March 17, 2012.
The official launch date of my newest novel, The Voynich Cypher.
An exciting book for me, as it represents a departure from my customary conspiracy thriller fare. Most of my novels are cast in the tradition of Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth. But not Voynich. This is a completely different kind of thriller.
AN EVEN NEWER BREAKING NEWS: A fun interview on process with Emerald Barnes.
NEW BREAKING NEWS! A fabulous interview with The Indie View on Voynich, writing, process & life.
BREAKING NEWS! Great interview with bestselling award-winning author Melissa Foster on writing The Voynich Cypher, clowns, Satan and nude ice dancing.
UPDATE: New interview with Amber Norrgard. One of my favorites yet, with an awesome poet/author/friend.
NEWSFLASH: Book review of The Voynich Cypher by bestselling author Steven Konkoly. This is a must read.
NEWS: Guest blog wherein I discuss the writing of The Voynich Cypher and the big idea behind it at The Veil War blog.
BOOK REVIEW: A great book review of The Voynich Cypher by Books N Beans.
ANOTHER BOOK REVIEW: This time from Kate’s Reads. Nice!
The Voynich Cypher is an unusual kind of a book for me to pen. A pure adventure thriller in the mold of The Da Vinci Code, Foucault’s Pendulum and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Featuring the protagonist from Zero Sum, my Wall Street thriller – Dr. Steven Archer Cross.
It’s a race of a read, 100K words, and no fat or fluff. Just relentless story. And quite a story it is.
For more detail on what I was trying to accomplish or how I went about writing this one, read some of the above interviews and blogs. No point in belaboring them here. What I will say is that the end result surpassed even my most wild hopes, and is some of my best work to date. Suffice it to say I’m proud as hell of this book, and believe it will be the one that breaks it wide open.
It will be specially priced from its selling price of $5.97 for the launch, slashed to $3.33, and that pricing could end at any moment – I’m deeply discounting it so that it gets as many early readers as possible. So go buy it. Buy two, and give one to your dog or cat.
The synopsis pretty much covers what you can expect out of the book: When a sacred relic is stolen from its subterranean guarded vault, Dr. Steven Cross, amateur cryptographer, becomes embroiled in a deadly quest to decipher one of history’s most enigmatic documents – a 15th century parchment written entirely in unbreakable code; The Voynich Manuscript. Stalked by secret societies, and aided by the daughter of a murdered colleague, a trail of riddles catapults Cross from England to Italy to the Middle East, where a Byzantine web of ancient secrets leads him to a revelation so profound it will change the world order.
Here’s the cover. Let me know what you think
Readers of my blog know that I began my experiment with KDP Select in mid-January. The main attraction for me was the ability to put a title free for a day or three, thereby enhancing visibility and presumably giving me a boost on the “most popular” and “also bought” lists following the free day(s).
So how has that worked?
Glad you asked, internal dialogue that always seems to know just what to inquire for maximum effect.
Sales of my books increased by a factor of four in January, from my most popular month ever – December. Given that I have been at this for a whopping nine months, that would kind of make sense. December, everybody on the planet got Kindles for Xmas, and needed content for them. Ergo, more books would sell.
BREAKING NEWS: Fantastic guest blog at The Veil War on the writing of The Voynich Cypher.
MORE BREAKING NEWS: Interview, book review of The Delphi Chronicle, Book 1, and a short story. Must read! With author Kathleen Patel.
UPDATE: Monday, 3-12. Interview with Digital Ink Spot on Amazon promos, process & thoughts.
UPDATE: New interview just posted with Eden Baylee. It’s a fun one.
I also released a slew of books in December – Night of the Assassin, King of Swords, and The Delphi Chronicle trilogy. Night and Book 1 of Delphi were and are free, so I increased my available paid titles by two that month, bringing it to a total of seven possible paid titles to buy. I don’t count the first book of Zero Sum, because that was free as well, nor do I count the individual books in the trilogies, as nearly everyone who buys, buys the bundles.
If all things were equal, I would have expected an organic growth of 20-25% from the new titles, which is about what I saw from November to December. All very predictable.
In mid-January, I enrolled my first book in KDP Select, and ran a couple of days free. The Geronimo Breach saw 12K downloads in its two free days, and then sales took off like a rocket for 5 or 6 days, eventually dropping back to a sustainable rate that was above December’s run rate, but nothing like what the post-free week was like. That got me looking at other authors’ experiences, and sure enough, the post-free phenomenon was being discussed, although it was still largely too new to rate.
I then ran a few more titles free, for a day here and there, and lo and behold, saw the same effect. This resulted in a reproducible sales boost, and appeared to have pulled my other titles along with it. I finished January giddy, with four times December’s bucks in my pocket.
February, for the first two weeks, sales were down 30% from January. Other authors indicated that was a well-understood effect of readers digesting all the books they’d downloaded. Made sense, but still not a lot of fun to see. In the final two weeks, I ran Geronimo free for one day, and Zero Sum free for two, and Geronimo saw 10K in one day, and Zero Sum saw about 20K on two days of downloads, hitting number 5 for free downloads. Post free, sales took off like a scared rabbit again, and I finished February at the same sales level as January, which is to say back at four times December sales, but income was up 25%, at five times December’s sales, due to a higher ASP after the artificially low promotional pricing I’d tried on a few titles in Jan. I figured it would be down 20%, so that was a pleasant surprise.
March, Zero Sum has been continuing its run from the free days the end of February, performing well and holding in the 500 paid range now 8 days post promo, which is unexpected but nice. But here’s the amazing part about the KDP promotions: by March 10 I will have sold more or less as many books as I did all of Feb. Obviously, that portends good things. If sales stay on track the rest of the month, I can expect a double to tripling over the course of the March, or roughly eight to twelve times December sales.
That’s an eye-opening number. Extrapolating, if March comes in as it’s shaping up, from that point on with no sales growth at all (even though I’ll be adding a slew of new titles this year), I will sell well over 100K books in 2012. Needless to say, if that happens, I’ll be one of the very very very few indie authors making a significant living from my passion. That’s amazing for two reasons. First, up until Amazon created its revolution in self-publishing, it would have been impossible. Utterly, completely impossible. A pipe dream. Second, it’s astounding because I will be a failure by traditional publishing standards.
Failing has never felt so good.
If I have 12 paid titles out by the end of 2012, and I’m selling 100K books, I’m only moving 9K books per year, per title, mas o menos. That’s a disaster by traditional published standards. And yet obviously, by living in Mexico self-publishing standards, it’s a home run. The numbers assume that none of my books really hit in any way big. In fact, these numbers might. My new one, launching on March 17, The Voynich Cypher, could blow things wide open. It’s that kind of a book. Mainstream, accessible, my take on a Dan Brown/Raiders of the Lost Ark style adventure/thriller. If it gets traction, it could be a big book. Early readers are enthusiastic, so I’ve got high hopes for it, but even if it sort of of putters along flat, I’m still in the mix to hit my 2012 numbers. Again, this all assumes that none of my books really get discovered, or in any way hit the mainstream.
I attribute my success to date, such as it is, to two things. First, to writing a heartfelt blog about a beloved & perhaps misunderstood public figure and comparing him to my dad, and having it go viral. Okay, maybe not so much that. Seriously, it’s because of being fortunate enough to have delivered a reasonable product to those brave or stupid enough to try my offerings, and building slow recognition organically. And second, it’s because the KDP Select program has created a venue whereby indie authors can displace the big name brand authors, and get a small slice of awareness from an audience they previously would have had no chance of reaching. The first takes 15 hour days, 7 days a week, for 10 months. The second took KDP deciding to offer “free” as a perk for joining the Select program.
I owe Amazon deep and sincere gratitude, and hope they crush the bones of their competitors to jelly and dance in the still-warm blood of their adversaries as they rule the book world. At least, for another year or two, it would be nice. My game plan is to have twenty titles out by the end of 2013, all selling for between $2.99 and $6.99. If Amazon’s KDP program stays in place and their algorithms don’t change, I and a whole group of writers who had no real shot at making a decent living suddenly have become viable. Perhaps Indie will become the new slush pile – but one that pays well. Or perhaps there won’t be any more slush piles, and the phones will go unanswered in NY sometime soon.
On a related topic, my UK sales are now trending at 10% of my US sales, so the UK is having more of an effect than I would have expected. Given that I have done exactly zero marketing beyond twitter and a lackadaisical Facebook presence, that also portends good things. Although I will say that I have been participating in Melissa Foster’s World Literary Cafe, and the visibility from that group’s efforts have likely played a role in my sales. I recommend them highly, for those looking to participate in a good organization.
Loans have also increased, and as of today, for March 8, I have 450 borrows. As I said in a prior blog, on titles at my price point at least some of those are displacing sales at a considerably higher net rate, but the overall positive of being in the KDP program is outweighing that negative. Hard to bitch over the cost of doing business on that one.
That’s where we are as of today. Whether sales continue apace, or dirt dive, is unknowable from this point on, but I’ll keep everyone updated. It’s been a fascinating experiment so far. I’ll post an end of year summary in December, and maybe a mid-year one in July – really, the first full year of being in this game. Beyond that, thank you to my readers, and good luck to all the authors following this blog. It can be done. It’s just not easy. Nothing is.
UPDATE: As of March 10, midnight, I have sold 3015 books this month and had 540 borrows. A little slower than I’d hoped, but the last few days were laggards. Still, difficult to whine too much. I’ll save that for the end of the month when I’ve crashed and burned…
My last blog focused on the positives and negatives of the Amazon KDP Select scheme, particularly pertaining to the loan fees and how they compare to outright sales commissions on higher priced books.
This blog will focus more on the value of the actual promotions, and explore what, if any, benefit one can hope to garner by giving away thousands of books. I’ll do this by describing my own experiences with one of the titles I made free.
Last month, I dipped my toe in the water by making The Geronimo Breach free for three days. During that time, I saw about 12K downloads. Not too shabby. Then, when it went back to paid, a funny thing happened. After languishing for the first day, it shot like a rocket, finally hitting #165 in the paid kindle store.
All good. Or rather, all should have been good. One problem was that the book was .99 rather than $3.99, due to price matching with Barnes, which after three weeks still hadn’t taken the book down, even after numerous e-mails. And .99 was the wrong price anyway, but I digress. The point is that Amazon’s software matched it, so folks were downloading 500+ books a day at .99.
Sales peaked at day 3-4 of being paid, and then started dropping off, bottoming at week three or so.
At the time, I didn’t know what to make of the data. I was frantic on day 5 – what was going wrong? Why did God hate me? Were the clowns behind it? What gave?
Turns out that this is a very predictable and knowable cycle for those who have done free days. Reason is because the Amazon algorithms pick up on the ranking from when it was free, and begin featuring the book on their recommendations pages about, you guessed it, 24 hours after going back to paid, as well as in the “also bought” strip at the bottom of other books your shoppers picked up. Over the next two to three days, love is in the air, and sales roll in. But then the book, whatever it is, gets pushed off to the second tier to make room for the more recent titles that did well since then. And the buying from folks Amazon was presenting you to dries up, little by little, and you’re back to your old run rate. Sort of like being a Hollywood starlet who briefly dates a celebrity, you have to be satisfied with and enjoy your moment in the sun, because it won’t last.
But knowing this presents an opportunity. It suggests a way to play the game so you can win, if you’re an author. Specifically, you can understand the phenomenon and capitalize on it. How? By running another free promotion 4 to 5 weeks after the first one. Maybe at 6 weeks, maybe at 3 1/2. Depends on sales. But you can repeat the performance.
Let’s go back to The Geronimo Breach. Thursday, it went free for 24 hours. It saw 10K+ downloads, and hit #11 in the Amazon free store last night. Most of the day, it, and one of my other free titles, The Delphi Chronicle, were #2 and #5 in Kindle free Action/Adventure.
That’s the second promotion, and it was more successful than the first – 10K in one day versus 12K in three. And the best part? I didn’t tweet about it. I didn’t do anything. Because I’d forgotten I was going to run it, and only figured it out halfway through the day when I checked my rankings. So that was with no social media at all, other than a few tweets from some friends (thanks Claude!) and being listed as free on several websites that picked it up. One of the best I’ve found for thrillers being Epic Kindle Giveaway (I follow it on Twitter at @eBookSwag), as well as The Digital Inkspot, and Digital Book Today. Others that may or may not pick it up are Cheap Kindle Daily, Pixels of Ink, and a host of others. Google them for a complete listing. There seem to be new ones every week. Most are very good for what they are, and save a lot of time.
I am now at day one of The Geronimo Breach being back to paid. Before the promotion, I was #9K-#11K overall. Today, so far, I’m at #2300 or so. At $3.49 – a sale off my usual $3.99 price to encourage folks to buy over the weekend. I’m sure if I lowered the price to .99 it would sell a lot more books, but given that I would need to sell 8 times more books at .99 to see the same revenue as at $3.49, I question whether it’s a smart idea. I also don’t want to brand myself as a buck a book author. Lord knows that is played, and there are more than enough of them out there. We shall see how sales go as of late this evening and tomorrow, but I’d say the trend is positive at this point. Even if it only stays at 2300 for four days, hey, that’s an improvement over where it was, and there are 10K more people with it on their kindle now – probably the most important thing for an author like me, who has a slew of titles and is adding to them seemingly every month. Because I believe the primary value of free is familiarizing readers with the work.
To put that into perspective, I’ve had around 70K free downloads of my work since I started giving books away. That’s a lot of downloads. A lot of folks who can decide they love, hate, or are ambivalent about me.
What is the takeaway from all this? Do Select freebie promos every 4 to 6 weeks, don’t freak out when day one sucks or starts slow (remember the algorithm, my friend) and then promote the hell out of it days 1-5 of it being paid. Recognize that the decline in sales over the next two weeks isn’t a function of an angry and vengeful deity singling you out for persecution, or that word of mouth has spread and your book sucks (I mean, either are possible, but not a given, is my point), or anything else. It’s a function of the Amazon algorithms having moved to new, fresher, more exciting faces.
Think of that first 4 or 5 days as your time at the bar where everyone wants to buy you drinks. Day 6 on is where a new kid on the block captures everyone’s attention, until you are ultimately yesterday’s news. Unlike the dating world, though, you can repeat the performance over and over (well, I suppose that is a little like dating – wink) and hopefully see a higher trough each time you decline. Then again, I’ve also heard that the effectiveness of the free days diminishes for a title each time through the cycle, so there is probably a point where it won’t work any more. But cross that bridge when you come to it.
For now, if you’re in the program, make hay while the sun is shining.
Well, folks, it’s January, which means it must be time for the release of another Russell Blake thriller. Sorry to disappoint you, as I have my parents and every woman in my life, but due to editing and binge drinking, I won’t be able to get it out by month’s end. Looking more like early Feb.
The name of the book is The Voynich Cypher, and it represents a broadening of my work from suspense/intrigue thrillers with a conspiracy basis, into more of a pure action/adventure vein. Voynich follows the saga of Dr. Steven Cross, from my Zero Sum trilogy of Wall Street thrillers, as he races to decipher the most enigmatic document in history, while being hunted by a who’s who of bad guys intent on taking possession of the Church’s most valuable secret. It’s a fun read, fast-paced, with all the usual twists and turns I include in my work. As I’m rewriting, I’m chipping it down from the 105K words I wound up with, and I’m hoping to chop 10%, ruthlessly, over the next two weeks or so.
NEW INTERVIEW: I was interviewed about online book marketing. You can click here to see just how little I actually know about it.
BOOK SALES UPDATE: An Angel With Fur hit #2 paid books on Amazon in Animal Essays, and #3 Dogs this morning. That’s pretty cool, as well as being somewhat unexpected.
In February, I’ll start on a sequel to King of Swords, tentatively titled Revenge of the Assassin, which makes sense given that the prequel is called Night of the Assassin – and is free on Amazon for a limited time. If the river don’t rise, I hope to have Revenge out by mid-March, if not earlier.
I’m very excited over the cover for The Voynich Cypher, so I thought I’d share it with everyone. It represents a departure for me in the sense that it’s more monochromatic, but I think the result is striking. For a synopsis of the story, click here.
For those who have expressed interest in chatting with my cover artist, e-mail me through the site and I can get you his information. I’ve found him to be good, fast and cheap – which is also how I like my…oh…never mind.
Night of the Assassin just went free on Amazon.
Thank you to everyone for your support in getting Night of the Assassin free. This represents the next phase in my marketing plan – to give away the prequel to King of Swords, in an effort to broaden my readership and gain exposure.
Night is one of my favorite books, for a host of reasons, not the least of which that it is the prequel to what is arguably my best work, and absolutely one of my all time favorites. I don’t know why these two books turned out the way they did, but for whatever reason, I’m thankful.
MORE ACCOLADES: Fatal Exchange was the favorite book of 2011 for Kate Farrel at The Kindle Book Review.
INTERVIEW: I was interviewed about writing and craft by @WritingTips101. Worth a look, & please Stumbleupon it at the bottom using the little green button.
BIG NEWS: International bestselling pet bio An Angel With Fur is free on Amazon for a few days. If you want a whole other side of me, pick that up. Guaranteed it will move you.
So why give away what is one of my favorite books? Isn’t my craft something worth being paid for?
Absolutely. My conviction is that once readers get their hands on Night, they’ll know two things. First, that it is a different kind of read, and one that’s a good representation of my unique writing style. And second, that they’ll want to read King of Swords next. I’m so convinced I’m willing to skip the part where I get paid for Night, at least for a limited time, so that readers can see what I’m talking about – so I can back my mouth without risk to them. I would say that they’ll know where they fall in their opinion of the book within the first 10 pages. That fast.
People are either going to love Night, or hate it. That simple. Doubt that there will be many “I don’t know, it was okay” reviews. It’s a polarizing book, that chronicles the making of a monster – the super assassin El Rey, from King of Swords.
Pick up a copy, and see if I’m full of it or not. And enjoy, with my compliments, for as long as it lasts. You can get Night of the Assassin here. And if you like it, or any of my books, please take the time to leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads.
If you like this blog, hit the Stumbleupon button down at the bottom (the little green guy) and share it. Gracias.
And for those who keep asking who my cover artist is, shoot me an e-mail at Books@RussellBlake.com and I’ll get you the contact info. Good, fast and cheap.
I have been asked how my recent three day jaunt on Amazon went.
The one where I made my thriller The Geronimo Breach free for three days.
I think I’d accurately compare it to being sixteen, and handed the keys to dad’s Porsche while discovering that I have the house to myself for three days…and the liquor cabinet’s open. It’s that kind of “Wow” moment.
First, to the numbers. Over the three days. roughly 10,400 people downloaded the book. That’s a lot of people. How many will actually read it is probably a fraction of that – maybe 20%, maybe 30%. I’m using highly scientific proprietary algorithms to come up with those number, by the way, incorporating numerology and magnetism (available in my upcoming releases Attraction, Repulsion, Alignment and Of Course He Tricked You, Douchebrain).
MORE ACCOLADES: Fatal Exchange was the favorite book of 2011 for Kate Farrel at The Kindle Book Review.
INTERVIEW: I was interviewed about writing and craft by @WritingTips101. Worth a look, & please Stumbleupon it at the bottom using the little green button.
NEW INTERVIEW: I was interviewed by South African blogger Nadine Maritz, and the result can be seen here.
IMPORTANT! Night of the Assassin just went FREE on Barnes and Noble. Please help me out here. Go to the Amazon page for Night here, and scroll down below the rating, where it says “Tell Us About A Cheaper Price.” Then click that, and enter the link to B&N, which I post below, and enter 0.00 as their price. I would appreciate the help in having them price match it. Thanks so much. Here’s the B&N link.
Those are big numbers. And oddly, downloads increased roughly 20% per day over each prior day. Extended out over time, that’s an exponential curve that will have more people on earth with a copy of The Geronimo Breach within a few months than have spent days with Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest reading about shopping trips to Ikea and frozen pizza. Which is why I put a stop to it. Shut it down. Promo nomo. I didn’t want to tip the poles or cause a cosmic imbalance due to all the kindles filled with my work. Not for free, anyway.
Why would I give my book away for free – a book that’s garnered rave reviews, and has been described as unique in most of the 23 four and five star reviews? Obviously, because I hope to get something.
My bet is that if, say, 2000 of those fine, discriminating folks actually read the book, most will become repeat customers of my other titles. That would translate into a nice sales bump. Additionally, it would increase my visibility as an author, which should translate into a long term net positive both in brand recognition, as well as sales. So it’s really a loss leader. Like a dope dealer. First time’s for free.
I fully expect some of the one star drive-by reviews to happen, as I’ve seen that as a regrettable by-product of free book distribution. Some might say miserable pr#cks with no lives who delight in trashing things for no good reason are drawn to free books, and that these lowlife f#ckwads, who are easily recognizable due to their never having reviewed a book before, are basically vandals who delight in tearing down the work of others, good or bad, for the thrill of any attention it might bring, and should be dragged behind a garbage truck through rusty nails and broken glass while splattered with battery acid and bleach in any kind of just world. I take a more charitable stance, and view them as mentally ill – the not too bright angry cousins who would be torturing animals if they weren’t busy prowling the net expressing their disturbances in a more benign way. I’m all about tolerance here, and when I say my critics can bite me, I mean it respectfully, of course. Let’s be clear about that.
I believe the vast majority of readers will vote with their wallets. If they think the work is redeeming, they’ll buy more of it. If not, they’ll shut the kindle off after a few minutes and move to the next one. That’s what I do. Life’s too short to read crappy books.
If my belief is correct, and if Geronimo is actually as good as everyone has said (and as of this writing, it has 21 five star and 2 four star reviews on Amazon), people will read it, hopefully like it, and then buy another of my titles.
I shall keep everyone informed of how that works out. I’d hope to see a 20%-30% increase in sales in January, and a sustained increase thereafter. We shall see.
To everyone who downloaded it, thank you, and enjoy. Let me know what you think. It’s one of my favorites – Al was a fun character to write, and it was a delight to do so. I hope you enjoy reading about his exploits as much as I enjoyed creating him.
If you like this blog, hit the green “Stumbleupon” button at the bottom and recommend it to others. Spread the word. Oh, and vote for me for a shorty award so you can watch me annoy legitimate talents with my inappropriate antics at the presentation ceremony. I understand drinking may be involved. Wink.
I’ve had numerous folks ask me who my cover artist is. E-mail me through this site and I’ll give you the skinny. Good, fast and cheap.
URGENT: Need some help from my readers. Book 1 of The Delphi Chronicle trilogy, The Manuscript, is now FREE at B&N. I could use some help from readers by having them go to Amazon and right under the rankings, select the button that says “Tell us about a lower price” and then enter the B&N link and 0.00. The B&N link is: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-delphi-chronicle-book-1-the-manuscript-russell-blake/1108076528?ean=2940032924692&itm=1&usri=the+delphi+chronicle%2c+book+1+the+manuscript
The Amazon link is: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006NAY30O
Thank you everyone for doing this. It helps Amazon maintain price matching, and is good for everyone.
Normally, I write books. On the whole, they’re serious thriller pieces, third person, past tense, and don’t veer into the realm of the speculative or the absurd. Over the holiday I decided to try my hand at first person, present tense, in a decidedly silly and surrealistic mood – the truth is I wanted to do something new, push the envelope, climb a new mountain. The result is, well, different than anything else I’ve written.
I used a few paragraphs from my parody of writing, Gazillions, as the starting point. I deliberately wrote something unlike my stock in trade, while struggling to keep the whole mess to about 3000 words. I’ve toned down the obscenity to what you’d hear on talk radio. Mostly.
I hope you find it diverting. All rights reserved, as always.
NEWS: Great interview with Write Into Print essential reading for those interested in more info about my process and plans.
BREAKING NEWS: Fatal Exchange receives honors as one of the top books of the year at The Kindle Book Review.
ANOTHER COOL INTERVIEW: Just went live with @jambalian about writing, King of Swords, & my WIP, The Voynich Cipher.
JOHN LESCROART INTERVIEW GOES VIRAL: My interview with NYT Bestseller John Lescroart got featured in prominent lifestyle periodical InClassicStyle. It’s a good one, so if you haven’t read it yet, check it out. Thoughts on process and craft.
The words of a long dead bard grate on my skin as I speed along the ribbon of asphalt that bisects the high desert between Vegas and the Pacific coast—the obvious unfairness of scale that a million monkeys can bring to the party glares evident in the simplicity of those six succinct words: To be or not to be. I’m not so much bitter that some scribe had synthesized the entire human experience into so few syllables. The rough rub is that I haven’t approached the same level of rhetorical perfection, my delusions of grandeur and superiority complex notwithstanding. My ‘calling’, as I laughingly refer to it, is twisting words to do my bidding—to bend them to my will—to make them dance and tremble, mambo and bop, performing as and how I command them; to amuse or torture or reveal all, each tap of a key chipping shards from the marble to wrest the fettered figure from the block—to the delighted acclaim of the marginally interested, their porcine noses pressed hard against the stained Plexiglas, unappreciative of the miracle of creation cast before them.
Another swig from the plastic jug of Ballerina vodka stills the furies as the tumbleweeds and cactus blur by, the heat of the morning sun distorting the horizon into a shimmering mirage as the miles fly past, leaving echoes of a silent but obvious judgment on my unworthiness as a master of this realm. F#cking Shakespeare always pisses me off once my blood alcohol reaches a certain point and the cocaine edge dulls, and I know my sleep tonight, such as it’s likely to be, will be haunted by the bald, mustachioed head of the smug prick, the stiff collar and antiquated clothing a fitting foundation for the smirk on his face, which mocks the very universe that hosts my sorry existence.
I take a series of deep breaths and reach over to stroke the cold, comforting steel of the Smith and Wesson .357 magnum I like to fire out my of window at the imagined silhouettes of clowns when I’ve slugged back enough meanstreak to fuel my mischief. It’s just a thing I do to soothe my soul, a cordite balm for the open sore my festering lack of talent keeps raw. I should have gotten more sleep before trying the drive, but the moment my eyes opened, it was time to hit the road. I must have freaked out the cocktail waitress—who’d supplied such amenable company after her shift, with her gymnastic prowess that had almost placed her in Cirque du Soleil’s third tier of anonymous contortionists instead of toting watered shots of Jack to losing writers playing blackjack tables on the ghost-shift of a low-level casino, whose façade featured a steer’s snorting countenance as its come-on to frisky cow folk and Vietnamese grocers on holiday.
She’d been dozing after regaling me with tales of her boyfriend, Vinnie—who’d soon be getting out of lockup to take her away from the sordid trailer park reality that imprisoned her as surely as any bars, when I’d bolted awake to the bard’s words mocking me in a gritty tremolo. She’d reached for me, for anything, to fill the void left when her soul vacated the premises after a lackluster run, but it was time for me to get back to the vicious reality that was my daily existence. It was Monday, six in the morning, and I had a life-changing meeting in Lost Angeles at noon I couldn’t miss. If I made serious time I could shower and just make it—some things you didn’t want to blow off. All it would take to get there was willpower, some liquid bravado, a little help from my friends and a full tank of gas. I could do it. Veronica, or whatever, had slitted open an eye as I pulled on my jeans, then upgraded to a blinking accusation: another in a long line of men who’d abandoned her after getting what they needed, leaving her soiled and brimming with ire for her trouble.
“It was fun. Be good,” I’d told her as I negotiated the hotel doorknob with numb fingers that seemed to belong to a leprous stranger. A sigh of unspoken recrimination had dripped off my back as I kicked shut the door behind me.
Like the song, or at least like I think some song must go, I’d known when to hit the road—‘cause I’m a ramblin’ man.
~ ~ ~
The sky-blue Oxford button-up shirt collar chafes my neck uncomfortably as I sit waiting for the light to turn green. The faint stink of fuel-rich exhaust mingles with the musty smell of the ancient Pontiac’s perfectly preserved leather interior; an odor redolent of pimp slappings and drug deals sealed in bygone days. I contemplate lowering the convertible top to celebrate the sun’s burning through the brown haze of smog that hangs over the city like a toxic mantle, but discard the idea. I don’t need a wind-buffeting to make me any more disheveled. Red eyes and three days of stubble stare back at me from my rear-view mirror, a silent testament to an extended weekend of excess and debauchery in Sin City; another long stint in a seemingly endless orgy of indulgence.
Working as a B-list screenwriter is a double-edged sword. The pay’s good, when it comes, and the hours can’t be beaten. With a few rewrite jobs under my belt and an action-adventure flick languishing in lesser theaters throughout the country during the holiday season, I now have enough game to drag most of the dim-witted hotties doing the bar circuit home whenever I want. That never gets old, until morning, when they inevitably want to start talking.
The talking is the worst.
Same story every time: In tinsel town from some small berg where they’d won a talent show or had been crowned Miss Cornhuskers, and after watching too many reality shows, they’d mistakenly computed they had what it took to make it. L.A. is awash in misguided hubris and attitude substituting for talent—an entire industry caters to the delusions of the newly-arrived or the perennially-hopeful. Praise the flickering neon Hollywood Jesus for the lean, hard bodies of the aspiring. Their single-minded focus on getting ahead is my entre, and all I have to do is circle the herd, probing for the telltale signs of the weak and slow and stupid before I streak in for the kill. I’m just one of many predators in an uneasy truce at the watering holes, but my line is a little more convincing than most because, now, I have a movie out. The mention of my name in the credits has an aphrodisiac effect on a certain type of entertainment industry social climber, and once I hint that I have sway in casting, the quarry is down, exposed, supine—another easy conquest.
A strident horn sounds from a bombastic Benz behind me, interrupting my reverie. I goose the worn metal pedal and the gas-guzzling V-8′s reassuring burble propels me down the road. Nervous over the imminent meeting and edgy from the half tab of Dexedrine I choked down as an eye-opener with my coffee, I reach for the dashboard and stab the power button on the stereo like it owes me money. AC/DC blares from the speakers with a thrashing of guitars, the singer’s giddy vocal leer lamenting jailbreaks gone wrong. Keeping time with an anxious hand on the cracked plastic steering wheel, I fumble beside me for a can of warm beer. Coors Light, of course. Breakfast of near, or soon-to-be, champions.
I’ve subdued the flitter of butterflies by the time I pull onto the studio lot, waved through by security who spot the access sticker decorating my windshield—a remnant from a spit-and-polish job I did on a pilot two weeks earlier in Building B. What a cringe-worthy pile of shit that had been. Zero chance of ever being made, but someone’s cousin was blowing the right exec, so at least an hour of unwatchable script had been churned out of the sausage machine, in desperate need of a fix—which is where I came in.
I run my hands through my still-damp hair and pat it into straggly place, in an effort to appear at least marginally professional for my pitch session.
After killing the engine, I swing my feet out onto the pavement and stand, stretching to my full six-foot height with a groan. I should have cooled it with the partying yesterday. And the day before. Oh well, what was done…
I make a guttural clicking sound with my tongue, reminiscent of African tribesmen in television documentaries. In response, a brown furry form scurries from the back seat over the center console—which I f#cking hate with a passion. I shake my head in disgust. We’d covered the proper way to exit a car hundreds of times, but some of us were just too stubborn to learn.
The entry to the administration offices looms ominously across the lot, and I move unsteadily toward it, my companion scampering blithely by my side. It’s time to remind everyone who is boss. I clear my throat and stop on the front steps, turning to lock eyes and ensure I have the reprobate’s full attention.
“This is an important meeting. Don’t be an ass-hat. Don’t crap on the carpet, don’t disrupt things, and let me do all the talking. And please, whatever you do…no masturbating.”
My voice sounds disembodied, as though it’s drifting from afar, from down a long tunnel lined with cotton. Maybe the speed hadn’t been such a wise move. I twist the door lever and push it open, fixing what I hope is an amenable smile on my face.
Jarred by the sound of our entry, a breathtaking brunette glides from behind a backlit orange onyx-faced reception desk. She approaches across the Italian marble floor with an indifferent expression, all tanned, sculpted legs and muscled buttocks sheathed in a black executive skirt cut high enough to hint at heaven. I note with approval that she favors five-inch stiletto heels, foregoing practical business flats in favor of a little spice. Things are suddenly looking up.
“Russell, right? Thrilled to finally meet you. Come on in. Sol’s expecting you,” she says in a dusky voice, assessing me in the way spiders eye flies.
“Super. Lead the way,” I reply, the words sounding flat to my tuned ear.
“You want some Pellegrino or Fiji?” she calls over her shoulder as we make our way down the long hall.
“No thanks, I’m good,” I assure her, admiring the view.
We walk through the cavernous building, my furry associate holding my hand, his leathery palm a reminder of what has gone badly wrong with my life. I should have trimmed his nails, but he could be a regal pain about some hygiene niceties. Whenever I brandished the clippers he went berserk—you’d have thought I was trying to do a root canal on him. At least he’d occasionally acquiesce to file them himself, though doing a slipshod job of it. Amateurish. Another source of irritation for me in an already difficult situation.
The stunning assistant holds the door open for us and we edge past her into a large, wood-paneled office with film posters and celebrity photos plastered on every wall. Row aside row of awards are proudly displayed in a custom-made burled walnut armoire, replete with down-lighting—the better to make them twinkle. The heavyset man in his sixties, wearing the inevitable suit vest and loosened neck-tie, rises from behind the largest desk in the world, and pushes an ashtray bearing a smoldering cigar out of the way. Sol extends his arms wide in friendly greeting.
“Russell. Sweetheart. You look great! You get a little work done around the eyes? Nice. Not all Mickey Rourke. Tasteful. But please, sit, sit. Mi casa, and all that.” He pauses. “So whadda ya got for me today? Zombie cats? Space dinosaurs? Just tell me—I always have time for you, but man, today I’m jammed, you know? Tom and Kate are throwing a hissy fit, and Johnny’s…well, he’s Johnny, you know?” Sol hesitates, noticing my silent companion for the first time. “What’s with the f#cking monkey?”
I regard my simian friend, who is toying with the straps of his well-weathered Lederhosen, fingering the ornately embroidered leather suspenders. I lightly smack him and he drops his arms sullenly. I contemplate correcting Sol—chimps aren’t monkeys, they’re apes—but decide not to lecture.
“Sol, this is Emeliano, the chimp. But he likes to be called Ricky—it’s his name de plume, so to speak. He’s my writing partner. Does great work. Fast, and a wizard with dialog,” I explain.
Ricky glares at Sol with malevolent sunken eyes, and then cocks his head and bares yellowed teeth. Sol pulls back his extended hand, reconsidering his choice of greeting.
“All right. So you got a monkey partner. What the f#ck. You shouldda met my third wife…well, maybe not. No problem. Hey, but, Russ, I gotta tell you, your latest, in the theaters now? Magic. Like poetry. The reluctant vampire ex-CIA assassin who takes on his wife’s murderers in the Russian mob? Unexpected shit, that. Not everyone can write on that level. And I love the gender-confused sidekick, from the hood. Total brilliance. We’ll put a push on it after Christmas. It’s got the legs.”
“It was Ricky’s idea to make it personal this time. He’s good at back-story,” I disclose. It was important in the business to be humble and give credit where it was due.
“So whadda ya got for me today? Your girl said you were excited. When you’re excited, I’m excited. Lay it on me,” Sol invites, reclining back in his sumptuous burgundy leather executive chair while motioning for us to take seats in front of his desk. Ricky hops up and squats easily on one, but I prefer to stand for my pitch; to lend it additional gravitas. I close my eyes, draw in a deep breath, and then launch.
“Sol, look, here’s the setup: you have these beavers, and they’re just lovable little furry f#ckers out in a field with blue skies, and butterflies, and nature shit, doing whatever the f#ck beavers do. I don’t know…eating acorns or chewing grass, and then suddenly, they go Mission Impossible on your ass because an oil refinery project threatens their river! Think Dogs and Cats, think Ice Age, think a Bruce Willis smartass fast-talking beaver with a crusty-but-lovable Chris Rock sidekick! And here’s the best part: their sworn enemies are wolves! So they gear up in ninja suits, and it’s two hours of brain suck! Can’t you hear the dialog already? Do I even need to tell you? Every other line’s a wise-crack, and it’s written so kids will love it, but idiot parents will laugh their asses off too! By the end, we’ll all have learned something about ourselves, as will the beavers.” I stop, assessing Sol’s facial expression. You never want to talk past the pitch. Rookie mistake. Let it settle, steep like tea, and don’t talk. Ricky raises his eyebrows expectantly and picks his ear.
Sol slowly stands and removes his reading glasses. He slams his hand down on the desktop and rolls his eyes heavenward.
“Jesus. You’re a genius, Blake! The merchandising will be worth a hundred mil domestic alone! Ka-Ching! Come over here. Gimme a hug. Where do you come up with this shit? Whadda ya want? Three mil? Four? Okay, ya got me. I’ll go five against the usual back-end, a producer credit, full creative control, and you get to pick the director. You. Look at you! F#cking ninja beaver motherf#ckers. You’re killing me with this shit!”
I hesitate to embrace him. “Sol. Do I look stupid? You want me to mouth-f#ck you or something? Don’t insult me or treat me like your bitch. We’re friends here. Five, the usual back-end plus points, executive producer, fifteen of the merchandise including international, and who gives a shit who directs? It’s a f#cking CARTOON! Now where do I sign? Come over here, honey, and sit on papa’s lap!”
Sol grins at me, and we both throw our heads back and laugh in awful unison.
“A cartoon! Beavers! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”
Ricky joins in with the hysteria and executes a perfectly timed back-flip off the chair, landing on Sol’s desk, scattering paperwork everywhere. Sol finds this the height of amusement and cackles with glee, as does Ricky.
The receptionist shimmies into the office and smiles at Ricky after glancing neutrally in my direction. The chimp always has that effect on the ladies. It’s eerie. Ricky decides to push it and show off, and begins lewdly thrusting his pelvis in an elaborately choreographed dance of his own invention. Everyone is amused, even when he leaps off the desk with a somersault and grabs the receptionist’s bottom, fondling her leg in what can only be described as an inappropriate manner. I’ve seen it all before, so know what’s coming. Sol and I watch as the impish primate gropes the young woman’s thigh, and then turns and affords us with a salacious wink.
The next thing I know, the sun is streaming bright through my bedroom window, another dawn having encroached its way into my existence. My head feels like I’ve gone ten rounds with Tyson, and my mouth tastes like I’ve gargled cement.
A noise from the front room rouses me into stark wakefulness. I trudge out, bleary eyed, to be greeted by the spectacle of Ricky and the receptionist lying on the couch, sans attire, though their nakedness is partly covered by his cherished neon-pink felt Hello Kitty blanket. His trademark leather shorts are perched jauntily, if a little precariously, on the receptionist’s head. They’re sharing a cigarette, the stereo crooning Barry White even as Ricky smirks at me in triumph.
I pad back to my room in humiliated defeat and close the door.
F#cking chimps have all the luck.
NEW INTERVIEW: Yours truly with Kipp Speicher on craft and process.
As writers, our job is to tell stories. Whether fiction or non, we are at heart, weavers of tall tales, some fact-based and some pure invention.
I’ve interviewed four different authors for my Author Spotlight blog to date, and each is a storyteller with a different approach to the craft. I have focused my questions on the mechanics of writing, trying to provide illumination as to how these authors arrive at the point where they have a story completed. I find it fascinating to hear what works, as it gives me ideas and insights, as I hope it does you.
But one question remains. Is there a secret to developing gripping, can’t-put-it-down stories? Some magic formula? A template one could follow to make it so?
Sadly, I think not. Just as some people are naturally extremely funny, like Ricky Gervais, or Louis CK, or George Carlin or Sam Kinison, legions will try for funny and fall short. Part of it is timing, part of it is luck, but a big part is that most people just aren’t naturally nearly as funny as those four. We can debate why they aren’t for years, but the plain truth is they aren’t, which is obvious to everyone. I think the same goes for writing. Some are just natural storytellers, capable of arresting us with their gift and carrying us along effortlessly, and making us want to come back for more.
One of the big things I think all great comedians have is facility with language. It’s their currency, their clay. They use words to create an effect, hopefully comedic, just as we, as authors, craft language to generate our effect. Which is why it’s critical to know the rules and broaden our vocabularies. The more armed we are, the more fluid our grasp of our idiom, the better we can get to the business of telling the story.
Unfortunately, knowing the difference between an Em dash and an En dash won’t enable us to better create a compelling narrative, but it will ensure that we have tools with which to do so. Being able to select between car, vehicle, conveyance, craft and myriad other permutations may not help us make a reader feel our protag’s pain or care whether hearts have been broken, but it will avoid reader boredom and annoyance. Understanding echoes and self-censoring them as we write can make editing far easier, but in the end, all of the tools of language are meaningless if our story lacks essential honesty – that quality a reader recognizes, and makes them go, “A Ha, this is true,” even if everyone knows it isn’t. Honesty in writing isn’t about veracity. It’s about demanding from yourself a logically-consistent world you create, and being hard on your writing in terms of making it coherent. If your gut tells you that something is a little too pat, or you sort of suspect maybe you telegraphed something that you shouldn’t have, or if you’re typing just to get the word count up, the burden is upon you to force yourself to fix it. If you want to maintain suspense, you have to be convincing in doing so, and you can’t cheat. You can’t deliberately hold out material facts that would make everything come together in the reader’s mind, or in the end the reader will feel screwed. And they’ll probably pass on any further of your work.
It’s hard to write good fiction, especially good thrillers, because you have to be at the top of your game at all times. You need to have chops, but more than that, you need a story that is worthy of being told, and you need an innate sense of timing, of when and how to provide the beats, or kick the chair out from under the reader. If you can do that well they’ll follow you anywhere. If you try to force it, or if you haven’t thought it all through, in the end you’ll be abandoned by them. As it should be. Life is too short to read crap books. So don’t write crap. Or at least arm yourself with enough technique and vocabulary so it’s at worst well-written crap, and then hope your editor isn’t drunk or apathetic and will tell you the truth about what you wrote.
Now for some shameless self-promotion. My new assassination thriller, King of Swords, has gotten stellar early reviews, and upon re-read, I can honestly say that it is one of the best books I’ve written. Night of the Assassin, the prequel, is the only thing that might top it. Soon, Night will be free, so there will be no barrier to sampling my fiction. This is deliberate. While I’m reluctant to give an entire stand-alone book away, I’m confident enough in its quality to believe that most who read Night will be compelled to buy King. And then, after, to buy Geronimo. And then the two trilogies – Zero Sum and The Delphi Chronicle. By which time, I’ll have released yet more thrillers.
I believe that the more people who get a chance to taste my particular flavor, the more will seek it out. Which is all another way of saying, ya gots to give love to get it.
Am I right about that? Time will tell. But I believe that it’s a decent strategy, and I’ll keep everyone posted on how it pans out. So far, so good.
If you’re not a complete cheapskate, BTW, you can currently buy Night for .99 at Amazon, or download it for free from Smashwords. All I ask is that if you do so, and you like it, leave a review at Amazon and Goodreads. Consider that a way to pay me back for my investment. If you do, my efforts will have been worth it.
I expect Night will polarize my readers. Some will absolutely love it, and some will hate it to the point that they can’t express their disgust and rage strongly enough. I don’t expect to see much, “Yeah, I read it, and it was okay, but you know, I sort of got sidetracked and put it down halfway and then forgot to pick it up again for a week.” Either it’s a thriller that stops you in your tracks and grabs you by the throat like you owe it money, or you’ll hate it. Same for King of Swords. I don’t expect a middle ground. We’ll see.
Happy holidays, everyone. Be good to those you love. Unless they’re clowns or chimps. They deserve nothing but castigation, and they’re probably even now plotting your downfall.
It’s not often that you get to chat with a living legend. I was recently fortunate enough to interview NY Times bestselling author John Lescroart, whose career spans decades of consistently turning out over twenty enormously popular, erudite, riveting fiction novels. He was kind enough to subject himself to my inane questions, all for your amusement, and at considerable personal expense – all right, perhaps an exaggeration, but what of it? The point is, this literary icon took the time away from a life of jetting to and fro in the company of celebrities and super-models to offer his thoughts and counsel so you could be enriched. So pull up a chair and read one of the most meaty and interesting interviews I’ve had the pleasure of doing in my Author Spotlight series. Pay attention. Maybe you can learn something…
NEW NEW INTERVIEW: If you only read one interview with me, ever. this is the one you should read.
NEW INTERVIEW: With yours truly on writing King of Swords, with Cheryl Bradshaw Books. Essential reading.
BIG NEWS: Absolutely must read book review by bestselling author Steven Konkoly for King of Swords.
ANOTHER NEW INTERVIEW: Guest blog/interview with Sibel Hoge.
AND YET ANOTHER NEW INTERVIEW: Busy week for interviews. This one on An Angel With Fur.
AND AN AWESOME NEW REVIEW: By JLandonCocks for Fatal Exchange, just released!
Russell Blake: Your legacy of work is one of the most impressive out there. Where do you get your ideas from, and what’s your process for moving them from idea stage to where you’re actually writing?
JL: Right now I’m in the throes of “getting an idea” for my next (2013) book, and I must say that the challenge never stops. Because really, what’s needed is not just an idea, but a great idea, a concept that can carry your characters through 400 pages of compelling action and development. If there were a secret to getting that idea, I’d tell you what it was, but I’m afraid that for me, at least, ideas “come” as I’m writing scenes and pages. And the one, big idea that I’m waiting for – at least for the very next book – is proving elusive at the moment. I’m sure it’s out there, and I’m sure it will arrive before I reach utter despair, but it is a difficult time. As to the process moving from the idea to the actual writing, that’s much easier. Once I’ve got a general idea of what the book is about, I just sit down and start writing scenes and having fun.
RB: How many hours per week do you try to write? Do you have a disciplined schedule, or do you mostly write when the mood strikes?
JL: I most definitely do not write when the mood strikes. I go into work, after a physical workout, every weekday, and spend at least two and often as many as six hours putting down pages. Inspiration often comes to visit during these spells of work, but I think if I waiting for any one given inspiration, I wouldn’t get much done.
RB: Do you do character outlines and structure the book in advance? What’s the mechanism you use? Any?
JL: As is probably obvious from what I’ve already written here, it’s all very much by the seat of my pants. I try to see interesting scenes that involve the reader and move the plot and characterization forward, hopefully with a surprise or a little gem of prose included in every scene.
RB: Have you ever had writer’s block? How did you get past it? Any tricks or suggestions?
JL: My favorite definition of writer’s block is that it is a failure of nerve. By any objective standard, I’m in a (very rare but very real) state of writer’s block right at this moment; it takes a consistent act of will not to give in to it, but to keep searching in the darkness for a little spark that will eventually light up the internal landscape and let the idea shine forth. To fight this failure of nerve, I try to gear myself up into what I call “genius mode,” where I tell myself that everything I’m writing is brilliant, let my inner demons be damned!
RB: What’s your story. How did you get into writing, and what was your path to becoming a bestselling legend?
JL: My story is an extremely long and complicated one, but here is the short version. I did not know anything about publishing when I started out. I did not even know how to submit a book. I actually wrote my first published hardcover when I was 24, but didn’t even send it out to publishers until I was 36! When I signed the contract for that book, I essentially hired myself out as an indentured servant to my publisher at the time. The option clause in that contract specified that I would have the same contract, except for the advance, for my next book, and the one after that, and the one after that. So my first five or six books got published with very low print runs, no advertising, no publisher’s push at all, and – no surprise – none of them did very well commercially. Finally, though I had no money, I hired a lawyer to help me get out of that option clause. It cost me $28,000 in attorney’s fees in a year when I made a total of $22,000. But I got out of the clause. The very next book sold for six figures, and since then they’ve all been bestsellers. So the best advice I can give is to tell hopeful writers to be careful when they sign contracts. Don’t sell out for less than you think you’re worth. If you’re good enough, somebody will pay you what you’re worth, and treat you right in the bargain.
RB: I follow you on Facebook and Twitter, and you frequently write about structural issues, grammar and style. If you only had 60 seconds to impart to aspiring writers the most vital advice you’ve acquired as a writer, what would it be?
JL: I would have three things I would say: master the use and misuse of the passive voice, and avoid it at all costs. Beyond that, learn what writers mean when they say “Show, don’t tell,” and do that. Finally, finish something . . . anything . . . short story, novel, scene . . . get done with it and move on. Only in the doing does learning happen.
RB: If there was only one book that readers could peruse of your work, which one would it be? What’s the landmark, defining example of John Lescroart? And why?
JL: This is a tough question because they are all my babies. And some of the early books – The 13th Juror, A Certain Justice, Guilt – really did mark personal breakthroughs in terms of what I was writing and how I went about it. And even now, my latest two books, Damage and next year’s The Hunter, have marked real departures from my earlier “courtroom” books. All that said, however, I’d have to say that the quintessential Lescroart book is The Hearing. It’s got Hardy and Glitsky in all their agony and glory, and a truly great, complex plot. If you like that one, you’ll know what I’m all about, and can go backward or forward in the series without losing a step.
RB: Whose work influenced your writing? What authors did you grow up on?
JL: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence Durrell, and Patrick O’Brien on the literary side, and Conan Doyle, Rex Stout, John D. MacDonald, and Agatha Christie on the mystery side. Mark Twain was a giant early influence, but then again, so were the Hardy Boys and the Landmark Books of biographies. I’ve been an avid reader, some would say an addicted reader, for my whole life, and most of what I read I tried to learn something from.
RB: Why did you become a writer? What made you burn to do so?
JL: I somehow always knew that I wanted to be an author. From an early age, I used to make up stories and put on plays that I wrote, so I guess I’ve always had that bug. Beyond that, there wasn’t really anything else that I felt so passionately about – I worked every “day job” in the world until I started making a living as a writer when I was 45, and none of them were very fulfilling or interesting. Also, I generally hated working for bosses, and wanted to be my own boss very badly. So I just kept at it until it worked.
RB: What gets you up in the morning and keeps you writing?
JL: I do love the process, the challenge, the fact that I never get bored. I keep trying to write the best novel that I can envision, to capture all the world that I possibly can on the page. Having done so many different other kinds of work, I never lose sight of how lucky I am do be able to do what I do now. Also, much more prosaically, it’s great to be paid to be a writer, to be on contract with a great company like Dutton, to be in this milieu with its talented, interesting people. To be a part of it is a kind of magic, and I just consider myself supremely blessed that I’ve somehow, after a somewhat tortuous journey, arrived here.
RB: What’s your latest release, and what are you working on now?
JL: My next release, The Hunter, comes out on January 3. It is a book featuring Wyatt Hunt and, if I might pass along some really wonderful news, it’s just gotten a starred review in Publishers Weekly. As to what I’m working on now, it’s that pesky outline referred to above. Ask me next week, and I’ll probably sound a lot happier about it.
RB: There’s probably a universe of good questions I failed to ask. What parting words would you offer aspiring novelists, other than save your money from your day gig?
JL: Finish. Finish. Finish. Then rewrite until it sings.
BREAKING NEWS. Character interview with my creation, Al, from The Geronimo Breach is now live. As of Monday, Dec. 5. Funny stuff. Really.
Every now and then you do something that’s special. It’s different, and feels, I don’t know, just right, somehow.
That’s the only way I can describe my experience writing my new thriller, King of Swords. I believe it’s my best work to date, and represents a kind of turning point on my journey as an author. If every writer has “The” book, then I believe King of Swords is mine. It’s the synthesis of everything I’ve learned in terms of writing thriller fiction – gritty, breakneck pacing, non-stop action, unexpected character development of mulch-dimensional individuals who are complex and possess contradictory qualities and impulses, twists, turns, conspiracies within conspiracies, all set against a backdrop that’s non-traditional and richly evocative. It’s no holds-barred writing, and doesn’t pander. It presumes you’re smart, or you wouldn’t be reading it. Remember when books used to be written like that? Hmmm. But I digress.
It’s the story of a super assassin whose clients are the drug cartels of Mexico, and the discovery of a plot by a captain of the Federal Police – the Federales – to assassinate the Mexican and U.S. presidents at the G-20 financial summit. The elevator pitch of the idea I had when I sat down to write it as a lark, for NanoWriMo, was a single sentence that had been bouncing around in my noodle for a few days, as I finished up writing The Delphi Chronicle trilogy: “Day of the Jackal in Mexico.” From that smallest of seeds developed an incredibly complex and racing thriller that is unlike anything you’ve ever read. Or at least, unlike anything I’ve ever read, or written.
There are moments in the book where my editor sent back comments like “Crimmey” (he’s a Brit) or “Holy shit!” It’s that kind of work. It’s relentless, and shocking, and disturbing at a host of levels for a host of reasons, all of them deliberate. It captures the essence of the casual brutality of the drug cartels who are waging a guerrilla war against the Mexican government, and who are winning – not that hard considering that their budget is on the order of fifty times greater than the entire budget of Mexico’s armed forces.
I’m very excited by this book. So much so that I am three quarters through writing a prequel to it, titled Night of the Assassin, which explores the making of the monster who is the central villain in King of Swords. I had one author whose judgment I respect read the opening pages I posted on the Nano website tell me that he’s never seen anything like King. Neither have I. I have no idea where it came from, or where Assassin is coming from, but it’s an incredibly chilling, suspenseful and dark place.
If you’re a fan, from the first sentences you’re going to know why I’m so excited by this book. If you’ve never read anything I’ve written, this is the book that you should start with. If you only read one of my thrillers, this is the one you should read.
Night of the Assassin will be released in a week and a half, with any luck at all – my editing team is pulling Herculean stints to get both Night and Delphi done on schedule, which is no small feat. The covers for both books are at the bottom of this blog. They are a departure from my current approach for Zero Sum, The Geronimo Breach and Fatal Exchange, but that’s deliberate. These two books, as well as the Dec. 24 release of The Delphi Chronicle trilogy, represent a new direction for my thriller fiction. I suspect we will see a lot more of Captain Cruz and the Assassin known only as, “El Rey” – the King of Swords, the oldest of the tarot card kings. It feels like there are a lot more books these two will carry, and I’ve only scratched the surface of them in the first two. Hope you like the covers, and if you get a chance, pick up a copy of King of Swords. First 10 reviewers will get a complimentary set of The Delphi Chronicle trilogy when it releases. Just e-mail me your review via the contacts page.
A sample of the first few chapters can be found here, for those that want to see what the fuss is about.
And if after reading it, you’re as excited as I am, please, tell a friend. Or two. That’s how it works. That, and reviews, which I’ll also ask you in a small and pleading voice to leave.
There. That about covers my installment of shameless self-promotion, I think. Let me know what you think of the book.
I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about who does my book covers. Let me just say that he’s fast, cheap and good. If you’d like more info, e-mail me at Books@RussellBlake.com and I’ll put you in touch.
Join Russell Blake and 9 of his author friends at WoMen’s Literary Cafe’s Mystery Book Launch, December 13-15. Ten authors will discount their ebooks to just 99 cents. Buy 3 get 1 FREE!”