The .epub criterion

Six months have now passed since I was able to justify purchasing a Nook with the upcoming publication of my first novel.  Or maybe it’s been longer than that–time flies, after all.  Because the truth is, I love my Nook.

I read an essay sometime back by a guy who was moving across the country, and who, now that he’s switched over to an ereader, was torn between the inconvenience of shipping all his physical books with him or simply donating them.  I can’t remember where I read it, or, obviously, I’d link to it.  My first instinct is Galleycat, except that it’s far too introspective a premise for them.  Maybe Galleycat linked to it.

And but so.  The main takeaway I got from this essay was that, as he asked his book-loving friends for their advice, he found they fell into two general categories.  There were book people, whose main interest was in the physical book, rather than its contents.  These people were horrified at the idea of ridding oneself of the physical artefacts; the argument the author quoted them as making was, “But … but … but … they’re books.

The second group were the readers, for whom the content was the thing that made books special; once that content was safely transferred onto an ereader, they were rather blasé about the fate of the hardcopy item.

I expect most people who know me would tend to assume I’d fall into the first group, whatever membership I’d also have in the second.  I’m very proud of the books I own.  I’ve got about a thousand books displayed in the room I’m sitting in as I write this (the living room), filling seven bookcases, and I probably have as many again packed up in our storage shed.

And yet, I’ve found that’s not the case.  I don’t know how I’ll deal with the need to transport physical books when we move, but most of the books I own aren’t available as ebooks and aren’t likely to so come available anytime soon.  But as far as the books I read?  I’ve pretty much completely transitioned to ebooks.

All the usual reasons.  I love the lightness and compactness of the Nook–it’s far easier to read in bed.  I love that when I braved earthquakes and tornadoes for an unscheduled trip to England, all I had to do for reading material was slip what’s essentially a second cell phone into my laptop bag.

If I buy a new book, it’s an ebook.  If it’s the next instalment in a series I began while still on physical books, I’ll usually buy the physical book as well–but it’s the e-dition that I’ll read.  And the physical books that I already own, that I finally get around to reading?  I buy the e-ditions and read those instead.

It has got to the point that if a book isn’t available in e-dition, I don’t buy it.  When I’m writing a thriller, I keep myself in the mood by reading thrillers, particularly ones written or set in the time period I’m writing about.  Before the Nook, I’d been rotating between the works of Eric Ambler, John le Carré, Alan Furst and Ian Fleming, though I’d run out of Ambler books that were still in print.  But when I switched to the Nook, I had to drop Fleming, because those aren’t yet available as ebooks.

(Neither was le Carré, though that changed over Christmas, presumably because of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.)

But I did find far more Ambler books once I’d made the switch, because a whole bunch of his books have been republished electronically that aren’t easily available in print.  I also tried to add Patricia Highsmith to my rotation, because of a dear friend who’s been pestering me for some time to read her books, but I’ve unfortunately been unable to–she has only two books in e-ditions right now (neither of which, unfortunately, are Strangers on a Train or The Talented Mr. Ripley.)

The only exceptions I’ve so far made to the no ebook, no purchase rule have been the ones I didn’t really have a choice with–research for the current book.  There were three books I find for most of my research, and none of them were available electronically.  I ordered the print editions, and I slogged through them, probably over a million words in all.  But I was damn glad when I got to go back to the Nook.

Which is what, for me, has been the great irony of this thing, though it’s probably of little interest to everyone else–that it is nonfiction, in particular, that I value reading on the Nook.  When I first considered buying an ereader, I’d thought it would become my preferred method of reading fiction, but that I’d always prefer print nonfiction.  Yet now I so much wish that I had my three research books in electronic format (particularly the six-hundred-page After the Reich by Giles McDonogh, which is packed dense with useful information), because it would make it so much easier to search out the specific passages I want to reread.


Words yesterday: 2573
Words total: 62,410

Time spent writing: 1pm-3pm, 10pm-11.30
Reason for stopping: end of naptime; bedtime
Darling: She swore at him, violently, in Russian–he felt certain that she had directed him to perform an act on himself either sexual or profoundly unhygienic.
Tyop: in Soviet custardy
Words that boggled Word: flatcap, unslung, other’s
New words today: horseback, carbine, vapor

It’s so quiet in here

I’m alone at home this weekend.  L took the kids last night and headed out to take them to a weekend in Myrtle Beach with some of the many dozens of Carolinians related to her.

So when I make beefy rice for lunch and dinner today, I’ll be mixing in both corn and peas, because there won’t be anyone around here with a weird hangup about how corn and peas should never be mixed (and I don’t mean either of the kids).

And I can be naked whenever I want for the next three days, which is never, because while it’s unseasonably warm for the first week of February, “unseasonably warm” is about fifty Fahrenheit, which is still too cold for short sleeves, let alone boxer shorts.  But it is warm enough to go and sit out on the balcony while I work, and I’ll get to do that undisturbed all day long.

And I can move all the chairs away from the dining room table, roll my Thomas-Jefferson-invented swivel chair up to it and take over the whole table as my desk.  Man, it’s glorious.

And most of all, of course, it means I get to spend three days pretending I’m a fulltime writer without any other responsibilities.  It’s come just at the right time, too, just when the new manuscript is picking up steam.

I’ll be over in the corner, typing.


The book whose current working title is The Zero Hour
Words yesterday: 1265
Words total: 11,155

Time spent writing: 1pm-3pm, 11.30-12.30
Reason for stopping: Girl’s nap ended; tired
Darling: He thought he saw a curl of contempt briefly twist her lips, but he might have imagined it.
Tyop: hotels, departments stores and corporate officers
Words that boggled Word: doughboys, Russkies, Führer
New words today: hatband, roundel, septic

Hmm. Forget I said that.

Last night a friend of Lisa’s came over for the evening, which led, in the course of events, to a conversation about how it’s a fairly unusual thing nowadays for me to get to interact with another adult besides my wife.  “It’s almost like I never have any grownup contact whatsoever,” I quipped, eliciting giggles from the ladies.  “It’s almost like I only became an author so I could pretend the grownups I write about are my friends.”

And then I stopped, because suddenly, that felt a bit too honest.

“You know,” Lisa said, “if your characters are meant to be friends … you write a disturbing number of books about Nazis.”


The book whose current working title is The Zero Hour
Words yesterday: 2656
Words total: 5945

Time spent writing: 11a.m.-2p.m.; 4.30-5.30
Reason for stopping: family woke up/family got home
Darling: He tried to stammer out a defense–he’d been caught redhanded at something he didn’t know was a crime.
Tyop: She took one of his hands in both of his
Words that boggled Word: redhanded, fräulein, de facto, Zippo
New words today beginning with C: coroner, crevice, commissar

Of course, were I ever to need tyres, these are the tyres I’d buy

At least the first one briefly flirts with highlighting some desirable quality of Kumho tyres in comparison to their competition.

These are, so far as I’m aware, the only adverts Kumho has ever run in the United States. They’re on fairly constantly on Fox Soccer Channel, and the second one–the one that’s currently in rotation–was on the main Fox network this weekend when they broadcast the Arsenal/Man United match.

I just find it fascinating how absolutely different they are. One is in a European urban centre; the other is on an isolated, apparently North American beach. One is about sophistication and refinement; the other is about youthful exuberance. One tells a story; the other is a snapshot. One looks like it was shot on low-budget videotape; the other looks like it was shot on film, slick and professional. One demands deliberately stylised artifice from its actors; the other goes for (and achieved) that candid, sort of found-footage effect that we’d often associate with a music video.

And yet they both have exactly the same emotional arc:

sexsexsexsexsexsexsexsexBUY OUR TYRES!


Nothing new under the sun

The first time it happened was this summer, when I happened to catch a showing of the (great) 1940 British spy thriller Night Train to Munich on TMC.  Night Train to Munich is set in the days leading up to the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany in September 1939.  The Nazis kidnap a Czechoslovak scientist and his daughter, and to rescue them, a British secret agent (played by a strikingly young Rex Harrison) travels to Berlin, dons a Gestapo uniform and bluffs his way into Gestapo headquarters.

Of course, there’s no way I could watch that scene and not instantly draw the connection to a similar episode in A Traitor’s Loyalty, in which the protagonist, a British spy, travels to Berlin to hunt a British defector and, in order to get information, disguises himself as a Gestapo officer and enters Gestapo headquarters.

Then over the holidays, I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and, as is my wont, got home from the film and immediately looked it up on Wikipedia.  And therein I discovered that, in the book on which the movie’s based, the codename that MI-6 gives to their star Soviet mole is Merlin.  In A Traitor’s Loyalty, by the by, the hero used to be MI-6’s star Nazi mole, and his codename back when he worked for MI-6 was Merlin.  (In A Traitor’s Loyalty, which takes place in a world where the Nazis defeated the Soviets, the cold war is fought between NATO and Nazi Germany rather than NATO and Soviet Russia.)


And then yesterday I saw Haywire.  At one point, in one small moment, after the heroine has had her employers turn against her, she searches her trusty rucksack and discovers, sewn into its lining, a small black device with an antenna on one end and a blinking red light on the other.  In A Traitor’s Loyalty, when the hero realises his masters have been manipulating behind his back, he searches the car they gave him and discovers, sewn into the upholstery of the boot, a “small radio transistor with a red light blinking slowly at one end”.


Your first reaction when you come across stuff like this–or my first reaction, at any rate–is to wince, to think that you’re a horribly derivative writer incapable of thinking up an idea someone else hasn’t thought of, and that you’re about to be exposed as such before the world.

After a little while, though, you start getting a little bit of perspective.  You realise, first of all, that it isn’t about having every element of your story be something no one’s ever thought of before–it’s about what you do with your story elements, combining them and presenting them in a way that people still find fresh and interesting.  Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code are both famously made up of a multiplicity of sources from elsewhere, but even those readers who could spot and tease out the inspirations for the stories’ different elements still often found reading them very enjoyable.

Downtown Abbey could be summed up without much inaccuracy as a mashup of Pride and Prejudice and Upstairs Downstairs.  That was obvious to me within its first five minutes, but not only did it not do anything to dampen my appreciation of the show, it actually added another dimension to it for me.  I got to see how Downton took the premise of a country landowner who has fathered only daughters but whose estate is entailed upon the male line and how it treated that premise–doing some things that were similar to what Jane Austen did in Pride and Prejudice and some things that were very different.

And then the second thing you have to realise is that a lot you see, you only see because you’re you–you’re the author of the work in question.  The example from Haywire is a perfect incidence of that–I’d be stunned if anyone who were to see Haywire and read A Traitor’s Loyalty noticed such a tiny coincidence.  It gets about five seconds of screen time in both works, and “secret homing device” and “a spy discovers his (or her) masters have been spying on him” are hardly such unique, distinctive tropes that your first thought when you encounter them is, “That’s just like …!”

Ditto the codename “Merlin”–it’s such a minor point in both books (so minor in Tinker Tailor that it didn’t even make it into the movie) and the contexts surrounding it are so very different that I think anyone who picked up on it would simply give me the undeserved credit of thinking I’d done it deliberately, as a respectful homage to the work of John le Carré.

(That’s if they had the chance–I confess, I did email my editor and ask him to change the codename to Lancelot.  But A Traitor’s Loyalty does still have a genuine homage to le Carré–there’s a very minor character who’s named after two characters in my favourite le Carré book, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.)

Your book is, of course, your baby, and as such, you’ve got a natural inclination to be highly sensitised to anything concerning it.  As authors we’re taught early on about having to let go of one part of that–about detaching ourselves when we receive feedback and critique.  This is another part, I think.  It’s a very human thing to draw connections and see patterns, and we’re so close to our own books that it’s inevitable for those to be what we draw the connections to.

I have a hypothesis that the reason I’ve started seeing elements of my story everywhere now is because the book is, essentially, now out of my hands–I no longer have the ability to make any significant changes to it.  In that sense, I’ve already let it go–I’ve had to.  And now I also have to let it go emotionally.


Aura of mystery

With all this research about Germany right after the end of the Second World War, one of the most striking and inescapable things about the period is the uncertainty that pervades it.  Everyone in Central Europe–both the native populations and the personnel of the four large Allied armies that were governing them–were profoundly aware of how little they knew about so much of what was going on in the world.  It filled their discourse and it was a huge factor in their actions.

It’s an atmosphere that I think is important to capture in the book–it created an underlying sense of doubt around literally any decision people made when trying to reconstruct lives for themselves.  But there’s a problem with that–all those great questions are questions to which we very publicly now know the answers.

A (very) abridged list of things we now know about 1 January 1946 that we did not know on 1 January 1946:

That Hitler was dead.
That Martin Bormann was (probably) dead.
That Adolf Eichmann was still alive, and on the way to fleeing to South America.
That Josef Mengele was still alive, and on the way to fleeing to South America.
That the Soviet Union would have the atomic bomb by the end of the 1940s.
That the bomb would come to be defined as a new class of weapon, and that it would not be used again, so that, for instance, North Korea was not subjected to an atomic bombing when she went to war with the Allies upon invading South Korea in 1950.
That by 1949, the three Western Powers would have merged their Zones of Occupation in Germany into a single joint zone (called Trizonia), then granted Trizonia independence as a new West German state.
That the Soviets would respond by creating a competing East German state out of their own Zone of Occupation.
That the inhabitants of the two heavily militarised German states would spend the forty years of their uneasy coexistence living under the cloud of knowing they’d be the first battlefield in the war between the Soviet Union and NATO that seemed the almost inescapable conclusion of the Cold War.
That within fifteen years, the two Germanies would be separated by a physical wall, and that siblings, spouses, and parents and children who lived on opposite sides of the wall would largely be left without the ability to see or communicate with each other for thirty years.
The whereabouts of billions of dollars worth of art, artefacts and currency that had been hidden or lost during the war.  (More billions of dollars worth of it is still missing.)  Much had been hidden by the Nazis–every year or so, we continue to get news stories of some of it being recovered–but other parts of it had been shrouded behind the Iron Curtain, such as Priam’s Treasure.

Trying to summon up that atmosphere is a tricky business.  Certainly the first step is highlighting the much more personal questions that people didn’t know the answer to–like whether missing loved ones were alive or dead; and if they would ever return from the liberated concentration camps, or from the detention camps in which the Allies held a huge number of Germans after the war, or from servitude in Siberia, or from the massive and bloody population shifts that both sides subjected millions of people to during and after the war.

But those local questions need to be compounded by the uncertainty that pervades the whole world in general, and doing so involves some fairly tricky manoeuvring.  “Is Hitler alive or dead?” or “Will all Europe be speaking Russian ten years from now?” are questions that could legitimately provoke suspense and unease in 1946, but to a reader in 2012 who already knows the answers, they’re much less so.

I toyed with the idea of having certain things turn out to be different in the book than is actually true (having it turn out in the book that Hitler is alive and in hiding, for instance), so that the reader then couldn’t be sure what they knew and what they didn’t, but ultimately I rejected that idea–I thought I’d be breaking too many readers’ suspension of disbelief if I did.

I got particularly resentful over Priam’s Treasure.  I want to include a lost Second World War loot, and Priam’s Treasure would have been perfect for my purposes–a priceless, high-concept hoard, that can easily be broken down into smaller, discrete units to use as currency.  Then I found out that it had been recovered in 1990, and that it wasn’t the Nazis who looted it.  I haven’t been able to find a replacement that works nearly as well.

(If anyone does have a favourite piece of Nazi loot that’s vanished without a trace, let me know.)

Of course, it’s true when writing of any historical period that you’re writing of a time about which we now know things that people didn’t know at the time.  But what sets post-war Central Europe apart, I think, is that it was a time when people were very much aware of how little they knew, and of how important the missing pieces of information were.


Titling and Titleation

Work proceeds apace on the outline, though admittedly it was slowed somewhat by a family visit last week.  It’s also been slowed by the need to work out some kinks in the plotline, but exposing such kinks is, of course, the very point of doing such an in-depth outline.

Periodically, my mind turns to thinking about a title.  There are several I’ve thought about so far, some of which are rather more realistic possibilities than others:

A Fistful of Sterling
Berlin 1946
The Russian Sector
The Russian Officer
The Dead Russian
Zero Hour
The Zero Hour
Stunde Null

Certainly none of these have yet leapt out at me as the title; in fact, I have one of them as the title on the first page of my outline, while there’s a different one in the header that appears on every page.  But they’re a start.


It’s always been solved before, but THIS WILL BE THE EXCEPTION

When I start working on the book, I know very little of the book.  A main character, a hook, an inciting incident, maybe a couple of supporting characters, maybe a scenario I’d like to come up somewhere in the middle of the book.  Isolated spots in a sea of blanks.

Filling in all those blanks, so that they first become isolated puddles in a sea of, er, filled-in stuff, and then disappear completely, isn’t a steady progression.  For me, there’ll be something that triggers an idea, and then that idea will lead to a whole sequence of things falling into place.  Three or four instances of stuff like this–the last one or two of which might not happen until I’m several thousand words into the first draft.

The funny thing about this, to me, is that until each of these revelations, I always have such an ominous certainty that there will be no more revelations coming, and that I will never figure out the ending of this book.

Like with the new book.  I came up with the idea a couple of months ago for it, and it started out with a pretty standard collection of new-idea attributes: a time period and setting, a protagonist, an inciting incident, a twist and a pair of love interests (one of them a heroine, the other a femme fatale.  Love triangle!  Woot!) I worked on it a bit and fleshed it out, adding a few more elements.  Then it sort of gelled the way it was, and for a month or so, that was all I knew about the book.  Just like always.

And yet, as a week or two or three passed without significant additions to the outline in my head, I began to think, Man, I’ve made a huge mistake with this.  It’s a decent first twenty thousand words of a book, but there is clearly nowhere for the last eighty per cent of the book to go.

And then, two or three weeks ago, I sat down one weekend with an idea for another element of the book, and I found what felt like the whole story opening out before me.  It came in such a rush that I sat down and wrote down all the different ideas I had for the book, trying as much as possible to order them, and it came to three pages, or about two thousand words.

I then wrote a short outline incorporating them all, and that came to about three thousand words over five pages.  It got most of the way through the book–really, all that’s left is the final climactic sequence, covering about the final quarter to the final third of the book, where everything gets resolved.

I’m now in the process of writing as in-depth of an outline as I can; it’s so far thirteen thousand words long, and has reached up to the second page of my five-page outline.  My hope is that this in-depth outline will make the first draft proper pretty much just stream out of my fingers when I go to start it.

And along the way, I’ve even had an idea for something in that last sequence.  (There’s no source for ideas as good as actually being writing.)  Yet.  I still have this feeling of I will never find a decent ending to this book.  I’m going to write seventy thousand words, and they will all be wasted.  Might as well just end it by fading to black.

I’d come up with a good, solid closing paragraph for this post, except I can’t really think of one right now, and strongly suspect I never will.  Never mind that I’ve written nine hundred blog posts prior to this.  This is clearly the one I will never finish.


A fresh pair of eyes

My mother and sisters are staying with us this week, which is making it somewhat more difficult to make progress on the current work-in-progress–shutting myself in the master bedroom for three hours isn’t exactly the action of a good host.

But there’s one way in which their arrival has been really conducive to getting work done, and that’s on A Traitor’s Loyalty.  I got the second-pass pages on Friday.  Having probably read the manuscript seven or eight times when it was first written and when my agent took me on, I reread it for the first time in a number of years when the contract got signed in the summer.  I then reread it again last month, when I got the first-pass pages.  Rereading it again now on the second pass is my job, and I’m doing it–but I confess, there are times when my eyes start sliding right over the text a little.

So enter Claire, whom I have conned into working for freeoffered the wonderful opportunity of getting to participate in the publication of a novel by going over the second-pass pages with me.  So far we’ve found two typographical errors in the first half of the book, and by “we’ve”, I mean “she’ve”.  Wait.

Too bad it’s too late to rewrite the acknowledgements.  But I’ve promised her an acknowledgement in the next book.  Of course, I also promised my other sister an acknowledgement in the next book for giving me her Yorkshire pudding at dinner tonight.


It’s what I do

You might recall that shortly after I signed my book deal, I was getting crippling stage fright over calling myself a professional author.  Last week at Lisa’s birthday party, I found my way around that.

I apparently am pretty fine with responding to “So what do you do?” with, “I’m a writer.”  (Though that wasn’t necessarily the case a few months ago.)  And what I discovered at the party was that when you give that answer, the very next question is, “What sort of writer?”  And that’s when you nonchalantly slip in, “I’m a novelist.”

A bit longer is the conversational chain that ensues when someone asks what we do with our kids during the day.

“I work at home.”

“So they’re home with you!  That’s great!  What do you do?”

“Oh, I’m a writer.”


Really, the hardest part is not bopping up and down whenever I say it, because the inner squeeing?  Still hasn’t stopped.


A Traitor's Loyalty Cover

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