Larry Bond knows a lot about teamwork. After collaborating with Tom Clancy on 1986’s Red Storm Rising, he teamed with Patrick Larkin to write the New York Times bestselling Red Phoenix—a techno-thriller about a revived military conflict between North and South Korea in the 1980s. He went on to write many other well-received thrillers, including bestsellers Vortex (1991) and Cauldron (1993). More recently, he’s worked with Chris Carlson on several books in his Jerry Mitchell thriller series and the 2015 stand-alone Lash-Up. Their latest project is the sequel Red Phoenix Burning, which Bond has chosen to self-publish.
You published Red Phoenix with Warner Books in 1989 and self-published an e-book version of it in 2012. What led to your decision to immediately go the self-publishing route with the sequel?
Bond: Although e-books have been around for a while, we’re still looking for the best way to take advantage of this new medium. I’ve had very good relations with the publishers I’ve worked with over the years, but e-books make the reading public accessible without going through a publisher. Of course, that means doing more on our own.
It’s an experiment, hopefully a successful one. The original story, Red Phoenix, continues to sell well some 27(!) years after its release. And while the strategic [military] situation hasn’t changed very much, the greatest threat has. While an invasion of the Republic of Korea by the north would be bad enough, an implosion of the northern regime could create a humanitarian disaster of biblical proportions. If we were going to experiment, better to do it with a good story to tell.
Can you describe your collaboration process? What’s the division of labor?
Bond: First comes a story conference, which to me is half the creative work for a writer. It can be great fun trading ideas, building on each other's suggestions, and watching the plot take shape. Once that's locked down, we'll create a blocking, going chapter by chapter, often scene by scene. This is vital, because we're writing about multiple plotlines that can be happening in different time zones but affecting each other on a minute-by minute basis. We’ve had a few occasions where we didn't stick to the blocking as closely as we should and had to backtrack and rewrite. I hate rewriting.
The blocking lets us sit down at the start of a day with a good idea of whom we are writing about and what the action should be. That’s the other half of writing—the day-to-day wordsmithing, and that detailed outline avoids the blank screen syndrome.
Division of labor varies. Pat Larkin and I took different characters in Red Phoenix. Chris and I alternate chapters, unless one of us has a really strong vision of what the chapter should look like. We review and massage each other's text, of course. The changes can be radical or trivial.
Carlson: Timing has always been an issue for the books Larry and I have worked on together. This demands a carefully laid out sequence of events, which in turn requires very detailed blocking. There have been times when different scenes have been separated by mere minutes in time but occurred on the other side of the planet. Keeping the scenes coherent, and having a smooth transition, requires the two of us to keep on track with the blocking and stay in close contact with each other. This doesn’t mean we don’t deviate from the original plot outline—we have on a number of occasions. But it compels us to be even more diligent in communicating as we replot where this change takes the entire storyline.
What kind of advice would you give to a writer who’s considering self-publishing? What does it take to be successful at it?
Bond: The writer/publisher relationship allows each to focus their efforts on one thing. To self-publish, the writer has to take control of the entire process. For example, they’ll have to create a cover, manage the copy-editing process, and, most important of all, plan and execute marketing. These are all new skills for me. I have to remember to ask questions about alternatives and make sure I understand the true cost. It really pays to network and find out what others have tried.
Carlson: Self-publishing means the author is also the chief cook and bottle washer. They have to be concerned with all aspects of the production of the work, such as cover art and editing, and this can be a real time sink—especially if there are multiple versions, i.e., e-book and physical books. The author also has to consider advertising and marketing, which can be a significant challenge. Networking is a must, as errors or problems are often more obvious to someone other than the author, who could be suffering from severe tunnel vision. The old adage about not seeing the forest for the trees is all too true.
David Rapp in an Indie editor. Photo immediately above of Chris Carlson by Katy Carlson.