On the left is the anthropoid coffin of Wenmontu, of the 22nd or 23rd dynasty (944-716 BC). To the right is the coffin of Mesiset, late 22nd to early 25th dynasty (c. 750 BC). These are in the archaeological museum of Bologna, which has an excellent Etruscan collection I wrote about in a previous post. Photo copyright Sean McLachlan.
I’m stepping out of the blogosphere for the next couple of weeks to do a writing retreat in Cairo. As Black Gate regulars know, I usually go to Tangier, but now that my Tangier novel is out, I’m changing location to work on a new project.
It’s a neo-pulp adventure novel tentatively titled The Masked Man of Cairo: The Case of the Purloined Pyramid and follows the adventures of a disfigured World War One veteran turned antiquities dealer who gets tangled up in the machinations of the Thule Society in 1919. And yes, a pyramid really was stolen from Giza! Well, sort of.
OK, that’s small potatoes compared with all the other crap going on, but it was the end of an era. I bet I’m not alone among Black Gate readers and writers in being a Black Sabbath fan. Unfortunately I never got to see them in concert and now I never will.
They did teach me a lot about writing, though. As an author I get tips and inspiration from lots of different sources, not just other writers. Sure, I have a fondness for the great prolific authors and the literary giants, but I often learn more from the greats in different arts. Perhaps that’s because there’s a certain distance that allows you to see what they do more clearly. With other writers I tend to spend a lot of time looking at the nuts and bolts of their work, while with musicians and painters that’s not the case. I know very little about playing the guitar, and nothing about painting a landscape, so I focus more on the philosophy behind the work rather than the techniques of the work itself.
The interior of the Nahon Synagogue, with lamps donated by local families
Both of my readers have probably been wondering where I’ve been the past few weeks. I just got back from one of my semi-regular writing retreats in Tangier, Morocco. Besides getting heaps of writing done, every time I go to Tangier I always discover something new in this historic and complex city. This time I found a beautiful synagogue hidden at the end of a tiny alley.
Nahon Synagogue was built in 1878 by a wealthy banker from the nearby city of Tetouan in honor of his father Mose Nahon. Or this might have happened in 1868. The plaque on the front of the building says 1868, the caretaker and the synagogue’s literature say 1878.
The history of Jews in Tangier stretches back way before the 19th century. Archaeologists have dug up potsherds decorated with menorahs dating from Carthaginian times. Nothing else is known about Tangier’s Jewish community for this early period.
A lot of writers and readers are saying we have entered a new pulp era, a repeat of those days when hardworking writers pumped out exciting fiction in large quantities while facing very tight deadlines. The old pulp era died long ago, and was replaced with modern traditional publishing. Under that model, writers usually only came out with a book a year, and if they did more than that it was generally under a pseudonym. Traditional houses seem to have been under the impression that “less is more” when it came to a writer’s output.
Readers disagree. They want more from their favorite authors, and they want it now. Those writers who have come to the top of the new indie publishing revolution tend to be those who write a lot, generally in series, and keep up a consistent quality. Some traditionally published writers such as Guy Haley are moving that direction too. In our interview with him, he talked about how he has to write five novels a year if he wants to make a living at his writing.
Even superstars such as James Patterson are getting in on the game. A post at Non-Fiction Novelist talks about how Patterson’s new project “Book Shots” fits perfectly into the pulp mentality. These thrillers and romances are touted as having lots of action and no padding, just like a good pulp story should. They’re all under 150 pages and cost less than $5. Plus there’s a whole lot of them.
I’m seeing a similar trend in online start-up publishers. My own body of indie published work, while doing OK, is not bringing me enough to live on, so I make up the deficiency by ghostwriting. This is a relatively new venture for me as I shift steadily away from nonfiction writing, but the trend I’m seeing is remarkable.
Ghostwriting always involves a strict written agreement not to take credit for a work, so what follows will by necessity be of a general nature.
Propaganda photo of the Volkssturm. This civilian militia appears to be well armed, but in fact borrowed their weapons from a regular army unit and had to give them back after the parade. The Volkssturm received castoff uniforms or no uniforms at all. The most appropriate uniform would have been a big bulls-eye on their chest
I’m in the process of researching one of my upcoming novels, Volkssturm, about the German civilian militia formed in October 1944. The Volkssturm called up all able-bodied men aged 16 to 60 who weren’t already in uniform. It also brought in some women. Most of these people weren’t particularly fit, or had been working in essential jobs such as armament factories and had been made redundant due to chronic shortage of material and Allied bombing. Even those who remained in essential jobs often served in local Volkssturm units charged with protecting their home area. The idea was to launch “total war” against the Allied invaders and save the homeland from devastation. We all know how well that worked out.
Nowadays before an operation it’s the thing for — usually — a senior nurse to work through a list with items like: “Does the patient have any allergies? Has the anaesthetist raised any concerns…? Is this even the right patient for this operation..?” There are also checklists for emergency situations such as reviving somebody fished out of a pond to make sure critical injections aren’t missed.
Why this is mildly terrifying is because (a) checklists significantly raise patient survival rates, and (b) the medical profession has only recently adopted them! (It’s a bit like that time my doctor mate remarked, “Oh that was before we went over to evidence-based medicine….” Erk?)
Why this is interesting for writers — and why I’m talking about this book here — is because checklists help in situations when people are working “in flow.”
They were first developed because nobody could fly the B17 without crashing it. The test pilots got together and made up a list for the co-pilot to read out at different stages: “Engine revving enough? Flaps at right setting…?” Now checklists are pretty standard not just for the aviation industry, but also for manufacturing and construction.
Checklists work because they are not procedures. They don’t tell the surgeon, “cut along dotted line A” or the pilot, “Steer down the runway.” Rather they act as gates between different phases of a project or procedure. They don’t get in the way of flow, so much as force you to pause and take stock before getting going or moving on.
For a writer like me this is interesting because it’s all too easy to dive in too early to drafting — because flow is addictive — without planning properly, and even easier to send off work that’s not properly polished — because writing is both exhilarating and mentally tiring.
I manage 1,000 words a day at the start and an average of 3,000 words a day once I’m underway. Sprinting – 5,000 to 7,000 words a day; that’s for the last half.
Many newbie writers would screech in horror and say no one can write that fast, while most MFA snobs would turn up their noses and say it’s impossible to write anything of worth at that rate, that writing must be an agonizing process of constant revision and polishing. They’re both wrong, as Page’s own writing attests.
The fact is, however, Page’s speed is rather modest. Mine is about the same, so I’m not knocking him. I know how hard it is to keep up a good momentum while maintaining your responsibilities to family, not to mention the distractions of the Internet and local pub. I’m fortunate enough that writing is my day job, so at least I don’t have a separate career getting in the way of my productivity.
Page and I may both have a bunch of books to our name, but we are mere henchmen, mere spear carriers to the great Deities and Demigods of publishing — the truly prolific. Dean Wesley Smith, who has written well over 100 novels and about 500 short stories and only seems to be picking up speed, recently shared a link to an interesting blog post titled 17 Most Prolific Writers in History. I have a lot of quibbles with this list, as I’m sure you will too, but while it isn’t authoritative or entirely accurate, it’s certainly inspiring and daunting in equal measure.
My local produce seller, a farmer from one of the villages in the Rif
When the writing gets tough, the tough writers go to Tangier…
One of the advantages of living in Europe is that you have North Africa right at your doorstep. Sadly that region, with all its diverse cultures and beautiful landscape and ancient sites, has largely become a no-go area. Algeria and Libya are war zones and Tunisia and Egypt are highly unstable as well. That leaves Morocco, a safe and stable country that’s drawn me back several times to use as a writing retreat.
As I mentioned in a previous post about Living in a Moroccan Medina, I regularly go to the northern port of Tangier to get away from email and editors and take some time to do some serious writing. Not only does the city resonate with literary giants of the past like Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, and Mohamed Chukri, it also provides inspiration in the form of a large traditional medina, fine views over the Strait of Gibraltar, and a growing arts scene.
So what does a Canadian writer living in Madrid work on when he’s in Morocco? Read on. . .
Sandbox is the tricky part; a “sandbox” is a storyworld that lets you tell (or experience — if you are a gamer) all sorts of different kinds of story. Essentially, I’m building my Discworld.
Oh, you say, just make it big with lots of different kinds of settings plus spare blank spots on the map.
Yes, that gives you lots of flexibility (though less than you’d think). However, the stories won’t be — sorry, I can’t think of a better word — branded.
I mean, the asteroid miners over here and the fight against the dark lord over there, don’t need to belong in the same universe and the reader (or player) won’t really feel as if they are revisiting the same place.
So a good sandbox is one that maximises the possible range of branded stories.
Spend time with a 12-year-old tabletop gamer and you quickly realize that — in this light — Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K universe is one of the best sandboxes around. You can could dump just about any Space Opera SF story into it, and it would still feel like 40K. To do Firefly, just plug in Orcs, Inquisitors and Space Marines and Imperial Guards. To do Starship Troopers tell a story about the Imperial Guard. To do Star Trek, just follow a Tau captain on their five year mission.
Less so in the Star Wars universe.
Firefly Wars would need a local civil war as backstory, since the cleanup after the prequels feels like it would involve more mass graves. Your Alliance could be the Empire, but the Empire doesn’t really feel as if it would do dark secrets — why bother hiding them? — or have secret super soldier programs– it has Stormtroopers and Sith anyway. Starship Troopers could be about the latter-day Stormtroopers, but the moral ambiguity would be lost. Star Trek…? No, not without taking a ship to a different galaxy and then it would not feel like Star Wars. It would lose its brand.
So the 40K ‘verse is a far better sandbox than the Star Wars one. How can this be? It appears to follow four basic rules…
Today we’re talking to Jack Badelaire, author of numerous action books in the tradition of the 70s “Men’s Adventure” genre. His best known work is his Commandoseries of WWII action novels. Jack reflects on indie publishing and the state of the genre.
Full Disclosure: Jack is a critique partner of mine. He’s also a fellow member of the secret commando group Sicko Slaughterers (“SS,” we really need a new acronym), which goes after terrorists and human traffickers. So far I’ve killed 1,487 sickos, while wimpy little Jack has only killed 1,059. He gets props for killing that ISIS commander in Raqqa with a blender, though.
Anyway, on with the interview.
The Men’s Adventure fiction of the 60s and 70s is obviously a huge influence on your work. You’ve mentioned that you think there’s a lot more going on in these books than many people think. Could you expand on that?
This genre of fiction was brewed up during an especially turbulent period of history. The Cold War, Vietnam, rejuvenated organized crime syndicates, the rise of international terrorist organizations, the War on Drugs… and those are just the chart-toppers. These post-modern pulps of the period were a direct reflection of, if we want to get Freudian for a moment, society’s collective Id. The Executioner went out and slaughtered Mafiosi because we wished someone would, and Phoenix Force obliterated terrorists because we wished someone would. Even today, the modern successors to these stories feature ex-SEALs and former Delta Force operators hunting terrorists and organized crime syndicates, stories little different than those written thirty or forty years ago.