Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cool Info For Hot Writers

OK, here’s the thing. Thriller Guy is not going to dump ice water over his own head. TG sends out plenty of checks to various Good Causes and he doesn’t need a video gimmick to encourage him. But the rest of you, feel free to dump away, just stop cluttering up TG’s Facebook page with the videos.

TG’s vacation was good, a few days at the beach, a few days having fun with Mrs. Thriller Guy. Then TG came back to a house with a flooded basement and other problems, but because TG has a cheerful heart he just shrugs off these challenges and climbs back into harness. Today’s blog focuses on some more cutting edge technological advances that savvy thriller writers can use to arm their heroes and advance their plots. Gone are the bad old days when a conscientious writer had to painfully work his way through fifty separate steps to locate a bad guy just to get the action moving. So is the new technology a boon or boondoggle for mystery/spy/thriller writers? Here, in the Guardian, Charles Cumming (an excellent spy novelist, TG says read his books) gives us his opinion, which is, essentially, that LeCarre could have never written The Spy Who Came in From the Cold with today’s available gadgetry. Hmmm, probably, but he would have written something else just as good, which he continues to do to this day. Read the piece and send TG your comments. 
Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

The age of fingerprinting was seminal in the history of criminality and in the plotting of mystery novels. The advances in this technology, in particular biometric devices that electronically read fingerprints, has seemingly made some locks pick-proof. But have they? Here are a couple of sites that teach you and your spy/agent/detective/hero how to overcome these sophisticated locks. The following website article will teach you how to defeat these devices with the use of the decidedly low tech Gummy Bear. And if you’re unable to find a bag of these tasty Swedish candies, here’s a site that will show you how to do it with Play-do, Silly Putty,  Elmer's Reusable Adhesive Tac 'N Stik, Rose Art Modeling Clay, or Crayola Model Magic Soft, Spongy Modeling Material.
Every writer knows by now the dangers inherent in allowing one’s hero to run around carrying a powered-up cell phone, or any cell phone, even if it’s turned off. And, conversely, how that same cell phone is an incredibly valuable tool in the hands of even the lowest tech investigator. In the same Guardian article, Cumming points out that if you want to know where someone has been recently, simply snatch his or her iPhone and try the following: press "Settings", "Privacy", "Location services", "System services" then "Frequent locations." Try it on your own iPhone and see how it works.

In an article TG was reading about the hacker, Edward Snowden, Snowden suggests that to keep from allowing your or anyone else’s cell phone from broadcasting one’s location, you can simply put it in a refrigerator or even in a metal cocktail shaker. Make sure to remove the phone before making your next martini.

If you’re including a team of Navy SEALS in your next plot (and who isn’t?) you can have
them ride beneath the waves in style with some new, really cool underwater submersibles. 

And if you want your hero to find out what is being said inside a room where you haven’t implanted a listening device, scientists have figured out a way to film an object in the room -- in this case an empty potato chip bag -- and reconstruct sounds that have occurred in the room, even audible speech. Check out this amazing article and video about these experiments.

Then there’s this article whereby scientists where able to figure out something, TG is not exactly sure what, which could be key to a novel-twisting plot point. Maybe you can figure it out and explain it to Thriller Guy. 
TG is reading and enjoying the latest Tom Clancy novel, Support and Defend, written by
Mark Greaney, Clancy having been dead for some years now. This is a continuation of The Campus series. TG was always a Clancy fan, although sometimes very reluctantly. He wasn’t the greatest writer, but then who is? and who needs to be a great writer to pen a perfectly good thriller anyway. What Clancy had, was access. Every branch of the military loved the guy and would sit patiently with him for days and weeks divulging tech info on all their cool weapons systems, even the secret ones, which he would then slot into his novels. So readers were always pretty much guarenteed tidbits and factoids that would astound and amaze. Greaney continues this procedure, and here are a few items that TG is passing along from Support and Defend. TG gives high marks to this book and the series.

In one scene he has his hero, Dominic Caruso, inside a house that is protected by a motion detector: “Dom walked slowly now, his entire body moved less than three inches a second, meaning each step through the house took ten times longer than normal. Off the shelf, motion detectors were typically set to notice movement that tracked faster than three inches a second, so Dom and his teammates at The Campus had spent many silly yet laborious hours of training to defeat motion sensors by walking through the hallways like wind-up toys whose springs had sprung, giving them little energy for movement.”

And more cellphone stuff: “He then carefully opened the back of the phone with a small screwdriver and photographed the number on the SIM card. Dom knew, with the right equipment, the subscriber identity module number could be used to track the phone or trace its usage.” Thriller Guy isn’t actually sure how to go about this tracking, but he is sure there’s a site somewhere on the Internet that gives instructions on how to do so.

And one last low-tech tool solving a high-tech problem. When you shoot someone, it’s always smart to clean up your brass before making your getaway: "Behind them, Isfahan climbed out of the sedan with a long device in his hands that looked something like a metal Broom. It was a NailHawg magnetic nail sweeper, used by roofers for collecting loose roofing nails in grass. Quickly and calmly he rolled the device back and forth in the alley where his two colleagues had been standing, and he picked up eleven spent shell casings from their weapons.”

So there you go, thriller writers, say thank you.

You’re welcome.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Boring Books, Terrific Books

Several weeks ago, Thriller Guy was having a rather dispiriting week. He’d just had to read yet one more thriller that was perfectly ordinary, stuffed with every thriller trope in the genre, as if the author had gone through a checklist (kill the girlfriend, terrorist’s mother and father killed/raped by Americans, hero drinks too much, snappy comments between hero and sidekick, constant mention of women’s breasts, etc.) smashed it all together and published the result. It wasn’t that it was so bad, it was just so, well, ordinary. You’d be surprised how many books suffer from the same ordinariness. And publishers seem perfectly willing to publish them because, I’m only guessing here, many readers continue to buy them. So Thriller Guy said, enough is enough, TG needs to read something to get the bad taste of all the bad thrillers out of his head. So he picked up Donna Tartt’s, The Goldfinch, which had been highly praised by many people, critics, normal people, and TG’s wife and daughter. The first fifteen or so pages did not go well, probably because reading a “real” writer was an almost forgotten experience; it took a little work. There were so many words! But once into it, TG remembered why reading good writing is so much fun. So TG has a suggestion: put down the thriller, and pick up something with a little more heft. The Goldfinch is a good place to start, as is Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History if you haven’t read it.
            TG was shocked when 80% of the way through her novel, Tartt made a terrible miscalculation with the structure of her book. The fact that no one seems to have had the balls or whatever to stop her and tell her that she shouldn’t be doing what she did just reinforces TG’s contention that once a writer reaches certain rarefied heights he or she is no longer subject to the rules of good editing or, in Tartt’s case, good sense. Publishers and editors are afraid to upset their geniuses, and maybe at that level the same geniuses don’t have their friends or spouses read their books before they go off to the publisher. Too bad, because these folks end up looking, and more often sounding, stupid in many cases. TG will blog about this later. But first…
            …he’s going to take a couple of weeks off. Too many thrillers and too many blog entries are taking a toll on TG, so he’s going to give it a bit of a rest. He suggests that those of you who need a dose of sarcasm and ranting go to the archives and read some of the entries you may have missed. The archives can be accessed on the right.
            Also on the right, you will find The Appel Store, where you can download any number of novels and novelettes. These are by TG’s alter ego, Allen Appel. TG would be so pleased if he found that all of you, or even some of you who come here clicked over to Appel’s store and bought something to read. TG thanks those of you who have already done so, and welcomes those who will do so in the future. It goes for a good cause: buying the gin that fuels these pages.
            See you in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Excuse Me, Will You Blurb My Self-Published Book?

Thriller Guy gets a lot of requests for blurbs and reviews from writers who are self publishing, either in Kindle, in paper or both. He used to get requests from publicists who were flacking their client’s regularly published books, but TG didn’t/doesn’t like doing it because of his Godlike position as a Big Time Book Reviewer. It just didn’t seem like the right thing to do, ethically, vis-à-vis his professional position. But this concern doesn’t apply so much when talking about the self-publishers, and TG is aware of and sympathetic to their publishing plight. This is becoming more and more a problem for TG and his published writer friends. (Problem is probably too strong a word, and will certainly garner no sympathy from the very folks TG is addressing.) This scramble for blurbs has come about because of the seismic shift in the publishing industry, where more and more writers are either eschewing legacy publishers from the beginning or resorting to ePublishing because of failure with the former. One of the ways to advertise self-published books after they’re up on Kindle is to get as many people to write a review as possible, hopefully a positive review. And when the writers are advertising the books on the web or elsewhere they love to have these short blurbs from successful writers with recognizable names. Hence, asking these published writer friends for blurbs.

But there are difficulties.

Friendship. Often these folks will come up to the published writer at parties, book signings, kids soccer games, anywhere, and play their friend or friend of a friend or friend of a relative card, and it is very difficult to turn them down. The published writer always feels like some grade of asshole for refusing to do it.

Time. Every hour TG spends reading your book means that Allen Appel is not working on his. Any hour any writer spends reading someone else’s book means an hour not working on his own book. Often, those writers asking for a short review or blurb will helpfully just prewrite what they want for TG or someone else to say and send it to him to approve. While this does solve the time problem, it does not solve the honesty problem. TG has never lent his imprimatur to any book that he has not first read. (For some reason TG is writing like an old man this morning. Imprimatur? Seismic? Eschewing? Where the hell are these words coming from? Thank God for spellcheck.) And most of TG’s writer friends feel the same way. Fortunately, TG can use his book reviewer excuse, but most writers just have to hem and haw and often allow themselves to be roped into something they really, really don’t want to do.

Money. TG actually does this sort of thing as part of his business. He doesn’t charge to write reviews and blurbs (some people do) but he does charge to read a book and offer comments and help. It’s not the writing the review or the blurb that burns up time, it’s reading the book. And as TG has already pointed out, he’ll have to read the book before he can do anything. So, essentially, when the hopeful writer asks for the blurb he’s actually asking TG to supply his service for free. And as any writer will tell you, time is his most precious commodity, so asking for it is just like asking for his wallet so you can have some of his money.

Honesty. What if the writer can’t weasel out of it and goes ahead and reads the book and it sucks? Take it from TG, this is often the case. In fact it is almost always the case. As anyone who has ever read this blog knows, writing is tough and very few people are actually good at it. So, is the favor seeker going to be happy with an honest assessment if it’s not positive? Of course not, he’s just looking for the great blurb or review, he’s not interested in honesty. So then the blurber/reviewer is just supposed to lie? Believe it or not, TG has always found that most writers are an above average lot when it comes to honesty, so they hate to be put in this position. So they either go ahead and lie, obfuscate in any number of writer ways, or piss off the favor seeker. A no-win situation.

This is not to say TG doesn’t review/blurb for a few of his writer pals. These are a few advisors who provide the same service for Allen Appel. So what happens when the favor seeker offers to return the favor? He’ll be glad to read your book and advise you if you’ll read his. More embarrassment. Frankly, TG and Allen Appel have all the help they need and, thanks, but no thanks, it’s just not going to happen. So what’s a self-published writer to do?

Here’s the way to go about asking for this. When you meet a published writer, he/she will generally be happy to meet you as well. As TG has written many times, writing is a sometimes unbearably lonely and difficult proposition and it’s always nice to meet a kindred soul. So go ahead and yak about the difficulties, complain about the business, talk a bit about your own book, but don’t ask for any favors. If the writer is interested in you or your book -- and you’d be surprised how often this might happen -- he’ll ask to see your book. Go ahead and give him a copy. If he looks at the book and decides to read it and likes it, he’ll probably offer to help you out. Without being asked. This will always take much longer than the writer of the book thinks it should take (please don’t call or write asking how the reading is going) and if there is a complete silence, please don’t ask the writer how he liked the book because you are not going to be happy with the answer. TG guarantees that.

All of the above has actually been a preamble to the original topic TG wanted to discuss: BookLife, a service from Publishers Weekly. As I said before, there are lots of services on the Internet that promise to get you reviews of your books, as long as you pay them their fees, which can be quite high. Kirkus, one of the chief names in the reviewing business, charges $425 for a review with a nine week turnaround time or $575 for a 4 to 6 weeks turnaround time. That’s a lot of money. Here’s a blog by an indie writer about his experience with Kirkus and some suggestions as to where you could better spend your money on reviews. 

Before doing any of this, I’d first check out BookLife.

I only recently became aware of this program. The BookLife site is still in beta, and it’s a bit difficult to navigate, but persistence will get you where you want to go. You have to create and account, but it’s all free. You then can submit your book for review and if it’s chosen it will be reviewed and the review will run in a supplement in the magazine. PW also has an advanced marketing service called PW Select that costs $149. TG doesn’t know much about this service and is neither recommending it or not recommending it. If anyone out there is part of PW Select, comment and let us know your experience. One thing TG does know is that a (good) PW review is the best piece of advertising you can have for your book, so signing up and sending your book for possible review is one of the first steps in having a successful book launch. Did TG mention that it’s for free?

And please stop asking published writers to review or blurb your ebooks. Unless you’re married to them, sleeping with them, used to sleep with them (and TG would be careful with that one) or are directly related by blood, there are better ways to go about this. As noted above. Good luck.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Politics in Thrillers Continued...

In last week’s blog Thriller Guy told about having to review a book in a series that he doesn’t like in the first place, where the author excoriated the Democratic Party and President Obama every chance he got, whether or not it had anything to do with the plot or the characters. It was a pathetic performance on many levels. But it underscored a basic problem in book reviewing: what if an author’s beliefs – political, spiritual, whatever – are antithetical to those of the reviewer? Obviously the reviewer has a responsibility to either turn down the assignment, or, as TG does, attempt to remain scrupulously neutral, judging no book by the personal beliefs of the author.

Let TG assure you, it has not always been easy.

The big problem is, when an author indulges him or herself by using his or her work to advance a personal agenda, the resulting work almost always suffers. It is no secret that many if not most bestselling authors these days have pretty much complete freedom to write whatever they want. Publishers -- craven, greedy entities that they have become -- simply turn their heads and continue to rake in the money that they know will spill from the pockets of the legions of a particular author’s fans. It has been clearly established that there seem to be no editors, except the fawning, sycophantic cheerleaders, of these writers. Manuscripts fly through the process with no critical evaluation and soon the Advanced Reader Copy arrives on the critic’s desk. Fortunately, most of these bestselling authors are actually pretty damn good writers. They, in particular thriller writers, have learned the best ways to get the thriller writer’s job done -- to write books that readers will find interesting and exciting. So they probably don’t need much in the way of editing anyway. But there are still those that defy common sense and the rules of fiction, those who have ridden to the top of the financial heap no matter how bad, really bad, their work is.

TG has to admit that in trying to remain absolutely non-judgmental of the author’s personal beliefs, he probably errs by being too nice to many books that should be excoriated. To those of you out there (TG’s wife included) that think that TG is too nice to too many writers, he must repeat his reviewing mantra: TG’s job (remember, TG is a thriller reviewer) is to tell those people who like to read a certain type of book if this particular book is a good example, or poor example, of that type of book that they like. TG has found that, even though it may feel good for a while, it does no good to point out in a review that an author doesn’t write very well when 98% of all readers are simply interested in if the story is exciting. They really do not give a damn about the quality of the writing, at least in this genre.

This does not mean that TG simply rolls over and surrenders to bad writing, plotting, characterization or any of the many sins that novel writers are prey to. In most reviews where he is up against poor performance, he employs one or more of his subtle tricks to point out problems while not making fun of the lack of sophistication, knowledge or beliefs of the reader. TG is a book reviewer, not God. (Even though he has many godlike characteristics.)

Several years ago TG wrote a long article about political thrillers. As part of the article, TG wrote to many well-known thriller writers, most of them bestselling authors, and simply asked them about their personal politics. From this distance in time, TG now thinks it was a pretty nervy thing to do, and he was surprised that the writers were so accommodating. And he was also surprised that the answers were so reasoned and, well, smart. It is no secret that the majority of thriller writers, particularly the military thriller writers, skew to the right. Some of them, personally, probably to the far right. And yet these guys (there are very few women writing in this genre) know that obvious, blatant political opinions are a mistake. Sure, they still get their bias in – because it’s the bias that most of their readers espouse – but they know not to let it get in the way of their stories. So, kudos for them, if for no other reason than reviewers love to read a great story as much as anyone else. Trust me, it’s no fun to read the ones that grate on your nerves, the bad ones. Most people can simply not start or if having started put those books down and leave them unread. TG must grit his teeth, gird his loins and plow ahead, always trying to be fair and at the same time, honest.

By now you’ve probably had quite enough of TG’s whining about how tough a job he has. (Has TG mentioned how poor the pay is? Don’t get him started.) So lets move along to a selection of the comments the bestselling writers gave about the place of political opinions in writing novels. TG has decided that it will be best if he doesn’t identify the writers. It was at least an imposition and at most misguided (that’s putting it mildly) to have even asked the questions in the first place. Thriller readers will be able to figure out who some of these people are because they mention the titles of books they have written. Fine. I’m not “protecting” their identities because they say anything wrong, quite the contrary, I think every one of these guys is an excellent writer and every one of these guys writes excellent books. And they’re smart. So here are some thoughts from thriller fiction’s biggest names, when asked about putting their personal political opinions in their writing.

Could you tell us your particular political philosophy? Conservative? Liberal? Various shades of both?
While it's really none of anyone's business, I can say I'm a social liberal, and a fiscal conservative, and by that I mean a Rockefeller Republican, if anyone remembers what that is. Clinton was actually one of those.
Some authors make their political views plain in their fiction. Do you think this applies to you?

Do you see any problems or downside to this?

Personally, I don't believe an author's political views belong in his or her novels. You want to express that, write non-fiction or a memoir.
When you read a novel, if the author’s politics are visible does this color your thinking about the book?

The moment it becomes clear, I throw the book across the room. Unless the author is Phillip Roth. He's another story altogether
Do you think political agendas can be advanced through fiction?
Not very successfully, from what I've seen.

Could you tell us your particular political philosophy?  Conservative?  Liberal?  Various shades of both?

I’m a moderate, progressive Republican in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller -- fairly libertarian on social issues, center-right on fiscal issues; a wing of the GOP, alas, now nearly extinct.

Some authors make their political views plain in their fiction.  Do you think this applies to you?  Do you see any problems or downside to this?

I try not to preach my political views in my fiction – mostly because doing so would kill a novel’s power and effect.  As Virginia Woolf wrote in her classic 1924 essay “Character in Fiction,” I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character - not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel . . .has been evolved. . . [W]here so much strength is spent on finding a way of telling the truth the truth itself is bound to reach us in rather an exhausted and chaotic condition.”

However, when a writer creates a character with full dimension, who exists rather than merely functions, who drives a narrative, the writer can use that character to convey truths, drive emotions, and touch a reader’s soul.  In The Accomplice, I strived for Woolf’s approach in showing, for example, the dangers of political extremism of any stripe. 

When you read a novel, if the author’s politics are visible does this color your thinking about the book?

Sure.  I don’t want a polemic, but I’m glad to launch into a political vortex where I can form my own judgment.  Some artists can separate their views from their narrative, as newspapers separate opinion pages from news.  I admire Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing because Lee presented a raw, racially charged scenario and let his viewers draw their own conclusions even as he signaled his own.

Do you think political agendas can be advanced through fiction?

Sure.  That’s part of the reason that Plato in The Republic advised banning poets.  Orwell’s 1984 offers a powerful example.


Could you tell us your particular political philosophy? Conservative? Liberal? Various shades of both?

I started out pretty much as an independent, even voted for Reagan twice and the first George Bush.  It was the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and the whole investigation involving the pompous special prosecutor Ken Starr that really pushed me to the left.  Mostly, the Republicans in congress flat out disgusted me over that and have pretty much continued to disgust me ever since.  George W. Bush, Cheney, Karl Rove, the whole neo-con philosophy for me was just another way of saying let's lie as much as we can get away with.  Now you have the Tea Party whack jobs and a Republican candidate for president in Romney who reminds me of the guy who knocks on your door trying to sell you something and not taking no for an answer.  F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that "the rich are different than you and I."  Truer words have never been spoken when it comes to Mitt Romney.  Bottom line:  I'd be a centrist, if we had a center in this country.  But we don't.  You're right or you're left and I come down squarely on the left.

Some authors make their political views plain in their fiction. Do you think this applies to you?

I made my views very plain in STRONG AT THE BREAK in which my female Texas Ranger character Caitlin Strong goes up against a right-wing militia movement plotting a second civil war.  Boy, did I get some angry e-mails on that one!  The thing that was strange about those e-mails is that they totally ignored the facts.  I based the book on actual data and general mindset of the way these people think.  But the hate mail I got chose to focus instead only on my treatment of Dick Cheney and the neo-cons, ignoring the very real danger these groups represent and the hatred that dominates their movements.  It seems typical of people with a conservative mindset to just ignore facts and live in a bubble blown up by Fox News.  That said, I'm a storyteller first and foremost, so I doubt you'll see my politics make their way onto the page again.

Do you see any problems or downside to this?

Sure, that being when you become a political spokesman instead of a storyteller, you risk alienating and/or losing your readers.  That's not why people pick up fiction in general and thrillers in particular.  We're entertainers and we need to stick to entertaining.  As the great Sam Goldwyn once said in the early days of Hollywood,  "if you want send a message, use Western Union."

When you read a novel, if the author’s politics are visible does this color your thinking about the book?

That's a real good question.  Call it the "24" effect after the great Fox television show.  Hey, there's probably never been a more right-wing series ever, but I absolutely loved it.  I love Vince Flynn and Stephen Hunter's books, but they're probably as right wing as I am left.  I stopped reading Tom Clancy even before I knew how far out on the lunatic fringe he was, so that had nothing to do with his politics--I just didn't think his books were very good any more.  I couldn't tell you the politics of Lee Child, James Lee Burke, Michael Connolly, David Morrell, James Rollins and almost all other writers I love to read.  I think ours is an apolitical industry and that's one of the things I love about it.

Do you think political agendas can be advanced through fiction?

Wow, great question and I don't really think so because of the points I made directly above.  People are picking up fiction for the same reason they watch television or go to the movies:  they want to escape, be entertained.  They don't want to think, never mind argue.  So the question isn't so much can political agendas be advanced through fiction, as do political agendas really have any place in fiction

 Could you tell us your particular political philosophy? Conservative? Liberal? Various shades of both?

LB: I started out in the '70s and '80s as a conservative, but I haven't always voted Republican. I'm much more politically active now, and have volunteered in the last two presidential campaigns. It's not like rooting for a sports team. If you want your guy to win, you've got to help out. And save me from ideologues and people who think they've got THE answer.

JD: I consider myself a realist as well as an independent. My voting record is all over the place. Most people would probably consider me a hawk on foreign and defense issues, though to my mind I'm a moderate.

Some authors make their political views plain in their fiction. Do you think this applies to you?

LB: No, although a little bit of the writer has to go into every character. If it matters at all in a novel, the people in a story should have politics consistent with their characters and their function in the story.

JD: I start with story, not politics or philosophy. I think the majority of my characters' politics are either ambiguous because it's not relevant to the plot or book, or along the lines of [renegade FBI agent] Andy Fisher's in The Helios Conspiracy: "The good ones are bums and turds. The bad ones are worse." I'm not as extreme as that - I've known a few very honest and hardworking politicians, from town councilmen to congressmen. But I think I agree more often than not with Fisher's cynicism, if not quite his phraseology. For me, the characters come first. They express their worldview, not mine. If it's appropriate, then their politics come through in the story. I think that I can write a character who has liberal views as well as I can write a character who has conservative views, and vice versa.

Do you see any problems or downside to this?

LB: No. My politics may shape the narrative in some way, but my only goal is to tell an interesting story and deprive my readers of a good night's sleep. When I watch a movie, I don't care about the actors' politics. The same applies to books.

JD: I think you run the risk of turning people off if the politics are one way or another. That's unfortunate, but if that's what the story calls for, that's what you have to do. In the Red Dragon Rising [my series with Larry Bond], we tried to imagine what would happen if global warming and climate change led to a war. Some people decided they didn't like the series because they don't believe that global warming is taking place. By the same token, I think a lot of people are attracted to the Rogue Warrior series [which I write with Richard Marcinko] because the character is anything but politically correct. (I should probably note that the heroic president in Red Dragon is partly modeled on John McCain, and that the Rogue Warrior character has worked with both Republican and Democratic administrations, and not had nice words to say about either.)

When you read a novel, if the author’s politics are visible does this color your thinking about the book?

LB: Yes, because it's a distraction. I want to read a good story. A novel isn't about the author. I don't care about his personal politics any more than his religion or his shoe size.

JD: Only if it gets in the way of the story.

Do you think political agendas can be advanced through fiction?

LB: I write to entertain, not share Great Ideas. Books like that have been written, and have had tremendous effect. If an author shares his thoughts, that's his choice, and the reader's choice as to whether or not they're worth anything. A person's political philosophy must be evaluated in the real world, not in the artificial context of a novel. 

JD: Very rarely. Ayn Rand is an obvious exception.

Could you tell us your particular political philosophy? Conservative? Liberal? Various shades of both?

I am conservative. I believe in a strong military, less government, balanced budgets, no federally mandated healthcare (or most any other program), and a greatly revamped flat tax system with few deductions or subsidies.

Some authors make their political views plain in their fiction. Do you think this applies to you?

It's in there, but I don't make it a prominent feature of the plot. I try to present both sides of an issue and point out the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, and then I pick the correct one.

Do you see any problems or downside to this?

Oh yes, lots of them, especially if the story gets bogged down by the politics or if you get too personal. I think you can write about issues fairly freely as long as you don't point out a particular person's deficiencies. I was talked by a publisher into creating a president much like Bill Clinton (including a strong First Lady like Hillary) and was roundly criticized by many readers for doing so. Like the old Hollywood saying goes, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union--don't put it in your script."

When you read a novel, if the author’s politics are visible does this color your thinking about the book?

Oh yes, even if I agree with them.

Do you think political agendas can be advanced through fiction?

Like any ingredient or device an author employs, if it interferes with the flow of the story, it doesn't belong. If you're writing a military techno-thriller, political scenes that aren't germane to the story only interfere and frustrates the reader. They need to be tossed.


 My answers to the questions (in I hope a sort of coherent fashion):

I think the terms "liberal" and "conservative" have been so abused by the business of getting elected they are almost meaningless.  I've been a Senate staffer and a political reporter -- most recently for AOL's  I think of myself as actively independent.

I think that with the demise of private space and any frontier, "politics" now encompasses everything we do from brushing our teeth to pulling the lever for who we want to be President.  I think the "politics" that comes through in my fiction is my belief and hope for the individual, for truth, for justice.

I have occasionally been stunned to get hit with a political diatribe in the middle of a novel, one that is clearly not the character's -- acceptable and necessary -- but is instead the author's poorly veiled propaganda, no matter how sincerely felt.  There are great dangers in this, most easily illustrated by a thriller published about 1973 in which Richard Nixon is by name cast as a moral and just and naive gracious leader.  The truth is, "contemporary" fiction under the old ways of publishing when a book could take a year to get into the readers' hands from the editor's desk rendered writing about fiction and "contemporary" events absurd.  Think of the "thrillers" that got rendered moot and boring because that were published the week before 9/11 after being in development for five years.

I question whether "political platforms" can be advanced through fiction, though our history is replete with fiction advancing political consciousness leading to political action.  To name a few:  UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, ATLAS SHRUGGED, ALL THE KING'S MEN, ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN IVANOVICH, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE.  Good fiction always tries to turn lights on in the readers' imaginations, and when the lights come on, we see political, social and personal perspectives.  But starting any work of imagination with a "political agenda" rather than an artistic intent is creating propaganda.  And it shows.