Saturday, September 21, 2013

Interview with Doug Sasse Technical Writer, Videographer, Author of Teleplay

Doug Sasse: Technical Author, Videographer, Teleplay, and more.

This month’s interview is with Doug Sasse, a professional technical writer who also writes screenplays and teleplays. I can tell you from reading some of his ideas, his teleplays are somewhat geared to a surprise Twilight Zone or Hitchcock twist of the bizarre. What starts normal turns weird or even sinister. The word is Entertaining.

Doug is experienced at video promotion, and technical writing skills down to interoffice communications. I’ve slowly been getting to know Doug since connecting on Linkedin and now through NWG. I can’t say I know him yet as there is much about Doug to know.

Enjoy the interview.

Glenda: I haven’t had the opportunity to interview someone who works as a technical writer.  I took a tour of West Interactive’s web site to get the feel for their product. I’m impressed at the attention to today’s need for use of all types of media to help companies reach and interact with customers. You describe yourself as having an entrepreneurial work ethic which allows you to work without supervision. I know I can’t describe what you do as well as you can. Can you give us a summary of what you do with technical writing?

Doug: I would describe my technical writing and my business writing in general as follows: I create documentation that helps organizations inform, teach, sell, streamline, and succeed. I might do that in a number of different ways. I write software and hardware user guides. Basically, it’s “writing the instructions.” The challenge there is that nobody likes to read instructions, even technical people. So I have to make them accessible. That means using short, simple sentences and lots of illustrations. You also need to show people why the screen in the software that they’re using is important and how it will make their lives easier and better.

People frequently overlook the importance of having a good user guide for their hardware and software. A company can spend millions of dollars and devote thousands of man hours to designing, coding, and testing a piece of software. However, if the documentation is hard to follow or is wrong, the users can quickly lose confidence in the software.

I also document policies, processes, and procedures. I like to think of them as “an owner’s manual” for a job or even for a business. You would be amazed how much time people waste trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing in the workplace. In some cases, that “futz factor” can be up to 40%. But, if you are willing to make the investment in documenting your job or your business processes, you can eliminate most or all of that wasted time. It’s like writing a script for your business. You wouldn’t send someone out on stage or on set without a script; why should you do it in the workplace?

Having everything written down and in front of you makes it easier to improve and existing process, and it prevents what I call “corporate Alzheimer’s.” It can prevent a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth when someone leaves and would otherwise take years of expertise with them.

When I say I use an “entrepreneurial approach,” I mean, I like to think of my skill set as a business. I always have to improve. I always have to learn new software and new methods. I worked as a contractor for many years, and I naturally try to come up with ways to solve problems for customers and do it in a creative way. I always like to ask myself, “If this were my business, how would I want to handle this problem?” It actually makes coming to work a lot more interesting. 

That’s why I jumped at the chance to do a blog at West. I started out just doing a written blog entry every few weeks, and then I decided to convert it into a video blog. People have been very receptive, and they like to watch videos. Video is definitely one of the tools I’ll be using more of in the future.

As far as helping individual writers, that is why I am in the Nebraska Writers Guild. One of the big challenges that we've had in the last couple of years is helping our members learn how to put the platforms together and market themselves as writers. I can help the Guild by bringing my researching skills, my business writing ability, and the work I do to help put events together.

Glenda: You mentioned that there is a major paradigm shift that is changing todays’ society. That very shift moves so fast it is difficult to keep up with even for a writer. In fact it may be more so because writers are in the business of communicating. How might we keep in touch with this major shift from all print to a combination of electronic, print and a resurgence of audio books?

Doug: There's never been a more exciting time to be a writer. The Internet has not only leveled the playing field; it has society as a whole. The days of the all-powerful, centralized authority in anything: business, arts, publishing, film, government, you name it, is over. Bandwidth has widened. Tools are becoming more powerful, and at the same time, they're becoming even more affordable. Since so many different things are digitized now in print, video, art and music; you are beginning to see a lot of different disciplines that never had much to do with each other begin to merge.

All of these new developments can really be daunting because there are so many of them coming so fast and they change all the time. They created a new dynamic. Nevertheless, there are two things that I believe are going to be in court: content and connections. You have to develop the best possible content. Everybody's familiar with Marshall McLuhan's famous quote, "The medium is the message." The medium is not the message; the message is the message. Content is king. For fiction writers, that means the edge goes to the person who can tell the best story. For nonfiction writers the edge goes to the person who has the best new methodology.

Connections are more important when you market your work. You need to be connected to a large number of people. You need to have a large network. That is becoming the new paradigm. You are more likely to trust a friend, even if you only see that friend on Facebook, than you are a random commercial. So if that friend tells you about a new book or any new product, you're more likely to trust a friend. You're more likely to take the advice of a friend.

Personally, the Digital Age has enabled me to “knock down the walls” between my “day writing job” and my “afterhours writing job.” If I learn a new process or a new price of software in the workplace, I can use it in my afterhours writing and for the work that I do for the Nebraska Writers Guild. I’ve brought my storytelling knowledge into the workplace. You’d be amazed how important storytelling techniques are in the workplace. I use them in my tech writing, in my business communications, in presentations, and even in my blog and video blog development. Even in the business world, whoever tells the best story wins.

Glenda: I’ve read a few of your summaries or synopsis of ideas for teleplays. When it comes to the shift in paradigms spoken of in the previous question, how does the advent of similar types of programming now becoming exclusively internet-based affect that genre?

Doug: Everything, one way or another, seems to be moving online. You're going to see more web-based television. You are going to see more traditional networks have a larger Internet presence, and you're going to see the independents have a presence out there as well. People are absolutely starving for stories. They are looking for stories with characters and storylines that they can care about and enjoy. I really think reality TV has just hit saturation point, and people are tiring of it. I'm not quite sure yet how they make money at it, but somebody will figure it out. And believe me, there will be an absolutely bottomless demand for good content. That's exciting.

Glenda: Doug, you are bringing valuable experience to other writers through the Nebraska Writer’s Guild. I find it very satisfying and helpful to share with other authors. I’ve learned we don’t have to compete if we work to be individually good through sharing what we learn, bouncing questions off one another and even looking over each other’s work to critique or even edit for those with that skill. NWG has writers from all types of genres. As an author of teleplay, is this something you are hoping to find other authors in similar genres?

Doug: That’s the exciting thing about working with other writers. It’s not competitive at all, except that we challenge ourselves and each other to improve at the craft of writing itself and with marketing that writing to an audience. There’s nothing better!

Glenda: As a technical writer, can you describe the importance of getting your customer to help you communicate the needed information for you to do your job. I imagine it must be akin to an architect with a vision that they try to verbally communicate without the detail of a blueprint for the contractor and all the steps in between.

Doug: Actually, I’m more like the Star Wars character, C3PO. I help two very disparate groups communicate with, and understand, each other. The first group typically includes developers or department heads. If I’m writing a software or hardware user guide, I talk to the developers. They provide me with all the existing material on their hardware or software. I have them demonstrate their product. I ask them questions about it. This scenario usually has three big challenges:

(Hardware and software) developers typically are not the most communicative people in the world. You have to draw them out. You have to ask lots of questions. That’s one of the biggest challenges. For example, a programmer might be very good at what he or she does, but has a hard time explaining it to others. You have to ask them how or why the screen they just spent two weeks coding improves the lives of their end-users. They’re not always sure about that.

The second challenge in documentation is that developers deal in things that are extremely technical. The person at the other end, the end-user, typically isn’t a technical person. So I have to find a way to make the developer’s complex ideas easy to understand. I do that by using short, simple sentences and lots of illustrations.

Believe it or not, there’s actually quite a bit of storytelling going on when you document hardware, software, and processes. Like storytelling, you have to be able to summarize your topic with a good logline to make it easy to understand. You have to develop a narrative, show people why they’re using a module or a screen or a dialog box. And then you have to get them to care. You have to get past “so what?” You have to show them how using the hardware and software makes their lives easier and better.

The third challenge is getting all of the information that you need to complete the assignment. It’s not just getting access to everyone on the project to talk to, or getting access to a piece of hardware or software. Sometimes a developer or a department head has been around a piece of hardware or software or a process for so long that they naturally begin to assume a level of knowledge in the audience that doesn’t exist. For example, they’ll omit important steps in a process because they’ve internalized that process, and they therefore think everybody just “knows that.” They’re not being malicious. When you’ve been around something so long, sometimes you get so close to it, there are things about it you don’t realize that you have to communicate to others.

So it’s always a challenge, and no two assignments are exactly alike.

When I take a class or listen to a motivational speaker, or read a motivational book, I find that I grasp and enjoy the experience when the instructor or author enjoys their topic. Such a person is Doug Sasse. This could have been a rather dry interview. However; Doug enjoys what he does, he’s motivational in his video instructions. I think if I were to take a college course in communication from Doug, I’d get an A because he would make it that informative and interesting. When it comes down to what makes Doug work I think basically it is what I just stated, with an added bonus of Doug knows his stuff.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Interview with Novelist, Screenwriter Sally J. Walker

Interview with Sally Walker, author (nonfiction, romance,
western, literary), screenwriter, poet, editor…

I don’t usually interview an author twice, but I feel Sally has gained much experience since I interviewed her in March of 2011. Sally, besides being an instructor on the subject of writing, has also made a name for herself with a solid-selling nonfiction book A Writer’s Year, several creative writing textbooks and novels in various genres that we will name later. She has also achieved more recent success as a screenwriter. She’s one of the few cross-genre authors I know who sells in all the areas she tries. Her grueling writing schedule that also takes into account marketing, teaching, professional editing and family demands makes my head spin.

Glenda: Sally, I’m glad to have a chance to interview you again. I think one thing I would like to know is how you structure your time to accomplish what you do and still have Sally time. For those of us who are unorganized in life, please share your personal philosophy of time management.

Sally: And I'm honored that you are back for more. My formula?  Lists, schedules, goals and flexibility.  I meld those four things and have since high school. THAT was a long time ago, but it tells you I have decades of practice in multi-tasking and driving toward goals.  In December every year I look at what I can realistically accomplish in both writing goals and personal arenas in the year to come.  I then consider the generalized tasks I have to accomplish to achieve the goals and those go on my office calendar. Realistic is the key word, flavored with flexibility.  "Life" intrudes so I simply adjust and shift gears. I don't obsess.  Being too anal creates stress.  My method creates satisfaction and joy.

During the last few days of each month I consider the next month's tasks on my calendar, as well as family events,appointments, assignments from The Fiction Works and any other writing that has come up.  I can then specify what has to be done on what days. Finally, each Sunday evening I consider what I accomplished in the past week and assess what has to happen in the week to come.  

When my three girls were young and going a gazillion directions with school, Scouts, dancing and music lessons while I was getting my degree in writing AND working full-time nights as a critical care R.N., I created a grid-type form that has the days of the week across the top and hours of the day in increments of half-hour down the side. I copied a file folder full of them.  Every Sunday I noted who had to be where (that Sally was responsible for) and included the dreaded household chores, my hospital schedule, and even my sleep schedule. I eyeballed blank spots then highlighted in yellow my designated writing time and in pink my designated reading time.  Those were sacred to me and woe to the family member who intruded for anything but an emergency.  The sheet was posted on the refrigerator for all to reference.

When I am on a deadline or am overwhelmed with lots going on (like the four years I was president of the Nebraska Writers Guild) I still use that form.  It keeps me focused and defies excuse-making and forgetfulness.

What happens when I get an assignment like the recent adaptation?  I break the work into manageable increments and slot those on that form, working backwards from the deadline. If "Life" interrupts my schedule I sometimes have to do marathons as I did the seven weeks when my agent asked for three screenplays I hadn't written yet.  I told the world to go away and my husband had to feed himself.  One of those scripts was the one optioned last year and another is under serious consideration for a Hallmark producer.

On a daily basis, my mornings are designated for on-line teaching, networking and marketing, with household chores woven in.  My afternoons are for professional editing and writing. My evenings are for reading, TV and movie watching, all part of keeping myself informed, motivated and the creative mind fed.  I usually check e-mail, student questions and Facebook before going to bed around midnight. I taught myself to speed-read in high school and thank God every day that I did.  The volume of material I need and want to read is a challenge.          
Glenda: Within the last year you’ve had success with your screenwriting that has led to other prospects for your novels, especially romance and westerns. I know there are ups and downs in screenwriting and you’ve experienced both. How do you cope with the fluctuations of the rise and fall in the business of writing?

Sally: Life is not fair, convenient nor predictable. A writer has to work hard at polishing the writing for it to be as close to perfect as possible. In screenwriting, I have learned to shift gears, put things on hold and revise as asked because collaboration and the tastes of others are factors in that process.  At any point someone more powerful than the writer can stop the entire process and the writer is out because someone else or another project was preferred.  Again, I don't obsess. I have an L.A. manager who is a recognized entity.  That does not mean I just write and let him market.  He has other clients; therefore, I actively market myself and stay positive. My own marketing efforts landed me the adaptation gig. 

Researching the Internet Movie Database  I identified the producer had recently done westerns with reasonable budgets.  I queried him via e-mail about one of my westerns.  He actually phoned me about the script.  We hit it off and he asked if I did adaptations.  I explained that I had recently prepped a class about that very topic.  The majority of the viewing audience and most writers have zero comprehension of the how-to's and whys of taking a novel to the screen.  He liked what I had to say and had options on three novels awaiting adaptation.  A thrill ran through me when he asked if I would give one a
shot.  If he likes it, he will contract me for the other two as well.  Plus, when he finishes production on his current project (a big-budget martial arts film) he wants to talk about my western.  I made the opportunity; it did not search me out. Will it result in contracts and credits?  Only God knows.

October 2012 a Nebraska indie producer optioned one of my romance scripts that will be filmed late 2013, possibly into January 2014, depending on cast and crew availability. Because of its holiday theme, it will not be released as a feature to theaters until fall 2014. We used the Writers Guild of America Low-Budget Agreement that establishes financial and rewrite specifics for indie producers working with a budget of less than $1 million.  

The whole pre-production process is convoluted and detail-oriented.  Here in July a director has been contracted and two other indie production companies are on board. Each of them brings different elements to the film-making process. Budget, cast and crew come next.  I've learned "It takes a village" applies to film-making as well as child-rearing. I am optimistic that it will evolve, but am also realistic that anything can go wrong.  I am not spending any of the future monies. Per the WGA requirements, one-third of the sale price will be payable two weeks before actual shooting begins, another third at the conclusion of shooting and the final third when post-production is completed and the film is ready for distribution.  That breakdown allows financially challenged indie producers to work with professional writers who have quality product.  My goal in this whole process is to earn the 24 points needed for WGA member card by the end of 2013.  That will open even more doors.

Am I frustrated that it takes a long time and is always complicated?  Not at all because that's just the way the business works. In the meantime, I do my teaching, marketing and writing on other projects.  Every day! I am not dependent on someone else's concept of success to feel validated.  My validation is in the writing itself.  Every day! 

Glenda: You related to me that the idea of 'branding' once seemed limiting to you. Now you have a better idea of what branding yourself means especially in this technical age. Other authors are uncertain about branding. Can you tell us what you learned about branding and just what it is?  

Sally:  For most people "branding" means they are identified as writing a particular kind of genre such as Scottish historical, young adult fantasies or military action-adventure.  Nora Roberts, the queen of contemporary romance, writes romantic suspense/mysteries under the name J.D. Robb.  J.K. Rowlings just "came out of the closet" and accepted acclaim for mysteries written under a pseudonym.  Authors like this were "branded" but wanted to write beyond their pigeon-hole.  Of course, these people had the readership and skills to sell beyond their first brand.

Many traditional publishing houses and agents currently suggest new writers focus on one genre to build a similar following and reputation.  I understood that, but ignored the dictates.  My interests, characters, and plots range far and wide.  Plus, I don't write in just juvenile lit, romance or westerns.  I don't focus on just stage plays or screenplays or novels.  I write in all those disciplines, as well as poetry.  My website at states my rationale for seriously writing in each of the disciplines.  Quite simply, my imagination is far-ranging.  I alternate between them as my mind answers to the nagging of story and character.  But, I write smart.  That means I have researched the market I am writing to and READ my competition to fully understand trends and successes.  If someone asked my brand I shrugged and said "Eclectic, I guess."

Then a screenwriting friend, Hawk Ostby (CHILDREN OF MEN, IRONMAN, COWBOYS & ALIENS) told me, "You create actor-intensive, powerful relationship stories, no matter what genre you write, and your material is always well-researched
with authentic flavor."  I have used that description as my "brand" when submitting to producers on my own.  The responses I have gotten range from "This script indeed reflected those qualities" to "No matter the script I read, you deliver intensity in character and plot."  I've sold, gotten referrals and been contracted for adaptations based on that "branding."  I've been told by readers that my novels reflect the same concepts.  It may not be genre-specific, but it works for me (and it is not

Glenda: Can you explain the increased demand for email queries when submitting?

Sally:  It boils down to the time factor.  Up until about 10 years ago all queries to publishing houses, agents and producers had to go through the snail-mail room. Writers had to wait six weeks to six months to get rejected or another six months to hear a pronouncement if a novel or full screenplay was requested.  Since starting my professional career in 1985 I have practiced the multi-project approach to my writing, so I wasn't chewing my nails waiting for someone to make a judgment.  If I got a rejection, it went back into the mail within 48 hours to the next editor or producer on my list for that project.  The months and years slipped by then little by little I made sales, but never enough to satisfy me or build a financially satisfying validation.  

As publishers, agents and producers moved into the 21st century and electronic communication, the whole process sped up. A lot of trees have been saved, though the U.S. Postal Service has suffered. Wasted paper has been saved, but also everyone's time.  That editor, agent or producer can read an e-mail query, compare and contrast with current projects, consider how intriguing the project sounds and tap out a reply.  Five minutes versus six months.  

As Editorial Director of The Fiction Works, I have learned the beauty of the process.  All TFW submissions are via e-mail and filtered through me.  I'm not overwhelmed because I speed-read.  If I am intrigued and the quality of writing is apparent, I pass the submission along to one of our sub-contracted editors who favors that particular genre.  If the project doesn't fit TFW, I succinctly state why and fire the e-mail back. Again, five minutes versus six months. 

TFW publishes my nonfiction work and novels (edited by one of our other editors) so I am no longer struggling in the print world.  Screenwriting is another animal.  My L.A. Manager, Joel Gotler of Intellectual Properties Group, markets both me and my scripts. However, I also take responsibility for marketing on my own, keep Joel informed and let him handle the business negotiations.  I keep a calendar on submissions and either send follow-up e-mails or phone the producer I
queried.  NOTHING happens overnight in L.A. (or anywhere else in the film industry) because financing and schedules are constantly in flux.  E-mail simply speeds the communication process and saves time and angst.                        

Glenda: The Gift Exchange is one of your stories optioned for a movie by a young producer. Is this the producer from Norfolk? Please tell us what you've learned from your affiliation.

Sally:  I explained above about some of the process I've learned.  The young Nebraska producer is Stacey Schaller of Norfolk, an advertising executive with a degree in film who is just starting up his studio.  Through my participation in the Nebraska Film Association he heard of my screenwriting and requested log lines of completed scripts.  He then requested to read THE GIFT EXCHANGE.  Two months later he phoned me and asked if we could discuss an option based on the May 2012 WGA Low Budget Agreement.  He told me "I want to do this script because the characters are complex but live their definitive moral codes.  It is not a simple story as much as it is a profound story about how people learn about one another and themselves. The circumstances of the story are unique.  You made me believe in everything so deeply that I have to make this movie." That's from my notes.  I had to write it down because I was so stunned that he "got it."  

I connected Stacey with long-time local writing friend and indie producer Jack Young (I met through NWW) and Mark Hoeger of the Omaha-based Oberon Entertainment (I met through Nebraska Film Association).  I think the biggest lesson I have learned in this process is the power of networking.  Determined, pro-active participants in ANY endeavor get serious attention.  Hobbyists or idealists will earn no more than passing politeness.  

I network daily, truly. I have maintained a multitude of relationships with friends and professional contacts in both publishing and film since starting my writing career in 1985.  The list includes TV producer Joe Wallenstein (now a professor at USC), Larry and Kat Martin (both best-selling western and romance authors), screenwriting guru Lew Hunter (who made the referral to my manager), former MGM executive Stephanie Palmer, many writers from around the globe and Nebraska's plethora of film-makers advocating tax-incentives to our legislators. I have perpetually practiced being sincerely supportive rather than acting the supplicant. When one gives, one is more likely to have help offered. 

Whenever I have reached out to another writer with advice or educational materials, I asked the recipient to "pay it forward" rather than thank me. That includes the teens I have mentored over the past six years who truly are forging ahead focused on writing careers. I am especially proud of novelist Annie Stokely, a UNL student who will be on the NYT best seller list someday, and Beth Groth who was one of the 3% of applicants to NYU's fall 2013 film program with several screenplays already written.  I've taught close to 5,000 people over the years, including the people of the weekly Nebraska Writers Workshop, but my teens make me glow.          

Glenda: As an author, you mentioned the many genres you work in. My readers are going to be curious to find the titles. Please give us a list of your books and where my readers can find them. I'm sure they will be particularly interested in The Gift Exchange and others that may be produced as movies.

Sally:  "The Gift Exchange" actually started as a short story that is included in the unpublished anthology ROMANCE AROUND THE CALENDAR that includes short stories about each of seventeen U.S. holidays. Another adapted story from that collection is "Resolutions are for Fools" under consideration at a different studio. From my unpublished children's collection STORIES OF CHRISTMAS PAST I adapted the 1880's western "On a Cabin's Eve" that is at a Hallmark producer. 

My 1994 award-nominated audio-book THE HEALING TOUCH I adapted into the ethnic flavored screenplay "Chaco."  TFW will be releasing that revised novella late in 2014 in a collection of three novellas about that community. THE SEDUCTION OF TEMPERANCE is available as a novella and is available on Amazon. One of my all-time favorite covers, BTW. I adapted it as the screenplay "Temperance" recently requested by two studios.

Another TFW-published work on Amazon is LETTING GO OF SACRED THINGS.  It is an episodic literary work roughly based on my grandmother's life.  I adapted two chapters of that book into a character-driven screenplay of 1950's small-town Iowa. 

DESERT TIME is my romantic western saga of 1859 New Mexico from TFW that I have no intention of adapting.  It is far too long and complex to reduce to a 100-page screenplay. It is on the TFW website and on Amazon.

Among my nonfiction works from TFW you can find on Amazon are A WRITER'S YEAR (365 essays of the writing
life) and three screenwriting textbooks.  I am contracted to add several fiction textbooks to the Write-Now Workshops library late in 2013 and into 2014.

Within the next two years I also anticipate the release of the novels LOVE, GUNS OR GRACE (a romantic, Christian western),PLEASE BELIEVE (romance of baseball in 1894 Nebraska), UNTIL THE HORSEWHISPERER (Scottish-flavored novel of 1870's Nebraska) and BIKES & BADGES (a contemporary romantic suspense of law enforcement vs. drugs). 
Here in the summer of 2013 I am on a heavy editing schedule for TFW and adapting someone else's western for a L.A.producer who liked my edgy western STORM MAKER.  He is currently in post-production of a big action-adventure and wants to talk about my script in a few weeks.  All crossable body parts are crossed.    

So, you can look for my books on my publisher's website  or on Amazon. Hopefully, in the fall of 2014 you will see the credit "Screenplay by S. J.Walker" on a screen someplace.  

I enjoy Sally’s spirit; some might say she has moxie, or a ‘go-getter’ personality. She’s certainly productive and I doubt she would be as productive if she didn’t discipline herself as she does with her lists, schedules, goals and flexibility. I recently communicated to her something to the affect that she never seems to take a break or catch her breath. I was instantly, maybe curtly, told that yes she does take time to herself. I guess that comes from Sally’s particular form of organizing. It gives her a chance to slate in those times to rest the mind and body. 

After this interview, I told Sally I now know why I can’t find The Gift Exchange through Amazon, Google search or anything. I’d read through her communication on the Nebraska Writer’s Guild forum The Gift Exchange was going from story to screenplay. I went searching, but I know that as a screenwriter, Sally doesn’t write every story into a novel. She does have an eclectic mix of talents and uses them to her advantage.

I don’t know what more I can tell you that you can’t glean from the interview above. Sally is someone I enjoy learning from as I do all the writers I interview. I tend to study the personality of characters so that I know what kind of reactions they will have to their particular situation. Each author has a distinct personality and I do borrow from that diversity when I write, as I do from other people. I think Sally understands that kind of absorbing of what comes across the path in front of me. 

I try to live practicing Sally's philosophy of  "Enjoy the journey, not just the destination."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Interview with Robert Staniford author of The Star War Factor

Interview with Robert Staniford author of The Star War Factor:

Robert Staniford is an author and friend from just outside Ascot, Windsor U.K.  Some may recognize Ascot for its famous horse racing history. Robert has five children and six grandchildren. His lifelong involvement in the arts through music, photography, and writing evolved into his book The Star War Factor.

It is a novel written reflecting on events during the apocalypse. The surprising sense of man’s own resources used perhaps by a divine hand threads a viable perspective on man’s own arrogance coming against him or fulfilling prophecy.

Robert refers to himself as a real prodigal son. I think that is a story Robert should reveal in his own way.

Glenda: Robert, you have referred to yourself as a prodigal son. Gilbert, the main character of your book, The Star War Factor, has a troubled past. How much did you draw on your own experiences to develop Gilbert?

Robert:  I was a product of the sixties and embraced much of what was going on with great zeal.  There's something of that in Gilbert but the character is by no means autobiographical.  Like any writer, I've drawn on experience and observation and Gilbert is something of a composite born out of this.

Glenda: How did you come to the realization that you wanted, or felt called, to devote your ministry to the gospel and write an epic novel reflecting on an apocalypse?

Robert:  The novel was written in embryonic form during the Reagan era, long before I became a Christian.  I shelved it at the time but stumbled upon the manuscript a couple of years ago and decided I could rework it and do something with it.  It isn't written as a Christian book.  I think there are already too many good ones that aim at a Christian market.  I didn't want to preach to the choir but rather write something that I hope has secular appeal and might provoke some of the right questions.

I've had a heart for evangelism since I first came to a real understanding of the Gospel message and the fate of those who refuse it.  My daughter, Ruth, suggested that I should apply my knowledge of scripture to teaching.  I haven't really taken that step as such but have started posting articles on a Christian site - with a focus on how God is working to fulfill prophesy in this troubled age.

Glenda: I know that I’d like to read those articles and other’s will as well. Would you post the web address below to that Christian site?

Robert: The web address is 

Glenda: There are so many apocalyptic stories out there since 1999 with the new millennium. Somehow the genre has become popular horror, thriller and adventure mesh from monsters to devils and codes. What makes your book and characters different?

Robert: The Star War Factor really crosses a few genres.  There's a sc-fi element as well as an element that appeals to the conspiracy theory crowd.  In addition it touches on real human failing and recovery as well as a romantic element, with some political observation thrown in for good measure.  A writer whom I respect greatly compared the writing to that of John Wyndham, which I find very flattering.

Glenda: Why did you choose Star Wars developed during the Reagan era as a major event contributing to the apocalypse?

Robert:  Like most of us who lived during the cold war era, I felt the threat of nuclear holocaust as a very real and imminent thing.  When Reagan announced the plan to put missiles in space I felt the whole thing was going crazy and the original premise of the book was formed around that time.  I don't believe the threat has by any means gone away and I've no doubt that black projects, which gamble with our future, are continuing.  The situation in the Middle East could blow out of proportion at any time, and that's another issue in the book.  It's sad that people no longer have the awareness they did in the sixties and seventies.  It's as if they think the danger has gone away, or they don't want to think about the fact it's still there.

There's a verse in Zechariah, Chapter 14, that describes the plague which comes upon all the nations who seek to destroy Israel at the time of the Lord's second coming.  The description is very like that of a nuclear holocaust:

"And this shall be the plague with which the Lord will strike all the people who fought against Jerusalem:

Their flesh shall dissolve while they stand on their feet,
Their eyes shall dissolve in their sockets,
And their tongues shall dissolve in their mouths." - Zechariah 14:12.  It's worth taking time to read the whole of that chapter to put it in perspective.

Glenda:  If you could pick one quote from you book to emphasize Gilbert’s personality, what would it be?

Robert:  "It's what I do, it isn't who I am."

I’ve found it refreshing to interview Robert for several reasons. For one, he is very genuine in his purpose for writing which brings that heart to the story that commercial authors miss in their attempt to sell the trend.  This interview helped me see into the passion of the man Robert Staniford. Finally, Robert has found that factor in his life that renewed him and that factor is a belief in Biblical teachings we share.

For you the reader, I hope you will read this very significant story The Star War Factor and read it for whatever reason you find it as interesting from both a political, world view, and possibly even Christian standpoint. You can find The Star War Factor at:

Thank you, Robett Staniford for agreeing to this interview, and insight into who you are. I find my readers enjoy knowing the author behind the book. So this is to our readers, yours and mine. I hope you who are reading this will refer a friend to also read the interview and get to know the man behind The Star War Factor.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Interview with Charlie - the - mystery - writer Vogel

Interview with Charlie Vogel

Charlie Vogel is a veteran of the Navy who served during the Vietnam War. He’s a retired Coast Guard Reserve Petty Officer.  Additionally, Charlie retired from a career as an Omaha, Nebraska police officer as well as from Omaha Public Schools. He and his wife reside in Omaha, Nebraska. He draws on his vast and varied experience to feed his mysteries.

 Charlie Vogel started writing in high school, but it was after retirement that he became serious about it as a career often referring to himself as Charlie-the-mystery-writer. As a member of the Nebraska Writer’s Guild, Fiction Works, and Nebraska Writer’s Workshop, Charlie studies his craft and credits individuals from those entities for recognizing his talent, encouragement and advice.

Glenda: Charlie I’d like to thank you for agreeing to this interview. You’ve left encouraging comments on some of my past interviews. I enjoy comments on posts good or bad as they help me grow as an interviewer. That said, I hope this will be one of my best interviews to date, so here we go with question numero uno.

I noticed when I read into your Bob Norris trilogy, you didn’t start him out as any sort of detective or tough guy type at all. Not in the way most people consider tough men. You started Norris out as an art teacher, with a wealthy wife. The two have rebelled against her disapproving father and built their own lives. Then she’s murdered and he switches from art teacher to crime solver.

With your history in military and as a police officer, one would expect you to make your protagonist some tough Hammer type. What made you decide to write Bob in as an art teacher initially?

Charlie: Bob Norris popped into my mind about thirty years ago.  I have a hidden ego as being an art teacher.  I attended classes at the Chicago Art Institute during my high school days, and I sold five oil paintings during that time.  Being a police officer, I noticed a lot of Bob Norris’ characters trying to solve crimes themselves, which gave me the idea of using this character.  Most victims in crimes (in true life) are not really the tough guy.

Glenda: That brings another question to mind. You’ve talked about writing and art being a part of your life since high school. Can you give us more history of your interest in the arts?

Charlie:  I graduated from high school in Rochelle, Illinois in 1961.  I attended summer courses at the Chicago Art Institute during 1958, 59, 60, and 61.  I wrote a little while on active duty in the Navy from 1962 through 1969, but spent most of my leisure sketching.  I attended Metro College in Omaha, majoring in Photography from 1976 through 1980.  I started taking writing courses from Metro and Sally Walker from 1990 through the present.  I have never entered any writing courses, nor have I won any awards for writing.  I view writing not as a job, but one of the visual arts I enjoy doing, and to create something is to exercise the mind. 

Glenda: I like what you said about seeing writing as “one of the visual arts.” It’s hard to get that recognition for the art of writing. It is sort of like painting a series of pictures in words. To get more specific about your published work, I found your Bob Norris trilogy enticing and bold. It’s something that I imagine is very hard to do. To be able to carry the continuity of the stories as well as the traits of character is something I haven’t attempted yet.

After doing a trilogy of novels following one character, do you see yourself doing more serial books?

Charlie: No, I really don’t like doing serial books.  The process takes me too long to hold an interest in the same character.  Once I do one book, everyone knows who the character is, and it gets boring to keep building this guy up.  I’ve got a lot of interesting characters in my head, and I want to use them.  I do insist in the last chapter of my books, I like to give a hint of a possible sequel to tease the reader.  I learned this from my favorite author, Lawrence Block, but he’s a master in creating a serial.

Glenda: You’ve had a history of careers that required action, intellect, bravery, and problem solving. Now that you’ve retired do you miss that or is your writing enough intrigue after such a long career?

Charlie: I miss being involved with a crisis.  The only way I find to solve a crisis is to make one up.  Since high school, I’ve written a ton of short stories with the possibility of “What if?”  Over the years I enjoyed sitting at airports, train stations, and bus stops to study the characterization of the people I see.  Many of these people are in my novels.

Glenda: Finally, as a writer myself, I know that each of us uses a process of some sort for building a story. That process includes developing character, environment, personalities and so much more. What is your favorite part of your writing process?

Charlie:  Something to cause controversy.  In the Bob Norris series, I made the hero to fall in love with a very young woman (30 year difference in ages), and Norris being rich and a CEO, this girl is a street prostitute.  A manuscript I’ve been working on for the past several months involves a secret organization of German-American Aryans, which did exist in real life shorty after WW2.  The characters I used in this story are children (7-9 years old), who in their innocent wisdom solves a series of murders in a small town of northern Illinois.  The year this takes place is in 1950.  I have a lot of research to do for this time period, but I enjoy doing it.    

Charlie-the-mystery-writer, like many of us turned out to be an adrenaline junky. Not in the sense of obsession, but that thrill that comes from action and upheaval, the kind that builds a thrilling mystery that I try to outsmart and solve before the end. I don’t often manage to do so, because writers like Charlie keep the reader guessing.
It’s exciting to see a writer develop and produce what they love. Charlie, you are blessed with multiple artistic gifts and a grand sense of adventure. I think I speak for many readers when I say we are all looking forward to that next book by Charlie-the-mystery-writer.

“What money?" I didn’t spend one dime for any of this.  It’s all Eileen’s (Bob’s wife).  And what the hell is time?  Time isn’t something I value.  Time is such an abstraction in life.”  I leaned forward, my elbows on my knees, my hands clenched.  “Look—How can I explain this?  Eileen was all I had.  Now that she’s gone, I have only one thing, one purpose.  I will have the man who killed her.”  I clenched my jaw.  “Since time has no importance, I can hunt for him quietly.” (Bob Norris to brother Donald in To Find a Killer) by Charlie Vogel

Find Charlie’s books at the following sites
Charlie’s third book in the Bob Norris series will be published this year. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Interview with International Author and Educator Robert Sheppard

Interview with International Author and Educator  Robert Sheppard

It is difficult for me to describe Robert as one man. He is so multi-faceted that description takes on a new meaning. Dr. Robert Sheppard literally took on the world with his latest achievement; Spiritus Mundi. The novel, in two parts, spans political, philosophical, and cultural differences throughout the world. Through it the reader travels deep into the not so touristy elements of countries such as the U.S., Britain, China and Israel. Spiritus Mundi is currently slotted for a film version.

I’ve known Robert as an author for many years. He’s mentored me through poetry, and some short stories. We’ve not always agreed, but that’s a lot of the fun and learning process. If anything, Robert has encouraged me and found a way to help me develop as a writer even when we have not shared a forum.

Robert’s expertise spans international law, literature, multiple languages, and much more. In other words, Robert may hold no punches, but he does know from where his opinions come and how to promote them. He’s an activist for change in the United Nations, pushing for a parliamentary style of leadership and exchange patterned after the European Parliament.

Dr. Sheppard lives between California and China. In China, through an exchange program, Robert teaches International Law and Literature. His expertise in international law, civil rights and the world’s political systems allow him to work with government leaders of China to build important international relationships.

There is much about Robert, but this is an interview of him; not a dialogue about him.

Glenda: Robert, you realize you are making my day in a good way, sorry for goofy rhyme and cliché. You are a surprise for me. When I asked for the interview, I only knew you as Robert my literary friend who wrote an impressive novel, confused me with his particular style of poetry over the years, and has a great sense of humor about it. Now, I have a good deal more understanding how this Kansas/Nebraska farm kid wouldn’t understand your world expressed in poetry.  I looked at your credentials and Spiritus Mundi and must say I’m glad I knew you before. I write in awe of my dear friend Robert an international ambassador of education and change.

My first question now is how and from whom did you become interested in such a demanding but fascinating mission?

Robert: Thank you so much for inviting me to interview with you, Glenda, and it is my honor and pleasure to be here with you. Thanks also for your warm friendship over the years. In terms of “missions,” yes, you could say that Spiritus Mundi, in addition to aspiring to constitute a rich and enjoyable work of literature in and of itself, takes on at least two special “missions.” The first is the promotion of the concept of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly for global democracy, and the second the promotion of the concept of “World Literature” as an emerging cultural institution in the age of the Global Village transcending the national literatures which it has outgrown.
     In terms of my personal background, both missions grew out of my professional life as well as personal interests as they developed over the years. I studied and practiced law and then taught International Law at Peking University and also worked for UNIDO, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in China, during which time I wrote some influential papers around the year 2000 for the civil society component of the Millennium Forum of the United Nations, focused on the evolution of the United Nations in the new century. These papers were rooted in the successful development of the European Parliament, the first democratic international institution, and essentially proposed the extension of that proven concept from the European Union to a global scale as a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly. In the next decade I discovered that many others were working in the same direction, and joined with them in the Committee for a Democratic United Nations and the Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, headquartered in Germany, and whose most visible leader has been former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

     At the same time, I had long had a “double” profession, in addition to having studied law, having also studied Comparative Literature in the Ph.D. program at the University of California, Berkeley. You could say that while I enjoyed law, literature was always the “first love of my life.” I had always felt that writing as an author was the “first calling” of my life, and that in a sense the other involvements were a preparation and support for that calling. I had written poetry and short stories all my life, but about three or four years ago I felt it was time to move to a higher plane and write a full-length novel. Out of these disparate interests grew Spiritus Mundi, which was designed to challenge my writing skills and capacity to a higher level, along with the tangential goals of promoting the concept of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly along with the emerging cultural institution of World Literature, which grew out of my prior work in Comparative Literature.  

GlendaSpiritus Mundi is a novel encompassing the life of your main character Robert Sartorius that takes on much of your own background and mission. In Part 2 The Romance, Robert’s son Jack goes to Israel to work on organizing the fundraising telethon to support his father’s mission with the U.N. I think of authors who try to bring their mission into fiction and end up over stating to the point of losing their story. How did you avoid such pitfalls?

Robert:  I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that one! Knock on wood! A work of art treads a fine line when it becomes involved in a social mission or crusade for a particular political or religious undertaking. A work of fiction must create a living world with living characters within it, and if it degenerates into a mere tract of “propaganda,” even for admirable purposes, it runs the danger of being de-natured as a work of art. Oscar Wilde and the Parnassians are remembered for “l’art pour l’art” or “art for art’s sake,” and I would concur that art must have its own intrinsic integrity and not be prostituted for mere didactic or narrowly political ends to live as art. But on the other hand, I have always rejected this point of view when taken to an extreme, as whatever art is it is also a part of life and the human world, and therefore cannot and should not avoid a dimension of “social engagement.” I feel that writers and artists have a social responsibility of some element of leadership in shaping the values and worldviews of the wider community, with the proviso, as mentioned before that their work must retain its integrity as art while doing so. Writers and artists, as Shelly observed, can serve as the “unacknowledged legislators” of humanity, but not in the sense of advocating specific political programs, but rather in shaping the underlying vision and values by which humanity comprehends itself at particular points in time and history.

     The way in which I attempted to avoid the pitfall of falling into didacticism or propaganda was to try to let the characters within the novel live for themselves, and to let their world live for itself. Sartorius, one of the principal characters, semi-autobiographical, is written as a relatively weak character, not imposing his will on the world and the other characters, but relatively afloat and adrift within it. In this I learned from the work of Scott in the Waverly novels.  Waverly in Scott’s novels is a relatively weak and passive young man, a character adrift, rather than a Napoleon imposing his will on history. But this is actually a strength in a historical novel, in that a weak character adrift can serve as a marker for the larger historical currents that sweep him along, and his drift can thus paint a larger portrait of the society and historical forces at work around him. Sartorius is a rather weak and ineffective intellectual, verging on failure and contemplating suicide as he turns fifty, but as such he is ripe to be “swept away” by the hurricane of forces of our modern world, including globalization of every aspect of human existence, and by being so, chart, as a “weather balloon” adrift, the dominant currents of our globalized social atmospherics. As such a “balloon” he also undergoes the constraints and contradictions of Henry James’ “balloon of experience.”  in negotiating the transitions from realism to the realm of the freer imagination, embodied in Book II, “Spiritus Mundi: The Romance,” romance in the Hawthornian sense, that is.

Glenda: I’m a writer who loves to research. However; such an undertaking as Spiritus Mundi makes my head spin thinking about searching out parliaments and cultures so as to maintain factual integrity. For instance, your main character determines to promote an English style Parliament. You must have done an immense amount of research on such a style of governance. The main character’s goal is to bring such a style of governance and encourage democracy in the United Nations.

Can you give us an outline of your research methods for so such complex entities? Did you get to set in on sessions of Parliament?

Robert:  Well, in terms of models, the closer model for the concept of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly would be that of the European Parliament of the European Union, rather than the British Parliament, though the British parliament has long been perceived as the mother of all modern legislatures and parliaments. Working as a professor of International Law in Beijing and also with UNIDO, I naturally had to do an immense amount of research and reading on the working of both the United Nations and the European Union. I also studied at the University of Heidelberg in Germany for two years and during that time learned a great deal about the European Union. So you could say that I was already a “Good European” by the time I approached the wider problem of Globalization in my work in International Law in China. The European Parliament has in turn inspired many regional incarnations, such as the Pan-African Parliament of the African Union, the Parlatino, or Latin-American Parliament and the Arab Parliament of the Arab League. These are already working realities in the various regions of the world, so it was only a matter of time before more and more people would recognize the logic of extending the concept of representative democracy to the global level of the United Nations system as a whole.

So, yes, an immense amount of research would be necessary to embrace this dimension of Spiritus Mundibut I had done it in my professional life as a Professor of International Law a decade before writing the novel. An equal, or greater amount of research was required for the World Literature dimension of Spiritus Mundi, but luckily I inherited a great deal of this from my Ph.D. studies in Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley and its follow-on.

But in the practical sense of the novelist writing a novel, I can tell you that it takes an immense amount of very concrete research to bring to life the concrete details of the world in which the characters must live and move. I had to do a great deal of research on things like the streets, building, parks and milieu of the dozens of cities and nations across the world in which the action of Spiritus Mundi takes place, from Beijing to New York, to London, Moscow, Africa, Jerusalem, Iran---the novel is rooted in a tenacious realism, though it later blossoms beyond it. In that I can say I have become a child of our age in harnessing the power of the Internet to craft the concrete details and dimensions of environments around the world. “Googling” and the Wikipedia have been invaluable in being comprehensive and instantaneously available as I composed on my laptop, so I think the modern writer has resources for practical research available that would awe the most erudite of our forbearers. True, the Internet has the defect of perhaps being “a million miles wide and an inch thick” at its surface, but it also has developed far deeper resources if you learn how to find them and have a good education going into it.

Glenda: I cannot leave out that Spiritus Mundi carries a romantic and even sexual component. You related to me in one conversation that the romance is a natural, human component of your story. There is also a conflict with Sartorius’ son Jack. For other writers, can you relate the importance you found in presenting this side of your main character into the mix of political and international intrigue?

Robert: Well, I grew up as a writer very much in the tradition of D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, both of whom embraced the central importance of sexuality in human consciousness and existence in their works and worldviews. We are all living intellectually in the wake of the Freudian and Darwinian revolutions, and the “sexual revolution” in popular culture since the Sixties. Our sexuality is the life blood of our lives and of our consciousness, not to mention our unconsciousness, collective or individual. In my view of sexuality, common with D. H. Lawrence and C.G. Jung, sexuality is intimately connected with the spiritual dimension of human existence as well---sexuality can alternatively lead to dehumanization and animalization of our beings but sexuality can also lead just as naturally in the direction of the humanization of our natural and biological impulses, their civilizing, and even to their spiritualization, as Jung observed.

     In regards to sexuality I take as a starting point that it is a natural part of our lives and should be positively embraced in all dimensions of our existence---that it is a necessary and wholesome part of our individual and collective mental health. That is not to deny that it has its chaotic, selfish, destructive and socially disruptive side as well, which society has difficulty managing, which it always must, but it is important that it should not be irrationally repressed in the individual or the society at large, as Freud and Jung have taught us.

     Thus, as the saying goes, “War is too important to be left to the Generals,” we can also observe that sexuality is too important to be left to doctors, psychologists, biologists or “sexologists.” It is the living root of our individual selves and of our spirituality as well. As such the sexual lives of the characters in fiction are a vital dimension of their beings, and a vital dimension for judging the viability, mental health and value of the worldviews of their authors. Hollywood and Washington have long judged their projects asking the question “Will it play in Peoria?” and writers similarly have tested their worldviews by asking “Will it play between the sheets?” In Spiritus Mundi sexuality is linked to the spiritual lives of the characters, but also to the “life force” which drives human evolution and the collective unconscious of the human race, necessary to its survival. The progressive humanization, civilization and spiritualization of our most primal sexual animal impulses in the forms of love, family, community and communion is the story of the progress of our individual lives in microcosm and of our civilizational lives in macrocosm.

 Glenda: Finally, can you give us a look inside the man Robert Sheppard?

 Robert:  Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!---as I recall one your fellow Kansans once sagely remarked on a certain occasion.  Or I can have my doctor send you my latest X-ray if you like! ……I don’t know how to answer such a question exactly----“the man Robert Sheppard” continues to be, like his writing “a work in progress” with many contradictions, frustrations, inadequacies, irrationalities and inscrutable impulses coexisting with and ever evolving beside and within the socially and literarily observable persona. The ancient Greeks had to cut into stone in their temples the admonition “Know Thyself” precisely because it was so hard, perhaps impossible to accomplish---we knowing ourselves ever “but in a glass darkly.” Perhaps sometime in the future I will meet and get to know that man behind the curtain, “the man Robert Sheppard”-----it is likely we may become friends-----it would be natural-----after all we have a lot in common, and I may even learn a lot from him if we can somehow learn to rub along and tolerate each other---- we may even, at the end of our little dramatic offering, ascend in a homeward-bound balloon together, or as in the ending another film, as in Bogie’s Cassablanca stroll off into the mist-filled night arm-in-arm together, with one or the other observing “You know, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship!”

Oh, how I wish that I could have had this interview on a public stage with Robert, shaking hands with my dear friend and getting to know him “through the glass (a bit less) darkly.”  That is one of the downfalls of written interviews, I ask the question, he answers the questions I ask, and I would love to ask so much more about the answers. This is true of all authors I interview, but it also leaves my readers with a chance to desire more knowledge of the interviewee. Reading Spiritus Mundi by Robert Sheppard reveals the intricate workings of a very philosophical mind. As he said there is a fine line that an author must walk when writing fiction with a mission in the story. I’m reminded of Plato’s dialogues which are today left for us often to understand through someone else interpretation. The thing is that Plato did write dialogues which today we might call short stories. That does not mean that we cannot come to some understanding of Plato’s way of reasoning. Perhaps he didn’t think he knew himself any better than Robert or me for that matter.

This form allows me to introduce Robert Sheppard, his book Spiritus Mundi, and a glimpse of his passions. I hope you enjoyed reading this ‘dialogue’. Then you can come to your conclusions by reading Robert’s book Spiritus Mundi.  

Please find links to Robert’s website and to his book below.

Spiritus Mundi Book I, The Novel:
Spiritus Mundi Book II: The Romance:

Spiritus Mundi Book I: The Novel on Amazon:
Spiritus Mundi Book II: The Romance on Amazon: