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‘Defending Jacob’ by William Landay: “…there is not much to separate any of the Barbers from the family next door.”

William Landay is the author of The Strangler, a Los Angeles Times Favorite Crime Book of the Year, and Mission Flats, winner of the Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for Best First Crime Novel and a Barry Award nominee. A former district attorney who holds degrees from Yale and Boston College Law School, Landay lives in Boston, where he is at work on his next novel of suspense. His latest release is Defending Jacob.

You can visit William Landay’s website at www.WilliamLanday.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook by visiting www.Facebook.com/WilliamLanday.

Q: Thank you for this interview, Bill. Can you tell us what your latest book, Defending Jacob, is all about?

Defending Jacob is the story of an ordinary suburban family — father Andy Barber, mother Laurie Barber, and 14-year-old son Jacob — who endure the unfathomable ordeal of seeing Jacob put on trial for the murder of a schoolmate. So it is first and foremost a taut, suspenseful story.

But it is “about” much more than that. The difficulty of raising kids. The impossibility of truly knowing another person, even a family member. In Defending Jacob the characters are constantly surprised by what they learn about one another. Long-held secrets bubble up to the surface — secrets that might never have been divulged, that might never have troubled their happy marriage.

The book also includes in its sweep a scientific question: could there be such a thing as a “murder gene”? It is a haunting idea, but it is based on very real science. Study after study suggests that a predisposition to violence may indeed be a genetically heritable trait. It is not quite a “murder gene” — human behavior is not triggered by a simple gene but by an unfathomably complex interaction of genes and environment. Still, it opens a new window on the ancient question of “nature vs. nurture.”

The book also delves deep into the criminal justice system. It is told by a consummate insider, the veteran prosecutor Andy Barber, whose views of the defendant’s position are informed by his many years on the other side.

So Defending Jacob is about a lot of things. In fact, the sheer variety of “what it’s about” is one of the reasons the book has received such an overwhelming response. (The “Barnes & Noble Recommends” pick for February, Defending Jacob has been on the B&N bestseller list since the week before it was actually published.) It is just a rich, engrossing book. It generates great discussions because it touches on so many difficult decisions and interesting topics, which makes it a great book-club book. And it appeals to many different audiences: fans of legal thrillers, of family dramas, of scientific stories. That is why it has pulled endorsements from writers as wildly different as Lee Child and Nicholas Sparks — two writers who have rarely been mentioned in the same sentence till now.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

There are three main characters at the center of the story. Andy Barber is a 27-year veteran of the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office, near Boston. He is the First Assistant, which means he is the top deputy to the District Attorney herself. In Andy’s case, that means he is the number-one trial lawyer in the office — the top gun who handles all the biggest cases. But Andy is harboring a few secrets about his past, about his true identity, secrets that even his wife does not know until the murder charge against Jacob begins to strip them bare.

Laurie, Andy’s wife, is in some ways Andy’s opposite and his complement. Where Andy is tough, disciplined, devoted to law and order, Laurie is gentler, more expressive, more inclined to talk through a difficult problem. They are a lovely couple, perfectly suited to each other and still deeply in love after many years of marriage. Which is why it is so hard to watch them writhe under the strain of Jacob’s murder charge.

Then there is Jacob. A teenager with a moody, saturnine personality. But he is no monster. On the contrary, readers who know a few teenagers may find Jacob is uncomfortably familiar. He can be surly and withdrawn at times, but he can be funny and charming too. Physically he is poised between a gawky, awkward adolescent and the emerging young man he will soon become. He is smart and articulate — a fan of video games and computers and Facebook — but also prone to rash, foolish decisions. In short, he has all the maddening contradictions and emotional swings of any teenager.

For that matter, there is not much to separate any of the Barbers from the family next door. Or even your own family. Until the screw is tightened, then tightened some more. And all three of the Barbers try to resist the pressure as best they can.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

I never explicitly base a character on a real person, especially someone I know. Using a real-life model makes it awfully hard to write. I always worry about offending someone or hurting their feelings if the character tends to misbehave — as my characters regularly do. It is inhibiting to me.

At the same time, every character comes out of my imagination, so I know full well that I am borrowing bits and pieces of different people in my life and bolting them onto my characters. It is just inescapable.

The question is especially relevant in this case, because Defending Jacob is set in a real town and in a real District Attorney’s office — the same town where I live and the same DA’s office where I worked as a prosecutor for most of the 1990’s. So I always point out that the characters in this book have absolutely no connection to anyone I know. They are 100% pure products of my imagination. I promise.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

Both. I am always aware of the plot before I begin, and the story always develops and changes as I write. I am a ruthless planner and outliner. It is the only way to manage the sort of complex plots and narrative devices I like to use. So I try to nail things down as much as I can. But then, inevitably, you feel the thing wriggling under your hand, coming to life, and all my plans go out the window. I usually go through multiple outlines as I make my through the manuscript, stopping every 75-100 pages to get my bearings and figure out where the story ought to be headed.

Q: Your book is set in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

First, I chose it simply because I live there. There’s nothing especially dark or mysterious about Newton. Quite the opposite, it’s a lovely, wholesome place. Even a little dull, at least as the setting for a crime novel.

In fact, Newton’s ordinariness is another reason why I chose it. I had written a couple of novels with gritty urban settings, and I wanted to change that. I wanted to discuss crime — which has been my topic from the start — in the context of a familiar, ordinary suburb, a world more like the one I actually lived in, and more like the one many of my readers live in. I was looking for a typical suburb, an Everysuburb. Newton seemed as good as any.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Only in the sense that many readers will feel at home there. They will feel they’re on familiar ground. Again, this is a story that feels familiar at first: an ordinary town, an ordinary family. And then…

Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?

This is a difficult question to answer without giving away an important plot point, so I’ll have to be a little vague here.

It is May 11, 1950, in Lowell, Massachusetts. A salesman named Rusty Barber has come to call on Birke’s clothing store to show the new line of Mighty Mac winter parkas. After the sales call, Rusty stops for lunch at a hot dog place he liked called Elliot’s. Then this:

As he left Elliot’s, there was an accident. A car swiped the front of Rusty’s Buick Special as he crept out of the parking lot. There was an argument. A shove. The other man produced a knife. When it was over, the other man lay on the street, and Rusty walked away as if nothing had happened. The man stood up with his hands pressed to his belly. Blood seeped through his fingers. He opened his shirt but held his hands over his stomach a moment, as if he had a bellyache. When the man finally pulled his hands away, a slick coiled snake of intestines drooped out of him. A vertical incision split his stomach from the pelvis to the bottom of the chestbone. With his own hands, the man lifted his intestines back into his own body, held them there, and walked inside to call the police.

Again, I can’t say much more about that incident for fear of giving away too much. Defending Jacob is woven pretty tightly. It’s hard to pull out one page without unraveling a lot more of the plot.

But I will say that this scene grows out of my experience as an assistant D.A. My first assignment was in Lowell, a great community where Elliot’s and Birke’s were real places. (Elliot’s is still going strong and I highly recommend it. Great hot dogs. Tell them you want one “all around.” You won’t be sorry.) The stabbing described in this scene is based on an incident that occurred while I was working in Lowell — a man gashed across the belly, forced to hold his intestines inside by holding his hand over his belly, pressing it closed, while he was driven to the emergency room.

As for the salesman, well, it was my own grandfather, Harry Wolf, who sold Mighty Mac parkas to old stores like Birke’s all over New England. As a writer you grab what you can from any source available, your own history or the lives of others, and you spin it into your story.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

Veteran prosecutor Andy Barber gives a weary but hopeful take on the court system, in which he has worked for 27 years:

Now, this was not exactly true. I do not believe in the court system, at least I do not think it is especially good at finding the truth. No lawyer does. We have all seen too many mistakes, too many bad results. A jury verdict is just a guess — a well-intentioned guess, generally, but you simply cannot tell fact from fiction by taking a vote. And yet, despite all that, I do believe in the power of the ritual. I believe in the religious symbolism, the black robes, the marble-columned courthouses like Greek temples. When we hold a trial, we are saying a mass. We are praying together to do what is right and to be protected from danger, and that is worth doing whether or not our prayers are actually heard.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Bill. We wish you much success!

Thank you for having me.

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Interview with Author Kathi Macias

Kathi Macias is a multi-award winning writer who has authored more than 30 books and ghostwritten several others. A former newspaper columnist and string reporter, Kathi has taught creative and business writing in various venues and has been a guest on many radio and television programs. Kathi is a popular speaker at churches, women’s clubs and retreats, and writers’ conferences, and was named 2008 Member of the Year by AWSA (Advanced Writers and Speakers Association). Kathi “Easy Writer” Macias lives in Homeland, CA, with her husband, Al, where the two of them spend their free time riding in Al’s new sunburst orange Corvette. You can reach Kathi or find out more about her writing and speaking at www.kathimacias.com. You can also visit her “Easy Writer” blog at http://kathieasywritermacias.blogspot.com/.

Q: Thank you for this interview, Kathi. Can you tell us what your latest book, People of the Book, is all about?

In a nutshell, it deals with the very real issue of honor killings. Here is a brief synopsis:

Eighteen-year-old Farah, who lives inRiyadh,Saudi Arabia, with her family, wants nothing more than to develop a deeper, more meaningful devotion to her Muslim faith. She sees the month of Ramadan as her chance to draw nearer to Allah, and she pursues that goal throughout the holiday. All goes well until the prophet Isa—Jesus—appears to her in a dream and calls her to Himself. At the same time, her only brother, Kareem, who has never liked Farah, actively seeks an opportunity to expose her for the sham he believes she is.

Meanwhile, Farah’s seventeen-year-old cousin, Nura, has begun to frequent an online chat room where former Muslims gather to discuss their new faith, based on their belief that Isa is much more than a Muslim prophet—He is actually the Son of God. While there, Nura becomes acquainted with an American girl of Muslim ancestry—now a devout Christian named Sara—and a friendship quickly develops. However, Sara has problems of her own due to her fifteen-year-old brother Emir’s involvement with a gang.

The lives of Farah, Nura, and Sara ultimately dovetail until each finds herself at a place where her faith is put to the test. Will they remain faithful to the end? Will God protect and keep them safe in the midst of persecution and treachery? Or will they be required to pay the ultimate price for their faith?

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

Farah is the primary character. She is an 18-year-old Muslim girl who is devout in her faith and dearly loves her family (parents and older brother). Her older brother, however, does not return the affection and watches her closely for a chance to discredit her. During the month of Ramadan Farah is determined to seek a deeper level of faith and connection to Allah, but when her seeking results in an unexpected encounter with Isa (Jesus), she is both thrilled and terrified, as she considers the possible results. Her entire future will hinge on her personal choices, and her faith is put to the test in a way even she does not expect.

Nura is Farah’s cousin, who is facing her own crisis of faith. Though her family reacts in a slightly different way from Farah’s, her life will also change radically—and permanently.

Sara is a high school student in America, whose former Muslim family has converted to Christianity. Her own crisis comes when she discovers her 15-year-old brother is involved in criminal activity. Her confession of faith, which she has been sharing over the Internet with her Saudi friend, Nura, is suddenly challenged to the point that she questions everything she has ever been taught.

Each of these characters must wrestle with their own fears and doubts until they find a resolution they can live—or die—with. 

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

A: Both. Each of the four books in the Extreme Devotion series is based on actual events and real people, though I fictionalize the characters enough so they’re never recognizable. I use the motivational gifts in Romans 12 as my primary character development guidelines. It’s amazing how real and three-dimensional they become as a result.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

Again, I have to say both. I always have a starting and an ending point, but much of what happens in between is as surprising to me as it is to the readers. There may be certain scenes I want to be sure to incorporate, so I’ll jot them down as I think of them and work them in where they fit, but the rest is an unfolding of events along the journey.

Q: Your book is set in primarily in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

I could have set the story in nearly any Mid-East Muslim nation/city, but I felt Riyadh is so fascinating—modern and mysterious, yet the epitome of a closed society for most women. Of course, that made the storyline more challenging to develop, as I needed my main Saudi character to be influenced by someone outside that setting. When I discovered how common it is for even girls and women to have Internet access there, I knew I’d found my connection.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Absolutely! In fact, I chose the setting to enhance the story. I had to do a lot of research to put myself into this particular setting/culture, but I learned so much in the process. 

Q: Open the book to page 69.  What is happening?

Two cousins, Farah and Nura, are on the verge of disclosing to one another the secrets of what is going on in their lives—secrets that could put them in grave danger if anyone else ever found out.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

The suqs were more crowded than the last time Farah and her mother and sister had browsed them after hours. Farah imagined it had a lot to do with the fact that the day had been a few degrees cooler than normal, and people were determined to get outside and make the best of it now that the sun had been down for a while. Instead of heading straight for the air-conditioned comfort of inside restaurants and cafes, shoppers seemed content to spend at least a little more time outside.

All three of the women had donned the coolest abayas they owned, as they always did when going out during the hottest times of the year. When Nadia complained to her mother that she was still uncomfortable, she was quieted and reminded of the need for good Muslim women to be modest when in public. For the first time in her life, as Farah listened to her mother’s admonitions, she found herself questioning the requirement, though she quickly scolded herself and dismissed the thought.

Why would my dreams about Isa or my discussion with Nura make me think differently about my religious practices? Of course I should remain modest in public; all women should! My body must be completely reserved for my future husband—whoever he might be.

She knew enough from her studies and her Internet browsing, as well as from reading books and talking with others, that not all women lived as they did in theSaudiKingdom, not even all Muslim women. Farah had always thought that a great tragedy, as she was certain the restrictions imposed upon them in the kingdom were for their own protection. It unnerved her to realize that now she was questioning those long-held certainties.

After nearly an hour of walking and shopping, the women arrived at the restaurant where they had planned to meet Sakeena and Nura. Farah’s heart rate escalated when she realized the two weren’t there, but by the time Farah and her mother and sister had been inside for a couple of minutes, their companions arrived.

The five were soon seated in a booth with curtains drawn and were able to remove their head coverings so they could sip their coffee and enjoy their pastries while they talked. Once again the conversation centered around shopping and clothes, with the two older women carrying the majority of the discussion and Nadia jumping in when she got the chance. Farah and Nura sat nearly silent, pretending to be absorbed in munching on their sweets while desperately trying to telegraph messages to one another with their eyes. At last Farah excused herself to go to the restroom, hoping that Nura would join her but that Nadia and the others would stay behind. Much to her relief, it happened exactly that way.

Farah and Nura, their head coverings back in place, quickly and silently made their way to the facilities. Once inside, they remained silent while the room’s only other occupant washed her hands before exiting. And then they were alone.

“I thought she’d never leave,” Nura whispered, removing her head covering as Farah did the same. “Thank you for thinking of this. I was so anxious to talk with you!”

“So was I,” Farah agreed. “But this is not a good time or place, do you think? Others will be coming and going, and we just can’t take the chance. Maybe you can talk your parents into coming over again tomorrow night, or to invite my family to your house, which might be even better. Kareem is a lot less likely to be snooping around at your place.”

Nura nodded. “You’re right. I’m worried about what he might have heard. He’s always frightened me a little, even though my friends are jealous that I’m his cousin. They all think he’s so handsome…which I suppose he is. But…” She paused before continuing, her expression troubled. “Has he said anything?”

“Nothing,” Farah assured her. “Not yet anyway. But I catch him glaring at me all the time. We’ll have to be really careful not to let him hear us.”

“Not to let who hear you?”

The question seemed to come out of nowhere, and both Farah and Nura spun toward the sound at the exact same moment they realized they were no longer alone. Though the intruder was dressed in a full abaya and head covering, her familiarity made it apparent that the one who had walked in on them was Nadia. The wording of Nadia’s question led Farah to believe her sister hadn’t heard any of the previous conversation, but that small consolation didn’t help her heart rate slow down any.

“Nadia,” she said, “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“That’s because I just got here—and because you were too busy worrying about someone else hearing you. Who were you talking about? Kareem?”

Farah swallowed. How much could she trust Nadia? Very little, she was sure. Taking her into their confidence was not an option. But what choice did she have? And then one very faint hope surfaced in the flurry of her mind.

“Nura and I were just talking about…Kareem,” Farah ventured, sensing her cousin grow tense beside her. “We were saying how we’d like to surprise him some time by making his favorite food when he least expects it. What do you think? Would that be a good idea?”

Nadia took off her head covering, revealing a puzzled expression. “I didn’t think you even liked Kareem,” she said, directing her words at Farah. “Why would you want to do something special for him?”

Farah wished she had left her own head covering in place to hide her flaming cheeks. “Of course I like him,” she said. “He’s my brother.”

“He’s mine too,” Nadia answered. “That doesn’t mean I think he’s very nice.” She paused, and a smile lit up her eyes. “Because he’s not, you know.”

Nadia laughed then, and the others joined in, though Farah noticed Nura’s laughter sounded as nervous as her own. But if Nadia had believed their story, then they would be all right—at least for now. It was obvious, though, that they would have to be more discreet in the future.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Kathi.  We wish you much success!

Thank you for allowing me to join you and to share my thoughts with your readers.

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Final Vector: Interview with Thriller Author Allan Leverone

Allan Leverone is a three-time Derringer Award Finalist whose short fiction has been featured in Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Shroud Magazine, Twisted Dreams, Mysterical-E and many other venues, both print and online. His debut thriller, titled FINAL VECTOR, is available February 2011 from Medallion Press. For details, please visit www.allanleverone.com or his blog at www.allanleverone.blogspot.com.

Q: Thank you for this interview, Allan. Can you tell us what your latest book, “Final Vector,” is all about?

Thank you for having me! In “Final Vector,” air traffic controller Nick Jensen’s life is turned upside down when his wife, Lisa, a Pentagon auditor, is killed in a car accident under suspicious circumstances after discovering potentially treasonous material on a fellow employee’s computer.  Desperate to escape the pain, Nick throws himself into his work and is on duty at the ATC facility serving Boston’s Logan International Airport on the night U.S. President Robert Cartwright is scheduled to fly into Boston.

Nick narrowly manages to escape capture when a band of heavily-armed terrorists storm the facility, but now must use the information uncovered by his dead wife to stop an assassination plot while outnumbered, unarmed and on the run…

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

My main character, Nick Jensen, is a man in over his head. He is drawn into a situation he cannot quite comprehend and when the magnitude of what he is up against begins to dawn on him, he is forced to draw upon reserves of strength and character he never knew he possessed.

FBI Special Agent Kristin Cunningham plays a critical role in the book. She’s a study in contrasts—petite and quiet, she has been defying the expectations of others her entire life, a character trait which may serve her well when she needs it most.

Finally, the leader of my small band of terrorists, Tony Andretti, is the only member of the group not born inside the United States. He is a long-time U.S. resident who has been waiting patiently for the chance to strike a blow against the country he hates. When the opportunity finally comes, he is determined to make the most of it.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

I think as an author it’s impossible to create characters of any depth without imbuing in them features we have seen in people we know or have been exposed to in some way. That’s not to say Nick Jensen is based on any one specific person, but rather the traits he exhibits may have been taken from a number of different personalities.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

When I write a novel, I start with a general idea of what I want to have happen—the catalyst that drives the whole story—and where I want to end up. Beyond that, it’s up to the characters to take me where they feel the story should go. It’s kind of like starting a trip with a destination spelled out on your map but no clear idea of the route you’re going to take to get there.

Q: Your book is set in Merrimack, New Hampshire.  Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

The action in “Final Vector” takes place in a number of locations, including Boston, Washington, D.C. and the Arizona desert, but the climactic showdown takes place in the radar air traffic control facility serving Boston’ Logan International Airport. That facility is located in Merrimack. Rather than create a fictional location, I wanted to maintain as much realism in the book as reasonably possible.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Absolutely. In order for their plot to succeed, the terrorist group must understand as much as possible about the air traffic control system in general, and about Boston’s facility in particular.

Q: Open the book to page 69.  What is happening?

It’s well past midnight on a lonely desert road southeast of Tucson, Arizona. A truck filled with Stinger shoulder-fired missiles is on its way to Fort Bliss, Texas after undergoing software modifications by the manufacturer. The truck passes two men hidden in the darkness and they block off the road, while a couple of miles away, the rest of the terrorists wait anxiously to put their plan into motion—they will hijack the truck and steal the missiles, critical components of their assassination plot.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

The man behind her said, “Shut up. You’re not in charge here; we are. The only reason you’re still alive is because we can use you, but if you piss me off, I’ll shoot you in the back of the head right where you stand. One shot. End of pretty FBI agent. We can do what we need to do without you, so don’t go getting the idea that you’re going to stay alive just because you’re a cute little thing wearing a Windbreaker that says FBI on the back.”

Kristin swallowed hard and said nothing.

“That’s better, baby,” the man said mockingly. “Now, let’s do a little business, shall we?”

She didn’t answer so he continued. “We know that you need to coordinate with your superiors and notify them that everything is hunky-dory up here in the sticks before President Cartwright’s plane enters Boston’s airspace. Do that now.”

With mounting horror, it dawned on Kristin that the armed invasion had nothing to do with this facility, at least not specifically. It was all about Air Force One. These men were part of a much bigger plot involving the president.

Shaking her head, Kristin said, “Come on, guys. Be reasonable. You know I can’t do that.” She smiled at the man in black and then turned the same reassuring, high-wattage smile on the man stand­ing behind her.

He stepped around her and moved to the conference table, his gun never wavering. It was now pointed directly at her chest. With the pistol, he gestured at the cell phone hanging in a leather holster at her hip. “Make the call.”

She locked eyes with him. “I can’t do that.”

He nodded, taking two steps forward and then stopping. He was now standing directly in front of her, invading her personal space. He smelled of sweat and blood and death.

Kristin refused to look away. “I can’t do it,” she repeated.

Without another word, the man lowered his gun and shot her in the knee.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Allan.  We wish you much success!

As a debut author, it’s a challenge getting my name and my work in front of potential readers. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to connect with yours! Anyone who would like more information on “Final Vector” is invited to check out my website, www.allanleverone.com, or my publisher’s website, www.medallionpress.com.

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Out of the Slush Pile and Out to the Readers by John L. Betcher

We’re happy to have John L. Betcher guest blogging with us today at As the Pages Turn. John is a University of Minnesota Law School graduate and has practiced law for more than twenty-five years in the Mississippi River community of Red Wing, Minnesota.  He possesses substantial first-hand knowledge of the Prairie River Nuclear Plant’s real world counterpart, as well as Red Wing’s airport and the flight rules around the nuke plant.

In addition to The 19th Element, he has published a second book in the “Beck” series entitled, The Missing Element, A James Becker Mystery.  The second book is available everywhere.

The author has also been a long-time supporter and coach of youth volleyball in and around Red Wing and has authored three feature articles for Coaching Volleyball, the journal of the American Volleyball Coaches Association.  His most recent article was the cover story for the April/May, 2009 Issue.

His book on volleyball coaching philosophies entitled The Little Black Book of Volleyball Coaching is available at www.johnbetcher.com and at amazon.com.

Out of the Slush Pile and Out to the Readers

by John L. Betcher

Since I am a self-published author, I have to deal with all the same challenges that other self- and indie-published authors must confront. Writing and editing my books. Designing interiors and exteriors. Finding a quality printer. And selecting distribution channels.

But I think the single greatest challenge self- and indie-publishers face is how to differentiate their books from the growing slush pile of unvetted publications inundating the publishing world.

Depending on whose numbers you believe, it appears that there will be more than a million new book titles published this year in the United States. About two-thirds to three-quarters of them will be self- or indie-published books.

Who’s in charge of determining the quality of all these publications?

Well . . . we would like to think that mainstream publishers still give their titles a thorough vetting – though some readers would claim the overall quality of traditionally-published books has declined a bit during the present upheaval in the publishing industry. And mainstream book reviewers still devote 99% of their attention to these traditionally published books. We should expect that their reviews are honest and useful to readers.

But just how does a self-published author make his or her book stand out from the other 700,000 or so new self-published titles flooding the book distribution systems?

The optimistic answer is that “the cream will rise to the top.” Although I am optimistic, I don’t personally see the opportunity for the cream to rise when the milk is spilled all over, as it is in today’s publishing world.

For example – If you are an avid reader of thrillers (the genre in which I write), how can you find my books in the “slush pile” without first knowing my name or the title of my book?

Here are some possibilities–

Why not search Amazon, or B&N for “thrillers”? Good idea.

Wow! Lots of thrillers out there. Don’t see mine anywhere near the top of the list. Maybe instead of sorting by “Relevance,” we should sort by “Average Customer Review Ratings.” Tried that, too. Lots of different books than the first search. But my thriller still isn’t in the first dozen pages, even though it has a 5.0 star rating from 10 Independent Reviewers (not friends or family).

Maybe if you go to the library and ask for thrillers by indie-authors? Reference Desk: “Sure. I can help with that. What’s the name of the author or the title of the book?”

Okay. That service is helpful once you and your books are already known. But what if the readers are still trying to find the “cream.” They don’t know of you yet. So they can’t ask for you by name. Rats!

There are several websites claiming to be the gatekeepers of quality independent publications. “We separate the wheat from the chaff so you don’t have to.” What about them? Are they the answer?

Reason tells me that no website can afford to hire enough people to give the 700,000 slush pile books a bona fide review. I have visited many of these sites. My conclusion is that nearly all are profit-driven – not really trying to provide a useful reference tool. (If there are bona fide sites out there, I apologize — and good luck to you. I haven’t found you yet.) Rats again.

So just how is the cream supposed to rise from the spilled milk?

As far as I can tell, there is currently no definitive way for a very marketable, high-quality, self-published book to reach its readers without the author employing diligence, hard work and lots of time. And even then, a substantial modicum of fortuity is required.

That’s right. I said you need to be lucky. Believe it!

How do you increase the chances of having good luck with your book?

Just because luck is required for success, that doesn’t mean authors should throw in the hat. Do actors quit because they can’t find good acting parts right away? Not the ones you know about. They didn’t quit. So don’t give up. No white flags allowed.

Instead, try the following:

1) Write well. If readers find your book and don’t like it, it will not be a success.

2) Market creatively, both online and in the real world. Just because there aren’t many really good marketing tools doesn’t mean there aren’t any! Get that website up. Get on Twitter. Maybe on LinkedIn or FaceBook, too. Join some author groups. Share ideas. Make connections.

3) Give free books to libraries. Libraries tend to have a lot of readers stopping in. (Surprise!) Maybe one or more will pick up your book on a whim – or because they like the cover, or the cover text.

4) Seek out Independent Reviewers. If someone happens to stumble upon your book, those reviews will give the reader/buyer greater confidence that your book is the kind of book they want to read.

5) Alert the media to your author activities. Let your local paper, radio station, TV station know when you have book-signings, speaking appearances, published reviews or interviews.

6) Keep writing. The more books you have available, the greater the chance that a reader will stumble upon one.

7) Be patient. Writing and selling books is a marathon endeavor – not a sprint.

8) Keep improving your own skills. This applies to writing, publishing and marketing. Learn from your mistakes. Learn from the successes and mistakes of others. Keep on learning and improving.

9) Undertake any legal means at your disposal to get the word out about you and your books.

Do I guarantee these things will make your “cream rise to the top”? Of course not. But we operate in the real world. There are no guarantees. Until some big player (like Amazon, Google, B&N, Independent Book Sellers of America) promulgates a useful way to discriminate between good indie books, and not so good ones, you will continue to swim upstream.

This is the hand you are dealt. Play it out to the last card! Be tough! Be an author! That’s what author’s do – at least the ones you’ve heard about.

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Interview with John Betcher, author of ‘The 19th Element: A James Becker Thriller’

We are honored to welcome John L. Betcher here today at As the Pages Turn!  John is on a virtual book tour throughout the months of November and December to talk about his new book, The 19th Element: A James Becker Thriller.  Enjoy the interview!

John L. Betcher is a University of Minnesota Law School graduate and has practiced law for more than twenty-five years in the Mississippi River community of Red Wing, Minnesota.  He possesses substantial first-hand knowledge of the Prairie River Nuclear Plant’s real world counterpart, as well as Red Wing’s airport and the flight rules around the nuke plant.

In addition to The 19th Element, he has published a second book in the “Beck” series entitled, The Missing Element, A James Becker Mystery.  The second book is available everywhere.

The author has also been a long-time supporter and coach of youth volleyball in and around Red Wing and has authored three feature articles for Coaching Volleyball, the journal of the American Volleyball Coaches Association.  His most recent article was the cover story for the April/May, 2009 Issue.

His book on volleyball coaching philosophies entitled The Little Black Book of Volleyball Coaching is available at www.johnbetcher.com and at amazon.com.


Q: Thank you for this interview, John. Can you tell us what your latest book, The 19th Element, A James Becker Thriller, is all about?

In The 19th Element, al Qaeda plans to attack Minnesota’s Prairie River Nuclear Power Plant as a means to return the down-trodden terrorist organization to international prominence.

In addition to their own devoted forces, the terrorists enlist two homegrown anarchists, and a Three Mile Island survivor with a pathological vendetta against the nuclear establishment, to assist in the assault.

James “Beck” Becker is a former elite U.S. government intelligence operative who has retired to his childhood hometown of Red Wing, Minnesota – just six miles down the Mississippi from the Prairie River nuclear facility.

Possessing wisdom born of experience, Beck suspects the terrorists’ intentions as soon as the body of a university professor turns up on the Mississippi shore – the clear victim of foul play. He recognizes connections between seemingly unrelated incidents – the murdered agronomy professor, a missing lab assistant, an international cell call, a stolen fertilizer truck – but can’t piece it together in enough detail to convince government authorities that a larger threat exists.  Only his American Indian friend, “Bull,” will help Beck defuse the threat.

So it’s Beck and Bull versus international terror.

May the better men win.

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

The book’s main character is James “Beck” Becker, a native of the small Mississippi River town of Red Wing, Minnesota. He’s recently returned to his hometown following retirement from a twenty-year career in clandestine military operations. His cover job is as a small town attorney. But his real interest is in helping local law enforcement.

The book’s three main supporting characters are Beck’s wife, Beth, Ottawa County Chief Deputy Sheriff, Doug “Gunner” Gunderson, and Beck’s enigmatic American Indian friend, Bull.

Beth has been with Beck all through his time on the operations “Team.” In fact, they met one another in D.C. while she was employed as one of the CIA’s top encryption/decryption specialists. She supports Beck in all things – occasionally employing her code-cracking and computer talents in aid of Beck’s own considerable skill set.

Gunner has known Beck all his life. They went to high school together in Red Wing. Gunner is one of only a few people in Red Wing who know anything at all about Beck’s sub rosa government background. He and Beck bring different approaches to crime-fighting. Gunner operates strictly by the book. Beck . . . by his own rules. But they seem to be able to work together for the common good.

Bull is a full-blooded Mdewakanton Dakota American Indian. Born on the local Prairie River Reservation, he left his home and family at the age of sixteen to join the army. After departing the Rez to “be all that he could be,” Bull’s family and friends heard nothing from him for more than twenty years. Based on Bull’s behavior as a teen, they assumed he had been killed in a knife fight at some bar. Then one day he had shown up on the doorstep of his parents’ home on the Rez. Bull never told anyone where he had been for twenty years. And after a few altercations, folks quit asking.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

This book’s characters are entirely fictitious. But to an extent, they have composite characteristics of persons I have known and fictional characters I have read about. The backgrounds of the persons who inhabit The 19th Element are, for the most part, much more interesting than those of anyone I know in real life.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

I spend a lot of time researching subject areas before deciding which directions a novel’s plot might take. I select topics that interest me (such as terrorism, chemistry, nuclear power, or cyber-espionage). Then I speak with experts. I just keep asking them questions until a thriller plot presents itself.

Then I spend more time doing internet research and speaking to ancillary experts to flesh out the plot’s details and develop subplots and character-types.

But once I have finished the research and selected the plot, it typically doesn’t vary a great deal as I write the book.

Q: Your book is set in Red Wing, Minnesota.  Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

Red Wing has its own nuclear power plant, and an airport very near the plant, both very similar to the ones described in The 19th Element. I have also worked for Red Wing’s electric utility and possess personal knowledge the nuclear plant and it operations. The final factor that made Red Wing a no-brainer is the fact that I grew up there and have practiced law in Red Wing for the past twenty-five years.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Absolutely. The plot is all about a terrorist plan to create a “nuclear disaster” at the nuclear power plant. The nearby airport plays a part in the terrorist assault on the plant. And the proximity of the plant (and the town) to the Mississippi allows for not only a dramatic plot twist, but a taste of river culture as well.

In addition, Red Wing is a typical U.S. city – not a location where one normally expects international terror – which is exactly why we should expect the next big attack in just such a location.

Q: Open the book to page 69.  What is happening?

Beth is calling her husband – panic in her voice – to tell him that their college-student daughter seems to have a mysterious stalker. Beck departs his law office with haste to help Beth assess the potential threat.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

The best excerpts, in my opinion, would give away too much of the story’s climax. But here’s one that introduces one of the terror cell members.

CHAPTER 9

On March 28, 1979, an ‘incident’ occurred at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Metropolitan Edison owned the facility. But its design and operation were closely monitored, and to a large extent controlled, by the federal government through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC.

John Sigler knew the entire debacle was the government’s fault. The administration’s energy policy had not only driven entire coal mining communities out of work, but had also deposited the American public on the doorsteps of Hiroshima.

It was only a matter of time before something horrible happened. And in fact, it had taken a mere three months after TMI’s commissioning for the disaster to occur.

After the total melt-down of TMI Reactor Unit 2, the government and the utility had both assured neighboring residents that there was “no significant release of radiation.” Everything had been safely contained. Multiple government-sponsored “investigations” had concluded that, although the incident was extremely unfortunate, and TMI’s neighbors had suffered substantial psychological distress, the melt-down posed no physical health risks to surrounding communities. Eventually, the government even allowed TMI Unit 1 to resume nuclear operations, while Unit 2 remained a pile of rubble filling a hole in the ground where the “incident” had occurred.

But John Sigler knew the radiation leak had not been “insignificant.” He and his family lived just east of TMI, in the small community of Elizabethtown. When John turned twelve in June, 1979, just three months after the disaster, he had already seen some of the radiation’s hellish effects.

His mother was pregnant with his brother, Jacob, at the time. She had lost most of her hair and was frequently so weak she couldn’t get out of bed. The doctors assured the family that pregnancy hormones were the likely cause of her hair loss and weakness. She should remain bed-bound until delivery, just to be safe.

When Jacob arrived on July 4th, 1979, his family was in shock when the doctors sympathetically told them that Jacob had been born with an unusually small brain. Mental retardation was likely, they said. They were sorry, they said.

Less than three years after Jacob’s birth, both he and his mother were dead. Each had died of lung cancer, though no one in the Sigler family ever smoked. The doctors could offer no explanation for the coincidence. But fourteen-year-old John and his dad knew the reason. It didn’t take a genius to know that two-year-olds don’t die of lung cancer.

TMI was the cause.

A few years later, John’s father developed leukemia. Not common for a man his age, the doctors said. But it happens, they said.

The cancer progressed inexorably through his body. Evilly patient. Excruciatingly earnest. John had dropped out of school so he could remain by his father’s bedside as the cancer silently ravaged his organs. John’s father finally died, after months of agony, in October, 1985.

John was eighteen.

John wished he had died, too. Dying would have been easier than drowning in his family’s pain, gasping for a breath of relief.

Even after the shock of the nuclear assault on the Sigler family had subsided, there were the nagging questions. Pursuing him. Unrelenting. Why had he, alone, survived? For what purpose?

John never forgave the United States government for torturing and murdering his family. Ultimately, he concluded there was only one possible reason he had been spared – to take vengeance for his family’s suffering.

But John was no fool. He knew he couldn’t defeat, or even seriously damage, the nuclear juggernaut by himself – especially not as a boy of eighteen. He needed collaborators, others who hated the nuclear establishment as much as he.

For years he sought out anti-nuclear organizations to aid him in his mission, to feed his pathological need for revenge. He posted his contact information in chat rooms on the rapidly expanding internet. He joined in anti-nuke rallies and attended meetings.

But without exception, these nuclear opponents were far too passive. He wanted to send a serious message. He wanted clear retribution for the death of his family at TMI.

John was patient. John was pragmatic. While he searched for help, he also maneuvered. Years passed, then decades. He attended trade school, served an apprenticeship and eventually developed a high degree of skill as a metal worker and welder. He earned a good living.

But he never forgave. And he never forgot.

Finally, an opportunity arose for him to infiltrate the enemy. Willing to leave his hometown for this chance, he accepted a job as a Plant Engineering and Systems Repair Specialist at the Prairie River Nuclear Power Plant near Red Wing, Minnesota.

Initially, John was very excited about his new job. He had assumed that his employment with the utility would surely present chances for revenge. But he soon discovered that even his status as a nuclear insider did not afford him the opportunity he sought. The facility’s design included too many back-up systems, obstacles, counter-measures. For John by himself, assaulting the plant was still impossible. He needed to reach out farther, beyond his comfort zone. He still had to find a co-conspirator to lend him aid.

Then he suffered a devastating setback. Although at the time of the TMI incident John had appeared to suffer no serious radiation effects, he now learned that radiation damage can be subtle and sometimes slow to make itself apparent. At the age of forty-one, with his lust for revenge as great as ever and still unrequited, John was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma.

He first underwent radiation treatments and then chemotherapy. After twelve long months of treatment, his cancer was cured. The doctors declared it to be in remission.

But despite his apparent victory over the cancer, John knew his time to take retribution might be running out. He desperately needed to take action soon. The nuclear bastards had to pay!

Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, he had received a telephone call. By the man’s accent, John would have guessed the caller to be English, or possibly Australian. Although no one mentioned the organization by name, when the group the caller actually represented became clear, John was taken aback. He had always considered Al Qaeda the enemy. But in this case, his interests and theirs aligned perfectly.

What was the saying he had heard during the Gulf War? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend?” After some consideration, John decided he didn’t care if they were Al Qaeda, Nazis or Martians, so long as they would help him achieve his goal.

Al Qaeda had done its research on John before making contact. They knew his family background at TMI. They knew he wanted action, not passive protest. They assured him they had a plan – a plan that would devastate the nuclear industry. When he indicated an interest, they acted swiftly.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, John.  We wish you much success!

Thank you very much for your time. All the best!

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‘The 19th Element’ John L. Betcher on virtual book tour November & December ’10

John BetcherJoin John L. Betcher, author of the suspense thriller, The 19th Element: A James Becker Thriller (Createspace), as he virtually tours the blogosphere November 1 – December 17‘10 on his first virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book!

John L. Betcher is a University of Minnesota Law School graduate and has practiced law for more than twenty-five years in the Mississippi River community of Red Wing, Minnesota. He possesses substantial first-hand knowledge of the Prairie River Nuclear Plant’s real world counterpart, as well as Red Wing’s airport and the flight rules around the nuke plant.

In addition to The 19th Element, he has published a second book in the “Beck” series entitled, The Missing Element, A James Becker Mystery. The second book is available everywhere.

The author has also been a long-time supporter and coach of youth volleyball in and around Red Wing and has authored three feature articles for Coaching Volleyball, the journal of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. His most recent article was the cover story for the April/May, 2009 Issue.

His book on volleyball coaching philosophies entitled The Little Black Book of Volleyball Coaching is available at www.johnbetcher.com and at amazon.com.

The 19th ElementThe 19th Element‘s premise promises to have you on the edge of your seat. Al Qaeda plans to attack Minnesota’s Prairie River Nuclear Power Plant as a means to return the down-trodden terrorist organization to international prominence.

In addition to their own devoted forces, the terrorists enlist some homegrown anarchists, and a Three Mile Island survivor with a pathological vendetta against the nuclear establishment, to assist in the assault.

James “Beck” Becker is a former elite U.S. government intelligence operative who has retired to his childhood hometown of Red Wing, Minnesota – just six miles down the Mississippi from the Prairie River nuclear facility.

Possessing wisdom born of experience, Beck suspects the terrorists’ intentions as soon as the body of a university professor turns up on the Mississippi shore – the clear victim of foul play.

He recognizes connections between seemingly unrelated incidents – the murdered agronomy professor, a missing lab assistant, an international cell call, a stolen fertilizer truck – but can’t piece it together in enough detail to convince government authorities that a larger threat exists. Only his American Indian friend, “Bull,” will help Beck defuse the threat.

So it’s Beck and Bull versus international terror.

If you’d like to follow along with John as he tours the blogosphere in November and December, visit his official tour page at Pump Up Your Book. Lots of fun in store as you learn more about this gifted author as well as win prizes, too!

Join us for John L. Betcher’s The 19th Element Virtual Book Tour ‘10!

Pump Up Your Book is an innovative public relations agency specializing in virtual book tours. You can visit our website at www.pumpupyourbook.com.

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Yes, a thriller has to be thrilling, but it can also be literature

We have a special guest today!  James Hayman, author of The Chill of Night (Minotaur, St. Martin’s Press), is here with us to talk about thriller novels, his specialty.  Enjoy!

………………………….

Yes, a Thriller Has to Be Thrilling.  But It Can Also be Literature

by James Hayman

A lot of people, but especially self-proclaimed book snobs, create a kind of false distinction between thrillers (and other forms of so-called “genre” fiction such as romance and sci-fi) and what they like to call “literary fiction.”

Genre fiction, they say, is plot driven.   Literary fiction is “character driven.”

That is a distinction that implies that in thrillers or in other kinds of genre fiction, the depth of the characters and the examination of their problems as human beings doesn’t matter.

I think that’s baloney.

Yes, a thriller has to be thrilling. A least a good one does.  To qualify as a really good thriller a book has to have a plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat.  It has to create a need in the reader to find out what happens next. A need that makes them unwilling to put the book down until they’ve turned just one more page, and then one more after that, even if it means staying up way past their intended bedtimes.

But is it only the unfolding of the plot that creates that kind of urgency and involvement in a story?

I don’t think so. I think it’s also the characters.  The characters in really truly memorable thrillers have to be as interesting, as fully-developed and as multi-dimensional as they are in any so-called literary fiction.

I know in my own books, The Cutting and The Chill of Night, McCabe’s problems with his own past and the development of his relationships with his daughter Casey, his girlfriend Kyra, his partner Maggie and especially with his ex-wife Sandy are at least as important to the story as the unfolding of the plot or the undoing of the villains.

And it’s not just me. My bookcase is full of thrillers that, by any rational measure, qualify as first-rate literature.

Take Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River for example. It’s certainly a thriller with a plot that unfolds with all the awful inevitability of a Shakespearian tragedy. But Lehane went beyond plot and explored the character of his three protagonists, Jimmy Markum, Sean Devine, and Dave Boyle with subtlety, intelligence and great literary skill.

Or take John LeCarre’s classic The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or Richard Price’s 2008 best-seller, Lush Life. Are they thrillers or literature?  I think they’re both. And then there’s Cormac McCarthy.  He’s the winner of both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and is considered one of the finest “literary novelists” of our time. Yet he has written widely-acclaimed books, such as No Country For Old Men, that any fair-minded reader would call thrillers no matter how you cut it.

Yes, there are lots of thrillers populated with one-dimensional cardboard characters. And yes, there is much literary fiction that offers so little plot that its authors’ main intention seems to have been to induce sleep rather than prevent it.  But, to me, those are the books that don’t work and won’t be remembered.

I think the best novels offer both great characters and great plot and arbitrarily categorizing them as either genre writing or literary fiction is a false and often dishonest  choice. And one that needn’t be made.

Visit James on the web at www.jameshaymanthrillers.com.

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