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A Date With . . . James Roby

My guest this week is James Roby. Born in Detroit, James is a veteran of the USAF and served in many locations across the USA from Florida to Alaska, and traveled beyond America’s shores, too. Now he’s back in Detroit, a city that he loves and that is the setting for a series of novels featuring a team of investigators he calls the Urban Knights. We began by discussing his love for the city of his birth.

Thanks Frank for giving me the opportunity to spread the word about the UrbanKnights novel series. Well, Detroit IS home. I feel Detroit had a, pardon the pun, driving force in my early development. Good or ill, it’s made me who I am today. We’re all the product of our environment, of the things we’ve seen and done. Detroit for me, is a big part of that. Traveling the country, I encountered a lot of negative feelings about Detroit – a lot of it off base. I tried to be a representative of my hometown and help disperse some of the rumor and flat out lies about her. That’s why so many of my characters are based on real people I grew up with. Not everyone in the city is someone’s ‘baby momma’ or an ex-con. Some of them went to college, raised a family…the same things people everywhere do. That’s Detroit to me.”

Detroit is famous internationally as the USA’s “Motor Town” and fast cars feature in the UrbanKnights novels. I wondered what James drives himself.

“ I’m a Mustang man myself. Blame Steve McQueen in Bullitt. I’m on my third one and my next car will probably be another ‘Stang. I had a Chrysler and a Saturn in there too, but I’m a diehard Mustang fan.”

The American motor industry has suffered many set backs in recent years but James believes its future holds promise.

“ I don’t think it’s dead, by any means. I still see a lot of domestics around…and some of them are electric and hybrid. I hope this technology grows and becomes more widespread, if for no other reason, than to provide the market a choice.”

Detroit, too, has suffered – from a loss of population and some recent political scandals. At the same time the ratio of Black to White residents has reversed, suggesting the exodus was mostly of White people. That is something that inevitably features in James’s novels.

“In a lot of ways, Detroit is a microcosm of America in terms of race. You can see it clearly at the Detroit – Grosse Pointe border, one of the city’s more affluent suburbs. It’s like someone hit a switch. It’s a burden that has impacted the city and by extension, the country. Race and racism is like a big heavy weight around the leg of someone trying to run a race. Bad part is, no one but us is making us wear it. I lived through a lot of those changes, and it breaks my heart. There is, I feel, enough blame to go around.

With race so ingrained in the recent history of Detroit, it’s hard, if not impractical, to write fiction there and not at least touch on it. In the UrbanKnights, sometimes it’s subtle like a conversation. In Pale Horse, the main character, Jordan Noble and an old military buddy discuss why there are so few resources in Detroit to aid in their mission. Sins of the Father and my newest novel, Favorite Son, tackle gentrification, which in part, is driven by race.”

James went on to reveal a little more about this latest work.

“ A new casino is just opening in Detroit and instead of enjoying the grand opening, tragedy strikes. The owner is murdered in his office by persons unknown. The UrbanKnights are on the case and they quickly discover murder is only the beginning and this case will put them in conflict with powers far beyond Detroit’s borders.”

James’s stories are driven far more by characters and their motivations than by a preconceived plot.

“ I heard Dan Brown recently say the ‘story’ has been done. Basically, there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s up to the writer to make it interesting. I mean, whether it’s the latest action thriller or a historical drama, the setting may change but the elements are the same: Characters, conflicts, resolutions, etc. So, I feel character and motivations are the primary elements. You want to go on the ride with someone you like and are interested in. I often have an idea, not necessarily a plot, and the first question is, What would the UrbansKnights do? I would hope that’s what would make readers come back too.”

James writes early mornings and at weekends

“ I get up an hour earlier during the week for that quiet time to work on my books. I usually do catch up on the weekend.”

His stories are backed by lots of research.

“ I’m definitely a ‘pantser’. I get an idea and run with it. For example, I was walking down the street after seeing something on the news and the idea struck me – what if there was a terrorist attack in Detroit? What would [my leading character] Jordan Noble do, given his history in counter-terrorism? I just went from there. During the writing, after the thrill of a new idea wore I started asking questions: Why would a terrorist attack Detroit? How would that impact on the large Middle Eastern population in and around the city? Then there was the question of what agents of government would respond? What equipment would they use? You get the idea. So yeah, I have to research. A lot. I love Google. There is a ton of information out there. I also have some personal resources – people I met in the service, Police officers back home, that sort of thing.

It’s almost like an onion, each layer reveals another. My latest book, Favorite Son, took so many changes after the research started, it’s not even the same story! Research created a connection between me and the story. I go deeper and the story becomes more real.”

Like most of us indie authors, James wishes he could afford more professional help, especially with regard to marketing.

“ I fought this long and hard and finally gave in. I am currently working with an artist to redesign my first three covers. I’ve had a lot of ‘it’s ok’ responses to the covers I’ve designed. ‘It’s ok’ doesn’t sell novels. I’m also looking at some marketing services. If I had to give advice it would be, what you can do yourself, do. Otherwise, hire someone who is good at it. Also, unless you have a few thousand dollars just laying around, you’re going to have to prioritize. For me it was covers and marketing because that’s what gets the books in folks hands. You can also bypass some costs by tapping into different writing communities. I can’t put a price on how useful my writing group is. Check out social media for groups in your town. It will be worth it.”

(Images of the old covers are alongside, so you can judge for yourself whether they qualify as “okay” or “special”, FP)

James’s favorite writers are Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, Dashiell Hammett, Ian Fleming, and Walter Mosley. but the one he would most like to meet is Walter Mosely.

“ Just to hear the story of how he brought Easy Rawlins, to compete in a media where there are so few African American heroes. And how he connects with his audience, what worked best for them in their marketing…that sort of thing. I have seen writing good and bad but the mystery I struggle with is the marketing. I truly believe that’s the difference between a sold book and a stack in your basement is the marketing.”

An ideal day for James would be different depending on whether or not he had won a lottery prize.

“ I guess in the real world, waking up late, watching the Saint (starring Roger Moore, of course) with the wife and my dogs. And being in Detroit, of course, I have to get a couple of coney dogs at Kerby’s. Throw in a steak for dinner and man, that’s a day. But for a fantasy, I’m seeing a cruise ship, a beach and long days of doing nothing.”

Asked to name something about him that might surprise his readers, James reveals his love of dogs.

“ My wife and I have fostered over 20 dogs. We volunteer with a local organization that spare dogs from being destroyed. Once they’re rescued from shelters, we provided them a home and help socialize the little rascals, until someone adopts them. Well, except for the two dogs we ended up keeping!”

I hope you have enjoyed reading about James. You can discover much more, and links to his books, on his website.

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A Date with . . . Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson is a retired Military Cop from Seymour, Texas. As well as moving around quite a bit as the son of a cowboy, his military service took him to Korea, France and Vietnam but he loves his home town:

“ I was born in Seymour, but spent twenty years in the military. My dad was a cowboy and cook, so we moved to other places during my early years. In fact most of my early education was in schools in Wichita Falls, Texas. After retiring from the military service we moved back to Seymour because our parents were in bad health, and we stayed after they passed away. Seymour is a small ranch and farm community,with a population under three thousand. However, we have two museums here. The Baylor County Historical Museum, and the Whiteside Museum of Natural History. Seymour is in the Permian Basin (think oil) where a dig site has been providing Permian reptile fossils for well over a hundred years. In fact, we have a 300 million year-old amphibian named after our town, the Semouria. The Whiteside Museum of Natural History has a huge display of animals from mammals to dinosaurs and reptiles. Schools from around Texas and Oklahoma bring students here on field trips, and many do return engagements. Students love to visit the museum, as do adults.”

PENTAX Image

Tom is passionate about pulp fiction (the real stuff, not the eponymous movie). I wanted to know what attracted him to the genre?

“First I became a collector of the old pulp magazines, and was fascinated by the yarns written in the 1930s & ’40s, and even the earlier stuff by Johnston McCulley. It was really a time for heroes, and Johnston McCulley and a few others started the costumed/masked crime fighters long before Superman and Batman tackled crime in comic books. The explosion actually happened after the Wall Street crash of 1929.

The public was tired of gangsters in suits and expensive automobiles while the rest of humanity stood in lines at the soup kitchens.

They wanted heroes and the Dime magazines gave them those heroes. While living in Wichita Falls, Texas I had access to the movie theaters in the 1940s and thrilled to the Saturday Matinee serials. These were stories right out of the pulp magazines, and I loved those old serials. As an adult I started collecting the serials- I’m now at 100 and counting, and this led to collecting and reading the hero pulps. As a writer of SF, I wanted to write new stories of the old pulp heroes, and have enjoyed some success in that genre. I don’t think I will ever tire of the hero stories. And you’re right, the movie, Pulp Fiction has nothing to do with real pulp fiction.”

Tom regularly collaborates with Altus Press, he explains how the partnership began:

ALTUS PRESS is owned by a very nice gentleman in Massachusetts named Matt Moring. My wife and I started the publishing imprint of FADING SHADOWS in 1982. We started publishing a hobby magazine that year, plus in 1995 added genre magazines and published new writers from around the world.

In 2002 I had a stroke and we had to slow down, so in 2004, 22 years after starting our imprint, we ended the FADING SHADOWS imprint.

Around 2005 Matt Moring contacted me wanting stories from the pulps to reprint. I began supplying ALTUS PRESS with the material Matt needed, plus he hired me to write Forwards and Introductions to his books. When he learned that I had researched many of the old pulp series, he asked me to let him print them, so he began publishing a lot of my work from the FADING SHADOWS period. At 78, I’m pretty well retired now, but I’ve recently written another Forward to ALTUS PRESS upcoming book, THE DOMINO LADY

Tom began writing whilst in the military:

I was a reader from an early age. Comic books at age 7, and the classic novel like Tom Sawyer by age 11. So I’ve always loved to read. My dad wanted me to follow in his footsteps and become a cowboy. But I hated ranch and farm life. At age 16 we moved back to a ranch where Ihad to work after school and on weekends. I decided that wasn’t a life I wanted, and when I turned 18 I joined the Army and left ranch life for good.
In the early 1960s I was a desk sergeant for the MPs in France. While my units were on patrol I would create plots and characters and write little scenes of action. I guess I was bitten by the bug, so to speak. But I didn’t do anything with my interest until after a touring the jungles of Vietnam. When I returned home in 1970, I sat down and wrote two novels that would become the first two stories in the JUR series. I wrote them in long hand and pencil. Paid a typist to put the first one in manuscript format, and made copies which I mailed off to SF publishers.
Just as quickly I started receiving rejection slips. I needed to learn the trade. So I stuffed the manuscripts in a drawer and started writing articles and columns for newspapers and magazines. And when we started the FADING SHADOWS imprint after I retired from the military, my wife and I got into editing and grammar.

While researching the Mike Shayne magazine the publisher put me in contact with James Reasoner, the current Shayne author at the time, and James heard about my SF stories and wanted to read them. I sent him the first story and he made some good suggestions which I took to heart. I rewrote the first novel, and in 2002 submitted it to a publisher.

The publisher wrote back accepting the novel and asked for more.

I wasn’t doing anything at the time so sent the second novel to them, then the third. That began my real writing.
But you asked me about the military, didn’t you? My career field was law enforcement, but my training was infantry. I spent a couple tours in Korea, the first on the DMZ under fire in 1959-60. A wonderful three year tour in France, and a tour in Vietnam 1969-70. I spent most of the 1960s overseas. When in the States I had a hard time getting out of Texas. I think I was stationed at every military post in Texas. I joined the Army on November 24, 1958, and retired February 1, 1979. I still feel the military was a better option for me than ranch life. Twenty years in the military, and twenty years in publishing. I don’t regret any of it.

Looking at the covers of Tom’s books (some of which are reproduced here) it’s obvious that he does his best to imitate the style of the 1940s pulps he loves so much. How much of that is down to him?

I do most of it myself, though sometimes I use one of our old FADING SHADOWS artists to illustrate and a designer to set up the cover. I first look for a pulp cover that’s in the public domain, and if I can design the title, I’ll do it myself. I want something that will catch the eye of the reader. I don’t really care for modern book covers.

Tom is married to his editor – and he has encountered every self-publisher’s worst nightmare (not that the two are in any way connected!).

Ginger, my wife, does a good job editing my books. I will go over the manuscript several times until I’m happy with it, but then I turn it over to Ginger and she catches the things I don’t see. I do have too many files, though.

Once, when we uploaded a manuscript for print and eBook we uploaded an unedited file instead of the final version.

One of my readers saw the problem and let me know. I had to pull the book and upload the file again. Unfortunately, I had ordered 26 copies of the paperback for book signing, and that was a waste of money since the book was full of errors.

Some people regard pulp fiction as the bottom of the literary barrel, both from the presumed quality of the writing and from the subject matter and the culture it promotes. How does Tom respond to such criticism?

I’ve heard this a lot. And some of it is true. Pulp was formula, and the writers were trying to make a living at a penny a word during the Depression. There was little plot, little characterization, but lots of action. Lester Dent, the author of Doc Savage (as Kenneth Robeson)struggled to move from pulp to the slicks because he thought Doc Savage was junk and he would never be recognized as a real writer. But if we compare the sales of Doc Savage to the sales of Hemingway, Doc Savage probably sold ten times more books than Hemingway, and today Doc Savage is more popular than Hemingway. Unfortunately, Lester Dent died in 1958, so he never knew how popular Doc Savage would be. Some great writers wrote pulp fiction. They had to if they wanted to feed their family.

I was unaware of Tom’s age when I asked him the standard question about fitting writing in around working for a living.

With my retirement and what my books bring in I make good money. Besides, at 78 I’m too old to work (LOL). I’ve always heard never quit your day job to become a writer. But we are well off and have no worries about finances. If I never sold another book, it would not hurt our income in the least.

Not surprisingly, Tom’s favorite authors include a few who write ‘pulp’:

There are so many writers I admire. Past writers would be Edgar Rice Burroughs (remember Tarzan?) Robert E. Howard (Conan). I have spent time with many of the pulp writers. Today’s writers I would have to say K.G. (Gail) McAbee, who can write anything and it’s going to be good! And a dozen others, but if I mentioned a few and left out others I would get in trouble, so I will leave it at this. LOL

Asked to reveal something unexpected about himself, Tom confesses that

I am addicted to coconut. I love coconut pies and coconut cakes. I am as bad about coconut as some are about chocolate (LOL).

I really enjoyed my conversation with such an engaging gentleman – I hope you did too. Connect with Tom on Facebook, at Amazon and via firstrealmpublishing.com.

For the latest Pulp news, check out Tom’s blog here.


Quality: #atozchallenge

One of the many engineering projects I worked on in the 1980s was aimed at increasing the quality of the synthetic fibre the company produced. There were two benefits claimed for improved quality:

  • We could reach more discerning – and, therefore, more lucrative – markets for our product, and
  • By reducing the quantity of product that was rejected, we could significantly increase productivity.

Later, whilst working for another organisation, I was part of a team introducing a concept called Total Quality Management (TQM).

TQM is a philosophy based on the work of an American, Professor W.E.Deeming. An engineer and statistician, Deeming was instrumental in creating the Japanese post WWII industrial ‘miracle’. As producers in the USA and Europe found themselves unable to compete with Japanese quality in the 1980s, they began to adopt the same underlying principles. Soon they were incorporated into national and international standards. The International Standards Organisation, for example, defines TQM as: “A management approach of an organisation centred on quality, based on the participation of all its members and aiming at long term success through customer satisfaction and benefits to all members of the organisation and society.” (ISO 8402:1994)

Implementation involves every member of the organisation in thinking about how to improve the way they carry out their individual functions, and seeking ways to continue improving. A great deal of effort is put into training so as to ensure every member of the team develops his or her full potential.

Quality Principles for Creatives

How might these principles be adopted by creative people, especially writers? After all, we mostly work alone. We can still aspire to continuously improve in everything we do. Great artists regularly produce sketches and studies in preparation for a significant painting. A writer will produce several drafts of a novel before showing it to a trusted beta reader. Jeffrey Archer is on record as producing at least ten drafts of every one of his novels, all in longhand. Only then is the book released to an editor who will suggest further improvements.

But a book is more than the content. There are many other factors that contribute to the quality of the finished article, including cover and formatting. It is at this stage that the work ceases to become the product of a single individual and is handed over to a team that might include an agent and publisher as well as editor and cover designer. All members of the team need to have in mind the single goal of “success through customer satisfaction”. In this case, of course, the customer is the reader.

What steps do you take to ensure reader satisfaction? How easy do you find it to work with others – beta readers, cover designer, editor – to achieve that aim?

Don’t be Scared of Print

If you are someone who feels daunted by what you see as the difficulty of uploading a book to Amazon’s CreateSpace for print publication, don’t be. I’ve just done it for the second time and it was a lot easier than the first. Here’s why.

The first time was back in the summer of 2014 and I am certain that some of the features that made it easier this time around were not present then. Like the step where, having uploaded your interior text you wait for 24 hours to receive an e-mail with a link to the converted text as it will appear in print. You can page through to see if it is formatted exactly the way you want it. This file is ‘read only’ but you can save it to your hard drive as an editable file and make the changes you want. Then, when you go back into the CreateSpace process you can upload this file as your new interior. You can repeat this step as many times as you need. I did it twice.

Virtual proof

Last time around, when the process was completed I had to purchase a printed proof copy, which took about a month to arrive, before approving the file for publication. Now an on-line proofing step has been provided. You simply download a virtual copy of your book, complete with cover, that you can page through for a final check of formatting. It is a good idea, at this stage, to do a final read through, checking for typos missed during earlier editing sessions – believe me, there will be some! CreateSpace offers you the option of downloading a pdf version of your interior file to make this easier.

If, at this stage, you find things you need to change you can go back to that file you saved in the earlier step, make the changes and return to the step where you upload the revised file. All this means that there are plenty of opportunities for getting your book exactly the way you want it, without having to wait for a printed proof.

Cover design

It’s not just the process for uploading and correcting the interior file that has got better. Cover design, too, is a lot less bothersome than I remember from the first time I did it. Of course, you can use a professional design service, and Amazon have an extensive list of associates whose services you can purchase. However, if you choose to use a template from the CreateSpace library, the variety of designs available is much more extensive than I remember from 2014. For those templates that include space for an image, you still have the option of uploading your own, or you can choose from a large selection of images also available in the CreateSpace library.

Once you have chosen a template, the process takes you step by step through the insertion of title, sub-title, author and two sets of back cover text (this is where you insert your carefully crafted blurb to make your book irresistible to readers!). Each step can be omitted should you so choose. For example, a novel does not generally have a sub-title. Many front covers do, however, have a key phrase or two to tell readers what to expect. It might be something like “from the award winning author of (your last book)”, or a succinct expression of the challenge facing your protagonists. Don’t waste the opportunity to use the sub-title panel for that important purpose.

The value of editing

It is well worth spending time getting all of this right. But it is also vital that your text is fully edited and corrected before you commit it to print or digital publication.

Note: I provide above a link to the editing service I used for Transgression. I found it’s proprietor, Eamon O’Cleireigh, to be a valuable partner in the process of improving my book. There are, of course, many other providers of such services and you would be well advised to shop around in order to find someone who suits your particular needs.