Stefan Vucak is an award-winning author of eight techno sci-fi novels, which includes With Shadow and Thunder, a 2002 EPPIE finalist.
His political thriller Cry of Eagles won the coveted 2011 Readers’ Favorite silver medal award, and his All the Evils was the 2013 prestigious Eric Hoffer contest finalist and Readers’ Favorite silver medal winner. Strike for Honor won the gold medal. Stefan leveraged a successful career in the Information Technology industry and applied that discipline to create realistic storylines for his books.
When not writing, he is an editor and book reviewer. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.
What question do you wish that someone would ask about your book(s), but nobody has? Write it out here, and then answer it.
Are your books considered controversial?
With uncounted books that tackled the thriller genre, it is hard to be original, but looking at what has captured the world’s interest, recent or historical, I picked one and wrapped a book around it. Although my books reflect reality, they are not reality, having a story to tell. However, my stories are based on researched fact, which some people might find disturbing or controversial. If this prompts a reader to think and check for himself those facts, I feel that I have made my point.
A couple of examples
In my book ‘Cry of Eagles’, Mossad sabotages an American refinery, leaving evidence that suggests it was an Iranian operation in the hope the US would attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Some readers didn’t like what I wrote about Israel’s intelligence service, but what they did in their time was revealing when I researched this book.
In ‘All the Evils’, the Vatican’s secret service resorts to murder in order to prevent a damaging manuscript from being published. When I found that Vatican has an intelligence service, and what they did over the centuries, shook my image of the Church, and I hope will get my readers thinking.
Are my books controversial? I leave that judgment to others.
What is your writing process? Do you follow a regular routine or do you have any weird, funny, or unusual habits while writing and what are they?
I am a morning person, which means I wake at a most ungodly hour. After years of having to get up early to go to work, which is behind me now, I am still trying to shake off that habit. I find that I do my most productive work in the morning, using the afternoon for editing and social media stuff, and if I am in the mood, doing a book review.
I always write using a writing pad, with a handy mug of coffee at my side. I tried composing directly into the computer, but it just doesn’t work for me. Editing and everything else I can do on the computer, but original manuscript must be done on my pad. I used to write using a pencil, erasing stuff as needed, then transcribe the finishes pages into the computer. After a while though, I found this hard on the eyes and switched to using a pen. The problem with a pen is that I could not erase my mistakes, which left my manuscripts full of strikethroughs, slashes and notations. That’s okay. No one will see that except me. I prefer silence when I write the original manuscript, but I don’t mind some background music when I’m on the computer.
That coffee mug needs a refill…
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?
Let’s face it. Writing is damn hard work. It’s lonely, my bones fossilize as I spend hours frozen in one position, and irritation seeps in when I hit that mental pothole, or is it sinkhole? The hard reality is that getting out of that mental hole, I must do entirely on my own. We’ve all been there at one time or another, and when the mind goes blank, it’s misery and can drive one to drink.
Accepting that sometimes things just don’t flow no matter how much I strain, I eventually roll up my sleeves and tackle the problem head on. A cup of coffee or something stronger lubricates the old brainpan and gets things moving. How did I get that mental block? There is no mystery here. I haven’t developed my book outline in sufficient detail! It’s simple as that, and no one should tell you different.
Everybody hits a snag that grinds their writing to a stop. That’s the price we pay as writers. However, taking an easy way out by procrastinating will not get that page or chapter written. To get myself going again, I revisit my book outline. I focus on the major plot thread that has unraveled or is really a dead end I never tied up at all—the cause of my mental block—and look at what needs to be done to weave it together with the other threads. Sometime that is simple, and sometimes it requires redoing parts of my plot.
What is the single most important piece of advice for aspiring authors?
If there is one thing I learned over the years as a writer, if anyone is contemplating taking this on seriously, he should be prepared to spend many lonely hours with a pencil and paper, and sitting behind a computer screen. There will be disappointments, frustration, angst…and moments of sheer exhilaration and satisfaction when the words flow and the creative process produces something wonderful. Writing is a gift, but it can also be a curse. But once bitten with the urge to create, there is no cure.
My advice? Take up golf instead. It’s less painful and frustrating.
What are your current/future projects?
I am half-way into a new political drama/thriller novel, and I am making hard work of it. Why hard? Despite all my planning, research and writing a detailed outline, when it comes to the actually writing, the story has a number of possible twists and turns, which makes me pause. Of course, my characters sometime take me along a path I did not intend going, and that can be both good and bad. Good inasmuch this can enrich the story, and bad because of the temptation to stray too far from the outlined plot. This tug of war always happens with my books, and I sometimes allow my characters to fly, but I always set the course!
Without giving away too much of the plot, ‘Proportional Response’ involves a foreign power setting off a natural calamity with the intention of crippling the United States, leaving this power dominating the world’s political and economic agenda. The plan is partially successful and the power responsible now watches with apprehension as an enraged America seeks to uncover the culprit.
Are you traditional or self-published, and what process did you go through to get your book published?
Like all writers, I wanted to have my books in every bookstore, and seeing some of the stuff that’s out there, I figured I wouldn’t have too much trouble. Well, that was many years ago, with many painful lessons learned.
I don’t know how many letters and emails I sent out to traditional publishers and literary agents, but there are lots. It got to a point where I started to question myself and my goal to become a writer. The fires that compel me to write burn strong, and I decided to change my tactic. I turned to e-book publishers, and achieved immediate success. That was gratifying, until I learned that I must do my own book promotions and marketing. With Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogging, that became a major chore. Chore or not, at least I had my books out there.
As I learned more about the e-book publishing game, I realized I was being shortchanged. My publisher was taking the lion’s share of my royalties and not doing anything in return, apart from posting my books on their website and Amazon. The other thing that became frustrating was having to wait more than six months to have a book released. There had to be a better way, and there was.
With the emergence of CreateSpace, Smashwords and Lightning Source – now IngramSpark – as viable self-publishing outlets, I took a serious look into them and took the plunge. I haven’t looked back, and I get all my royalties! I am still pursuing that traditional publisher, and maybe one day I’ll get lucky.
What are your marketing, advertising, promotion strategies and which one(s) have worked the best for you? If you had to share your most valuable promotion tip, what would that be?
I have struggled with trying to market myself and my books, reading a lot on the Internet and trying some things out. My strategy is simple brand myself and market my books! It’s the execution that takes time, work, and hoping it will all work.
My marketing pointers?
• Have an Amazon Author Central page.
• Engage in social media like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Goodreads.
• Join groups and post articles on my blog that relate to writing, editing and publishing.
• Promote through newspapers (press kit).
• Explored book signings with local bookstores.
• Give your books to local libraries.
• Have business cards and bookmarks printed to give away.
• Create book flyers and hand them out to bookstores.
• If you can afford it, attend author/publisher/agent conventions.
• Have a go at using a virtual book tour, but beware of what you are getting.
• I would not recommend giving away your books for free. If someone is interested in what you have to say, they will buy your book.
If you are a self-published author, which platform do you prefer? (Amazon, Smashwords, Lulu, Author House, or something not mentioned), and why?
Before embarking on the self-publishing path, recognizing that available tools allow any wannabe writer to publish their amateurish efforts on unsuspecting readers, I had to do some homework and find out how these things work. Right now, I am using the following outlets
CreateSpace – This is a great outlet for Print On Demand books. I set my own price and can vary it at any time. I can apply discounts, and my books will be available most anywhere in the world. It goes without saying that anyone using this option should have their book professionally formatted. The setup isn’t complicated, and when you have gone through it once, the process is easy. There are costs associated with this option having a front/back book cover done and purchasing an ISBN. CreateSpace issues its own ISBN numbers, but taking that option means that they are identified as the publisher. There are serious advantages to having your own ISBN.
Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon) – I use this as one of two outlets for e-book version of my books. Apart from having a book cover done, there is no cost. The setup process is simple and the book is released within 12 hours. You don;t have to have a separate ISBN for the e-book version, but I would again recommend purchasing one. Although this is a great outlet, the major drawback is that Amazon doesn’t pay royalties until you have a minimum of $100 in sales, which can take a long time to achieve!
Smashwords – This is another site for my e-books, and in many ways is better than Kindle/Amazon. They pay royalties every six months!
IngramSpark – Formerly Lightning Source, they distribute POD and e-books, but the setup process is fairly involved and costly. One of the major drawbacks with this option is that an author must pay to get a proofcopy of their book before publication, and pay for any new release if changes are made.
What field or genre would you classify your book(s) and what attracted you to write in that field or genre?
As a kid, coming across ‘20,000 leagues Under the Sea’, set me on the path of reading science fiction. I read other genres, but SF was in my heart. Wanting to be a writer from an early age, I naturally gravitated toward creating my own SF universe. This effort resulted in eight hard SF books of my Shadow Gods Saga. Writing them enriched me, expanded my horizons, and sharpened my skills as a writer and editor – a must for everyone!
Having spend some time trying to get my books published by a traditional publisher, and not getting anywhere, I figured I would have more success if I wrote a contemporary drama/thriller novel. There are lots of them out there and selling well. Embarking on this road was a drastic change for me, as I had to wrap my mind around historical and current events, and extract themes for my books. It was a fruitful journey that produced four books.
I might return to my Shadow Gods books one day, as the story is finished, but for now, I am into contemporary thrillers. At least I hope they thrill!
What do you do if inspiration strikes in an inconvenient place like (car, restaurant, bathroom/shower, etc..) and how do you capture that moment before it gets away from you?
Hah! That’s an interesting one. Inspiration can strike at any time, at any place, and it can fade away quickly. I know, I had that happen to me a few times.
I sometimes get a flash in the middle of the night that neatly resolves a problem that’s been pestering me, or gives me an idea for the next paragraph or chapter. Because the revelation is so vivid, I used to tell myself that I will not forget it, and I’ll get into it in the morning. Of course, come morning, I know I had a moment of inspiration, but I am damned if I know what it was! What to do? I have a pad a pencil beside my bed to capture that elusive thought.
Handling an idea that strikes during the day is easier. I always carry a pen and a scrap of paper for that eventuality.
Do you believe there is value in a review? Do you believe they are under rated, over rated, or don’t matter at all?
Reviews are a confusing market indicator, and pursuing them to simply accumulate a stack is in my view a misguided goal. I sold lots of copies of my books, and even though I encourage my readers to post a review, only a small fraction of them have done so. A book that has 20 or more rave reviews might not be really all that good, but unfortunately, some buyers will be guided to purchase based on the number of reviews.
I feel reviews are nice to have, but are over rated as a guide to quality. Having a well written book with a quality story, an eye-catching blurb, will win out.
What are your thoughts on authors doing review swaps, paying for reviews, or reviews that just don’t seem right for the book?
I don’t like doing review swaps as a rule. Having been a book reviewer for some time, I found most of the books I read in a review swap of average quality. Most were first time efforts that suffered from poor editing, weak plotting, lack of characterization, and sometimes awful writing.
I don’t believe paying for a review. There are lots of reviewers out there who charge for their service, but research has shown that writers don’t always get value for their money. Being a commercial work, a paid reviewer may give a favorable review to a bad book, the objective being to seek future business from that author. The other consideration being that having paid for a review, the author expects a good response, and some reviewers give it.
Having reviews done by family members or friends is a total waste of time, and will not give a prospective buyer a valid or reliable reflection on the quality of the book. These review are simple ego stroking efforts.
Do you believe there are competitors or general readers out to sabotage authors with bad reviews and what are your experiences with this?
That’s an interesting outlook, one that I have fallen foul of with one of my books. Having posted a challenging comment on LinkedIn that raise someone’s ire, the person posted a sabotaging review, and I am powerless to remove it.
I believe that Amazon, Smashwords and Goodreads, but there are others, should allow an author to remove a bad review that was posted maliciously. Unfortunately, this is not available, and writers must cope with these things.
With self publishing being so easy these days, do you believe there is an over abundance of books out there and how do you sort through all the hype or copycats?
Traditional publishers have closed their doors, taking on very few new writers, preferring to stick with an established stable of published writers – a very shortsighted marketing strategy in my view. This, of course, has led to the explosion of self-publishing distributors, to the relief of frustrated writers. At last, they can publish and have their books out there.
Having self-published, I appreciate what these distributors offer, but I also gnash my teeth, watching wannabe amateurs plaster some awful material on the Internet, which invariably contributed to the less than favorable image of self-published books.
How does a reader sort through the wealth of available books, choosing something that’s been professionally written from the pool of rubbish? It’s tough. This is where a serious author can help himself by having his book thoroughly edited and formatted like a book printed by a traditional publisher.
Do you find it easier to connect with your readers with the advances in technology we have today like social media? What platform do you prefer, and why?
The Internet and availability of social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Goodreads, to name a few, definitely allows me to reach out to fellow writers and prospective readers. I use them all, even though it takes a lot of work and eats into my time every day. I would prefer to concentrate on writing, but I recognize the value of social media. There is no alternative if I wish to brand myself and promote my books.
Were your characters based off real life people/events or did you make it all up?
As my years advance, I accumulate more life’s experiences and knowledge. I also understand people better, and writing a book should be about people, or you’re writing a user manual.
When I started writing, characterization wasn’t so important then. I have read many books that were extremely successful, which concentrated on action, the characters being merely props. However, the books I enjoyed reading the most, happy to read them more than once, had engaging, interesting characters. They don’t have to be nice guys, but they have to capture the reader, allowing him to connect.
Having come across a few people in my life, it is natural to take note of their behavior, mannerisms, likes and dislikes. It is all good material for my own characters. And of course, history is full of interesting characters, and I took advantage of them.
I have never invented a unique character, and I don’t believe it is possible to do so. Each one of my characters has been a product and an amalgamation of people I have interacted with or read about, coming together in a conscious and subconscious process. The quirks and attributes I give to my characters are my own additions.
Were there any challenges (research, literary, psychological, or logistical) in bringing your book to life?
My research is governed by the topic and target audience of my novel. Is it a drama, a thriller, action, a psychological exploration, a romantic sob? Getting this straight in my mind will set the parameters for my research. I must get my facts straight, whether they are historical, contemporary or technical. If writing science fiction, I base my science on what is known or can be feasibly extrapolated. Twisting known scientific facts is death, as is getting known history or current affairs wrong. It is sloppy writing and an immediate turn-off for the reader.
If I am applying personal expertise into my writing, either because I have worked in that field or have accumulated information over time, the research effort will be reduced. However, I always verify my information. Things could have changed while I wasn’t looking. Wading into uncharted waters, I am always prepared for some heavy reading. There are no shortcuts. How to do this research?
When the gods want to punish us, they grant us our wishes. Well, they must have smiled with glee when they allowed development of the Internet. This single tool is both a boon and a curse to writers. A boon because of the wealth of information available and easily accessible; a curse because not all of it can be trusted to be true or factual. On the Internet, some facts are more factual than others, and I need the same information sourced from a number of articles to determine which is the most factual. Grabbing the first one that comes off the search engine, I could be in for some embarrassing times. How do you verify?
That’s where the other sources of your information come in, of which a library should be the most reliable. Just because something is in print doesn’t necessarily mean it is true. Again, it all depends on the topic and genre of my book. When uncertain, I get more than one book on the subject and compare notes. Technical periodicals are great for latest scientific developments and breaking theories. I never use fiction books as sources for data!
Doing research, although time consuming, can also be lots of fun and I learned stuff I never expected.
Do you design your own cover? If not who does, why?
I am good at writing, not so good as an artist. I always use a professional artist for my books, but I do inject input, of course. Apart from the specialized graphics tools needed to create a good cover, I just don’t have the artistic skills to design one, and designing a good cover takes skill.
I would urge every writer to engage a good cover artist and not be sidetracked trying to create their own.
What is your most/least favorite part of the writing process, why?
For me, the writing process is a complex mix of many things. No one element is my favorite, each is important. These are some of them
I have ideas for lots of books, and I allow them to simmer slowly in my mind, until one surfaces, dominating the rest. Having decided to look at the idea more closely, I check out the feasibility of wrapping a whole novel around it. An idea might be a sentence or a paragraph, and does not always lend itself to being converted into a book.
If an idea has merit, I write a quick dot point outline, sketching the basic plot, identifying characters, listing highlights. This is followed by initial research. Every one of my contemporary novels involved many hours of painstaking research. There is nothing worse for a reader than coming up against a supposed fact that is plainly not a fact! That’s sloppy writing. Not all the material I researched ends up in the novel, but the depth of knowledge I gained provides me with a background against which I can write my novel with confidence.
Having completed my research, I embark on writing a detailed book outline. This is really tough work and results in many pages, but I feel it is an essential step in producing a good book. My initial outline was the skeleton. A detailed outline is placing the meat on the bones. It also serves as a checklist that ensures every plot element is consistent and properly tied off at the end. The outline also helps me write a synopsis and a book blurb.
With the outline done, the actual writing can start. I produce a book in about six to nine months, depending on how things go, life’s distractions, and coping with mental potholes. My approach is to write a section, transcribe it into the computer, editing as I go. After writing a chapter, I do a much more thorough edit. After two or three chapters, I print out the manuscript and edit again. I am always amazed at things I uncover from a printed page that I missed on the computer. The mind actually works against you, automatically correcting some errors for you as you read. This is where repeated editing is invaluable.
Once the novel is finished, I edit the whole thing again at least twice. Happy with the final product, I send the manuscript to be proofread. I am a good editor, but a second pair of eyes will capture what I invariably miss. At the end of the process, I am thoroughly sick of the damned thing, of writing and editing – until the next novel.
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