I cannot review or rate my own work, so I'll use this space for something readers might be interested in... Reprints of blog interviews.Merry Brains Talks To Martyn V Halm, A Suspense Fiction AuthorTell us a little about yourself and your background?
I've always been an avid reader, which was fostered by my parents, especially my father who worked as an editor for a Dutch publisher specializing in children/young adult books. Every book published would end up on my shelf. I was born and raised in a township just south of Amsterdam, where I was finished with the local library around age twelve. From then on I went to the main public library in Amsterdam, which moved from a dreary building on the Prinsengracht to a huge airy building on the Oosterdokseiland, next to the Amsterdam Central Station. I live almost around the corner from the public library now, and I take my children there to play and read while I write in a corner from where I can supervise them.
My writing started with storytelling and people would encourage me to write down my stories, but I didn't start writing until I started working nights as a security officer. Where my coworkers would play games or surf the internet, I spent twenty years working on improving my craft until I was ready to publish, which I did about a year ago.What are your ambitions for your writing career?
My main goal is to entertain readers with my stories, but I also want people to rediscover the joys of reading. Although earning money from writing would be great, I’d rather have readers than money. I find many authors preoccupied with twitter followers and facebook likes, while the most important thing is that people read and enjoy your books. Social media is a great way to interact with readers, but the best interaction is to tell them a great story with characters that live in their mind long after they closed the book.So, what have you written?
My main body of work is the Amsterdam Assassin Series, a series of books and short stories that revolves around freelance assassin and corporate troubleshooter Katla Sieltjes. Under the name Loki Enterprises, Katla specialises in disguising homicide and providing permanent solutions for both individuals and corporations.
The first novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series, Reprobate, marks the first time Katla breaks one of her own rules, and how this affects both her personal and business life. The second novel, Peccadillo, shows what happens if you corner an assassin’s legitimate business cover. The third novel, Rogue, is due to be published in November 2013. In Rogue Katla draws the unwanted attention of combined intelligence agencies, all with their own agendas. Meanwhile, old enemies come out of the woodwork and threaten both Katla and her friends. While the novels can be read out of order, reading them in chronological order might be more enjoyable.
Between the publications of the novels, the Amsterdam Assassin Series also features stand-alone short stories, the Katla KillFiles. The Katla KillFiles chronologically precede the novels in the Amsterdam Assassin Series. Each KillFile features Katla executing one of her contracts before the events in Reprobate, and, while not mandatory reading, each KillFile provides insight both in Katla’s work methods and skill, and additional background information in her character and personal history. The KillFiles can be read out of order, as the contracts are random samples from her past.Give us an insight into your main character. What does he/she do that is so special?
Katla is an expert in disguising homicide, so she manipulates crime scenes to make the deaths appear like accidents, suicides, drownings, and the side-effects of other crimes, as well as make people disappear. Unlike many protagonists with her profession, Katla is not the least bit remorseful about her homicidal enterprise and enjoys the intricacies of her occupation. What are you working on at the minute?
While I’m getting ready to launch Rogue, I’m busy researching and writing the draft for the fourth novel, Ghosting, which takes place during Katla’s forced sabbatical. I’m also working on new KillFiles, writing articles for my blog, and interacting with readers.What genre are your books?
Although the genre is suspense fiction, I found that many reviewers professed reading mainly for the romantic relationship of the main characters. Not that they didn’t like the suspense bits, but apparently the romance between the unusual main characters strikes a chord with many readers. I also get loads of positive feedback from blind and visually impaired readers who enjoy reading about a realistic blind character.Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from your most recent book?
Actually, I wrote a whole blog article on that topic (http://amsterdamassassin.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/movie-adaptations-of-novels-and-short-stories/), but what it comes down to is that I like Katla to live in the imagination of the readers. While it’s not bad that you imagine Jack Nicholson as Randall McMurphy when you read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, I refuse to imagine Tom Cruise when I read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels.
Katla is the ultimate chameleon with features so generic that her appearance is difficult to describe. I think it would be detrimental to the character if her appearance is coupled to that of a real person.
Another problem is condensing a 111,000 word book into a 90 minute feature film or even a television series. My books are mainly character-driven, but you’d have to compromise and focus on a few of their qualities, which tends to make a character into a caricature.How much research do you do?
I enjoy verisimilitude in novels, so I aim to stay as close to reality as I can, which means I do tons of research. Luckily, I enjoy exploring and researching topics I’m not familiar with, so research is not an arduous task.
I’m pretty well-versed in the consequences of a violent life, so not everything was a stretch, but I still had to do research into skills and topics I hadn’t experienced first hand.
For instance, while I’m skilled with most weapons, I’m not attracted to firearms (a tendency I share with Katla). However, firearms are suspense fiction’s stock in trade and I didn’t want to disappoint gun-savvy readers with inaccurate depictions of guns and their use. Apart from reading a ton of books on the subject and researching the particular guns used in the series, I also went to a shooting range with a friend who taught me the important details about shooting firearms. Since I made clear I was researching for my books, I got the opportunity to shoot a variety of handguns side-by-side to compare their differences in accuracy and recoil.
In addition, I have an eclectic group of people around me who help me within their particular fields, from musicians, law enforcement and medical professionals to pickpockets, burglars and enforcers. I’m always interested in other perspectives, so I keep an open mind in talking to people from all stages of life, which allows me to learn anything from how to pick locks to observing autopsies to stealing cars and disabling home security alarms.
All this allows me write convincingly from Katla’s perspective as the consummate professional.Why do you write?
In short, I write for the reader inside me, and I publish for the reader outside of me.Do you write full-time or part-time?
I’m a stay-at-home dad and I also give courses in conflict resolution and self defense, so writing/publishing/promoting is a part-time occupation, although I’m often thinking about writing when I’m busy with my other occupations.Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured?
No, I carry an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard around so I can write whenever I want. And I can, because I used to write while manning a reception desk, so I can concentrate on writing in the middle of a playground while watching my kids. Sometimes it feels surreal when you’re writing about murder and mayhem and your child tugs your sleeve to ask you for something to drink or eat.Do you write every day, 5 days a week or as and when?
I try to write every day, but I often try to write in the ‘lost moments’ when I’m watching the kids or waiting for an appointment. Recently I went on a three week motorcycle trip (see http://amsterdamassassin.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/writing-during-a-motorcycle-trip/) where I wrote during the hours when it was too hot to ride. Somehow I managed to write more than a 1,000 words a day, which was a surprise to me.Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?
When I start a book I have an idea where the story will take me, but I don’t outline. I have a document called ‘Ideas for book #’ and I add ideas to that document while I write in scenes. The main arc is often clear in my mind, but the story itself will reveal itself to me while I’m writing.How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?
I used to write chronologically, but I moved to writing in scenes, which makes my books more ‘like a movie’ in the sense that, like a movie, the story might cut from one scene to the other without the tedious descriptions of how people get from one place to the other, unless their means of transport or travel difficulties figure in the story. In the words of Elmore Leonard, I try to skip the parts that readers tend to skip…How long on average does it take you to write a book?
I spent twenty years honing my craft and Reprobate had been finished a long time before I published it. I had about 50,000 words of Peccadillo at that time. I managed to finish Peccadillo, writing an additional 50,000 words, in two-and-a-half months, plus I wrote Microchip Murder in between so I could publish that before Peccadillo hit the market. Writing Rogue took from January to late August, when I sent the manuscript to my beta-readers. I’d written Fundamental Error in between, writing the story from conception to finished and polished in eight days.
I don’t do ‘word count’ challenges for myself, since the idea is not quantity, but quality. While I’ve written 5,000 words in one day for Fundamental Error, and 8,000 words in one day for Rogue, I mainly write between 1,000 and 2,000 words a day.What are your thoughts on writing a book series?
Writing a series sounds easier but is actually more difficult than you might expect. When someone picks up Rogue, I have no idea if they read Reprobate and Peccadillo first, so I have to make sure that Rogue can stand alone and be interesting without the back story. This gets even more difficult when minor characters from Reprobate turn up in Rogue and have to be re-introduced. You don’t want to dwell on their past, which would bore those who read Reprobate, but you also don’t want to provide too little backstory and confuse those who haven’t read Reprobate. I think I struck a fine balance, but it’s ultimately the reader who decides whether I succeeded.Do you proofread/edit all your own books or do you get someone to do that for you?
My process starts with the ideas that I gather in a document on what I want the book to be about. Then I write the scenes that will become a rough draft. When I finish the rough draft, I will convert it to an epub so I can read it without the ability to edit. I read the draft like it’s a book, highlighting and notating the text for changes or corrections.
Using the highlight and notes list I edit the draft and produce a manuscript that I sent to my beta-readers. While they go over the manuscript I put the manuscript away and start working on the next novel or short story.
About a month later I get back feedback from my excellent beta-readers. Three of my beta-readers work or worked as editors, but others work in all kinds of fields, from law enforcement and medicine to crime, so I get all this feedback together and read it through. If several beta-readers suggest that passages are not necessary I review those passages and often take them out. The corrected manuscript is turned into an ARC that goes to reviewers, while I re-read the whole novel one last time before publishing.Tell us about the cover/s and how it/they came about.
I suck at graphic design, so my first covers were done by a cover designer who was still in school and made adequate covers using photos I made in and around Amsterdam. While I liked them, they didn’t look professional enough and that cost me sales. I decided to go to a professional cover artist, Farah Evers, who designed the current covers. Before she did my covers, she hadn’t done suspense fiction covers, so we exchanged ideas and worked together on the concept. I’m pleased to say that since she did my covers more suspense authors had their covers done by Farah.
As to the concept, it had to be clear that the setting of the books was in Amsterdam (hence the Amsterdam houses in the background), the protagonist was a woman (the silhouette), every title has an O that needs to feature crosshairs, and I wanted a pushdagger on the front. Farah made sure the covers conformed to trade publishing standards and the branding is now apparent.Do you think that the cover plays an important part in the buying process?
I noticed an uptick in sales after I changed the covers, so that signifies the importance for me. Readers need to click on the thumbnail of your cover to read the blurb and move on to reading a sample of the book and/or buying the book. With the glut of novels hitting the e-book market, you need to have an attractive cover to get people to cross the threshold into your world.How are you publishing this book and why?
I’m self-published. Except for making the cover, I do all the work myself. I’ve been approached by trade publishers, but they all require I sign over all my rights for a decade against a 5,000 dollar advance against royalties. For that amount of money I prefer to do the work myself and be in control of the final product, retaining the ability to provide my readers with the availability of my work in the years to come.What would you say are the main advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing against being published or the other way around?
The advantages of being trade published are eroding because their focus is mainly on creating products that have commercial mass appeal. Writers used to go with publishers because publishers would take over the tasks of marketing, public relations, distribution, and, very important, getting the books printed and in bookstores.
With the economic malaise, new writers are only accepted if they can prove they can sell themselves, have extensive following on twitter and facebook. Meanwhile, print is no longer guaranteed, bookstores are closing all over the world, and midlist authors, confronted by the lack of support from their trade publishers, are self-publishing their backlists as soon as their rights are reverted.
Many writers still believe in trade publishing because being trade published serves as a validation of their worth. If a publisher sinks money into your work, that means your work must be good. Actually, since publishers are mainly into financial success, their interest in your work only means that your work is commercially viable, which has precious little to do with the quality of your prose.
Of course, there will be many trade published authors who claim that publishers are the gatekeepers of quality literature, but there are plenty examples of renowned authors who self-published, like Mark Twain, or fell by the wayside because publisher didn’t consider their writing commercially viable enough, like John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, twelve years after the author killed himself because he was depressed over being rejected.What do you do to get book reviews?
Apart from giving away free review copies of Reprobate (http://amsterdamassassin.wordpress.com/2012/12/25/review-reprobate/ ), I put a request to review my books in the backmatter of each book, so readers know I’d appreciate if they’d help me increase exposure for the Amsterdam Assassin Series.How successful has your quest for reviews been so far?
I read somewhere that you need to sell 1,500 copies of a book for every review you get. That would mean I wouldn't even have one review… However, Reprobate has thirteen reviews on Amazon, twenty-five reviews on GoodReads, Hannah Thompson (a visually impaired senior lecturer at a London University) wrote an article on her blog Blindspot in her Blindness in Fiction article series (http://amsterdamassassin.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/honored-and-validated-by-a-special-review/ ), and several other bloggers have reviewed Reprobate and other books in the series.What are your thoughts on good/bad reviews?
Reviews are for readers to decide whether a book is worthy of their time and money, not feedback for authors. Most reviews are personal opinions, and if you read a review by someone whose opinion you respect, or whose reviews resonate with your own experience, they can help you make the decision to buy or ignore a book.
I like to read reviews, whether they are good or bad, because they give me an insight in the minds of my readers and may help me improve my writing. However, I rarely respond to reviews because I think that if a reader wants a reaction, they’ll send me a feedback email. I love intelligent discourse, so I enjoy interacting with my readers by email.Do you think that giving books away free works and why?
I think it works, because it can help you find readers. Readers are more important than sales. I have two short stories which are permafree and get downloaded about 10-15 times as much as the paid books. However, free downloads are not always read, sometimes they are just filler for e-readers, sinking slowly to the bottom of the to-be-read pile.How do you relax?
Writing is relaxing for me, but I also train in martial arts, and I love having friends over and discussing a variety of topics. If I want to unwind, I often go for a solo motorcycle ride. I rarely ride with others, I don’t like ‘group rides’. Although I’m pretty sociable, I can spend a lot of time alone without feeling lonely. As it is, with a young family, you need to take time off once in a while. My wife and I go on our own separate trips: I spent three weeks riding my motorcycle through France and Italy, and she went for a week sailing a yacht on the Ijsselmeer.What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Don’t write a book. Draft a story. Commit your story to paper or hard drive and pay no attention to the rules a book has to follow. When you’re finished telling your story, you have a rough draft. The draft needs to be edited to be readable to outsiders. Get a good book on self-editing for fiction writers and follow the advice in how to improve your draft until it becomes a manuscript. Find people who are willing to read your manuscript and tell you where the story fails to engage them, so you can improve the manuscript until it’s worthy of publication.
And don’t forget to have fun while you’re doing this.
The full interview can be read on Prakhyath Rai's Merry Brains blog, http://www.merrybrains.com/2013/11/merry-brains-talks-to-martyn-v-halm.html