Author POV: The Void Kills

The void kills.

Insert ominous piano sounds here.

But really, minus the faux-drama, it does.

In my case, I mean the blank space of the empty page waiting just ahead of every word in every work-in-progress. Every flash fiction, short story, novella, novel. Even now, as I write this, the blankness, ever ravenous, is threatening to consume this entire article in reverse, word-by-word. Disappear them. Eat them. Erase them from existence. If an empty Word file gets deleted does it even make a sound?

See, every little word I send out there into the void could be the last one.

And the void’s a bit of a trash talker, too. Likes to taunt.

It says, “Why bother? Just stop and watch Netflix.”

It says, “Is that the best you can do? They’re really not very good words.”

It says, “Don’t tell me you think this will resonate with anyone — do you know how many words are being written by way more talented people right now?”

The void has an itchy trigger finger, dead-eye aim and a full clip.

And we wage battle every time I sit down to write, except those rare times when I’m on fire, shiny and chrome, a witty, wordy John Wick executing bad guys with speed and style, bam, bam, bam, head shots everywhere. Take that void.

I love when that happens. I celebrate when that happens.

I’m sure it’s the same for most writers. Any artist. Creating something that never existed before ain’ t the hardest thing in the world, by any stretch, but it ain’t the easiest either. Like anything, creating has its pitfalls, its downsides, its challenges.

Certainly, the reward of typing “END” or getting a short story acceptance or holding a book you wrote in your hands makes the void non-existent, a memory. That is, until the next time, of course.

40 Nickels by R. Daniel Lester. Buy Now!

Which brings me to 40 Nickels.

The void almost got this second entry in the Carnegie Fitch Mystery Fiasco series on a few occasions. There were some close calls and it was definitely touch-and-go for a while there, for those months between the initial burst of writing in March 2018, the next bit in June/July and the completion in November/December. Lots of staring into the void, unsure. Lots of creeping doubt. Even more so because a lot of the work was done. It was book #2 so I already had the character and the setting. I had the style, how the story would “feel.” And I knew the plot points, my middle and end. So I knew exactly where I wanted to get to, but all those damn tiny (mis)steps to get there. That damn blank page that can be so inspiring at times, for what it could be, but so scary because what if that’s all the story ever becomes?

Finally, though, the story made it to the end and was all that much better for the journey, for the stops and starts, the winding path.

So here we are, meeting Carnegie Fitch once again, after his misadventures in Dead Clown Blues, with his own void to battle. The void called “The Unknown.” And the unknown scares him. So he continues doing what he thinks he does best, stumbling over and through cases, from advance to advance, from feast to famine and back again.  And all with a sly grin on his face and a smart aleck wisecrack for every occasion.

Dead Clown Blues
Buy Now!

Readers may notice similarities to Dead Clown Blues, certain intentional repeats. I won’t mention them and take away the joy of discovery, if you’re so inclined, but they exist for a reason. Fitch is stuck in a loop but he’s not going to escape until he realizes and changes his tactics. Until he enters the unknown, takes the void head on and sees what’s on the other side.

I always wanted the books in this series to be an ode to detective/P.I. fiction, full of some of the classic tropes that make it a blast to read, but also a bit of a self-referential, “meta” journey for a character trying to be Marlowe, trying to be Spade.  And really not succeeding. Even when he wins, it’s more of a fail upwards than an outright victory.

Most of all, I wanted Dead Clown Blues and 40 Nickels to be good yarns and I battled the void each time to try and achieve that. For what it’s worth. For that moment, even if it’s just a brief blip on a crowded radar screen chock-a-block with all the entertainment at our fingertips these days, when the words I strung together on the page might mean something to a reader.

So if you pick up a copy, or download the ebook, I hope you enjoy it.

And keep an eye out for the final book in the trilogy, Shot to Nothing, in Summer 2021.

Now, where’s that damn void? It’s go time.


Author POV: Sequels are hard, man. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

When I was a wee lad, us neighborhood kids would assemble on Friday nights and march down to the local multiplex, to see whatever action spectacular graced the screen that week. If the movie in question was a sequel, there was a high likelihood we would leave the theater complaining about the reheated plot, the clumsy callbacks to the original film, and how all the lead actors had phoned it in.

At the time, it was easy to blame the directors and screenwriters for the mess. But now, having taken my own run at a sequel, I realize those creative types were wrestling in the grip of a particularly insidious trap: it’s hard enough to create a new work—and if the result is any good, it’s even more difficult to follow it up with something a.) better, and b.) at least somewhat original. After all, you poured everything you had into that first book or movie; the temptation to stick to that same formula with the sequel is sometimes too much to overcome, especially on a deadline.

This theory explains the last two “Die Hard” movies, along with a fair number of book series.

When I finished writing “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps,” I had the vague desire to write a sequel. I had enjoyed the writing experience quite a bit (the usual agonies over plot and sentence structure aside), and ended the book in a matter open-ended enough for a follow-up. Plus, I really liked the characters; I wanted to find out what happened to them, and I hoped the audience would, too.

Little did I know that I had stepped into that trap.

For me, the biggest challenge in writing a sequel is that you need to keep the previous books in mind at all times. When you have multi-novel character arcs, if you mess up the details in your latest book, your protagonists will evolve in weird and inconsistent ways. Readers notice when motivations shift, or characters’ personalities change abruptly from novel to novel.

The next challenge: avoiding a rehash of the plot from the first book. In my case, this was a little bit easier than formulating the character arcs: the plot of “A Brutal Bunch” is contained to a very specific locale (a dying town in Oklahoma with a dark history), and driven by a lot of folks who (spoiler alert!) don’t make it to the end. My two protagonists, Bill and Fiona, survive and flee to another country. The second book’s exotic environment and a fresh cast of characters helped guarantee that I didn’t go to the proverbial well twice, in terms of plot beats.

Third, I needed to avoid my personal clichés, those plot elements that I’ve found myself using (however subconsciously) again and again. I have two in particular that I’m trying to weed out of my writing: a habit of eliminating a bunch of secondary characters in a single explosion—an easy way to streamline a narrative and kick off a second or third act with a bang!—and ending things with a massive gunbattle (you can blame my watching “The Wild Bunch” at too impressionable a young age for that impulse). As I wrote the sequel, I took those old tools away, and forced myself to invent new ones.

I’m pleased with the overall results; and I’m probably the first person ever to stage a vicious brawl in a self-driving Tesla. Nobel Committee, I await your call.

In any case, “Slaughterhouse Blues,” the second book in the “Love & Bullets” trilogy, is out today. Pick it up and tell me how I did!

Meanwhile, I’m wrestling with the third book in the series. Trilogies are also hard, man. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

• • •

Learn more about Slaughterhouse Blues. Available in print and ebook today.


Author POV: We are unreliable narrators of our own lives

Self-deception gets in our way, trips us up, makes us do bone-stupid things. We all suffer from it from time to time. Luckily, most of us recognize this and, at least sometimes, try to compensate the best we can.

But sometimes we don’t confront our self-deceptions until it’s too late. For me, that happened when I was coming out of graduate school with an eye on a tenure-track teaching gig. Turns out, the entire professional landscape for college professors—and especially the job market—had shifted in a major way while I was locked away inside the ivory tower, and I’d failed to notice it.

Wait, scratch that. I had noticed it. I just used my own powers of self-deception to convince myself it wouldn’t affect me. Spoiler alert: it did, and as a result, I lost a few years of my professional life to swimming upstream through a job market that didn’t have any room for me.

And while I’ll never get those years back, I did eventually recover and learn something from my mistake. Alton Carver, the protagonist of my new novel How I’m Spending My Afterlife, isn’t quite so lucky:

Alton Carver has a problem.

A cocky lawyer in his mid-30s, he’s under federal investigation for embezzling and securities fraud. Instead of spending the next three to five years behind bars, he’s got a plan: stage his own death, take the money he stole and light out for Central America, leaving behind wife Nicole and daughter Clara. But when he sticks around town long enough to watch his own funeral, he makes the unpleasant discovery that the life he’s leaving behind isn’t the life he thought he had.

When he overhears the way his former colleagues talk about him now that he’s “gone,” Alton is forced to reconsider his self-image as a respected and admired pillar of the legal community. Then the shock of seeing Nicole in the arms of another man leads Alton to postpone his plan to run for the border. What comes next is a slow-burn train wreck, a tale of self-deception, revenge, and bad decisions.

Alton is cursed with a knack for self-delusion and an oversized ego that’s almost incapable of admitting to mistakes. We’ve all known people like Alton; some of us have watched them crash and burn in disasters of their own making. And some of us—though certainly not me, of course—have even secretly enjoyed it.

I gave up on an academic career around 2011, fully four years after earning that sheepskin. I started writing this book in earnest three years later, but I’d had the first eight or nine pages sitting around for several years by then. Once I decided to get serious about writing fiction, I dug those pages out of deep storage, reread them, and thought there might be some potential there. So I kept writing, and in the fall of 2016 I’d made it all the way to a final, publishable draft.

I’ve always said that all fiction is autobiographical in some way, but I’d really struggled to see how this applies to my own novel until this very moment. Like Alton, I was an unreliable narrator of my own life. It honestly never occurred to me that maybe I was writing about my own self-deceptions—albeit in a completely different context—and all the time, money and heartbreak they cost me when I was writing about Alton.

How I’m Spending My Afterlife takes place mostly in Florida, but it’s not the same style of noir that you’ll find in my story, “Back to Tall Pines,” which takes place in a fictional north Florida backwoods town and was published back in April right here on Shotgun Honey. The book is available in Kindle, epub, and good old paperback formats from your favorite online retailers. I hope you’ll give it a chance, and if you do, I really hope you dig it.


Author POV: From Running to Ravenhill

I used to run.

I also used to move around a lot, so I’ve pounded the pavements of my hometown, Belfast; navigated the sidewalks of Manhattan; jogged on the banks of the Danube in Budapest; run through the Tokyo night in summer, when the heat and humidity is just about bearable, dodging cicadas as they dropped from the scattering of trees; and sweated through circuits of my local park where I now live in England.

There’s a house in that park straight out of a child’s bad dream. Top-heavy with a massive, towering chimney and dark, grime encrusted windows, it squats on the perimeter of the grass in front of a regimented line of neat terraced houses’ back yards like a brick witches’ cottage from a Grimm fairytale. I passed that house every time I ran through the park and, eventually, wrote a short story about it. A weird crime-horror hybrid about a Belfast paramilitary-turned-informant haunted by his past, I sent it to One Eye Press after spotting their Blight Digest Fall 2014 and was surprised and honoured to have it accepted for the Winter 2015 edition. There it was, my story, “Running On Dead Leaves,” in print. It was a massive encouragement in terms of sitting my arse on a chair and putting words down.

I used to run.

Buy RAVENHILL today

That was before October 2014, when my beautiful daughter was born and I had other, more pressing things to do – like down a couple of beers and have a bit of craic with friends in the rare quiet moments. One of those mates, over several of those beers, made a bet with me shortly after my wife and I knew a wee package was on the way. He bet that I couldn’t write a novel before my daughter arrived. Red rag to a bull, I went for it.

I thought back to writing my crime-horror hybrid and realised I enjoyed the paramilitary crime angle more than the horror, so I set to work. Belfast has changed a lot since I left home, and the republican and loyalist ceasefires of 1997/98. For a start, it was the safest city in Europe in terms of conventional crime during the ‘Troubles’ while the balaclava set were busy scurrying around blowing half the country to bits, shattering teenagers’ kneecaps and shooting various folk in their beds. Now, according to some indexes, it’s the third most dangerous city in the UK behind London and Glasgow, and ranks up there with Dublin and Limerick if you’re talking Ireland-wide. What if a character who’d been in the thick of it back in the bad old days came back after a long time away? What if his old comrades were drug dealers and gangland kingpins? What if the past was still very much alive?

The result is my debut novel, Ravenhill, published by Silvertail Books and out now in Kindle and paperback formats from Amazon. Here’s the story:

Belfast, 1993: Jackie Shaw is a young tearaway running with paramilitaries in Belfast. He treads a fine line keeping psychotic hard-man Rab Simpson in check while sleeping with gang leader Billy Tyrie’s beautiful wife on the side.

When a bomb claims nine lives, he is given the role of getaway driver in a planned reprisal killing, a key role in a major operation. But Jackie may not be who he seems …

Twenty years later, Jackie returns to the city for his father’s funeral after disappearing in mysterious circumstances. He wants to mourn then leave, but when figures from his past emerge, he is left with no choice but to revisit his violent former life.

Give it a try. It’s a brick-hard crime novel with a couple of twists and a glimpse of the stark reality behind the headlines from Northern Ireland. And thank you One Eye Press, for giving me a leg-up with that first published story in Blight Digest.

Now, I might just go for a run tomorrow. After I finish off the beers in my fridge tonight.

Cheers,

John


Author POV: A Portrait of Steal Life

On November 7, 2009, my favorite mixed martial artist, Fedor Emelianenko upped his consecutive winning streak to twenty-six, unprecedented in the world of combat sports. On the same night, I began writing chapter one of Les Cannibales, my first published book. Here’s what it’s about:

During a robbery, Blinky sees police activity down the street. His crew assumes cops have the art gallery surrounded, unaware of their true presence, which is responding to a car accident that has left one man dead. The thieves shoot at responding officers and take hostages. When Detective Reynolds arrives on the scene, he identifies the dead man involved in the car accident. This becomes his main lead to hunt down the thieves’ true identities and work out a peaceful resolution before S.W.A.T moves in.

Each thief has a story explaining why he chose to take the job. Inky is a con artist repaying an old debt, Blinky is a stuntman in need of quick cash, Pinky is an enforcer that’s looking to move up in the ranks and Clyde is a sociopath/art aficionado that loves to steal. When S.W.A.T teams get the go-ahead to overtake the gallery, it’s dog-eat-dog as the gunmen plan their escape.

Jump back a week, car parked curbside on San Pablo avenue. Two cars up, a person stepped out of their parked car, the driver door sticking out far enough some might consider it hazardous to passing vehicles. Without much effort, I found myself lost to woolgathering, waiting for my wife to return with coffee. This is how I come up with most stories—sitting there, bored, waiting on someone else.

“What if that person was struck by a car due to some technicality like crossing the line?” I muttered out loud. “That’d be somethin’.” I regressed further, falling deeper into the vortex of my imagination. Suddenly, viola—chapter one. When I got it down on paper, it reminded me of that unexpected scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta’s character accidentally shoots Marvin in the face.

Jump ahead a few weeks later, I caught an interview Quentin Tarantino gave to film students. One student asked Quentin: “What do I need to do to become a great director?”

“Write a movie like Reservoir Dogs,” was Tarantino’s response. Cue: standing ovation. Cut to: me planting myself in front of the typewriter, beginning chapter two.

The first draft was novel length (still have a hard copy on file). Originally, Les Cannibales contained fictionalized stories of actual art heists that occurred throughout history. Think of the theft of Mona Lisa in 1911, thieves seizing two Renoir  from the National Museum in Stockholm with submachine guns, and $300 million worth of art taken from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. The idea was to authenticate my story’s crime by highlighting actual crimes that have occurred. In later versions, I decided on axing those chapters—instead incorporating elements from those anecdotes into the crime I made up.

I wrote Les Cannibales eight years ago. To see it find a home with Shotgun Honey and Down & Out Books is a dream come true. Be a pal and check it out after you read this. Go ahead, give Les Cannibales a chance. You’ll be surprised with what you discover.

Thanks,
DeLeon