If you like good stories, read this. If like Science Fiction, read this. If you like revisionist history, read this. If you like television, read this. If you like 50s era stuff, read this. Read it because it is wonderful to discover a new writer and then say, “I read him when…”
“The 13 Lives of a Television Repair Man,” is a story of a son’s relationship with his mother and how he learns to cherish her. It unfolds in the world of television repair and contains both old and new technology.
Set in the late 1950s after the birth of television; boy genius, Arthur, befriends the local television repair man and quickly learns how to repair televisions. Using spare parts from the shop, he invents a machine to watch TV without his glasses. Turns out, the machine corrects vision to 20/20. This success gives the teenage Arthur the money and renown to “muck around with” any technology he wishes. The next project causes his mother’s death, the end of the TV repair business and, eventually, the end of the world.
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but when I do, this is the type I like. In the forefront is the emotional story of a son dealing with the guilt surrounding his mother’s death. The technology, although very interesting, supports the emotional story as background. Science Fiction aside, I’ve not read a story like this; a son believes his selfishness brought about the death or his mother; now he must come to terms with what he has done.
Actor Nick Ralph is a good choice as narrator for this book. He has a pleasing voice and uses it well to bring the other characters to life through the voice of the main character.
My only negative, and it’s a knit-pick for the writers, is there’s a point where the young inventor is overwhelmed by daily life and turns to his father for advice. Although the feelings of the son toward his mother are authentic and beautifully rendered, what the father tells the son feels phoned it, like the writer is holding something back. Like the character wanted to say or not say something else and the writer wrote it for him. It doesn’t ruin the story and may be my personal view, but I’d like to know what the father really said.
For the Writers
Take note of this book. This is a self-published novel. I listened to the audiobook which is also self-produced by the author. The writing is excellent. Everything about it is quality work.
Quality drives many readers away from self-published writers, that is not the case with this book. The quality is on par with the big guys. This is how it should be done. I asked the author, M.D. Thalmann, to do an interview and tell us how he did it. He has great advice for all writers.
How Did He Do It? An Interview with M.D. Thalmann
M.D. Thalmann, (Michael Dirk), is a freelance journalist and author originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, who now lives and writes in Phoenix, Arizona. You can find him on the internet at www.mdthalmann.com.
What’s your background? How did you start writing?
I have been writing as long as I can remember. I wrote a little “book” (it was five pages) when I was 10 years old about a family who needed a vacation after the patriarch came home from duck hunting, threw his hunting gear on the floor, and got directly into the shower, and while he was in there the family dog was chewing on his clothes and blew up a shotgun shell in its mouth. The family went to Colorado for a Christmas in the mountains and the men he hired to fly in the gifts on Christmas Eve—surprise!—showed up with assault rifles and took them hostage until he could wire a bunch of money to their offshore accounts. I was a weird 10 year old, I guess.
Then I took creative writing throughout middle and high school, and even worked on the school paper and literary magazine. I started looking into journalism in college. I used to follow police cars or look to the sky for plumes of smoke, and then wrote about the first responders and the terribly sad onlookers. I was a weird college kid, I guess. That’s probably why I write in such a “stream of consciousness” style.
I often say that writing a novel is like being a foreign correspondent for the news channel that my imaginary friends watch.
How has your work as a columnist and freelance journalist shaped your writing?
See above, regarding the “stream of consciousness” style, but in addition to that, I have always liked to tell funny stories. I was a class clown and did standup routines at family reunions, and so on. I never wrote funny stories, though. Working for a magazine, I get to write satire on a regular basis and realized I like it. I’ve written a couple serious fiction books before, “13 Lives,” (under a different name) and they weren’t as fun. I know you might be thinking that, “13 Lives,” is fairly serious, but I have a gallows sense of humor, so to me it’s dripping with satire. There are Easter eggs throughout the book that were either just for me, or to be noticed on the second read. My next book is an all out riot, though. I will be posting chapters on my website if you ever want to read them or share them with your audience.
Who are your influences in science fiction?
Philip K Dick, for one. His ideas and the focus of his stories are great. He makes technology the backdrop of poignant and inventive stories about humanity. “A Scanner Darkly,” “Minority Report,” “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”; all really good dramatic stories about people, with technology laced into the story. I like that. I’ve never been into sci-fi that reads like a technical manual. Vonnegut is another. His prose is so effortless to read, it reminds me of an old, cynical smart-ass telling me a story over a series of late night phone conversations. I’m totally involved. Aside from that, I am a huge fan of Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry, Michael Crichton, and Chuck Palahniuk. Not to mention, as if it goes without saying, Stephen King has been a great inspiration to my work effort, and process.
What inspired, “The 13 Lives of a Television Repair Man?”
I was laying down to read, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (Philip K Dick’s masterpiece that spawned the Blade Runner movie), and there was a foreword by Roger Zelazny in that printing where he introduced a brainstorming exercise he called “the 13 ways of looking at a trash compactor repair man game.” I read that, took it as a challenge, and then put the book down and did the brainstorming exercise with a television repair man instead, since I had never owned a trash compactor and watched a lot of tube growing up. By the time I had 13 different bullet points, I realized I had a story I could make into a novel, which is to say that I had a character and a situation, which is all you need, I believe.
The day I finished the rough draft of this book, my dog and my grandfather died (unrelated). I used those losses to craft the rewrites with more authentic emotion. I didn’t do so on purpose, but I did it nonetheless, or somethemore.
Also, the uninspiring baptism in the book is the exact tale of my baptism. It was very disenchanting. I was 12 years old and cared more about dinosaurs.
What is your process?
For this book I did an outline based on my brainstorming pages. The outline only had about 6 or seven things on it. Major events. I don’t suggest doing a complex outline. It makes it impossible to navigate and still be open to hearing the characters’ needs. That was the mistake I made on my first attempt at writing a novel.
I then spent the next month researching the 1950s and 60s and creating a giant multicolored timeline on dry erase boards with all of the events and their dates and the corresponding historical and technological activity of the time. Once that was done, I wrote the entire novel in pencil in a composition book. Sometimes I was at the park with my dog, and would get an idea, so I spoke the story into a recorder, and then played it back while writing it into the composition book. This helped me resist the urge to edit as I went, and also I believe it gave the writing a different voice.
The second draft was me transcribing it into Word, and making changes as I did so. Then I read the entire book out loud into my recorder and played it back, listening for areas that I didn’t like, and made a third draft based on that experience, then sent it off for the cutting room.
Once I got it back from the editor and made the suggested changes, I ran it through a couple different types of software for proofreading and spell checking. Grammarly and Google Docs use context editing, and both have helped me find mistakes that had been overlooked by my proofreaders and editors.
What is the significance of the title?
I just took it directly from the brainstorming activity. In retrospect I might have chosen a title that was easier to remember, but I just felt like that’s what the story had to be named.
Without giving too much away, much of the technology in the book is old, well-documented technology. Did that scare you? Do have an inside on old TV technology or was it all research?
I interviewed television repair men from the era, and also the director of the Museum of Television. I let them read the early drafts and they let me know where I had made mistakes and how to fix them.
In one of my older psychological thriller books I had a homicide detective read it, and after he poked a bunch of holes in it (“Yeah, okay, let me stop you right there. Cops don’t do that shit, okay. He’s never gonna get that knife back from evidence. Self-defense or not, that blade’s going to be locked up in evidence forever. He’ll need a new knife for the next kill, okay.”), I was able to make the book better. It’s always good to have someone who knows more than you take a look at your work.
What were the challenges, if any, of writing “out of your era?”
There was an urge to use modern phrasing here and there, but more than that were anachronisms like the ones the real TV repair men caught. Also, at one point I did enough research to be over informed for my audience. I mention early on in the book the TV wasn’t purchased on credit, but that was actually worded “credit card” in the original draft. I had three out of five readers question whether credit cards existed in 1952. They did, but if 60% of my audience was going to stumble over it, I decided to change it.
Aside from telling a great story well, how did you put together such a quality book? Cover? Editing? Proofreading?
I have an editor in the family, but don’t let that be an excuse. I paid $1,000 out of pocket to hire an editor for one of my books when he was previously committed and I had a deadline. I also reached out to creative writing students at Arizona State University and asked for help editing, which was free.
Do everything you can to have a professional editor chop your manuscript, but a college student who is about to be a professional editor is the next best thing.
Also, don’t just take the editor’s word for it. Use any technology you can to catch contextual errors. Let multiple people read your book before publication.
As for the cover, I hired a professional comic book artist to draw my vision. I told him what I wanted, sent him a crappy drawing I did with felt tipped pen, and he produced the drawings you see today. I really love the way they turned out. I colored the drawings in and added in the pictures in the TV tubes, and designed the cover in Photoshop. It was a lot of trial and error.
How did you put together the audiobook?
Amazon owns a company called acx.com. It is a place where writers can find narrators and publishers for their book and narrators and publishers can find work. I sought out a few auditions and selected the best voice for my story. Then I made a deal with the actor / producer, Nick Ralph / BlackHouse studios. In order to cover the expense of the audiobook production, I started an Indiegogo campaign for the project and received about half of the cost from Indiegogo contributors. I ended up doing the final edits of the audiobook with Soundbooth, which I had to learn on Youtube in order to finish the book. I missed a lot of sleep. I am a bit of a perfectionist.
What are the biggest challenges of being a self-published author?
It’s difficult to get people to take you seriously because self-publishing is open to anybody, whether they edit and proofread their book or not. When people I know come to me and tell me they really loved my book, there is always a little bit of shock just below the surface, there. Like they assumed because it doesn’t say Random House on the spine that it’s going to be awful. It’s also difficult to bankroll everything.
Approximately how much have you invested in the book and have you or will you recoup that investment?
Probably $1,000 to $1,500 on art and audio. The editing I got would have been about another $2,500 but I have a guy (wink, wink). I don’t know if I’ll recoup it or not, but that’s never been my main concern. I write for me and for my children, which is why I stopped writing psychological thrillers and finally published something I that was willing to put my real name on the cover, and read to my kids (in a few more years).
Philip K. Dick didn’t make much money until he died, and he left his daughter with the estate. If that happens for my kids then I’m happy, but it’s not a necessity. Also, I count all of my magazine column revenue and all of my book sales and all of my book expenses (I spend some money on setting up my own book signings and Facebook marketing, too) as one monetary figure, so as long as I keep writing magazine columns I’ve got numbers chipping away at that bottom line.
Do you have an agent and/or do you plan to get one?
I don’t currently have an agent. I’ve been working with some smaller publishers to see if I can get a deal, but ultimately if you know any agents go ahead and send them my way because I’d love to be able to just write my books instead of having to worry about all of the marketing and minutiae. It takes so much effort that I would rather spend writing one of the dozen other novels I have outlined and started.
Any advice for writers struggling to get their work out there?
Take it seriously. Work it with all of your free time, and do not (DO NOT) publish something that hasn’t been proofread and edited to smithereens. Just because you think a large chunk of exposition, or that hilarious joke about the turtles belongs in the book, doesn’t mean the reader needs it, which is why you have to have someone else take a look.
You truly get one chance to make a first impression.
Imagine a professional agent scouring the web for the next, “Hunger Games,” and getting to your book that they found on Amazon for free. Make sure you are comfortable with that scenario before you hit “SUBMIT.”
A second piece of advice for those who are struggling to complete their work, or make their work worth sharing. I mentioned this earlier: Learn from Stephen King. Maybe not his style, per se, but his book, “On Writing,” changed my life. It really did. I had been working on my White Whale for 5 years and was stuck. My editor suggested that I read, “On Writing,” for tips on how to make the terrible book better. There is a writing prompt in the book: to write a few pages of unscripted prose. I wrote 12K words. It was the best thing I had ever written. Then I was on a roll, so I took the principals of that writing prompt and applied it to a bigger cast of characters and a bigger situation, and wrote my first 90K word thriller novel.
“13 Lives,” came next, following the same principles I learned from that original writing prompt. I then started writing a western (for my dad) and got about 10K words in when I realized I still hadn’t done what I set out to do 10 years ago: finish my “masterpiece.” Any young (in writing years) writer should give that book [“On Writing”] a once or twice over and follow its advice.
I’ve been working on a book for over 10 years now. It’s what I’m always supposed to be working on when I’m writing a new book. I decided that come hell or high water it’s getting finished this year, so you can expect to read a very satirical science fiction space opera type of book called, “Static.” I’m going to release it in four novellas for Amazon Kindle and then one compendium called, “Static-Redux.”
This time I’ve hired a graphic artist to do the cover design because I spent way too much time on the cover design for the last book. Even though I’m satisfied with the cover for, “13 Lives,” I would much rather have had the days and weeks of stress and frustration back to work on prose.