You open your email in anticipation. Of the seventy plus book review places to whom you sent your book--none has written a review. Two months have passed, and there is nothing—nothing but silence. You know your book is great. Your friends, your editor, some others who read the early version came back with glowing praise, but they don’t count. The rest of the world does not take them seriously. The book review section in the newspaper, the book review magazines, the online review sites—these are the ones you are still waiting for—but the only thing you hear is the sound of silence.
Then one day, a month later, you sit next to your PC, you don’t think about it, and all of a sudden, you notice—two of them have just landed in your mailbox. Your blood pressure rises as you open the first one. You start reading. The reviewer has done a reasonable job summarizing the plot… OK but what’s the bottom line? You skip some lines; you want to get to the bottom a little faster. Here it is, in black and white. She liked it. She liked it. She graded it—Five hearts. She thought the pacing was perfect, the characters—deep and distinctive, the delivery—superb. The dialogs—enjoyable and revealing. She liked everything. You get up; look out the window—I am good, you say to yourself.
You sit back and open the next one. Again, a decent summary, but you want to get to the bottom, and fast. “What does that mean? You ask yourself after reading the closing line. You move one paragraph up, then two, then one more sentence. He didn’t like it. But why? What’s wrong? Your face turns red. You are upset. You read it again. It’s the exact opposite of the previous review. Whatever she liked and praised, he hates, he rejects, and he lets you know it.
Did the two reviewers read the same book? You ask yourself. And then it hits you. Your book addresses a controversial subject. By definition, people on your side of the issue are likely to identify with your story, but those on the other side would not be in favor. They would reject it. If your good guy is a Republican and your reviewer is a Democrat; if your bad guy is the President of Iran, and your reviewer is the Ayatollah, then they will put down your book and may even issue a fatwa (a death verdict).
Some good indicators of a politically motivated review are the way the reviewer delivers his or her verdict. If you detect hostility; if the reviewer dismisses your characters as stereotypes or caricatures, if he attacks elements that others have identified as solid and praise-worthy, then you might raise your eyebrow, try to unearth the motivation guiding the review.
Book reviews may have great value when they are positive. Anything less than 5 out of 5 stars (hearts) is not helpful. You ought to make use of the best ones, try to learn from the others, and try to forget the politically motivated ones.
People keep asking. “What drove you to write 72 Virgins?” Why—after a long career as a professor in the academia, followed by a hi-tech stint as a technology chief—suddenly an author—a fiction writer. What happened?
My latest novel, 72 Virgins, carries a message, a prediction. Islamic terror is about to explode in the US. It’s a fact. Imagine. Attacks were thwarted even on the day the book was released. The real question is not whether Jihad terrorists’ plots will ever cease to emerge—there is no chance of that. The question the book seeks to answer is whether the next one will be stopped before it’s too late.
I was born in Israel. I served in the Israeli military during, before and after the Six-Day-War in 1967. I lived and breathed war violence, military intelligence, spy-craft designed for terror deterrence. I understand wars, military conflicts, and faith-based hate—an Islamic trait, since I grew up in that kind of a hostile neighborhood. I have been frustrated by the naiveté of my American friends and colleagues who keep asking, whenever I take a trip to my birthplace, “aren’t you worried? Isn’t it dangerous over there?
I keep thinking to myself. “Aren’t you worried as well?” Did you forget 9/11? Did you forget the following terror and potential terror attacks on US and Western interests all over and around the world?
America needs a constant reminder. Americans must be more alert and more aware. The economy is important. The healthcare system must be fixed. But security should not be sacrificed in the process. Without security - freedom, the economy and healthcare are meaningless. And if you don’t get it, try living in Afghanistan for a week.
There has been no serious terror attack in the US since 9/11. Americans have become complacent. The political left is on the attack—their aim is distorted. They go after the CIA, the law enforcement agency in charge of protecting us. They do not ask themselves the question that I am trying to answer in 72 Virgins—how is it that there has been no terror attack on US soil since 9/11? We all know (or at least those who read or watch the news), that there have been attempts; they failed; perpetrators were caught; we are safe. No!
I grew up in Israel, and I have seen it. You can’t fight a religion driven, faith-based hate by being nice, by making sure you don’t violate rules of war, by making concessions. These are means that apply to rational opponents—not ones steered by a holy book, but rather, by a selfish interest. I was trying to clarify that concept in 72 Virgins. I was trying to craft characters, through which the reader can grasp the new reality behind the type of terror we have been witnessing in the past twenty years.
I wrote 72 Virgins because I care about America, because I have grown distressed when witnessing the mounting naiveté among those who lack the understanding of history; those who are unable to learn from it and avoid repeating past mistakes.
I was trying to explain that suicide bombers are not desperate people. They are the most selfish animals in existence. They kill innocents, believing that that criminal act is martyrdom, qualifying them for an express ticket to heaven, next to Allah’s throne, where 72 Virgins would attend to their needs.
When your thriller comes with a point of view It’s risky.
While some readers may love every aspect of your story and praise it, some of your critics may disapprove. They may hold opposing political views, and thus, may not appreciate the way you depict your good guy, whom they like to perceive as the one with the timeless, evil soul. When your bad guy is the president of Iran and your reader is the Ayatollah he will find faults with every aspect of your story starting with the characters, whom he will define as stereotypes or caricatures, since they do not agree and do not represent what he perceives as a proper and a just world view.
When writing 72 Virgins I embraced a point of view that does not approve of Islamic terrorists; it pictures them as ruthless, selfish, brainwashed characters—not as desperate as some naïve people want to depict them. At the same time, I created a hero, a good guy, with whom the audience is supposed to identify and root for—but he is an Israeli, a brilliant intelligence expert. If you are a Muslim, a Palestinian sympathizer, a Jew hater, an anti Israel critic, or if you view Islamic terrorists as freedom fighters rather than ruthless killers, then you would hate my book, you would disagree with the way I depicted my characters, you would find faults in every page, call me a poor writer, then classify my book as trash.
If on the other hand, you understand that the Koran is filled with verses claiming superiority for Muslims, contempt and scorn for infidels, justifications for violent Jihad and violence against infidels in general. If you realize that it considers Jews to be descendants of monkeys and pigs, etc. and if you are aware of those who believe and follow every word of this part of the Koran, those who kill innocents so that they become martyrs, entitled for 72 virgins in heaven, then you would identify with my characters, you would detest the bad guys and you would enjoy the action of the good ones; you would live inside their soul and you will not stop turning the pages until you reach the dramatic end.
When I wrote 72 Virgins I accepted that verdict. I knew that the book could make me an enemy in the eyes of some and a hero in the eyes of others. I recognized that there would be no one or very few who would consider the book as forgettable. 72 Virgins—you’d either love it or hate it. You would find it difficult to stay indifferent. But, if you read it from start to finish, it would leave an impression, it would make you think, it would not be forgotten once you wake up the next morning and turn to your daily adventures. You'd remember the story, the characters, the humor, and the drama. It will stay with you for a while. It would leave an impression.
Have you ever abandoned a best-selling novel before making it to page 37? I did. And in many cases, it happened to be for the same reason—the characters or some other aspects in the story were not believable. The great hero was chased by four professional killers with submachine guns. All he had was a screwdriver and a piece of chewing gum, but he managed to stop the killers and dispose of them one by one. Really? What is this—a cartoon? And you want me to go ahead and keep on reading this nonsense?
And how about this one? “The commercial 767 jet landed in the Jerusalem airport after circling the skies above the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Nativity…” There are two errors, which could turn off an audience—Jerusalem has no airport, and the Church of the Nativity is in Bethlehem—not in Jerusalem.
It’s basic. Those who have never attempted their hand at fiction writing might not realize that a good quality novel requires a great deal of research, sustaining many of the fine points that shape the characters, the atmosphere, the scenes, the scenery, and the plot as a whole—keeping it real.
When describing a real place, a building, a location, an institution, you ought to make sure that you truly know what it looks like. You want to offer your audience a guided tour; make them experience the sights, sounds, smell and atmosphere. You also want to steer clear of criticism by those who have been there and find your descriptions misleading and incorrect; thus, exposing your ignorance and lack of credibility.
Understanding time zones is another area where you can fall flat on your face and lose or be ridiculed by your audience, if you fail to understand basic geography. Winston Churchill Jr. in his book about the 1967 Six-Day-War between Egypt and Israel, explained, in the very beginning, how Israel took advantage of the one-hour time difference between the two countries, whereas, 8:00 a.m. in Israel was already 9:00 a.m. in Egypt. He went on to develop an entire theory as to why 9:00 a.m. in Cairo was an ideal moment for the Israeli surprise attack on the Egyptian airfields. His only error—8:00 a.m. in Israel is actually 7:00 a.m. in Egypt. It’s an hour earlier rather than later. What happened to Churchill’s thesis when its foundation crumbled? As far as I was concerned, Churchill endured a complete loss of credibility.
Schedules, particularly airline schedules, must conform to the test of feasibility. If United Airlines does not fly to Israel, don’t make your hero take that non-existent flight. If it takes a minimum of ten hours to make it from point A to point B, don’t make it sound as if it’s a short trip.
Pay close attention. In chapter one you described your hero. He had blue eyes; he was six-feet-tall with a solid frame; he had a scar on his left jaw, and his right index finger was missing. Your audience got the idea. At first glance, the guy was a good-looking chap; however, a careful scrutiny revealed some war borne wounds—a potential turn-off. In contrast, you forgot a detail or two when describing the same man in chapter eleven. His scar changed sides, his index finger grew back, eyes became brown, or his large belly was the size of Mount Saint Helen where eruption seemed imminent.
Do you find these descriptions inconsistent? Now, I am confused. I pictured your hero earlier; he was tall and athletic looking, but now, he’s converted to something else. Are we talking about the same person? Earlier you wrote that he had grown up in France, then moved to the US on his twenty-seventh birthday. So, where did he acquire his “typical” Southern drawl?
Another potential hazard to be aware of is that changes in situations must pass through a feasible path even if the path is not discussed in the book. Your hero could not have breakfast in Los-Angeles followed by Lunch in Paris with his fiancé. He could not lift her in his arms two days after suffering from a bullet wound in his right shoulder.
And remember, if you want to make your characters believable, don’t make them perfect. Heroes are human, they make mistakes, they have weaknesses; they do not escape unharmed every time they encounter danger. They may win at the end, but they may endure some serious setbacks on the way. Attaching ordinary flaws to your hero would make her more human and more believable, while at the same time, it may add to tension and conflict—a quality that would make your book more exciting.
And finally, make sure that your evil characters are more than just evil. There is no reason for you to make them stupid as well. I know. You want me to hate them. But that emotion will be better achieved if evil is strong and powerful, influential and smart, and therefore, more believable. Here again, the character should not be perfect. His Achilles heel will take him down one of these days. You may even use that character flaw as the reason for bringing him down after you take your story up on a crescendo to the top of the mountain before sending it off the cliff at the final pages.
In conclusion, character believability is only one ingredient that your story will benefit from. There is, however, much more that your story requires. But failing the test of believability would turn off your audience and you may never recover from that fall.
More on key aspects of fiction writing is discussed in my next post at www.aviperry.org.
This is how it all started - I wanted to describe the state of mind, the background, and the volcano that breeds the kind of psychopathic undercurrent that surrounds and sweeps the typical suicide bomber. I wrote the first two chapters as a single piece, but with no idea and no clear plan as to where I would fit it. It was neither a blog nor an article—it was a short fictional story. At that point I did not envision it as the opening scene for a complete, comprehensive action/thriller novel. It was merely a piece that I felt like writing with no particular aim in mind. My wife read it. She thought it was a powerful piece. She kept talking about it; she would not stop, not even in bed. She related it to everything she had seen on the news and, of course, on the Lifetime channel.
And then, she began to treat my short story as if it had actually taken place, as if it had been news. It reminded me of Joseph Geobbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, whose famous observation had been adopted by Islamic extremists. He concluded that when you tell a lie a thousand times you start believing that it actually happened. Geobbels’s conclusion was not limited to lies. It could apparently be expanded to include certain type of fiction—the type that people can relate to—a story that could potentially come to pass.
That sudden enlightenment was the spark that ignited and gave birth to the enterprise. I was going to take that piece and develop it into a whole book. But now, I needed more—much more. I spent the following week on an outline—not too detailed, but deeper than a PowerPoint chart. I began writing during the following week.
Now, the initial piece was no longer suitable. It was no longer a stand-alone; it was a first chapter or two within a larger universe. It had to be rewritten. Over time, as more pages started accumulating, I realized that my outline had become obsolete. It required a tune-up—or better! It required an overhaul, a new engine. The storyline deviated too far, away from my original thoughts. Characters and events began living their own life, and as I started to live inside their souls, I began breathing the same air, living inside their flesh. They were now real people, making up their own minds, controlling their own destiny. My outline had lost its sway.
Still, the fact that it was still there, watching the story from the periphery, served well when the story became stuck. Yes. I did hit the wall, felt like drowning a couple of times, waited for the lifeguard to come for the rescue, and when he didn’t show up, I glanced at the outline again. It did help to set off a breakthrough even when I did not follow it to the word.
I completed the first draft in one year, but the rewrites, the revisions, the editing, and the following rewrites took another year. The final product turned very different from the initial draft. It is a much improved, very polished piece of work. Although I had written and published a highly regarded technical non-fiction book before, 72 Virgins is my first novel. My next novel, a sequel, will probably take a single year from start to finish. The main characters starring in it are still alive—no need to start developing them from scratch, the story is already in my head, and the experience I have gained through the writing of 72 Virgins will, no doubt, be a great asset that will come to the rescue whenever the next mental paralysis makes an attempt to re-emerge.
If you are not (yet) a best selling author, an established expert, or a known celebrity, you are going to be ignored or face rejections when trying to find a literary agent or a publisher. If you had written or about to write a non-fiction book, you will not get attention unless you have already established yourself as an authority in that particular subject or field. If you had written a novel, you should let a Simon-Cowell-type person read it before you set your eyes on getting it published. If your manuscript is of high quality, and Simon approves, then you may try Self-Publishing, but only if you have the budget to carry the endeavor all the way through. That journey does not end with the printing of the book; it includes professional editing, cover design, typesetting, and above all-—marketing. Without a reasonable marketing budget, your book will get lost in the decimal dust. No one will know about it, except your close family and friends. It may be the greatest masterpiece of the century, but it will remain anonymous, lonely and cold. However, if you don’t care about sales, then forget about the marketing part, take it out of your budget and don’t bother. Still, you wouldn’t want your friends and family to say things, and smirk behind your back, so you must ensure quality even if you merely get it published as a medal for your undersized ego.
So, your undersized ego keeps nagging you —“you realize, my friend, that you are already older than the president of the US. What have you accomplished in your miserable, irrelevant life? Did you make any contribution to humanity other than adding to Global warming, turning on your air-conditioning unit in the kitchen even when you could cook outdoors?”
Well. I can write, you whisper in your own ear. I can still remedy this situation—to a degree, of course. I can become a published author, you think.
Writing, and writing well, is only a small step in the path to the Promised Land, where your masterpiece becomes published, then read by an audience, who may or may not recognize and appreciate your special talent. But even though you think you can write well, you might be shocked at the discovery that you are not perfect. I know. You were confident that your writing was flawless; your spellchecker caught and fixed your typos, your words and phrases were expressive, your dialogs were relevant, your punctuations and prepositions were the envy of your German-born English teacher. Hell, no! Those trifling errors kept sneaking into your manuscript. You didn’t realize it until your little fifth grader, after reading your Preface section, pointed out that she did not understand the sentence: “seize to exist.” “Shouldn’t it be “cease to exist” instead?” she asked. “And how do you “hit the breaks?” Shouldn’t you say—“hit the brakes?”
Oops. This dumb spellchecker; it’s its fault, not yours. Well, you’d better find someone who would spare the embarrassment that would turn off your potential audience, joke about your silly writing style, and ruin your reputation for the rest of your irrelevant life. Your confidence got shaken a bit—you just experienced your first lesson on the way to becoming a published author.
Now, your mother always told you that you should not judge a person by their looks, but rather, by their character. You believed her, (only because you didn’t look like Brad Pit with those ugly glasses), then applied the same logic to your book. Don’t judge it by its cover, you said to yourself. The contents, the real beef, is the stuff that counts. You didn’t care. Professionally designed book covers are a total waste of money, you reflected… Oh Yeah? Have you ever been to a bookstore? Have you watched the random browsers, the ones who pick up the most attractive book, the one with the red and blue front cover, turn it over to read the excerpt in the back, then rush to the cashier and flash their Visa card before it expires? Not to worry. Your publisher will take care of this little detail, unless of course, you are him. And if you are, then you’d better spend time and effort on this little detail. It’s the first impression you make on your potential audience; you would not get a second chance with this selective bunch. They must be ruthless, saving their reading appetite for shining objects, not minding true quality, like your book.
“But why does it take so long?” You ask your publisher. “Why so many months before it is published? You thought it shouldn’t take more than a couple.” You didn’t realize, but editing, typesetting, book cover design, proof reading, even pre-pub marketing, printing, distributing—all must take place before your book is tanned under the florescent lights of the bookstore, or displayed inside the shiny pages of the Amazon site. It takes time, and your publisher is not in a hurry, or so it seems. You ruminate--He must be lazy, unlike me. I could easily shave a couple of months out of his schedule, and still get it done. No. Don’t be an amateur. The publishing process does take time. And you’d better get it right, than fast and sorry.
Your book is finally ready. Your publisher sent you the allotted free copies he had written into your contract, so why did he set the publication date several months out into the future? Your anxiety is showing. You want to see your name displayed on the shelves in the local Barnes and Noble store. But wait, you need time for pre-publication publicity. Your publisher wants your book to hit the ground running. Books are like freshly baked bread. They taste better when they are fresh. Most books, like most movies, sell more copies on their first year after publication, when they are still fresh and hot. People like to buy new stuff. Go figure.
Your publisher does not want to spend money on advertising. How is he going to generate exposure? There are millions of books out there. How will anybody know about yours? He explains that paid advertising is much less effective that the free stuff. And you always believed that there ain’t such a thing as a free lunch. But he is right. He is not kidding.
Free publicity is not entirely free, although it feels that way. You haven’t thought about it, but here are some examples. Book reviews, press releases, media interviews, virtual or actual book tours, blogging, social networking—all can generate huge exposure if done well. They are not entirely free, however. Free copies cost money. Mailing, shipping, mailing lists, travel, PR agents, the time spent on blogging and social networking, online and offline listings, are not cheap. Some may be less expensive and more effective than paid advertising, but you will have to study and master the free advertising market before claiming victory. The biggest surprise you may be facing is your publisher’s unwillingness to go all the way and do everything possible to promote your book even when it’s “free”. You will have to invest your own time and money and “help” your publisher provide proper exposure to your book. The amazing part is that the more you do, the more your publisher will do. If your publisher foresees success, he will be more willing to invest and promote it.
And finally there are three more surprises, with which you will probably be facing. If you become a successful, published author, your fans will seek your attention. At first, it may seem like fun, but once you become a hot celebrity, the new status may yield all the known side-effects associated with the lack of privacy. Be careful of what you wished for. It may happen. Regardless of annoying fans, the positive part of success is the new respect you would gain from family and friends. The wife or husband will start bragging about you with their friends; they might even treat you with more respect; stop telling you to go wash the floors since you are not doing anything important anyway. Before you became a published author, writing down in the basement was not considered real work. It’s different now. She will stop telling you to go and get a real job.
Some friends will invite you over for dinner. They will want to be seen in your company, so they may invite more friends and call it a party. Some other friends may want to keep you all for themselves. They may do the opposite, invite you to a party where you’d be the only guest.
Well, it’s time to get started on your next book. You are not done yet. If you like your new status you ought to remind yourself that it is temporary unless you keep at it relentlessly. Hot dishes become cold after a while. Freshly baked bread turns stale two days following its birth. And authors lose their glow if their creations fade into the used books section next to the dumpster. So be aware. What goes up must… Not if it’s up to you.