Monday, 12 November 2012

Blake is back!

Back in January 2012 I was just an unknown author who had the audacity to invite the legendary Russell Blake onto my blog for an interview.  Ten months on and… well, I’m still an unknown author, but Blake has gone from strength to strength, as demonstrated by his latest series JET.

I love his new hero and wanted to find out just how Russell comes up with these stunning plots, so I invited him back for another Q & A and I’m delighted that he accepted.

Can you give us the elevator pitch for JET?  You’ve got thirty seconds to make people want to buy it.

So no pressure, right? Shortest possible pitch? Kill Bill meets Bourne. Longer? JET features a new kind of female protagonist – smart, sexy, kick-ass, over-the-top, take-no-prisoners, and is a non-stop action roller-coaster with more twists and turns than a silly straw, intelligently written for jaded connoisseurs of action/adventure thrillers. If you loved Lizbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Bourne trilogy, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, or even the TV show 24, JET is a must-read.

Jet is an extraordinary character.  What made you choose a non-US background for her?
Well, the whole ex-CIA thing has been done into the ground, as far as I’m concerned, and frankly, knowing what I do about the CIA’s competence, I wanted better than that. These are the guys who didn’t see the Berlin wall coming down a week before it happened, and told the world that Iraq had WMDs capable of destroying the region within 45 minutes. Ooops. So I looked at some of the hyper-competent clandestine agencies, and the Mossad was an obvious one. One thing led to another, and pretty soon she was Israeli, of mixed ethnicity, but burned out and ready for something new. And I wanted her to be international in flavor, equally at home in the Middle East, South America, Asia or the U.S. Most Americans tend to look, well, very American, for the most part, so I wanted something more exotic, even if that’s totally stereotypical and judgmental of Americans, which I suppose it is. I’m really happy with the part Asian, part Dominican Israeli female protag. Can’t imagine much more exotic and unusual than that...

There are a lot of exotic settings for the JET series.  Are the descriptions all based on your personal visits?
Yes, most of them. I’ve had a colorful life, and had the opportunity to travel extensively for this reason or that. It’s given me a good perspective for writing fiction, that’s for sure.

You’ve used females in the lead role in a few books now.  Is that something you see continuing in the future?
Right now, I’d say probably not. Between JET, Silver Cassidy in Silver Justice, and Tess Gideon in Fatal Exchange, I’d say I’ve exhausted my possibilities for compelling female heroines. They’re all so different, I can go back to the well and develop Tess and Silver more, and have enough material to last ten years. But I’ll say that Jet is probably my most developed to date – she’s more than just a killing machine, and is pretty three dimensional. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Bronte this isn’t, but compared to most of the protags I’ve read in this genre, Jet is a living, breathing person to me, and hopefully, to readers. So far so good.

How much research went into the JET series?  Is there anything about the storylines that you found challenging?
I set out with JET to accomplish several things. The first was to write the fastest-paced thrillers anyone has ever read. The second was to structure plots that were as intricate as anything I’ve seen. And the third was to create as intriguing a set of characters as possible. Truthfully, the concept of JET came to me when I was writing Silver Justice. I was out for a hike, and this book cover just jumped into my consciousness, with one word: JET. Ironically, the cover I wound up with was better, although different. I originally saw a black cover with red metallic lines, like etching, very asian, with an asian symbol, and the word, JET. From there, I sort of had bits and pieces come to me before I started it. But I didn’t really know where the story was going to go – I sort of figured out about half the book, and then was so excited to start writing it, I did the first few chapters, just to see how I could make it turn out. And then I cheated and did the next few. Before I knew it, I was about sixty percent through, and had an entire series in mind. So the challenge was really to piece it together so that a highly-complex storyline was coherent, with just enough foreshadowing to keep the reader interested, but without any deus-ex-machina trickery. As to research, I did virtually none. Everything is based on personal experience, and my imagination. Any detail, I research as I go along, or I save for second draft and just put in placeholders. Like detail on weapons, or specifics about geography or whatnot. “She gripped the XXX with trembling hands as she sighted on her assailant’s head.” And so on.

According to your Amazon author page, you’ve released 19 books in the last couple of years.  That’s a phenomenal output.  How did you manage it?
I have no life outside of writing. Really. For the last 18 months or so, all I’ve done is write. About one novel every 5 weeks or so. Including three drafts, editing, and proofing. It’s an insane pace, and one that will stop at the end of the year. Next year I’ll release 4, maybe 5 books. That’s it. I’ve sort of proved what I wanted to, at least to myself, and it’s time to slow the pace down to something resembling sane. The irony is that 4 or 5 novels in a year would be considered a watershed for most authors, whereas for me, it’s going to seem like I’m on vacation most of the year. I’m looking forward to that, BTW, and maybe travel some more. Being chained to the computer 12 hours a day, seven days a week isn’t a ton of fun, after a while. I don’t recommend it, even if it’s great for one’s literary career, such as it is.

When you’re not writing, who are you reading?
I recently finished Blood Land, by RS Guthrie, and it is a remarkable example of just how good indie authors can be. I’m reading Nelson DeMille right now, and have Faulkner scheduled next. One of the things I miss about this full-immersion writing approach I’ve taken is that I have no time to read – only at the gym, and then only if not editing (I edit on my kindle, so can do it anywhere). Oh, and I recently finished up a collection of short stories by James Lee Burke, who is a masterful author and probably one of the best living American talents, bar none, now that David Foster Wallace is no longer with us.

Of all your protagonists, which is your favourite?
Al Ross from The Geronimo Breach, with Jet a close second. Al is one in a million, and unfortunately, he’s a one novel character. But he is so flawed and broken and downright funny, you can’t help but like him. And of course, El Rey from the Assassin series. There’s something about him – he’s just so frigging cold and bad, but so damned interesting. What does it say about my character that my favorite characters are a drunk misanthrope, a broken female spy, and a stone cold killer? Now you know why my dating life leaves something to be desired. Hard to put that up on – “Malingering misanthrope with shady past and assassination fixation seeks companion to party with.”

Are there any characters from your previous series’ that you would like to bring back?
I think I’ll do one more Dr. Steven Cross novel over the next few years. I like him rather a lot. And Tess Gideon from Fatal Exchange will get another crack at it, this time in Fatal Deception. Maybe next year. I already have it mostly plotted, so it’s a definite. And I think it’s safe to say Silver Cassidy will get another book next year, as will El Rety and Captain Romero Cruz from the Assassin series. So next year is looking like one more Assassin volume, two more JET, one more Silver, and possibly Fatal Deception. You can see why I write so much – Michael Derrigan from The Delphi Chronicle gets regular fan mail demanding a sequel, but where’s the time to pack it all in, much less keep it all fresh and original? I’d say that the world has enough Russell Blake books at the moment, so maybe the following year we’ll see a Delphi sequel, a Cross sequel, and a Jet and Assassin sequel. But then doesn’t it seem like maybe Silver should get another? And so begins the problem of not enough hours in the day, and far too many plots and story ideas...

Do you plan the whole series out beforehand, or one book at a time, or just write by the seat of your pants?
I generally try to plot out one book at a time. That gets me into trouble sometimes, as JET III will show, because sometimes I get to the 90K word mark and discover that to finish the idea, I need another book of at least that many words to carry it through and finish the threads. But generally, I do one book at a time, and often that turns into seat of the pants. Zero Sum I wrote pantsing it, as well as King of Swords and Night of the Assassin. Geronimo Breach had just the barest outline before I plunged in. The rest I’ve plotted to one extent or another, but I’m impatient and lazy, so I will usually get tired of plotting about halfway through and start writing, and figure it out as I go along.

When can we expect Jet 4 to hit the shelves?
Early-to-mid December, 2012. It will all be in the hands of my editor and proofreader soon. But I’m hopeful.

Have you ever thought about going the traditional publishing route, or are you indie forever? 
You know, the trad pub route has so many pitfalls, as does the indie road. Unless you get a deal with a house that really thinks you’re the next Lee Child, you won’t get much push, and will wind up wallowing, making little money, and waiting 18 months to see a book released. On the plus side, you get broad distribution, a real marketing push, and a shot at movies and the like – but that’s only if they have a considerable investment in you, and are committed to giving it the full court press. At which point you’ll be digging into your pocket to do book tours and appearances, in the hopes that you’ll make your advance back and maybe get enough traction to break big. On the negative side, you have to get your books written by committee, where marketing, editors, and your agent all have their take on how it should read, which could be good, or bad, depending upon how the stars align. As an indie, I’ve been extremely fortunate so far. In 2012, I’ll have sold around 100K books, so my income vastly exceeds most trad pub authors – all but maybe the top top tier. I get to release as many books as I like, written the way I want to write them. I don’t have to censor my work, or include a rape scene in the first five pages because marketing wants a shocker to push, or spend six months in editing while a lesser talent goes over every sentence trying to dumb it down to sixth grade level so it will have broader appeal. My personal philosophy is that there are all kinds of readers, from the dim and simple to the highly intelligent and complex, and there are books for all of them. I tend to write what I like to read, which is at the higher end of the smarts curve – harkening back to the days of Ludlum and Forsyth more than the current Patterson et al bunch.  I think I would put my work somewhere between Silva and Baldacci – certainly the right neighborhood to be in, if not the absolutely most popular, although I’d probably argue that JET is more Ian Fleming than anything else I’ve written.

Alan, thanks for having me on again. It’s always a pleasure. Now I’ve got to get back to work and finish JET 4 and figure out what the hell Assassin 5 is going to be about so I can write it and have it out by Xmas...

Russell, the pleasure is all mine.

I can’t recommend the JET series enough, and you can get your first taste of his alluring assassin for just 99 cents.

Russell’s blog (more must-read material):


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The thing about fiction is...

...It isn’t real.

Yeah, I know that’s kinda obvious, but some of the people who have read Gray Justice don’t seem to realise this.

Let’s start at the beginning. 

In July 2010 I had the seed of an idea and an empty Word document, and the first thing I needed was a main character. 

Male or female?  Hmm, good question.  I thought about it for a while and decided that as the protagonist would have an SAS background, I would go with male.

Next, a name.  How about Clint Power?  Max Thrust?  Trenton Steele?  Actually, why not go with a normal name?  Okay, Dave…Sid…Tom… yeah, Tom.  Tom what?  Tom Savage!!  No, something run of the mill that doesn’t build the guy up as a super hero.  Something bland, something…Gray! 

Tom Gray!

Okay, so I have the seed of an idea, which is that someone loses a loved one to a repeat offender and sees the punishment handed down by the court as derisory.  What should he do?

I know!  He starts a petition to demand tougher sentencing guidelines.  He goes on Facebook and Twitter and amasses a million followers and they all sign the petition and it goes before parliament and he’s standing outside Number Ten waving a placard and…

No.  Where’s the story?  Where’s the action, the intrigue?  He could trip over a couple of times because he made the placard too big, or…

Stop!  That isn’t going to work.  He has to do something unique.  This is supposed to be a story that grabs readers and takes them somewhere they’ve never been.  It shouldn’t read like a few column inches in The Guardian.  He could mow down the killer, or kidnap and torture him, or…

Right, that’s enough, Alan!  Here’s a hundred bucks, go buy yourself a proper imagination!

What would Stephen King do in this situation?  I read Misery, and that was a good book.  A woman finds an injured author, her favourite author, and takes him back to her home.  Okay, that’s the first couple of chapters.  What happens next?  Does she call an ambulance and have him taken to hospital?  If she’d done that, it would have been King’s shortest and worst story EVER!  Instead, she breaks his ankles to stop him escaping and makes him write a novel about her favourite character, one that doesn’t see the heroine die. 

Possibility of that happening?  Slim to none is my guess, but it made for great entertainment.  I was reading it and wondering “How is he going to get out of this?”

Okay, another few light years and I’ll still be a million miles from Stephen King, but that’s the kind of thing you need to give an audience.  Put the protagonist in an unheard of situation and have the reader wonder how they could possibly come through the other end.

Okay, got it.  He kidnaps not just the killer, but four other repeat offenders and holds them in a disused warehouse.  He tells the government that he wants tougher sentencing or his hostages die.

Hmm, it’s missing something.  The authorities would soon locate him, if they even gave a shit about the criminals in the first place.  So we need a deterrent.  What could possibly stop the police wanting to rush the place?  Think!  Think!  I know, he’s planted a bomb somewhere, and if they kill him, the bomb will go off!

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Yeah, a standoff.  He’s got the hostages, and the police won’t make a move. So now what?  What has Tom achieved?  Nothing.  The news channels will report about a hostage situation, but Tom’s grievances are falling on deaf ears.  The police and politicians might sympathise after what he’s been through, but it all boils down to him committing a criminal act.

Tom needs to reach the people, but how?  He builds a website and streams video of the hostages, and tells the government that they mustn’t interfere with it, otherwise…What?  And how long is this going to go on for?

Let’s go back to the start.  We need to make Tom a man with nothing left to lose.  Okay, his wife, overcome with grief at the loss of their son, takes her own life.  We still have the problem of a timescale, though.  Is this going to go on forever?  And where’s the government’s incentive to play ball?

Got it!  Tom will reveal the location of the device on Friday, then take his own life!  He now has nothing to lose, so why not?  But what will he have achieved by then?  Think, Alan!

I know!  He wants to change the sentencing guidelines, but he thinks the government won’t listen.  Why not let the people of Britain vote on the changes?  They can ignore one lunatic, but not the entire population!  Let the people speak!

All we need now is a set of changes he wants to make, but we have to bear in mind who is creating them.  This is a simple ex-soldier, not a politician.  Successive governments have had numerous experts working on the perfect judicial system and it still isn’t quite there, so it would be crazy to have Tom come up with the perfect solution.  It wouldn’t be in keeping with the character I’m trying to create.  Instead, I’ll just have to give him a bunch of unworkable ideas and throw in some counter arguments to balance things out. 

Should I mention rehabilitation and crime prevention as possible solutions, or attacking the root of the problem at an early stage through school workshops and the like?  Would anyone in Tom’s situation think like that, or would they just be damn angry and want to see the criminals punished?  I’ll err on the side of the latter.

So, that’s the process.  I think of situations for my characters, I give them the appropriate personalities and opinions, and let them get on with it. 

Anyway, back to the purpose of this post:  Some people seem to think that Tom’s thoughts and ideals are actually a reflection of MY feelings towards the British judicial system (here's a classic example). If you’re among that number, then you must also assume that Stephen King condones the kidnapping and hobbling of injured authors!  Is that what you really think?

So please, when you read this book, just remember it’s a work of FICTION!  Whether you agree or disagree with Tom’s ideals or methods is entirely up to you, but your argument will be with a fictional character. 

My Zimbio
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