to write the Great American Novel.

You start writing because there's something inside you that needs to do it. You hero worship a whole bunch of the writers who came before you. Hemingway writing in Paris, comes to mind. Henry Miller doing the same thing as a middle-aged man. Martha Gelhorn in London and Rome. Even Mark Twain, for as broke as he sometimes was, wrote in Florence.
There's something about writers not being able to stay in any one place for very long, or else the earth will suddenly open up under their feet and swallow them whole. I guess I feel that way when I'm in the 'burbs for too long. All those sharks swimming around me taking bites out of me. Okay, I'm mixing my metaphors here. But then, even an accountant can't wait to get out of the house for a while. A girlfriend of mine once called me unstable. Not because I was a threat in any way, but because she knew I could never be happy standing still. "You always have to stir things up."
Right now, I'm stirring the pot.

Standing still, now there's a concept.

Norman Mailer was in his mid to late sixties when he was woken up at dark-thirty in the morning when his then wife's water broke for what would become his 8th or 9th kid. Story goes, he sat for a while on the edge of the bed, in his wife beater, his head in his hands, lamenting, "All I ever wanted was to live in Paris for a year while I wrote a great novel." Well, old Norman wrote some great books, but did so while trying his damndest to stay one step ahead of the creditors, the wives, the girlfriends, and the kids.

Anyway, back round to my original thesis, which is, I'm not one to bitch. Because here I am, living in Italy for a while, while I work on the Great American Novel (or three). Okay, some of you snotty writing school prof English Department elitists, you know how you are... will automatically scoff at this by convincing yourself that Zandri writes only genre fiction. Certainly nothing that can be confused for the Great American Novel. Well, how's it feel waking up on a Monday morning and heading to work? Sure, in writing school there were more than a handful of profs who chuckled at my romantic vision of what a writer and the writing life could be. But then, these were the same people who would, no doubt, feel the fine hairs on the back of their necks stand up at the thought of my dream actually becoming a reality someday.

So this thesis, I've been on about. Like I keep saying, I'm not one to bitch, but in the near two weeks since I've been in Italy on my three month extended writing retreat, I've completed the first good draft of what will be the eleventh Chase Baker novel. I'm presently completing the galley proofs of The Corruptions which will be out in January in hardcover from Polis Books, and soon I will start on a new stand-alone psychological suspense novel I'm calling, The Girl Who Wasn't There (sometimes it helps to have a title in mind). The bitching part comes into play because since I've been here it seems the world is falling apart back in NY. I never realized how many fires I'm required to put out on a daily basis. But then, those fires are perfectly normal, and it's what some people are referring to when they say, "Life happens." In any case, I'm here to work on my version of the Great American Novel(s), and that's what I plan on doing. Heat or no heat.

I think the best bet, is to shut the phone off, turn off the internet, and isolate myself. Henry Miller wasn't bothered by instant digital communication, and neither should I be.

The good's what you make of it.