All Our Writing Secrets…

 

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Would you buy a book from this man?

It’s been very cold here in Central New York. I’m talking below zero on a regular basis cold. When it’s this cold there are only a few things I enjoy doing, and most of them I can’t talk about here. Because they involve things like shoe sales and peel and eat shrimp.

I also like to write.

I’m sure if you’ve ever been to this blog before you’ve probably heard me talk about Craig Hart, my writing partner on the SpyCo novella series. We’ve been friends for a very a long time (300 years), and we took the plunge to start writing books together last year. Why wait 299 years before starting, you ask? I wanted to make sure he was the real deal. You can never be too careful about these things. I mean, look at the guy!

 

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Buy a book from Craig and you get THIS for free!

Of course, I really can’t complain too much. I mean, look at what he has to work with!

Craig and I were talking earlier today on Facebook Messenger. This, then, is your first earth-shaking behind the scenes revelation: we do 99% of our communicating on Messenger. (The other 1% is email, but I cringe whenever he sends me one because the subject line is always “You’re Fired!” And somehow he actually writes it in Trump’s voice!)

While we were talking, goofing around actually, an idea emerged for a future character. This is not the first time this has happened. As a matter of fact, character genesis via the two of us being wise-asses is a fairly common occurrence. Want to know a character that was spawned this way? Secret #2, the very popular Dot started out as a joke. I’m paraphrasing here, but it went something like this:

S: I saw the world’s most crotchety old woman today. I thought she was going to punch me in the face.
C: I would have paid to see that.
S: Haha.
C: Wouldn’t it be great to have a cantankerous old lady in the organization somewhere?
S: Oh my god, yea! I can picture her with bright red lips and nails, cigarette hanging out of her mouth.
C: Every other word out of her mouth would be an obscenity.
S: But when push comes to shove she’s amazingly badass. Stone cold killer.

I could have gone back through our Messenger history and found the exact conversation, but I’d probably have to use a lot of comic book swear symbols. And anyway you get the idea.

Those Messenger conversations, which often occur late at night when our families are tucked comfortably into their beds, are sometimes as exciting as anything you read in the books themselves. A random comment will spark an idea. That idea will lead to another, and so on. One night before we knew what had happened we had sketched out ideas for at least four future books. Boom.

There are several “types” of writers when it comes to the topic of planning a book. There are people who know before they type the first word exactly everything that’s going to happen. They map everything out in detail and they never deviate. Then there are those by-the-seat-of-their-pants writers, who fire up Word and start writing.

We fall somewhere in the middle. We start out with some definite ideas about certain aspects of the book, like where it’s going to be set, who’s going to be featured, etc. The very cool thing about this was that before we started working together this was the style each of us already employed. The fact that the merger of our techniques and skills worked so well was a very happy surprise for us. And here comes the next big secret revealed:

athensOur partnership began as the result of… wait for it… a Messenger conversation in mid-September 2017. Craig was tossing out little questions about the possibility of my interest in working on the series, which at that point consisted of one book (Assignment: Athens), so I suppose it was not yet technically a series. Interestingly I had already been toying the with the idea of doing something in the action/espionage genre and had yet to pull the string and start it, so I thought this might be a good way to dip my toe so to speak.

Craig knew I was working on something else, and asked what sort of time frame would work for me. We agreed I’d start writing on October 1st, with the goal of having it finished by the beginning of November.  Of course, I started writing the day after we first talked about it.

parisI delivered my manuscript, Assignment: Paris a couple weeks ahead of the deadline. Sue me. It was a pretty good story and it introduced a very good character, Perry Hall. Craig took what I wrote and turned it into a very good book. And then he said, “Hey, do you think you’d like to do this again, together this time?” I’d like to tell you that I thought about my answer for a long time, asking myself questions like, “Is this something I really want to commit to?” or “Can I work that closely with another writer, especially one as successful as Craig?” I’d like to tell you I was worried about clashing egos and vastly different styles and techniques. That would have been the responsible, grown-up things to do.

But what I actually did was answer immediately, “When can we start?”

istanbulWe began working on Assignment: Istanbul a day or so later, and the rest has been a whirlwind ride, leading us to Assignment: Dublin, which is very close to completion.

What has been the oddest part of working with Craig, you ask? Oh, you asked. I heard you.

My very honest answer to that is the oddest part is actually having people read what I’m writing. Before working with Craig I’d published a book of short fiction and two novels in the fantasy genre. They were, I thought, pretty decent books, and since publishing the first of these in January of 2017, I’ve come to realize that approximately 25 people agree with me. Let’s just say sales were not overwhelming. With the SpyCo novellas, things were different. By working with a far more established author with an established readership I walked into a franchise that provided me with new readers, new friends, and a new determination to keep writing books, which since I was about 12 years old was basically the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.

So that’s it. That’s all you’re getting out of me.

OK, OK. I’ll give you one more secret:

To this point in Assignment: Dublin there have been at least ten killings, and we’re not done yet…

Dubs cover

It’s coming… Get ready!

 

 

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Website Blues

This blog has been around almost exactly as long as my official website, sjvarengo.com. It was started to capitalize on the fact that feed from the blog will show up on my Amazon.com Author page, a function which my website cannot provide.

Originally the website had a lot of extra features that the blog didn’t, such as pages for each of my books including covers, details, and excerpts. There were also links to the pages of some of my friends/fellow-authors. There was an email newsletter sign up page, and there were copies of the blog posts from here.

Over the course of 2017, I grew less and less enamored with the website. It was constructed with 10-year-old software, and as a result looked at least 10 years worth of dated.

So I took some time late last week and mirrored all the features of the website as additional pages on the blog. There remains one major step and that’s to transfer the sjvarengo.com domain here, a step which will be occurring relatively soon. (There is a cost to upgrade the blog to the point where I can point the domain to it, and I’m waiting to get that together. It’s very reasonable, but every penny is spoken for at present!)

 

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This guy is PUMPED! Are you?

At any rate, those of you who have known about this blog already, I thank you for your readership, and I invite you to check out some of the new features that have been added and can be accessed from the menu bar at the top of the page, (or the drop-down menu if you’re viewing on anything other than a computer). Those of you who may be visiting for the first time, welcome, and I hope you come back often! You should feel free to poke around as well. And anyone who has not yet joined the email reader’s list, fill out the popup when it arrives. You only have to fill it out once, though it may greet you everytime you stop by. (It’s a third-party script and I don’t think it’s smart enough to stop harassing you after you join the list!)

I’m looking forward to exciting things in 2018. I hope you’ll come along for the ride!

 

Cerah of Quadar Cover Redesigns

Although my writing over the past several months has taken me in new directions, my thoughts have been recently drifting back to my first two novels, collectively the Cerah of Quadar series, and I’ve been dealing with the fact that I have never really been happy with the cover design.

I was talking with a friend who writes in both the fantasy and crime/thriller genre’s and when she looked up my books her first comment was “You need to redo your covers.” (You should check out her work, by the way, as she’s tearing it up on the Amazon writer rankings right now, and deservedly so. Her work is stellar. Her name is Tina Glasneck.)

I’d known already that they needed to go in a different direction, that they lacked drama and they didn’t look much like what other people in the genre were doing. They still may be a little different than the standard Berzerker with a bloody ax art that many fantasy writers use, but I feel like they reflect the feel of the books now, focusing in the two main characters, Cerah herself, and her husband Slurr.

My email newsletter readers already got to see the new covers, (and if you fill out the form that pops up when you visit this page you can be among that elite crew), but now it’s your turn.

Book #1: A Dark Clock

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What you see in this cover is almost the exact image of Cerah that I’ve carried in my mind since first conceiving the character in 2009, especially as she appears in Book One. In her face you see fierce determination, an understanding of the immensity of her role in her planet’s history and future, and yet there is just a hint of innocence and uncertainty.

Book #2: Many Hidden Rooms

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Here is Slurr Jacasta, described through out both books as a kind and gentle soul, pure of heart and completely devoted to Cerah, the love of his life. But in Many Hidden Rooms we see another side of him as he grows into his role. When faced with the forces of evil, Slurr is a single-minded force of destruction, a bane to any who have the misfortune of opposing him. I feel this image captures him at the instant of transformation from the gentle farm boy to the cold-blooded killer that the battle against darkness makes it necessary that he become.

While I have always believed that what is between the covers of a book is far more important than the cover itself, there is no denying that it is vital to catch the eye of the potential reader. Once you’ve done that it’s up to you to earn the attention the cover has garnered. As my friend and writing partner Craig A. Hart says, “Covers get ’em, content keeps ’em.”

I’ve uploaded these revisions and the new faces should be appearing on Amazon in the next couple of days, on the Kindle versions first, then the paperback, such as it goes. I’ll be doing a follow-up post when they’re actually available with a link for you to check them out.

Dublin Dispatch #5 – The Essentials

Since my first post during my all-expense-paid vacation to Ireland… AUGH there goes that autocorrect again! It was supposed to say “grueling grind of non-stop research with no fun and certainly no chasing after pretty girls or pub crawling I can assure you.” I’m beginning to think Craig has tampered with my keyboard.

Nonetheless, now that the holidays are past I felt it was important that I do a few of the essential things one does when visiting this beautiful country. The first of these was “kissing the Blarney Stone.”

The Blarney Stone is located at Blarney Castle. I know, shocking revelation, right? Blarney Castle is near Cork, which is about 236.2 km (or 163.5 miles in non-freaky-deaky metric) from Dublin. I felt this was an extremely long way to walk, (although I regularly pledge to walk the 885 miles from Syracuse to Iowa City every time Craig does a book signing, a pledge I have proudly not yet kept even a single time). There are plenty of ways to get from Dubs to Cork via the M7 and M8 highways, and after careful consideration, I felt the best of these would be to steal a car. So after yet another all-night session of pub research, I found a lovely unlocked vehicle and plied my hotwiring skills, learned from years of watching The Dukes of Hazard on TV.

When you arrive on the site you are greeted by this sign:

blarney sign

I saw that and thought, “Eloquence and persuasiveness? That’s perfect for me!” After all, what writer doesn’t want to be eloquent? And once a book is written, what writer does not want to persuade millions of people to buy it? Then I thought, “If you get eloquence and persuasiveness for kissing the Blarney Stone, what happens if you get to second base with it?”

Anyway, what this sign doesn’t tell you is that the Blarney Stone is built into the battlements of the castle, way the hell up in the air. Upon learning this I questioned whether or not I still wanted to make untoward advances toward a rock, but before I could chicken out and bail I was swept along in a crowd of other potential rock molesters and soon found myself way further up from the ground than I cared to be.

Because there were so many other people, it turns out that I didn’t really have time to develop a deep, meaningful relationship with this inanimate object. It also turns out that the actual act of kissing the stone is not the least bit comfortable or pleasant. Doing it looks like this.

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I would ask the reader to note the open space below this stone-lover’s upper body. That is a very long drop to the ground. Also, I have a bad back, and the required position for kissing the Blarney Stone would have sent me into spasms that I did not relish the thought of. So, in the end, I decided to keep my relationship with the Stone purely platonic. We shook hands, and I headed back to Dublin.

I wisely abandoned the stolen vehicle on the outskirts of town and walked [ed. note: read “stumbled”] to Grafton Street to see the world-famous statue of Molly Malone. Upon arriving I was informed that the statue was moved to Suffolk Street in 2014. Nice of them to let me know. But, as I was on an important research mission, it allowed me to visit several more pubs before arriving at the statue.

For those of you who don’t know, Molly Malone is a mythical fish-monger, who was immortalized in song back in the 1800’s. Here is the opening of that song:

In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone,
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”

In my humble opinion, this would have been a lousy thing to do for a living. But times were tough, as evidenced by the third verse, which goes:

She died of a fever,
And no one could save her,
And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.
But her ghost wheels her barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”

Obviously, healthcare then wasn’t what it is now. At any rate, having heard the song, I began to question whether or not I even wanted to see the statue. Would it smell like fish? Would the fever have turned Molly into an ugly hag of a girl? And screw ghosts in general!

But the other bar patrons assured me that going to see her and actually touching the statue was one of the Dublin essentials, so I relented. When I arrived on Suffolk Street, this is what I saw:

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Needless to say, things got out of hand quickly. You might notice that the metal in the area of her prominent lady places is a little shinier than the statue overall. That’s because this is the part that everyone touches. The folks in Dublin are used to this, but they were not prepared for the level of ardor I brought to the task. Apparently screaming, “What a rack!” at the top of one’s lungs followed by climbing into the wheelbarrow and offering one’s undying love is frowned upon.

Man-in-chains-xxxSo, I’m am sad to report that this will be the final Dublin dispatch, as the powers that be have asked me to leave the country. I’m filing this post from a dinghy that was set adrift in Dublin harbor, and am now several miles out to sea. Furthermore, I was asked to wear the outfit you see to the right, which, I might add, is making the act of typing a tad bit difficult. Apparently, they don’t care. Also, they were able to connect me with the stolen vehicle, probably due to my DNA being all over the empty bottles of Guinness that were strewed about the interior, so there’s probably a small bill coming for something called “restitution.” (I have to admit that I didn’t really have time to learn all of the quaint Irish idioms, but I’m sure Craig will have no problem writing the check, which needs to be made out for “1 million.” I’m pretty sure euros are like play money, so it can’t be that much in real dollars, can it?)

Well, the waves are getting pretty choppy, and I noticed that this boat is leaking pretty badly, so I should probably sign off and see what I can do about being rescued. Oh, look, there’s another boat, filled with what looks like the fellows from that movie “Captain Phillips.” I’m sure everything will be just fin…