What Spooks Really Do

I write spy thrillers. At least one so far. I’m working on the sequel. When people ask me to describe my main character, Gordon McAllister, I’m sort of at a loss for words. He’s an assassin, but he’s also an executive recruiter, a perfect cover that allows him to travel without drawing attention to his real mission. He’s not James Bond, not Jack Bauer, not Jason Bourne (what is it with J first names in the assassin biz?), or an amalgamation of any of them. He’s an ordinary man by design. Sure, he’s a trained killer, someone you don’t meet every day.

Or do you?

See, the best covert operatives never look the part. They don’t have the carefully arranged hair, the chiseled jaw, the perfect physique. The best covert operatives don’t look any different from the rest of us. That’s by design. It’s kind of hard to be covert if you stand out in a crowd.

Fellow author Piper Bayard writes with a partner who is one of those real life covert operatives, or “spooks” as they are called in the industry.

So what do spooks do in real life? How is the real world of covert ops different from Hollywood’s usually inaccurate portrayal? Let’s go straight to the source:




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The Worst & Best Day of My Life

This weekend, as I competed in a Toastmasters contest in my local area with a theme of optimism and realizing your dreams, I was immediately reminded of a speech I gave last spring about this very topic and how a seemingly horrible situation turned into one of the best things that ever happened to me. I’d like to share my story here:


November 12, 2008 – a date that will live in infamy.

I walked into the office at my usual 6:30 that morning, planning on a regular, normal day at work. I got my coffee while I waited for my computer to boot up through its long start-up process. By 7:30, coworkers began to trickle in, and by 8:00 we had a full house. I was engrossed in putting together the agenda for an upcoming training meeting when my boss stopped by my cube.

As I turned to look at her, I could tell by her expression that I wasn’t going to like the reason for her visit. I was right. She simply said, “David, can you come with me, please?” Without saying a word, I rose from my chair and followed her silently down the long, carpeted hall toward the HR department.

The rumors that had been swirling around the office for the past month had come true. Today was layoff day. We all knew it was coming, just not when or who would be affected.

Before we reached the door, she stopped, turned toward me, and through the beginnings of tears said, “Please understand, I had nothing to do with this. This decision was made above my head and against my wishes.” I told her I understood and said it would all be okay. Would it really be okay? I had no idea. But I hoped my words would ring true.

See, Jeanne had hired me and groomed me for advancement within the company. But the decision to lay me off had come from the top and was based solely on seniority. I had none. Instead, I was one of over 35 employees in my building who were cut that morning in a layoff that saw over 100 people company-wide get the axe.

Just over a year earlier, my pregnant wife and I and our 1-year-old daughter had moved from St. Louis to Hickory, North Carolina, my wife’s hometown, to work for this company, fiber optic technology giant Corning Cable Systems – a division of Corning, Inc., makers of Corning Ware and other glass products. Our son Jacob was born in February, we bought a house in June, and now in November I had just lost my job. Needless to say, the timing was less than opportune.

After turning in my name badge and company credit card and cleaning out my cube, I drove quietly home, calling my wife on the way to let her know why I was coming home early and why.

It was the worst day of my life.

What was I going to do? I didn’t know anyone in the area, except my in-laws. I had zero business connections. And now here I was, with a one-year-old, a brand new baby, a new house, and absolutely no idea what I was going to do. I was completely lost.

After I got over the initial shock, I pulled myself together and started to list of all the things I needed to do to get back to work.

  • File for unemployment
  • Put my resume online
  • Join local networking groups
  • Look for part-time work in the meantime just to get by

The list went on…

As I thought of what to do next, I immediately thought of baseball. Not playing it – umpiring. I had started umpiring high school baseball here in St. Louis before I moved, so I knew how it worked. Immediately I hopped online and found the local umpire association in the Hickory area and got connected for the upcoming season. I also registered to work basketball, which I had already done here, too, and then decided to try something new: football.

I also realized that with all my newly-found “free time,” I would finally have an opportunity to finish something I had started almost seven years before: writing my novel.

During the time I was unemployed, many other opportunities opened up to me that I would never have found otherwise.

  • I worked my way up to umpiring college baseball and met some amazing people along the way.
  • I added football to my officiating repertoire.
  • I got to spend amazing amounts of quality time with my family, which was especially great since the kids were so little.
  • And I finally got to finish my novel.

Don’t get me wrong: financially, times were tough. We barely made it through some months. But it was an experience I will never forget – and one I will look back on fondly. I learned many lessons, one of which is how to distinguish between what I NEED and what I WANT.

It’s amazing what you can learn to live without when you don’t have a choice.

By necessity, we cut out cable TV and other extraneous expenses, and you know what we found? We became much closer as a family. We wasted less time and spent much more time doing things together.

We have five fingers for a reason: to show us what we really NEED in life:

  1. Air
  2. Clothes
  3. Food
  4. Shelter
  5. Water

There is a big difference between what we want and what we need. For instance,

  • We need air, but fortunately, it’s free.
  • We need clothes, but they don’t have to be Ralph Lauren.
  • We need to eat, but we don’t have to have gourmet food.
  • We need shelter, but it doesn’t have to be a big, fancy house in the suburbs.
  • We need water, but it doesn’t have to be Perrier.

Everything else in life is a WANT. Everything.

After nearly three years of unemployment, having exhausted what few resources I had in North Carolina, we decided it was time to make a drastic change and begin looking for jobs back here in St. Louis. We knew the job market was better here and that I had more connections here. So I put out feelers and almost immediately found the terrific job I now have with New Balance.

Thanks to being laid off four years ago, I now have a better life that I did, with more opportunities to live life the way I want to.

November 12, 2008: One of the worst days of my life. And one of the best.

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An Industry by Any Other Name…

Who here remembers a little film from 1977 by the name of Star Wars? It did pretty well at the box office. And for a few years after. Almost 40. Do you remember which major Hollywood studio produced the film? 20th Century Fox eventually picked up the project so it would have wide distribution, but not until it was finished. George Lucas wasn’t a big fan of the studio system, having had commercial but not personal success with American Graffiti, which he felt wasn’t entirely the film he had envisioned. So with Star Wars he went out on his own, shot the whole picture with his own production company, Lucasfilm, and grafted in the special effects through his own Industrial Light & Magic.

After a rather paltry (by today’s standards) opening weekend taking in just over $250,000, the film has grossed over $800 million. That’s just the original, not the sequels. Not bad for an indie film.

It was this spirit of independence that allowed Lucas to make the film he wanted, rather than the film the so-called experts in Hollywood, many of whom poo-pooed the concept, wanted. It’ll never work, they said. Nobody wants to see a movie about robots. It’s too elaborate and won’t make back the cost of production.

Once again, Hollywood was wrong. (For further examples, see most Oscar-nominated pictures.)

Of course, Lucas is by no means the only successful independent filmmaker, a fact Hollywood would really rather overlook, thank you very much. The established film studios hate competition. With each other is fine, but not with outsiders, the unchurched of the movie biz. After all, independent director don’t make quality movies, right? Nobody wants to see a movie about robots.

So it is too with publishing. The Big Six publishers don’t exactly hate indie presses, as so far indies aren’t a huge threat. In fact, sometimes they like indie authors. Vince Flynn, for example, self-published his first book. Then someone at HarperCollins read it and signed him to a lucrative contract. Flynn became a very rich man, thanks in part to the indie publishing world.

But so far, the indie publishing industry is still regarded by many readers as second class drivel, a burgeoning collection of crapola that wasn’t good enough for “real” publishers to consider worth the ink. Tell someone you self-published and they politely set the book back down and smile as they slink away.

But that’s changing. Partially because of semantics.

Slowly, independent books are climbing the status ladder, thanks in part to better quality books, but more because of the way they are positioned in the market: not as self-published, but as “independent,” like films.

After all, it’s still the same deal. An author, like a director, gets an idea and crafts a story, only on paper instead of on screen. A few loyal supporters spread the word, often through social media and low-cost channels, and awareness begins to rise. There are book signings and blog posts, and if enough people agree that it’s a good book, they recommend it to friends and off it goes!

Is the self-publishing industry really that much different from the self-filming industry? Not really. The advantage the self-filming industry has is that it never called itself that. They were always independent films, which lent a certain credibility to the art.

So I propose we do away with the term “self-publishing” and stick exclusively to “independent.” It’s really a more appropriate term anyway.

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The Worst Ways to Begin a Novel

We’ve all heard the advice about the best ways to begin a novel: grab the reader’s attention, shock the audience, throw the reader headfirst into the story, etc. And while we all agree those are probably good ideas, some writer still insist on going their own way and breaking convention, just to be different. Sometimes different works. Sometimes it’s code for “shooting yourself in the foot.”

Here is a great blog post about the worst ways to begin a novel, by folks who know and care: literary agents. These are the folks you’re trying to impress with your manuscript. It might be a good idea to listen and heed.

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Writing the First Draft

Writers tend to be perfectionists. We hate mistakes. And we love to be clever, witty, poignant, current, relevant, funny, touching, exciting — the full range of emotions and storytelling. We also hate to edit and revise. But it’s part of the business. Yes, it’s a business, whether we think of it that way or not. In my “real job,” I write web content for a major shoe manufacturer. Most of what I write is headlines, email copy, and short sentences and phrases. The department lives and dies by the adage “Brevity is the soul of wit.” (Yes, we deliberately chose a shoe pun as our catch phrase. It’s how we roll.) Usually I have a strict character count or space I can fill, and it’s absolutely cannot be more or bigger. In my other writing career — books — I have no such restriction. However, many of the same rules apply about writing drafts and revisions, no matter your word count.

Writing resource Copyblogger.com created a terrific guide to writing the first draft of anything, from a short and pithy headline to the next great American novel. Check out their succinct 10 step process to explode your creativity!

10 Rules for Writing First Drafts
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A Tribute to Tom Clancy

Novelist Tom Clancy, who rose from obscurity as an insurance salesman in Frederick, Maryland, to become one of the bestselling authors of all time, passed away yesterday (October 2) at age 66 from what media sources call “a brief illness.” Clancy’s mark will not soon be forgotten, as he single-handedly forged a new niche in literature: the techno-thriller.

Throughout Clancy’s storied (pun intended) career, he always had a knack for both assisting the intelligence community and at the same time keeping it on edge with his all-too-realistic plots centered so tightly around current events that many readers wondered if Clancy himself had an inside track and access to information the public didn’t – and wasn’t supposed to – know.

Even seasoned editors and publishers were initially leery of printing his material because of its amazing detail and realism. Rumor has it that when Clancy first shopped The Hunt for Red October, all the major publishers turned him down, for fear they would have the CIA breathing down their necks. Finally, the Naval Institute Press, best known for their periodical Proceedings, in which Clancy had written an article on ICBMs, agreed to pick up the novel when they realized all of Clancy’s highly detailed and frighteningly accurate data on submarine warfare came from Jane’s Fighting Ships and other public sources. Clancy himself said his greatest source was his local library.

Of course, Red October launched his writing career and later became a blockbuster movie directed by Die Hard’s John McTiernan and starring Sean Connery as the Red October’s captain and Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Jack Ryan, a character Clancy would carry over into many of his later works.

One of Clancy’s most controversial plot lines appeared in 1994’s Debt of Honor, where the main villain crashes a 747 into the US Capitol building during the State of the Union Address, throwing the country into a state of terror and confusion as the President, Congress, and Supreme Court justices are wiped out in the explosion, essentially eliminating most of the US government in one fell swoop. This was the first time this sort of terror tactic had been part of a bestselling book, and many people wondered after September 11 if Clancy had simply been prescient in his awareness of the kind of harm such a thing could inflict or whether he should have kept it to himself.

I have a personal connection to Clancy that has lasted for decades. No, I never met the man, but I didn’t have to. His work is what got me interested in writing. The Hunt for Red October inspired me to become an avid reader, opening up a new world of opportunity I could never have imagined on my own. So it’s no coincidence that my first (and next) novel mimics much of Clancy’s eye for detail and believable plotting, to the point where I have enlisted experts in the field to help me get it right.

For all the criticism Clancy received over the years about stilted dialogue and “phoning in” his last few books, he was truly a literary pioneer, establishing a whole new genre that has taken the world by storm. His style inspired other bestselling authors, such as Vince Flynn (who also passed away this year), Brad Thor, Larry Bond, Dale Brown, and others. May he posthumously inspire many more!

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Speak Up! Or Maybe Down…

This morning I had the pleasure of delivering yet another speech to our local Toastmasters club, and while the topic related to public speaking, it also fits the world of writing. Characters, stories, and scenes take on identities of their own and need to contain certain elements to move the reader along. In speech-making, it’s called inflection and vocal variety. In writing, it’s called scene structure, voice, and pace. Here is the speech. See where you can adapt these public speaking tips into your writing. They translate almost verbatim.

The assignment for this speech was to demonstrate vocal variety within the delivery of a speech on a topic of my choosing. Well, rather than trying to find a topic and then demonstrate vocal variety, I chose to deliver a speech on vocal variety itself.


In my younger days, I spent a great deal of time in the theater, as an actor and director and still today as an audience member, so I’ve always been interested in this topic and have learned a few things along the way that I would like to share with you today.

How many of you have ever attended an amateur theater production, perhaps a high school play or community theater, and cringed at how bad the acting was? Perhaps you’ve seen a TV show or movie that “needed a little work” to really get it up to professional standards.

If you analyze it and break down to the bare bones, whether or not we consciously realize it, the main criteria we use to judge the quality of a performance really comes down to how well – or poorly – the actors deliver their lines.

Acting is the art of making contrived characters and prepackaged dialogue sound natural. In other words, making the carefully rehearsed sound impromptu.

Public speaking is much the same. We use inflections and pacing to create emphasis and drama, to accentuate points and emphasize important words and phrases. What we say is one thing. How we say it is another.

Much has been said about how big a part body language plays in communication. How we stand, how we gesture, how we present ourselves – all communicates messages, intended and otherwise, to our listeners. In fact, some studies have shown that up to 97% of how we communicate is through our body language, while only 3% comes from the actual words we use. However, that 3% can be powerful, if we know how to effectively use our words and voice inflections to communicate our thoughts and ideas.

So how do you harness the power of the 3%? Students of language will tell you the biggest influencer of behavior and reaction is INFLECTION.

What’s inflection? And what does it do?

Where you put the emphasis can completely transform the meaning of a sentence and what you are trying to communicate. It can also stir up emotion and illicit certain reactions, depending on how well you do it.

Here’s an example of a sentence that can be interpreted several different ways: “What are you doing?”

  • What are you doing?
  • What are you doing?
  • What are you doing?
  • What are you doing?

While the words are identical in all four sentences, the meanings are completely different – all because of INFLECTION.

Vocal variation is also important in the art of joke telling. Not only is timing important in comedy, so is the manner in which the joke is delivered. The funniest joke in the world will fall flat if the punch line is delivered in the wrong tone.

But inflection or vocal variation is more than just emphasizing certain words. It’s also voice level, pitch, and delivery rate.

How powerful is vocal variety?

Well, let’s look at the question I just asked in two ways. The way I asked it just now caused you to anticipate that I’m going to give you an immediate answer, almost as if the question was the first half of a two-part sentence. But what if I said it another way:

  • How powerful is vocal variety?

Now I’ve opened it up to a lengthier, more drawn out response, simply by not raising my pitch at the end of the question. You might expect my answer to take a little longer. The instant response you expected the first time has been softened or taken away.

Vocal variety can create a whole different impression of what’s being said.

For example, if I’m VERY… DELIBERATE… IN… HOW… I… SAY… THIS… SENTENCE… you get a whole different impression than if I were to say it at normal conversational speed. This technique can be very effective if you are trying to hammer home a point.

Also, if I – whisper – it adds drama and anticipation to what I’m about to say next.

Pauses……………can also be very effective.

And saying things very rapidly and with a lot of excitement can really stir up your audience – maybe even startle them!

However…a word of warning: Don’t use any of these techniques too often or the point will be lost. The drama comes in their occasional and appropriate use at the right time.

While the words we choose are very important in how well we communicate the point of what we are trying to say, how we say those words matters at least as much. Nobody wants to sit through a dull, boring, dry speech delivered by a monotone speaker. We like to be told stories, to be entertained, to be gripped. We want to be held captive by the speech, not held hostage.

Think about your natural speech pattern. We all use a wide variety of voice inflections every day without even thinking about it. We’re comfortable, we’re relaxed, and we speak naturally.

To add that same effect to your speeches, relax, rehearse, and remember to add vocal variety to keep your audience wanting more.

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