A Writer’s Journey: In the Beginning

Monkey typingLast week, I announced I was retiring from crime fiction. I wish that was after a ton of sales, movie deals, and a series based on my work. I’d love to retire for real in my forties, though something tells me I’d just go find something else to do.

But retire from the genre I am, and I thought I’d go back to when I started this journey way back in 1999. New Year’s Eve, specifically.

Author Jennette Marie Powell, back when she was “that girl who introduced me to my (now-ex) wife,” announced she had written her first novel and signed with one of the first ebook publishers. “So when do you finish yours?”


I’d written a lot in the 1990s, but I was stealing Gene Roddenberry’s characters and situations. Call it fanfic. Call it plagiarism. Call it slacking off (which is probably the most appropriate description), it was wasting my talents. At the time, I had some scraps of notes and some scenes written for a Cleveland-based private detective named Nick Kepler. In the mid-1990s, I’d discovered Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series and found an arrangement for Kinsey Millhonne in her early adventures that would work well for Kepler as well. Nick would not lease an office. He would do claims investigations for his former employer in exchange for help from a secretary and free office space. And then one afternoon, as a contractor did work on the balconies of the apartment complex where I lived back then, Eddie Murphy popped up on Comedy Central doing his “Kill my landlord, kill my landlord” bit. And I thought, “How do you do that and get away with it? At least long enough for a private detective to figure it out before the cops?” So a story started to form. In fact, somewhere downstairs is a 14-page outline of the original story to Northcoast Shakedown.

But I had one problem. I didn’t know the character. Who was he? And what tropes did I want to avoid? Well, for starters, every writer and his first cousin were doing the psycho sidekick bit made famous in the Spenser novels. It worked for me in Spenser, even when Spenser did not, because it was Hawk. And Hawk was his own character, not an archetype. At least not in the beginning. But I didn’t think it’d be very original if I recycled what was now a cliche one more time.

I had a couple of ideas for shorts, both coming from real life incidents. In one, a deputy sheriff who worked out at the same gym as me at the time came in angry about an altercation he had with a motorist. The deputy was white (and generally a quiet guy). The motorist had been black. Race had, as it so often does, entered into it, and my fellow gym rat dropped an ‘N’ bomb while we sat at the smoothie bar. That pissed me off, but it was the genesis of “Race Card” and the character of Wolf (who might have made a decent psycho sidekick.)

The second involved reconnecting with a high school friend who was making a run at a recording career. My friend had married an abusive man while in the service and ditched him one night after one too many beatings. It was either that or kill him. My friend married her high school sweetheart (another old friend) and had a nice life at the time. But what if she’d killed him? And the childhood friend wasn’t some computer nerd now living in Cincinnati but a freelance insurance investigator?  Thus “A Walk in the Rain” was born. That one took one rainy evening in April of 2001. It landed in the second or third Plots With Guns, back when Neil Smith and Victor Gischler were still geeky grad students with delusions of noir godhood on their minds. (Neil’s always been a sound friend and a good writer. Vic has emerged as an off-beat fantasy/scifi writer and respected comic book writer.)

So I was ready to become a bestselling author. Right?

Well, that’s what I thought. And that led to one of many decisions I probably should not have made, but I’ll tell you about that at the end of the farewell tour this summer.

Jennette Marie Powell

Full disclosure: Jennette became my li’l sis around 1984. I’d call her my “sister from another mother,” but that doesn’t work as well as “brother.” But you get the idea. Anyway, I’m interviewing Jen here about Hangar 18, her latest offering.

jennetteHangar 18 is a departure for you, leaving the Saturn Society behind for now. Tell us about it.

Hangar 18: Legacy is about a psychic Air Force officer and researcher, Adam Keller. Adam’s used to sensing the thoughts and emotions of others, so he keeps people at a distance. But when a desperate, telepathic voice demands rescue, dark thoughts of death threaten to overwhelm him. Then he meets a woman whose attraction to him—and his to her—quiets, if not silences, the voice. All he has to do is risk his heart and experience the emotions he’s long denied himself.

Skeptical programmer Lisa Stark wants nothing more than to finish the subliminal messaging software she’s worked on for over a year, a project someone wants badly enough to kill for. Then Adam discovers the voice plaguing him is an imprisoned extraterrestrial thought dead for decades. Lisa’s software is key to freeing the being and silencing the voice… if she lives to finish it.

This book has a long history. How did it start out?

LOL long history is so true! However, I don’t think you’re referring to the legends that say the wreckage from the Roswell incident were brought to Wright Field in 1947. As you know (but others probably don’t), Hangar 18 began its life in 1999, as Nothing to Hide, my first completed novel. There were no aliens, just a psychic, a skeptical programmer, and someone who wanted to kill her. And lots of first-book problems, like boring scenes with nothing more than a character thinking. Yet it sold to an epublisher, and was released as an ebook in 2002. However, this was five years before Amazon’s Kindle came out, and before ebooks were really viable—the only ebooks that were selling well were erotica, which my book was far from! After its contract ended, I let it sit, but when I decided to publish through Mythical Press, I knew I had to resurrect it. At its core, it was still a good story. So I completely rewrote it, without even looking at the original. This time, I added aliens, and put the mind-control software where one would expect to find it being developed—in the military. And no more boring scenes with people just thinking!

You work at Wright-Patterson AFB (where the real Hangar 18 is located). How prevalent are the rumors of aliens on the base? Or is it more the realm of Internet denizens in search of a good conspiracy?

LOL no one admits to believing this stuff—it’s all just for fun! There’s not even a Hangar 18 there, nor was there ever. The generally-accepted explanation for the Roswell incident was that the “spacecraft” was actually cold war surveillance equipment. Captured Soviet technology would have certainly been shipped off to the military’s Foreign Technology Division, which was indeed located at Wright Field. That I believe!

Do you think you might return to the Saturn Society after two books and a short story?

Yes! I’m working on another short story right now, and letting ideas ferment for a third novel. No ETA for that one, however.

The RWA features prominently in your blogs and your marketing. Why not tell us a little about that group?

RWA is Romance Writers of America, a professional organization for romance writers. RWA is different than other professional writers’ organizations in that writers at any point in their career are welcome, including unpublished writers. IMO, it’s hands-down one of the best places to learn craft and business, especially if you’re fortunate to have a good local chapter. This is true even if you’re not writing romance, but perhaps another genre, with some romance in it. I’m certain I would not be as far along as I am now without my friends from the Ohio Valley RWA.

I listen to a lot of music when I write. What have you been listening to lately?

I find a lot of inspiration in music! Pink Floyd has been drawing out the muse for working on my short story this past week. And I can almost always dig into something while listening to my favorite, Front Line Assembly. This may explain why I come up with so much weird stuff. 🙂

Hangar18_tshirtWhat are you working on now?

At the moment, I’m working on another Saturn Society short story, which may be included in an anthology with work from some of my OVRWA friends. I’ve also started planning and outlining a futuristic romance I’ve wanted to write for years. And I’m still getting ideas for the third Saturn Society novel, so that may be coming up within the next year!

Who are you reading?

Right now, I’m reading a contemporary young adult novel—Come Back to Me by Coleen Patrick, and on the treadmill is crime fiction—Dirty Martini by J.A. Konrath. I have a collection of short stories about some Kepler guy queued up on my Kindle for after those are done.

Thanks so much for having me, Jim!

Thursday Reviews: Hangar 18 by Jennette Marie Powell; Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

Hangar 18 

Jennette Marie Powell

Full disclosure: I adopted the author as my Li’l Sis back during the Reagan administration.

Lisa Stark is a software engineer working on subliminal training for the Air Force. One of the officers overseeing the project is Adam Keller. Captain Keller has a problem. Aliens are in his head. Well, one of them. Normally, this would be a cue for someone to check into the nearest psych ward for rest and some sweet meds. There are two problems with that assessment. First off, Keller really is telepathic. It’s a classified secret, but Keller can, in fact, read minds. The other problem is that alien. His grandfather was one of the doctors who examined the crash survivors from Roswell. And they’re still alive, kept in cold storage in Wright-Patterson’s infamous Hangar 18.

Powell’s first two novels, Time’s Enemy and Time’s Fugitive, were paranormal romances. This one is as well, but unlike the previous novels, the science fiction elements are played down a bit here. The premise is established early on, and it serves primarily to complicate the attraction between Lisa and Adam. But she still manages to juggle a lot of balls: Government cover-ups, the very real specter of job loss as a contractor, and the local color around Wright-Patt. A couple of the characters, Tom Rand, come off a little flat. Rand was a bit annoying until about halfway through the book. A killer named Skinner, whom Adam has dealt with before, instead seemed like a missed opportunity. He’s a dark personality who could have provided another angle to Keller, who would have to deal with his animalistic mindset. However, I was surprised by Colonel Canfield, who promised to be a stock ice princess and turned out to be a rather sympathetic and complex character.

Lisa and Adam, however, sell this. Both have well-drawn backstories that Powell teases out over the course of the novel. Lisa was adopted by a soldier who rescued her from Vietnam as a small child while Adam requested a posting at Wright-Patt to take care of his dying grandfather and his ailing wife. His interaction with the alien drives him to the point of exhaustion, especially since he spends the first third of the book wondering who is in his head and making him freeze in 90-degree weather. What I particularly liked was Lisa’s reasoning for building a rather dangerous application. She is driven by the death of her brother in Afghanistan and believes something like she’s designed would have saved his life.

Sh*t My Dad Says
Justin Halpern

This is not the William Shatner comedy, but that show was based on this. Justin Halpern, a columnist for Maxim, found himself in his hometown of San Diego without a place to live and moved back in with his dad. Over time, he started noticing his father, a blunt, opinionated research doctor, would say the damnedest things and not really care what people thought. He soon turned this into a Twitter feed that unexpectedly went viral. This led to a book deal and, of course, a sitcom starring Shatner.

The show was primarily a vehicle for Shatner’s comedic talents. The real dad, Sam Halpern, is very different from Shatner’s almost unlikeable dad. Halpern rattles off several nuggets (no pun intended) of his dad’s wisdom and intersperses stories behind some of the comments, including when Halpern and his brothers realized that the Twitter feed went viral without their father knowing it existed. Turns out they needn’t have worried, as long as no damned reporters bothered him.

I listened this on audio while driving back from Cleveland one weekend. The reader did the father in a voice that sounds like a cross between Ralph Kramden and Howard Wolowitz’s mom. Yet Halpern reveals his father to be a much warmer, more loving dad. The infamous temper and tough guy persona shows this when a dad barges into his son’s advanced math class to loudly call out a pompous teacher who can’t be bothered to teach his students the basics. The book ends, however, with a scene that dad insisted be added to the book. It was about his first wife and how their relationship went and how her death affected him. It explains not only why he does some of the outrageous things he does, but why he does what he does for a living.

Thursday Reviews: Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, The Civil War: A Narrative – Volume 2 by Shelby Foote, Time’s Fugitive by Jennette Marie Powell

Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need

Blake Snyder

A friend of mine sent this one when I dove into reworking Holland Bay. At the time, I was reading The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, which I reviewed here recently. Journey, which is also geared toward screenwriting, is more academic in tone. It’s Joseph Campbell distilled for the layman who wants to plot better. Save the Cat is the Cliff’s Notes version with an attitude. The difference here is that Blake Snyder is interested in selling scripts.

I will have to admit the first chapter almost turned me off. It was almost a commandment to sell out (not a term I’m overly fond of to begin with, since selling out is usually judged by someone not entitled to an opinion on the matter and an undeserved sense of entitlement. I digress.) But I pressed on. Where as Vogler talked about phases of the hero’s journey, Snyder simply breaks that down into beats – moments each well-written movie should have. He breaks down “high concept” (a much-abused and misunderstood term) as a means of distilling a story for the writer before the pitch is made. He shows the beats: The setup, “the bad guys close in,” and so on. He also comes up with techniques to get around necessary evils, like expository dialog. He calls one technique “the Pope in the pool,” citing the example of a movie where the expos was handled by a scene at the Vatican where the Pope is swimming in a pool while several cardinals talk to him.

There are a couple of big fails in this book as well. In citing his “immutable rules of movie physics,” he gives us two that don’t quite jibe. He’s right when he says there should only be one kind of magic in a movie. In other words, don’t have aliens and vampires in the same story. But then he cites the original Spiderman move for having a superhero and a supervillain in the same film. Therefore it failed. Except it didn’t. Most people I know have seen that movie several times, the second one even more than the first. It’s a superhero movie. Of course, it’s going to have a supervillain. Very bad example. He also cites Spielberg’s rule of never using the press in a movie, despite several films we’ve seen over the years doing just that to great effect (Robocop anyone?). That’s not an unbreakable rule. That’s a stylistic decision.

Over all, though, it sums up an approach to plotting I found invaluable. I can’t see them using this for The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, or Deadwood, but those are unconventional television series. Where movies that follow this pattern succeed is when they use it to get people’s attention. When you can’t do that, don’t bother being avant garde or unconventional. If no one’s paying attention, you’re whistling in the woods. One must, as Snyder says, learn the rules before one can break them.

The Civil War: A Narrative – Volume 2

Shelby Foote

When last we left our intrepid Union army, they had just had their lunch handed to them at Fredericksburg. Now they were turning the tide in the West by prying the Mississippi River from Confederate hands foot by agonizing foot. Good thing, too, because the Rebel hoard was fairly kicking their butts. Abraham Lincoln had gone through five generals over the Army of the Potomac, which spent most of the Civil War within earshot of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. It’s kind of like watching your favorite football team choke against teams they should have beat. How bad was it? Robert E. Lee was wondering why he hadn’t had to surrender yet. I’m not making that up.

But the Army of the Potomac was a decidedly eastern army. In the west, you had generals like US Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and even Napoleon wannabes like William Rosecrans and political generals like Benjamin Butler. But even at their most timid, these generals were aggressive. If you pushed them back or destroyed them in one battle, they’d just come back meaner, bigger, and tougher in the next. And Grant was a patient man, pouring over maps quietly, then throwing everything he had at the enemy. And if the enemy would not oblige him by surrendering, he wasn’t above a siege.

It is when Chattanooga is taken, then the siege against it broken by Grant that Lincoln finally finds the man who could end the war. By now, the South is divided. Emancipation, while still abhorrent to most in the South, is openly discussed below the Mason-Dixon line, and Sherman has an itch to burn Atlanta to the ground.

Foote makes this all a human drama. We see the foibles that caused the tide to turn in the second act, how Lincoln might have been letting politics get too much in the way of the war effort, and how Jefferson Davis started to lose hope before Grant even showed up on the Rappahannock River.

Time’s Fugitive

Jennette Marie Powell

When last we left our intrepid time travelers, Tony Solomon and Violet Sinclair, they had just decided they would, in fact, give dating a try. Tony ended up divorced (largely through an accidental warp back in time) and Violet… Without giving too much away, she has no clue who she is or what she had done in another time.

But all that’s neither here nor there on page 1. Tony likes this cute IT worker who doesn’t exactly fit the Hollywood model of beauty and uses swear words better suited for a 1930’s movie.  Then we get to page 2, and men with lasers come out. Sure, this is a romance, but it’s also a science fantasy novel. Men with nasty hardware are a great way to get a reader’s attention.

So who are these guys? And who is this Saturn Society that Tony is convinced is out to get him? And why, if some of them consider him a criminal, are others in the society trying to help him? And while we’re at it, why does Tony’s boss, the mysterious Keith Lynch keep turning up at odd times. Literally odd times, like on the banks of Ohio’s Great Miami River before there were any Miami Indians to name it after? It’s a romp through time – 1959, the Ft. Ancient era of the Ohio River Valley, the end of the Great Depression, and even 1976 (which Powell depicts every bit as tackily as I remember it. Even Jimmy Carter shows up on television.)

Tony’s suspicions about Violet do start to wear a bit thin once we’re into the book. There were a couple of times I wanted to grab him by the lapels and go, “Seriously, dude? Are you that frackin’ paranoid?” Eventually, as both Tony and Violet are put through the wringer, this starts to balance out. The second half of the novel literally had me on the edge of my seat, which is kind of embarrassing when you’re reading at work.

A bit of serendipity (probably due to boning up for last week’s Deep Purple post): While starting this, I ran across the Blackmore’s Night version of Rainbow’s “Street of Dreams,” sung by Candice Night (aka Mrs. Blackmore.) Aside from liking this version better than the original (because, hey, Ritchie had 24 years to tinker with it with three different bands), this cover struck me as being about Violet. With her memory prior to six years before the novel’s start all but gone, she’s struck by her familiarity with Tony. So with a female singer doing this classic song, it attached itself in my mind to Violet. (Unfortunately, there’s no video of the Candice Night-only version, or I’d post it.)

Thursday Book Reviews: Time’s Enemy, Bonk, Heart of Darkness


By Jennette Marie Powell

Full disclosure: I adopted Jennette as my Li’l Sis back when Brett Michaels didn’t need a headband or plastic surgery. (I can say that. My wife grew up with Big John Murray, Brett’s former bodyguard. Hmm…  Maybe I need to talk to him about researching a book…)

Tony Solomon gets a case of vertigo during a trip to the Mayan ruins, passes out, and finds himself in a dream where he’s being sacrificed to a Mayan god. When he wakes up, he’s perfectly fine except for the scar around his neck and on his chest that no one can explain. A man named Everly knows what happened, though. Tony is a psychic time traveler. He can move about in time by thought alone. When Tony realizes he has this power, he winds up back in Dayton, Ohio’s 1913 flood saving a little girl’s life. When he learns the little girl was also a time traveler, he goes back to 1933 to ask her how he can bring his murdered daughter back from the dead. Probably a bad idea. He finds himself on the most wanted list of the Saturn Society, an organization of time travelers dedicated to keeping the timeline intact. Bad things happen when you change the past, which Tony finds out by dropping his calculator in 1933. When he returns, he manages to save his daughter, but he also finds out what could be worse than 9/11. Much worse. But he has another dilemma. See, that little girl, Charlotte, grew up to become the love of his life, only they don’t get together until 1933, long before Tony is born. With the Society closing in on him, Charlotte takes drastic action to save him from a fate worse than death and winds up sucked into the future herself with no memory. See, travel to the future never seems to succeed.

Powell calls this a romance, and it certainly is, but it’s a solid science fiction thriller. The time travel has rules and consequences. It’s a trilogy, and December is not soon enough for part 2.


Mary Roach

Medical writer Mary Roach has taken a somewhat amused look at space travel and at the whole concept of cadavers. In Bonk, she takes on sex. There’s very little titillating about Roach’s look at the study of sexual physiology. Ever watch those shows on Discovery or The Science Channel about sex? Roach tells you how they study all that, how hard it is to get funding, and what exactly went into the landmark studies by Alfred Kinsey and Masters & Johnson.

Part of the problem with studying sex is finding volunteers. And so, in an effort to learn about learning about sex, Roach found herself the subject of a couple of experiments. In one case, she and her husband are asked to have sex inside an MRI tube. She says the act was very sex-like, but it wasn’t sex. Some of the experiments to measure arousal, study anatomy, or even look at the mechanics of various acts are more clinical than arousing. And the discussion of surgical procedures is enough to make both genders squirm.

But Roach, and reader Sandra Burr, deliver all this in a bemused tone, sometimes disbelieving that Roach is actually asking about how medicine tries to learn about sex.


By Joseph Conrad

The book that inspired Apocalypse Now, along with Conrad’s Lord Jim. This short novella concerns the voyage of an English sailor named Marlow, who takes a job captaining a river steamer for the Belgians in Africa. He arrives in the Congo and is immediately told about the trader he will be dealing with, a German gone rogue named Kurtz. Kurtz has a reputation, though no one seems to have met him. The head of the station where Marlow first lands is ecstatic that he’ll be going upriver to meet Kurtz. They expect great things of Kurtz back home, he says, and he goes out of his way to make sure Marlow doesn’t give Kurtz a “false impression” of him. Unfortunately, Marlow has to tolerate the sycophant while he repairs his steamer.

While waiting to get underway, Marlow witnesses how the white men treat the natives, thinking nothing of beating a few as punishment like common slaves. One is even hung while Marlow is there. When they go upstream, Kurtz’ rep becomes more mysterious as the company agents voice unease about Kurtz. Their only concern is ivory, but they believe Kurtz has setup his only little kingdom way up river in the dark of Africa.

When he arrives at his destination, he finds that Kurtz is worshiped almost as a god, even by his white assistants. The agents are having none of it, and when Kurtz is found deathly ill, they discuss hanging him along the trip home.

The title, Heart of Darkness, first refers to the dark of the City of London, which looms in the background of the framing story, then of darkest Africa, the great unknown. Ultimately, it refers to the inhumanity of Marlow’s employers, who are the true savages.