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Kindle Author Interview: Richard Helms

Richard Helms, author of The Daedalus Deception, discusses his book, his journey as a writer, and self-publishing on Kindle.

DAVID WISEHART: What can you tell us about The Daedalus Deception?

RICHARD HELMS: The Daedalus Deception is a post-9/11 thriller that begins as a Harlan Coben-style mystery. A computer analyst returns to Savannah from a business trip to San Francisco, expecting to find his agoraphobic wife waiting for him at home. His baggage is stolen at the airport, which requires him to spend an hour or so dealing with paperwork. When he arrives at his house, he discovers that his wife is missing, along with all her clothes, and all her other possessions. The house has been cleaned meticulously, to the point that it looks as if nobody has lived there. Fearing that she has been kidnapped, the analyst—David Proctor—calls the police. The detective assigned to the case can’t find any record of their marriage, or even a shred of evidence that David’s wife ever existed. Shattered, David approaches Savannah PI Hollis Dayton to help him find his wife. As she backtracks his story, she discovers a very strange pattern of appearances, disappearances, accidental deaths, and ultimately a terrifying plot that will make the attacks of September 11 pale in comparison. Aware that they alone may possess the information that can avert disaster, Hollis and David race to Virginia—the FBI in hot pursuit—to  try to forestall a calamity of unfathomable proportions brought about by The Daedalus Deception. 

Okay, so much for cover copy! The story came to me one night back in 2002, when I was watching a cop show about a kidnapping on television. I discussed it with my wife, and wondered what the police would do if they suspected that the alleged victim of a kidnapping hadn’t been abducted at all. One thing led to another, and what I originally thought was going to be a traditional PI novel morphed and evolved into a thriller. I owe a great deal of gratitude to Alan Kaplan, a computer analyst with the VA in North Carolina, who helped me work through some of the technical aspects of the novel.

DAVID WISEHART: How do you develop and differentiate your characters?

RICHARD HELMS: Unlike a lot of authors, I don’t create a lot of backstory for my characters. I don’t go into a novel knowing every aspect of their lives—their DOB, where they grew up, what their favorite ice cream flavor is—the way that some authors do. I tend to believe that the story shapes the personality of the character. Some characters bring basic personality features—heroism, cowardice, shallowness, anxiety, etc—to a story, but what happens after Page One acts on those basic personalities and reflects those characteristics  that the character brings to the table. David Proctor, for instance, pretends to be worldly, but in reality he isn’t much more sophisticated than he was in junior high, playing in his room on a then-hot-stuff Commodore 64 computer. Hollis Dayton is cynical and short-tempered, and at the beginning of the book has also suffered a significant loss. The events in their individual lives prior to the book have prepared them to respond very differently to Barbara Proctor’s disappearance, and to the terror they will uncover in trying to find her. That difference in basic temperaments becomes the template that shapes the unveiling of the characters’ various personalities as the book progresses. The fun thing is that this isn’t always a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get process. Sometimes nerdy guys may become unwitting heroes. Sometimes seemingly brave people reveal themselves to be simply deluded. Our views of ourselves may not always be consistent with our actual behaviors.

DAVID WISEHART: Who do you imagine is your ideal reader?

RICHARD HELMS: In terms of likes and dislikes, a reader who really enjoys the works of people like David Morrell, Robert Ludlum, John J. Nance, and Harlan Coben will probably like this book. This is a book for readers who like to ride roller coasters. A lot. It isn’t a techno-thriller in the style of Dale Brown, but rather a thriller that rides on the emotional ups and downs of its major characters.

DAVID WISEHART: What was your journey as a writer?

RICHARD HELMS: Rocky. I’ve been writing novels for over thirty years. My first two books—about the hectic sport of endure kart racing—were published in serial form in World Karting Magazine between 1980 and 1984. I thought this whole writing and publishing thing was a breeze.

I didn’t see another word in print for almost two decades.

I kept writing, though. Between 1984 and 2000, I wrote five novels. I found an agent for each one of them. For one reason or another, none of those agent relationships worked out. One went out of business. One got indicted. One worked his tail off for me, but just couldn’t find the ‘right’ home for the book. After fifteen years of beating my head against publishers’ doors, I was ready to give up.

In late 1999, as I was driving home from work, I heard a report on NPR about this startup POD publisher named iUniverse. They had just published a couple of reprints by Lawrence Block and Mary McCarthy, and were looking for original work also. Now, this was before iUniverse became a vanity press. In those days, there was actual editing, and the books were published at no cost to the author. They agreed to publish the first of my Pat Gallegher novels, Joker Poker, as part of their Writer’s Showcase program. Surprisingly, it was a critical success, reviewed favorably in both Library Journal and January Magazine.

For the second book in this series, though (Voodoo That You Do), I formed my own publishing company, Back Alley Books, contracted for professional cover design and POD printing and wholesaling with Lightning Source and Ingram, and found myself in the self-publishing business. My goal was simple. I was going to play the publishing game by the Big Boys’ Rules. I’d price the books fairly, give industry standard discounts, and accept returns (things that iUniverse didn’t do, by the way, even in its earliest days).

Voodoo That You Do was also a critical success, and was accepted by the Borders/Waldenbooks chain for bookstore stocking. I submitted it for the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Awards in 2002. Shamus judge Dennis Lynds contacted me directly to praise the book. He wanted to recommend it as a Shamus nominee, but was concerned that it might be self-published—a violation of Shamus Award rules. I explained my company to Dennis, who agreed to approach the awards chair, S. J. Rozan, regarding the issue. Rozan ultimately declined to allow the book.

By the next year, however, Rozan and PWA president Bob Randisi had implemented “The Rick Helms Rule”, allowing novels published by authors who also own their imprints to be accepted for the Shamus competition. My third Pat Gallegher novel (Juicy Watusi) was now eligible, and gave me my first Shamus Award nomination in 2003. I was also nominated in 2004 (Wet Debt), and in 2006 (Cordite Wine), all published by Back Alley Books. I remain the only author to earn three major mystery award nominations for self-published titles.

They say that nothing fails quite like success. In order to compete with major publishers, I had provided deep discounts for my titles and had accepted returns. This allowed my books to be stocked in major brick-and-mortar chains. When Cordite Wine was nominated for the Shamus in 2006, chain booksellers all over the country ordered copies. Within six months, tiny Back Alley Books was swamped with returns. I found myself deep in debt to Ingram, and ultimately shut down my book publishing operations in early 2007.

In June 2007 I established The Back Alley Webzine, an online market for hardboiled/noir short story writers. In 2008 The Back Alley garnered two Derringer Awards—one for me  (Paper Walls/Glass Houses). I also won another Derringer that year for The Gospel According To Gordon Black, published on the Thrilling Detective Website, making me the only author ever to win Derringer Awards in two different categories in the same year. The Back Alley Webzine has managed to earn at least one Derringer Award nomination each year since 2007. In November 2009 it became the very first all-electronic medium to be accepted by MWA as an Approved Periodical.

In August 2008, I sold my first Judd Wheeler novel (Six Mile Creek) to Five Star/Cengage. It was published in April 2010 to strong critical praise and sales. The second book in this series, Thunder Moon, is scheduled for a June 2011 release from Five Star, which also plans to publish a standalone forensic psychological procedural (The Unresolved Seventh) in April, 2012. To top off a terrific two years, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine published my short story The Gods For Vengeance Cry in November 2010. So far, that story has garnered a Derringer Award Nomination and an ITW Thriller Award nomination. Another one of my stories (Silicon Kings) was also nominated for the Derringer this year. 

I released my thriller The Daedalus Deception in Kindle and Nook ebook formats from Back Alley Books in November 2010.

So, it’s been an interesting and bumpy road, overall, but I’ve had a lot of fun.

DAVID WISEHART: What is your writing process?

RICHARD HELMS: I teach college psychology. I was a practicing forensic psychologist for almost a quarter century before packing it in to teach in 2005. For most of the year, I’m way too busy to write. Sometimes I can pound out a short story or two during the regular school year. One nice thing about teaching is that I have my summers free. From basically the first of May until the first of August, I can devote myself to writing. I typically pound out one and a half manuscripts each summer, and edit them during the school year. I also spend the school year coming up with basic ideas and plotlines for the stuff I’ll write in the summer. It’s a pretty non-traditional writing schedule and process, but it’s working for now.

DAVID WISEHART: What authors most inspire you?

RICHARD HELMS: Robert B. Parker, first and foremost. He was kind enough to provide a cover blurb for my book Cordite Wine. I also admire, in no particular order, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Reed Farrell Coleman, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, John O’Hara, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Sandford, Harlan Coben, David Morrell, S.J. Rozan, Stephen Hunter, and James Lee Burke.

DAVID WISEHART: What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you'd written yourself?

RICHARD HELMS: THE book. The Grapes Of Wrath. Everyone can stop trying to write the Great American Novel, because Steinbeck beat you to it about seventy years ago. This book has everything. It is the quintessential Big Book, which captures the zeitgeist the entire Depression Dust Bowl generation in a microcosmic look inside the lives of the Joad family. It’s a master class in writing. Ought to be required reading in schools. Oh, wait a minute. IT IS!!

DAVID WISEHART: How have you marketed and promoted your work?

RICHARD HELMS: I do a lot of small conferences (places like Murder in Magic City, The Cape Fear Crime Festival, Deadly Ink, etc), where I usually get onto at least one or two panels. I also do the large cons such as ThrillerFest and Bouchercon, and I’ve typically been able to get on decent panels there, also, thanks to the award nominations. I was part of the now-famous “Hard-Boiled Versus Noir” panel at Bouchercon in Toronto in 2004, where I got one or two licks in before getting lost (along with everyone else) in the epic debate between Kerry Schooley and Jim Doherty.

I also do a lot of promotions using social networking, especially on Facebook. I don’t do much Twitter yet. I’m on about a dozen mystery-related email lists through YahooGroups.com, and contribute regularly to most of them. Of course, I’m on Dorothy L., though most of my work isn’t quite “their kind of books”.

Regionally, I do a lot of library and bookstore appearances with a group of other mystery/thriller authors from North and South Carolina, called The Carolina Conspiracy.

And, I do interviews on blog sites such as this one!

DAVID WISEHART: Why publish on Kindle?

RICHARD HELMS: I was a huge proponent of electronic publishing way back in 2000, when I attended the Harriett Austin Conference in Athens Georgia and handed out copies of my thriller The Amadeus Legacy, published in a self-extracting format called Writer’s Dream, and stored on 2.5 inch floppy disks. At my very first mystery conference (Deadly Ink, Parsippany, NJ, 2000), I moderated a panel called “The Future of Publishing”, and championed ebooks there. I jumped on the POD bandwagon before it got a bad name, and I stayed on it until 2007. I’m putting all of my backlist onto Kindle over the next couple of months.

The Daedalus Deception was passed on by Five Star before they accepted my novel Six Mile Creek. At the time, it was titled Wipe Out. They’ve changed acquisitions editors since then, and I probably could have resubmitted the retitled and rewritten manuscript to them, but I thought that might be a bit disingenuous. Instead, I decided that it was a perfect vehicle for an ebook-only venture into Kindle-land. I designed the cover myself, and since I had already uploaded three titles to Kindle previously, I already know how to format the books. I was able to do the entire project in about a day and a half, and a couple of days later it was for sale. Also, I was very impressed by the royalty structure. I actually make almost as much per copy with Kindle as I do with my Five Star novels!

DAVID WISEHART: What advice would you give to a first-time author thinking of self-publishing on Kindle?

RICHARD HELMS: Just a couple of things on formatting. First: NO RIGHT JUSTIFICATION!! Left justify all you want, but please don’t try to make it look like a book in your manuscript. I’m reading a book on Kindle right now from a major publisher which apparently decided to ignore almost all the “new” conventions of ebook formatting. They right-justified, and the result is almost unreadable. Also, don’t be afraid of a small font size. I have read Kindle editions in which it was impossible to get the screen resolution smaller than twelve or fifteen lines on a screen. Gave my thumbs a major workout! Remember that the native resolution is going to be on the lower end of the scale, and readers can always make it larger. There is a definite limit to how small you can make the text from the start point.

Also, beyond formatting, this is not something to be afraid of! There really is no way to lose with the Kindle deal. In one sense, it is self-publishing, sure, but the rules are in flux these days, and in another five years self-published books are going to be seen in much the same light as self-released music CDs or MP3s. Janis Ian, one of my favorite all-time singers, releases all of her CDs on her on Rude Girl label. Nobody faults her for “side-stepping the gate-keepers”. And, with the 70% royalty option, you can make some pretty decent coin if you have a moderately successful promotional campaign.

There is still a cachet attached to traditional publishing. Nobody is going to deny that. However, the traditional publishers are looking for traditional books. They tend to want reliable, safe fare. They don’t like to take chances. If your work is edgy, if it takes an unpopular or controversial stance, or if you’ve tried again and again to place your book with a traditional publisher without success (and—needless to say—if you’ve had it professionally edited for both content and copy) then why not slap it up against that ol’  Kindle wall and see if it sticks? A very wise author, now long gone, once told me that “every book has a reader”, or as my wife often says, “There’s a lid for every pot.” There is an audience for your book, no matter what it is. The Kindle is an opportunity to go out and find your audience. Just do it!

DAVID WISEHART: Thanks, and best of luck with your books.




ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Helms worked as a forensic psychologist for almost a quarter century before retiring from active practice in 2005 to take a position as a college professor in Charlotte, NC. His fourteenth novel, Thunder Moon, will be released by Five Star/Cengage in June, 2011. Novel number fifteen, The Unresolved Seventh, comes out from Five Star in March of 2012. Helms has three Shamus Award nominations, four Derringer Award nominations, and an ITW Thriller Award nomination. He is the only author ever to win SMFS Derringer Awards in two different categories in the same year (2008). He is the president of the Southeast Region of Mystery Writers of America, and is a member of the National MWA Board of Directors. His thriller The Daedalus Deception is available in ebook format on the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook e-readers. The parents of two adult children, Richard Helms and his wife Elaine live, as they refer to it, “back in the trees” in a small town in North Carolina.

Visit his website and read his blog.

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