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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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.

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.

Pizza as Author Pic

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.

Ace of Space Cover

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!

Wrath of Old Gods box

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.

2016-343 eBook John Triptych, Lands of Dust B01- small

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.

SpaceshipNextDoor