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Darkroom finds a new voice—the audio book edition

Ever since I discovered the pleasure of listening to audio books, I’ve thought about making audio versions of my novels. But the high cost of production and my unfamiliarity with the process kept me from moving ahead.

Then, in mid-May of 2017, my thriller Darkroom won First Prize for Fiction in the IndieReader Discovery Awards. This honor may seem unrelated to producing an audio book. It’s not. The award renewed my faith in Darkroom. Like most writers I believe in my work. Otherwise I would not be writing. But the validation boosted my confidence enough to justify the substantial investment in an audio book production.

IndieReader invited to me attend a BookCon event in New York City to receive the award in person. Unfortunately, medical problems kept me from making the trip. Of course, I was disappointed. It occurred to me that I could use the unspent travel money to produce an audio book of Darkroom.

Choosing a production method

I could have read Darkroom and managed the studio production work myself—the least expensive option—and probably ended up with a substandard audio book. I haven’t worked in theater since college and I know almost nothing about sound editing. Sure, I could have learned, but experience has shown me that it takes practice to become competent at new skills. I chafed at the idea of delay. Even more, I refused to make the Darkroom audio book a learning project.

Another avenue of audio book production is through exchanges like ACX and Findaway, which allow you to bid for readers and hold auditions. I felt too inexperienced to sort through a slew of auditions—some by readers who might or might not have access to adequate sound equipment—so I searched instead for an independent studio.

After casting about for a few weeks, I settled on Spoke Media, a production company with a good reputation and a contact person who returned my messages within a day or two (as opposed to a couple of weeks). After listening reader auditions, I chose Alison Pistorius, a theatrical actor whose voice evokes my main character, Kelly.

A new cover for the audio book

I needed an audio version of my cover. Unfortunately, I’d engaged the cover artist through an intermediary, and this company no longer worked with him. I asked the company for help anyway, but received no response. So, I dug up contact information for the cover artist and wrote to him directly. Again, no response. I won’t name the cover artist or the company. I will only say that my estimation of them has taken a nosedive.

Damonza designed a compelling new cover for both the ebook and the audio book of Darkroom. Some readers say they prefer it to the earlier cover.

A few problems

Spoke Media worked fast. Maybe too fast. In three weeks, the audio files were ready for review. By and large the audio book sounded terrific. But I’m glad I listened to every file. Sentences were repeated in a few places, and worse, an entire page of Chapter 28 had not been recorded at all. Maybe you’ve encountered audio books with annoying and confusing mistakes—repetitions, obviously missing words, inconsistent chapter titles—mistakes the producer failed to catch. (And it’s the job of the producer—in this case, me—to catch them.) I’m glad Darkroom didn’t end up being that kind of audio book.

After Spoke Media completed the revisions, I set about uploading the files to my distributors, ACX and Author’s Republic. The ACX reviewer informed me that the files needed a couple of minor edits. The opening credits must be in a separate file rather than part of the Prologue file. Same thing for the closing credits, which were part of  the final chapter file. Making the changes was no big deal, but I could have avoided the brief delay if I’d known the formatting rules.

Success!

The audio edition of Darkroom finally became available in September of 2017. The sound quality is superb and Allison Pistorius does a terrific job of reading the story. I’m pleased with the final product and hope that you will be, too. You can order the Darkroom audio book from Audible, iTunes, and several other outlets.

CATALYST – Free eBook by Mary Maddox

What would you do to stay young and beautiful?

Melissa will do whatever it takes.

She has the wealth to buy eternal youth and destroy anyone who challenges her. Then she meets a young artist with a secret . . .

I’m offering my new short story Catalyst free to all subscribers of my newsletter. Here’s a short excerpt:

The young man in Melissa’s parlor stank of mildew and tobacco. The stench kept her from inviting him to sit, but she couldn’t stop looking at him. He was beautiful. His black hair fell in loose curls around his face. Wide blue eyes, sculpted cheekbones, full lips — an angelic face. “Do you smoke?” she asked.

“My girlfriend did.

“She quit?”

“We’re not together anymore, but the smell gets everywhere.” He studied the painting on the wall above the sofa. “That’s a Rothko. An original?”

“My husband acquired it not long before he died.” Melissa smiled. “You know something about art.”

“I’m a painter.”

Which explained why he needed money. The artists and writers were the saddest of all those Gerard brought to her. Doomed to awaken from their dream in a dark place, youth and hope gone. Nobody cared about their creations except family and a few friends. She felt a stab of sorrow for him. “What’s your name?”

“Chad. What’s yours?”

“You’re twenty-two, is that correct?”

“Yeah.” He cleared his throat with a phlegmy rattling that alarmed her.

“Are you ill?”

“No, it’s just sinus. Allergies.” He spoke too fast.

“You’re sure?”

“That and the pollution. The air feels good in here. Pure.”

Something in his voice, a mix of bitterness and yearning, twisted her heart. She stopped the pity. It was one luxury she couldn’t afford. “I want you to take a hot shower. Would you like that?”

“Yeah, why not.” His nonchalance amused her, touched her a little. He couldn’t possibly afford a place in the city, not on his own. No doubt he lived in a cramped apartment with several others, and they all shared a slimy little bathroom half the size of her shower stall.

“Then Gerard will —”

“First I want to know what I’m getting.”

“Twenty thousand. Cash. Didn’t he tell you?”

“Not the money. The blood.”

Melissa studied her hands. Emerald polish gleamed on her shapely fingernails. No freckled spots yet, but the skin was starting to crepe. The hands of a middle-aged woman. The treatment would plump and smooth them. “Standard, from a blood bank. The donors were screened for disease.”

“How old were they?”

“I have no idea,” she said. “All ages, I suppose.”

Both of them knew better. The young sold to a more lucrative market than blood banks. Only the old and desperate traded a measure of their precious lives for a few dollars.

“So I should bounce back pretty fast?”

To read the rest of Catalyst, just subscribe to my newsletter using the button below or the form on the sidebar. Within 24 hours you’ll receive a message with a link to the download, available for Nook or Kindle.

I hope you enjoy the story!

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Excerpt from the noir mystery DARKROOM

My new novel Darkroom follows museum curator Kelly Durrell as she tracks her missing friend, Day, into a demimonde of drug traffickers and sexual predators. In this flashback, Day’s lover remembers his older brother.

When Gee was sixteen, Renny showed him how to do business.

He remembered the kids skateboarding in the darkening street, their raucous shouts joined to the chorus of starlings settling to roost. The scent of lilacs wafted from somewhere, too sweet. Gee hung back on the porch steps. Renny swaggered to the door, his thumb hooked in the front pocket of his jeans. No one answered the bell. He stepped to the window, cut the screen with his jackknife, and sent Gee inside to unlock the door.

Dougie was taking a shower. Light from the bathroom shined on Renny’s rapt smile. Gee heard the shower curtain rip, hooks popping off the rod, and a croaked “What —?” Thumps and scuffling. Then a louder thump and a scream.

They dragged Dougie into a bedroom and hogtied him with twine. He was a small dude with a hairless chest and not much pubic hair. He curled on the dirty carpet, wet hair pasted to his face, bleeding from his mouth and panting like a dog.

“The shit I tasted was rock,” Renny said. “The shit you delivered was stepped on.”

“The suppliers —”

Renny slammed his fist into Dougie’s face. “I bought from you, not them. Ain’t my fault you trusted a bunch of fucking spics.”

“Basement,” Dougie jabbered. “Third shelf up. Cinder block.”

“Check it out, Gee.”

Gee found the basement door where he expected it to be. Same with the light switch. As if the floor plan of Dougie’s house was burned into his brain at birth. As if he never had a choice. The shelves held the usual clutter — a busted toaster oven, a couple of bowling trophies, a glass jar of pennies. The money was stashed in the cavity of a cinder block. Not enough. Gee brought the pennies too.

The bedroom stank of urine. “Nine hundred seventy.” Gee tossed the roll of bill to Renny. “Plus change.” He shook the jar of pennies and placed it on the floor. Doing things like that — provocative things — made him less afraid of his brother.

Renny grabbed a sock from the floor and stuffed it in Dougie’s mouth. Shadows warped his smile into something monstrous. “You owe me seven large. I want my money, bitch. You gonna give me my money?” When he struck the first match, Gee looked away. A scream gargled in Dougie’s throat. The bedroom carpet was green and littered with tiny pebbles and burnt-out matches. The useless details stuck to Gee’s memory like lint. He wanted to bolt. But Renny would be waiting at home and their parents wouldn’t protect him. Dad thought weaklings deserved what they got, and Mom was just a slave.

“Where should I burn the cocksucker now? I’m thinking his balls.”

Gee tasted vomit. “He’d probably like it, the faggot.”

The hogtied body thumped like a landed fish. Dougie made an urgent whimpering noise. He had more to say. Renny yanked the sock from his mouth.

“Cl-cl-closet.” Dougie’s gaze jerked upward. “Sh-sh-shoe box.”

Gee pulled shoe boxes from the top shelf of the closet. In two of them he found Dougie’s real stash. Hundred-dollar bills and fifties and twenties, sorted into piles and rubber-banded. He showed his brother the money and began counting out loud. “Two hundred, three, four, five, six . . .” The diversion worked. Renny came and stood over him while he counted the money. Nine thousand, two hundred and thirty dollars.

“Asshole could’ve just paid me.”

Gee hoped it would end there, that his brother would be satisfied with a 3000-dollar profit and let Dougie keep his life. But Renny strangled Dougie with a belt from the closet and then tossed Gee the car keys. “There’s a can of gas in the trunk. Bring it.”

The firefighters showed up fast. Their station, it turned out, was two blocks away. Dougie’s body was mostly unburned, and the cops lifted a partial fingerprint from the belt. It wasn’t a certain match, but a neighbor IDed their car and Dougie’s friends testified to Renny’s psycho reputation.

Gee never rolled over. He was handcuffed to a table for hours. He begged for the toilet, but the two ugly cops just laughed. They laughed more after he pissed himself. They claimed a witness saw his face and showed him a drawing that looked like him. But Gee wasn’t stupid. It had been too dark for anyone to make him. The cops yammered on and on about their solid case and how he would be so popular in the slammer his asshole would be looser than his mama’s pussy. Now and then they changed tactics and called him a good boy, straight-A student, and promised him Renny was going down so he’d best cut a deal while he could. Through it all Gee kept the guilt and horror locked inside. And finally they had to let him go. They had nothing.

Renny was confident he would walk free, too. Gee had been in the courtroom when the jury came back. Had seen his brother’s face when the foreman spoke the word guilty — the rapt smile, like the moment he sailed into the bathroom to take Dougie down.

Darkroom will be available early next year.

Happy Endings

Ultimately no one gets a happy ending. As every Game of Thrones fan knows, Valar Morghulis: All men must die. Even if you’re steadfast in your belief in an afterlife, you still have to die and the process is usually painful and scary.

The most we can hope for is a fortunate death. You rescue a child from a fiery building and get crushed by debris while the kid crawls to safety. At the age of 92, you and your beloved spouse die instantly in a car crash where no one else get hurts.

The inevitability of the unhappy ending may explain why so many readers of fiction crave happy ones. The storyteller brings the protagonist through conflict and danger to a moment of triumph or fulfillment—and then stops. The golden moment sails on forever. If it’s especially satisfying, the reader may reread the book and experience it all over again.

Some readers feel cheated when a story fails to deliver an upbeat ending or when it stops before the conflict is fully resolved (the open ending). “That’s all there is?” they ask. “What a downer!” A few might hurl the book across the room. Books have an advantage over e-readers here; they can be hurled without breaking.

Readers aren’t shy when they hate the ending of a book. They complain to friends and excoriate the offensive book in merciless reviews. Frustration and disappointment run deep, especially when there’s a large emotional investment in the story. Just read the reader reviews of Allegiant, in which Veronica Roth kills off the main character of her trilogy.

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I understand why readers feel this way. It was hard for me to forgive JRR Martin for the Red Wedding. Never mind that Rob Stark brings his fate upon himself. His army dwindles as he alienates his allies from the other northern houses. Betrothed to one of Waldo Frey’s daughters for political reasons, he marries the woman he loves even though his advisors and his mother warn him not to. And his mother knows Waldo, knows his bitterness at being slighted by other houses. How can she even consider going anywhere near the old man? None of that matters. Martin makes me love these characters and then has them brutally slaughtered while they attend a wedding at Frey’s castle. My anger didn’t stop me from continuing the Fire and Ice saga but when I set out to reread it, I stopped in the middle of A Storm of Swords before coming to the Red Wedding. I just couldn’t go through that again.

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I laughed when someone told me that the outcome of an “exotic massage” is called a happy ending. The analogy suggests the nature and depth of readers’ frustration. The author ramps up the tension with conflict and suspense and then delivers disappointment and frustration. True tragedy offers an elevated kind of release—catharsis—but melodrama depends on the happy ending.

Not every massage delivers sexual relief and not every kind of story ends well for the protagonist. Massage clients and readers know that. Their outrage comes when the benefit is promised and not delivered. Since the legality of a sex massage is iffy and readers don’t want to be told ahead of time how a story ends, the promise is implied. A suggestive sign outside the massage parlor, a book cover identifying the story as a romance.

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It upsets me to see Daemon Seer categorized as a romance. I worry that somewhere a reader of romances loathed the ending and still blames me for her damaged Kindle.

So why not give deliver the happy ending every time? Because disaster is the logical end of certain stories, in which case the happy ending becomes a clumsy lie. Intelligent readers reject the lie—even when part of them yearns to accept it. And a few writers are hard cases who insist on delivering a truth that few people care to acknowledge. A truth stated beautifully by Anne Sexton in her poem “Cinderella”:

Cinderella and the prince
Lived, they say, happily ever after,
Like two dolls in a museum case
Never bothered by diapers or dust,
Never arguing over the timing of an egg,
Never telling the same story twice,
Never getting a middle-aged spread,
Their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.


Image credits:

Cinderella still from FanPop

Game of Thrones still from FanPop

JRR Martin meme by AryaArryWeaselNanSaltyCatofthecanalsBethNoOne via Mashable

Massage parlor sign from Bakersfield Now