Short Story: The Girl on the Blue Line

Author’s note: I wrote this a long time ago, for a small literary magazine called Buzzwords, which is no longer in print (I think). They had a hole in an issue, and asked if I could write something to spec. It had to be no more than 1,750 words. I think it came in at 1,749. I wrote it in about an hour, and it was in print less than two weeks later, with virtually no changes. Either I was good, or they were desperate. Or maybe a little from Column A, a little from Column B. I’ve changed a little bit of it, but not much. Enjoy.

The Girl on the Blue Line

By Bobby Mathews

We were both waiting for the blue-line Metro at King’s Street Station, shivering on the elevated platform in the cold light of a January morning in Washington. The collar of her ratty burnt-orange overcoat was tattered, and her black shoes were run down at heel and toe. Still, her hair was flipped out playfully, and her eyes were a mischievous green. I boarded before her, but she sat down facing me across the narrow aisle.

We looked at one another, but neither of us spoke. She pulled a paperback copy of The Great Gatsby out of a leather knapsack that looked more expensive than all of her clothes. A bent and wrinkled paper coin tube marked her place. She opened the book and began to read. The reading gave me a chance to look her over. Clean, with high cheekbones that showed even in the rattling light of a Metro car. She was in her early twenties, most likely a student at one of the colleges around the capitol. She wore funky socks, black with bright green four-leaf clovers that matched nothing else she wore. As she read, she bit nervously at the tip of her overcoat collar.

I had to raise my voice for her to hear above the rattle and clank of the metro car.

“‘And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’”

She put the book down, face-open, on her lap, and looked at me.

“That’s cheating,” she said. “I never read the last line of a book before I get there.”

“Then how do you know it’s the last line?”

“I’ve read it before.” She closed the book and tucked it back into her backpack. Her nails were professionally shaped and glossy with polish. “Second time through. First time was in high school, and I didn’t understand any of it.”

I nodded.

“What about now?”

“It’s better now. I’m older, and I guess I know what the writer was talking about now.”

The train shuddered to a stop, and we were quiet while other passengers got on and off. Once everyone had settled into their seats, the train was off again, speeding underground now, heading toward the Pentagon.

“Something about lost dreams, wasn’t it?” I said, once we were underway again.

“Something like that. You’ve read the whole thing, right? It’s not just a pickup line?”

“If it is, it never works.” We both laughed at that.

“Gatsby’s the kind of book a girl is supposed to like, I think. You know, Gatsby loves the girl, Daisy. And she loves him, too, although she realizes that he no longer fits into her life. But him, oh boy. Hopeless romantic. He waits for her, and once he’s found her, he thinks he’s found the dream he’s been holding onto for five years.”

“But he hasn’t.”

She looked at me strangely, as if really seeing me for the first time: a strange goateed man in jeans and a navy pea jacket and watch cap. Was there anything particularly untrustworthy about me? For that matter, was there anything particularly trustworthy?

“You really have read it, haven’t you?”

“Sure,” I said. I quoted again. “‘Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or on the wet marshes.’ Reading that probably saved my life a couple of times.”

“Really,” she said. It wasn’t a question, but permission for me to continue. Maybe even a permission to come closer. I rose from my seat across the aisle. There was a moment, when I stood in the middle of the train and saw myself as she must have – looming over her, coming inexorably forward, that she might have screamed. Instead she moved her knapsack to the floor between her feet, and I took its place in the seat.

“This is,” she said, and I saw her try to catch at her breath. “This is unreal. I don’t know a thing about you.”

“I’m Donovan Turley,” I said, taking off my watch cap. Her eyes widened when she saw the uncertain metro light gleam against my shaved head. “I was a Marine. I’m visiting D.C. I read a lot, and I like to talk. Am I making you uncomfortable?”

“No,” she said, but her eyes said something different.

“It’s all right,” I said, gathering myself for the one-step walk of shame back across the aisle. “I can go back to my seat. I didn’t mean to overstep my bounds.”

She put a hand on my knee.

“It’s all right,” she said, and this time when she looked at me I could tell she meant it. Embarrassed, she took her hand off my knee.

She told me her name, and from there, other things came out. She was in a relationship with another student, but that hadn’t worked out. She was a junior majoring in literature, and she hoped to teach college herself one day. She took the metro to class every morning, but today she’d just felt like going in early for some reason.

“I’m glad you did,” I said.

“This is my stop,” she said when the conductor called out George Washington University over the loudspeaker. She bent over to get her bag, but I put my hand on her arm. My fingertips tingled where I touched her.

“Why don’t we go get some coffee?” I asked. “There’s a nice shop in Foggy Bottom. Next stop.”

She hesitated.

“It’s public,” I said. “Lots of people. Just coffee and conversation, I swear.”

The train was slowing to its stop, and she had to make up her mind quickly. Her hands loosened on the straps to the backpack, and she settled back into her seat, a smile breaking over her face like a sunrise breaking over the horizon.

“You know what? I’d love some coffee.” But when the train doors slid closed with a pneumatic rush, she looked at them almost longingly.

We never stopped at Foggy Bottom. The stops sped past while we were deep in conversation, our eyes locked on each other like old lovers who have spent a lifetime apart. The train sped on, and we finally wound up in L’Enfant Plaza and had coffee in the warmth of a small chain shop. I heard more about her unhappy love affair, and about the classes she was taking. Once she warmed up, she was a good talker. I listened for a long time to the unconscious melody of her voice and watched people go by in the blistering cold weather outside the shop.

“You don’t say much, do you?” She finally said.

“Not when I don’t feel the need.” I drank some more coffee, felt the jolt of it as the caffeine hit my system.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m perfectly comfortable. You’re intelligent and funny, and I like to listen to you.”

She smiled and put her hand a little closer to mine on the small glass-topped table. I touched her fingers lightly. She snaked her fingers through mine, and we held hands that way for a little while. Her eyes shone in the dim sunlight that filtered its way through the polarized glass windows of the coffee shop.

Afterward, we went back to the subway station, and I put her on the blue line again, this time headed in the opposite direction, back toward the university. We stood close together outside the turnstiles that led into the metro.

“This was amazing,” she said. “I feel like I could talk to you all day. This was—well—I never expected this. I needed it.”

“Maybe we should do it again,” I said. She gave me her phone number, and I gave her my e-mail address, since I didn’t know what the number to my hotel.

“Would you meet me tonight?” she asked. “I take the metro home, too. You could … you could come in. We could make dinner.”

“I’d like that,” I said, and pulled her to me. Her mouth opened against mine. She tasted faintly of Columbian coffee and raspberry lipstick. Her mouth moved tenderly against mine, like a small, eager butterfly. I kissed her back in the same way. It started off gently, but ended with her body pressing hard against me. I could feel the heat of her through her clothing and mine. I wanted her like a drowning man wants air.

When we finally pulled apart, it was hard to breathe. Her lipstick was smeared, and I was wearing some of it.

“I take the five-thirty blue line,” she said. “Be here. Please. You’ll be here, won’t you?”

“I will,” I said. Then, again, as if to reassure myself I’d spoken. “I will.”

At five-fifteen that afternoon I stepped off the metro tired from a day of touring the museums and memorials and monuments. I had three more days in Washington, but what I was looking forward to most was kissing her again. I hadn’t expected things to work out that way. I was just lonely, ready for a little companionship, and things had worked out better than I’d hoped.

I looked for her on the platform, waiting to see her flipped-out hair and bright green eyes. But she never came. She didn’t make it to the five-thirty blue line, but I wasn’t in a panic. Anyone can be late. I waited for nearly an hour, cheeks freezing and cracking red. And then I waited some more. Finally, I took the blue line back to King’s Station, and walked the six blocks back to my hotel. When I made it, shivering all the while, into my room, I tried the number that she had given me.

It connected me to a recording that gave the time, date, and temperature. I couldn’t tell if my cheeks were burning from the cold, or from embarrassment.

I sat down on the full-sized bed in a cookie-cutter hotel room, one of thousands across the country, and finally realized that, whatever her real name was, she had understood Gatsby pretty damned well.

But she’d understood Daisy even better.


What the Hell is Wrong With You People?

This post is for the writers or others who think that in order to succeed, they must first tear someone else’s success down: What in the hell is wrong with you people? And yes, before anyone else says it:

But I’m being serious here, dammit. Here’s what someone posted to YA author Ellen Oh’s Tumblr account: No on (sic) wants to read your shitty books. I hope you get fucked over by white men as bad as you are fucking them over you slanty eyed whore. (Oh has this account set where anonymous people can leave comments/questions in order to interact with fans. This was, naturally, an anonymous comment.)

I don’t know Ellen Oh at all. Don’t follow her on Twitter, haven’t read any of her books (sorry, Ellen). But you don’t have to know the author to be outraged over something like this. That comment is hateful, racist, and everything that’s wrong with free discourse on the Internet. If you don’t agree, you might want to go ahead and see yourself out the fucking door right now.

Posts like that, though, are part of a larger pattern I’ve begun to observe. I follow and interact with a couple of editors from BookRiot on a pretty regular basis, and looking back through their Twitter feeds, it is AMAZING the amount of racism and sexism they have to put up with on a daily basis. I couldn’t do it. Thankfully, they’re tougher than I am, because they have some really cool insights into 1) the world of publishing; 2) the reasons the publishing industry needs to represent diverse voices. Note that these women aren’t even novelists. They report and opine about the book industry. That’s all.

And yet they’ve been threatened, been told to shut up, been informed that their views aren’t welcome.

Fuck that.

A lot of what I see–especially on Twitter–is white guys telling other races, genders, and sexual orientations to shut up, telling them that they have no right to their voice, saying that their experiences don’t matter, that their writing–their work–should take a seat in the back of the bus.

Fuck that, too.

And when these other voices refuse to be stilled or silenced, suddenly the white guys are offended. That’s when they back away and say “It was just a joke,” or “Oh no, you must have misunderstood me,” or “What do you mean you don’t feel safe because of what I said? What does that have to do with anything?”

Fuck that bullshit, too.

If you are a writer, another writer’s success or failure doesn’t define you. You are not threatened because a person of different race/gender/orientation is writing and publishing in the 21st century. You are not diminished because a writer of another race or gender got published and you didn’t. They didn’t take your spot at the table. You are not entitled to a spot at the table, motherfucker.

You want a spot at the table? Write your own novel. Submit it. Get it published. Or, if you want to be a critic, find something worthwhile to say, build a platform, and say it. Say it publicly. Attach your fucking name to it. I wrote opinion columns for a lot of years, and I put my name (and my photo) with every one of them. You know why? Because I was accountable for what I said. I was (and sometimes still am) a professional fucking writer, and I am responsible for the words which appear under my byline.

I get that white guys (why is it always white guys?) are feeling squeezed out lately. It seems harder and harder to get published. But EVERYONE thinks it’s harder and harder to get published. Those female writers who get signed? They’re good. They’re not part of some dastardly plot to squeeze out white voices. In fact, it’s probably still much harder for minorities to get published.

“There can be a zillion white authors who write [whatever kind of book] but if one marginalized author exists who does it, that’s enough,” YA author Malinda Lo writes on her Twitter account. “It goes like this: Publisher: We already have [name of black author]. We don’t need another one. Other black author … [emphasis mine.] There are also unacknowledged but real quotas, like a publisher will only publish X number of diverse books/authors. (Usually 1 or 2.)”

Again, I get it. White guys are having a harder time getting published. But diversity in publishing isn’t pushing you out. There is still room for you at the table, but you have to earn it. Everyone does. And that may be the key difference: Now unknown white guys may have to struggle a little more than in years past. Things were easier for white writers when the door was very nearly closed to women or people of color. I’ve had those thoughts myself: If only I’d been born in a different time, writing for the pulps or the Gold Medal paperbacks, I might have already published a novel (or series of them) … or I might not have. Who knows?

But all of this new diversity isn’t a danger to me, either as an author, or a reader, or a human being. I’m still a good writer. I still enjoy reading good authors. If you feel that diversity is a danger to you, you might want to look around you, at the people of color, the LGBTQ folks, the differently abled, those scary women … The world is a diverse place. All of those people have a voice. Trying to silence that wave of voices is like trying to hold the ocean back with a fishing net.

It’s an exercise in futility. And it’s wrong.

A Few Words About Talent

I hate it when Chuck Wendig says smart things that I ought to be thinking about. Most recently, he’s written a blog post called The Toxicity of Talent, which makes the argument that talent isn’t even a real thing. Or, if it is, that it matters damn little for most creative people.

And the more I think about it, the more I think he’s right. Talent matters damned little, if at all.

Oh sure, for some people—Mozart, Hemingway, Michelangelo—talent is there. It’s off the charts. But they backed that talent up by working their asses off, too. Yes, they viewed the world in a special, artistic way. They had a natural inclination toward whatever art they gravitated toward. But take Michelangelo for example. He didn’t just carve David the first time he held a hammer and chisel in his hands. He didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel in a day (took him four years!), and he certainly didn’t tackle it the first time he picked up a paintbrush.

I believe in talent.

I believe I’m talented.

I also believe that it doesn’t matter. Or rather, I believe that it hasn’t mattered yet because I haven’t put my ass in the chair and written enough. I. Have. Not. Written. Enough. I haven’t finished the shit that I need to finish in order to be a successful novelist. That’s the bottom line, frankly. It’s one I hate to admit. I’m supposed to be talented, dammit! This shit is supposed to be easier for me. Because talent makes me special! Right?

Right …

Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?

When I was younger, everyone who saw my writing told me how talented I was. I had a reputation, even as a teenager, as a pretty good wordsmith. When you get chosen for “young author’s conferences” and competition English teams, it’s easy to believe you have talent—and that it matters. When you get out in the real world and your professional writing appears on page 1A of newspapers with circulations between 10,000 and 75,000, it’s easy to believe you’re talented—that the world is at your feet as a writer, and that you’re just waiting for your big break.

So you write a shitty novel. And another one. And another. None of them sell. Only one attracts interest from an agent. Maybe you were about to “break through” as you think of it. But you haven’t had to go through the hard times a less “talented” writer has experienced. You get discouraged. You quit writing fiction for years. You think about it. You talk about it. You dream about it.

But thinking about it and talking about it and dreaming about it are not the same things as DOING IT. But it’s easier. It’s safer. Because you don’t have to look at yourself and realize that talent alone is not enough.

I’ve seen writers with less talent than me—writers I’m friends with—get agents and book deals and hit multiple “best of” lists. Those writers weren’t born with some of the natural wordsmithy that I seem to possess, but they have surpassed everything I’ve ever done, because they faced the reality of writing:

The talent that lies in your soul and your head and your heart does not matter if you don’t sit your ass down and WRITE. Talent does not matter unless you finish your shit. Talent erodes like cheap gold filigree if you don’t use it.

I haven’t been using mine. I have to own up to that. But I can change it.

So can you. Sit your ass down in that chair and write, goddamn it. Write.

The Professional

Someone called Jonathan Franzen America’s greatest living novelist the other day, and my immediate thought was that he wouldn’t even make my top 25.

Actually, that’s not true. My immediate thought was that Stephen King spells his name funny nowadays.

OK, that’s not true either. My REAL real reaction was that I didn’t know Cormac McCarthy had died.

Fine, you caught me. In reality, it didn’t faze me much. There are writers who get critical acclaim—writers very few “real” people read. By real people, I mean folks who might work at a real job—as opposed to people who spend the majority of their days navel-gazing and pondering whether Hamlet was really referencing cunnilingus when he asked Ophelia if she thought he meant “country matters.” (For the record, he was totes referencing cunnilingus. Also, cunnilingus is fairly fun to type. Well, not just type.)

But for me, the real writers are the guys who are doing the work, and sometimes in near obscurity. No one really remembers Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho and about a dozen other horror or suspense-type novels. He also penned one of the best short-story collections I’ve ever read: Out of the Mouths of Graves. Bloch’s short stories were often very short, and they punched the reader hard right from the get-go. There’s a story in the aforementioned collection that will leave goosebumps crawling on your flesh for a couple of weeks. And then you’ll forget it, until one night when you’ll have to get up in the middle of the night to take a little bathroom break. And then that story will come slithering back in all its glory to paint your skin in gooseflesh again.

Writers like Bloch, many of them beginning their work in the middle of the last century, hold a special place in my heart. I often think I was born in the wrong time period. I would be perfectly happy stopping by the newsstand and spending a nickel (or maybe as much as a quarter) on All-Story, or a copy of Manhunt, or Weird Tales. It was a simpler time, when a guy with talent and a drive to make it as a writer could live in a Greenwich Village apartment for the princely sum of about $65 a month.

But to talk about that author, we’ve got to move on from where Robert Bloch plied his trade, all the way to a completely different block. Lawrence Block, actually. (Yes, that was a horrendous joke. Yes, I’m leaving it in here. I found it funny.)

Lawrence Block writes like Rolex makes watches. I mean, that’s it. That’s the whole thing. Every piece fits. Every word is chosen well. If anything, reading a Lawrence Block novel (or short story, which I’ll get to in a minute), is kind of like watching a master mason build something. A brick here, a brick there, everything fitted together perfectly, and suddenly, there’s the novel. Part of it is experience, at this point. Block has been writing longer than I’ve been alive. He knows what a story is supposed to be. He knows how to make those words deliver. He’s done at least four successful series characters: Matthew Scudder, whom you may have seen impersonating Liam Neeson in the film adaptation of A Walk Among the Tombstones; Evan Tanner, a a spy (for lack of a better term) who can’t sleep as a result of a war injury; gentleman thief Bernie Rhodenbarr; and the stamp-collecting hitman, Keller.

Do you know how hard it is to write ONE successful series? Four … that’s so awesome, it’s ridiculous.

But here’s the thing I really love about Block: he’s the ultimate professional, in a business crawling with amateurs. (Hell, I’m one of those amateurs.) Block’s purpose seems to be to write entertaining, smart, and sometimes funny fiction—and get paid for it. That last part is important, if you want to be a professional writer. Getting paid is the point. Or at least one of the most salient points.

In the nearly 50 years since Block began his career, I wonder how many novels he’s written “on spec,” as we amateurs do it. Very few, I would imagine. And in those years, he’s written a lot of damned fine fiction.

(And so, Bobby finally gets to the point.)

I’m trying to catch up on Block’s backlist. I was browsing the other day when I came across a short story collection of his called One Night Stands and Lost Weekends, showcasing Block’s early short fiction work. The stories were the kind banged out over the course of a single night, and sold to publications that paid, at most, a nickel a word. But here’s the thing: those stories, written as if the typewriter were on fire, did sell. That’s the point. I bought the collection yesterday morning, and I’m about halfway through with it already. Let me tell you: Lawrence Block had the stuff, right from the very beginning. Reading this collection is like getting a crash course in story. There are neat tricks and turns in this book. Many of them I see coming. Some of them, I don’t. And when those hit me, I’m always pleasantly surprised, and a little chilled, too.

Lawrence Block isn’t ever going to be a National Book Award winner. He’s never going to win the Pulitzer or Nobel. (Their loss, more than his, quite frankly.) I wouldn’t say he’s “America’s greatest living novelist” (but he’d be in my top 25, easy). But what he does—and what other writers like him do—is point the way for those of us who want to be professionals at the craft of fiction. Any writer who understands that craft is as important as inspiration, who knows that you can’t write the goddamn book without sitting your ass down and WRITING THE GODDAMN BOOK, can learn something from Larry Block.

He’s a pro’s pro. A prose pro, even. (And yes, I hate myself a little for that joke.) Lawrence Block is what I aspire to be—a true professional.

On the wrong side of history. Again.

I love my state. Let me get that out of the way right now. Call it Alabama the Beautiful, or Sweet Home Alabama, or whatever you want to say. I love the land, from its piney woods to its rolling hills, to the Tennessee Valley, all the way down to its beautiful beaches.

I love the people. They’re a beautiful stew pot of rednecks, entrepreneurs, doctors, farmers, lawyers, writers, artists, layabouts and lunatics. I left for awhile, and I couldn’t wait to get back.

Alabama is my home. And yet.

And yet.

For a place that values its history as much as Alabama does, we sure do end up on the wrong side of things an awful lot of the time. We were on the wrong side of slavery. We left the former slaves in poverty and ignorance. We denied minorities the right to vote. We were on the wrong side of segregation. As recently as 2013, we tried to legislate nearly all of the Hispanics out of the state.

And now, we’re on the wrong side of history. Again.

A federal judge has stricken down Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban, and people here are aghast. How dare we let gays get married? Come on. Making a mockery of your wedding vows should be a right only heterosexual people have! Probate judges have refused to comply with the judge’s order, and Alabama’s moronic chief justice, Roy Moore, has said he will not abide by the judge’s ruling.

(Good luck with that, Roy. You were already removed from office once for failing to follow orders from a federal judge. Let’s see if we can’t make it twice in a row.)

Right now, the judge who struck the law has put a stay on her order to give the state a chance to appeal her ruling. Everyone from the governor to Moore has said they plan to fight this ruling. God forbid we extend equal protection under the law to everyone. Certainly we should never allow a minority to have the same rights as a “normal” person.

I see friends of mine—good people, people I’ve known and loved for a long time—who are upset by this. And I don’t understand it. Frankly, I don’t want to understand it, because at the core of their anger and disappointment is the same fear and bigotry that allowed a man to plant a bomb in a Birmingham church. It’s the same desolation of spirit that allowed protesters to be beaten and killed in Selma during the Civil Rights era.

You can count on Alabama to get it wrong when it matters. You can count on the Yellowhammer State, the Heart of Dixie, to find the worst position on any social issue, and dig in our heels. We find honor in being wrong, and we take pride in having our nose rubbed in the dirt of our wrong-headedness. We will do the right thing, but only if forced to do so. The worst thing of all is that we know we’re wrong about marriage equality. All we have to do is look at our history. We were wrong on slavery. We were wrong on segregation. We were wrong on Civil Rights. We were wrong on the 2013 immigration bill. And we’re wrong now.

I pray one day Alabama will finally get something right. I hope one day we can actually extend civil rights to a minority, and it won’t be a big deal. Maybe you hope for that, too. But don’t hold your breath.

What It’s Like to Write While Having Kids

I’m trying to set aside some time on the weekends to get my blog writing done for the week. This weekend, however, was a complete and utter shitshow. Every time I approached the keyboard, it seemed like some little thing was nagging at me, and as a consequence, I got absolutely nothing done. It led to a lot of (unvoiced) frustration on my part.

This is the writing life with kids. I remember back in my salad days, when I was green in judgment* … I thought I had all the time in the world to write. And so I didn’t. I let wonderful ideas slip past me like they were Ronaldo, and I was the world’s worst goalkeeper.

Soccer. Because I want to be relevant to the kids today, dammit!

But there’s always an excuse. There’s always some distraction. Saturday it was the kids. Sunday it was rearranging/redecorating the bedroom. And the kids. (Oddly enough, redecorating is one of those weird words that I know how to spell, but can barely type coherently. I don’t know why. My fingers just sort of flip out when it comes to the word, slapping down different vowels and consonants in some sort of gibbersih.

This. This right here. That’s what my fingers do when I try to type “redecorating.”

Anyway, back to the writing. I mean, that’s what you’re here for, right? To watch (OK, read) me complain about not writing, right? Here’s what it boils down to: the kids. There are two of them. One is 3-and-a-half. The other is approaching five months old and still doesn’t sleep through the night. They’re tiring. No, that’s not true. They’re exhausting. They’re needy. I remember being single (or newly married) and not understanding why my friends with kids never did anything. It’s because of the kids, man.

They need diaper changes, clothing changes, spit-up cleaned, food to eat (and or with which to redecorate the kitchen), naps (oh God, please take a nap), playtime, movies, puzzles, (please take another nap!) and on and on ad infinitum. It doesn’t end. I’ve never laughed louder than when I realized that we’re raising a pair of tiny little terrorists. And we by God WILL negotiate with these terrorists, if they’ll just give us a little more sleep.

It turns out that we WILL negotiate with terrorists, if they’ll just take a fucking nap already.

So let’s just be kind and say that all of the writing I meant to do for this week went by the wayside over this weekend. I’m sorry. Maybe it’ll pick back up by the time the kids are in college. Check back in 18 years.

*Shakespeare reference. I’m literary, dammit!

How Not to Market Your Novel, Part 1

It’s a lonely, sad world out there for a self-published author. Once you’ve completed your book (and hopefully had it edited by a professional), you’ve gotta market that sucker. But what the hell do you know about marketing, right? For goodness’ sake, you’re lucky to have that English (or communications) degree. Maybe you even found a—gasp—career! I mean, it can happen, I swear.

But because you have no idea how to market your work, you’re going to screw it up. That’s a given. But hopefully you’re not going to be as invasive or weird as this one guy was to me over the weekend.

(Editor’s note: I’m not going to name the author, for reasons that will become clear momentarily.)

I was perusing Facebook the other day (like you do), when a message popped up from someone I don’t know. This person sent me a link to Amazon for their self-published novel, and then just in case I didn’t want to purchase the novel through Amazon, also sent me a link to the book’s Smashwords page.

Let me make sure you realize: I’ve never met, nor interacted with in any form, this writer. He’s not my friend—not even an internet friend. He’s not on my friends list. He had to spend $1 to message me and have it go directly into my mailbox. He didn’t even say hi. Just sent me a pair of links. Not a pair of lynx, because that would’ve been kind of neat. (And a hell of a trick over the Internet, too.) I’m a bit weirded out. I’ve no idea how this guy got my info, nor why he would waste money directly messaging me on FB. And his novel? It’s an homage to Robert B. Parker and John D. MacDonald’s greatest creations. In other words, he’s ripping off someone else’s work. Am I the only one who thinks this is completely weird? Dude spent a buck to market directly to me, and it was a completely wasted dollar.

(Another editor’s note: See? If this guy can find out authors I enjoy and figure out how to direct a message into my FB inbox, I’m DEFINITELY not naming him. He might show up at my house.)

I recognize the need to market your novel(s) if you’re self-publishing your work. But there are way to go about it that won’t weird out your potential sales. Directly messaging someone on FB is NOT the way to go about that. It’s incredibly invasive and, frankly, a little more than borderline creepy. (FYI: do not do Google image searches for “creepy gifs”. I should have known better.)

Directly messaging people on Twitter is not the way to go about that, either, for the record. You can shout “BUY MY BOOK” from the rooftops if you want, but most people are going to ignore you. What else do you bring to the table? Do you interact with your potential audience? Do you come off as a human being or as a marketing machine? More and more, marketing is a two-way street, where you have to have something to offer other than just, well, a book.

If that’s all you have, give up now. You’ll at least save yourself a buck for those direct FB messages.

Now I’m curious: Has this ever happened to any of you? What was your reaction? And, of course, feel free to chime in with horrible book marketing stories of your own.

Starting the New Year with a ‘Flash Bang’ by Kellen Burden

There are books you read where you put it down and think, “Whoa. Where did that come from?” Kellen Burden’s debut novel, Flash Bang, is that kind of book.

From the description:

Sebastian Parks is drowning in a flood of his own creation. Dishonorably discharged from the Army, he’s wracked with night terrors and an anger that he can’t abate. Unemployable and uninterested in anything resembling a normal job, Parks makes his living in fugitive apprehension, finding wanted felons on Facebook and thumping them into custody with his ex-military buddies John Harkin and Eric “Etch” Echevarria. When the body of a teenage Muslim boy is found in front of a downtown Denver nightclub Parks, Harkin and Etch are called on to do what they do best:
Find bad men and make them pay.

Sounds like just another crime novel, doesn’t it? When I nabbed it through Kindle Unlimited, my thought was that I’d spend a few hours going through a kind of by-the-numbers detective/crime novel. However, I got a lot more than I bargained for. Burden tells the story of Sebastian Parks, a down-and-almost-out soldier who can’t find real work due to a dishonorable discharge. Parks and his associates, Harkin and Etch, are all suffering from post traumatic stress disorder to one degree or another, and that was the first thing that stood out to me about this novel.

I don’t know how he knows, but Burden has the language, description, and absolute balls to show what PTSD is really like—how it affects survivors of trauma in everyday situations and relationships all the time. If fiction really is about finding the truth inside the lie, Kellen Burden has done that here. It is pretty awe-inspiring, and intense to read.

Another thing that struck me as true: The “homo, no homo” humor between the veterans. I’ve seen enough of it to understand that the language they use isn’t anti-LGBTQ—it’s just how some guys who have laid their ass on the line for one another end up talking to each other. You love and depend on one another, but you don’t articulate it—or if you do, it’s couched in homosexual sugar-talk. But never say a serious thing about how much someone means to you. That’d be against the rules for guys like Parks and his crew.

I often see authors discuss verb choices, and how beginning writers often need to punch up their action. That’s not the case here. Every word seems crafted, designed to deliver punch after punch after punch until you’re exhausted and beaten down with the sheer brilliance of the thing.

There are few books that I think “Everyone should read this,” but Flash Bang is one of them. I want to stand on street corners and hand copies out to people. That’s how damned good this book is.

A few words about the author and publisher:

One of the reasons I’m blown away by this book is that Burden is YOUNG—early to mid-20s, I’d say. He shouldn’t know the things he knows at his age. Or, at least, he shouldn’t be able to articulate them the way he does. But he can, and that’s a rare brilliance. I’m jealous as hell. He’s a far better writer than I was at his age. Hell, he’s a far better writer than I am now, and that makes me hate him a little bit. But it doesn’t make me hate him enough to skip his next book. This guy is GOOD.

Flash Bang was published independently, and I don’t know what to make of that. The book received an honorable mention in the 2014 Los Angeles Book Festival, and was a nominee for the Global Ebook Awards. This novel is OBVIOUSLY good enough to be a ‘Big Six’ novel. It would have gotten more press, been given wide release. If a writer this good can’t get a book deal—or chooses not to—what does that say about the rest of us who are struggling to find that brass ring?

I give Flash Bang my highest recommendation. It was easily the best novel I read in 2014. Buy it here.

Book Review: The Rented Mule by Bobby Cole

Look, I’m just going to admit it: The Rented Mule by Bobby Cole made me tap out. It made me quit.

It was so bad that I stopped reading it. Shut it down for good, returned it on the Amazon Kindle Unlimited platform in order to get something—anything—else. In my entire life, I’ve had only one other book make me stop reading it and put it away, never to come back.

I’d say the characters were cardboard, but that would be an insult to liquor boxes everywhere. I’d say the dialogue was inane drivel that failed to move the story forward, and that would be true. I’d say that there was more “telling” than “showing” and that would be true, too. There might be a really good novel buried somewhere in the 502 obnoxious (and just plain noxious) pages of The Rented Mule, but Bobby Cole is not the writer who can bring it out.

So that’s it. I’m done with it, after nearly 300 pages. I don’t care enough how it turns out. I don’t want to invest any more of my time on a bad book. I’m 43 years old, and I love to read. But as I get older, I have to have some sort of return on the investment of my time. The best novels make me think, expand my worldview in some way, or at least challenge my assumptions.

Entertainment is the lowest bar. Of course the story should be entertaining. And well-told. That’s basic. If you fail at that, you really have nothing left to offer, and I’m going to stop. Just stop. As far as The Rented Mule goes, I’m reminded of the Christopher Hitchens quote: “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”

I had high hopes for this book. An interesting premise, and a Southern writer who Amazon compared to Elmore Leonard. Well, folks: Amazon lies. While I was rooting for Cole to get this book on track (if for no other reasons than he’s an Alabama native and we share a rockin’ first name.), he just couldn’t pull it off. Whoever agreed to publish this tripe ought to be fired. (And possibly drawn and quartered. At the very least, they oughta bring back the rack for this offender.)

Published by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint, this book is lower than the stuff a lot of quality “indie” writers are putting out these days. Horrendous. Avoid at all costs.

Book review: Murder on Lovers’ Lane by Paula Graves

I bought my friend* Paula Graves’ novella, Murder on Lovers’ Lane, recently. It’s an “indie” novel, but Paula’s published multiple novels with Harlequin Intrigue. So what I’m saying here is that yes, this is an “indie” book, but Paula is a pro, and it’s obvious in several ways that you’re reading someone who isn’t just your ordinary “indie” writer.

Murder on Lovers’ Lane is partner romance—two cops thrown together because no one else really fits with them—of a type we’ve seen before, so Graves isn’t breaking any new ground here. In fact, one of the key audiences for Lovers’ Lane is the TV show Castle. As a big fan of Castle, I was looking forward to reading the book.

Cops Hannigan and Brody go back to college in order to find a serial killer who’s preying on amorous students. They find him—or he finds them—and hey, a new series is born. I’ve said Graves isn’t breaking new ground, but she doesn’t really need to. As long as she’s writing engaging characters (and she is) with logically built stories (and it’s mostly there), this can be a successful series.

A couple of things that make Graves’ work stand out: It’s clean. Even in the best “indie” books, there are typos or misspellings or just flat-out horrid syntax. There’s none of that here. The story comes out smooth and whole, and I think most readers’ complaints will be that the story feels a bit too short. I’d agree with that to an extent. I think Hannigan and Brody probably deserve a larger canvas on which to play.

I can see the comparisons to Castle, and I think they’re apt. You have two people here who adore one another, who are fighting against their attraction with everything they have, even though it’s a losing battle. There’s no doubt that Graves can tell an intriguing story, and I think the characters are worth exploring more from a reader’s standpoint.

My quibbles: I believe in Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker, who each believed in using no other word than “said” to carry dialogue. Other dialogue tags catch too much in my ear now. Graves is a gifted writer, and I’d love to see her be confident enough to let the dialogue stand on its own, without trying to help it out with overblown verbs.

Also. telling the reader that Brody has a “perfect, perfect face” a couple of times throughout the book didn’t do much for me, either.

But other than that? The novella is good, a light romance/suspense story that’s worth spending a little time with. I especially appreciated the creepy American lit professor and her banter with both main characters. At 99 cents right now, Murder on Lovers’ Lane is worth picking up. If I were the kind of guy who gave star ratings, I’d drop 3.5 out of 5 on this one. It’s enough to make me want to see what else Paula Graves has written.

*I want to point out that I bought my own copy of the book, and that regardless of whether I’m friends with an author, my reviews are 100 percent my opinion, whether for good or bad, and I try not to pull any punches.