It’s no surprise to my blog followers that a little weather disturbance threw me for a loop on Sept. 15th.
Specifically, the largest hurricane on record to make landfall in Baja, California, scored a direct hit where I live.
For those that wonder what being in a category 3 or 4 hurricane is like, consider a jet on takeoff in the rain. If you’ve ever flown in a storm, you know how the water appears to be moving sideways at such speed it could strip paint.
That’s what it’s like. Only worse. Because it keeps going for hour after relentless hour.
The real irony is that when the eye of the storm hovers overhead, and you’ve just spent three or four hours of damage control on all the east-facing doors and windows, and for a half hour of exhausted relief you think you’ve made it…then everything reverses, and the winds hit from the opposite direction, adding insult to injury for another three or so hours and bringing the hurt from the other side, so all your damage control does nothing and you have to start all over again.
The main storm really started to batter at eight pm. Power went out at eight-twenty. Fortunately I’d prepared, and had flashlights, batteries, candles, etc. ready. I also had hurricane protection across my large glass areas. Canned food. Tons of bottled water. Tequila. Dog food.
When you live in a home that’s built out of steel and concrete, not much should worry you. Not fire – concrete doesn’t burn. Not rain – it’s not like it melts. Not wind – doesn’t blow away.
That’s how I was thinking. By around ten o’clock, as water poured beneath my front door (and through it, where the wood joints connect) and the windows were flexing in their aluminum frames, I revised my opinion. By eleven, as my hands cramped from wringing towels into a bucket to dump down the shower drain, I revised my thinking again. Even with hurricane protection in place, every window became a river – there’s no way to 100% seal a window under 130-140 mph pressure. I discovered that rolling up garbage bags and stuffing them into the tracks slowed the flow by maybe 50%, so rushing rivers become more manageable streams. But we’re talking every room quickly becoming a lake, no matter what you do.
By the time the storm had blown past, around four a.m., I was beat, and beaten.
The next day was a landscape straight out of hell.
My house experienced some damage – roof tiles that blew off with such force they took chunks of the cement slab beneath with them, exterior wrought iron lamps that blew away, an iron door that tore off its hinges and flew who knows where, uprooted palms, debris everywhere. But as I walked the alien landscape that was my neighborhood, I realized I’d been extremely fortunate. My next door neighbor’s front doors had blown in, his windows had broken, a tree had torn part of his roof off, and the storm had basically roared through his home for six hours. No need to exaggerate the effects of high-pressure water on plaster, paint, carpentry, or furniture. Suffice it to say it’s not pretty.
Another house up the street was missing all its windows. Its garage door was crumpled in the middle of the street about fifty yards away like discarded tissue. The place on the other side of me had steel storm shutters across most of its windows – a great idea. The problem is the several that didn’t (because they were considered structurally sound enough to withstand 150 mph winds) blew out, as did the double front doors, exposing the new home to the full wrath of the storm. As I walked past it, I noted that the garage door had also blown in, probably from the pressure change when the windows went, the resulting debris totaling the two cars inside.
All of these places are built out of cinderblock and rebar. Otherwise there would be nothing left. I got to the security area near the entrance, where an administration trailer had been – a big one, maybe forty feet – and it was gone. There were a few desks scattered around the area, but no trailer. Trees had blown down, and through doors and windows, and the entire entrance was clogged with debris and broken glass and bits of peoples’ homes. Of thirty houses I looked at, half were devastated. As in, wrath of God, biblical end times, devastated. Most residents had left before the storm hit, or use their places as winter homes and so weren’t there. So thankfully there weren’t too many people around to be injured in my subdivision.
An exception was my neighbor, who suffered deep lacerations from broken glass that claimed most of his hand. The doctor was apologetic about lacking any morphine or local anesthetic while she dug shards out before stitching the gashes up – everything had been destroyed by the storm, the hospital flooded, the windows broken, supplies blown to the far horizon. Another victim was brought in by a weeping woman as we left – a pane of glass had sliced his entire left side, from his ribcage, all the way down his back, wide open. He didn’t look like he was going to make it. The doctors were doing what they could for him when we pulled away. There were more cars limping toward the hospital, through two feet of water, the effects of broken glass and flying debris lethal.
Anyone who wants a feel for what the aftermath was like should google Hurricane Odile, Cabo, and look at the pictures. I can assure you they are the tame version.
The looters appeared the night after the storm. I won’t belabor this, but let me say, on the record, that the looting destroyed almost as much of the area as the hurricane. My heart was heavy as I watched the poor, those from the barrios who had just lost their homes, looting every retail store they could get to. Desperation does strange things. 95% of the population behaved honorably. The 5% that didn’t were those in true need…and those who viewed it as a chance to prey on others without consequences.
It took the Mexican government almost six days to get sufficient troops in to stop the looting. I stayed for five of those days, doing what I could to help my neighbors, absent power, water, food, gasoline. I decided to pull out when the flashlights of looters swarmed over the community one over from mine, like glowbugs after dark, the only sound that of glass shattering as they broke into homes. When my maintenance guy appeared the next day to check in with me, he advised against being on the road. There were rumors of truckloads of armed thugs going neighborhood to neighborhood, robbing and shooting anyone who resisted. Apparently a lack of accountability emboldens the criminally inclined, and after five days, there was nothing that was off-limits.
When I left I followed a police truck out of town. My last recollection is of driving past two men in the process of robbing a small, family-owned tire store located on the far edge of town, stuffing the bed of their late-model Dodge truck full of free tires. This for me typified what had gone on – those preying on their neighbors because they could, rather than out of desperation or necessity. It was a tiny minority, but numbered in the thousands – when I drove by the looting of Costco on night number two or three, there were hundreds of vehicles there. Would that this was mass hysteria over getting sufficient food to feed the baby. Maybe some of it was, but mostly it was guys loading refrigerators and big screen TVs into SUVs.
To put it into perspective, Wal Mart, Sams Club, City Club, Costco…none were damaged by the storm. They made it through fine. As I drove by them, all were gutted and looked like battles had been fought on their grounds.
I plan to return as soon as there’s dependable power and food. Right now that looks like a week or two away. Hopefully. There’s some power to some areas, and then it goes off as the 110 transformers that were initially shipped in error instead of the 220s that should have been, blow up, adding weeks to the mess.
I’m fine. I got off light. My bruises, scrapes, etc. are healing or healed. I’m on mainland, the dogs are safe, all is well.
But on the list of things I never want to do again this is one of them. Been there, done that, got the shirt.
I have sketchy internet where I am, so won’t be online a lot. Sorry about that. Moving around with a couple of big dogs is challenging. The sparrow is doing well – my maintenance guy’s cousin is at my house, daily, doing essential repairs, feeding and watering her.
Hopefully things will get back to normal soon. But it will be a long time until I can drive by Wal Mart and not see it by bonfire as looters run amok, frenzied grins at getting something for nothing on their faces, or see Vinoteca (a large specialty wine store) being looted by guys in Mercedes SUVs, breaking the glass of the rare cognac section with a fire extinguisher so they can get to the really good stuff. Because, hey, someone’s going to get it if they don’t, and right now it’s free, right?
The problem being, of course, that there’s always a price. Nothing’s ever free. For the Los Cabos area, I fear that the price will be paid for years to come. Paradise lost for a TV or a washing machine or a fridge.
To say I’m saddened by my fellow man is a serious understatement. But I’m not surprised. If anything, I’m surprised not by the number of predatory and opportunistic, but by the number of honorable, good people who did the right thing and didn’t join in. Alas, it doesn’t take many of the bad, who dress and behave like the good and smile with false friendliness until a disaster hits, to ruin it for everyone.
Human nature. You see it in all disaster areas. New Orleans. The Ukraine. The Middle East. The list is endless.
I suppose to hope that we as a species are better than we actually are is foolish. We are, at our core, our own worst enemies.
The Mexican government is being commended for its rapid action. For five days after the disaster, it did nothing and allowed criminals to run amok. The media spin is BS. It took six days for them to stop looting and impose a curfew, and the road to La Paz, down which the trucks that carried the soldiers rolled, had been open the entire time. They could have been here within 12 hours. Instead it took almost a week. The day the serious troops showed up the looting stopped. Being lawless suddenly carried repercussions and lost its appeal.
I hear everything’s now back to normal, being cleaned up, rebuilt as well as is possible to do without dependable power. I’ll be heading back once I hear from my neighbor that the electricity’s been on for more than a few hours, and there’s food in the stores. Until then, I’ll continue my refugee existence – hopefully not for too much longer.
Oh, and before I forget, if you want to do something worthwhile, want to help, go to the website for the Los Cabos Humane Society and donate. The animals got the worst of it. If misery has a face, it’s an animal after a hurricane. They’ll need all the help they can get. I plan to donate time and money upon my return. If you feel stirred to do so yourself, there’s no better cause.
That’s the update. Now go buy my crap – someone’s got to replace the lost tequila, and it ain’t buying itself.
My co-authored novel with Clive Cussler, The Eye Of Heaven, broke out in its first week at #2 on the New York Times ebook bestseller list, and #5 on the hardcover print list.
So I can scratch that off my bucket list.
Here are the pages of the September 21st bestseller lists. It charted on one of the combined charts, too. So an auspicious beginning, one could say.
It’s all a dizzy whirlwind on my end as I write away every day. Hitting the lists is fun and a neat way of earning bragging rights, but the truth is that it’s readers I care most about, so my interest in the lists is only to the extent that they represent reader habits. I’ve charted on the USA Today list, and now the Times, so from this point on I won’t be paying much attention to them.
What is kind of cool is that people have been sending me photos from airports around the country, where the book is on the shelves, so that part of my evil plan is playing out nicely. It’s a charge to see one’s book next to John Green and Nora Roberts. Whodda thunk?
Still, it’s not every day you hit the NY Times bestseller lists, so I’ll have a happy memory of Sept. 11, 2014, for the rest of my life. Now back to writing. Because the damn books don’t write themselves…
It’s no secret to readers of my blog that one of the keys to having a sustainable career as an indie is to regularly release new work. The market is a hungry monkey with a short memory, and if you won’t feed it, someone else will.
NEWS: R.E. Blake’s debut YA/NA romance, Less Than Nothing, gets a mega review from MBR.
BREAKING NEWS: I just hit the NY Times bestseller list at #5 with Eye of Heaven on hardcover print edition, and #2 on the ebook list, to be published Sept. 21. So I’ll be totally insufferable from here on out. As if I wasn’t already…
So here are some tips for writing more efficiently, which is to say, producing more, higher quality work in less time.
1) Turn off the internet. Do it. Your productivity will increase 30-40%. “But I need it for research.” No you don’t. Why? See tip 2.
2) Do your research before you write the frigging book. Don’t research as you go or you’ll never get any momentum. If you must, make notes of items that need research and do them after you’ve hit your daily word goal.
3) Have a daily word goal. Hit it no matter what. I wrote JET – Ops Files with three broken metacarpal bones in my hand. And I hit my word count, every stinking day, even working at a third of the speed I could two-handed. If I can do it one-handed, what’s your excuse? Oh, and “life happened” or “but I have too many other obligations” are not reasons. They’re excuses. Put simply, you either want to make this happen or you don’t. If you have a bunch of excuses for why it’s too hard, take up some other hobby that’s less demanding, because this ain’t for you. People who have excuses when they’re drowning wind up dead. People who will do anything to stay afloat usually make it. Decide which you are and then be it.
4) Don’t edit and revise until you’re done with first draft. If you insist on going back and editing the previous paragraph while in process, you’re wasting your time and breaking your momentum. If you feel you must edit as you go, set aside time AFTER YOU HAVE WRITTEN YOUR DAY’S WORD GOAL to then edit it. Otherwise you’re trying to run a marathon carrying an anvil. You won’t win.
5) Insert placeholders for shit you don’t know. Don’t agonize over the perfect character name, use XXX or YYY or ZZZ and come back to it after you’ve hit your word count for the day. Same with locations, same with models of cars or equipment or anything you’re unsure of. Come back to it. Just write the story. Hit the details later.
6) Outline the book with single sentence chapter headings that clue you on what the point of each chapter is. Stuff like “Chpt 1 – Martin discovers he’s actually dead. Chpt 2 – Martin goes to hospital to find out why.” And so on. If you know in advance what you want to accomplish with the chapter you’re a lot further along than staring at the page hoping something comes to you. You’ll cut your production time by 50% if you do this sort of rudimentary outline. To those who don’t outline, I’ve done it both ways, and I speak from experience, and with love: if you’re anything like me, if you don’t outline you’re just being lazy, because you don’t want to have to think the whole thing through in advance. Don’t be lazy. It’ll cost you more in the long run in lost productivity.
7) Sit down at the top of the year and pencil out a production schedule, and stick to it. When I mean stick to it, I mean stick to it like someone will blow your head off if you miss it. Like you’ll be fired from your job as a writer if you miss it. Just like real writers with real writing jobs in Hollywood are fired if they don’t have their work done on time. If you want to do this as a career, develop discipline. Hollywood writers deliver every day, every week, regardless of whether their rugrats are crying or they have a booboo or they just aren’t feeling it today. Because they have to or their asses get canned. View yourself the same way and hold yourself to the same standards. Put your big girl or boy pants on and step up. If you look at your WIP and go, “but I just don’t feel like it,” understand you’re saying, “I just don’t feel like doing this for a living, so I’ll go back to working at Pet Boys or whatever, because I don’t have what it takes to do this.”
8) Demand more out of yourself than anyone else expects. Push the bar every day. Find greatness within yourself and force it to become your norm. If you don’t, nobody else will. Understand that most people will never do this. They’ll never be great at anything. That’s not you. If you’re going to add to the millions of books clogging Amazon, do it because you’re producing top level product, not because you want to be one of the other million mediocre screeds that nobody will ever buy or read. Aspire to more than that, even if the odds say you won’t succeed. At the end of all this you’re dead, and what you do between now and then is what will give your life meaning. Make sure it’s something you will go “That was awesome” about when you’re taking your last breaths.
9) Don’t tell crappy stories. Demand that your stories set a new bar for yourself every time. Every. Single. Time. Go big or go home.
10) The power of questions: Ask yourself, “How can I make this the best chapter I have ever written, and be excited and have fun doing it?” before you sit down to write. Asking yourself questions that empower you determines your perception of what you do, and will affect how you do it. Ask good questions. “How can I turn out the best book I’ve ever written and do it in less time than I dreamed possible while enjoying the process” gets you a different answer than “Why can’t I keep up with those other authors” or “What am I thinking, even trying this?” If you believe you can, you’re right. If you believe you can’t, you’re right. If you believe, “I’ll find a way,” you’ll have a different career than “This will never work.”
11) Up your game every time you write. It’s like any other craft. You are either stagnating or you’re improving. View every chance to write as a chance to improve and grow. Thousands of incremental forward steps will land you in a far different place at the end of a few years than sitting down and churning out the same ol’ each time.
12) Set reasonable goals. If you only have an hour a day to write, figure out how to generate 700-1000 decent words a day, and do it, every single day, no exceptions. If you do, you will generate 300+K per year. That’s three-four novels a year. If you can’t even manage an hour a day, stop reading my blog and watch some TV instead, because this isn’t your calling, and you’re not even close to serious enough to do anything but waste everyone’s time. Sorry. But it’s true. Don’t try to compete with people who are serious about it and expect anything but heartbreak. Just accept that this is an occasional hobby and do it as such. For the record, hobbies don’t pay. You pay to have them.
These dozen tips will help you create quality work faster. If you pick and choose which tips resonate with you and leave the rest, your effectiveness will drop with each tip left by the wayside. It’s a cumulative thing. Like getting ready for a road trip, you can skip putting gas in the car or ensuring you have air in your tires or packing food and water or bothering to look at a map or ensuring you have money in your pocket, but each step you skip will ultimately reduce your odds of successful travel. This blog is for those who want to be successful travelers.
Now go forth and multiply, and never forget to buy my crap.
My goal when telling a story is to immerse my reader into whatever is going on so they feel they’re right in the middle of it. This means that they need to experience at a number of different levels. Ideally, I’ll engage all of their senses rather than focusing exclusively on the story.
You could call that approach to writing experiential. I find that asking myself a number of questions before starting a scene really helps. Those questions are, after asking, “what’s the point?” as outlined in my prior post: What’s the environment like? Hot? Cold? Humid? Dry? What does it smell like? What sounds can be heard? How does it feel (if in a jungle, the ground will feel different than a desert, as will the plants or whatnot, and so on)? What do the surroundings look like? How much light? What kind? And on and on. A good checklist before each chapter might be: Time of day? Weather? Surroundings? Sounds? Tactile sensations? Smells? Tastes (I’ll usually try to impart some character state-of-mind using taste or something associated – a dry swallow, a lump in the throat, the flavor of metal or sour bile or acid, etc.)? Once you understand these elements in the scene, you can integrate the information seamlessly into your story. If you haven’t thought about them, you can’t.
If you can impart this information to the reader in a way that isn’t an info dump, it will help you put the reader in the thick of it. Even writing something like romance I try to do this. Especially in sex scenes, where the whole experiential thing really carries the mood, employing all the senses to immerse the reader is essential.
That’s not to say you want to write page after page of description. Often a well placed word here and there will get it across. Just as you don’t need to belabor how a character is feeling, which we’ll get to in the next bit (you can convey that they’re nervous by putting a quaver in their voice, or a stammer, or a hesitation, have their eyes dart to something, have them shift or fidget – just about anything besides “he said nervously” or “he was nervous”).
Viewing the senses as elements you drop hints about or leave clues about for the reader to catch is a good way of doing it, and requires a delicate touch. Too often for my tastes, novice authors either employ prose that’s overly sparse (like the journalistic style praised by ex-journalists like Mark Twain and Hemingway) and leave far too much out for my liking, or go florid in an attempt to get across a sense of the environment. If you want to read brilliant examples of how to write atmospherics well, read anything by James Lee Burke. To my ear, his descriptions beat the snot out of any other living writer, although there are a few that come close.
So aside from “what’s the point?” which is the question you should begin every writing session with (not, what’s the point of writing, rather, what point does this next bit serve – what’s its objective?), ask yourself how the scene is set – what it looks like, what it smells like, how it feels, what it sounds like, etc. Because if you don’t know and haven’t provided the clues, your reader sure as hell doesn’t know, and their experience will suffer accordingly.
I had a discussion with an author the other day that I thought the writers who follow my blog might find interesting. We were talking about his latest WIP, and what I believed could be improved.
About a third of the way through the discussion, I gave him one of my secrets for writing a compelling novel. The secret is asking a simple question: What’s the point?
If you do that before outlining, or writing each chapter, you’ll wind up with a much more interesting book. Alternatively, for you pansters, when you go back on your first editing run, you should view each chapter with skepticism, asking, “what’s the point?”
If there’s no compelling reason for a chapter to be there, if it’s just blah blah, it should be cut. Period. Doesn’t matter that you wrote it, that it’s filled with your precious prose. There has to be a point to every chapter (we can actually take that to each paragraph, as well as to the overall book theme, but you get the idea).
Now, lest you misread me, I’m not saying that every chapter has to advance a major plot element forward. It’s that you need to understand why you’re writing it. Is it to tell the reader more about a character? To put the character in jeopardy? To foreshadow something that will be relevant later? To have something happen that’s essential to the story? Do you need an action beat?
If you find yourself looking at a chapter and the answer is, to increase the word count, or because I need something between this last bit and the next, don’t write it. Figure out the reason that this next chapter cries out to be in your book, and ensure you achieved your objective by the last word of it.
If you take this approach seriously, you might find your books getting shorter. That’s okay. It’s better to have a shorter, punchier book than a fat, bloated screed filled with meaningless meandering. Think as a reader. You really want to read ten pages describing the woods next to the house the protag’s just arrived at? No. There’s no point to it. So axe it.
Don’t get me wrong. You can have an objective like, “I want a rhythmic beat here so the reader can catch his breath.” But it would be better to combine that with, “and I want to show the reader something important about the character while I do it.”
So that’s my quick craft tip for the day. Ask yourself what’s the point. That will ensure that your chapters are mission driven by a clear objective.
Believe me, your reader and your editor will be glad you did.
Howey, that is. Superstar indie author of Wool. And genuinely, all-around nice guy.
We spent last evening talking about everything and everything on Authors On The Air radio, with Pam Stack.
We covered a lot of ground. Everything from self-evaluation as writers, to our vastly different approaches to generating content, to our philosophies of writing, to what all this Hachette/Amazon fuss is about, to traditional publishing, to writing romance, to the therapeutic value of tequila, to…well, just about everything.
Perhaps what was most interesting to me was how natural the discussion was, how brutally honest at times, and how easy it was to tackle a host of subjects. Callers chimed in, I got disconnected twice due to God’s wrath (okay, a passing hurricane, which sort of qualifies), and as always, I was mixed most of the time so that I sounded like an old woman screaming from the bottom of a well. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
It was interesting to me that he sees a big difference between genres in terms of the nurturing and support offered by established names, or trad pubbed authors to their self-pubbed brethren. My take is that the reason romance is more supportive vs., say, sci fi, is because sci fi is male dominated, and male dominated markets tend to be snake pits because, well, it’s all dudes swinging their dicks around being hyper-competitive and territorial. That’s my theory, anyway. Could be I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. Males tend to engage in a lot of zero sum thinking, which is why men fight and kill each other versus building bridges. A generality, but one I’ve found holds true.
We agreed to disagree on Amazon’s long term business strategy, but were unanimous that everyone should buy my crap.
There we have it. That’s the summary. If you have some extra time, worth a listen.
Oh, and my co-authored tome with Clive Cussler is selling briskly. Thank heavens and Amazon!
My co-authored debut with legendary grand master of adventure Clive Cussler, The Eye of Heaven, is live, and selling like dollar meals at McDs (or like they used to when a dollar bought anything but a stick of gum).
I of course attribute this to my name on the cover, although clearly someone at the publisher got the font size and color confused. But no matter, in this day of internet magic, word has apparently spread of the literary merit of my unique prose stylings, hence the rush of excitement.
Seriously, though, I love the opening of this book. Towering waves, a storm so brutal it’s palpable…exactly the sort of beginning I always admired when I was reading the genre oh so many years ago. I’m proud of how our effort turned out, and I hope that readers enjoy it – every chapter sought to raise the bar while hopefully increasing readers’ pulses.
So what’s next, you ask? Well, we’re working on another Fargo novel and enjoying the process, so I think we can expect to see one more Russell Blake/Clive Cussler collaboration, in, oh, about a year.
Those who are new to my work would be well advised to read The Voynich Cypher, for a racing treasure hunt in the mold of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, or if you want breakneck action, JET, which is my bestselling series. JET is unapologetically over-the-top fun, described as a female Bourne on steroids. The first book in the series, the prequel, JET – Ops Files, is free, and as good a place to start as any. Give it a shot, and if you like it, rest assured there are seven more volumes available, with number 8 releasing in December.
In the shameless self-promotion department, I was also just informed that JET has made it to the finals of the Kindle Book Review’s annual awards contest, with winners announced Oct. 1! Just finishing as a finalist is more than enough for me, unless of course winning comes with a huge check or a hottie in a lambo, in which case, get outta my way cause I’m a gonna take you out.
Here’s the badge I got. I intend to lord it over my enemies as I dance on their cold graves in my boots, chortling at their misery. And my critics, who are clearly bitter, angry malcontents deserving of nothing but mockery.
In other news, I’ll be interviewing Hugh Howey on Authors On The Air radio on Sept. 4th at 8 pm EST, and we’ll be talking about a host of subjects, all of which will be a complete surprise to both of us since we’ve done no preparation. If you want to hear two bestselling indies winging it and shooting the breeze, tune in. And if you have any questions for Hugh, leave them in the comments. With any luck at all that will provide the basis of the show. Otherwise, it’s likely to degrade into arguments about boats and the cost of beer, and nobody needs to listen to that for an hour. You’ve been warned. This is on you if that’s what happens.