Author Interview – JD Weston

This time it’s off to the Middle East to talk with suspense, thriller, and hybrid writer JD Weston.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I am a Dubai based author and photographer, I find the sunshine helps my creativity (smug grin). I have lived in Dubai for close to ten years now and enjoy the central location to the rest of the world. Since being here, I have traveled to Africa, Asia, America, and all over the Middle-East, to places that from my home city of London, would have been slightly more difficult to get to, and likely would have never crossed my mind.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

I have just finished a duology called, The Alaskan Adventure Series. The second part, From the Ocean to the Stream, was published on the 7th September. The story outlines the memoirs of a young man called Jim, who picks up from his father’s story in the first part of the series, during which time the family travel to France and undergo the horrific experience of their ship sinking. With the family split, each of them take on their own battles with the ocean and struggle to survive any which way they can before returning to Alaska.

From the Ocean to the Stream, sees Jim take on Alaska, his father’s birthplace in their log cabin on a lake deep in the Rocky Mountains. The horrors of the experience on the ocean and the things that Jim had to do to survive continue to haunt him through similes that lie in the shadows of the woods. His battle to overcome the memories and to find solace and peace in the wilderness, and to truly find himself are put to the test as the greed of man seeks to destroy all his family have ever worked for.

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Alaska has an important place in your work. How did it become such a key feature of books written by someone born in London and living in Dubai?

That’s a great question. I am a country boy at heart and a lover of the outdoors. I have family in Montana, where nature rules and the landscape and wildlife aren’t too dissimilar and as a result I’ve spent a lot of time there. Alaska is not far to travel from Montana and had always been on my list, so during a trip to Montana, I went further into Alaska and was blown away.  Once I’d been there and had stood deep in the silent wilderness; fully aware that I was far from the apex predator on so many levels; it left me feeling humbled and totally appreciative of the balance of nature. I was awed by the stories of the frontier; tales of men grunting their way through the hard winters, foraging and hunting and much like early man, constantly aware of the dangers. This is something that I think appeals to many people, it’s a sense that has evolved in man within the confines of the cities, where the dangers are still there but in a different form. Life in the remote parts of Alaska is not easy. Everything you do requires effort and planning. Boiling water requires wood, fire and effort. Finding food often involves patience, hiking and danger. I grew up in London, where many things are a phone call away, or the flick of a switch or remote control. I think that exposure to both the big cities and those remote wild places really gave me the holistic perspective I needed to identify life in the wild in a way that someone who has never experienced it could appreciate.

I used the trips to Montana to sit and reflect on the Alaska trip and to fill in the gaps in the flora and fauna that flavoured the books. I spoke to men who through experience were able to add substance to my own knowledge of the way things are done in the wild. Above all, in both Alaska and Montana, the feeling of sitting by a lake, high in the mountains with no other people for miles around is something that not everyone gets to experience. The silence of nature and the smell of the wilderness is captivating. It had such an impact on me, I had such a powerful connection with it all, I simply had to put it down in words.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

Perhaps like many authors I find my genre is a hybrid of many, with flavors of others. I enjoy the graphic detail and suspense that I am able to spin into a thriller, and the wild places that beg for action adventure. But yes, there’s a hint of romance in most of my books, just to spice it up a little.

You mention that your books tend to be hybrids, crossing genre lines. Has it been difficult finding a audience for such works? How have you connected with readers without being able to hang a clear genre label on your work?

In short, yes it has been difficult. The first book has received some fantastic feedback, but as I mentioned, it was a story that was inside me and I just had to write it. When I started, I had no intention of publishing it, I was simply enjoying writing; I loved the faraway places the story took me and at the time was unaware of writing to an audience, I was writing for myself. That first book was like lighting a fire beneath me; I had to write a second, which as I mentioned, followed more of a plot, and actually is channeled into a thriller genre more than any other, although it would still appeal to readers of adventure. Perhaps rather selfishly, it also gave me another excuse to visit my favourite place.

Now that I have the first two books complete, I am working on a new series with six books planned for the next year, all of which are specifically crime thriller and are written for that particular audience.

The Alaskan Adventure series was written with fluid, empathetic descriptions that convey the smells, the sounds and the feeling of being in the wild. Whereas the new series contains much more concise sentences, with the sharp dialogue of London’s east end organized crime scene, (think Snatch meets Jack Reacher). As I am writing, the voice in my head takes on the dialect of the character. So, while writing the Alaskan Adventure series, I spent a huge portion of the time with my own thoughts talking in that loveable, wild, North American slang which I adore. The new series sees me going back to my roots, with my head in full cockney mode, which the dialogue benefits from hugely. I think the audience of the crime thriller genre will identify with this accent, and it will become an underlying tone across the entire series.

One of the benefits of the east end/cockney language is that it can be written in plain English and the reader can still hear the cockney tone through the use of language and dialogue. Whereas I found with the Alaskan Adventure, the most effective way to really give the reader a sense of language, was to write in the actual dialogue, which raised some issues with the writing application during editing, but enables the reader to quickly slip into the tangle of trees and sit by the lake with the tastes and smells that the characters describe far easier than if they were written in plain English. In the end I compromised and changed the story to plain English, and kept the dialogue in the slang dialect, but I still prefer the original. It takes me away to some very special places.

Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways of the first two books, was indeed, identify the audience and then write for them and not for myself. I am a huge fan of Lee Child, Mr. King, and Wilbur Smith’s African themed Courtney series. I think my stories will always have a taste of the outdoors, it’s something that has been close to me for as long as I remember, but my experience of the cities allows me to focus on my audience now. As I mature as writer, and begin to find my feet, I feel I can channel the experience of city life into the thriller series, and throw in realistic tones of the outdoors.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

The first book I wrote started out as a chapter that then became two chapters, then three; pretty soon it was a book. The book that followed had a plot, aha, I’m learning new things. Since then my approach has differed.

The series I am working on now saw me outline an entire series on an A0 piece of paper, with individual story arcs and the full series arc. So now all I have to do is fill in the gaps with words.

I typically start writing at 0530 am for two hours and then again at midday. The break allows me time to digest what I have written, compare it to the story and series arcs and develop some ideas to follow it.  I aim for around 3,000 words per day, so around 8 weeks for a finished story, sometimes less. I’ll get the covers done halfway through the book, and try to do a book trailer as early as possible, these give my story a feel and of course allow me to shout about the book before it’s done. Once complete, I’ll fire off the manuscript to the editor, which is then butchered and the remains are then returned for me to do a final draft and send back for a final and edit and format.

It sounds like you edit as you write, rather than finish one draft then go back and take a next pass on it. How do you balance the editing with the need to push forward, getting plot on the page?

I do like to revisit the previous days writing to clean the phrasing up and improve the flow, and then by the time I pick where I left off, I am fully in the zone and ideas are already bouncing around. Once complete, I read the book through aloud and make changes before sending it to the editor.  I set myself a target of 2,200 words per day, which I normally smash. The series I am working on has the series arc laid out, with individual story arcs, so often the words are itching to get out before I even sit down. As a writer who is new to fiction, I am still finding my feet; the more advice I listen to, the more I understand the need to spew the words onto the page and edit later…but I can’t help myself, I love to go back and read what I wrote the previous day, if anything, for continuity of writing style and feel.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

The first character I ever created in my first novel, Where the Mountains Kiss the Sun. Sonny was born and raised in the wilds of Alaska. There was nothing he couldn’t do, hunt, fish, trap, fell trees, start fires, and boy he could shoot. But one day, when he was just 18, his family had died leaving him alone, so he set off into the new world seeking adventure. He meets people for the first time, learns about civilized life, and goes to war with his nation where he experiences hell. His naivety and innocence find him a loving wife but also sends him to prison. His loyalty and devotion places him on a ship to France that sinks, and his courage and tenacity help him find his family again, where he can return to his home, Where the Mountains Kiss the Sun. Sonny is loveable, adorable and naïve in the city, but in the wilds of Alaska, he’s the king.

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What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

I have had to research many weird things, often sat in a café’ where people who may be looking over my shoulder would see me frantically trying to understand what life was like in a New York prison in 1930, or how big the ships were that carried troops across the ocean and how many funnels they had. Or they may see me learning how to field dress and skin a deer. At number one on the weird list though, I would have to say is the long term effects of cannibalism on the human mind, and what the best parts of the human body to eat are. I probably got some odd looks during that phase; in fact, I probably shouldn’t go back there. Ever.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

Patience. Plan, prepare and execute only when you are ready. There’s hundreds of blog posts and articles on release strategies and target audiences and all the other marketing elements, and don’t get me wrong, these are crucial to success. But before all those elements, you need to write a good book. Close off loose ends, spell check, edit, proof read, edit, proof read and format well. If none of those things are done and the book isn’t your absolute best, then it doesn’t matter what advertising, or keywords you use.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I’d like to think I would continue to write and photograph, but I’d be doing it in various parts of the world, where the variety could influence both of my passions in a positive manner.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

I personally like to read long books, or series. I bumble around from author to author, and often listen to audiobooks in my car as I drive to work. I recently found Jeffrey Archers, As the Crow Flies. He somehow manages to interweave story lines and timelines into a jumble of superbly written chapters with such vivid characters, that I almost feel I know them by the end of chapter one. He is of course, an extremely talented man, and I have read many of his books, usually in awe of the detail he provides the reader.

I have to give credit to the narrator also. John Lee is one of my favorite narrators and can throw his voice in so many different directions. He bounces from accent to accent in the midst of Jeffrey’s heavy reams of dialogue, and yet he does it such dexterity and grace, barely pausing for breath, that I often sit in my car waiting for the end of the chapter before heading into my office.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

I’m actually currently working on a thriller series based in my home town of London. It’s based around the story of a man who was raised to be a killer for a crime family, who strives to escape the life that accompanies such a vocation. During his efforts to escape he turns his talents to better purposes, cleaning the gene pool has never been so much fun.

When I write, I tend to think in the accent of the person; kind of like a bad movie going on in my head. The last series was based in Alaska, so I had two years of speaking like a backwoods hillbilly. The new series as I mentioned, is based in London, so I’m allowing my cockney self to run free and colour the dialogue that spills out daily. I find it’s a great way to actually put myself there at the scene, see the details and provide imagery that takes the reader there.

I aim to release books 1-6 every four weeks starting in May 2018. And right now, as well as writing like I’m possessed, I am working on campaigns, covers, book trailers, keywords and all the rest.

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The High Price of Needing to Be Right

There are lots of things about the legal system that we lawyers take for granted that make lay people shake their heads or look at you like you’ve got a bamboo plant sprouting from your forehead. One thing that really confuses them are so-called Alford pleas, in which a person pleads guilty to a crime, all the while maintaining that they’re actually innocent. How the hell does that work?

It should be simple enough. You’re charged with a crime. This presents you with two choices – plead guilty or not guilty. Presumably, if you didn’t do it, you plead not guilty and go to trial. Guilty pleas only happen when the person is actually guilty right? Putting to one side for now the fact that that’s not right, let’s tweak the scenario a little. Let’s say you didn’t do it, but you’re afraid the prosecution can win a conviction, anyway. And they’re proposing a deal that would allow you to face considerably less prison time than if you lost at trial. What would you do?

That’s the situation that faced Henry Alford in North Carolina in 1963. He was charged with first-degree murder, but pleaded not guilty. However, the evidence was strong and the prosecution offered to let Alford plead guilty to second-degree murder instead. At the plea hearing, Alford testified that he didn’t kill anyone but didn’t want to risk the death penalty if convicted on first-degree murder. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Alford went back to court later, claiming his guilty plea was coerced. The case wound its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction in North Carolina v. Alford, 400 US 25 (1970). After noting that lower courts were split on whether a guilty plea could be accepted when the defendant maintains his innocence, the Court ultimately concluded that:

while most pleas of guilty consist of both a waiver of trial and an express admission of guilt, the latter element is not a constitutional requisite to the imposition of criminal penalty. An individual accused of crime may voluntarily, knowingly, and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even if he is unwilling or unable to admit his participation in the acts constituting the crime.

Or, as the West Virginia Supreme Court laid out in its decision approving such pleas, Kennedy v. Frazier, 357 SE2d 43 (1987):

a guilty plea that represents a voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternatives available to a defendant is not coerced within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment simply because it was entered into to avoid the possibility of a significantly higher penalty. . . . An accused may voluntarily, knowingly and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even though he is unwilling to admit participation in the crime, if he intelligently concludes that his interests require a guilty plea and the record supports the conclusion that a jury could convict him.

How often do Alford pleas occur? Hard to say, but there is an alarming trend of their use in one particular area, as detailed by two recent articles by ProPublica – where DNA evidence appears to exonerate a convicted defendant, but prosecutors insist on retrying the case.

One article takes a look at a particular murder case in Baltimore from 1987 (fans of David Simon’s book Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets will recognize the detectives involved). One man turned in what looked to be the murder weapon (it was laying in a yard) in hopes of getting a reward. When the police turned on him, he fingered a second man as the killer. Neither had anything to do with the murder, yet both were convicted for it after separate trials (the story details how this happened – it will turn your stomach).

Years later, DNA tests destroyed the evidence and arguments used to convict the two men. So they were released, right? Of course not – the prosecutors couldn’t admit they’d got the wrong guys. They insisted they would proceed to retry both men, but they did offer something – enter Alford pleas and walk out of prison with a time served sentence. One man took the deal, the other didn’t but was eventually acquitted. As you might expect, their lives since they’ve been released have been quite different.

But it’s not just prosecutors who are wrapped up in insisting they’re right. The entire criminal justice system is designed not to fix mistakes. As the article puts it:

Courts only assess guilt or innocence before a conviction. After that, appellate courts focus solely on fairness. Did everyone follow the rules and live up to their duties?

This is both right and wrong. Appellate courts and courts that review convictions otherwise (as via habeas corpus proceedings) are, generally, looking at procedural issues. As for factual ones, they will defer almost entirely to the jury’s verdict or the trial court’s original decision. Getting a reviewing court to disagree with the original court on a matter of fact is a herculean task. That’s why I say the quote is both right and wrong. It’s wrong is suggesting that appellate courts and others “focus solely on fairness.” In truth, they rarely give a shit about fairness, so long as all the “i”s are dotted and the “t”s crossed.

A second article catalogs numerous cases of similar case in Baltimore. But these scenarios aren’t limited to Charm City. One need only look to the final resolution of the West Memphis Three case to see it pops up all over the country (although, ironically, not in my part of the world – I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Alford plea taken in the Southern District of WV).

I think the Alford plea began as a kind of mercy. In a criminal justice system defined by plea bargains, how can you cut somebody out of their benefits just because they insist they didn’t do it? That it’s turning into a tool for blinkered prosecutors to keep their records intact (and those of the cops who did the investigation) is troubling. Does Alford need reformed or scrapped altogether? Only time will tell, I suppose.

Author Interview – John Triptych

This time we’re headed to Asia to chat with science fiction & thriller writer John Triptych.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

Hi, I’m John and I write science fiction and thriller novels. Right now I live out in Asia because I’m planning to settle here permanently. I’m a semi-retired businessman who decided to write novels because it’s always been my dream to be an author.

Why did you relocate to Asia and do you think your new surroundings will impact your fiction?

I worked as an expat, traveling and living in different parts of the world for almost 20 years so the area was pretty familiar to me. I also found the cost of living is much, much lower, and I didn’t have to work as hard yet still maintain my lifestyle if I stayed in the US. There’s plenty of American retirees living in the Third World and they live like kings!

As far as my surroundings having a say in my writing … it’s very strange in that I actually write more about the US ever since I’ve moved away, so while I’m in another part of the world, I still write about things I’ve experienced before.

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I ask writers to send me a picture – John sent me a picture of a genuine Roman pizza!

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

I’m currently finishing up the first book in a new series called Alien Rebellion. Its set a few hundred years in the future, and there’s a human colony on an alien planet that’s undergoing some … drastic changes to put it lightly. It’s sort of like a cross between James Cameron’s Avatar movie and the anthropological science fiction of Ursula K Le Guin, and a bit of James Clavell too.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

I primarily write science fiction. I like writing in this genre because there are no limits to your imagination. You can create entire worlds from scratch and I love doing that. I have a background in tabletop role-playing games and even as a kid I loved to create my own little worlds, sort of like a self-centered demigod.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

I start out with nothing more than a concept. From there I think of an initial scene and start writing. I don’t plot in advance and I just create the story and characters on the fly. I’m a two-finger typist so it takes me a long time to write (and I stop every now and then to do research on the internet too whenever an idea pops up) but I still somehow get it done!

Once the manuscript is finished I go through it a few times before submitting it to the editor. After she sends it back to me I go through it again to see if we’ve both missed any errors. I also contact the cover artist and give them my idea on what the cover ought to look like.

The moment I am happy with everything I send it to the formatter to put it all together.

How deep does your “concept” go? Does it include the universe in which you’re going to tell the story, or just the basic 1-sentence hook? The idea of writing sci-fi off the cuff without a lot of preparation gives me hives!

The whole concept revolves a lot on instinct and feel for me. My background in playing RPGs and constant daydreaming seems to have affected a strange sense of deja-vu when I write, and everything just comes together somehow. I can’t fully explain the process, but I try to imagine myself living in that world, down to the smallest detail, and everything starts to gel to the point where I am overwhelmed by details.

It’s almost like a strange awareness of being able to project yourself into a whole different universe. You start to imagine what a table looks like in that place, and how stuff works, as well as the other little things that add to it.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

The protagonist of my Ace of Space series: Stilicho Jones. I like writing him because he is my alter ego. Stilicho is a mercenary who is out for himself and he’s a smart aleck to boot. Some readers get turned off by his smugness but I love writing him since he jokes around a lot, and it helps because I felt my earlier novels were all too grim.

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What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

My Wrath of the Old Gods series is a mythological post apocalyptic storyline about the ancient pagan gods returning to modern day earth and causing all sorts of mayhem, so I had to research some very obscure deities because I wanted to get to the root of all these mythological stories and strip away popular misconceptions in order to get into what the old pagans gods were really like.

One of these gods I stumbled upon was a Hebrew god (or demon) named Peor (or Ba’al Pe’or, depending on the sources), literally the god of defecation! I added him into the third book of the series since there’s a subplot with one of the main characters trying to escape from hell. Great fun!

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What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

Hoo boy! I’ve learned a lot of things. One is you have to find a good editor. It’s not easy, but it will save you a lot of hassles in the end. Don’t be cheap, because good editors cost money.

Could you give an example of a time where an editor’s feedback really improved your finished work?

One of my editors is very good- she does a two step editing process. The first is that she just reads through the story, much like a beta reader, and looks for inconsistencies with the plot, characters, etc. and then sends me back the manuscript for rewriting. I go through her list of suggestions (like why would a character do this when he did this before, or that was a bad line, change it, etc.).

Once I’ve made my changes, then I send it back to her- after which she looks for grammatical errors, spelling and stuff. Once all that is done she sends it back to me again. All in all, she makes me realize about things I didn’t think about the first time over, and it has dramatically improved the quality of my work, though I still have a ways to go!

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

Not much, to be honest! I’m semi-retired in the tropics and I live a fairly easy life. The books I’ve written have given me enough earnings to take care of my daily expenses so money isn’t too much of an issue. I guess one change would be is that I will probably take more international trips to do field research lol.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

I don’t read a whole lot of indie books, and I always make it a habit to browse in the nearby used bookstores for some old tried and true stuff. A recent good book I’m currently reading is A Stranger is Watching by Mary Higgins Clark. It’s a classic suspense thriller that’s been made into movies more than once. I read a lot of books in different genres because of my varied tastes.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

An epic space opera series with some hard sci-fi elements. I’m currently doing research to make sure the space battles will have a bit of realism to them, but at the same time I’ve thought up an epic storyline that should interest most readers. Hopefully I will finish the first book sometime next year!

I am also writing more sequels to my hard sci-fi series Ace of Space, and my planetary romance series The Dying World. So plenty of the new and the usual too. I like variety.

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Catch up with John on his blog, Amazon, Twitter, or Facebook.

Weekly Read: The Spaceship Next Door

I have a soft spot for books that deal in tropes that don’t conform to reader expectation. After all, I wrote a whole book about zombies where never a brain is eaten. The Spaceship Next Door, therefore, hooked me early on with a great twist on one trope, before throwing in a second for free along the way.

The hook is this – one night a spaceship from another planet lands in rural Massachusetts. Then – nothing happens. There’s no alien invasion. There’s no dire warning about what we’re doing to the planet, ala The Day the Earth Stood Still. There’s not even a massive overreaction by the government, although the town of Sorrow Falls essentially succumbs to a velvet-glove version of martial law. Mostly, the ship just sits there and makes people wonder what the hell is going on.

Three years after landing, something finally does happen.

Much like the ship, the book isn’t in too much of a hurry to get to that thing. Some will complain that this makes the book slow, but I think it’s time well spent with 16-year old Annie Collins, who is kind of the town’s goodwill ambassador to the outside world. She’s given the task for shepherding around a “reporter” (actually a government scientist – he fools nobody), which allows us not only to meet a bunch of characters, but dive deep into the history of Sorrow Falls. To the book’s credit, this doesn’t result in a whole bunch of characters who are nothing more than walking quirks. They all seem real, if a bit off.

I should mention the second trope, because it’s what pops up when things start happening. In a word – zombies. Except, really, they’re not. But they behave kind of like zombies (no brain eating!). Annie and her government guy even have a funny conversation where they try to come up with a better term, but nothing really works. Besides, the zombies tie back in to what the ship is doing (naturally), which lets the book continue its twisty way with first contact stories.

The Spaceship Next Door isn’t perfect. The ending gets a little jumbled and there’s a bit of hand waving at the final post (one of the final chapters is tilted “Deus Ex Machina,” so it’s not like you aren’t warned). Even in light of that, it’s a quick, fun read with a couple of really good laughs sprinkled in. If you like your tropes a little twisted, I highly recommend this one.

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Author Interview – E.M. Swift-Hook

This time we’re off to the north of England to talk with space opera writer E.M. Swift-Hook.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I am E.M. Swift-Hook, I live in the North East of England and I write books and stories which are woven around the characters who live in them.

 Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

The last book I released was a collaborative project in alternate history called Dying to be Roman . It is a murder mystery whodunit, set in modern day Britain, but in a world where the Romans never left.

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In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

Primarily, I write space opera. I am not sure that I so much chose it as it chose me. Like most space opera (Star Wars and so forth), it is set in a science fantasy universe, and that allows wonderful scope to explore new and interesting possible settings for stories. I think it is probably the most liberating and extensive genre there is.

What makes space opera stand apart from other science fiction (especially space based)?

Space opera is focused on the people and how they live with the technology around them, rather than on a clever concept of intriguing physics or technology in its own right. I write character driven stories so my science-fiction is always pulled towards space opera and it human (or alien) interest.

How does someone who writes space opera get involved in a mystery involving a still extant Roman Empire?

Well, that was more a ‘who’ than a ‘how’. Jane Jago is a fabulous author and she and I began collaborating on a couple of ideas and Dying to be Roman came out of that. We both wanted to go for something in a genre we had not written before and alternate history was one we found held interest for us both and which neither of us had tried before.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

I usually get an idea in the form of a scene – a conversation between two characters, an event happening, an intriguing opening or climactic conclusion. This provides me with the impetus to think more about the characters involved and what they are up to. If the story is still seeming like a good one after a few weeks of hanging around at the back of my mind, I will sit down and record what I have for it and shape up a rough timeline of what I think will happen. Sometimes the events on the timeline will be very vague like ‘big scene here’ and sometimes quite detailed.

Then comes the writing, during which the original timeline events may be changed many times. Once the first draft is down I try to wait a week or so before ploughing into editing. I will run checks for my ‘bad’ words, for typos, for excessive descriptors, punctuation etc. When I have the book as clean as I can get it I will ask a people to read it and use their helpful feedback to do the final polishing and shaping. Then, as I am technically challenged, I send the whole lot off to my son who does the magic to put it on Amazon.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

This is incredibly hard to answer as whichever character I am writing as tends to claim the crown for the duration. I think it is a bit like being a parent, they are all my favourites. That said the ones I spend most time with in the nine volumes that is Fortune’s Fools, probably win out. Avilon, for being the most intriguing to write through several incarnations; Jaz, for completely pulling me out of my usual style and approach and Durban – well, for being Durban, intense, puckish, fallible and contradictory,

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

I was not science trained and have had to delve deep into the world of quantum physics and relativity for the background to Fortune’s Fools and believe you me there is nothing weirder!

Since you mentioned not having a background in science – as a writer of science fiction, do you ever worry about not getting it “right?” Or do you trust the reader to suspend disbelief enough to overlook any minor flaws?

I do a heck of a lot of research and I have a local friend who is a mathematical physicist who is usually able to help when I hit issues. Thanks to him I have a Kaon Gravity Generator and a BEC based gravity shield for ships to take off from a planet without needing massive amounts of fuel. I also post questions on the SciFi Roundtable Facebook group where the people are always very happy to offer insights.

Haruspex

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

I’m going to cheat and go for two – one I learned myself and one I learned vicariously. Firstly, if you want to make money use your time and energy to get the qualifications you need to get a highly paid job instead of spending that time writing. If you write, do it because you love it and you want to – do not expect to ever sell a single copy of your books. If you do, bonus. But to begin with get anyone who is willing to read your work and tell you what they think. Give it away to beta readers, join review groups and give it away to garner reviews.

Secondly, I have seen other authors convinced their work is the best writing ever and become offended if anyone suggests something to improve it. Don’t be so precious. You are never as good as you think you are as a writer and the criticism others give you should be very carefully considered. If you don’t listen to those who well-wish you enough to take the time to read your books when you are an unknown, if you argue with your readers, if you continually reject advice from others, you will never improve.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I would be able to afford top-flight editing for my books and pay for a well-known cover artist to package them. I would also have the money to hire a marketing team to advertise them. All that would probably improve the number of people who read my books.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

That is tough. there are some stunning indie authors out there who may never get the recognition they deserve. If you have the time check out Chrys Cymri – I wish I could write as well as she does.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

I still have two books to finish writing in the Fortune’s Fools series and more Dai and Julia books planned with my co-author of Dying to be Roman, Jane Jago. After that my next big project will probably be an historical one set in Seventeenth Century England at the time of the Civil War. I am toying with how much fantasy will sneak in and a twist, maybe, of alternate history. The first book will be called The Cat’s Head and I have written some scenes already. You will be able to read one on the Working Title Blogspot in a couple of weeks time.

Learn more about E.M. at Amazon, on Twitter, on Facebook, or on the blog she shares with Jane Jago.

Will I Care Once I’m Dead?

Thinking about future projects the other day – ideas that are well enough developed that I can see a book coming out of them – I figured that I have material for about 20 books locked away in my brain. Even at a pace of one a year that means a long haul going forward. Let’s face it – chances are that I’ll be in the middle of writing some book when I die. What should happen to it and any others that might be semi-started?

The issue is back in the news recently thanks to the amusingly public way that the late great Terry Pratchet’s unfinished works were handled. Per his request, his hard drive (which contained as many as 10 works in progress) was destroyed – by being crushed by a steamroller.

The comments I read when the news came out was mostly amusement and pleasure at Pratchet’s wishes being so scrupulously honored. After all, if he was so specific as to how his literary executor was to deal with his unfinished work he must have felt fairly passionately about it never seeing the light of day. Who could argue that the right thing to do is precisely what the author wants?

Destruction isn’t the only option, of course. Robert Jordan, author of the massive Wheel of Time series, realized he wouldn’t live to see the completion of the series, so he provided a trove of notes and left the final few books to be completed by Brandon Sanderson. I can’t speak to the quality of Sanderson’s work and whether he did a good job with Jordan’s baby, but, again, it’s hard to complain when the people involved do just what the author wanted them to.

The legal-rule side of my personality says this is precisely how it should work. An author (or her designee) is the master of her own work, after all. If she never wants the world to see it, or only wants the world to see it with certain conditions, that’s her right. If she wants to take any potential masterpieces to the grave, that’s no problems.

Except we have examples where ignoring the author’s wishes turns out pretty well. When Franz Kafka died he left his literary executor (and friend) Max Brod fairly specific instructions:

Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread

Brod did no such thing. As a result, we have all of Kafka’s novels, including The Trial, none of which were published before Kafka’s death.

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A world without The Trial is barely fathomable (ironically), but had Brod did as instructed, we’d never know of it. Nabokov’s The Original of Laura was published against his wishes after he died. Even Mark Twain had a new collection of essays published almost a century after his death – against his wishes.

And so I find myself retreating from my bright-line rule of always doing what the author wants. After all, what’s the harm in ignoring those wishes? Yes, work might be released that the author wasn’t happy with, but the author isn’t going to be around to complain. A reputation could be diminished, I suppose, but authors have very little say in how the world perceives them when they’re alive and even less when they’re dead. Besides, does the posthumous release of a bad book by a great author devalue their prior work? It’s not a perfect analogy (since Harper Lee is still alive), but is To Kill a Mockingbird any less a masterpiece because Go Tell a Watchman was kind of ordinary? I don’t see how.

It’s a more complicated problem than I thought it was at first glance. Certainly, I don’t think it’s a legal issue. I’d oppose any law that required an author’s papers and unfinished works to become some kind of public good and exploited willy nilly. Nor would I support laws that would punish people like Brod for ignoring the wishes of their dead author friend. But, I have a hard time working up too much outrage when an author’s wishes are disregarded, so long as the person doing the second guessing is a close friend or family member. If they are all right with it, I’m in no place to complain. It’s kind of like jury nullification – I’m not a fan of promoting it, but I’m glad it exists for the rare occasions when it’s really necessary.

So I guess what I’m saying, to my literary heirs, if they ever get around to reading this – you’re on your own!

Weekly Read: American Heiress

As they say, truth is stranger than fiction. One of the problems with writing fiction is that readers expect it to make sense, for characters to behave in ways that are believable and compelling. Writers telling true stories aren’t saddled with such issues. Jeffrey Toobin’s latest, American Heiress, tells one of those stories that, if labeled fiction, would have readers rolling their eyes in disbelief.

The basic parameters of the Patty Hearst case are fairly well known. She was kidnapped from the apartment she shared with her then-fiancé in Berkley, California, by a group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was held for months, during which time she turned from captive to comrade. As a professed member of the SLA she participated in bank robberies and lead a life on the run. It all came to an end with an arrest, conviction, and lengthy federal prison sentence.

Toobin’s book breaks down, basically, into three parts. Part one covers Hearst’s background, the kidnapping itself, and her turn to bank robber. This part is a bonkers story with a lot of different angles playing into it – not just Hearst and her kidnappers, but also her family and the law enforcement officers working the case. Then there’s Hearst’s fiancé, who famously told the kidnappers to “take anything you want” when they broke in. As Toobin jokes (multiple times), they did.

Events after the kidnapping played out in a way that seems unbelievable today. The Hearst family – who, at this point, were nowhere near as wealthy as people thought – agreed to an SLA demand to set up a broad food giveaway for the poor. The operation, created almost overnight, had to fight off local grifters (including Jim Jones) and led to riots. The fiancé, whom the family never liked, tried to help in his own way, but only led to his reputation being shredded.

This part makes you hope that the American Crime Story crew, who turned Toobin’s The Run of His Life into The People v. OJ Simpson for FX, has the rights to this book. There are so many characters (the list of famous people who had some connection to all this is impressive – Jane Pauley, Kevin Kline, Lance Ito, and, later on, Bill Walton) acting in so many bizarre ways that Ryan Murphy’s sensibilities would be well served. Appropriately enough, this part wraps up after the SLA members split up and Hearst and her two comrades watched the other half dozen perish in a scene that played out like a mini-Waco – gunfight followed by immolation.

The rest of the book doesn’t quite live up to the first part. The middle section drags a bit as Hearst and the others go on the lamb. Mostly it’s because we lose the multiple angle approach that brought so many characters into play. Still, there’s a particularly odd idyll in the Pennsylvania woods (which has given me a great story idea) and it’s important to the story as a whole.

Part three covers the Hearst’s eventual arrest and trial. One would think that Toobin, being a lawyer, would focus mostly on this, but he gives it a brief, compelling summary, during which one thing becomes clear – Toobin has no regard for Hearst’s lawyer, F. Lee. Bailey. In Toobin’s telling, Bailey was a swaggering, swashbuckling self promoter for whom practicing law was almost an afterthought. He had a deal to write a book about the trial before it even started and spent several nights during trial flying back and forth to Las Vegas to speak at legal seminars. To boot, while Bailey’s reputation was built on winning big cases – Sam Sheppard (aka The Fugitive) and the Boston Strangler – he, like any criminal defense lawyer, lost more than he won. For Hearst, he lost.

Hearst’s trial – she was charged with bank robbery and carrying a firearm in relation to it – boiled down to one issue: did she willingly engage in this criminal conduct after becoming a SLA member, or was she a kidnap victim who had been brutalized, terrorized, and brainwashed to the point where she did whatever she was told in order to survive? It’s clear that Toobin agrees with the jury that convicted her that Hearst was a fully fledged revolutionary by the time of the robbery. What’s really troubling is that while it seems like Hearst did shift into the role of SLA comrade, she shifted out of it just as easily. Given that all this happened while she was barely an adult (she was 19 at the time of the kidnapping, 21 when convicted), I wonder what modern research in the brain development of young adults might shed some light on whether such swings of outlook are really that out of the realm of normal.

Whatever steam the book loses after the first part Toobin finds when he gets righteous in the conclusion. After her conviction was affirmed on appeal and the trial court denied a habeas claim (contrary to what Toobin says, ineffective assistance of counsel claims are routine and often completely baseless), Hearst’s family started a massive effort to get her sentence commuted. It was, eventually, but Jimmy Carter. The staggering bipartisan group that pushed for clemency included famous hardliners such as John Wayne and Carter’s opponent in the upcoming election, Ronald Reagan. Part of it, Toobin argues, is that once Jim Jones led his group in a mass suicide (and murder of Congressman Leo Ryan, a vocal supporter of Hearst), it became much easier to believe Hearst’s story of brainwashing. In the end, she only served about two out of the seven years to which she was sentenced.

But it didn’t stop there. Flash forward to the end of the 1990s and Hearst is now seeking something unprecedented – getting a pardon from a second President after first gaining a commutation. There was no consensus this time – part of the opposition was the then United States Attorney in San Francisco, a guy named Robert Mueller. But Carter and his wife appealed directly to Bill Clinton, who pardoned Hearst on his last day in office.

Toobin, who clearly believes Hearst was a willing participant in her criminal activity, makes the obvious point – only Patty Hearst had the resources and name recognition to get clemency twice, in spite of the evidence against her. People who have done a lot less have gone to prison for a lot longer and not gotten any sniff of clemency. But those people were the ones the SLA said it was fighting for. They weren’t wealthy heiresses.

Toobin’s book is well worth reading. Even if the back half can’t live up to the entertainment value of the first part, there’s a lot of interesting info in here. Toobin does a good job of setting the context for all this (You think we’ve got political strife today? How do several years with 2500 bombings across the country sound?). There’s also some original research, as Toobin got his hands on previously unseen letters Hearst and her lover/co-defendant wrote to each other after their arrest (as couriered by Hearst’s first lawyer). I’m not sure it all makes sense in the end, but so what? It’s real life – it doesn’t have to.

PS – For an interesting perspective on the book, check out this column from Andrew O’Heir, who grew up in the San Francisco area while all this was going on.

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