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A few weeks ago, I was merrily plodding though my newest espionage thriller, the sequel to (my Amazon best seller…shameless plug) Secret Wars: An Espionage Story. I had spent months researching Secret Wars 2 (SW2), with the results nicely categorized in binders by my side. Portions of my brain supercharged with plotting, outlining, characters, and stress consumed the energy of every waking thought. My fifteen hundred-word a day goal was set. I had a calendar and I was sticking to it. I had a stack of Diet Coke ready for the long nights. I was 25,000 words into SW2 and my writing temperature was starting to rise. Things were flowing. Until I had breakfast… It was with a friend who is a New York Times #1 selling author who was visiting Chicago. His agent had reviewed my work, liked my writing, but thought the historical fiction nature of the Secret Wars books was not marketable. We can debate that, but it was a nice exchange that I appreciated. Over a brisket skillet he told me to stop writing SW2. It went something like this: “He likes your writing, or he wouldn’t have said it. Believe me, that’s not him,” the friend said while chewing a mouthful of eggs. “Maybe he will like the next book,” I hoped. “No! Stop that one. He is interested in selling.” “But I have already started book two.” “You have another story. It is contemporary and no one has written a story like that.” “True, but I would need to stop and do research,” I replied defensively. I couldn’t even image stopping after six months of work, to start something cold. “Do it! It’s the book I want to read. Totally separate it from the other books. But it’s your decision, of course.” “What if I finish SW2 and then do the other book?” “He knows who you are now. A year from now, you are forgotten.” I played with the delicious breakfast in front of me and sucked down another Diet Coke. My brain seized up like a poorly maintained 52 Ford engine. How could I possibly stop one book and start another? Isn’t there some rule about that that? I had an idea and some plot elements, but I would have to research quickly and start writing, and hope the muse strikes. Was there really a rainbow here? Should I be doing this solely on the basis of one conversation, essentially hoping this agent liked it? Certainly I could ship it out and self publish. Then start SW2 and have two series going at once. This is quite a reach. For over a week, I sat and thought about it. Noodled on some ideas. Asked friends. Posted the quandary to Facebook. Ten days later I started the new book. A sinner. I am not sure exactly why. It IS an angle that I have a unique perspective, corporate intelligence. Can I make that exciting? As I have written in previous pieces, espionage books are boring. And corporate espionage books are fatally boring—not many explosions and cold-blooded assassins. But that is what makes this a challenge, for sure. There is a certain level of apprehension having a partially completed book sitting there. There is also a level of excitement. Let me know if...read more
Welcome to a special edition of “Espionage Thoughts.” It is July 4th, which means it is time for a “Founding Fathers’ Words To Think About” note. For many years, I like to construct a brief biography and some quotes from a figure from America’s revolutionary past. It is a little way for me to remember the importance of these people and their actions at an extraordinary time. Previous “Words” have included: Washington, Adams (John, Abigail, Samuel), Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, Hamilton, Madison, and Henry – to name just a few. This year I will focus on a topic that has been headline news in the US and around the world. It is also the subject of Secret Wars: An Espionage Story. The topic is intelligence. Let’s remember two Revolutionary War era figures that were instrumental in the use of intelligence against the British: Silas Deane, the Forgotten, and George Washington, the Icon. Silas Deane – The Forgotten Even before signing the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress created the Secret Committee Sept. 18, 1775. Allotted significant power, the committee was tasked with covertly obtaining military supplies and then distributing them to privateers chartered by the Continental Congress. In order to hide the fact that the Continental Congress was the actual purchaser of supplies, the committee used foreign flags to protect its vessels and transactions were organized through intermediaries. The committee also sent agents overseas to gather intelligence about British ammunition stores. On Nov. 29, 1775, the Continental Congress appointed another secret committee “for the sole purpose of corresponding with our friends in Great Britain, Ireland, and other parts of the world,” called the Committee of Secret Correspondence. The objective of this correspondence was to collect intelligence regarding the extent of sympathy toward the American Revolution. The Committee of Secret Correspondence was lead by Benjamin Franklin, the only member experienced in foreign affairs. Arthur Lee, of THE Lee family of Virginia and who was practicing law in London at the time, became the committee’s first European agent. In March of 1776, the Committee appointed Silas Deane, a former delegate to the Continental Congress, as its covert agent in France. Silas Deane is one of the most enigmatic Revolutionary War era figures. Even today, scholars debate whether he was a patriot or traitor. Deane was born in Groton, Connecticut, the son of a blacksmith. He graduated from Yale in 1758 and in 1761 was admitted to the bar. He practiced law for a short time outside of Hartford before he became a merchant in Wethersfield, Connecticut. He took an active part in the movements in Connecticut preceding the War of Independence, was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1772, and from 1774 to 1776 was a delegate from Connecticut to the Continental Congress. Deane helped finance the Battle of Ticonderoga, a critical American victory that helped build popular support for the revolutionary cause. Deane moved in the inner circles of the Founding Fathers. He was a public figure and accorded great respect. He early on saw George Washington as a natural leader. In a 1775 letter to his wife Elizabeth informing her that Washington would drop by their house on his way to Boston to assume command of the Continental Army, Deane wrote: “Let our youth look up to this man as a pattern to form themselves by; who unites the bravery of the soldier with...read more
I am a dinosaur. I maintain an old-fashioned enjoyment of reading a printed book. I relish the tactile feeling of turning a page. I like flipping to the bookmark (airline boarding pass, business card, receipt). I especially enjoy the look of books of all shapes, sizes, and colors lined up on my many bookshelves. I even like the way old books smell, the aromatic memory of youthful visits to the local library. Books are sacred—until I need the space that forces a surgical “give to charity” culling. Since parenthood has no expiration date, the last few weeks required traveling approximately 3,000 miles meeting the needs of growing children. To pass the time, I joined Audible and downloaded my first two excellent audio thrillers, American Assassin by Vince Flynn, and Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews. And for thirty total hours I didn’t read. I listened and opened my ears. I could hear the sweat, pain, and horror of the Hurley being tortured in American Assassin. I could hear the stress of recruitment, or smell the food cooking throughout Red Sparrow. I savored the sound of words made into sentences. Not reading provided the opportunity to listen to books in my genre. I couldn’t skip a word. I caught the subtle nuance constructing the sentences. Confession—sometimes my mind plays tricks on me (homage to Green Day) when I read. I skip words, or fill in the blanks as I speed-read ahead. When I see a descriptive paragraph, I mentally skim to get the gist, see if there is the stuff in the story I like, decide, and move forward. I distract myself. Shame on me. Listening with a purpose reminded me of my youth in Community Theater…many decades ago. On opening night, my director pulled a tattered and folded newspaper article from his pocket, opened it and read. A reviewer was marveling at Sir John Gielgud’s performance listening in a scene he had no lines. He was in the act of listening. The audience could see his face and neck muscles move and his body react. All he as doing was listening. I have never forgotten that—the act of listening. Last year, I actually tried listening when I was proofing Secret Wars: An Espionage Story. After two rounds of “professional” proofing, and a series of endless rewrites, I sat down and read my book aloud to myself. I caught so much—poor sentence construction, inconsistencies, too many words, or not enough description. I read it aloud as THE AUTHOR. I read it to proof it, not to really sit back and listen. I tried thinking about the reader, but my purpose was never enjoyment. I write about intelligence and have spent time examining the characteristics and skills required of an intel professional. I lectured often on intelligence skills and even presented a slide dedicated to being quiet and listening. Good intelligence officers possess the ability to listen and pay attention. I should have applied this core characteristic while I wrote. I will now. I love printed books and have a stuffed “to-read” shelf as proof. Will I mix in more audio books? Absolutely. The act of listening is...read more
Sometime during late 1985, I was a new employee at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). While working in the video library, indexing and cataloging video, I picked up a recording of a Maryland insurance salesman. The VHS cassette contained a presentation by a new novelist who had spoke in the CIA’s auditorium, the “Bubble”, which I noticed was over-flowing. This guy, Tom Clancy, had written The Hunt for Red October, a new best-seller fueled by the now famous “my kind of yarn” review from President Ronald Reagan. His talk was fascinating. Not because he was a famous author with a new string of best sellers. He wasn’t yet. He didn’t profess any expertise in world events. What did he know more than his audience, he confessed. It was fascinating because he was just a guy. As he said, what could a salesman from Maryland say to the CIA? He talked without notes about the writing of the book, his persistence to get it written, and how his life was changing. Humble and somewhat in awe, he reached the end of his time. Then he paused, looked at the audience and said something that has stayed with me — as long as he writes, the CIA will be the good guys. I watched the tape several times. Having been at the Agency less than a year, I was still in my mental honeymoon period. The requirements of a secret agency and profession understandably create a tough environment. I was discovering you needed fortitude to work in intelligence and at the CIA, specifically. It was a favorite punching bag of the media, deserved or not. To hear a guy say we were the good guys, the heroes, and he was going to acknowledge that in his books, meant a lot to me then and now. I vowed to do the same decades later as I wrote Secret Wars: An Espionage Story. No super-hero. No “Call Agent X, he/she is the only person who can save the world.” My heroes will be real people, in real, albeit fictional, situations. One review said I used a little “poetic license” in Secret Wars. I agree. In my first draft, I read articles on how to build the elements of a character. I studied Myers Briggs and other personality tests to better understand human psychology. I wanted “realism” — if my main character was an ENTJ then I thought I should put that person with a compatible personality type. Fortunately, I tossed that aside and decided to just write. I considered myself an “observer.” There are bad people in the CIA, like anywhere else. I would try to capture them. If they were mentors, then I would do the same. My CIA characters would be people doing a meaningful, substantive job in a difficult situation. I spent my career in intelligence studying the core competencies, functional attributes, and traits needed for people to work in intelligence. I have written and presented on these topics. I knew my intelligence characters would be insatiably curious. Intuitive. Critical thinkers. They would communicate, in writing and in person, perfectly. They would be subject matter experts. They would understand how the intelligence process works — targets, assessment, collection, analysis, reporting. They would work alone and work in groups with the...read more
I make no claim to being qualified to provide expert advice on fiction writing style and techniques. I have no intention of doing that. I do have some thoughts on the writing process, self-publishing, and just being a guy who wants to write books. I follow intelligence and current as a profession. Every week or so, I am going to post a few paragraphs here in these areas. Many years ago, I decided I wanted to write a spy novel. More accurately, a true espionage story, although I am not sure how that is defined. I thought it would be cool. I worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for eight years, and in corporate intelligence at Motorola for sixteen more; I figured I had some knowledge — perhaps credibility. Many years later, that decision ended up being Secret Wars: An Espionage Story. When I was in the CIA, in the daily chaos of intelligence and espionage, I was struck by the quality and character of the people I met. I wanted to make certain this was one of the key themes in Secret Wars. My other mantra while writing was to be as accurate as I could without going to prison. There are many fantastic thriller authors (Thor, Clancy, Flynn, Silva, Childs, Greaney, etc) who have made exciting characters. They are assassins. Black ops specialists. Anti-heros. I love them. But I didn’t work with anyone like that, and I was in covert action. The closest I got was supporting the many military and para-military personnel working against the Soviets in Afghanistan, terrorism, narco-traffickers, etc. The problem, as my CIA friends reminded me: “Espionage books are boring.” No one wants to read about endless meetings, report writing, or balancing the cash box. I decided to be more psychological than physical. Internal intelligence world balanced with the external current event. Mind more than gadgets. Invisible people needing to deal with a certain level of ethical complexity. I didn’t want to just copy a current trend. What would I like to write that I think people would want to read? I am not immune to current tastes in thriller fiction, or the writer’s ego to create something people would like (and want to buy). So I worked on a hybrid, what I call ‘historical espionage fiction.” My structure combines historical foreign policy events, with a dose of espionage (John Le Carre – the espionage writer – read him), and Tom Clancy-type thriller action. The feedback has been better than I hoped. Feedback shows the use of memorable events hit a nerve with readers. The realism keeps the attention of the reader despite the lack of constant action found in other books in the genre. And I can build an espionage story connecting them. Maybe I found a niche. I know that I like to write...read more
The journey that led to this being published, in any fashion, is almost a book in its own right. Secret Wars: An Espionage Story was first researched and written from 1999–2001, the nascent Internet days, when libraries, bookstores, and other “analog” resources were still the best means available to get information. On September 11, 2001, the working drafts were in proper format, the cover letter had been meticulously crafted, and all of it was bundled in nice packages ready to be taken to the post office. After the attack, I pulled out the cover letters and rewrote them with the theme, “If there isn’t an interest in terrorism now, there never will be.” Agents and publishers disagreed, despite a few kind comments. In 2001, publish on demand was basically a phantom concept, so Secret Wars languished for years in hard copy and on hard drives until January 2014. Then, what I took as several not-to-be-ignored coincidences, perhaps omens, motivated me. They lit a fire of remotivation in...read more
A few more comments. My mantra while writing this was to be as accurate as I could without going to prison. By signed secrecy agreement, which I wholeheartedly concur with, this manuscript was sent to the CIA’s Publications Review Board for review and approval. I worried, back in 2001, that they would redact some of the details. I was happy when it was approved for publication, but surprised, perhaps a little disappointed, that not one word was changed. With this said, I must state: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblances to anyone, living or dead, are purely coincidental. There are real historical events inside—the bombings in Rome, Vienna, and Berlin; the bombing of Tripoli; and military actions in the Gulf of Sidra, among others. I did my best to be as historically accurate as possible in the context of my work of fiction, starting in 1999 and a decade and a half later, with digital access to newspapers, scholarly reports, news reports, and websites. Any actions or conversations of the few actual people are totally my creations, paraphrased themes from speeches, or direct quotes. Real people suffered, fought, and died for freedom, and it would be irresponsible to devalue any of their actions or memories. Real people have also been with me on this journey since the beginning or were born into it: Lynda, Jessica, Sarah, Ben. Thanks. So here it is, finally. Not Hemingway, but what I hope you will enjoy as a good story. An espionage story. Joe Goldberg Summer...read more