Sunday, April 28, 2013

See No Evil: A Book Review

I write stories about spies and espionage because it’s the subject that interests me the most. One of the side benefits of writing in this genre is being able to read memoirs of former case officers and calling that activity “work”. I’ve had Robert Baer’s See No Evil on my radar for years, but I was finally able to devote time to it this month. Baer did a good job in explaining how the CIA declined since the end of the Cold War, but his personal entanglements muddle his overall message.

See No Evil is written in four parts; Baer’s introduction and training in the CIA, his time in the field as a case officer, the decline of the agency and his involvement in the campaign financing fiasco during the Clinton years. The first half of the book felt very candid. Baer doesn’t describe himself as a patriot from birth who always wanted to work for the CIA. He’s just a struggling student with an agenda of his own. He details many of his mistakes and frustrations during his postings in India and Lebanon. It felt as if Baer has a lot of nostalgia for the Cold War years, if only because he felt his agency was in better shape then.

The third part of his book covered familiar ground for anyone who has read CIA memoirs from the past decade (See the Art of Intelligence Review), but the frustration that Baer puts into it makes the failings of the CIA more profound. It has been well established that the CIA strayed from its mission for three reasons;
  • A rejection of human intelligence in favor of satellite and computer technology
  • An aversion to risk that undermined intelligence gathering and promoted career minded bureaucrats and,
  • A capitulation to the interests of Washington lobbyists at the expense of national security

Baer goes into maddening details about how his own career was crushed in the machinery of the Beltway. If his life was the only casualty of this debacle, it would be disturbing. The fact that disinterest and neglect within the intelligence community contributed to 9/11 is crippling.

By the time I got to the last section of the book and the illegal oil deals, questionable campaign financing and the transformation of the CIA from an intelligence agency to a publicly funded manhunt company, I was numb. I was sure Baer felt the same thing. Then why did he stay, when so many of his colleagues left? Why did he get caught up in things that he had no interest or experience in? Is See No Evil his way of fighting back?  It is hard to imagine devoting decades of your life to a cause, only to see it fail on so many different levels.

Hopefully Baer’s writing is keeping him sane. I think his experience and insight will definitely influence the stories I write.

Have fun.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

On Writing: A Book Review

I've never been a Stephen King fan. Sure, I've seen The Shining, Misery, Thinner, Carrie and the first thirty minutes of the Tommyknockers but that's it. I never read a King book. I've never related to his genre, his characters or the small American towns where his novels seem to be set. More than that, his books are huge! I never found the incentive to invest that kind of reading effort on a story that was bigger than a college text book.

I carried all this baggage with me when I started to read On Writing. I picked it up because several other authors sang its praises. I normally ignore other people's opinions on things like books and movies, but without a formal teacher of my own I was willing to steal good ideas from anyone. King is successful, right? That had to count for something.

I realized that King is one of the most well known writers of the last century for a reason. He has a gift for telling a story and he knows a hell of a lot about the craft.

The book is broken into four parts; his past as a struggling writer, his battles with addiction, his insight into writing and a post script about the car accident that almost killed him. The first and final parts of the book capture King as a storyteller. I listened to the audio version of the book.  King became that eccentric uncle who can sit on the porch and hypnotize you for hours with his stories. The style was fantastic, even when describing the fear and pain he suffered being hit by a truck.

The third section touched on a variety of concepts around writing. Some of them made perfect sense to me. I stole those ideas. Others made no sense and I rejected them with more than a little malice. Because the book was written in 1999, it doesn't address independent publishing, e-books or social media. That aspect of the book made the whole thing feel dated, but not so much that it reduced the quality of the advice.

The second portion of the book felt like a cautionary tale. Like other celebrities, fame and fortune were followed by addiction. His struggle for success was replaced by a struggle to stay sober. I walked away from that part of the book understanding that there will always be something to struggle with as a writer whether it is in your craft, your finances, your relationships or your health. The type of struggle might change but successful writers have problems too. (See The Benefits of Rejection)

On Writing is not my favorite book on the subject; that title is reserved for McKee's Story. But King has given writers a great gift with this book. If you can only read one Stephen King book, make it this one.

Have fun.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

How Your Writing Projects Are Just Like Your Gym Membership

People who don't do it make excuses about why they can't.
Everyone can benefit from it.
Everyone does it a little differently.
Everyone can get better at it.
There is a whole subculture built around it.
Some people have to pay to do it.
Some people have professional support.
Some people can make money doing it.
Fewer people can make a career out of it.
A handful of people can become millionaires doing it.

The preceding statements apply whether you are talking about writing or exercise. While there might not be a lot overlap between members of each community, they both share a common goal; self improvement. The major difference between the obsessive writer and the gym rat is the level of frustration that writers seem to carry around. (See The Benefits of Rejection)

Common Ground

Everyone who exercises on a regular basis can improve their health and overall life experience. They find the routine that works for them. They can connect with the fitness community. They can join a gym and get a trainer. Some of them will make extra money by entering competitions or becoming an amateur athlete. A few of them will make fitness a career as a personal trainer or professional athlete. A select few will become mega stars selling exercise programs or landing mega contracts. There are many places fitness can take you, but the core benefits are the same.

Everyone who writes on a regular basis can improve their creativity and overall life experience (See the Other Benefits of Independent Publishing). They find the routine that works for them. They can connect with the writing community. They can join a writing group and get an editor. Some of them will make extra money by entering competitions or publishing a book or two. A few of them will make writing a career publishing independently or traditionally. A select few will become mega stars on the best sellers list or landing mega contracts. There are many places writing can take you, but the core benefits are the same.

Seeing Success

What makes your exercise experience successful? Does it make sense for people to stop exercising because they can't get a flawless body immediately? If only a small group of people appreciate your new body, does that make the effort pointless? If you didn't invent P90x or Cross Fit, does that mean that your years of exercise were wasted? If you never get to quit your job so you can spend all day at the gym, does that mean there was no point going to the gym? Clearly, the logical answers to all these questions is no.

Why is writing so different? Does it make sense to see your writing as a failed experiment if you don't have an "overnight best seller"? If only a small group enjoys your work, does that diminish its value (See Champions, Tastemakers and True Fans)? If you're not the author of Fifty Shades or Harry Potter, does that mean you can't write? If you are never going to be able to quit your day job and spend the whole day writing, does it makes sense to stop writing and go do something else? For me the answer to all these questions is the same as the answer to the questions about exercise.

In past essays, I've argued that a successful writer is one whose writing broadens their mental horizon, or increases their financial status or widens your social circles or improves the quality of your life over time. (See How Do You Define a Successful Writer?) A few writers will get all of these things. Most of us will only get a couple. That's fine. I might be unfairly depicting both the writing and fitness communities. Maybe most writers don't obsess about sales and reviews. Maybe gym rats spend all their time trying to invent the next Taebo. If so, I am happy to be wrong. If not, then there might be something that the writers can learn at the gym.

Have fun.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Beta Testing: On Using and Being a Beta Reader

A few months back, I suggested that independent publishers could improve the quality of their books by using a quality control process that was similar to systems used by the major publishing houses. Now that my company is preparing to release its first full length book, I decided to take my own advice and recruit a team to help me. This is the story of my first use of beta readers and what I learned from them.

Beta readers have always been common in publishing for both new and established authors. Stephen King uses them, Anais Nin used them. Shakespeare probably had a few beta readers testing his stuff out. I see it as part taste test, part marketing focus group and part reality check. While every publisher does it differently, I decided my beta test would combine different types of people. I thought that would give me the most honest assessment of the manuscript. 

The Test Group for Smooth Operator
  • The group consisted of seven adults; four women and three men.
  • Half the group I knew personally, the other half I only knew from linked in and good reads.
  • A few were older than me, the rest were younger.
  • Some expressed an avid interest in crime thrillers, some didn't read very much in the genre.
  • About half the group consisted of writers or editors themselves, the other half were purely readers.

I gave everyone about a month to read the book (about 75,000 words) and asked five focused questions about their opinions. I gave them the option to write more, but I felt the questions would be a good guide for feedback. None of the beta readers were paid.

1) On a scale of 1-5, I would rate this book a: ___
2) Would you be satisfied with this book if you paid $3.99 for it? ____
3) Would you read the sequel to this book? ____
4) Would you recommend this book to a friend or enemy? ___
5) If there is any author that this book reminds you of, please name that author (none is a completely acceptable answer) ____

The Results
  • Half the group (4 people) read the book and completed the survey. The rest didn't have a chance to read or finish it.
  • The response was positive across the board in terms of the overall quality of the prose with one minor exception, namely
  • There was a split of opinion concerning the introduction. This is worth mentioning for two reasons. First, I tried to do something different by breaking the fourth wall to generate more interest. One reader liked it, the other disliked it and the last two didn’t bring it up at all. The second reason why that is worth mentioning is based on my reaction to the split. Stephen King's opinion in his book On Writing when it comes to differing views between beta readers is that "the tie goes to the writer." so I decided to leave the intro the way it is and see what happens when the book is released.

Finally, one beta reader went so far as to take me out for drinks so we could discuss his thoughts and feelings on Smooth Operator in depth. This is the best kind of beta reader. A writer loves nothing more than to spend hours discussing his work over whiskey.

The Takeaway

I learned three things from my beta test.
  1. More readers are better because you can't count on 100% participation.
  2. A beta test can be a confidence booster and a chance to expose your work to the light of day without a huge amount of risk.
  3. The actual makeup of the group is no indication of who will actually respond.

Turning the Tables 

I mentioned earlier that some of my beta readers are also writers. One of them is also working on a novel now and asked me for a reciprocal beta read of her book. I never beta read before, but it felt inappropriate to turn her down after she just agreed to do me the same favor.

I decided the best way to help my fellow author was to deconstruct her novel and analyze the elements in the same way a critic reviews a book or movie. I analyzed the structural elements of the plot, the characterization of the main characters and the relationship between character and plot. I even looked at the composition of chapters and the relationships among the characters and how that impacted the plot. For each comment I made, I gave her an example or a reference book that might help improve the narrative. I wasn't able to get through the whole novel with this method, but she seemed very happy with the three pages of notes I delivered on the book, so I think I did OK.

I have come to the conclusion that beta testing is an important element of the publishing process. Not only can it improve your book, it can improve your connection with your writing community and can even lead to a good night of drinking. Quality control doesn't get much better than that.

Have fun.