Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Sneak Peak #2 -- A NO GOOD ITCH (A J.J. McCall Novel - Book 3)

This is the opening scene of the new J.J. McCall novel--still in progress but will be ready for delivery on December 16th as promised. 

The series of events that follow may or may not be inspired by an actual meeting that I can neither confirm nor deny ever happened...

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” ~ Sun Tzu

ear, failure, and the fear of failure turned enemies into friends like nothing else in the convoluted world of intelligence and spying. No doubt the reason FBI representatives had been summoned to the Russian Embassy in Washington.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs reeled after a reported "heated discussion" with the U.S. Secretary of State, who promised harsh and swift diplomatic sanctions following the successive wave of embarrassing Russian intelligence blunders that resulted in the arrests of FBI and Secret Service agents spying on their behalf. The tense political situation had outraged their now tight-lipped government contacts in Washington and New York and dried up critical sources of American intel. The stone silence threatened to paralyze the SVR's intelligence mission across the United States unless they quelled the fury. Thus, the come-to-Jesus meeting called by the SVR Resident was inevitable and necessary.

 FBI Special Agent J.J. McCall marveled at the embassy's ornate grand lobby. Rich white and dark European marbles accented by cardinal red carpet runners, a stately winding staircase crowned in gold, and paintings of lush landscapes brightening the halls and sitting areas, placed it among the most beautiful embassies she'd visited. The sight was impressive and a stark reminder of the country's willingness to spare no expense when it came to putting up deceiving fronts and paying American traitors.

"We'll need a dump truck for the bullshit about to be heaped on us today," J.J. whispered to her co-case agent, Tony Donato. As the lead case agent behind the ruckus, she'd been ordered to attend the meeting, listen and respond to nothing.

"Shhh," Tony whispered in reply. "The walls have ears."

Resident Andrei Komarov, the Russian equivalent to the CIA Station Chief in Moscow, led J.J., Tony, and Assistant Director of Counterintelligence John Nixon through the hallowed embassy halls until they reached a well-appointed conference room. It contained stately mahogany-paneled walks, large open armchairs, and an oversized table large enough to seat Komarov's ego and attitude, both massive in her past experience.

The group, all dressed in their services' uniforms—pin-sharp woolen suits in late fall hues concealed under beige all-weather overcoats—was met by the only other declared SVR officer in the Russian Embassy, Security Officer Aleksey Dmitriyev.

Jolted by his presence, J.J. avoided his gaze, kept their handshake and greeting brief. The last time they met, he was not working for her. Now, he was--and the only other person in the group aware of his status was Tony. Butterflies rolled in her stomach as everyone took their seats and the meeting began. She forced a poker expression and prepared herself for the barrage of lies.

Komarov settled in at the head of the table, his face reddened and contorted as if every word he was about to speak, no doubt carefully selected by the Foreign Minister, would sear his throat and exit his lips like sharpened razors carving him from the inside.

"We've all met before and are quite familiar with one another," Komarov began, shooting a slicing glare through J.J. Her aggressive targeting of SVR officers for recruitment was legendary...or infamous, depending on which side of the table you sat. She suppressed the awe she felt. He was the personification of the Russian James Bond in looks, dress, and devoid of any semblance of accent. "So, I'll feel free to dispense with the introductions and pleasantries since we all understand why we are here today."

J.J., Tony, and Nixon exchanged strained glances before she took a deep breath to brace herself as Komarov progressed through the four steps of surviving a massive operational failure.
Step 1: Admit nothing.

"There has been a spate of unfortunate and seemingly unfounded reports regarding the activities of our foreign intelligence service inside the United States," he said. 

Her birthright, her gift, the ability to detect lies, sent the sensation of an army of crawling ants through her fingertips and up the length of both arms. She clenched her teeth and prepared for Step 2: Deny Everything.

"We have no information to substantiate the many reports circulating in the media nor can we speak to the involvement of any of our staff. However, I can assure you that if such activity occurred it was orchestrated by rogue officers conducting unsanctioned operations. If ever discovered, they will be dealt with accordingly. This brings me to my next point..."

As the lies continued, the annoying sensations intensified. The itch stretched through her back and up into her neck. She shifted in her seat and tensed her body to suppress it.

A moment of relief would come with Step 3: Demand Proof.

"If your Secretary of State persists in her current path and continues to threaten sanctions against our diplomatic corps, we must require access to the evidence used to justify these unfounded accusations against our government or we will be forced to reciprocate and target the U.S. embassy in Moscow."
They always demanded proof because they knew the FBI couldn't provide the most critical elements, at least not so early in the investigations. Such provisions risked revealing FBI sources and methods, potentially compromising the Russian Embassy recruit sitting across the table from J.J. It would also expose the FBI's knowledge of the listening device found in the White House Situation Room, an announcement the President had postponed for reasons unbeknownst to her.

Nixon cleared his throat. "It's forthcoming," are the only two words he offered, which was two too many in J.J.'s book. He said, "Continue with your little speech, please," in his typical condescending, patronizing way.

From the pinched expression on Komarov's face, he took the comment in the spirit in which it was intended, just as J.J. would've. This certainly contributed to Step 4: Make counter-accusations.
"And if your government should bring forth any evidence against the Service, we may be required to present our own proof that these arrests are merely a provocation to discredit Russia and increase hostilities within the international community given U.S. opposition to our security operations in the Ukraine."

Bullshit. But J.J. gave credit where it was due--the guy was good.
"We're not here to debate the validity of your political and military agenda," Nixon replied. "The FBI's primary concern is securing the homeland from terrorists and spies. So, if we could cut to the chase, why have you requested our presence here today?"

J.J.'s eyebrow arched. She'd never known Nixon to be a man with backbone. He usually preyed on the weak rather stand up to the strong.

"Ahhh, yes," Komarov said, relaxing his tone and posture, he leaned his back against the chair. "We brought you here to extend an olive branch, if you will. I've been asked to assure you that the Service is not controlling any operations targeting citizens inside the United States. Negotiations regarding the specifics of the new plans are underway within our executive channels and will demonstrate our proposed new era of cooperation. We would like to collaborate on issues, such as terrorism, which would be of great benefit to both our countries."

By now the itching sensation had permeated J.J.'s entire being. If the human body contained over a billion nerves, every one of hers had been stimulated in the worst way. She clenched her legs together and strained not to dissolve into a scratching frenzy.

But the truth had been revealed. They wanted to purchase conciliation with terrorism intelligence. J.J. felt relieved. With FBI Director Russell Freeman at the helm, U.S. national security could never be bought for so cheap a price.


Intrigued yet? Make sure you catch up with Books 1 & 2 if you haven't done so. I promise you, Book 3--A No Good Itch will not disappoint!  

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The 5 Do's and Don'ts of Being a Happy Writer (On Your Way to Publishing Success)

The Do's and Don'ts of Being a Happy Writer (On Your Way to [long-term] Publishing Success) 

I was asked to give a presentation at a writer's guild meeting a few weeks back and I tried to think about what kind of wisdom I wanted to impart on my audience. What have I learned after five years in this business between being rejected by literary agents (at least 100 of them), self publishing my first book, getting that book picked up by a Big 5 publisher along with a second book, and then going BACK to self publishing the subsequent 5 books, including the three in my J.J. McCall series.

I don't know if anything I've learned is particularly profound, but what I know is that every word is true. If you want to be a successful writer, you have to find a way to be a happy writer--you have to find a way to love what you do, every day, through success and failure, through sales ups and downs, through weeks and weeks devoid of sunlight and human contact because you're so deep in your work, through rejection, through bad reviews and good reviews and more bad reviews. The act of writing a story must give you some level of satisfaction, some level of joy. Maybe not consistent joy, but enough of that sweet spot to keep you coming back for more...even when more sucks to the high heavens, even when you're not where you want to be and frequently question the insane voice that told you you will get there....someday.

Want to be a happy writer who can weather storms of publishing future? Do...and don't do the  following...

1. Do -- Write for the love of writing. Don't write to achieve another author's level of success.

The biggest lesson I've learned is this -- for most writers instant success WILL NOT come. You will not be discovered by a Big 5 publisher. Even if you are discovered, most WILL NOT be bestsellers, rather you will whither away and die in the mid-list. No movie producer or book editor is stalking your Amazon or blog page waiting on you to become the next big thing so they can give you a 7-Figure deal or turn your book into a movie. Your chances of becoming the next big thing are slim and none--especially if you give up, which so many authors who don't achieve their "author ideal" tend to do. And the reason that most people give up is because they aren't writing for the love of writing--they are writing for the sole purpose of achieving some other author's success. And if that's the case, you may as well quit now.

You can't do it. 

If you're not happy in the grind of writing, tapping those fingers at 3 AM, cloaked in funky pajamas, with an IV drip of coffee, no audience, no help, nothing but you and your pen and notebook---or laptop? Then you won't find sustainable success in this business. You might get lucky...but it probably won't last. Those who love the grind will out last them all. The more books you write and publish, the more likely you will be to find success--whether you're lucky or not.

2. Do -- Write what you love (not necessarily KNOW). Don't -- Follow trends.

I write what I love...which is why I STILL love writing so much. Now, get this. Three years ago, I pitched the idea for my J.J. McCall novels to my agent. He thought the initial concept was good but when I made J.J. a lie detector, he hated it. He wanted it to be like a Clancy or a Silva type book. And I'm not Clancy or Silva. I'll never out Clancy, Clancy or out-Silva, Silva. Just won't happen. All I could do is find the story that I love, be the best S.D. Skye I could be, and see what the audience thought. Admittedly, my initial sales were almost non-existent. 

I think they're up about 100-fold...and growing a little bit every month. Why? I can only imagine current events have sent people back looking for good spy novels. How in hell could I have predicted more than three years ago that I would write a series about Russian intelligence versus the FBI just in time for Russia to make incursions into the Ukraine or Edward Snowden to seek asylum in Russia. Or predict that Book 2 in the series, which centers on a major Secret Service failure, would be on sale right when there was a major Secret Service failure.

I wrote the stories that I loved, whether they sold or not, and eventually they started to find their audience. And I think that's what you have to do. If I find above average success with these books, I will be able to sustain because I'm writing what's in my heart...not what's trending.

3. Do -- Learn to accept criticism. Don't -- Take all advice. 

The first thing I learned in this business is how to accept and process criticism and I don't think any other skill has helped me stay as happy in the publishing business than that one.

Truth is -- not everyone is going to love your work. Some people are going to dislike it...intensely. Some people are going to hate it. Some people are going to wake up and shit on your baby just because they can. It's just a fact of life. Deal with it.

How do you deal with it? If you're like me, you'll start with a shot of vodka, tell them to piss off...and then after you cool down, you will read the soul-searing words with an objective eye and find the grain of truth that you can use to make your work better in the future. I believe the reason that I've had some level of staying power is because I not only have learned how to accept criticism...but then I use the good parts of it make my work better the next time. No greater satisfaction than taking what was meant for your harm using it for your good.  

The thing is, though--you can't take everyone's advice. Some advice won't apply to you. Some people just flat out don't know what the hell they are talking about. It's true.

The best way to discern between the two is to KNOW YOUR CRAFT. I don't have an MFA. I have an MBA. But I've read enough books on craft and taken enough classes to know what's BS and what actually applies to my work.

If you learn your craft, really study it, then you'll know how to filter criticism and advice.

4. Do -- Have the drive to be successful. Don't -- Judge your success on someone else's journey. 

What gets me out of bed every day is writing stories and transcribing these voices in my head everyday. That's what gives me the energy. The love of writing.

What keeps my ass in the chair....through editing, and Beta reads, and sunny days when I'd rather be outside playing with the other kids, is my desire to reach as wide an audience as possible for my work. To write the best stories I can write...and to publish them in a way that people will fall in love with my characters as I have. 

When it comes to judging my success, I have learned to STAY IN MY LANE. That means, I don't judge my success by what Silva and Clancy have done. I judge my success by where I was 5 years ago, 4 years ago, 3 years ago, 2 years ago, 1 year ago. I started out selling less than 10 books a month. Now I'm selling well into the hundreds (for the same book). When I was with a Big 5 publisher, I had ZERO online pre-orders with any bookseller. With my J.J. McCall series -- not only do I have pre-orders, but I have them in like 4 countries. I mean, who knew???

By judging my success by where I've been versus where others have been, then every single step forward is success and it keeps me happy...and it keeps me writing.

5. Do -- Seek Publication. Don't --Seek Validation. 

There is a difference, I've learned. There was a time when I did think my work was good enough if an agent didn't want to represent me or an editor didn't want to publish me. With my very first novel. I thought I didn't have what it took. I hired an consulting editor who had previously worked with a Big 5 publisher and she told me to throw it in a drawer and start the next one. I was deflated to say the least. Almost gave up. Then I had a Come-to-Jesus moment. And during that moment, I really had to decide if I believed in myself and my story. I sat and read it from beginning to end--and laughed my head off. It's really funny. And I said, "Somewhere in this world, there is ONE person that will get something out of this book and I'm going to try and sell it to that ONE person. Damn what the literary agents say. Damn what the editors say."

And I self published that book--which four months later was represented by a pretty major NY agent and published by a Big 5.

I didn't wait for validation. I believed in my story enough to know I could reach ONE person...and one person was good enough for me.

Where so many people fail is that---ONE person isn't good enough. They want ONE million and when one million doesn't come in the FIRST MONTH they give up. You have to learn that if you believe in your work enough to sell it to one -- then you can sell it to one more.

So, I hope writers feel rejuvenated and inspired to stay happy and keep pushing another day. Sometimes, that's all it takes to find success.

---S.D. Skye


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