Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tuesday Tidbits with Kari: Featuring author Annie Burrows

It's time for another installment of our favorite 8 book Regency mystery series. Please help me welcome author Annie Burrows.

Regency Silk and Scandal is a unique 8 book author generated Regency continuity, featuring an ongoing mystery murder plot that runs through the whole series. It's about three friends, two scandalous affairs, and one secret code that leads to murder, disgrace and revenge. The stories will captivate the reader as they travel from the Cornish Coast to the heights of Hertfordshire, and from the ballrooms of London to the battlefields of Belgium.

Kari: What was it like for you in brainstorming an 8 book mystery plot?

Annie: Part of being a writer is “world-building”. But on this project, the characters existed not only in my own imagination, but also in the minds of five other writers. We often had, what to non-writers must have seemed like bizarre email exchanges. For example, one day I emailed the others with the query: “My heroine has just gone to her half-brother’s house, and the door has been opened by an Indian manservant. Anybody got any idea where he came from?”Immediately, Louise Allen (I think) came back with a whole episode in the half-brother’s backstory where he picked up the servant and that is how Akash got absorbed into our collective consciousness. I've just read a passage in Book 3 "The Smuggler and the Society Bride" where Julia Justiss has described him exactly as I first envisioned him. It's almost impossible to describe what it feels like to see one of your characters step into the pages of someone else's work. As I've been reading the series as it comes out, I have quite often made my husband jump by yelling out "Yes!" or just bursting out laughing in delight when another author's depiction chimes so exactly with my own imagination it sends goose bumps over my skin.

Kari: Can you tell us about your book in the series?

Annie: The heroine of my book “The Viscount and the Virgin” is the daughter of the man whose murder sparked off the whole chain of events. When we began to discuss the series, we discovered an enthusiasm for murder mysteries by the likes of Agatha Christie, and even the board game Cluedo. Usually, at the opening of these murder mysteries, we see the suspects lining up, usually because the person about to be murdered is such an unlikeable character they are bound to make enemies. So I imagined my heroine’s father as the kind of man anyone crossing his path would be sorely tempted to bump off. And from there, what such a man would be like as a husband and father. The repercussions of being part of Baron Framlingham’s family not only blighted the remainder of his widow’s life, but also cast a deep shadow upon his only surviving child, a daughter, Imogen. In fact, she ended up with so many insecurities that I then had to find a most remarkable man to meet all her needs. You’re going to have to read it for yourself, and let me know if Monty measures up!

Kari: Is this something you would ever do again, and any tips for authors thinking about co-writing a book or contributing to a connected series such as this one?

Annie: Again?! Oh, we already have collaborated on a short online read for the eharlequin website, “Seduced by the Dark Stranger”. (You will be able to find it in the archives of online reads on the eharlequin website, or on my own website, http://www.annie-burrows.co.uk/) In fact, going back to writing on my own, after being part of such a fantastic collaboration left me with withdrawal symptoms! So I leapt at the opportunity to work with the Silk and Scandal Continuistas again.We wrote “Seduced by the Dark Stranger” round robin style, rather than us all writing simultaneously, so it was, yet again, a fascinating experience. Rather like being part of a supportive, and very knowledgeable critique group.Tips – I think what made this such a positive experience was the willingness to be open and honest with one another. And discovering we shared a sense of humour. That definitely helped us maintain our sanity throughout the sheer hard work involved.

Annie Burrows

Monday, August 30, 2010

It is my pleasure to introduce my good friend and fellow published author, Edie Ramer to Mysteries and Margaritas today. Edie is here to tell you some exciting news about her career and to talk about traditional publishing versus self publishing. Things have changed so much in the publishing world over the past few years, and more and more authors are looking at this option. Edie is here to explain why she chose to go that route. She'll be checking in all day and will answer all your questions honestly. So, ask away after reading what she has to say about about all this.

Thanks so much to Liz L. and the M&M ladies for having me as your guest. I think Liz is a wise woman. Funny, too. Last Monday, she wrote a brilliant “Show Me the Money” post here. She said:
“In today’s economy, midlist authors are finding their advances shrinking and more and more authors are turning to epubs where they get no advance. Some are even going the self-publishing route, hoping to cash into that market in a JA Konrath sort of way. http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/”

(Waving hands wildly at the last one. Me, me, me!) Then she went on to say:

“I signed a three-book deal with a major publisher and pretty much got the average advance. Like any début author, I probably would have signed on the dotted line for much less just to see the printed book in my hands.”

Not too long ago, I would have said the same thing. Now I’d say no, at least to the “much less” part. The more I learn about indie publishing, the more possibilities I see and the more opportunities. I know of several indie writers who have turned down offers from the NY pubs. Not just because of the advance, but because of the low percentage they’re offered for digital books.

Zoe Winters is one of them. She was contracted by a NY agent who has read her novellas and wanted to represent her. Zoe turned her down. She openly admits she doesn’t play well with others, but that’s not the only thing. She’s making good money with her novellas. Yes, that’s right. Making good money with novellas. (She posts the amount on her blog every month. She used to post snapshots of her Kindle statements, but Amazon doesn’t allow people collecting 70% from their books to use snapshots anymore.)

70% is a great incentive. Much better than 8%. Or even 25%, which I believe is the norm for NY pubbed e-books. In addition, many industry watchers believe we’re nearing the tipping point from print books to e-books. I love print books, but the last few books I’ve bought have been digital, partly because of the ease and partly because I don’t live near a bookstore. And in digital books, romance is one of the biggest selling genres. One reason stated is because we can read the romances without fear that other people will see the sexy covers -- which is fodder for another blog.

With all this, why sign up with a publisher who makes you fight for every percentage point? The times are changing faster than Superman leaps tall buildings. Seth Godin recently announced that from now on he’s publishing his own books. A former book packager, he says the distribution system is antique and adds layers between the reader and the books.

You might think, “Easy for Seth Godin to turn his back on print. He’s a marketing guru.” But Karen McQuestion wasn’t published in print nor was she a marketing guru when she put her books on Kindle a little more than a year ago. Now she’s on the Kindle best-selling list and she has a movie deal.

Those are the highs. There are lows in digital books, too, but there are lows in print publishing. I know NY pubbed writers whose books either weren’t distributed in a timely manner or whose publisher printed less than they were promised. And if the books aren’t out there, you’re going to have low numbers, which will result in less money coming your way when the next contract comes around.

This is getting long, so I’ll just say that one of the best reasons to be an indie writer is that the money doesn’t flow to you through an agent or an editor. It comes directly to you in a timely manner. You don’t have to wait months for returns. And do you remember the 70% Kindle cut authors get? On Smashwords, it’s even more than that.

Though we’re in this business because we are storytellers and writing completes us more than Hugh Jackman ever could, we like money. And I like knowing that I’m the one in control of my career -- with a lot of help from the many writer friends who’ve helped me get to this point.

Despite everything I’ve said, if a NY editor offered to buy one of my books, I might say yes. I think a “tiered” approach is a good way to go. It would depend on the offer. I don’t know what will happen, but I’m loving the journey.

What do you think of all this? Has your view of indie publishing changed recently?

Edie Ramer

Edie loves her cat so much, she wrote a book about a cat who becomes a woman and keeps her cat attitude. Cattitude is available on Kindle and Smashwords http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/22350. Edie is co-founder of Write Attitude (www.writeattitude.net), an inspirational website for writers, and the popular group blog, Magical Musings (http://magicalmusings.com). scheduled 5:00:00 AM by Liz Lipperman Delete

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Continued Discussion on Firefly (Part II)

Welcome back to our round table discussion on Joss Whedon's Firefly. Please see August 26th post if you are visiting for the first time.

Welcome back Stanalei, Doree, and Megan to Mysteries and Margarita’s. Everyone grab a cuppa coffee, beverage of your choice or a glass of your favorite wine and relax. I’ve got the cheese and crackers out, help yourself.

If you were with us yesterday you know this is a little different than usual, I’m not doing a one-on-one interview. I’m sure you’ve guessed by my guest list. Picture us gathered around a table or in someone’s living room having a discussion and the topic is Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

Mary: Romance Writers of America has workshops on Joss Whedon—OCC/RWA, LRWA, CRW, KOD not to mention the conferences that have workshops on the subject of: The Lessons of Firefly: What do you think is the allure?

Stanalei: I’ve taken Jacqui Jacoby’s on-line workshop The Lessons of Firefly. I believe the allure is the series and having the chance to discuss a shared passion about the series, the characters and the stories.

Doree: The fantasy element. His imagination and how he brings his story around.

Megan: Firefly isn't about cowboys in space. It’s about these people and their relationships with each other, and their loyalty to one another. The heart of any Joss Whedon show is the dialogue. I don't know anything about writing books, but I have written scripts, and the hardest thing when you are writing dialogue is making it connect to your audience. Joss Whedon has a huge connection with his viewers. One of my favorite things that he has said is "I would rather make a show that 100 people Love to watch than a show that everyone likes to watch."

Stanalei:  Megan, I get that very same feeling while watching anything he’s done. You are so right.

Mary: Megan I agree about what Whedon said. Stanalei even though I’m new to Joss Whedon’s work I get the same feeling and now I need to rush out to rent everything else all of you have recommended.

Megan: Yes you need too! It’s worth the time and Money! (or if you have Netflix most of it is on there)

Mary: Is Firefly what you would call Steam Punk? If that’s your opinion, why?

Stanalei:  I’m still unclear of the whole definition of Steam Punk, but I think Firefly may the grandfather of the new genre.

Doree: I’m sorry, I’m opinionless at this time. Still a babe and only just learning. But, to me it is a world of shoot-em up fantasy. Not so unlike Stargate or Battlestar Galactica.

Megan: Yes and No... yes, because to the random viewer flipping channels are going to see this spaceship flying around and make assumptions. Those that watch the show know that it’s a resounding 'no'

Mary: I’ve heard a lot of about ‘emotion’ linked with Joss and his work. What are your thoughts on the emotion he uses? Can you give us an example?

Stanalei: Spoiler alert on the answer to this question. As I watched the series, it was easy for me to relate the characters. The futuristic setting, even the fight for survival, isn’t something I have to deal with myself, but I could relate to how the characters bickered with each other, teased each, defended each other. Progressing through the episodes and knowing that I was watching fiction, set up a certain expectation regarding how each character would grow and evolve. When the series wrapped up with the movie, Serenity, I was heart-sick at the loss of two of my favorite characters.  By then, I felt the pain and loss as if they were as much my “family” as they were the Serenity family.  But the amazing thing Mr. Whedon did was not giving into the norm of keeping the character alive for the sake of saving the character for later. By doing this, he stayed true to the story. The line at the end of Serenity when Zoe tells Mal that “the ship” is ready to go really hits home for me in it’s double meaning.  Mal asks, “Do you think she’ll hold?” Zoe replies, “She’s broke up some, but she’ll fly true.”  

In my mind, it’s not just the ship, but Zoe and her well-being Mal is really asking about. And true to the characters, they don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves… so their dialog is almost like a code between best of friends-comrades who have shared it all together. I just love that scene.

Doree:  I’m going to agree with Stanalei on this one, as well. When I’ve watched Star Trek, it was always obvious who was going to die. New guy – there to die! They never killed off their “main characters”. Joss does. And yes, Sheppard and Wash were like losing a member of you family. Also, everything doesn’t revolve around Malcom every time. If the show didn’t revolve around Kirk or his close cronies, it didn’t happen. Joss gives everyone of his characters their spotlight. It’s refreshing and that’s why we know his character’s so well. We’ve met them all, the good and the bad.

Megan: My sisters and I have come to expect shock in a Joss Whedon show. The writing makes you relate to the characters so much that they become people that you care about rather than actors on a show. The element of disbelief goes so far beyond what is the standard that when something 'bad' happens to a character that we love we have an emotional reaction. For example, on the pilot episode where Mal says... "Kaylee's dead" I just remember being so sad and so upset that I didn't see it coming. Cause one thing that Joss loves to do is kill a main character that you think is safe, and then when Kaylee was fine and then the scene cuts to part of the crew laughing it just takes you there and makes you a part of that crew.

Mary: I love Kaylee, and it has nothing to do with the fact my granddaughter’s name is Kaylee. LOL. Doree, could you pass me the cheese and crackers? The rest of have some more wine or whatever. This has been fun and interesting. Is there anything else you can think of that makes Firefly so unforgettable? Let’s not forget Serenity.

Stanalei: Great cheese, Mary. Goes well with this wine. The most unforgettable aspect of the series and the movie for me is the characters. I was into watching about four episodes before I realized that main cast consisted of nine actors. That’s a large ensemble of actors. Nothing about the story lines ever made the scenes feel overcrowded or like Mr. Whedon was trying to give each actor enough stage time with extraneous dialog. Everyone and every line had a purpose. Nothing was wasted.

Doree: Spoiler -Great movie. I know that someone has to die, but come on. Wash? The Sheppard? Not fair.

Megan: I was talking to my friends just the other day about how the reason we love Firefly so much is because it was taken before its time. People are still mad that it’s not on the air and still expecting it to come back, even though it’s been five years or more. Serenity lets people have a little of that closure but personally I think it was more of a tease from Joss saying, "See this is what I wanted to do in three seasons." But it shows some of the best work that Joss has in him. Having seen what Joss did with Buffy and especially with Angel, I could see how he was going to let those scary reevers torment you the entire series, or at least for a long time. Finding out what the Reevers really were just solidified the brilliance that is Joss Whedon’s writing. By the way you will probably have to move these wheat thins away from me cause I will eat them ALL!

Mary: Oh Megan, you’re going to have to fight me over the wheat thins!

Moving on, above I asked what else Joss has done. Let’s discuss some of those movies or series. What do they have in common, if anything, to Serenity and Firefly?

Stanalei: For me and what I’ve watched it’s how Mr. Whedon uses the dialog to bring the character to life. As I said a moment ago. Nothing is wasted. I love how he does that.

Doree: Fantasy Fiction. Buffy the Vampire slayer – yeah. Great imagination.

Megan: I think that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is like Firefly in the way that on first impressions people misunderstand it. Firefly is not about adventures in space just like Buffy is not about Vampires at all. It’s about life experiences, you know with the occasional apocalypse and impending doom. Another thing that I love about Joss is that even in the most terrifying moments for our characters he will have a moment to let the audience laugh. For example in Serenity at the last stand, Kaylee is really scared and thinks she is going to die and Simon has been shot, and then they have that moment of revealing their feelings and the best line comes out Kaylee:“You mean to say … sex?” Simon: “I mean to say…” Kaylee: “To hell with this I’m gonna live.” That little scene in Buffy the Vampire Slayer where everyone is preparing for battle and then most of the characters are playing Dungeons and Dragons! His Comedic timing is perfect.

Mary: Is there anything else about Joss and his work that any of you think is important to mention?

Stanalei:  Mr. Whedon has a gift of entertainment. When I see his work, I never feel like it’s about him or any “message” he is trying to convey. It’s all about the audience and giving them the best ride. A good lesson for me to remember when I’m working on my own creations. Thanks for the fun and enlightening gathering, Mary, Doree and Meagan. We should do this again sometime.

Doree: Firefly should have never been removed so early in its work. A few more seasons would have been lucrative. But, I guess some ‘suit’ just didn’t get it.

Megan: Joss is one of the strongest activists for women. He writes strong women, that kick ass, and it shows his respect that he has for the female population.

Megan, I love that you said ‘kick ass’, still chuckling! But I really do agree. Thank all of you for joining me today I’ve enjoyed our chat.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mary's Rants - Discussion on Firefly Part I

Welcome Stanalei Fletcher, Doree Anderson, and Megan Smith to Mysteries and Margarita’s. Everyone grab a cuppa coffee, beverage of your choice or a glass of your favorite wine and relax. I’ve got the cheese and crackers out, help yourself.

This is a little different than usual, I’m not doing a one-on-one interview. I’m sure you’ve guessed by my guest list. Picture us gathered around a table or in someone’s living room having a discussion and the topic is Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

I heard about Firefly from Stanalei. I love Castle who had Nathan Fillion, Stanalei said ‘you have to watch Firefly.’ What the heck was that? So she let me borrow her DVD set of 4 and the movie Serenity. I watch each or so I thought, then one day—when my grandson was watching them--I realized that each DVD had 3 or 4 episodes. Actually he told me and I emailed Stanalei to verify. I only watched the first one of each. What can I say? I’m a dork. Needless to say I watched the rest.

In case, you are unfamiliar with Joss Whedon and particularly Firefly:
Release Date: September 20, 2002
Blurb: Five hundred years in the future, a renegade crew aboard a small, spacecraft tries to survive as they travel the unknown parts of the galaxy and evade warring factions as well as authority agents out to get them.

Captain Malcom 'Mal' Reynolds is a former galactic war veteran who is the captain of the transport ship "Serenity". Mal his crew of hired transporters, Mal's ensign Zoe Warren, Zoe's husband, pilot Hoban 'Wash' Washburne, muscular former combat soldier Jayne Cobb, young engineer Kaylee Frye, former Alliance medical officer Simon Tamm, his teenage sister River (Both on-the-run from the Interplanetary government "The Alliance") the beautiful "companion" Inara Serra and religious man Shepard Book, do legal or illegal jobs (smuggling, protecting, guns-for-hire, robberies). As the Serenity crew travels across the outskirts of Outer Space for food, money, anything to make a living on, as The Serenity crew tries to stay under the radar of The Alliance and pulls dangerous jobs in the Alliance controlled star systems. 

And if you’re truly a fan: http://www.fireflyfans.net/ Everything you would ever want!

Mary: Can each of you tell us a bit about yourself, and what you do?

Stanalei: Thanks for the invitation, Mary. This is a great little gathering and wonderful refreshments.  Well, to start with, I’m an aspiring romance writer with a day job in computer software support. I love sci-fi stuff but don’t consider myself a hard core fan of all things sci-fi, (DUNE is still a bit beyond me), but if reruns of Stargate, Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Abyss are on TV, I’m there. I also recently picked an old series by the BBC called UFO. It’s sort of campy to watch now, but back in the day it was pretty hot stuff.

Doree: I’m giving writing the good ole American try.

Megan: I am a senior at Utah Valley University, majoring in Motion Picture Production.

Mary: Stanalei, I’m glad you like the refreshments, that’s the favorite part of any gathering for me. Megan, tell us a bit more than that about yourself. What do you like to read? Why did you go into Motion Picture Production? Doree, is that all you do? Come on guys facts! LOL

Megan: I like to read ‘good’ books. Anything that can keep me involved and put me in the protagonists shoes.  I didn’t like reading as a kid and started reading more in High School with the Harry Potter Series and The Princess Bride the Novel. I love classic books, such as Peter Pan and anything by Jane Austen, or things like that. I will admit to being a Twilight Fan but that is because of the BOOKS not the movies. (Stephanie Meyer proved that she can write when she wrote ‘The Host’ in my opinion.) And last but CERTAINLY not least…. I have just gotten into a new Author named Cassandra Claire, she writes sci-fi but very relatable, and deliciously sarcastic! If you are looking for a new series to get into I highly suggest “The Mortal Instruments.”
I got into Motion Picture Production in High School. I was in a video making club and continued on to college. I love this industry because it’s all about good writing if you have the prettiest movie in creation or the best sound or the best graphics or whatever you still have NOTHING unless you have a good script, and most good scripts come from good books. As a kid (as you will remember Mary not to date anyone or anything) I was very dramatic and I wanted to become an actress. Growing up and knowing the chances of that I looked into behind the scenes and I have found that I love it. Everything that goes on a movie or TV screen is made three times. Once on the page, once on the set, and once in the editing bay. I love seeing a project go from just a thought to a realization!

Doree: You’re right. Life would be too easy if I just wrote. I, like all of us do, maintain a household. But, I spend a lot of time tending my grandkids and husband. Grandkids turn out to be easier.

Mary: Megan, I seem to remember you as a drama queen, just kidding. Doree, grandkid watching is very important!

How did you first hear about Joss Whedon?

Stanalei: Doree you and Mary are the best grandparents. And Megan, that’s a fascinating insight into the movie making.  Actually I didn’t clue into Joss Whedon until after I started watching Firefly on Fox TV. (YES! I actually got to see the original series as it aired each week before they canceled it.) It wasn’t until after it was canceled and I found the DVD series that I learned Mr. Whedon was the creator of Buffy-The Vampire Slayer. I rather liked those early shows too, but never really got into the later seasons with Spike. Since then, I’ve kept an eye on what he’s been up to. Loved Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog that was an Internet sensation- even bought the DVD when it was released.

Doree: When we were up in Park City for the retreat; you, Stanalei and Lisa were talking about, my not so secret love, Nathan Fillian and how you all felt that he did a wonderful job in Firefly.

Megan: You guys missed years of enjoyment then. I was first introduced to Joss Whedon with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Series. It became sort of a ritual in our house for me and my sisters to make Tuesday nights the most important. I watched all of that Series and All of Angel faithfully!

I feel so out of it, I clued in a bit before Doree! What else have you seen on screen from Joss Whedon?

Stanalei: The above mentioned, Buffy and Dr. Horrible, but also, last season Fox aired another of his shows, Dollhouse. It was a fun premise, but was once again canceled. Only this time the network seemed to let them wrap up the story line.  I didn’t much care for how the ending seemed rushed, though. Also, did you know that Mr. Whedon wrote the final installment of the Alien series- ALIEN: RESURRECTION? I was watching the series recently and there he was on the credits.

Mary: Stanalei, why do you think Joss has such bad luck with his shows being canceled?

Stanalei: I really don’t know. Buffy had a great run, but like all things, it ran its course.  And look at the genre it inspired in today’s market. If you throw a wooden stake in a bookstore, you’re going to hit a vampire novel. I wonder if he’s just enough ahead of the curve from the rest of us that he’s leading the way for great things to come. I love Mr. Whedon’s imagination and maybe it’s just something that has grown on the masses.

Doree: I wish I could’ve been more up to date on Fantasy. Unfortunately, Firefly is my first venture into the world of Joss Whedon.

Doree, you’ve never seen Dr. Horrible or any of the other things?

Doree:  Dr. Horrible. Oh, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing that when the actors went on the special strike. Neil Patrick Harris is a hoot. He and Fillion were well matched. If Joss Whedon is responsible for that, he is a walking god.

Megan: Toy Story (you can tell where the demented toys come from as soon as you know that he worked on the screenplay), Buffy, Angel, Dr Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog, Dollhouse. He is also going to write the new “Avengers” movie and direct and I hear that Nathan Fillion is going to be in that too Doree!
Mary: Okay putting Avengers on my list to watch for! Megan you’re the one studying in that industry, do you have any thoughts on the cancellations?

Megan: Only that I cry myself to sleep every time I think about it. (insert sniffle here)  Like Stanalei, I watched Firefly when it was first on FOX out of love for Joss because I had been watching Buffy for years so I felt an obligation and anticipation for a new Joss Whedon show. The reason that show was canceled, in my person opinion is because FOX screwed Joss over! If you have/rent/Netflix/buy/watch the series now you will see that the Pilot of the series is called “Serenity” and that the second episode is “The Train Job.” I didn’t even know that “Serenity” (the pilot episode) existed before the DVD’s came out. Fox showed “The Train Job” first, while “Serenity” is the total character building of the entire series, wasn’t shown until after FOX announced the cancellation. That pilot episode makes you care about those characters. I remember watching “The Train Job” being so confused and eventually stopped watching because I didn’t care about them. FOX did an injustice by cutting this series short.

To be continued tomorrow, August 27th…

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cassy's Corner- Describing Emotion--How Do You Do It?

We all try to make our writing as realistic as possible. We all have been told to keep the adverbs to a minimum. We all work at having our writing bring the reader deep into our characters' feelings and emotions. So, how do you do that? What takes you to the edge that lets you write with the words that will transport your readers?

I just returned from a trip in Italy. I'm jet-lagged. After only one day at home I received a call that my father was admitted to the hospital through the emergency room. I never even had a chance to pick my dogs up from where they board. My carry-on bag was still sitting on the bathroom shelf, waiting to be unpacked.

Driving in the pouring rain, I began to cry. Yes, I was tired. But there was a deeper issue. This might be one of the last times I saw my father. After I ran out of tears, I started to think about my writing. For those of you who know the New England area, this was by now on Route 495 outside of Boston and not a good spot to be distracted.

Distracted or not, my current plot edged in. What was I feeling? How could that be described in terms that might make the reader cry along with me? What words would I use? How could I not sound corny but drag you, my reader, into my sphere?

I posted on this blog a few weeks ago about losing a dog. You all might think I'm totally maudlin. Not at all. I'm just thinking through the use of emotion in our writing. The loss of Libby had one reaction for me. The potential loss of my father is far deeper. How do we talk about that with our words?

I am on my way to the hospital. I'll check in as best I can during the day. Please, no need to post about my story. I am much more interested in hearing about how you put the punch, the crisis, the energy into your story. What are your experiences that you are willing to share--and how do they translate into the work you produce?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tuesdays Tidbits with Kari: featuring author Gayle Wilson

Hi folks! I'm back with the third author in the Regency Silk and Scandal series: author Gayle Wilson. Please give her a warm welcome.

Regency Silk and Scandal is a unique 8 book author generated Regency continuity, featuring an ongoing mystery murder plot that runs through the whole series. It's about three friends, two scandalous affairs, and one secret code that leads to murder, disgrace and revenge. The stories will captivate the reader as they travel from the Cornish Coast to the heights of Hertfordshire, and from the ballrooms of London to the battlefields of Belgium.

Kari: What was it like for you in brainstorming an 8 book mystery plot?

Gayle: I loved having a group of talented and knowledgeable Regency writers to bounce ideas off of and to offer advice and encouragement. For the past few years I’ve been writing contemporary romantic suspense and am a little rusty on the period details, so I loved being able to ask questions of my fellow authors, who all generously shared their expertise. We also had a great time brainstorming and plotting the continuity points in all eight books. Writing a single title can be like walking a tightrope without a net because until the finished product gets to an editor, you never really know whether or not you’ve succeeded in pulling the reader into your fictional world.

My experience with this continuity was very much like having a wonderful critique group, always interested, always helpful, and very, very wise. Working with these particular authors couldn’t have been a greater pleasure for me--unless we had somehow managed to do our consulting around a cozy fire while sharing tea and cakes.

Kari: Oooh, cozy fire with tea and cakes...swap the tea for a margarita and I'm in :-) Can you tell us about your book in the series?

Gayle: At the beginning of Claiming the Forbidden Bride, Major Rhys Morgan, late of His Majesty's Light Dragoons, is on a journey to London, hoping, despite serious injuries suffered on the Peninsula, to continue his service for king and country. The consequences of his heroic rescue of a little girl pitch him instead into the midst of a Romany camp and into the arms of a beautiful and mysterious Gypsy healer. The last thing Nadya Argentari, my Romany heroine, wants or needs is a romantic involvement with an Englishman. When someone seems to be targeting her and her family, however, Rhys vows to protect the woman with whom he has fallen in love—a relationship they both know will never be accepted in the either of the very disparate worlds they inhabit and especially not by Nadya’s very dangerous brother Stephano.

Kari: Okay, I'm hooked. Can't wait to read tha tone. Is this something you would ever do again, and any tips for authors thinking about co-writing a book or contributing to a connected series such as this one?

Gayle: I would consider doing a project like this again, especially with the same authors. I do think that’s the key to success for something like this—working with a compatible, open-minded group. As for tips, I would say that any writer who wants to work in such a collaborative venture should be prepared to participate in the necessary brainstorming. We were very lucky to have members of the group who were detail-oriented and who were, thankfully, willing to be the record keepers for the rest of us.

I’m a “fly by the seat of the pants” writer, one whose stories evolve as I write them, so I was not accustomed to plotting in such detail prior to the actual writing. However, with this kind of connected series, that pre-planning has to happen. The other thing I’d remind authors thinking about becoming involved in a connected series is that the emotional “heart” of each book must be as strong and moving as any romance they’ve ever written. You can’t afford to get bogged down in the minutia of the series elements and neglect the central romance and tensions of your own story.

Kari: Thanks so much for being here and I look forward to reading this series.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Show Me The Money

If you’re reading this because you think I’m going to tell you about the average payouts from each publisher, move on to another blog. That’s already been done…and very well, I might add. Check out Brenda Hiatt’s “Show Me The Money” list at

No, I’ve decided to talk about advances. How important are they really? In today’s economy, midlist authors are finding their advances shrinking and more and more authors are turning to epubs where they get no advance. Some are even going the self-publishing route, hoping to cash into that market in a JA Konrath sort of way. http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/

I signed a three-book deal with a major publisher and pretty much got the average advance. Like any début author, I probably would have signed on the dotted line for much less just to see the printed book in my hands.

But what exactly does the amount of the advance mean?

I decided to do a little research and here’s what I discovered.

The amount of an advance is an indicator of how many copies of the book the publisher thinks they can sell. Let’s face it. Unless you’re the next Janet Evanovich with a ten million plus advance for your next book, it’s unlikely your publisher will pay for the front-of-the-store stacks nor will they go all out for publicity of your book...two things necessary to sell a lot of books.

The truth is (from my research) you may earn out your advance for a first or second book, but additional royalties are probably not going to make you a millionaire. That’s just the nature of the writing beast. You have to go after book sales yourself. Add in your expenses getting that first book published…conferences to network, mailings, ads, promotions, etc… and it’s likely there will be no profit and maybe even a loss to claim on taxes.

One myth we authors have is that the bigger our advance, the more likely we are of getting an even bigger chunk of change the next time around. This is not always true and sometimes can even backfire and produce the opposite results. If sales on your book do not earn out that big advance, there’s a possibility no one will take a chance on your next one. Plenty of authors have been dumped because of low sales.

So, now that I’ve totally depressed you, let me offer a bit of advice. Despite the economy, publishers are still looking to discover the next JK Rowlings or Charlain Harris in the slush piles. What can we do to increase our chances of this happening and of getting bigger advances? Write the best damn book we can, turn it into our editor on time and go gung-ho with self marketing.

It’s all about the numbers, folks.

Oh, BTW, I’d love for you to buy my book when it comes out, and I promise to buy yours. That’s another way we can help each other.

So, let me hear what you think about this or any stories you may have about advances. And Happy Monday to you.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Guest - Lee Goldberg

The Mysteries and Margaritas are very excited to have Lee Goldberg with us today. He’s the author of the Diagnosis Murder Series and Monk Series and many more. For all his information, please check out his web site. www.leegoldberg.com. I’m going to do my best to ask Lee questions that cannot be found on his site.

Mary: I love your work, just to get that out of the way to begin with. And before I start grilling… er I mean asking you questions about your life as a writer, I’m going to get personal. Well not embarrassing or anything, but if you’d like tell us an embarrassing story about yourself we’d love to hear it. LOL. Anyway tell us a bit about Lee growing up. Pre- UCLA days.

Lee:  I spent the first ten years of my life in Oakland, California and then we moved to the tract home sprawl of Walnut Creek (at least that’s what it was like in the 1970s-80s). My mother Jan Curran was a socialite-turned-feature writer for the Contra Costa Times and my father Alan Goldberg was an anchorman on KPIX (later news director at KTVU). I am the oldest of four kids… all of whom are published authors. My brother Tod, author of Other Resort Cities, Living Dead Girl, and the Burn Notice tie-in novels, is a Los Angeles Book Prize finalist and runs the graduate creative writing program for UC Riverside-Palm Desert. My sisters Karen Dinino and Linda Woods are the authors of Visual Chronicles and Journal Revolution. During high school, I worked at a local bookstore and wrote articles for the Contra Costa Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other newspapers. I also used to write lots of “novels.” In one of them, the hero was born in an underwater sperm bank. I have no idea why it was underwater, or how guys made deposits, but I thought it was really cool.

Let’s see, as far as embarrassing stories are concerned, when I was in pre-school, I ran away from home to the Mormon Temple, which was on a hill above our house. I knocked on the Temple door, and when they opened it, I said “I’m here to play with Shirley,” and then ran all over the place singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” It was only after the cops and my parents came that they figured out that I thought the Mormon Temple was where Shirley Temple lived.

Mary: OMG, that is so funny. I live in Utah that is probably more hilarious to me than others.

Is that true about the ‘Man from Uncle’ pajamas? (Those of you who are saying ‘Huh’ you better go to Lee’s web site to find out.)

Lee: No. I sleep in a Teletubbie outfit.

Mary: Aw, you changed! LOL Tell us a bit about you, now, as a person. What do you like to do for entertainment? Are you a movie buff, or do you read at home?

Lee:  I read a lot, and watch a lot of TV…basically, the same stuff I was doing when I was a kid. Only now I can write it off my taxes. I also like to travel.

Mary: No one will care about this but me, but that’s okay. Are you a wine drinker or a beer drinker? And if you love wine as much as I do, recommend something!

Lee: Neither. I don’t drink alcohol at all. I never developed a taste for it. In fact, I have never been drunk in my life… or even buzzed. I also don’t drink coffee. The strongest beverage I drink is Diet Coke…and I drink a lot of it.

Mary: Wow, I love my wine too much! I'm a Diet Dr. Pepper fan. One more question before I start asking questions about your career. If you could take your family on vacation—all expenses paid—where would it be?

Lee:  We’ve done a lot of traveling. My wife is French, so we go back to France every year, and I have done a lot of consulting for studios and networks overseas, and that has taken me all over Europe as well. We love Hawaii, so I guess that’s what I’d pick. Boring choice, huh?

Mary: I loved your web site ‘About Lee’ great sense of humor. You write books and you write screenplays. I’ve heard they are completely different animals. Do you find it hard to do both? Or in your mind do they complement each other?

Lee: They do compliment each other. I was a reporter first… and that taught me how to write tightly, to say more with less, and to craft strong leads. It also trained me to meet deadlines and to be a ruthless editor. I became a screenwriter when one of my books was optioned for film and I got hired to write the script.

I think that being a screenwriter, particularly for TV, has made me a much better novelist. You have to write outlines for TV, so it has forced me to focus on plot before I start writing my books. I’m not figuring things out as I go along as some authors do. I know exactly where I am going…though I may change how I get there along the way.

Being a TV writer has also trained me to focus on a strong, narrative drive, to make sure that every line of dialogue either reveals character or advances the plot (or both), and to cut anything that’s extraneous or bogs the story down.  I also suspect that being a TV writer has given my books a faster pace and more of a cinematic structure.

Mary: While we’re on the subject of screenplays, I love dialogue and have always wanted to write a screenplay. However, I have no idea how to go about it. You have one Successful Television Writing, I’m not sure how this would apply, if it does great—let us know and I’ll be the first to purchase it. But, what I’m asking is something for those of us who are starting from scratch. Who do not have time to take a course, what can you recommend that would give a bare bones illustration of how to go about writing one.

Lee: There is no short cut, Mary. If you don’t have time to take a course, or to read books on screenwriting, then you shouldn’t be doing it. It’s like saying “I’d like to be a dentist, but I don’t have time for dental school.” For some reason, people seem to think that screenwriting is easy. It’s not. Writing a script is a skill that has to be learned. It’s a craft and a medium that has its own rules that you need to understand, inside and out, in order to be successful.  You can’t just “format a book” into a script. It’s much more than that. It’s a way of telling stories that’s very different, structurally and philosophically, from writing novels. For instance, in a screenplay, everything --character, plot, backstory, motivation, etc -- has to be revealed through action or dialogue. That’s not an easy feat to accomplish.

Mary: It sounds like I better be looking into taking a class.What do you like to do? Writing a novel or writing a screenplay? In other words, what is your passion when it comes to writing?

Lee: My passion is writing, whether it is novels or screenplays. I am not more passionate about one medium over the other. They both have their pluses and minuses.

Mary: Is there another direction you’d like to take your career in the future?

Lee:  I’d like to find some time between my MONK tie-in novels to write another original novel, perhaps a thriller. My favorite book among those that I’ve written is THE MAN WITH THE IRON-ON BADGE, and I am thinking about writing a sequel to that, too, or something in the same vein.  Screenwriting-wise, while I’d like to get another TV series gig, I seem to be making the transition into features. I recently adapted Victor Gischler’s novel GUN MONKEYS for the screen. A Big Name Oscar Winning Actor is attached to star (I can’t reveal who just yet) and the financing to make the movie seems to be coming together. I’ve also just written two low-budget westerns. If those films go into production this year, as planned, it could mean a big change in my career. 

Mary: Can you tell us a little bit about the journey you had to take to accomplish what you have? How many attempts did it take before they (whoever ‘they’ are) bought Monk or Diagnosis murder?

Lee: I didn’t create MONK or DIAGNOSIS MURDER. I was a hired hand on both of those TV series and on the books based upon them. I was also an executive producer and writer on DIAGNOSIS MURDER… a gig that grew from writing some freelance episodes in its run.

My journey, as you call it, was pretty simple. When I was a UCLA student, I wrote a book, .357 VIGILANTE under the pen-name “Ian Ludlow”, that was optioned for the movies and I got hired to write the screenplay, which I wrote with William Rabkin. The movie was never produced, but I enjoyed screenwriting. So Bill and I wrote a spec episode of SPENSER FOR HIRE, which the producers of that series  bought and shot…and then hired us to write three more. My TV career took off after that.

Mary: One last thing, what advice would you give to a new writer or screenplay writer?

Lee:  Write. Write. And Write. And if you want to be a screenwriter, watch lots of movies and TV shows. Not just for entertainment, but to study the how the conflict is created and sustained, and the way the stories are told and character is revealed.

Thank you, Lee Goldberg, for agreeing to let me interview you. Lot's of wonderful information, I really appreciate you taking the time for us.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mary's Rants - The Great Conference search

As all of you know and read, most of the M&M's were in Orlando for the National RWA Conference. My question has always been which is best large or small?

Big isn't always best. Now you read all about the accounting of Liz and Kari's fun. And had I been in the right frame of mind (totally different story itself) I would have been right there partying with them.

Am I saying that I didn't enjoy the conference? That I didn't find it beneficial? That I didn't walk away with lots to absorb? I didn't have any positive contact with industry professionals?

Heavens NO!

As always I learned a lot of very important craft and career information. Was it a bad time for me? Yes. Am I glad I went? Yes.

What I’m trying to say here is, like anything else you have to find what works for you. If you like the energy, the rubbing of shoulders with hundreds of industry professionals, the networking and the other opportunities of a big conference, then you should attend one.
This year there were 2100+ attendees, that’s a lot of competition for the agent/editors attention. Chances are you’re going to run into someone during your conference time, but will you actually have quality time to chat? Or even pitch something? Chances are a lot slimmer.

Small conferences give you a better chance to talk at length, not just pitch, with an agent and/or editor. There is less choice in workshops, but usually you can find a conference focused on the genre you write. If you write suspense, the New England Crime Bake would be a good choice.

The small conference is more intimate and less intimidating. In fact, if you think you’ll like the high energy of the National RWA Conference but have never attended one, a small conference would help you get your big toe wet to test the waters.

Conferences are one of the best opportunities to learn, network and meet other writers. How often you get to talk to someone who understands that you are not crazy even though you have voices in your head that talk to you?

As with anything writing related, do your research. RWA has a list of all the conferences coming up on the web site and in the RWR. Or you can Google writing conferences. Look at the agents and the editors attending, do they have the ones you’re targeting? Do they have workshops that would help your craft or help you with your career? Large or small, you need to do this. In our economy, it’s prudent to spend your money where you’ll get the biggest bang.

If you love the people, the glitz, the energy and all the famous authors and big names in the industry, and you can afford the conference; then I guess we’ll see you at National RWA in NYC in 2011!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Cassy’s Corner- Where We Write

I have been thinking about the environment of our writing and of our reading. By environment I mean “where” it happens. I’m out of the country right now in a spot I come to often. Something happens here. The views, the peace, the change of pace. I can’t quite explain it. But, I seem to produce more words on the page than I do at home. I’ve stopped thinking about coming here as a vacation, it’s more my time to produce. I often come alone, only to work.

Why is that? I’ve asked myself that question many times. Is it that the phone doesn’t ring? I don’t have the plumber arriving? My list of “have to do” is less?

Yet, in this location it is a very common tradition for people to arrive at our door unannounced. I keep the kitchen perfectly cleaned. I’m showered and nicely dressed early in the morning. Only because I never know who might arrive. There is always some bit of food to offer a guest- that’s just how it’s done. I am in a rural spot. It’s 20 minutes to find milk or bread, yet people show up. It’s wonderful to have the connections, but still not the same as my house in Connecticut where no one would come without a phone call first.

Even with the potential intrusions (and today is my birthday so there is a constant stream through the house), I put more words on a page here than at home. My work space at home is lovely. I have nothing to complain about- well, the two Golden Retrievers might differ.

What happens when you move to a different location? I read more here. I relax more, but most importantly, the words magically appear. Why is that? Maybe it’s guilt- gotta do this, that, whatever when I am home. Maybe it’s also a sense that I have flown for 10 hours, driven another 2, settled in and now have the responsibility to produce? Or, is there a sense of place that facilitates the writing?

Where do you work? What makes a difference for you?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tuesday Tidbits with Kari: Featuring Julia Justiss

It's time for another installment.

Regency Silk and Scandal is a unique 8 book author generated Regency continuity, featuring an ongoing mystery murder plot that runs through the whole series. It's about three friends, two scandalous affairs, and one secret code that leads to murder, disgrace and revenge. The stories will captivate the reader as they travel from the Cornish Coast to the heights of Hertfordshire, and from the ballrooms of London to the battlefields of Belgium.

Kari: What was it like for you in brainstorming an 8 book mystery plot?

Julia: I’ve always enjoyed brainstorming with author friends, but usually it was done in the car (referred to as the “Mother Ship,”) or aboard an airliner on the way to some writer event, or in the hotel room over too many glasses of wine. It was also previously a group effort designed to help one fellow writer work out a plot or character or motivation problem in her story. This was the first time I’ve participated in a group brainstorming effort for what would become a series of interconnected stories. But it was just as fun, exciting and energizing! Since I don’t normally write primarily-mystery plots, it was also good to have lots of input into creating a believable scenario, with suggestions how to resolve the mystery.

Kari: Can you tell us about your book in the series?

Julia: My book 3 of the series, THE SMUGGLER AND THE SOCIETY BRIDE, out in August, features the eldest daughter of one of the three main series families, Lady Honoria Carlow (whose brother Marcus is the hero of Louise Allen’s Book 1, THE LORD AND THE WAYWARD LADY, brother Hal the hero of Louise’s Book 7, THE OFFICER AND THE PROPER LADY and sister Verity, heroine of Christine Merrill’s Book 8, TAKEN BY THE WICKED ROGUE.)

Earl’s daughter Lady Honoria Carlow flees London after a scandalous disgrace to take refuge with her aunt in Cornwall and try to figure out who engineered her ruin and why. There, she encounters handsome Irishman Gabe Hawksworth, known locally as “the Hawk,” who is temporarily captaining a smuggling vessel as a favor for the army friend who saved his life. Though her family would be appalled at her attraction to a “low-born free trader,” there’s something about the well-spoken Gabe that calls out to the free-spirited Honoria.

For his part, Gabe wonders about the unexpected appearance of the mysterious “Miss Foxe.” At the height of the London Season, why is such a beautiful young woman not in town, dazzling suitors? Gabe scents a scandal. And if “Miss Foxe” is less a lady than she should be, Gabe is just the man to tempt her into indiscretion!

Kari: Is this something you would ever do again, and any tips for authors thinking about co-writing a book or contributing to a connected series such as this one?

Julia: Absolutely, I would do it again! Especially if the editorial team were brave enough to allow the authors, as they did with REGENCY SILK & SCANDAL, to come up with the story arc and characters themselves. There’s such a sense of ownership with characters you yourself have created, and you know so much more about them; in fact, lots of background info about them never ends up in the book at all. But knowing it helps you create a richer, fuller person.
As for tips for anyone working on a connected series, if you don’t have a“bible,” create one. If you do, follow it carefully; establishing a co-author loop where you can keep in touch and ask questions when you must use a character not solely your own is also helpful, and don’t forget to add anything you’ve created to the “bible” so your co-authors can be aware of it.

Kari: Thanks so much for joining us, and I look forward to following this unique and interesting series. And to reading your books. They sound awesome. Good luck to you all.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Think Your Story Is Original? Think Again

Okay, I am in Florida with my three sisters enjoying a reprieve from the Texas heat. I left Dallas on Saturday where the temperature was supposed to get up to 104 with a heat index of 119. Here it's only 93. Yay!!!

Anyway, I forgot to write a blog for today, and there's no way I can manage it with my sucky typing skills and this laptop. So, this is an encore blog. If you've read it before, oh well. If not, enjoy it. It's a common misconception writers have, moi incuded.

Okay, you've come up with an original idea...Oh wait! You read a book similar to that several years ago, or you saw an episode of "Law and Order" that was kinda like it. Actually, you can think of several stories that used your "original" premise.

Now quit whining and keep reading. "How can you come up with an original idea?" you ask. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but you probably can't. Now don't go getting all discouraged on me. The truth is, unless you've come up with a plot line so far out there no one else has attempted it, you're using a "tried and true" idea.

To quote NY Times Bestseller and fantastic motivational speaker, Bob Mayer, every idea has already been done. The difference comes in the "transfer to story, usually through unique character, unique setting, unique POV and unique intent."

Easy for him to say!

My Romantic Suspense is about a team of operatives whose main character is a woman who's emerged from a deep undercover assignment scarred because of what a certain villain did to her. This is so great, I thought. I am so freakin' creative, sometimes I scare myself.

Anyone watch "24" last season? Renee could be my heroine. A woman so psychologically damaged by a bad guy, she thinks no one could ever love her again.

Well hell!

Then I came up with a great story about my Bunco group. I've known some of these women over twenty years. We laugh together, cry together, even vacation once a year together. There is no collection of funnier women on this planet. I'm back to being a legend in my own mind again.

Found "Bunco Babes Gone Wild" by Maria Geraci when I Googled Bunco.

Well double hell!

I hope by now you're getting the message and already thinking about ways to turn your "original" idea into a great story. We're dying to hear how you're going to do it.

Oh, I almost forgot. I do have one story about a woman who has to steal a sperm specimen from a perfect stranger. Bet you've never seen that one at Barnes and Noble!

Hold the phone. The last time I posted this, my friend, Melanie Atkins, informed me she had seen that same plot on an episode of Law and Order SVU.

So, I guess my theory still stands. There are no new plots...only old ones with unique twists.

I'd love to hear your take on this I promise to check back several times today and answer your comments. That's if I'm still alive. It's a race to see which sister will be left standing after we kill each other!!

Now there's an origial plot!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Guest: David Spiselman-Part II

Part II of our interview with special Ops David Spiselman he also writes fiction as D. S. Kane. (Part I posted August12)

Mary: What is the biggest misconceptions authors/people have of special ops agents?

David: There are some simple, ugly realities about the character of people in covert ops. Working in black ops requires a person to have maximum distrust of others and a desire to kill for pleasure. I believe no one does it out of patriotism. Espionage, on the other hand, is either driven by patriotism or a desire to possess and sell valuable intel.

With operatives, there are safety procedures they adhere to religiously. When it comes to the location of clandestine meetings, operatives use a procedure with the acronym “PACE,” standing for primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency. And, there is always a backup to the backup.

When moving on foot or in a vehicle, we use a maneuver known as an SDR — surveillance detection route. In other words, we make sure no one is following us. But, by having men placed in different locations, people following can be able to follow the spy without alerting him to the fact her was being followed.

Mary: I’m going to show my ignorance here, what agencies actually have special ops agents? Military or Government?

David: Uh, both! As I mentioned earlier (the Washington Post’s recent article (July 19, 2010 through July 22, titled “A hidden World, Growing Beyond Control”), there are over 854,000 people working with classified status. They support 46 government organizations doing top secret work. At least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Many of the 6,900 private corporations working to support our government’s clandestine missions have their own covert operatives.

Of course, the CIA has a paramilitary SAS branch — the Special Activities Staff, for example. DIA is the Defense Intelligence Agency and also runs covert ops. The Navy has NCIS investigating criminal activities in the military. And of course, the secret police agencies themselves have spies spying on other spies. Finally, I believe the White House has its own little group, mostly for ad hoc ops.

Mary: How much leeway would you say an author has when writing a special ops agent story? I have this conception of Special Ops as being so secretive I could basically make up any type of James Bond type action story and be within the realm of possibility, as long as I have the correct agencies involved. Is this true?

David: As thriller readers became more sophisticated about the actual intelligence community, the margin for error has continuously eroded.

When covert operatives leave the service, we can’t write about our own lives as coverts, so we write fiction. John LeCarre, Barry Eisler, the list is endless. All former coverts. And each of us has his or her own special focus within the industry. For example, LeCarre had to reinvent himself when the Cold War ended, since that was what he’d written about. Eisler is a friend of mine, and when I had a “problem,” I met with him and asked his advice on countersurveilance. His couldn’t help. Told me his focus is martial arts and assassination. I found help from another friend who opened with the line: “Sheesh. Your tradecraft is so 1980’s. It’s a wonder you’re not dead.” He helped me in that area, with tip after tip. For example, when you meet with someone and don’t want the government to overhear you, be sure to remove the battery from your cell phone. They can turn your cell on remotely without activating the screen and listen in. Didja know that? I thought not…

My own current interest focuses on countersurveilance tradecraft and tech toys used by the covert community. Some of my friends have worked to develop toys for our country, and before DARPA was mostly defunded, their careers led them to produce some amazing things. Think “Q” in the James Bond movies. I’ve found out about a few of those toys and altered them so I can use them in my own novels. One of the best is that it’s possible to recode the programs in multiplayer online games to enable a player to plant a document within the game that another player can pick up with no one the wiser.

When I was covert, my function involved a mix of banking systems and hacking. I traveled out of the country and visited banks where I… well, I can’t tell you what I did or I’d have to kill you. But, by writing about a fictive protagonist, I can tell these stories. They’re hidden in my novels. And since I wasn’t officially an employee of any intelligence agency, I never signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement. My current novel, Bloodridge, is out with agents now. Errr, that’s literary agents, not covert agents. And I have others planned in a series for those characters, including one called Swiftshadow.

Mary: Can the government really spy on people, especially if they consider them a threat of some kind?

David: Before 911, yes, but only with a FISA warrant. Then came Bush and no FISA warrant was needed. Now, and even after George W’s “retirement,” yes the government can spy on you. FISA court will give a wiretap permit to any agency citing “national security interests.”

Mary: Writing whether it’s a screenplay or a book, still needs to be accurate, mostly anyway. What movie would you say depicts the best/true representation of a special ops agent?

David: My current favorite is “The International” with Clive Owen. It’s similar to my own covert experience. And, one of my friends is an investigative reporter. She worked at getting a French arms dealer thrown into a Swiss prison. The guy worked out of the BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce) office in Fort Lauderdale back in the day. It’s amazing we never crossed paths until we both moved to California.

Television does a decent job on tradecraft with “Burn Notice” and, as I stated before, with “24.” Many people fault “24” for its use of torture, and many in our government believe it doesn’t work. I believe torture can be effective if there is a hope in the victim that they might be set free if they cooperate. Other television series with good intel include “Covert Affairs,” “NCIS,’ and NCIS LA.”

Mary: How can an author incorporate the skills of special ops in their civilian character?

David: Best to give your protagonist a streak of paranoia and a technical bend. And make them at least marginally qualified in martial arts. My characters run the range from mercenaries to policy wonks to technology geeks at intelligence agencies. Don’t try to put too much into any one character. Have them work together in teams; a hacker, a black ops agent, an analyst with political and economic training, and a traditional “spy” who can do dead drops and drop ins.

Mary: Where does a special ops agent train? Quantico?

David: Quantico is the FBI’s home. Not a training arena for coverts. There are several places for coverts in the United States. Best known, Camp Peary is the CIA’s spy school, better known as the Farm. I’ve been told by Ben Bromley, it’s located in Williamsburg, Virginia. It has a sister facility called the Point, at Harvey Point, North Carolina, just south of the Virginia coastline. They teach all the U. S. intelligence agencies hard-core paramilitary training.

At Harvey Point itself is just that — a stubby finger of land curling out into the murky water where North Carolina’s Perquimans River meet the Albemarle Sound. The CIA’s facility sits on over sixteen hundred acres of mosquito and poisonous-snake-infested swamp with thick-trunked cypress trees overgrown with heavy Spanish moss. Nine miles southwest of the town of Hertford, the road ends at a sign that reads, “Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity.” It opened in 1961. Helicopters land and take off at all hours, and blacked out transports roll through town in the middle of the night. All sorts of old cars, buses, SUVs, and limousines can be seen entering on flat bed trucks, and are carried out later either riddled with bullet holes or burnt to nothing more than charred hulks.

The Point is where the CIA’s hard-core paramilitary training takes place. Personnel are schooled in explosives, paramilitary combat, and other clandestine and unconventional warfare techniques. While the “Farm” at Camp Peary is where CIA personnel earn their stripes and learn their tradecraft, the Point is where a chosen few received a Ph.D. in serious ass-kicking.

The personnel invited to the Point aren’t only limited to American CIA operatives. Recently, the CIA provided counterterrorism training to several American Special Operations groups, as well as foreign intelligence officers from more than fifty countries, including South Korea, Japan, France, Germany, Greece, and Israel.

And, there are others worthy of note:

One of the most secure counterterrorism training facilities in the world is in a remote corner of North Carolina’s Fort Bragg — Delta Force’s Special Operations Training facility. The facility has many different nicknames. Some call it SOT for short. Because of the original stucco siding, it’s also called it the Fiesta Cantina. Some refer to it as Wally World, after the amusement park in the Chevy Chase movie “Vacation.” Some call it the Ranch, because of early Delta Force operatives’ penchant for chewing tobacco and wearing cowboy boots. It boasts a wide array of training areas. There are large two- and three-story buildings used for heliborne inserts and terrorist takedowns; indoor and outdoor live-fire ranges, as well as ranges for close-quarters battle, combat pistol, and sniper training. Delta’s Operations and Intelligence Center has staging grounds where mock-ups of structures in different terrorist scenarios can be constructed. It has a host of other facilities and training areas too numerous to list.

The navy’s SEAL Team Six’s training facility is located in Dam Neck, Virginia.

And, remember Blackwater? Although I’ve heard they’ve relocated from the United States and changed their name to “Xe,” if you go to their web site and use this URL: http://www.blackwaterusa.com/ you’ll see the four locations within the United States where they (used to?) train mercenaries.

Mary: For my last question, everyone likes a kick ass heroine, so here goes: Are there any women in the special ops? If so, in what capacity?

David: Definitely, and there have been for over a hundred years, starting with Mata Hari, whose real name was Margaretha Geertruida. She was Dutch, and spied for the Germans during World War One. The French caught her and executed her by a firing squad at the age of 41.

Valerie Plame was a covert agent for our country, working the Middle East to gather intelligence about nuclear weapons.

I can’t point out any others, for obvious reasons. But Hollywood and the New York publishers seem to love female spies.

Nora Roberts, writing as J. D. Robb, has a successful “In Death” series, getting close now to thirty books. One of the characters in Jim Rollins’ “Sigma” series is a mysterious female assassin.

And Hollywood worships hard-boiled female protagonists. For example. “Salt” is about a CIA operative who may really be a Russian mole. “Covert Affairs” features a female protagonist. Long ago, there was a television series called “Alias” featured a female spy. It was popular for about five years.

One of the folks I worked with was from Mossad, decades ago, and told me she’d been an Israeli tank commander during the six-day-war. I know, Israel claims women weren’t allowed into combat roles until recently. Maybe she was lying? It’s what spies do best. I met her when she was running the global non-credit services area of a New York bank. I believe she was there to launder money for Mossad, but I’ve no proof of that.

The example I’m offering you is my protagonist from my as-yet unpublished novel, Swiftshadow: Cassandra Sashakovich. She earned a Ph. D. in economics at Stanford and was recruited to work as a N. O. C. at one of Washington’s intelligence agencies. Her family immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union just before it fell. Her mother was a commissar for KGB, her father an economist working for the Central Committee, and her uncle a KGB operative. She speaks most Middle Eastern languages and is a computer hacker with basic tradecraft and weapons skills when my story starts. In Riyadh, her cover is blown by a mole within her agency and she’s hunted by terrorists until she discovers why the terrorists are interested in her, who the mole is and figures out how to recover her life. By the end of the novel, she’s a crack shot, a master hacker and the CEO of a mercenary company with a hacker division.

Writing women characters is tough for a guy. Luckily, my wife, Andrea has a publishing background, and she reads my material before anyone else does. She pushes me to think in ways a male brain isn’t designed to. By the time my critique group at ActFourWriters.com gets the material, it’s close to a publishable draft. She’s helped me learn how to write fiction.

One more thing: If any of your readers would like assistance on the tradecraft for their character who is a covert agent, or feedback on potential plots for a thriller, they can contact me at dskane@swiftshadow.com.

Thank you, David Spiselman for joining us for two days at Mysteries and Margaritas and giving your helpful insights into the world and mystery of special ops agents.

Don't forget you can find David this summer teaching a course at the Salinas Public Library (funded by a Federal grant), called “Covert Training for Fiction Writers.” You can find details on this link to a news article.

And, in October, he'll be leading a week-long session at The Muse Online Writers Conference (http://www.themuseonlinewritersconference.com/Presenters%20K-Q.html), called “True Lies - Writing Covert Training and Missions for Fiction Writers,” with a chat session by the same name on Thursday, October 14, at 2pm EST.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mary's Rants - Interview with David Spiselman-Part I

Today we have a Special Ops here on Mysteries and Margaritas!

So you have a special ops agent in your story, what does he/she do? You want to make it believable! Welcome Special Guest David Spiselman writes fiction as D. S. Kane. He says, “That’s the deal I made with the Fed when they remotely searched my computer to see if I was writing a non-fiction account of my activities. And, no, I’m not. Now I write fiction to keep them happy. And they no longer threaten my life. Of course, I’m no longer doing dirty work for the ubers. Google both my names and you’ll see who I am and who I was, missing the bits about my covet activities, but you can see where they’d fit.  I may be one of the few thriller writers who write in self-defense.  By itself, it’s a pretty good story, one I can’t tell.” Visit his web site: www.swiftshadow.com 

This summer David will be teaching a course at the Salinas Public Library (funded by a Federal grant), called “Covert Training for Fiction Writers.” You can find details on this link to a news article.

And, in October, he'll be leading a week-long session at The Muse Online Writers Conference (http://www.themuseonlinewritersconference.com/Presenters%20K-Q.html), called “True Lies - Writing Covert Training and Missions for Fiction Writers,” with a chat session by the same name on Thursday, October 14, at 2pm EST.

Mary: Thank you David Spiselman for agreeing to interview with us and share all of your knowledge. Before we start with the questions is there anything you’d like to add to your Bio?

David: I’ve been published and quoted ten times in non-fiction, mostly in financial textbooks and the financial trade press, including U. S. News and World Report. And, I did some work for the Federal Government. But when my former “handler” told me I couldn’t tell my story, I had to learn a new trade. A week after that conversation, all my work products were reclassified.

Fiction is a tough mistress. It took me two years to master it enough to complete a salable manuscript. If I was telling my own story, I could have done it well and fast. It’ll take a trilogy of novels to tell the story. Many non-fiction writers underestimate just how complex fiction writing is. 

Mary: What mistake do you see authors make the most when using a Special Ops agent in their story?

David: Fiction is all about escalating tension until the story’s resolution. Most writers forget to think about how much can go wrong just because of how intelligence agencies are organized. In designing your story, think of the following:

There are sixteen intelligence agencies that I know of in the United States (CIA, NSA, FBI, DIA, NCIS, ATF, DEA, NRO, ONI, U. S. Marshalls, etc.) In total, there are 46 government organizations doing top secret work now.

According to the Washington Post’s recent article (July 19, 2010 through July 22, titled “A hidden World, Growing Beyond Control” and the accompanying database at  topsecretamerica.com) on the American intelligence community, “Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate. At least 20 percent of the government organizations that exist to fend off terrorist threats were established or refashioned in the wake of 9/11. Many that existed before the attacks grew to historic proportions as the Bush administration and Congress gave agencies more money than they were capable of responsibly spending… In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.”

And, America is not alone in its concern over what is happening in other countries. There are over a hundred intelligence services on the planet (FSA and SVR Sluzhba Vneshnei Razvedki (the Foreign Intelligence Service) in Russia, Mossad and ISS for Israel, Germany’s GSG9, and BFV, their Foreign Intelligence (like our CIA) and BKA, their Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (like our FBI), the Dutch security service AIVD, Egyptian secret police or SSI, also called the Mukhabarat or General Directorate of State Security, Milli Istihbarat Teskilati, for Turkey, and so many others).

Many of the intelligence agencies have a paramilitary arm as well as an espionage arm. CIA’s paramilitary division known as the Special Activities Staff.

And of course, the terrorists have their own networks. In the Middle East, for example, there are Fatah Revolutionary Council, or FRC and Jihaz-el-Razd , their Intelligence arm, and Islamic terrorist organizations including Hamas, Hezbollah, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the remnants of Al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Not to mention the IRA in Ireland, an early pioneer in terrorism.

Every intelligence service is divided into five functional areas. Administration and policy wonks have never been in the field and think like basic accountants. Analysts are either uninterested in field work because it’s dangerous, or living vicariously. The field agents are sub-divided into espionage (gathering and sending back intelligence, but no killing), and black ops (enforcement, including killing). Then, there are contractors to an agency, giving the Administrators deniability. Contractors are the wild card. Not subject to government oversight as agency employees are, contractors do whatever it takes to get the job done. They have “non-official cover” and are called N. O. C.s. That means they pretty much walk naked in this world. Finally, there are the geeks that provide hacking services and data security for our intelligence agencies. These people, once the back office urchins are now vital to everything that goes on in any agency. If you watch the Fox TV series “24,” think of Chloe O’Brian.

Making it more complex, the CIA, for example, has its analysts divided up into “country desks” with each head of country running both operatives and N. O. C.s (the contractors). Valerie Plame, for example, was an analyst running the Iran country desk’s Weapons of Non-Proliferation program. And I believe she was outed to remove her and the knowledge her N. O. C.s could provide on Iran. Not Iraq. So, there’s a story underneath the story we were told in the press. The administration wanted to invade Iran after Iraq was occupied, to give us presence in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel. I believe Plame was their only obstacle and they set her husband up. When he (Joe Wilson) wrote his op ed article in the New York Times, it gave them their excuse.

Intelligence agencies compete for budget dollars and therefore screw with each other continuously. There is also misunderstanding and jealousy between the administrators, analysts and covert operatives.

All this raises an important question for thriller writers: Cui custodiet custodian? Who spies on the spies?

There is a strong temptation to lie in this business. Telling the truth can get you killed. And the best gems of intelligence are easily salable to competing agencies of your own government or any other country’s agencies. While administrators and analysts tend to sell their own country’s secrets, analysts and operatives tend to sell the intelligence they’ve unearthed from other countries to those of still other countries.

Most thriller writers don’t use these sources of tension enough in their stories.

Mary: Do you have a book, or a web site you can recommend when an author is doing research for a special ops agent/story?

David: Be very careful using technology in your fiction writing. What is classified today becomes known public information in very brief time, and a commercial product soon thereafter. But it also means that if you’re thinking about some new technology, it is possible that it is already being developed.

Watch the evening news. Read the newspaper web sites. There is an incredible wealth of information on world events that can act as the backbone of a thriller plot. As I’ve heard one author say about the news, “You can’t make this stuff up!”

Read thrillers. Lots of them. Daniel Silva, for example. His series with protagonist Gabriel Allon is a wealth of knowledge on Israeli intelligence and politics. From my time dealing with Mossad, I believe his thrillers contain a real view of the Israeli perspective on black ops. I recommend The Kill Artist.

Chris Reich writes about the financial end of espionage and his thrillers are excellent in their use of facts and fictions about the funding of terrorism and weaknesses in the global banking system. I recommend The Devil’s Banker.

Barry Eisler, who’s a friend since before he had a literary agent, is former CIA in the Directorate of Operations, Far East section. His most recent books, Fault Line and Inside Out are really good, and Inside Out accurately reflects how intelligence is controlled by political agenda. In these, his protagonist is a covert operative who worked for one of Maerica’s “nameless” intelligence agencies. Before these, his series about John Rain was six books long and hit the best sellers list. In those, his protagonist is a hit man working for the Japanese mafia, the Japanese FBI and a group he calls “Christians In Action” or the CIA. His female contagonist is from Mossad. A good read. I recommend Rain Fall.

Jim Rollins’ Sigma thriller series is about a fictitious (I believe) covert paramilitary arm of DARPA. It mixes science and covert activities. One of his “discoveries,” Liquid Armor, a clear STF (Stress-Thickening Fluid) that can stop bullets, was invented by the US Army about five years ago. It’s far superior to Kevlar because it can be used to coat normal clothing. Making a Liquid Armor treated Hawaiian shirt virtually undetectable as bullet proof clothing. Good science is a key element in thrillers. I recommend Map of Bones.

Watch television shows that rely heavily on covert ops to glean details of their tools and tradecraft. “Burn Notice” is one of the best. Also, “24” is absolutely essential.

Listen carefully to the evening news. There’s a larger story behind most of what you hear coming out of Washington. The place is a powder keg. Most wars are designed there before the intelligence is gathered.

For a veritable how-to on N. O. C.s. read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins, one of my competitors back when I was active.

To see intelligence on private military companies refer to Wikipedia (at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_military_company). Other good sources are Global Security (http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/para/pmc-list.htm listing 63 mercenary armies for hire) and Private Military (http://www.privatemilitary.org/home.html).

There are plenty of “conspiracy theory” websites. On my BLOG (at http://swiftshadow.com/blog.aspx) I have just one entry, and it could easily provide the concept for a great thriller. I haven’t used it because, when I discussed it with a literary agent, he told me it was far-fetched. In fact it’s real… Also, try http://www.crooksandliars.com/ and http://www.fromthewilderness.com/.  One of my favorites is wikileaks (http://wikileaks.org/), a truly amazing collection of ‘stuff.’

The best of all, I believe is the history of Irangate. Very real, and start by Googling Oliver North and John Poindexter. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Poindexter) has a wealth of information, most interesting of all is Poindexter’s recall to public service after being pardoned for his role in Irangate. Most of those involved in Irangate have been “recycled” and are now working in the intel biz. As the Eagles sang in “Hotel California”, “You can check out any time you want but you can never leave.

Check in tomorrow for the 2nd part of the interview with David Spiselman