AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Daniel Charles Ross

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Daniel Charles Ross is a retired U.S. Navy Reserve chief petty officer as well as a former military police investigator. He was also a student for a time at the Mountainview MFA program. His education and experience are both on full display in his debut novel, ‘Force No One,’ a military-thriller which he self-published in 2018. Daniel was kind enough to let me ask him about his new novel, his writing process, and tips he has for self-publishing.

-W. Leander

So, tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?
I'm a Detroit boy living in Lima, Ohio--home of the nation's only remaining main battle tank plant. We moved here in 2006 when we had our third child under three, and we needed to live near grandparents, cousins, and babysitters.  I'm the oldest of seven--six boys and a girl--none of whom are writers but me. And the jury is still out on me.

Have you always wanted to write?
Writing is evidently imprinted in my DNA. In elementary school, I was drawing fake newspaper stories and layouts on large sheets of paper, complete with a comics section. In middle school and high school, I was always on the newspaper staff, ending up in my senior year as the co-editor of our bi-weekly paper and student literary magazine. I went into the Army not long after high school (since color TV but before the internet. Or cellphones.) as a military police investigator, and didn't write a word for seven years that wasn't a police report. But then the bug returned and I had a few pieces freelanced in the Army's European Stars and Stripes newspaper, and sold a fiction story to a men's magazine. That's when I decided to get out of the Army and freelance full-time. I didn't know then that the definition of "freelancing" was "unemployment without the tax advantages." But after a time, I was privileged to write on staff for Popular Mechanics, Motor Trend, and Car and Driver.

Congratulations on the publication of your new book. Can you tell us a little about it? And how did the idea come to you? Thanks! Force No One grew out of work that was to have been my Mountainview MFA thesis, guided along by Merle Drown and Rick Carey. Regrettably, I only completed the first year of the program when my VA edu-bennies ran out. But in that time--including wonderful feedback from the likes of Jo Knowles, Mark Sundeen, Ann Wertz Garvin, Diane Les Becquets, Amy Irvine, Craig Childs, Katherine Towler, and my amazing cohort--I got what I was there for: Affirmation, and actionable guidance. It's sort of a hybrid crime/military thriller with two overlapping narrative circles that come together in the last "act." A homicide in Detroit usually doesn't raise many eyebrows, but a victim is found with a business card from a Department of Homeland Security enforcement cell no one's ever heard of. FBI Special Agent Amber "Corvette" Watson and Detroit Police homicide detective Sgt. Tracey Lexcellent are a joint task force who catch the case. With a disgraced U.S. Army Ranger who can forget nothing and a black-budget CIA team in tow, they must solve the murder before terrorists parachute into open-air Comerica Park during the opening ceremonies of the World Series to blow themselves up and kill thousands on live television. Yes, of course it's fiction: I have the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

What was your writing process like? How long did it take for you to write the book? Did you outline the whole story ahead of time?
I had a no-kidding important running start with the boost I received from my MFA year in 2015; there is no substitute for exposure to people who know more than we do, and I didn't know jack. I hammered away at it, in addition to writing other things that are still pending, but the constant novel revision and revisions of revisions drastically slowed my pace. Better to get it down first and then revise; I was "smoothing" as I went along, at least I thought. That was a monumental time-waster, when the real smoothing would come in later drafts. I wasn't an outliner, either, which I'm changing for the sequel. I "pants" it as if watching a movie unspool in my head, seeing the scenes that came one after another and just transcribing them. The fallout of this was having to go back several times to plant justifications for what I'd written much broader later in the narrative. I believe strongly in letting the story go where it wants, but I now believe that process wants adult supervision, too.

What was the path to publication like for you? Was it different from what you expected?
"Path to publication" is a fun term; yes, different than I foolishly expected. When I thought the mss was ready, the first agent I queried was a guy who reps a long-time, very successful thriller writer I read and admire. I thought, He must get what we're doing; surely he's My Guy. Following submission guidelines, I sent the Q-letter and the first five pages about 4:30 on a Friday. Before 6:30, he emailed me back from his phone asking for the full. Sheesh, I thought, freaking out, who says it's so hard to land an agent? I sent him the full--and he had it five months, finally declining in a thoughtful email the gist of which was he didn't connect with the characters. One hundred and three additional queries later, I formed a small press (ForcePoseidon.com) with Mike Hancock (09) to put out our work and that of our talented friends and equally under-represented authors. My thriller is the first "artisanal" result of this process and a proof-of-concept that seems to be working out well. We're reviewing additional projects for publication in the first quarter of next year.

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Now that you have completed your novel and published it, looking back is there any advice you would give to aspiring writers? Do the work first, the work being the writing. Finish it in the smooth in Word or Scrivener or in ballpoint on legal pads, whatever works for you, before you seek representation, if that's your goal. Only query once your work is final-final, because when that email comes back two hours after you sent in your Q, you want to respond instantly. If you decide to self-publish, you will still tweak and line edit (sometimes just for typesetting reasons) and maybe even make big changes once your words are laid into InDesign or Vellum, but don't hurry that process. Keep learning. And just write. Getting it down is the foundation of everything that follows. Edit ruthlessly, because that's what the gatekeepers (and readers) will do. That doesn't always mean "trim." When that first agent said he failed to connect with my characters, I plowed back in there and turned up the wick on almost everything. That mss submitted to him was 97,000 words. The novel on Amazon today (bit.ly/ForceNoOne) in print and pixels is 113,000. I expect the sequel, Force Majeure, to roll out at about 90,000 words.

As a self-publisher, do you have advice on that process? We've all seen self-published work that is, charitably, not ready for prime time. Simply uploading a Word doc to Amazon or IngramSpark or wherever, slapping on some low-resolution stock art, and pushing the Send button may be psychically satisfying to you and your mom, but few people who don't know you will respond that well. It just doesn't look like a professionally produced book. Our Force Poseidon was established to be as utterly professional as the Big Five, but with a broader view and less bureaucracy. I've been a writer, editor, photographer, and designer for decades, but we still sought input from beta readers and other pro-grade editors. That said, the editing, cover, and book design were ultimately my responsibility: My name is on the cover. If you don't have those skills, do not be shy about seeking help from professionals who will only make your work shine. If anyone has questions about the process of querying, self-publishing, or anything else, I can be reached at DCR@genuineDCR.com. I never close. Finally, have the confidence in your work that you want an agent or publisher to have. We're writers, creators, and self-doubt is encoded in us at the cellular level. The Mountainview MFA is one of the best ways to access the training and expertise from genuine, published authors who will make your journey better.


Daniel Charles Ross—DCR—attended Mountainview MFA in 2015. The thriller, Force No One, was to be his thesis. Visit his website genuinedcr.com.

Student Picks: The Book of Strange New Things

Arun Chittur - Despite the several weeks it took for me to finish Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, I recommend it strongly as an example of fiction that explores tough philosophical questions using a plausible, speculative approach. It’s science fiction without being over-the-top, a world easy to imagine as a successor to our present.

An Earthbound multi-national leads an effort to colonize an alien world to support mining of a valuable mineral. Unlike James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar, the indigenous population capitulates and learns to live as humans overtake them. At some point in an undefined past, a visitor from Earth introduces the Christian Bible to the planet—this leads to hundreds of converts looking for someone to lead them in their question to understand the story of Christ as told in the “Book of Strange New Things.”

Faber crafts a deeply flawed character in Peter, the pastor enlisted by the corporation to minister to the new converts. He leaves behind a family and war-torn world for a new dawn in his own journey as a man and a Christian. We are left to wrestle alongside him with questions of love, loss, and our responsibility to this world and the next.


Faculty Pick

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Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez

Richard Adams Carey - There are books that you enjoy and admire, and then books that you so enjoy and admire that you take them into your bones, and their phrases and themes become part of your own DNA as a writer and storyteller.

Such a book for me was Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape.” Published in 1986, the work is a steaming broth of travel, history, folklore, ecology, and philosophy, its subject matter a part of the world as big as China, no more populous than Seattle, and as remote to most of us as the moon.

The impressions of European, Russian, and American explorers in the Arctic are quoted liberally, but Lopez—radically for that time—gave equal or greater weight to the oral histories and belief systems of the Inuit and Yupik peoples he moved among. He is particularly eloquent on what Western explorers called “the native eye,” that nearly occult sensitivity to the nuances of sky, water, landscape, and wildlife behavior that has been lost to Westerners since, more or less, the Agricultural Revolution.

Lopez’s knowledge of and respect for that other mode of being and this other-worldly geography was rocket fuel for me as I researched and wrote my first book, “Raven’s Children,” about the life and struggles of an Alaskan Yupik family. Lopez’s empathy for all things human, along with the grace and precision of his language, inspire me to this day.

 

BOOKS


When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis

Review by Daniel Charles Ross

When I first saw the cover of this novel, I immediately remembered one of my favorite movies, "Summer of '42." The movie brilliantly details the adolescent lives and times of two boys too young to go off to WW II, the heartbreak of a young war widow, and how those life streams connect.

     The brilliance of Marjorie's based-on-a-true-story novel is that, like the movie did, it distills the life and times of people facing far-off WW II into a local conflict that they must battle hand to hand. The primary battle is sexism: protagonist Tylene (a real person) is the best choice to be the school's football coach, but the men in the decision chain are skeptical—and her opposing coaches are rudely dismissive.

     We look back through our long lenses to those days and just shake our heads today. But this was another time and place that Majorie has reborn and given life.

     Tylene was a real person in the Texas school football continuum, and her "factional" depiction is fully realized as a caring, football-loving teacher and school supporter who just wants to do the best thing for everyone. She infuses even her skeptical football team with energy and directs them with skill, finally overcoming the last barrier when a teammate's brother, a former school football stand-out now injured, gives his support.

     In the end, they lose the Big Game, but they are victorious in pride and self-worth. 

     This is "Friday Night Lights" crossed with DNA from "Summer of '42." It has a little Sisyphean top-spin, with tasks that are both laborious and futile. The coaching trials compete with Tylene's effort to rescue a former student and football star from the life-eroding effects of his war wounds; with keeping her marriage happy and functioning; and occasionally, with her own self-doubt.

Photo by Shane Bevel

Photo by Shane Bevel

This is a finely tuned, lyrical story that evokes a time long past but mostly fondly remembered, the war years when Americans all pulled together to fight the Hun while mostly ignoring the social battles on the home front because that's what they always did then. The Greatest Generation at war sometimes wasn't so great back home.

     Marjorie's seminal work will one day be taught in high school English Lit classes. Full disclosure: I'm proud to say I shared the Mountainview MFA program with her for a time, but it's clear she paid closer attention than I did. I'm told this story has been optioned for a movie, and that's great news.

     But like one often says, the book is better.  

Five Stars: One for any writer facing the anxiety of a blank page; one for an ignored story uncovered and illuminated well; one for finely drawn characters who come to life on the page and in the reader’s mind; one for a terrific cover; and one because I'm happy to think this is just the start of a wonderful career full of great reading for us all. Strongly, unequivocally recommended.


Daniel Charles Ross—DCR—was a Mountainview MFA student in 2015. The thriller that was to be his thesis, Force No One, comes out in the fall.