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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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Where Truth and Fiction Collide: The Sleuthing and Writing Life of Claudia Whitsitt

(PART ONE OF A TWO-PART INTERVIEW)

Most novelists weave fragments of their own stories, experiences, friends (or enemies) into every book they write. For instance, in my novel Voice Lessons, I have nearly 100 fragments in there – but you’ll never know. The book is fiction. A fewer number write novels based on actual experiences, fictionalizing just enough to muddy the waters of the actual truth.

Rare is the author who bases novels on actual events, twisting timelines and events while keeping the essential truth intact – and pulls it off.

Claudia Whitsitt copyClaudia Whitsitt is that rare author. Her mystery thrillers draw directly from events in her life, which she unabashedly admits and promotes. When you write as well as Claudia, with a taut narrative style and compelling, unforgettable characters that keep the pages turning, you can say and do whatever you want. Her books are damned good.

Claudia is the author of Intimacy IssuesIdentity Issues, The Wrong Guy, and the forthcoming Two of Me. Without having to blast the spoiler alert, I will give you this: Intimacy Issues deals with a very pissed-off mother whose kids and dog are seriously messed with. Identity Issues is loosely based on the real-life stolen identity crisis involving her husband, Don, and the hell it put them through for years. She writes through the character of Samantha Stitsill, a mother and teacher who tracks down hilarious moments as well as she chases leads. The Wrong Guy is derived from the Michigan Murders, the horrifying co-ed murders that took place on the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan campuses in the late 1960s. A college freshman, Katie, is the protagonist – a girl loosely based on Claudia, who enrolled at Eastern Michigan just after they caught the serial killer.

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In all three books, Claudia lets it fly with a combination of tragedy, drama, some of the ever-engaging sassy, tough-chick persona, emotional roller-coaster rides, great characterization and dialogue, and a trademark of every great mystery writer – humor. Damn, she’s funny! (More on that in part 2 of this conversation). And an obsessed amateur sleuth, drawn from her childhood fascination with Nancy Drew mysteries. Every mother with a beating heart would laugh their tails off at the first 10 pages of Identity Issues – and frequently thereafter, even though this is a dead-serious novel that speaks to an epidemic affecting up to 2 million people per year.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Claudia for almost four years; we met at the Southern California Writers Conference, where we both are presenters. Now, it’s your turn. Enjoy this conversation with the fabulous, recently retired Special Education teacher from Saline, Michigan – and then treat yourself to her books for some truly entertaining summer reading.

intimacy issuesWord Journeys: You sure seem to find, or fall into, real-life situations that activate your mystery instincts! 

Claudia Whitsitt: I love to play “what if?” with real-life scenarios. My brain seems to be wired to tap into situations that I’ve heard about and ask myself how I’d handle myself in the same situation, or imagine the ways in which things could have gone differently. I never have trouble thinking of ideas for my novels.

True stories fuel my fiction. I often say, “I write my life as fiction.” There’s always a jumping off point from the actual story to fiction though. Once I reach that point, which is often before I even begin to write, I feel the magic begin!

Word Journeys: What are the advantages — and pitfalls — of IDENTITY ISSUES COVER copywriting fiction so close to real life?

Claudia Whitsitt: Because the early parts of Identity Issues are based on my own experience, it was easy to write the beginning of the book. The funniest part though, was that initial readers didn’t believe that anything like what I’d experienced could ever really happen. I ended up making several changes to make the story more plausible. Truth is stranger than fiction! In all honesty, I got much more of a rush fictionalizing the back end of the story. It was liberating, in fact.  Sam is a much braver woman than me, and it was a delight to have her say the things I wish I had the nerve to say, and do the things I wish I had the guts to do. She’s a force to be reckoned with. Of course, my husband would probably say the same about me!

the wrong guyWJ: What about your husband? He was the loosely depicted “model” for the Jon Stitsill, the husband in Identity Issues … which must have been interesting on the home front! 

CW: My best friend reads all of my work. When she first read Identity Issues, she was furious with my husband. She could barely look at him after she read what his fictional character had done to put his family and marriage in jeopardy. Family and other friends also have had trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. I think I’ve conjured up all kinds of questions for them about my “real life”. Because the book is based on our own life experience, the lines sometimes become blurred between fact and fiction.

WJ: While Identity Issues is disturbing in the way identity theft can compromise and even devastate its victims and their families, The Wrong Guy is downright disturbing – a serial killer, a rapist, young co-eds scared to death. Could you describe this time of the Michigan Murders, and how you drew from your experience at Eastern Michigan to develop Katie?

CW: My college experience paralleled Katie’s in several ways. I entered college on the heels of (convicted murderer John Norman) Collins’ arrest. I experienced firsthand the fears of negotiating a campus where coeds lived with the constant worry of a predator’s existence. I attended countless meetings about safety. We were warned at every turn that there was no assurance we were safe just because a suspect was behind bars. We carried mace on our key rings, were taught to weave our keys between our fingers (in order to be ready to defend ourselves), and advised never to travel alone on campus. It was a tense time, and not the “typical” college experience.

I also had the most unlikely roommate, my complete opposite, just as Katie did. Katie’s roommate sits on closet shelves, tosses around profanity like loose change, and teaches Katie that there is more than one way to view the world. Katie learns to respect differences and forms a lasting bond with Janie. (My roomie and I are still best friends to this day!)

WJ: Your books have great plot twists. How did the necessity of switching gears as a parent, teacher, and in life shape your narrative style?

CW: As a reader, I love it when I’m comfortable with the plot and ease into predicting the next course of events. Then, wham! I’m blindsided. To me, that’s what creates the mystery and suspense. It’s my goal to create that same suspense in my own novels. Just when the reader settles back, I dish out something completely new and unexpected. It also mirrors what I went through after Don’s identity was stolen and I received late night phone calls in which the caller tried to convince me I didn’t know my husband. Much like Samantha, I had to be quick, smart, and savvy. Even when I’d only had a few hours of sleep.

WJ: Thirty-seven years of dealing with schoolkids made your flexible, I’d guess.

CW: Switching gears has been my M.O. for years. Life tosses me surprises on a daily basis. In my teaching of Special Education students, there was always some behavioral crisis looming. In raising my family, a sibling squabble, a last minute trip to the ER, or a broken heart to mend.

WJ: How did the theft of Don’s identity directly affect you?

CW: When my husband’s identity was stolen, I learned that thinking on my feet, flexibility, and multi-tasking were my friends. The identity theft occurred when my four older kids were in elementary school and my youngest was an infant. I held a full-time teaching position, and my husband traveled the world for business. I had an astounding amount to manage. Attitude was everything. I adopted a survival approach. Every day was a new and unexpected adventure. I learned to appreciate the surprises, and challenged myself to act rather than react. It became a game of sorts. I approached each day wondering what new wrench would be tossed into my day. The ordinary days became few and far between. Great writing fodder!

WJ: When we write fiction, we all have unanticipated surprises that just “fly out of us” during the writing process – and they become invaluable to the work. What were a couple of those surprises for you?

CW: When I become one with Samantha, she leads me through her innermost thoughts and feelings. They are sometimes deep. And dark. And way more personal than I anticipated. Being with her in her darkest hours takes me to surprising places. I feel privileged that she allows me to accompany her on her journey. The depth of emotion, or her internal timeline, as I like to call it, taps something in my soul that I didn’t know existed. There are times I walk away from a writing session completely spent. Sam faces her inner demons. When she does, I’m at my best as a writer. She’s opened my soul. I thank her for that.

(PART 2 will appear on Tuesday, July 2)

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Writer’s Conference Fever

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Quick blog this morning, as I’m getting ready to head to LA Valley College for the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference, which begins today and runs through Sunday (and still time to register at the door, starting at Noon today, BTW).

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Writers Conference are amazing events – and I’ve told every aspiring and active writer I know to attend at least one, if not one per year. Why? Because after spending so much time writing in the loneliness of your home office, you get to mingle with kindred spirits. Everyone’s in the same boat, and the energy level is through the roof when we get together to compare struggles, triumphs, titles, voices and techniques. Secondly, the variety of helpful workshops, presentations and panels is tremendous. At this particular conference, non-fiction and fiction is fully covered, along with screenwriting and television writing (why not? Hollywood is just down the road).

For instance, I’m sitting on four panels, with plenty of variety. Today, I’ll be in on the Memoir Writing panel. On Saturday, it’s off to the Ghostwriting panel, then a pair of all-important Editing panels – Revising and Editing manuscripts on Saturday, and Rewriting on Sunday. (Revising and Rewriting are two entirely different processes, though all too often, we tend to blend the two). Will post my outlines from the Memoir and Ghostwriting panels on this blog next week.

The other reason writer’s conferences are so important is that we find out the latest happenings in the publishing Low Res Cover Backroadsindustry from the literary agents and editors on hand. Right now, if you’re thinking of publishing – or moving into other genres – it pays major dividends to be current on traditional and digital publishing events. Things continue to change so rapidly. I’m particularly interested in the concept of “hybrid authors”, since I am one, publishing works in both traditional houses and through collaborative partnerships, such as my work with Tuscany Global, which is putting out my poetry/essay book “Backroad Melodies” next week, and Vol. 1 of “Best of the Word Journeys Blogs” next month.

If you’re not coming up to LA, and you’re serious about your writing, please make sure to sign up NOW for the Southern California Writers Conference, which takes place Sept. 20-22 in Newport Beach, Calif. This is one of the hottest conferences in the nation for book contracts.

Losing my religion_cover_low resMeantime, time to hit the road. Oh yeah, before I go: be sure to stop by Amazon.com and pick up the hot new novel that hits the shelves today, “Losing My Religion” by Jide Familoni. This is one of the best novels I’ve ever worked with, a great story of a man trying to live in one lifestyle and culture while retaining the core traditions of another.

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The Hybrid Author Movement

During the Southern California Writers Conference in February, keynote speaker Michele Scott talked about a subject that has been near and dear to me for many years – becoming a contracted and self-published author … at the same time. This is otherwise known as hybrid authorship.

A fine multi-genre novelist, Michelle has written 23 books, some under a pen name.  If you look at this with traditional eyes, you would rightfully assume she keeps contracts with two or even three different publishers. That’s not the case – anymore. After years of selling her books to publishers, and developing a strong and loyal fan base that numbers in the high five- or low six-digit mark, Michelle took control of her creative process and began self-publishing.

Risky business? For sure. If you’re making a living as a writer, self-publishing can be quite risky. Suddenly, you are responsible for every penny spent to edit, market, promote, publicize, produce and sell your book – all expenses typically handled by traditional publishers. If you don’t know how to do all of these things, or sub-contract people who do, then it can be a one-way road to supreme disappointment.

 

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Michelle knows how to do these things. Consequently, instead of merely satisfying her one-book-a-year deal with contract publishers, she can write and publish three or four titles per year … and keep all the proceeds after expenses are met. This is much different than traditional publishers, which offer advances against royalties (for those lucky enough to receive them), and then royalties in the 6% to 10% range of wholesale to retail price, escalating upward to 15% with increased sales – and 25 to 50% net on e-books. Unless promotion is great and sales are brisk, these numbers do not always add up so well.

Michelle has switched all the way over to self-publishing, even buying back some of her backlist rights (books already published). A few of her titles remain in circulation from her publishers. She’s in a win-win – royalties on books already published, plus pulling in the full bounty from all the books she’s writing now.

She is an example of a hybrid author, which is becoming more and more the way to go if you’re a prolific writer who has several books on your mind – and plans to write quite a few more. The hybrid approach is also the right approach for authors like me, who write in different genres and do not want to get tied down by contracts in which publishers want the one book for which they’ve contracted you to be the only book you write for a set period of time.

The subject of hybrid authoring is a big one at this week’s Book Expo America , the largest booksellers and publishers convention in the U.S. Traditional publishers are being compelled to relent from their “we buy your book, we take you off the market” philosophy, which forces many prolific authors to write their other books under pen names unless they have lucrative multi-book deals. More and more, authors are doing both, self-publishing titles they want to write while under contract for another book.

Hybrid authorship is not for everyone. First of all, you need to have the money to produce and promote the self-published books yourself. Or, like me, enter into an arrangement with a collaborative publisher (mine is Tuscany Global), in which you publish your book and handle all promotional costs while splitting revenues with the partner (in my case, the jack-of-all-trades Brian Wilkes), who handles production through a well-established self-publishing service (Amazon.com’s Create Space, in this case).

Then, you need to write and produce the books – and make sure none of them compete, in any way, with any books you might have under contract with the traditional publisher. In fact, the best approach – and the one that makes everyone happy – is to openly promote your contracted book at the back of the self-published title, and in any press releases you generate on its behalf (quick commercial: we offer such a service for all authors with books to be published, Beacon Publicity, where releases go to up to 10,000 targeted points and you get placement reports for a very low fee).

Hybrid authoring will become more and more common, especially in this era when writing e-books is so easy and self-publishing your book is a badge of respect, not the perceived scourge of vanity or province of poets it used to be.

As for forthcoming titles? Have Just Add Water under contract, another about to go there (When We Were the Boys, in which I’m working with author Stevie Salas and my agent, Dana Newman), and two titles – Backroad Melodies and Every Day Is The Write Day: The Best of Word Journeys Blogs, Vol. 1 – which will be out this summer through the collaborative/self-publishing route.

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A Higher Purpose: Not Fearing Death Part 2 of Interview with ‘A Taste of Eternity’ Author Martha Halda

How do life-changing or transforming events affect our life purpose? And how do we integrate everything we do into that purpose – and then share it with others?

Martha Halda has found her way: By writing A Taste of Eternity, a forthcoming memoir about how one afternoon reshaped her outlook on life, and the way she chooses to live it.

On October 8, 1999, Martha suffered a horrific car accident, after which she was pronounced clinically dead three caa18c26a173d0dd5e52ba7e572fad9atimes. She remains the only person in the 50-year history of Palomar Pomerado Hospital (North San Diego County) to survive after scoring 0 on her CRAM (Clinical Risk Assessment and Management). Those who score 0 to 1 almost always die, or live in a paralyzed and/or persistent vegetative state. She recovered fully – even completing the 2002 Dublin Marathon.

During her passing over, she had a profound near death experience. How that experience transformed and shifted her life, and how she carried it forward, is covered in A Taste of Eternity, now making its rounds among major publishers through literary agent Dana Newman.

Martha also offers behind-the-chapters stories pertaining to the book at her blog, http://atasteofeternity.wordpress.com.

This is the second of a touching, life-affirming two-part interview with Martha, which comes at a most fitting time, as millions begin to celebrate Easter or Passover.

Word Journeys: Why do so many people find it hard to believe someone can have a near death experience, taste eternity, or have direct perception of God?

Martha Halda: I feel it’s because we are too busy judging.  Judgment causes the unbearable fear of non-acceptance.  Think about it, from our first day on the playground, all we want is to be accepted, to be part of the group, invited in.  Some people can’t accept what they haven’t seen, touched or felt themselves. Some need science to prove anything or everything before they will accept it, Often, people are afraid that society will think them odd or mentally off.  To talk about this, I needed the faith that comes from knowing that what I experienced was 100% real.   Faith can go a long way, but first we must to get out of our own way. We need to remove the mighty ego.  Many people still need society to accept it, before they are willing.

WJ: That’s a great point – and leads to my next question. A Taste of Eternity crosses all religious lines – and goes beyond them. When I read it, I saw how you touched and experienced the unifying point behind ALL religions. Could you speak to the essence of spirit, based on your experience?

MH: For me, the essence of spirit is sharing, caring, love, a unity of all things.  I mean all things: everything is energy, it is all particles or atoms or cells, and they are all part of each other.  During my experience, at one point, I had a mental vision or thought that a waterfall would be nice; suddenly, particles from all over a meadow came together and re-formed as a waterfall.  It was as if everything existed to bring pleasure.

img_1293WJ: Three years after your accident, after being told you would never walk again, you completed the Dublin Marathon. How did the marathon intensify your desire to live life to the max, without fear of what may or may not happen next?  

MH: I know that any day could be my last. When it’s my time, then it’s my time, I have no fear of death; in fact, I welcome the day.  I won’t do anything to bring it on myself, because I want to be sure I get to go to Heaven again, and I don’t want to feel the hurt I would cause my friends.

WJ: How does your family view your experience now, compared with how they first responded to it?

MH: They don’t really view it differently at all.  We don’t talk about it much.  It may have changed their views of life indirectly, but it is a personal thing.  I feel they have a beauty inside their souls knowing that God is there for each of us, and there is no reason to fear death.

WJ: How did your life purpose change from your experience?

MH: Today, I don’t know if I really have one, in the traditional way. I used to have a very clear purpose as a mother. Now, it is just to see life in all things with joy. I want to understand how and why religions say their way is the only right way; the loving embrace of the God I met was not that condemning.  I feel if people would open their hearts and minds to another’s way, they would see the commonality in our beliefs, customs, and lifestyles, and not the differences.

WJ: You came back with heightened senses, one of which is a particular affinity with animals, which you discuss in the book. Could you elaborate?

MH: I just look into the eyes of birds, dogs, cats, birds or deer and can tell if they are happy and well or not.  They don’t fear me, and some will become very assertive toward me in a good way. They know they are safe with me.  That’s all.  When you bring this up, I get the opportunity to feel the way some of the people in my life felt about me talking about my near death experience – shoosh! someone might hear you. (laughs)

WJ: When people read books like A Taste of Eternity, or talk with you about it, what would you like them to take away from the experience?

MH: Simply the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you.  To give, share, and express love; it’s the most important thing we have to offer! Love is the only Eternal possession we have. When we die, the only thing we take is the love we shared, the memories we make, and our integrity. Everything else stays here.  No U-Hauls in Heaven.

WJ: Finally, last year on your birthday, you did something not a lot of 50-somethings would do: jumped off a 50-foot cliff into the Ganges River near Varanasi, India – not once, but several times.

MH: Well, I was also the only high school girl skateboarder in the mid-1970s who bombed the steep La Costa hills in Carlsbad (Calif.), where I grew up! So it’s not that much of a departure for me. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I’d been white-water rafting all morning with two young ladies from Scotland who were also go-for-it women. I saw the cliffs, told our guide to beach the raft, walked past some Indian men who were thinking about it but were afraid to jump … and I stepped in front of them and jumped. I laugh every time I close my eyes and see the looks on their faces! It was one of those extraordinary moments. I’m always ready for them.

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Sleuthing Through Winter

One of the greatest pleasures of writing for a living is necessary flip side of the coin: plentiful reading. Don’t have to twist my arm on that one: I’ve been a bookworm since I started reading before kindergarten. San Diego Union-Tribune sports columnist Nick Canepa gave me this sage advice more than 30 years ago, while we were covering a Chargers game: “Good writers read good writing.”

Sometimes, that good writing takes twists and turns away from the normal subjects and genres – and in so doing, points us directly to areas that make us better readers and writers while providing endless entertainment. Which is why the Winter of 2012-13 has been like no other for me.

It began in October. My friend and client, Tim Martin, emailed me the first half of a crime mystery he’s writing. The manuscript grabbed me with its storyline and Tim’s fun, punchy writing style – then left me hanging as I edited it. I’m still hanging, because I’m eagerly awaiting the second half of the book … and not just as an editor. Instead, as crime fiction’s newest addicted fan.

I never would have imagined myself a fan of crime fiction and mystery, though I’ll race through an Elmore Leonard novel anytime you hand it to me. My reading always tended to memoir, literary fiction, poetry, spiritual titles and books on subjects like music, the environment, travel, indigenous and ancient history, and sports … nothing about crime there (unless you take into account what our forebears did to the Native Americans, but that’s another story).

However, Tim’s novel-in-progress lit a fire. Since October, I’ve read more than 30 thrillers, mysteries, spy and crime novels by authors like Leonard, Stephen J. Cannell, W.E.B. Griffin, Clive Cussler, James Ellroy, John LeCarre, Robert Ludlum, J.A. Jance and the queen herself, Agatha Christie. Hardboiled, L.A. noir, patrolmen, rubber-sole sleuthing, every crime in the book … and even a wonderful hard-hitter, Black & White, written by my friend Wes Albers, director of the Southern California Writers Conference.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been hooked on a writing genre like this. I’ve had so much fun with my latest finds from Oceanside Library, or bookstores, that quick bedtime reading sessions have turned into eye-burning immersion into these contrived environments. The locations, twists, turns, amazing elasticity of the soul and mind – in both directions – have given me the same reading thrills I had when losing myself in adventure and sci-fi novels as a kid.

Through it all, though, I saw something else: plot and narrative pacing at its finest, delivering maximum impact with few words. This appeals greatly to me as both a writer and editor, because I’m always advising my clients to edit and polish, whittle and trim, boil down sentences to their most essential cores. Crime fiction also offers another treasure for writers: great dialogue. If you want to learn how to bury yourself so deeply into your characters that their spoken voices, not yours, lands on the printed page, read Elmore Leonard. Or Cannell. Or J.A. Jance. Their attention to rhythm, tone, vernacular and slang is so good, and so true to their characters, that these characters come to life without physical description. Of all fiction genres, crime and mystery belong in the forefront when it comes to dialogue.

So when the impulse to change your reading material hits you, go for it. It might be time to find genres that will re-ignite the thrill of reading. Or, if you are a writer, it could be your Muse, tapping you on the brain and saying, “Let’s go on a new journey, one that will enrich your storytelling as we move forward.”

But when you do, don’t leave any clues. The little sleuth who now inhabits me may find them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Feasting on Words: Billy Collins, Southern California Writers Conference, and New Books in the Making

A few odds and ends while feeling very inspired and energized by the past ten days, which have included a wonderful Southern California Writers Conference, starting to put together what will be a smashing Spring 2013 issue of The Hummingbird Review, watching editing clients get one deal and opportunity after another, and Tuesday night’s superb event with Billy Collins, the former Poet Laureate of the United States…

The Billy Collins program at Point Loma Nazarene University was truly special. Billy has drawn hundreds of thousands of otherwise non-poetry fans into the world of poetry through his easily accessible, humorous, poignant and endearing takes on life’s otherwise ordinary moments. On Tuesday night before a standing room-only crowd of more than 400 at Crill Hall, he read 17 poems spanning his career (10 collections, plus several anthologies), including a couple from his latest, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems 2003-2013, which will be released October 22. He also sat with PLNU journalism faculty member and Writer’s Symposium coordinator Dean Nelson, himself the author of a dozen books, for an excellent hour-long discussion.

One of Billy’s many funny lines? Check out this succinct take on science fiction: “There are only two directions for all of science fiction: We’re going there, or they’re coming here.” Priceless.

Discussing poetry with former Poet Laureate of the U.S. Billy Collins (photo by Martha Halda)

Discussing poetry with former Poet Laureate of the U.S. Billy Collins (photo by Martha Halda)

A couple hours earlier, I interviewed Billy at his bayside Shelter Island hotel for The Hummingbird Review. It was fun, lively, full of wisdom and humor – typical of Billy’s take on the world. We had a wonderful discussion about his poetics and vast contributions, a part of which I will share in this blog on Friday. For the rest, you’ll have to pick up The Hummingbird Review.

A really funny moment popped up during the interview. When my sweetheart, A Taste of Eternity author Martha Halda, and I told Billy how Carlsbad High School teacher Tom Robertson turned us onto poetry in our freshman English class, Billy looked at Martha and quipped, “So you were one of those mean girls!” He was referencing the fact that he (like me) was painfully shy in high school, and not on the radar screen of the school’s most beautiful girls. We informed him that Martha was one of the nicest (and best looking, and still is) CHS beauties, to which he replied, “So you were the nice one!” Gotta love this man.

• • •

I’m still pouring through notes from the Southern California Writer’s Conference, so I want to share a few comments that famed science fiction writer David Brin made that are great takeaways for writers and readers alike (with very special thanks to Alicia Bien for emailing her notes as well):

On the bad guys we all love to hate (or maybe root for) in novels: “Give the villain great dialogue so they are tempted. Make your villains so powerful that the U.S. government can’t beat them.”

Bestselling science fiction author David Brin (photo by Gayle Carline)

Bestselling science fiction author David Brin (photo by Gayle Carline)

On the purpose of writing: “Convey your sense of joy on the page. Control your ego, but believe you can write material that people want to read. Remember: writing is the only true form of magic.”

How to write a first page that hooks readers: “The first page must sing. Copy the first page of writers you respect, see how they move the story, and find that within your own voice, your own story.

Four keys to getting published and drawing your readers:

1)   You need an ear

2)   Bring on the criticism because you can be even better – and you know it

3)   Hard work

4)   Luck

• • •

Have been having a blast editing and/or writing proposals for some truly wonderful books that have made their way onto my computer in the past several months. Will rattle off their titles and authors now, so that you will grab them and share the experience when they hit bookstores in the next 12 to 18 months (as I am fully confident they will):

• A Taste of Eternity, a memoir by Martha Halda

• Home Free Adventures, a travel narrative by Lynne Martin

• Island Fever, Mustang Fever and Storm Chasers, an adventure romance trilogy by Stephen B. Gladish

• Who Will Cry for Us? a memoir by Davion Famber

• The Columbian Prophecy, a novel by Gary B. Deason

• Changes in Longitude, a travel narrative/memoir by Larissa and Michael Milne

• Red Hand, a novel by Seamus Beirne

• Forgoing Stress, a prescriptive book by Leo Willcocks

Next week, I will talk more about a couple of books coming from yours truly, including my forthcoming novel, Voices. We’ll also hear from authors Larissa and Michael Milne, Martha Halda and Stephen B. Gladish. Stay tuned.

• • •

Speaking of March, two events are coming up in the next two months that I hope you will participate in, if you are suitably located geographically: the Tucson Festival of Books March 9-10 at the University of Arizona in Tucson; and the L.A. Times Festival of Books April 20-21 on the University of Southern California campus. Between the two, more than 100,000 people will be in attendance. These events are a paradise for readers, a chance to meet and talk with hundreds of authors and publishers in all genres. Check them out.

 

 

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