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Gypsy Spy: The Cold War Files

In Cold War Europe, a young intelligence operative is making his presence known. Learn his dark secrets and hidden triumphs in this new spy thriller.

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On Writing

Reflections on the creative writing process.

How to Build a Book Trailer Indie Style

Writers write. That is our wheelhouse. If you are a writer, you know the burden of story. An idea grows into a narrative that drives the imagination and begs to be written down. We sit before the blank slate and pour out words to frame the sequence we’ve dreamed—or so we hope. The angst of the writing process is proverbial.

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” George Orwell[1]

“Writing is easy. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” Walter Smith[2]

Wordsmiths to the bone, these men aptly described the labor pains of birthing a brain child. I was with my wife when she delivered all seven of our children. Orwell’s observation comes close to the experience.[3] Like new parents, writers become authors only to find that their work has just begun. This is especially true for indie authors who must directly tackle multiple aspects of the publishing industry.

Marketing—that dark art of separating people from their hard-earned cash—has to be mastered if we have any hope of the world appreciating our beautiful child. Enter the flood of ad copy designs, book blurbs, e-commerce considerations, social media manipulations, and SEO coding. It can be daunting, but take heart. The creative marketing tools may not be in the top tray of the writer’s toolbox, but they most certainly can be found in the deeper bottom well.  The familiar framing tools all reside there giving weight to the crafter’s panoply: vision, narrative, story arc, intrigue. All these are essential in producing your book trailer. You had all these when you wrote your story. Let’s think through how to bring people to it.

Decide what type of trailer you want to produce.

Trailers come in all flavors, from coming-soon announcements to vignettes. Think about what you want to present. Do you want to tell people how the idea came to you? Then do it. Check out indie author Aiden L. Bailey’s trailer “What Is the Benevolent Deception.” Aiden used a decent camera with a good microphone and tools housed on most PCs: MS PowerPoint and MS MovieMaker. I did my Coming Soon video using a GoPro camera and GoPro native software. Start with what you have.

Dream through your visuals.

Authors work in the world of the thousand words that build a picture’s worth. Have this picture in mind when you go mining for your graphics, still frames, and footage. There are a host of royalty free content sites offering stock sound effects, audio, pictures, and footage. Two of my favorites are 123rf and Pond5. Aside from selection and ease of use, their terms are straightforward. Subscriptions aren’t required. You can buy in bulk or by piece. Pond5 even allows you to dial in your price range in your searches as well as the length of music and footage.

Drop the elements into your work environment.

Outlining and storyboarding are very helpful at this point. Regardless of your production software, having a roadmap for your trailer on paper will save you loads of time in assembly. Whether you are working out your transitions in MS PowerPoint or Adobe Premier Pro, having most of the sequence worked out will lend to better production flow. Knowing where I was going kept me motivated when I ran in to my inevitable ignorance obstacles. YouTube is your friend here. For great cinematography tips and Premier Pro technique tutorials, I relied heavily on Peter McKinnon, Surfaced Studio, and chinfat. You can click on their names to check out their YouTube channels.

Audio plays a critical role at this point, particularly if you’ve decided to add voiceover. I recorded a rough track (and I do mean rough as I had a nasty cold when I did it) read through of the Prologue to Gypsy Spy as a timing guide for the needed length of visuals and the transition placements. Once the sequence was set (and my voice was better), I recorded the read through again using my Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Studio USB audio interface. The interface with microphone and headphones came packaged with Cubase Elements 6 software, which is what I use for the primary sound editing. I used this set up because it is what I had. You can probably get what you need with a decent iPhone at half the hassle cost.

If you shoot the footage using a GoPro camera, GoPro Studio (the app is free and fun to use) offers some great video editing features and includes a selection of free music you can use. I built most of Gypsy Spy Trackdown using this app.

Edit, Export, and Upload

Editing is as important for your trailer as it is for your writing. But don’t get stuck in a perfectionist trap. In our world of Facebook Live, Periscope, Snapchat, Skype, and YouTube people are consuming amateur videos by the millions. A little effort and a slight polish can go a long way here. If you use titles, captions, or graphics make sure they are error free. Have several people watch it before you upload it to ensure that the sound is clear and the sequence works.

Once you are satisfied with your editing efforts, export the video into a format usable on YouTube. MP4 works well here. Watch the video several times once it has been exported before you upload it. Sometimes things get lost in translation and what might have looked great in your video editor previewer may appear less than good in its final MP4 version.

Though there are other video sharing sites, not uploading your trailer to YouTube would be like not listing your book on Amazon. Setting up a channel is fairly painless and worth the effort. Once your video is uploaded, you can share the link on your web site, blog, Facebook page, etc.

Enjoy the Payoff

Though I’ve encountered anecdotal evidence from other authors on how book trailers have helped them increase sales, I have no empirical data to share on this score. Regardless, I see no downside. Even if the trailers didn’t help me sell books (which they have), I would do them anyway because they stretch and exercise my creative muscles. And above my considerations and concerns about their marketing use and value, I build them as a gift of gratitude for those who have willingly invested their time to live in my fictional world for a while. A hearty thanks to all those who have traveled with the Gypsy Spy!

[1] http://orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw, accessed on July 30, 2017.
[2] Often incorrectly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, the phrase is best ascribed to sports writer Walter Smith. See http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/09/14/writing-bleed/, accessed on July 30, 2017.
[3] I say “close” because neither my wife nor I ever considered the process horrible.

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Creative Stretching

Writers and artists both do sketches in preparation for the final work. In the writer’s case, they usually take the form of character sketches that begin to flesh out the mind-ghosts trying to turn into story-people. This is exactly how I built the cast of Gypsy Spy. The main players began with thin histories and light descriptions. As ink was added to paper, the lines sharpened and the histories deepened giving flesh, bone, and blood to Carlos, Diego, Drake, and the host of others.

But a glimpse of one particular beauty in my imagination demanded my attention. Bringing Ocha to center stage became a must for Gypsy Spy. She was too strong a character to be denied. I am quite comfortable with sketching out characters with words. My drawing skills leave much to be desired, however.

Creative stretching requires one to push outside one’s artistic comfort zones. Working in different artistic disciplines can bring new energy to a writing project. Below is an example of one such effort. It is my first attempt at a Photoshop sketch effect (thank you Photoshop Training Channel). The stock image is one I chose to represent Ocha in the Prologue Book Trailer. The one below it is what it might have looked like had Carlos paid a Paris street artist to sketch his beloved.

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Ocha Sketch

 

I am well into the research phase of Book II of the Gypsy Spy saga. Serious writing will begin on it as soon as my current project, Wind, Water, and Fire, is published. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying a bit of fun in Photoshop. Stay creative, people!

Gypsy Spy: The Cold War Files is now a Kindle Unlimited title. Click here to check it out!

Writer’s Angst

“Write what you know,” my teachers said. One always hopes those who know appreciate the end result.

This is the first book trailer video that I have produced. I used 123rf.com for the stock photos and Pond5.com for the music. Elements were created and assembled using the Adobe Creative Cloud (the learning curb has been steep!). Video production was done inside Adobe Premiere Pro. Some of the transitions didn’t translate into the mp4 format as well as I would have like (they looked better in my video previewer), but all in all I am very happy with the end result. I look forward to your feedback in the comments section.

Paperback and Kindle editions are available on Amazon.com.

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Writing and marketing are two different set of skills. Writing has rules. Marketing is trial and error, guesswork, and a few principles sprinkled in. Writers, if you want a headache learn marketing. If you want to have fun, continue to be creative in as many formats as possible.

Check out the start of my next creative effort: book trailers.

The Writer’s Passion

Indie Author Day in Virginia Beach was the first of its kind for me. I’ve done book signings before, but not as one of many authors presenting their works to the curious and buying public. I realized early in the day that we all shared the same malady: a passion for our story. Ask a writer about anything but their work and you will get a response from a regular human being. They’ll maintain eye contact, give length-appropriate answers, and ask questions in turn.

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But ask them about the story between the book covers, and you will come face to face with the madness. Eyes glaze over with a faraway look as they tell you about a fictional world (or a real-world issue) that drove them to put words on paper. Your question becomes the sound that looses the avalanche of story, theme, character, rhyme, and reason that far exceeds the bounds of conversation; which is why we write books. The story must be told. And once written, we need it to be read. Putting words on paper is a real invitation for others to walk into our minds and cohabit with our thoughts for a time. Call it crazy courage or vulnerability birthed from vanity. Or simply call it passion, for without it the work would never be done.

Everyone dreams, though not all remember them. Everyone thinks, though not all care to share. Everyone has a story. Few write it down. Miss Shirley’s fingers were bent with age, but soft with care. They were warm. But to be fair, she said my hands were cold (which they were). She looked up at me intently and informed me that she wrote jingles. She was curious how she might publish them. What type of jingles, I asked. Her light blue eyes glazed over as she reached into her purse and pulled out her small spiral notebook. Jingles, like this one, she said. She was a poet; a poet of the greeting card variety, precious and dear. And she had the malady. After handing me the notebook, she took it back and turned the page. Here, ready this one. It’s about my dog Yoda. I love the writer’s passion!

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My Wonderful Wife! She made it a success, selling more books in a couple of hours than I have all month!

The Gestation of Gypsy Spy

Some people live under the adage “Publish or Perish!” I live with the reality of “write or wilt.” I have had seasons in my life when I have wandered from the discipline of writing – or at least the craft of creative writing. But whenever I have returned to it, I am immediately reminded that without it, I am a paler shade of myself. Running out of ink in my pen is more frustrating to me than running out of gas in my car. I can walk without gas. I’ve been tempted to draw blood when the inkwells ran dry.

Were it not for my brother John, I don’t know that I would have ever thought to write a spy story. When I was a newly minted teenager, he prodded me to expand my reading horizons beyond the science fiction and fantasy books that were the mainstays of my fiction diet. In my seventeenth year, he gave me a paperback copy of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. I would remain a Ludlum fan for years to follow along with Follett, Morrell, Van Lustbader, and Travanian.

It was in July of 1983, while living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, that I typed out the first outline that would become Gypsy Spy. Originally conceptualized as El Gitano – Spanish for “the gypsy” – it was a mere five pages of character descriptions and chapter plot points. The following month, I moved to Richmond, Virginia to do college campus evangelistic outreach. I met my future wife that year. Ministry, work, and marriage kept me occupied. The story remained in the incubator of my mind, but the demands of my Bible teaching schedule and the poems for my bride got most of my writing attention.

Two years into our marriage, I decided to get serious about fleshing the story out. I began reading about the gitanos in Spain and Gypsy culture in general. I filled small steno pads with copious research notes and story ideas. In February of 1988, I grabbed a legal-sized note pad and my trusty Cross mechanical pencil (another boon from brother John) and started writing. I love to type, but I reasoned that if I wrote it by hand it would slow me down some and allow me to think more about what I was putting on paper. Also, I could carry the notepad and pencil wherever I went. And carry it I did: to jobsites, waiting rooms, dinner tables, road trips, house sitting assignments, and anywhere else I had been formerly accustomed to carry a book and read. I would eventually fill nearly twelve notepads – six hundred and sixty-seven pages – with the narrative ark of one Carlos Javier de Leon Velveloz, a.k.a. Rat-gêló. It took me three years. Then the real work began.

I started the first major rewrite in March of 1991. We had purchased an Amiga 3000 for our business and I picked up a Word Perfect® package to go along with it. I would lug the computer home on the weekends and sequester myself in my home office to transcribe and rewrite away to my heart’s desire. Writing is about writing, not about having written. The medium is always fluid, subject to change and in need of improvement. When I got to the last double-spaced, typed page – number 1,052 to be exact – two more years had gone by. Then the tax man came.

At the time, it ranked as one of the most devastating days I had ever experienced. I’ve had much worse since. But this day is still a hall-of-famer. I finally had a novel I could market. I did my research, wrote my pitch letters to publishers, dealt with silence and rejection. But ultimately, I got a solid line on a reputable agent in New York City and an offer from a real publishing house out West. On the day the tax man came, my ongoing negotiations with the publisher came to an end. We weren’t seeing eye-to-eye and in my frustration I told them to forget the whole deal and to send me the manuscript back. Shortly thereafter, I received a call from the agent. She was very encouraging and complimentary, but in the end she didn’t feel like we were a fit. No publishing contact, no literary agent and moments after hanging up from the phone call from New York, the IRS came into our office and threatened to shut us down. I went home and cried like a baby.

After drying off my wife’s shoulder and taking stock of all the blessings I had in her and our children, I rolled up my sleeves and knuckled down for the hard work ahead. Nearly twenty years would go by before I worked on the novel again.

While packing for our impending move last spring, I came across the floppy drives that housed the electronic copy of the novel. I asked my friend Aland if he could transition the text into an MS Word® file for me and put it on a thumb drive. He did me more than one better. He produced a Word document, a pdf, and he read it. In the middle of a literary conversation months later, he mentioned that he had quite enjoyed my story and encouraged me to investigate putting it out as an e-book on Amazon. His encouragement led me to the latest rewrite.

As I worked through the story again, I was very thankful that I didn’t manage to get it published in 1994. I was younger then with twenty less years of life experience and writing practice. The novel that got bound in 2016 is a much better story than the manuscript I marketed in the 1990s. Additionally, Romani language helps that were not available when I first wrote it are now much more accessible. Gypsy culture is opening up to the gazhikano world like never before in history. They are making their oral language known in written form. This has allowed me to standardize the Romani words, expressions, and proverbs that are salted throughout the story with much improved results.

To date, I’ve gone through three galley proofs of the novel. I think their spines look quite handsome and am looking forward to revealing the front cover soon. But beyond that, I am very pleased to finally be able to share Rat-gêló’s story of redemption with the reading public in true book form. The title will be available soon on Amazon. Follow the blog for updates, insights, and more back story.

A Writer’s Journey

Though my father was quite eloquent, it is to my mother that I owe the writer’s bug that has afflicted me most of my life. I recall a particular day when she was reciting to company her latest composition. The short tale, typed out double-spaced on her Olivetti Underwood mechanical typewriter, was full of drama and intrigue. A housewife was having a conversation that could be construed as a poignant plea with a paramour. Her husband mustn’t know. How shall we hide the evidence of the crime? If he finds out, he’ll kill you. You can’t do it again. As it turned out, the object of her melancholy affection was the family dog who had had the temerity to kill and eat one of their chickens. She had me hooked. I couldn’t have been much older than five.

We moved to Spain not long after. Major family correspondence soon took the form of audio tapes. My father was an audiophile and though we had sold or abandoned most of our worldly possessions in the move, he had his high-fidelity system shipped over as soon as we were settled. Among its components was a reel-to-reel tape recorder/player. We would sit in the living room of our flat as he narrated our latest adventures into the microphone as lively as if his audience were present. We then each took our turn recording our greetings and adding whatever commentary came to the mind of children. Mother may have planted the writer’s seed in my soul, but to my dad I owe my lifelong attempt to become as well versed in oratory and engaging in story telling as he always was.

As most people with older siblings know, we younger ones learn as much (if not more) from them as we ever did from our parents. As the youngest of seven, I was under constant tutelage. Reel-to-reel soon gave way to the convenience of cassettes. Not only were the tapes easier to handle, the recording platform was compact and portable. My brothers, sister, and I entertained ourselves for hours on end recording stories and sound effects for our own amusement. It was a living laboratory of creativity at play.

I was eleven when I first confessed my desire to be a writer. My sister – a more generous soul one would be hard pressed to find – no doubt knew of it long before that. She had spotted my affinity for all things writing years before. I have in mind a particular birthday, my eighth or ninth, when she bought me a cardstock fan folder filled with tools of the trade: spiral notebooks, pocket notepads, pens, pencils, and rulers to help keep my stories straight. Near the end of the fifth grade, now back in America and having grasped the basic workings of English under migratory duress along with the wonders of the school library, I was exposed to one of the greatest tools of discontentment known to man: the catalogue.

Catalogues can make the most contented soul acutely aware of material desires heretofore absent in the human heart. A fulfilled and happy person can suddenly turn into the downtrodden disadvantaged by pretty pictures and artful descriptions. I was not immune to its devices. This one in particular, distributed in our classroom, was filled with descriptions of books. Library or not, I needed to own some.

I sat on my sister’s bed and showed her all the books I would buy if only I had the money. She encouraged me to check off the appropriate boxes on the order form. After we tallied up the total, she handed me some of her hard-earned cash from her tip stash and sent me off to school a happy boy. It only stands to reason that it was to her that I first confessed my dream of being a writer. I already had a project in mind, a grand adventure story of storm-blown Vikings surviving in North America. Never wrote it, but I kept on dreaming.

At thirteen, I produced my first serious effort. It was a novella of sorts, a thirty-something paged science fiction/fantasy yarn I hammered out on Mom’s Olivetti with a fierceness that left my index fingers blistered as I jabbed the keys to strike ink on paper. I was in love. The machine chunked its drumbeats into our dining room table. As the type hammers slapped the paper, the platen marched left as language filled in to the right. Ding! Hit the carriage return and begin anew. It had a rhythm and tune no keyboard can approximate. Centering headlines required math, aligning paper took care. The fever of story was tempered by the necessities of form, line ends and paper changes creating unavoidable pauses for reflection.

By the time I walked into my ninth grade creative writing class, I was ambitiously expanding the bare bones of that story into a trilogy. Is it o.k. if I just write chapters of my novel into my composition notebook for the writing assignment requirements, I asked my teacher. She had no complaints, though she did dutifully supply her red-penned critiques. God bless her!

The following year, the love of verse and rhyme took hold and I fell into a feverish pool of poetry I would not soon come out of. I had a close friend who loved to play piano. He would come over to the house and make our upright sing while I typed away on the Olivetti working out my rhymes in an attempt to find reason. It was in that bohemian gestalt that the stirrings of the story that would become Gypsy Spy began. Character sketches, story outlines, false starts and stops sputtered forward and then stalled.

I moved. I married. We worked. We loved. We dreamed. I had a story, but I wasn’t writing. Encouragement can come from strange quarters. In my case, it came from Larry Donner, Billy Crystal’s character in the 1987 film Throw Momma from the Train. His portrayal of a blocked writer is brilliant. But it was his line, “a writer writes”, that stuck in my craw and eventually moved me forward.

Abandoning my typewriter, this one a sleek Smith Corona electric with a daisy wheel set in elegant Pica 10, for the more organic and portable pencil and paper, I filled page after page and legal pad after legal pad. The story emerged; the characters put on flesh and began to breathe. A young boy loses his father as Europe begins to shrug off the weight of the Superpowers. Gypsies beg and dance, bleed and spy.

Decades have gone by and the story has come of age. Gypsy Spy: The Cold War Files, now available on Amazon, is a major milestone in this writer’s journey. Look for sample chapters, vignettes, and more backstory in posts soon to follow. If you like what you read, share it with your friends. Comments are more than welcome.

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