Kindle Vella at Always Be Publishing

Kindle Vella sample title page

Over at my Substack newsletter, I’ve posted a broad summary of what we know about Amazon’s newest publishing platform, Kindle Vella. A quick summary:

Kindle Vella is a new pay-as-you-go platform for serialized fiction. …

Vella is structured for publishing stories one “episode” at a time. Amazon doesn’t use the word “chapter”—I’ll discuss this below—but, for now, that’s a handy way to think of Vella’s episodes.

Each episode is 600 to 5,000 words. (Amazon’s numbers are so specific, I assume this range is enforced by their software.) Readers can read the first three episodes of a story for free.

If they want to continue reading, readers purchase Vella tokens to unlock additional episodes.

Will I be writing for Kindle Vella? I’m not certain yet. Serialized fiction is more than releasing a new chapter every week. Writers like Dickens and Armistead Maupin succeeded with serializations because they understood how to feed readers details a drop or two at a time, and keep them wanting for more. It’s an art that seemed lost until recently, when episodic fiction began to make a comeback online.

I’ve written before that I see self-publishing as an experiment, and so this is one more experiment I’m considering. We’ll see.

Read more about what Kindle Vella is and is not over at Always Be Publishing.

Audio

Interview with Reading and Writing Podcast

Posted this week is my interview with Jeff Rutherford at the Reading and Writing Podcast.

During our talk, I discuss my cyber-noir mystery In My Memory Locked, as well as a little on my Bridge Daughter series. It was a great time with Jeff, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Check out the interview at podpage.com or YouTube.

A year in the middle

Man in the Middle, by Jim Nelson

The first chapter of my novel Man in the Middle opens a year ago today.

It’s an odd anniversary to observe, the setting of a book. I didn’t start writing it a year ago today. That came later, after a bit of soul-searching if I really wanted to write a novel about the pandemic during the pandemic.

In some ways, though, I did start writing the novel a year ago. I began keeping a daily diary last March when it grew apparent that the spread of COVID-19 was going to be more than a particularly nasty flu season. The first entry on March 14 is a little over a week before the book’s time-frame. I set the novel’s opening chapter ten days later, March 24, to coincide with the timing of California’s statewide order to lockdown and shelter-in-place. I was tempted to open the book earlier, as my entries on the 21 and 22 both demonstrate the alarm rising within me, as the hard realities of the pandemic started to loom.

The early diary entries show me obsessing over the peculiarities of the then-present moment. Those were days of keeping John Hopkins University COVID-19 map open in a persistent browser tab, so I could check it every few hours. The red dots across the forty-eight contiguous states gave the effect of an America with a case of chicken pox; later I would call it a “creeping horror.” The buses running across San Francisco were suddenly empty, and in a few days most lines weren’t running at all. Downtown San Francisco businesses boarded up their windows, even the storied hotels, which normally operated with doors open twenty-four hours a day. After a trip to Costco for supplies, and witnessing panic-buying first-hand, me and several other beleaguered shoppers took the elevator down to the parking lot. A woman in the back began singing “There’s no way out of here.” At least people still had a sense of humor.

Dog running down a near-empty Geary St., San Francisco on March 17, 2020. I lived near the intersection the dog is approaching. Normally the traffic would be bumper-to-bumper. In a few days, the windows would be boarded up and the streets even more deserted.

During this time period, I jogged down the center line of Montgomery Street at 4:30pm on a Thursday—the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District, normally thronged with stockbrokers and bankers, suddenly looking like the set for a zombie movie. I also recorded having an on-again-off-again cough and running nose, which left me reeling between paranoia and chiding myself for being paranoid.

The nucleus of Man in the Middle is buried in my diary entry for March 22: “It would be funny if we emerge from our shelter-in-place hibernation four months from now and discover the rich and powerful have rewritten all the rules to further favor themselves.” (Four months from now. Ha.)

So many failures of those early weeks have been tossed down the collective memory hole. Multiple times I noted news reports of government officials from both sides of the aisle claiming broad martial law powers during a pandemic. Social network users were suggesting it was time for “appropriate” shaming of people for wearing masks—you read that right—while the media sought to pretend it never downplayed the coronavirus over the flu, or ever referred to COVID-19 by the city it was first detected in.

Months after the first vaccine was greenlighted for the general population, and after a year of lockdowns, fervent hand-washing, and face masks, COVID-19 numbers are still ticking the wrong direction. Or, they’re not. Maybe there is no way out of here.

The double-edged sword

Ally Sheedy as Allison Reynolds

In The Breakfast Club, introverted Allison dares rich-girl Claire to say if she’s a virgin. When Claire demurs, Allison says,

It’s kind of a double-edged sword isn’t it? … If you say you haven’t [had sex], you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut. It’s a trap.

This is how I feel when the question comes up about the distinction between literary and genre fiction. If you write literary novels, you’re a prude. If you write genre books, you’re a slut.

Is it really that simple? Nothing in this world is so simple. Yet, here are some true-life examples from my own experiences:

Prude

While shopping around my first novel, I got a tip that a prestigious national imprint had a new editor seeking fresh manuscripts. I sent mine along, hopeful but also realistic about my chances.

The rejection slip I received was fairly scathing. The editor claimed my book read of a desperate MFA student who doesn’t understand the “real world.” It was fairly derogatory (and oddly personal, considering this editor and I shared a mutual friend). A simple “thanks, no thanks” would have sufficed, but this editor decided it was my turn in the barrel.

Make no mistake: This hoity-toit imprint reeks of MFA aftershave. It’s not a punk-lit imprint. It’s not an edgy alt-lit imprint. It publishes high-minded literary fiction. The author list is upper-middle- to upper-class, blindingly white, and yes, many of them hold an MFA.

And I hold an MFA too, so perhaps the criticism is spot-on—except I wrote the bulk of novel before I set foot in grad school. I didn’t aim for it to be a literary masterpiece. I wanted to write a page-turner. It’s categorized as literary fiction because it’s not mystery, science-fiction, fantasy, romance, Western, thriller, or YA/New Adult. Write a story about a character and his family, and it’s not merely literary, you’re trying to “be literary.” Who knew?

In my novel, the main character has grown up in a town of physicists who design and perfect weapons of mass destruction—this is the actual childhood I experienced. I thought it would be a good read. (It is a good read.) My character is snarky, sarcastic, crude—and at times, he can be a right asshole. The technical background of the novel is, as they say, ripped from the headlines.

This seems pretty real-world to me. I thought I was writing a funny novel with an unusual setting and situation. This editor took it upon herself to declare I’m actually a Raymond Carver-esque hack penning quiet stories of bourgeois desperation. And that I should stop being that writer.

So, there’s the rejection slip telling me to quit being literary, even though that’s a categorization I never asked for. And it came from a literary publishing house. It’s kind of a double-edged sword, isn’t it?

Slut

After Amazon published my second novel, I began to sense a change in the attitudes of many of my writer friends. At first it was slight, like a shift in air movement when a door in the room is opened. Gradually, though, the emotional tension grew to the point it could not be denied.

I wondered if the problem was one of jealousy. My book had been picked up by a large company, but Amazon was not what you would call an A-list publisher (back then, at least—times have changed). And, they only published my book in digital Kindle format. I had to rely on CreateSpace to offer a paperback edition. The advance money was not huge, and the publicity not so widespread. It all seemed pretty modest to me, and I thought my friends would recognize it as such.

My novel is set in an alternate universe where human reproductive biology is tweaked in a rather significant way. This book is obviously science-fiction. Since the protagonist is a thirteen-year-old girl, it neatly fits into the YA slot as well.

And I’m comfortable with those categorizations. I grew up reading Asimov, Bradbury, Silverberg, and other science-fiction writers of the Golden and Silver Ages who laid so much groundwork for the genre. More importantly, I wanted to write another page-turner, a real unputdownable book. From the Amazon reviews, I think I succeeded.

The tip-off for the issue with my friends was when my wife asked one of them if she’d read my new book. The answer was a murmured, “I would never read a book like that.” This from a person I counted as a friend, and had known for ten years.

Before this, I’d heard her repeat the trope that all genre fiction is formula, as mindless as baking a cake from a box of mix. I always let it go, for the sake of harmony. Now it was being thrown in my face.

The funny thing is, one Amazon editor told me she felt in hindsight my science-fiction YA novel was not a good fit for their imprint. They were more interested in “accessible” genre fiction for their readers, and that my work was—yep—too literary. It’s a trap.

Tease

When Claire refuses to reveal if she’s a virgin, bad-boy Bender suspects she’s a tease:

Sex is your weapon. You said it yourself. You use it to get respect.

Between being a literary author and a genre writer, there’s a third way: The literary-genre writer. These are the teases. They write genre fiction, but make it literary to get respect. And, often they do.

Examples of teases are Haruki Murakami, China Miéville, Cormac McCarthy, and Margaret Atwood. Much of their work is patently genre, but they are received and analyzed with the same awe and respect reserved for literary novelists.

The knee-jerk reaction is to say these writers prove it’s possible to write literary-genre fiction. I don’t think that’s true at all, though. It only proves that authors accepted into the literary realm get to have it both ways: They avoid the stigma of genre fiction while incorporating the high-stake dramatic possibilities genre fiction offers.

Consider another literary-genre writer: Kurt Vonnegut. He wrote science-fiction, but his books are rarely shelved in that section. Hell, he even wrote a diatribe about how bad science-fiction writing is (Eliot Rosewater’s drunken “science-fiction writers couldn’t write for sour apples” screed). Yet, Vonnegut is rarely, if ever, permitted into the same circle as Atwood or McCarthy. There’s something “common” about Vonnegut. Only at the end of his life was he cautiously allowed into the literary world. Some still say he doesn’t belong there.

I remain unconvinced it’s the sophistication of a novel itself that moves it into the upper literary tiers. I can point to plenty of books supposedly in the literary strata that are not exceedingly well-written or insightful. Something other than an airy quality is the deciding factor.

The success of a handful of literary-genre writers doesn’t open doors, it only creates a new double-edged trap. An author who pens a literary-style novel can claim it’s literary. See, he added his book to the “Literary Fiction” section on Amazon! But does it mean he’s a member of the literary world? Not at all. There’s something else holding him back.

The trap

The literary/genre distinction purports to explain every aspect of a story: Its relevance, its significance, its quality, its audience, even the goals of the writer when they sat down to write it. Nothing in this world is so simple.

There’s a smell about the literary/genre divide. It smells like class. Literary is upper-class, and pulpy genre is for the proletariat. This roughly corresponds to the highbrow/lowbrow classifications. We even have a gradation for the striving petty bourgeoisie, middlebrow.

(Even calling a novel “middlebrow” is treated with disdain—a lowbrow attempt to raise a genre book to a higher status. It’s easy to fall down the literary/genre ladder, but difficult to ascend.)

I definitely believe the Marxist notion of class exists, both abroad and here in the United States. What I don’t believe is that a work of fiction is “of a class.” Books are utilized as a marker of class—tools to express one’s status. Distinctions like literary vs. genre communicate to members of each class which books they should be utilizing…I mean, reading.

Amazon says new Kindle replicates experience of holding real book cover in public

This is not the most original thought, but is it really that simple? Nothing in this world is so simple. And I don’t want it to be simple. As with food, the best reading diet is varied, eclectic, and personal.

Note the real damage here. If a writer writes the books he or she wants to write, and puts their heart and soul into making it the highest-quality they can for their readers, all that hard work is instantly deflated by the literary/genre prude/slut highbrow/lowbrow labels.

And if a writer introduces genre conventions into their literary work, they’re a sell-out—a prude tarting it up for cheap attention. And if the author of a genre novel tries to achieve a kind of elegance with their prose and style, they’re overreaching—a slut putting on a church dress. You use it to get respect. We’re punishing people for being ambitious.

I’ve said it elsewhere: People will judge a book by its cover, its publisher, the author’s name, the number of pages, the title, the price, the infernal literary/genre label, its reviews, the number of stars on Amazon—everything but the words between the covers. You know, the stuff that matters.

Quote

A publisher’s note worth reflecting upon

Anthony Boucher

Years ago I discovered on Forest Books‘ sidewalk cart an unassuming hardback with an unassuming title, Great American Detective Stories, edited by legendary Bay Area writer Anthony Boucher and published in June 1945.

Curious what stories made the cut, I expected the usual names and the usual reprinted titles. I did see the usual names—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Cornell Woolrich being of the most interest to me—but was surprised by Boucher’s story selections. He included one of the three Sam Spade short stories Hammett wrote for easy money (which were not widely reprinted until recently) and a Chandler novella I’d never heard of before, “No Crime in the Mountains”, which appears to have been the nucleus (Chandler would say “cannibalized”) for The Lady in the Lake. Over the years I dipped into this collection on occasion, and discovered it to be a fine snapshot of late-World War II popular American writing.

But it was the book’s front matter that gives me pause, specifically the publisher’s note:

This book is manufactured in compliance with the War Production Board’s ruling for conserving paper. … Thinner and smaller books will not only save paper, plate metal and man power, but will make more books available to the reading public.

The reader’s understanding of this wartime problem will enable the publisher to cooperate more fully with our Government.

It’s a fine-print reminder of how the cost of war used to burden everyone’s daily life, and therefore was a constant reminder of war’s price, both in human cost and economic.

Printed above the note:

“Books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

– President Roosevelt

They still are, but we’ve allowed our attention to wander, and it’s to our detriment.

Three specials for the new year

If you’re looking for new books to read this year, I’ve partnered with over 300 authors to offer specials on new books and boxed sets:

NEW MYSTERY & SUSPENSE – A collection of new mystery, crime, and suspense novels, many with a special price. Includes my novel of suspense and paranoia, Man in the Middle, on sale for 99¢.

KINDLE UNLIMITED BONANZA – Adventure, science-fiction, romance, and fantasy books, all available free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. Includes the Bridge Daughter Cycle boxed set and my cyber-noir In My Memory Locked. Voracious readers apply here.

SCI-FI & FANTASY GIVEAWAY – Hundreds of free science-fiction and fantasy e-books available free for a sign-up. Includes the first book in my Bridge Daughter series.

Too many books! All promotions end February 28. Please give these authors a try, or use this as an opportunity to pick up one of my reads.

The Little Sister – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

Previously: The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

With Raymond Chandler so intimately associated with mid-century Los Angeles, and Chandler so determined to record the city’s excesses through his gimlet eye, it’s surprising how little of Hollywood makes it into his detective novels. The only one to dwell on the movie trade is The Little Sister, and even then, it takes twelve chapters until the reader learns the plot is somehow connected to Hollywood. Yet, The Little Sister is often nominated as one of the greatest Hollywood novels ever made.

By the time The Little Sister was published in 1949, Chandler had built a name in Hollywood as a successful screenwriter. His Oscar-nominated script for the landmark Double Indemnity (co-written with director Billy Wilder) was lauded as both an honest adaptation of James M. Cain’s bestseller and, incredibly, an improvement on the source material, which had been declared a modern classic soon after publication. Chandler was also called in to rewrite dialogue on other films, as his brisk, wisecracking style was in high demand.

Compare Chandler’s entry to Hollywood to Nathanael West’s, who churned out unremarkable scripts while writing The Day of the Locust. West did not travel to Los Angeles with stars in his eyes, nor did he arrive with impressive credentials. He strove to become a serious novelist, not a screenwriter of cheap Westerns and jungle adventures. It was the Great Depression, though, and he heard that Hollywood paid good money for writing.

He heard more than that, actually. According to Marion Meade’s Lonelyhearts, it was West’s brother-in-law—New Yorker writer S. J. Perelman—and his frothing disgust with Hollywood (“where holding a job was ‘a series of hysterical genuflexions and convulsive ass-kissings'”) that lured West to Los Angeles in search of foul-mouthed grotesqueries and high-glamour oddities he could transfer to the page. It’s not difficult to imagine Nathanael West as a character in a Raymond Chandler mystery…if only there was a blackmail angle.

As Chandler tiptoed through Hollywood’s land mines and manure fields, writing screenplays, dialogue, and movie treatments, he discovered he was not revolted or disgusted with what he saw. He was bored.

“An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon,” he wrote in The Atlantic in 1945. “Hollywood is a showman’s paradise. But showmen make nothing; they exploit what someone else has made.”

One fascinating vein running through my list of great Hollywood novels is how often the authors were involved in the business—not only were they witnesses, they were collaborators in the insanity they documented.

“Hollywood is easy to hate,” Chandler wrote in The Atlantic, “easy to sneer at, easy to lampoon. Some of the best lampooning has been done by people who have never been through a studio gate.” By the time he wrote The Little Sister, though, he’d been through the studio gate many times.

Like Ross MacDonald, Chandler realized early on he could leverage the American hard-boiled detective novel to write about America grappling with modernity, a country suddenly flush with money and influence. The detective novel is told from the perspective of an outsider with a keen grasp of social, political, and economic realities. Chandler went heavy on the grotesque when he depicted Los Angeles, populating his novels with fortune tellers for the rich, perfumed gigolos, mob toughs talking like they had been borrowed from Hemingway’s “The Killers,” and so forth.

Chandler reels it in for The Little Sister. The novel is a bit drier than his earlier work. Most Hollywood novels brim with a fatalistic cynicism, but Chandler incorporated a more literal, perhaps even-handed, depiction of Tinseltown.

James Garner as Philip Marlowe
James Garner portrayed Chandler’s detective in Marlowe, a poorly-received 1969 adaptation of The Little Sister.

This literal-mindedness is what prevents The Little Sister from falling into a trope of American writing, the moralizing take-down of Hollywood as a depraved and greedy trade. Re-reading the novel for this post, I noted Chandler had included some basic scenes missing from the others in this list. His detective, Philip Marlowe, visits a sound stage during filming, where he witnesses a catty back-and-forth between the actors after the scene is flubbed. Afterwards, he drops in on a rising starlet in her dressing room. Another chapter is devoted to dealing with a big-shot movie agent eager to protect his client. These business-like scenes are the building blocks of the second half of The Little Sister.

In 1944, Chandler wrote to Atlantic editor Charles Morton:

Hollywood is the only industry in the world that pays its workers the kind of money only capitalists and big executives make in other industries. … Its pictures cost too much and therefore must be safe and bring in big returns; but why do they cost too much? Because it pays the people who do the work, not the people who cut coupons.

Marlowe sinks into this moneyed and territorial industry as ably as he deals with alcoholic flophouse managers and gangsters who dabble with ice-picks to the neck. Marlowe is surefooted no matter the situation. He is a man of all people, but party to none. This is the character type Chandler honed to a point. It was a character he used time and again to turn over rocks across Southern California to reveal the grubby crustaceans and sun-bleached bones beneath.

On the right the great fat solid Pacific trudging into shore like a scrubwoman going home. No moon, no fuss, hardly a sound of the surf. No smell. None of the harsh wild smell of the sea. A California ocean. California, the department-store state. The most of everything and the best of nothing. Here we go again. You’re not human tonight, Marlowe.

The Little Sister, ch. 13

The one notable grotesque in The Little Sister is the near-real-time transformation of a Midwestern bookish, prudish young woman into a walking caricature of a star-struck pursuer of Tinseltown sophistication. Like the climax of Locust, a critical point is reached, something snaps, and Hollywood’s vapory facade mists away to something more earthy and damning.

Chandler allows a sliver of redemptive light to shine through the smoke-filled backrooms, and it lands on the unlikeliest of characters. (“Lots of nice people work in pictures,” Marlowe notes unironically at one point.) Chandler was far more the softie than his books’ hard-boiled reputation suggests. The Little Sister ends in a surprising place: Perhaps the problem is not with Hollywood, but with those too eager to believe its illusions.