Weekly Read: The Hike

There’s a long tradition of stories were a regular person is thrown into some weird alternate world, one where the rules of real life don’t apply. The person has to battle through this world without understanding what’s really going on until, hopefully, they find their way out again. A problem with this evergreen template is that, eventually, the storyteller has to explain what’s going on. Rarely do the explanations match what happened along the way.

The Hike falls into that trap. It plunges its main character head first into a bizarre, alien, and frightening world that throws challenges at him apparently at random. It’s no spoiler to say that we eventually find out who’s doing this, but not really why. It’s an awfully soft landing after such a long journey.

But, oh, what a journey it is.

Ben is a businessman of some kind (it’s not really important) on a business trip. He checks into a third-rate hotel in the Pennsylvania wilderness and, with some time to kill before a meeting, decides to take a hike. From there things get – interesting. Almost immediately there’s a dead girl and killers chasing Ben while weaning the torn off faces of Rottweilers. Ben evades them, but finds he can’t get back to anything that looks familiar. With that, the saga is on.

It’s hard to describe what follows, and the surprise of it is part of the joy, so I won’t bother. Safe to say that Ben faces a series of trials that play out like an early role playing video game – success at each “level” is often dependent on figuring out what to do with objects that mysteriously appear when necessary. The struggles get harder as the journey goes along, while Ben occasionally has to deal with frightening episodes from his past.

Ben goes at this mostly alone, although he meets a wide variety of beings as he progresses along his path. At times he gets some companionship, in the form of a talking crab (who refuses to give his name and addresses Ben as “Shithead”) and a 15th-century Spanish explorer (who hates anybody who isn’t Spanish, particularly the English). That these relationships actually pays off in ways beyond being purely entertaining (the crab is really funny) is a testament to how good The Hike is.

Which is not to say it’s perfect. The book falls foul of the regular problem with stories of this sort in that the explanation of this weird world doesn’t hold a candle to the world itself. I’m not saying it doesn’t make sense, it’s just not very satisfying (admittedly, I’m not sure what would be). Also, while the final twist gives a little bit of sting to the tale, I don’t buy the reading that so many people have that Ben learned a great lesson through all this. He never really got into the world as an escape from real life, was never seduced by the promise of something different and exciting. He always wanted to go home to his wife and kids.

Then again, doesn’t everybody (well, maybe not the kids part)?. Which is why it’s hard to fault The Hike for not wowing you at the end, given all the wow you get out of the journey.

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Speculative Fiction and the “Real” World

A little while back I reviewed The Spaceship Next Door and while I enjoyed it there was something about it that bothered me. It kept picking at my writer brain until I finally figured it out. It’s a small thing and nothing at all to change my earlier recommendation (TLDR – go read it), but it’s still something worth pondering.

Spaceship . . . was released at the end of 2015. It’s safe to say it was written sometime in the year or two before that. At the very least, we’re not talking about a book that sat in a trunk for decades before it saw the light of day. By all indications, it takes place in the time in which it was written, which is to say pretty much right now. There are smart phones, ubiquitous wi-fi, and other trappings of second decade of the 21st Century. And we’re clearly talking about 21st Century America, as the book is set in Massachusetts (albeit in a fictional town).

The book also has a considerable military presence, as one might imagine for a story where a spaceship suddenly lands in the countryside and then sits around for a bit. There’s more than one soldier who is a minor character and other characters interact with even more Army folks.

This is where something started bugging me. If we’re dealing with military matters in a world that’s otherwise our own – why is there almost no mention of Iraq or Afghanistan?

I’m not saying that any book set in modern America has to comment on our never-ending military adventures (full disclosure – Moore Hollow doesn’t). Nor do I expect a domestically set sci-fi tale to dive deeply into the matter. Still, it’s a little weird that, aside from one brief mention late in the book, they never come up. There’s at least one scene where one of the soldiers (maybe the general – I can’t remember) is talking about what a good posting this is. A quick “beats dodging IEDs in Baghdad” or something similar would have worked.

This is the risk that comes from writing fiction set in the “real” world, but I can’t put my finger on why this particular aspect of it irked me. It didn’t bother me that the president (who shows up near the end) isn’t Obama (or any other actual US president), so why does the military thing? I can’t say. Maybe, for this kind of thing, this is my flying snowman moment, even if it’s not so serious as to destroy my suspension of disbelief.

There’s probably no wrong way or right way for a writer to handle a situation like this. But at the very least, writers should be aware of the issue and give it some consideration – is there something in your not-quite-real world that’s going to make people cock their heads and bit and wonder, “huh?” We want our stories to be immersive, not confusing, after all.

Or maybe I’m just a moron.

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Author Interview – J. David Core

From one JD to another . . . and from next door in Ohio, to boot.

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

 I’m a fifty-five year-old grandfather from small-town Ohio. I’ve worked as a traveling photographer, a newspaper photog, a freelance writer, a cook, and a whole lot of retail. I write mysteries and crime thrillers mostly. I set most of my stories in the tri-state region of the upper-Ohio valley which is the stomping ground I call home.

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

My most recent release is called On the Side of the Angel. It’s intended as part of a multi-author project. I contacted several writers and together we brainstormed a character and back story with the intention of each using the character in a shared capacity in our assorted projects. The stories would have no other connection except that the same character would feature prominently in each. When we began the project we had no idea who or what the character would be. Eventually we settled on a young, multi-racial woman who has been forced to fake her own death and is working as a fixer for the mafia in an effort to farm information for her vendetta against the person who murdered her family and forced her into this new life.

The character uses a different assumed identity in each iteration of her freelance career, and as she cleans the messes she’s tasked to clean, she curries favors to call in as needed. Because of this habit she is known in the underground only as the Bartering Angel.

My story is set early in her career just after she has faked her death. She shows up in Pittsburgh and is asked to help the son of a local drug dealer to escape the country after he and his girlfriend accidentally killed a store clerk in a botched thrill robbery. The Angel devises a scheme to misdirect the FBI with a dupe who is trying to cash several dozen winning lottery tickets without paying any taxes.

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I’m really intrigued by the project that led to the Bartering Angel. How did you get involved in that? How many authors were involved? How do you ensure that all the different stories don’t take the character in conflicting directions?

I was listening to Simon Whistler’s podcast, and he was interviewing a romance author who mentioned that she was involved with a multi-author project with a shared character. In their case, it was a matchmaker. I thought it was a great way to cross-promote, and wondered if a group of thriller and mystery writers could do something similar, so I wrote a bunch of writers I have had previous dealings with and composed a post about the idea on a popular writers’ forum. To be honest, I doubted many writers would be interested, and one suggested that the idea of keeping all of the writers interested would be like herding cats, but I was tenacious. Eventually we wound up with a core group of around seven authors, and two of us besides me have already outlined and partly written their own stories. The others in the group are waiting until those stories are all released to begin working on their own stories. My story is set in 2005. The third story will be present day.  And a second story falls somewhere in the middle of that timeline. Once they are all released, I’ll create a wiki which we can use as a sort of story bible to keep consistency.

Meanwhile we are all working on the prequel story, so we are all familiar with the origin story. Beyond that, none of us is writing from her POV directly, so even if the stories have different voices, the character’s voice can be kept ambiguous enough. In a sense, it’s the same as when multiple authors write in – say – the Star Wars universe. Or when different directors make a Spiderman movie. We all know who the character is, and we all have our own spin on her, but the reader will still recognize her as the Angel just like they recognize Han Solo or Peter Parker.

Are there things about the Bartering Angel that would have changed if she was only “yours”? Might those things find their way into a future work of yours?

Frankly, I would never have thought to give her a fatal flaw. That was a suggestion by one of our writers, HN Wake. Then as a group we decided to give her agoraphobia, which she is struggling to overcome but which sometimes gets the best of her. So if she was just mine, she’d be less interesting in that regard. Also, I had originally suggested calling the character Betty Barter. Sometimes committee decisions are better.

As for whether I’d ever work my vision of the character into my own story; in my story about the angel set in 2005, On the Side of the Angel, I introduced a middle aged, gay, fixer with a stoic personality called “the painter” who gets involved on the case temporarily. He was how I envisioned the character before we began development. So in a way, I guess I did work my vision for the character into my story.

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

Most of my stories involve crime. Some are thrillers. Others are mysteries. I have also written a handful of time travel stories which also involve crime as a central focus. I have no idea why I am so drawn to crime stories. I’m the most honest, milquetoast dude I know. There must be a dark corner in my psyche that wishes I could seek vengeance and embrace anarchy and sociopathology.

What’s the difference between “mysteries” and “thrillers”? Isn’t there a mystery at the heart of any good thriller?

I think a thriller certainly can have a mystery at its heart, but so can a romance or a science fiction novel. And a mystery is thrilling, but so is a horror story. Genre lines are vague in some ways, but like Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, when it comes to the distinction between mystery and thriller, I know it when I see it.

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

I get ideas for stories every day. Sometimes I have completely forgotten them by day’s end. If I haven’t forgotten an idea by the next morning, it begins to stick with me and I know I have a hold of something with a life of its own. I tend to let the idea fester and marinate for a while. Finally I’ll sit down and write out a rough synopsis. I then turn this into an outline, and then I flesh that out into beats.

By this time, I’m ready to write, so I draw in the chapter breaks and do whatever research the story requires, and they all require some research. Then I start writing. A 50,000 word novel usually takes about a month. A novella takes around a week. Then I let it sit for a month or so before going back in for rewrites. I like that break to give it freshness when I return to it. I find if I try to edit or rewrite just after I finish that I’m too close to what I’ve written. A month later though and I can read it like it’s something I’ve never seen, and it’s a lot less precious.

After the rewrites, I send it to my beta team. When I get it back, I make my corrections or rewrites. Then I’ll get one or two people who haven’t seen it yet to give the latest draft a read, then I do a final polish after they give their feedback. That’s it. I hit publish.

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

I’m pretty impressed with the Bartering Angel. She was raised in Alaska on a secluded homestead by her parents who homeschooled her and taught her survivalism until they were murdered. After that she lived with her scientist aunt in Anchorage who taught her chemistry before she joined the military where she learned spec ops techniques until a bout of agoraphobia (brought on by unresolved issues resulting from the murder of her parents) forced her to leave the military. She sought therapy and joined the police academy as she tried working through her issues, but when her aunt took ill she left the force and studied forensics and computer science on her own from home. Then, when her aunt passed and she learned that she was going to be charged as the killer when poison is found in her system, she fakes her death and goes underground.

All of this gave her all the necessary tools to be the perfect fixer for the mob, a job she never wanted, but was forced into due to circumstances. It’s such a rich and perfect back story. But…

The problem is I didn’t develop all of this by myself. As I said earlier, she was created as part of a group project.

Then there’s Lupa Schwartz, a genius detective who loathes religion and loves classic cars and women and good food, and came to America from the Balkans as a Jewish refugee after the fall of the Soviet Union. He’s a rich and interesting character too, wearing only green shirts and black pants, insisting on releasing the air from the tires of parking violators so they can’t flee before the police have a chance to ticket them, vigorously denouncing the beliefs of others while holding to what some would consider ludicrous conspiracy theories involving shadow governments and corporate conglomerates. But…

If I’m being honest, most of that came about because the character is pastiche of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. I just took existing tropes and twisted them into something recognizable and new but fully formed and informed by what came before.

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

One of my characters is a pedophile being brought to justice by a bounty hunter. On the trip they have a conversation, and I decided the child molester would try to make excuses for his behavior. I had to research countries with no age of consent or a very young one that he could use in his argument. I researched the history of consent in our country. It was a weird rabbit hole with a lot of very disturbing facts. And it left me with a very ugly Google cache I’m sure.

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

That’s a good question. I’d say I probably wasted way too much time trying to get an agent to shop my mystery series to traditional publishing houses. Of course this was long before the kindle revolution, but even so. Back in those days, an agent would ask for a query with a synopsis. If they liked that they’d ask for a manuscript. For this whole process they wanted non-simultaneous submissions, aka exclusivity on spec. This tied up the project for months and almost always ended in a rejection and they never even sent back the manuscript even though I sent a SASE. It was a giant time and money suck for no return.

Even today there are those who are still playing that game. Do not get sucked in. Even if you are one of the lucky chosen few, they own your labor’s fruit lock-stock-and-barrel. They decide after a month to pull it from shelves and take it out of print and it’s basically gone forever. You don’t own it anymore.

Be an indie publisher.

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

Well, for one thing, I’d invest it in a start-up ebook retailer idea I have to compete with the likes of Kobo, Nook, and Amazon. I’d take a smaller cut on each sale letting authors pocket 80%, set sales or free days as they see fit, and run a discovery tool similar to the Netflix model. “Based on your like of Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut, we recommend these indie authors.” Something like that.

Other than that, my own writing would be unaffected. I already write what I want when I want the way I want.

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

I really enjoyed The Coelho Medallion by Kevin Tumlinson and Revelation by Carter Wilson. They are two very different kinds of stories by very different authors, but each was enthralling and smart and fantastically researched.

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

I have an idea for a science fiction series that I’m hoping to treat in a way similar to the Bartering Angel series in that it will involve several different authors writing in the same universe. I don’t have a name for the concept yet, but it involves an alternate version of our world where scientists in the 80s discovered a way to inject nanobots into our spinal columns that would create artificial stem cells that would replace all of our cells with improved robotic cells. What kind of world would we have today, 30 years later? There’d be luddites who refuse the operation, maybe some of them even working in an underground opposition. Some of the perfected people would figure out ways to use the technology to commit crimes. Each story would explore the universe from a different perspective. Some small and personal in scope, others more epic.

I’m working out the fine points before opening it to other writers.

Meanwhile I have a few more Lupa Schwartz mysteries to write and I’m putting out an audiobook of a noir collection I published last year.

Get in touch with Dave on the Web, Facebook, or Twitter and check out his podcast.

Not Exactly The Thomas Crown Affair, Is It?

Art heists are great fodder for movies and books. The stakes are usually pretty high, involving unique, priceless works of art. Daring do is often required to pull them off. And it provides a good opportunity for suave characters to behave suavely.

This isn’t one of those stories.

In February 1965, Salvador Dalí painted a version of Christ on the cross – in an hour and a  quarter – and donated to Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail complex. Dalí was supposed to meet with some inmate artists, but wasn’t feeling well, so he sent the painting instead. It was hung in the cafeteria, where it proceeded to collect stains from various jailhouse food fights. In 1981, somebody realized what it was (and had it appraised for $250,000) and took it down.

After a short tour around the country and some time in storage, the painting was hung up again at Rikers – but not where the inmates could actually see it. Instead, it was put up in a lobby where jail employees went in and out. In 2003, a group of those employees (four guards) decided to steal it.

The plan was to create a couple of distractions and allow the leader of the scheme to take the Dalí while replacing it with a fake. It didn’t go well:

It was noticeably smaller than the original, an instant tip-off, but the reproduction was also one that, based on descriptions, not even a child would have wanted to claim. Plus, the reproduction of the cafeteria stains were an entirely different color. It was bad.

Then, of course, there was the painting’s presentation. Yes, the glass case had been locked back up with the copy safely inside. But where the original had been displayed in its gold frame, the fake was simply stapled to the back of the box, sans frame.

The whole plan was amateurish at best, but when you factor in the location—a prison teeming with law enforcement officials who spent their days gazing at that exact painting (there were two guard booths in direct view of the Dalí)—it was stupidity at its finest.

The very next day, several guards reported that there was something wrong with the Dalí.

They all got caught, of course, although the ringleader managed to get a not guilty verdict at trial (the others were convicted).  As for the Dalí itself? One of the thieves says that the ringleader got nervous and destroyed it.

On second thought, maybe there is a great story here, in the tradition of a Coen Brothers “heist gone wrong” kind of thing. I’d watch it. I’ll even suggest a theme song:

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100 Books – Only 99 Cents Each – This Weekend Only

If you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy and are looking for your next favorite read, head right on over here:

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That’s right, 100 books, just 99 cents each. Many (including The Water Road) are available across multiple platforms, including Kindle, Nook, and iBooks. There’s something for every taste, from space opera and steampunk to epic fantasy and horror. There’s even a collection of sci-fi and fantasy for younger readers.

This deal only lasts until the end of this weekend – so get over there and get clicking!

Aliens For the Defense!

The first novel-length project I finished (which shall molder in box in my close forevermore) grew out of the fact that criminal defense attorneys routinely have their clients try and tell them whopper stories about “what really happened.” My personal favorite is a colleague’s client who explained that he tested positive for cocaine because he was helping a buddy move a couch and when he picked it up a cloud of white powder erupted and flew up his nose. My book took that phenomenon and aliened it up a bit (it involves the Flatwoods Monster).

Now, in my wife’s home state of Wyoming, somebody is trying to sell something similar, but I doubt any court (or defense attorney) is going to be buying. The defendant was arrested for being drunk in public, but he had a good reason:

Police say a central Wyoming man they arrested for public intoxication claimed he had traveled back in time to warn of an alien invasion.

* * *

The man told police he was only able to time travel because aliens filled his body with alcohol. He noted that he was supposed to be transported to the year 2018, not this year.

I suppose time travel isn’t an exact science, even for aliens But don’t worry, the invasion isn’t until 2048, so we’ve got time to prepare.

In the meantime, might I suggest an expert witness should this gentleman decide to go to trial?

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