Saturday, August 25, 2012

Politics and Paper

A point of artistic responsibility for me is to create stories with a moral center.

The sticking point here is that people have different concepts of what's moral, and then we dress our respective senses of morality in different political clothing. To a great degree, the political discourse in our country has lost the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. Instead, we've come to relish zapping the other side.

That's what made an email I received the other day all the more remarkable. A reader named David let me know how much he enjoyed reading The Last Ballot Cast — despite the fact that his politics were considerably different than those espoused in my novel. That all but took my breath away.

If you'd care to search the reader reviews of my work on Amazon — and elsewhere, I presume — you'll find one-star reviews and accompanying diatribes that mock my work precisely because of my political views. Some people feel that the only good political thrillers are the ones that reinforce their views.

In the interest of letting you know how I feel about things, about the ideas that underlie any inspiration that might come my way, about who this guy Joseph Flynn is, here's a little bit about me.

All four of my grandparents immigrated to the United States in the early years of the 20th century. None of them came with a bankroll to get him or her off to a flying start. All four of them worked at the kinds of jobs young newcomers could find: a doorman, a streetcar conductor, a nanny, a hotel housekeeper.

They set up their households, raised and educated their children, sent their sons off to World War Two and were lucky enough to get all of them back. Their children married and set out to make their way in a country that offered more opportunities than my grandparents had been given.

My family was middle class because my dad worked sixty hours a week, and with union benefits got paid for seventy hours. His job in a steel-making plant was tiring and dangerous. He took public transportation to and from work. But even after a very long day he was so eager to see his wife and kids he would run the last half-mile home from the bus stop.

I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. My dad wanted me to be a dentist. I thought I would become a lawyer. But on my way to my first day of college, on public transportation, I got the idea for my first short story. It came out of the blue. My first gift from the greater storyteller. After that, there was no question what I was going to do. In order to actually make money as a writer, I became a copywriter at the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency. I was able to apply for that job because I had a college degree.

My wife and I were blessed with the arrival of our daughter, a child whose gifts make mine look pale. She became the first person in our family to go to an Ivy League college. She's fluent in French and Russian and was selected for an internship with the U.S. State Department. She also, God love her, is a fantastic writer.

The progress our family has made through a span of three generations has been matched or far exceeded by innumerable other American families. The opportunities for people of humble origins to succeed is what has made the United States great.

So, from my point of view, the most important responsibility our government has is to build, sustain and protect the broadest, deepest, most secure and most accessible middle class possible. Make it entirely possible for anyone who is not yet in the middle class or who wants to get back into the middle class to rise. Make it doable for anyone in the middle class with vision, passion and drive to rise even farther.

With that point of view, the first question that should be asked of any bill that comes before Congress is: Will this be good for the middle class?

Right now, all the Republicans and far too many Democrats place their first concern with the rich. If you have any question about that, look at the figures for increases in income over the past 30+ years and see who's done well, who's stagnated and who's falling behind.

I think the rise of the Tea Party was the first sign that the duopoly of the Democrats and the Republicans is about to yield to new parties. Occupy Wall Street was the first sign of a countervailing movement on the left, but it was too incoherent — by design apparently — to survive. But another iteration on the left will emerge. That will leave room for a centrist party or coalition to fill the middle. Then it will be up to the right or the left to see whose ideas will prove more compelling in attracting the moderate middle.

Anyway, that's how I look at politics, in part, and those will be the views reflected in my writing.

Again, I'd like to thank David for thinking well of my writing even though our political views differ.


Now, on to the matter of paper. A relatively small number of readers are waiting patiently, I hope, for the trade paperback edition of The Last Ballot Cast to hit the online booksellers. We plan to have this edition available by mid-September.

Let me say that I love printed books. Always have. Lately, though, I've come to love ebooks, too. When it comes to making a living as a writer, ebooks are my first love. They pay the freight. If it weren't for ebooks, there never would have been more than one Jim McGill novel.

As things stand today, the company my wife and I started, Stray Dog Press, Inc., publishes trade paperbacks as a courtesy, but we don't do it for all of our titles. It's not too hard to imagine a day arriving when only a small percentage of all titles on the market are printed.

So, dear readers, take a chance with ebooks, if you haven't already. They're really quite likable. They're becoming ever more affordable. They'll give you the opportunity to find new authors that you wouldn't have otherwise.

Please take the leap. When it comes to reading, there's no need to be monogamous. You can play the field and your literary soul will be unsullied.

One final small note: Stray Dog Press, Inc. is looking into the possibility of doing audio books. What do you think of audio books? If this turns out to be a good business idea, we'll let you know.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Quarter-Million Words Later

I started to write The Last Ballot Cast in mid-February and finished writing it in mid-July. It came in at 942 manuscript pages. I cut that down to 912 pages. Took me five months. Didn't take a day off. I'm still tired, but I'm happy. Except for the damn typos that sharp-eyed readers find after three proofreaders missed them.

To be fair, there are usually five proofreaders for my books, but surgery and summer school knocked two out of the box. C'est la vie.

For me, writing is a solo effort. I don't collaborate. Can't imagine sharing the creation and execution of story. That said, I have a whole lot of help. My wife, Catherine, is the first reader and editor of everything I write. It's my great good fortune that she likes my stuff. It would be awfully tough for her to put in all the hours she does to bring my work to the reading public if she didn't like the material.

Let that be a lesson to all young prospective writers: Make sure you marry someone who likes what you do. If your would-be spouse isn't a fan, you probably want to keep looking.

Other than marrying well, it also helps to cultivate interesting friendships. In the first Jim McGill book, The President's Henchman, I introduce a new martial art called Dark Alley. It's pretty much an anything goes form of fighting given structure and discipline. Not long after I came up with the idea, I met Jim Sullivan who teaches the near equivalent of Dark Alley. His discipline falls under the heading of Natural Spirit International. He's helped me to develop McGill's ongoing adventures in close-quarters combat. If you're looking for a highly functional form of self-defense, Google Jim's mentor, Datu Kelly Worden.

Susan McIntyre was my medical reference person for TLBC. She knows just about every awful thing that can afflict the human body. She probably has half the doctors in AMA in her database. If she doesn't know something off-hand, she can always make a call.

People like this are good to know when you're doing research. Their knowledge lends an air of plausibility to your writing. On the other hand, I'm not writing text books. So when the mood takes me I exercise the favorite device of all writers — literary license — and shamelessly ignore reality.

But back to McGill. TLBC, Parts 1&2, conclude the first term of the McGill series. Employing another literary technique, circularity, the villain from The President's Henchman, Dr. Damon Todd, returns to threaten McGill again. This raises the question: What do you do with an SOB who didn't learn his lesson the first time? McGill is a character with a moral center. Shedding blood unnecessarily is not his thing. But neither is letting some jerk kill him or someone he loves. Forcing a character to make a tough choice is the best way to show who he is.

In order not to fall into a formulaic rut with McGill or any other recurring character I write, I have to make sure they grow, age, evolve. McGill, facing the near loss of his son, changes his ways and decides to teach all his children the vicious art of Dark Alley. Patti not only changes political parties, she makes a daring choice of a new vice president. Sweetie, after decades of celibacy, gets married. Welborn and Kira become new parents. Leo and Deke leave government service to join McGill in the private sector. As all that happens, a new face takes over the Secret Service's White House detail.

Readers don't want to see any of their favorite characters disappear, much less die, but it would be an awful mistake for a writer simply to leave them marching in place. So be forewarned, there will be more changes in future McGill books.

Regarding politics: These are political thrillers. Inevitably, they will reflect my political views. Some reader-reviewers have taken me to task for expressing liberal views. They seem to think the genre is the exclusive property of the far right. Guess again. My political views are eclectic. I'm liberal on social issues; I'm conservative on balancing the budget and paying down the national debt — but I believe the best way to do those things is to tax the rich and end welfare for the wealthy.

It's like Willie Sutton said about robbing banks: "That's where the money is."

Meeting reader expectations: Intentionally leaving a number of things hanging at the end of The K Street Killer, I felt a certain sense of obligation to resolve those situations without delay in TLBC. So I worked harder than I ever have before — and harder than I ever intend to work again. It's very flattering to have readers want your next book as soon as they finish the previous one, but after a while it gets trying. "Are we there yet, are we there?"

Patience, dear reader. All things in good time.

Regarding writing and making money: I write to honor my muse and serve the story. If I do my best, I trust that my work will find a paying audience. So it really irks me when some nitwit thinks I make a writing choice simply to serve financial purposes. That's not to say that I don't want to make money from my novels. Of course, I do. The more money I make, the more novels I must be selling. The more novels I sell, the more people must be having a good time reading them. It's a virtuous circle.

But so many writers work so hard for so long with so little reward, that it honestly pisses me off when some jerk thinks I'm trying to screw him out of a lousy $3.99. I mention that only because it happened to me recently. What a dick that guy was.

To end (almost) on a brighter note, nothing makes me happier in my professional life than to know I've made a reader happy. If you noticed the dedication to Part 1: TLBC, you saw that I acknowledged those of you who've read my books and written to me to share your feelings. Thank you.

Oh, yeah. The Friends of Jim McGill Facebook page can use more friends. Get some conversations going there with your fellow readers, will you?  Here's the link for The Friends of Jim McGill.