Q. Can you describe your typical writing day?
I am fairly regimented in my writing: I get up and go immediately to the computer. I will write for two hours, then I take a two hour break, then back again for two hours. Then I print up what I wrote and hand-edit it in the evening, giving it a polish, then enter those edits, so I can start fresh the next day. I’ll do this 5-6 days a weeks.
Q. Do you have a recurring detail that appears in your books?
I think one of the recurring themes in my novels is the exploration of how advancing technology effects us. Technology is not all cogs and wheels. There is a human cost to every bit of technology. It regularly tests society’s moral compass. Is human cloning good or bad? What about stem cell research on aborted fetal tissue? What about the escalating realism of the violence in video games? Can and should we engineer our children in the womb? At every turn, in every facet, technology tests a society—morally, spiritually, and economically. And at the pace in which technology is leaping and bounding we are quickly outstripping our abilities to rein in our advancements or to adequately judge where these technologies will take us.
So what to we do? Where are we heading?
Such questions are wonderful fodder in the modern scientific adventure. Through the vehicle of the adventure story, I can explore not only the physical threat of unchecked advancements but also the spiritual and moral dangers. Because fundamentally, the true terror of technology is not the cogs and the wheels, but how it will change us.
And even more frightening . . . will we even have a voice in this evolution?
Q. Do you have any advice for authors who are looking to get published?
I could write volumes on this subject. But it basically boils down to a few key items. First: READ. Read everything in the genre you want to write, but don’t limit yourself. Read broadly. The best teacher of writing is a good book. Second: WRITE EVERYDAY. Even if it’s only a few paragraphs, set aside some cracks in time to spoil yourself with the luxury of writing. If you write everyday and read everyday, your own skills will improve constantly. As you write and stumble on a scene or ponder some technique to develop character, you’ll find the answer in the next book you pick up and read. You’ll constantly finding yourself going, “Oh, that’s how you do that!” So let me repeat: the best way to learn to write is simply to read. Lastly and again this is a repetition: PERSISTENCE. Once you’re happy with your project, chuck that baby out there…and keep sending it out there until someone notices. Also allow the power of networking to help you: go to conventions, writing conferences, booksignings. Talk to authors, agents, publishers. Sometimes this can be the backdoor into getting your own work noticed! So there you have it: read everyday, write everyday, and persist in your dream.
Q. Do you have any favorite authors?
I always hate this question. Though I ask it of fellow authors, too. My reading habits are wide and free-ranging. So it’s hard to say I have a particular favorite, but I’ll list a few. In the classics department, I’m all about Dickens and Twain. In modern literature, I read every word of Annie Proulx. In thrillers, I love the three K’s: Koontz, King, and Crichton (okay the last does not start with a “K” but it sounds like it does). In mysteries, I really love Janet Evanovitch, Nevada Barr, and the new writer, P.J. Tracy. In adventure fiction, I read everything by the writing team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. In science fiction and horror, I love the cross-genre writer, Dan Simmons, and brilliant space opera of Lois McMaster Bujold. In fantasy, I am enamored and envious of the talents of George R.R. Martin and Stephen Donaldson. And I’m sure as soon as I turn around and look at my wall of books in my library that I’ve forgotten a thousand-and-one other absolute favorites. So let me stop here.
Q. Do you have any traditions associated with writing?
Nope. I write in all sorts of circumstances and conditions: in a quiet office, with music blaring, with the television running in the background, on airplanes, in hotel rooms, outside, inside. I don't like tying my writing down to certain required conditions/traditions for fear that it will lock me into a pattern that will trap rather than allow me the freedom to explore and grow. But I do have certain code that I attempt to stick to: write everyday, read everyday. That's enough of a tradition.
Q. EXCAVATION works very well within the category of the traditional lost world/lost race adventure as found in H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs--a narrative tradition that extends back historically to the classic scientific romances of Jules Verne in the nineteenth century-- but then you've added your own highly inventive variant to this category of fiction (the conclusion of your novel, for example, offers a wild ride indeed not found in the work of Verne, Haggard, or Burroughs). How did you decide to write EXCAVATION, and did you deliberately construct your story within the narrative tradition of the lost world adventure?
I did indeed construct EXCAVATION specifically as a lost world novel. My editor even classified my early books as “lost race” novels. The germ of this specific novel came from two ideas that merged together.
(1) A lost Incan tribe still surviving up in the Andes
(2) And the possibilities of nanotechnology being used to evolve the human species
I love merging the ancient and the modern, then stirring that pot and seeing what develops. You’ll see this blend in each of my books.
Additionally, I also like to peel back ancient myths and search for the hidden truths behind these stories. In SUBTERRANEAN, it was Aboriginal mythology. In EXCAVATION, it was Incan mythology. In DEEP FATHOM, it was Polynesian mythology.
Q. Has a character from your writing ever influenced your real life in a surprising way?
Characters are always surprising me, taking stories into unexpected territories or ideas. I swear sometimes my characters have come up with elements all on their own and I’m just the chronicler. I can’t say any specific character “changed my life,” but by exploring the human condition of various characters and living in their skins over the course of a book, I think my own appreciation and patience for the quirks, foibles, and eccentricities of my fellow man has grown.
Q. Have you ever put yourself into a story?
I think there is a part of me in every character I create—good and bad. That’s one of the best parts of writing: to explore those dark corners of your own psyche, to fathom the depths of your own character, and to challenge yourself. What could be more fun?
Q. How do I get published? Do I need an agent?
Here's the basics in a nutshell.
(1) Finish your book.
A first-time writer needs to have the ENTIRE novel done before approaching an agent or publisher. Print it in proper manuscript format. Guidelines can be found in most how-to write books.
(2) Get an agent.
Which means first finding the right agents to send your book to! I used Jeff Herman's INSIDERS GUIDE TO BOOK EDITORS, PUBLISHERS, and LITERARY AGENTS. In his book, he has most of the agencies fill out a Q&A, specifically asking them what they like to represent and what they don't. Grab a pen and start circling those agencies that sound like they would want to represent your material (obviously you don't want to waste your money and their time if the agent only represents non-fiction and you have a fiction piece). Once you have a list, then follow proper submission guidelines: a ONE-page query note (consisting of a hook to the story you're writing, why you're the best one to tell this story, the proposed market for this story, and any publishing credits), the first 50 pages of your novel, double-spaced and free of errors, and a brief synopsis (5-6 pages), and a SASE for their response.
Then start sending it out and sending it out!
Now that all said . .. ONE WARNING! There are a lot of scam agencies out there. NEVER pay a cent up front for ANYTHING (not a reading fee, not a copying fee, not an editorial/book doctor fee). If you send something somewhere and get such a response, toss it IMMEDIATELY into the trash can, cuz that's where you're money would be going if you sent it.
So that's the skinny on "the agent hunt." Be wily, be persitent, be patient . . .
Q. How do you choose the name's of your characters?
It does take some thought. I often take half a book before I even discover my main character's real name. I don't know if I have any specific process. I look through phone books, or if I hear of any unusual name, I note it. Then it's a matter of mixing and matching, trying a name on for size, playing with it, then finally settling on one that fits best.
Q. How do you handle a writer’s block?
The wry answer: With two books a year to complete, I don’t have time for writer’s block. But more seriously, I think times when a story begins to bog down and I feel “blocked” is most often due to something intrinsically wrong with the scene or character or point of view I’m working on. Sometimes I have to backtrack and search for where the story had gone astray and edit things back into proper alignment. Once I correct that error, the story flows with more vigor again and we’re off and running.
Q. How do you view the element of suspense in your work? As a practical question, how do you structure it and manage it in your plot?
Suspense is the true heart of all good adventures, the proverbial “cliff hanger.” You take your character (and reader) to the edge of disaster, have him peer over, then push him from behind when they least expect it. And the crux of a good thriller is to make those cliffs higher and higher throughout the novel. Strive for tightening that noose notch by notch. Each level of suspense should build upon the other. Each situation must be unique, each outcome more inventive. Lester Dent (author of most Doc Savage novels) once suggested: “never kill characters the same way twice.” He was right—always strive to be unique. Finally, let the reader rest between events, then just as they think they’ve caught their breath, hit ‘em again and again and again. And one last note on the practical side, always end a chapter with a note of peril, whether physical or emotional. Make that reader want to turn that next page to see what happens.
Q. How extensive is your research before starting a novel – do you need a set level of comfort from your research before you begin to write, or do you do research as you go?
When I do my initial research--and this all applies mostly to the thrillers—I’ll research until I have a good feeling of place, and I have the dynamics of the scientific mystery established. Then I’ll construct the plot. Once this is accomplished, I’ll begin to write, and what I’ll find is that I’ll have a score of niggling details to research during each writing shift. This is minor stuff: street names, a bit of detail on a gun, some snatch of foreign language. I’ll research this on the fly. Sometimes as I write, sometimes when the day’s writing is over. The choice often depends if the detail needed will set some tone that I want to establish in the scene…if so, then I’ll pop on the Internet right then and grab what I need. If not, then I’ll wait until the day’s end when I’m polishing and line-editing.
Q. How much research do you do for a novel?
Too much and not enough. When I research, I usually have 4-5 books that are my research bibles for a particular novel. Then I branch off onto the Internet for additional tidbits and also do phone interviews with experts in their respective fields of study. It is surprising how open and helpful people are in this endeavor. For instance, while researching details on the space shuttle, I was lost among the volumes of information on NASA’s web site. Finally frustrated with labyrinthine layout of the site, I contacted the webmaster of the site and asked for information. Two days later, I found on my doorstep the entire technical manual for the shuttle, hand-delivered and dropped off. That's just one of countless examples of folks who have gone out of their way to help an author. It's also a great way to create new fans!
Q. How would you describe your larger philosophy of writing and authorship?
My goal when I set out to write is not to examine the human condition or explore the trials and tribulations of modern society. When I set out to write, I aim for pure balls-to-the-wall adventure, pure escape and entertainment. I follow the three M’s of storytelling: murder, magic, and mayhem.
But with that said, I don’t think any adventure story will work unless you do indeed engage the reader on a level deeper than pure popcorn-entertainment. He must care about the characters or why join you on this journey? He must be invested in the character to care about their fate. So though entertainment is the goal, it is equally important to craft characters who will live, breathe, and bleed in your reader’s heart and mind. As such, the human condition of your characters must be addressed and examined. They must be brought to life with all the frailties and quirks and problems and nuisances that the reader brings with him to the books. For the reader to relate, he must find something in which to relate. This must not be neglected. I strongly believe that character and plot must be tightly interwoven, especially in adventure fiction. One will not work without the other.
Q. Is starting a new book difficult for you?
No, that's the best part. Nothing is more exciting and challenging than bringing to life for the first time a new story and characters. It's like exploring a new world each time.
Q. Should popular fiction be taught in schools?
I certainly do think there is a viable place for popular fiction in a school’s curriculum. To expose students to only work that is deemed "high art" or "literate" is to ignore the long tradition of storytelling as popular entertainment. Shakespeare in his time was considered a popular storyteller, delving in themes of revenge, comical tomfoolery, and high romance. Since when did imagination become less important than theme when assigning value to literature? If schools are going to instill a love of reading in students, then give them something they'd love to read. Rather than MOBY DICK, put THE SHINING on the must-read list. Both novels deal with men driven my compulsion and madness. But which is going to excite the present-day student? Which is going to thrill a student into exploring past the required reading list? So perhaps there is a place for popular fiction in school...if for no other reason but to remind students that reading is not supposed to be an assignment but an entertaining means of enlightenment.
Q. We know you have retired from fulltime veterinary work. When did you decide that you were successful enough as a writer to safely move from one career to the other?
It was a gradual process. I first sold my veterinary practice after selling my first two thrillers, but I continued to work as an employed veterinary at the same facility. This allowed me to shed the business responsibilities and wear one less hat to work. Over three more years, I graduated down to part-time, then weekend work, and then I stepped away completely. Now all I do is a monthly spay-and-neuter clinic at the local animal shelter here in Sacramento. Ultimately, the question is when can one step away from their “regular” job? I had read somewhere about the “Rule of Five.” You have to have five books out on the shelves, all earning royalties, before you can safely give up the day job. And oddly enough, this is about what happened to me. By the time, five books were on the shelves, I had stepped away.