My New Blog Writing Direction

To better advertise themselves, writers are encouraged by their publishers and agents to have websites, write blogs, and become part of the ‘literary community.’ There are even books on the subject of “Promoting Your Book” that encourage this, and also encourage leaving comments on other writer’s blogs so as to ‘integrate’ yourself into the world of successful writers – comments such as, “You are truly a masterful writer! Your last book was so good, it reminded me of my last book, titled, “XYZ” which can be purchased on Amazon at www.Amazon.xyz.

Increased book sales would surely follow.

These suggestions all sound like good ideas to me, if you are already a well-known author to begin with. If I were a on the NYT Bestseller list, other authors would love publishing my comments on their blog. And I could write endless blog posts myself containing praise from book critics, sneak previews of future books, and even fan fiction spurred by my books’ characters. But I am not a best-selling author. My books are not inspiring fan clubs, movies, spin-offs, or extravagant amounts of praise – though, truth-be-told, the relatively few people who have actually read my books appear (mostly) to like them quite a bit, even the readers I’ve never met!

Author’s note: I don’t want anything I’ve written above to be construed as discouraging other authors, particularly famous, bestselling authors, from leaving favorable comments on my blog! Really, I would appreciate it!

I need to write blog posts. I understand that. But on what? It must be on something that is interesting. Perhaps even controversial. I need to stimulate interest on a subject I can sustain for a long time. But on what??

For about twenty years, I was a competitive analyst for a multi-national computer company. Among other responsibilities, I was expected to analyze messages and advertisements from our competitors and expose their inaccuracies. I wrote white papers on the subject. I trained our sales force on how to combat competitor attacks against us, and what attacks to use against them. I also had lots of interactions on public, computer-industry websites with my counterparts from rival companies. We would exchange messages with each other, tearing each other’s arguments to shreds, fighting off slanders, and launching devastating counter-attacks. Mostly it was great fun. But in the process, I learned something.
I learned how people can tell a lie without obviously lying. I learned there were many ways to tell a lie, and only the very inexperienced in the art had to actually lie to do it.
In other words, I learned to recognize sophists and sophistry. I have decided to dedicate my next few months of blog postings to that subject.

Recently a very good friend sent me a list of twenty-one alleged ‘lies’ told by President Donald Trump. They were published by an organization called PolitiFact, a service of the Tampa Bay Times, the “liberal voice on Florida’s conservative west coast.” PolitiFact published the ‘lies’ with commentary and then assigned a metric of its own making. In this case, the twenty-one lies were all marked ‘pants-on-fire’ – PolitiFact’s most egregious category of lies.

My interest in PolitiFact began with my reading of their very first ‘lie,’ – that President Trump had lied when he said that Chicago had the strongest gun laws in the nation. At first, it struck me as a strange point for a serious journalistic institution to quibble over and to list as their number one proof-point of anyone’s dishonesty. I mean, honestly, if liberal Chicago doesn’t have the toughest gun laws in the U.S., certainly it’s got to be up there with the very toughest. Maybe President Trump is guilty of a little exaggeration, but certainly it is odd and petty to label it a lie.

Curious, I read the entire PolitiFact explanation of why they ranked President Trump’s statement as ‘pants-on-fire.’ Wow, it was deja-vu all over again! It took me right back to my days as a competitive analyst marveling and sometimes laughing at the ingenious ways people can obscure and twist the truth without telling an overt lie themselves.

In my next blog post, I’ll cover the first of PolitiFact’s Donald Trump Pants-on-Fire lies, and analyze their argument with the tools I learned as a competitive analyst in the IT industry. Next blog post: Did PolitiFact make its case that President Trump lied when he stated that Chicago is the city with the strongest gun laws in the nation?

I WOULD LIKE YOUR OPINION

I’ve been kicking around a few different titles for my latest, and as yet unpublished, book, and I’m looking for your input. So you can give a somewhat informed opinion, let me first give you a very brief outline of the story.

This plot summary may not make a lot of sense if you haven’t read EINSTEIN’s TRUNK, but here it is: Steenberg, Yohaba’s CERN-director grandfather, wants to save the world from 182 ELSA – an asteroid discovered by Einstein that is speeding towards earth and due to make impact on April 13, 2029. Steenberg tries to enlist support from governments and corporations to develop the technology to destroy ELSA before it hits. Needless to say, he is rebuffed, but then proceeds by other means. Rulon and Yohaba, along with a new character nicknamed Brother-in-law (an ex-Navy SEAL) and an assorted motley crew of ex-military, including Yohaba’s brother Alex get involved. Havoc, destruction, intrigue, and noble sacrifices ensue. The action takes place mostly in Idaho and Switzerland, but with assorted interludes in Beijing and Silicon Valley.

Here are the questions: Which title below sounds cooler for a thriller? Which title would make you more likely to buy the book if you saw it in a bookstore?

Proposed titles:
a. Redfish
b. Mars Road
c. No Bystanders
d. Sawtooth

Note:
a. The title REDFISH refers to a local Idaho lake and Rulon’s name for the mission they are on.
b. MARS ROAD refers to the access road that extends from the Rulon Hurt ranch outside of Twin Falls, Idaho, to the main road that goes past the ranch.
c. NO BYSTANDERS refers to the fact that everyone in the family as well an entire assortment of characters is pulled into the mission.
d. SAWTOOTH refers to the mountain range that surrounds Redfish Lake up in the Sawtooth recreation area. If this turns out to be the preferred title, then I’ll have Rulon name the mission SAWTOOTH instead of REDFISH.

All opinions welcome.

Mit freundlichen Grüssen (with friendly greetings)

Jim

The Backspace Key and Selling Books

I’ve maintained for years that the greatest invention of the last forty years is not the internet but, rather, the backspace key. The backspace key is what enables tens-of-thousands of writers like me to churn out thousands of books every year that no one has ever heard of. All it takes to write a book now is perseverance and a dogged stubbornness in the beauty of the wonderful words you are typing.

Imagine what it was like to write a book before the invention of the backspace key and the ‘save’ button. There was white-out for typing mistakes and carbon paper for making duplicate pages on the typewriter. Oh, the horror! So far, in just these first two paragraphs, I have used the backspace key 17 times. I read once that in Jack London’s original manuscript for his amazing semi-autobiography ‘Martin Eden’ – hundreds of pages long – there were only a few cross-outs. He wrote the entire book with hardly a backward glance. He is my hero.

In any case, I’ve decided to throw my efforts into beefing up the sales of my existing books, i.e., EINSTEIN’S TRUNK and A THOUSAND SUNS. To that end, I will be spending more time on social media – this website and my Facebook page. I’m also soliciting ideas from any-and-all on how to market my book. My two books have been published by Cedar Fort, a very good publisher out of Utah, but due to the changing dynamics of the book market, authors must now do a lot of their own marketing.

Best regards,

Jim
Zurich

The Origins of Brother-in-law

There is a character in my new book ‘Redfish’ called “Brother-in-law.” ‘His real name is Orin Blackmon, but nobody calls him that. To everyone he is simply ‘Brother-in-law.’ The backstory in the book is that he picked up the name while serving in the Navy SEALS.

The real backstory is that I came across a Vietnam vet nicknamed ‘Brother-in-law’ back in 1978, when living in North Carolina while on a mission for my Church. Brother-in-law was living in the town of Henderson, North Carolina and going to college near there on the GI Bill. He was kind of a hillbilly and saw some serious action in Vietnam. He was the point man for his platoon, which as you can imagine, was a very dangerous position to have. In Vietnam, most American casualties came from booby traps and mines, and the point man was usually the one to set them off.

He told me that when he was in Vietnam, his senses hightened to an unbelievable level. For example, one day as he was guiding his platoon through the jungle, his eyes picked up a gossamer thin trip wire out of all the foliage, vines, and vegetation that surrounded him. His fellow soldiers were incredulous. How on earth did he see that, they asked him! Afterwards, they wouldn’t go out on partrol unless Brother-in-law was their point man.

The character in my book is not as gregarious as the real Brother-in-law. He was a happy guy when I knew him: long hair down to his shoulders, a willingness to talk, and a care-free attitude towards life despite all that he’d seen. A remarkable person all-in-all.

Just Finished ‘Redfish’

I just finished writing the third book in the Rulon Hurt series. It’s titled ‘Redfish’. For those not familiar with Idaho, Redfish Lake is in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho. It is incredibly beautiful. Surrounded by jagged mountain peaks. An hour or so from Sun Valley. In the book ‘Redfish’, Rulon has an argument with Yohaba and insists on giving the codename ‘Redfish’ to the mission they are on. Naturally, I can’t say anymore without giving away the plot.

I actually kicked around another title for the book – ‘Rulon’s Ilk’. I thought that sounded very ‘John Le Carre-ish’, and seemed to fit the book, but ‘Redfish’ sounds more traditional, and, perhaps, therefore more acceptable to agents and publishers.

So now begins the work of finding an agent and a publisher for the book. It begins with crafting a Query letter and hoping to inflame the curiosity of some lucky agent. Wish me luck.

Best regards,

Jim

John le Carre’s “The Constant Gardener”

Yes, I’m on a bit of a John le Carre’ kick lately. And again, I found another one of his books that astounds me with its excellent writing and the power of the story. The constant gardener is Justin Quayle, a British diplomat in Kenya whose wife is murdered when she threatens to expose a pharmaceutical company’s lethal drug testing among poor Africans. Justin then embarks on a quest to find the truth. Yes, it is sad. Yes, it is based on a true story – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_experimentation_in_Africa#Meningitis_testing_in_Kano.2C_Nigeria In fact, Mr. le Carre had this to say about whether his book was based on fact: “As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”

Yes, I like John le Carre’s books. Yes, I think he’s a literary giant. There was a scene towards the end of the book that is a prelude to a key character meeting up with another key character (as you can see, I’m trying hard not to spoil the book for anyone intending to read it). So first, ask yourself: if you were writing a book and the plot called for two key characters to meet, how would you do it? Well, there are a number of ways, but most writers would simply have a note arrive in the mail with a time and a place for a rendezvous. Because obviously, the way the message is delivered and the circumstances and setting behind its delivery are of far less importance than the actual meeting itself. But in Mr. le Carre’s world this is not the case. The setting and circumstances are both extremely important because they reveal character.

And this is why he is a genius. Le Carre’ is not a great writer because his grammar and sentences are more beautiful, or because he works harder at his craft – though all that may be true. Le Carre’ is great because he sees the world through different eyes than the average writer. His people and scenes are truly three dimenional, and you just know deep down in your gut that what he is writing about is true even if you’ve never been a spy or a diplomat yourself. His writing is so rich in meaningful detail and the authentic thoughts of his characters that you are left with the impression that no one could have made this up.

Ernest Hemingway once said words to the effect that when he goes to describe a room, he first describes everything about it. Then when he edits, he removes all the details except the few salient ones that by themselves capture all the other points. Le Carre’s strikes me the same way. His descriptions are not just obligatory literary bus stops until he can get on with the real meat of the story, but the descriptions are as important as the action. They tell something important. And he does the same for his characters. Life is complex and profound and certainly not trivial to the people on life’s stage. Le Carre captures that. Further, you can tell how hard he must work at his craft. Some of his scenes are like a Da Vinci painting with layers and layers of color and detail that perhaps can only be admired by the very astute. Ha! Now in saying this, don’t think I consider myself to be one of the astute ones. But I am grateful that I can appreciate great writing when I see it.

If you want to know the story or the book’s background simply do a google search on the book title and steer your way to the book and movie’s Wikipedia sites.

Best regards,

Jim
Zurich

I’d Rather be Swallowed by a Whale – My Review of Moby Dick

Normally, when someone tells me they didn’t appreciate a classic book or a classic work of art, I tell them: “The book (or painting) is an established work of genius that has survived the test of time. The book is not on trial here, but you are. The very soul of our culture is reaching out to you and asking: Are you a deep and thoughtful person, or are you a brainless dodo?” However, when it comes to Melville’s 1851 ‘classic’ Moby Dick, I may have to revise my response. Gads, I didn’t like that book!

I started reading Moby Dick when I was twenty-five. I am now sixty-two and just finished it. And still I found it a tough slog! At twenty-five I whipped and beat myself into an intellectual Bataan Death March to within thirty pages of the end and then let the open book simply fall through my fingers to the floor. I simply couldn’t take it anymore even though the book was supposedly reaching its climax – the revenge of the great white whale, the death of Ahab, and the destruction of the Pequod. But, I eventually persevered on and finished the book on my Kindle just last night.

For those who don’t know, Moby Dick was based on two actual events: the sinking by a whale of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex in 1820 off the coast of South America, and a very angry albino sperm whale called Mocha Dick that was killed in the late 1830s. Apparently, the whale had twenty harpoons stuck in him and attacked many ships in his day. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

“This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature… a singular consequence had resulted – he was white as wool![8]”

I like the way Wikipedia described it. Why couldn’t Melville write that way? Instead, this is how he writes:

“And yet, I’ve sometimes thought my brain was very calm – frozen calm, this old skull cracks so, like a glass in which the contents turn to ice, and shiver it. And still this hair is growing now; this moment growing, and heat must breed it; but no, it’s like that sort of common grass that will grow anywhere between the earthy clefts of Greenland ice or in Vesuvius lava.”

I rest my case.

Now, for those of you who who care, here are a few Moby Dick facts you probably didn’t know:
1. Ahab didn’t lose his leg from Moby Dick. He pretends he did, but he really didn’t. Starbuck, his chief mate, knows this, and buried deep, deep in the book is a little exchange between the two that goes like this: “Captain Ahab, I have heard of Moby Dick—but it was not Moby Dick that took off thy leg?” Captain Ahab replies, “Who told thee that?”
2. Unlike the Gregory Peck movie, it was not Captain Ahab that got dangled in the harpoon lines around Moby Dick and was carried away to appear later lashed to the great white whale, it was Fedallah, one of the harpooners.
3. And finally, yes, Khan was quoting Ahab in Star Trek Two when he said, “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee…”

Okay, those last were good lines, but not good enough to make me like the book. Still, in fairness, maybe I’m a dodo.

John le Carre’s “A Delicate Truth”

I just finished reading John le Carre’s latest book A Delicate Truth. What a treat! Le Carre is 81 years old, and he’s not only written his best book in years, but in the process has fanned the coals of hope for my own flickering writing career. I have always admired Mr. le Carre’s writing style. Even in his books that I haven’t particularly enjoyed, the sheer quality of his writing always kept me reading on – intelligent, literary, and as deliciously multi-layered as a Strasbourg ice cream cone, i.e., from the little ice cream parlor on the left side of the street in front of the cathedral in Strasbourg, France.

But truth be told, I haven’t especially enjoyed the plot lines of his latest books, namely, Absolute Friends, The Mission Song, A Most Wanted Man, and Our Kind of Traitor. There were a variety of reasons: too depressing, too hopeless, too cynical, and in one of his books, Our Kind of Traitor, about the Russian Mafia, too much bad language, And sadly, at times even the writing seemed a little uneven – a little too obtuse. I had reached the conclusion that le Carre was past his prime, still more of a craftsman than all but a few of the current crop of thriller writers, but, dang it all, the man was getting old. And then comes along A Delicate Truth. Okay, le Carre does seem to have lately discovered one of our culture’s more popular swear words – which is annoying – but, I assume he feels this is how his characters would realistically speak – if so, I’d rather have the introspective, cultured, intellectual, well-read George Smiley back. But, oh well, these are the characters he chose to put in his book, and as the author he gets to decide what they say. I will add in his defense though: while the language jarred me in places, at least le Carre was writing an end-to-end realistic book. The authors that really irk me are the ones that have the bad language, thinking this makes the book realistic, while otherwise having the characters say and do the most unrealistic things in defiance of all the laws of man and nature. Le Carre is gritty, real, and authentic from first page to last. Even if you’ve never been set-up and warned-off by a member of the British foreign service, you can read the exchange between Kit and his two deceptively bland bureaucratic interrogators at the end of A Delicate Truth and know Yep, this is how it would be done.

Perhaps one reason the book was so good was that le Carre was back on firm ground again dealing with intrigue and machinations in the corridors of British power as the gears of government grind the innocent to dust. He even said in an interview that the two main characters, Trevor and Kit, were somewhat autobiographical. One interesting point I’ve noticed before is that le Carre despises how the Americans are conducting the war on terror. While I fully sympathize with his frustrations, and there is much to criticize, I wonder what he thinks the alternative is. What would the European heads of state have done? Most likely dithered. Or the Chinese? Think Tibet. Or the Russians? Think Checknya.

After I finished A Delicate Truth, I immediately downloaded le Carre’s The Constant Gardener about drug testing in Africa by global pharmaceuticals. But my wife warned me that it was very sad, so I’m putting off reading it for a while until I recharge emotionally. Instead I picked up a thriller by another very successful NYT best-selling writer. Wow! After reading le Carre it was like going back to ‘See Spot run. See Jane run with Spot.”

A Tale of Two Cities

The old classics. Are they still worth reading? As an author and a reader, I consider myself a fairly well-read person, but came to the sad realization some months ago that I have neglected many of the classics. Further, a lot of my recent reading has been devoted to thrillers written by NYT bestselling authors that turned out to be very badly written. So, hungry for good writing after having been disappointed by a succession of bland and trite thrillers, I downloaded Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. What a treat! – though in the case of Dickens, a hard-earned one.

Published in 1859, A Tale of Two Cities is set in London and Paris during the time of the French Revolution. It is the story about the brutality and injustice of life in those days – the brutality of the rich and aristocratic towards the poor and disadvantaged, and, in the case of Paris, how the ignorant downtrodden rose up with the guillotine and the smug fervor of Maoist peasants against their former royalist masters.

I’ll be honest: for the first two thirds of the book, I struggled. The archaic language and intricate sentence structure was too hard a nut to crack for my brain used to the pabulum I’d been reading lately. At one point, I even set the book down. But eventually I came back to it and found the reading much easier. And that is when I began to appreciate what a great writer Dickens was. The writing was ingenious. The sentiments sublime. The insights into those terrible times completely convincing. What a wonderful experience to read a book by a truly great writer. Here it is, 154 years since its first publication as 31 weekly installments in Dickens’s own literary periodical called All the Year Round, and I am still gripped by the nobleness of Charles Darnay and the Christ-like sacrifice of Sydney Carton. Further, the book appealed to my nobler instincts. I felt a better person for having read it.

Just for kicks, I went to Amazon and Goodreads to see how A Tale of Two Cities was rated by my fellow readers. On Amazon it was rated 4.2 and on Goodreads, the ratings for the various editions generally hovered below 4.0. I am embarrassed to note that my book, A Thousand Suns, was rated higher on both websites. Ha! Clearly, thriller writers are judged by a different standard. So, let me state this loud and clear: Thank you everyone who loved my book and rated it so highly, but please read A Tale of Two Cities. You won’t be disappointed.

Jim
Zurich – June 21, 2013