The Dead Ride Fast

Remember back in 2014 when I said I would publish a reprint collection of my short fiction the following year? Well, better late than never — The Dead Ride Fast will be available as an e-book next Tuesday.

The Dead Ride Fast collects six of my weird Westerns, all of them stories of existential dread on the 19th-century frontier.

I cannot express how much fun it’s been to put this book together.

There are many reasons why I wanted to publish under my own imprint. I try to live by P.J. O’Rourke’s maxim that a writer should always be paid at least twice for a piece of writing; and like the T-shirt says, What part of 70 percent royalties don’t you understand?

Yet what I enjoyed most was the absolute control over the entire product, from the cover to the typography to the interior layout. Writing can turn a little stale over time: you write something, it’s published, you receive a check. That two-beer buzz, so sharp when you’re in your early 20s, dulls as the years pass. The excitement I still feel when I write derives from the actual creation itself — that alchemy of writing and revision — but dwindles as soon as I send it off to the editor. That thrill of creating, that alpha-to-omega electrification, was something I felt the entire time while assembling Dead.

If you want to know the technical nitty gritty of how I did it, Daddy Jack will tell you after the jump! jump!

The Manuscript

Initially I intended to aggregate all of my short fiction into one collection. However, that decision begged several follow-up questions. How many stories should it contain? Six? Twelve? Four? How many words total? Each number in turn affected what the eventual price point would be.

It shouldn’t surprise long-time readers of this blog that I take a dim view of the publishing industry, an opinion shaped by my salad days in magazine publishing, my jump to Internet work in the late 90s, and more recent experiences and evidence both anecdotal and factual. I have always found mainstream publishing to be less than dynamic, technophobic, and married to a pay model that benefits executives at the expense of creators.

Instead writers and authors should look to musicians for inspiration. Note that I don’t preface the word musicians with adjectives like indie or small-label as they would be redundant — almost every band these days either produces albums under their own imprint or for some obscure label.

And that’s my point. Modern musicians, in general, are far more innovative than writers. Rather than curse the rise of digital music, most musicians have embraced it as an escape from the bondage of the big record labels. I’m old enough to remember an interviewer being amazed by Ani DiFranco releasing music under her own label. Fast forward to 2015, when after 32 years with Mercury even Bon Jovi couldn’t stomach their avarice. You never hear a musician wax nostalgic for the days when their industry was controlled by a handful of fat-cat publishers, something that can’t be said for writers and authors, whose adaptation to the new paradigm is more mixed.

With that musician’s mindset, I regarded The Dead Ride Fast more as an album than a book. It’s commonplace these days for newer acts to publish an EP of four to six tracks first, then use its income and audience to work toward a full-length album.

OK, I said. For my first outing I’ll publish an EP — in other words, a collection of six stories. At about 25,000 words long, it’s shorter than a novel but long enough to justify a $2.99 price tag.

I then asked whether I should slurp together my first six published stories or if I should be more selective. I had to confess not all of my material is the same caliber. Two of my earliest stories are, in retrospect, pretty boring. On the other hand, my third story “Quivira” was often singled out for praise in reviews of the anthology where it appeared. To complicate matters, over time my historical fiction had diverged between alternate histories and ghost stories, and lumping them together between virtual covers seemed incongruous.

OK, I said, I’ll leave the alternate histories for a future collection and only focus on the weirder stories with supernatural elements. And I’ll make it a Best-Of compilation reprinting six previously published stories.

But wait a minute. Often Best-Of collections include one or two original stories to entice buyers who may already have all of the old stuff. This probably isn’t a problem I have to worry about but I liked the idea of throwing in a brand-new track unavailable anywhere else. I even had an idea for it: what the collection really needed was a good old-fashioned haunted house story.

OK, I said. A weird Western collection featuring five reprints and one new story. Now then. In which order should I present them? By date published? By internal chronology? By some other metric?

More cogitation ensued.

The book’s title, by the way, comes from the 18th-century German ballad Lenore via the opening chapter of Dracula, which is where I first read the phrase, “Die Todten reiten schnell.” The ballad tells the story of a woman who curses God after her lover fails to return home after going to war; said beau then shows up at midnight and sweeps her on horseback to their marital bed — which is revealed to be a grave in a far-off cemetery. Turns out he died in the war and is totally a spoopy ghost!

The Cover

Having known for awhile I wanted to publish an e-book, I would often follow artists I discovered on Instagram to obtain a sense of their styles. I then approached a few for the cover art but one thing or another dissuaded me from hiring anyone.

Finally I wrote to Ksenia Svincova, a Russian artist who goes by the name IrenHorrors on IG. She had the perfect look I wanted to project — a kind of macabre Gothic humor. I didn’t want the cover to look like a stereotypical horror novel because the stories aren’t horror stories; rather they’re tales of existential anxiety full of gallows humor where ghosts stand in for the decisions we make.

Working with Ksenia was as smooth as a Dark ‘n’ Stormy on a summer Saturday. I told her what I wanted and she perfectly delivered the image in my mind’s eye. My only regret is that when I cropped the cover to a 3×4 ratio, I had to cut off her signature at the bottom (though I credit her inside!). I highly recommend her services.

Next came the really fun part: making the title and byline. I love 19th-century and early 20th-century advertisements and newspapers because the typography back then was bananas. Why use one typeface for a piece of print when you could use a different one for every line of type? Or, better yet, a different typeface for every word.

I knew the elements I wanted to include. A swirly font. A barbed Wild West font. Swashes and flourishes. Serif and sans-serif next to each other. Full-on Victorian overindulgence.

I already had rights to a couple of fonts. I combed the web for others, picking some that were public domain and buying two more at nominal prices. Over the years my employment has granted me felicity with Photoshop Elements, so it wasn’t too difficult — only time-consuming, very time-consuming — to put everything together on the page.

Many print books these days use white typefaces on dark backgrounds for their covers, and so instead I opted for a bright cherry red against the browns of Ksenia’s landscape. Only when I made the final mobi and epub files did I discover why white fonts are so popular: they look good in a Kindle’s grayscale. On my Kindle, the “6 stories of the Weird West” and my name vanish into the background, but after long rumination I decided to let the cherry color stand. I’d rather have the type pop on the various storefronts than on a Paperwhite where folks aren’t going to look at the cover much anyway.

The Coding

How e-book files are made remained a mystery until fellow Black Gater Bill Ward informed me that they’re just HTML files with appended metadata.

As I can code HTML in my sleep, this was good news. Using a how-to guide Bill recommended, I ported the story texts into Notepad++, then added some front matter, wrote a stylesheet, and coded the manuscript. After a period of tweaking, I ground out the epub and mobi files using Calibre. Being able to examine Dead in actual e-readers led to further rounds of tweaking, ultimately culminating in a pair of finished files.

And Away We Go

Looking in the rearview, I feel a quantum of regret that I couldn’t bring The Dead Ride Fast to fruition earlier. The process of making an e-book consists of about 200 steps but none of those steps is particularly hard. Many of them, in fact, involve revising and re-revising, which isn’t that different from writing itself.

I came in well under budget, spending less than half the money I had estimated, so financial constraints weren’t an issue (though I recognize that with the exception of the cover art, in this instance I did all of the steps myself without having to hire anyone else, which certainly lessened the cost). Probably the biggest factor to impact my timeline was the decision to bifurcate the collection into two separate books, one for weird Westerns and the other for alternate histories.

Over the following days I’ll be blathering about each individual story in The Dead Ride Fast, about the circumstances of its creation, the ideas behind it, and so forth.

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