via A New Interview
One question people often ask me when looking at my books’ subject matter is, “Were you a spy?”
Sometimes, I joke and reply, “If I were, I couldn’t tell you.” Most of the time I tell the truth. No, I’m not nor ever have been a spy. I merely write about them.
The reaction to that is usually, “Well, then, how do you know what to write about?” or “How do you know you’ve gotten it right?”
I don’t know that one hundred percent. What I do know is with a background as an historian, I’m a great researcher, and I work as hard as I possibly can to “get it right.”
What if I Don’t Get it Right?
That plagues me. I’ve written a novel about two spies who struggle to balance their personal lives with their work. That part is real. The mechanics of espionage is what I don’t have personal experience with beyond cheesy novels and B-movies. For myself, I like real world espionage, as found in John Le Carre or Alan Furst’s novels, over James Bond and Jason Bourne.
I’ve read nonfiction works on the history of espionage and tradecraft, the memoirs of Soviet defectors, and declassified reports of actual operations. I borrow from that for my fiction, but I keep it as authentic as I can. What helps is having acquaintances from a certain counterintelligence agency who’ll take a look at what I’ve written and tell me honestly what’s authentic and what’s not. Even then, I take some dramatic license.
Was I ready for a real spy to read A War of Deception?
Nope. Never. No way.
Almost Like a Covert Op
A couple of weeks ago, I was at an outdoor book festival in central Virginia, hawking books and making a couple of sales. At a break in the activity I look up and who should be standing there but one of those acquaintances mentioned above.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’m buying one of your books,” was the reply.
I had to bite my lips to keep myself from talking the buyer out of it. Money was exchanged–man, I wish it could have been a dead drop.
“Would you like for me to sign it and make it out to you?” I asked.
“Make it out to [opposite gender name],” was the reply.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“A retired spy I think will like this.”
Once again, I reminded myself a sale is a sale and what said acquaintance does with a purchased book is no concern of mine. I wrote the transcription.
And said acquaintance’s departure was as quiet and unobtrusive as the arrival. I rather felt as if this had all been some version of a covert op, but, then, I do have an overactive imagination. Help, I’m a writer.
Then, it hit me.
Oh, s**t, a real spy was going to read my book about spies. Here comes a bad review, or at the least a list of what I got wrong. Because I’m me, I braced myself for the worst.
I’d put the incident completely out of mind, though yesterday when I noticed A War of Deception had a new review on Amazon, I had a momentary hesitation before I looked at it. Whew, it was posted by my niece.
Then, I got a message on my Facebook Author Page from said acquaintance who’d bought a copy. Here it is, I thought, the list of what I got wrong.
Instead, I read:
“This weekend I brought A War of Deception to my friend who retired from the Intelligence Community (where she actually DID espionage-related activities for many years). She just wrote to me saying that she couldn’t put the book down. High praise, indeed, for a thrilling tale.”
After about the fifth time I read it, I believed it. A real spy liked my book.
At first, I couldn’t describe what that meant to me. One, it meant my research skills are undiminished. Two, I’d done a good job of making the characters, whom I’ve worked on for decades, believable. Three, I got it right.
And not only was this a real (retired) spy, but it was a woman–just like one of my protagonists.
I got it right. And. That. Feels. Good.
As Dr. Frankenstein cried when lightning brought his creation to life, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”
On the stroke of midnight, May 26, 2017, A War of Deception began downloading to those who had pre-ordered it for their Kindles. And I’m giddy with excitement. And nerves because the launch day has only just begun.
First, a lunch with several of my writer peeps, then pick up the cake for the book launch. Get home, change, go to Black Swan Books in Staunton to set-up, and hope that people, you know, show up.
A War of Deception began as a 2010 NaNoWriMo project. I had been retired from federal service for a year but hadn’t done much writing, the whole reason for my retirement. I was determined to have a viable rough draft of a manuscript, one worth rewriting and prepping for an agent search, at the end of that thirty days. The result was The Game, a story about a Russian mole in the FBI.
I put it aside for several months, as I do all my NaNoWriMo projects, and picked it back up in 2011. Boy, did it need work. That was rewrite number one.
Next, I sent it to some beta readers, who had comments, lots of comments. Rewrite number two.
Third, it went to a critique group, who also had comments and suggestions. Rewrite number three.
I queried a couple of agents and small presses and got feedback like, “You entitled a chapter, ‘Threshold. It should have been The Threshold.'”
I hired a professional editor, who found the holes I knew were there but couldn’t see, and along came the fourth and final rewrite.
At this point I decided to forego the agent/small press thing. I’d followed all the steps a traditional publisher would do, and so decided I would publish the novel, now entitled A War of Deception (based on a line of dialogue), under my own imprint.
Still, there was having it professionally proof-read, proving once and for all I’m the world’s worst typist, sending Author Review Copies (ARC) out for blurbs, and beginning the formatting process.
In between all these steps was purchasing a professionally designed cover, deciding on fonts, writing the back cover copy, creating a full cover (front, back, spine).
The formatting process was as easy as it could be using a Word template. (I’m likely too old to learn InDesign.) However, my OCD tendencies raged because I didn’t want widows or orphans at the end of lines and paragraphs, and on facing left and right pages, I wanted the last line on each page to be as closely aligned as possible. Try doing that on 407 pages of copy. And making sure every chapter started on an odd page, sometimes requiring inserting a page break, which often threw the entire file’s alignment off.
The formatting experience was good, in that I now have experience at doing this sort of thing, and that will enable to me to communicate well with the professional formatter I hire for my next book. It’s a been-there, done-that thing that I don’t want to repeat for the sake of my sanity.
Then, there was selecting a launch date, finding a venue for the book launch, and marketing. Lots and lots of marketing, something I have no experience with whatsoever. So, I did what I’m good at: I hired a professional to show me how it’s done.
In the midst of all this activity of the past six months, I had a serious health issue. Nothing life-threatening but certainly life-altering and fixable with surgery. I explained to my doctor that the book was going to come first, that this was something I had worked for almost my entire life, and I was going to experience it and enjoy it before surgery. He agreed that though the procedure was necessary, it wasn’t urgent. Still it cast a pall over what is undeniably one of the happiest times of my life.
And here we are.
Look for yourself.
For me, a momentous day. My first novel, dedicated to my father, who told me I could do whatever I aspired to do and to not let anyone stop me, and who I miss every day of my life.
Here it is, Dad. Thanks.
If you want one…
Kindle version: http://bit.ly/AWoDKindle
On May 26, 2017, one of my life-long writing goals will come to pass: My first novel will be launched.
A War of Deception is a story about fathers and sons, the past and the present, and retribution and revenge, encompassed in recent history.
The idea for the novel came to me in the early 2000s, but I didn’t sit down and start to write it until 2010. The manuscript has been edited, rewritten, critiqued, rewritten, workshopped, rewritten, proofread countless times, and professionally edited over the past seven years, and I’m proud of the result.
A copy for your Kindle is available for pre-order now. Click HERE to pre-order, and your copy will download to your Kindle on May 26. A paperback version will be available for purchase on Amazon.com by May 26.
To celebrate the novel’s release, I’ve rebranded my collections of short stories published since 2012. To have a look at the new covers–and some with new, reduced prices–go to my Amazon Author Page in a few days to see the new covers.
I hope you share my excitement at this milestone in my life. I’m giddy and thrilled and giddy and… You get the picture.
Some Characters Return
In 2012 I wrote a piece of flash fiction, which was well-received on a site where I posted short fiction in response to a photo prompt. The flash fiction piece was about a young woman hiding the body of a baby in the wall of a half-finished house. Almost every commenter said, “You have to tell the story of how that happened.”
In November 2012, I did, and the result was Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season, a literary novel about a successful author (so, not autobiographical) and her husband who find a baby’s bones in the wall of a room they’re renovating. The author, who’d suffered a stillbirth some years before, wants closure for the abandoned baby and sets out to find who put the baby in the wall.
The novel’s working title was “Amontillado,” from Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” which involved burying someone alive in a wall. As the story moves back and forth in time between roughly present day and 1944, the author has to face reality about her life and her marriage, but the twist comes when she discovers whose baby ended up in her wall.
I intended for it to be a standalone, but as someone who beta-read the MS pointed out, I left something hanging.
For NaNoWriMo 2016, I brought some of the characters from 2012 back, put them solidly in 2016–more or less–and had a new secret dumped in the lap of the author, another mystery for her to become involved in.
This one is more of a “real” mystery–I think–though like Supreme Madness the death in question occurs some years before, it’s pretty obvious who did it, but there’s a twist at the end.
This year’s working title is, Mournful Influence of the Unperceived Shadow, taken from a line in another Poe story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Yeah, I have a Poe thing. In fact, he watches over me as I write.
Hitting a Brick Wall (No Pun Intended)
Actually, I only want you to pick one of two (now three) choices. Easy, right?
A couple of months ago, I mentioned I’m trying a new type of promotion for my work–giveaway short stories. I have two in print: “Spymaster” and “Blood Cover.” Using canva.com, I came up with great covers for them, which I’ll share in an upcoming post. I have a third story about ready for printing, and this cover is proving to be a challenge. That might be because of the subject matter.
Writing from Current Events
I characterize myself as an “historical/political thriller” writer, meaning my works use history and current events as a basis for the fictional story. With these giveaway stories, I’m practically in present day, i.e., they have been prompted by news items I’ve seen this summer.
For example, “Spymaster” is based on a series of real events where American diplomats in Europe and Moscow have been harassed allegedly by the Russian security services (think, the old KGB). “Blood Cover” is about the perils of living in a theocracy with harsh methods of punishment.
The next giveaway short story to come out is called “Best Served Cold,” and it involves something that invokes either sympathy or ire, the Black Lives Matter movement.
Cultural appropriation aside, I write stories essentially where the characters tell me to write them. Sometimes those characters look or are completely unlike me. I believe a straight person can write about gay issues, a black person can write white characters and vice versa, that cisgender writers can write trans characters, etc. However, it is incumbent upon us to be authentic to all our characters and not to devolve into stereotypes.
I had a painful experience a couple of years ago where a contest-winning story was pulled from publication because I, as a western white woman, had dared to write a story wherein the protagonist was an aboriginal man from Australia. I had carefully and thoroughly researched as I wrote, and that aboriginal man “dictated” his story to me. Someone complained I wasn’t following Australian cultural guidelines, and the publication’s editor caved to a single person’s criticism and removed my story. (Joke’s on them. That story was later published in an anthology.)
All that being said, I was skeptical of my ability to write a story about the murder of a black man without offending anyone. But, sometimes writers have to offend. I did my research, I drew on distasteful things I’ve witnessed in my life, things that have made me angry but which I, as a white person, thought it best to be silent about.
That’s the thing. Silence is tacit acceptance of injustice. So, I wrote the story, “Best Served Cold,” and I took measures to make certain it was authentic.
“Best Served Cold” Back Cover Copy
To help in your choice–coming up in a bit–here’s the back cover copy for “Best Served Cold” to give you an idea what it’s all about:
Nathan Hempstead has long been the United Nations Intelligence Directorate’s cyber-guru. A hack, a tracking app, anti-eavesdropping tech, you name it, he can do it. For nearly four decades he’s worked in an environment that not only honored his genius but also kept him free of bias and racism and let him indulge in his favorite pop-culture fandom, Star Trek.
A critical Directorate mission fails because a dictator’s access to social media didn’t get blocked as planned. In fact, Nathan didn’t bother to show up to monitor the operation. The Directorate’s operational head, Mai Fisher, wants answers, not only for why the mission failed but why a critical employee, and a friend, let her down.
In his office Mai finds Nathan, seething with anger he directs at Mai, but when she presses him for what’s wrong, he has a cardiac emergency.
In hospital Nathan tells Mai about a son he thought no one else knew about and how that son had become another statistic in a deadly standoff between law enforcement and black men.
Mai knows how to get revenge; she’s done it before. Nathan, however, doesn’t want her help. He already has a plan, and it involves the most unlikely ally in the world.
Nathan teaches Mai the subtlety of an old Klingon proverb: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” She comes to understand, as well, that black lives do matter.
“Best Served Cold” Cover Possibility 1
Let me give you some background on why I picked this as a possibility. I liked the sense of movement, the blurred background, the indistinct human figures. I could write a dissertation on why, but that’s not the point.
The “BLACKLIVESMATTER” overlay is supposed to be graffiti-like, but I’m not one hundred percent happy with how it turned out.
I’ve used blue on the title and my byline to imply cold. I didn’t really want a cover which implied warmth, given the subject matter and the allusion to that famous Klingon proverb.
What I like about it is its modernity and mostly, the movement aspect. That appeals to me for some reason.
What do you think?
“Best Served Cold” Cover Possibility 2
This possibility has a number of things going for it. It’s bright and stark.
There’s a scene in the book where someone likens the flow of blood over asphalt to how the ocean flows over sand, and I thought this implied that.
The red on the cover isn’t quite blood red, and, unfortunately, it’s something I can’t change.
The warmth of the cover color contrasts with the title. You don’t look at this and feel cold.
However, the meaning of the “best served cold” proverb is that you’ll enjoy your revenge if you let some time pass, i.e., that the person won’t know what hit them when revenge comes. It’s not a cooling down period; it’s to make the revenge “hotter.”
What do you think?
New! “Best Served Cold” Cover Possibility #3
It’s great when you have friends who are real graphic designers, unlike moi, who is a hopeless wannabe. Thanks to Becky Muth, here’s a third possibility you can vote for:
Since computers and hacking figure in the story, this may be the ideal cover for this story.
It’s stark, like the story, has a bit of an air of mystery about it, and ties in more obviously than cover possibility #2 (or #1).
I have a new favorite. What about you?
You Pick the Cover
In the comments below, tell me which cover you like and why. Here’s why you should vote: I’ll pick a winner at random from the commenters and send you a copy of the three giveaway short stories when they’re all in print.
What do you have to lose? You get to express an opinion and have a chance to win free stuff!
I look forward to reading your comments.
One Contest Win; One Second Place
I learned last week that my short story, “Reset,” about a father and daughter who set out to prove the Warren Commission wrong, had won first place in the Blue Ridge Writers Golden Nib Fiction Contest. “Reset” is one of those stories, which in the writing, becomes something close to you, and I was so proud it won this contest.
I’d always said I wasn’t going to be one of those writers who milks her dysfunctional family for material, but almost every story I’ve written that’s won a contest or been published has had some aspect of my family in it. The best laid plans…
“Reset” now goes into the state-wide Golden Nib contest, and I have my fingers crossed. It’s a good story. It will also appear in the ongoing anthology, Skyline 2017, which should be out in December. (I’ll be on a Virginia Festival of the Book panel in 2017 about the anthology–if the panel proposal is accepted. I have my fingers crossed for that, too.)
The poem I wrote about here a few weeks ago, “Verses for Orlando,” won second place (second-freaking-place!) in the Blue Ridge Writers Golden Nib Poetry Contest. I. Had. A. Poem. Come. In. Second!
It won’t go to the state-wide contest, but it will also appear in Skyline 2017. I. Will. Have. A. Poem. Published!
I’m very excited. You may have noticed.
How about you? Do you use things from your life and background in your writing? Are they some of your best stories or not?
Eight months or so ago, a friend from UU bought my novella, My Noble Enemy. Her husband was about to have surgery, and she wanted something to read in the waiting room. I warned her it was about a man dying of cancer, but she said that was okay. A week later, I learned her husband had unexpectedly died of complications from the surgery, and I was worried that my novella was the worst possible thing she could have read. I figured she probably hated it and me for writing it.
When she returned to UU the week after her husband’s funeral, she sought me out and told me reading My Noble Enemy had helped her through her husband’s last hours and that it had given her comfort because the character in it who died was surrounded by the people he loved and who loved him. I was stunned and humbled.
Yesterday, all these months later, she told me the story still resonated with her as she continues to undergo her grief process, that she still needed the message of loyalty and compassion I wrote.
I am still stunned and humbled by such praise, and it’s the best thing anyone has ever said about my work. I’ve always said I don’t write for money or acknowledgement but because I have stories I want to tell, that need to be told. That story was the right one at the right time for at least one person, and that’s all I need.
How has something you’ve written resonated in an unexpected way? I’d love to know.
Haiku 366-191 to -208 will come soon, but today I thought I’d get back to a post about fiction and the struggle of every indie author–getting people to give your books a chance.
I’ve ranted before about the quality of some indie publishing, but as I’ve read more and more of it, I’m finding the truly awful (i.e., unedited, misspelled, and grammatically deficient) is fast becoming a minority. Add in Barnes and Noble, that behemoth of traditional publishing, will allow indie published work in its stores (at last), and the writer, who decides to forego the traditional and often demoralizing hunt for an agent and a publisher, is getting R-E-S-P-E-C-T. This is especially heartening for those who took the time and effort to publish a polished product and who didn’t succumb to the coveted “published author” title at all costs.
So, before this becomes a rant: join a critique group, hire a professional editor (for all stages of editing), design or purchase a professional cover, hire a proofreader, and, if you’re not familiar with a book’s interior design, hire someone who is.
Now, onto “getting your name out there.”
An Unexpected Find
I’ve always believed my books about my spy characters would be successful if I could “get them out there” where people could see the depth of the characters, the timeliness of the subject matter, and the pains I’ve gone to for an intriguing story. I’ve done the bookmark thing, the postcard thing, the purchase-an-ad thing, the book signing thing, the open mic thing, but what more could I do without bankrupting myself?
At Virginia Festival of the Book this past spring, I came across a local fantasy writer who’d purchased a table at the book fair. I almost walked past because I’m not much of a fantasy reader. However, on one corner of her table were several small (as in thin) books with a sign that said “Free.”
“Free?” I asked the author.
“They’re short stories featuring my characters and aspects of the mythology I’ve built,” was the reply.
“And you give them away?”
“Bookmarks and postcards get thrown away. When someone’s done with one of these, they won’t throw them away. They’ll give them to a library or a used book store, and that’s exposure. Hell, maybe they’ll even keep them.”
I must have stood there gaping with the shock of “why hadn’t I thought of that” because she picked up two of the “booklets” and handed them to me. “Enjoy,” she said.
Back home when I unpacked my goodie bag from the festival, I came across the two booklets and sat right down to read them. The author was right. They were engaging, a quick read, but complete, well-crafted short stories and certainly piqued my interest for her longer works.
But life moves on, and I put them aside and forgot about this unique marketing idea.
Imitation and Flattery
After polishing off the edits on a couple of draft novels, which I hope to have ready for the demoralizing agent hunt (Yes, the dream is still alive in my head.) later this year, I decided I wanted to go back to writing some short stories, not the flash fiction I’ve been delving into for years, but a true short story of 7,000 to 8,000 words. I’d come across an article in The Washington Post about Russian security services allegedly harassing diplomats in Europe and Moscow–juvenile pranks mostly, but they were escalating. The Russian government, of course, disavowed any participation on its part, but those of us who’ve studied that country throughout its iterations knew better.
The result: a 7,500-word short story called, “Spymaster.”
And the booklets from the Festival of the Book came back to mind. What if (a writer’s favorite question) I used CreateSpace to make that short story into a booklet to give away at book signings and over events. At CreateSpace, it’s free to publish, and the size of the booklet means ordering copies for my personal use will be a minimal investment.
Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery.
The story is with a beta reader/editor right now, but while I’m waiting for the feedback, I went ahead and designed a couple of cover possibilities.
If you’ve never heard of Canva, it’s a great online tool for designing a number of graphic art pieces, from Facebook page headers (go to https://www.facebook.com/unspywriter and have a look at one I did for my author page using Canva) to Instagram posts. Canva has templates for ebook covers, including Smashwords and Kindle. Most of their artwork is free, but even the ones you pay for start at a dollar a piece. Unlike another good resource for professional covers, http://www.selfpubbookcovers.com/index.php, where once you buy a cover, it’s taken down and not sold to anyone else, with Canva you risk having the cover you choose used by someone else. Of course you can customize it. I remove all the sample text on the Canva cover, download it as a .jpeg, and further customize it in Photoshop. Canva’s selection of free graphics is limited compared to SelfPubBookCovers, but I managed to find a few that appealed to me and fit the theme of the story, “Spymaster.”
“Spymaster” Cover #1
This cover appealed to me because one of the critical scenes takes place in a forest in Eastern Europe. What it’s lacking is color. The story has dark elements, but not quite this dark.
It fits the story but to me has limited appeal in getting someone to pick it up and look at it.
“Spymaster” Cover #2
This cover also appealed to me because of a specific theme in the story. Again, it’s black and white. While it’s certainly intriguing and I know people who would pick up a book with a cover like this, it lacks color. I experimented with other fonts and putting the type in different colors, but that didn’t quite work either.
“Spymaster” Cover #3
The final choice appeals to me visually, has excellent color, and is very evocative. It doesn’t directly relate to a scene in the book, but it screams “intrigue” and “mystery.” I know I’d pick up a book, even a free one, with this cover. Of the three choices, this is certainly the one I’m leaning toward.
But what do you think? Which cover appeals to you and why? Let me know in the comments below.