Cedar Fort Publishing & Media will conduct a blog tour, from August 10-23, for my upcoming historical novel, How Much Do You Love Me? If you would like to participate in a review, click here.
Historical fiction, as most of you know, is fiction set in the past, usually within a significant or interesting period of history. The story is fiction, but it draws upon historical accuracy to provide the backdrop. For How Much Do You Love Me? I chose World War II and, in particular, the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.
I chose this time period for two reasons. First, I had an idea for an interracial love story set within the tragedy of a World War. Beyond this objective, my goal was to remind us all, particularly younger generations in the United States, of a noteworthy episode from our country’s history. Most of the time our country has acted honorably, and we can be proud of our accomplishments, both in peacetime and war. However, there are instances when we have acted neither nobly nor fairly and for which we need reminding so as not to repeat our mistakes. The unjustified internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was one of those times.
As we get closer to the publication date, I will write blogs covering various aspects of the internment. My purpose now is to bring my readers up to date on my writing activities.
In an earlier blog (In publishing maybe the cliché is true: It is easier…), I detailed my lack of success in finding a literary agent to represent How Much? To my surprise, when I later pitched the book directly to a publisher, I struck pay dirt with the first one I approached, Cedar Fort (Sweetwater Books imprint), headquartered in Springville, Utah. From their web site, here is Cedar Fort’s vision:
We want to publish uplifting and edifying books that help people think about what is important in life, books people enjoy reading to relax and feel better about themselves, and books to help improve lives. Whether or not a book is written specifically to the LDS market, all of our books should be suitable and uplifting for any group. Our authors believe, as do we, that books should inspire readers to be better people, and we strive to always publish books that are in harmony with that spirit.
Truth be told, when I initially studied this publisher’s focus, I felt right away that How Much? would be a good fit for Cedar Fort’s publishing philosophy.
Once I signed the contract, things moved quickly. This all started last fall and, since then, my editor, Alissa Voss, and I have been striving to make the manuscript the best it can be. I recently returned a second set of requested revisions.
Interestingly, once we got started, working on the manuscript wasn’t the first item of business: it was the cover design. I asked why, and there was a good reason. To meet the scheduled release date of August 12th, a deadline for a national catalog in which my book would be listed had to be met. That listing, necessarily, included a picture of the cover.
You see above that design as created by Cedar Fort’s Kristen Reeves. Another surprise to me: How Much? is already available for preorder on both the Barnes and Noble and Amazon web sites.
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Once upon a time, a half century ago, fresh out of high school, I began my study of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University. Compared to many, my professional growth was relatively boring; I majored in meteorology from the start and never deviated from that professional track. I worked for the same research facility over a period of thirty-some years. Only after I retired, did I change careers, to writing fiction.
A month or so back an e-mail exchange put me in touch with one of my first instructors at Penn State, circa 1966. He taught Synoptic Meteorology. In our laboratory sessions, we hand-drew weather maps to understand high and low pressure systems and their development. The process these days is highly automated, but these same charts are among what we see on the evening news.
That instructor was Joel Myers. Joel was a research assistant around that time, only a few years older than I. Even though we students were naïve newbies, I remember him treating us with respect and dedication—even while he tolerated my good friend Marian Peleski and me acting like juveniles: blowing erasure crumbs back and forth across our drawing tables (early on, we spent as much time erasing as we did drawing).
I returned Joel’s e-mail and suggested that if he ever found himself on the West Coast, to look me up. He wrote back and said he would. Truth be told, I never expected to hear from him again. To my surprise, several months later I received an e-mail from his secretary giving me a time window when he would be in nearby San Francisco. Long story short, last week, my wife, Becky, and I had lunch with him in the City.
So why is a luncheon with a fellow meteorologist—whom I haven’t seen in decades—so unusual that I write a blog? Because Joel Myers is a very special meteorologist indeed; he is one of our field’s superstars. Most of you have probably heard of AccuWeather. Joel is the Founder, President, and Chairman of a company (headquartered in State College, outside Penn State) that employs more than 400 people, serves 60,000 clients, and produces a web site accessed by eight million users. But beyond his business success, he has given back significantly to the university that gave him his start—financially and with his time. He has served on the Penn State Board of Trustees since 1981: that’s over thirty years, folks! He tells me that he is running for one last term on the Board, and I hope that he’s successful.
So, you ask me, what was it like to sit down to lunch with someone Entrepreneur Magazine lists as one of the 528 greatest entrepreneurs in American history? Truly, I can say that it didn’t feel that much different from the first day he walked into our meteorology class. His distinctive voice resonated the same, and he didn’t look that much different. He asked me questions and treated me with the same respect that he had so long ago. Because the story revolves around climate change, I gave him a copy of my latest thriller, White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy.
Being the sentimental person I am, I valued that get-together. My wife got to meet Joel, and I was reacquainted with someone I respected at the time and feel lucky to still know today. That he took the time to sit down with a former lowly undergraduate from nearly a lifetime ago meant a lot to me.
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I know why you’ve read at least this far. “It is easier…” to do what?
First, a little history. Since I retired thirteen years ago, I’ve been living my life’s dream of writing fiction. I’ve completed a trilogy of thrillers and a book of short stories. Still, with none of my thrillers have I been able to snag a conventional publisher. Consequently, I self-published with iUniverse. I have no complaints. iUniverse provided good editors, thoughtful cover designs, some marketing support, and production quality that competes with the best. My books have received excellent reviews and, for self-published books, have sold well.
Three years ago I switched genres. I thought I might have a better chance of connecting with a conventional publisher by writing an historical novel. I focused on the Japanese internment of World War II, a particularly poignant episode in our country’s history. About a year ago, I completed How Much Do You Love Me? It’s a love story/mystery intertwined with the drama and pain of the internment.
As I did for my thrillers, I searched for a literary agent. New writers today understand that it seems nearly impossible to get an agent interested in you. And over the next eight months, I reaffirmed that notion. To be fair, there is good reason. Publishers are taking fewer chances on newbies—at least for fiction. (If you are a famous person or have a killer real-life story, an agent will snap you up in a heartbeat. If you don’t believe me, try this: send out a handful of queries whose first sentence begins with the following: “I slept with Osama bin Laden, and here is my story.”) And there is one additional truism; to a literary agent, being self-published is equivalent to being unpublished.
Over an eight-month period, I sent queries to 180 agents. I received replies from 134. Many agents requested, up front, a chapter or two; others requested additional material based upon the query. Nonetheless, all agents declined. Nearly all replies were polite, with a common refrain being “this isn’t right for me,” or “we have decided to pass on this one.” The most encouraging reply I received was from a high-powered, well-regarded agent with whom I had met personally several years earlier. She said: “Thank you for thinking of me…You write well and this is an accomplished story – do keep going with this. Unfortunately I’ll have to step aside, but do know it was a close call, and I wish you the best of luck.” Note her phrasing, a close call. That letter made my day.
When I ran out of agents, I tried one other route. Using Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents, I browsed through his list of Publishers. This is a tougher approach because very few publishers accept queries directly from authors. Still, I found a few and one, in particular, that seemed to be a good fit for my story. To that one I sent my query letter on October 7th. By then, I felt that my query letter had evolved into the best I could write.
Four days later, on October 11, I received an e-mail reply (the most professional looking reply of any I had received from an agent), saying that they would be “very interested” in seeing my manuscript. That sounded encouraging but, from previous experience, I wasn’t expecting much. And then—may the publishing Gods be praised!—on November 6th, I received an e-mail offering me a publishing contract.
Long story short, I signed the contract, and my editor and I are now working to make the manuscript the best it can be. These people work fast and precisely: the cover has been designed, and they already know the book’s release date, August 12th.
And so, to rephrase the title for this blog: Yes! Sometimes it is easier to find a publisher than a literary agent.
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During the final stages of review for my new thriller, White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy, one editor said that I had Point of View (POV) problems. I didn’t take this charge lightly because my mentor, author/publicist Arline Chase, had always taught me to never violate point-of-view rules.
Let’s back up a bit to explain. When writing a narrative story, it’s necessary to choose a POV from which to tell the story. For example, some writers tell their story in the first person, using “I.” In those cases, the “I” person is a character in the story. For example: “I returned home to find my house on fire and immediately suspected that it wasn’t an accident.” There is also a second person POV (“you”), but this approach is not common.
More often, fiction writers use the third person; e.g., “Sanford returned home to find his house on fire and immediately suspected that it wasn’t an accident.” An outsider, not a character in the story, is telling the story. Once you’ve decided on third-person, you have to choose whether it’s going to be third-person omniscient or third-person limited POV. For omniscient, the narrator knows the thoughts of other characters. For third-person limited, the narrator knows only what that particular character knows or sees; a big advantage of this approach is that the story can be told from multiple character viewpoints, resulting in the reader usually knowing more than any one character.
So where did I go wrong? I’ve used third-person limited POV for all three of my thrillers (Category 5, Prophecy, and White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy). If I know the rule so well, how could I be accused of breaking it?
The disagreement results from what the reviewer and I think the character knows. I will give you three examples (from the POV of my lead character, Linda Kipling) where the editor claims that I broke the rule. I will then explain why I disagree. Ultimately, I decided that the reviewer was technically correct.
- “As her assailant came running toward her, his bearing became more menacing. He had no intention of stopping until he had bowled her over. Kipling stood her ground and waited.”
- “The guard released his grip, and Kipling remained standing. Infuriated, he landed hard…”
- “An outsider viewing the dinner’s progression wouldn’t have suspected anything out of the ordinary.”
In 1), the first sentence is okay. The reviewer said that I went wrong when I stated, “He had no intention of stopping until he had bowled her over.” My response was that it was obvious to Kipling what his intentions were. The reviewer’s point is that Kipling’s assailant could have changed his mind. That sentence is easily corrected: “It seemed obvious to Kipling that he had no intention of stopping until he had bowled her over.”
For 2), again the reviewer is correct in principle. He would say that Kipling had no way of knowing that he was “infuriated.” To my way of thinking, that was more than obvious to her.
For 3), again I thought I wrote that sentence from Kipling’s POV, that as she looked about the room, she might imagine that an outsider would sense nothing wrong. However, her idea of what an outsider might think could be totally off the mark.
So, what have I learned? I’ve learned that I need to be ever vigilant when writing in third-person limited POV. Although it’s unlikely that a reader would have noticed these errors, it’s important that we writers never write even one sentence that could confuse the reader.
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Some of you may not be aware that Print on Demand (POD) technology has revolutionized the availability of printable books. Print on Demand is based upon digital printing. Most of us can remember when LaserJets and other laser printers first allowed us to print one page at a time–in seconds–compared to a carriage printer (akin to a typewriter) that prints one letter at a time (remember the teletype).
POD technology allows book publishers to print small quantities of a book profitably. As the name suggests, a publisher prints a POD book when there is demand–even as few as one copy for a single customer. POD contrasts to traditional offset printing where many copies are printed at once. It makes no sense to offset print a run of ten books because the setup fee is too costly. Alternatively, you wouldn’t print 50,000 copies using POD because the unit cost would be too high.
My publisher, iUniverse, uses POD, and my three thrillers are available using that technology. You might think there’d be a significant time delay in ordering a POD book. Not so. As a test this past Sunday, I placed an order for two copies of my latest thriller, White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy, from Barnes and Noble online. The next day my books were ready for expedited shipping, and I received them Thursday.
What about quality? From what I’ve seen of mass-produced books in stores, the print and general production quality of my books are as good or better. My books are available as either softback or hardback (as well as electronic). The only thing I wish I could have would be a paper jacket (hardback) that includes embossing. The softbacks are perfect bound, which look fantastic and open easily for comfortable reading.
Before long I’m sure I’ll have a book enough in demand that it will qualify for an offset printing run (to date, my books sell in the low thousands). But, if it weren’t for POD technology, my thrillers would not be so widely available–nor, I’m sure, would I have sold as many as I have.
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The Saturday before last I had the good fortune of doing a book signing at a Barnes and Noble (Almaden Plaza) in San Jose. It is a beautiful, large store, and I had a good time. The staff was friendly.
I stayed most of the day and ended up selling a good number of my latest thriller, White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy, as well as copies of the earlier two in my thriller trilogy.
What I enjoy about signings is interacting with customers. You meet a wide variety of people. As potential customers walk by, I try to engage them in conversation to determine, for openers, if they’re interested in thrillers. If they’re nonfiction people, I’m out of luck. But, perhaps surprisingly, I’d say that some 60-70% say that they like thrillers.
Now in terms of the typical person who buys my books I can tell you precisely who that is: women. This is not to say that men do not buy my books but, in general, more women than men do. When I mentioned this to one of the staff, it became clear that I wasn’t telling him something he didn’t already know. Women are the store’s biggest customers as well. This fact would make my kick-butt protagonist (of White Thaw), Dr. Linda Kipling, proud. When I did a casual check on the Internet, one study said that women bought 58% of books–remarkably close to the percentage of books that I sold to women at this signing, 65% (24/37).
The most gratifying feeling I get comes from the customer who takes a look at each of my three thrillers, grabs one from each stack, and buys all three. This happened twice at this signing. One sale involved a single woman alone, and the other a man/woman couple. Life for an author doesn’t get much better than that.
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I’ve now written a trilogy of thrillers, Category 5, Prophecy, and White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy. All three of my titles are good titles, but only the last has a special quality that the others don’t have.
My first novel, Category 5, is about hurricanes, and a “Category 5” hurricane is the most intense, as most of you probably know. Prophecy is about an errant gene in the human genome, one that gives the carrier special abilities, such as prophetic powers: hence the title Prophecy. So, I can’t argue that both of these titles don’t do a good job of capturing or summarizing the intent of the book. BUT, if I were to do it all over, I’d change them both. Why? Because they are not unique. Go to Amazon.com and search for “Category 5” in books. Nowhere on the first page of selections does my book show up. Of course, if Category 5 were a big seller it would, but it isn’t.
If you do the same with Prophecy, it’s even worse. There must be a million books out there (okay, I’m exaggerating; there are probably no more than nine hundred thousand) with the word “Prophecy” in the title.
With White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy, I finally got it right. Search for either “White Thaw” or “Helheim Conspiracy,” and my book pops right up. (Full disclosure: my wife, Becky, gets credit for the title “White Thaw.”)
Lesson learned: If your goal is to stand out from the multitudes, it’s not a particularly good idea to look like everyone else.
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Until 2001, I worked for the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) as a research meteorologist. I retired to write fiction. White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy is the third thriller in a trilogy involving my protagonists Drs. Victor Mark Silverstein and Linda Kipling. They are Navy scientists who work at the same facility as I did. Artificial Intelligence (AI) plays a critical role to the plot. This blog will discuss how my knowledge of AI came to be.
As a research meteorologist, I worked on a variety of projects during my career with the Navy. In the years before I retired, I applied AI to Navy meteorological problems.
Here’s my definition of AI: the application of numerical (usually computer) techniques to simulate the thought or vision process of a human being. I did research in a couple of areas that fall within this definition. First, we developed several expert systems. An expert system is a program that encapsulates the thought process of a human in deducing an answer to a problem. You might imagine something akin to a decision tree, but more complicated.
In another application of AI, we applied pattern recognition or computer vision to meteorological image analysis. For example, we tackled tropical cyclone intensity and cloud typing, two areas where meteorologists can develop recognition skills by studying satellite imagery. We wanted to automate that process using a computer. One can imagine other fields in which computer vision might prove useful. In medicine, for example, there are programs to automate the analysis of images created by breast mammography, searching for suspicious areas requiring further analysis.
In a third area, we applied what’s called machine learning. More generally, we applied KDD, Knowledge Discovery from Databases, to a variety of problems. (The lingo here can be confusing and is often used interchangeably. KDD refers to the overall process of discovering useful information from data. Data mining refers to the algorithms applied to the data, and machine learning is one of those algorithms.) In one of our more interesting (and potentially rewarding) studies, we applied KDD to both numerical (from weather forecast models) and satellite data sets to discern weather parameters (for example, cloud base height) where no ground-based meteorological observations were available.
This brings me to the use of AI in White Thaw. In Chapter 2, I introduce the reader to a fictional government agency: the Federal Center for Data Analysis (FCDE). In truth, following 9/11, the government realized that there were clues that might have thwarted the airliner attacks: e.g., Colleen Rowley, an FBI agent from Minneapolis, who testified before congress regarding information she had forwarded through channels regarding Zacarias Moussaoui, a suspected terrorist. As it turned out, those reports could have led to advance knowledge of the plane hijackings. This was an example of the failure of human intelligence. What I envisioned with the FCDE was an agency dedicated exclusively to the automated monitoring of digital forms of data: for example, satellite pictures of enemy territory, seismic signals (that might point to an illegal nuclear test), newspaper articles, anything available in digital form.
How is this accomplished? Analogous to my discussions above, KDD is used to automate data analysis. Such analysis cannot be done manually because it would be too slow. The idea is to uncover a suspicious pattern, a warning sign perhaps that needs to be checked out or acted upon. In my novel, it is this technology at the FCDE that uncovers a suspicious underwater explosion. This discovery leads to a nail-biting caper, resulting in murder, international intrigue, and a potential environmental catastrophe for our planet.
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I didn’t write the above title. It was the caption for a review by Amazon Top Reviewer, “Ginny,” for my latest thriller, White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy. She goes on to say in her review, “…Unlike many books in this genre, all the main characters are NOT men. I thought that made it much more enjoyable for both female and male readers….”
This review reminded me how important it is to write to a variety of audience. I’ve known for years that most people who buy my novels at book signings are women. For example, at the end of September I was fortunate to have a signing at our nearest big book store, the Barnes & Noble in Gilroy (forty-five minutes north of Monterey). For every book that I sold to a male, I sold 2.5 to women. Although that’s not always the case, more often than not it is.
In my trilogy of thrillers, Category 5, Prophecy, and White Thaw, I’ve had two protagonists all along, Dr. Victor Mark Silverstein and Dr. Linda Kipling. For my first two books, Silverstein was the lead, with Kipling secondary. By the end of Prophecy, however, it became clear to me that Kipling was so strong a character that she deserved a story of her own: hence White Thaw. Silverstein takes a secondary role equivalent to Kipling’s earlier. In addition to Kipling, there is a second strong female character: Navy Captain Jane Stigler who heads up the Federal Center for Data Examination, an agency hot on the trail of the bad guys.
On the flip side, neither sex should have a lock on evil either. For example, I recall Senator Samantha Thurston (in Prophecy), one of the more wicked, immoral characters I’ve developed. Silverstein will never forget what she did to him in a hotel room in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
In real life, neither sex can lay claim to being the ultimate good or the ultimate evil. Throughout history, there have been angels and monsters from both sexes. And so it should be in fiction.
Thank you, Ginny, for your comment. I’m glad that somebody noticed.