Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “November, 2008”

What’s in a Name?

Some authors spend days or months agonizing over the title of their book and for good reason. How many of us have picked up a book caught by an intriguing title, or for that matter, passed over a book because the title didn’t engage us? How many of us have looked up a book that someone had mentioned or we’d read in passing, thankfully remembering the name?

The original title, Oilspill.com, came to me pretty naturally. The novel deals with an oil company and the emergence of the Internet through a website that my protagonist creates, at a time when interactive website advocacy was non-existent. The website is what enables the heroes to stand up for themselves in court and battle a top legal team employed by the multinational.

The problem with this title is that it is a website of a company that cleans up … oil spills. The first time I put out an email telling the world about my book, I’m sure the company mentioned received quite a few hits on their website.

And so I changed the title to Oilspill Dotcom, but this surfaced as one of the doubts that I mentioned in my last post. Is Oilspill Dotcom, in particular Dotcom, a recognizable (and memorable) word? Would it confuse the customer, prevent them remembering it and knowing how to order or search for it?

So my latest idea (Alan Rinzler’s actually) is one word: Oilspilldotcom. I hope it is easier to remember, easier to visualize and even … memorable?

What do you think? I would love to receive some feedback. I have another week or so before I’ll need to make a final decision, but it’s a big decision. It’s all in the name.

Good Writing,


Waves of Doubt

It must have been the fog.

The commute into the City was beautiful. Near the Berkeley marina the fog lay thick on the ground. I imagined walking serenely through the fields, rather than writing another grant application at work. Crossing the Bay Bridge, one could not see the water below. Only fog: thick soup-like. All that showed of the Golden Gate Bridge was the highest parts at each end.

The financial district, where I drop off my casual carpool passengers, is clear, but as soon as I head out towards the university, the fog engulfs me. Twenty minutes later, I am in the office. No one else will come in for another hour, maybe 90 minutes. There is plenty of time to spend editing my manuscript.

And then it hits me.

Is this the right name for the book? Am I right to be writing it in UK English? What do I know about book cover design? How am I going to get reviews when I don’t know anyone?

Most of the hour passes. I have not touched the keyboard, instead staring out into the fog. I should see a residential neighborhood with students scrambling for parking places and rushing to class.

This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of publishing independently. My wife will listen sympathetically and my friends’ in the writer’s group will give their opinion, but there is no agent to turn to, no publisher who has deeply invested through an advance and battled for the book on numerous acquisition boards.

I open my email. At the top of my inbox is a general email sent out a few months ago by Alan Rinzler, announcing his blog. I keep it there to remind me to visit it once a week. I first met Alan, when he graciously agreed to address our writers group, and we had all been impressed by his knowledge and experience that had begun at Harvard and has stretched over decades. Alan has worked closely with Toni Morrison, Robert Ludlum and Clive Cussler.

Enough said.

I make the appointment for a consultancy and prepare a presentation folder and topics, just as I would for a business meeting with a new foundation or potential donor.

I promise myself that I will ask succinct questions, then shut up, listen and absorb. We meet at his house and I receive an hour of his undivided attention. His answers are honest and clear: my mistakes clearly highlighted. I leave with mixed feelings. I have a lot more work to do on my manuscript before it is finished and I can send it in to the publisher. The UK English must be converted to America English, the title has been changed, and I have been told that no one is going to help me get reviews – I have to network, network, network.

There’s a lot to do, at a time when my work is demanding increasingly more from me. And a January deadline is now looking extremely optimistic (yeah, I know many of you, my writer friends, smiled when I’d declared a D-date back in September).

But my eyes are on the prize. I want to hold a book that is of the highest quality, in terms of story, grammar, punctuation, dialogue and dialect. I was reading reviews in the UK Self Publishing magazine this morning – a full one-third of those I read reflected on shabby grammar, spelling or page layout.

My novel might never become a bestseller (though it might!), but I’m going to be damn proud of it, and know I did the best I could.

Today is Saturday. I am sitting at a coffee shop on the East Bay ready to begin making the changes. The sun is shining – no fog.

Good Writing,


Confusing People- What’s It All About?

I understand that my Veteran’s Day entry last week succeeded in confusing people. That passage is not from the book being published in January, it is from the one that will come afterwards.

Oilspill Dotcom is a 60,000-word political courtroom novel, closely based upon the remarkable McDonald’s libel trial (www.mcspotlight.org) that took place in England in the 1990’s.

Oilspill Dotcom illustrates the power of the individual to challenge an economic empire, highlights the profit-driven practices of multinational corporations and challenges the belief that we are all protected by freedom of speech and the law. Moreover, this book celebrates the historical coming of age of the Internet.

Oilspill Dotcom falls into the genre of Erin Brockovich, The Rainmaker and A Civil Action. Along with some humor and sex, it is a novel with a political message of clear relevance to society today.

Below is a brief description:

The world is no longer defined by geographical borders, but by the actions of vast multinational corporations. Matt Fielding, a successful computer programmer, had never entertained such thoughts until his new girlfriend is suddenly arrested for libel against a huge oil conglomerate.

Separated from his burgeoning romance and stunned by the David vs. Goliath odds being played out in the British legal system, Matt harnesses his talents to level the playing field. For the first time in history, the Internet is utilized for grassroots advocacy and the attention of the world is drawn to an epic court battle between a billion dollar corporation and a few individuals who refuse to be silenced. Alongside the court case, Oilspill Dotcom humorously describes the transformation of a carefree yuppie, empowered first by romance and then by a genuine desire to change the world, one pixel at a time.

Yesterday, I received my manuscript back from my wonderful editor, and I am wading through her corrections and suggestions. More on this experience next week.

Good Writing,


Veteran’s Day: Tombs of Honor

At the beginning of the year, I took a three-month break from editing Oilspill Dotcom and wrote the first draft of a 90,000-word novel, They Returned As Heroes (tentative title). I wrote everyday for at least an hour and the story just poured out of me onto the page (well, into the word document). In recognition of Veteran’s Day, I would like to share a scene with you.

Mr. van Ness downs the rest of his cognac in one gulp and resolutely stands up.

“I want to show you something, Will. Come.”

We leave the club in his black, shiny Mercedes and drive about twenty minutes to the military cemetery in the Presidio. There are stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I stare silently as we pass through the tall stone and iron gates. The cemetery, like most of the city, is built on a hill. Rows of white tombstones stand in perfect, military symmetry, each defined by straight grass borders, like a white and green chessboard. A huge flag blows in the wind as I follow Jane’s father to a section of graves.

“What do you think the average soldier dreads when he goes off to war?” His question is posed without him looking back at me.

I think for the moment. “Death, captivity, maybe never seeing his loved ones again?”

Mr. van Ness nods. “That’s about it. What about an officer?”

“The same?”

“Yes, but there’s something else. The officers see the young, fresh faces when they join the unit. Sometimes, if we’re embarking together, we see their parents, wives, girlfriends, and children. They hug and cry, while the family steals surreptitious glances at the officer, silently pleading: bring my boy home, my lover, my father.

“And a shiver courses through you. You are not God, probably not much of a soldier either. You know you cannot protect them, but still you swear a silent oath; to try and bring them back alive, as many of them as you can. Fuck the war, the politics, the drive to serve your country. All you want is to bring your boys back. You’d rather face a thousand of the enemy than one of these parents, wives or children at the funeral, or remembrance service.”

We stop by a tombstone and he crouches down, tenderly cleaning some dirt that has gathered there. I crouch with him as he takes a deep breath.

“The last time my wife entered my den was about fifteen years ago, Will. She shouldn’t have, but her motives were no doubt innocent. She found a small black notebook, almost full. I had written a list of names, mainly women. The names reappeared regularly and there was a column with dates and another with dollar amounts. She found a checkbook from a bank she was sure we didn’t use.

“That evening she confronted me. We didn’t hold secrets from each other, financial or otherwise. Who were these women? Ex-lovers? Illegitimate kids? I roared back that it was none of her damn business, how dare she enter my den and I yelled other absurdities. We’d never raised our voices to each other like that and have never since. Totally out of control, total rage.”

He points to the tombstone.

“My first sergeant, Pete O’Reilly. He died in my arms. The last words he heard were an oath from my lips to take care of his two young kids. Their mother received monthly checks from the bank, anonymous. When his oldest daughter was eighteen, she received a letter from the bank about a trust fund for her and her brother to pay for university tuition. The youngest graduated from Stanford a few years back.”

We move on to another grave. “His family’s all devout Catholics. I swore that they’d never know how he died. He’s buried here as a hero, and so it’ll remain.”

At another grave, he seems lost in thought, buried memories resurfacing. Then at length he turns to me. “Jane doesn’t know this, neither does her mother.” I nod, understanding the unspoken and he continues. “I worked in intelligence as well. I oversaw the recruitment and training of a spy network, of sort. Nothing glamorous. We gave the alcoholics and junkies money for booze and drugs.

“They gave us information, basic stuff like troop movement, nothing too significant. Crumbs. They were the dregs of their society and they knew little. But sometimes they knew enough to prevent some of our troops dying. If we thought we could use methods and intimidation to get more out of them, we never hesitated. If it saved one more life…

“I didn’t care, I could justify it. Not for the great United States, or for freedom and democracy, but to get my boys home alive. If this piece of shit’s confession could save just one of my boys, let him scream.”

He took a moment to compose himself. “They were handled by Asians, usually Asian-Americans recruited over here. These people had it hard. They may have nothing to do with Vietnam, born thousands of miles away, in a different culture, a different language. They were doing their job as loyal Americans, no different from the rest of us.

“But they were seen as different. Yellow skin, slit eyes and they aroused all the wild fears and prejudices that permeated the white and black soldiers. They largely hung out together and felt betrayed.

“Then we returned home. To some we were heroes, but many felt uneasy, as they’d heard of the horrors we’d inflicted. For the Asian-American soldiers, it was twice as bad. In civilian clothes, they were just another immigrant, just another who looked like the enemy. They received no honor, no respect from their peers. Sometimes they were even rejected by their own.”

He pauses again. I watch his warm breath escape as he exhales into the chilly air.

“There are two of these men still alive, physically at least. They’re both loners, pariahs. They’ve never held down jobs, never married. They wander the streets, allowing themselves to remember only enough to ensure they return to a hostel of sorts that feeds them and gives them beds. They are luckier than the homeless you talk about, Will. Their officer turned out to be a rich bastard who cares. Their tabs at the hostel are taken care of.”

There is silence and we stand up stiffly, both staring around. I search for something to say and put my hand on his shoulder. “You’re a good man, James, a generous man.”

He turns sharply and looks at me incredulously. His voice becomes sharp and loud. “I don’t do it for them! I do it for me! I do it so that I can live, so that I can continue. I do it to keep away the nightmares, to prevent the faces of widows and orphans staring at me at every turn.”

He begins to walk towards the car.

“You’re still a good man, James.” I shout after him, my voice shaking with emotion. He turns to face me. My arm sweeps in the cemetery and, with considerable effort, I steady my voice. “They all know who you are and what you did. They still think you’re a fucking hero. So do I, sir, even if I can’t understand it all.”

He stares at me for what feels like hours and I walk slowly towards him. He is breathing heavily; I see this even though the winter coat he wears. When he speaks, his voice is quiet, but steely.

“Find your boss, son. Find him and help him if you can: his brother too, if the poor bastard’s still alive.”

A Hellava Time To Be Writing

A friend consoled me. “Bad luck really, what with the presidential elections and then the economy crashing. Who’s gonna have any time or strength to get into a novel?”

The really sad part was that, though quite aware of all that is happening around us, I wasn’t actually depressed before he said this. Our new President will be installed when my book is launched, and should generate an air of optimism (at least with half the population), but more likely, we’ll settle back into our ways pretty quickly.

Economic fears make people feel vulnerable and without hope. With disposable income rapidly shrinking, consumers may well hold back from buying new books. Why not cut corners and go to the used bookstore or the library?

Oilspill Dotcom is about feeling vulnerable and disempowered. It’s about facing a huge machine that is greedy and without care. It’s about multinationals, not Wall Street, but there is a clear connection. Perhaps the actions of my lead characters might help inspire others to reach above a feeling of helplessness. If Oilspill Dotcom says anything, it is that an individual can make a difference, even against a rich and powerful system.

I have spent the last week schlepping a 700-page book around. 1001 Ways to Market Your Book by John Kremer seems jam-packed with ideas and stories gleaned from real life experiences. I’ve barely made a dent in the book and it’s left me feeling daunted by the prospect of marketing myself. I’m not afraid or shy to put myself out there; it’s just working out where to start.

Perhaps I should take heed of Mr. Kremer’s warning at the beginning of the book: “Don’t go overboard and dilute your efforts by trying to do everything at once.” I’ll continue reading and fastidiously make what is fast becoming a very long list of ideas.

To help prevent myself from feeling overwhelmed, I will already take one particular piece of his advice and focus on establishing myself locally. For the first three months I will focus on selling and marketing in California, and particularly in the Bay Area.

As a wise Chinese sage once said: Even the longest journey begins with a single step.

Good Writing, and good voting on Tuesday!


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