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I’ve been kicking around a few different titles for my latest, and as yet unpublished, book, and I’m looking for your input.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

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A Powerful Writing Technique and One Element of a Realistic Thriller

     I came across a wonderful article on writing in the New York Times written by Constance Hale, a San Francisco journalist. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/16/make-or-break-verbs/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120417    The article talked about the power of verbs and other action words and how important they are in giving power, clarity, and action to sentences, even to descriptions. The points made in that article were also made in Keys to Great Writing by Stephen Wilbers where he cited an excellent example of using action words in descriptions, taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
                “The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile,
                 jumping over sun-dials and brick walls, and burning gardens – finally when it reached
                 the house, drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.”
       So there it is, a simple yet powerful writing technique. I have also noticed that one of my favorite thriller writers, Olen Steinhauer, takes this technique a step further by linking many of his descriptions to the actions of his characters thereby killing two birds with one stone.  Here’s an example from the first page of Steinhauer’s latest thriller American Spy: “She’d been sitting, uncharacteristically, with a salad on her desk, staring out the window where, just over the trees, she could see distant storm clouds.” Notice how the description of the environment is not treated as a separate subject but is tied into the actions of the main character. We know in that single sentence that she is sitting in her office, has a desk, is eating a salad, that the office has a window that she’s been staring through, and that outside a storm was brewing. Really, an amazing amount of information communicated in a single sentence. A less skillful writer would have taken an entire paragraph or two to accomplish the same thing: first describing the room and a bunch of useless details, then talking about the person inside it and what she was doing.
     BTW, my second book, A Thousand Suns has received some positive comments from publishers, including one acceptance. Publishers like the main character and find the book entertaining and well written, but competition is fierce in the industry and the book is not standard thriller fare – it’s not as grim as most thrillers tend to be. There is some humor mixed in with the action. And I do that by conscious choice. I find too many thrillers take themselves way too seriously. They want to be angry, realistic thrillers snarling their way into readers’ hearts. In fact, they’re rarely as realistic as the authors think they are.
      There is more to writing a realistic thriller than just knowing the name of some obscure clandestine department in the U.S. government and the kinds of eavesdropping equipment they use. It is far more important to be emotionally realistic, i.e., having your characters express the correct emotions in various situations. For example, I don’t care for thrillers that treat death and killing lightly. In real life, normal people who kill another human being, even when it is justifiable, pay a terrible price psychologically. If you don’t believe that, I suggest reading, On Combat – the psychology and physiology of deadly conflict in war and peace by Lt. Co. Dave Grossman and Loren W.Christensen.  
     My next post will be on a possible change in the economic winds. Is it my imagination or are manufacturing jobs starting to leave China and come back to the West?
 
Best regards,
 
Jim
Zurich
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Writer’s Block

     Imagine you are a writer. Now imagine that you are sitting in front of your keyboard. For hours. Waiting. Waiting for inspiration. Waiting for literary genius to strike. And it doesn’t. You type a few words. Then you go back and read them and they sound to your ear like childish dribble. Or worse. The grunting of an orangutan. Suddenly, you freeze up. You think back on all you’ve ever written and you realize you’re a fraud. Or worse. You’re boring. Ahhh…you run off into the night and do what many great writers seem compelled to do – you get drunk. And stay drunk.  
     Such is writer’s block.
     Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood in 1965 and then turned his attention to writing another great book titled, Answered Prayers. By the time he died in 1984, the world was still waiting for his epic. Ralph Ellison wrote a very well received first novel Invisible Man in 1952 and then worked for 40 years on the sequel. He died in 1992 and never completed it. What happened? Apparently, they both fell prone to a bad case of perfectionism. After writing extremely popular and well acclaimed books, they couldn’t bear to write anything less perfect. They wrote and rewrote and were frozen by expectations – their own and others.
     A few months ago, I was hit with a mild case of writer’s block. I was plunking away at my third novel, not really in a position to sit down and seriously write it. I have a day job. Work was too hectic. I was traveling a fair bit. Such is life. Anyway, I wrote the first two chapters at a time when I was also rereading all three books in John LeCarre’s Smiley series. Admiring LeCarre’s writing style as I did, I got really caught up in writing and rewriting my own work rather than creating and letting the story flow. I got the creative part of my brain confused with my analytical part. I was analyzing my writing style too much as I went along and lost a good deal of creativity. My writing turned out well, but the story didn’t.
    The cure was simple. I stopped criticizing my writing as I wrote. I wrote long chunks and then would go back and do a little rewriting, but not enough to bog down my creativity. The key was to write and not be a perfectionist. Another key was to accept that not everything I write can always be better than what I wrote before. In the end, if you are a writer – you write. You write regardless of criticism. You write because you love to write. Sometimes you strike gold. Sometimes silver. Sometimes you babble like an orangutan. Such is life.
     I feel a political diatribe coming on. Yes! Expect my next posting to have a political bent.   
Best regards,
Jim
Back in Zurich
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Spy Surveillance, Torture, and Other Literary Devices

     Today, I was going to discuss politics but have been sidetracked by a literary discussion. Usually it’s the other way around.
     I just finished reading – for the third time – John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This is after watching for at least the third time, the BBC mini-series starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley. All this is in pulse-quickening, toe-tapping anticipation of the movie starring Gary Oldman which is supposed to be released December 9th in the U.S. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a release date for Switzerland or South Africa where I tend to spend most of my time, but I’m sure it’s coming within a few months. I’ve seen the trailer, and it looks very good, though it also looks like they added more violence and sex than was in the book – which had almost none of both. But trailers will sometimes try to give that impression just on general principles. 
     How often have you read a thriller and two days later forgotten the plot and possibly even the characters? Happens all the time, and why not? There is a place in the literary world for books that turn off the brain and provide just enough mental stimulation to dull the stresses of life while doing a better job than TV of keeping the synaptic fluid from solidifying. But…there are also those times when the mind wants to be fully engaged and to be astounded at where the writer has taken them. John LeCarre at his best can do that.
     The first two LeCarre books I read (The Russia House and Absolute Friends) provided quite a challenge. Both were a painful slog for me – not through any fault of LeCarre’s, but because my reading mind had become weak and ill-focused from reading too much pablum. Now I’m used to his style and read his books easily, seeing every word, picturing every scene, and catching almost every intended nuance. It was worth the struggle.
     Good fiction can oftentimes better describe reality than a dry work of well documented non-fiction. When you read LeCarre at his best there is a sense that he is describing events the way they actually take place in the real world. Here are two examples: In B-grade thrillers, be it movies or books, it is quite common to have successful surveillances conducted by only a few people? Well, in one Tinker Tailor scene you have a British spy being followed as part of a ‘Grand Slam Operation’ and the intricacy of the surveillance is such that it couldn’t have been done properly with less than a hundred people. And when you think about it, that must be true. In a big city there are taxis and trains to be jumped into, buses blocking views, crowded stores with rear exits to enter. How could a few people possibly cover all situations?
     Also have you ever wondered how real interrogations take place? In most thrillers it’s a few slaps, some torture, maybe a little good cop bad cop, then a clever question or two and soon the subject is singing like a canary. Read Jim Prideaux’s description in Tinker Tailor of how the Russians broke him down over months. Gritty, yes. Harrowing, yes. But so real that you know that this is the way it is really done.
     Okay, next week, back to politics with a discussion on attack ads.
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich      
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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Writer

       There have been many books claiming to know the secret to writing ‘blockbusters’ and ‘bestsellers’. I have problems with books like this for two reasons. First, it’s silly to think there is a checklist formula for success in any competitive field.  Second, I’m always skeptical of people who know the secret to success in real estate, finances, or some other lucrative occupation but rather than practicing that secret themselves and getting rich that way, decide it’s a more effective use of their time to write a ‘how-to’ book on the subject.  Hmmm…what’s wrong with this picture?

     However, there are many books on writing where the author simply wants to pass on what they’ve learned after years of dedication to the craft. Some of these books are priceless and offer real gems for aspiring writers. Ever since Homer wrote the Iliad, people have wondered what makes a story compelling, fascinating, and memorable. Well, some people have spent a lifetime trying to figure that out. One of the things we know is that a great story causes the brain to create vivid pictures. So one of the keys to writing better is to understand how little scratches on a piece of paper, or, for that matter, electrical ink on a Kindle, can push those synaptic buttons in the mind.  
     In the course of trying to improve my writing, I have found three books of spectacular quality:
1.       Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. An all time classic. A hundred pages of clearly written pearls of writing wisdom.
2.        The Book of Writing by Paula LaRocque. Two hundred forty pages. Amusing at times, and always insightful.
3.        Keys to Great Writing by Stephen Wilbers. Two hundred sixty two pages of clear principles and great examples.
     All three books make a point about the importance of verbs and how even descriptions of inanimate objects can come alive if tied to action. Wilbers’s book gives two versions of the same description from The Great Gatsby – one that doesn’t utilize the power of verbs to create images, and the other showing how a great writer like Fitzgerald chose to handle it. Version one:      
“The lawn was expansive with sun-dials, and brick walls, and flower gardens. There were vines on the side of the house…”
And Fitzgerald:
“The lawn started at the beach and ran towards the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens – finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.”
    
     Notice the difference. Both versions use the same nouns, but Fitzgerald’s version adds verbs and action to the description and in so doing adds life, movement, and zest – and activates the brain. 
     At the same time as I read this point in Wilbers book, I was also reading and immensely enjoying John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I was curious if LeCarre practiced this technique. I decided to look for it as I read. It wasn’t more than a few pages later, on page thirty-nine, that I came across this little gem:
“They had turned off the road and were passing over gravel. Black walls of foliage rose to either side, lights appeared, then a high porch, and the steepled outline of a rambling house lifted above the treetops. The rain had stopped, but as Smiley stepped into the fresh air he heard all around him the restless ticking of wet leaves.”
     Now, here is the way a less skillful writer might have done it:
“The road was made of gravel. On either side were vines and branches. Up ahead there was a light and a large house with trees around it. The air was fresh and there were wet leaves on the ground.”
     Notice the difference?  It’s no wonder LeCarre is esteemed not just as a great thriller writer but as a great writer, period. In my next posting, it will be back to politics with a look at political attack ads. 
Best regards,
Jim                
Zurich  
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What if Apple Were Called Cucumber?

Are there great book titles, or do great books make their titles great?  And the question goes beyond the subject of book titles to cover the names of cars, companies, and rock bands. How do you find the perfect title?
There is a tendency with some organizations today, especially large multi-nationals and political parties, to run virtually every ‘marketing’ decision past ‘focus groups’ before going public. That process strikes me as a bit gutless and as prone to mistakes as any other system – but it does have the redeeming quality of making image consulting companies rich and also giving leaders someone else to blame if something goes wrong.
The story goes that Toyota chose the name of its luxury car brand that way. They hired the image consulting firm Lippincott and Margulies to run focus groups which eventually narrowed the list of possible names to Vectre, Verone, Chaparel, Calibre and Alexis. After further testing, Alexis became the front runner but later, after even more testing, it was shown that the name had too much association with the TV character Alexis Carrington from the 1980’s show Dynasty, so they monkeyed with a few letters and came up with ‘Lexus.’ Seems rather soul-less, but I suppose it was safe. If they had called the car ‘Mud’ would it have sold as well? Perhaps not.
But let’s think about this. Would a focus group have approved of the name ‘Apple’ for a company? Or ‘Beetle’ for a car? Or even ‘Beatles’ for a rock band? And what about books?  Gone with the Wind – what on earth does that mean?  For Whom the Bell Tolls – seems rather pretentious to me. Romeo and Juliet – why put the guy’s name first? – must have been some sexist who came up with the title. A Tale of Two Cities – must be a comedy. And what about that opening line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – would the writer please make up his mind – and by the way, the punctuation is wrong.
Do you see what I’m getting at? The titles of things are almost meaningless. Titles are just sounds that in many cases are given meaning by the work they represent. Apple is a rather dumb name for a high-tech company. But Steve Jobs once worked on an apple farm and he liked the Beatles (Apple records), so he and his partner Steve Wozniak decided that if they couldn’t come up with a better name after trying for a day, they would go with Apple. A focus group would have come up with “FirstTech” or “ComputerWare”.
Back to book titles: There are ways to mess up a book title. You can make it too long  or you can make it offensive or just plain stupid, but short of that, it’s the words between the covers that makes the book great, not the title. A great title alone will not get you on anyone’s best seller list, but, in fact, a great book will make even the title “Mud” sound perfect.
Well, next week, it’s onto the world of high finance and a discussion of the movie Inside Job, the winner of the 2010 Oscar for best documentary.
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich
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Finding Ideas for Thriller Plots

     I have been asked a few times how hard was it to come up with the plot for Einstein’s Trunk. The truth is, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I came up with the title first and then a few scenes just naturally formed in my mind – and the book took off from there. My personal view is that working out a thriller’s entire plot is certainly challenging, but finding a good, basic premise for a thriller is really not that hard. Most thrillers, even great thrillers, sound pretty hachneyed when summarized down to one sentence, and become alive and fascinating only when told well.
     The story goes that Ernest Hemingway based his story ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ on a story in a newspaper article, and the main character, Santiago, on the Cuban fisherman who captained his boat when Hemingway lived in Cuba during the ’30s. So, with that as my inspiration for this posting, I looked at the first few headlines in today’s New York Times and came up with these three thriller plots:
a.  Ex-Congressman lobbies for the medical industry, amassing great profits for his benefactors while reducing overall patient health care. One patient dies an avoidable death and the brother hunts the ex-congressman for revenge. 
b.  The U.S. shows greater than expected job growth and one of the beneficiaries is a family man with three kids. He works at his new job for 6 months then gets laid off as Tea Party policies upset the economy and cause massive layoffs again. He sends his wife and children to live with family, and he joins the Tea Party to…”  Well, the rest is up to your imagination.
c. During Hurricane Katrina looters prowl the deserted streets of New Orleans and neighborhood vigilantes take matters into their own hands.
     Bottom line: Finding ideas for thrillers is easy. It’s all in the writing.
     My next post will be on Rulon Hurt’s political persuasion. Is he a Democrat or a Republican? Inquiring minds want to know. And what about Yohaba – that ex-punk, European socialist, heavy metal, tattooed beauty? Has she had any influence on Rulon politically?

     All the best,

     Jim

    Zurich

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More on the experience of writing Einstein’s Trunk

     I must admit that it’s very difficult – make that impossible – for an author to be objective about his own work. With that in mind, I’m not going to say what I thought were the best parts in Einstein’s Trunk, just which parts I most enjoyed writing and which parts gave me the most difficulty 
   Somewhat to my surprise, my favorite part of the writing process was not constructing the action scenes but, rather, developing the characters. I remember writing the scene where Yohaba makes a pass at Rulon in her apartment, and sitting back afterwards and thinking to myself, “Wow, that was a surprise!” When I started writing that day, I honestly had no intention of having that happen at that point. I wasn’t even sure then if Yohaba or Isabella was going to be Rulon’s love interest. Even up until the time the two women were in Rulon’s apartment later that night, I still wasn’t sure which one was going to end up betraying Rulon. And that was the interesting part for me – that while the characters were all my creations, nevertheless, their characters unfolded for me in sometimes surprising ways. It was as if the act of creation and the act of discovery had blended together. The characters really did come alive in my mind.
    I’d say the next best thing for me was writing the dialogue between Rulon and Yohaba. I enjoyed playing Rulon’s dry wit off of Yohaba’s more emotional but equally caustic humor.
    The part I found most dificult to write – by far – was the beginning . I realize now how challenging it is to write the opening of a thriller. You have to keep the action going while at the same time revealing just the right amount of information about the character and the setting. If you give too much information, it slows down the action and bores the reader. If you don’t give enough detail about the character and background of the situation, then readers are confused. Also, if you give too much information, you run the risk of stunting your reader’s curiosity. It’s a real balancing act.
    I’d say the next most difficult parts were the physical descriptions of places and people. What details do you put in? Which ones do you leave out? The eternal questions!

In my next posting, I will write about the trials, tribulations, and joys of being a first time published author.

Best regards,

Jim
Zurich

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Starting a Discussion on Endings

     A bad ending can wreck a good story or a good ending can redeem a weak one. I’ve seen examples of both. I’ve also seen endings in books and movies that have caused me to see the entire story from a different perspective, or leave me begging for a sequel, or leave me thinking. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.
    Endings that detract from a good story: Sleepless in Seattle. Just when the two main characters meet, the story ends. Total frustration. By the way, if you think I’m wrong about that, I believe Nora Ephron, the writer of Sleepless, also knew that she had a problem with the ending because in her next screenplay she fixed it.  With You’ve Got Mail she again had the stars not really ‘meet’ and fall in love until the very end of the movie, but via a very clever and plausible script had them interacting somewhat romatically throughout the entire movie, and, in my opinion, produced a much more satifying romantic comedy as a result.
   An ending that salvaged a weak story: Okay, I suspect not everyone will agree with me on this, but I found myself not liking the story or even appreciating the characters until the end of the movie Unforgiven. From the moment that Clint Eastwood grabbed the whiskey bottle and took that drink while standing outside the town, the movie kicked into high gear, enough to win that movie the academy award. If it had been any other ending, the movie would have been a flop – in my opinion.  
    Endings that changed my perspective on a story: Unknown with Liam Neeson. When I first saw that movie I spent most of it counting up the plot holes only to find, when the ending was unveiled, that all the plot holes (except for one) were, in retrospective, not plot holes at all.
     Stories that left open the possibility of a sequel:  The first Star Wars. Darth Vader gaining control of his ship and flying off right after the destruction of the death star sends him cartwheeling into space. Movies that left me begging for a sequel: The second Star Wars Movie The Empire Strikes Back. Hans Solo being lowered into the chamber; Luke finding out Darth Vader is his father. Priceless.
      Endings that left me thinking:  The Time Machine with Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux when we are left to guess which books the hero took with him back to the future (Back to the Future, now that would be a good title for a movie!)
     So, what makes a good ending? There are no rules except one: Don’t play games with the reader. Understand what you wrote, its effect on your readers, and then weave an ending that leaves your readers satified and rewarded for having spent the time and effort to read your story.
    My next posting will be on where to find ideas for plots for books.

    Jim

    Zurich
   

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What "The Eagle" and "Battle: Los Angeles" taught me about telling stories

      I have to laugh. I just read Roger Ebert’s review of Battle: Los Angeles and, while I greatly respect Mr. Ebert’s opinions, I do believe he gave that movie the lowest rating I have ever seen. He not only hated the movie but said that anyone who liked it was an idiot. Oops. Well, I did like it, I’m almost embarrassed to say. The movie is about a squad of U.S. Marines who fight aliens in Los Angeles, and maybe the fact that I am an ex-Marine influenced my feelings.
    In any case, the movie was filled with clichés: the Marine sergeant with a troubled past, the green lieutenant, the Marines learning to trust each other, etc., etc. But here is what I liked: I thought it was honest and did not over-reach. And while it did have some clichés, it didn’t have all of them. For example, there was a kid in the movie but he had a small part and wasn’t captured by aliens and then needing to be rescued. And there was a woman, but the hero did not fall in love with her. But what I especially liked was that the movie did not try to be more than it was. Rather than having epic, special effects battles, virtually all of the fighting was via small team tactics between the Marines and the aliens. This allowed the characters to stay center-staged and reinforced the idea that even vs. aliens Marine Corps combat training and marksmanship are effective. Hoo-rah!!
     The Eagle is the story of a Roman officer in first century England trying to recapture a Roman Eagle that his father lost while commanding a Legion some years earlier. Ebert loved the movie, but, to my mind it had several major similarities to Battle: Los Angeles.  First it involved similar, simple themes and wasn’t shy about invoking clichés. Second, the battles were, by and large, a series of small group encounters that allowed the story to stay focused on the characters. As I watched the movie, I was struck by how the simple values of courage, loyalty, and trust can stir emotions in viewers, almost as if we as humans are hard-wired to respond to them.
    These two movies caused me to ponder what are the elements of a good thriller. These days some would say it is unexpected twists and brutal action that grab a reader’s attention. However, I am more likely to say, it is about the emotions the story conjures in its readers/viewers.
In my next posting I will discuss what makes a satisfying ending in a thriller.
Jim Haberkorn
Zurich
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