Writing about Reading: An American Spy

July 27, 2012 § 7 Comments

Psst. Hey you. Yeah, you. You want to read a flawless book? Go to your local bookseller and approach the counter. The code phrase is “Do you have Olen Steinhauer’s An American Spy?” The bookseller—if he or she is one of ours—will hand you a copy of the book. Pay for it, take it home, lock your door, and read it.

Trust me, you won’t want to put it down until you’ve finished.

An American Spy is the third book in Steinhauer’s brilliant Tourist trilogy. The first book is The Tourist, and then The Nearest Exit. Both are absolutely gripping, flawless novels, and An American Spy is a fitting third installment. I think it may be the last book, but I kind of hope not; the trilogy is so good, I don’t want it to end.

An American Spy picks up a few months after the events of Nearest Exit. Xin Zhu, the head of the Chinese spy agency is feeling the heat from his unsanctioned actions against the CIA, and an old rival in the agency is quickly moving to have Zhu ousted. Zhu must act quickly if he is to protect not only his job, but his life and the life of his young wife.

Back in the USA, Milo Weaver is trying to settle down to a post-CIA life with his family. But when his old boss goes rogue and starts using one of Milo’s old work aliases, Milo is drawn back in against his will.

Like the previous two novels, An American Spy is a rollercoaster ride full of twists and turns. Steinhauer creates his world so realistically that you want to believe he was a spy in a former life. He mixes just enough actual history in with the narrative that it rings remarkably true, and the actions his spies take are so unlike anything Hollywood has created that they seem very real. There are no car chases, no massive explosions, and no gadgets–just good ol’ spycraft, and it is excellently written. The plot twists and turns a lot, and you never see what’s coming (well, almost never), and yet everything that happens comes logically from the preceding events.

One of the joys in life for me is recommending excellent books, and Steinhauer’s trilogy makes up three books I will always recommend. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying them. I certainly did, and I look forward to more of Steinhauer’s work with gusto.

UPDATE: The kind folks at Macmillan Audio offered to allow me to share an excerpt from the audiobook with you. Click here to give it a listen.


Why You Should Follow @Joe_Hill on Twitter

July 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

I have a confession: I don’t read Joe Hill’s books. I’ve read a couple of his short stories at the insistence of my wife (who is a huge Joe Hill fan), but none of his novels. I think this will be changing soon, however, based on how entertaining and valuable I find his Twitter feed.

Hill, who tweets from @Joe_Hill, is an avid Twitter user. I began following  him after my wife shared some writing advice he tweeted, and I’ve kept following him because he is often very funny. I like funny.

Last night, Hill was being funny. This morning, however, Joe decided to drop more pearls of writing wisdom on his followers. I retweeted each one, but Twitter is rather ephemeral, so I am going to post them here, where I can come back and find them when I want to. Oh, and also for you guys.

Here’s what Hill said:

I feel like when you write fiction you’re in the ideas business. You need a fresh idea every day. Which is why I’m against outlines.

Once you’ve got your story mapped out, the good ideas phase is over. But good ideas aren’t just a starting point.

Comic book artists like @GR_comics and Zach Howard understand this as a matter of course. Every panel has a good idea in it, visually.

They aren’t happy if they aren’t doing something that blows the reader’s socks off. What made you think it’d be different for a writer?

Think of 5 different ways to do the next scene. Bet idea 4 is fresher’n what you had. The plan you made last month is a recipe for average.

As I think I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of outlines. But I’m also not a bestselling writer, and Joe Hill is. So I’m thinking the next book I write, I’ll give it a shot without an outline and see what happens.

In fact, I think I’ll go start writing that book right now.

StumbleUpon Wants YOU!

July 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

Remember the StumbleUpon “Get Discovered” Writer’s Contest I mentioned a while back? Well, I entered it…and so should you!

“But Dave!” you say, “The deadline has already passed! It’s too late! Woe is me! I shall tear my clothes and fill my mouth with ashes!”

Okay, first? Take your Prozac. And then enter the contest anyway. Why? Because the deadline has been extended!

Katie Gray, the email contact for the contest, sent this email out to everyone who entered:

Hi writers!

Thanks so much for participating in our Get Discovered contest. Due to popular demand we’re extending the contest deadline until this coming Tuesday, July 31st at midnight PST. If you have any other works to add to the pool, send them over.
Now, contests don’t usually extend deadlines, and they almost never ask for more entries, so I’m thinking this little contest hasn’t gotten many submissions. So polish up 20 pages over the weekend and send them in! There’s no entry fee, so what do you have to lose? DO IT.

Writing about Reading: The Business

July 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

I picked up Iain Banks’ novel The Business at the local library when they didn’t have his Consider Phlebas in. The first few pages intrigued me, so I checked it out.

Sadly, the first few pages were the best in an otherwise dreadfully boring novel.

Those first pages were part of the prologue of the book. Once I got past it and began the first chapter, I knew I was in trouble. Here’s the opening paragraph in it’s entirety:

My name is Kathryn Telman. I am a senior executive officer, third level (counting from the top) in a commercial organisation which has had many different names through the ages but which, these days, we usually just refer to as the Business. There’s a lot to tell about this particular concern, but I’m going to have to ask you to be tolerant here because I’m intending to take things slowly and furnish further details of this ancient, honourable and — to you, no doubt — surprisingly ubiquitous concern in due course as they become relevant. For the record, I am one point seven metres tall, I weigh fifty-five kilos, I am thirty-eight years old, I have dual British/US nationality, I am blonde by birth not bottle, unwed, and have been an employee of the Business since I left school.

If you’re not already asleep, you at least have a good idea of how incredibly dull this story is going to be. And “for the record,” never introduce a character that way. It’s a rookie mistake that stops the story cold. It’s a puckered seam on something you want to be seamless.

I plodded through another thirty pages, in which some interesting questions were raised. Ultimately, though, the terrible writing was too much for me to take. Not only that, but the woman who seems like such a strong heroine at the outset turns out to be hung up on a married man who is staunchly committed to his wife, and the heroine doesn’t want to take no for an answer. If the situation were reversed, the character would seem like a smarmy sleaze. But since it’s a woman persisting in the harassment, it just comes off as needy, weak, and dumb.

So I’m dumping this book back on the library shelf and not bothering to finish it. Don’t waste your time with this one.

(By the way, it gives me no pleasure to be so critical of another writer’s work, but at least I wasn’t as vicious as this review of 50 Shades of Gray. I dare say the review is far more entertaining than the novel.)

July 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m still noodling around my own thoughts on creating characters, but I stumbled across this and thought it worth sharing. Enjoy!


I lean back in my chair and close my eyes. The clock ticks endlessly, but that’s fine. It helps my concentration. Something like a giant screen unfolds in the darkness. Smiling, I paint the scene. Everything is in place; the flora and the fauna, the sticks and stones. Bricks and mortar, fire or ice. Whatever I need to be there, is there. But there is something missing. Whether I’ve created a small town, or a space flight, a bedroom or a garden, the missing element remains the same. The scene is missing people. Characters. Those beings that will bring the whole thing to life.

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The Power of Enchantment in Storytelling

July 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Emma Coats posted a great video of a talk Bobette Buster gave recently. I can’t embed it here, so click over to Story Shots and watch it there. Buster shares some very powerful insights, and I found the talk incredibly inspiring.

Emma summarized her favorite parts of the video:

One thing she said that blew my mind (cause it’s true): “Cinema is an experience, not a message.”

The video above is more about WHY we tell stories and is full of amazing quotes.

  • Audience wants “to be taken into a world they’d otherwise never get to experience, where the ordinary becomes extraordinary”
  • on sharing your own personal experience, your own dark times: “you can empower and embolden a person – that’s the power of enchantment in storytelling.”
  • “ultimately, all stories are about either someone becoming fully alive or becoming the living dead.”

Watch the rest of the video for 20 minutes of great storytelling thoughts.


Writers: Get Discovered with StumbleUpon!

July 11, 2012 § 3 Comments

First off, I promise I will put a real blogpost up soon. Something about characterization. I apologize for the long silence.

However, I do have a pretty exciting kick in the pants for you today: the Get Discovered Writing Contest from StumbleUpon.

Do you have a screenplay, stageplay, novel, short story, memoir or graphic novel saved on your computer right now? Have you always thought about being a professional writer but never thought you’d make it?

Here’s your chance to change the rest of your life.

Enter our “Get Discovered” Writing Contest to see what the StumbleUpon community and our panel of Hollywood talent agents and script doctors think of your work. If you win, you’ll get your work shown to a producer, playhouse or other appropriate company for the chance to see your work published, performed or produced! You may end up getting the phone call that amateur writer Isaac Marion got one day telling him that his short story “I Am a Zombie Filled with Love” – adored by Stumblers everywhere – had blockbuster potential.


1. Between now and July 24th, email a word document or PDF of your work to contests@stumbleupon.com. You can also share your work as a Google doc to this address if you’d prefer. We’ll accept any of the following:

a. The first 20 pages of a film/television script or stageplay.
b. A short story of 20 pages or less.
c. The first 20 pages of a novel or novella.
d. The first 10 pages of a graphic novel or comic series.
e. Three essays from a collection of essays.
f. The first 20 pages of a memoir.
g. The first 20 pages of a non-fiction work.

2. Between July 27th and August 10th, Stumblers will Stumble the Likes at the “Get Discovered” StumbleUpon profile and vote by indicating a “Like” for their favorite submitted Works through the thumb-up icon on the StumbleBar. Invite your friends to vote for your work but remember that they have to be StumbleUpon users to qualify (and we’ll be on the lookout for any possible fraud or dishonest voting. Be nice, folks!)

3. Our panel of judges (called the Content Collective) will choose among the top ten works chosen by Stumblers. They’ll choose a winner by August 27, 2012 and we’ll announce it here on our blog (and alert the winner, of course) and on our Twitter and Facebook pages. The winner will receive a “first-look” option opportunity.

According to the official rules, you also have to submit a release form with your entry, but there’s no link to that form. I emailed the contest address to ask, and will update this post if I hear back to them.

Thanks, Derek, for alerting me to this contest!

UPDATE: I got a very quick response: “We neglected to include a link to the form in the rules or the post, and that’s been rectified. You can find the form here: http://www.stumbleupon.com/help/stumbleupon-get-discovered-contest-release-form/. Keep in mind also that the winner must be a U.S. citizen and 18 years or older.”

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