Sunday, January 27, 2013

How COLDER THAN HELL Made Me a Better Writer

Anthony Neil Smith on writing COLDER THAN HELL, out this week on Amazon...

Look, I don’t do supernatural. I just flat out thought that was beyond me. I write crime novels about people doing awful things to each other, no ghosts or monsters or demons in sight. But this Dead Man thing, I was watching it grow with awe. Several friends of mine, also crime writers, got caught up in the fervor and churned out some great horror pulp. And I was jealous. Really jealous. But…I couldn’t do that sort of thing, could I? And not that they would ever ask me, anyway.

But then I got an email from Bill Rabkin—co-creator of The Dead Man series along with Lee Goldberg—who I had met via Tod Goldberg and who was writing a screenplay adaptation of my novel Yellow Medicine. That magical, unlikely email asked me to write a Dead Man novella. Yep, one o’ them spooky, supernatural, knock-em-out, fists and axes and evil spirits sort of books.

I was thinking, There is no fucking way I can do this.

But what I said was, “Yes. Yes. Yes. Fucking yes.”

And then I told them I’d get to work in May, probably have it in a couple of months.

At which point I fell off a writing cliff and had to drag my ass back up the sheer rock face inch by inch.
No idea what happened. I had recently finished a short, punchy third entry in my Billy Lafitte series. I was riding high off some nice reviews and decent sales of All the Young Warriors. But then it was as if words and me stopped getting along. In fact, those goddamn words were bullying me. Taunting me. And I didn’t know what to write.

But I was under contract for Dead Man. I had to write it. I wanted to. It ended up helping me break the drought and get back to the normal flow of things. But it didn’t take two months. It took nearly five, and I even went over the deadline by a week.

The story came to me more easily than I had expected.  At least some of it. If I had to pitch it, it would come across as “The Shining, but on a frozen interstate.” One of the most frightening things I’ve come across while living up north is the idea of being trapped in your car on an interstate or highway due to snow and ice. You’re surrounded by hundreds of others in the same boat, but you’re all little islands of loneliness, seems to me. So what if some horrible virus or spirit or [INSERT SUPERNATURAL THING HERE] was loosed on top of that?

Fine, fine, the guys in charge liked the idea. They just didn’t get the cause of it all. Something wasn’t clicking. Two reasons for that: 1) I was trying to be a bit too ambitious by tying some ancient evil from a previous Dead Man into this one, hoping to cement a place in the “mythology”, and 2) Again, I don’t do supernatural.

Anthony Neil Smith
But I wrote it, including an old 18th Century diary, some Scandinavian settles in North Dakota who met up with evil Native Americans from The Dead Man #5: The Blood Mesa who had some more ancient evil that was older than Mr. Dark’s evil, and so there was a killer on the loose and an Indian golum, and and and…

What the hell was I thinking?

I finally finished it, turned it in, and waited to be told how bad it was.

Now, the thing I discovered about Lee during the outline process is that he is one tough son of a bitch when it comes to ideas. He was shooting them down all night long. I could imagine his Grinch-like sneer as my emails came in, rubbing his hands in glee as he printed them out for the sole purpose of watching them burn.

But after I turned in the draft, something remarkable happened. His heart grew three sizes…for the first half of the novella, anyway. All the other historical/mythology stuff? I had truly wasted my (and his) time. As bad as I thought it was. That doesn’t mean I didn’t try to save it. Of course I did. That was a month’s work! But it came down to Lee telling me, “Rewrite the second half. You’ve got a month.”

And I was all like, “But how do I…what should I…Can’t you tell me…?”

Why come I hadn’t thought of that? So I was learning a lot about how this sort of story works, what’s expected, how to subvert what’s expected and still deliver a good fright. And best of all, I had to write about fifty pages in a month.

In a good week, I can maybe get fifteen pages done. I hadn’t been having good weeks. But still, fifty pages was within my window of doable.

Five weeks later, I turned it in again. And this time the damn thing worked.  We went through a few edits, not so hard at all, and then Jeroen ten Berge put together a killer cover for it. This was actually happening! I was a Dead Man author! Not only that, but the turnaround on this book was a few months—it would be out by the end of January. That, of course, continued to shore up my already good impression of Amazon Publishing. They knew exactly what they were doing.

Once Dead Man #16: Colder Than Hell was out of my hands, my head was spinning with new ideas—how to fix the stalled novel, how to get a couple of other ideas I had into bed together for yet another novel. I was thinking much more like a pulp writer—write the damned story. Faster. Think through the first two drafts in your head, put the third one down as the first. Hey, I did it once, I could do it again.

All in all, this was a tremendous experience. I’m glad Lee and Bill let me play in the Dead Man toy box, and I look forward to trying it again one day, maybe. In the meantime, there’s not an hour I sit at the typewriter when I don’t think about how my writing process has changed for the better after Dead Man.

Hope you’ll check it out. And if you do happen to have travel plans through North Dakota in the winter, make sure to bring extra layers, some gloves, a thick blanket, and a last will and testament. Just in case.


  1. Looking forward to it. I've just caught up with the series again after a bit of a break.Beaut stuff.

  2. Excellent look into the creative process. Look forward to reading the finished work.