Happy New Year!

This probably should be two or three blog posts, but who’s got time for that?

Welcome to 2021. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

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Looking back, I’m going to be honest … I’m actually surprised it’s been almost three months since I posted anything. Clocks during the time of Corona either seem to creep at a glacial pace or sprint forward at ludicrous speed. The last few months have definitely tended toward the later.

What’s new? Well …

  • The Sacred Radiance, as you may see in the sidebar, is complete. The cover artist is a little swamped, but we hope to have it out in next month or two.
  • I’m currently about 50% done with the The Dragon and His Wrath, the followup to Sacred Radiance. My hope is that the pair come out in fairly close proximity.
  • I’ve taken over the nuts-and-bolts of the publication of Places Beyond the Wild and just received the first story for the revised-and-expanded edition. It’s a good one, and I hope to have Z-Day’s fourth book back on the digital bookshelves in the next month or two.
  • As soon as I’m done with book five of Paxton, I’m going to start work on A Place for Peace. No clue what kind of turnaround I’m going to have there, but I want to get it out before the end of the year.
  • After that? We’ll see what chance brings. I have written a Paxton short-story for an urban fantasy antho, and once that comes up I’ll be sure to share the news here (and yes, on a more timely basis.) It’s not an official New Year’s resolution, but hopefully this year isn’t so nutso and I can get back into something approximating a routine.

A little before Thanksgiving, I had an opportunity to a do book signing at a new bookstore in the town where I work. The Magic of Books is a great little store, and they did yeoman’s work in promoting the signing. Jenna, the owner, has really invested her heart and soul in the place and I’m excited to see what the future holds for her. She has a ton of passion for what she’s doing.

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The crew was hyped

One of the ways Jenna helped promote the signing was putting me in touch with a reporter, who interviewed me for a story. That itself was a fun (and funny) experience. Fun because it was amazing seeing my picture on the front page of a newspaper (below the fold, but still!) and funny because friends I’ve known for years were surprised that I have more than one book out. (And here I thought I talked about my work on Facebook too much.)

You can read the interview here, as one aspect of what I discussed with the reporter leads into what I’d like to talk about for the rest of this post.

I’ve never talked much about my first books much (except for the Free Awful NovelTM, which you can find above). I’ve mined them for some characters over the years, and it occurred to me a while ago that one of them is really a Z-Day prequel, of sorts, though it’s obviously more of a sci-fi thriller and post-apocalyptic. Prequel, after all.

There was a point around 2003 or so that I thought I was on the cusp. I’d finished a novel, and I’d spent who knows how much money on photocopies and postage to query agents. One day, I got a positive response! An agent, Melanie Mills, wanted to see a full copy of my manuscript and provided me with an e-mail address. I happily sent it off, and a few weeks later, Ms. Mills called me on my cell phone and had largely positive things to say about the manuscript. She indicated that she had a couple of publishers who were already showing interest. This was such good news that my heart jumped into my throat and my brain turned into Ralphie in A Christmas Story when he finally meets Santa. Yeah, sure, a football sounds good. The only question I could think to ask in that moment was, “Uh, are they thinking paperback or hardback?”

I hope I’m not the only person that would use a time machine to go slap myself, Red Foreman-style.

And then, Melanie dropped the bomb. Before we could take it to the publishers, we needed to send it to an editor. Did I know anyone who’d do such a thing? Of course not, at that point in my life I was a Xerox field technician in Flagstaff, Arizona. Pretty much the only people I knew were coworkers or the college kids who lived on either side of my apartment. Editor? Where do you find one of those? “Well, I have some people I could get you in contact with, but they’re very expensive. A manuscript this size might be several thousand dollars.”

I don’t know how you managed things when you were barely old enough to buy beer, oh Reader, but if I had forty bucks in my wallet to last me till payday, I was doing good. Back then I got paid every week … but still.

Like a good little fish, I informed Ms. Mills that well, that might be a problem. Was there any way, I wondered, that we could figure something out? After all, if the publishers were interested …

If you don’t see the problem yet, it goes like this. Money flows to the author. Editing? Cover art? Marketing? In those days, that was all the publisher’s domain. Still is, to some extent, though marketing is best done more as a 50-50 proposition, these days. That’s why you’ll find so many writers on pretty much any and every social media platform out there. It’s not because we like cute kitten videos on Instagram … well, check that, we actually do. Oh! An update I forgot. We have a new addition to the household.

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Charlie the Cat is unamused by your veterinary shenanigans

Melanie’s scam wasn’t new then, and it’s sadly not new now. Predators and vanity publishers prey on people with dreams, and soak them for money. The very nature of publishing, I’m sure, made it easy for her to string people along for months and years. Before her scam came crashing down, she’d even begun setting up fraudulent writer’s conferences, accepting registration fees and supposedly reserving hotel room blocs and conference halls, only for everything to fall through … while Ms. Mills disappeared with the funds.

I, thankfully, was lucky. Despite going full Ralphie there was something in the back of my head telling me something was wrong. I took a good look at Melanie’s website, trying to find some of the writers she listed as clients on Amazon. Many of them had names common enough to make tracing down any work tricky, but finally I found an author website that purported to be one of her clients – along with a contact form. I sent the supposed author an e-mail, explained that I had signed a representation contract with Melanie, and I just wanted to see how happy he was with her.

A few hours later, I had an e-mail in my inbox from Melanie. The subject? “TERMINATION OF CONTRACT.” Why? Because I’d reached out to one of her clients and obviously didn’t trust her, she didn’t think we could have a good working relationship going forward. To put this into perspective, this was well before the smartphone era. Nobody got e-mails instantaneously as they do now. Which was the last bit of evidence I needed to realize just how close I’d come to being screwed. The website was a fake, and the e-mails obviously went to Melanie – how else would she know so quickly?

Those suspicions were confirmed over the next few months and years on various writer forums and blogs, as Melanie went from a fairly standard-issue to con artist to something that, as I told the reporter interviewing me, wouldn’t be believable if I wrote it into a book.

A few months after a mysteriously-canceled writer’s conference, news broke that Melanie Mills had died in a car crash in Germany. Debate raged – was the report real? Had she faked her death to skip out on the increasing heat of literary agency scam?

Indeed she had. Melanie hopped the border into Canada, where she fell into her old habits. Adopting a fake name, she advertised a writing conference that, aw shucks, got canceled by forest fires. Refund? Crickets.

What would drive a woman to engage in a life of crime, to adopt a series of fake names? Well, before becoming a fake literary agent, Lisa Hackney spun a story about her mother dying in a car crash in Germany (gee, that sounds familiar…), using faked documents to steal over a quarter of a million dollars from her mother’s estate. Things were great, until her mother returned from a long European trip. Upon her return, Lisa panicked and attempted to kill her mother with a car, then fled to become … Melanie Mills.

(In case you’re wondering – did I name Paxton’s antagonist in Fade Melanie on purpose? You bet your bippy I did. Never get on a writer’s bad side. Unless you volunteer to be a redshirt, of course.)

Things finally caught up to her in Canada. She was arrested (go Mounties!) and held before eventually being sent back to America to stand trial. I’ve summarized a lot of this; if you’re interested in the whole sordid story, do a Web search for “Melanie Mills literary agent” and prepare yourself for a wild ride.

It’s somewhat disheartening that even after all the people she stole from or scammed, she never really did any hard jail time. The Internet being the Internet, I hope that there’s enough out there about her to keep her from falling back into her scams, but honestly, criminals of that caliber are like cockroaches. Find one, and there are a dozen more hiding out elsewhere.

But sometimes things do work out nicely. Unable to run her scam on writers in 2020, Melanie Mills has apparently written an autobiography. I must admit I did have a laugh as I noted that it has zero reviews and a sales rating just north of The Complete Idiots Guide to Tying Your Shoes.

I’m grateful that I avoided a loss of anything more than time, but the “Melanie situation” was tough to handle. For a long time, I put writing on the back burner. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been, but it was a hit to my confidence.

When it comes down to it, our experiences are bad only if we don’t learn from and move past them. And as rough a time as it was, I survived it, and I think, in the end, I’m better (and certainly less naive!) for having gone through it.

With that in mind – let’s crush 2021, shall we? See you soon!

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