Building the greater world surroundingTHE FRACTURED STATE SERIES was a serious blast, but inventing the details of a near-future world was the proverbial “icing on the cake.” This is the kind of stuff I live for as a writer, and Fractured State was a fertile playground for these details. That said, it wasn’t easy.
Set 20 years in the future, I found myself walking a thin line between advancing technology far enough to create a “wow factor” and keeping it familiar enough to the reader. The last thing I wanted to do was create a new vocabulary for readers.
Here’s a fantastic example of that struggle, with a slightly disappointing ending. What do you call a cell phone/smart phone 20 years from now? The answer isn’t simple, or is it? I got a crazy idea during the developmental edit, based on a suggestion from my developmental editor (I blame David!), to replace every instance of smartphone with the term LINK. We’d discussed the technology upgrades evident in the manuscript and agreed that the device served as more of a communications link, but we couldn’t call it a COMLINK. That term had been coined by the Star Wars franchise years ago, and it didn’t sound right, anyway.
But what about LINK? That’s simple, catchy…hey, 20 years from now, people might be looking back at Fractured State and saying, Steven Konkoly used the term first, now everyone calls their phone a LINK. Communications companies will be paying me billions to license the term…it sounded fantastic, until it didn’t. Actually, it was my editor at Thomas and Mercer that essentially said something to the effect of, “I don’t know. It’s cool and all, but forcing readers to use the word LINK instead of phone throughout the story might get a little annoying.” Too kitschy, so I dropped LINK and went back to phone or satphone. Lesson learned. The device had more bells and whistles, but it essentially did the same thing it does today…let’s you talk to people. Why complicate matters?
But one creative disappointment can’t ruin the creative process for me. NOT EVEN CLOSE. That was ONE device out of hundreds used in the novel, and I had a ton of fun with the rest. Too much fun, probably.
If you’ve read any of my books, you probably can guess that I like weapons. From knives to attack helicopters, I don’t shy away from the details, and I like my characters to make the best use of the weaponry available to them. Fractured State gave me the unique opportunity to take systems currently in development, and imagine them in widespread use 20 years from now. Every firearm is more compact and versatile, ammunition is far more lethal, heavy duty weapons systems normally employed by armies are now available to mercenary groups, and the effectiveness of personal protective equipment has increased to counter this new lethality. Take a look at the following links, along with a brief explanation of how I chose to employ that technology in Fractured State.
Guided sniper munitions – Used by assassins in a coordinated attack against a politician at his reinforced mansion. The effect is rather gruesome, as you can imagine.
Color night vision technology – I call it synthetic daylight…heard it here first! This actually presented a bit of a challenge, since describing what the characters see through these goggles is no different than what they’d see in the daylight. At times, my developmental editor couldn’t remember if it was night or day. To remedy this, I added some additional features to the goggle’s display, which measured light intensity and could tell the wearer how dark it was outside.
Liquid gel body armor – This has so much promise for the future in my opinion. Form fitting and reactive, liquid gel body armor can potentially stop any type of munition, evenly spreading the brunt force of the impact to reduce internal injuries commonly seen with solid plate armor.
Dragonskin armor – Recently rejected by the U.S. Army, I see a future for this type of armor. Lighter, shape conforming and effective against armor piercing ammunition…I could see this as standard issue.
Smart grenade launchers – I take this one step further, and apply the same range finding automation to an automatic grenade launcher system. The effects are spectacularly devastating…and messy of course.
Hand launched surveillance drones – Nothing new about the Raven, except the newer versions can fly longer and transmit more data. Putting two of these in the air, one of the teams in the book finds a “needle in a haystack.”
This is a very short list of some of the types of technology upgrades found in Fractured State, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Everything is slightly reimagined in this series, from sinks that recycle water for rinsing to mandatory GPS tracking systems installed on every vehicle to measure fuel efficiency and restrict movement. Life has changed…it’s up to the reader to decide if the change is for better or worse.
With the release of FRACTURED STATE less than a month away, I thought I’d give readers and fans a look behind the scenes at the creation of the near future, dystopian world supporting the story. As most of you know, I spend a considerable amount of time envisioning and creating the worlds behind my fiction. The process is time consuming, and if left unchecked, can take on a life of its own. I know this from experience. When I started to create the world for my first novel, The Jakarta Pandemic, I reached a point, long into the early stages of development, where I asked myself: “When are you going to actually start writing the story?” I didn’t have an answer, which in itself was my answer. It was time to quit researching the world, describing characters on notepads, creating maps, developing timelines—AND TIME TO GET DOWN TO BUSINESS. I had spent months world building, when I could and should have been writing.
With that lesson SORT OF learned—a few times, I’ve developed a rough world-building process that gets me started and keeps me on the right track.
1.) Creating a world to support a series requires me to create a ALTERNATE HISTORY, or in the case of Fractured State, a FUTURE set 20 years from today. Either way, I start out with a TIMELINE OF EVENTS. This is outside of the story plot. For the Fractured State series, I started in 2016 and envisioned the world, national, state and personal-level events that would land the reader on page one. As you can see, this sheet has endured coffee and beer stains, many on-the-fly changes and an accidental “throw away” since I created it in early 2015. It rarely leaves my side while I’m writing.
2.) For the kind of deep background and expansive geographical reach involved in writing a series like Fractured State, I find the use of MAPS to be invaluable. I create them throughout the entire process, starting with big picture world building maps down to individual scene orientation maps. Every complex, action oriented scene likely originated with a sketch.
3.) Whether based in the past, present or future, I also create lists and descriptions of the organizations involved in the story. Past and present is easy…a few clicks on Google and you have a nice organizational chart of the CIA. Future requires a little more work. In Fractured State, I envisioned San Diego County as an entity that effectively absorbed every municipality throughout the current county, providing town administration, resource management, leadership and police functions for the entire geography. San Diego County Police Department (SDCPD) officers patrol the streets of Chula Vista, CA, south of San Diego, just he same as the streets of Carlsbad, CA—40 miles away.
In Fractured State, Nathan Fisher, the story’s main character, works as a water reclamation engineer at the San Diego Water Reclamation Authority, an entity that does not exist today. Since water reclamation is a critical part of Californian’s lives in my story, I gave it an organization separate, but subordinate to the existing Water Authority. Of course, in the resource stressed world of Fractured State, both authorities serve under the San Diego County Resource Authority. Yeah, I have fun with this stuff. Sorry to put you to sleep!
4.) Throughout the creation of the TIMELINE, MAPS and boring ORGANIZATIONS, I’m constantly researching topics related to the big picture to generate new ideas, validate previously envisioned plot points or expand the story.
For Fractured State, I spent a lot of time studying WATER sources in California, the rest of the southwest and the Great Plains. While the events in my story are purely fictional, the historic, ongoing drought in California and the U.S. Southwest is REAL. Frighteningly real. California’s current drought started me on the path to writing this series. The more I researched, the more I knew I had the background for an incredible story. What if the drought continued for another 20 years like many climatologists agree is possible? AND what if the effects of the drought were intensified by corrupt group of greedy industrialists and enforced by a ruthless mercenary army on their payroll? Secession? Mayhem? All of the above.
Check out some of the original bookmarked links that I used to get a feel for the drought issues facing California and the nation. It’s scary stuff. All of it. I just listed them as LINK. Click on any or all to give yourself a fright.
but when I do, it’s usually because I just completed the plot board for one of my novels and realized—I have a long way to go! Each Post-It represents a chapter. I typically add Post-Its as I go. Now I’m really crying.
Point of Crisis: Book Three in The Perseid Collapse Series promises to be a game changer.
The answer to this question depends on the genre. I’ll stick to what I know and focus on Technothrillers.
Walking a fine line: Reading reviews for my novels can be confusing. “If you like Clancy, you’ll love—” “Doesn’t overwhelm the reader with technical details.” “Too many equipment descriptions.” “Not Clancy.” All true, depending on the reader. For story details, I strive for the middle ground, with a tendency toward descriptions that would satisfy the pickiest Clancy readers. On the flip side, Clancy-esque minutiae is NOT for everyone, including myself. I’ll be the first to admit, that I’ve read about three quarters of every Clancy novel. Readers skip passages no matter what you write, that’s reality—my goal is meet readers half way. This has always been my personal preference as a reader, but as a writer, it’s necessary for survival. With most of my books purchased ($5.99 or below) and read on an e-reader, I can’t afford to lose a reader’s attention for very long. Within seconds, they can switch to something new and forget about me.
Been there. Done that: Many of my readers are convinced that I’m 1.) a D.C. insider 2.) a former covert operative 3.) still involved in intelligence agency operations and 4.) have travelled extensively across every continent. There may be some truth to this. I’m not here to dispel rumors or burst anyone’s version of Steven Konkoly. What I will admit, is that I’ve never led an “off the books” Black Ops team on a raid against a Russian bioweapons facility or secretly crossed the Finnish border to investigate rumors of a virus outbreak in the Kola Peninsula.
How do I manage to capture the essence of these operations? My background gives me an advantage. I know the lingo (there’s still a ton I don’t know) and how to navigate online research. I know where to look for articles and how to tell if it’s authentic. Reading everything and anything (books, online articles, subscription sites) helps immensely. I wasn’t on the raid to capture Osama Bin Laden, but I know I could write a fictional OBL raid scene right now, and most readers would believe I had exclusive access to one of the DEVGRU operators on the mission.
How did someone like Tom Clancy get his descriptions, operational details and military jargon so close to reality? In the beginning, he must have fought for exclusive access to some incredible sources. There’s no other explanation. When he became famous, Clancy was granted nearly unfettered access to the military and D.C. Keep in mind, Tom Clancy worked in the insurance industry for nearly 15 years before his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, was released. Clancy never served in the military, but he managed to create the impression, from the very start, that he was an insider.
Prepping the battle field: For me, initial research is critical to achieving momentum. I research on the fly, but I prefer to have the “framework research” already established. Once I finish with my version of plotting, as described in THE PROCESS, I sit back and figure out “framework” topics that need research. If a Marine Infantry Battalion plays a significant role in the story (like in The Perseid Collapse series), I need to know everything there is to know (without going crazy) about the current and future structures for a Marine Infantry Battalion. The Perseid Collapse series takes place in 2019, so I was particularly interested in papers published out of Quantico or the Navy War College about future structure and equipment concepts. This is one example of dozens of framework research.
Don’t get bogged down here. You have to start writing at some point, and if you’re like me, I feel lost when I’m not in a story. This doesn’t require weeks of prep work. I identify the framework research and do enough to get me started on the novel. I typically like to write 20K words without breaking for heavy research.
Research on the fly : This is the land of Black Holes. Vast seas of time vanish from my day when I’m not disciplined about research on the fly. Sometimes it’s necessary to gain a solid understanding of an important concept, but there’s a difference between researching for the sake of educating yourself and researching to enhance your novel. Trust me, the line is extremely blurry. I still haven’t mastered it. Most of the time, you’ll only know it AFTER the fact. Like getting pick-pocketed. You’ll feel guilty and probably take a break—treat yourself to a snack, because…you’ve gone down a rabbit hole looking for a rabbit, and ended up finding Wonderland. I know I’ve seriously mismanaged my time, when I go on YouTube to watch a clip of a suppressed .50 Caliber sniper rifle for a scene in a book, and emerge from YouTube land 40 minutes later after watching the .50 Cal sniper scene from the movie Smoking Aces. It’s crazy if you haven’t seen it. Careful, it’s violent and full of bad language. I just watched it again—I never learn.
Google is my travel agent: I’ve never been to Novosibirsk, Russia, or Moscow, but I have it on pretty solid authority from a Russian author that most readers would never figure that out through my writing. Damn, I just spilled a secret. Oh well, while I’m at it—I’ve never been to Kazakstan or Argentina. My Russian author friend was surprised that I had never travelled to either Russian location. He knew I hadn’t lived there for any length of time, but the descriptions of the locations, the general feel and the “little things” passed muster.
I like the “little things.” Details about the culture, restaurants, beers, food, street conditions, traffic, graffiti, weather, money, trends—stuff you can find by reading traveller articles, restaurant reviews, hotel reviews, city reviews and tourism board sponsored sites. I spend time on this stuff, and in most cases, if I put a specific description of a location, hotel, street corner, park or restaurant in my novel, it’s real. I change the names (sometimes) for obvious reasons, but here’s a little hint. I rarely make us street names, and I often visualize scenes using Google Maps. If a gunfight occurs in front of 22 Bondegatan in Stockholm, disrupting a cafe with a red and white checkered awning, you’ll very likely find this to be a real place. Okay, I sort of pulled a fast one on you here. I’ve been to Stockholm—but I wrote the scenes from that book and submitted the manuscript to my editor before our Iceland Air flight left Boston.
Here is an excerpt from a recent review. The reviewer is Gustavo Rossi from Buenos Aires. “…The political context is well managed too, and the references to Argentina (books 2 and 3 have long parts there) are surprisingly correct for an american writer…” I’ve never been there in person, but I’ve logged dozens of hours on the internet in “virtual Argentina.” Lesson learned? You don’t have to write on James Michener’s level to connect with a locale.
Secret Contacts: I graduated from Annapolis with over 1,000 top notch men and women (somehow I got mixed in this crew), many of whom are still on active duty or in the active reserves. They’ve commanded warships, led SEAL platoons and Marine infantry companies in combat, served in the Pentagon, rotated on and off Unified Combatant Command staff (PACOM, CENTCOM, EURCOM, etc). During my eight years on active duty, I’ve met 100’s of other officer, enlisted and civilian contractors. It’s a vast network of professionals that doesn’t divulge secrets or pass information to celebrities. I’ll leave it at that.
The Bottom Line: For my style of writing and genre, detailed research is well worth the time. I’m always feeling the crunch to make progress on a novel, but not at the expense of the reader experience. The trick is deciding which details are essential to the story, and which are gratuitous displays of knowledge gained during a Black Hole trip through the Web. I’m still honing this process.
If you’re an independent author, you rely on the sage advice and research of “other” independent authors, especially the ones that have made the “full time” shift to writing—or have been writing for years. I learn an invaluable amount from these authors, often collaborating to validate new publishing theories, grade the effectiveness of promotions or trade marketing ideas. Everyone’s experience is unique in it’s way, but we all share the same goal. To make a living writing the best books possible.
Some of us are new to the game, others have been around a long time. Everyone offers something, which is why I want to pass along the best sources of “indie” publishing information and guidance. This is by no means an exhaustive list. It represents the most prolific amount of well-formed opinions and advice that I can fit into my schedule. Truly, this represents the tip of the iceberg, and any additions are welcome. In my opinion, if you dig into what these four authors have written about their experiences, you’ll come out ahead of the pack, with your nose pointed in the right direction.
Never before has the process crystalized so clearly, as it has for my sixth book, The Perseid Collapse.The long overdue sequel to The Jakarta Pandemic has percolated in my head for nearly six months (while writing Vektor), which certainly helped smooth the transition, but I credit “the process” for swiftly delivering me to the starting line…the point where I can start writing. For me, the less time I spend in between novels, the better. I find myself lost without a manuscript-in-progress. Putting words into a story eases that feeling.
I often joke around about the”organic” mental process for creating the complex plots in my novels. “Neural Flow” is a term I used recently to some amusement. The Black Flagged series is extremely complicated and deeply nuanced, or so I have been told, and I wish I could keep it all straight in my head. “A Beautiful Mind” I am not. Instead, I rely on a process that appears rigid, but is inherently flexible. Let’s face it, any system based on the placement of yellow stickies on poster board isn’t exactly chiseled in stone. Still, I’ve followed the same process for three novels, which implies a level of rigidity…for the process at least
The rest is fluid and can change at a whim. A random thought while driving (I have more windshield time than I care to admit), a tech article on the internet, YouTube gun video (I watch far too many of those), a ten minute Call of Duty game play with Matthew (son), a sudden discussion about a character with my wife…all of these can change the course of my novel within the flash of a synapse. I’m always thinking about the story, and the story is always changing, slightly…sometimes drastically. This is the neural process, and I can’t really explain it. What I can explain is how I tee up the writing and keep myself on track throughout the three to four months it takes me to strike the words.
I start out with a “talk through.” Basically, I vomit a VERY rough synopsis of the story and expand it over the course of three to five days. If you read it, you’d probably feel like puking. It barely counts as English, but it works. I take this four to five page document and try to identify potential scenes from the scribble.
For the Perseid Collapse, I identified 44 scenes, which translates into a minimum of 44 chapters. I created a yellow sticky for each scene, and added them to my board.
The board takes on a life of its own over time, with stickies moving back and forth, up and down…or into the trash. New stickies arrive weekly. The topmost stickies are labeled to represent individual or group entities in the story. I place scenes involving these entities under the appropriate heading, in chronological order. Books in the Black Flagged series required some creative space arrangement on the board. The Perseid Collapse is a welcome break from multiple organizations and diffuse subplots. Compare the two. Vektor is shown in the first picture.
The last piece of the puzzle was recommended by a fellow Maine writer and the host of my local writing group, Bryan Wiggins. He thought Aeon Timeline would help me keep track of the complex timing involved in the Black Flagged novels…wow has that program saved my ass on multiple occasions. I finished Black Flagged Vektor without it, which was a big mistake. My inner voice told me to take the time and input every scene in Aeon Timeline. I resisted, but quickly relented and spent an entire day inputing the scenes. Without going into detail, let’s just say that I found a few critical timeline errors that my readers would not have missed. For Perseid, I will input the scenes as they are written. The story takes place over a 72 hour period, which doesn’t give me a lot of wiggle room in terms of timeline.
A lot happens to the Fletchers in those three days.
Did I mention the research? I’ll save the details for another post.
You’d think that starting novel number six wouldn’t be a big deal. It’s always a big deal, and frankly, I find myself more than a little nervous as I type the title on the page, make sure it’s centered and STARE at the screen for an indeterminable amount of time. The first words are always the most difficult for me, compounded by the fact that those words commit me to a minimum of three straight months of writing.
I wrote the first 420 words to The Perseid Collapse this morning, sitting at a desk in a hotel room. Not exactly where I would choose to start such an important undertaking, but my day job requires these things, and I write everyday no matter where I find myself…even a lonely hotel room. No, it wasn’t someplace fancy or scenic. As a matter of fact, it was within sight of both a mall and the Maine Turnpike.
But it was in Bangor, less than eight minutes (as measured by my iPhone’s mapping software) from my favorite author’s house.
I’ve been to Bangor several times over the past few months for work, but I’ve purposely avoided West Broadway. I’ve driven by it and struggled not to turn. Why? Because I wanted the context of seeing Stephen King’s house to be special. Seeing it on the same morning that I typed the first words of my sequel to The Jakarta Pandemic qualified, so I made the turn off Union Street and parked in front of his house long enough to take a few pictures. It was all I needed to round off a perfect morning…almost perfect. I forgot to bring the power cord for my Mac Air on the trip, and found myself with 46% power upon waking at “zero dark thirty.” 420 words was all I could write before the computer basically told me to save my document and find something else to do.
I realized I should explain each of my “offices” a little better. I posted this on Facebook, and one of my friends thought the tall glass was a beer. He missed the 4:30 in the morning part from an earlier post…not that I have a blanket prohibition against beer at 4:30 AM. Here it is. My version of “zero dark thirty,” except it’s no longer dark when I enter. The sun peeks above the horizon far too early in Maine.
“People, friends and family always ask the same question when they find out that I’m a writer, in addition to having a day job. When do you write? 4:30AM, pretty much every day of the year. 5:30 on weekends. It has simply become a habit. There are variations in that schedule, depending on where I am (vacation, overnight trip, visiting family). The picture shows how I start each day, with one notable exception. I’m in between books, so my desk is way neater than usual. For those that are curious. The beverages include, fresh juice (from a juicer…carrot, celery, apple, spinach, ginger, cucumber) and an espresso.”
Black Flagged Vektor is finally in the hands of my editor and several beta readers, leaving me in that awkward phase, where I find myself waking up at 4:30 in the morning and watching You Tube videos for 30 minutes, followed by Facebook for another 30…then finally on to something related to writing…sort of. Blog updates. Book reviews. Tardy emails. The list more or less confirms that I’m lost without a book in the works. I still have some work left to prepare Vektor for a mid to late June launch, but it’s not the kind of intense industry that surrounds spinning a story.
Once the story board comes down, I stare out of the window a lot, turning to my computer sporadically. I gave myself one important thing to accomplish this week, among dozens of smaller tasks. Vektor’s synopsis or book blurb. This is often harder to write than a full chapter of the story itself. How do you condense the book into a summary that draws readers into the book, without giving away plot twists? You spend three days of wringing your hands over it, constantly coming back to change a word, shorten a sentence or trash the whole thing.
I started this on Monday and have been $@#!ing around with it ever since. I think this is nearly the last iteration. Let me know what you think.
Black Flagged Vektor:
“With the recent bioterrorism threat to the United States neutralized, and Dr. Anatoly Reznikov in custody, CIA Deputy Director Karl Berg proposes a permanent solution to prevent future bioweapons attacks against the West.
A covert raid by General Sanderson’s Black Flag unit against Vektor Labs, deep inside Russia…to destroy a program that should have ended with the Cold War.
The U.S isn’t the only country looking to tie up loose ends. The sudden abduction of a CIA officer in Stockholm exposes the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service’s (SVR) ruthless campaign to discover the truth behind the massacre of an elite Spetsnaz team sent to silence Reznikov.
When the SVR investigation takes a turn that could threaten the mission against Vektor, Berg goes “off the books” like never before. Through an intricate web of unsavory alliances, deviously orchestrated political maneuvers and shockingly brutal black-ops action, Karl Berg will set in motion an unstoppable chain of events with the potential to ignite a new Cold War.
Black Flagged Vektor continues the series’ tradition of gritty, unapologetic storytelling, plunging readers even deeper into the murky, shark infested waters navigated by covert operators and their puppet masters.”
All of the pieces are falling in place for the imminent launch of the second book in my Black Flagged series, Black Flagged Redux. The editing process is finally complete, a few extra chapters have been added at the request of my editor, ebook formatting is in progress and I just returned from an exhausting research trip to Europe. Actually, it was a family vacation, but I did get to visit a street address that is very important to Black Flagged Redux. More on that in another post, along with pictures.
One of the final pieces fell into place while I was on vacation. Despite the fact that I had written more than 120,000 words to create the novel…and likely rewrote most of them at some point…I never feel like the book is real until the cover is finished. I feel like a child waiting for a toy to arrive in the mail…but in this case, I kept checking my email. Once the file arrived…Black Flagged Redux was done!
Check out the cover Jeroen ten Berge created. It’s a brilliant continuation of the themes present in the first cover.
I think everyone knows what this means by now. I’ve finished Black Flagged Redux. Some of you might remember seeing this board in an earlier post…EMPTY. If you don’t believe this was ever blank, you’re not alone. I can barely believe that I finished the second novel of the series, in little over three months. To top it off, the novel is about 20K words longer.
Here is the blank chart as proof:
I’ll release some sneak peeks over the next week or so, as the finishing touches are put in place. For now, you can check out some of the extras I have added to Black Flagged Redux:
For now, take a look at the Geography of Black Flagged Redux. I think you’ll quickly see that I have upped the ante with my second book. Each red box represents key locations to the story. Right now, I’ll leave it up to your imagination to guess which of these locations will need to hire another coroner to handle the influx of bodies.
As you can see, I have a little mess brewing on my desk. About two weeks worth of sticky notes, with ideas that popped into my head while walking around the house, driving my car…or lying in bed. Most of these notes pertain to a specific scene I am writing, or have just written. Details I missed or changes I feel compelled to make. I gather these and then address each one in turn. I usually tackle a few per day, to keep the pile from growing, but you can see that this system isn’t working well. This is actually a good thing. I’ve been faithfully writing close to a thousand words early each morning, every day for the past three weeks, which is why the pile has grown. All of my time has been spent moving the story forward. Check out the word count at the top of the blog. Not bad. I’m shooting to wrap this thing up around 110K…I can hear Joe groaning.
Character development is a complicated aspect of writing. Like in our own lives, a glaring inconsistency draws a ton of attention, especially on paper (or e-ink).
This post was long overdue, and a minor criticism at my last writers group meeting motivated me to tackle the subject. What was the criticism? My protagonist, male…a former deep-cover operative, pulled a bottle of Riesling out of the refrigerator to share with his wife. Apparently, men don’t drink Riesling. Not even in 2005. And I thought it would go nicely with the Thai food they were eating. I was a little defensive, maybe a little hurt…I like Riesling (not a first or second choice, but it does pair well with spicy food). Alas, everyone agreed that a beer was more appropriate. This is a character compromise I am more than happy to make…if only this was their only suggestion about my new story, Black Flagged. PREVIEW.
This is a pretty minor criticism compared to some of the critique I have received over the months regarding the protagonist of my first book, The Jakarta Pandemic. Alex Fletcher, decorated war veteran, and former Marine Corps officer, grates on some peoples’ nerves! Who has the most trouble with this character? Conservatives. Alex takes a few jabs at Fox news, here and there. And, he’s a vegetarian that has installed solar panels on his roof. He also keeps his guns responsibly locked in a safe (until there is a definable danger), and doesn’t immediately kill any potential hazard to his family with extreme prejudice. I have also been accused, in a few of the reviews, of pushing a liberal agenda through this character. Huh? Did I mention that Alex is pro-choice and supports gay marriage? No, I didn’t…so I though I was safe from the appearance of political partisanship in the book. Apparently not. Probably a little naive on my part. One reviewer, who loved the story overall, said that the “author was conflicted,” because I created a character that didn’t comfortably fit into ANY political classification. I’m actually proud of that.
Still, all of this raised some awareness about character actions, and I do keep this in mind while writing my next book. I have dozens of characters, all with their own thoughts and rationales for what they do. Once again, I miss the good old days of The Jakarta Pandemic. It’s pretty difficult to keep a character “in line” throughout a 300-400 page book, so this will be one of the primary focuses that I assign to all of my pre-readers (those that will read the first edition before it goes to print), writers group and EDITOR (that’s you Felicia).
Keep my male characters away from ANY drinks that come with a pink umbrella!
Not sure how this will look on my blog…this is my first mobile posting. The vessel in the picture is the reason I have written a grand total of two pages in two weeks. Painting, waxing, buffing, varnishing, washing…more waxing. Leaving town for Memorial Day weekend didn’t help either.
Vessel Name: Dolci (Italian for candy or sweet). She certainly is a sweet boat, and well worth the distraction. Thanks to April showers, she’s almost three weeks late reaching the water. Today is the big day.
One more excuse for a low word count…but can you really blame me?
Or what I like to call…Order out of Chaos. I recently submitted this picture to my writers group, with a short explanation of my “to be discussed” submission (Chapter Three of my next novel Black Flagged). As a joke (a dry one), I told them that if my explanation was confusing, then they should refer to this plot chart, which would clarify things. They got the joke, and everyone that responded, kindly informed me that they couldn’t read the chart, which was my intention…I can’t give away the entire plot that easily. I figured that only someone with a relative or friend working in a CSI lab could turn this into a readable image. They knew that too. Joke’s on me.
I often get the question, how do you even start writing a novel?
That’s the easy part (or maybe the hardest for some). You take a story idea brewing in your head, and start to craft a scene. Then you start writing. Does it have to be the beginning of the story? No. In my opinion. Once you get to writing, you’ll know soon enough were the scene fits. This is where you start to develop a problem. You really need some form of structure in order to continue. Even if it’s a simple notebook outline. I should come to a SCREECHING HALT at this point. I can feel the heat on the back of my neck. Yes, many writers start with the structure before writing. Characters. Places, Everything. You can buy software to help you craft everything before you write a word, or you can borrow a book that gives you the framework for creating basic story structure. This approach is pretty common.
And, I don’t think I’ll ever really do it that way. I like to get the concept of the book formed in my head, and start writing a scene or two…but very soon after, the over-organized, ex-military side of me needs to start working on the details of structure. It really gnaws at me. I scribble a comprehensive outline in my notebook (15-20 pages), leaving room for additional information. I like time lines to be accurate, so I always start a historical time line of events. I start a character info sheet…nothing too fancy (names, basic info, description). I have to stop myself at some point and get back to writing. I love details, so this can become an over-consuming task.
Once the writing flows again, I will turn to something like the Plot Chart once the plot lines start to confuse me. Chapter Five for Black Flagged. Once I started involving multiple government agencies, with their own interests and action…I had to switch from the notebook to a large visual device. I used a similar device for The Jakarta Pandemic, but not for the plot. You’ve already seen my neighborhood map (added to the book at the request of readers), which helped me keep track of over 30-something households in the story. I created this pretty quickly, once I couldn’t visualize who lived next to who on Durham Road. Overall, The Jakarta Pandemic’s plot line was simple. Most of the story took place inside the neighborhood (one house mainly) and stuck to the protagonist’s point of view.Easy…I miss those days.
I don’t have this luxury in Black Flagged. I have FBI agents, CIA managers, covert agents, private security contractors/assassins, pentagon officials, rogue generals…and they’re all pursuing their own agendas.
I better make a readable copy of this chart ASAP…my daughter has a bad habit of “helping” me by putting her crayola markers to creative use!
If you haven’t read the prologue to Black Flagged, check it out HERE: PREVIEW.
On April 28th, I alluded to some changes by unveiling The Jakarta Pandemic’s new cover. One month later, The Jakarta Pandemic is officially DONE!!! I know, the book was “done” in late October, then again in November…I think I substantially changed it every month since it was first launched.
I really mean it this time. I’m through tweaking this book, and so is my editor. I can’t thank Felicia (editor) enough for convincing to make some necessary changes to the format and content. I am extremely pleased by the final product…enough to leave it alone, which is big for me.
What major changes can you expect to see in the latest revision?
First, the book is about 25 pages lighter than before, thanks to some aggressive editing of “long” news segments and a few scenes that really didn’t propel the storyline. STREAMLINING. Almost all of these cuts came from the first third of the book, which is good news for readers…the nasty pandemic induced mayhem comes quicker. I love story setup, so it was tough to part with some of this content, but I firmly believe the words were not sacrificed in vain. A moment of silence please.
Second, I changed the tense from present to past. Actually, my editor did this…she’s still probably suffering from verb tense PTSD. Prior to giving the “go ahead” on this change, I sampled a few chapters of converted manuscript (compliments of said editor) and was surprised by how much I liked the past tense version of the story. 95 plus percent of stories are told in the past tense, and though I might have argued you to death three months ago about my decision to write the story in present tense…I was sold when I read Felicia’s converted version. Plus, I wasn’t the one that would have to change every verb in the 400 page story. Amazing how my attitude changed. Seriously though, it is a major improvement.
I also included a preview of my next novel, BLACK FLAGGED. No, it’s not a NASCAR novel…I haven’t gone completely mad. Black-flagged is a term used in the espionage world to describe an agent or operative that is to be interrogated and summarily shot if captured. In the preview, you’ll be introduced to the main character of the book, during a time in his life when he might have prayed for Black-flag treatment if captured. If you thought The Jakarta Pandemic was a dark, gritty read, you will thoroughly enjoy my next novel…whenever I finish it.
If you’ve already read The Jakarta Pandemic, don’t get upset…you can check out the preview here: PREVIEW
Pass the word. Now is the time to download or order your copy…before I jack up the price (I’ll blame it on gas prices, or the cost of produce at Whole Foods).
I’d like to sit here and tell everyone that I’m always a “do it yourself” kind of guy. I framed our attic for its eventual transformation into a beautiful 800 square foot home for my son’s Xbox 360 (that’s about sums up its purpose now). I even did all of the trim work, built shelving and helped paint (I hate painting). But I didn’t mow my own lawn last year. Why? Because I’m not obstinate when it comes to the do-it-yourself mentality…and when a good price comes along, I’ll let someone else breath noxious fumes and spend two hours on a lawn that’s going to brown up in August anyways (no matter how much water or fertilizer I pour onto it! Even The Lawn Dawg couldn’t prevent that). It doesn’t look like I’m going to win the noxious fume argument this year. My wife wants to direct this money elsewhere, which is fine…I really don’t mind mowing the lawn. So, what am I talking about at this point?
Self-publishing. I get a lot of inquiries about my experience, from other aspiring writers and curious friends. The question I get from everyone is: “Did I choose to self-publish?” Yes and no. If my first query letter to a NYC agency had been received with a warm welcome and a huge advance on royalties, I’d probably be scoffing at self-publishing right now. How dare these so called “writers” publish their own material, without the nod of the traditional literary institution. I fired off about seven letters in total, before I decided against continuing to prostrate myself to “the industry.” Once again, I wasn’t opposed to the concept of a lavish check, in advance of my certain bestseller, and I’m sure there’s a number out there that would convert me immediately. We all have our buy off amount.
What did I do differently than most of the aspiring writers that send hundreds of letters a year to agents? First, I quit sending letters. I’ll tell you why shortly. Second, I self-publishedThe Jakarta Pandemic for the Kindle, NOOK and as a paperback…before I started sending letters to literary agents. Now, for the hardcore pursuers of a NYC literary agent, this is tantamount to committing writer suicide. Tainted! No agent or publisher will touch you now that you’ve had the audacity to self-publish your CRAP, without them. And that’s the key to it all. Without them. I’m not going to reiterate what a million other blogs have repeated, but the traditional publishing industry has a vested interest in scaring aspiring self-publishers. Just like real estate agents have no interest in you putting a “for sale by owner” sign in front of your house. Imagine if Stephen King took his business “in house.” It doesn’t cost very much to put a quality book on the market yourself. Good editor, good cover artist…a few more bells and whistles. With Stephen King’s name…the books will sell. You get the picture. Imagine if this became the standard across the literary landscape. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale for publishers. So, don’t you dare try to self-publish.
Why did I quit sending letters? I started reading blogs and articles by authors that have successfully navigated the self-publishing world. I didn’t reach this decision by myself…I’d love to say I did, but that would be dishonest. The more I read about the declining traditional industry, and the rise of the self-publishing realm…the more I wanted to give this a go on my own. Their words appealed to the deep rooted part of me that didn’t like to beg (the industry) and the visionary side that said “I can find readers for this book on my own.” I liked the idea of having complete control of my book, a larger share of the yet unseen profits, and the challenge of learning some new skills, like how to create a website, start a blog, and market my book. If I had a million dollars, I would have hired some help from the star…I’m practical. Since I didn’t have a large book launch budget, I found my own way.
More and more authors should be finding their own way. The traditional publishing world is in jeopardy, and they aren’t taking as many chances on new authors. It’s simple financial math for them, nothing personal…Borders is closing stores everywhere, local shops are scraping by (if they’re lucky). People aren’t buying as many physical books anymore. Blame the economy…OR blame E-readers, but make no mistake, E-readers are here to stay, and they’re proliferating at every turn. iPad 2…3 coming soon? Kindle for $114. I bet it goes for under a hundred this next holiday season. Every electronics company has a version of an e-reader. Hell, I’ve had people read my book on their iPhone! (I felt like sending them a free copy for the effort…holy cow that would hurt my eyes).
New authors will still get through, but not as many. Every time I walk through Borders, I see more books by the same, financially sound names. I don’t blame the industry, but I’m not going to lock my novels in a vault and wait for an agent to take a chance on my book. I’ll take my own chances. So far, nearly 4000 readers have taken a chance on my book.
If you’re interested in reading more on the topic of self-publishing, you need to check out Joe Konrath’s Blog, A Newbies Guide to Self-Publishing. He predicted the rise of Self-Publishing years ago…and turned his back on the traditional publishing industry. He’s gruff and tells it like it is. His blog archives motived me to keep the rights to my books…for now. Coincidentally, I just read his most recent post, and he also predicts the under $100 e-reader by Christmas. I swear I wrote this minutes before I read his post.
I turned 40 at the end of February, and the event was anti-climactic. I didn’t feel the decay of old bones, or slight degradation in my eyesight. One more candle, and a wonderful family birthday party. I was spared the surprise, “this is your life” event that I’ve seen unfold for other quadragenarians.
My book turned 30 last week, which kicked off an exciting flurry of review activity. I had high hopes for the 30th review…looking for a reason to celebrate. The title of the review? “Wow…this book.” And not in a good way. A one-star 30th birthday review for The Jakarta Pandemic. The review was quite lengthy for Amazon, and had nothing good to say. The only positive? I could tell that the reviewer hadn’t read the entire book, probably not more than 30 pages. Needless to say, I was a little irritated. I wrote a nice response and let it go. Not everyone is going to like this book…or any book. Little did I realize that this would be the first of nine reviews written in four days. Thick skin? I would have felt better suited up in Kevlar.
Every time I checked Amazon, I cringed. I took two more solid hits, and then nothing but good reviews. I have been solidly impressed by the quality of people reviewing my book, and the readers that have reached out via e-mail. I frequently invite reviewers to contact me, especially if I see something that worries me (misunderstanding of meaning or purpose of my writing…not for pointing out typos). The reviews help shape future works, and revisions of the Jakarta Pandemic. I’m self-published, so I can do whatever I want with the book. I have a free-lance editor (who reviewed my book and responded to my request for help) working on some improvements as I type. These are all reader suggested enhancements, which will be available in new editions by mid-May (I hope).
Before I check Amazon for more reviews…Fridays always seem to be the biggest day for The Jakarta Pandemic…let me share with you an example of how not to handle a negative review. Read the string of posts, if you can. It’s cringe-worthy. Warning: Profanity.
And I don’t mean add more books to it. Consider reading a different genre.
I learned a cool lesson the other night. I recently joined a local writing group…let me correct myself. I was finally invited to join by a friend.
I was concerned about presenting the opening scene of my new novel to the group…because it’s violent. Not overly so, for me…but I needed a better gauge of the group. I asked the host to describe the types of writing involved at the meetings, and he gave me a list. Person matched with genre.
Crime fiction- That was my friend’s work. I had already read a few chapters. Excellent.
Memoir-Huh? OK, I just read a book written by a Navy Seal…definitely memoir. Not the best book, but memoir. I know what memoir is…just being dramatic
More memoir-Oh boy. And both memoir writers are women. I’m still not too worried.
Poetic Memoir-Now I’m worried. I think I’ll definitely keep my book’s prologue on my own computer. Eight people are shot to death in the span of thirty seconds. Not very poetic. I have other chapters to share.
Literary Fiction – I was an English major. No worries here.
Young Adult Fiction – Actually, the host was wrong about the genre…it’s Middle Aged Fiction. My 10 year old son’s realm…Now I’m worried again.
I uploaded my chapter to the group’s share site, and downloaded all of their samples. I sat down late at night and started to dig into…memoir, memoir and more memoir? Had I ever really read memoir before? Not like this. I thoroughly enjoyed reading real memoir. There is something about the personal style of writing memoir that grabs me. I hope they submit more.
Same with Middle Aged and Literary Fiction. I read with my son all the time, but I don’t really dig into his books anymore. He reads silently while I read one of my books. I think I need to pick up a few of his books. Reading the sample passage brought back nice memories of a much less complicated time in my life. It was a nice break, but a lot of fun.
I read three or four good literary fiction novels each year. I’m pretty careful with these, basing my decision on critical recommendation. I can tell within two pages whether I made the right choice. I won’t read past that. I save a lot of money in Borders browsing these books for the right tone, description, and pace. Were it not for a technical problem, I would have read all forty pages submitted. As it stood, I read close to fifteen without hesitation. I look forward to reading more…from everyone.
It’s hard to read another genre, especially as a writer. I view everything through my own personal genre lens. My current work sits squarely in the thriller camp..ala Bourne Identity. But I have a feeling that I’m going to learn some subtle ways to imbue this story with cross genre techniques. Touches that will greatly enhance the work…or have silo-genre readers bitching. Either way, I’ll be happy to hear from them.
My wife is reading a very thick, fiction novel set in 19th century London, and she occasionally draws my attention to passages from the book. Yes, she interrupts whatever I’m reading to do this, and since I love both historical fiction and my wife, I’m usually game to take a look.
I’m always amazed by the richness of detail in these novels, which can at times almost appear obsessive. From the era appropriate napkin folds at table settings, to intimate descriptions of every article of clothing that adorns a character…and not just the main character, but everyone in the scene. This is one of the main draws to period or historical fiction. The details of another time. It’s an amazing feat, which must involve painstaking research, travel and imagination. As a part time writer, I’m thankful for Google and an active, roaming imagination.
The other night, she pointed out another feature of this tome she’s lugged around for a few weeks. The dialogue. I couldn’t believe it, but the author had taken pains to mimic the speech of the 19th century London too. I can barely understand some of the thicker British accents even today! I must admit that I couldn’t stand it. I was forced to work too hard to understand the dialogue, and I can only imagine that my wife feels like she’s learned a second language at this point…though I don’t hear her complaining.
I take dialogue seriously, and if I can’t follow it, or it’s unrealistic, I’m likely to tune out of the book. In fiction all dialogue is contrived, so I use a simple strategy to test it. I read and re-read lines of dialogue out loud (I don’t do this for every line…I seem to know when the test is necessary). It’s amazing how crappy a genius line can sound when you put a voice, and some inflection to it. I’ve eliminated some stinkers this way…and probably missed a few. I still find them.
Do you pay close attention to dialogue in a story, or are you more tied to the action?
1.) My book has been professionally edited, so the typos and grammar errors that most of you have been so kind not to mention, should be mostly eradicated. When I get unsolicited emails from readers, complimenting the story, then volunteering to edit my next book…I know it’s time to put this in the hands of a professional. Still, I took a few readers up on the offer to sweep The Jakarta Pandemic, and they turned up enough errors (I’m embarrassed to say how many), that my editor didn’t consider re-negotiating terms in the middle of the project. Thank you guys and ladies for taking the time. You know who you are. And thank you, Noah Mullett-Gillman, for taking on the editing project. You should check out his book, Luminous and Ominous, another recently released Post Apocalyptic tale.
2.) Noah also recently hosted Post Apocapalooza II, a series of interviews with new/indie Post Apocalyptic writers…and I was included in this group. The term apocalyptic fiction wasn’t in my vernacular until a few months ago, and I’m not kidding. I’ve read plenty of PA fiction…The Stand, The Road, World War Z…and I love apocalyptic movies, but I classified my book as a thriller/horror novel. Noah contacted me regarding this interview series, and I did a double take…it was really so obvious, I almost laughed. I wrote a book about a pandemic that will likely wipe out over 700 million people, which certainly places you well within the PA genre. Thanks again, Noah. Check out the Post Apocapalooza II. Several writers are featured, and their books range from pandemics to zombies, to biblical prophesies…back to more zombies. You can read an excerpt of my interview below…regarding zombies.
NOAH K. MULLETTE-GILLMAN: “If a world-wide zombie outbreak occurred, what would you do?”
STEVE KONKOLY: “I’m not worried about this one, because I think at this point we should be well prepared for a zombie outbreak. Hundreds of films, dozens of books…even an instruction manual for surviving a zombie attack (thanks to Max Brooks). Human awareness of zombies is at an all-time historic high, so I can’t envision a scenario where an outbreak could spiral out of control. Unless it was an infection like in 28 Days, and then I would barricade myself and re-read Max’s book, over and over again.
Did you ever notice how people fall victim to zombies (slow moving type) at the beginning of most zombie movies…like they have no idea what they are confronting. We watched The Walking Dead this fall on AMC, and I turned to my wife at one point and said, “I guess this whole genre is predicated on the concept that nobody has ever heard of a zombie before.”
3. I added a prologue to The Jakarta Pandemic, to give the readers a glimpse into the future of the disaster that unfolds in suburban Maine, when the Jakarta Flu is in full swing. The story takes a little time to gather steam, as the groundwork for the epic disaster is carefully put into place, so I thought that the addition of a prologue would give readers some reassurance that they are in for a thrill ride through panic-stricken suburbia.
Good plot. Immersing detail. Popular genre. Quick tempo. All the trappings of a worthy read…right? While these qualities in a book might draw you in, and keep you there for a spell, nothing, in my humble view, detaches the reader quicker than hollow characters. I’ve read the reviews (not on mine thankfully…yet). “Cardboard, one-dimensional, flat, undeveloped, unrealistic…” The list goes on.
Unrealistic? Now this description captures my attention the most, because it reminds me of something Stephen King said about writing good stories. I am paraphrasing at my worst, but he said something to the effect that an interesting story pits normal people against extraordinary circumstances, not extraordinary people against normal situations. Realism defined? I don’t know, but I like reading stories about characters that have to struggle to overcome an extraordinary problem. Is James Bond one of these characters? At first you’d probably say “no way!” I might agree, but I’d argue that he is an extraordinary person pitted against insanely extraordinary circumstances. It’s the same formula, just presented in a higher octane fashion, which is why it works…more so in the recent Bond films.
Ever read a book where the protagonist is an unstoppable, unbeatable hero? Mentally or physically? It’s fun for a while, but falls flat very quickly, because ultimately, there is no real drama. You know the protagonist will come out on top. It might be fun getting there, but on some level I get bored…really quickly. If the protagonist’s success is in question, or he/she takes a beating along the way…even though I still suspect, or know it’ll turn out alright, I’m pulled along.
Another aspect of a realistic protagonist is their moral stance. I think a little moral complexity is critical for a realistic character. We don’t all help old ladies cross the street…sometimes we’re in a hurry and don’t want to stand two more places back at Starbucks. Sorry. Moral complexity can vary across the spectrum, which can become confusing, so traditionally, we think of categorization in terms of good vs. evil, or some form of this. It’s a simple recipe for conflict, which usually drives a story along.
In my first novel, The Jakarta Pandemic, the moral ambiguity was a little hazy. The structural “good guys vs. bad guys” dichotomy was fairly simple to process, and I’ve received little feedback to suggest otherwise. However, since the book’s release, I still eagerly wait to hear from the camp of people who think that Alex Fletcher was a terrible person, and could not associate with them at all. I built a subtle stage for this into the story (maybe not so subtle), and so far, nobody has walked up onto it for a solid rant against them.
My next story won’t be so easy for most of you. Although most of you will like the protagonist from the start, and turn the last page with the same sentiment intact (mostly)…the ride may leave you with an uneasy feeling. You might find yourself not so eagerly clinking champagne glasses with this character, as you sail away into the sunset.
What kind of protagonist keeps you reading a story? What kind makes you toss the book aside?
Does the current situation in Japan qualify as an “epic” disaster?
I don’t know, but the unfolding drama at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will cast the final vote. All eyes are focused on the crisis, but what exactly are most of us seeing…and learning?
As a writer that recently launched a novel centered around an “epic” human disaster…The Jakarta Pandemic, I saw frightening similarities between the research driven scenario I had created for my story, and the media stories spilling out of Japan. I admit, there is a big difference between the instantly devastating impact of an earthquake/tsunami hit, and the slower burn of a gradually worsening pandemic disaster. However, I wasn’t thinking in terms of the immediate blunt physical impact. I really focused on the after-effects. Stories of evacuation, refugees, food and supply shortages…and not just for the immediate victims, but everyone ultimately affected, even as far away as Tokyo.
I especially considered the citizens forced to evacuate the 12 mile radius around the Fukushima plant. What did they bring with them? How much did they have to bring? What about the people in the next distance ring, who were told to stay indoors? Do they have enough food, water and supplies to stay put for an extended period of time? Or would they be forced to flee due to lack of necessities. Where are all of these people going?
I wondered if the individual families had ever planned for this type of disaster? I know you can’t devise a plan to thwart a thirty foot high wall of water, but did people immediately head away from the coast after the earthquake? They certainly didn’t have much time to react.
I thought about the concept of what survivalist/preppers call a Bug Out Bag (BOB)…actually, they have an entire lingo (Bug Out Vehicle, Bug Out Location…etc). A BOB is a conveniently located, pre-packed bag designed to get you (and your family) through the first 72 hours of an emergency that requires you to leave your home. I won’t get into detail about the contents, but you get the idea. If the tidal wave alarm sounds, or you experience an earthquake (and you live close to the ocean)…you can throw this bag into your BOV, start driving inland, and rest assured that you have the basics covered (cash, clothes, first-aid, food, water…more).
There are some basic preparation steps that can make an immense difference, whether you are stuck in your residence with no way to resupply essential items, or are forced to flee (immediately or with plenty of time) a disaster zone. Many of these preparations overlap, and can serve you well during something as minor as a nasty winter storm.
How much thought have you put into some of the more likely or unlikely disaster scenarios for your area? (Even a two day power outage)
Or the ending to your story? I thought I could see it clearly. So clearly, that four chapters into The Jakarta Pandemic, I decided to write what I thought would be the last chapter, or final conflict of the story. What a waste of time. Well, I shouldn’t say a complete waste. I kept a few elements of the scene for the final draft, and writing in general is rarely a waste, but I took a two-week detour (yes, that’s how long a chapter used to take me…part time) from a solid writing stretch. I’m glad that a writing genie didn’t appear and laugh at my face as soon as I finished it. I would have been pissed.
Instead, it took me months to figure out that this chapter just wouldn’t fit into the story as written, which was fine. Though I remember being a little disappointed, and possibly angry when I took a look at the chapter’s word count. I learned a valuable lesson from this, and of course, probably reinforced a bad habit. Let me explain.
The good first:
1.) I’ll probably never jump ahead and write a complete scene or chapter again. I’ll still wake up in the middle of the night and take detailed notes about what I might write, but I won’t spend two weeks on a scenic detour again. For those of you who have read The Jakarta Pandemic, or anyone (it won’t spoil the story), I have attached the “detour” so you can see how differently things appeared to me in the beginning. Alternate ending
2.) Since this was my first writing endeavor, I experienced something that I had only read about in articles and books about writing craft. This sounds way more dramatic than it should…sorry. I got my first, good taste, of a story and characters taking on a life of their own. Now this may sound cheesy, but I arrived at a point where I could no longer force the characters or storyline exactly where I wanted to go. It was still going in the cardinal direction I had chosen, but the details were up for grabs. I no longer knew, with certainty, who would survive the pandemic? I didn’t know which neighbors would turn out to be allies or enemies. It was a great feeling. Not that I had been chained to a structured plot (far from it), but I finally understood what so many other writers have described. Like experiencing “runner’s high” for the first time, or the “green flash” seen at sunset over a calm, cloudless ocean.
As an aside, I spent two years on board one of our Navy’s finest warships and many, many days at sea…and I can bitterly report that I have never seen this mythical flash, though I’ve heard and read about it. I have even supposedly missed it while tending to more pressing matters on the bridge (in plain view of the horizon).
This experience reinforced my innate disdain for using an existing, planned and structured approach to writing. I know it can help, to a certain degree (see, my own prejudice seeps through everywhere on the topic), but I couldn’t drag myself to do it for the first novel, and….you know the rest.
A good friend and writer has given me a few excellent resources, which I have reviewed, but when I sit down to start plotting or structuring…I get a few minutes into it before staring off into space. I inevitably open the “current novel” file and start to work on the new story instead. Admittedly, I do use a time line, lists of characters and abundant notes…but not much beyond that.
So, enough about me. What do you do as a writer? As a reader, what are your thoughts?
Tense. This isn’t exactly a new topic for writer’s blogs, but it’s an amusingly controversial one. If you Google “present vs. past tense writing,” you’ll end up in the middle of an angry battle between the fiercely entrenched forces of the past, and the anti-establishment present. I’m not going to reiterate the arguments here, you should really check them out for yourself. This one heats up pretty quick (Fiction Master sounded like he wanted to punch the blog author in the neck). I think it’s fair to say that we’ll see Glenn Beck and President Obama having beers together in the White House garden before any of the “pro-past tense” folks acknowledge the possible use of the present tense in fiction writing.
I feel like I’m listening to an argument between two sci-fi fans over time travel, and I’ve heard it all before…maybe because I’m caught in a perpetual time travel loop that keeps replaying my past experiences…or I’m listening to an author tell a story, which clearly already happened, giving me the impression that I’m hearing it again. Does any of this make sense? Probably not, because if you’re like me, after listening to the time travel argument for let’s say…two minutes, I feel compelled to interject. “Time travel doesn’t exist, so what exactly are you arguing about?” The same goes for arguing that the present tense has no place in fiction writing. It doesn’t matter whether you think it happened in the past, or the present. It really never happened at all, and only the author holds the key to why the tense was chosen. This is the heart of the matter, as I have experienced.
The Jakarta Pandemic started in the present tense for no reason at all. I wrote the story solely from the protagonists view, and after writing about ten pages, the present tense dominated. I actually had to rework the pages to eliminate the past tense. About fifty pages later, I re-read one of my favorite writing guide books, Stephen King’s, On Writing. At some point in there, he discusses tense, and states that present tense is typically only suited for short stories. I didn’t remember much more than that, because I had closed the book and uttered a few profanities. I really didn’t want to dig back through fifty pages and shift the tense back to the past, but I did…or at least I fought my way through about five pages. It was miserable, and didn’t work for me. For my story, it became clear that the past tense was not the right choice, and that a single point of view, fast paced story was well suited for the present tense. Not that I haven’t received some critique. I can live with it, because the past tense failed to propel The Jakarta Pandemic forward.
As for my new novel? With multiple points of view, changing settings, a much larger host of characters, I naturally tended to use past tense. I strayed back to present tense for action sequences (out of habit), but upon re-reading a few pages, it became clear that sticking to the present tense would not be a sustainable practice for the novel. I edited about fifteen pages to conform everything to the past tense, and at first it felt like I was writing in a foreign language, but after a few pages, it flowed naturally.
I think the story chooses the tense, and not the writer.
About a month ago, I received some great feedback regarding my book. My neighbor and I were discussing the book, and he thought that a map of the novel’s fictional neighborhood would have helped him to visualize the action in story. A friend of his shared the same sentiment, going even further to say that he quit trying to keep it straight after a while. There are thirty-eight households on Durham Road, not all of them an intrinsic part of the story, but most of them are referenced repeatedly. If you read carefully, you should be able to figure it all out…just kidding.
I sympathize with anyone who had trouble geographically tracking the story throughout the Durham Road neighborhood. As a stickler for details, I couldn’t hope to keep it all clear in my own head while writing the story, so I created a cheat sheet from the very start. Actually, it was a poster-board, very much like the one created by Alex Fletcher in the story. Take a look at both versions. One is obviously my marked up, faded “cheat sheet.” The other is a page I added to the beginning of The Jakarta Pandemic, at the request of some concerned readers.
How to start this blog? I can’t imagine going wrong with a thank you to anyone who has put their stamp on my first novel. Whether you took the plunge and bought the book, or simply passed the word on to a friend (or both hopefully), I’m humbled and impressed by your efforts. Clearly you have all done something very right to help the word get out…sales via Amazon have steadily climbed since I uploaded the book into Kindle format. I’m sure Amazon’s Christmas Kindle Proliferation didn’t hurt. How many Kindles were sold last year? iPads?
I certainly can’t claim to have pulled off a mastermind marketing campaign. Or maybe I did, in sort of a low budget, high tech way. Facebook, email lists, business cards (which my wife hands to everyone…she hands out ten for every single card I sheepishly offer). I can’t thank her enough (though she might disagree). I also started posting chapters on a fantastic survivalist/disaster preparation forum, mainly to get feedback from “the experts.” People who really give some serious thought to modern day survival scenarios (every aspect). I’d be willing to bet that this group spread the word far and wide. Many thanks to the WSHTF readers…I’m almost done posting the entire novel there.
So what’s next? Another novel for sure. Not a disaster survival thriller, but more of a fast paced (frenetic) thriller, with plenty of twists. I can envision a series of three novels…now if only I could start to envision my hands on the keyboard, writing the first book. I’ve started, no worries there, and I’ve roughly mapped the story. I just need to get serious about carving out some time. Between family, friends, full time job, maintaining a house, TV shows I can’t miss, and exercise…what was I talking about? Yes. More excuses not to sit down and dig into a great story.
Before I get back into the mindset of my new protagonist…please let me know what you’d like to see or hear about on this blog. You can post comments, review The Jakarta Pandemic…whatever you’d like.