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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.

Target #8: Claude Renault

Some characters are crafted with the express purpose of being casualties. After all, it’s difficult to write a story about an assassin without at least having one target that is destined to be eliminated. In The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, former CIA operative Robert Baer lists “the bastard has to deserve it” as Law #1. Seeing that Carlos de Leon is an atypical assassin, it stands to reason that sooner or later he would disregard this cardinal rule. Just when you think you have the plot figured out, the twists keep coming all the way through to the end. This vignette comes from Chapter 37 – Confrontations.

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He held his breath as he wheeled his cart to room 342. The guard didn’t even give him a second glance as he pushed the door open and stepped in. What he found was shocking. The room was large enough for two patients. But the other bed had been cleared out to make room for the life-support equipment. Why hadn’t they put him in the intensive care unit? Drake wondered.

Renault lay on the bed, motionless. His head was wrapped in heavy bandaging. Only his left eye and nose remained exposed. A blue, ribbed tube sprouted out of where Drake supposed Claude’s mouth to be and ran all the way into a hissing respirator. The mechanical accordion rose and fell in counterpoint with Claude’s chest. He had an IV in each arm. The bags dripped their liquids down the clear tubes in timed precision. His right hand was in a splint; his thumb, index, and second fingers taped to the metal stabilizers. A plastic bag hung on the bed rail, slowly collecting the urine brought to it by the catheter. The smell of disinfectant mixed with the odor of excreted medicine made Drake ill. He hated hospitals. “What have you done to yourself now,” Drake said, shaking his head.

He went into the bathroom and turned the water on as a covering sound. Going back to Claude’s bed, he inspected the patient more thoroughly. He lifted the bed sheets and examined Claude’s body. Not a burn mark on him. He picked up the chart and did his best to read the French medical mumbo-jumbo. Head injury caused by a shotgun blast, he read. Then his cronies must have released the fire injury to cover up the suicide attempt. It wouldn’t do to have the public know that their mayor elect had suicidal tendencies. They would ask him to resign before he was even able to take office. Smoke inhalation? He read it again. Yes, he had suffered from smoke inhalation. What happened?

“Claude,” he said into the man’s bandaged ear. “Claude, it’s me.” The left eye opened and swiveled about. It rested on Drake, then closed again. “Claude, what happened?” he asked. Claude opened his eye again and rolled his head from side to side. Drake placed a clean page of the chart on Claude’s lap and pressed a pen into the man’s left hand. “What happened?” he asked again. The hand moved slowly, deliberately.

“Kill me.”

“I can’t. What happened?”

“Pull plug!!”

“Tell me what happened,” Drake said.

“The Devil,” Claude wrote and dropped the pen. The Devil? What did that mean? Drake wondered. Claude pawed for the pen. Drake found it in the folds of the sheet and put it back into the injured man’s hand. “Will take Swenson,” he added to the line. The Devil will take Swenson?

“The Devil? Who?” Drake asked. In a swift motion, Claude jabbed the pen into his respirator line and pulled it out. The hiss grew louder. “Crap,” Drake said and placed his hand over the hole. It was no use. Claude’s left eye bulged slightly as his brain fought against his mind for life and tried to find air. A monotone replaced the background blip in the room. Drake looked up at the heart monitor. Flat line. Cursing, Drake slapped the blue button above the headboard.

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Alias

What does Carlos de Leon, a.k.a. Rat-gêló, have in common with Prince Richard of England, a.k.a. Norman of Torn, or Townsend Harper, a.k.a. Jack, a.k.a. Number Thirteen? What? You haven’t heard of Norman of Torn or Number Thirteen? Well, what about John Carter, a.k.a. Dotar Sojat, or John Clayton III?

Surely you have heard of John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke? Oh, maybe you are more familiar with his other name, Tarzan. Having decided that he could write at least as bad a pulp fiction as what he had been reading, Edgar Rice Burroughs began spinning tales that would carry his readers from the Arizona desert to the rugged landscapes of Mars, from English manor houses to the darkest jungles of Africa, from the Sahara sands to the center of the Earth, from the South Pacific to a land that time forgot. No one would deign to classify Burroughs’s writing as “literature,” least of all himself. But he was a master storyteller who became a corner stone to the science fiction genre (ever heard of Star Wars or Avatar), action adventure (ever heard of Raiders of the Lost Ark), and even plied his pen writing Westerns and historical fiction.

Burroughs’s protagonists were all supremely optimistic, noble of heart, and deadly at arms. The women they rescued weren’t helpless, just outnumbered. Ray Bradbury said, “Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special.”[1] I know he made me feel that way. A true mark of good story—and by good I mean that it calls us to a better self—is fictional characters that can inspire you. When Tarzan is tied to a post and the current horde of enemies is lighting the fire at his feet and he utters, “So long as there is breath, there is hope,” young boys take courage. I know I did. His stories taught me that ladies are to be treasured, that goals outweigh difficulty, that tenacity wins the day, and that evil is to be vanquished.

It was my Aunt Jeanie who got me hooked on Burroughs. One Christmas, she sent us a graphic novel version of Tarzan. The artwork was exquisite, the story like none other I had ever read. I devoured his books after that. Tarzan, The Princess of Mars, The Moon Maid, Pellucidar, The Outlaw of Torn, I Am a Barbarian, The Monster Men, The Efficiency Expert all at one time or another had my nose prints in them. He was entertaining, engaging, the master of circumstance and switched points of view. Story trumped all and he never let the pressure off, not even in the end. The cliff-hanger was his stock-in-trade.

I may owe Robert Ludlum for my sense of plausible plot twists. To Stephen King I owe the threatening overtones of the supernatural and the literary sleight of hand offered by an altered state of mind. But to Edgar Rice Burroughs I owe the pace and progress of story and the sheer adventure of it all. He was born on this day, September 1, in 1875. He came to writing late but stayed at it long. And his legacy lives on in writers and filmmakers to this day. Happy Birthday, Edgar!

[1] http://thejohncarterfiles.com/the-influence-of-edgar-rice-burroughs/, accessed September 1, 2017

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!

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

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