A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 4: Falling in and Out of Love With Technothrillers

Normally I always include some sort of image on these stories, even if it’s one of the those boring landscape images of eastern Iowa or those shots of my writing desk. 🙂

Oftentimes, if I’m talking about a particular author I like, I’ll usually take a photo of the book cover of an author I’ve read to illustrate a post. I tend to want to avoid copyright issues – although I think I’m covered by fair use rules. Today, however, I wasn’t able to do that. There’s a story behind that, and part of this section of the writing biography.

As a kid, I was obsessed over reading about the military and about military equipment. When my family and I had a chance to travel to Washington DC, the one place I had to visit was the National Air and Space Museum. It absolutely dovetailed with my existing interests in science fiction and space travel (the sci-fi obsession I’ve touched on before, although I’ll probably go into more detail in a later post). Anyway, all of these interests in cool vehicles that made things go boom, the technologies that made them possible and their sci-fi possibilities, and the strategies and tactics that involved their use, all converged in a big obsession tornado in my pre-adolescent mind.

It was right around this time that The Hunt for Red October hit the shelves. I don’t recall when I first read it, but it had to be sometime after it came out in paperback because I read it in the paperback format.

The minute I started to read it, it hooked me in. Why? Like I said, I was a military tech faddist back then, and Tom Clancy knew his stuff. Not just the amount of detail about the American military and its technology, but what he knew about how the Soviet Union and its military and navy worked. A few years later, I was amazed to learn that Clancy had never even served in the military, and the book was a result of something like five years of research while he worked at an insurance agency.

(This was a great inspiration for me to see that you could write intelligently about anything, regardless of your life experience, as long as you did your research. For years I had wanted to write a novel about soccer, but I believed that I didn’t have enough life experience or background knowledge to write about it and not sound stupid. A few years of reading about the history and business of soccer and intense soccer fandom, and I’ve finally gotten started on that project.)

The pace and the structure of the novel was also highly influential to me, as well. I’d often heard of unfilmable books and books that were not able to translate into a visual format. But when I read October, I read a book that could have been assembled on a Hollywood film storyboard. Clancy was telling a large story with a lot of moving parts, different characters, and different locations. The way he shifted perspectives and moved where the action was fascinated me, took me along for the ride. In years since, I’ve often talked with writing students about how deciding to move to a new paragraph or section works in the same way as a film director deciding to change a camera angle or location. Reading October and seeing how Clancy did this was the first time I really started to “see” how that worked. (I learned from Andrew Vachss about how you can keep chapters as short or as long as you wanted to, but that’s another tale.)

As with most obsessions, this one expanded. By my count, I’ve read at least a dozen of the novels that he has put out, and maybe a few of those that were put out by Zombie Tom Clancy, when other authors write books under Clancy’s name. (Entertainment Weekly had a good article on the practice here; I just wonder how these guys manage to get the gig. It sounds like easy money to be honest.) At some point, I had as many as four of his books in my personal collection, and some by a couple of other authors with similar styles, like Vince Flynn.

Now, however, my shelves are bare of Clancy, Flynn, or any of their like. (That’s why I needed the Internet to find my art today.) What happened? Essentially, I got tired of the guy’s politics. (I try to avoid politics on this page – I’d probably consider myself a socialist if I had to define myself – but since it fits in with how I feel about a writer, I think I needed to get into it.)

More and more as he wrote later in his career, all of this stupid conservative beliefs started bleeding out into his books. There was his blind faith in the military and military leaders, little acknowledgement that government needs to act transparently, an outdated view of women and reproductive issues, and a blind faith in market and libertarian solutions to problems. There were just a lot of ideas that were both wrong and gross to me. It started getting bad around Executive Orders and just kept getting worse from there.

All I wanted to do is read the action, but all I could see in those later books were stupid political ideas. For the first time, how I felt about the way the world should work clashed directly with authors I enjoyed. I’ve heard many say that they can separate the author from their personal views. I can’t however. There’s simply too many authors out there that I can read and that have reasonable political or personal views that I don’t believe I have to compromise myself in that way.

The truth is, how you feel about society and personal opinions does affect what you write. For example, the main characters in books by Clancy, Flynn, and others were alpha males for whom finding the right guy and guilty party was easy and the way to solve almost any geopolitical problem involved bullets and explosives. I never saw Jack Ryan or Mitch Rapp from Flynn’s series catch the wrong guy and kill or torture them, or see them accidentally kill a whole flock of civilians. But that does happen, because I see that happen every day. Since those authors were so fascinated by the military or military solutions, it eventually eroded their credibility to me as a reader. I’ve always said that ideology is how you wish the world would work if only humans weren’t the way that they were. If someone has an ideology that’s too stupid for me to buy into, I have no interest and taking a tour of that author’s head by reading a book.

EDIT: Since I wrote this, apparently they are adapting the Mitch Rapp character for a film, American Assassin, based on one of the Rapp novels from 2010. I’ve seen some preview clips and I have to admit I’m more than a little intrigued. The kid they have playing him, Dylan O’Brian, seems to be willing to show how damaged such a person like Rapp would have to be to be the person he is, rather than going the full 80’s action flick guy he seemed to be in the books. Now I might have to watch it on Netflix.

So, Tom Clancy became a teacher for me as both how to and how not to write books. He is nowhere near the last one of those I have run into as a reader. To paraphrase Stephen King, you can learn something from both the great writers and the terrible writers.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’m starting to tag and headline these writing biography posts as either Volume I or Volume II. Volume I are biographical reading and writing posts about things I first encountered as a kid or young adult. Volume II will touch on stories taking place in my adulthood since then. Hope you enjoy both, because I believe I will start doing both Volume I and Volume II stories simultaneously as we go along. I’ve also retroactively re-titled those previous Bio posts to reflect those changes, but that won’t affect their URLs.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 3: Comic Book Days.

I wound up buying a comic book today when I was in the Quad Cities running some errands. (For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a couple primers.) I realized today that this was the first comic book I’ve bought in about 20 years. It might even be 25, but it’s at least 20.

Before I get into why I purchased the particular comic book pictured, I have to tell you how comics were a major part of what I read when I was younger. In the choice between DC and Marvel, in the end I was a Marvel guy. I loved the tales of the X-Men in particular, this idea of people with superpowers representing outsiders and those feared by society. The comic book writers of the late 20th century got endless mileage out of that idea, almost like how the WWE got endless mileage for years from the conflict between labor (Stone Cold) and ownership (Vince McMahon). However, a biography piece on wrestling’s influence in my life is another bio entry for another time.

As I said, I was a Marvel guy in my heart (who may have even bought a Captain America comic once), but when I heard about The Dark Knight Returns I immediately had to go to the bookstore to thumb through it, then to the library to check it out. This was revolutionary stuff, and I became a disciple of Frank Miller’s writing. I immediately attempted to try and find more examples of comic book coolness, which included a couple of collections of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles run and some other books.

You have to realize that as this comic book revolution that had started in the 70’s and ramped up in earnest during the 1980’s and 90’s was something that was more of a rumor to me than an actual fact. I grew up in Iowa during the 1980’s and 90’s. Comic book stores were exotic places that I went to once a year on visits to Iowa City and Davenport. The Internet and smartphones didn’t exist. When I eventually went to college, I was literally the last college student in America not to have email, which would have been very helpful in keeping in contact with my future wife.

So with all of that, I had to do some digging, going to libraries to find the cool collections of comics or histories of comic books. Later, I’d find the more hip bookstores of Iowa City would have plenty of “graphic novels,” and I really started to dig the stories I found there. I discovered Watchmen there well after the fact, and dug the idea of a superhero reimagining – as well as a history re-imagining. I read Maus for the first time and realized how the medium could affect how you told a story.

Over time, my tastes in comics changed. I boxed up the comic books I’d collected in a plastic container 20 years ago and they’ve stayed there ever since. There’s dozens of them there, but the entire box was barely worth about $20 worth when I had them appraised a few years ago. (I sold the one comic that was worth $10 and kept the rest.) I got away from continuing series and liked graphic novels that told extended stories yet eventually came to a conclusion. I also started developing a taste for independent comic books, like Love and Rockets, The Crow, and others.

Superhero stories were not what I was buying, although 10 years or so ago I saw a collection of the Starman series by James Robinson and Tony Harris that blew my mind, how it showed the growth of a new superhero in a city that became just as vital as Gotham or New York had been in previous comics. And I’ve been impressed by the film adaptations of the MCU and DC’s efforts. (Trust me, they make far better adaptations of comics than they did years ago.)

I still have a collection of these and some other great books I’ve collected, including the last volume of Strangers In Paradise. One of the happiest times in recent years was my daughter’s discovery of those books in one of my bookcases. She proceeded to liberate them from my shelves and they were in her room for the better part of the year.

Even though I’m not sure I’ll probably ever write in the graphic novel format, I do appreciate how the medium attracts creative people trying to expand what can be done with the idea of graphic stories in general and superhero stories in particular. I had heard about Black Mask Studios being this new publisher that was experimenting with new ideas, not just trying to tell the same stories over again with the same characters. And when I heard that they were doing a comic, Black, that told the story of a world where only black people had superpowers, bringing new life to the old ideas hinted at in X-Men – well, that got my attention.

Why shouldn’t I support that type of creativity? So, I got out and bought Chapter Six (the last one) of Book One of Black. Not that I’m collecting comics or anything. For one, it was only $5.99. Second, they didn’t have a graphic novel collection of it. But, I’d be interested in one whenever it comes out.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 2: Building Worlds.

By the time I was in middle school, I was voraciously absorbing every single book that interested me and that I could get my hands on. I lived, and lived now, in a Mississippi River town in Iowa with the unique First Nations-based name of Muscatine. By the time I had entered high school, I had raided my grade school, middle school, high school, and public libraries for whatever hidden treasures I could find.

One of the things I realized that there were so many delights – maybe delights adults would have preferred I not see – in those libraries. (I’ll likely go into more detail in another post – but it’s fair to say that I was one of those who scanned the banned book lists in search of reading material.)

Over the course of a childhood, I would find many of those and many others. It was… what, my escape? What did I really have to escape from? I didn’t face any poverty; I had no siblings to compete with for attention; I was coddled and loved with no reservations; my parents were loving and remain together even today. Whatever was left was an awkwardness with people and an isolation from my peers that was both self-inflicted and suggested by more popular peers. To this day, one of the things that I am happy with about my children is that they are better social beings than I ever was or am.

Regardless of whether my problems were either morally dire or simply First World Problems, I retreated more than a little bit into the world of books. Maybe my parents sensed that when they got me an entire encyclopedia set when I was around 10 and I could spend an entire day pulling out the two “S” volumes and seeing what I could learn about that particular day. (Of course, that would have been unnecessary if Wikipedia had existed when I was young. If it had, I have a feeling I would have been addicted to the “random article” link on that page.)

As I mentioned before, some of the links of my personal biography have many holes, or areas where the fog of time covers my personal timeline. Despite that fog, I have the distinct impression that it was somewhere between the eighth and ninth grade that I ran across Dune by Frank Herbert.

I first became aware of the book right around the time that David Lynch’s adaptation came out in theaters. It was considered anywhere from a flawed classic to an absolute bomb by the critics when it came out in theaters. I never had the chance to see its theatrical release, but the reports about the story (including an old Nickelodeon series staring Leonard Nimoy) were too intriguing for me to ignore. With that, I decided to find and read the book.

Well, the minute I started reading this massive tome, I got transported into an entirely different world, fam, as some of our British relations might say. (You’ll eventually learn that I happily steal phrases and slang from any culture as long as it sounds cool to me.) As I was reading, I was far away from the hot and humid river town in Iowa and transported onto a desert planet were water and how it was preserved was the key not only to survival, but to the culture itself.

What I learned from Herbert was this; the less familiar your surroundings are, the more you have to show the reader how it works. In the books that I’ve written up to this point, they have been based in the modern American world, with not too much need for explanation. But here was Herbert weaving a massive universe to amaze me – a universe so detailed he needed an 18 page or so glossary just to explain all of the terms and terminology. Some found it ponderous, but I was awed by the level of attention he gave to it. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Muad’Dib was one of the most fascinating characters I ever saw in fiction, and it was incredible how Herbert showed the creation of a legend from ordinary person to a literal messiah for his world.

I haven’t yet tried to build a fictional world as far removed from my own and as detailed as Herbert gave us in 1965. But ever since I read Dune, I knew it could be not only done but done with the highest level of craftsmanship.


A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 1

I’ve been trying to pinpoint when I really started to become fascinated with the idea that I wanted to be a writer. I’ve always been impressed with all of these biographers who are able to recall what they did during particular years or certain times in their lives.

For me, there are certain bits and pieces that are clear – just individual scenes, mental film clips, so to speak. On that note, I admired David Carr’s admission in his memoir that he interviewed many of the people in his life because he couldn’t remember many of the events of his life clearly. Most of that had to do with all of the crack he was smoking at that point in his life. I never had a similar problem, but then again, I was drawn to writing fiction, not memoir. I didn’t think there was going to be a test on personal history halfway through my life. But, I think now that I want to see where I have been on this writing journey to get an idea of where I need to go next.

Dr. Seuss is the first author I remember getting into. By the end of my early childhood, I not only had well over a dozen of his books on my bookshelves, but also several audio recordings of the books on vinyl. A particular memory was hanging out in my basement, laying on a couch there, turning off the lights and listening to the records on my own courtesy of a 70’s turntable. For me it was a more intimate experience than hearing it in the light with others. But, I still liked reading them – loved the pictures, so expressive and inventive for such simple art.

However, if you tried to pin me down regarding which adult book first captured my imagination and made me think about what it would be like to create a book, that goes back to somewhere around when I was 10 years old. It was around that time that my parents gave me a book called Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. At this point, I’m not sure how I found out about that book, but that once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop.

Within the first three chapters the world ended and then it went off to the races from there. I loved the language from Adams, the wit, the random brilliance about the human condition filtered through the experience of aliens. I understood 30 percent of the jokes after the first read, 60 percent of the jokes after the first 10 readings, and maybe 98 percent of the jokes 25-plus years after the fact. It was the first book I couldn’t put down, the first book I had to read over and over. I remember bringing my creased paperback cover Hitchhiker’s copy with me during a family camping trip with my parents and aunts and uncles one year; it was the thing that kept me sane when I wanted to return to civilization but we had to stay in tents and play UNO until sundown (not that I don’t dig the game). It was the first book where I really fell in love with the language, the voice of Adams, where I fell in love with the absurdity of human existence. It was the first book that made me think, “My God, I would love to write something like this.”

So far, I haven’t gotten anywhere near Adams’ level of writing. I’ve also acquired several other idols of writing that I’ve looked up to (more on that later). But for now, I’ve tried to produce material that I think would be up to his level, even though it might not be something that he would undertake.

I’ve also struggled with the idea of actually sitting down and writing. I was surprised to learn just this past month how Adams actually struggled with putting something down on paper and the computer screen. It made me realize that I was not alone and that my idol struggled with the same issues that I did. It is something that motivates me even today as I want to continue my writing.

Learning about this was a massive motivating force for me. It made me realize that I was not alone in procrastinating and wasting time, even though time is much more precious than the ordinary person thinks. My mission now is to write down as much as I can in the time that I have. Wish me luck, everyone – you might even see some of it on this blog.

What I’ve Written; What I’m Writing

There is always a debate going on about just how much you should share about your writing publicly, especially when you have not published it. Considering that this is a writing blog, I think that I have to at least talk about it quite a bit.

For right now, I think I’ll leave out all of the scattered short stories I created from when I was in high school to other times when I entered on or two into contests. Although there are some short stories I’ve really admired, I never considered myself to be totally comfortable with writing in that format.

There are two novels that I finished somewhere in my late 20’s to early 30’s, which ended up being mental salvage from my teenage and young adult years. The first was a teen crime drama I actually shopped around to people and got no takers from it; I even paid an agent for a year to see if she could do something with it. About a year and a half ago I tried reviving it to see if there was anything to it, but about a month in the process I totally lost interest in the idea. The book seemed to come from a different writer, which seemed accurate.

The second novel was another crime thriller, the story of a disturbed young man who is responsible for a shooting at his school, serves time in the juvenile system and got help for his mental disorder. He’s then freed after a few years, and in the process of trying to rebuild his life, he is accused of a crime he didn’t commit. I thought this might have some promise – it still might, but again, it seems like that was more of a practice run as to how to write a novel than an actual one. Both of the manuscripts were great writing experiences.

The third novel I have completed has been during the second phase of my writing, which began this decade. It is a political/journalism thriller with the working title of The Holy Fool. Set in Chicago in the fall of 2008 in the frenzy of the presidential election and the start of the Great Recession, it follows a Chicago newspaper journalist as he investigates whether his own newspaper is on the verge of closure, then conspires with his colleagues to see if anything can be done to prevent it. I’ve put this manuscript through two major revisions that cut it from a 160,000 first draft to a 95,000 third draft. The process has helped me get a better idea of the entire revision process and what I have to concentrate on. From now on when I write, I’m going to work on writing just the dramatic, key scenes first, then adding on anything I think it vital. If I had taken that approach to this in the first place, this would have been a much shorter process.

My fourth and fifth fiction projects are currently in the planning stages and I have finished notes on both of them. #4 is a book about a high school football player in Texas with a famous college coach father who is becoming increasingly drawn into the world of soccer. If you ever check out my personal Facebook page or meet me in person, you’ll soon learn about my love of soccer, so this is a definite passion project of mine and one I have been toying with for several years.

The fifth project is something I came up with this year, the story of a man unhappy with his current life who discovers the ability to enter alternative versions of himself. It is more impressionistic and perhaps even more political that anything I’ve ever attempted; I’m certain that it is the closest thing to sci-fi/fantasy that I have ever tried to write, and I am a big fan of that genre.

This is where I am at now. My plan for right now is to find a suitable publishing option for the third project, preferably sometime next year, and begin a full first draft on either one or both of my projects in the planning stages.