Category Archives: Simon Wood

Plummet

Continuing my month of real life mayhem, here’s how I burned up another of my nine lives…

PLUMMET

A few years back, I was kneecapped playing soccer. I was about to clear the ball when a guy carrying an advantage of 30 pounds and 12 inches of height body-checked me. When he struck, my foot was planted in the turf with my full weight on it. My body twisted, but my foot remained firmly where it was. Something had to give: my knee. I suffered the most intense pain I had ever felt. My leg pointed 90 degrees in the wrong direction. I may have screamed a bit. The upshot was that I couldn’t walk for a few weeks and spent months in physical therapy to heal the damaged tendons.

My knee healed but it was never a 100%. It fatigued easily under heavy usage. I certainly felt all its flaws hiking the descent from the top of Sealy Tarns in New Zealand.

Sealy Tarns was the first major hike of my New Zealand vacation and I discovered my knee wasn’t up to the terrain. In preparation, my wife and I had walked several tough trails in Northern California with similar elevation changes — with no knee problems — but New Zealand was much meaner than California, with steeper inclines, rock-strewn trails, and rapid changes in elevation. The weather complicated matters, too. Although it was summer, conditions were more like winter, with snow a distinct possibility. The wind was severe enough that I had to climb on all fours at times so not to be blown off the mountain. Although the peak provided a stunning vista of a mountain range carved by a glacier, the wind and cold curbed our enjoyment.

Going up hadn’t been too bad — tiring, but I hadn’t felt any ill effects. Coming down was a different matter. A few hundred feet down from the mountain’s 3000-foot summit, I realized my leg didn’t have the strength or stability to support my footfalls. After only 300 feet, I could see the hike down was going to be a lot slower than it had been going up…

Or maybe not.

Rounding a switchback on the footpath, my knee lost all sensation and strength. I pitched forward with my hands out in front, but as soon as I started falling, I knew I was going over the edge. I watched my hands glide past the 18-inch-wide ledge toward the abyss.

Faced with death, you’re supposed to have your life flash before you or relive an old experience. Well, this was my third close encounter with the grave and I’m sorry, but none of the above is true. As I went over the edge, my thoughts focused to a singularity with the coherency of a laser. I developed mental tunnel vision; all nonessential thoughts dissolved into the periphery. Only one thought obsessed my mind: No, not now, not today, I will not die. I didn’t know what I was going to do to save myself, but I was going to do something.

Instinctively, I snatched at everything. To my shock, my left hand latched hold of an inch-thick root belonging to a shrub. My descent stopped dead after a fall of only a few feet. I was left dangling by one arm against a sheer wall of sharp rock and loose dirt, which was held in place by wild grasses and shrubs. If I lost my grasp on the root, my fall would be some 300 feet to the next shelf, but with the severity of the mountain face, the jutting rocks would flick me beyond the narrow ledge. Where I would land next would be impossible to tell — overhangs, terrain changes, and trees blocked the rest of the mountain. I was pretty sure that, once I started falling, there was little to halt the 2500-feet descent to the bottom.

My problems were compounded because my back was to the cliff face. The backpack I wore pushed me away from the cliff wall as my legs flailed to find a foothold. Since I didn’t know how long I could keep a grasp of the root — or the root could keep a grasp of the cliff face, my heart rate went through the roof.

Julie dropped to the trail to aid me. She grasped my wrist on the hand that held the root.  “Let go. I’ve got you.”

There was no way I was giving up my only strand of safety. I couldn’t see her, but there was no way she had me. Even though I know she’s strong, she ain’t that strong. There was a good chance I could take her over the side with me.

“Let go,” she repeated.

I didn’t answer. I thrashed my feet against the rocks and shrubs for a foothold. Julie said something else that I ignored. My feet found an edge in the rocks, but kept slipping off because of the awkward position I was in. After several attempts, my heels dug into something solid. I hitched myself up an inch to get the full strength of my legs under me. With three points of contact with the cliff face, relief washed over me. I breathed again, not realizing that I’d been holding my breath. For the first time, I believed I was going to get out of this one.

Julie still fought to take the hand clasped around the tree root. I thrust my other hand at her.  “Take it,” I ordered.

She took it.

I was supported, but — with my back to the cliff wall — it was nearly impossible to climb up. To do it, I needed to be facing the other way.

“Pull me up,” I told Julie.

She heaved on my arm with both hands. As she dragged me back to safety, I turned my body, helping myself up by finding a new foothold in the rock. I never let go of my trusty root. I believed in that root more than anything on earth. Without finesse, Julie hauled me back onto the trail. I let go of my root and clawed at the footpath’s dirt. Once safe, we just lay there, catching our breaths.

Adrenaline coursed through me. My legs had been immensely strong during the rescue, but the moment I was safe, my crippled leg was useless. I could barely stand on it. For the remainder of the decent, I struggled. Where several rockslides had wiped out the footpath, I was forced to butt-scoot across them. I applied a similar technique to the numerous steep drops, where the path fell four or five feet rapidly. Unable to find a makeshift staff, Julie tried to be my crutch, but the needle-thin paths made it impossible. For much of the hike down, I leaned against the mountainside for support. My feeble stamina meant I couldn’t go more than 10 minutes without a stop. It was a torturous couple of hours. Limping back to the parking lot, my knee was mush. I stripped off my weatherproof and thermal layers and Julie bandaged my leg. I hadn’t let her bandage it on the mountain; I’d just wanted to get down.

A few days later, Julie admitted something to me. “There was no way your hand was coming off that root. Your knuckles threatened to burst through your skin. I tried to peel your fingers off, but I couldn’t get one to budge. I couldn’t believe your strength.”

Neither could I. It didn’t feel like I had held on that tight. I know for damn sure I was holding on for dear life. In all honesty, my grip felt light — although in that frantic minute or so I fought to hang on, my hand never slipped a millimeter. To compound my miraculous strength, my arm and shoulder suffered no muscle strain or bruising. I’d had a Bruce Banner/Hulk moment, echoing the belief that we all possess superhuman strength we call upon in times of extreme stress.

It’s not the first time I’d experienced these tendencies. When I raced cars, I reacted quickly to avoid accidents. They seemed to happen intensely slowly to me, but later spectators remarked on the speed of my avoidance. Something sure gets awakened in me at times like this. I’m grateful for this survivor’s instinct. I’ve learned to trust it when it kicks in.

An event like this only reinforces my own belief that, irrespective of technological advances and perceived superior intellect, we humans rely on and use our primitive instincts a hell of a lot. Three millions years of fight-or-flight reflexes are hardwired into our brains and aren’t going anywhere fast.

If you don’t believe me, let me push you off a mountain.

Yours falling to earth,
Simon Wood
PS: I received my Publishers Weekly review for Paying the Piper and they liked it.  So I’m in the editor’s good books at the moment. 
PPS: I’ll have a new calamity next but I won’t be here.  I’ll already be in Alaska for Bouchercon.

GROUND RUSH (Part 2)

Continuing from last week’s piece.  The story so far–I’m a student pilot, I’m lost and I’m panicking…

The October day had been a dull, overcast.  Not the best conditions for flying but flyable.  As if on cue, the sky darkened, squeezing out the late afternoon light.  The cloud base descended and a mist formed.  Just to complicate matters, air traffic couldn’t switch on its runway lights to help aid my return because they’d been affecting repairs all day. 

If I didn’t get a handle on my bearings soon, I’d be lost in a big way.  My mouth went dry and sweat poured off me.  Fear strangled my good judgment.  I still had the plane in a slow descent.  The plane’s altitude was only 300 feet and I was heading for a crash landing in a field strewn with power lines.  But that wasn’t such a bad thing.  At that moment, I didn’t have the courage needed to get me out of the situation.  It would be so easy to take a chance on crash landing the Cessna in the field.  There was a good chance I’d be injured or killed, but at least I would be on the ground and that was all I wanted–my feet on the ground again, at any cost.  It sounded like a plan and I let the plane drift downward. 

I was down to less than 150 feet when I realized this easy answer was insane.  I had to fight my fear.  I hit full throttle and put the plane into a climb.  Taking this action gave me no pleasure.  With the mist closing in, I didn’t know if my ascent would fly me directly into someone.  That very much in mind, I leveled off at 400 feet safe in the knowledge that it was unlikely that anyone else would be flying that low.

I told air traffic that I was totally lost.  They admitted they didn’t have visual contact and told me to work at it.  That instruction felt like a kick in the guts and as much use as a chocolate teapot, but I did my best.

Still nothing looked familiar.  Twice I blew over the runway from the wrong direction.  Both times my sudden discovery of the airport came as a surprise.  I tried to maintain a visual lock on the runway, but with panic running riot through my brain I lost visual contact with safety within seconds.  It was a miracle that I didn’t crash into someone flying like that.  Air traffic admitted they were struggling to see me beyond the end of the runway because of the mist and that they were clearing the runway and other aircraft until I was down. 

I checked my gas gauge.  I still had half tanks, which was good enough for another couple of hours of flying time.  A couple of hours?  The plane might be able to stay aloft for that long, but I knew my nerves wouldn’t last.  Stress would kill me long before then.  I really had to get a grip and get the plane down.

I knew why I was so panicked.  For the first time in my short flying career, I’d lost my safety tether.  As a student pilot, I wasn’t much different than a baby bird that doesn’t venture far from its nest.  I’d spent so much time in the circuit that it had become my beacon, my safety blanket.  If I ever needed to feel safe, I knew where to go, but not anymore.  By getting lost, I’d broken that link.  I was flapping around in the breeze with no hope of ever getting home safe.  I flew aimlessly in circles draining away my fuel and hope reserves.

Just as I was at the point where I didn’t know what I was going to do, a helicopter announced he’d spotted me and had a view of the runway through a pocket in the clouds.  Air traffic handed control to him without a moment’s hesitation.  He told me to do exactly what he said and when he said it.  I told this sky angel I was his to do with what he would.

Air traffic advised they had the on-site fire crew on alert (hardly a heartwarming thought) and they’d managed to jerry rig the electrics to switch on the main runway’s lights (a very heartwarming thought). 

The helicopter pilot issued instructions: Turn left now.  Stop.  Maintain heading.  Turn right now.  Stop.  Begin descent now.

As I crested a tree line over a hill, the runway in all its blazing glory came into view.  I was coming in at an angle to the runway, but I didn’t care.  I could wing a landing, even if I trashed the plane doing it.
Although it should have been easy to make a landing, it wasn’t.  Because of the shallow angle I was approaching from, the runway’s perspective from the air was unusual, making it hard to estimate my descent rate.  But I wasn’t about to screw this up, not with the chance to walk away from this in one piece now within my grasp.

I homed in on the lights twinkling in the distance and brought the plane down, making one of the best landings of my flying career.  The moment the undercarriage kissed the tarmac my jelly legs and rubber hands regained their strength.  The relief was so overwhelming that I wanted to cry.  I radioed in that I was down safe and sound.  I continued to give an Oscar speech thanking everyone and apologizing to the airport, air traffic, the helicopter and everybody tuned in to the radio frequency.

I parked up and tottered into the flying club’s main office where a number of instructors congratulated me and the chief flying instructor told me, “You just learned the most valuable flying lesson you’ll ever learn.”

He wasn’t talking about losing my bearings, but the fallout from a screw up.  When the shit had hit the fan, I’d coped with the stress.  Up until that day, I’d been pretty cocky about my flying.  I was accurate and adept and never made mistakes, but that meant I’d never having to fix a problem. 

On the way home a wave of euphoria swept me away and I couldn’t stop laughing and crying.  This passed, but the exhilaration didn’t.  My adrenaline levels turned me into a rubber ball bouncing off the walls for the next several hours.

I wasn’t sure I could continue flying.  I’d come very close to giving up and the idea of piloting a plane again filled me with dread.  I didn’t trust myself not to screw up again.  But I persevered and attained my license.  I still fly from time to time.  Unfortunately, learning to fly never did cure my fear of heights.
            
Yours still on the ground,
Simon Wood

GROUND RUSH (Part 1)

I have a habit of getting myself into situations bigger than I am.  When you’re 5′-4", that’s not hard.  I thought I’d post a couple of what I call "I was bloody lucky to get away with that" incidents.  These incidents tend re-emerge in my stories in one shape or another.  So sit back and enjoy the first of calamities…

GROUND RUSH

I hadn’t always been afraid of heights.  In fact, when I was a kid, I was a bit of a suburban monkey, forever climbing trees and running along rooftops.  My fear struck during a business flight to Paris.  The plane took off and banked left.  As I stared out of the window at the world below me, petrifying thoughts gripped me.  I was mortal and I stood no chance of survival if engine failure or gravity got the better of aerodynamics.  My engineer’s mind cataloged every possible reason for the plane to crash and, with every foot in elevation gained, my chances of survival tumbled.  I spent the flight clinging to the armrests like they were going to save me as my gaze remained glued to the world outside the window.

My fear spread beyond flying.  My heart rate leapt any time I was in a building more than three floors tall.  My imagination got away from me and I feared I might lean against a window that wasn’t closed and that would be the end of me.  No, my life expectancy depended on me staying on firm, flat ground.  After several years of this, I decided to learn to fly to combat my irrational fear.  A kill or cure approach, if you will.

I signed up with the local flying school to get a license.  They ran a fleet of Cessna 152s–tiny two-seater aircrafts with less elbowroom than a GEO Metro and in aeronautical terms, about the same capabilities.  They couldn’t fly to fast or too far, but for the purpose of training, they were more than sufficient.  When I arrived for my lesson, the school assigned me one of their Cessna.

I took to flying pretty well.  Being a competitive person, especially with myself, I wanted to do well.  I had to ace the milestones laid down in the course, one of which was the first solo flight.  Flying solo is when the student gets to pilot the aircraft without the security blanket of the instructor at his/her side.  The target time for a student to go solo is ten flying hours.  My instructor cleared me for my first solo after nine.  Once I had that under my belt, I was free to accumulate the number of solo hours required for obtaining a pilot’s license.  At the end of our exercises, my instructor would hop out and I’d fly off again, alone.

Things usually went well, but on one particular day things didn’t go to plan.  I was returning to the airport after practicing some slow flight exercises in the local area.  I contacted air traffic to tell them I was coming back to land and they gave me clearance to rejoin the circuit.  The circuit is essentially a traffic circle in the sky the planes join to take their turn to take off and land.  Basic landmarks on the ground stake out the circuit.  At Booker Airport, Wycombe Wanderer’s soccer stadium was one, a Victorian mausoleum with a golden ball atop was another, a radio tower marked another and the runway itself completed the circuit.  Beginning pilots are taught to navigate and fly using visual landmarks and you need to develop a sharp eye.  It’s not until you’re 3,000 feet above the ground that you realize the world is mainly anonymous looking cities, pastures and woodlands.  Booker Airport proved this point.  Beyond the circuit’s basic landmarks, the city of High Wycombe, the M40 motorway and farmlands were the only other recognizable objects for miles.

I joined the circuit at the “Golden Ball” and pointed the Cessna in the direction of the radio tower.  Reaching the tower, I prepared for my descent announcing my intention to air traffic control.  Air traffic acknowledged, when suddenly, another plane (a twin-engined Piper) radioed in for a landing.  Since the other aircraft was the bigger and faster plane, air traffic wanted to get him down before me.  The pilot said he was five miles out and asked for a straight in approach, essentially allowing him to circumvent the circuit.

I told air traffic that I was on “Base” which is the last leg before final approach.  The other pilot quickly corrected himself saying he was only two miles out.  Air traffic got a little nervous and asked if we could see each other.  We both responded that we couldn’t.  The pilot radioed in to correct his position again.  He said he was right on top of the airport.  Air traffic nervously asked where I was.  Equally as nervous, I told them that I was about to turn on to final.  There was a moment of hesitation from air traffic and I could understand it.  They had a tough decision to make.  Was it better to have someone competent get the plane down on the ground first or keep the experienced pilot up in the air to prevent spooking the student pilot?  They decided to give the twin engine priority over me, but asked again for us to recheck for visual contact.  We both said we couldn’t see each other and given no other instruction, I reluctantly turned on to final.  As I banked left, my wing lifted and there, about a hundred feet above me, was the twin-engine Piper and its pilot had no idea he was descending on top of me.  The expanse of our aircraft’s wings had placed each other in our collective blind spots.

We were seconds from a collision.  With no time to explain the situation, I slammed the plane into a dive to avert the crash and radioed air traffic to tell them what had happened.  A shocked voice told me to get into the circuit again and come home.  With a racing pulse, I said that I would. 

I looked over my shoulder for the runway.  It had gone, and so had the Piper I’d nearly collided with.  Nothing looked familiar.  It was as if I’d punctured a hole in the world and reemerged in some alternate universe.

I tried to reorient myself and scanned the landscape for the “golden ball”, the radio tower, or the stadium.  All I saw were trees and the M40.  Extending beyond the horizon in both directions, the motorway was no help.  I’d committed a student pilot’s cardinal sin–I’d lost my visual bearings and I didn’t recognize a damn thing.  This was ridiculous.  I’d flown over the same places a thousand times, but nothing seemed familiar.  No matter how ridiculous it seemed, I was lost. 

To be continued next week…

Yours safely on the ground,
Simon Wood

Where’d My Safety Net Go?

Today is the first day of the rest of my life.  But isn’t every day.  What a silly phrase.

But today is different for me.  Today is my first day without a day job.  I left mine yesterday. 

Julie made the decision a few weeks ago that I needed to leave my day job (even though I only work a 3 day week anyway).  She said, “You’re not getting any younger.  Your best years are behind you.”  I believe in a previous life Julie gave pep talks on the Titanic.

I railed against the idea.  My day job doesn’t identify me as a person, though I’m mad keen on the benefits and pension schemes that come with it, but I got to thinking about what was important to me and my day job didn’t really feature.  I really want to write.  At the moment, I’m lucky enough to have more than a full plate in that department and I still have room for a little more.  Unfortunately, that pesky 9 to 5 thing keeps getting in the way. Something had to give, so I handed in my notice.  Obviously I prepared myself for my boss’ denial and the offers to double my salary if I would reconsider.  To my boss’ credit, she held herself in check and said, “So when would your last day be?”  That woman is a trooper.  Brave to the bitter end.

I have to admit it took a little getting used to the idea of leaving my day job security blanket behind.  I’m a very pragmatic person.  I need my food and shelter requirements squared away before I can go crazy, but as Julie says, I’m not getting any younger and I could run out of time before I get to do all the things I want to do. So, I’m going for it.  I’m quite fortunate to be in a position to do this.  We live comfortably off Julie’s salary and mine goes towards vacations, investments, the house, etc.  For the first time in my writing career, I’ll earn something close to what I earned at my day job.  In addition, I have secondary income from some very nice investments and added to that I have a second job.  It’s very non-traditional, super secret job and is the reason Robin Burcell stood in for me last week.  So financially, I won’t be struggling for food.

So as of this morning, my job title is writer.  It’s a little scary.  It jars with my pragmatic sensibilities.  Writer.  It’s such an intangible profession and in the same leagues as cloud wrangler and attorney general.  But my pragmatic sensibilities drive me to make this work.  Not because I want a new car every other year, but because I like being a writer.  I like being a professional liar.  I want to make people believe in something I made up.  I think I can do it and I hope I can pull it off.  I’m going to give it my best shot.

Naturally, I’ll have to make adjustments.  Some of my priorities will change.  If this is my job then I have to treat it as a job.  I’ll have to get my act together in some respects and work damn hard to nail down some projects I want to do.  Julie has expectations as the sponsor of this adventure.  Someone is going to have to look pretty for her and better have the dinner on the table when she gets home.  And that someone isn’t going to be the dog or one of the cats.  On the plus side, I will have certain freedoms.  How many of us out there can go to work in their underpants and not have the boss complain? 

So, I’ve dispensed with the safety net.  I’m not sure how it’ll go.  I don’t have catlike abilities where I always land on my feet, but I tend to fall on my arse and not my face, so I’m hopeful.  Now please turn away, I have to scratch.

Yours flying high and not looking down,
Simon Wood

Next month will be a special month as I’m going to make it things that I survived.  I have a small talent for calamity, so I’ll be sharing some of mine.

Contamination

Julie said to me the other day, “I’ve been with you too long.”

Goodie, I thought, we’re finished.  I can go girlfriend shopping at the weekend.  I wonder where Giada will be.

But seeing as Julie was talking and I really should take notice of her from time to time, I decided to hear her out and said, “What do you mean?”

“I keep seeing the dark side of things.”

“Tell me more, Haley Joel Osment.”

“Wednesday, I’m talking to Susan and I’m looking out the office window.  There’s a man and a woman.  The man is holding the woman’s arm.  They’re smiling, but he’s gripping her bicep a little too tightly for it to be friendly.  Across the parking lot are two guys.  The man with the woman waves at the two men.  Everyone walks to the middle of the parking lot.  The man with the woman maintains his grip on the woman’s arm all the way across the parking lot.  Guess what I think?”

“I don’t know—maybe that you should be listening to your boss and not looking out the window?”

“No, I think kidnap exchange.  That’s your fault.  Years ago, I would have seen friends meeting to chat.  Now I see a felony in progress.  Because of you, I can’t see the world in normal terms.  You’ve ruined me.”

What could I say to this?  It’s a hefty accusation. So I just smiled and said, “Love you.”

Actually, I know what poor confused, Julie means.  Telling stories of crime means I tend to look at the world in criminal terms.  Now I don’t mean I go looking for evil doers doing evil on street corners, but I look for oddities in the world around me.  I see something that catches my eye and I concoct a story to suit what I’ve just seen.  I see someone leafing through a trashcan, I don’t think homeless guy, I think money drop.  I see a guy sitting alone in a dull sedan, I don’t think guy waiting on his wife, I think FBI surveillance on Columbian drug cartel operating out of a Happy Donuts.  I see a flatbed truck chock full of giant seed pods, I don’t think a horticultural expo must be in town, I think alien invasion is on and I shouldn’t go to sleep.

My gears are always turning.  I’m forever looking for fictional crime scenes or inspiration for a story.  Julie suggests we go on a road trip, I jump at the chance because I have a scene in mind for this book I’m writing in my head and I can suggest we go to a certain location.  It’s great—in a way.  Julie gets her wish and I get mine.

The problem is that the more I look and think in terms of novel plots, the more my grip on reality lessens.  That’s sort of a scary thought.  I’ve been scribbling so long I’m not sure I can switch it off now.  I already have a wall of post-it notes with book and story ideas pinned to it—all of them gagging to be told.  How far will my delusions go?  I’m not sure.  It makes me wonder if I’ll end up like James Woods in Videodrome where reality and delusion run off on vacation together to leave poor Jimmie inserting videotapes into his tummy.  I hope not, because it didn’t work out too well for JW.

Anyhoo, I don’t think things will get that bad.  I can’t see myself letting go of the string to my sanity balloon and watching it float off into space.  For all my mad mental doodling, I’m quite a grounded person.  So if you’re a little worried, don’t be.  I have Julie for that.

Yours with one foot still on the ground,
Simon Wood

Did You See The Hello Kitty Darth Vadar?

When you overhear someone saying this, you can only be in one place—Comic-Con.

I attended my first Comic-Con the other week.  Wow, isn’t it big?  From its humble beginnings as a comic book convention, it’s grown into a multimedia extravaganza, covering comic books, movies, TV, video games and books.  Its sheer size is staggering.  Somewhere around 150,000 people attended this year.  That’s about 100 times bigger than the average Bouchercon. 

Numbers, shnumbers, I say.  I’m seasoned.  I can handle anything thrown at me.  I strode onto the exhibition floor ready for anything and left about twenty minutes later crying.  It was total sensory overload.  There were so many bright and shiny things to look at that I couldn’t focus.  I saw comic book heaven and it hurt.  I know how Bruce Banner felt when he got blasted with all those gamma rays.  I learned my lesson fast and only returned with a welder’s hood over my head.   

Luckily, I didn’t look out of place with my protective headgear.  Comic-Con fans aren’t ones for hiding their love under a bushel.  No, they’re quite happy to toss their bushels aside for four days.  There were plenty of rabid fans dressed up as characters from Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman, Superman, Heroes, 300.  You name it, people were dressed up as it.  I took a keen interest in the dozens of ladies dressed up as Princess Leia from The Return of Jedi wearing that bikini.  You know the one I mean.  And as far as I’m concerned, you can’t have enough semi-clad Princess Leias running about.  Giada would make a good Princess Leia.  Hmm, Giada…

“So what were you doing at Comic-Con, Simon?” I hear you cry.  You should be asking why Jemma Jameson was at Comic-Con, but I’ll answer your question.  I’m a little bit of a fan boy.  As a dyslexic, I took refuge in comic books.  Telling stories with pictures was a lifesaver.  So it was a little bit of a pilgrimage, but it also turned into a little bit of a busman’s holiday as I was selected for panel duty.  I was on a panel entitled “Where did that come from” with F. Paul Wilson, David Morrell, Mike Carey, Chris Golden, Stephen Woodworth, Jeff Marriotte, and Richard Kadrey.  This was quite a lineup.  Mike Carey has written X-Men scripts and I tried talking him into creating an X-man based on my special powers of mediocrity.  He said he’d not think about it.  I’m a big David Morrell, so that was neat-o.  He asked me a question and it had nothing to do with getting him some water or to get out of a chair because an adult should be sitting there.

It was interesting to see how many big name authors are writing comic books these days.  Orson Scott Card, Tad Williams, Brad Meltzer and Denise Mina are just a few to have snapped some of the big name superheroes in comics.  David Morrell has a Captain America story coming out later this year.  I’m hoping this trend continues and an opportunity falls my way.  First, it’ll be a dream realized.  Having spent years consuming these stories, it would be an honor to return the favor.  Secondly, there’s the challenge.  I like to tell stories, whether that be novels, short stories, plays, etc.  Comic books would be another opportunity to tell stories, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.  You really do have to show and not tell, and what is shown has to be laser sharp.  There isn’t room for reams of dialog.  Telling details have to illustrate a character.  The way I would introduce a character in a novel would be totally different in a comic book.  It’s a hard discipline, but I think I can do it.  The problem is with all these big name authors snapping up the higher echelons of the comic book world, that there isn’t much room for me.  As far as I can see, there’s only Atom Ant and Snugglepuss left, but that’s cool.  I’ll take the assignment.  I know can do it.  Heavens to Betsy, I can do it.  J

ComicconsimonandcullenComic-con also provided an opportunity to congratulate my good friend, Cullen Bunn, on his movie rights sale to Dreamworks for his comic book, The Damned

I do have a couple of people to thank for looking after me while I was at the convention.  Thanks to Eunice Magill for showing me the ropes and to Maryelizabeth from Mysterious Galaxy bookstore for the panel assignment and for embarrassing me in public.  She knows what she did.

Yours a caricature,
Simon Wood

EPIC TALE

Forget Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars and Clifford the Big Red Dog.  This is a real epic story.

Except, I’m not sure where to start.  The beginning would be a good place, but this tale has so many beginnings and even more bad endings.  I suppose the problem is that there are so many themes going on here—stick-with-it-ness, bad luck, determination, dealing with setbacks, and never accepting no as an answer just to name a few.  I think there may even be an ancient code left behind by a renaissance painter, but I could be wrong.  Anyhoo, there’s a lot going on here, so sit back and prepare to be dazzled.

In February 2000, I completed a book called We All Fall Down.  It was a suspense thriller based on a couple of news items that I smooshed them together.  I didn’t have a track record at the time in publishing, so I went from agents and editors collecting rejection letters with some aplomb.  Then I struck gold in October 2001 when a small press publisher picked up the book.  Yahoo, I was going to get published.  Small presses are delicate creatures and vulnerable.  Things looked fine at the beginning, but I’d arrived to the party late.  Cash flow was drying up.  Delays ensued.  The book slipped from a 2003 release date to 2004 and that wasn’t certain.  The release was dependent on a number of factors outside of my control.  I could feel my story going cold on the shelf.  In late 2003, I made a decision that left me sick to my stomach.  I asked to be released from my contract.  The publisher hadn’t published a book in a year and mine was still pending.  It was the right thing to do, but it felt like suicide.  I had a book contract and I killed it.  What an idiot!?!

The decision hurt and to be quite honest, it left me depressed.  It was my fault.  My mess.  A waste of two years of my life and the book’s life.  My funk was reinforced when I tried to resell the book.  I came up against a wall.  Suddenly, after 9/11, the book was in bad taste.  I wrote how easy it would be to launch a major terrorist attack if someone had the audacity.  Then one happened.  It looked as if I was trying to follow a trend, instead of foreseeing one.

I don’t like the idea of practice books—manuscripts the writer has no intention of selling.  Every book is a practice book.  I learn from every word I write.  But I was coming to the conclusion that We All Fall Down would become a practice book and I would have to consign it to trunk status.  But then a miracle happened.  I met another small press in the spring of 2003.  I approached them on a whim at the beginning of 2004.  They loved We All Fall Down and paid me an advance.  Lots of good things were happening with them that gave me confidence that this was a winner.  I felt like a winner.  My confidence returned.  My decision to walk away from my original publisher was validated. 

Cover art was commissioned.  Editing began.  A schedule for release was outlined.  Then progress slipped.  The timeline took on a Daliesque quality.  The May release became September, then ’05.  All the signs were there that this publisher was going through a familiar crash and burn.  It got to the stage where I had to ask point-blank, “is this book ever going to be published?”  After some squirming I received an honest answer.  No, the book wouldn’t be coming out. 

I couldn’t believe it.  It was now 2005 and the book was dead in the water again almost six years after I had begun the first draft.  My familiar funk returned.  I kept on writing other things, of course, but We All Fall Down kept dragging me down.  It was a damn albatross driving me onto the rocks.  I’d pretty much given up hope on the book, but things were changing.  Luck was being kind to me.  I’d sold Working Stiffs, so I dusted off We All Fall Down and sent it out to yet another small press publisher who’d expressed an interest in reading something.  Around Christmas 2005, they asked to publish it.  Finally, the book was going to be coming out, but before the contract could even be signed a scandal hit the publisher.  Accusations flew around.  The publisher’s rep was toast and the publisher’s elastic publishing schedule was going to stretch even more.  The writing was on the wall yet again.  The book was dead.  Even if they published the book, it would be tarnished by their bad rep.

It’s easy to say, I was pissed off with the whole affair.  It’s bloody hard to sell a book these days and to sell it three times and never have it see the light of day is cruel and unusual punishment of the most twisted kind.  The publishing gods were just being mean at this point.

But I’ve been riding a wave of good fortune to make up for a number of disappointments over the last few years.  Getting picked up by Dorchester has opened a number of doors for me.  I feel some real traction at the moment.  I’m moving forward towards my goals.  If I’m moving forward why can’t We All Fall Down come with me?  I dusted the manuscript off and looked at it.  It’s now seven years old and it looks it.  The prose is a little flaky at the corners.  The plot is sun bleached. There’s something stuck to one of the characters and it’s gone green.  If I put it on the high seas, it’d sink.  But underneath the dirt and grime, there’s a good story underneath.  It’s going to take a lot of work to get it looking new, fast and sleek, but it’s doable.  I talked to Dorchester about it.  And God love ‘em, they said yes.  We All Fall Down will appear in mass paperback next July.  It won’t look like anything like the manuscript I started work on in ’99–characters, places and motives are different, but its essence and spirit remain.

A happy ending at last.  This story is a testament to many things—belief being the prime one.  I never stopped believing in the story.  I can be flippant, but my stories mean a lot to me.  I had a man down and I wasn’t leaving my soldier behind.  Finally, I’ve brought him home.

Mission accomplished (for now),
Simon Wood
PS: The lovely Dave Zeltserman stands in for me while I’m away at Comic-Con.  Dave has a great compansion piece to this week’s entry.  The week after Robin Burcell with a few things to say.
PPS: In addition to finalizing contracts with Dorchester, I’ve swapped ink with Adams Media to write a humorous self-help book.

Who Reads This Stuff Anyway?

I read lots of different books.  Some even have words in them instead of pictures.  That Clifford.  What will that big red dog get mixed up in next? 

So it’s easy to see what I like by looking at my bookshelves, but I can’t see what you like.  More importantly, I can’t see if you like me—and if you do like me, where I fit in your literary rainbow.  Now I sort of can, thanks to Amazon.com.  Yes, I know, don’t all groan at once.  Amazon has started listing all the titles bought by other people who buy a particular book.  This is obviously a marketing move to prompt people to buy books, but for me, this is a way to identify my reader(s).

I’m a bit of a fan boy, so I hope the people buying my books are buying books by people I either know or admire.  This is where guilt by association is a good thing.  I’m hoping that I’m rubbing shoulders with some neat books or authors.  It does wonders for my fragile ego.

So when it comes to Amazon, who are my peeps and who are my peers?  Let’s have a look

Well, me.  People who bought Accidents Waiting to Happen also bought Working Stiffs.  Nice.  Repeat readers.  Phew!  The publisher will be pleased.  But who else?  Wow, I’m certainly among the hardboiled gang.  I’m not seeing much in the way of cozy readers.  Hmm, that’s unfortunate.  I think they’d like me.  I’m dark, but I’m not that dark.  A number of the Hard Case Crime titles make the list.  Good, I like their stuff.  I’m among friends I admire.  There are books by Sean Doolittle and Tim Maleeny.  It’s nice to be among friends.  There’s a dash of romantic suspense in the form of JoAnn Ross, not to mention a touch of the cosmopolitan in the form of Andrea Camilleri.  There’s a little bit of humor in the form of Janet Evanovich and Troy Cook.  Ooh, look at that.  I’m in some prestigious company in the form of Lee Child, Michael Connelly, James Patterson, Joseph Finder, James W. Hall, Greg Olsen, Randy Wayne White, and Michael Chabon.  Let’s hope some of their good fortune rubs off on me.  Daddy needs a new pair of shoes.  There’s Peter Abrahams.  A friend gave me a book of his a little while ago and told me to read it as we have similar storytelling styles.  People’s buying tastes aren’t geographically challenged.  The books bought bounce all over the US and the globe.  We’ve got Craig Johnson whose stories stake place in Wyoming, Christine Kling with her Florida-set tales and David Corbett who whisks the reader off to Latin America.  But here’s the part I’ve been looking forward to.  It’s fan boy time.  I’m happy to say that people who bought me have bought Lawrence Block, Ian Rankin, Reginald Hill, Robert Crais, Jeffery Deaver, David Goodis, and Dean Koontz.  These people sit at the back of my mind telling me how to tell stories.  I don’t talk to myself without them there, ever present.  I think I’ve just grown an inch in height.  I’m clocking in at 5’-5” right now…

So from all this data, who is my ideal reader?  From the above, I’d say it’s someone with a hardboiled heart and a little bit of a traveler’s soul, who isn’t apposed to bit of romance or a joke and likes a big book from someone who knows how to tell a story.  Oh, and yes, they might have a small affection for someone called Simon… J

Yours on the shelf,
Simon Wood

Life Insurance Policy

This week’s intended Murderati entry didn’t make it.  I required third party approval before it could go out and I didn’t get it in time, so please accept this blog in its place.  Also, life is getting busy and I need to take care of a few things, so I’m going to be popping in and out over the next few weeks.  The weeks I’m not around, my slot will be covered by some very capable guests.  Please be kind to them, but don’t get too attached to them…  I now return you to your regular viewing.

A fascination for the odd and the obscure drives my writing. I’m always on the lookout for strange but real occurrences that would make for a really interesting story. When I discovered the unusual business world of viatical settlements, lightning struck and I knew I had the basis for Accidents Waiting to Happen.

So what are viatical settlements and what makes them so special? In a sense, they’re a reverse insurance arrangement. If you own a life insurance policy and you want to cash it in, you go to a viatical settlement agent who will find someone to buy it. The buyer will give you pennies on the dollar for your policy and take over the monthly dues on your life insurance. In return, they will become the beneficiary when you die. The closer you are to the grave, the bigger the payout.

Viatical settlements were aimed at the elderly and the terminally ill to cover final expenses and make their last days comfortable, but the industry really took off in the late 80’s and 90’s when HMOs weren’t covering AIDS and HIV patients. Patients needed money for treatment and viatical settlements provided the perfect vehicle for that. The industry hit the skids in the late 90’s when breakthroughs in AIDS drugs extended life expectancies and the payout times increased.

I saw the beauty and the beast in this arrangement. Viaticals give people a second shot at life, or at least a comfortable end, allowing them to live out their life worry free. On the other hand, viatical settlements are a truly ghoulish proposal. Some companies ran late-night advertisements telling people how they could make money quick. See a 25% return on your money in 12 months or less. To the investor, that sounds great. But to achieve that return, someone has to die. There is no way to ignore the fact that the policy buyer is profiteering off the dead.

I came across viatical settlements on a TV news magazine show. The feature was well done. The story covered all the parties involved in one of these arrangements. They interviewed a person with HIV who had sold their life insurance as well as a retired couple who had purchased several policies through a middleman who arranged the sales. It was great to see a person who’d had one foot over the threshold of death’s door come back from the brink after selling his policy. It was shocking watching the retired couple that had sunk their retirement fund into viatical settlements. They displayed vehement disgust for the people they’d paid good money to who hadn’t had the good graces to die as predicted.

The news clip ended with a kicker and it was that kicker that really grabbed my attention. The middleman is supposed to keep the identities of the buyer and seller confidential. The man with HIV who’d sold his life insurance produced a birthday card. It had arrived unsigned on his last birthday. The message was simple and to the point. It said: Why aren’t you dead yet?

I couldn’t let this go. There was a book here. Viatical settlements presented a very interesting concept. Criminals aren’t the only ones with a price on their heads. Everyone is worth more dead than alive, thanks to their life insurance. And what if the beneficiaries can’t afford to wait to inherit? A murder would lead someone to the beneficiary, but an accidental death wouldn’t.

For Accidents Waiting to Happen, I stretched the rules concerning viatical settlements a bit to create a cat and mouse thriller. I made rules surrounding viaticals much more far ranging. Essentially, anyone could qualify. In the book, Josh Michaels takes a bribe to pay for his newborn child’s medical expenses. His secretary blackmails him when she learns of the bribe. To pay her off, Josh sells his life insurance policy. Years later, when the bribe, the blackmail and the policy sale are long forgotten, he’s driving home when he’s forced off the road by another vehicle into a river. Instead of helping Josh, the driver gives him the thumbs-down gesture and drives off. Josh survives the accident and learns he’s not the only person having "accidents." The one thing these people have in common is that they’ve all made a viatical settlement in the past.

Usually, truth is stranger than fiction, and I love that, but if I can get a hold of it, I’ll make that fiction a little stranger.

Yours with one eye on the strange,
Simon Wood
PS: On Tuesday, I passed my civics exam and my US citizenship application was approved.  I become a new American on July 24th.

Letting It Cool

It takes a long time to write a book. It varies from writer to writer, but for me, it’s usually somewhere between eight and ten months. Since it takes so long, it seems abhorrent to me that when I’m finished (really finished—the last draft is done and I think it’s ready to shoot off to the editor) I should pause before sending it. But I should let the heat of passion cool before taking another step forward. That’s the smart thing to do. Unfortunately, I’m not very good when it comes to doing the smart thing.

I’m not a patient person and this situation reminds me of growing up alongside my mum and every cake she ever baked. She’d take them out of the oven, put them on the rack to cool and I’d slide my face in the way of the rack to get a first bite.

“You’ve got to let it cool,” my mom would say.

“No, I can eat it now.”

“It’s too hot.”

“It’s never too hot.”

“Alright, have it your way—but don’t come running to me complaining of a stomach ache.”

Stomach ache? Ha! Not with my constitution. But lo and behold, twenty minutes later, I’d go running back to mummy and say, “Mummy, my tummy is all hurty.”

“Simon, you’re thirty years old. When are you going to learn?”

Well, mummy, I’ve learned. Finally. Somewhere around my 39th birthday. Mummy’s little boy is a fast one. Oh, yes, he is.

Now when the final draft comes chuntering off the printer, I don’t just shove it in an envelope anymore. I put it on the shelf for a couple of weeks to age and move on to something else. This cleanses my writing palate (translation: I get passionate about something else and I forget about the piece I’ve put away). Then I come back to my fully rested and cooled manuscript and read it again. Wow, do I find some imperfections in my perfect final draft and I’m back to tinkering. I swear enemy elves come at night and change things when I’m not watching. Little buggers.

I’m learning this at the moment with the current book I’m working on. I considered it done. Julie considered it done. I’m looking at it anew after several years since I last worked on it. It needs help. A lot of help.

Julie said, “How did we ever think this was good?”

The problem was we were too close to it. I lived and breathed the book for twelve months and I wanted it done and gone. My eagerness proved to be its shortcoming.

Julie added, “It’s a testament to have far we’ve come. We thought this rocked.”

And now it lolls, I thought. But she’s right. I have developed as a scribbler. I now know when I’m not good enough. Oh, that doesn’t sound good. Anyhoo, too much haste is a bad trait and makes me my own worst enemy. But if I exercise a little restraint and patience, I might create something good.

So, I’ve learned the importance of the cooling effect when it comes to my writing, but not when it comes to cake. Julie, my tummy is all hurty. Come rub it and make it all better…

Yours painfully,
Simon Wood
PS: Our very own Robert Gregory Browne and Brett Battles are venturing into the podcast world. They’ve started a series of talks about writing, which, in the near future, will also include interviews with other authors and publishing industry professionals. Their first podcast on writing characters is now up. You can find it here. Please check it out as I believe podcasting may have something to do with alien invasions.

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