Too Violent for an Amazonian Algorithm

I got a message a couple of weeks ago that one of my book ads had been suspended on Amazon due to “Images depicting excessive violence.”

While some of the content of Petty Crimes and Vindictive Criminals is hair-raisingly nasty, the cover is so tasteful by comparison, I sometimes feel it doesn’t adequately prepare readers for the stories inside. Ghoul: A Romance, for example, is one of my shorts I direct people to as a trial-by-fire. If they’re still willing to be seen with me in public after that, I know I don’t need to bite my tongue in their presence.

Clearly some poorly programmed image-interpretation software had tagged the cover, assuming it was something it was not. A response was in order.

As I wrote back to Amazon:

The cover is black and white and features a stock, staged photo of a 1940s detective standing over a bloodless murder victim in the style of classic film noir. It’s very tame.

I’ve seen more violent and/or gory children’s books. Is this the work of some overzealous algorithm, or has Amazon decided it will no longer accept ads for any crime novel or anthology?

The ad was reinstated immediately, once a human being had a look. It was still a disturbing interaction that illustrates why we shouldn’t be letting computers be the final arbitrator of content creators. Use them to flag potential issues, but let an actual person make the call. I don’t care how much content you’re trying to police, the impetus shouldn’t be on me to undo your software’s incorrect decrees.

Pretty Crimes and Vindictive Criminals remains for sale on all Amazon sites. At least until they develop a more censorious algorithm to read the contents, tag all the transgressions, and decide they no longer want to be associated with such deeply disturbed authors.

Not Quite Dead

I nearly died in my sleep last night.

I was having a dream. Not a happy one. It was mostly about the smell of rotting corpses.

The stench was so vile, I nearly vomited. For real. Which is not a great thing to do in your sleep, especially if you’re lying on your back. It’s a good way to choke to death.

There’s no end of disturbing imagery my brain can come up with while dreaming (or awake for that matter), but smells are rare. I woke up trying to remember where I could have smelled rotting corpses before. It felt like a memory, but I couldn’t quite place it. There was an image to go with it: a broken crypt, disturbed earth, and with that, the pungent stench wafting out.

I was beginning to believe it was a false memory. Just a dream that seemed real. I certainly couldn’t place what cemetery I might have been in to see and smell something so awful.

Until I did.

Paris. Four years ago. Père Lachaise.

The fact that it took me nearly an hour to narrow this down suggests I might spend too much time exploring graveyards and tombs. A damaged crypt emitting a desiccated putrid odour was far from the most noteworthy thing I encountered there, but that brief experience made an impression, and my mind ended up regurgitating it years later for a very special nightmare.

Not the first time my brain tried to murder me.

At least I successfully work up from this nightmare.

I think.

Frankly, my life has been a nightmare I can’t wake up from for years now.

Lately, I understand there’s some sort of bug going around. I haven’t really noticed. A global pandemic hasn’t cracked the top-ten list of things that are fucking up my life.

The body count has been high. None of them COVID related. Both my parents, my last remaining aunt, and one of my book-cover designers all kicked off in quick succession this past miserable year. Turns out the cover designer was only faking her death, but the rest were genuine fatalities. Not that the knuckle-dragging government bureaucrats will agree. I’m still waiting on one of the death certificates months after the fact, which leaves both the estates I’m handling in limbo, unable to move forward.

And the bills keep on coming. I’ve been shovelling money into a furnace, settling debts that aren’t my own, paying off all the parasitical agencies that come out to play whenever someone dies, and coughing up thousands of dollars in surgery fees to keep a cat alive. Again.

My kitchen cupboard is starting to look like a columbarium with so many urns of ashes. It’s like a sooty Pokémon collection. At least cremains don’t stink of corpse bile.

That scratches the surface. It’s the obvious stuff, but there’s so much more. I wake up some mornings disappointed I didn’t die in my sleep.

The only thing that keeps me going are all these books I have to finish writing. Not that I’m afforded much time to work on them lately. But when I do, it’s the best kind of escapism, and disappearing into fantasy is all I can do for my mental health at this point. Yes, there are books coming. Weird and astonishing stuff. And I’ll keep at it through this shitstorm, come what may, because it would be a pity if they never saw the light of day. Besides, I’ve reached that plateau of Zen when I just want to hang around out of morbid curiosity to see what horrible thing happens next.

Hat Trick

“Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.”

A quote from Tom Reagan, the depressed and self-loathing protagonist of Miller’s Crossing, my favourite movie.

After a recent screening for my birthday in July, I had to admit it was still my favourite, and not, as I often claim, Fight Club, a film with a completely different depressed and self-loathing protagonist.

A couple of years ago, when my life was still in the relatively early stages of becoming a nightmare hellscape I can’t wake up from, I attended a Writers Guild of Canada meeting—one of the rare ones to take place in Montreal. Normally, I prefer to skip these unproductive networking opportunities, but there was some pressing news Canadian screenwriters needed to be briefed on. It was so pressing, I’ve since forgotten what it was. But there was free food, drink tickets, and, more importantly, hats.

Sometimes I like to get something out of my annual membership dues.

Exactly enough WGC baseball caps had been printed to be doled out to all the attendees who had submitted an RRSP. Of course, some jagoff absconded with two. That left only a single remaining hat to be divvied up between the final pair of lingering hacks. Namely myself, and fellow hack friend, Sylvie. We had each agreed to show up for the meeting under the condition that the other one would be there as a social-anxiety wingman. It had worked out, right up until it was time for one of us to get screwed out the hat giveaway.

Sylvie bravely threw herself on that grenade and forfeited the hat. I took it home.

But the WGC hat did not become another piece of industry swag, sitting forgotten in a closet, waiting to one day be given away to some homeless shelter. No, I wore the hat. I wore it a lot.

It was grey and black with the Writers Guild of Canada logo on it. Those were my colours, and it reminded me of the days when I used to be a real screenwriter, before my career dried up, crumbled to ashes, and blew away. Mostly because I live in entirely the wrong province, and nobody wants to hire an Anglophone screenwriter from Quebec. Where’s the tax credit in that?

It had been many years since I’d worn a baseball cap—many years since I’d even owned one. Except, of course, for my promotional Predator hat I got back when that movie first premiered. But that was reserved for the head of my taxidermied childhood koala teddy bear (don’t ask).

After decades of wearing a specific style of cap, I took to this new one in a big way and grabbed it whenever I headed out the door. It wasn’t fitting winter apparel, but the rest of the year it kept me from getting sunburned straight through my male-pattern baldness.

I was wearing it the other night, even though the sun was down and it had been an unseasonable warm November day. Coming back from a long commute to Lachine, I was carrying a heavy IKEA bag stuffed with goods, including a winter coat that had belonged to my father. He died last month, so I guess that makes it my winter coat now. Something to replace the one with the broken zipper I’ve been wearing these past few years.

The load was punishing, and the walk after the commuter train doubly so. After carrying this burden for miles, I was sweaty and sore. Along the way, I got overheated enough to take off my guild hat and stick it in the overflowing bag.

I never noticed it fall out. Somewhere along the dusty construction site that is Grand Boulevard these days, it abandoned the bag I had slung over an aching shoulder. Had I made it home, unloaded, and found the hat missing, I probably would have gone out after it again. Tired, exhausted, maybe I’d find it lying the street, maybe not.

But I didn’t have to do that.

“Monsieur!” I heard from an SUV that had stopped in the middle of the intersection and honked at me.

I turned to see what this asshole wanted. Turns out he wanted to tell me that I’d just dropped my hat.

“Thank you,” was I all I was able to say to him before he drove off following his good deed.

I picked up my hat, soaked with sweat and now soiled with roadwork filth, and made a note to give it a good wash when I got back home. Throughout those last miserable blocks I kept wishing I could have thanked that driver more profusely. He’ll never know to what degree he made things suck less.

2020 has been the worst year of my life, except for 2019, which was the other worst year of my life, and 2018, which was the other other worst year of my life. It’s been a brutal stretch of loss after loss.

But I didn’t lose my hat, because one completely random stranger made things suck less. Thank you.


X-number of millions of words later, it was time to retire my old faithful Dell keyboard.

Ten years is the longest time I’ve gone between major computer upgrades. Back in 2010, my old computer was a revelation. It flew on Windows 7, and offered me more computing power than I ever could have imagined possible back when I got my first real (as in non-Commodore 64) computer. That original one was an IBM compatible 286, and it was magic, with an internal hard drive sporting a massive storage capacity of 40 megs. I could barely comprehend how powerful it was. Now it seems like an abacus, but I hope it’s doing well in whatever landfill it currently occupies.

My more recent computer remains next to my desk, and is likely to remain there for quite some time as I continue to refer back to it. It’s still a workhorse by modern standards, but computers get finicky and clunky in their old age, and ten years is a long time in computing.

So long, in fact, that the lone part I hadn’t planned on upgrading turned out to be pretty badly obsolete.

The relationship between a writer and his keyboard is intense. I’d actually carried my old Dell keyboard forward from two computers ago. I hadn’t liked the free-with-every-purchase keyboard that got tossed in with the previous rig, so I just kept using the earlier freebie. It was cheap, but I liked the feel of it. The keys didn’t click, but they weren’t soft either.

I wrote many books, short stories, screenplays, teleplays, and graphic novels on that thing. Many millions of words, probably billions of keystrokes.

But now, even with an adapter to plug it into a USB port, the brand-new computer would reject it after a few minutes of use. Before long, I’d be forced to resume typing on a wireless I picked up as a stopgap at Bureau en Gros. It was okay, but I wasn’t wild about it. Some of the key placements were odd, some extended characters were mislabelled, and it only revealed itself to be a French keyboard once it was out of the box.

It was finally time to shop for a real keyboard. Something higher end, more befitting of a career writer who’s been at it for over thirty years.

Enter the AZiO MK-Retro.

But I thought you don’t like clicky keyboards, you might be saying right about now.

The AZiO isn’t clicky. It’s clacky. And therein lies a world of difference.

I grew up hammering away on keyboards. It started with too many years of piano lessons I hated, and shifted to typewriters I liked much better. I learned to type and write on mechanical typewriters. Usually old Underwoods and Coronas fished out the trash in the 1970s, or bought for a few bucks at garage sales. I wish I still had them, because they’re expensive antiques now. At the time, though, they were considered disposable junk that could safely be tossed to a child to bang away on while he played a game of pretend-author.

Real effort had to be expended to make each keystroke successfully strike the page. And those dinosaurs clacked hard. They clacked with each letter, clunked with every platen advance, dinged near the end of the right-hand margin, and ka-chunked with the carriage returns that recoiled like an artillery gun lobbing an explosive shell a mile across the Western Front.

Eventually I moved on to electric typewriters, and finally computer keyboards, but I never lost my nostalgia for those little round keys that went CLACK CLACK CLACK.

The AZiO is one of several keyboards on the market that scratches that itch. It even clacks loud enough to be heard right through my noise-cancelling headphones. This, believe it or not, is a desirable feature.

So far I’ve written about 100K words on it. It seems to be a well-built piece of equipment. We’ll see if it’s durable enough to survive the same number of millions of words the old Dell disposable managed. Or if the constant friction will eventually cause it to burst into flames when I’m at my most inspired.

Dot Dot Dot Ellipsis

Yesterday’s blog post pushed for more Amazon reviews of Longshot Comics (particularly Book Two and Book Three) after a single naysayer sank the ratings for the otherwise unreviewed sequel volumes deep into the negative.

Many fans own past printings of Longshot Comics. Maybe the original minicomic, maybe the Slave Labor Graphics editions, or maybe even one or more of the foreign-language translations. But if you don’t have the new Amazon reformats that came out in 2018, let me make it easy for you.

This weekend only, I’m making the ebook versions of all three books (all 11,520 panels worth) free for download from Amazon outlets. Reread the first two volumes if you haven’t cracked them open in years, try the finale of the trilogy if you haven’t checked it out yet.

And then please leave an honest review. A few words, a full paragraph, or simply a star rating. Shit on the books if you must, but I worked hard on The Inauspicious Adventures of Filson Gethers on and off for twenty years, and I won’t have it sitting on the biggest publishing platform in the world at a one-star rating. Especially not on the say-so of one anonymous disgruntled reader who only made the effort to make a single condemning click.

I know most comic-book collectors prefer to have physical copies of their floppies and graphic novels, but digital comics have made strides in recent years. Although I prefer readers buy the paperbacks I spent so much time designing, it costs me nothing to give away ebook copies to any interested parties for a limited time—ebooks I also spent so much time designing.

Hopefully this will fix my lopsided review problem, and the disconnect that occurs when some of the top comic-book talent in the world heap praise on a book that is then seen to languish at a dismal review rating because somebody just didn’t get it.

Don’t let this one-man brigading stand. And enjoy your free books.

Lone Star Posse

I like one-star reviews.

Whenever I’m thinking of buying a book, I always read the one-star reviews first. Praise is fine, but you can really discern the merit of a book by who hates it most. When the reviews expose the haters as unintelligible, barely literate morons, I’ll usually buy the book. After all, if dummies hate it, it’s probably a smart, challenging, interesting piece of work.

I like one-star reviews on my own books as well. Not too many, you understand, but some. Books with all five-star reviews look like they’ve been love-bombed by friends, family, and, all too often, paid shills. But some less-than-stellar, or even all-out-venomous reviews help tip the average down just enough to make the overall reaction to a book seem reasonable and balanced.

Plus, I especially love it when the one-star review helps market the book. Cries of “very disturbing” as one GoodReads user recently said of Petty Crimes and Vindictive Criminals may warn off those of delicate sensibilities, while drawing in others as a selling point.

I don’t like one-star reviews when they’re dropped on a book that has no other reviews to act as a counterbalance. That’s what just happened with my Longshot Comics series of (dare I say legendary) graphic novels. Someone clearly didn’t care for the gimmick of the books, probably didn’t bother to read them once they saw they were not standard comic-book fare with the sort of artwork one would normally expect, and one-starred the whole trilogy. No reviews, just single stars.

That doesn’t do much damage to the first book. The Long and Unlearned Life of Roland Gethers has been advocated by many fans for nearly thirty years now. People reading the new Amazon editions have been leaving their reviews on Book One, so that ratio is reasonable. Unfortunately, The Failed Promise of Bradley Gethers and the all-new The Inauspicious Adventures of Filson Gethers have not been branded by their own star ratings. Not until now.

One displeased reader, with no comment, has condemned these two books to ratio hell. This person was only the second one to rate Book Two, and the sole person to date to have rated Book Three. It’s probably my own fault for not badgering my readers to leave reviews, but I don’t like to do that, and I want to avoid any perception from Amazon that I’m fishing for compliments. They don’t like authors to do that. There can be terrible consequences.

I can, however, encourage honest reviews from readers. Reviews help raise the profile of Amazon books, and they apparently tickle the fancy of the mysterious algorithm god that decides what gets suggested to shoppers.

If you’ve read my books, and have any sort of opinion, please go to Amazon and express it. Reviews are nice, but even the small effort of clicking on a star rating will help enormously. I hope to see the Longshot Comics feedback repaired to something a little less biased against epic minimalism in future. You can make all the difference.

The Adventure of the Coffee Table Book

I’ve been writing Sherlock Holmes stories for five years now, ever since I was first invited to contribute to the original MX collection that was being put together for a charity restoration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s house, Undershaw. Work on the building has been complete for several years now, but the series continue to benefit the Stepping Stones School that now occupies the property.

Last year I was approached about reprint rights for an offshoot of the ongoing project. I suggested a couple of previously printed stories that might be a good fit for The Art of Sherlock Holmes, figuring one of them would likely provide some good imagery for a painter to work with.

The Adventure of the Melting Man subsequently appeared in The Art of Sherlock Holmes: Global Edition earlier this year, with an original illustration by Dan Arcus. I thought that would be it, but now there’s a Global Edition II with the other story I suggested, The Song of the Mudlark. It features a painting by Abdelaziz Haounati.

This brings things full circle, because The Song of the Mudlark was the very first in my growing body of Sherlock Holmes mysteries.  But I’m not stopping there. I’m now up to seven stories in print, with two more pending. That’s close to having enough material for a collection of similar size and scope to one of Conan Doyle’s volumes of short stories.

Halfway through 2020, I’m getting anxious. Aside from the two Sherlock books, I haven’t published anything new—at least not under the Eyestrain Productions imprint. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been churning material. In June I broke a personal productivity record, and there are plenty of new novels and anthologies in the works. It’s just a matter of which one will be finished first.

I’d tell you more, but it would kill the surprise. Not to mention, sap creativity. Pro tip: never discuss the details of what you’re working on. Put it on the page instead.

All the paintings appearing in The Art of Sherlock Holmes are available as prints from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Family Estate.

House Arrest

[Just so I don’t bury the lead: skip the prattle and go right to the end for your free book!]

A million years ago (it feels like a million years ago, but it may have only been November) I launched my newest anthology of noir stories. Petty Crimes and Vindictive Criminals was a spiritual follow-up to my previous collection, Raw and Other Stories. Many of the tales featured direct and indirect connections to the ever expanding universe in my oeuvre of fiction, with appearances of characters like Tracy Poole from Necropolis, and underworld fixer, Derek Dunlan.

Raw had been a surprising success, boasted by the titular story getting shortlisted for a Bram Stoker Award nomination shortly before release. Assurances that anthologies tend not to sell well were undermined by steady movement on the Raw front that continues to this day. As well as it did on Amazon, I found it was getting even more rave reviews and reads on a pirate site.

I should probably be cross about that, but I suspect a lot of the paperback sales on Amazon were from those same pirates who liked my book well enough to want a physical copy. So…uh…good advertising, I guess.

I planned a much more aggressive launch for Petty Crimes, with snippets of stories getting featured on various social media outlets, along with art and cover reveals, and nearly half the book’s content dripped out to my Patreon page for one-dollar backers. This was not a fire-and-forget ad campaign. This was a daily push.

The response? Tumbleweeds. I think I maybe heard a few crickets chirping, but it might have only been my tinnitus acting up.

Even as I pushed forward on the next novels in my schedule, I considered how I could pick up the pieces with Petty Crimes and get it to readers via standard promotions and keyword advertising. And then the whole world shut down. You may have heard about it. I think it made the news.

Atrophy set in. Nobody was getting much done, myself included. But even hermit writers get bored in quarantine, and it’s time to start ramping back up.

Readers who follow my newletter, blog, or Patreon should be the first to know that the ebook edition of Petty Crimes and Vindictive Criminals is free this week—for the first time since launch. The free promotion will be announced on Freebooksy shortly, but you can beat the ecrowds and grab your copy right now.

The book is currently sitting at zero reviews, which I never like to see. If you give it a look, please don’t hesitate to express an opinion on Amazon (or elsewhere). Or you can just give it a simple star rating. Every bit helps. Who knows? If we can raise the profile a little, it might get stolen by a pirate site and then it will really take off!

Fingers crossed.

Bathroom Book Launch

I finally got to approve the paperback for Petty Crimes and Vindictive Criminals after my extended runaround thanks to Canada Post. This was a while ago, but I hadn’t gotten around to announcing it until I shot this short video yesterday.

So join me, Finnegan the cat, and Mike Ehrmantraut, as I sit on my toilet, pants up, and discuss the proof copy and contents of my new collection of short stories. Patreon backers at the $25-plus range will be receiving their signed copies in the near future. Join their ranks before the end of the month and you’ll get one in the mail as well.

The Art of Sherlock Holmes

I crawled across the 2019 finish line last week.

After another rough year, exhaustion set in at the end of December and I went into post-Christmas crash mode. Reluctantly I had to back out of a couple projects, but I still managed to publish two new books in 2019 (Epitaph and Petty Crimes and Vindictive Criminals, both now available in paperback and ebook through Amazon), cut a deal for another German edition of Longshot Comics, and contribute to two more volumes of The MX Books of New Sherlock Holmes Stories.

Energy returning at last, I’m at work on a number of 2020 projects. It looks like the very first thing out, however, will be something I barely had to lift a finger for. I only had to agree to it. One of my past Sherlock Holmes stories will be appearing in the next volume of The Art of Sherlock Holmes. This one is a global edition, featuring work from around the world. Each story will have an original piece of artwork to go with it. I haven’t seen the one that will be attached to mine, but I’m looking forward to it with a certain nervous anticipation.

I haven’t had to wait to see the artwork that would illustrate one of my stories since early in my comic-book career. I guess all those cartoons I wrote count too, but for the most part I knew what the art style was going to look like well in advance of production. This will be a complete surprise. Hopefully a pleasant one.

There’s currently a Kickstarter campaign that can be backed by those who want to get their copies of the book early. A few examples of the art pieces are posted there (none of them mine), and should give you an idea of what to expect from the book. I look forward to getting my hands on a copy and adding it to my ever-expanding bookcase of published work that serves as a backdrop to my desk.

If you want to back the book and reserve your copy, I’ll encourage you to do so quickly. As of this writing, there are only four days left in the campaign. Yes, I could have and should have told you a lot earlier. But as mentioned, I was pooped.