Homeland – Season Four Finale

It’s been a couple of weeks since Season Four of Homeland finished, and I posted on Facebook at the time that I thought this Guardian review was generous.

I posted that the final episode was botched together after they learned that they had got the money for Season 5… and perhaps I should explain that a little more with some wild and completely unsubstantiated speculation...

So let’s imagine it’s early in the first US transmission, and the writing team are meeting to agree the trajectory of the final episodes of Season Four which still have to be shot. The ratings aren’t going particularly well, and it looks like they won’t get the money for Season Five. So they say to hell with it, let’s finish it with a bang…

Let’s kill Saul off before he can get out of Pakistan. Then Quinn kills Haqqani with a pipe bomb attack, and goes down in a hail of bullets. Carrie watches him die helplessly, goes home to mourn him and her father both, but takes on the role of mother to her child after leaving the CIA.

Brilliant! Action packed to the finale, all tied up in a tragic-but-happy ending that makes complete sense with what’s gone before, with Carrie finally out of the self-destructive job. The End.

Then they start showing the episodes with the attack on the embassy, and suddenly there’s a huge surge in ratings. The cash tills ring and the studio execs demand more… suddenly the money is on the table for Season Five. Uh-oh, but everybody dies, or retires! Quick! Rewrite! Reshoot!

So they fudge the last episode and the final couple of minutes of the penultimate one with completely new material. Saul doesn’t die. Quinn is persuaded by Carrie not to blow up Haqqani (really?), and lo and behold – deux ex machina grinding audibly in the background – it’s all ok, the CIA have it covered after all! Dar Adal is in the car with Haqqani!

Implausible. Unlikely. Improbable… and lots of other synonyms.

Then they have to shoot a new final episode, back in the US with none of the locations they have used for the rest of the season. So they come up with the ridiculous mechanic of the mother turning up.

“Good drama tends to let characterisation guide the plot, so to have such a significant figure turn up merely to help Carrie learn a couple of life lessons was very weak indeed,” said the Guardian. No s##t.

I rest my case. And on to the Game of Thrones, which I got for Christmas…

Never Go Back

One of those questions that you get asked pretty regularly as a writer is... what do you read? The short answer is not as much as I’d like these days, while the slightly longer answer is the same stuff that I write. I’ve always been a big thriller reader, ever since I discovered that there were James Bond books as well as movies...

I’ve just finished Never Go Back, the latest but one of the Jack Reacher series from Lee Child, one of the top thriller writers of this generation. There are now 19 of these books, one a year from when he started. While Child maintains a very even level of quality in the books that I have read, I have to say that this wasn’t the strongest ending I’ve ever seen.

In fact, it was pretty feeble – I’m not going to spoil it for you, but it led me to start thinking… what is it about writers that people keep going back to them even when they have just delivered a bad book? Not that Never Go Back is a bad book, it’s just a poor ending – but I’m already cue-ing up the new one, regardless of my disappointment. Never Go Back is prophetic, I will, even if I shouldn't...

It’s simply not true to say that you are only as good as your last book.

I think the willingness to stay with an author has something to do with the amount of time we invest in a book. If a movie’s rubbish, it’s a couple of hours you aren’t going to get back. If a book’s rubbish, or has a disappointing ending, it’s the best part of a day that we’ve wasted.

Now – if we take into account that the vast majority of readers only read a couple of books a year – we start to see why they are so conservative. If you were only going to have two cups of coffee in 2015, you’d make damn sure that they were good ones.

It’s not surprising that breaking down this conservativeness in book selection is nigh on impossible. The only chink is to appeal to the much smaller proportion of people who read a lot – they are the only ones who will take a risk on the new. And to do that, I’m starting to think that you really have to write for a niche. And then market hard to that niche. Everyone else just wants to read the same stuff as everyone else. Bad endings or not.

Back on the Blog

I just checked the date of the last post on this blog and it’s the 28th March 2014. It’s just over six months ago, and it happens to be the day when my wife and I moved with our eight month old son to our new house.

It wasn’t far. The new house is in the same village as the old house. It’s probably no more than a hundred metres as the crow flies. That didn’t make it any less stressful. It was pouring with rain. The sellers were late moving out. The boy was tired and grumpy.

Then we got the keys, walked inside, and had one of those oh my god moments. We  had a lot of work to do. In comparison to replacing the leaking conservatory and the ancient boiler, fixing dodgy taps and dripping cisterns, changing carpets, painting outside and inside… In comparison to this, blogging didn’t seem that important. Nor did writing books. Or even reading them. Even my beloved twitter account lay dormant for a long, long while…

Sometimes life just gets in the way, but I’m pleased to say that this particular slice of life is now over. The house is cosy and functional and ready for the winter storms that already seem to be whistling around my new office in the attic. I got the new novel out again today, dusted it off, and started writing. I’m half-way through reading a cracking Jack Reacher and I might even have restarted twittering... and next month, I’m going to blog about writing again.

Last Lines…

I blogged about opening lines of novels a while back, but the endings are just as interesting, if not more so. The Huffington Post recently gathered together some of their favourites, and it’s an article worth a look. There are some fantastic last lines, I think my favourites from this list would have to be either from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Or from George Orwell’s Big Brother; "He loved Big Brother". The latter is so wonderfully bleak – something that contemporary film studios could learn from – whatever happened to the brutal, unhappy endings?

Another that pushes those two close is this one; “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” Where else could that come from but The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad?

What about you, any favourite last lines?

This is also a good moment to fess up to a guilty secret. I lifted the last line of my first novel, The Defector, from my favourite book. It fitted perfectly - ‘Sometimes you just know these things’ - and it seemed like a suitable tribute to pay to a book that kinda changed the path of my life. So can anyone out there guess which book it comes from, and does anyone have a copy on their real or virtual shelf?

Cool Gus and the Existential Crisis

They say that having children changes your life and they are right – but the bald statement does nothing to prepare you for the moment when that gurgling, crying bundle is in your arms for the first time. It would take a book to communicate just what that means and how your life changes over the ensuing weeks and months, and I’m sure there are lots of good ones... but don’t hold your breath waiting for mine.

Some of the consequences of Aiden’s arrival became clear very quickly; the regular trips to the gym, the surfing and paddle-boarding, movie nights and bike rides all went immediately. Eating out with my wonderful wife survived a bit longer, at least until regular child bedtimes became a necessity. Reading and watching tv struggle on in the gaps in the household routine, at least when I don’t just keel over with the sheer overwhelming exhaustion of it all.

Babies absorb the time and energy of their parents like black holes absorb light. Get over it. All of the above were luxuries and I know that one day those things will be back in my life. Meanwhile, I have the joy of the smiles, laughter and astonishing growth and development of my little boy to weigh against what’s gone.

Other consequences have been slower to emerge. For a while now I’ve pursued a career as a novelist around the edges of a career as a journalist and non-fiction writer. Followers of this blog will have watched my thrillers transition from big trade publishing houses to independent- or self-publication. I’ve charted the process of commissioning covers and editors, of formatting, finding translators, booking adverts and writing blurbs.

It’s been a blast and before Aiden, I had time to do all this and to write the books. But suddenly time has become a lot more precious and I now find myself making choices that I don’t want to make. Should I reformat the backlist to include links to the newly published book, or write another 500 words on the work-in-progress? Should I book an advert and run a price promotion, or write another 500 words on the work-in-progress?

I’ve been choosing the  former (and the short-term gain) far too often. The consequence has been that the work-in-progress just isn’t progressing. I’m a lot less philosophical about that than I am about the surfing and movies; writing fiction isn’t so much a luxury as a fundamental part of who I think I am… cue a minor existential crisis.

All this was in my mind when I was flicking through my blogroll over the Xmas holidays, and I found Bob Mayer talking about expanding his Cool Gus publishing list in 2014. I’ve been a regular follower of the work of Bob and his partner Jen Talty for a couple of years now, and I very much like what they do, how they operate and their strategic view of the fast-changing publishing world.

So I emailed them the same day, we chatted a bit on email and then on Skype, and to cut a long story short, I’m very pleased to say that Cool Gus will be taking over the publication of all my novels, old and new, starting right now. Jen is already working on new covers (the first of which you can see here, a stunning new cover for Powder Burn), and you will soon start to see the changes roll out on Amazon, in the iBookstore and on the Nook.

There will be so many advantages to this that I barely know where to start - editorial support and help, new energy and ideas for marketing, great production facilities... and of course - although we still have a lot of work to do to get the new editions out - it will soon leave me much more time to write new fiction. I can’t wait to get back to it... :-)

Traveller Tim

I never had any intention of being a teacher. My father was a maths teacher and so was my wife. I’ve seen more than enough of the modern British state education system to know that I wanted no part of it – too much red tape, and not enough time with the kids – but state schools aren’t the only place you can teach. I was a sailing instructor on Sydney Harbour for a while, but that hardly counts. And I did a fair bit of coaching when I was a professional sailor. Again, it doesn’t really count. I certainly never had any intention of teaching writing.

So it was a bit of a surprise when Sandy, the owner of Sea Sky Art, the local art gallery, suggested that I might like to run some creative writing classes in her studio – just a short course of five weeks. It ended up being three short courses of five weeks each, held during last winter and spring, and it also ended up being a lot of fun. This week I held in my hands the first fruits of those labours.

I joined Roy Young and his wife Carol in a local pub for a quick drink and was handed a pristine copy of The Adventures of Traveller Tim – a children’s book. Roy was working on the manuscript last winter and we spent a lot of time workshop-ing the opening chapter. Just over a year later he’s finished the book, had it edited, and then published via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace programs. He’s understandably proud of it, and so am I. It’s now on the TBR pile on the bedside table. Just where your copy should be J.

The Fickle Finger of Fate

Every now and again I get an email from Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) team. Usually these are bringing my attention to some discrepancy or other in one of the 11 books I have published with KDP, often requiring swift remedial action. A recent one required me to check the HTML coding that I had used on my book description pages, and to do it in less than 24 hours. They were about to change the way the website presented the HTML, and if I didn’t get it sorted… well, quite frankly, my book pages would look crap… or words to that effect.

So when I see these emails pop into my inbox I open them with some trepidation. Whatever I was expecting from the one that arrived a couple of days before the end of October, it wasn’t this…

We are considering including your book: Il disertore in an upcoming promotion in the Amazon.it Kindle Book Store.”

Promotion? In the Amazon.it store? I read on with a churning stomach. I’ve written previously on the joys of Indie-pub translation, and the Italian edition of The Defector is one of the results of that part of my not-so-master-plan. The lovely Ina Uzzanu approached me after I blogged on the topic and offered to translate one of my books. We talked, chose The Defector, did a royalty-based deal, and it’s been selling steadily in quantities that often have it hovering around the top 1,000 books – but this was an opportunity to hit a whole new level.

Il disertore was to be part of the ‘Offer of the Month’ promotion along with a number of other thrillers. A swift reply was required, and I said yes without any further thought. The fickle finger of fate had chosen me – I had no idea why, but I wasn’t about to blink. I went for the maximum discount for maximum sales and chart exposure, got the thumbs up from the KDP team and sat back to wait.

On the 1st November Il disertore appeared for sale at 99c on the Offer of the Month page and I stopped breathing.... how would I do against some impressive opposition in the promotion?

I’m writing this just short of three weeks later, after Il disertore has been in the promotion for 19 days, and in the Top 100 on the Amazon.it chart for two weeks.

I think it’s fair to say that it’s been a success, although I guess the real test will be to see how well the book does once the promotion is over – but with 15 reviews and 4.3 stars I’m hoping it will hang around in the charts for a little bit longer.

The next question is... how do I get into the same promotion at Amazon.de, Amazon.co.uk and lordy help us... the motherlode at Amazon.com??

If I ever find out, I’ll let you know...

The Non-Promo Launch

It was back in April that I wrote a blog post for Author’s Electric on the process of promotion that I undertook ahead of the publication of my new thriller Powder Burn. By September I had a short story on the blocks and ready to go; called The Sniper, it’s a prequel about the antagonist in my Janac’s Games thrillers. I had a cover, blurb, and an edited and formatted manuscript. What I did not have was time to do any promotion. Since I could not see how things were going to improve any time soon, I was left with a choice of holding back the book indefinitely, or going ahead and publishing with essentially no promotion or marketing.

I chose the latter for three reasons:
1. I’m impatient.
2. I thought it would be interesting to see what happens when you just push a book out on the major ebook websites without any marketing support.
3. My eventual plan for the book is to drop the price to zero and run it as a loss-leader for the Janac’s Games series, and so I knew I would have a second chance at the marketing when the price goes to zero.

So by way of an experiment, I hit publish on the 25th September, sent out a few tweets announcing the book’s arrival, posted links to the various sales pages on Facebook and that was about it. I sat back and waited to see what happened. And now I can report the results of the experiment. 

Nada. Nothing. Zippo. Zero and Zilch. 

I think I have sold about ten copies in total across Amazon, and I doubt it's done much better at B&N, iBooks and all the rest, although I won't know for a while as their sales reporting is much slower. And this is for a series book whose other members have been downloaded or sold in the hundreds of thousands. It appears from this one example that I either play the promotion game, or remain unread. So I will be working much harder at the marketing when the price goes to zero in a few weeks time... 

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A Midlist Career or Immortality?

My wife, Tina has just started a portrait photography business and while she was working to get it all set up I posed her a question – would you rather: take pictures that live on forever, but never make a living as a photographer; or, leave nothing artistic behind you, but live a good life, working daily as a photographer? At the time I couched it in these terms – who would you rather be; Vivian Maier or Jasmine Star?

If you’re not a photography fan-boy or –girl, then Vivian Maier is the American nanny whose street photography was only discovered by accident years after her death, and then published to great critical acclaim. Jasmine Star is the marketing wunderkind who single-handedly made wedding photography fashionable (along with a great deal of money) by a spectacularly effective talent for social media. I don’t think anyone expects her wedding pictures to be in the NY Met in fifty years time. 

Tina – who is very practical – answered Jasmine Star without missing a beat. And then told me that the question would make a good topic for a blog... so here I am. In fact, I was reminded of the conversation and the prospects for a blog earlier this month when I read a post from one of my favourite writers on the business of writing – Kathryn Rusch. She was concerned with the distinction between the one-book-writer and the career-writer. The one-book-writer doesn’t care if they never make any money, or never get to leave the day job. They simply want the satisfaction of seeing their words in print, their name on the bookshelves, and preferably lauded in the review columns of the national press. The career-writer cares little for good reviews except where they help bring in the readers (1,500 5* reviews on Amazon for instance) and pay the bills. The career-writer is just that – in it for the career, making it work as a day job.

In her article, Rusch wanted to make the distinction between the career-writer and the one-book writer because the choice leads to fundamentally different decisions about the many opportunities and challenges that now confront the writer. She points out many of the ways in some detail, but essentially the career-writer will likely embrace the entrepreneurial possibilities of the eBook revolution and self-publishing. The one-book-writer will turn up their nose and keep submitting to agents and publishers. It’s all about validation for the one-book-writer, it’s all about being able to keeping the cheques coming in for the career-writer.

If you’ve read many of my posts here on Author’s Electric you won’t be long in realising that my wife and I are temperamentally suited as life-partners – I’m very much a career-writer. I’m all about novel-writing as a business, about paying the bills, about giving up the day job (which happens to be journalism and non-fiction writing). I’d pick Jasmine Star every time and I’ve fully embraced the entrepreneurial spirit of the eBook revolution. I’d always pick the freedom to do what I love every day for the rest of my life over success beyond the grave... but that’s me, what about you? Think carefully, because it’s an important choice to make before you go any further with your writing....

Violence for Writers

If nothing else it’s an eye-catchingly counter-intuitive title... and after all that baby-talk last month, I probably needed something gritty and thriller-ish to get back on message. It’s always a popular question when I tell people that I write thrillers; how do you know about the fighting and violence? I’ve had a stock reply for many years; the mostly middle-class reading audience only experiences violence through books, films and video games anyway, so as long as a story sticks to the conventions of the genre, no one is going to have much of a problem.

Most people seemed happy with the answer, but I was never entirely happy with that as the end of the research process. So I used to email questions to a friend who’s an ex-Royal Marine – what kind of weapons and strategy would you use to attack the bridge of a container ship? It turns out that that’s just the kind of simple question that gets you flagged on NSA and GCHQ watchlists...

Still, my friend’s answers were always helpful. I hope they gave the action-set pieces in my books a reasonable amount of authenticity – and the replies often came with entertaining holiday snaps of my friend; the one of him driving around Baghdad in a beaten-up sedan with an inflatable shark on the roof, and a semi-automatic dangling out of the window was particularly memorable...

I’m always on the look-out for ways to improve my writing though, and as the research is the best part of the job, I don’t need much of an incentive to read a book that might help. So when I saw this recommendation from Barry Eisler – a thriller-writer whose work I admire for its authenticity – I went straight out and bought it; ‘Violence: A Writer's Guide’ by Rory Miller.

Rory Miller is the author of several books on the impact and reality of violence, and speaks from lots of personal experience as a prisoner officer and martial artist – this is his blog. I wouldn’t be writing about the book if I wasn’t about to endorse and pass on the recommendation.

Miller starts his book by taking apart many of the assumptions that we writers, readers and movie-watches make about violence. We’ve all seen and know about the magazines that never run out - magically refilling with bullets every time the hero gets into trouble - but even movies heralded for their realism get it wrong somewhere. Everyone, says Miller, dies screaming for their mother. No exceptions. Well, maybe just Tom Hanks at the end of Saving Private Ryan (unlike the rest of the cast).

Did you know that ‘a man with a knife could consistently close a distance of seven yards and stab or slash faster than an officer could draw his firearm. This means that within seven yards, a knife is an immediate deadly threat.’ No, neither did I, but I have a feeling that it’s going to have an impact on an action-set piece that I write one day. I was finishing up my latest story (a short called The Sniper) when I came across Miller’s book, and so I went back through it to test its assumptions against my new knowledge. I didn’t do too badly, it’s a Vietnam War story and I had researched that conflict quite heavily before I started writing. Nevertheless, I still added and changed a few details, but I’m going to leave you to find them...

The Best Excuse

I had intended to write a blog this month about Rory A Miller's excellent book, 'Violence: A Writer's Guide'. I particularly wanted to look at its impact on my new 'Janac's Games' short story, 'The Sniper'... but all my good intentions went out of the window at 8.58 on the morning of 16th July, when my wife Tina and I welcomed our baby boy Aiden to the world, a month ahead of schedule.

To say that we weren't quite ready would be a small understatement, and in the last week we've been scrambling to finish preparing for Aiden's arrival (Buggy - tick; Cot - tick; Prepare Nursery - definitely not yet ticked; Nappies - fast running out) all the while learning how to look after our little one in his first few days in the world.

So instead of a short treatise on writing, research and violence, you'll have to settle for this rather gorgeous picture of my lovely wife and baby son. And I promise I'll be back with something more writerly next month...

The New Gatekeepers

In October last year I wrote a post called ‘Gatekeepers and Validators’ which was subsequently chosen for 'Sparks, A Year In E-Publishing - An Authors Electric Anthology2011-2012. The gist of it was that there had been a power-shift in publishing. Twenty years ago, just a couple of handfuls of people in London and New York decided what the English-speaking public got to read. They were the editors, marketers and accountants of the ‘Big Six’ publishing houses, and the book buyers for the centralised bookselling chains.

If these people didn’t like a book, then there was precious little chance that anybody would ever read it. They controlled the gates to the front tables of Waterstones, WH Smiths, Borders, and Barnes and Noble. Without their approval and validation - and without a place on those tables - the number of books that an author would likely sell would be counted in dozens, rather than tens of thousands.

This situation has changed completely; Borders has gone, Barnes and Noble looks sickly, Random House and Penguin have merged and any writer that can’t get their work accepted by the big London and New York publishers can go to a fabulous range of new independent houses. Or they can simply do it themselves, via the direct sales channel to the reader that’s now been opened by Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Apple and other online sellers, using a myriad of ePublishing and Print on Demand services.

The central argument of that previous blog is summed up by this passage; ‘The gatekeepers are gone and the doors have been blown wide open - the slush-pile has moved from the in-tray of editors and agents, got itself a cover and a blurb and is now available online for the princely sum of 99p a pop. Or it’s free. Unfortunately, even if the notion of validation by the traditional gatekeepers was just smart business by big corporations, it still leaves us with the original problem. How do we decide what’s worth reading?’

My answer - just over six months ago - was simple; ‘The new validators are the people who should have had the job in the first place – the readers. Perhaps that’s why we are all fast ceasing to care about books getting the imprimatur of a publisher’s imprint. An endorsement of quality no longer needs to come from an editor in New York or London; it can come from five stars on Amazon. It can come when a complete stranger living several thousand miles away takes the trouble to write and post a four paragraph analysis and review of your book on B&N.com.’ 

If a week is a long time in politics, then six months is an eon in the current publishing industry. I think that my earlier conclusion is now starting to appear a little naive... some new gatekeepers are emerging. I mentioned on the comments to another previous post for Author's Electric that I might try advertising on Bookbub, as I had heard good things about it. I continued to hear good things about it, and ran a 99c sale promotion for The Defector with Bookbub at the beginning of May - as I mentioned on the blog at the time. The results on Amazon.com were good, hitting the top #400 on the paid chart. Much more interesting though was the result on B&N.com – a sales channel I’ve never got anywhere near cracking. Bookbub got The Defector into the top #100 overall, and eventually the book topped out at #58 - even briefly outselling '50 Shades...'

How do they do it? Bookbub is a very simple idea, whose commercial beauty comes from its huge scale. If you go to the website you will be given the chance to sign up for a daily email that will provide five or six suggestions for discounted books. It’s possible to tailor the email to specific genres. An author can sign up to be one of the promotional books in this email for any given genre.

So far, so what, I hear you say... There are probably dozens of websites doing this sort of thing. What makes Bookbub special? Two things; firstly, I mentioned the scale: 1 million subscribers. And the second is that they put some real editorial effort into the books that they promote. If they don’t think it’ll sell, they won’t run the advert.

It's spectacularly effective, but Bookbub aren’t the only game in town. The top end of the ‘Free’ Charts on Amazon are usually dominated by whatever books Pixel of Ink and Ereader NewsToday happen to be promoting that day. Both of these websites are also picky about the books they list, and are also effective at pushing a book up the paid list. BookBub is just the first that I’ve seen that has some leverage at B&N. I suspect that this will soon extend - or maybe it already does - to the iBookstore and Kobo.

A handful of websites are now sufficiently powerful that they can push a book into the sales charts. So maybe these are the new gatekeepers? Fortunately, happy readers are still the only thing that will keep it there...

The Hero's Journey

I’ve been a fan of the thriller in all its forms since my Dad took me to see Diamonds are Forever at the local Odeon cinema. I subsequently inhaled the collected works of Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean, John le Carre and many others as I was growing up. And more often than not, I would see the movies as well as reading the book.

I suspect that this is the reason that I tend to lean on films just as heavily as books when it comes to inspiration for my writing – flick through the reviews on my Amazon pages and you’ll find ‘filmic’ and ‘visual’ more often than ‘literary’. I’m fine with that, and I wanted to make the link even more explicit in this blog by talking about a fantastic tool for screenwriting that I use when plotting my books.

If you haven’t come across it before, then the Hero's Journey is probably the single most useful aid a writer can have when it comes to plot. Whenever I’m stuck, unsure about what might happen, or where the story should go next, I flick through the stages of the Hero's Journey and then go for a walk or do some washing up (my wife is a big fan of writer’s block). I can pretty much guarantee that the plotting problem will have been solved by the time I’m done with the exercise or the chore.

The Hero's Journey stems from the work of the American mythologist, Joseph Campbell whose essential notion was that many of the world’s great stories and myths share important patterns and structures. He pared these down into what he called a ‘monomyth’ and in 1949 published the idea in a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The elevator pitch for the Hero's Journey is that an ordinary person ventures from ordinary life into a more dangerous world, where many threats and obstacles are overcome before a decisive victory is won. The ordinary person returns home a hero, changed in ways that benefit the society she originally left.

The book was already an influential work when a gentleman by the name of George Lucas used it to inject plot and structure into a sci-fi movie called Star Wars – and from then on the Hero's Journey has never looked back as an inspiration for Hollywood screenwriters.

Its place in the pantheon was probably sealed by Christopher Vogler who, while working for Disney, wrote a seven page memo called ‘A Practical Guide to the Hero with a Thousand Faces’. It distilled Campbell’s work into a twelve-stage structure. The memo was such hot property that Vogler subsequently turned it into a book – The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers and more recently a website.

If you want to see how deeply the Hero's Journey is embedded in our modern movie culture, then check out this fantastic video in which Vogler explains the ‘monomyth’ with the help of some of the many films that have been inspired by it.

And next time you watch a film - or read a thriller, mystery or action adventure story (especially one of mine) - see how many elements of the Hero's Journey that you can spot. An easy one to start on is the Christopher Nolan reboot, Batman Begins... watch out for that Call to Adventure!

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About Covers and a Small Success...

I’ve got an unhealthy – or maybe it’s perfectly natural, given my career choices – fascination with book cover design. The topic comes up here pretty regularly, usually when I’ve just been working on one for the new book. 

And guess what... designer Stewart Williams has just finished the cover of The Sniper, the new Janac’s Games book that will be out at the end of July.

What do you think?

It had to match the existing covers for The Defector and The Wrecking Crew, so the biggest problem was finding the right images to work with – and that proved tougher than I would have thought. We got there in the end though, after hours on photo stock libraries...

Meanwhile, I thought I’d enter the cover of Powder Burn to Joel Friedlander’s May book cover design competition – at the very least I thought it would interesting to get his feedback, as I’m a fan of his blog. 

If you want to check out the winners for April, and have a look at some cool and some not-so-cool covers, click right here. We'll see how Powder Burn does next month...

The importance of a good cover cannot be underestimated. I was recently part of a promotion run by Bookbub.com (it's well-worth signing-up to get their alerts), and it boosted The Defector into the Top 100 on B&N.comMost of those sales decisions are being made based on the cover and blurb – so I’m sticking to the same template for The Sniper. Now I just have to finish it!

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April Review Round-Up

I don’t think I managed quite so much reading this month, what with Powder Burn coming out and starting work on the new Janac’s Games short story - called The Sniper

I’ve just seen that the new B&N publishing system, called Nook Press, allows interaction with Beta readers, so this book might go out on Nook first, and then Amazon. Meanwhile, I did manage to read a couple of thrillers this month, both top notch books from top notch writers...

I picked this one up because it was a group read on Goodreads, and I’m very glad I did. The Harry Bosch books have been a huge hit and it’s easy to see why from this opening tale - Connelly nails his central character from the very beginning.

Harry Bosch is a Vietnam vet, a tunnel fighter, one of the handful of Americans that struggled to battle the North Vietnamese in the dimension that they totally dominated – underground. Harry’s also a nascent media star for breaking a couple of big cases and, thanks to consultancy work on translating those case histories into movies, he’s the owner of a (small) house overlooking the Hollywood studios. It’s a great backstory and Harry never fails to engage and hold the reader’s attention.

The terrific central characterisation of Harry is backed up by a fine portrayal of FBI Agent Wish as Harry’s sidekick/lover/and sometime antagonist. This is combined with a really solid plot -- I didn’t see the twist coming at all, although the hints were there – the central bank ‘caper’ has just the right amount of twists and complexity for a highly entertaining read.

If I had a reservation about the book it would be some pretty clunky dialogue. It’s a nit-picking point, but Connelly hasn’t (rather than ‘has not’) shortened any of the words in the speech. It makes lots of the characters sound pompous and formal. It might have been the way to do it in 1992 when the book was written, but it’s a definite negative now. I also had trouble with some of the minor characterisations, the IAD chief, Irving was a bit of a cliché for instance.

Overall, these are minor quibbles, and I had no problem giving the book four stars.

I’m a huge fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, and I think I might have mentioned previously on this blog that they were the inspiration for some aspects of Powder Burn and my new ‘Burn’ series. So I needed no encouragement to pick this one up when it was also chosen as a Goodreads group read. And as usual, I wasn’t disappointed.

Jack Reacher appeals to the angry and vengeful core in all of us – there are no judges or juries in Reacher’s world, just violent retribution dispatched swiftly, without compunction or mercy and, in this case, unusually cold-bloodedly.

The book was written right after the 9/11 tragedy and I think its influence can be seen in the way that in Without Fail it is acceptable for Reacher to assassinate the bad guys. In many of the other Jack Reacher books that I’ve read, Reacher’s own life is at stake from quite early in the story, and so the ruthless killing of the bad guys is softened morally by his need to survive. This is not the case in Without Fail where he could and should have left them to the Secret Service or the FBI – both agencies are intrinsic to the story – but instead goes after them with intent to kill.

Child does a good job of making this aspect as believable as possible, and as the issue only comes up at the very end, it doesn’t spoil what is otherwise a fine story. The rest of the book has the usual impeccable mix of tight plotting, tighter writing and great minor characters, and once again I had no problem awarding four stars.

Powder Burn - Independently Publishing a Novel in 2013

It was back in September 2009 that I self- or independently-published my first novel, The Defector. It had been previously published by Random House in the UK and HarperCollins in Australia and New Zealand. I knew I had a clean manuscript, so it was just a matter of wrestling with the conversion from Word Perfect 5.1 to MS Word. When I’d figured that out, I read the Smashwords Style Guide to format the MS Word document. And then I loaded it onto the Smashwords website. I added a cover that had been designed by a friend and I was done. Ta-daa. Novel, meet world. World, meet novel. I sat back and waited to see what would happen.

Three and a half years later, publishing a novel independently is a rather different process. Some of the differences stem from the fact that the latest novels are new books that have never been published before. Others stem from the fact that the world has moved on. The process of publication for my latest book, Powder Burn went like this...

The book was read and analysed by my favourite structural editor a while back. I don’t know if that’s the correct name for it (or even if there is a correct name) but by structural editor I mean someone who goes through the book looking for weaknesses in the plot, lack of consistency in the characters, bad pacing – all that good story stuff. The structural editor does not care so much about grammar, never mind punctuation, their job is to analyse the structure of the story. I have to be really happy with the book before I get this edit done – I usually, foolishly, believe the book is finished - but they always spot something, often quite a big thing for the final rewrite.

I finished that rewrite over the New Year and as I think I mentioned previously, this was the last of eight drafts. In early January I was able to create some roughly formatted and unedited copies of the final draft. I asked for ‘Beta’ readers on my Facebook page, volunteers to read the book who would give me feedback. And I asked some trusted friends to do the same thing. In all, about twelve people read it over the next few weeks, and they all had at least one important contribution to the finished book.

While that process was going on, I searched for a cover designer. I’ve previously written about using 99designs.com for my covers, and although I’ve been happy with this I had been looking at other options and I really liked the work of Stewart Williams. I thought he was the right guy for the cover I had in mind. I’d noticed the new set of Thomas and Mercer (an Amazon imprint) covers for Ian Fleming’s 007 books, and really liked them. They use a white background and stand out against the almost uniformly dark covers that are currently fashionable. John Locke was doing something vaguely similar and I figured that these are two pretty savvy operators - perhaps white backgrounds and graphics was a bandwagon I should jump on.

Stewart liked those other covers too and was happy to work along those lines. We quickly struck a deal and he started work. It took three or four weeks to get the cover right, and during this time I was working on the changes to the manuscript suggested by my Beta readers. By the beginning of March, I had a cover and I had a story I was happy with – it was time for the manuscript to go to the copy editor. I use a guy in the States, Neal Hock and I had already scheduled the copy edit with him. Neal usually takes a week to ten days to complete the copy edit, and when the manuscript comes back I mostly just had to go through it clicking ‘Accept Changes’.

The final stage is the formatting and as I said, I used to do this myself. I’m still comfortable preparing the manuscript for Smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing, but I decided to get some help with an ePub edition to load to the new Kobo direct publishing option, Writing Life. I used the same person that had previously done my CreateSpace PDFs, Heather at the CyberWitch Press – unfortunately, she’s closed to new clients, otherwise I’d recommend her, she’s wonderful.

Once I have the final files ready - Heather is working on them as this is published - it’s just a matter of loading them onto Smashwords, Kindle and Kobo and pressing go at the right time. For the Kindle that will be 3rd April. Of course, that’s when the real work begins. Back in 2009 I just sat and waited to see what happened next, this time I’ll be a little more proactive, but I’ll tell you about that next month.

The NFL - America’s Favourite Socialist Sport

It was a phrase that I’d heard in television interviews a few times, but only recently did I hear it for real - Obama’s turning this country socialist. I’m a Brit and (on this occasion at least) I was far too polite to argue with my American friend - hey, it’s not my country... But afterwards, it struck me that what I should have said (don’t you always think of the right response too late?) was that in one very high-profile arena, the USA has been running a socialist system for years. And as far as I’m aware, President Obama has nothing to do with the operation of the NFL, America’s favourite spectator sport.

In Europe, the top professional sport is football (or soccer) and it’s run on ruthless market principles. Television revenue for the top leagues is divided according to performance. And if a club has a bad enough season then relegation looms – the club drops down to a lower league and the money from spectators, television and all the other sports franchise income sources goes south with it.

The following season the relegated club has to compete to try to return to the old league, and do it with less of everything – money, good players and crowds. It’s a punishing regime, and teams can get into a spiral of failure and drop like a stone through successive leagues in successive seasons, some go bankrupt and disappear altogether. Like any rigorous capitalist system failure is brutally punished and success is hugely rewarded.  

In contrast, the NFL rewards failure and punishes success in an effort to keep the teams evenly balanced. All revenue is shared more or less equally whether you have a good, bad or indifferent season. And there is just the one league with a (more or less) fixed set of teams – no relegation. Occasionally new franchises start and old ones fold or move, but most of the time if a team does badly they stay right where they are in the NFL. There is no punishment from the league itself for failure to perform...  in fact, quite the opposite.

During the NFL’s off-season, the latest draft of players coming out of the college system are farmed out to the clubs – and the worse performing teams get the first pick of players. If they pick right, they get the best new players to kick-start the process of improvement. The NFL is run on a system designed to maintain equality, and to give every opportunity for improvement to those performing badly. Now, if that’s not a system run on socialist principles then I don’t know what is...

Of course, the NFL isn’t a country, it’s a sports league competing against other sports leagues - not to mention movies, computer games and even books - for the attention and cash of US citizens. And the competition for that attention is run on a ruthlessly capitalist system. Sports that don’t get enough attention suffer quickly and cruelly. The NFL is the most successful sport in America, so it’s interesting to note that in order to achieve success in a wider capitalist system, the NFL has adopted socialist principles for its internal functioning. I can’t help thinking that there might be other areas where this same approach could be applied. Like education. Or medicine.  

A Thriller Reading Round-Up...

It’s been a busy month. I’m in the final stages of production for my new thriller, Powder Burn, and I’ve been reading quite a bit of non-fiction as research for a new Janac’s Games short story called The Sniper. It’ll be the next book after Powder Burn, and the first of several about Janac’s time in Vietnam. The idea is to track how he made it through the war, and developed contacts in that part of the world to build his drug empire. I thought I’d call them the Origins books to separate them from the main novels.

So, I’ve been reading various accounts of the Vietnam War, and remembering the nature of that horrific conflict. Long before there were suicide bombers in Iraq, there were sappers in Vietnam. I grew up in a world saturated with Second World War stories and movies, and I can still remember reading a newspaper headline announcing that American casualties had reached 50,000 in Vietnam. I was very young and I didn’t even know that there had been a war going on - how could that be possible? Wars were something that happened in the distant past, not now, and certainly not with America involved.

I remember it so vividly for two reasons; firstly it was a massive wake-up call to a child - I was new to this world and I needed to pay attention. I’ve been a huge follower of current affairs ever since. And secondly, as I learned more and more about Vietnam I began to slide from a belief in a black and white world of good and evil to one filled with shades of grey. Michael Herr’s book Dispatches was central to that coming of age. I still live in that world today, as anyone who has read the Janac’s Games books will know. It feels appropriate to be returning to the Vietnam War to tell more of his story.

All of which is a long way of saying that I won’t be reviewing the non-fiction. I had a go at one in the last blog round up, but I think I’d rather stick to reviewing what I know about - thrillers. And last month I read a couple of highly contrasting, but linked, books.

I first became aware of Barry Eisler after the controversy surrounding his decision to turn down a serious amount of money from a traditional publisher, in favour of bringing the books out himself. Subsequently, he accepted a deal with one of Amazon’s publishing imprints, and hasn’t looked back. Meanwhile, I became a fan of his blog; his writing on book marketing, the publishing industry and politics is always engaging, entertaining and usually right on the money.

I’m not sure why it has taken me this long to try one of his thrillers – I think it was the lack of availability as a reasonably priced e-book, something that Eisler is planning to fix. But having finally got to it, I’m happy to report that Eisler deserved every penny of whatever money Amazon threw at him – The Detachment is an excellent book by a man as fascinated with the shades of grey as I am.

Eisler has been writing about the assassin John Rain for a while, and this is the latest of those books. I guess it’s not an ideal place to start as I came into it with none of Rain’s backstory – but it didn’t matter. The book works perfectly well as a stand-alone thriller, while the writer still encouraged me to go back and read the earlier ones by making some adroit references to Rain’s previous adventures.

Barry Eisler’s bio says he worked for the CIA in a covert position, and it shows. Or, at least it shows as far as I – a civilian – can tell. The book has an incredibly authentic feel, that’s the first thing. The second is that it rips along at pace, with a rock solid and all-to believable underlying conspiracy at the centre of the plot. John Rain, the conflicted killer is a terrific central protagonist, and the other characters that make up The Detachment are all well drawn and keep you guessing. My pulse was racing in the final set-piece shoot up – only the denouement of Argo has matched that recently. I hope we see more of Rain, and the other characters in The Detachment, but I will most certainly be reading more Eisler either way – ‘nuff said about this one. Five stars.

Ironically, John Locke also came to my attention as a result of an ebook publishing controversy – he was one of the first really successful independents. He wrote a book called How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5Months! and I have a copy - I know, I know, sucker. I even read it, and I thought there was one interesting marketing idea and I went so far as to try it. It didn’t work. It turns out the book was probably b******s. Allegedly, Locke was successful because he had the cash from his other businesses to pay for 300 book reviews on Amazon, enough to get him off the launch pad.

I didn’t want to like this book, and to start with I didn’t – particularly coming to it off the back of the hyper-real Eisler book. The central character Donnie Creed is an assassin just like John Rain, but that’s where the comparison ends - there is nothing real about him. He has himself tortured to build up his resistance to pain, sleeps in other people’s attics to build up his skills at undetected intrusion, and otherwise lives in a prison cell so he’s used to it when he inevitably goes to jail. Right. Of course he does.

And then, with the help of a Goodreads friend, I got it. It’s not meant to be real or anything like it - this is black comedy, satire. And as such, it’s not bad at all – so long as you can get past the grim violence. The writing is uneven and could use a decent editor and personally, I didn’t find it laugh out loud funny. Nevertheless, Locke has created a very engaging character in Donnie Creed, and his first person narrative voice does keep you turning the pages. I doubt I’ll buy another one, as it’s not really my cup of tea, but I can see why Locke has sold a lot of books. Three stars.

About... Mark Chisnell

I've been thinking that it was about time to update the 'Bio' section on my website, which was a bit rambling and off the point. So I did, and then I thought I should post it as a blog, just in case there's anyone out there who's wondering why I'm doing this...

I grew up in a small town on the east coast of England, a town dominated by the rise of the oil industry and the decline of shipbuilding and fishing. I messed around in boats and read everything written by Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming and many more like them – but the sea was a non-negotiable part of everyone’s life in that little town, and a future as some sort of marine engineer seemed inevitable.

And then I found a copy of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in a hill cabin in England’s Lake District. A mix of a hang-over and too much snow restricted any other activity – well, it was New Year – and so I read it over a couple of days.

The cover said it would change the way I thought and felt about the world, and the funny thing was... it did. Pirsig’s exploration of quality and values inspired me to drop my plans for engineering, and take philosophy along with physics at college. I also learned that books work - they’re important and they can change your life. I wanted to write one. I wanted to write lots.

Those were the days before 19-year olds got seven figure advances for Young Adult novels, and I (rather sweetly in retrospect) believed that I needed to know about the world before I could write about it - at least that was my excuse for buying a one-way ticket and, with US$400 in my pocket, climbing on the plane to Los Angeles.

By the time I got home three years later, I’d had a couple of travel stories published in the New Zealand Herald and the South China Morning Post. And I’d hitch-hiked to Mt Everest base-camp in Tibet. In Adidas trainers. It was either my greatest achievement, or the stupidest. A year later a fully-equipped British summit attempt was airlifted out from the same spot - cue icy chills down the spine when I read that news story.

I’d also got involved in the 1987 America’s Cup, a professional sailboat race. Before I knew it, I was being asked to fly around the world to glamorous places - Honolulu, San Francisco, Sardinia and the Caribbean - and being paid to race sailboats. It was an impossibly long way from the life I’d grown up to in that fishing and oil town – and far too good to turn down. The writing would have to wait.

It didn’t have to wait long. I quickly started to write about the sport I was so immersed in, publishing hundreds of thousands of words in books and articles on sailing, and winning a couple of awards along the way. And I started to think about a novel - I had an idea from all those philosophy lectures I had endured, a game of the Prisoner's Dilemma played for life and death. The Defector and then the rest of the Janac’s Games series grew out of that idea.

My goal for that first book and all my novels since was to keep the reader turning the pages, but to leave them with something to think about afterwards.

What will you do...?

The Defector was first published in the UK by Random House (as The Delivery), and got rave reviews in the trade literature. It was followed up by The Wrecking Crew, the second in what would become the Janac’s Games series. Initially, this second book was rejected by London publishers and it seemed that my fiction career was over – but I kept working at it, and a few years later HarperCollins in Australia and New Zealand published them both to coincide with what would be the last big contest in my sailing career, the 2003 America’s Cup in Auckland.

I realised that I had been given a second chance at my life’s dream of writing novels, but that this time I must fully focus on it. It was time to close the door on my sports career – I didn’t have the time or energy for both. What followed was a transitional decade, but I was still lucky enough to get involved in some very cool projects. I went to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia on a beautiful sailing boat. I got to write for some of the world’s leading magazines and newspapers, including Esquire and the Guardian, and I worked in television for a while, commentating and script-writing.

There was also a revolution in publishing going on. The Kindle and other eBook readers transformed the business opportunities for writers, and I was quick to take advantage of them to get control of the way my novels were published. The Janac’s Games books found success in the eBook formats, and were followed up by The Fulcrum Files – historical fiction of which I’m very proud - and then the first of the Burn series, Powder Burn featuring Sam Blackett, my favourite character to date. There will be more, lots more. Just like I hoped all those years ago.

The Next Big Thing

A February first – a blog hop. It’s called The Next Big Thing (as you probably guessed) and if you haven’t come across one before (and I hadn’t) then the idea is straightforward - and not dissimilar to a chain letter.

I was tagged by the wonderful Nina Sankovitch, who’s a friend of one of my oldest university buddies, but also - and more importantly in this context - the reader of hundreds of books that she reviews on her website, Read All Day. Nina’s also a writer and her 2010 book,  Tolstoy and The Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading was published by HarperCollins. It tells the story of her lifetime of reading, and of one magical year when she read a book a day to rediscover how to live after the death of her oldest sister. Read about Nina's next big thing right here. It’s a delight to be tagged by Nina.

So much for the preliminaries, onto The Next Big Thing, which in my case, is the soon-to-be-released (April 3rd) novel, Powder Burn.

What is the working title of your book?
Doh – just gave that away, Powder Burn! It’s the first of a new series of Burn books featuring Sam Blackett, a Vermont backcountry girl and wannabe investigative journalist.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I’d always wanted to write a book with a kick-ass female hero, and when I saw Kill Bill I realised it was time to get on with it. I started well, but then life intervened - that was about ten years ago.

What genre does your book fall under?
It’s a suspense thriller.

Which actors would you choose to play the hero in a movie rendition?
A kick ass female hero? I guess Angelina Jolie virtually made that role her own for a while, but right now I’d take Jennifer Lawrence.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
If Dragon Tattoo’s Mikael Blomkvist and the Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen could have a love-child, she’d probably be a lot like Sam Blackett.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be self-published. I’ve had some great agents in the past, but as something of a control freak, I get along a lot better now that it’s all my fault when it goes belly up. Or not.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About six months – and then another ten years for the next six drafts.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I guess you can probably tell from the one line synopsis that I’m hoping fans of The Hunger Games and the Millennium Trilogy will like the books – although those books set a very high bar for comparisons.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
I took four sources of inspiration for this book, the movie Kill Bill got me going, so that’s one. I love the way Lee Child’s Jack Reacher moves around the USA and happens into an adventure wherever he lands up. I see the Burn series with Sam Blackett in the same light, she’s travelling, researching and looking for stories, and some of them are going to land her in a world of trouble. Thirdly, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (Dragon Tattoo etc) had a strength, independence and crusade-for-truth aspect to the investigations of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist that I wanted to capture. And finally, I think the first book in Suzanne Collins trilogy, The Hunger Games is possibly the best genre book I’ve ever read. The writing is so smooth, the action, characterisation, plotting and theme are all just so perfectly realised. I think it’s a model for how good genre books can be, and the one I look up to every day I sit down at the computer.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
The movie rights of an earlier draft of the novel were optioned by Working Title Films - Les Misérables, Love Actually, Billy Elliot etc. – but now they’re available again, if anyone’s interested... 

And now I get the huge pleasure of passing the torch to four of my favourite writers.  Here they are (in alphabetical order) - go check 'em out!

Rachel Abbott has spent the majority of her working life running an interactive media company, designing and building software and websites, mainly for education. Her company was sold in 2000, and although she continued working for another 5 years, she also fulfilled a lifelong ambition of buying a property in Italy, and then found the time to fulfil her second ambition of writing a novel.

The book proved very successful, and by February 2012 it had reached #1 in the Amazon charts (all genres). It remained there for four weeks. It also hit the top spot on the Waterstones ebook charts, and remained there throughout August, September and most of October 2012. Rachel now has a publishing deal in the US and Canada, and the foreign rights in Only the Innocent have been sold in several countries, including France, Germany, Brazil and Russia. An audio version of the book is also in development.

Debbie Bennett has worked in law enforcement for over 25 years, in a variety of different roles (on the front-line and back in the office), which may be why the darker side of life tends to emerge in her writing. In 2005, she was long-listed for the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award, which gave her the push to independently-publish the psychological thriller Hamelin’s Child, closely followed by a young adult fantasy novel and a collection of previously-print-published short stories. 

The sequel to Hamelin's Child was published in January 2013. At present Debbie plays with police computers during the day. The rest of the time she’s working on a couple of other novels and several short stories. 

Ruth Harris is a 1,000,000 copy New York Times and Amazon bestselling author and a Romantic Times award winner. Ruth’s highly praised fiction has "been called brilliant," "steamy," "stylishly written," "richly plotted," "first-class entertainment" and "a sure thing" and been translated into 19 languages, sold in 30 countries, and honoured by the Literary Guild and the Book Of The Month Club. In their e-book editions, Ruth's novels have risen to #1 on the Movers And Shakers List and been featured on Ereader News Today, Pixel of Ink and Kindle Nation Daily.

With her husband, Michael, Ruth indulges her wild side and writes bestselling thrillers with vivid characters, international backgrounds and compelling plots. Their thrillers have made numerous appearances in the top 3 of Kindle’s Movers & Shakers list. Publisher’s Weekly called Ruth's and Michael's thrillers "Slick and sexy with all the sure elements of a big seller written by pros who know how to tell a story.”

Scott Nicholson has written 15 thrillers, 60 short stories, four comics series, and six screenplays. He lives in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, where he tends an organic garden, successfully eludes stalkers, and generally lives the dream. Entering the digital era with a vengeance, Nicholson is releasing original titles and collections while conspiring to release interactive books in the near future, building audio files, video, and collaborative fiction projects. 

Nicholson won the grand prize in the international Writers of the Future contest in 1999. That same year, he was first runner-up for the Darrell Award. He studied Creative Writing at Appalachian State University and UNC-Chapel Hill. He has been an officer of Mystery Writers of America and Horror Writers Association and is a member of International Thriller Writers and inaugural member of the Killer Thriller Band.