Thursday, July 31, 2008

It's like writing a story, except without the fun

Synopses. Greek-based. Neccessary. And aggravating.

If you write a novel, and I hope you do, you'll need one of these bad boys to convince agents and editors that it's worth reading. It's supposed to capture the feel of the story, touch on some major plot points, expose conflict and generally drag the reader by his or her hair directly into "I have GOT to read more" territory.

I've gotten a lot better at it than I once was. But it wasn't an easy skill to learn. Below is the original synopsis for "From the Depths," which, by the way, was origally titled "Dragon." Hello, Trivial Pursuit world championship.

Join me after the last thrilling sentence for a few words about how this thing came together. (this is only about the first two-thirds of the synopsis... I don't want to give EVERYTHING about the plot away in a blog post.)

My name is Dr. Christine Myers. I work for the CIA as a forensic scientist, wading through blood and bullet casings, then telling my bosses who killed whom, and how it was done. This assignment started like many others, with a late-night phone call.

A North Korean submarine, the Dragon, was defecting to the United States. The sub was a coffin cobbled together from rust and outdated technology, but it was important to national security, I was told. Onboard was some stolen North Korean weapons research that the Pentagon already was drooling over.

In the middle of the night, the sonarman on the U.S. submarine escorting the Dragon reported hearing what sounded like a brawl. Then gunshots. Then the unmistakable noise of a sub surfacing. A boarding party found the boat filled with chlorine gas and dead sailors. In the conning tower, a man had been shot to death.

My job? To decipher the mess of corpses. The Dragon was hours from shore, and had to be submerged before dawn, when satellites would spot it. A helicopter was going to drop a SEAL team onboard to get the sub moving. I was sent in with them.

And I’m the only one still alive.

The SEAL leader, Lt. Daniel Larsen, treated me like sand in the gears of his operation. Just a couple of the others stood out at first: His second-in-command, 2nd Lt. Matthews; and Campbell, the only one to bother addressing me as a real person. The rest of the team seemed like faceless automatons, dressed in black, ready to follow orders.

Then the SEALs began to disappear. Once their bodies, broken and twisted like cherry stems, turned up, my work became a little more urgent.

I kinda like it. I wrote it in first person to set it apart--and incidentally offer some of the flavor of the book itself, which also is written from Dr. Myers' point of view.

But it didn't start out that way. The first take was almost five single-spaced pages long. I tried to nail each plot point. But without dialogue... and description... and characterization... and pretty much everything else that makes something fun to read, that version had a big problem: it sucked.

Second take was shorter. I tried to leave some suspenseful hooks instead of leading the reader all the way through to the conclusion. But it still read like a summary. A clinical description, as Dr. Myers might say. Plus it was still too long.

Then a fellow writer and excellent advice-giver--we'll call her "Mom," for short--suggested that, like the book, this might be a story best told by Dr. Myers. And she was right. The result was a one page long, tight and suspenseful.

Most important, though: it was successful.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Why I'm moving to Madagascar

I discovered this addicting--not to say infectious--online game the other day, and for some reason, I can't shake the desire to wipe out humanity.

Why? Because it's fun.

In Pandemic II, you create a disease: virus, bacterium, parasite--whatever tickles your apocalyptic fancy. Then you set it loose on the world. But you're not a hands-off deity. Oh, no. You can continue to mutate your scourge, making it more communicable, more robust, and of course more deadly.


I managed to wipe out the entire Earth only once. Usually, Madagascar, with its one seaport and apparently hyper-paranoid central government, is the only holdout on the entire planet. Anyone know any good Madagascarian Realtors?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Gerry Doyle, space writer

Notice: "writer" rhymes with "rider," and if you say it really fast, it's practically the same word.

This is important because today Richard Branson--sorry, SIR Richard Branson, and I need to be careful about this stuff because getting on his bad side is the last thing I want to do--will tell us all how we can launch ourselves into space.

It's actually pretty simple. You pay him a quarter-million dollars, climb on SpaceShipTwo, and off you go.

Ding! You are now free to move about ionosphere.

Flying, and more fantastically, space, have been two of my passions since I can remember being passionate about anything. I love the idea that we've finally gotten to the point where space travel (if you count a suborbital flight back to the place where you launched as "travel") is just a matter of buying a ticket. Yes, those tickets are outside the reach of most of us. Especially if most of us are journalist-authors.

But someday. It'll happen. And I can't wait to complain about how there's no in-flight movie and all you get to eat is a packet of space peanuts.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Half-assed book reviews, by Gerry Doyle

Maybe a better title for this post, actually, would be "Books I have read lately." Because it's about two books I read lately:

1) "Remains," by Mark Teidemann
2) "Volk's Game," by Brent Ghelfi

I've actually met both of these guys, which makes it tough to be objective, but in the end it doesn't matter because both of their books were terrific.

Two space station residents play tag.

"Remains" is a hard sci-fi mystery-thriller set in the distant future, where humanity is spread--and divided--around the solar system. Some folks live on Martian colonies. Others live in the asteroid belt. There's a well-developed community on the Moon. And for others, space stations are a way of life.

As you might expect, humans being humans, each group has decided its way of life is the best. And conflict arises.

The story follows protagonist Mace Preston through a story arc that covers years as he tries to unravel his wife's death. His investigation stretches from a disaster scene on Mars to the underworld of Aea, the solar system's largest space station. And in the end, the answers he uncovers address much larger--and more dangerous--questions than what happened to the woman he loved.

I've said before, good fiction is driven by characters, regardless of genre. This is no different. It's set in the future, but it's not about the technology. It's about loss, love, discovery. It's got heart.

Spires: both pointy and deadly.

"Volk's Game" brings us back to the present day, with all its real-life ugliness. And the main character, Volk, is an ugly guy: a former soldier, a contract killer, a dealer in unpleasantness. But oddly, Ghelfi has managed to turn a thoroughly ruthless character into a likable protagonist. You find yourself rooting for the guy even as he tortures someone. Which is more than a little disturbing.

But hey, conflict drives plot. And this book is full of conflict. What starts as a caper to steal a priceless lost artwork turns into a breathless quest to save his ladyfriend from mutilation or death, which turns into... a lot of other things. And the whole thing is set in an extremely well-researched Russia. The background oozes with cultural angst, and in many ways, the country is a character in itself.

If there's any criticism I have of this book, it is that it gets extraordinarily complex. It's a testament to Ghelfi's skill and commitment to his characters that it all comes together in the end.

So in conclusion, both of these books are great reading. Pick them up today. And don't forget to tip your author.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

And sometimes I write

I don't spend all of my time reading or editing or watching basketball. Making words fit together into sentences is something I enjoy. I wrote a book one time. And here, for your reading enjoyment, is a brief piece I did in a sketch-writing class at Second City. (dark and un-funny--just what Saturday Night Live is looking for!)

Enjoy... and join us afterward for a special bonus writing lesson!

Hey… my name is Adolf Mendez. I don’t think we’ve met before. But I’m one of those people you run across sometimes in life, you know? Like you don’t know me, you don’t know anything about me, but I’ve had a direct impact on your life. Probably. Hell of a way to introduce yourself, huh? No, don’t apologize. I’m the one talking nonsense. I make this speech a lot.

I live here, in Jefferson City, Mo. Capital of the state. Also world capital of playground equipment sales and manufacture. Not surprised you didn’t know that. It’s a bit of a secret unless you’re in the industry. And I am.

Been here, what, 10 years? Not married. Kind of ironic, considering my profession. But then, maybe not. Maybe a father wouldn’t be able to deal with this.

I’ve been told that I’m young for the job; 41 doesn’t seem young to me. But there are guys working here who are sketching playsets well into their 60s. That stuff’s easy.

What I do, I climb up on the stuff they design, slides, jungle gyms, treehouses, whatever. And then I drop what’s called an HHA, or Human Head Analog. Me, I call it a “hoo-ha.” You’ve got to have a sense of humor in this business.

Anywho, I drop these things—like white plastic melons, and I paint smiley faces on ‘em—and basically watch what happens. They splatter, the slide’s too high or has to be installed on a springier surface. They bounce, and my job’s done.

I get to go home to my house, open a bottle of wine, maybe something dark and red, and see what’s on TV.

I try to ignore the kiddies playing in the park across the street. To me, they all have perfectly round heads with smiley faces painted on them.

The hook for this writing exercise was to write a piece (we had 10 minutes) at whose center was a verb. Mine was "splatter." And the point, we learned while our pens cooled off, was that you generate much more muscular, interesting prose when you write about verbs instead of adjectives.

It makes sense. Or should I say, it explodes into a supernova of sense.

Monday, July 21, 2008

What you don't know can make you crazy

So here's a little nugget for you about the business side of writing: Sales figures are closely guarded. Like, "hidden under Dick Cheney's bunker mattress" closely guarded. There literally is no free, public information available.

That can lead some people--read "paranoid novelists"--to look at their sales ranking. One big problem with this is that it doesn't reflect anything useful.

For instance, if you write for a small press, there literally is no way you can be No. 1, because even if you sold every single copy of your book in one day, it wouldn't equal the sales of the latest Michael Crichton-J.K. Rowling side project. But wait, there's more:

Amazon makes their profit selling used books, not new ones. Maybe their low sales numbers was one of the determining factors to shift their focus toward used sales -- I don't know. But I do know that their numbers are insignificant to the pub in determining the success/failure of a book.

Well, now. Not only are Amazon rankings skewed toward huge press runs, they're not even that indicative of total sales.

And they wonder why writers drink so much.

The moral of the (best-selling?) story is simple. Pay attention to your writing, not your sales ranking. That's the only way to ensure that you're going to sell some books.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Knight knocks pawn the #$%@ out

My hairst... that is, the talented woman who cuts my hair brought to my attention what can only be described as the bestest game ever. Apparently it's big in Europe, like meat pies and energy conservation.

And after watching a few rounds, you can see why. It's got something for both the barbarian and librarian in everyone.

That's right. Chessboxing.

Alternating rounds of chess and boxing. The loser is the guy is forced into checkmate... or beaten senseless. What would your strategy be? I think I'd try to punch the other guy while he was figuring out his next move.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I still heart NY

I'm back from New York, my suitcases heavier with dozens of books and some ridiculously fly tumblers that Friends of the Blog Kipp and Kylie got me to celebrate my nominatedness.

In fact, we were all set to toast my shiny new trophy... except someone else won it. That someone was Joe Hill, son of an obscure 20th-Century writer named Stephen King. It was OK, though: I got two free drinks (thanks, Oceanview Press!), met a bunch of fascinating people and heard David Baldacci tell a Dick Cheney joke. And that was just the awards banquet.

I went to several breakout sessions at the convention, and although they were all useful and interesting, only one of them featured body armor, a bomb-sniffing dog and a grenade launcher. Andrew Peterson deserves all the credit in the world for making the photo below possible:

Yes, that is a Tommy gun, and no, I do not look cool.

Moving from cool stuff to cool people, I met pillars of the writing community like Karen Dionne, discovered that both Sean Chercover and I are useless without coffee in the morning, and learned a vital state secret while having cocktails with Brent Ghelfi. Hell, Shane Gericke took the picture above. If that doesn't underscore the sheer badassery of Thrillerfest, I don't know what does.

I learned a lot. I drank a lot. I had a lot of fun.

And hey--that's what writing is all about, with or without the trophies.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The city so nice they named it...

... no. I just won't do it.

Anyway, I'll be in New York City momentarily, carousing with some friends, trying to exude some serious big-city vibe to mask my touristy ways and rubbing shoulders with other authors.

One of the many ways to celebrate in New York.

Also, at this dinner on Saturday, I might win an award. And if that happens, New York, N.Y., will indeed be a wonderful town.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


I just learned today from my talented editor that "From the Depths" has gotten another favorable review. This one is in Mystery Scene magazine. And it simply embraces conventional wisdom: Everyone loves a locked-room submarine murder story.

Or, as the magazine put it:

While From the Depths, Gerry Doyle (McBooksPress,$23.95),might be a bit light on Wideburg-style character development, it flourishes as an exciting underwater adventure replete with Navy SEALs, defecting North Korean submariners, and an intrepid heroine. Dr.Christine Myers, a forensic scientist for the CIA, helicopters out to the Dragon to determine what killed everyone on board the submarine. When she discovers papers referring to an onboard secret weapon dubbed the Serpent, she fears the deaths have been caused by an escaped biological substance. If so, howfar has it spread? To herself, and all the SEALs now on the sub? A genre-blending mix of mystery, thriller, sea story and science fiction, the sub’s claustrophobic setting intensifies the already considerable element of suspense. A terrific, rip roaring read, with a protagonist interesting enough for a sequel.

A sequel, huh? Hmmmm.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Is there anything more American than a Swedish chef?

I submit that there is not.

Also American institutions: eagles, buffalo, too many sausages, moon landings and Margarators.

Happy Fourth of July!