Sunday, July 22, 2018

MURPHY'S LAW


“Even paranoids have enemies” is a quote usually ascribed to Henry Kissinger, although some people claim Golda Meir said it to him when he accused the Israeli Prime Minister of being paranoid about her Arab neighbors. Personally, I like to think Henry stole it from Golda. I’ve always thought he was too sneaky for his (and our) own good.

But whoever said it, the quote could be a motto for thriller writers. At the very least, it could be my motto.

I’ve written about where I get my ideas for my thrillers, which basically explain how I get them. I noted that some ideas – reworked, of course – come from old movies (thank you, Turner Classic Movies); many from current events, and even some from dreams, when I can remember them. I used to keep a pad next to my bed to jot down notes of what I can recall when I wake up; most of such scribblings I quickly destroy, lest they appear in a future commitment hearing. Now, I keep my iPhone handy, and usually email myself a note. (Thus, no doubt, leaving an electronic trail that will be used at a future hearing.)

The where and how of my creative process, and those of other thriller writers, don’t explain the why. Many people watch TV, read the papers and dream, without trying to write a thriller or mystery. I’m not talking about talent, or ability, or the facility with the written word. Again, many people are good with words, and may even write well. They may craft lovely poems, stirring memoirs, fine literary novels. But not thrillers.

I think all thriller writers have must have a touch of paranoia. Well, maybe more than a touch, in my case. Prior to my book-writing days, I once sat on a non-profit board where, a few days after a particularly contentious meeting, one of the directors with whom I clashed invited me – out of the blue – to go fishing on his cabin cruiser. I had just watched the episode of The Sopranos where Tony Soprano took his pal Salvatore "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero out on his boat and rubbed him out. The guy who invited me owned a construction company. That was enough for me. I passed on the fishing trip, and then had to listen to the lug brag about all the fish he caught!

I’ve mellowed since then, and now channel most of my paranoia into my thrillers.

For example, I came across some articles on the Hadron Collider, which is the most complex machine built by man. It is a particle accelerator that is so huge its main component, a roughly circular tunnel in which bits of matter are sent smashing into each other at nearly the speed of light, is 17 miles long and crosses into two countries, France and Switzerland.

Unlike American tunnels, there is no toll, but that’s not what caught my paranoid attention. What did was a statement by one of the scientists working at the collider that, contrary to fears expressed by some other scientists, the Hadron Collider, in its attempt to find the “God particle”, would probably not create a black hole that would be dangerous. Since the black holes that we know exist are sucking entire galaxies into oblivion, I did not find the “probably” too reassuring. So, I wrote a thriller (THE HADRON ESCAPE) about things that go badly askew at Hadron. However, I refrained from destroying anything larger than a section of the collider, since the book is part of a series and obliterating the entire planet would be a mite short-sighted.

Am I being paranoid in thinking that Hadron will lead to catastrophe? Probably (there’s that word again!), but I check the morning papers to make sure that Switzerland is still there.

Then, there was an article in The New York Times about some scientists in Siberia who have discovered, and revived, an ancient pithovirus that has been frozen in the tundra for 30,000 years. Pithoviruses are about 25 percent bigger that your run-of-the-mill virus like, say Ebola, which means that only about 50 zillion of them can fit on the tip of a needle. Fortunately, the scientists say, pithoviruses usually only infect amoebas. The word “usually” is right up there in my paranoid pantheon with “probably”, so I wrote a thriller (THAWED) in which amoebas get a pass, but the human race doesn’t.

I mean, am I being paranoid? After all, these are the same scientists who thawed out a wooly mammoth and munched on the meat! We’re not talking M.I.T. here. More like M.L.I.T., as in the Murphy’s Law Institute of Technology, where what can go wrong will go wrong.

Just thinking about a 30,000-year-old virus running amok has me feeling queasy.

But that’s because I’m a bit of a hypochondriac, too – another trait I suspect is common to thriller writers. 

















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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

AMAZING AMAZON!


In a spate of articles, various publishing “experts” have questioned the growth of e-books. They suggest that traditional printed books were making a comeback at the expense of Amazon, which dominates the e-book landscape. They also claim that the increasing numbers of small, independent bookstores is a sure sign that the e-book revolution is slowing. They quote booksellers and readers who said they preferred the feel of printed books. (I don’t doubt that; I have several e-book readers, but still also enjoy reading the printed page.)

Their arguments are flawed, because the folks who wrote them only looked at the sales of the e-book versions of books also published in print. Those e-book sales may indeed be slipping, most likely because the so-called “legacy” publishers are keeping their prices relatively high. For example, take a novel selling at Barnes & Noble for $17.13 in hardcover and $14.99 as an e-book. For what amounts to a $2 difference, many people might indeed opt for the physical book.

But the great bulk of e-books are self-published. According to AuthorEarnings.com, a website that tracks all book sales, “indie authors and Amazon-imprint authors sell more e-books daily than all traditional publishers put together, a remarkable fact that most industry observers — ourselves included — still find hard to believe.” The website notes that publishing industry statistics from Nielsen, Bowker, and the like “all rely on counting ISBNs” ignoring the fact that “37% of all e-books sold on Amazon.com each day do not use ISBNs”. This is significant because “according to most industry accounts, 65% of all U.S. e-book sales happen through Amazon’s Kindle store”.

AuthorEarnings.com contends that while e-book sales of popular authors may be lagging, sales of self-published authors are exploding, as more and more millennials eschew print for e-books. It’s not hard to see why. It’s a matter of economics. While there is plenty of self-published dreck, there also are some fine – or at least readable – self-published books. (Dreck, of course, isn’t limited to the self-publishing world; just check out any airport book kiosk.)

Dreckness aside, the typical self-published e-book sells for $2.99 on Amazon, earning a royalty of $2.05, which is comparable to what a “traditional” author might earn after agents, editors, publishers, and other middlemen take their cut of the pie. (And self-published authors who participate in Amazon’s KDP Select borrowing program earn additional funds for pages read.)

Now, this is not to say that most self-published authors are making a killing. Very few (myself included) do. The Hugh Howeys, John Lockes, Amanda Hockings and Joe Konraths in the Amazon million-seller universe are the exceptions.  

I love print books, particularly non-fiction. I find it hard to imagine enjoying illustrations, charts and graphics on anything but the printed page. The Battle of Gettysburg loses something on a Kindle or Nook.

I believe the literary world is big enough to permit both print and e-books to coexist. I also believe that critics do not give Amazon, in particular, and the e-book revolution, in general, enough credit for generating a new wave of reader enthusiasm.

Why do you think so many small bookstores are thriving?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

A WRITER IS ALWAYS "ON"


“A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.”
I have this quote, from Eugène Ionesco, prominently displayed on my website. It’s also taped to my work desk at home, where it shares space with several hundred other notes and jottings I consider absolutely crucial, such as lists of groceries I was supposed to buy but didn’t.
Which explains why dinner tonight will be leftover pizza.
Ionesco was an avant-garde Romanian playwright and must have been a bit of a strange bird. In Romania, the official language is, not surprisingly, Romanian. According to Wikipedia, the country’s other spoken languages include Hungarian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Slovak, Romani, Ukrainian, and German.
Ionesco wrote in French, perhaps because the French came up with the phrase “avant-garde”.
In any event, I think he is spot on with the quote in whatever language he wrote it. I cannot remember a day when I didn’t think that something I did, heard, saw, read or imagined wasn’t grist for my writing mill. A writer is always “on.”
One of my thrillers was influenced by a trip I took to Ireland in 2014. I played a round of golf on a course called Old Head, where if you strayed off the fairway, you fell to your death on the rocks 400 feet below. Needless to say, I didn’t look for my many golf balls in the rough. But I did get a great murder scene out of the experience.
Another book, a mystery, was set on Bald Head Island, a tiny island just off the coast of North Carolina I visited. (Contrary to snarky comments from my sons, the island was not named after me; they ignore the obvious genetic possibility that their own domes are doomed to a receding-hairline future.) The island is only accessible by ferry, does not have cars, has a history of shipwrecks dating to the Spanish Main, is a refuge for people who want to be left alone, has only a rudimentary police presence, and suffers a murder every 500 years.
I was only there two days, and a plot using all those facts percolated in my head (aided, no doubt, by the local rum punches). The resulting book includes murders and dismemberments, of course.  

STOUT READING!

I devour books, in all forms. Most of them in their print version, which may surprise some people who have labeled me an apologist for a...