09 April 2013 by Published in: Uncategorized 18 comments

I was going to take a month off, read a load of screenplays, and focus on developing a screenplay for JET. That seemed like a useful pursuit, if somewhat daunting, given that I know about as much about writing a screenplay as I do about milking llamas. But never one to let my ignorance to deter me, I was all set, freshly rested from my vacation, and was dutifully reading my way through The Matrix (which is brilliant, BTW) when I got slammed in the noggin by an idea.

A book idea.

I tried to resist it, because I’ve already got a lot on my plate – with the new series I want to start, a plot for Fatal Deception mapped out, and a host of other BS, not the least of which is writing a script.

But it wouldn’t go away.

And then the kiss of death. I thought of a title. The perfect title for a different kind of novel – a bio-terror novel in the vein of Michael Crichton and Robin Cook.

Upon a Pale Horse.

An allusion to the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, Death, who brings with him pestilence, and is trailed by Hades. Revelation. End of the world stuff.

Now I have a title, and the basic premise for the story – a young attorney is propelled into a conspiracy involving the mother of all bio-weapons secrets, and only he is in a position to stop the effective end of the world as we know it.

Sort of a little bit of The Firm crossed with Marathon Man (only not really), with a big dose of Contagion thrown in.

When I get to the point where a title pops into my head, along with a high-level understanding of the plot, I’m generally screwed, because it will be all I can think about until I write it. Or at least some of it. So I did what I always do, which is write the first chapter, which was vivid in my mind – just to get it down on paper. That took me into the second chapter, again, solely to get the idea out, which then led to the third. So now I’m pregnant – I’m 7500 words into it, and I was just going to write a few paragraphs while I thought about the JET screenplay and how to best start my new series.

I’m telling myself I will absolutely not write any more of it until I have the new series at least penciled out – structure, plot, beats, characters – but I suspect it’s no good, because I’m getting that, “Oh, just one more chapter, just to see how it develops – no harm in that, is there?” feeling, which invariably ends like a three day drunk, with me rambling and incoherent, not remembering most of what I just did, and unsure whether I should regret it or celebrate it. Fortunately I think the chances of me waking up spooning a 300 pound sweating Samoan cook on a tramp freighter bound for Jakarta are pretty slim (unlike when I have a few cocktails, but that’s a whole ‘nother story), so things will probably turn out okay.

One of the reasons I’m kind of reluctant to write this kind of novel is because series sell better. Modern ebook readers seem to love series novels, whereas stand-alone books are a harder sell. And this isn’t a series. It’s a fully-formed set of new characters who are in this story, and no others. Which means from a commercial standpoint, I would probably be better off investing my energy in the new series and getting two or three books done by end of summer. But the muse doesn’t always give a damn about filthy lucre, or commercial viability, or maximizing resources, and sometimes you just have to lay back and think of England and not fight it. This is one of those times.

So until I lose interest or come to my senses, I’ll be working on Upon a Pale Horse, and temporarily shelving the other projects – they’ll still be there, so it’s not like I’m abandoning them. But I’ve found it’s best to write when you feel compelled to write it, not when it’s opportune, so that’s what I’m going to do.

Plus, the name is cool. I can do a lot with it. It even sounds a little more literary than my usual fare, which I’ve been leaning towards in my style of late. A good fit. Perhaps an auspicious sign. Hope so. I’ve even got a pretty good idea of how the cover should look. Not that I’ve really thought about this at all.

On other fronts, Blood of the Assassin and JET V – Legacy, are both selling well and are garnering universally rave reviews, which is gratifying, as they’re probably my best novels to date. I also have a lot of exciting things coming up I can’t talk about, but suffice it to say that after a blowout March and an extremely strong start to April, I’m happy guy. I won’t post hard income numbers, like some do, and I’m reluctant to even post sales figures (cough cough 22K+ cough) for March, but suffice it to say that it’s a big revenue number, and growing, for which I’m extremely grateful to my readers, who seem to be enthusiastically recommending me to others.

If you haven’t read those two books, do so – you won’t be disappointed. Even if you haven’t read any of the predecessors for Blood of the Assassin, it’s written so you can jump right in with that book and it all makes perfect sense. I recommend it as the perfect place to start with my work, if you’re curious. Either it’s all a case of mass hysteria, a la Wham! or Crouching Tiger, where large numbers of people lose their minds and think something that blows goats is actually good (I think of it as Charlie Sheen syndrome), or there’s some redeeming value to the books, and they deliver as promised.

Of interest is that I’m not by any means the cheapest of the bestsellers in my genre, nor am I heavily promoted, like others occupying plum positions on the lists. I’m actually at the top of the indie author price curve, in nosebleed territory for indies, kissing trad pub pricing, so this isn’t the case of “People will try anything if it’s only .99” that we saw a few years ago.  In my case, folks seem to feel that $5-$6 is a fair price to pay for several days of quality entertainment, and I celebrate their discriminating choice. More power to ’em. I recently shelled out $7 apiece for a few 10 year old titles from a great author (James Lee Burke), and I didn’t have a moment’s hesitation doing so – even though I’m backlogged at around six months of reading on my Kindle, and growing. Which reminds me – if you want me to read or review your novel, I’m not accepting any more books at the moment, due to failing miserably to keep up with what I’ve already promised to look at. I know. I suck. Get over it, already.

That’s what’s going on in my neck of the woods. If I keep motivated by the story, April will be the month of Upon a Pale Horse in the Blake household, and I’ll be pushing starting the series off until May, which isn’t the end of the world, I don’t think. I’m taking it day by day, which is sort of a first for me – I usually stick to a very disciplined writing and production schedule, but now that I’m a veteran, at month 22 of my self-pubbing career, I figure I can bend the rules a little and write something that’s captured my imagination.

Here’s to hoping that I do it justice and it captures yours, too. Guess there’s only one way to find out.




  1. Wed 10th Apr 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Upon a Pale Horse. That title rocks. I’m still hoping for the cat story too, but like you said, gotta write it while it’s possessing your mind.
    If you’re reading screenplays, I have two suggestions: Django Unchained, which is the best movie I’ve seen in the last six months, and my favorite movie of all time, The Painted Veil, with Edward Norton & Naomi Watts. It shocks me as I type it, but the script changes Edward Norton made actually improved on Somerset Maugham’s original novel.
    Wait…I just realized I suggested even more reading, on top of all the other reading/writing you’ve got on your plate. Don’t listen to me. I’m a bad friend.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 10th Apr 2013 at 2:29 pm

      I have Django. Started reading it before the Matrix. Quirky.

      Unfortunately, I have zero time to read right now. Maybe after this is done. Doh.

  2. Stacey
    Thu 11th Apr 2013 at 3:55 am

    No cats? Really? *big sigh*
    Guess I’ll have to be content with Matt, er, uh, that’s JET, for now…

  3. yoon
    Thu 11th Apr 2013 at 8:24 pm

    Incorrigible. And dang those modern ebook readers.

  4. Clay
    Sat 13th Apr 2013 at 1:38 am

    Russel, Upon a Pale Horse sounds awesome! I agree that you should ride that horse to the finish since it sounds like you are already in the race! I am a big Crichton fan so I like the concept. I do love the series because I really like following the characters and yours are the best. But, if you are writing it I’m sure I will be more than satisfied with a stand alone novel. Just get it to us as soon as possible! No pressure. Lol.

  5. Yonatan
    Sat 13th Apr 2013 at 11:41 am


    This is your best title yet. I love title’s that stir my imagination.

    I also like standalones because I can get the whole story in one read. Sometimes series stretch for too long.

    Would you be willing to write more about your writing technique and how you prepare for writing a novel: what you need to know about the characters, how much outlining you do, how you create suspense in the plot, etc.?

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 13th Apr 2013 at 11:54 am

      Sure. I will make it a blog at some point, or do it as an interview if the questions go in that direction.

  6. Robert Jones
    Mon 15th Apr 2013 at 4:33 pm

    I would love to hear more about your writing techniques as well. The behind the scenes stuff is always interesting. Plus the amount of writing you do and actually manage to keep getting better–who wouldn’t be interested in some of the thinking behind that?

    Sure, practice makes perfect, but most can’t do what you’re doing and make it work as well. And I’m not saying that to shmooze…just a fact I would frankly like to know more about in terms of process and thinking. There comes a time in everyone’s career where instinct takes over and delivers something that doesn’t drop below a certain level once craft and quality becomes set. So I’m assuming you’ve been writing a while and setting those sites high before launching yourself out of that literary chute???

    Liking the new title and premise. Do it, I say. Inspiration is great when it takes over that way. I’m enjoying the more literay aspects and strength of imagery that’s developing and growing as you go along. Definitely wouldn’t fight that one.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 15th Apr 2013 at 6:52 pm

      Honestly, I think the way to get better is to feed your brain with the sort of writing you aspire to. I’ve been reading James Lee Burke and Ben Johnston and David Foster Wallace a lot over the past 4 months and trying to zero in on what makes them great, and in that deconstruction, I believe you’re forced to re-analyze your own work with an eye towards incorporating your new revelations. By way of example, I’m pacing Upon a Pale Horse a bit slower than some of my other, more frantic novels, because I want to create more character depth and build the suspense – that sense of “what the hell is going on here?” that Grisham was so good at in his early years. It’s easy to keep readers engaged with an explosion or a car chase every ten pages, but that’s a different kind of book, and the subject matter and the ultimate denouement demands a different approach, which may be great, or blow goats. Won’t know till I’m done and have rewritten it two or three times. I have been leaning towards writing 100K and axing 10-20K for pacing purposes, and I suspect this one might go longer. Dunno until I get to the last word, and then go back and chop ruthlessly. I’m also trying some experimentation with present tense for providing immediacy in at least one section. But mainly, I’m taking longer with each section – I was holding myself to a 5-7K word per day goal, but have slowed it down to 3-4K, which has boosted quality as I more carefully consider each sentence.

      If I had any advice to offer, it would be you write what you read, so read good shit. I believe it’s that simple.

  7. Mon 15th Apr 2013 at 9:43 pm

    What you said about analyzing/trying to deconstruct, that’s what I’ve been up to while reading the Jet series. The obvious has been vocabulary, realizing I have a lot of room for improvement. The second bit has been that in your stories I’m more “there.” It’s much more visual, and my other senses are engaged as well, something my editor brought up to me while working together that I needed to focus on. The other thing I’ve noticed, is that secondary characters stand out and are memorable, specifically the elderly ballerina mom and the Russian torturer in Jet Legacy. For me the challenge is making ordinary side characters stand out like that, as those two were quite bizarre. But then I find myself wondering if I were to try and write about a wacked out character like that, would I even be comfortable enough to go there? Maybe that comes with time and confidence. I hope so.

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 15th Apr 2013 at 9:55 pm

      My view is that you owe it to yourself to make every character you write as vivid and interesting as if they were standing in front of you. That doesn’t mean go overboard with description, but rather give the minimum to impart a sense of who they are – whatever is necessary for the reader to feel whatever you need them to about the character; whatever is necessary so that they seem more real. If your secondary characters seem like cutouts, then you need to think about them more and visualize them more intensely, so that for the period that you’re writing them, they live and breathe through your keystrokes. Which means you need to think about their personalities a little, too. I do it pretty much automatically as I write, but I always have a very good idea of what the character looks like, moves like, speaks like, likes, dislikes, etc. when I write em. Anything less and you’re doing yourself an injustice, IMO. I think that’s where many writers run into trouble – they sort of phone it in on the secondary, and sometimes, the main, characters. Just as with locales, where you owe it to the reader to place them there, in the story, as though they had been teleported into the scene, you owe it to them to craft fully-formed characters that are as close to three-dimensional as you can make them, and then give them just enough to fill in the blanks in their imaginations.

      That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

  8. Mon 15th Apr 2013 at 10:26 pm

    Thank you Master Blake… That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? 🙂

    You just mentioned another thing my editor said. I was giving too much info and not leaving enough for them to fill in the blanks with their imagination.
    Oh and we had the Mom versus my mom fight. I finally gave in and went with his suggestion of Mom.

    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 16th Apr 2013 at 12:26 pm

      My technique, such as it is, is to provide a few key elements that seem to define the character, either appearance, or mannerisms, or both, and then let the reader take over. If I’ve done my job with the dialogue, it’s obvious whether the character is pompous, or sympathetic, or conniving, or courageous. Part of what makes reading so wonderful is that we as readers can use our imaginations, which is why movies generally fall flat compared to the book. Because the whole possibility is collapsed into whatever is on the screen, and that’s what we’re stuck with, and it usually isn’t up to par with the images we created for ourselves.

  9. Robert Jones
    Tue 16th Apr 2013 at 10:51 am

    Russell–I am doing just that in my reading. Even re-reading some books that really move me in terms of their prose. I’m starting a re-read today of one I havent read in a while, pen and pad in had to jot down a scene by scene list as I deconstruct. I want to see how it flows and where the milestones of the story are.

    In terms of your own writing, Upon a Pale Horse (and everything you’re saying about it) sounds like a natural progression of where I’ve seen your writing headed–if I’m reading your steps and advancements correctly. I don’t believe in coincidence, and the new book seems to be giving you the proper ground to move forward another step. And since we grow a little with each new step, your other projects will actually be better for it by the time you get there. I’m really looking forward to UPH. I’m predicting it will be the next level for Russell Blake, and I for one am keeping track and taking notes 🙂

    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 16th Apr 2013 at 12:33 pm

      So no pressure or anything.

      I think it’s harder to write a psychological thriller where the suspense is a slower build than a straightforward action adventure thriller, where you have characters who are doing things, or to whom things are being done. If you get good at describing action, it allows for a lot of leeway. UPH is more of a young man’s journey through circumstance he doesn’t understand, as things he can’t connect happen around him, some that go unnoticed, others that don’t. I think what will make it work is when he begins discovering that the world as he thinks it exists is different than the real world as it actually exists. That realization, and the reader’s as they go along with the journey, is for me the interesting part, other than the shockers in the plot, which are by far the most controversial I’ve ever written, and are dangerously close to a plausible explanation of the truth that most will recoil from, because it’s just too terrible to contemplate. It’s a gamble for me, because I’ve done a lot of research on the subject over the last week, and I’ve come to some very disturbing conclusions which I’ll couch as fiction within the pages. But if the reader isn’t left feeling jarred and uneasy by the last page, I’ve dropped the ball.

      Guess we’ll have to wait and see how it turns out. So far, so good, but I’m only a third of the way in.

  10. Tue 16th Apr 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Wow…UPH sounds even better now that you’ve given us a hint of what it’s about. Can’t wait. Love stories like that.
    Thanks for all your writing tips.

  11. Robert Jones
    Tue 16th Apr 2013 at 1:46 pm

    I’m really liking the sounds of this. In such stories, I always remember what one author said about some of the best suspense being “anxious uncertainty,” and questions arrising and not having them answered right away. I love those type of stories as well.

    No pressure…you can do this, mister!


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