Sunday, August 29, 2010

Encouragement for Writers

Kind Words Never Kill Dreams
Rejection brings one of those gut-wrenching emotions to every writer trudging down that path toward publication. Every writer struggling to achieve some level of literary success—whether to publish an article, a book, or a novel—will encounter that punch-in-the-stomach rejection.

It is time to take a break from rejection. Take a deep breath and bear with me for a moment.

I want writers and readers to take a respite from crime, cops, mysteries, and publishing chaos. It is time to take a mental health moment. Time to step away from everything and everyone in order to regain some level of sanity. You need occasional moments like this, writers, if you have faithfully pursued your writing craft.

Think back on when you last received a word of encouragement. Think hard.

Such a moment came to me a few weeks ago. And I came away from that experience with a suggestion that might help you endure those nasty rejections.

A well-know author sent an unsolicited email a few weeks ago after I posted an interview regarding that novelist’s work. The writer was very kind and expressed appreciation for the article. This person closed with words of encouragement about my writing. Those words lifted me for a moment. The day seemed a little more alive, a little brighter because of those few words.

I bring this up for a reason. So often writers are hit with rejections from many quarters—editors, agents, publishers, even other writers. This just comes with the territory. Most writers learn to develop thick skins, to learn from constructive criticism, and allow other critical barbs to bounce off their toughening epidermis. However, writers are not always successful. Sometimes they let those verbal or written jabs fester like wood slivers under the skin. If not exorcised, the impact of these rejections will fester until a writer’s ability to move forward is compromised. Then, the writer succumbs to this disease called rejection.

Letters of rejection become symbolic badges of courage for many writers, tangible proof that the literary world fails to see another literary opportunity before their eyes. Not that rejection is totally without some redeeming qualities. Occasional gems of criticism are lodged between these pages of standard rejections, comments that might be useful to the writer in the future if taken to heart.
Many writers keep a file of these rejections. The reason to documenting this swelling number of rejections might seem odd to normal folk, but there are some advantages to keeping a record of failures.

Many writers may keep such a file because they believe someday their dream will come true. A writer’s daily pilgrimage to the mailbox may someday be rewarded by a book contract, stuffed inside a thick envelope. Or, they might find a letter from an agent, desperate to represent the next John Verdon or Seig Larrson. Then these letters of rejections will become a writer’s proof that they paid the price, their tangible evidence of a  painful pilgrimage to the altar of publication. They will be able to pull out these rejection letters with relish, turn to another writer, and say: “See, they just did not understand what I was trying to do here."

Rejection letters can be used to give comfort to others. One well-known author knew I was upset by a rejection.  The published author pulled out his own rejection letter from the same person who turned me down.  His rejection letter stated his work was just not compatible with today’s market. The author persevered anyway, and published many, many novels in that genre. In a strange way, sharing his rejection gave me encouragement.

The sheer number of rejections that any writer faces in their fight to be published can be staggering. Unfortunately, the publishing industry is also struggling to survive. As a result of that struggle, they are even less inclined to take chances on new, untested writers. The chances of succeeding in this industry—to some writers—seem overwhelming.

This is why I wanted to take a mental health moment and offer a suggestion.

These words of encouragement I received a few weeks ago stayed with me. Writers use rejection to spur their resolve to prove everyone wrong. I think a more positive way to approach this struggle is for writers to use these moments of encouragement as a way to boost their resolve. To give themselves a mental pick-me-up when things seems on the downturn. Try to focus just as much on the positive as the negative. Think back on those moments when someone gave you a word of encouragement. Do you remember how you felt? Did you record these moments as faithfully as you did your rejections?

Here is my suggestion:

Start a file and keep every documented shred of encouragement that comes your way. Label your file “Encouragement” and put it right next to your rejection file. Before long, I bet this encouragement file will be thicker than your rejections. This might help put everything in perspective. Pull out those encouragements when you need a boost.

Take a moment and think about those words of encouragement that comes your way. From your spouse or best friend. Maybe you went to a writer’s conference and showed your work to agents, publisher authors, and publishers. Someone in that crowd is bound to give you a word of encouragement. Document it and file it away. You might even return that encouragement. Send a note to the encourager telling them what their kind words meant to you. Pass on a kind word to those aspiring novelists you see on blogs, at conferences or in your own community.

Harsh words may kill a writer's dream. Kind words will keep those dreams alive.

I don’t mean to get all touchy/feely here. I know some of you know I was born and raised in California. And—like my U.S. Marine Corp drill instructor—many people think everyone from that sunny state are a bunch of sissies (Obviously, I cleaned up what my sergeant really said). But writing is a tough job and it not for sissies. You have to develop a certain toughness to keep plugging away, day after day, without seeing success in the near future. Even gun-ho marines take time to step back and get a perspective on things. Writer need to do the same.

So, pull out that file when your days get dark and the blank page is staring back at you without blinking. When your next letter of rejection lands in your mailbox. Take a look at all those words of encouragement.

Then, get back to writing.

Q4U: When was the last time you received a word of encouragement about your writing?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Predicting Future Crimes

(I am a guest blogger on The Graveyard Shift today. Here is the beginning of the article Predicting Future Crimes. Click on the link below to join us for a walk into the future. The CIA believes it is possible. Do you?)
Predicting Future Crimes
An unnerving movie, Minority Report, came out a few years ago where crime is virtually eliminated in the year 2054. Cops acted on data from precogs, three mutated humans who can peer into the future. Using this futuristic prediction, an elite law enforcement unit tracked down these criminals. The crooks were identified, apprehended, tried and convicted before the crime was ever committed. Everything changes when these precogs turned their attention toward Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, leader of the Precrimes police unit. The police unit commander must flee for his life.


Take another look. Public attention went spiral a few weeks ago when they learned Google Ventures-the internet giant’s investment arm-teamed up with a CIA-backed investment company to pump money into a little-heard-of company called Recorded Future (RF). What caught everyone’s attention is this new company’s stated goal: monitor the web in real time and use this information to predict the future.

....Continue on The Graveyard Shift

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Novels Beyond Good Taste

Novels beyond Good Taste: Sex, Profanity, and Violence—Where do you draw the line?
Our culture seems to encourage graphic sex, profanity and violence in novels, television, movies, and music. These floodgates continue to swing wider and wider: blatant sexual scenes leaving nothing to the imagination, crude profanity even used by children, and violence to such extremes that our mind becomes numbed to sadist, ritualistic horrors.

Where do you draw the line?

These issues came to mind as I started to read two recent novels. I opened each novel with great expectation based upon recommendations from several authors. But within a few pages I stopped reading. With great disappointment, I set aside these novels and moved on to other writers. I just could not  recommend these writers to readers visiting this blog. I did not want to walk through the gutter with these writers, even though both are very gifted and promising novelists. 

I was disappointed on several levels. First, I bought these books based upon recommendation from other writers whose opinions I trusted. However, I quickly realized that my expectations—explicit sex and profanity in this case—were vastly different from those who gave these recommendations. Secondly, I was disappointed that these two young writers felt it necessary to use their talents in such a way that—in my opinion—cheapened their craft of writing. And lastly, I was disappointed because I thought these would be great novels to experience. Unfortunately, my expectations were dashed by writing that I consider to be in bad taste.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a prude waiting to censor everything that surfaces in print. As a former law enforcement officer I’ve probably been exposed to the dark side of human depravity more than the average citizen. I worked undercover details targeting drugs, vice, and gang crimes. I had the dubious honor of graduating from LAPD’s Vice School to learn firsthand about how the sex trade is plied on the streets of that city. I’ve traveled to most of the Level 4 security prisons in California, interviewing many inmates whose language and lifestyle would disgust the most hardened detective in one of Michael Connelly’s novels. I’ve witnessed some of the most horrendous crimes one human can inflict on another, images still haunting me today

So this is not an article about censorship. It is, however, an article about good taste and ulterior motives in writing. About giving readers the best possible product writers are capable of creating.  I read widely in order to learn from a variety of authors who’ve learned the craft of writing. As a reader, I believe we have an expectation that what we're about to read ought to entertain, enlighten, and captivate within the bounds of good taste. The trouble is defining good taste. And, here in is the difficulty we face. How do you define it?

For example, writers often cite the need to use profanity based upon a desire to create realisms in their art. This same argument is often used to justify the depiction of violence and sex. But might there be other underlining reasons? For example, might a writer create controversy through the use of titillating, prurient writing in order to boost sales? To help them stand out in crowd to gain the attention from agents, editors and publisher in this competitive world of publishing? Or, are these authors being realistic by thinking the buying public wants this kind of story.

Maybe they are right. Maybe this is what the public wants to read. I hope this is not the case.

Let’s get back to the idea of good taste. As a reader, I don’t need all the ugliness and depravity of life thrown in my face when I sit down with a novel. As a reader, I want these authors to draw me into their world. I want to take this journey they’ve created, to live with the characters they’ve breathed life into. Don’t justify this bond between us as a literary license to drag me through the garbage of life. As a reader, I want all this created in good taste. I don’t think I am alone.

As a writer, we should respect our readers.

So what about violence and horror? Is graphic detail necessary? Do we, as writers, need to squeeze every ounce of terror from our victims to captivate readers' attention?

A writer strives to use the reader’s imagination as a canvas, painting an image with carefully chosen words to get a point across. We don’t need every gory detail spelled out to the very last drop of blood. A few chosen words will fill our reader’s imagination with vivid details of the event. Remember sitting in a dentist chair and imagining what’s about to happen? A quick glance at the tools laid out on a tray. Those pointy things you know will hurt. That goggled-eyed dentist staring back at you without blinking. The sound of the drill firing up. We get the picture. Flash to the next scene where the patient’s jaw feels like ground-up hamburger. Our minds will fill in the scene with more panoramic color than the highest definition screens on the market.

What about profanity?  Do we need profanity spewing out for us to get the point this character comes from the wrong side of the tracks? Does this somehow justify the need for realism in our character?

George Washington wrote: “The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low that every person of sense and character detests and despises it.”  So you want to show that your character is low class? Do you want to convey to the reader that this character let loose with a string of expletives? There are many ways to get this message across. For example, Mark Twain wrote in Roughing, “I was … blaspheming my luck in a way that made my breath smell of brimstone.” Did we get the picture? Did he use profanity?

We have come a long way since those times. Other writers struggled with this same issue. Ernest Hemingway stated: “I’ve tried to reduce profanity but I reduce so much profanity when writing the book that I’m afraid not much could come out. Perhaps we will have to consider it simply as a profane book and hope that the next book will be less profane or perhaps more sacred.”

In Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he discussed this issue: “As it happens, I agree with my mother: profanity and vulgarity is the language of the ignorant and verbally challenged. Mostly, that is; there are exceptions, including profane aphorisms of great color and vitality.” He goes on to say that if he were writing “about toffs or smart college folks” he’d hardly ever use a dirty word. But, he writes, “I grew up as part of America’s lower middle class, and they’re the people I can write about with the most honesty and knowledge.” So, in King’s mind, profanity is justified at times in order to be artistically honest.

Is profanity acceptable under some circumstances? Maybe. Maybe not.

There may be instances when no other word will suffice. But a writer ought to challenge themselves to convey these feelings and emotions in such a way that the reader is keenly aware of the meaning without the author resorting to profanity. Using Mark Twain’s example above, he gets the point across using the words “blaspheming” and “brimstone.”  Granted, he’s not averse to a little swearing. In his biography, the famous writer states: “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstance, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.” As always, Twain uses humor—not profanity—to get his point across.

And then there is sex.

A sales adage puts this simply: “Sex sells.” They must know, because sexuality is used to sell everything from cars to toothpaste. I mean, how sexy do you have to be to brush your teeth? Sex has been used to sell cell phones, carpet cleaner and bug spray. Sexuality carries over into all forms of literature, movies and other entertainment. And very little is left to our imagination.

Is this necessary. Again, writers can paint vivid word pictures without the raunchiness that permeates our culture. Author James Scott Bell wrote about this subject in a Killzone article several months ago. The article dealt with key words that draws readers’ attention. He jokingly titled his article, “The Thrill of Sex with Cordite in the Air” in order to make his point. On the subject of sex, Jim suggested another way to approach this subject without undue explicitness:

You know what works better? The reader's imagination. If you "close the door" but engage the imagination, it's often more effective than what you describe in words. Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs—do you need words to know exactly what happens?

One of the best sex scenes ever written is in Madame Bovary, the carriage ride with Emma and Leon (Part 3, Chapter 1 if you're interested). All the description is from the driver's POV, who cannot see into the carriage. Read it and see if you can do better with body parts and a thesaurus.

Now, I do appreciate well written sexual tension. That's a major theme in great fiction, especially noir and crime. So were the great 40's novels and films any less potent for not showing us what we know went on in the bedroom? (Killzone, March 21, 2010, “The Thrill of Sex with Cordite in the Air”)

You’re right, Jim. We get the point.

And James Scott Bell practices what he preaches. In his second Buchannan novel—Try Darknessyou can feel sexual tension between his main character, Ty Buchanan, and Sister Mary, a nun. Yes, a nun. In this three-book series, these two characters work together in a series of criminal investigations in which basketball becomes their common denominator, a sport they both excel in. Early in Try Darkness, they’re battling for control of the basketball:

I had to admire her doggedness. She’s the type who’d go to the mat with the devil himself if she had to.

But I still wouldn’t let her get the ball.

Then I was on my back, holding the ball to my chest. Sister Mary was on top of me, refusing to let her hands slip off the ball.

Her body was firm and fit and I looked at her face thinking thoughts one should not think of a woman pledged to a life of chastity.

I stopped laughing and let her have the ball.

She took it and rolled off me.

Neither of us said anything.

Then a voice said, “Now, isn’t that a pretty picture?”

Father Bob stood at the other end of the court, hands on hips.

One displeased priest. 
(Try Darkness, by James Scott Bell, Center Street/Hachette Book Group, ©2008)

The reader clearly gets the picture. Bell paints these words into our minds with feeling, action and intent. A great example of sexual tension. And this tension between Ty and Sister Mary carries throughout all three novels without one scene approaching bad taste.

Q4U: Where do you draw the line?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Davis Bunn

Author Davis Bunn: The Black Madonna, Treasure Hunters, and Advice to New Writers
Stolen art and international intrigue in exotic places fill the pages of The Black Madonna, author Davis Bunn’s next spellbinding novel scheduled for release in September. Treasured art, steeped in historical significance, dramatically changes the lives of art historian Storm Syrrell, treasure hunter Harry Bennett, and U.S Treasury agent Emma Webb.

For those of you who’ve read Davis’ previous novel, Gold of Kings, these names—Storm, Harry and Emma—should sound familiar. They return in The Black Madonna to locate another historic art treasure that will have international repercussions. And their efforts shed more light on the killing of Storm’s grandfather, Sean Syrrell, an art broker found murdered in the first novel.

There is another aspect of The Black Madonna that I found fascinating. Davis conducted intriguing research for both these novels; rubbing shoulders with real-life treasure hunters, talking to intelligence sources, and visiting exotic locations. Readers will travel from an auction house in London, through hostile mid-eastern countries, to the Monastery of Jasna Gora, located near Czestochowa, Poland.

Do you have an urge to travel? Davis takes you on a journey that won’t gouge your wallet—places like the Herodian dig above the Judean Desert; whirling through European cities of intrigue; or traveling a bumpy Jordanian road from Madaba  to Mt. Nebo, where God gave Moses one last look at the promised land. This author seems to have taken a modern-day Indiana Jones journey to be able to write this thriller.

Again, Davis demonstrates why he is a bestselling author. Needless to say—but I’ll say it anyway—he’s one of my favorite authors. I became hooked on his novels after reading The Great Divide several years ago. I’ve enjoyed reading a number of his novels ever since. It is a great pleasure to interview this gifted writer.

MARK: Davis, thanks for taking the time to visit us as The Black Madonna is about to be released. Tell us about this thriller, keeping in mind there are a few readers out there who’ve missed an opportunity to read Gold of Kings for background.

DAVIS:  The Black Madonna is a sequel to Gold of Kings,  carrying forward some key characters and pursuing further mysteries tied to religious relics.  It is a thought-provoking adventure story, with the external quest for treasures mirroring the internal quest for spiritual truths.

The story opens as a venerable Catholic priest, charged with preparing the icon of the Black Madonna for public display in a Polish church, draws closer to the painting for inspection.  Whatever he witnesses leaves him stumbling from the altar, clutching his chest.  He lies motionless on the ancient marble floor, as an old woman cries out for help for a dying man.

Storm Syrell’s flush of notoriety over discovering the treasures of the Second Temple has done little to pay the mounting debts of her arts and antiques business.  Her situation is exacerbated by the global economic crisis and investment scandals, which have left her lofty Palm Beach clientele with little appetite – or indeed cash – to spend on their next trophy.  So she is delighted to hear from an out-of-town buyer, anxious to secure a Russian oil painting.  The portrait itself appears to be of secondary quality, so Storm surmises its cachet must be due to some unsubstantiated stories.  The painting is linked to superstitious tales of sudden healings and answered prayers.   After intense bidding at auction, she manages to secure the work for the secretive new client.  Then another assignment is phoned in—another relic, this time in Spain.  And then still more relics, taking her to England and Switzerland and Italy.

Storm is forced to contend with a number of bizarre encounters.  Is someone out to get her – to keep her from succeeding in collecting these artifacts?  Or is she just imagining such threats because of the dramatic turn of events with the temple treasures?  When her friend Emma Webb turns up, an agent now on detail with Homeland Security, Storm’s doubts coalesce into fear.  National security, Emma explains quietly.  A master-forger is at work.  Together they must track the clandestine commerce in certain religious artifacts and determine the motives of their buyers and sellers.  Other whispers reach Storm –  strange voices of Russian oligarchs, and Vatican emissaries, and Rasputin-like figures promising miracles.  This is no small game of mis-attributed canvases.  Storm is taken to Poland, to a monastery which houses one of the most powerful icons in all Christianity – the Black Madonna.  As she gazes upon the scarred image with the open-handed invitation to trust in something beyond herself, Storm resolves to see the mystery through to the end.  But when she feels a strong grip upon her shoulder, she turns to face a future she could not have imagined.   

MARK:  As illustrated in your novel, The Black Madonna of Czestochowa is actually one of Poland’s holiest relics as well as a national symbol. What drew your attention to this work of art as an intricate part of  your story? What did you find most interesting about its history?

DAVIS: For many writers, the seed of an idea germinates for some time before being brought to fruition.  The Black Madonna captured my imagination some fifteen years ago, on a visit to the ancient walled monastery at Czestochowa.   My wife, Isabella, is of Polish heritage.  As I came to know her family and the traditions of the Catholic Church, I learned about the importance of images and rituals in sustaining faith.  While we were in Krakow one summer, her ailing uncle Marian expressed a desire to go on one final pilgrimage to Our Lady of Czestochowa.  This turned out to be an extraordinary journey, awhirl with equally astonishing legends.    It is said that the Black Madonna was painted by Luke the evangelist on the wooden board that served as a table for the holy family.  From Jerusalem the painting made its way to Constantinople and eventually to the church in Poland.  Since the early 1400s, the painting has sustained the Polish people though occupations and division and Nazism and Communism, and was linked to the Solidarity movement which eventually brought about Poland’s independence.
The Black Madonna depicts Mary holding the baby Jesus, who extends His hand in a blessing to the viewer.  The surface is darkened by centuries of smoke and incense.  Seven hundred years ago, the mother’s face was scarred by a Tartar’s sword thrust.  Today, the Black Madonna remains Poland’s holiest relic and one of the country’s national symbols.   The church that houses it is an elaborate Baroque-styled structure with worn marble floors.
And what of Uncle Marian --  did he receive the miracle he was praying for?  Surely he still felt frail upon settling back into the car for the journey home.  But he whispered to Isabella, “Now I can die in peace.”  So I, too, can appreciate the power of the Black Madonna  – not so much as a source of victory – but as a symbolic reminder of divine protection. 

MARK: Treasure hunter Harry Bennett seems to be part rascal, part saint in these stories. I understand that you used a real-life treasure hunter as a model for Harry’s character. What kind of insights did this gentleman provide about this treasure-hunting business?

DAVIS:  Harry was fashioned after Bob Marx, the most famous living American treasure hunter.   One of the great thrills of researching this story was getting to know Bob, and share in his adventures.  Bob is in his seventies now, and his health is not good.  But there still burns in his heart the spirit of a thirty-year old treasure dog. 

MARK: In a way, you and treasure hunter Bob Marx share common interests or experiences—love of history and archeology, love of the sea, and yes … both have been bitten by sharks. On the other hand, I can’t imagine two guys who are more polar opposites. I visualize Bob as being a rather rough and tumble kind of guy, similar to your Harry Bennett character. And you, a writer in residence at Regent’s Park College at Oxford University, an international bestselling author, graduate studies in economics and finance. Can you tell us about this man and how the two of you crossed paths?

DAVIS: You are absolutely right there.  Bob has been imprisoned nine times, been blown up underwater five times, and even had the wall of a submerged city fall on him off the coast of Barbados.  We have nothing whatsoever in common, except our fascination with lost treasure and the mysteries that surround them.  Bob loves to talk, I love to listen.  Bob does not teach.  He doesn’t have the patience.  But his passion for the sea is so strong, and this is another thing we share.  I started surfing when I was fifteen years old.  My first job, at the ripe old age of eleven, was as a dock-hand at a marina on the coast of North Carolina.  The first time Bob and I met, we clicked.

This is one of those remarkable things that happens quite often during the writing process.  I have been a published author now for nineteen years, and it still amazes me.  I love this opportunity to see the world through different eyes, to come to grips with a vision and a lifestyle utterly different from my own.  I leave Bob’s company feeling enriched.

MARK:  These exotic locations in The Black Madonna really come alive in your story. Readers can clearly see these places as your words paint pictures in their minds. What kind of traveling research did you do for this background, and what places did you actually visit?

DAVIS: All of them. 

MARK: Any interesting stores come to mind during these travels?
DAVIS: The crossing from Italy into Switzerland, across the Smuggler’s Pass, was my first foray into what is known as glacier hiking.  It was something I had never even heard of before this trip.  Getting to the tongue of the glacier was a four and a half hour hike, basically like climbing a set of uneven stairs.  Up and up and up and up.  My lungs were burning and my legs were like jelly.  All I could think of was, where is the bed?  Finally, at long last, the man I was roped to turned and pointed ahead.  He said, we can stop and have a hot meal in the mountain hut just up ahead.  My first thought was, thank goodness, I might have enough strength for another five steps.  No more.  Then I realized I couldn’t even see the hut!  I craned and searched and realized he was pointing to this teeny-tiny little stone cabin way on the other side of the glacier, it had to be another three or four miles, and each step meant testing the ice with the steel-tipped pole, and carrying a pack that by this point weighed seventy thousand pounds. 

MARK: Tell us a little about your life as an author. What kind of writing discipline do you follow—up at dawn, writing late at night, something in between? Daily word count?

DAVIS: I like to be at my desk by six, or a little earlier.  I rise around five, stretch, have my morning devotional, and get straight to work.  I love to have at least one scene completed before the rest of the world wakes up.  There is a sense of starting the day really well if the sunrise finds me already pushing hard.
Generally I can only do about five hours of writing, otherwise I am not much good the next day.  The only time I stray from this is when I am approaching the climax of a story.  Then all the rules go out the window.  I write until I drop.

MARK: There are at least a few aspiring authors who will read this interview. You’ve been in the writing business for several decades, and you’ve survived many changes in the publishing industry. Right now, there seems to be even more challenges facing new authors trying to break into this industry. What can new authors do to prepare themselves to meet these challenges and be competitive? What one piece of advice would you share with a writer just starting out?

DAVIS: It remains a great pleasure to work with new would-be authors.  Truly.  I wrote in the lonely wilderness for nine years and finished seven books before my first was accepted for publication.  Anything I can do to assist other authors to avoid some of the pitfalls I struggled through is a genuine pleasure.

The most important advice I can possibly offer a Christian author is this:  Attend one of the major five-day Christian writers’ conferences.  Seven are listed here.  I have selected these because they are large enough, and so well-established, that every major publisher and agent will attend at least one of these each year, and perhaps more.  This is a crucial component of a successful conference.  Do not be swayed by one that is quicker, closer, or cheaper.  You need to have the connection to the commercial world, and see your work through the eyes of those people who have the power to offer you a contract.

There are a number of significant differences between one of these Christian conferences and the mainstream counterparts.  Most of these began as church-based ministries, and ALL of them see their work as a service to our Lord.  The same is true for the teachers.  We come in order to serve God and further the Kingdom’s work.

The days are basically split in two.  In the mornings are ‘major tracks’, ongoing classes designed to cover the basic nuts and bolts of your chosen direction—fiction, non-fiction, song and poetry, magazine articles and greeting cards, and screenwriting.  The afternoons are focused upon the commercial side of the writing world—meetings with agents and publishers, classes on pitching and presentations and marketing, and so forth.

Two other advantages come from attending such a conference.  The first is, you have the opportunity to discuss your work with other authors, and know what it means to translate a private dream into a commercial reality.  The second is, you are granted a set of realistic expectations and tools for change.  Both of these are vital components to growth and success.

The main Christian writers conferences are as follows

MARK: I know readers will enjoy The Black Madonna and other novels written by this bestselling author. For more information on Davis and his writing career, visiting his website at

Friday, August 13, 2010

Betsy Brantner Smith

Women in Law Enforcement: Trying to Survive Dirty Harry

A 1973 movie titled The Enforcer was one of the first films I remember where women in law enforcement played a significant part in films. It also foreshadowed what those in law enforcement were beginning to address—allowing women a greater role in law enforcement.

The movie starred Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, San Francisco homicide inspector Harry Callahan, and Tyne Daly, as Kate Moore, recently assigned to homicide after toiling ten years in the Human Resources Department. Dirty Harry and Moore first locked horns after the crusty Callahan is forced to participate in a personnel interview panel. He learns that three of the eight available inspector positions will be given to women regardless of qualifications. True to his name, Dirty Harry plunges into the interview in manner that inflames almost everyone. Unruffled, Kate Moore matches Callahan’s brashness. Later, they’re matched together as an investigative team when a group of terrorists begin a bloody extortion spree after emptying out an arms warehouse.

This role played by Moore—although highly overblown by Hollywood—seemed to capture the heart of the challenge women faced in law enforcement. There exists a closed culture in law enforcement, created by the nature of the job and the need to survive. This culture evolved over decades of tradition, political strife, and the basic need to stay alive for one more day. To thrive in this brotherhood, an officer must earn the respect of other officers. Women tended to be outsiders to this culture. They needed to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles in order to be accepted, struggles male officers never faced.

Some women survived. Many did not.

One of those women who excelled in this culture is our guest, Betsy Brantner Smith. She comes with exemplary law enforcement qualifications. She spent nearly three decades as a police officer, joining a large Chicago suburban police department as a twenty-one-year-old recruit straight out of college. Before retiring in May of last year, her law enforcement career included stints in patrol, investigations, narcotics, juvenile, crime prevention and field training.

A career change—rather than retirement—seems to more accurately describe Betsy’s life since leaving law enforcement. She and her husband manage Dave Smith & Associates consulting firm, a law enforcement training and consulting company based in Illinois. My last email caught up to Betsy in Phoenix, Arizona, on her way to yet another business engagement.

MARK: Congratulations on your recent retirement, Betsy. And thanks for taking time out of a busy schedule to share a little insight into this topic—Women in Police Work. Give us a thumbnail sketch of your police career and what you enjoyed most.

BETSY:  Mark, it’s great to be with you!  My police career actually began in 1976 as a dispatcher for the local sheriff’s department while I was a senior in high school.  The “Dirty Harry” of that department immediately showed me the “book of death:” a photo album of every nasty death scene investigated by the county in the past 15 years.  I believe the intent of showing me that book was to make me realize that police work was not the career for a nice young farm girl from rural Illinois, but all it did was fascinate me.  I pestered the detective with questions until he eventually became one of my early mentors. 

From then on it was college, more dispatch jobs, and finally a cop job with the Naperville, IL police department where I was fortunate to be able to do a little bit of everything, from detectives to crime prevention to training to supervision. The best part of all of my years in law enforcement? I never had one single day that was the same as any other; I don’t know many of my college classmates or neighborhood friends who can say that! 

MARK: In looking back over your career, tell us what drew you to law enforcement and what challenges you faced as a new recruit.

BETSY:  I’d like to give you a wonderfully altruistic answer here, but the truth is I became a cop because growing up on a farm in rural Illinois in the 60’s and 70’s my brother and I were pretty fascinated about anything on TV dealing with war and police work.  We’d play “Combat” for hours out in the yard, and as I got older, I’d dream about working with Reed and Malloy from “Adam 12.”

When I started the academy in early 1981, it sure wasn’t like TV.  I learned very quickly why there weren’t many women on the prime time police shows who were regular street cops.  We weren’t particularly welcome, and there wasn’t much we could do about that except keep our mouths shut and tough it out.

MARK: How did you overcome these obstacles? How did you learn to survive?

BETSY:   I didn’t know anything about sexual harassment or sex discrimination when I was initially hired.  My very first patrol sergeant told me, before I was shipped off to the academy, “You know, I don’t believe in broads in police work.”  Was I insulted?  A little.  Did it bother me?  Not much.  I just thought, “I’ll show you!”  Having to prove myself over and over eventually made me a better cop, and I think, a better trainer.  And that sergeant?  He eventually became a good friend and mentor.

MARK: Many of our readers are mystery readers and writers. Good crime novels are about story and character, including those women who live inside this law enforcement culture. Can you help put a face to some of these obstacles women might face? For example, let’s use the Kate Moore vs. Harry Callahan example above from the movie, The Enforcer. How is Katie Moore ever going to be able work with a crusty old inspector like Harry Callahan?

BETSY:  I’ve worked with more that a few Harry Callahan’s in my life!  Kate didn’t react to Callahan in the way that he expected.  He expected indignation, emotion, drama.  Kate knew enough not to feed into Harry’s attempts to run her off.  In fact, she learned an important skill that we teach women in our classes; she learned to “banter.”  That’s how men communicate and bond, they banter with each other; they tease, they taunt, sometimes they get downright mean, but they always seem to have each other’s backs when the s—t hits the fan.  Katie got right back in Callahan’s face and she was a damn good cop; once they figured each other out, they made a great team. 

MARK: Your web site shares information about the Dave Smith & Associates consulting firm which you and your husband run. Tell us a little about this business and what you provide.

BETSY:  Dave is well known in the law enforcement community as “J.D. Buck Savage,” a character he created in the 80’s to teach police officers essential survival lessons using humor.  Because of Buck and Dave’s notoriety in law enforcement training and the work we’ve done together on the Law Enforcement Television Network and with Calibre Press and the “Street Survival” seminar, we started Dave Smith & Associates to better pool our talents and resources.  We’re both authors, consultants, expert witnesses, trainers, and speakers.  We’ve been involved in reality television; we’ve consulted on law enforcement fiction (read Shane Gericke’s new book Torn Apart, the third in a series of police thrillers featuring some amazing women cops!, we make regular media appearances, and we get to travel the world hanging out with cops and other great folks!

MARK: One of your Winning Mind Seminars is titled “Career and Tactical Survival for Women.” Is this program created for women in law enforcement? What information and training do you try to convey?

BETSY:  I started in 1989 teaching a class called “Career Survival for Women.”  At that time, it was all about surviving harassment, hazing, and learning to get along in a male dominated profession.  Fortunately, that class has evolved into an intense, one day program, “Career and Tactical Survival for Women” where we talk about everything from tactics and equipment to pregnancy and communication.  Our motto is “Don’t Whine, WIN!”  We use the science of brain function, physiology, and physical performance combined with defining and emphasizing personal responsibility, intestinal fortitude, and warrior values.  It’s a terrific program, and one that’s very unique to law enforcement training and we update in continuously based on our research and the changing nature of the police profession.  In fact, I’m currently writing a book based on the course.

MARK: Can you share some of the questions you might get from your audience during this training? Is there one particular area of interest that seems to crop up more than others? Why does this seem to be a re-occurring theme

BETSY:  My number one question is “why aren’t’ you teaching this stuff to men!”  This is something I’ve started doing in the last couple of years.  I teach a class titled “Managing and Training the Female Crimefighter,” and it’s been so popular that I’ve had agencies change their entire firearms programs based on what their trainers learned from our research. 

MARK: Some of this information must come from your own experience in law enforcement? What do you share with these officers that’d help our readers understand what women police officers are up against? Officer safety issues? Internal department survival?

BETSY:  Nobody likes to sit in a training class and hear someone else’s “war stories.”  Women are especially turned off by trainers who spend most of the class telling you how talented and tactical they are.  I mostly share with my students the mistakes I’ve made (there’s plenty to tell!) both in the station and on the street.  Like most cops, I’ve made some significant tactical and administrative mistakes. The difference is, I just admit them and use them as training points.  I also use a lot of humor, and I’m pretty politically incorrect. People really respond to that. 

MARK: Issues of sexual harassment are not uncommon among law enforcement agencies. At one time there seemed to an unusual number of these law suits leveled against police agencies. Have they been able to contain this problem through training, policy and discipline, or does this continue to be a growing issue? How would you advise a police chief or a sheriff to address this issue?

BETSY:  I used to teach sexual harassment prevention to police managers until it got to the point that everyone was so “sensitive” that we could barely talk to each other.  It’s true that sexual harassment was rampant in police work in the 70’s and 80’s and it still happens today, but there’s a big difference between a co-worker saying “baby, you have a nice ass” and “hey, you look nice today.” We need to learn to choose our battle wisely.  If someone says something ignorant to us, instead of running to HR or getting a lawyer, we first need to call them out and tell them what they said or did was inappropriate.  Training needs to be realistic, stressing professional conduct, not overly sensitive, robotic behavior.  Cops live in a rough world, and we’re going to say and do stupid, coarse things.  Policies need to be straightforward and clear, and discipline needs to be fair and consistent.  What we’re seeing now is instead of sexual or racial harassment is outright “bullying” of each, and both men and women are guilty.  Police administrators need to get a handle on the bullies in their agencies and realize how they affect morale, productivity and ultimately, officer survival.

MARK: Can you share one of the more harrowing experiences you faced as a police officer? What happened? How did you deal with it?

BETSY:  I’ve been shot at, hit by a car, shoved, punched, spit on, you name it, but I think my time in narcotics was the most harrowing, although it was also the most fun.  There was one high level deal that I was working on with a partner from another agency.  We were undercover as a couple, I was in my mid-20’s.  The boss of this well-run cocaine operation was a middle aged woman who had significant ties to state government resources and she was able to get information that my partner and I might be cops, not fellow drug dealers.  We got wind of this right before we were to meet with her and “her boys” for the final deal, what we call the “buy/bust,” but we decided to go ahead with the deal.  When we got into the apartment and the bad guys started to have my partner strip down to show that he wasn’t wired, I broke into tears and threw my arms around “the boss lady.” (none of this was planned in advance, so my partner was pretty surprised)  Apparently her mom instinct kicked in, and she pulled me into her kitchen, away from the guys.  I told her how my “boyfriend” was cheating on me and that he was going to use all of my money to buy this last big load of cocaine and then leave me.  She was incensed!  She plotted to get me out of there with the whole load of coke so I could get away from my cheating boyfriend and make a fresh start.  She was so nice, right up until the entry team kicked in her door, tossed her on the ground, and handcuffed her. 

MARK: Many cop movies and novels are replete with incidences of humor and wry wit. Are there any incidences during your police career that come to mind? Something that still makes you chuckle?

BETSY:  As a patrol sergeant I used to end my roll calls with “…and let’s go out there and try to have some fun!”  Police work is nothing if not incredibly entertaining, but what most cops find funny, “normal” people would view as kind of sick.  I can think of 1000 funny things, but  there’s not one of them that I can put in writing!

MARK: Many of our readers are novelists. They are trying to create interesting characters while trying to write with authenticity and realisms. Where would you suggest they go for help in understanding women in police work? Are there sources of information these writers might be able to access?

BETSY:  I’ve worked for years with journalist-turned-novelist Shane Gericke, who happened to live in my city.  Shane wanted to write a novel about primarily female cops in or near a city, but he was a guy, and a reporter, so he had a lot to learn.  He enrolled in our Citizen Police Academy, something I highly recommend, and then he spent an awful lot of his free time riding along with me and other cops in my department, both male and female, so that he could develop his characters into people you really care about.  I also recommend making frequent visits to all of the major police websites, Police One, Police Link, Law Officer and, and signing up for the Officer Down Memorial Page email updates (   Learn about how we live, how we die, and what we’re thinking about and dealing with day to day.  

MARK: What are you going to miss most about police work? What are you going to miss least?

BETSY:  I miss the people; the people I got a chance to help, and those dirtbags I got to send to jail.  I miss the rush of a high risk call, the belly laughs at roll call, the camaraderie; most of all, I miss my blue brothers and sisters.  What I don’t miss are those 12 hour shifts!

MARK: What does the future hold for you, Betsy? Where is Dave Smith & Associates headed?

BETSY:  Our training and speaking opportunities increase every day, we’re very fortunate to be so busy in this economy; we’re booking well into mid-2011 with talks and training conferences all over the world, and we’re not just talking to cops. We really enjoy taking the lessons learned from law enforcement and applying them to the corporate sector.   We’re also diversifying.  Dave has a new book out, In My Sights (which you can buy on Amazon, Police One Books, or on our website, and I’m working on one for women cops who really want to be successful in all aspects of their lives.  We’re just discovering the marketing and networking power of Facebook and Twitter, and we’re working with Police One Video ( to produce some excellent e-learning for cops as well as stories that are interesting to everyone, and we’ve been appearing frequently on various Blog Talk Radio shows.   I’m hoping to eventually mentor other women to be able to come into my business and train using the same methods I do so I can slow down and do a bit more writing, it’s a passion! 

MARK: Can writers reach you through your web site if they have further questions?

BETSY:  My website,, is the best way to get in touch with us, and you can “friend” us on Facebook as “JD Buck Savage” and follow me on Twitter as SgtBetsySmith.

More information about Betsy and her work with law enforcement and other groups can be found at the Dave Smith & Associates web site.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

K-9 Dogs

Homeland Security Going To The Dogs
President Harry S. Truman once said: “You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.” The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must have taken Truman’s advice because they’re adding 3,000 dogs to our nation’s capital, airports, and along our country’s borders to heighten security measures. Dog breeders have been alerted to the need. This call for more breeder dogs ignited conflict between certain animal rights groups and those using these dogs for police operations.

One animal advocate fired off an editorial response to DHS’s plan, calling for that agency to seek their dogs from animal shelters and pounds around the country instead of breeders. This author identified herself as the founder of an organization advocating ethical treatment of animals who did not want to see more dogs produced without homes.

The writer really lit a brush fire when she suggested DHS follow the example of “other police departments” using dogs adopted from the pound. These “police departments” were not identified in the article. Now, maybe somewhere in this country there are law enforcement agencies using these abandoned dogs for police operations—but I doubt it.

A popular police web site—primarily serving cops and ex-cops— re-printed this editorial. Howls from police officers ripped through the Internet (can one howl in writing?) One police officer curtly told the writer what she could do with a part of his anatomy. Nasty, nasty comments. This animal-rights advocate—although well meaning—jumped into a fire with both feet. Never, never come between and K-9 officer and his dog unless you want to get bit. This writer/dog lover’s suggestion lacked awareness as to what it takes to make a good K-9 dog—Tramp from the pound generally not qualified.

So what is the hoopla all about? I mean, taking animals from a pound and giving them a home sounds like a great idea. Certainly reasonable to advocates trying to empty the cages at the pound and save these pets from euthanasia. Now, don’t start hurling rocks my way. I love dogs and believe that every owner should treat their pets with love, care, and dignity. But sometimes these animal lovers just lack common sense.

DHS uses these animals to ferret out caches of drugs, cash, and explosives. Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies uses these dogs for building searches, crowd control, and extracting bad guys from cars when the crooks won’t come out. To watch these K-9 units work is awesome. I can’t count how many times they’ve come to the rescue of  fellow officers search building where burglars lie in wait; or just standing by to get the bad guy’s rapt attention during a car stop when the officer needs to gain control . And when a suspect runs—I just stand back and watch the dogs go to work.

All this takes a special kind of dog—one that already comes with courage and heart inside. I'm not a trained canine trainer, but I do know you can’t train this traits into a dog. Many dogs wash out of the program because they don’t meet these standards: dogs coming from high-end breeders who carefully raise these animals to perform this kind of work. You can’t just drop into the local pound and snatch up a canine and go to work. It just won’t happen.

As a writer, I'd love to see a first person Point Of View (POW) mystery novel from the standpoint of a K-9 dog. The world of crime fighting through the eyes of an attack-trained dog? What must an animal think about us humans. Would this be first person POV or first dog POV? I'll leave that to the editors.

Q: What do you think about this issue? Was is worth raising?