Saturday, December 24, 2011

Five Books to Read: #1 - Nothing Like It in the World

After completing my own book (GetItHere), I thought it worthwhile to discuss books that shaped my mindset and style, those books that meant enough to me to warrant multiple readings and quiet reflection. One of those five books (all of which will be discussed in this blog but in no particular order) is detailed below...


There are noteworthy decades in our county's history when great things occurred: the 1770s, the 1800s, the 1930s. Few have defined our nation more than the 1860s. The entire world watched as the United States spent four of the bloodiest years in history fighting for its future. It was horrific and fascinating, and the countries of the world watched to see how the globe would be shaped. Warfare blossomed into the modern era as weapons and strategies evolved. Our nation came out of the war stronger and with a solid identity, and the world anxiously waited to see how we would put our mark back on the planet after so much internal strife. Were we a warring nation on the hunt for new enemies? What should they expect?

The answer came in the guise of a road, a special road of gravel and iron. Railroads were nothing new to the world, the system having thought to have been perfected by Europeans decades earlier. The Civil War showed the importance of the rails, though. Where we were once tied to waterways that offered trade and transport, we now were anchored to the Iron Horse.

But, where the Europeans came up short was their vision of the possibilities. In 1863, while the war still raged on, Abraham Lincoln signed the authorization of a railroad to stretch from coast-to-coast, a transcontinental railroad that would connect Sacramento with Omaha and turn a 6-month journey by carriage into a 6-day journey by train.

Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose is the compelling story of key participants in the endeavor from both sides, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, as they churn toward each other on the crest of a wave of metal. As he does in all his historical novels, Ambrose opens the door on a fascinating time period in all its grim detail. The keys to the story are the characters, though, and all but the most learned of scholars will be unsure of the fates of those involved. Visionaries key to the construction of the railroad such as Grenville Dodge and Theodore Judah are detailed in a way that allows you to root for them against the blatantly corrupt methods practiced by the businessmen of the era.

For those that are interested in the time period or the construction of the railroad, the book goes into great detail on the people and techniques of the time. Hardships are extreme, successes rare. The poorly treated Chinese in the west fight their way through walls of rock in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In the east, hordes of union and confederate soldiers, fresh from the battlegrounds of Virginia, breed hate and discontent as they lay rails and pour grade next to each other along the open ground in the Midwest. The technical achievement is unrivaled, but the biggest takeaway from the book is leadership, the benefits to great and the disasters due to a lack.

The lessons to be gained are countless. Modern students of leadership can learn the evolution of leadership from 150 years ago to now. The aspects that defined the day are markedly different than those currently utilized, for numerous reasons, and each can be a teaching opportunity. Examples of the dangers of naivete rear their heads, most notably in the story of Judah, a brilliant engineer that found himself far out of his element when dealing with the Big Four backers of the Central Pacific Railroad, a group including Leland Stanford of university acclaim.

How do you convey your vision to others?
How do you ensure that your vision holds when others become involved?
How do you persevere when setbacks occur each day, any one of which would be proper justification for abandoning the task?

It's a testament to the men of the day and the spirit of a nation that such a creation was begun during the darkest times of our country, only to be joined by the hardened men of both sides who came together to complete a world wonder. By 1869, the two railroad groups were laying track alongside each other as politicians debated where to lay the connecting spike. One hundred years before the world would sit together and watch Americans land on the moon, they were running to stores for newspapers detailing the joining of two sides of a nation. It was THAT big a deal.

And, Stephen Ambrose does an amazing job of making sure the reader is there for every bit of it.

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Making a more 'lean' manuscript...

The words I have written and turned into Number 181 (GetItHere)are exactly what I envisioned when I started putting pen to paper. Ok, it was mostly fingers to keyboard, but there was some actually pen work, as well. As it sits now, the book is about 143,000 words, and I could care less whether it is 50,000 of 500,000. It's as long as it should be.

But, I've come to realize that most agents and publishers are extremely wary of first time novelists that come up with a manuscript that... cumbersome. Sure, Stephen King has 800 page books, but he's got a following that will forgive him some exposition if it leads to a good story. It also doesn't help that much of the first part of my book *builds* to action rather than opening the door to explosions right out of the gate. I'm extremely proud of the first few chapters, chapters that I went back and added when I felt characters needed a bit more development and history.

But, agents ask for the first chapters of a book as sample of one's work. They don't ask for the first action scene or biggest twist. So, though I am very proud of the first chapters in my book, I've made the executive decision to remove them when offering my manuscript to agents for their perusal. By my estimation, it will bring the final word count down to the 125,000 word range, a much less frightening number to agents, or so I'm told. Obviously, you should 'tighten up' your work before offering it for representation, but there is little extraneous info in Number 181. If it weren't for the 'Perception of Length' in the literary world... I wouldn't touch it.

It will have the novel starting where I initial had it placed months ago (Boom! Explosions!), and still tell the same story. But, it will lack some back story on compelling characters. Thankfully, Shawn's piece will be unaffected. And, let's be honest, he's the one that matters!

The book available at Lulu will remain unchanged as I feel it matches the vision I had for the story. But, I think it may cause difficulties going forward with representation.

Make no mistake, though, if I get an agent to bite on the abridged manuscript, I will share the fact that I have 15,000 more words of awesomeness a click away that I could throw back in to the mix!

This whole process is fascinating to me... But, I fear the day my squirrel-like attention span snaps to the forefront, and I move on to other endeavors.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

1) Write well. 2) Be interesting.

As some of you know, I had little to no intention of having my book *cough*GetItHere*cough* be anything more than a spine sitting up on my shelf that I could point to as my own creation. Opening that first box from the printer and seeing an actual book with my name on it... wow.

Once I finished writing it, though, I became part of a writing community that surprised me with terms that were foreign to me or that I hadn't considered: Query, YA, AAR... Agent. So, I thought to myself, what does it actually take to find an agent to represent you? What does it take to get a publisher? The long and the short of it is that it's like any interview.

You need something to be sold. Note: This helps if it's actual writing experience, but what's important here is a completed manuscript. My research into contacting agents shows that a surprising number of writers contact literary agencies without having finished (or started?!) their book. Huh? I don't get that at all... Perhaps they don't want to 'waste' time writing if no one will buy it. As someone who wrote for the sake of the product and not the sale, I don't follow that reasoning.

You ne
ed a résumé. This is separate from the "I have been published in such-and-such magazine," though that's a great start. That stack of résumés on your bosses desk that he or she is sifting through in order to find the next salesman? The literary equivalent of that is the query. It's a brief introduction letter that has to 1) explain your novel, 2) explain who you are, 3) tell why you are the one to write the story, 4) show what books on the market are similar to give context, 5) show how it's different from those same books since no one wants to read the same thing, 6) explain what .............

....... 47) offer the word count, and 48) convey the voice of your book.

All in about four short paragraphs. Oh, and it's thrown in a pile with dozens of other queries. And, you're not filling a desk in a sales office that NEEDS to be filled. It's entirely possible that the whole stack will get skimmed over and slid into the trash can.


I couldn't wait to get started, even if it meant no one ever answered my queries. I was mesmerized by the process. The amount of 'help' and advice online is staggering, though most agree on the main points (except for the surprising things that are totally contradictory). Entire books are devoted to How to Write Queries.

And, what have I learned? What insight do I have to offer? Easy.

It's all crap. Not queries, mind you, but the arduous process to get the perfect query. Each agent wants different things. Some want information about you, the writer. Others want sample chapters. Others want a detailed synopsis of the entire manuscript.

But, the truth is, as long as you can write, it'll work itself out. You just need a story people want to read. Agents WANT to like your book. They WANT to sign you and start lobbying for a publisher. It's how they get paid. So, here's my full-proof way to get an agent. Trust me, this will not fail... not a chance.

1) Write well.
2) Be interesting.

There ya go. That's it. As long as you aren't a crappy writer, you're through the first wicket. [Note: This is much more difficult than it sounds.] After that, all you need to do is get noticed. Be funny. Be unique (not just your writing... YOU). Be spontaneous. Be random.


Just like a desk job: be good at what you do, and be a pleasure to be around... and you have nothing to worry about.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

A second, more practical review of my novel, Number 181...

We all have our measuring sticks for acceptance and approval. My previous post with comments from an Air Force Captain really speak to the intended audience for the book and what I hope people get from it. Then, there are those that see things from a different view. I received the following review from a long-time friend of mine...

"It was so good that I wanted to keep reading it, but my legs fell asleep so I really needed to get off the toilet."

More touching words have never been spoken... Best Blogger Tips

Saturday, December 10, 2011

First Review of my novel, Number 181...

The first comments are coming in for my book, Number 181 (grab a copy here!), and I couldn't be more pleased.

I received a note from Air Force Captain Amber Smith, who really enjoyed the book, saying it made it "easy to picture the story as it's happening" with "some beautiful analogies... It's a novel, but it made me think a lot of real-life scenarios."

Anytime a writer puts thoughts down on paper, he has an image in his head of what he's trying to convey. I, for one, was curious to hear how others interpreted my words... what pictures would be painted on each of my readers' individual imaginations. Having such a strong military theme pervade the novel, I was especially sensitive to the thoughts of our military community once they had finished it. To hear such kind words eases some of those anxious thoughts.

And, then I read something from her that really struck a cord with me.

Early in the book, there is a scene that really seeks to personalize the attacks that are central to the story... a strong comment on how individual feelings are overshadowed by media and hype, sensationalism and posturing. "This phrase really made me put the book down and think about it," Amber says. "We've had several incidents in the Air Force this year that really stood out in light of this phrase. When the helo went down in Afghanistan with all the SEALS on it, everyone focused on them. We had 4 special operators on there as well, but they were barely mentioned in the small print on the news. We also lost 9 folks at the Kabul airport shooting in April."

"It just makes me wonder if that's how the NOK [next-of-kin] feels when their loved one is killed among others."

"I loved that part," she says. "Really made me think."

There are few kinder words for an author to hear than that your novel caused a measure of philosophical introspection or self-reflection. She felt strongly enough on the subject to offer up a contact in Afghanistan that expressed interest in the novel, as well. It'd be nice to get some copies over to ground forces in the Middle East or to the USO to share...

It's all about getting the word out. The more press there is, the more the books sells. More sales.... more money to the Green Beret Foundation. Let's keep it going! Best Blogger Tips

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Upcoming Movie: Act of Valor

In doing research for my book, Number 181 (grab a copy here!), and during preparations for the GORUCK Challenge, I've spent a good deal of time around the men and women of our armed forces. In that time, I heard about the film Act of Valor in development. The latest trailer is available at the film's website, and it's a really great piece of cinema. Starring active duty Navy SEALs, the film is inspired by actual events and SEAL missions.

For those that considered The Hurt Locker to be a somewhat inaccurate representation of real-time, battlefield events, this film should be a welcome diversion and an excellent explanation for why I am donating proceeds from Number 181 to the Green Beret Foundation. Best Blogger Tips

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pictures of my work at NASA...

Like the protagonist in Number 181 ,Shawn Kidd, (check the link on this page to buy the book!) I have ties to NASA. I've spent ten years working for the space agency in Florida, Texas, and California, and it's led to some great memories...

Standing on the launch pad prior to liftoff of Discovery in 2002

One of my many stops in the world. DC in 2009

My 2010 scene from Transformers 3:Dark of the Moon with Shia Labeouf and Tyrese

Being interviewed by the History Channel's Modern Marvels in 2006

Launch support of Aquarius from Vandenberg, AFB in 2011

Summer of 2011: Crowds line the rope during the last rollout of the Space Shuttle
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