Knowing When to Fold ’em…

I promise that’s the last time I’ll quote The Gambler for a long time.

A writer has to feel a story. It might sound strange if this isn’t a world you live in, but its true. As a writer, you’re spending hours a day, months of your life with these characters, imagining their lives, their struggles, their world. You’ve got to be connected to that in a very visceral way. If you can’t, not only can you not faithfully describe those situations, you also can’t motivate yourself to sit in front of of a keyboard for hours, hammering away.

So, a little over a year ago, I decided to set aside the sequel to The Bad Shepherd despite being 4-5 months into writing it. Why? I wasn’t connecting with the story the way I needed to. The ideas weren’t flowing and I didn’t feel like the plot was living up to its predecessor. The Bad Shepherd is a special book for me. It was my debut novel, but more than that, it was my love letter to the rock and roll I grew up with (granted, its a pretty dark letter) and has been a big part of my life. I couldn’t write a sequel to that if I didn’t think I could do it justice.

Instead I decided to work on Proper Villains. Villains was a bit of a departure for me. The Bad Shepherd is a private eye noir and my second book, A Legitimate Businessman, is a crime thriller about a professional thief leading a double life. Villains is a crime thriller too, but its also a dark comedy, very much in the style of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen. Why the pivot? Creatively, I felt like I needed to switch it up. Of my three published novels to date, Villains is my most “natural” in terms of writing style. I didn’t have the think about the language or the tone, I just went. Every day was an exercise in how much deeper can these idiots get. As one reader put it, “they make all the wrong choices and its perfect.”

Villains just flowed. It was an absolute blast to write and I think that comes across in the story. While I was a little disappointed to put pause on Bo Fochs, at least for now, I think the results of the pivot speak for themselves. I was able to focus on something that I was totally engaged in and could really get behind, creatively. I’m not sure why I wasn’t connecting with The Bad Shepherd sequel the way I did with the original, other than its a pretty dark story and I just wasn’t in that frame of mind. As I said in the beginning, you’ve got to be 100% committed to a story because you’re going to spend several months with these characters, their choices, their world and the repercussions of that. You also have to bring the same fire to the editing process as you did in the initial writing or the book will fall flat. You can’t do that if you’re not feeling the story.

It was a tough pivot but better that I set this aside for now and focus on something that I could really get behind, than to try and force a story that wasn’t there. Additionally, if you’re not completely authentic writing, regardless of the genre, readers will sniff that out in a heartbeat. Based on the reviews, I think I made the right call. As I type this, Proper Villains is in the Top 100 on Amazon’s “Humorous Dark Comedy” list.

Will I go back to The Bad Shepherd? I’d like to. There’s at least a trilogy there and possibly more. I think Bo Fochs is a compelling character, fun to write and one that resonated with the readers. But for right now I’m setting it aside and focusing on the stories that I feel more compelled to tell. As I write this, I’m halfway through the next “Gentleman” Jack Burdette story and will probably do a third on the heels of that. There may be a spinoff series in the offing as well, so stay tuned for that.

I’ll doubleback to the 80s when the muse strikes me. (figured it’d be safer to end on ZZ Top than more Kenny Rogers…)

Series length in crime fiction

As I write this, I’m just about halfway through the follow up to 2018’s A Legitimate Businessman and that’s got me thinking a lot about how long I want this series to be. In the first book, we meet “Gentleman” Jack Burdette, a professional thief who leads a double life and is precariously trying to balance the two. He has two separate identities and much of the dramatic tension in the book comes as those two lives come into conflict with each other.

Without giving away spoilers, its fair to say that this can’t go on forever. Jack is a great thief, maybe the best in the world at what he does, but he can’t keep it up forever. There’s also the question of his double life. How long can one man lead two lives, especially when one of them is as a professional thief? Eventually, those plot devices would become tropes and would lose their impact. There is also the aspect of realism, namely that it is just not plausible to me that someone could continue to commit a series of high profile crimes and continue to get away with it. While readers expect a certain amount of artistic license, it also has to be believable within the architecture of that story’s world. This is especially true in crime fiction where you have to balance the myriad unsavory characters of the criminal underworld where they operate as well as the various law enforcement agencies that will certainly be involved. And, let’s face it, in the modern era, very little goes unnoticed for long. In crime fiction, its essential that the narrative arc of the series stays both realistic and true to itself.

You must also consider the psychological toll this lifestyle takes on the character. This, again, goes back to realism. Eventually, unless the main character is wholly amoral (which, is likely not compelling), the consequences of their choices will begin to wear on them. While this cane create a compelling narrative arc over the course of several books, there is a fine balance to strike. The character must still be relatable and likable to the reader, the farther down the spiral they go, the deeper the challenge it is for them to be someone that the audience responds favorably to. In contemporary storytelling, I think few did this better than Breaking Bad. Could Walter White have continued cooking meth forever? No. Crime fiction is never free of consequences and eventually those consequences must catch up with the characters. They are the story’s gravity. No believable character escapes all of the consequences for long.

This is different than with Donald E. Westlake’s Parker series (written under the pseudonym “Richard Stark”), where the eponymous protagonist committed heist after heist over the course of forty years. But this was a product of a different age. Westlake began writing Parker in the mid Sixties and took a near thirty year break in 1973. These were tightly plotted pulp heist books and featured very little in the way of character development. Of course, that’s not why you read them. You wanted to go along for the ride as Parker get away with a thrilling caper. Those books worked because of the age they were written in and their style. I don’t think they’d work as well if set in the modern era. Could someone be a serial thief in the 1960s and 70s? That’s very believable. How about in 2019? Less so. Still, these books are masterpieces of crime fiction and if you haven’t read them, you should.

I should note that I’m talking about criminal protagonists. You have a bit more runway with a hero that’s a cop or a private investigator, as the narrative arc can cover an entire legitimate career. In these cases, many of the things I mentioned above actually work in the series’ favor, namely the toll their profession takes on them over time. However, I have seen many writers fall into a trap of continuing to pursue a series long after the person would logically or realistically have hung it up.

I have a defined narrative arc for “Gentleman” Jack and there are also spinoff series planned, which I’ll write more about later on. For this style of book, realism is essential. Early on I had to make a decision on whether I wanted it to be a more campy, “Ocean’s 11” style caper or if I wanted it grounded in realism. Ultimately, I chose the latter as that was fitting for the story I wanted to tell. With that choice comes some tough decisions on how long the series can logically go and remain true to itself.

A Criminal Hero and the Caper That Almost Wasn’t

One of the truths about crime fiction is that no one’s hands are clean. For me, that’s often the point. Most of my stories involve protagonists who are generally good but find themselves in situations that force them to bad things for the right reasons. In The BadShepherdwe see Bo Fochs working outside the system when he believes that justice won’t be served unless he does. Then we see him face the consequences of those actions. Put simply, he does bad things for the right reasons because he believes no one else will.

For my next book, though, I wanted to explore a protagonist on the other side of the law. In A Legitimate Businessman, due out later this month, our hero is a professional thief named “Gentleman” Jack Burdette. This was a lot harder than I thought it would be. When I set out to write the book, really what I wanted was an Elmore Leonard-style caper story with colorful characters, snappy dialogue and a casual attitude towards the law. However, I quickly found that in writing it, I couldn’t connect with my character because he was a criminal. I couldn’t justify the things he did enough to care about him. He stole things, it was exciting to write but I didn’t care. It was hard for me to empathize with a crook. I worried that my readers would too.

When I finished the first draft of this book, I’ll be honest, I didn’t like it. I didn’t know what I had. I also didn’t like my hero. Oh, I thought he was written well and everything he did was true to his character…but I didn’t like him. I didn’t care whether he survived the book or not. As protagonists, criminals are a different breed than anti-heroes and are harder to draw out because they are fundamentally “bad”. Because of that, I think, they are much harder to get right.

Without giving anything away, part of how I squared this particular circle was to make Jack the least of the criminal characters in the book. By comparison, he’s not such a bad guy. I also gave him some legitimate motivations. Even if you don’t agree the choices he makes, you can see why he does it and it fits within the world of the story. Through the editing process, I was able to shape this character, find his true self. I was able to give him a kind of code and a reason for being that not only made him fun to write but also fun to read.

I love “Gentleman” Jack and he’s one of my favorite creations. I also think this book is some of my best work and I cannot wait to write more books with him. That’s a long way from staring at my first draft and wondering if I was ever going to release it. The wonderful lesson in this, both for writers and readers, is that to get truly invested in a book and a character, we need to have enough of a connection with them that we feel genuine empathy for them so that we understand the choices they make.

Richard Stark’s Parker is a purely amoral criminal who steals without compunction. By comparison, Elmore Leonard’s Chili Palmer is a mobbed up shylock who is trying to go straight (-ish). With the former, we don’t care about his motivation–we also aren’t given any, which is part of the beauty–we only read the book for the caper. With the latter, Chili is trying to go straight by moving from one very criminal enterprise (loan sharking) to a slightly less criminal one (Hollywood). With A Legitimate Businessman, I was trying to thread the needle between these two, create a criminal protagonist who does criminal things, makes no apologies for that but is also one we genuinely want to see get away with it.

Director’s Cuts in Fiction

Caution: Spoilers

I’ve always loved director’s cuts. I think its fascinating to explore what forced a film maker to remove content and arrive at their final prodcuct. The reasons are endless–the film was running too long, a scene or character didn’t focus group well, there was a debate between the producer and the director. Editing a novel is very similar. As a general rule, my approach in the editing process is to remove any scene or character that doesn’t ultimately serve the story’s climax. I do this as a check to constrain the length of the story and also to make sure that I don’t have extraneous material that, while interesting, doesn’t move the story forward.

The version of The Bad Shepherd that I first released in October 2016 after deciding to publish it independently was edited with a traditional publisher in mind. The edits I made (some very painful) were done to fit the story into the constraints of the traditional publishing industry. For example, a debut crime novel is expected to be between 80,000 and 90,000 words (roughly around 300-350 pages). To do that, I had to make some very difficult choices regarding what I would remove and had to make some equally difficult decisions regarding the ultimate plot and how those edits would serve that plot. The hardest for me was making the book entirely about Bo Fochs.

In the original version, the story was equally about Fochs and his partner, Mitchell Gaffney. Their arc of their relationship and the strains the case put on it was one of central themes of the book. In that version, the reader is able to find some empathy for Mitch and understand why he burned his partner the way he did. Marlon Rolles also had much more screen time and we could see just how pervasive (and truly diabolical) his operation was. But, we also saw that he was actually helping people through his foundation, so he wasn’t quite the one-sided villain that I perceive him to be in the published version. Bo and Daphne’s relationship was much longer and had greater depth, so you truly understood his reactions and felt that pain upon learning of her death. Finally, there was a member of Lorenzo Fremont’s crew that added a crucial human element to the antagonists.

So, why did I cut those things? Well, none of those elements served the ultimate end of the book, which was to force a confrontation between Bo Fochs and Marlon Rolles. After everything else was peeled away, the climactic moment is that conflict and the choice I made was if something did not explicitly serve that purpose, I had to cut it in order to meet an arbitrary word count. Ultimately, even though I decided to independently publish, I chose not to add those things back in, because I felt that my first novel needed to be a tightly plotted, fast read. But, lately, I’ve been rethinking that decision.

Recently, I’ve watched two director’s cuts that entirely change their original films. Goodfellas and Payback. If you’ve seen the originals, go watch these. Payback, in particular, is an entirely different film than the original and both director’s cuts offer (in my opinion) a more complete cinematic experience. I want to do the same with The Bad Shepherd. In the near future, probably when I begin researching and plotting the sequel, I’m going to release a director’s cut that will include many or all of the deleted arcs I described above. We’ll get a deeper connection with both the heroes and the antagonists and have a more complete experience, the way I originally envisioned the story.

I believe the book works very well right now as a lean, driving crime story but I also want an opportunity to share the book I originally conceived, which is a much different experience than the version of The Bad Shepherd on virtual shelves today. Those cuts flesh out the world of the story and while they may not explicitly serve the climactic moment, they bring a much needed depth that I think readers would appreciate.

On Flawed Characters and Imperfect Endings, or Lessons Learned From “The Big Sleep”.

One of my early reviewers of The Bad Shepherd critiqued that most of the main character’s mistakes were because of flaws in his personality that he might otherwise have avoided. Said another way, Bo Fochs didn’t learn his lessons. In many ways that was true and but it was also intentional. I wanted to create a imperfect hero that often times failed because of himself. Crime fiction is a genre about deeply flawed characters, people who are put into terrible situations and react, sometimes dangerously, sometimes violently but almost always in ways that skirt the law or norms of society.

Bo Fochs is a character that was struggling with his demons and sometimes those demons got the better of him. Also, much like a real person, Bo doesn’t always learn his lessons. There are times in the story when the reader can predict the consequences of the choice Fochs is going to make, likely, the character does too and yet he chooses that course of action regardless. One of the fundamental parts of his personality is that when he sets a course, he follows it through regardless of the consequences. He does this because its what he believes to be right and he holds those values above everything else, even his career, his relationships or his reputation.

I can appreciate how that might be frustrating for a reader. If you’re emotionally invested in the character, you want to see him grow and improve, to not make the same mistake at the end of the book as he did in the beginning. You want to see him win. But, in real life that’s not always the case. Bo’s failures also support one of the major themes of this series, which is how deeply flawed and often senseless the drug war was in the 1980s and remains today. Bo is, in many ways, an allegory for the broader fight against gangs, drugs and street crime. Often times, good people are forced into bad situations and must do questionable things for what they believe is the greater good. Further, when victories are won, they are usually costly, even pyrrhic ones.

When I was writing The Bad Shepherd, I was thinking a lot of Raymond Chandler’s, The Big Sleep. The book is somewhat notorious in crime fiction for having left a murder unsolved. When asked who killed the chauffeur, Chandler once said, “I don’t know, do you?” My theory has always been that Chandler never edited the book heavily himself and simply left a plot hole, but I believe that over time that ending has come to represent  one of the fundamental truths of crime fiction, which is that sometimes the case (in whole or in part) goes unsolved. It represents the mistakes that add an essential realism to the world of the story.

Bo Fochs lives in a dirty world and he is an imperfect knight. But I believe that it is those flaws that make him a more believable, more relatable character. There are two books planned following The Bad Shepherd, and in those we will explore his character in more depth. If you’ve read The Bad Shepherd you know that he will go to almost any length to do what he thinks is right, but how far is too far and does he have a limit? Join me in the next one and find out.