Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Making a Best Seller

In terms of reaching the top it seems that there are two ways to me.

1. Write an outstanding book, both storywise and readabilitywise.


2. Have an adequate story/readability index, but a topic that everyone is hungry for.

Both of these are also contingent on finding the right agent/editor/publisher combo as well, which is pure luck it seems.

Things that don't work:

1. Using a time machine. It freaked out the agent when my cousin Leonard showed up in the past to tell him to buy my book and therefore changed history against my favour. I should have told Leonard to take off the crash helmet before speaking to people. (the agent later wrote a book about being visited by future people, it became "Back to the Future" and I got nothing because I was only sixteen then).

2. Lacing the pages with psychedelic drugs...that was just bad in all ways. Agents can't really fly.
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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Keeping Up With The Future of Publishing

A question has been bugging me as I am heading towards publication in the near future myself. How in the world does an author jump into this publishing business, become a best seller, then stay on top for the rest of their life? I fully intend, hope, expect, what ever you want to call it, to be the next Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsythe guy. At least that's what I am aiming for. And as the saying goes:

"It is better to aim for greatness and almost achieve it, than to aim for mediocrity and make it dead on."

Actually I just made up that wording, but I read something like it somewhere.

Basically, I want to make sure I stay in the game once I get on board. But how in the world did the world know to buy and read and buy again those great Military Fiction dudes like Clancy, Forsythe, Griffin, Higgins, et al and keep buying them for years and decades and into the next century. I want to know what the trend is going to be for the future so that I can learn and write in that direction. I do, afterall, have three boys to put through college. The oldest (starting college this fall) plans to be a great business man / musician, the second (class of 2016) an award winning biologist, and the other (class of 2019) a world famous doctor who cures diabetes. I teach them to aim high too.

To reach that goal, I have to make some serious dinero. Which means I have to write and sell some super terrific, spine tingling, brain jolting, keep you up until you've read the whole thing in one sitting, books. And once written get them sold.

As I write this my surprisingly wonderful and hard working agent is busting her tail cross country to achieve that last bit. I can almost taste it. I thought I smelled it earlier, but that was meatloaf & rice with colby-jack and powdered jalapeno sprinkled over it...almost as good, but can't pay my kids college tuition.

Once sold though, I need staying power. The ability to recreate success over and over ad infinitum. In addition to that, I need to be able to guess the next trend in what people want to read and jump on it. Which means I may not always write military/terrorist/espionage thrillers. As it is I have three historical fiction works synoptisized and waiting for the chance to jump on the page. Ken Follet, one of my favourite authors, has manageed to make quite an amazing career writing books that follow no sequence, or series. I hope to do the same as much as inspiration allows. But how to figure out those trends. Hmmmm....

After much long thought and contemplation I decided to work on my time machine a bit over the weekend. It needed some fine tuning. The Fifi experiment was tragic, and quite messy (on the bright side, the dog food bills are not a concern anymore). I think I got it right this time.

Not wanting to risk turning myself inside out or getting my body parts miscellanously reattached, I gave my cousin Leonard ten bucks and a promise of a six pack on his return. Wearing a 60's style blue motorbike helmet with a digital video camera attached he pulled down his clear plastic chemistry lab goggles and I flung him into the vortex to find out what books will be popular over the next fifteen years.

The time machine door opened, and Leonard looked up.

Some huge muscular guy dressed in a full body blue leotard turned around and stared at him.

Leonard stuttered a bit then finally blurted out, "Basil wants to know what kind of books do you guys like in the year 2019?"

To which the guy replied in a thick German accent, "GAAAAAAA!"

Then he punched Leonard in the face and ran away.

A bunch of people in red leotards came chasing after the blue guy. Leonard didn't want to get hit again. He scuttled backwards, tripped over the pilot's seat. His hand smacked the "go" button. The door shut and seconds later he was back in my garage. He stumbled out of the machine, wiping blood from his nose and looked at me with a wild eyed stare then went straight for the six pack.

So the trip did not answer my question in any significant way. Apparently, though, books based on 'Running Man' will not be too popular. So...I guess I'll need to rewrite that manuscript.

As a side note, Leonard downed the whole six pack in one go, without even removing his helmet. I think Leonard may be an alcoholic.
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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Vacations in the mind

I love it when I read a book and get transported to a different time and place. When the words on the page create a reality of their own that in the mind is virtually indistinguishable from memory. Even a memory that could in no way be mine.  Such scenes if perfectly painted can feel like a vacation in my living room.


I've experienced that with several writers, but the one's that impress me the most are those who do it with historical fiction. For instance Bernard Cornwells "The Winter King" which told an Arthurian legend without any feeling of fantasy, it was incredibly realistic. I also recently finished Ken Follett's "World Without End" and found the setting to be incredibly detailed, even though it took place nearly 900 years ago. Whatever he did that managed to get so many details about the look and feel of Kingsbridge that long ago is what I want to do with my own work.


Therefore I am actively working on a time machine to transport me to the Mongolian Empire circa 1150's. I thought I had it the other day, but upon the first live test...well things didn't go as well as I hoped. 


...poor Fifi.



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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dan Browns next big whoopdeedoo

As a super multi-millionaire after The DaVinci Code (TDC) Dan Brown no doubt could probably care less about whether his new book, The Lost Symbol, does terribly well. I mean, it took more than four years to get it out, which means one of two things.

1: He really did a ton of research and greatly improved his writing skills after so many people complained about the poor literary quality of TDC.
2: He was too busy partying on the gazillions he made from TDC and simply put it off until his publisher threatened to have a hit man come over for a visit.

If you haven't read The DaVinci Code, don't feel lonely. I never read TDC either, and don't plan to. In my humble opinion, anything written as poorly as the overwhelming majority say it is and becomes that popular probably has some sort of mind altering chemical laced throughout the pages, or spiritual forces whispering into people's ears, or aliens involved in some way.

Even more troubling is fiction that the author openly states is fiction and yet so many seem to earnestly believe to be true. Quite troubling to my rational mind.

Reminds me of an LSD trip back in the 80's where the ceiling opened up and I went to space and aliens with puppy dog heads took the time to tell me the real truth about cheese and the moon.

Uh...did I say that out loud? proven...Dan Brown could probably care less. He can afford all the moon cheese he wants no matter how well the book does. In the end he'll have to answer to God, but hey his stuff proves that's all just a conspiracy anyway...right?
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Thursday, April 9, 2009

“Your characters seem so real, like people I have met.”

Are my characters real?

“Your characters seem so real, like people I have met.”

That has been mentioned by several listeners and readers to my stories. Truth be told, many of my characters are as real as fictional characters can get. Especially the most tragic characters.

A list of characters based on real people and just how close they were.

Karl’s Last Flight:

Karl – based on a retired navy fighter pilot I met who lived for adrenaline every chance he got, but was the most mild mannered, quiet guy in person….until he got onto a fast engine of any kind.

Esther – based on a real girl, although from Afghanistan instead of Iran, who endured almost everything my Esther did. She was rescued by Voice of The Martyrs missionaries and now works in other Muslim countries helping sexually abused girls find a new life.

Kharzai – an amalgam of people I met during my lifetime including several rather interesting people I knew at the NSA where I ran the military dining facility. One of those individuals it turned out, although it was never verified to me, was a real Iranian spy.

Liam – Made up guy, a kind of character I think I could’ve been if I were a classically trained singer turned MI-6 operative.

Gilles – never met him, and I’m glad.

Faisel – based on one of the elders of my church (although he is Korean and Faisel is Arabic). This guy is tireless, and the nicest man you’d ever meet.

Eagle One (aka Kevin Arlington) – based on Ollie North type.

Mojo Johnson – an amalgam of people I met throughout my time in and around the military. The back woods of Alaska have a bunch of them. Really impressive people just don’t upset them.

Lonnie Wyatt – she was an interesting character. A combination of a real person I know and a few extra parts I added here and there and her history. She was one of my favorites to write.

Harley Wasner – based on a guy I met in my day job at the VA. The dude walked into the Voc Rehab office where I was working on a printer and said, “I just retired from the military and need some educational assistance so I can train for a civilian job.” The clerk said, “OK. What did you do in the military?” The veteran said, “Kill people.” He had been in the Special Forces for 24 years.

Mike Farris – he was a guy that I imagined, but I would not be surprised if at least one of the pastor’s I have met over the years had a past like him.

Dan Martin – based on a guy I knew in high school. I don’t think the dude was really an East German spy, but he was a virulent atheist. And I don’t say that to discredit other atheists, he just was that way.
Paul Hogan – made up guy. But the kind of bloke I would love to have by my side in a desperate situation.

Hildegard Rottbruck – based on a lady that worked in the same building I did for a while. Never really got to know her, but she seemed pretty nice. Hilde got her looks and what little bit of her personality I remembered.

Mr. White – met a guy once with that kind of complex personality. Kind of like life was a Japanese anime card game of and the evil magic was real. He had a serious "Small Guy Complex". He reminded me of the guy in the old horror movie Willard. The dude really creeped me out at the time.
There’s an idea of where the characters come from. Not all just made up. And like I said, the most tragic ones are based on very real people. So to quote myself from earlier: I tried to write something close to reality.
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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Violent Stories for a Christian Guy, Part 2

In my last entry I defined what a Christian is as compared to those who call themselves Christian.

Today I want to answer the primary question of “How can you write such sex, swearing and violence and yet call call yourself Christian?”

Well, first off let me answer by saying that I have two hard and fast rules in my writing. I never use those English words considered the most foul or sexually derogatory i.e. F**k and C**t. And there are no graphic sex scenes. So, if you thought you read or heard either of the above, it was all in your own head, not in my book. That being said, other swear words are used through out the dialogue as is common in English, although my heroes seldom swear. They don’t need to, they’re too cool for that kinda talk. And there may be a bit of what a friend calls “psychological nudity” but only as required by the description.

(there was a rape scene in Karl’s Last Flight, but it didn’t get too far before the hero stepped in)

Why write that kind of stuff at all? The answer to this is simple.

I am writing something very close to reality.

Often times, especially here in America, we are fed a version of the world that is not at all realistic. The images of violence we see in movies are either too clean and bloodless, or go way over board on the blood and gore. Things are over sexed to the point of being raunchy, or so squeaky clean they represent a fantasy world akin to a pre-schooler’s cartoon. Not that there’s a problem with that, but my target audience is men and women aged 18-45, and they aren’t buying stories about purple dinosaurs and rainbow coloured ponies. Therefore I have tried to find a place in the middle, the place where the reality actually lies.

What I don’t want is for some one to read my books and walk away thinking that the trauma and hardships my characters overcome can be taken care of easily just because they are the good guys. I want them to go through the whole book wondering how in the world the hero or heroine is going to survive, or even if they are going to survive. If you notice, all of my good guys end up getting hurt to some degree. They feel weak, they get tired, they are scared at times.

I want my readers to understand that the heroes in my stories got to the point where they could take care of themselves in horrific situations because they worked hard at staying fit and when the trouble hit the fan they made a hard decision and took take sides in the drama that unfolded. They cannot be wishy-washy, or half-ready. That state of being would simply get them killed.

The converse is that I also don’t want my readers thinking “There is no way that can happen, people just don’t have that much blood or guts in their bodies.” Or, “No one is that strong.” Etc.

I want my story to be believable. I want the violence to be realistic. When a person hits another person with their fist that fist hurts. They may even break a knuckle or a finger. If you get punched in the stomach, unless you managed to tighten you abdominal muscles just in time, you’re probably going to puke or at least get the wind knocked out of you. There might even be broken ribs and will almost certainly be a serious bruise. My characters, those who are combat trained warriors, are smart enough to know that combat should always be considered a fight to the death whether it ends that way not. They don’t shoot to injure someone. They shoot to kill.
I try and research every thing I write to make sure I set the scene as realistically as possible. Whether it is the climate of the Somali desert or the wooden house boats of the Mokken people I do everything I can to not have to make things up when it comes realism. And even the things I do make up, such as the bio-weapon in 65-Below are as close to real as I can make them. In the case of 65 Below, I had a biologist and a geneticist review my work to make sure it was plausible.

The fight scenes I paint are as realistic as I can make them and still put them down on paper. I have had combat veterans from around the world write to me and say how some of the stories captured them and brought back memories of what it was really like in the Jungles of Vietnam or Africa. Scenes like those from Burma in Karl’s Last Flight, or the short stories 1917 and The First Time (from the In The Shadows podcast) elicited a whole slew of letters from people who have been there.

What I am trying to say is that the violence in my stories, while quite graphic, is certainly not overblown. The stories do not glorify violence, foul language or sex. They merely portray it as it is. And yes I do actually hold back sometimes, because real is sometimes just too gross.

In that sense I do not claim to be a Christian writer. I am just a writer, with a Christian worldview. Not all of my characters share that world view. Liam does. Kharzai does not, that’s for sure. Mojo is mostly on board, Lonnie is close too. Farris is probably the strongest adherent to Christianity I will ever write. Because I am writing real world.

And reality is just that: Real.

And if the realism makes you look over your shoulder when the next time you walk down a dark street, well…that’s all part of the plan.
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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Violent stories, for a Christian dude

Recently I have received a few comments from both Christian and non-Christian alike on my writing asking how a conservative Christian like myself justifies writing stories with such graphic violence in them. My main characters are warriors who deal with their enemies in absolute terms, like most warriors do, and lots of people end up dead or maimed along the way.

Over the rest of this week I will be posting a response. Mind you, this is not proselytizing; I am just explaining my own position. And since that opinion has taken more than forty years to form it can’t be pushed out in a quick blurb. So…here goes.

To start off we have to look at what we perceive Christianity to be, and what humanity and the universe really are.

Christianity is a religion adhered to, at least nominally, by about one third of the world’s population. I have to qualify that statement with the word nominally, which means in name only, because a vast majority of those who claim to be Christian simply call themselves that because they were born into a Christian tradition. Regarding their lifestyle they do not adhere in any meaningful way to the teachings of the religion. According to a 2008 Barna Research Survey less than 19% of people who call themselves Christian actual hold a bliblical Christian worldview.

Christianity in the truest sense is not a religion in which one chooses to join, performs a ritual of induction, then claims to be a member. In its real form it is a behaviorally linked religion. And the proof of its authenticity is found in a lifetime of growth and internal change as evidenced by deeds that grow increasingly more meaningful in Gods eyes.

Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ (Messiah) for whom Christianity is named, stated very clearly that we can know a tree by its fruit. He said that in the end many will stand before God on judgment day crying out “Lord, Lord.” exalting God as their Lord and Master, but he will say to them “Who are you? I never knew you.”

Just because a person claims to be a Christian, or a godly individual, means nothing in God’s eyes. It is the life of obedience that God judges. There are those who claim to be servants of Christ, even pastors and priests, who God has not nor will ever accept as his children because they live in disobedience. Likewise there are those who have never heard of God who will be received into heaven later because they lived life in obedience to him even though they never heard his words.

One caveat to this is that those who have heard of God and rejected his authority cannot be counted among those who will attain heaven. I am not referring to submitting to church authority, a man-made institution. The teaching of the Bible states very clearly that those who overtly reject God’s authority and refuse to submit to him will be left to their own life here on earth and in the end be rejected by God.

These things are taught pretty clearly in the Hebrew Torah and Christian Bible. Sadly most people, even ardent adherents to either religion, only read the parts they quickly understand and don’t complete the lessons the books teach. In so doing they end up only understanding bits and pieces, and those usually far out of context.

People who angrily reject Christianity because of crimes committed in the name of the religion have frequently challenged me. They claim that God either does not exist or he is evil because the deeds of those who carry his name have been evil. From the Dark Ages to the Spanish Inquisition to Massacres in Bosnia and Africa people claiming to represent God have committed atrocities.

To quote the book of First John 2:19 “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us.”

Those who claim to be God’s followers but act against God’s will are not really his followers. Regardless of what title they claim of the fancy robes they were.

To Summarize: Just because people call themselves Christian means nothing. It is only in their deeds that they can be judged as a true Christian. And even true Christians make tons of mistakes along the way. The test is not, how close one is to God, but are you drawing closer as time goes on.

So now, you can see approximately where I stand on what it means to be a true believer in Christ.

Tomorrow: "How can you write such violent characters and yet claim to be a Christian?"
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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Seeds of the Story in the Soil of Life

I read a great article on one of my favorite blogs, The Killzone. John Miller was talking about how childhood upbringing and experiences form the stories we create as writers. He talked about a lot of rather morbid, and some dangerous or scary, experiences he had growing up in Mississippi in the sixties. When I read John's account my first reaction was to think, 'Man, I'm glad I didn't grow up in the south. Seems like a harsh place.'

I grew up between Alaska & Ohio in the 70's & 80's.

Then I got to thinking, especially after considering the comments of some of the other authors who brought up their own experiences. I began to realize that the good old days weren't quite as good as I remembered.

The disciplines I endured as a kid, would certainly have been grounds for abuse charges today. The creep down the street who touched my sister and nearly got himself killed by our step father. The neighbor's wife who walked like she was scared and never made eye contact with anyone. The day I went for a walk, a four hour fifteen mile walk, without telling my folks. After I got home my step father pulled up in his big Buick. He had his old .45 in his hand and tears in his eyes. I didn't understand. I was thirteen and had my dog with me, we always played alone in the woods. Mom said something about a nearby barn where detectives found bloody pentagrams and disembowelled animals...and some kids shoes.

It didn't click then, it didn't seem real.

The fist fights, sneaking around in the dark, imagining death and war. Taking out rage on a heavy bag I built in the basement out of encylopaedias, pillows and an army duffle bag.

I sat back and thought about my own writing. A lot of bad guys seem to die very hard deaths. And the good guys seldom walk away without scars...some don't walk away.

If it weren't for the outlet of art, I wonder how much blood would be on my own hands.
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