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.
Fellow author and Shenandoah Valley resident Allison K. Garcia interviewed me about A War of Deception and writing stuff on her blog. You can read it by clicking HERE.
Allison is also a debut novelist with her recently released Vivir El Dream. She’ll be featured in an upcoming issues of my newsletter “Secret Briefings.” Go to Contact the Author above to sign up.
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.
Back in 2008 when I decided to try this thing I’d read about, this National Novel Writing Month, where you write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days, I was still employed full time in a job which typically saw twelve- to fourteen-hour days, six or seven days a week. Still, at 1,667 words per day, I felt it was doable.
At the end of October 2008 I was assigned two trips which would encompass thirteen days out of the thirty. The 1,667 words per day became 2,941 per day, but, hey, I easily knocked 5,000 or 6,000 words for congressional white papers on a near daily basis. Still doable.
In seventeen days in November 2008 I wrote 50,000-plus words. Some days were 4,000- and 5,000-word days, but I did it.
In seventeen days in November 2015, I’ve written 50,106 words and won my eighth NaNoWriMo, but, hey, I’m going for ten. Two of those much-edited (very much-edited) NaNoWriMo novels are now being reviewed by a publisher, so worthwhile? Definitely. If you’ve been wondering if you should give it a try, do it. It’s fun, exasperating, challenging, frustrating, and just about any other positive or negative adjective you can think of.
Oh, and this year’s novel? Not finished yet. Thank goodness I have thirteen days left to clear up all these dangling plot threads. And because I wasn’t done with the angst, here’s a mind-bending excerpt. Remember, I mentioned it’s not done yet. 😉
Mai hadn’t abandoned her usual method of analysis. Her papers, maps, and transcripts were scattered about her office, and she walked among them, barefoot, sleeves of her blouse rolled up, pencils poked into her braid like pins in a cushion. Grace Lydell got to the doorway, then turned to Nelson.
“I can’t do this,” she mouthed.
Nelson moued his displeasure at her and walked around her to the open doorway. He tapped on the door.
Mai looked up, her smile bright. “Oh, dear, my boss and my boss’ boss. Whatever have I done?”
“Mai,” Nelson said. “Sit down.”
She frowned, and Nelson read her expression. She knew but she wanted to deny it.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Sit down,” he repeated.
“No, you tell me what it is,” she said.
Nelson sighed and took a deep breath. He found the news he was about to deliver as incredible as she would.
“It turns out the intell we got on that Nazi was a trap, a KGB trap,” Nelson said.
“You’re talking, but you’re not saying anything,” she said. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that he’s gone,” Nelson said.
“As in back to Russia?” she asked, though he read the disbelief. Much as he had when he’d heard the news, she was grasping for any straw within reach.
“No, kiddo,” he said. “Alexei’s…”
How could he put those two words together to tell her and himself what they’d both lost?
“Alexei’s dead,” he said.
“How?” she asked.
“Just accept that he is,” he replied.
“How?” she persisted.
“Fuck it, Mai. You know the KGB better than any of us do. How do you fucking think? They walked him into a cell in the basement of the Lubyanka and put a bullet in his head,” Nelson said.
If her desk hadn’t been behind her, she would have hit the floor on her ass. Grace finally found her gumption and went to Mai’s side, embracing her.
“I want to see,” Mai said.
Nelson shook with anger, not at her ultimately, but for the enemies he was no longer physically capable of fighting. “The KGB doesn’t send the bodies back to us,” he said. “They have ovens for that.”
“Nelson, Jesus Christ,” Grace said.
“She asked, Grace. She’s a big girl,” Nelson said.
“And you don’t have to be a fucking bastard about it,” Grace said.
At first he thought Mai was going to handle it like a trouper, but a sound filled the room, one he’d only heard once before and never wanted to again. For the British once he’d observed an IRA funeral, and the woman had made this same noise, a high-pitched, ululating wail.
Mai had sucked in a deep breath and keened for her lost love. When she had finished, her face eased then hardened into a mask he recognized all too well.
The other day on my Facebook Author’s Page I shared a graphic from a great on-line group called Writers Write. Based in South Africa, this group offers writing courses, some of which sound so great it might be worth the expense of a trip to Johannesburg to attend. They also post inspiring quotes from writers, renowned and otherwise, for writers. Almost every day, one of those quotes makes me stop and think about my writing and my writing goals. Those quotes are affirming on so many levels.
Here’s one I shared recently on my Author’s page:
That struck a chord with me because I want to write more short stories, but I’m always lamenting that the things I draw inspiration from (current affairs, history, politics) lead to longer works. (Not complaining by the way; I love writing novels.) I keep a notebook with me at all times, but it’s distressingly empty lately. I live in a very interesting area of central Virginia, full of intriguing, odd, and refreshing characters and, so you’d think that notebook would be full of dialogue snippets, bon mots, and killer ideas for a raft of short stories.
Maybe I need to overcome the MYOB attitude imbued in me by my grandmother. “It’s not polite to listen in on others’ conversations,” she used to tell me. I paid attention to that because I probably didn’t know then I was going to be a writer. It just seems rude to write down what other people say; a southern thing, I suppose.
I do manage to overcome the reticence of jotting down what other people say on occasion. My one-act play, Yo’ Momma, started from a single phrase I overheard at a bar: “This here’s my new phone–I gots it for free.”
Recently, in my town two young men died within two days of each other, both at the age of twenty-six. One had mental and intellectual challenges; the other was an award-winning and brilliant cellist. One was murdered; the other died in his sleep of a heart defect. They both warmed the hearts of everyone they encountered. All that is rife with inspiration, but it will have to wait. It’s too fresh and raw.
I’ve long wanted to write a novel based on the lives of my father and my ex’s father–I even have a great title: Two Fathers. The ex (when he wasn’t my ex) and I discussed it, and I took a lot of notes on his father’s history. The ex and I haven’t been together for nine years, and even though I haven’t forgotten the idea, it is also too fresh, too fraught with emotions I’ve tried to put behind me. Someday, I’ll be in a place to write it.
Day in and day out, I encounter the oddest collection of characters in the most routine places: the barista at Starbucks whose laughter could damage eardrums; the couple who own a local business and have arguments in front of the customers; a bail bondsman who dresses as if he’s the east coast version of Dog the Bounty Hunter; a senior citizen who is always front and center of every Tea Party event with a sign which reads, “Keep the Government out of my Medicare!” (I fixed the spelling.) And so on.
There is the challenge, of course, of making someone too recognizable. I don’t have a problem doing that with public figures. In my series based on the Oklahoma City bombing, people will have no trouble figuring out on whom I’ve based President Randolph. However, I also have a family member who is pissed about how I characterized my step-grandfather (that family member’s grandfather) in a story which is based on a family event. Just goes to show, every story has two sides.
Even with the pitfalls, look around you. There is inspiration in everything and everyone. Use it wisely, but use it.
Before this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I’d been to Seattle four previous occasions, all for work. I stayed in government-rate hotels near the airport or the Boeing complex. At my agency, if a group went to a locale for the same event, not everyone got approval for a rental car. If you weren’t the one with a car, you had to beg for a ride or rent one on your own. On my first trip, I couldn’t accept that I was so close to Seattle and might not get a chance to go there, so I rented a car on my own and drove downtown. I paid an outrageous price to park the car for the day; then did all the typical tourist things. I continued to blow my personal budget with a dinner at the Space Needle’s revolving restaurant. That was on my bucket list before I ever knew what a bucket list was.
Seattle is a gorgeous, bustling, clean, artsy city, which now is one of the greenest in the country. Gas cars are being phased out as cabs, replaced by hybrids; many city buses are also hybrids; and every place you enter has recycling and composting bins–even the hotel rooms have a recycle bin for plastics. Seattle has a decent literary history and several top-notch MFA programs, but it has long been a refuge for artists. It’s famous for its blown glass artists and sculptors, but this week it’s hosting probably more authors in a single place than anywhere else in the world. I hadn’t been in Seattle for six years, but the city’s vibe and energy were still there, and I arrived a whole day early to reacquaint myself with the only other city in the U.S. I could imagine myself living and working.
Unfortunately, Pike Place Market seemed a little seedier than it used to be, and there are a lot more street people than I remember, which could mean the city government isn’t dealing will with some people’s needs; but this isn’t the political blog. Seattle also now has one of those ubiquitous, over-sized, ugly Ferris wheels on its waterfront, but, overall, though, it’s the same lively place which got me hooked on Starbucks twenty-plus years ago.
I started Thursday, the first “official” day of the conference with a panel called “Structuring the Novel,” moderated by Summer Wood and featuring Melissa Remark, Jennie Shortridge, and Tara Conklin. This was a standing-room only event, and I was glad to have arrived early enough to get a seat.
This is my third AWP, and at each one I’ve heard the discussions that it’s getting too big to fulfill attendees’ needs. Indeed, the panels are being held among three buildings, all within two blocks, but, still, with only fifteen minutes between panels, getting from the far end of one building to the far end of another is problematic. But I digress.
All the members of the novel structure panel described how they personally structured their works. Conklin’s novel The House Girl has, what Conklin herself calls, an innovative structure–two timelines alternating every fifteen to twenty pages and incorporating sections other than narrative. Conklin advises, though, if you use an innovative structure, “you have to have a reason, it has to draw out or fit the themes in your novel.”
Shortridge indicated her structure issues are pretty typical of most of us–she gets a strong beginning and a catchy ending, but the middle “is a muddle, is soft, and needs structure.” She shifted her thinking and writes the middle with the end in mind. She also advocates the “four-act” structure: setting up, seeking, engaging, denouement. Sometimes, she says, she borrows from other genres; e.g., “If I’m writing an action sequence I model it after a thriller.”
Melissa Remark, a recent MFA graduate who has a background in script writing for film and television suggests we find the “present” thread in any uniquely structured novel and start with that. Pacing can also develop structure; e.g., a fast-paced middle and a lagging ending can thwart any attempt at structure, innovative or otherwise.
Long indicated that once you find the “deep structure or soul” of your story, the structure comes naturally. The soul is a set of connections which matter but they have to be intertwined, revealing the story beneath the story, or what you intended to write in the first place. Long also indicated that we should trust our instincts, that our “subconscious communicates our values to our conscious mind,” but if we don’t pay attention to it, it becomes writer’s block.
After that panel, I spent some time in the book fair, where I once again got the itch for an MFA, even though I’ve been told I don’t need one. I probably don’t. I don’t want to teach, but it would be nice to have a bigger writing community. Considering the expense, I really don’t think one is in my future. However, I discovered there are a lot of literary journals I can submit to, and I spent quite a bit of time at the Sewanee table, discussing the workshop I’m going to apply for.
The next panel was the key one for the day for me–“Writing Unsympathetic Characters.” My female protagonist evokes diametrically opposite opinions in people. Some like her as a strong, no-nonsense woman who has a deep sense of justice. Others find her brash and profane. At a critique group session recently, one person said, “Does she have to curse?” (Well, yes, she does; when you’re kicking ass you don’t watch your language.) I was hoping this panel would give me some insight on how to keep her as is but make her more universally appealing.
But when moderator Irina Reyn opened by saying, “Often readers don’t want to spend time characters they couldn’t be friends with. Well, I say, if you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”
Panelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz said, “Unpleasant characters are the most memorable, but the writer has to care about what that character is doing. Only then will the reader read on to see how the character ends up. If the writing is good, the reader will finish regardless of the character’s likability.”
Hannah Tinti, the editor of “One Story,” used markers and a sheet of paper tacked to the wall to illustrate her point that we should approach unsympathetic characters as if they were super-villains in a graphic novel:
- a costume (the physicality of the character)
- a superpower (what the character is good at)
- the kryptonite (the character’s weakness)
- the back story (the character’s past)
- a quest (the diabolical plan, i.e., what does the character want, what motivates everything he/she does?)
Erin Harris added that an unsympathetic character who has no motive is a problem. “The reader wants to know the psychology,” she said, and that makes the character three-dimensional.
Publisher Richard Nash indicated we shouldn’t be afraid of a negative reaction to a character. What we should worry about is “no reaction at all.”
There were a lot of great points from this panel, and they gave me confidence that the way my protagonist is, is the right way.
After another swing through the book fair, I got ready for at event at a local Irish pub called Kells. I had entered my story “The Dragon Who Breathed no Fire,” retitled as “Man on Fire,” in the Press 53 Flash Fiction “Visions and Apparitions” Contest. I love this story, and I had a good feeling about its chances. So, when they read my name as one of the finalists, I was thrilled beyond belief. It didn’t win, but this was rather like the Academy Awards–you’re honored to be nominated. What was even better was meeting the judges afterwards and hearing how much they loved the story. “Get that story out there and get it published,” one judge said. I’ll do just that.
Continued in Part Two
The life of a writer has its inevitable ups and downs. Compressing them into a week is hard on the nerves, though.
This week started off with an email from a writing instructor of mine who said he would shop my novel (Sudden Madness of the Carnival Season) to some agents he knew. I also found out my story, “The Dragon Who Breathed No Fire,” had made the top twenty-five in a contest I had entered. Man, I was feeling good, no, spectacular, about being a writer, about having what I thought were good stories confirmed.
Then came Tuesday.
The contest story didn’t make the top ten in the contest. I couldn’t believe it. I read the top ten list twice, three, four times, just to make certain. Now, it wasn’t arrogance which stunned me that my story wasn’t there. That story was good. Beyond good, it was one of the best things I’ve ever written. It came to me in a dream, from the voices of Vietnam vets I’ve known, and I worked it and reworked it for the better part of twenty-four hours before I submitted it. It was real, it was gritty, it was disturbing, and it was good.
A friend of mine, who is a Vietnam vet, emailed me and said it was the best depiction of PTSD he’d ever read in fiction or non-fiction. That was exactly what I wanted. And that beautiful, disturbing story lost out to fluffy dragon stories and happy endings.
(BTW, I love the people involved with the contest, but I’m not apologizing for my characterization. I’m entitled to a bit of a whine. Sour grapes? Maybe, probably, but if you’re a writer, you’ve been there; don’t deny it.)
I was astonished, “bummed” as I told a writer friend, whose great story had also not made the top ten from the top twenty-five, and we commiserated together. Truly, it made me want to close the laptop forever.
The other good thing about being a writer is that you have a cadre of writer friends who won’t let you get down on yourself. “You stop that right now, young lady,” said one such friend (also the mother of a teenager; hence, the tone of the language). “You send that story somewhere else.” And she was absolutely right. I spent Wednesday on Duotrope, selecting some publications where this story might fit. That mitigated the disappointment but didn’t completely eradicate it.
Then came Thursday.
I came awake to my phone indicating I had an email arriving. I fumbled for the phone and my reading glasses to see who had woken me up so early. An email from my writing instructor: “So-and-so from such-and-such agency is reading your manuscript and is considering representing it.” I read it twice, three times, four times. I cried like a little girl and was as giddy as a kid (of any age) at Disney. Now, it’s not a done deal–and when and if it is, you’ll hear me shrieking “Ermagerd!” from just about anywhere in the country. It’s the farthest a manuscript of mine has ever gone; that, in and of itself, is a reason to celebrate.
A typical week in the life of a writer.
Today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt creeped me out. For as long as I can remember seeing empty shoes in an odd location has terrified me. I can see them in closets with no problem, but let me see a single tennis shoe on the side of the road and I’m gibbering. I went to an exhibit of photographs taken after 9/11 and never blinked an eye at the shot of a human spine atop some debris. However, the photo of a lone high heel in the middle of a street made me leave the gallery. I have no clue why this is the case–some deep-seated childhood trauma no doubt, but at least it gave me some great inspiration for “Big Shoes to Fill.” Yeah, I don’t write happy endings about fluffy dragons. I write real-life crap. So deal.
As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title of the story in the paragraph above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then click on the story from the drop-down list.
Today’s post is somewhat late because I’ve worked most of the day on a two-sentence synopsis for a query letter for my “baby-in-the-wall” novel. Who knew summarizing 83,000 words into two sentences would be so hard. I mean, I’ve been to several query letter workshops and panels at various writing conferences, so how hard could doing a summary be? A lot harder than I thought.
I will add, I’m having some help from an instructor from a workshop I took this year. He’s doing the shopping to agents, but he needed a summary from me, as well as a writing bio. So here was my first iteration:
“Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season is a literary novel of approximately 83,000 words, which follows a romance novelist’s investigation into the origin of an infant’s skeleton she and her older, literary-minded husband find while renovating a room in a house they’ve just bought in the Shenandoah Valley town of Ewington, VA. The two-track narrative brings a secret from the past into the present and forces the novelist to confront what she has denied about her life.”
I thought I should have some other eyes on it, so I posted it on the Facebook page of my online writer’s group, Shenandoah Valley Writers, and after some back-and-forth and some really good suggestions, I ended up with this:
“Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season is a literary novel of approximately 83,000 words, which follows a romance novelist’s investigation into the origin of an infant’s skeleton she and her older, literary-minded husband find while renovating a room in a house they’ve just bought in the Shenandoah Valley town of Ewington, VA. The two-track narrative uncovers an old secret, and what she finds forces the novelist to confront what she has long denied about her own life.”
That took the most part of the morning, but I was pretty satisfied with it. Even then, I let it sit for a while, decided it was pretty much perfect, then sent it off to my workshop instructor. A few minutes ago, I got an email from him, indicating he had “tweaked” the summary a bit, and here is what he did:
“Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season follows a romance novelist’s investigation into the origin of an infant’s skeleton she and her older, literary-minded husband find while renovating a room in a house they’ve just bought in the Shenandoah Valley town of Ewington, VA. The two-track narrative uncovers an old secret, and what she finds forces the novelist to confront what she has long denied about her own life.”
Subtle edits in both latter versions but effective. Now, in just about every workshop I’ve taken about query letters, the agents have indicated they want to know genre and word count, the two items my instructor edited from the first sentence. However, he is someone who has dealt with a wide range of agents, so I trust his instincts.
I’m giddy that one of my manuscripts is getting sent to agents, but I’m also trying to temper my excitement. Nothing at all could come of this, but I’m beyond honored that this instructor felt strongly enough about my manuscript to give it his personal attention. I frankly have no clue how to repay that–not that he’s expecting remuneration–but as I said to someone today, the list of people to include in the acknowledgements section of the novel is growing long.
We writers are very often a solitary lot. We lock ourselves into our writing spaces and occupy worlds of our own making, our company only the characters we’ve created. And yet, it turns out the writing is the only solitary part of the process. Being published in the traditional manner means you leave your cozy, self-made world and venture into reality, a reality replete with editors and agents and proofreaders and copy editors, all of whom are working with you to make your novel a success. That’s exciting, well, happy-dance-inducing, but it’s also daunting and, not to mention, a little scary.
Still, I’m all for the process.