Danger Zone (Delta Force Echo: An Iniquus Aciton Adventure Romance Book 2)

Smart, sexy, and fast, Fiona Quinn’s Danger Zone is thrillride from start to finish. The second in a series, Danger Zone (Delta Force Echo: An Iniquus Action Adventure Romance Book 2) is the first of Quinn’s books I’ve read. So, let’s address the big question right out the gate, the first book is not required reading to follow the action here. There are references that I presume to be reachbacks to the previous book but nothing that impedes the story or detracts from the action or the plot. 

With that stated, I promise that after you fly through these whipcrack-smart 297 pages—if not before—you’ll buy the first book in the series. I bought book one somewhere around page 50 of book two. Delta Force Echo is that much fun to hang out with. Quinn’s writing is that good. 

Our guide in this rough-and-tumble world is Remi Taleb, a veteran war correspondent. Her explosive exposé on special forces operators resulted in criminal charges and a prestigious award. By dint of the award, Remi narrowly dodges an ambush in which three of her colleagues were taken. 

When her editor proposes an assignment to follow a U.S. senator on a feel-good mission, in pursuit of a feel-good story, Remi sees a chance to get to Beirut and report on her fellow journalists. She could not anticipate the perils of a feel-good trip, though.

With a spot in Senator Blakenship’s entourage, Remi is thrown together with Blankenship’s security detail, Delta Force Echo, led by T-Rex Landry. Mature and confident without the luxury of egotism, T-Rex has immersed himself into his work after the death of his wife. While initially concerned that Remi will be another variable in his assignment, T-Rex quickly sees that she is a professional in her own right and develops respect for her. 

Their attraction is mutual and builds with the challenges they face. And the challenges stack up quick. Quinn’s finger is on the pulse of global tension from ISIS brides to the world-wide war on the press to Havana Syndrome and Delta Force Echo faces multiple challenges to keep the senator safe from external threats even as the senator’s behavior baffles both her security detail and Remi.

The action is punch-in-the-face real. To paraphrase a line from a recent movie, Remi and T-Rex have to take ibuprofen after they fight. It’s impossible not to admire that kind of honesty and responsibility in an actioner. 

It’s also impossible not to fall in love with Remi. Intelligent, experienced, and capable, she knows her strengths, and she knows her limits. When pinned in a closed space, Remi relies on her wits instead of her very clever weapons. But when backed against a wall by a frenzied mob, she fights her way free. 

T-Rex is also highly capable as you would expect but never prone to swaggering bluster. From pained personal experience many special operators are aloof, bordering on arrogant. But T-Rex is an adult and knows just how quickly all the best-laid plans fall to highly motivated cat’s paws and/or institutional hubris. T-Rex is no chest-thumper, bellowing that “he’s in charge.” It’s understood in his quiet competence and conduct.

After crafting two strong, compelling characters, Quinn would be forgiven if the remainder of her characters were simply names with “housekeeping” dialogue to move the plot along. Instead we get insight through these individuals and their fully-formed depictions. What separates Blakenship’s depiction from caricature is that she, (like most Texas politicians) is in on the gag.  

On a point near and dear to my villainous heart, Quinn staffs her story with a diverse cast of cultures and ethnicities—a big deal in a crossover of two genres known for their stark-white ensembles and limited representation.

Quin also knows when to let her characters take a punch. The final act is harrowing and knocks our heroes back on their heels. Yet as scuffed-knuckles honest as the violence is, it never descends to obscenity.
There is so much to love in Danger Zone. The budding relationship is a delight of stolen looks and stolen kisses. The flirtation between Remi and T-Rex is delicious. The commentary is oh-so relevant and the action is spot-on punctuation. In short, Danger Zone (Delta Force Echo: An Iniquus Action Adventure Romance Book 2) is a blast. I can’t wait to read the first book and I look forward to the next.

The photo at the top, is of and by yours truly.

Art and (Societal) Attitudes

Like most western civilizations, the Romans styled themselves after the Greeks. True, the Roman Republic only bore a passing resemblance to Athenian democracy just as Jupiter represented a poor translation of Zeus. Mostly, the Romans saw themselves as torch bearers of Hellenistic tradition. 

You can see it in the 380 BCE reproduction of the Greek classic Weary Hercules, (see the photo above). Open, confident in their power, Roman art reflected Roman national aspirations. Unable to produce free-standing statuary like their Greek predecessors, Rome’s Herakles Farnese leans on solid pragmatic stone, like Rome itself. 

Three-hundred-years latter, Augustus said “I found Rome a city of bricks but left it a city of marble.” But Augustus’ portrait was rendered in marble by Greek sculptors. Like Caesar’s empire, Rome’s artwork relied on immigrants to get the job done.

As Rome matured so did its artists. A bust of Cicero, (c. 1st century BCE) reflects Roman reverence for wisdom and character over vanity. Those values are represented in the senator’s furrowed brow and unadulterated hairline, his prominent second chin and deeply lined cheeks. This is the man who spoke truth to drunken power and lost his head for it.

But by the 1st century CE—100 scant years—Romans had forsaken the republic for a dictatorship and vanity mattered. By the time of his death, Augustus was depicted as a war leader, complete with full hairline, a thick chest and broad shoulders. Nice calves too. This tradition would continue for the next 200 years.

But by the 4th century CE, Rome’s reach had fully exceeded its grasp. Fracture and failing, Roman tyrants were defensive, petty, and fearful. They were trapped in what Frank Herbert called “siege mentality.” All rendered in The Four Tetrarchs. More an assault on sensibility than artwork, the four represent a dynasty in shocking decline. 

The features (what remains after centuries and vandalism) are rough and uniform. The limbs are stunted and disproportionate, cartoonish. Rather than individual likeness, the four look the same. It would be another 1000 years before Italian sculpture would experience a renaissance, literally, and return to representation of life instead of fearful propaganda.

The lesson for writers is in representation. Popular mediums—how cultures feed into and off of each other—provide insight to societal values, norms, and/or where the collective “head” is. When building your world, whether it be a star-flung civilization, historical hamlet, or a period potboiler, don’t neglect the people’s aspirations, their goals, their heroes, and above all else, how they see themselves. Art, historic masterpieces or local conceptualists is an immediate, visceral primmer. 

The photos, top to bottom:

Herakles Farnese, by Marie-Lan Nguyen, (via Creative Commons)

Augustus of Prima Porta by Till Niermann, (via Creative Commons)

Bust of Cicero, by José Luiz, (via Creative Commons)

The Four Tetrarchs, by Nino Barbieri, (via Creative Commons)

Review—Old Man Winter: Heavenly Gates

Michael Cook’s Old Man: Winter Heavenly Gates, begins with a murder. An old fashioned Columbo-style murder. Yes, yes I stand by that analogy. Cook’s story is set in 1974, after all. 

However, the scope quickly expands as the death count mounts. 

Based on isolated actual events, OMW tracks the proto-investigation of murders dating back 50 years, as stumbled upon by newly-minted detective Penelope “Penny” Bryce. If this sounds similar to Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs, that is a healthy comparison. But where Harris takes the modern interstate to his destination, Cook takes the back alley.

The first female detective in the Philadelphia Police Department, (and that as the result of a lawsuit) Penny is snubbed by her own commander and suffers hazing at the hands of her fellow detectives, except for Frank Bruno. Frank, emotionally crippled by grief, sees professional enthusiasm and strong instincts for the job in Penny and takes the rookie detective under his wing. 

Cook’s brilliance is in the tone of the time. In the first pages Cook gives the reader a nose full of antiquated attitudes as potent as the distinct smell of the cold northeast winter. More than “just the way it was,” the attitudes are all the more jarring once you realize that this is what women still face, today. Then there is the technology or lack thereof. Penny and Frank dance a cat-and-mouse tune through snowbound cars (with windows off of their crank-up track) and steam-heat-musty offices. 

As they begin to suspect they’re actually after a serial killer, (still new terminology in ‘74) Frank turns to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. But the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit is barely two-years old. While Thomas Harris’ FBI (Clarice Starling, Will Graham, and Jack Crawfored) are highly skilled, motivated, and boy-scout capable, Cook’s FBI, especially agents in the BSU, are tentative and still finding their way.

We’ve become so accustomed to crime scene investigations through movies, television, and books, it’s easy to forget that actual scientific investigation, like the BSU, was in its infancy. DNA would not be used for another 12 years. So, following Penny and Frank as they leg-work this investigation only adds to the suspense. However it is apparent early on this isn’t a police procedural. Contrary to the cover, it’s not quite a psychological thriller, either. What OMW is then is a mystery of perception and a test of faith.

Which brings us to our killer. I won’t spoil the ending here, obviously. Suffice to say, the clues are there from the beginning, marking our path like a map to the eventual reveal. And an unsettling conclusion.

Those who enjoy a good who-done-it but have a low gore point will love OMW. Cook writes against most established tropes. The Columbo analogy really does stand up in this regard. There is no graphic violence, no sexual violence, no misogyny and only passing reference to a murdered child. Check out Old Man Winter Heaven’s Gate, here.

The photo above, “Me at Too-Early-in-the-Morning,” is by yours truly.

What’s in a Name? DRAMA!

“I don’t like the city,” she said, taking a long drag from a cigarette before chasing it with a sip of liquor.

The nameless man looked from the remnants in his near-empty cup and out of the dingy window, over the anonymous city. He thought, if he tried, he could see metaphor river and then ambiguous valley beyond. Finally, he replied, “Me neither but I can’t find any other place to set this clichéd exchange.”

Most of us have read pieces like this, if not in crit groups, then from the dreaded experimental novel the cool kids insist we MUST read. Granted, the bit above is written to be an argument to the absurd. The point is names—people, places, products—have power.

Granted, brilliance has sprung from the use of nameless entities, chiefly Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. There is no better demonstration of struggle faced by men of color, powerless and ultimately nameless, in white America. Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing extends the struggle of all women immersed, (puns, you think, until you read the book) by men. There is no greater use of stripped identity than Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s nameless protag in The Yellow Wallpaper.

Sadly, not every use, even by a master of prose, is a success. Graham Greene’s use of a nameless protagonist in The Power reads distinctly like a device, a blunt device at that. We don’t need the protag’s name in Philip Roth’s Everyman. The central character in this dirge for malcontented man-children everywhere, is a whiner. It’s what he does, it’s who he is.  

So, no, geniuses don’t need names. Nor do they require plots or even structures. Punctuation may even be more hindrance than help. Of course Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Valeria Luiselli, and (the late) William S. Burroughs may have my share of all the genius, (along with what I am sure is the headaches that goes with it) in exchange for the gifts of their mind-altering prose.

For the rest of us, names are something to hang our hat on, a handle on who the character is and what they’re about.

You can say “she played like a rock god,” or give us focus on the visual. “Channeling Jimi Hendrix, Diedra  slung undulating cords from a Stratocaster, strung upside-down for a left-handed prodigy.” Or, if he’s right-handed, “Tiny, pacing and prowling the stage, ran a Bonnie Raitt slow-grind down the Telecaster fretboard.”  

Those names are evocative for Rock n’ Roll fans while still imparting tangible mystery to those not familiar with either artist (or guitar model). But, of course, the writer has to be familiar with the names he checks for comparison. There’s a HUGE difference between “Casey swung the bat like a young Reggie Jackson,” and “Casey pummelled the ball like Barry Bonds at the height of his power.” Reggie evokes an idea of uncommon achievement while Barry evokes an asterisk beside his stats.

So, sure, names—people, places, things—do a lot of heavy-lifting in your story. Names pack drama and shadowing. It can be subtle, or not. Arthur Miller showed you Willy Loman’s place in life by his name. John Proctor (while historically established) is also a name that insists on meaning. What were the Salem witch trials, (or the latter-day “trials” of HUAC that Miller’s Crucible stood in for) if not a test of our humanity?

Places are slightly different. You don’t have to name a place with an expressed purpose or agenda. Sometimes you shoot a man in Reno just because the name reads “cool.” Sure, you can be edgy and mysterious with your place setting but you can be mundane, too. Let’s say, you’re a dishwasher and some-times line cook on the night shift at a north Texas diner, anyplace else is magical—Reseda, California or Calumet, Illinois or Baltimore, Maryland.

It’s understood

By every single person

Who’d be elsewhere if they could

Neal Peart, Middletown Dreams

When I was washing dishes—I mean when that guy was washing dishes in north-Texas, he dreamed of a life in Chicago or San Francisco or Boston even though he had never been to any of those places outside the covers of a book. That is the magic in place names. NEVER miss the chance to transport someone somewhere else by simply naming a place.

However, just like with people names, you must, you must, MUST, know your reference. Places can be just as subtle or packed/loaded as people. In the 70s the city of Detroit was a punchline, (mostly among racist white people). In the 80s it was an entire state: New Jersey. Any city in the south can be evocative. But Walter Mosley shines otherworldly light on Galveston and Port Arthur, Texas. James Lee Burke did the same for the state of Louisiana.

Then there is the risk of overdoing it. Horatio Hornblower was written in 1937 by a Brit. But even among the Brits, you’re more likely to see a “proper christian name” harnessed to an “exoitc” surname i.e. John Hornblower or Paul Hornblower or George Hornblower but never Ringo Hornblower. Or an evocative first name hitched to a common surman, think Horatio Davis, Horatio Smith, or Horatio Jones. 

I’m also a fan of naming products for effect—if the woman above is smoking a Marlboro and sipping Jack Daniels, (as opposed to puffing on a Virginia Slim and sipping merlot) you know she’s nothing to play with. Again, it’s easy to overplay the gag. “Remy buffed his Bruno Magli shoes to a high shine, before pairing them with a Hugo Boss suit, a Portofino shirt, and a Versace tie. Of course he would take the Maserati to meet Cher at Spagos…”

Remy might be a pediatric oncologist, treating orphans in Soweto but after reading that bit I’m rooting for this cat to catch a bullet—and I just wrote him. The lesson, I hope, is a little brand-name-checking goes a long way. 

So, let’s try this again.

“I don’t like Miami,” Sylvie Vaughn said, taking a long drag from a long cigarette before chasing it with a sip of Courvoisier.

Edward Breda looked from the remnant coffee in his near-empty cup and out of the dingy window, over the skyline of Brickell. He thought, if he tried, he could see boat lights on the water and Virginia Key beyond. Finally, he replied, “Me neither but I can’t find any other place to meet you where we won’t draw attention.” 

The image at the top is, the Anonymous Flag emblem, is in the public domain and is used here for illustrative and educational purposes. The lyrics are from Middletown Dreams, written by Neal Peart, Geddy Lee, and Alex Lifeson and is copyrighted and belongs to Rush. The lyrics are used here for educational and life-sustaining purposes only, and is covered by the Fair Use Doctrine.

Scribble Siblings Must Stick Together

The following is from a 2017 Facebook post.

I follow writers. I support other writers—horror, cozy, xian, erotica, space opera, horse opera—genre doesn’t matter. Only writing and support matters. Pithy platitudes and self-promotion isn’t support. If you don’t interact with writers, if you don’t support writers—I don’t follow you.

Yeah, I rode that high-horse right into the dirt. Thing is, I had just dealt with a spat of writers who were BIG on building “followers,” and pitch-posting but did little/no interaction with other writers. It smacked of pimpery and it offended the sh—tuff out of me. Fast forward four years and my rant reads a tad childish.

Week-before-last I posted a piece on self-publishing. It was more whistling-past-the-graveyard novena than chest-thumping manifesto but a couple of days later I received a message from Michael Cook. He shared his self-publishing journey with me. He encouraged me to stay true to my vision. He supported a fellow book-brother.

Mana from heaven is a cliché but it’s also what words of encouragement are. Yeah, yeah, writers work in solitude. I get it, I have more hangups than a robo-dialer. Still, we live for those words of encouragement, whether it be hand-scribbled crit notes or that first Amazon review or just another writer saying, “hang tough, you got this,” those words sustain us.

So, I’ll be reading Michael’s book Old Man Winter, (you can find it here) and I’ll be posting my review. Scribble siblings have to stick together. We have to make room for each other at the table. After all, the same ink runs through our veins.

The illustration at the top is by the late-great Charles Addams. I do not own the photo or know who took the photo. It is used here for the purpose emphasis and covered under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Every Obstacle, an Opportunity

When I can’t work on my long fiction, I use short exercises to keep my characters’ voice fresh in my head. This is a short piece I noodled around with last week. After all the cold/hard publishing business posts, it just seemed right to publish this piece as a reminder (to myself) of what the whole point is.

Sean watched the night sky for Coast Guard planes while fighting the need for a cigarette. The smell of brine, high-octane fuel, and who-knew-what else filled his nose and did nothing for his nausea. He gripped the flaking, corroded top hatch of the old Grumman. 

A bobbing beam from the penlight in Memo’s teeth oscillated across the open left-engine cowl. Memo said the swells were only half-a-foot, maybe a foot. Only—like that did anything for Sean’s churning gut. 

Thirty-million-dollars in cocaine, Sean thought, and the geniuses trusted transport to a thirty-year-old-Alaskan-Freight seaplane

“What about now?” Weyland, the pilot, called from inside the rung out old wreck. 

The weak light flashed and Memo called back. “Nada.”

How can I be this damn nauseous and still need a smoke this damn bad? 

Light flashed on the western horizon and then disappeared. “We got movement.”

“¿Que?” Memo asked from the engine.

We’re way too far from our drop point for it to be the trawler.

“What?” Weyland said, popping up through the hatch. Even in the weak-beam flashlight lumination, worry played across his normally open, amiable face.

“I got movement on the west,” Sean said. 

Puede ser un barco de pesca,” Memo said. 

“Maybe a fishing boat,” Sean said. “Maybe a Coast Guard patrol boat out of Port Aransas.”

Mierda,” Memo said.

“How much longer to prime that pump and get this crate in the air?” Sean asked.

Weyland shrugged. “Could be seven minutes, could be another hour.”

Sean bellied down on the bobbing fuselage. “Get back inside and keep running that line. Memo, mata la luce.”

He counted for what seemed like a year and then the light flashed again. Maybe brighter? Then it disappeared. But an engine hum replaced it. 

Small. Most likely a skiff attached to a patrol boat. 

In less than two minutes, the light flashed again, disappeared and then flashed again. Definitely closer. The light and the hum carried over the water, painfully closer. 

Sean turned and shimmied back to the hatch. “Memo, entra y ejecutar la linea de gas.”

Si, jefe.” Memo crawled up the wing to the fuselage.

Sean called into the hatch. “Weyland, get up here and bring the fuel-pump assembly bag.”

“You just told me—”

Memo handed Sean his tool tray and dropped down the ladder into the plane. “¿Dame mis herramientas?

“You’re a talker,” Sean said. He dug a half-handful of bearing grease from a can before he handed the tray down to Memo. 

Weyland climbed the ladder and handed over the heavy plastic bag. “If I’m a talker, what are you?”

“If you talk fast enough, I’m just the listener,” Sean said, smearing the grease over his face and wiping the residue on his jeans. He unslung a Vietnam-War-surplus CAR-15 from his back and yanked the toggle bolt, chambering a round. He set the safety before pulling the bag over the near-useless rifle.

“Look, all this might not be necessary,” Weyland said, passing him a roll of speed tape. 

Sean said nothing. My business partner—big as a plow horse and a combat vet to boot but scared to death of hurting someone. 

¿Debería iniciar el bloqueador de frecuencia ahora?” Memo asked.

“No,” Sean replied, wrapping the bag flap with the airplane tape. The oily residue on the bag made tearing the tape a hassle and it tasted like crap, to boot. 

Weyland completed his thought. “Wait until they’re about 100 yards out. The transmitter will burn through the battery quick.” Then, to Sean, he asked. “What if it’s not Coast Guard?”

“Then there won’t be much for you to talk about.” Sean handed his ball cap to Weyland and slid off the plane and into the waves. Warm, oily seawater immediately permeated his sneakers, clothes, and the crack of his ass. If possible, bobbing in the swells, alongside the plane, made his nausea worse. He peddled as best he could to the tail, keeping the plane between him and the boat.

He pegged it at seven minutes from when he first heard the boat until it came alongside the plane. Massive spotlights lit up the horizon. The roaring outboard motors quelled to a thrumbing drone.

“Evening, boys,” Weyland said in his amiable Georgia drawl. 

“United States Coast Guard, what is your—?”

Sean dived under the fuselage at the first sound of an official voice. One hand dedicated to the rifle hampered his swim-stroke but he cleared the plane. Spotlights lamplit the surface of the water, silhouetting both plane and boat. His lungs burned from the exertion and his eyes stung from the salty, oily water. 

If they engage those motors— No, useless to worry about things out of my control.

He swam against the anxiety and broke the surface, two yards aft of what looked like a 30-foot lifeboat with a pilothouse. Radio squelch competed with the outboard-engine drone. Sean could almost hear Weyland but the distance and the noise sapped the power from his friendly demeanor and smooth Georgian charm. 

“Say again, Chief?”

Silhouetted against the backwash from the spotlights, the chief, an ox of a man, shouted from the top of the pilothouse. “I said, I want to see everyone out on the wing, now!”

Weyland called back. “My copilot is sick. If I pull him up here, you’ll end up—”

“If I have to board, everyone’s going to jail,” the chief yelled. 

Sean counted two others, on the forward bulkhead. Means there’s at least one more coastie somewhere on this bathtub.

“All that ain’t necessary, Chief,” Weyland called back, as Memo stuck his head out of the hatch. “I told you, it’s just the two of us. We dropped some guys from PMEX on a plat—”

“And you still ain’t shown up on any land-based radar from here to Corpus Christi or on Gulf patrol air radar,” the chief fired back. “We know what you are. Is he coming out or are we doing this the hard way?”

That’s when the fourth crewman stuck his head out of the pilot house.

Bingo.

Sean dog-paddled to an egress on the port-stern bulkhead, low enough to roll cargo off of a gangplank or allow divers easy boarding from the water. 

“Why doesn’t the Chief use the PA?” One of the coasties asked, loud enough for Sean to hear. 

Whatever the other said was lost in the engine-drone-and-radio squelch. 

Our transmitter jams your radio and your PA, dumbass. 

Sean sat the plastic-wrapped CAR-15 on the deck and used a grip bar to haul himself out of the water. He crouched in the shadow of the pilothouse.

“Damn it, Moretti!” The chief snapped over his shoulder. “Would you kill the radio? I can’t hear myself think up here.”

Moretti ducked back into the wheelhouse and the radio squelch died. 

The chief cast his voice low. “Benton, when I say ‘now’ you put a bullet in that black son-of-a-bitch’s leg. I’m tired of his shucking-and-jiving.” 

“Roger that, Chief,” one of the two at the bulkhead said.

Sean heard the safety snap. Shit.

Weyland called back. “What was that, Chief?” 

Low to the deck, Sean moved as quickly as slick sneakers would carry him. As Moretti started out of the pilothouse, Sean grabbed the lifejacket collar, yanking the coastie off balance and over the bulkhead. 

Moretti splashed as Sean flew at the two at the forward bulkhead. “What was—?” 

Sean slammed the metal rifle stock into the first man’s head, catching him in mid-turned. The coastie collapsed like his strings were cut. Sean rifle-jabbed the second man, across the bridge of his nose. The coastie dropped his M-16, as he fell over the bulkhead.

Sean wheeled, flipping the safety through the plastic on the CAR-15 and sighting the chief in mid-draw. “Do it and you’ll be dead before you clear the holster.”

The chief weighed his chances for half a second before letting the pistol drop back and easing both hands to his shoulders. “You’re all kinds of stupid, there’s a cutter behind me with an 57mm cannon—”

“There’s no cutters in this neck of the Gulf,” Sean said. “You got a patrol boat behind you and by the time they find your ass, we’ll be gone and it won’t matter what size gun they got.”

“But there’s no need for you to go home empty handed,” Weyland said, friendly as ever.

“What are you offering?” the chief asked. 

“We’re all friends here,” Weyland continued.

“Come down first,” Sean said. 

“Wait,” the chief said. “I want to hear—”

“You come down or I’ll bring you down,” Sean said. “You won’t hear anything after that.”

“I got a shot at him, Chief!” A woman called around a mouthful of water.

Moretti is a woman. Fantastic.

Sean shouted without breaking sight on the chief. “You got a shot but did the seawater foul the primer in your ammo? Are you willing to cha—?”

“Moretti, we deal!” The chief bellowed. “This fucker will shoot me dead whether you got dry ammo or not.”

Not as stupid as he looks. 

“Now, all that ain’t necessary. I have a kilo of pure coke here. I’ll just drop it right on your deck,” Weyland said as a plastic bundle thumped on the deck skid pads. “We just amble away and you got $10,000 to $15,000, wholesale. Not bad for a night’s work.”

“Make it a kilo apiece or I’ll take my chances that at least one of my six has a dry primer,” Moretti shouted.

Son of a—

“Done,” Weyland answered before Sean could say anything.

“Wait,” Sean called. “I want them all on the deck first.”

“Bullshit, I’m not giving up my pistol,” Moretti said.

“Keep it but you and that broke-nose asshole get on this boat where I can see you, now. Or we’re just gonna clip every last—”

“No!” Weyland shouted. “No, that’s not necessary and it’s not what we’re going to do.”

“Fine,” Moretti answered. “Benton, get over here before a shark bites off your ugly-ass face.”

They sloshed onto the deck, one at a time. Benton laid against the bulkhead. Even in the shadows Moretti’s hazel eyes flashed. She looked wary but excited and ready to fight. Looked right out of Maritime Law Enforcement School, too. 

She won’t get taken by surprise a second time. 

Sean motioned with his rifle and the chief dropped to the deck. In better light, the chief’s name patch read “Geary.”

“Sit with your back to the pilothouse, Chief Geary. Spread your legs out and put your palms on the deck, right next to your dick,” Sean said. “If you even think of touching that pistol, I’ll shoot your pecker off and then feed your brains to the fish.”

“We were told the smugglers were hiring military guys for security,” Chief Geary said. “You a Marine or a SEAL?”

Sean snorted. “I mugged a boy scout once.”

Moretti watched him like a seahawk. All the fight in Benton bled out of his nose and all over his hands. The pimply-faced kid worried Sean and he listened hard for any movement from behind. 

At least I can feel the shotgun next to my left foot

He called to the plane. “Limpia esas pinche gas líneas y prepara este avión para volar.

Si, jefe,” Memo called back. 

“You need to ease up,” Moretti said. “We can smuggle four kilos of coke onto base or we can have a firefight with you. We can’t do both.”

She has a point. 

Sean nodded and lowered the CAR-15. 

“Won’t be long,” Weyland called. “We’re almost there.”

“You all got an even split, you’re all in, and no room for grudges or snitches.” Sean said, directing it to the Chief and Benton with no certainty he was any more lucid than the other kid, still out cold. With no intention of taking chances, Sean dropped the clip from Benton’s M-16 into the sea and then shucked the rounds out of the shotgun into the drink, as well. 

He eased to the bulkhead and spoke lower for Moretti’s ears only. “Load dry rounds in that revolver, get into a vest, and keep your back to a wall until you’re well into port. Transfer out of this duty station as soon as you can.”

Shedding her lifejacket, Moretti showed her palms, and then reached into the pilothouse. In better light, her strong features complemented her hazel eyes. She showed six bullets before dumping the wet rounds from the model 19 and loading the fresh bullets into the cylinder. With a smirk, she stuck the revolver back into the canvas holster. 

Sean stepped back as she pulled a Kevlar vest over her head. 

¡Lo tengo!” Memo called. Metal slapped on metal as he put the engine cowl back together. “!Pruebalo ahora!

A ragged starter motor whined and then the number two engine caught, coughing to life. Seconds that seemed like a half-hour later, the number one engine hiccuped into a duet. Sean nodded to Moretti and jumped the bulkhead, back into the Gulf. 

By the time he reached the Grumman, Memo had the side hatch open. He took the CAR-15 and Sean hoisted himself into the plane. 

Memo turned back for the ladder to the cockpit. Sean secured the hatch as the navigation lights flashed to life at the wingtips and the Grumman began to wallow away from the Coast Guard skiff. He sloshed through seawater that had leaked into the flying deathtrap for the ladder to the cockpit.

The plane churned over the waves and Sean missed his footing twice. At the top of the ladder, he snatched his ball cap off of Weyland’s head. Then he collapsed onto the jumpseat and took a relieved breath as the plane finally bounced out of the sea and labored for altitude.

Career CPOs like Geary are a dime-a-dozen in the military but a light-skin black woman named ‘Moretti’ would be rare in any branch. Shouldn’t be hard to find at all in the Coast Guard. Good to have a line on a sharp asset. 

After several minutes climbing, Sean leaned forward to Weyland. “Keep us below the radar.”

Weyland nodded. “We got an hour to make it to the next drop point but we’ll be there in 40 minutes, tops.”

“When we touch down, keep the engines running,” Sean said.

“The trawler captain won’t like that,” Weyland said.

“He’s getting paid for transport, not for what he likes,” Sean replied. “Unless he’s a better aircraft mechanic than you two, he’ll keep his mouth shut while we offload this shit or any delays will come out of his money.”

Memo, in the copilot seat shrugged. “¿Como si este espectáculo de mierda saliera de nuestro lado?

Like this shit-show will come out of our end? 

Sean wiped the grease off of his face with a shop rag. 
That money would’ve gone a long way toward a new plane. The hurdles I jump through to maintain my cover without shooting some E2 Coast Guard bad girl in the face. He patted his pocket absently. And I still need a goddamned smoke.

The photo above, PHOTO OF A GRUMMAN GOOSE AT SUNSET WAS TAKEN BY “PARRDACC” AND IS USED UNDER LICENSE CC 2.0

When the Numbers Add Up to Self-Publishing

Last week I chronicled my journey and how I came around to the idea of self-publishing. Short recap: it’s really not a difficult idea to “come around to” when agents/publishers aren’t buying what you’re selling. However, I made some thesis leaps (quite painful for a man my age) that were not fully supported. I’d like to cover some of those bases first. 

Longer recap: women account for 80% of all readers/book buyers. In mysteries, crime, and/or thriller women make up 55%. Again, these numbers are sourced from the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and National Public Radio (NPR). Accordingly, that would suggest 45% male readers/buyers in mysteries/crime/thrillers. The actual numbers AAP cites is 37%. Yeah, I don’t follow that math either but I’m a public accountant—unlike publishing—things have to balance in my hustle.

In 2020 American publishers moved over 750 million units, (Publishers Weekly). That’s ebooks, hardcover, and paperbacks, fiction, nonfiction, and religious/self-help. Basically, all the marbles. Of those 750 mm units, 57% were fiction. Book Ad Report ranks crime, mysteries, and thrillers number two in all subgenres. Crime, mysteries, and thrillers consistently rank in the top five on Amazon. Statistica pegs the number at 11% of all fiction sold. generating sales over $728mm in 2020. 

Contrary to doomsayers, print (ebooks, you know, whatevs) is still profitable, depending on your objectives. And objective is the key point in my little process.   

The matrix for the publishers is based on units sold against total units moved. Ideally, the books sold exceed the books returned. Which is maybe why the typical royalty structure is fifteen percent to the author. Someone has to cover the publisher’s shipping, handling, and staggeringly bad decisions on what gets published, right? 

So, a publisher needs a writer to meet predetermined sales on their print run—which may be anywhere from 3000 hardcover to 20,000 paperback units for a first-time author—for a book to be considered successful. All those expectations are based on a publisher promotions that are largely limited to quarter-page ads in the trade magazines and maybemaybemaybe an end-cap display though none of my writing buddies who are published have EVER gotten an end-cap display. The overwhelming percentage of marketing is done by the author: from websites and blog crawls to book-signings and appearances, to buying their own ads. The author really does ALL of the heavy lifting. For 15% of the take. Again, in my ledger, this does NOT balance.

The upside is I don’t have to cover the cost of ill-advised publishing picks. I don’t need to sell 80-percent of 3K hardcover books or 20K paperbacks to be successful. I don’t need to target my hardboiled crime books and codeine-addicted car thief to the 55% of women who buy crime, mysteries, and thrillers—not to say I’ll turn down their money, but this really is a “dude” book. Of course not all of the 37% (this split is still messing with me) of dudes who buy crime, mysteries, and thrillers are down for my kind of nasty—and that’s cool. I don’t need to market my little ditty to them, either. I just need to hook those cats who miss Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake and maybe Patricia Highsmith. I just need to catch those guys and dolls who root for the baddies. 

In short, I just need to cover my production costs. Make no mistake, that can still be daunting, not the least for justifying the expense. 

So, my justification…

Unlike some guys my age, I don’t need or want to recapture my youth. Yoda knows, it wasn’t fun the first go ‘round. In my teens, I played bass but I have no delusions of starting or joining a band. Seriously, I picked accounting so I wouldn’t have to “people.” I owned several motorcycles in my teens. Motorcycles SUCK in the rain and around crappy drivers and don’t get me started on bugs in the face. Sports cars? Drug addictions are cheaper and more rewarding than cars. I have never in my life wanted a boat. So, as midlife crises go, this book thingy is relatively cheap. But, yes, you will have to pay. Or I will anyway. 

“But, but, but what expense?” You ask.

Back to the business at hand. Though I have three completed manuscripts, I can barely spell “book.” Grammar? Punctuation? Yeah, I got none o’ dat. I’m sure you’ve spotted multiple errors in this piece, (maybe this sentence). So, yeah, I will be paying someone who’s plumbed the mysteries of syntax to sort out my little crime ditty. 

When my dream agent passed on representing my book, she recommended an editor. I’ve been stacking my nickels and dimes for a minute and hope to send my manuscript to her by the end of the year. 

The average editor charges 2¢ per word for copy editing. That’s about $1600 for my 80K word crime joint. Developmental editing costs more. A developmental editor helps you fix/plug logic and/or plot holes that will sink your book and you know if you need that help. 

Bottom line, some form of editing is indispensable if you’re self-publishing. The average reader will forgive you one or two errors. But if your book is riddled with misspellings, grammar collisions, and/or shoddy/nonexistent punctuation—or worse simply doesn’t “work”—you won’t sell another book to that person and their reviews will limit how many you sell to anyone else. 

We eat first with our eyes, Apicius

You know those folks with innate artistic ability? Yeah, me neither. However, a friend of mine did their own cover and illustrations. It looked like it, too. I’m quite sure that the crappy cover and illustrations, along with grammar issues, an ugly font, and atrocious “feel” are all reasons why the book failed to sell. Like, at all. 

You either have training or a degree in commercial design or you will pay someone to design your cover or your book will languish, unsold. Simple as that.

But wait, there’s more to stress over!

Are you a whip-crack-smart title creator? If you scan the pieces I’ve previously posted you’ll see, rather quickly, that I’m not. One of the very few advantages to traditional publishing is the publisher’s wiz-bang marketing kids will, nine-times-out-of-ten, pick the title regardless of how smarty your pants are. Typically they have an education in marketing and thoroughly understand who they’re pitching to and the best title to catch that customer’s eye.

You read my crack about the BIG two-inch margins in the previous piece I wrote? For all my judgment, I have no idea how to format a book any better than that author. The difference is, I won’t attach my name to a product that looks like it was churned out on a drunken lark. A book designer understands formatting for printing and digital media. 

As the illustration at the top would suggest, you need a plan.

Thankfully, there is help. As in hundreds, if not thousands of artists, designers, and editors that are unemployed or underemployed and highly motivated to work their butts off just to work in their field. And, you know, for a reasonable fee. Interior designers (books, not your 1970s sunken living room) will format your book for anywhere from $500 to $1500. The difference is largely based on how much help you need between basic print formatting to digital formatting. Ideally, you’ll get a package deal and may get the cover design as well. Cover designers typically charge between $600 to $1400 but it can go much higher if you want original and/or high quality work. I have no intention of skimping here as I’m haunted by some of the covers I have seen. The one thing some indie books and so-called professional books have in common is some truly HORRID cover choices. 

Where do you find this help?

Jane Friedman states that the best place to find book designers and formaters is from other authors. If you see a book you like, ask that author who did their design and/or formatting. The Independent Book Publishers Association is a tremendous resource as well. You can find them here

All told, I expect to drop between $3000 to $5000 to get my book out there. Amazon pays about 70% of suggested ebook “cover” price to the author. We’ll talk the ins/outs of book pricing another time. The split is about the same for KOBO and others in the ebook trade. You can expect roughly 35% of cover price on a print copy. I’ll leave it to you to do the math for how many units I would need to sell to meet my costs but I don’t expect to recoup that investment in the first year. Maybe not from the first book. 

You have to plan-in disappointment. 

Fantasy writer Jim C. Hines said his sales for his first two books were scarcely noticeable. He was on book three or four before they paid for themselves and book five or six before he was making anything approaching his day-gig money. Even then, he couldn’t afford to give up the health insurance and retirement benefits on the day-gig to live off of his royalties. The average published writer makes less than $10,000 a year off of their work. 

The only safe-word is “I quit.”

In short writing is, has been, and will always be a labor of love. Sado-masochistic as it is, if you don’t love it, you will NOT be happy with the amount of work you do for the amount of jingles you don’t get. That applies to both traditional and indie-publishing.

There’s still ads to address. Some say Bookbub, others say Amazon, I’m looking at targeted ads on genre-specific publications and/or blogs. But I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it, (wait, that’s not…) The point is one step at a time. Just like writing the book. Keep working toward your dream of seeing your work in some unsuspecting readers’ hands. Oh, and more updates as I set those bridges on fire.

The photo above, Antoine de Saint Exupéry in Toulouse 1933, is from Agence France-Presse and is in the public domain.

Do You: Self-Publishing, a Journey

I wrote my first (completed) novel-length story in 2004, while working through my first year on the job after college and processing the epiphany that I made a terrible mistake in my career choice. Writing was a coping mechanism for my professional misery as well as a host of personal problems, (different posts, different time) and publication was scarcely a consideration. I was writing to have something to do with a LOT of negative energy. In truth it would be several years before my manuscript was close to consideration worthy.

So, I’ve been at this writing thingy for a minute  and ~sigh~ I’ve learned some things. Mostly, I’ve learned that this is a game of numbers and popularity. I suck out loud at popularity but I’m an accountant, (blessed second career). I get numbers.

Women make up the majority of readers in the U.S., Canada, the rest of the U.K., and France—like an 80% majority. In mystery, thriller, and crime, women make up 55% of readers. By the way, all numbers are sourced from NPR and Association of American Publishers. Literary agents, publishing agents, and publishers would be fools to ignore those numbers. And as hard as publishing has been hit, fools don’t get many tries at bat.

“What does this have to do with a self-publishing journey?” You ask. Well, as it happens…

In 2008-ish, I landed an agent…for about 15 minutes. Then he stopped answering my emails. Turns out he could sell the hell out of coming-of-age memoirs and celebrity cookbooks but a gritty crime drama was more difficult to sell than either of us thought. Go figure. 

Eighteen months later, my dream agent, (the big crime-fiction agent not named Donald Maass) passed on my book. She said in fatigued honesty, “I don’t know who (among crime fiction publishers) I would pitch this to.” She also told me to consider reworking my story for the Young Adult market which she didn’t work in. Undeterred, after several days of crying and day drinking, (kidding, I’m too manly to cry) I pushed on.

Another agent, because there is always another agent, said and I vaguely quote, “Your story is about a car thief in 1985 Houston. It’s very macho. I don’t know that I can sell that to a NYC  publishing agent who might not have even been born in 1985 and has no idea where Houston is or why you pronounce it wrong.” As much as I would’ve liked to have said, “That’s, like, just your opinion, man.” The guy had been in the publishing game for 20 years, with a stable of successful authors. The majority were women and even the men on his service wrote contemporary mysteries easily marketed to women. The easily-marketed part is key.

A year or so later, a publisher that I respected, with an award-winning independent publishing house, told me “It (my book) is good, it’s unique, and I believe it will find a home but not with me.” He offered no suggestions but one only needed to look at his list of published books to see the targeted audience. 

Of course I could’ve taken some direction, could’ve reworked my book into a angsty-teen drama with crime elements and even set it in a city with a storied or at least undisputed name, like Tidewater or Santa Fe or Twenty-Nine Palms. I could’ve even gender-swapped my protagonist. But it’s not about just publishing. It’s about publishing my story. Those examples of would/could/should are all somebody else’s story. My story is what they used to sell on spinner racks in truck stops. It’s what I like to read and what I want to write.

Finish it, send it out, and keep sending it out until someone sends you a check. -Robert Heinlein

What Heinlein didn’t say is, if you never get the check, it’s probably because NO ONE READ YOUR MANUSCRIPT. In Heinlein’s day there was an expectation that at some point, some poor schlub would read the stacks of manuscripts in the slush pile. These days there are roughly 3000 publishers in the U.S. and less than a third accept un-agented or unsolicited manuscripts. We won’t even get into the legitimacy of some of those publishing houses that do accept un-agented manuscripts. 

Supposedly Frank Herbert got 30 rejections before Chilton published his masterpiece, Dune, the best selling science fiction novel of all time. These days you’re more likely to be rejected by 30 agents—the goaltenders—without a publisher ever seeing a word you wrote. These days publishing is a secondary goal to landing an agent.

Meanwhile, agents take on only 3 or 4 new clients a year, out of tens-of-thousands of queries, (source: QueryTracker). Of course those 3 or 4 are the writers with projects the agents can sell to publishing houses. That leaves a potentially larger number of writers who were signed by an agent but who’s work didn’t fit the publishing houses’ marketability strategy. 

Of course an agent on your side doesn’t guarantee publication. For that matter, getting a publishing agent (the folks at the publishing house who, ideally, make an offer of publication) on your side doesn’t guarantee publication. There are the books that fit the publishing house matrix, books that author agents and the publishing agents are excited by that still aren’t published. If the publishing agent isn’t the loudest/most compelling voice at the meeting where all the publishing agents fight for their acquisitions to be printed, that deal is dead. 

Dreams die in administration.

There is an inside track. While most writers start writing and then worry about the business end after the book is written, There are many authors who start as editors or publishing agents, or marketers, if for no other reason than to learn the business and how best to “write to the business” of publishing. Connie Briscoe was an editor and learned the game from the inside out before she ever put word to medium. 

Did that give her a leg up in publishing? Hell no, she’s a woman of color writing books marketed to women of color. That’s a mountain few of us can look at without being overwhelmed by vertigo, much less attempt to climb. But working in the industry did teach her what publishers want and what they won’t waste a first glance at. 

But, but, but there are other options, right? It doesn’t have to be big publishing, right?

There are niche publishers. A niche publisher focuses exclusively on one genre or sub-genre, (science fiction, Regency romances, babysitter-ghost hunters, et al). In my end of the swamp, Hard Case Crime IS the game. Their formula is simple: republish out of print, hard-boiled crime titles from the 1950s-to-1970s by guys like Lawrence Block, Max Phillips, and Richard Stark. They will, on occasion, publish new material from established writers like Stephen King and Max Collins. Hard Case only does sure-things and cinches. Most niche presses only deal in sure things and cinches.

Dreams also die in quiet resignation.

A couple of years ago I stumbled across two books that changed everything for me, especially my prejudices against self-publication. First was The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski, a modern heist book, in the spirit of Richard Stark’s master criminals. Wheelman was an absolute joy to read until the final 20 pages. 

I won’t spoil it for you other than to say that either the publisher strong-armed Swierczynski into using his debut book just to SELL A COMPLETELY UNRELATED SERIES, or the publisher was criminally negligent in failing to stop that trainwreck of a segue-ending. Either way, I skipped Swierczynski’s second title and the last I heard he was writing comic books. Lesson: even a “big” publisher will not save you from yourself—and certainly not from themselves. 

The second attitude-changing book for me is E. Abernathy’s Cold Comfort. *Full disclosure: Abernathy is a acquaintance and that association predates the book. Cold Comfort is a psychological thriller that doesn’t skimp on characterization or heart. It is brilliantly written and is first-class in presentation. I state that because E. self-published the book. It is an absolute triumph with great looking graphics, a professional format, and “real book” feel. Unlike a certain tome about sparkly vampires with margins large enough for you to draw the forest, (tree-by-tree) that was mowed down for all that paper.

But, but, but small presses…

A writing coach of mine signed his contemporary mystery with a small press (to remain nameless). They edited out the homoeroticism and coarse language from his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil-esque potboiler and then published the remaining 12 pages. Kidding. Mostly.

When the book, (against all expectation) earned-out the miniscule advance the publishers went for another bite at the apple by releasing an “uncensored” edition. But readers don’t like to feel fleeced and they passed on the cash grab. The second book failed to make back “production costs” and the press dropped my coach. His successive books were self-published.

Another friend who signed with a small press was surprised when her edit arrived unblemished with nary a developmental note. Truly, most writers, no matter how good their grammar or how sound their story, typically get pages that look like homicide scenes from all the red ink so my friend was dubious but committed to the course. Then she got her proof copy and it was like they hadn’t even employed an editor or proof reader. The first copies went out before the errors that THE AUTHOR CAUGHT were addressed. Meanwhile, it was still up to her to promote the book, just like with the big presses.

So, I’ve seen how truly iffy traditional publishing is, how very badly any publisher can screw up a good book and just how professional a self-published book can be. Mostly, I can see how easy it is to do absolutely everything right and still never see a word professionally printed on a page.

From those experiences, I also saw my way forward. If they can gut my story, make me change the very essence of the book, and still screw up the execution, why can’t I? That is, I can certainly do no worse than the publishers. 

If writers have been responsible for their own marketing for the last twenty years, (and they have been) if I have to market my book for one of the big four publishing houses, (and just about any author will have to) why can’t I market my book for me? There is a cottage industry of editors, book designers, and marketers providing support for writers. Why not take a chance on myself? Why not take a chance on yourself?  

Next week, we’ll discuss the “how” in self-publishing. 

The photo at the top: Self-Portrait by Judith Leyster, is in the public domain.

Shang-Chi and Why the “Better” White Dude Trope Needs to Go

Like many American males of a certain age, my introduction to martial arts was through movies. My inauguration film was Bruce Lee’s masterpiece, Enter the Dragon. I saw EtD at Houston’s fabled Majestic Metro theater in 1977, where you could buy one ticket for one screen and see three movies. 

Eight-year-old me was ENRAPTURED from the very opening kimpo scene introducing Lee (they didn’t stretch far for character names). Add-in Williams, (Jim Kelly) an African American activist, busting racist-cop heads and THEN DRIVING THE POLICE CAR TO THE AIRPORT? Hell, I thought that joint was written by Shakespeare.

But no. There was one flat note: Roper, (John Saxon) the white character required of most films featuring a cast of color. Please understand, I don’t seek to disparage the late Mr. Saxon. I enjoyed his work in The Appaloosa and Joe Kidd. But next to Lee and Williams, Roper looked slow and sloppy. 

The Roper character was obviously intended as comedic relief, while Saxon was cast as a familiar white face for white audiences. An obviously-40-year-old man, (complete with hairpiece, stacked-heel loafers, and sansabelt pants) playing with the 20-year-olds, Saxon delivered his lines whip-crack sharp but he wallowed through the action scenes. 

*Spoiler Alert*

Inexplicably, at the end it’s Roper and Lee who are still standing. Sure the hero but the joke, too? Williams dies in a boss battle at the midpoint of the film as was de rigueur for many characters of color. I wish that I could say this was an isolated incident but of course it became THE blueprint for martial-art films for the next THREE DECADES. 

Well, not entirely. After Bruce Lee’s death, U.S. filmmakers just omitted Asian leads in favor of white faces, (Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, et al). But as much as I like to blame the money men, the whitewashing of martial arts was the cultural wish fulfillment that justified the “give the people what they want,” approach. That’s just Hollywood, though, right?

Um, no. In comic books, Bruce Wayne undertakes not only to become the world’s greatest detective but the foremost master of martial arts. To achieve this, (prior to retcon) Wayne travels the world, studying with masters of every form. Bruce Lee dedicated twenty years of study and was still nearly crippled in a private fight. Bruce Wayne studies, maybe ten years and becomes nigh unstoppable. 

This isn’t terribly surprising to anyone remotely familiar with the racism in comic books that dates back to the earliest days. So, no, Detective Comics has no lock on the inanity. Marvel did develop Shang-Chi as a Chinese Kung Fu master to cash in on the martial arts craze of the 70s. But then someone thought, “why not in white?” Probably not but just like that Marvel produced Iron Fist. Iron Fist is a master of a shaolin-type of martial art. He studied in a mystic land and his training culminates in defeating the mythical dragon, Shou-Lao and gaining the power of the Iron Fist. Of course Iron Fist is embodied by American, Danny Rand: white, blue-eyed, blond-headed. Yep, millennia of pan-Asian people inhabiting the mythical K’un Lun but the white kid from NYC is better than all of them and becomes Iron Fist.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In a little-known gem called Death Force, McGee (James Iglehart) is left for dead by his army buddies. After he is found/saved McGee studies with a Samurai, mastering bushido. He then uses his training to seek vengeance against the men who left him for dead. At no point does McGee prove his superiority to anyone Asian. Maybe it’s not necessary to the plot. Maybe it’s because McGee is African American. 

Which brings us back to Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings, (scheduled for release on September 3, 2021). The son of a Chinese crime lord, Shang-Chi (in the comics) seeks to escape and ultimately end his father’s empire of crime. I would imagine the movie will follow the basic underpins. What’s important about Shang-Chi is, hopefully, the end of the “better white dude,” or the white male better than everyone else i.e. The Last Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia, Avatar, (where white men are even better at being aliens) A Man Called Horse, I can go on…

Granted, I’m basing my hopes on movie trailers. But in those trailers, I see men and women, heroes and villains of Asian descent battling, saving the day, standing up to evil with nary a white dude in the mix. The one prominent white face in the trailer looks like a 2nd-or-3rd-string henchman, not the Captain Save-’em-all character or the ultimate big-bad. Also, the other non-asian character thus-far revealed is the Abomination and he’s facing off against Wong, one of Dr. Stephen Strange’s teachers, (NOT a servant or sidekick). My money is on Wong.

It would take an acting/directing mad-genius named Jackie Chan and Wushu masters Jet Li and Donnie Yen to reclaim martial arts movies and remind western audiences where Kung Fu, Karate, and Hapkido originated. Those movies are high-energy, breakneck paced, and FUN. Everything Bruce Lee (and the Shaw Brothers before him) intended.

A murder ended movies at the Majestic Metro. The crash-and-burn 80s economy added insult to injury and for a very long time, the grand old lady sat vacant. Then someone seized on the idea of using the classically elegant theater for weddings and private parties. 

So the Metro endures. She has a second life hosting joyous events and personal pageants. Movies have moved on to multiplexes with recliners and table service but mostly to homes, on to flat-screen TVs and theater-level sound systems. 

As writers it’s long past time that we moved on from the white-better-than-other pothole.

The image above is a promotional poster for Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings and is the property of Walt Disney Studios and Marvel Studios. The image is used for informational and illustrative purposes only covered by Fair Use Doctrine.

Writing (and carrying) Guns: a How-NOT-To

First, the obvious: I’m appalled by the prevalence of gun violence in this country and believe to my bones that we MUST enact meaningful gun reform. I can’t state my views any plainer than that. So, if any of this is a deal-breaker, you know to bailout now.

If you’re still here, please understand this is not an anti-gun piece either, not really. It’s more a piece about responsible writing and cutting fiction as close as possible to the  bone of reality. 

Mostly, this is about experience and how often writers get things wrong. Yes, most art is informed by actual events but there is always a dramatic filter. And this is where most books and movies fail us in the depiction of gun use. 

So, carrying guns…

As I’ve mentioned (repeatedly) I grew on that side of town. My stepfather was a three-time loser for armed robbery, car thief, and bank robbery. One of my stepbrothers was shot dead days before he would’ve turned 30. A cousin was arrested for drug smuggling while in the military. Yeah, that side of town. But I also grew up in the early days of what would become gun culture.

See, even in Texas, the baddies I knew: thieves, dealers, and, yes, at least two killers went unarmed. Oh, they could definitely lay hands on guns but only the screw-loose walked around strapped. No one else wanted that trouble when stopped by a cop for an unsignaled turn or a burned-out taillight. 

Most cops didn’t carry when off duty, either. One local cop put his off-duty piece on the floor while in church and then somehow shot another worshiper when retrieving his pistol. Who wants to deal with that?

Fast-forward ten years, though and everyone, cold-blooded killers to bumbling hustlers to song and dance men were carrying guns. So what happened? 

First, there was the Miami drug war of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Guys like Jorge “Rivi” Ayala perpetrated mid-day massacres in shopping centers using MAC10s and Uzis, (full-automatic machine pistols) like it was Medellin. Even the military-trained-combat-tested heisters, fresh back from Vietnam, eschewed the violence perpetrated by the infamous cocaine cowboys.

But there was a pop-culture factor as well. Inspired by the crossroads of vulgar wealth and obscene violence, television writer Anthony Yerkovich conceived a television drama focusing on the Miami drug wars. Miami Vice debuted in 1984 and became a culture phenomenon. People Magazine called Vice the first “new looking television show since color television was introduced.”

But amid the pastels, shoes without socks, and the Ferraris, Vice packed on the GUNS. 

Where 70’s exploitation films used guns as penis-compensation props, Vice made them fashion accessories. Guns were changed out like costumes. Most police carry one or two different weapons over the course of their career. Crocket (Don Johnson) carried five, (5) different pistols over five seasons. Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) carried three different cut-down shotguns under his jacket. 

Most cops are limited to what the police department assigns them. Police departments look for reliable, light-weight, and economical, (means cheap). Simple to use and maintain are big selling points. Police departments are NOT fond of replacing firearms. 

The fetishization rampant in Vice is what happens when people who write about guns, HAVE NEVER CARRIED A GUN. Guns are heavy and uncomfortable. Carrying a gun is a hassle. Literally. 

There are practical holsters and there are (somewhat, relatively, sorta) comfortable holsters. No holster known to man is practical and comfortable. Don Johnson had his shoulder rig custom fitted—three times—and still complained about the discomfort. Also a shotgun? On a harness, under a jacket, in 90-degree-heat-and-80-percent-humidity Miami? GTFO. 

Don’t get me wrong, Vice has no monopoly on the silly. A certain police giggle fest about a working detective who carries a .44 magnum, (six-inch barrel, weighs three fothermucking pounds, before you load) predates Miami Vice by over a decade. And for YEARS people (means “dudes”) thought this was perfectly normal.

But back to carrying. I’m pretty sure the 16th law of physics is: the most comfortable way to carry a gun is GUARANTEED to be the least secure. The pistol shoved in your belt will forever require readjustment to keep it from falling out of your belt or slipping down your pants leg. For additional reference, see Thomas Harris who gets it right. When Clarice Starling is issued her Smith & Wesson Model 13, (practical, lightweight, easy to use, easy to clean) she is told to NEVER put it in her purse. 

This leads directly to safety. No one in movies and few in books ever shoot themselves or someone else accidentally but my Missus is a registered nurse with a couple of decades of emergency-room-and-wound-care experience. For every random guy who is popped by someone else, she treats four geniuses who shot themselves, (leg, feet, buttocks, etc.). Yes, self-inflicted gunshot wounds are that common. 

All of these issues—secure carry, danger of self-injury, discomfort—were factors in John Dillinger’s choice of a small automatic, (instead of his preferred long-slide Colt .45 or Smith and Wesson .357) for a fateful night out. Risk to others was a paramount concern for the late Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo, who declined to carry a gun even as he went to war with the Colombo crime family. 

In his song Joey, Dylan sang, he (Joe) was around too many children and they should never know of one. The truth is more a matter of practicality. Why put your kids at risk for something that isn’t likely to save you anyway? Dillinger’s .380 was about as useful against a fed trap as Joe’s dinner fork when he was ambushed at Umberto’s Clam House. Or, as my old man (who also did not carry a gun) said, if they want you, they got you.  
Sure, if you want to write a John Wick character who never misses, never fumbles a draw, or juggles a jammed up piece, have at it. But consider the law of averages with other characters. Iain Levison teaches a masterclass in how carrying a gun goes wrong in a scant five pages. As a result the drama in his How to Rob an Armoured Car is WAY more intense than Dinero’s gun choreography in Heat. It’s all about responsible depictions.

The image above: Too Many Guns Blank Template, is in the public domain. Source details, here.