Author’s Roundtable: Frederick Lee Brooke, author of “Doing Max Vinyl”

How long have you been writing?

My first writing memories are of my sister and I passing the time on long car trips writing stories longhand on pads of paper when we got tired of reading. For me the link between reading and writing has always been very close. I get the same strong feelings reading and writing, and it’s what I’m looking for, too.

Has writing always been something you wanted to do?

It has. The feeling of escaping, slipping into roles and inhabiting other people’s identities in other worlds is very addictive. I always loved achieving this state while reading. Now that I write, I find it even harder to resist.

What books or stories have you written?

My first book is called “Doing Max Vinyl.” I wrote this book part-time on nights and weekends, and on train or plane trips, while working a full-time job and also raising a family as an active father. Around the time I published “Doing Max Vinyl” as a Kindle e-book (and later on Smashwords), I gave up my full-time job. So now it’s just writing and family, and my second book should be ready in April or May of 2012. This second book is the second in the series of Annie Ogden mysteries. 

I realized while writing “Doing Max Vinyl” that Annie Ogden was my most interesting character. She has just come back to Chicago from four years fighting in the U.S. Army in Iraq, and she’s drifting quite a bit, psychologically. When two of Max Vinyl’s hired thugs threaten Annie’s sister, her protective instinct kicks in, and she is given a purpose. While on her mission to destroy Max Vinyl, Annie makes important discoveries about herself. I think this book appeals especially to women who like a strong heroine, yet one who is fragile and doesn’t have all the answers.

Since “Doing Max Vinyl” takes place over the course of just five days, there wasn’t enough time to explore Annie’s psyche or for her to develop as a character. There was a natural second story hatching in my mind while I wrote “Doing Max Vinyl.” So in the second book in the Annie Ogden series, Annie has gotten her private investigator license, and she is given a very strange and difficult case to get to the bottom of. What makes it so strange and difficult is that it involves her best friend and roommate from college. This once again throws Annie into a series of psychological conflicts. However, as in “Doing Max Vinyl,” the book is also filled with humorous situations. I’m really pleased with the way the second book in the series is turning out. Just don’t ask me to reveal the title quite yet.

What are some of the hardest things you’ve had to overcome as a writer, in order to be published?

We are living in an age where anyone can self-publish cheaply and efficiently, so that is the route I have taken. Up to now “Doing Max Vinyl” has only been available electronically, but some time in March it will also be available from Create Space in paperback form.  Obviously self-publishing is fraught with danger and risks. I try to lessen the risks for myself by employing a very capable freelance editor, a cover designer and a formatter. A number of my friends have been willing to serve as beta readers, and I am extremely keen to hear their feedback, and possibly still make changes, before I will pronounce the book finished.

Unfortunately, many of the books uploaded to Amazon and Smashwords are of substandard quality, either because they aren’t properly edited, or are not proofread, or they are just poorly conceived or poorly written. This needs to be addressed. Someone suggested in something I read a system by which Amazon could certify that a book had at least been edited (whatever that would mean!). I would be in favor of such a system. I get very irritated reading finished books that contain apostrophe errors, spelling errors or errors of usage with words like lie and lay, or even break and brake. And you see a lot more such errors in electronic books than printed books, which have been edited. But you know what? I recently bought a paperback bestseller by a very well-known author, and I had to give it a one-star review. This was such a lousy book, and so poorly written, albeit without misspellings and apostrophe mistakes, that I could not believe the bestseller author had written it herself. And I couldn’t believe any professional editor had let that book through the gates, either. You will find many such books lying on the remainder table at Barnes and Noble, and you will find a few among the “New Releases” as well. So I don’t think electronic books have an exclusive hold on mediocrity, and I believe both in the case of printed books and electronic books, the market will have a way of sorting out the great books from the lousy ones.

Is there any advice you have been given that you could give to a young up-and-coming writer?

Find your voice. The best works of fiction and really the only ones worth reading are those with a strong voice. If you have found your voice and you have a story to tell, let ‘er rip.  Keep your butt glued to the seat and don’t become distracted by all the other fun things there are out there. Writing is hard work.

How do you get inspiration for your books?

Often from reading the newspapers. We writers have to work pretty hard to compete with the oddball stuff that is happening all around us in reality. I read a little article that talked about a couple of policemen who went to arrest some men who were doing illegal practice shooting in a deserted quarry. The confrontation turned ugly, and the men shot the policemen. A scene like that will stick in my mind. I might try to imagine then what was going through those men’s minds, where they came from that morning, what problems they had, who were they fighting with and what they were fighting over…things like that.  Sometimes a little incident like that will inspire a short story or even a whole novel. By the time you’re through, the details have changed so radically you wouldn’t even recognize the original article.

Are there life lessons you have used as inspiration?

I’ve been married 20 years, my wife and I have three teenaged children, and I ran a small business for 18 years. All these experiences have taught me life lessons.

Once, early in my career as a manager, one of my employees criticized me quite directly.  I’ll never forget it. She said, “Fred, you have so many strengths, but you really don’t know how to say no.” She had been disappointed by some waffling decision I had made that made our company look bad. I realized in a flash that she was right. But it was many years before I really learned how to say no. I grew up in a family that placed the highest priority on saying things diplomatically and in a way that wouldn’t hurt the other person’s feelings.  I have what is called a “pleaser personality” — deathly afraid of confrontations. This was causing problems for the employee who criticized me. Any organization needs a strong leader, and the leader has to be ready to make hard decisions without fear of criticism and without fear of confrontation. I was really not fit to be a leader in those days. And it took me long years of coaching and practicing to become less afraid of confrontation.

Now can you imagine a writer who is afraid of confrontation? Confrontation and conflict is the stuff good fiction is made of. When writing, every time I realize things are going along too smoothly in an early draft, I know a) I’ve lost the thread of the story; and b) the reader will have long since lost interest. The window in time in which the story takes place is by definition the time when conflict starts. Conflict and confrontation are interesting because when we see how characters act, we see what they are really made of. 

So I am guessing that I needed to learn to embrace confrontation without fear in real life before I was able to write decent fiction, and running my small business and being forced to say no on a daily basis, taught me this lesson.

Anyone who is a parent will be thinking you can’t really be a very effective parent if you are afraid of confrontation, either. Agreed! So what I learned in the workplace certainly has made me a better (tougher) father as well.

Do you think writing has any benefits, and if so what would they be?

I believe humans have an insatiable craving for stories. If you include TV and other media in addition to the stories we tell each other at the lunch table or on the telephone, most people consume anywhere from five to ten or more stories every day. We love to see the bad guy get his due. We love to see happy endings. We love flip-flops and surprises, and we crave inspiration. From stories, we are learning and re-learning lessons for our life. And we are living out other adventures and fantasies vicariously. Stories are as essential in our society as food and water.

Has writing made you a better person?

Being a father and husband has made me a better person. Especially in the role of father, you are always aware that your children look up to you, and you want to be worthy. Of course failure is predestined, in this role. But that’s no reason not to keep trying. Writing hasn’t necessarily made me a better person, but I think it makes me a better listener. My characters can’t be very good listeners if I am not one, and if my characters aren’t “in character”, then I’ve still got work to do.

Was there a point in your life where writing helped you deal with something, a death or a problem relationship perhaps?

It’s interesting you ask this question. It was the tragic death of a writer friend that made me think I had better get going and write that book I’d always planned to write. It reminded me that our time on earth is finite. I had been running my business for so many years and not writing very much, and therefore not achieving anything with my writing.  That’s when I threw myself into writing “Doing Max Vinyl.” I realized at some point in a later draft of “Doing Max Vinyl,” despite the drudgery of revising over and over again, I loved the work I was doing. That’s when I decided to quit my day job. 

Check out “Doing Max Vinyl” on Amazon or Smashwords, and don’t forget to check out Frederick’s blog and follow him on Twitter.

About Frederick Lee Brooke

Frederick Lee Brooke has been a teacher, a language school manager and a school owner. He lives with his family in Switzerland and makes frequent trips to the U.S.A. and other countries. He loves cooking, walking, reading, and learning languages, and speaks English, German, French and Italian and is learning Turkish. “Doing Max Vinyl” is the first in the series of Annie Ogden mysteries. The sequel to “Doing Max Vinyl” is due in April or May 2012.


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