My friend, Austin Farmer, generously produced this video interview just before everything went crazy with the Covid-19 lockdown. Good timing, as I was supposed to be using this time to schedule in -person events like book signings.Direct link to YouTube
The Faith Machine:
Local Bookstore: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781947041479
Picking Up the Ghost:
Two cloud storage services went to war on my new computer. MEGA and One Drive dumped all their contents into the same folder, then both locked up because they were full. In the extrication process, I lost half the data.
(Yes, I’ll backup my backup going forward. No reason to suggest this.)
I salvaged some off another computer before it synced the destruction. Dropbox still held the oldest of the files, from back when that was my cloud storage. And a large chunk of the PDFs I can download again from the source. The worst thing to go missing was the 20,000 words I’d written on my next novel, the sequel to The Faith Machine. All gone, every word of it.
So I got inebriated, spent an hour watching Falco videos on YouTube, and resigned myself to rewriting the first two fifths of a novel. Then it hit me, it was still on my NEO 2.
Extracting the files from the NEO became its own series of digital hurtles, but I got them. All I lost was the first pass of copy edits.
That hour was the longest week of my life. Computers suck and I hate them.
A Role-Playing Game Can Serve as Series Bible
A beta reader for The Faith Machine suggested I develop the setting into an RPG setting. And I had most of the work done. Not only did I have all of the world-building for the first novel, when I had an agent she had me outline two more books (for the magic words, ‘stand along novel with series potential’). So I had two more sets of adversaries and settings. Not to mention, notes for possible short stories and comic scripts I hope to finish once The Faith Machine builds an audience. I took two weeks to spill all the notes into a single document. As an unexpected benefit, organizing this information allowed me to see inconsistencies and gaps that needed to be fixed or filled in.
For example: I’d been using Card as spy slang for psychic, Hand for the team, and Player for team leader. When writing up the Spy Jargon page it occurred to me: The player’s boss should be called the Dealer. The agency they work for is the Table. A government that finances one or more Tables is called a House. And the entire psychic espionage community is The Strip. I wouldn’t have though of this if I hadn’t written up the role-playing game. Even if I don’t make a role-playing setting for future projects, organizing this information in a series bible has benefits.
To Outline the Hell out of a Story Before I Write It
At 12 pages, I thought I’d outlined my first novel. Oh the ignorance! There were a few plot points, sure. It touched on most phases of the Hero’s Journey, of course. But it was hardly an outline. It fell flat in the middle, no second act to speak of. and complications had to be thrown in to inflate a novella length word count to a full novel.
When I finished outlining The Faith Machine I had 77 pages of notes, one page per scene, one scene per chapter. Now that’s an outline. I kept it in a loose-leaf notebook, so I could easily rearrange, remove, or replace pages if necessary. Each page loaded with bullet points; the opening, end, and critical plot points and character beats at the very least. Lines of dialog, things to foreshadow, foreshadowing to payoff, pop culture references to hide. Every scene modeled after a function in a programming language; a few things come in, a few things come out, a few global variables might be updated, but always keep it simple. If a scene was doing too much work, making too many contributions to the plot, that scene needed to be broken up into two or more scenes.
This wasn’t a ‘fill ‘er up and get ready to write’ situation. When I’d outlined to the end I carried that outline with me everywhere I went. Whenever I had time I’d open it up and add details, thinking about who characters physically moved from setting to setting, edited out the redundant, fleshed out the skeletal. For every character got a continuity pass where I focused on what they were doing and where they were. I was revising before writing.
When it came time to type out the prose, I’d been thinking about these scenes for months. Some of them dropped right out of my brain and into the page. The scenes, and thus the plot, needed very little work going forward. Even after workshops, beta reads, and editorial.
I Discovered My Writing Style, At Least For Now
I set out to write my first novel, Picking Up the Ghost, with literary intentions, drawing influence from the American classics. Maybe I missed the target, maybe I produced old-fashioned prose that doesn’t sell. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a hit.
So I swung as far as I could in the other direction; Less is more. I removed the purple toner from my printer, tightened up scenes to 4-5 pages tops, put down the Hero’s Journey, and picked up the screenwriting guide Save the Cat for my outline. Ultimately, I ended up with a more honest style of prose, drawing influence from TV, film, and especially comics. No longer seeking the approval of some unknown and unknowable literary judge, my writing is now tight and visual, and my plot moves more than it talks. After much thought and research, I adopted two core rules to write by; the detached observer and dialog cues over dialog tags.
The detached observer is a form of third-person, limited narrator who can be in the POV character’s head, but chooses not to. Like a camera held over the character’s shoulder, he reports everything he sees and hears, without opinion. I only break this rule to offer insight into the POV character’s thoughts if I absolutely have to. Keeping the narrator out of the character’s head keeps the reader in the scene instead of inside the character; remembering or day dreaming.
Dialog tags like “he growled” or “she purred” are out of fashion. Writers can still get away with a “shout” or “whisper” but I took it one more step and cut as many as I could. Even “said,” especially “said.” If a character says something, they have to do something, even something small, as an excuse to drop their name in the narrative next to their dialog. Just like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream hits you on two fronts; taste and texture, dialog cues let you layer actions over words. Instead of “No,” Ainia threatened. I’ll write “No.” Ainia cracked her knuckles, and I can omit ‘said’ since it’s implied. Now something’s happening beyond lips flapping.
The combination of these techniques pushes the story out of the heads and moths of the characters and into their hands and actions. And actions speak louder than words, Tone shouted.
How to Write Superhero Stories Without Superheroes, Kinda
The Faith Machine was also inspired by a life spent reading comics. As part of the Watchmen generation, I grew up demanding my superheroes be strained through a filter of plausibility. I didn’t want any of that silly Silver or Bronze Age aesthetic in our power fantasies. We were telling ourselves, “This is how superheroes could really work.” In hindsight, the Modern Age of superheroes was built to answer question, “How can I justify the superhero power fantasies I love?”
With The Faith Machine, flipped realism around and asked, “If superheroes materialized, manifesting as a new power on the scene, how would the old powers react?” My answer was informed by the politics of the early 2010s when two grassroots political movements emerged; Occupy Wall Street, and the Tea Party. Both new powers on the scene, how did the old powers react? Oppression or exploitation.
Occupy Wall Street was persecuted by the law and misrepresented by the mainstream media as radicals. Oppression. The Tea Party was fooled into thinking they were welcome by politicians who took their money and their votes and gave lip service to fiscal responsibility in return. Exploitation.
Calling back to the First Thing: The Intelligence Community is often called upon to maintain the status quo for America’s elite. If superpowers were to manifest spontaneously among the population, you bet they’d be put on the job to draft all the ones they could, and eliminate the ones they couldn’t. That informed the backstory of the novel.
While I enjoy the Marvel movies, they’re drawing on decades of comics’ lore. When this wave recedes, there will be post-modern stories like this one putting a new spin on the old tropes.
Cold War Psychic Warfare Programs
The Faith Machine was inspired by The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson’s book about US efforts to develop psychic phenomena for military and intelligence applications. Goats opens with the First Earth Battalion, a program under the US Army and DIA. Commissioned to blend mystic concepts from New Age philosophy and traditional military culture to produce ‘Warrior Monks.’ By their own account, veterans of the battalion developed clairvoyance, stealth, and the titular remote slaying of farm animals. As a comic book guy, this got me thinking about how the Army and the US intelligence community would develop and manage their own super humans, and what would happen to them after the Cold War.
The Cold War was a weird time. Every advantage was explored, and much material was thrown at the wall to see if it would stick. The First Earth Battalion was but one program the Department of Defense financed under the umbrella of the Stargate Project, established in 1978 and expanded to consolidate similar programs in 1991. While Stargate focused on powers of the mind, MKULTRA developed mind control chemicals under the CIA, and the US Air Force conducted Project Blue Book to study UFOs.
Spies being spies, much of the information about these programs were purged before declassification in 1995 (MKULTRA in 1971, Blue Book in 1969). Enough information survives for me to build my setting around, allowing me to do the Tim Powers thing; draw from history and build on top of it without contradiction.
How much water can be drawn from this well? I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA for a single document on the Soviet psychic warfare program. For $10 they sent me a DVD with over 12,000 declassified documents about Stargate. That’s a lot of water.
1993. I’d been Honorably discharged from the Marine Corps and ready to experience some of this freedom I’d been defending, during the worst recession in decades.
2001. I’d graduated from UCSD and moved up to Silicon Valley to be a part of this technological Golden Age when the Dot-com bubble burst.
2010. My first novel is almost ready to hit the shelves, just as my employer ghosted on me with $25,000 of back pay that I’ll never see and everyone is still recovering for the collapse of 2008.
It seems like every time my life hits a milestone the world takes a financial tumble.
Anyway, The Faith Machine is now available for purchase.
I’m currently an unpublished author, or a formerly published author. I’ll be published again in May 2020, so maybe I’m “an author with credentials on hiatus?” That’s the one. Really, rolls off the tongue.
Once the second round of ChiZine tea began to spill, continuing the relationship was no longer an option. I can forgive financial incompetence (I’ve been there), but I won’t tolerate a bully. And as their characters were exposed, what I thought of as fiscal unfitness was malicious intent. ChiZine was a small press and also a scam. Grant checks were cashed, authors weren’t paid.
And worst of all, friends were exploited and abused.
But that’s their stories to tell. My size, distance, and gender protected me from any of that. Or so I thought. My royalty statements were the only sales numbers I’ve received on Picking Up the Ghost. Based on this information, my book was a bomb, even by small press standards. Less than a third of its 1000 unit print run. But ChiZine’s probably been underreporting sales. In that case, it’s possible that I’ve sold over 800 paperbacks and who knows how many in digital and audio. It’s not, Harry Potter money, but it’s better than I thought. Whether or not this was their intention, I’ve been gaslit into thinking I’m a failure.
I want publishers to be transparent to their authors; on sales, numbers of units sold, and by net and gross income. How hard can it be to provide authors with a web portal where they can check these numbers? The person cutting the check shouldn’t be the only person who can cast eyes on the ledger. How about it, publishing industry? Can you do that for us?
I…don’t know if I’ve ever done this before; written the back cover copy for a novel. If I did, it would have been for Picking Up the Ghost and that feels like ages ago.
Lotta stress here. There’s a lot of sales riding on how enticing I can make this sales pitch in under 250 words. Here’s the current draft. What do you think?
Welcome to the Strip. A world of spies and subtle, specialized, and sometimes sloppy psychic powers. Its existence kept secret, even from other secret agents.
Doctor Ken Park, Korean-American psychologist, leads six psychic agents called Cards. They handle esoteric threats the Department of Homeland Security cannot.
Sent to Africa to retrieve an old Soviet psychotronic device. One that turns prayers into suffering. The team finds the Faith Machine in the hands of a demented warlord. But fail to stop him from slaughtering hundreds of innocents while the machine burns. Park and his team return to the States in disgrace and under attack by the mysterious Casemen.
Cut off from command and each other, the scattered agents run west to their safe house. The FBI attempts to arrest them, and the Chinese try to interrogate them, with the Casemen always one step ahead. On the way, they discover the true threat. There’s another Faith Machine. One more powerful and destined to bring hell on earth.
The Faith Machine, an ESPionage novel written in the spirit of TV’s Legion and the MIND MGMT graphic novels.