Frank Scalise is a crime writer who also writes under the pen name Frank Zafiro.
His books include the River City series and he has also written several fantasy books.
Frank has been writing since he was 13 years old. After entering the police force, he wrote before or after shift work. In 2013, Frank did what many writers dream of: he retired from the police force to write full time.
During our chat, Frank told me that if you collaborate with somebody else, you can accomplish a lot more, and to prove it, Frank has written over 30 books.
If you’re interested in collaborating with other writers, listen to the middle of the interview when Frank explains how he finds collaborators. He talks about what to expect from the collaborative process and how it’s helped him write more books.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Frank: …but, you know, I’m in a position recently where, you know, I had several projects that could be next that I hadn’t necessarily planned an exact date on and, sometimes, that’s kind of a good place to be where you can kinda go, “Do I wanna work on this next or do I wanna work on that next?” and I hadn’t been there for a few years. I had a lot of commitments that had me…
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: Would you like to write police procedurals or would you like to learn how to collaborate with other authors?
My guest this week is Frank Scalise. He also writes under the pen name Frank Zafiro. He primarily writes crime fiction, including the River City series, but he also writes fantasy books. In 2013, Frank did the thing that many writers dream of: he retired from the police force to write full time. But one of my takeaways from this week’s interview was that Frank didn’t wait until retirement before working on his books full time. He’s actually been writing for years since he was a teenager of 13 years of age. In other words, he wrote on the side before or after shift work when he was serving in the police force.
My other takeaway from this interview with Frank is that if you collaborate with somebody else, you can accomplish a lot more and Frank has actually written over 30 books and if you’re interested in collaborating with other writers, in the middle of the interview, Frank explains how he finds his collaborators, what to expect from the collaborating process, and how it’s helped him write more books, and he also explains what it looks like when it goes well and when it doesn’t.
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Now, I started by asking Frank to introduce himself and to explain his background and why he wanted to write police procedural in the first place.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, Frank.
Frank: Oh, well, thanks for having me.
Bryan: So, I’m pretty impressed by how you’ve written so many books. It sounds like your retirement is busier than your career, but before we get onto that, would you be able to give listeners a flavor for who you are and how you got into writing in the first place?
Frank: Sure. You know, I’ve always seen myself as a writer, even as a very young person. It just wasn’t one of those things where you can just throw out a shingle and say, “Hey, I’m a writer, send me money,” you know?
I mean, you have to have a career and so that led me certain places, but I’ve written since I was young and then, once I got into law enforcement and started writing fiction, it was crime fiction that came out. So, I tend to write as Frank Zafiro. I tend to write gritty crime fiction from both sides of the badge and across several sub-genres, be it procedurals or hard boiled or what have you.
Bryan: When you were serving in the police, did you write then or did you take notes or did you come back to your career after you’d retired?
Frank: Oh, I was definitely writing during my career. I came on the job in 1993 and, by 1995, I had a pretty horrible first draft of what ended up being my first book eventually, but then I kinda took a hiatus for a while because, you know, I was learning new things within the job, new jobs within policing, just about every year something different, whether it was becoming a police officer, becoming a training officer, becoming a corporal, a detective, a sergeant, all these different jobs and all of them were pretty writing intensive, just technical writing, you know, within the police department and I went back to school at the same time.
I got my undergraduate degree in history and there’s a lot of reading and writing that takes place in there and so there just wasn’t really room for fiction ’til about 2004 when I became friends with another police officer who was also a writer who I ended up partnering with on multiple books, Colin Conway, and that kinda pushed me into the fiction direction again. I was at a place where I could do that. My career had settled a little bit and so — but, yeah, my first book came out in 2006 and I had another seven years on the job after that.
Bryan: A lot of people who are listening who are probably balancing writing with a full-time job or other commitments, were you writing early in the morning or in the evening after work?
Frank: Yeah, I was writing whenever I could steal the time, you know? I mean, in that seven years, I went through a lot of life changes. My kids were different ages and had different demands on my time and I was married, I was divorced, I was married again, typical cop story there, and so there was no set time but — and plus I was working shift work that changed, my assignment would change and so forth so the demands of the job fluctuated so, yes, I was stealing time wherever I could and it was never the same time, it didn’t seem like, for any period of time consistently.
Bryan: You mentioned collaborating with another author, which we’ll get to in a moment, but I’m curious, did you always want to write police procedurals and thrillers, or was it more of a case of writing what you know?
Frank: Yeah, I think it was the second thing. I grew up on science fiction and fantasy and my hero authors were Piers Anthony and, of course, Tolkien and so forth, and then, you know, I didn’t write fiction for quite a while because of what I described before.
It was a good seven, eight years, at least, and when I came back to it, those were just the stories that came out and certainly I was informed by my real life experiences. I think a lot of writers, you know, what you’re going through, directly or indirectly, impacts what it is you end up writing.
Bryan: When you were serving, did you have a journal or any process for, I suppose, capturing ideas that you might use later on or was it more of a case of drawing on your memory?
Frank: Some of both. I did make some notes occasionally and then, after I got a little deeper in my career, the last couple of years and certainly since, if somebody told me a story or if I remembered something, I’d jot it down but I tried to avoid doing any one-for-one transformations, you know?
I just tried to kinda capture the flavor and the texture and the color of the police experience and not — I don’t want people to go, “Oh, wait, I went on that call. You know, I was there.” I mean, you know, maybe the funny retort or the interesting situation but not the entirety of it. I try to fictionalize it quite a bit.
Bryan: Okay, okay. So, I’m looking at your Amazon author page. It’s pretty impressive. I mean, you have over 30 books, multiple genres, like what’s your secret to writing so many?
Frank: Well, it’s a couple of things. One is I cheat. I mean, I wrote roughly half of those with another writer and so when you write half a book, you can write twice as many books, you know?
That’s part of it. And the other part of it is I’m just done fast. I mean, people have their own process, everyone has their own process. With some of the books that I wrote, they were with an author named Eric Beetner, three of them, and there’s a guy who writes super fast and his first draft is the cleanest I’ve ever seen, and I’ve worked with other people whose processes is more meticulous and slower and so, obviously, you don’t get as many books written as quickly, but everybody has their own process.
Mine happens to be quick enough to allow me to get books out fairly rapidly.
Bryan: You must be publishing several books a year.
Frank: Yeah, I think that’s fair, but, I mean, the 30 book number, you know, that dates back to 2006 and so, you know, that’s quite — you know, maybe one and a half or two a year if you average them out. Some years were bumper crops, some were a little drier and, you know, if I’m writing one or two myself and co-writing one, you know, that’s really not as impressive as it might sound.
Bryan: Okay. When you’re writing a book, do you outline it in advance or do you make it up as you go along?
Frank: I used to do the latter and, in fact, it was the only way I got any pleasure out of it. If I, you know, knew too much about where it was going, I wasn’t as excited about it, but that’s changed over the years and particularly when I’ve gotten into collaboration, you can’t do it that way. When you collaborate, you have to have at least a bullet point outline. You can’t just pick a compass direction and go. You’ve got to discuss routes and stops and things like this. Otherwise, it’s a mess.
Bryan: You probably have a good understanding at this stage about the conventions of the police procedural genre as well, certain things to include.
Frank: Yeah, you get a feel for what needs to be in there and at what level. You know, one of the things about procedurals that people like and the reason that they tend to read them is for the — it’s not so much a whodunit, although it can be, but it’s also howdunit and “how are they gonna catch it-dunit,” you know?
And those specific insider details, people wanna see those, but they don’t wanna read a textbook on policing either so, you know, you kinda have to find a balance.
Bryan: When you’re writing a book, what does your actual process look like in terms of a typical day?
Frank: If I’m writing a book by myself, I’ve, in recent months, gravitated towards getting at it in the morning first thing. I mean, you know, not first thing. First thing is coffee and hockey news but first actual work of the day where you’ve got that energy and you’ve got that creative tank is full and I try to set a goal, be it a number of scenes or page count, word count, something along those lines, some kind of an end mark that I will do at a minimum and then, if I go longer, I go longer.
Some people are a lot more dedicated and disciplined. I mean, I feel like if I wanna go longer, I go longer, you know? Just you gotta roll with it and then the rest of the day is there for editing. It’s there for, you know, all the business that goes with being a writer and so forth.
Bryan: Okay. Yeah, I was curious about when you say “go longer,” like most writers tend to cap out at about three or four hours a day. After that, they tend to move on to something else related to writing but not necessarily working on the first draft.
Frank: Yeah, and that’s a good rule of thumb. I think I fall right into that, but I will say that there’s been times where things are going really, really well where I’ll go eight-plus hours, six, eight hours easily and maybe the draft isn’t as good in the first draft as it might have been if I’d done two four-hour sessions but it’s done and it’s gonna be just as good after that first revision. I think you kinda gotta follow your gut a little bit when it comes to doing extra and I think you have to follow a disciplined mind when it comes to doing anything.
Bryan: What about your editor? Because you’ve written so many books, do you work with the same editor or do you like to get a new person involved each time?
Frank: Yeah, it’s all different editors, depending on the situation, you know? I mean, if it’s a co-author deal, then your co-author is also your editor and you’re his or hers, and then if it’s something that I’m published independently then I’m on the hook for figuring out who’s gonna do editing duties.
If I’m with a publisher, then that’s in their camp to decide and so, yeah, I’ve worked with multiple editors and, you know, a good editor is absolutely crucial and what a good editor does if he or she is doing their job right, I think, is help you accomplish what you’re trying to do without putting their own stamp on it but making your stamp more powerful and more clear.
Bryan: Do you go through several rounds of editing or is one enough?
Frank: More than one, for sure. More than one, for sure, but I think the biggest edits happen in that first one and then the rest tend to be polishing and preening and fixing things, and it’s shocking how much you can miss and how much other people can miss.
I mean, I have a pretty good stable of beta readers, my beta squad, if any of them are listening, know how valuable you are. You are platinum, you’re better than gold, but the interesting thing about that group of beta readers is that they all have their own strengths and I will get copies back from each of them and every single one of them will have corrections or observations that no one else had, you know? I mean, everybody picks up on certain mistakes or certain problems or whatever but there’s stuff that only this person found this mistake or this problem and it’s pretty amazing that even after that, certain things will slip through.
Bryan: It sounds like you have quite a team of people in your beta squad. Do you send them the book using something like BookFunnel or you just send them a PDF or how do you work with them?
Frank: I usually send them in whatever format they need. It’s a small enough group that I can just send it to them via e-mail, although I have used BookFunnel as well for people —
Bryan: Good tool.
Frank: Yeah, it’s a great tool and I personally like sending someone a Word doc and having them flip on the track changes features just like I do with my co-authors because that’s what works best for me, but when somebody is volunteering to read your book for you and gives you critical feedback and their payment is essentially an acknowledgment in said book and a free read, you don’t really complain if they ask for a PDF or a MOBI file to do it. You’re happy to give it to them in whatever format they’re willing to read it in.
Bryan: And do they tend to be readers of your series that are familiar with your other books?
Frank: Most of them have done multiple books and are familiar with the other books in the series and then, occasionally, somebody new comes along and they don’t have that institutional memory, which is actually good because they might hit on things that that your more constant, repeat readers, you know, they’re kind of inured to and they don’t catch it.
Bryan: Okay. So, Frank, I write a lot of non-fiction. I’ve written across non-fiction genres, which I think makes things a bit more difficult for me, but you’ve also written across genres and when we were talking before the show, you said you started to write in fantasy as well. Was there any particular reason why you decided to switch genre?
Frank: Well, I don’t view it as a switch exactly, more of a stretch, but, yeah, because I love it, you know? I grew up on fantasy and science fiction and I always thought that was what I was going to write when I was younger and that’s not what happened and so I’ve been waiting to be in a position where I felt like I could make that additional move and not take away from my Frank Zafiro brand and the kinds of — the prolific nature of that.
And the other thing I think it’s happened in that field is that it’s opened up to different sub-genres of fantasy and I guess what I’m saying is I can write fantasy the way I write crime fiction and there’s a genre for that. There’s a sub-genre for that, you know? Grim dark is basically the fantasy version of some of my crime fiction so it wasn’t as hard of a transition to make in that regard as well, but it was just something that I loved and that I wanted to do and experience and you could call it a bit of a childhood dream, I think.
Bryan: Did readers follow you over from police procedurals to this new genre?
Frank: Well, not yet. I’m still working on the first book and so it’s pretty early in those stages. I hope they will and, obviously, I hope to find some new readers as well.
Bryan: You also collaborate with other writers. Could you describe how the collaboration process works and any tips for anybody who might be considering collaborating?
Frank: Well, the biggest tip I can give you — I guess there are two. The first one is hope you get lucky with the person you choose because much like you never know what a person’s like unless you live with them, sort of the saying, you never know how it’s gonna be with another writer until you’re actually writing together and I’ve been very fortunate in that regard. So, you know, be careful who you select.
You definitely wanna be compatible in that regard. And the other big piece of advice on kind of the meta-level is you’ve gotta check your ego at the door and people say that and they say they’ll do it and so forth but they don’t always follow through and what I mean by that is it has to be about the work first. It has to be about the story first and you have to be willing to listen to what your co-writer is saying, not listening in order to make your counterpoint but actually listening and being willing to take the constructive criticism and then being willing to give it, because people are conflict-averse and they don’t always like to say, “Dude, that scene sucks,” and, of course, if I love you and I love this book and I love what we’re doing and I say this scene sucks, then you know where I’m coming from.
I’ve got your back, you’re gonna listen and you’re gonna be able to absorb it and then we can make it so the scene doesn’t suck anymore. Same if it’s coming the other direction. If you’re not secure in that, if you’re not checking the egos, then it becomes something very different and not very healthy, I don’t think, and so I think why I’ve been successful is I’ve been — it kinda goes back to my first tip which is be careful who you choose, the people I’ve chosen have all been able to check their ego and, hopefully, I have too.
You could ask them, I suppose, for confirmation but I feel like I have and so we’ve made it about the story first and so that’s kind of the meta advice I would give. Everybody’s process is different individually and I think you’re gonna find that your collaborative process is different as well. I’ve kind of had two main processes.
Some of the books, a good portion of them were written in what I would call a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters and so that process was essentially I write my chapter with my character and, you know, I’ll send it to you and you write your chapter and since we’ve got kind of at least a bullet point plan for where we’re going, then you know what to write and I know what to write and so we’re not overlapping a ton and that process worked really well for a long time, a good seven, eight, nine books maybe, and then I partnered up with Larry Kelter and he had reached out to me because he wanted to write a police procedural and he wanted someone as a partner who had the police background and I told him all about, “Hey, this is what I’ve been doing. It works, dual first person, back and forth, blah, blah, blah,” and he’s like, “Yeah, that’s great, that’s cool, but I don’t wanna do that.”
I was like, “Oh, okay, what do you wanna do?” and he’s like, “Well, we can do first person but I just wanna write one point of view, one narrative,” and I said okay because, you know, we had a good story and I was excited to work with him but I was a little worried that we would have this schizophrenic main character and, ultimately, we didn’t.
We had a character who wasn’t in my voice or his voice but in this third voice and the reason for that was because we edited the living daylights out of it, both of us, with a heavy hand because we had checked our egos at the door, right? And so it was okay. And so, going back and looking at that book now, I literally can — I might be able to pick out two or three phrases that I know I wrote but the others, I couldn’t tell you if he wrote it or I wrote it or he wrote it and I edited it or vice versa, it’s just become this third voice and it worked out really well and so that kind of paved the way for doing that same process in other books, particularly when I started working on that Charlie-316 series with Colin Conway who, ironically, was the first guy that I had a collaboration with.
We collaborated on Some Degree of Murder with that dual first person narrative and then came back around years and years later to write these four books in the Charlie-316 series and those were done much in the same fashion as I described, that both of us writing many of the characters and so forth.
Bryan: If somebody wanted to find a collaborator, how would they go about doing it? Because it sounds like your collaborators reached out to you or knew who you were.
Frank: Kind of some of both but, yeah, I think be active in the community that you write in and get to know other authors and then I think you’ll come across someone who might be a good fit. And, in my case, I guess, I call them and I just kinda said, “Dude, we should write a book together,” and then it kinda happened and Eric Beetner, I hounded him for a good year and a half, two years, “Hey, let’s write a book together, man. Let’s write a book together,” and he was always like, “Well, yeah, but I don’t have an idea,” and then, finally, he did come up with an idea and, later on, he told me that he didn’t want to write a book with someone else because he had already done a collaboration and it had gone really well and he figured he’d used up all his luck on that and all the rest of his collaborations were gonna be disasters and ego fights and all that so he was a little reluctant but then he had this great idea about competing hitmen and he’s like, “Yeah, we could give this a try,” and so that’s what we did and it went great.
Larry reached out to me, Bonnie reached out to me, and I think I convinced Jim to come in on the Ania series. He’s a short story writer that we just crossed paths a lot in that area and I think I suggested to him that we should work on one together so it could kinda go either way, just the common denominator is just being active in your writing community and getting to know people and building relationships and sampling their work and knowing that and then it just kinda happens organically, I think.
Bryan: So my main experiences with collaboration are more to do with getting editorial feedback, you know, where I use a Google Doc or something like that. When you’re collaborating with an actual other author, are you sending each other chapters every day or is there some other way you guys do it?
Frank: I haven’t used Google Docs much at all, although I’m working on something in that platform right now and seeing how it works but, most of the time, it was a Word document and what ended up working best we found was to use a separate document for each back and forth, so 1.0, 1.01, and so forth, right?
And once we had an outline, we would just go back and forth for however long it took you to get through your part of the outline, whether that was one chapter or three chapters or whatever it was. Sometimes, it goes slower; sometimes, it goes faster. When the blood is up, you know, that writing like that flesh of, “Oh, my God, this is going really good,” that you get as a writer, it could go fast. I think Charlie-316, the first book in that series I wrote with Colin, we pumped out almost a 100,000-word first draft in about three weeks, I think.
Bryan: Wow, that’s very impressive.
Frank: Yeah, it was, I mean, it’s the fastest it’s ever happened for me but it was flowing so well and, you know, both of us were committed to it and you talk about picking a good partner, part of it is also how committed are they, are they as committed as you, because when I would get the chapters back from Collin, man, I’m in there right away.
I’m reading what he wrote and doing a quick first edit pass on that, I’m reading his, you know, edit pass on what I had sent him previously and then I’m diving into my new stuff and I’m getting it back to him as fast as possible, you know? It’s number one in my work queue because I’m committed and he’s doing the same thing and, of course, that speeds up the process considerably.
Bryan: Your work, do you have a publication plan for the year or do you just take it on a book-by-book basis?
Frank: It used to be the take-them-as-they-come sort of approach. I’ve gotten a little more meticulous about that and so I do plan things out a little bit further in advance these days but, you know, I’m in a position recently where, you know, I had several projects that could be next that I hadn’t necessarily planned an exact date on and, sometimes, that’s kind of a good place to be where you can kinda go, “Do I wanna work on this next or do I wanna work on that next?” and I hadn’t been there for a few years. I had a lot of commitments that had me going to the next job that, you know, it’s kinda — it was already chosen for me. I mean, I made the commitment so I made the choice, it’s my own fault, so to speak, but, you know, beginning of this year, I was like, well, hey, now I can choose what to work on and that’s kind of a fun place to me too.
Bryan: Yeah, I can imagine. You mentioned being active in the community. You also have a podcast for crime authors. How do you balance writing with the other parts of I suppose running your writing business and podcasting?
Frank: Yeah, I mean thank the heavens I’m retired and I can focus full time on my writing career because I don’t think I could do it otherwise. You know, I had to find that balance. Initially, the podcast, Wrong Place, Write Crime, was kind of supposed to be that —
Bryan: Great name.
Frank: My wife came up with it. It was supposed to be that one hour-ish, late at night, you’re driving down the road, windshield wipers going and you come across something on the radio where two people are talking —
Bryan: Sounds like a scene in a book.
Frank: Yeah, yeah, well, but, you know, we’ll talk about your books and we’ll talk about that stuff but, you know, if we end up talking about, you know, hockey or the state of the world or whatever, that’s okay too and that works really well but the problem was, you know, an hour long, once a month, I wasn’t talking to — I mean, I had a backlog of people I wanted to talk to and so I introduced, on the off weeks that aren’t the feature episode weeks, an open-and-shut episode and that is a shorter 15- to 20-minute segment that’s basically, boom, here’s who this writer is, tell me about your stuff and then we’re out and that allowed me to have conversations with a ton more writers and to promote other writers and to get a chance to, especially since COVID hit but even before that, I was living such a life of a hermit, it was to have a little bit of a social life as well.
And then I kinda realized that I was doing too much too often, I had to kinda curtail back and take summers off to stay fresh and so, you know, you do that self-care kind of stuff to make that happen but it’s a lot, I’ll be honest with you, and you know as well as I do that for 30 minutes of podcasting, you’re doing three hours of work behind the scenes, at least, and so you have to be committed to it but I do think there’s something to be said for promoting your peers and giving them a place to be seen and heard and I really enjoy it.
Bryan: Yeah, yeah. And also it’s always nice to talk to other writers and other authors. Just one last question. You’ve written a lot of books, are there any book marketing strategies that are working for you well at the moment, or is it the case that you have a deep back catalog to draw upon?
Frank: I don’t think the back catalog hurts in today’s world. I’ve always kind of been of the philosophy that if you put a lot of lines in the water, you know, you have a better chance of catching the big fish, right? And the nice part about a back catalog is, if one of your titles catches fire, it’s, what do they say? Rising tide, you know, lifts all boats sort of thing and so that’s kind of been the approach that I’m taking.
I was kind of a hybrid author for a while there. I have about half of my titles independently published and then about half of my titles were with a publisher but what I discovered by being in that kind of half and half situation was I kind of was not getting the full benefits of either one and so I kinda weighed my options and I decided, you know, I think I’m gonna just go full indie and so I got my rights back from the publisher who was very understanding and very accommodating and that just happened recently here, April 19th is when all those books went live, and it’s all indie now. So, if I fail, it’s my fault and my fault alone. I can’t complain like some authors can about a publisher not marketing me or a publisher changing the cover or anything else. “Oh, there’s a mistake in that book. Stupid publisher.” Nope. It’s all me. It’s all me. So the mistakes are all mine.
Bryan: Are you going to run Facebook or Amazon ads for your books?
Frank: Yeah, that’s part of the plan. Amazon ads are — I haven’t cracked the code on that yet and they’re kind of master’s level stuff. Facebook ads, that’s college level stuff and then, of course, there’s the other promos, the mailer promos, that, to me, is kind of the first step and so scaffolding toward getting up to Amazon ads and working on those.
Bryan: Yeah. Funny, I went the other way around. I did Amazon ads, but they’ve gotten more difficult over the years, or more competitive, I should say. So, anyway, Frank, where can people read your work or find your books?
Frank: Probably the easiest place to start is my website, frankzafiro.com. Pretty simple. Of course, I’m on Amazon and there’s an author page there and those might be the two easiest places to start.
Bryan: Thank you, Frank.
Frank: Thanks a lot for having me. It’s great to hear that Irish voice. Takes me back to traveling in your fair country about a year and a half ago.
Bryan: Yeah. Hopefully, you’d be here again. Thank you.
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