Category Archives: Television

The Mastermind Beyond ADHD: Interview with Author Jeff Emmerson

(First of a 2-Part Series)

I’ve been involved with many fascinating book projects over the years. However, none are as potentially impactful socially as Beyond ADHD: Overcoming the Label and Thriving, the book I wrote with Canadian ADHD expert Jeff Emmerson to be released globally by Rowman-Littlefield on August 16. You can pre-order it on Amazon.com.

Beyond ADHD is a critical book for our times. In the last 30 years, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has gone from a rarely diagnosed disorder to an industry hundreds of billions of dollars in size, fed by all sectors of society. It involves:

  • Ten percent of the North American population;
  • Concerned educators, employers and parents who send fidgety or inattentive workers or kids to the doctor or school nurse’s office;
  • Overworked doctors that prescribe quickly from nine-point checklists;
  • Pharmaceutical companies (“Big Pharma”) eager to sell powerful prescription drugs that impact the patient’s biochemistry (often negatively);
  • A compliant (until recently) media slanted heavily toward “diagnose-and-prescribe”, writing articles that spread the idea you can only treat ADHD with drugs;
  • An equally compliant educational system, employees on the lookout for disruptive or hyperactive kids — and, in some cases, using approved course materials provided by Big Pharma, which promotes ADHD as a lifetime disorder, versus something we can get beyond;
  • A U.S. Congress so heavily lobbied by Big Pharma (532 of the current 535 members received campaign contributions) that they won’t move to quash Big Pharma’s grip on pricing; and
  • A public so gripped by busyness, technological and social stimulation that their neurological systems are overloaded. Many assume it to be ADHD or another mental health disorder diagnosed as fast as, well, a prescription can be written. If this dynamic sounds like a part of America’s woeful prescription drug story, well, it is.

Beyond ADHD Author Jeff Emmerson

Those are the departure points for Beyond ADHD. The book revolves around Emmerson’s life and experiences, instructive and harrowing at times, but also a cautionary tale into why you don’t diagnose someone with ADHD and give them powerful prescriptions in 15 minutes (the average time one spends in a doctor’s office before getting this diagnosis and prescription!).

I first met Emmerson via Twitter in late 2012, his chosen platform for discussing ADHD and mental health issues. What a platform it is, with more than 700.000 highly engaged followers, including medical, mental health and social health experts who worked with us on Beyond ADHD. He also has a large video blog audience, and more than 15,000 LinkedIn followers. After a difficult first 35 years of life, Emmerson was diagnosed with ADHD in 2011. In 2015, he met with Michigan-based neuroscientist Dr. Timothy Royer, who shattered the diagnosis after considerable testing — which led to this book.

With four weeks until Beyond ADHD releases, I decided to interview Emmerson, to give you a taste of his forward-thinking perspective, one that brought me right to the table to co-author this book. In this first part of our interview (part two will be posted Friday, July 21), you can see in Emmerson’s answers numerous options, causes and ways of working with this that, frankly, are woefully underused.

WordJourneys: What inspired and motivated you to create Beyond ADHD?

Jeff Emmerson: My own journey through the mental health system. Or, to be more specific, how I was diagnosed with ADHD after a suicide attempt in 2011 and what I discovered when my intuition told me to dig deeper into other possible reasons for the symptoms and battles I’ve faced for many years. I saw a desperately failing diagnostic system that made rushing to diagnosis way too common. I knew I had to speak out so that others might be able to avoid the “murky waters” of misdiagnosis through deeper understanding of just how faulty ADHD diagnosing is for millions.

WordJourneys: What are the three biggest issues with the way we currently diagnose and prescribe ADHD?

Emmerson: Number One: Not ruling nearly enough out first through a collaborative, inter-disciplinary team approach that treats ADHD/ADD as a diagnosis of exclusion (not the other way around);

Number Two: Not making other interventions (instead of simply medication) just as high of a priority (such as behavior therapy, brain training, nutritional counseling, looking at alternate learning/schooling options, physical activity, creative outlets, trauma at home being assessed, etc.);

Number Three: Not digging deeper after a diagnosis is made, and/or assuming that medication use needs to be permanent. Self-resilience and accountability must be held to very high standards as part of treatment. In other words, treat the whole person, not simply diagnose, medicate and leave them to their own devices without on-going support and education into self-reliance and growth.

WordJourneys: Why is ADHD diagnosed at such a high rate now? Do we really have that many afflicted adults and children, or is it something else?

Emmerson: My deepest fear (and gut feeling) is that so-called ADHD (in millions of cases) is a band-aid diagnosis made because we simply don’t have the knowledge, research or resources to dig deeper and actually address some key contributing issues no one talks about: chemicals in tap water, air quality, societal “norms” industry-wise, increasing tech addiction, poorer sleep quality, and many other root causes for symptoms. Instead, we use stimulant medication to see if it “works” and leave it at that (assuming ADHD and making it a potentially permanent diagnosis on someone’s medical records, a whole other issue for several reasons).

WordJourneys: The education system has played an increasing role in getting kids to ADHD diagnoses. Is this a good or bad thing — and why?

Emmerson: This infuriates me, and here’s why: Some kids may benefit from diagnosis and treatment, but factors such as date of birth (what time of the year a child is born), learning differences, root-cause factors for ADHD-like symptoms (many of them) and other issues are way too easily turned into a rushed ADHD diagnosis. Frankly, much of our education system is antiquated and obsolete in relation to the technological age we’re living in, so we need to hold education policy makers to task, just as much as we weed out children who seem to be acting out in any number of ways. After all, some of the world’s most innovative and creative people disliked conventional school very passionately. We need to do something about this desperate need for wholesome, 360-degree learning to become the norm (to start with, anyway).

WordJourneys: What are the challenges facing doctors and mental health professionals in treating the whole person, rather than just the ADHD?

Emmerson: Resources. Funding for thorough, holistic care is scarce in the United States, especially in the mental health realm, and there is heavy pressure to reduce that even further. What’s even bigger is that investments in education toward self-awareness, resilience, and extra-curricular activities, and incentives for families to stay healthy both physically and emotionally, are dwindling away. The unfortunate reality for many healthcare professionals is that insurance companies and profits for medical practices push more and more patients to be seen in shorter and shorter time-spans, resulting in rushed, insufficient care. Profits can still be made while taking the proper time to treat patients holistically and fully. We just need to help the system evolve and incentivize providers in new ways that benefit all.

(Part 2 will appear Friday, July 21, on The Word Journeys Blog.)

To pre-order Beyond ADHD

 

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What A Decade: How Far Carrie Underwood Has Come

(I originally wrote this piece 10 years ago this month, while editing American Idol magazine. It is probably my favorite piece of magazine journalism, and Carrie Underwood is definitely the most put-together female performing artist I’ve ever known. So much is revealed in this interview, conducted two months before her debut  Some Hearts LP and ushered in one of music’s greatest careers. She is not only an exceptional singer, but an exceptional woman and role model for girls and teens globally. For good reason.)

The Country Girl’s Cinderella Story

Years after giving up her dream of being a star, Carrie Underwood decided to drive to St. Louis to audition for AI4. Now, she lives the greatest wish of millions of fans who selected her as the new American Idol while sticking to her simple, hard-working roots.

By Robert Yehling

Here’s a Cinderella story with a country twist. The blonde-haired girl leaves the glass slipper in the clover meadow of her adolescence and heads to college to prepare for adult life. There is no prince, no palatial ball, no castle. Then something happens: the glass slipper finds her, in the form of an American Idol audition. Of course the shoe fits. A year later, she’s a rising star in Nashville, America’s newest sweetheart, and a young woman whom all mothers would want their daughters to emulate.

Carrie Underwood, moments after winning American Idol Season 5 in 2005

Carrie Underwood, moments after winning American Idol Season 5 in 2005

If you’re worried that Carrie Underwood will strike midnight, don’t: The new American Idol’s career is in full ascent. It’s only been six months since we finally saw her cut loose when Ryan Seacrest made the winning announcement – “I will never forget that moment, that excitement, the fans in the audience screaming. How could I not let go?” she says. In that time, she’s cut an album, racked up a pair of major endorsements, headlined Idols on Tour, and considered countless offers from the entertainment and business worlds. The heroine of this fairy tale has met her destiny: life as a star in the 21st century.

“This whole experience reminds me of something I’ve heard quite a few times: ‘If you want to make God laugh, make plans,’” Carrie says. “My life is completely different in every single way possible. I’ve had to re-evaluate everything. What I was going to do before, I’m not going to do now. I’m going to be a singer for at least the next little while. There’s no more planning things out as I was doing last year at this time.

“The big change for me is that now my goals can be much, much higher than what they were a year ago, which were trying to find a good job out of college, work my way up the ladder – the typical business plan – find somebody, get married, have a family. Now it’s make an album, do well on it, so I can make another album, touring, promotion. After I’m hopefully an established artist one day, people will know me not just because of being an American Idol but because they’ve been hearing me a lot on the radio, and what I’ve done as a solo musician.”

How does a charming, highly intelligent and gorgeous 22-year-old country girl from Checotah, Oklahoma handle this sudden fame and fortune? Especially when you consider that she hadn’t flown on a plane until she headed west last November for the Hollywood Auditions? Or that she would much rather wear t-shirts or light blouses and jeans than alluring skin-clinging outfits (as she made clear to Skechers when they chose her to follow in the footsteps of noted sirens Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera)? How does she go from raising farm animals and studying for broadcast journalism finals to dealing with record company executives, television interviews, officials from Hershey’s and Skechers, career agents, press agents, countless people screaming “You’re

the greatest, Carrie!” and exhausting tour schedules synchronized to grueling recording schedules?

Therein lies the secret to Carrie Underwood’s climb to the top of American Idol and how she conducts her life from this point forward. Behind the blonde hair and brown eyes, reserved demeanor and remarkable voice is a woman who understands how to remain calm in the midst of storms. She’s very friendly and a joy to talk with, because she can handle countless conversation subjects while switching back-and-forth between the maturity of a grown woman and the doe-eyed enthusiasm of a girl on the rise. From a crisp tone of voice that broadcasts confidence and self-assuredness to the way she moves, Carrie exudes coolness in the greatest sense of the word.

She also knows she wants and how fortunate she is that her dream circled back to be reclaimed. “I’m a thinker, not a big dreamer. Every little kid wants to be famous, a movie star, a music star, whatever,” she explains. “About 99 percent of the time, it never happens. As a little kid, I used to pick four-leaf clovers out in the pasture and my wish was always the same: ‘I want to be a music star.’ But as I finished up high school, my thoughts were, ‘What makes me special?’ After high school, nothing had happened, so I figured it was time to grow up and get a job. It was important to go to college, learn a trade. So I did that, and then my childhood dream comes true. Life is pretty funny.”

Carrie prides herself on sticking to her core values, personality and interests, some of which raise eyebrows. She grew up bottle-feeding cows on an animal farm in a meat- and-potatoes family, but she is a committed vegetarian and recent honoree of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “I love to go fishing with my friends, but I always throw them back,” she says. She became the new American Idol by performing country music – Rascal Flatts, Martina McBride and Patsy Cline are favorites – but she’s a huge Green Day fan who plays guitar, piano and drums. She lives in one of the most rooted, earthen parts of the country and conveys pure radiance with every smile, yet her favorite movies are Star Trek: The Next Generation and a host of old horror flicks: Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and Alien.

Then there is her reserved emotion. Farm life is doubly hard work: In addition to raising animals and crops, and synchronizing life to planting and harvesting seasons, the parents often hold full-time jobs. Stephen and Karen Underwood both worked outside jobs – Stephen at a paper mill and Karen as a schoolteacher – while tending to the farm and raising daughters Shanna and Stephanie. By the time Carrie came along, her sisters were teenagers and vital workers on the farm. They supported and nurtured her singing, first at church, then in local talent competitions, later in high school music programs. However, there was little time for deep discussions or displays of emotion. “We don’t really show our emotions; we’re not big huggers,” Carrie says. “We’re kind of a quieter family. For good or bad, I have a lot of my dad’s personality traits, and he’s a stoic man who gets things done. I really don’t get real excited about anything. A lot of times, I think that people’s emotions should remain within. You seem to have a lot more power and energy that way.”

Carrie Underwood channels her inner Axl Rose during the 2013 CMA Music Festival in Nashville. Her rendition of "Paradise City" reminds me of what she told me several times -- inside, she's a rock-and-roll girl. Check this out on You Tube.

Carrie Underwood channels her inner Axl Rose during the 2013 CMA Music Festival in Nashville. Her rendition of “Paradise City” reminds me of what she told me several times — inside, she’s a rock-and-roll girl. Check this out on You Tube.

There’s a flip side to being unemotional: It’s hard for audiences to connect with you. Despite possessing the best voice on the show – Simon Cowell told a KTTV interviewer in Los Angeles that Carrie’s voice stuck utmost in his mind from several thousand people who auditioned before he, Paula and Randy in 2004 – Carrie heard the loud whispers about her stoic stage presence throughout AI4. While she strictly adhered

to unofficial Rules 1 and 2 of succeeding on American Idol – “Be true to what you do best, and be your most authentic self” – she also ran the risk of being voted off as more flamboyant finalists like Bo, Constantine, Vonzell, Jessica, Nadia and Mikalah whipped up live audiences each week.

“It kind of kept people from really getting to know me, because I didn’t share my emotions as readily,” she recalls. “That’s not such a good thing. I’m definitely working on being more personable. For the first time in my life, I’m dealing with people who live and work at a completely different level, so I put myself out there more. It sure helps that the competition aspect’s gone and that type of pressure is off.”

While Carrie might be a rising superstar to America and the world, she is still a country girl, although people in Checotah and neighboring Muskogee refer to her as “our Carrie,” in the sweet and inclusive way locals regard fellow residents who hit the big time. She illustrated the ever-humbling vibes of going home. “As soon as I got home, my mom told me to clean my room. I was just joking, ‘Mom, the new American Idol doesn’t clean her room,’ and she said, ‘This one does.’ To my family, I will always be Carrie and not the American Idol. I never want that to change.”

Within a month of winning American Idol, Carrie stared into her potential in the recording and entertainment world. She became the newest jingle girl for Hershey’s –

the commercials have been on TV since July – and also signed with Skechers. The first print ads were timed for back-to-school. “I was really surprised to get these endorsements so quickly,” she says. “Hershey’s was really into the image I want to portray. The same thing with Skechers – they target younger people. Plus, I’m really happy to get free shoes and free chocolate. Those are two of a girl’s favorite things!”

Then she laid down a vocal track. With her 19 Recordings/Arista Records single, “Inside Your Heaven,” one of the three songs she sang in the Final Show, she became the first country artist ever to debut at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. It also was the first country song to go #1 on the Hot 100 since Lonestar’s “Amazed” in 2000. While selling more than 170,000 copies, “Inside Your Heaven” also topped the Pop 100, Country Singles and Singles Sales charts in July.

Never one to rest on her laurels, Carrie began working on her album during the Idols on Tour, flying to Nashville on her off days. “I don’t want to be one of those people who goes, ‘I’ve achieved the most amazing thing I’ve ever done, so I can cruise now,’” she says. When the tour concluded in September, she returned to Nashville. She’s moving into barely charted territory: Among previous American Idol finalists, only Josh Gracin has broken through in Nashville, but that came two years after he competed. Meanwhile, Carrie attracted America’s huge country music fan base to the show, and is delivering an album to them. Even at the Season 5 auditions, the shift was evident: Numerous country singers turned up from San Francisco to Boston. Everyone who watched her perform with Rascal Flatts on the Awards Show knows that she has superstar written all over her. Sales of her debut album could go through the roof, especially since it comes out in time for the holiday shopping season.

Down the line, she hopes to better reflect her eclectic musical taste. But for now, she’ll stick to her strength. “I definitely see myself on tour singing different songs live, but the album is going to be country first,” she says. “We’ve talked about Rascal Flatts and various people doing little parts, but nothing is set in stone. I’m basically living in the

studio, sleeping in there if I have to, until it’s done. I’m young, and this is my chance. I’m not about to let it slip away.”

It’s fitting that Carrie’s big break came on television. For the past four years, she prepared for a television career at Northeastern State University in Tallequah, Oklahoma. She also managed to keep her vocal chords tuned, singing in a country music show and finishing in the top three for two straight years in the Miss NSU Scholarship Pageant.

However, becoming the star of entertainment shows and talk shows wasn’t on the agenda – nor were pageants. “I’m not a pageant girl,” she says. She saw her future existing as a news producer, director, assignment editor, or in delivering stories and commentary like her heroines, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters, “the people who have been there forever and have overcome a lot of obstacles on their way to the top. For a long time, no women were in there. It would’ve been impossible for me to do what I do without them.”

Once Carrie made it to the Final 12, the American Idol producers became familiar with her career aspirations. The producers take a keen interest in Idol contestants’ life goals, even as they work together to fulfill the dream of becoming a recording star. In Carrie’s case, they met one of their own. “The producers were really helpful,” she recalls. “They knew I was interested in a broadcast journalism career. I asked a lot of questions; I paid attention to little things. I like taping things, being behind camera, doing things like editing snippets and segments, stuff like that. They were always so good to answer my questions. I wasn’t asking about my place on the show; I was trying to get some tips from the pros on how good shows are produced, how they come together.

“You know those little snippets they showed about us? I came to the point where I knew what they were looking for. Later, people said how ‘naturally’ good I was at it, how I made things move better and I sounded better. Well, the truth is that I studied this in school, then studied how the producers of the show were doing it.”

The other side of celebrity is a constant request for interviews. While it sounds fetching and glamorous, it can quickly wear down even the heartiest of souls. Carrie conducted daily interviews during Idols on Tour, and will be doing the same before and after Christmas to promote her album. During press conferences, she often studied interviewers for that future day when she might join former Idol finalists Kimberly Caldwell and LaToya London in the TV world – or move beyond that. “I’m totally learning how to interview other people right now by watching the way they interview me,” she says. “I sit there sometimes thinking, ‘Would I ask that question? What different kinds of questions would I ask?’ What I really like – and what I would do if I was interviewing someone – is when people already know something about me and they really get in there, make me think about my next answer. What I don’t like are really boring questions.

“Thanks to my experience on American Idol, I got a lot more comfortable with the camera. Now I have to sing a lot on TV programs and stuff. I’m doing different media circuits and talk shows, and I find I’m a lot more prepared.”

There’s another goal in mind: Getting her degree from Northeastern State. Carrie has about nine hours remaining – less than a semester – and is working with the university to take the classes off-campus. She is also hopeful that through her experience

on American Idol, she can convince the school to credit her. “Certainly, I hope they count my experiences with the show as an internship!”

Carrie’s interest in broadcast journalism replaced her dream of stardom. It also stemmed from another ingrained reality of farm life – always make back-up plans .You never know what storm, drought, shift in the market or other unforeseen calamity will come your way, regardless of whether you’re running a farm, headlining concert tours or starting a new job. Even now, as her career heads toward a stratospheric height that could shoot past Kelly Clarkson, Carrie keeps her contingency plan at her side.

“What if, for some strange reason, I couldn’t sing anymore? I always want to have things going for me, where singing doesn’t have to be my entire world. I want to have the freedom to branch out and do other things. Certainly, music is the most important thing right now. But I went to college and intend to graduate because another career is very important to me. There’s a ton of things that make me happy, and I plan to experience them.”

Carrie will race forward thanks to the huge launch that American Idol gave her, and millions of us will watch her and buy her CDs. While her life reflects many of our dreams and fantasies come true, her personality and values will continue to guide her on what will define her career: Hard work, good timing and the most effective use of her exquisite voice. These are not the musings of a fairy tale, but of a country girl’s new reality.

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Remembering Payne Stewart, our friendship, and our magazine

(Part One of a special three-part series)

2014-06-08 09.04.43

It takes quite a story to bring me to tears – especially a sports story. Yet, I sat on my couch the other day, eyes wet as I read the anchor piece in Sports Illustrated: a reminiscence of the 1999 U.S. Open, one of the greatest golf competitions ever. It also recalled one of the greatest writing experiences of my career, as the editor-ghostwriter of Payne Stewart’s Guide to Golf.

The Open had every twist and turn of high drama on center stage: old vs. young. Comeback after comeback. Riveting clutch shots. Agonizing misses. A man honoring his father on Father’s Day. Another about to become one — and prepared to fly cross-country when his wife went into labor, even if he was winning.2014-06-08 09.03.24

Most of all, it had my friend and client, Payne Stewart. With a tough par putt on 16, a birdie on 17, and an 18-foot putt on the final hole on the notorious Pinehurst No. 2 course, Payne exorcised naysayers who said he would never win another major, lifted his eyes to the heavens, and gave his late father, Bill, quite the Father’s Day present. “People are telling me it was the best Open finish of the century, one of the greatest Opens, those kinds of things, but I never thought about how this would go down,” he told me later. “I thought about getting the job done. Once the job’s done, then you reflect on it and think, ‘Wow, those last three holes were pretty special.’”

It became even moreso. In an act of greatest sportsmanship, Payne interrupted his celebration on the 18th green to cup the face of runner-up Phil Mickelson, and say, “There’s nothing like being a father.”

The next night, Mickelson and his wife, Amy, gave birth to their daughter, Amanda.

Those who follow sports (and many who don’t) know what happened next. At the height of his life – with family, friends, golf, priorities, and happiness perfectly aligned, a great place to be at age 42 – Payne was killed in an October 1999 plane crash when the cabin depressurized.

The next day, I was a call-in guest on The Jim Rome Show. Other media called for comments. It was hard to fathom. Watching your friend lose his life in slo-mo on CNN live, with F-16 fighter jets flanking the doomed plane on its ghost flight into a South Dakota field, was surreal enough.

A few days later, 4,000 people turned out for his funeral. More than 125 members of the PGA Tour flew from the TOUR Championship to Orlando and entered the church in single file, led by Tiger Woods. That reminded me of something Payne told me after the U.S. Open, which was reprised in the Sports Illustrated article:

“I’m on the putting green with Tiger, and he says, ‘You know, when I start designing courses, I’m going to make them 9,000 yards so you old guys can’t reach the greens.’”

Payne drew out a long pause, the Southern storyteller lining up his salvo. “I said, ‘Yeah, Tiger, but if it’s the U.S. Open, you still have to hit it in the fairway.”

At the funeral, Payne’s best friend, Paul Azinger, turned tears to cheers when he donned a derby cap, rolled up his slacks, and delivered the eulogy just as Payne would have played it – in plus-fours.

To say Payne died atop the world is not a cheap sentiment, nor a churlish reference to mid-air depressurization. He was riding high, with more to come; a week later, he would have been named U.S. Ryder Cup captain, the ultimate peer-to-peer honor.

 

I spent the last four years of Payne’s life working with him, playing golf with him, falling prey to his wicked southern-fried pranks, and watching him rise from the ash heap of “what might have beens” to again become a champion.

We became good friends through Payne Stewart’s Guide to Golf. He took me to Florida’s finest golf courses, where I hacked along while he, Ernie Els, Justin Rose, Azinger and others fired irons and woods like snipers. He hosted me in his palatial Villa Serena home, gave me great putting and chipping tips, and talked story. Most of all, he shared a personality bubbling with a champion’s intensity, quick wit, occasional fiery temper, and penchant for finding fun. His devotion to his wife, Tracey, and children, Aaron and Chelsea, was absolute: Payne almost missed the tragic flight because he made Chelsea her coveted pancakes before leaving for The TOUR Championship.

Some moments that will remain with me forever:

• One day in 1997,  8-year-old Aaron came into the house with a busted lip from skateboarding. “Why can’t you like something normal, like soccer or baseball?” Payne asked him.

“Because skateboarding and surfing are fun. Plus, the top surfer, (world champion) Kelly Slater, makes more than you.”

Payne turned to me, laughing. “The things kids say. No way a surfer makes more than me.”

“Hate to tell you this, Payne, but based on 1996 winnings, Aaron’s right,” I said.

The beauty of this story: After Payne died, my friend Mitch Varnes and I sprung a surprise for Aaron – a fishing and surfing trip with his idol, Kelly Slater.

• Payne took more friendly fire when the family sat to discuss his 1997 playing schedule. They compared vacation plans, school sports schedules and the events Payne wanted, or needed, to play. “I think I’m going to bump it up this year,” he told the family, “maybe play 26 or 27 events.”

“Well, Dad, if you’d win, you wouldn’t have to play so much,” his son chimed in.

Interestingly, Payne began winning again in 1997 – a trajectory that only a plane crash could halt.

• We were playing Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer’s course, during a break in Payne’s 1999 schedule. I was in a group with Payne, teenaged 1998 British Open runner-up Justin Rose, head pro Dave Rose, and John Lodge, bass player for the Moody Blues. I split the fairway off the first tee, and opened birdie-par to lead after two holes.

Payne turned to the others. “I’ll be damned, boys,” he drawled, his voice dripping with his native Ozark accent. “I brought along a ringer. My apologies.”

Thanks, Payne. Needless to say, the wheels fell off and it became a long, painful visit to alligator swamps and cypress woods for me.

•  About two months before Payne died, I found him in a quiet, reflective mood as I walked into his house. “What’s going on?”

“I’m blown away right now.”

He and Tracey were selling Villa Serena to move to nearby Isleworth, a golf-oriented community. They’d received a call to view the house; the party was eminently qualified to handle its steep price tag. “I kept asking them to tell me who the person was, but they wouldn’t.” Payne’s wry smile was gone. “I wasn’t about to let anyone in my house unless I knew who they were, but they told me, ‘Don’t worry; he’s qualified.’”

The next day, the prospective buyer arrived. It was Michael Jackson. Oh boy … the Poster Child of Bizarre meets the Red, White & Blue Father of the Year. “Now that would be the last person I’d let into my house,” Payne said, “but after he walked around for a minute, he asked me to sit down with him.”

Cue up the magic: for the next hour, Jackson asked Payne about parenting. He’d heard that Payne was a wonderful father, and wanted his advice on raising kids. “That’s the only reason why he came to view the house,” Payne said. “Just to sit and talk. It sure changed my tune about him.”

 

I could go on and on. The wonderful Sports Illustrated article triggered so many memories, but more importantly, recalled one of sports’ greatest personalities and events. The PGA Tour will gather this week at Pinehurst No. 2 for the first U.S. Open held there since Payne’s victory, and NBC will certainly trot out a tribute piece.

I’m going to remember my friend as well. The next two Word Journeys blogs will re-run “A Champion’s Journey,” the last piece I wrote on Payne. It was my best. It first published in Payne Stewart’s Guide to Golf in September 1999, a month before I lost a friend and the sports world lost one of its finest people.

(Part One of “A Champion’s Journey” will run on Wednesday. June 11. Part two will run on Friday, June 13.)

 

 

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The Sleuthsayers: Six Crime, Mystery & Action Thriller Novelists Discuss Their Work

CHECK OUT THE 366 WRITING BLOG:

40 GREAT BOOKS FOR EVERY WRITER

(First of a 2-blog series)

THEY PRESS ON WITH THEIR DAILY LIVES, watching everything. Stories percolate constantly in their minds. They sit for hours, days, weeks and months, cooking up good characters and bad, and plots with more twists and turns than a mountain switchback road.

Frank Ritter

Frank Ritter

Meet The Sleuthsayers. These crime fiction, mystery and action thriller authors specialize in compelling page-turner books that exemplify solid storytelling and characters that jump off the page. They kill people, injure others, fall in and out of love, and solve one tantalizing mystery after another. In many cases, they carry the same lead character from one book to another.

Recently, I put a few questions to authors Jenny Hilborne, Frank Ritter (also an award-winning playwright), Gayle Carline, William Thompson Ong, Claudia Whitsitt, and Wes Albers, who is also the director of the Southern California Writers Conference.

These people are very good writers. Their average collective ranking on Amazon.com? 4.8 (out of 5). And on Goodreads? 4.9 (out of 5).

Other interesting trivia tidbits: Remember the 1980s TV series Simon & Simon? The series was loosely (or not so loosely) based on Frank Ritter and his brother, private investigators at the time. Ritter’s expertise really shows in The Killing Games. Our other on-the-job expert is Wes Albers, a longtime member of the San Diego Police Department. Meanwhile, Tom Ong is one of the original Mad Men from the New York advertising scene of the early 1960s.

I hope you enjoy what they have to say – and buy their books, either for yourself or for a favorite crime & mystery fiction lover on your Holiday shopping list. Now, let’s get the roundtable started …

Jenny Hilborne

Jenny Hilborne

Q: First of all, give us a snapshot of your most recent books.

Jenny Hilborne: The Jackson Mystery Series, which can be read as standalones. They include Hide and Seek and Madness and Murder.

Frank Ritter: The Killing Games, an adult thriller (now available), and The Devil’s Crib, another adult thriller, which will be out in Spring 2014.

Gayle Carline: I write the Peri Minneopa Mystery Series. A couple of titles include Hit or Missus and Hot Mess.

William Thompson Ong: I call mine the Kate Conway Series – The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha, and The Fashionista Murders.

Claudia Whitsitt: The Samantha Series: Identity Issues (Book 1) and Intimacy Issues (Book 2).

Wes Albers: Black & White is my first published novel. It’s a look into the life of a street cop, told through the eyes of veteran San Diego Police Patrolman John Hatch.

Q: Do you set up your plot twists before you begin writing, or do you let characters and situations take you there?

Albers: I do a little of both. For Black & White, I didn’t start out with anything. I simply sat down one day and started writing. I let the story take me where it wanted to go, until I hit a point where I needed to get to a logical conclusion. It became necessary to start doing some plotting and outlining as I went along, but mostly so that I could drive the story where I needed it to go rather than any creative plot twist.

Gayle Carline

Gayle Carline

One challenge in writing about street cops is that their job doesn’t necessarily flow like a typical story. The thought of having something fall along the lines of Act I, Act II, and Act III is kind of contrary to how the job works. Not every story in a cop’s life resolves. Instead, a street cop’s life is often more a series of scenes.

Whitsitt: Plot twists–what I live for! I do some pre-plotting. It’s best to know where I want the story to wind up, but I’m always willing to let the characters take over. I find a mix of planning/free-form works best for me. The story sometimes stays on track but often the twists are created along the way as a result of my character’s personalities and the ways in which they handle situations. The story evolves through the writing as I continually play “what if”. And my characters have minds of their own—feisty crew that they are!

Ong: I set up a basic plot with plenty of twists and turns in every chapter. But once I begin writing, those unexpected plot twists and turns will come flying at me from every angle and provide the spice for my story. While writing my first novel, I learned two very big lessons: 1) the best way to create plot twists is to ask your characters what’s the worst thing that can happen to them; and 2) believe in your characters and they will help you steer the plot, taking you to places you never thought possible.

Carline: It depends upon the book. Sometimes I just know how everything’s going to work and sometimes I get the idea as I’m writing. I try to do a very general outline. For my first mystery, I was so frightened of having any loose ends or conflicting clues, I stuck to my outline like duct tape. I thought writing to an outline would be my system. Then in the second mystery, I got bored with a scene, so I hit Peri over the head with a golf club and abandoned the outline. The third mystery was a hybrid of outlining, then ditching the outline, then re-outlining. I’m now writing a fourth book, and there is no outline.

William Thompson Ong

William Thompson Ong

Ritter: I story board not only my books but also my plays. All plot twists, locations and even some character traits are worked out on my story boards. I also do a personal profile of each major character and their traits.

Hilborne: I write whatever comes into my head at the time. My characters drive the story.

Q:  How much pre-planning do you put into your characters’ spoken voices, so that their dialogue is distinctive and forward-moving?

Hilborne: I’m not a planner. I hear their voices as I write the dialogue.

Ritter: I work very hard at making my dialogue match each character’s background and speech patterns so that each has his/her own voice. I study slang usage, speech patterns for an American locale I may need, and the speech patterns of those for whom English is a second language, if needed.

Carline: Of all the pre-planning, my characters are my biggest focus. I write up a study of each one, what they look like, their occupation, likes and dislikes, even astrological signs. Then I write a journal for each one. I let them tell me what’s important to them. By the time I start writing the book, I know who they are and how they sound.

Ong: Dialogue is not something that can be wasted. It must either establish character or further the plot. Before writing I make sure each character is

Claudia Whitsitt

Claudia Whitsitt

fixed in my mind—from what makes them tick right down to those quirky little details that are so important—and voice here is key. Then, before each scene, I write a brief outline that describes the action along with snippets of highlighted dialogue. Then I write the scene. I rewrite again and again. When I think I am finished with a novel I go over it carefully, looking for places where sharp dialogue can replace those author descriptions that are too long.

Whitsitt: I wrote a L.O.O.S.E. character sketch before I began writing the series, but I mostly hear my characters’ voices; it’s quite instinctive on my part. I simply step into their shoes and voila! Dialogue! (Don’t tell anyone I hear voices. Please!)

Albers: Dialogue thus far has been a pretty natural process for me. Often it is the easiest part of storytelling. I have an image of the character in my head and any distinct voice for a character just seems to develop as I work.  When I’m not writing but simply daydreaming about the story and where I want it to go, sometimes I’ll get a flash of something unique that I want to attribute specifically to a character.  The sergeant in Black & White is a good example. When I started writing him I had lots of examples of bad managers, or supervisors, from my past so I simply had him strike an elitist, condescending tone and the words just came naturally, his voice developed organically. I must have struck some chord because readers have consistently reacted to him as an accurate reflection of a bad boss that everyone has had at some point.

Q: Out of all the books you’ve written, what are two of the most surprising in-story developments that you did not know would happen when you started writing?

Wes Albers

Wes Albers

Albers: The first was in another unpublished story. I had a bad guy tied to a tree who was about to be executed. Hope was lost, from his perspective. When I originally started writing the chapter, I intended it to be more about the events that would ultimately lead to his surprise release, but as I wrote, it developed into an internal dialogue where this vicious and foul person started reflecting on the tragic path that led him to that tree. Suddenly, he became human and relatable.

The other was the start of Black & White. I didn’t set out to write police stories. In fact, I actively resisted them but someone encouraged me, and then repeatedly pestered me until I made an attempt. I never expected the first line of Black & White would ever survive to print, but in an instant, I found the voice of veteran of the streets, a voice that spoke with the authority of experience.

Whitsitt: My main character, Samantha, has experienced deep moments of profound sorrow. I was surprised how moved I was by those events and the lingering effects her grief had on me—losing loved ones I hadn’t intended to “kill” before I began penning the book. Writing those scenes is exhausting!

The other in-story surprise that has occurred is how much I enjoy writing male characters, (I guess my five brothers are worth something after all!), so much so that I’m considering a new series focused on one of those men.

Ong: At the end of The Mounting Storm, I originally had one ex-wife fire all six bullets from a Colt revolver into the body of the villain. At the very last minute, I switched the revolver into the hands of the other ex-wife. That gave the ending the unexpected wallop it needed.

In The Deadly Buddha, I changed the outcome of the scene where Kate survives the shooting in Central Park after Zack throws his body across hers and Zookie’s and nearly dies in the process. It then became a scene where a very  confused Kate realizes how much she loves the guy—and decides to marry him instead of keeping him waiting another 50 pages.

Carline: The first one came with the first book, Freezer Burn. I had imagined one character, Benny, as an immoral lout (this was before I started all the character development techniques). After the first scene, I saw him for what he was: an obsessive-compulsive man who was confused by the world around him and needed help.

The second one that truly surprised me didn’t happen when I was writing the book, but it happened when I was journaling one of the characters of my current work. I had thought of the crime, figured out the who/what/where, but while one of my characters was telling me about his life, I discovered the motive for the murder. It was completely different than what I was planning.

Ritter: After I story board, I then begin my plot and location research. In the case of The Killing Games, although my research had developed the needed information to make the climatic explosion at the LA Coliseum really happen, I altered this information so as to not be giving out factual instructions to any idiots or truly bad guys. Other than that, because I story board, the only in-story developments while putting pen (computer) to paper have been characters that I grew to truly like and had to either hurt badly or even kill them off. Honestly, when that happens, it really hurts. In The Killing Games, the bad guy rapes a woman and later he rapes her 12-year-old boy. Those scenes were very hard for me to write realistically, but they needed to be there to set up later actions and character developments.

Hilborne: All of my books have surprised me. The endings are never how I might imagine them. The most surprising element for me is the themes readers pick up in my stories. I never intend a message, but readers have pointed them out.

Read Part 2

 

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Why Thrillers Are Fun to Write, and #1 to Read: William Thompson Ong Interview

After he retired from a long career in the advertising industry, William Thompson Ong knew he wanted to return to his other love – 41z1MhGnReL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_writing – but didn’t know where to start. Like other writers, he wanted to draw plenty of fun and enjoyment from his daily sessions. However, he also wanted to write books that would find large audiences.

Ong did some research, and it brought him back to one of the favorite genres he read as a youth and young man: action thrillers with plenty of mystery. Bingo! He transformed into a typing thoroughbred, and burst out of the gates. In just a few years, he has written seven novels and a popular thriller series. In the second part of this exclusive interview, Ong reflects on why thrillers are so much fun to write, why they are the #1 fiction genre for readers (just ahead of the other ingredient in his books, romance), and how the stars have aligned ideally in the persona of Kate Conway, his protagonists for the novel series The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha, and The Fashionista Murders, all available on Amazon.com.

WORDJOURNEYS.COM: What is it about the personalities and characteristics of investigative journalists that make them ideal protagonists for thrillers and mysteries? 

WILLIAM THOMPSON ONG: I’d like to answer with some comparisons between the detective and the newspaper guy or gal. Both appear to be dedicated to discovering breakthrough facts or evidence they can weave into a conclusive story or an indictment.  Aren’t they both in the same business, after all—fighting crime?

In Kate Conway’s case, the hurdles are set higher. The investigative reporter is in a class by herself at a newspaper or magazine journal, assigned to the really big and explosive stuff—stories and cases that go far beyond the murder story.  These are the bright, tenacious, and fearless guys and gals who won’t be home for Christmas—they’ll be spending it hiding in a basement in Teheran to escape a terrorist’s sword. These are the guys and gals whose names will appear on the stories that garner Pulitzer Prizes for their papers—(to say nothing of boosting circulation enough to keep today’s newspapers alive for another year.)  And in most cases they’ll be acting alone—not with the NYPD at their disposal.

Tom's jacket photo. Alicia #9 (preferred)WJ: You mentioned a disparity between typical education levels of an investigative journalist and detective, which creates major story problems in moving crime novels along because of the distrust with which one often views the other in real life. How did you get around that in your series?

TO: I made Kate’s father a gnarly ex-detective—(Paul Conway is a career dick from Brooklyn). When Kate needs help she whistles and Paul Conway appears, wise in the details of police procedure (which Kate and I choose not to be) and just dropping his name opens doors for Kate. Some may think I am cheating by supplying Kate with a crutch like this. But it allows Kate to cruise on a higher level and solve the really complicated crimes.

All of this explains why I lean away from the straight detective story in favor of the mystery-thriller. I’m still that stickler for detail.  But now I can keep a lot more balls in the air when it comes to plotting.

WJ: In The Fashionista Murders, and also The Mounting Storm, you give an expert’s touch to how you portray the high fashion industry and the high-end art world. Are these interests of yours, or just story drivers that you researched (well) and brought to life?

Like Kate Conway herself in The Fashionista Murders, I am totally turned off by fashion—which is why I attached the serial killer to the story. In The Mounting Storm, introducing Kate to Margaret Winship opened up the world of art and museums and society that heightened Kate’s search for the missing Monet she suspects belonged to her grandmother and triggered Kate’s unmasking the Nazi.

It also opened all of Kate’s subsequent novels to the swanky world of high finance and billionaires and celebrity society with its pretension and snobbery and deviousness—absolutely wonderful and trusty elements for layering your novel.  These elements are story drivers and not comfortable elements already present in my life—although at one time I seriously considered becoming an artist.

WJ: You had an interesting way of becoming a thriller writer after leaving the advertising industry:

TO: I did. My decision to write thrillers was based on some good old-fashioned seat-of-the-pants research.  I found thrillers to be the most popular genre. I also found there were more female readers than male readers, which helped lead me to inventing Kate Conway.  Discovering that romances were the second hottest genre convinced me to spread Kate’s adventures with hot and spicy romance.

WJ: Were you a big reader of mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction in your growing up years? Who were your favorite 41u0RCXXw7L._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_authors, and what influenced you most about their works, styles and/or voices?

TO: When I was 9, my father brought home The Five Orange Pips and lightning struck. I became a Sherlock Holmes fan forever, admiring his characters and atmosphere (who can resist The Hound of the Baskervilles for atmosphere?) as much as his sleuthing.  But as I grew older, my tastes gravitated to more intricate thrillers like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Gorky Park, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Day of the Jackal.

By the time I reached college, writing style became important—the   grace and class of W. Somerset Maugham as well as the biting vividness of Hemingway and the magic of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (I have worn out several soft-cover editions of A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby.)

WJ: Story structure and writing style definitely resonates in your books. We start off on one trail, only to be switched to another – then another –  always with entanglements of some kind involved. Is this a reflection of the way Kate keeps changing and running into surprises? Or the storycrafting style you’ve decided to run with?

TO: It’s both. The multi-layering of plot that I began in The Mounting Storm logically became a pattern for all of Kate’s novels.  In the beginning I had no thought of making the novel into a series.  It was to be a dark and brooding Citizen Kane type of story dramatizing the deviousness of Stirling Winship with Kate almost a minor figure. On the advice of an agent I cut some 90 pages and 30,000 words of background color on Stirling and turned it into a fast-paced thriller featuring Kate. But almost all the plots and subplots remained intact and we were off to the races with the Kate Conway series.

41WA0IPiSeL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_WJ: Rather than go the traditional publishing route, you’ve partner-published with Charles Redner and RiPublishing. Could you elaborate on the advantages you’ve found to the path you’re taking?

TO: The advantages? I am getting to see my books in print, I’m getting strong reviews, and I’m selling enough books to encourage me to keep going. Plus, it’s happening right now. This sure beats waiting around while an editor fiddles and fusses with changes for a year and then spends another year wondering whether the publishing house bosses will give me the final green light.

Self-publishing no longer bears a stigma. It’s attracting big name authors as well as beginners.  If you can’t afford to wait, it’s the place to be. If your books have the necessary magic, they will almost certainly rise to the top.

Partnership-publishing is even better. In Charlie Redner, I have the advantage of a fellow author who acts as my publisher and also my agent when it comes to advice.  There’s a lot of advice you’ll need, especially if you’re like me and have a mind that was built to function in the old days before the computer and the internet—back when we spent our time thinking and doing things instead of walking around pressing buttons on gadgets. (But thank Heaven the word processor replaced my typewriter!)

WJ: Final question: In each of your books, what is the one scene, situation, or character shift that surprised you most when it came flying from your mind to pen or computer screen?

TO: What a terrific question for ending this interview!

In The Mounting Storm, it’s the scene where Kate’s having dinner as the guest of Winston Winship.  She has found the guy an obnoxious bore and lets us know it. But then he says something encouraging about her idea for a new magazine—and she warms to him. When he invites Kate to the party he’s throwing in the Hamptons, which she absolutely hates…

            Kate looked at him before answering, digesting all over again his         coolness, his incredible confidence, his mastery at what he does, his   extremely good looks. And his eyes, those wonderful gray eyes with      their look of sadness.

           “Yes, I’ll come,” she said. “I love the Hamptons.

In The Deadly Buddha, in the party scene at the Hollywood movie studio, Kate has no idea the handsome dude chatting her up—and from whom she reluctantly accepts a ride back to her hotel—is the Welsh movie star she’s been ordered to interview.  He stops at the Griffith Observatory and they find themselves having a ball as they recall from memory the lines James Dean and Natalie Wood exchanged in Rebel Without a Cause. This is how the scene ends:

             Kate didn’t lean over and kiss him, although she thought about it. They were too busy laughing. They laughed all the way back to the hotel. The doorman helped her out. She turned to wave goodbye, but he was already in the circle and heading toward the Wilshire exit, his hand waving carelessly in the air.

           That was the moment Kate realized she didn’t even know his name.

In The Fashionista Murders, we go through the thought process that keeps Kate from giving in to sex, this time in the apartment-studio and in the arms of the handsome photographer covering the fashion shows with her:

Maybe the shrink her friends had dragged her to was right—instead of shutting men out of her life she should loosen up when she felt her buttons being pushed and let things happen. Maybe she needs to change—not just Cam.

          “You are not only a sex maniac but a full-fledged, card-carrying, conniving bastard,” was the way she began the terms of her surrender.  

           She took a step back, grasping both his hands in hers while shaking her mane of Irish red hair. “And now that I have made it ridiculously clear, you may do what you want with me—so long as it’s not boring, distasteful, or so devious it will land us in jail.”

 I warned you how much fun it is writing thrillers, especially when you decide to stretch the boundaries a little. Thanks again for inviting me into your sanctuary.

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From Mad Men to Thrillers: An Interview with William Thompson Ong

William Thompson Ong, or Tom as his friends know him, has created quite a stir with thriller readers in the past 12 months with his trilogy of novels featuring journalist-protagonist-amateur sleuth Kate Conway.Tom's jacket photo. Alicia #9 (preferred)

The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha and The Fashionista Murders (published by Ri Publishing) combine tight, twisting plots, charming bad guys to which Kate becomes attracted, and some high-powered crime solving in great professional settings – art museums, Parisian fashion runways and the like. The trio of novels (not a trilogy; Tom has more Kate Conway novels in his future) also incorporates two aspects of writing of which I can never get enough (or impress more upon writers) – tough, gritty narrative voice, and attention to detail  explicit in time, place, and the character’s personal likes and dislikes. NWhen I see this, I see someone who has married fine journalistic skills with excellent fiction-writing style. ot as easy to write or maintain as it sounds.

41z1MhGnReL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Behind Kate Conway is a novelist with an illustrious past in the advertising industry, especially for fans of the hit AMC TV show Mad Men. Tom Ong is an original Mad Man, an advertising copywriter and, later, executive who began his career on New York’s Madison Avenue a decade before Mad Men star Jon Hamm was born. Later, he moved to the West Coast, where he cooks up plot twists rather than hook and tag lines.

This is the first of a two-part interview with Tom, in which he reflects on his Mad Men days and takes us deep into Kate Conway’s world, and the ways in which he constructed it. I found his answers rich and fascinating. Hope you do, too.

WORDJOURNEYS.COM: First of all, Tom, you’ve made an interesting creative leap – from being an advertising agency executive to writing thrillers. How did that come about?

William Thompson Ong: It wasn’t that hard. I entered the business as a copywriter, and every copywriter I knew was secretly working on a novel. It was in our blood. At one time at the Benton & Bowles agency we had four guys writing copy for P&G and General Foods, along with our other clients who went on to become successful novelists and lyricists and screenplay writers—Israel Horowitz, Shepherd Meade, Ed Hannibal and Herman Raucher  (who wrote Summer of ’42)—all of us working at the same time and on the same floor. Even though I eventually had many executive titles, like Creative Director and even CEO of my own agency, I was always a copywriter, creating ads and aiming for the fences.

WJ.COM: Could you give us a brief synopsis of your background?

WTO: I grew up in the quiet, tree-lined suburbs of Cleveland, and got my undergrad degree from DePauw University in Indiana. I wrote some short stories and then some angry editorials as editor of the campus newspaper, which led to my MA in journalism from Columbia. After the army I spent 15 years with the biggest advertising agencies in New York City—yes, I was one of the original Mad Men. Then I opened my own agency in Philadelphia and ten years ago cashed in on my lifelong dream, migrating to Los Angeles cold turkey to pursue a new career as a novelist.

WJ.COM: You’ve been quite prolific since becoming a full-time novelist.

WTO: I’ve completed seven novels (plus two screenplays). The three novels in the Kate Conway series are thrillers and have been partnership-published and are doing quite well on Amazon.  I have four more historical thrillers waiting to be published, and I’m still developing plots for Kate Conway.

WJ.COM: Have to ask, since you were one of the originals – how authentic is Mad Men?

WTO: Don Draper is hard to resist as the handsome anti-hero in a world of snakes and dragons, but in a sense he spoils the series for me.  I was hoping it would be more about the classic creative wars that took place at the time between the good guys in creative and the bad guys, at both the client and the agency—all heavily-armed and  thoroughly trained to shoot down any idea that looked fresh and original. I will give Don credit for his ploy in taking on the Cancer Society client and its anti-smoking messages to get even with the cigarette account the agency lost.  That was brilliant—and Don’s personal high for me.

What I like about the series is the telling it like it was—the drinking and smoking, the cheating and jealousy, the double-dealing and back-stabbing, the toll the business took on marriages. Incredible!—we were all so busy trying to survive and get ahead we failed to realize what was going on.

WJ.COM: What were some of the toughest parts of the adjustment from writing ad copy to subjective, character-based fictional narrative?41WA0IPiSeL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_

WTO: No matter how good you are with words, it requires work and study to absorb the basics of good fiction writing. And there definitely are rules: ‘Show, Don’t Tell’; establishing and following well-defined character arcs; knowing your characters intimately; and keeping the action moving—plus a dozen other rules that you should learn to follow before you can break them. You can break them when you reach that point of competence and hear that voice whispering in your ear saying you have arrived.  Then you can forget the rules because they are no longer rules on paper—they are automatic in your head.

When I sat down to write ads and campaigns I would always begin by briefing myself as thoroughly as possible and then staring at that blank sheet of paper—rejecting idea after idea until I knew I had nailed that one idea that would knock everything else silly. It’s the same in fiction writing—we are always staring at that blank sheet of paper and forcing ourselves to come up with that one great plot, one great character, one great scene, one word that propels our story forward. It’s the same process for both. And it’s nakedly, sinfully, deliciously, heart-warmingly beautiful.

WJ.COM: What do you feel are the most important points to remember when writing action-based fiction?

WTO: Every writer has a checklist. Here’s mine, just the way I have the points written down:

  1. SHOW DON’T TELL. Avoid “She saw . . . /noticed . . .” Substitute: “She turned. Two snakes were slithering down the embankment.”
  2. NEVER BE BORING—keep asking yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen next?
  3. Welcome friction, antagonism, fear, unexpected twists and turns. Make characters want something out of reach in every scene.
  4. Know where you are going with the story.
  5. Start the FLASHPOINT OF ACTION on Page One
  6. Make Kate a tough cookie and keep her there. Never let romance get the best of her.  Keep her innocent of how sexy she is.
  7. AVOID CLICHES AND EMPTY GESTURES.  ‘She finished eating and, wiping her mouth with a napkin, smiled.’

8 .  Watch the adjectives, adverbs. Ditch the colons and semi-colons. Don’t try so hard with word play. Use dialogue more often to advance the story.

Another thing I keep in mind is that, broadly speaking, thrillers are action-oriented while literary fiction is character-oriented.

WJ.COM: You’ve brought your journalistic skills into the mix through the way you interlace precise details that are on the money for time and place as well. Could you talk about the importance of enriching narrative with well-chosen details?

WTO: At Columbia University we had a tough, white-thatched ex-Chicago Daily News editor as one of our professors. His name was Roscoe Ellard and he described the cub reporter who couldn’t wait to hand in the story of a horrific fire that destroyed a landmark church and its historic steeple. The reporter captured all the details—the time of the fire, names and addresses of the dead, degree of burns of all victims, age of the church, the hospitals involved, whether arson was suspected, plus dozens of other facts that were right on the money. The professor finally asked the cub writer one simple question.

“How high was the steeple?”

A stony silence followed.

For the rest of the school year Professor Ellard, in his huge booming voice, not only opened every class with the same question, but as students passing each other in the halls or meeting in bars our official greeting became: “How high was the steeple, pal?”

41u0RCXXw7L._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_WJ.COM: The other side of your journalistic background comes from Kate Conway, the protagonist in three books now – The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha and The Fashionista Murders. Is Kate the journalist you would have been had you not moved into the advertising business?  

WTO: This is a tricky question, and I’m not sure, since Kate and I represent opposite sexes. My first response would be to say yes, that Kate and I are Type-A personalities not content to stand idly by but want to always plunge in and slug the perpetrator – or at least try to bring the body at our feet back to life.

WJ.COM: How different or similar were your primary goals?

WTO: Kate’s primary goal in journalism is to do what she was taught as a child and had driven into her being by her Catholic parents and especially her detective father— TELL THE TRUTH.  That also describes my background, my family, my political views and, although I am a Presbyterian, my religious beliefs.  With a nation full of evil CEOs, politicians and killers posing as saints, there is plenty for Kate and me and any other investigative reporter, real or imaginary, to feast upon.

WJ.COM: While many male novelists have written strong woman characters, it is very rare to find a male thriller writer using a female protagonist.

WTO: I have received a lot of praise for establishing Kate as a role model for women. I set out to do this intentionally.  In Kate’s first novel, The Mounting Storm, we see her flair for journalism in writing an innocent bio piece about Margaret Winship, The Museum Queen. The piece leads ultimately to exposing her husband and finding the missing Monet, but in it, Kate has Margaret deliver a stern lecture challenging today’s women in the work force to keep giving back to their own sex as they plunge ahead.

WJ.COM: What is Kate’s primary motivation in life? How is it she finds herself crossing paths with the twisted, sophisticated, charismatic bad guys you bring into each story?

TO: Close behind Kate’s driving preoccupation with discovering and telling the truth is coming face-to-face with a talented and romantic male character who she is attracted to and, plot-wise, becomes deeply  involved with—and in two of the three novels comes close to marrying.

I’ve already mentioned how I chose a woman as my major character to stand out from the male-dominated thrillers.  I decided to take this extra positioning step by not being afraid to have romance that leads to sex (and a lot of it) become a powerful and controlling factor in all three of Kate Conway’s adventures.

In this case it was more than relieving my own boredom.  I felt I was being adventurous myself, perhaps venturing where others feared to tread and all that ego-enhancing stuff.  But I knew I was on the right track when women readers and the dozen or so agents who read the first manuscript loved Kate just as written with all her romantic entanglements.

(PART TWO will run on Friday, August 9)

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Interview: How Derek Haas Keeps Us Watching & Turning Pages

Derek Haas (left) and co-writer Michael Brandt

Derek Haas (left) and co-writer Michael Brandt

To say Derek Haas is on a writing hot streak is a gross understatement. The 43-year-old adventure thriller novelist’s career is vaulting into the stratosphere with bestsellers like The Right Hand and The Assassin Trilogy (Silver Bear, Columbus, Dark Men), featuring contract killer Columbus, one of the more intriguing protagonists in recent years.

However, this only nicks the surface of Haas’ life. He has also become one of the hottest all-around writers in the world, currently touting a bestselling novel (The Right Hand), and with longtime co-writer Michael Brandt, one of the most acclaimed TV series (Chicago Fireand a dossier of screenwriting credits that includes The Double (2011), Wanted (2008), 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003).

41O0S7VJgIL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Some great TV writers, like Stephen J. Cannell and Sidney Sheldon, graduated to bestseller novelist status after leaving television. Others moved on to write memorable movies. Some novelists have become prolific screenwriters. A great example is the indomitable Elmore Leonard, the master of printed dialogue, whose novels and short stories have been adapted into more than 20 movies, some written by himself. One of his adapted short stories is 3:10 to Yuma. 

However, very few writers have worked in all three media simultaneously.

Such dexterity is a tribute not only to Haas’ abilities, but to his work ethic. He is a throwback to the classics, such as Paddy Chayefsky (who won Academy Awards for the writing of Network, The Hospital, and Marty), who got up every day and wrote great movie scripts and teleplays during TV’s golden age – no matter what. Haas attributes this discipline, along with years of rejections and “almosts”, in forging his dogged determination to succeed.

Haas on the movie set

Haas on the movie set

All of Haas’ work is action-packed, with well-layered character development and plenty ofsurprise twists and turns. Whether it’s a chapter in his books or an episode from Chicago Fire, subtext and various narrative threads are working just beneath the main arc, providing the full experience his readers and viewers have come to expect. After reading three of his novels and watching the entire first season of Chicago Fire over a month’s time on Hulu Plus, I mentioned to Derek how one can tell an accomplished novelist wrote that series. “Well, a TV series is episodic, like the chapter of a book,” he replied.

I first met Haas at the 2011 Southern California Writers Conference, where he delivered the featured keynote speech. Now, after 2 ½ years, one movie, two books and a hit TV series later, Haas shares his experience in this special interview.

WORDJOURNEYS: First of all, Derek, you’ve been on a writing rampage the past seven years – three movies, four adventure thriller novels, and a hit TV series. How do you switch back and forth from novel writing to TV writing to screenwriting? And keep the creative energy flowing?

Derek Haas: I don’t have any secrets other than I put the time in and try not to procrastinate.  I make sure I write every day; I make sure I read every day.  I love to write, so it’s never been a drag for me.  I have a partner in screenwriting so it is easy to avoid writer’s block.  If I get stuck, I just click “send” on an email.  Here you go, Michael (Brandt).  Your turn.

Derek Haas with a composite of his TV and motion picture protagonists

Derek Haas with a composite of his TV and motion picture protagonists

WJ: Your world must be rocking this summer between The Right Hand and writing season 2 of Chicago Fire.  Which leads to process: Since every writer wants to know about every other writer’s daily process, what’s yours?

DH: For television, it’s a pretty standard process.  Brandt and I (with the help of Matt Olmstead and our writing staff) come up with a story, which we then write into about a twelve-page outline.  The outline tells exactly what is going to happen in each act.  Very detailed.  We then go through a series of approvals, after which, we write the script incorporating ideas generated from the feedback.  Michael and I then pass the script back and forth until we get it to a place we like, then we go through the same approval process.

With novels, I just write long hand in one of those good ol’ Moleskin booklets.  I don’t usually outline… I just kind of know my beginning, middle, and end.  It lets me run a bit wild.

WJ: You made a distinction to the Chicago Tribune between TV series and movies that showed your novel-writing experience. You said that in movies, you need a beginning-middle-end, but you can end TV episodes with danglers. Could you elaborate?

DH: Well, you want viewers to tune in the following week… so the episodes end up being like chapters rather than books.  We’ll close this storyline this week, but we’ll open the door on three other storylines so you’ll want to come back and see how they finish.  It’s the “cliffhanger” writing that has been around for a long time.  A lot of times, we think of things as three-episode arcs … over the course of three episodes, we’re going to tell this story.  (Three is arbitrary; it could be four or seven.)  One three-episode arc might start in episode five, another might end there.  Does that clarify it?

The Right Hand, Derek Haas' latest novel

The Right Hand, Derek Haas’ latest novel

WJ: You’ve come off the heels of The Assassin Trilogy with a highly acclaimed action thriller, The Right Hand. I’m reading it now; it’s hard to put down. Austin Clay is incredibly intriguing, how he balances his life while engaged in very deep black ops. What is it about action, adventure, and the lone wolf archetype that captivate you so much?

DH: I don’t know… I’ve always liked stories about a lone wolf, where everyone in the world is against the protagonist.  I’m attracted to characters who are gray – an intriguing blend of good and bad.  It’s fun for me to write a despicable character in such a way that the reader cares for him or her.

WJ: You really like Europe as a setting for your novels. What do you enjoy about the European cultures, history, buildings, landscapes and people, and what are the combination of elements that make it so intriguing for you to write about, and readers to sink into?

DH: Great question!   Europe works for a lot of reasons… for one, it’s easier for an American spy or hit man to blend in – the basis for a lot of espionage.  I love the nooks and crannies and Old World layouts of cities, before there were cars and grids.  I also like to take readers out of their comfort zones and give them something new to imagine.  I like to play on perceptions of cities… for instance, Paris is usually this romantic place, but I like to take you down the darker, seedier streets.  I like to write about places I’ve been to… and I haven’t made it to Asia yet, so that’s probably a factor.  I really love Europe. When you respond to a place, when it gets in your blood, it comes out on the page.

WJ: Your readership arc for The Assassin Trilogy is almost like the viewer arc for Chicago Fire, in that some people got it right away, and then word-of-mouth caught fire and greatly increased audience as you were deepening the stories and bringing in new characters. What adjustments did you make from one book to another in The Assassin Trilogy to keep it fresh and new?

DH: I made a concerted effort to make Columbus more likable as the series went on… here’s a guy I wanted readers to want to spend more time with… so I couldn’t keep him as cold-blooded as he was in the first book.  I decided to give him a relationship that would cause him to question his role in life.  After I had Risina, I knew I could build empathy between Columbus and the reader.  I think that was the biggest progression.  I love writing him… he’s so heartless in one moment and so damned big-hearted the next.   Anyway, I hope that answers the question.

WJ: That it does. Another Columbus question: I’ve seen Columbus described as “the anti-Jason Bourne.” As his creator and storymaker, what intrigued you most about him as you wrote him out?  What background work did you do to get the hit man character right?

DH: I had spent some time with the FBI at Quantico and they talked to Michael and me about organized crime.  The world fascinated me.  I thought a hit man would make a great anti-hero, and I loved the idea of writing him in the first person, so the reader would be forced inside the head of a guy who killed people for a living.  I loved thinking about the psychological ramifications of hunting someone down, killing him, and walking away to do it again.  I wanted to make the toll of that on a man’s psyche seem real.  Then I hired a hit man to kill someone so I could shadow him and write about him.  (Just kidding about that last part.  Seriously, don’t send the FBI after me.)

WJ: You’ve worked for years with Michael Brandt on movies like 3:10 to Yuma, Wanted and The Double, and now on Chicago Fire. What are the advantages of a writing partnership – and how have you brought out the best in each other? What is your writing process together like?

DH: Michael and I have been working together now for 15 years… it’s been such a great partnership.  He’s a fantastic writer, and it certainly helps to have someone share the trials and tribulations of Hollywood with you.  There are so many ups and downs in this business… to go through it alone?  I don’t know how solo writers do it.  I’ve said for a long time… I’m really just writing to impress Michael.  We pass scripts back and forth via email (written on Final Draft) and change the colors so we know who wrote what.  We do that three or four times before we turn something in.  That’s our process, I guess.

The Cast of 'Chicago Fire'

The Cast of ‘Chicago Fire’

Chicago Fire question: This show builds on each episode – big time. It’s taut, riveting, great characters, really good mixtures of procedure, drama and action. How does your background as a novelist help you write these shows, especially showing the patience to bring out the characters over several episodes, developing subplots and individual stories, and creating dangler endings?

DH: Like I said, it’s basically the way you write chapters in novels.  You have a season – which is like a book – and then the individual episodes are the chapters in that book.  At the beginning of the year, the writing staff sits in a big room with a blank board and we arc out all the characters over the course of the season.  It’s like a giant grid… here’s what will happen to Casey, here’s what will happen to Severide, here’s where those two things will intersect.   Then, as we write each episode, we try to tie that episode into a central theme… for instance, if this episode is about the consequences of telling lies, then that theme will show up in individual character arcs and also in the accident calls.  But you have to know ahead of time where all these stories are going over the course of a season, or the audience will soon realize that you never had a plan.  A lot of the heavy lifting is in those first few weeks in the writer’s room.

WJ: Well, I guess I’ll unwittingly add to the theme of telling lies, because I do have a follow-up: Which Chicago Fire character(s) outgrew your original concept and expectation when Season 1 started? Who literally took off within your mind as the season progressed? Why?

DH: When we first started, we had Herrmann as this kind of death-of-a-salesman lovable loser who was always trying to get rich quick.  We kind of had him in our minds as a tragic fool.  (Executive producer) Dick Wolf told us that it was a disservice to the character, and the guy was actually the heart of the show… a family man who is just trying to put food on the table for his wife and kids.  He became a very relatable character and a bunch of storylines jumped off of that change in his character.  I love the way he turned out, and David Eigenberg does an incredible job of bringing him to life.

WJ: Final question: What do you enjoy most about creating and crafting stories? What brings out the pure fun and play element of writing for you?

DH: For me, writing is all about surprise.  Surprising the reader, surprising the viewer, surprising the characters, surprising yourself.  Zigging when they think you’re going to zag.  Misdirecting them this way and then slamming them that way.  Any time you can have a reader go, “I never saw that coming,” or better, “I should have seen that coming,” then it is very satisfying.  I get excited when I craft an intelligently set-up surprise… be it in dialogue, plot, setting or character.

The greatest part is having a viewer or reader email you and tell you his or her thoughts.  I still pinch myself when I get a nice email from someone who took the time to write it.  I can’t believe these characters who were in my head connected with people.  It’s very satisfying.

WJ: Derek, it’s been a pleasure. We’ll continue to follow what surprises come up in Season 2 of Chicago Fire … and in your books.

DH: Thanks!

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