Monday, January 28, 2013

Free E-Book Promotion Extended Two More Weeks!

In the past six months, more than a thousand people have downloaded my short stories and given me a lot of positive feedback. I was planning to end the free promotion for these books on February 1st, but as a show of appreciation to all my readers, I’ve decided to extend the free promotion another two weeks for the following titles:
  • Broken Glass: A not-so-good Samaritan picks the wrong girl to rescue.
  • Date with a Devil: Two urban predators use murder and manipulation as tools for flirting.
  • Family Affair: A gang initiation gone wrong sends a killer on a path of revenge.
  • Dead on Arrival: A simple favor descends into an assassination plot.

The promotional period for my other titles will continue, but as of February 15th, these titles will be gone. Read them now for free while you can!

I plan to release a new novel called Smooth Operator later this year. Until then, I hope you enjoy everything in the Nightlife Publishing catalog.

Have fun.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Fact vs. Fiction: Which Is More Real?

As a writer of crime and spy novels, I often think about the impact of deception in our lives. Recent events offer a lot of material to consider:
  • Major media is consistently manipulated by government, corporations and powerful individuals
  • False identities like catfish and sock puppets proliferate online
  • Statistics and “scientific” studies are biased to serve narrow political or economic interests
  • “Independent” bloggers are bought and controlled by sponsors
  • The Met even had an exhibit on the doctoring of photographs that took place long before Photoshop was invented, destroying the historical myth that “the camera doesn’t lie.”

All this leads to the central philosophical question; what is real? How do I know that the French really invaded Mali, or why? How do I know how many troops we have in Afghanistan or how many guns are actually in America? Does anyone really know? Can they prove it?

The lack of knowable facts isn’t limited to what we learn from traditional and social media. There are plenty of instances in your own everyday life that are more appearance than fact. For example, let’s say I go to a bar and start a conversation with an attractive woman. At some point, she mentions that she has a boyfriend. A gentleman even comes up and is introduced as said boyfriend.

Now, under normal circumstances this seems perfectly reasonable, but in espionage language, what I just found out is referred to as single source information. That means that during this brief exchange, I have very little independent confirmation on the reality of this woman’s relationship status. It might sound farfetched to think this is anything other than what it seems, but a deception like this isn’t just the province of spies and criminals. My female friends have pretended that I was their boyfriend, boss, cousin or other short term role with very little preparation on my part or scrutiny on the part of our audience. Appearances often carry much more weight than reality, online and off.

Fiction, as opposed to news, is also by definition not real. But it has two qualities that often make it more honest. First, while fiction attempts to be realistic to one degree or another, it does not pretend to depict objective reality in a way that manipulates us with a false sense of singular importance. Second, if it is done well, fiction captures real emotion. It helps bring meaning to our lives and connects us to our shared humanity. It is often the power of fiction that exposes the human condition in ways that are stronger than whatever we are told is real.

I have come to the obvious conclusion that while facts are more real than fiction, verifying facts isn’t possible in most cases. The willing suspension of disbelief that we need to enjoy fiction needs to be balanced with the unwilling suspension of belief when we encounter news or alleged fact.  In this life, what we ultimately believe about our world and ourselves is just as likely to come from fiction as from fact. As a writer and storyteller, I plan to keep this power in mind as I pursue my craft.

Have fun.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Mantai Te’o, Catfishing and the Evolution of Deception

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. Marcus Aurelius

As a writer who creates stories about modern spies and criminals, the Te'o catfish story is fascinating. At this point, very few people know what really happened, but if you think about the big picture, the ultimate truth doesn’t really matter. The implications of what we do collectively going forward could be much more profound than whatever winds up happening to a single football player.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that someone has been manipulated with a false identity. Catfishing is an online phenomenon that is probably as old as social networks and online dating. Hackers constantly use social engineering to get people to reveal their passwords. Con artists have duped marks for centuries by pretending to be someone who didn’t exist. Spies and undercover agents have fabricated fake identities since the Trojan Horse. Te’o’s case isn’t unique on its own. The importance of this case lies in the effect it could have on us, not the effect it will have on him.

When you take a wide view of the Te’o story, it becomes special whether you look at it from a William Gibson, Marshall McLuhan, Kevin Mitnick, or Robert Greene perspective. The evolution of media that was the foundation of both Gibson’s and McLuhan’s work is highlighted by the way this one player’s story could shape and mold both traditional and social media with no facts to back up his statements. The emotional investment that Te’o allegedly put into this hoax is something that would impress even an elite hacker like Mitnick. And the act of seducing a man without ever meeting him in person is a feat that embodies everything that Robert Greene discussed in his books.  This story has so many layers that we might not understand its full effects for a long time.

Te’o will stay with us because his imaginary girlfriend could alter the way we interact. The story is still developing, but it's going to have an impact on social interactions, manners, psychology and what we believe concerning the people we meet and read about. This doesn’t apply just for journalists, but for anyone who creates content online or off, even if it’s just a dating profile on Plenty of Fish. Understanding the motivations of the catfish and the fallout across social and traditional media is going to be intense, no matter what the truth of the Te’o story is. All of us might become a little more suspicious and a little more cynical about who we chat with and what we read online. Ultimately, that might be a good thing. The suspension of disbelief is critical for enjoying fiction. In real life, it has a definite downside.

Just ask Manti Te’o.

Have fun.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Django Unchained Is the Next Great American Spy Film

Much has been written and discussed about Quentin Tarantino's latest project. Django Unchained has garnered praise, criticism and awards as a race film, a western and a spaghetti western. But after seeing the movie last night, it is clear to me that Tarantino did something else. He successfully realizes all of the classic elements of a spy film in a uniquely American setting.

As I wrote in an earlier post (How to Write Spy Fiction), every spy story boils down to the secret struggle for a magic It. The plot of Django is easy to fit into the classic spy formula when it is looked at from this perspective. Without revealing any spoilers, consider the following milestones that occur in many spy stories and also happen in the film;
  • The spy is recruited into his profession by an older, experienced mentor.
  • He learns his trade and struggles with the morality of what he is doing as his skills improve.
  • He engages in some form of deception to manipulate his opponent and get closer to his goal because his opponent has superior strength, numbers and society on his side.
  • Some form of counterintelligence is used against him to reveal his plot.
  • He is forced to engage in another spontaneous deception, surpassing his mentor to secure the Magic It.

All of these elements were defined and structured well in Django Unchained. They are difficult to see if you’re not looking for them because Tarantino uses a controversial setting and an atypical protagonist to tell his story. But this is just as much a good spy film as Argo, Skyfall or Zero Dark Thirty and should be appreciated in that vein.

It could be that Django is easier to define as a spaghetti western than a spy film. It might be more popular to focus on how many times the word nigger was used in the script or how graphically violent the film was. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that because I’m in the middle of writing a spy novel I see every movie or story in those terms. But none of that takes away from what Django reveals. By shining a light on America near the end of Slavery, Tarantino gives us a look at a struggle that was just as treacherous as the Cold War or the War on Terror. Not every spy story that deserves to be told concerns only the evils of the modern Middle East. Some stories can clearly be found in the systemic human trafficking of America’s own past.

Have fun.

How Do You Define a “Successful” Writer?

The explosion of independent publishing has created a niche market of books all claiming to help you become a better writer. Some of them focus on the craft of writing. Others focus on the business aspects. All of them purport to transform you into being a successful.

But what exactly does that mean?

Is it defined by sales? I doubt that. A poorly written book could have great sales and a well written book could have poor sales for any number of factors that have nothing to do with the writing. There have been many great writers who died penniless. Does that make them failures?

Does it come from critical acclaim? Perhaps, but good reviews could come from friends, connections, reciprocal good reviews or sock puppets. At the same time, a great book might not have any reviews at all. There is very little direct correlation between good reviews and success.

Must a successful writer possess enduring value? Are you successful only if your work is used by English professors decades after your dead? Does your name have to rise to the pantheon of authors like Poe, Hemingway and Shakespeare? This feat surely marks you as a successful writer. The only problem with this benchmark is that you probably have to be dead before it kicks in. Who wants to wait for all that?

What if your book brings you a large amount of notoriety? That doesn’t make you a successful writer. You may simply be writing about a timely, controversial topic. You might have a magnetic, extroverted charm that the media is drawn to. Fame doesn’t make you a successful writer any more than it makes Honey Boo Boo a good actress.

So it’s not sales, reviews or notoriety. It’s not awards, volume of output or likes on Facebook. It’s not the ability to make a living as a writer, especially if you’re miserable. It’s not even the technical polish of a professional manuscript. So what makes a successful writer? Ultimately, every writer has to define this for themselves based on their goals and expectations, but I’ve come up with a definition that I plan to use going forward;

A successful writer has the ability to consistently increase one or more of their resources through the creation and distribution of their craft.

By “resources”, I mean your intellectual, financial, social or physical capital. So if writing broadens your mental horizons, increases your financial status, widens your social circles or improves the quality of your life over time, then you are a successful writer. I will admit that it is not the most measurable criteria in the world, but it’s better than waiting until English professors start forcing kids to read my books.

So how do you define a successful writer?

Have fun.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Mastery: A Book Review

Before I can write any review about any Robert Greene book, I have to reveal some bias. I’ve considered myself an indirect apprentice to Mr. Greene and his work since 2004. After my divorce, the Art of Seduction changed not only my life but the way I look at society and human interaction. I’ve read it several times since that first exposure and it might be one of the most influential books I’ve read in the past decade.

Greene has written five books to date and the concept behind his voice is always the same. He describes a method of achievement based on a central idea and represents that concept with certain historical figures. Art of Seduction focused on people like Casanova and Cleopatra, The 48 Laws of Power used Machiavelli and Talleyrand, The 33 Strategies of War dissected luminaries like Sun Tzu and Napoleon. Mastery continues in this same vein; highlighting figures like Mozart, Einstein and Darwin. The difference between this work and his others is the target of his analysis. While all his other books described methods for dealing with others, Mastery creates a model for improving your own personal abilities.

The Premise

The idea behind Mastery is simple at first glance. Greene argues that the achievement of all the great artists, inventors and business leaders is always the product of a specific process that the rest of us can duplicate. He claims that genetics, luck or divine intervention play no role in the success of anyone from Benjamin Franklin to Freddie Roach. He then goes on to describe the process and provide historical examples to support his theory.

The Process

There are five steps in Greene’s road to Mastery:
  • Finding your life’s work through exploring your natural inclinations,
  • Practice through apprenticeship,
  • Gaining knowledge through mentoring,
  • Self-expression through creativity
  • Mastery

While the process only has five steps, it is not short by any means. A person can spend their entire childhood before they find what they really want to do with their lives. An apprenticeship typically takes 7-10 years or 10,000 hours. Mentoring can reduce the apprenticeship time, but it will probably only shave off a year or two. Self-expression and mastery may not come until after years and years of patient practice, if it comes at all. Mastery is not an easy road and the path Greene describes is littered with pitfalls.

First Impressions

I’m listing my opinion of the book as first impressions because I think Greene’s books have to be read several times to fully appreciate the message. My thoughts on it may change over time, but this is what I think so far.

On the positive side, Mastery is an overarching book on development that transcends money or fame and like all of Greene’s work it is tied to extensive historical examples. This book can be helpful to anyone in business, art or the sciences. It also has applications for parents looking to help their children develop and it is especially relevant to writers looking for the motivation to develop their craft.

The downside of the book comes down to the editing. Some the extensive examples are repetitious and tediously long. There are elements of the process (most notably the relationship between the apprenticeship and the mentoring) that feel vague and contradictory. Finally, the ending of the book is weak and uninspiring compared to his best work because it doesn’t tie the concepts together well and the end and it doesn’t deliver the same air of authority that the other books did.

To sum up, Mastery is a worthy addition to the power, seduction and war library, but it is not the best of the collection. Hopefully an abridged version will be released soon so I can dig into it again.

(Note: This review is for the unabridged audio version of the book.)

Have fun.