Friday, April 11, 2014

Guest Post - Creating a Pitch Perfect Character

Today, I'm thrilled to be hosting author Mindy Klasky!  She is launching her new Diamond Brides series this month and has written a wonderful post about how she turns a stock character into a complex and unique individual.  Since Mindy's one of my BFs, I had the pleasure of reading the first book in the series, PERFECT PITCH.  I'll admit, I'm not a fan of baseball - the game is too slow for me, but there was nothing slow about Mindy's story! After I finished this fun and entertaining read in a single day, I'd wished the Raleigh Rockets were a real team I could cheer for.  Plus I loved the humor (as I do in all Mindy's stories).

Mindy Klasky:

Romance.  It's a literary genre built on tropes, on familiar storylines told in unfamiliar ways.  You've probably heard the shorthand before:  Marriage of convenience.  Secret baby.  Virgin bride.  Single father.  May/December.  There are a couple dozen more, but you certainly get the idea.  

Each tried-and-true storyline relies on stock characters – the alpha male, the wounded warrior, the prostitute with the heart of gold, the shy virgin…

And if those snapshots were the only basis for romance novels, the genre would have burned itself out long ago.  But tropes are only the beginning of a romance novel.  Stock characters are only the bare outlines.

The real fun starts when the author colors between the lines.

When I started writing the Diamond Brides Series of short, hot, contemporary romance novels about the players on the (imaginary) Raleigh Rockets baseball team and the women who love them, I knew I was going to rely very heavily on tropes and stock characters.  With each book limited to about 150 pages, I didn't have time to build minutely detailed character stories, to provide volumes of background information, to sketch carefully shaded essays on psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

Instead, I selected traditional plots within the romance genre and peopled them with unique characters.

The trick was knowing just how to make my characters stand out as individuals, how to make them quirky enough that readers can remember them as specific, well-defined people, without giving in to the pressure to make them outright bizarre.  As an author, I needed to structure details, building them as carefully as a baker balancing rich cake between layers of frosting.

Take DJ Thomas, the hero of Perfect Pitch.  He's an athlete at the pinnacle of his career, experiencing the best season of his life.  But that's only the surface definition of the man.

He's a man attracted to a woman who seems to outclass him in wit, confidence, and public sympathy.  He's a single father who is often exasperated with the child he doesn't understand.  He's a son who is wounded by his own father's domineering need to win.  He's a teammate, struggling to do his best so that the other Rockets players have a chance of winning a championship.

But even those details weren't enough to define Perfect Pitch's hero; I needed to drill deeper.  As a man attracted to a woman (whom he's inadvertently insulted on national TV), DJ has to deliver the script prepared for him by the Rockets' publicity team.  But at the same time, he wants to communicate his own, personal apology.  Even as he desires a deeper relationship with the heroine, he worries about what that public status will do to his professional reputation, to his personal image, to his paternal obligations and his filial ones.  Late night phone conversations with the heroine after ball games played on the road become fraught with meaning, with traps for the romantically unprepared.

And the complexities spin out further, like ice crystals on a freezing window pane, as DJ factors in all his other roles.  Suddenly, my "Athlete Hero" isn't just a stereotype. The precise details add up to a specific love story about unique people.

Writing nine novels in the same ballpark (see what I did there?) has given me a chance to exercise my authorial muscles.  For each book, I need to look at my conventions, to analyze my stereotypes and to determine how I can make the characters and stories unique.  You can get more of an idea of my approach by reading a snippet here:

And you can buy Perfect Pitch at its value price of $0.99 here:

What are your favorite novels where stock characters are transformed into something specific?  What tricks did those authors use to delineate their unique stories?

Thanks for a wonderful post Mindy!  I know a book about an assassin who started as a stock character and then transformed into an artistic pack rat.  I can't recall the title or the author.... ;>

Friday, April 4, 2014

Q&A and Give Away with Duncan W.Alderson

Who, you might ask, is Duncan W. Alderson?  Well, I'll tell you!  Back when I started writing, I struggled to find information and guidance about the craft (back when there was no Internet or cell phones - a truly barbaric time ;). The universities in my area didn't offer creative writing classes to the community, and I couldn't find any local writing groups.  Then one day, I see an ad for the Rabbit's Hill Writer's Group offering writing classes.  I jumped on it and signed up right away.

Duncan was the owner and teacher at Rabbit Hill.  We had classes in a barn turned art studio turned writing room.  It was wonderful.  I met other writers, received feedback on my stories, learned the craft of writing, and made a few friends.  Not only did my writing improve, but I loved the class style so much, I use it for when I teach (shhh...don't tell Duncan ;).  I credit Duncan's classes as an instrumental part of my writing success.

I'm so excited that Duncan's debut novel, MAGNOLIA CITY has just been published.  It's a historical fiction set in Houston, Texas in the 1920s. Now, I realize most of my readers are more fantasy/science fiction readers, but this novel is just wonderful.  It's rich in details, but not overwhelming.  The characters are masterfully drawn and I was suck into this world about love and oil.

Below is an interview with Duncan, and he has offered to give away a signed copy of his book to a random commenter (ALL are welcome to enter)!  Please include your email addy with your comment so I can get in touch with you. Contest ends April 15 (tax day for those in the US).

Q&A with Duncan:

1.) What sparked the idea for this story?
I grew up seeing photographs of my mother as a flapper in 1920s Texas. The exotic woman in the pictures seemed so different from the practical housewife who was raising me, that I had to write a book to explain who that other woman was.

2.) Why historical fiction? Is there something special about this genre that draws you to write?

I wasn’t drawn to the genre particularly, just to this subject matter inspired by photos of my mother. I was trying to write about my own experiences in the 1960s, but this other voice kept interfering, so I finally went with it.
3.) The book is rich with setting details and authentic historical information.  How much research was involved?  Where did you find the information?  Was any one source more helpful then the others?
This was the biggest challenges of telling this story. I spent years researching the period in general, and my own hometown in particular. The Texas Room at the Houston Pubic Library has a collection rich in history, as do libraries in Galveston and San Antonio. Certain books were key in helping me understand early Houston history, such as Houston: The Unknown City by Marguerite Johnston.  One of the most useful sources for items used in everyday life was a copy I made of the 1927 Sears & Roebuck Catalogue, which I found at my local library.

4.) During your research, did you discover anything surprising and unique?  Perhaps something that you used in your story?

When I read Houston: The Unknown City by Marguerite Johnston, I discovered that the historic nickname of my hometown was The Magnolia City. This became the title of my novel.

5.) What do you find most interesting about Hetty Allen?

He desire to become a “modern” woman. This is a large part of what drives her as a character.

6.) What else do you enjoy doing besides writing? Interests? Hobbies?
Spending time in Manhattan going to operas, concerts, theatre and museums. My wife is an art dealer, so we do a lot gallery crawls in Chelsea and attend a lot of art openings.

7.)  How did you become a writer? Is this what you saw yourself growing up to be? Or did it take you by surprise?

I think I became a writer by default. I was a child actor, appearing as Tom Sawyer on both stage and television with the Houston Civic Theater. My dream was to become a movie star and change my name to Duncan Divine. Then my family moved from Houston to our lake cottage in the piney woods and my acting career was suddenly over. I took up writing stories instead and penned my first novel, Retama, in high school.

8.) Do you have a writing routine? Talk process for a moment, how do the words get on the page?
I’m a very lazy writer. I’m not at all like Joyce Carol Oates who writes eight hours a day, seven days a week. When I’m under deadline, I try to log in four or five hours a day, but otherwise find all kinds of excuses to avoid working. When I do write, I always pen my first drafts in long hand with a good fountain pen.  I love the feel of the nib scratching against the paper. I use Natalie Goldberg’s approach of free writing, so never experience a writer’s block. I just keep my hand moving and something always comes out.  Then I type that “shitty first draft” into my computer in 18 point Times Roman triple spaced.  That’s when the real work begins, as I revise the pages over and over, printing each draft out and marking it up with a red pen. After twelve or fifteen drafts, I usually end up with something that feels coherent, so reduce it down to 12 point Times Roman double spaced and print out the final draft, which then gets integrated into the work-in-progress. 

9.) Office? Closet? Corner of the living room? Do you have a set place to write?  A favorite?

I’m lucky to have a writing studio out in the barn in our backyard. I’ve gotten to where I can only work there, as that’s where all my files are, my comfortable desk and the Roget’s Thesaurus that I’ve been using for over forty years. It’s a quiet space away from the house where I can go to be alone with my muse.  Or take a nap. 

10.) What are you writing now?  What's coming out next?

I’m working on the sequel to Magnolia City, called The Tibetan Magic Show.  It was actually written first, but needs a lot of revision.  My editor wants it on his desk my Christmas, 2014.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Celebrating 7000+ Likes!

My author page on Facebook has reached over 7000 likes and I'm celebrating by giving away 7 prizes to random commenters on my post (you have to post on Facebook to enter - ALL are welcome and the link is below).

I wasn't quite sure what to think of Facebook when it first appeared.  I was a big MySpace user (remember that?) and didn't want to add to my digital work load. My friend, Alethea created an author page for me on Facebook and was answering questions and, when she couldn't answer, she'd email me and I'd tell her.  My niece Amy also helped out from time to time.  Now I answer all the questions/comments and I have a personal page (which I post mostly the same things on - I'll post more about my family and life on my personal page and all my book news on my author page). 

As Facebook became more popular, I discovered the number of emails I receive has gone down and it has saved me time.  Plus it's an ego boost to get hundreds of likes and comments when I post big news like about the new Study book - SHADOW STUDY.  Facebook makes it easy for me to post news - unlike my Blog which takes up more time.  I've been on Goodreads since 2008 and seen that site grow in popularity - it's a fun site that I enjoy.  I avoided twitter - I don't think I could keep up with it!

I wonder what will be the next big thing for social media.  I'm happy with Facebook and I know I'll be reluctant to change, but I will follow the crowd because connecting to my readers has always been important to me - that will NEVER change.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Blood and Iron - New from Jon Sprunk!

Today, I've a guest on my blog.  Please welcome Jon Sprunk who is a friend of mine and you may remember when I interviewed him a few years ago when his debut fantasy novel, SHADOW'S SON was released and then again when the second book in that series SHADOW'S LURE came out.  I loved the Shadow Saga and am excited about his new book.

Jon's here to tell us all about his new fantasy series and how he sparked on the idea for this epic action-filled adventure.  To celebrate the release, I'm offering a copy of his new book, BLOOD AND IRON to a random commenter (international is welcome).  Please post a comment and your email addy by March 19 to be entered to win!


Hello. I’m Jon Sprunk, a fantasy writer living in central Pennsylvania. Thank you all for this opportunity to tell you about my new series, BOOK OF THE BLACK EARTH. The first book, BLOOD AND IRON, just came out [yesterday].

The BOOK OF THE BLACK EARTH is set in the same secondary world as my Shadow Saga, but in a different region far to the east of Caim’s adventures. It follows three people as they struggle for freedom in an ancient land called Akeshia, where magic is worshipped and powerful God-Kings (and –Queens) hold the power of life and death over a vast race of people.

Horace is a rather normal guy at the start of the series. Following in his father’s footsteps, he used to build ships for the royal navy of his homeland. But then he lost his wife and son in a plague. Distraught, he joined the Great Crusade against the heathens of the East as a carpenter on a transport ship, more out of a desire to do something positive with his life than any real drive to serve the war effort. However, his ship encounters a magical storm and sinks, and Horace washes up on the shores of his nation’s enemy. He is taken captive and made a slave. That is, until he discovers a latent talent for sorcery that he never knew he possessed.

Alyra is a slavein the household of the queen of Erugash. She is beautiful, intelligent, and obedient. At least, on the surface. She is secretly a spy from another government, sent to keep the queen’s attention turned away from this small satellite nation. Alyra is specifically suited to this mission because she has a strong grudge against the Akeshian Empire, because its soldiers killed her father when she was a child. The mission is everything to Alyra, until she meets Horace and things get . . . confusing.

Jirom is a former mercenary. When his company was defeated by the Akeshian Empire, and he was given a choice between execution and slavery. He chose the collar. At the start of the book, he’s a gladiator fighting to make his owner rich. Because of his success in the ring, he is sold to a local warlord. He meets Horace as they are both slaves, in a caravan heading to the city of Erugash. They become friends, mainly because they are both too stubborn to knuckle under their overlord’s thumb. When Horace’s power is revealed, they are separated. Horace is taken to see the queen, Jirom is sent to serve as a slave-soldier in the royal legions. While he fights to survive in the legions’ brutal training camp, Jirom joins a group of subversive slaves who crave freedom. Yet he’s seen firsthand how the empire treats its enemies, so he must ask himself what’s worse, slavery or death.


Fun fact: The idea behind this series originated in my head more than twenty years ago.

Yep. When I started writing as a young man, I messed around with some short stories and then embarked on my first attempt at a full-length novel. It was about some good people who were lured into Hell to serve opposing demon overlords in a game of politics and war. I got about thirty thousand words into the story before it fizzled, mainly due to my own inexperience. I put the unfinished manuscript aside and moved on to other things. Then, after finishing my Shadow trilogy, I was brainstorming for my next project when I remembered that old book. The idea at the heart of that ill-fated first attempt had never left me. I didn’t go back and read the original (which probably would have soured me on the idea), but I did start plotting a story arc with the basic gist in mind.

I began from scratch. I changed the setting to a secondary world that combined elements from several of my favorite ancient cultures, namely the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Egyptians. I found enough parallels that mingling these cultures felt as natural as breathing.

One of the things I really wanted to tackle in this series was an original magic system. I played around with a few concepts until I hit on one that fit my world and my story. It plays on the basic “elemental” magic (earth, air, fire, and water) with a few twists of my own. Magic plays a big part in these books, so I made it a priority in my world building.

Lastly, there’s an idea at the heart of this series. A question really. What does it mean to be free? This series will explore the lives of slaves and royals, masters and servants, soldiers and spies. Throw in the presence of magic—the potential of one person to possess the power of an army—and it makes for a volatile combination. Old walls will be broken down, but new ones will surely arise to take their place.

Well, that’s a brief look at my new series. Thank you for reading. 


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Killer Frost

No, I'm not talking about this winter...although...we've had more snow, ice and polar vortexes than...well, ever here in Pennsylvania that I could be, but I'm not :).  I'm talking about the latest novel in Jennifer Estep's Mythos Academy series for Young Adults that was released today!  Jennifer has taken time out of her super busy schedule to answer a few questions (see below). 

She is also offering one lucky winner a signed copy of her latest book, KILLER FROST. Leave a comment on my blog (and your email addy) by March 4th to be entered to win.  (US only please)

KILLER FROST is book 6 set in Mythos Academy, a school of myths, magic and warrior whiz kids. Gwen Frost first appeared in book 1, TOUCH OF FROST where she is an outsider both to the students of the Academy and the rest of the world. But when her gift of psychometry - the ability to know an object's history just by touching it reveals dark undercurrents and danger afoot, she has no choice but to get involved.

And her adventures continue - here's the cover blurb for KILLER FROST:

I’ve battled the Reapers of Chaos before—and survived. But this time I have a Bad, Bad Feeling it’s going to be a fight to the death…most likely mine.Yeah, I’ve got my psychometry magic, my talking sword, Vic, and even the most dangerous Spartan on campus at my side in Logan freaking Quinn, but I’m no match for Loki, the evil Norse god of chaos. I may be Nike’s Champion, but at heart, I’m still just Gwen Frost, that weird Gypsy girl everyone at school loves to gossip about.Then someone I love is put in more danger than ever before, and something inside me snaps. This time, Loki and his Reapers are going down for good…or I am.

Interview with Jennifer:

1) Let’s talk about your Mythos Academy series of books for young adults. The sixth book, KILLER FROST is coming out soon.  What sparked the original idea for the story and series?

JE: I always enjoyed mythology and reading and watching all the stories of the gods, goddesses, warriors, and creatures having adventures and going on these epic quests. One day, I thought it would be fun to write my own mythology story and try to put my own spin on the gods, goddesses, warriors, and creatures.

And I started thinking, what if there was a girl who was shipped off to a school for the descendants of ancient warriors like Spartans, Amazon, Valkyries, etc.? How would she react? How would she fit in (or not)? So that was sort of the beginning of my Mythos Academy young adult urban fantasy series.

2) Are you writing more books in this series? If so, do you have a certain number of books that you have in mind for this series, or do you plan to write them until you run out of ideas?

JE: As of right now, KILLER FROST will be the last book in the series. But I’ll never say never. If I have an idea that appeals to me, I may go back and revisit the Mythos Academy world someday or maybe even write a spinoff series. We’ll see what happens.

I didn’t have an absolute set number of books in mind when I started out (although I was thinking somewhere in the seven-book range), but KILLER FROST seemed like a good place to end the series. I really wanted to give fans of the series a satisfying conclusion to Gwen’s story, and I hope that readers enjoy the finale.

3) What do you find most interesting about Gwen?

JE: Gwen wasn’t raised to be a warrior like the other kids at Mythos Academy, so it was interesting for me to see how she adjusted to going to the academy and realizing that warriors, creatures, and myths were real. But she was always tougher and more of a warrior than she thought she was, and it was fun for me to write her evolution into what I hope is a really great, strong heroine.

4) Did you have to do any special research for this series? What did you learn about the ancient races of warriors that you didn't know before?

JE: I did some research into the various gods, goddesses, warriors, and myths. One thing that I found really interesting was how many different creatures there are in mythology, everything from the Nemean lion that Hercules killed in Greek mythology to Fenrir, a wolf in Norse mythology. So it was fun for me to try to put my own spin on some of the creatures and introduce a new creature in every book in the Mythos Academy series, like Nemean prowlers, Fenrir wolves, Eir gryphons, and more.

5) You have three series, the Elemental Assassin series for adults (11 books), the Mythos Academy series for young adults (6 books), and the Bigtime paranormal romance series for adults (4 books) plus a bunch of novellas for them.  You have three books coming out in 2014.  How do you balance these three series?  Is it hard to switch from one to another?  When do you sleep?

JE: I like going back and forth between my various series, visiting with the characters, and seeing what new adventures that I can dream up for them.

It’s not too hard for me to switch between the various series, but I can only work on one thing at a time. That’s just how my mind works. So if I’m writing an Elemental Assassin book, then that’s the only thing that I’m working on at that moment. Then, when that’s done, I’ll work on something from my Mythos Academy series. And so on and so forth.

It’s definitely tough balancing everything, and it always seems like there is something to work on, whether it’s writing, copy edits, page proofs, etc. I definitely stay busy, and I haven’t had a real vacation in I don’t know how long. And what is this mythical thing called sleep that you mention? LOL.

But I really enjoy what I do, so that helps with all the long hours at the computer. I’m also hoping with the conclusion of my Mythos Academy series to take a little bit of a break, rest, recharge, and think about what I want to write next.

6) What else do you enjoy doing besides writing? Interests? Hobbies?

JE: I love reading, watching TV/movies, and hanging out with friends and family. I also enjoy yoga and playing fantasy football.

7) How did you become a writer? Is this what you saw yourself growing up to be? Or did it take you by surprise?

JE: I always loved to read, and my mom used to take me to the library every Saturday when I was a kid, so that’s how I fell in love with books and reading in the first place. I think I always knew that I wanted to be some sort of writer. I wrote my first book one summer during college, and that’s when I really started thinking about being a fiction writer. I’ve been writing ever since.

8) Do you have a writing routine? Talk process for a moment, how do the words get on the page?

JE: I’m a panster, so I don’t do a lot of outlining, plotting, or anything like that. I think about my character, especially my heroine, since I write in first-person. Once I have her personality in mind, I think about the other characters, the plot, the magic/world building, etc. When I have a general idea about the overall story/book, I sit down and start writing. [me too!]

I try to write at least 2,000-3,000 words a day (usually more) until I have a rough draft that’s about 70,000-75,000 words or so. It’s important for me to just get the words down on the page fairly quickly, no matter how good or bad they are. That tells me if the story/idea will work for a book or not, and it helps me keep the flow/tone of the characters and story.

Once I have finished my rough draft, I usually let it sit for a few weeks before going back to it with a fresh eye, reading through, and seeing how everything does or doesn’t come together. Then I start on my second draft, where I put in much more detail, description, dialogue, etc. and really flesh out the characters and story. Then I set that draft aside for a few weeks.

I usually repeat the process a few more times, adding in more detail, description, etc. every time until I have a full-length book that is the best that I can make it. Overall, the process can take anywhere from a couple of months to six months or longer, depending on how much I am feeling the story and how many other projects I have going on at the same time.

9) Office? Closet? Corner of the living room? Do you have a set place to write?  A favorite?

JE: I write in my home office. Not very original or creative, but it’s the quiet space that works for me.

10)  What are you writing now?  What's coming out next?

JE: KILLER FROST, the sixth and final book in my Mythos Academy series, was released on Feb. 25. I hope that everyone enjoys the conclusion to the series. POISON PROMISE, the 11th book in my Elemental Assassin series, will be released on July 22. I’m working on the 12th book in my Elemental Assassin series that is scheduled to be published in December 2014.

I’m also mulling over some ideas for new series. We’ll see what happens.

Happy reading, everyone!

Thanks Jennifer!

Find Jennifer online:
Twitter:  (@Jennifer_Estep)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Storm Watcher Blog Tour

Boy it's dusty in here!  Sorry about not blogging more often, but it seems all I have time for these days is posting on my Facebook page - and if you're looking for up to date info, that's the best place to find it - here's a link:

Although I do have news!  We're doing a blog tour for STORM WATCHER and you can read a bunch of reviews, interviews, guest posts (I am blogging just not on my own blog).  We are also giving away 10 copies of STORM WATCHER with four of them slated for my international readers.  The tour started on Wednesday, but the give away is still on going.  Check out the blog dates and sites below:


Feb 19 – Mar 5, 2014

Join us for interviews, guest posts, reviews, and giveaways!

Tour Schedule

Wed 2/19 – The Book Monsters - review
Thu 2/20 – I Am a Reader – interview
Fri 2/21 – Unleashing Readers – guest post
Mon 2/24 – Bookalicious – review
Tue 2/25 - Kid Lit Frenzy – guest post
Wed 2/26 – Sharpreads – review
Thu 2/27 – The Mod Podge Bookshelf – guest post
Fri 2/28 – The Windy Pages – review, interview
Mon 3/3 – Teenage Reader – review
Tue 3/4 – Read Now Sleep Later – review
Wed 3/5 – The Brain Lair – review

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Q&A with the author behind Intelligence!

For more info on the show:
Here's the short version - John Dixon, debut author of PHOENIX ISLAND (out today) - the book that spark interest from Hollywood and became the premise for INTELLIGENCE a new TV series on CBS (premiers Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 9:00 pm Eastern/8:00 pm Central).  For information on how this all happened see the Q&A with John for the long version.

Reasons I hate John: The book is fantastic - it's well written, action packed, well crafted characters and satisfying ending.  He has a TV show based on his book - his FIRST book - what a brat, I've 12 books and had no interest from Hollywood.  He's a nice guy - smart, funny, kind to small animals.  He's into boxing and martial arts so he knows his stuff and it shows in the book.

Reasons I love John: See above :)  I met John through the Seton Hill MFA program when he signed up for my Fantastic Fight Scenes workshop.  I brought a bunch of rubber knives to teach the class some self-defense moves.  I asked for a volunteer to be my partner. John promptly volunteered. I hand him a knife and he adjusts into a fighting position and I think, "Oh, S**t, this guy knows what he's doing.  I'm screwed."  Good thing we used rubber knives ;>

John is also offering to give away one signed copy of PHOENIX ISLAND!  Leave a comment and your email addy (Goodreads friends - no need for the addy) by January 14, 2014 and be entered to win. Open to ALL! (yes, that includes international readers).

Here's the cover copy:  A champion boxer with a sharp hook and a short temper, sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. He can’t seem to stay out of trouble—using his fists to defend weaker classmates from bullies. His latest incident sends his opponent to the emergency room, and now the court is sending Carl to the worst place on earth: Phoenix Island.

Classified as a “terminal facility,” it’s the end of the line for delinquents who have no home, no family, and no future. Located somewhere far off the coast of the United States—and immune to its laws—the island is a grueling Spartan-style boot camp run by sadistic drill sergeants who show no mercy to their young, orphan trainees. But that’s nothing compared to what awaits him in the “Chop Shop”—a secret government lab where Carl is given something he never dreamed of.

A new life. . . . A new body. A new brain. Gifts from the fatherly Old Man, who wants to transform Carl into something he’s not sure he wants to become.

For this is no ordinary government project. Phoenix Island is ground zero for the future of combat intelligence.  And for Carl, it’s just the beginning. . . .

Q&A with John Dixon:

1.) What was the inspiration behind PHOENIX ISLAND?

Phoenix Island came at me from a bunch of directions, unconnected experiences and ideas coalescing over time, but the heart of it grew out of two sources: hope and rage. From the get-go, I knew I wanted to write a story about a kid who, like so many people I’ve known, doesn’t really fit into polite society but who nonetheless possesses great strength and potential, given the right circumstances. Then I heard about the unbelievably disgusting “Kids for Cash” case, where judges from my home state of Pennsylvania made money by convicting kids to privately run boot camps for teen offenders. My high hopes for people I’d known met my rage over this unbelievable injustice, and the book blew up in my head.

2.) Let’s talk about your success – your debut novel, PHOENIX ISLAND is the bases for the new TV series, INTELLIGENCE premiering January 7th on CBS at 9:00 p.m., and staring Josh Holloway.  How did that happen? 

I was sitting in Jimmy John's Hot Dogs on Route 202 when the phone rang. It was Tripp Vinson, executive producer of blockbuster movies like Red Dawn, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Number 23. My film agent had given him the book, and he'd read it in two days. Could I talk?

Jimmy John's is my favorite restaurant on the planet, but it's also full of toy trains and little kids blowing whistles, so I asked Tripp to hold on, walked out to my truck, and took the call of my life parked along 202, with traffic whizzing by.

Tripp flew to New York, I hopped the train, and we met for lunch. We clicked instantly, and I liked his ideas. He wanted to convert Phoenix Island into a TV series, and we started talking about how to expand subplots and back story, where to end the pilot, where to end the first season, conversations that we would continue later, over the phone and through email. Before leaving that lunch, however, Tripp gave me the best advice ever. There were a million ways for this go wrong, he explained, and told me not to pin my happiness on the ultimate success of the project. “There are a lot of hurdles,” he told me. “Celebrate every hurdle.”

So I did... usually by going to Jimmy John's. When Michael Seitzman came on board, I celebrated. When ABC Studios optioned it, I celebrated. When CBS Network picked up the option, I celebrated. We still had a lot of hurdles in front of us at that point, but following Tripp's advice, I was enjoying the ride. With the addition of director David Semel and actors like Josh Holloway and Marg Helgenberger, we kept clearing hurdles, and we sprung over a tall one when CBS green lighted the pilot. Out of something like 100 dramas optioned that year, they had green lighted only 11. Still, we were up against heavy competition, so the next hurdles -- making a great pilot and getting ordered as an actual show -- reached into the sky, into orbit.

I felt good about the pilot. By this time, the story had changed big time from my book. I was okay with this, and I enjoyed having a role in the transition. I'd read the script and knew it was strong. But honestly, I really didn't think we'd make to order. CBS was kicking butt, and while we were in limbo, they announced they would be reordering almost their entire schedule, leaving room, people thought, for two, maybe three new shows. TV pundits predicted CBS would pick up Beverly Hills Cop and NCIS spin-off, and suggested that Hostages would likely nab any extra slot. We weren't supposed to get the order, according to those-in-the-know. Still, I clung to Tripp's advice and celebrated the green lighting by visiting the Vancouver shoot with my wife, Christina. We had a blast.

When May rolled around, I braced myself for the expected disappointment, telling myself I'd been incredibly blessed just to make it this far. We'd made some money off the pilot, taking off pressure for a time, and the book had sold in a two-book deal to Simon & Schuster. Things were good. And yet I dreaded the announcement. I didn't want the dream to end.

It didn't. On May 10th, five days before the Up Fronts, CBS surprised everyone by announcing its picks early. And there was Intelligence. I didn't believe. I mean that literally. A friend emailed a link, I followed it out, read the headline, and literally did not believe that it was true. A mistake, a hoax, a cruel joke... something. Then I went back to my inbox and saw an email from my film agent. The subject line read, "In Case You Haven't Heard." The email simply said, "So happy for you, John," and there was a link to another article announcing the same news. Cue the chorus of angels....

That evening, Tripp called. I'll never forget pacing the deck, talking to him. It was a beautiful May evening. "Remember when I said we had a lot of hurdles to cross?" he asked. Of course I did. "Well," he said, "we made it over the last one."
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3.) I love Carl – he’s a strong minded young man who has zero tolerance for bullies.  How did you develop his character?  What do you like the most about him?

As a son, a friend, a caseworker, a teacher, and someone who both boxed against and tutored prisoners, I’ve known dozens of people gifted with extraordinary athleticism, brains, charisma, and courage, whose potential strengths, under the wrong circumstances, ended up becoming liabilities. When I started writing the book, I had a very clear picture of the main character, who during the earliest stages was based physically and to some degree mentally on a former student of mine. This kid was very smart, very tough, and very angry. I liked him a lot. I taught him to box, and he took to it naturally. He had a world of potential in and out of the ring, but he couldn’t stay out of trouble and ended up dying tragically.

Though Carl developed into his own person, he’ll always retain a touch of that boy, and Phoenix Island will remain on one level my attempt to tell a story where my young friend, rather than ending so sadly, followed a different path and used his incredible strengths to become a hero.

My favorite thing about Carl is his absolute intolerance for injustice. He is far from perfect, and I’d hate to go through the things he suffers, but I admire his principled courage.

4.) Did you have to do any special research for this book? What did you learn that you didn't know before?

The most important research came quite unintentionally through osmosis with life: boxing, reading, and working with kids and inmates. Phoenix Island is a contemporary thriller, the story of a tough kid in tough conditions, so these experiences took me a long way, but science is also important – even integral – to the book, so that required additional research, especially in the fascinating area of trans-humanism. Thanks to amazing sources, good people like Dr. Gary Della Zanna and Dr. John Dougherty, both of the National Institutes of Health, and the guidance of Intelligence’s executive producer, Tripp Vinson, who would get in touch, telling me to watch a specific Ted Talk, read a helpful book, or Google some bit of cutting-edge science, research was an absolute blast – as were the purely imaginative brainstorming sessions that helped me go from fact to fiction.

5.) How did you become a writer? Is this what you saw yourself growing up to be? Or did it take you by surprise?

It definitely took me by surprise. I always wrote, but I think of myself as a “writer” until quite recently, when writing started paying the bills. I still feel like an imposter whenever someone asks my occupation.

But again, I always wrote stories, and for that, I thank my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Leann Wolfe, who had us write stories every week and made all the difference in the world by praising mine. She even went so far as typing up one of them, a silly, didactic story about animals in a courtroom, and she told my parents that I would be a writer someday. I was a bad kid, but her praise and support gave me confidence in something more than just my fists. Needless to say, I thank her extensively in my acknowledgements, and I sent her a copy along with a heartfelt thank you. I don’t know if teachers always know the difference they make, even with very young kids, but Mrs. Wolfe was one of the most important people in my life.

6.) What else do you enjoy doing besides writing? Interests? Hobbies?

I love boxing, and though I haven’t been in a ring for almost a decade, I still enjoy the workout and follow the sport pretty closely. I’m an avid reader, of course, and I love chess, building stone walls, and eating torturously hot food.

7.) Do you have a writing routine? Talk process for a moment, how do the words get on the page?

Lately, with the book and show coming out simultaneously, my writing time has been shot full of distractions. It’s a bit maddening. More than a bit, actually. I’m at my best when I start early and isolate myself from the world for long blocks of time. The more I do that, the more “real” the story world becomes and the more easily the words come.

The unfortunate thing about getting the words onto the page, is I never know how it’s going to go. Some days I struggle; other days I fly. My best day ever generated 14,000 words… but it took me an additional three days to whip those into shape, and I lost 5,500 of them in the process. In general, I waste a lot of time overwriting and re-approaching scenes. With Phoenix Island, I wrote over 200,000 words… but the published version has only 93,000. I’d love to learn to be more efficient, but so far, I’m stuck being me.

8.) Office? Closet? Corner of the living room? Do you have a set place to write?  A favorite?

I have a nice office space with a great roll top desk and a computer, but I prefer to work on my Alphasmart Neo word processor at flimsy table in a guestroom upstairs. Stephen King said something similar in On Writing, so I’m in good company, I guess. I like a Spartan workspace. The word processor and off-the-grid guestroom protect me from distractions.

9.) What are you writing now?  What's coming out next?

Right now, I’m having a blast writing DEVIL'S POCKET, the sequel to PHOENIX ISLAND, and I’m excited that “The Laughing Girl of Bora Fanong”, a short story I coauthored with Adam Browne, has shacked up with amazing Australian animator Adam Duncan, who’s planning to develop it into a graphic novel.

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