Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Some Good News and Some Sad News

The words just keep on coming. I’m well into the first third of my new Sharon O’Mara thriller, almost 30,000 words. I know I get some grief about citing word count, writers know what it means but readers want page count, so maybe a hundred pages. My little sojourn to London was as much a vacation as research, somewhere in these forthcoming pages will be some sinister and exciting action that deals with London. Maybe at Buckingham Palace, maybe on the Thames, maybe Portobello Road on market day, then again Borough Market might be cool. Still lots of time to figure it out. But so far the story has Rotterdam, Brussels, Havana, and good old Walnut Creek, California. More to come.

This thing with Edward Snowden would make an incredible John le Carre novel. It has it all: espionage, CIA, NSA, Russia, America, presidents yelling at each other, China (as inscrutable as ever), Hong Kong, secret flights to God knows where (and he’s not telling), and lastly the perpetrator has disappeared. Considering all the surveillance (i.e. the underlying reason for all this messing around), I’d like to know how he did it. That is, got away. You would think the NSA would have tapped into the cameras at Moscow Airport and done that face recognition thing and had Jack Reacher go in and “extract” the guy. Sometimes, and almost always, fact is stranger than fiction. Now I wish I’d written the book, I think I’ll call it: The Falcon and the Snowden. Like it?

At the end of July I’ll be attending the Mystery Writers Conference at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. This is always the high point of the year for many of us West Coast writers. Great speakers and conversations about all things sinister and murderous. There’s classes on weapons and explosives (no live fire exercises), plot and story construction, how to make your characters come alive and how to make others very dead. So cool, three and a half days of just neat stuff – and I call myself a writer, but it is true. Some of the speakers are Jacqueline Winspear, John Lescroart, David Corbett, and the “everything happens in Paris” mystery writer, Cara Black. Can’t wait. Go here for more information: Mystery Writers Conference.

Vince Flynn (1966-2013)
The sad news is that one of the young great thriller writers, Vince Flynn, passed away last week after a two year battle with prostate cancer. The lad was only 47 and left a wife and three children. His pen will be missed and so will his tortured hero Mitch Rapp. From his first book that he fought to find a publisher, Term Limits to his final book The Last Man he has been an inspiration to writers with his strong characters, pacing, and technical detail. His life story is that of many writers who come to this art form in bizarre and unexpected ways. He’s an inspiration to all of us. I wish I had known him, but through his stories I think I have a good idea about the man and his sense of right and wrong and justice. More Here.

More Later . . . . . . .

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Seven Truths For Self-Publishing

Every serious writer wants eventually to be published. Most dream of a big contract from one of the New York publishing houses, but sadly many are called and few are chosen. The normal process is to write a book, make submittals to agents, never hear from them, try to tackle one at a writer’s conference to no avail they are slippery devils (they are nice and smile a lot but eventually it’s still no). You push your manuscript for years until you want to scream and give up. Many sadly do and some very good stories are lost. There is another way, one that only recently has opened up to any writer or poet than can string-a-long a creative sentence and dabble in iambic pentameter. And that is to self-publish. Too hard you say, too confusing, too, too, well just too.

“Phooey,” as Nero Wolfe would say. “Phooey.”

You too can be a successful writer (sounds like a lame commercial I know but it’s true and there are a lot of people out there that can help). So here are at least seven true things that can help you get your words out to the people

Truth 1:
Manuscripts are easier than ever to write (it’s the stories that are hard).
Using all the various software out there such as Microsoft Word, Scrivener, Pages, and a few others, formatting and handling the initial editing are so much easier. Most come with spell check and even punctuation checks as you construct your story. Even using Dragon, an excellent dictation software package, works to help flesh out scenes without the nastiness of typing on a keyboard.

Truth 2:
Research is much easier and even more verifiable.
Lord all mighty, what did we do before Google, Bing, Wikipedia and the internet? It has become very true that more data is at your fingertips than any thousand novels can use. I write historical novels, with the selection of a URL I can get calendars, time lines, factual characters, multiple histories, and when needed, instant access to books at online bookstore – even those out of print. Days and weeks of time are saved. And with Google Earth I can even walk the streets in my story making very real my imagination.

Truth 3:
Finding an editor is less complicated and checking their references easier.
I’m in a number of writers groups through LinkedIn some are focused on the craft of writing, ask for some references and you will get a dozen good editors. Find the specialty you want: content, story, grammar, proof edit, etc. Ask their rates, find your comfort zone, and check their references. Most work through Word’s Track Changes but some do it the old fashion way through a paper manuscript, but it comes down you making the final changes.

Truth 4:
You can get your own International Standard Book Number (ISBN) from www.bowker.com.  
This will identify your book as a one of a kind and it’s your book’s identification forever (but you will need a separate one for every editing, ebook, and paper version – just saying). Buy them in blocks of ten, you will be surprised by the other editions you will want to add.

Truth 5:
You can do your own ebook formatting, it’s easy - really.
All it takes is a little experience working with various software formats. Don’t get all concerned about metadata or ebook formatting and fonts, leave them to the experts. You go to www.smashwords.com , Mark Cokers’ genius site for publishing ebooks, download his style and format book, follow the directions, download your manuscript, and suddenly you are a published writer on Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and a host of others. Then do the same thing at Amazon.

Truth 6:
You can have CreateSpace even print your book for you and distribute it through Amazon.
I was stunned how easy it is to have a printed book made after working with difficult and expensive independent Print On Demand (POD) shops. There is come complexity in formatting and book design but a friend, Joel Friedlander, at his site www.bookdesigner.com
offers prepackaged formats for book publishing. Find the one you like and load in your polished manuscript and you are most of the way there. Use CreateSpace’s guidelines and within a week you will have a galley proof – nothing better I tell you than holding your first book.

Truth 7:
Using Amazon and Smashwords as your distributor saves you time and money.
All orders go directly through these online retailers and your ebooks is sent directly to the buyer – simple and easy. They keep a fair percentage for what they offer – access to the whole world. Payments are direct to you and you can watch the weekly tally as your sales go through the roof or sit alone in the basement. There are great stories out there about writer who did very well through Amazon, Hugh Howey’s Wool is a good example.

Many fellow writers have told me the writing is the easy and fun part, most even enjoyed the editing – all, almost without exception, hate the marketing. The daily shilling of your name and your work to find readers annoyed them, it wasn’t even about the money (which isn’t bad if you’re lucky and the product's good), it’s really about recognition. There more than seven truths about book marketing that maybe someday, when I find the answers, I’ll write them down too.

More later . . . . . . .

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Where has the Year Gone, Again?

This is a blog I wrote just two years ago and it’s as pertinent today as then. Schedules and catch-up work after roaming Europe require me to put off being a creative blogger, at least for this week.

Where has the Year Gone, Again?

On January 26 of this year (2011), I posted the first blog for Writing 4 Death. On February 2, THE SCHEDULE (all caps is a must, to be a driven writer you must use CAPITALS), was announced. Two things: 1) As noted last week, I’m on schedule (for the new book) and in fact three weeks ahead, and 2) Where the hell has the year gone? On Friday, July 1, sometime during the middle of the afternoon or so, half of the year will be gone, disappeared, pulled anchor, faded away, kaput! Some will shed a tear, others thankful relief. And, dear reader, we are faced with the rest of the year. Can’t escape it, it is what it is.

(The above was written for the Sharon O’Mara Book Containers For Death which was Book Two in the series – I am working on Book Five now, working title Diamonds For Death, a little behind but pushing feverishly.)

Writers and time have lived with each other for thousands of years. The Odyssey is as much a sea-cruise as a battle against time. For Ulysses it wasn’t so much a Carnival ship “once in a life time adventure,” what with the Lotus-eaters, the Cyclops, Sirens and such, but it was a ten year cruise home (if you think about it, there are a lot of parallels with the S.S. Minnow, Gilligan’s Island and its advertised “three-hour tour”).

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, holds time in suspension for one man, but time can’t be foiled; something has to age. Almost every story requires a process of time and events, each leading to and supporting the other. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, pushes us through the barriers of mortality and allows the traveler to live in a time not his own, but to move, almost eternally, back and forth. We wonder, Is it possible?

Time is the stuff of writers; we are shape-shifters, we mold time to our needs and desires, we distort it, collapse it, and for some stories freeze time for some (or allow it to move very slowly) while we accelerate it for other characters in the same story. One of my favorite movies is Portrait of Jennie (1948) based on Robert Nathan’s novella, where two people of different times fall in love, the ending, while dramatic leaves the romantic in me saddened.

Time attacks the writer in a number of ways. The time needed to write the damn thing (it becomes that damn thing at some point), the time to edit it, the time to produce the final manuscript; impatience is its step-brother. The story or book itself is a progression of time: hours, a day (Dan Brown’s books), weeks, months, and seasons. My forthcoming novel, Elk River, (published in 2011), all takes place in one summer in 1956, yet relives years, decades, and even generations of the Smith family.

How we twist the hours and days into interesting interconnected moments that are strung together makes us writers. While there are other equally important parts to writing: the mundane and glorious sentences, the ‘ideology’, the voice, the themes, Hemingway’s ‘True Self’ (whatever that is – go see the movie Midnight in Paris), the editor, the publisher, and even the printer. Me, I vote for the manipulation of time as the most important.

More Later . . . . . . .

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Sorry but Switzerland was Great

At Least Now I Have Your Attention
I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a couple of weeks, I took some time and traveled from London to Milan/Florence via Switzerland, crazy most of the time but for some reason Montreux has now turned into our cup of tea. Relaxing and spectacularly brilliant after the antics of the French and Londoners – or at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I am working on a video that I’ll post on YouTube about the trip, hopefully this year.

What I really enjoyed about the vacation was the chance to read and write. I read three books during the trip, Dan Brown’s Inferno, Steven Coonts’ Pirate Alley, and a good start on Patrick O’Brian’s first in the 19 book series, Master and Commander, quick reviews of the first two below.
But more importantly, I was also able to finally complete the last chapter of my new World War II romance and spy novel Wars Amongst Lovers. I have had the luxury of having five people read the story and all think it’s great. Their comments have made it even better. These readings help when you have inadvertently messed up the story or confused the reader, they bring you back to point. Most helpful are their ideas that help flesh out the characters and make them real. Thanks to all – I listened and made improvements. You are all on my free book list.
My last blog post (see below) was about the best seller and what it all means, whatever the genre. Being on top of the best seller list is like winning the World Series for a writer. All the hard work has led to recognition, what else is there? Anticipating Brown’s Inferno I titled the last blog as such. I was disappointed. The story is interesting and, as most of Mr. Brown’s works, raises discussions about issues beyond the simple detective thrillers that his books are. The detective (really a college professor), Robert Langdon is a symbologist and, with his skills reading between the written and symbol filled lines of history and fantasy, needles out the solution to mysteries and murders. All well in good. The story moves along (as in all his books the chase takes just one day) from Florence to Venice to Istanbul. In fact I was in Florence the day I finished the book, I looked for many of the things he pointed out in the book. All in all I give it a 5 out of 10.
What you say? A mediocre average, he’s a bestselling author for Pete’s sake. Yes, because Mr. Brown should have evolved into a better writer than this book represents. Amateurs feel compelled to put in all their research, no matter how irrelevant or trivial to the story – but Mr. Brown is compelled to leave it in. He brings up tangential bursts of information so often through the book that it is not only distracting but downright annoying. Inferno at times seems more like an Italian travelogue than a mystery, I’m distracted by art lessons and architecture theory. And while he populates the book with red herrings and crumbs, it is bogged down by these tidbits of tedious knowledge. While politics and Florence go hand-in-hand (Medici and Machiavelli come to mind) – some is too much. I do not think that Christian churches will be holding meetings to discuss the general theme of Inferno, certainly not like they did for the Da Vinci Code. Sad because his publisher, Doubleday has spent a fortune promoting, translating and insuring the book has a worldwide opening (Inferno and Dante were even the theme of an episode on the last CSI, Las Vegas for the year – coincidence?).
On the other hand if you are planning to take a cruise you must read Stephen Coonts’ Pirate Alley. It is one story that you can’t put down – seriously. And when finished you will immediately cancel that summer cruise down the Suez Canal and out to the Indian Ocean. Be afraid, be very afraid. Mr. Coonts over the past 27 years has written some of the best military thrillers in the American genre. His two main characters Jake Grafton and Tommy Carmellini, aren’t Jack Reachers or other super hero types but damn fine soldiers doing hard work in the old fashion kick-their-butts the American way. And Jake does manage to save the world a few times.
Pirate Alley is about the seizing of a cruise ship off the coast of Somalia by pirates and the efforts of the British and American military forces under the command of Grafton (of course) to save the eight hundred passengers and crew from some very nasty Somalis and Islamic terrorists. Well written, fast paced, more weapons and explosives than you can imagine, and Carmellini’s bitching and complaining through the whole book – loved it. But I didn’t like the title, Pirate Alley. All the action takes place on the ocean or Somalia – not some Los Angeles alley. I like Pirate Desert better – kind of poetic and counterintuitive.

Last point, in this morning’s Wall Street Journal there is an interesting article about never finishing books that you have started (GO HERE). There are many I’ve started and had to put down, some because they were boring or annoying, others because they didn’t capture my mood. Or as in the case of 50 Shade of Grey there were no pictures. The ebook has given us greater freedom to “Just walk away.” They are easier to ignore buried in a tablet than the books in a pile on the shelf with those annoying bookmarks noting your failures. Good article

More later and I’m glad to be home . . . . . . .