IndieView with Russell Blake, author of, The Voynich Cypher

The Voynich Cypher

“Don’t write what you think people will want to read. Write what you write, and then perhaps it will find an audience. Life is filled with mediocrity. Your writing is one of the few things that you don’t have to compromise on. Make it as brilliant as you can, and then when done, repeat, and do it better.”

Russell Blake 20 March 2012

The Back Flap

When a sacred relic is stolen from its subterranean guarded vault, Dr. Steven Cross, amateur cryptographer, becomes embroiled in a deadly quest to decipher one of history’s most enigmatic documents – a 15th century parchment written entirely in unbreakable code; The Voynich Manuscript. Stalked by secret societies, and aided by the daughter of a murdered colleague, a trail of riddles catapults Cross from England to Italy to the Middle East, where a Byzantine web of ancient secrets leads him to a revelation so profound it will change the world order.

About The Book

What is the book about?

It’s an adventure thriller in the tradition of Cussler, Brown and Raiders of the Lost Ark that officially releases March 17. Chronicles a race to decrypt the most puzzling document in history – the Voynich Manuscript – which is written entirely in a cypher that’s never been decoded, and which in the novel contains the Catholic Church’s most dangerous secret. Dr. Steven Cross, amateur cryptographer, races against the clock to crack the code before he can be permanently silenced by secret societies assigned to protect it, as well as a billionaire megalomaniac who wants it for himself.

When did you start writing the book?

July or so, 2011. On and off. I put it aside several times to write other books.

How long did it take you to write it?

Total writing time was about 30 days, not counting research. Originally came in around 120K words, edited it down to 100K.

Where did you get the idea from?

I always wanted to try my hand at a pure artifact hunt kind of thriller, and got interested in the Voynich Manuscript from conversations with a friend. It just naturally fit once I started devoting serious thought to it.

Were there any parts of the book where you struggled?

The research. I clocked hundreds of hours. Cryptography. The manuscript. Its history. Authorship. History of secret societies, and the Church. Italian, Roman and Middle Eastern Geography and history. Lots of time on Google Earth. Other than that, it was a cakewalk.

What came easily?

The actual writing of the book. After the research writing it was a breeze.

Are your characters entirely fictitious or have you borrowed from real world people you know?

Some might say the protagonist bears some resemblance to me. The rest are inventions, as are most of my characters.

We all know how important it is for writers to read. Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write and, if so, how have they influenced you?

Ludlum, Forsyth, David Foster Wallace. For different reasons. Ludlum because nobody could write a conspiracy thriller better. Forsyth because of his introduction of reality into a genre that until Day of the Jackal was mainly cartoonish. DFW because of what he achieved with language, and the possibility of writing, and because he wasn’t afraid to write intelligently – something that sadly isn’t a recipe for being a best seller, these days.

Do you have a target reader?

Fans of Ludlum, Dan Brown, Forsyth, who are tired of books written at a second grade level and miss the days when a book was a meal, not a facile snack.

About Writing

Why did you start writing novels?

For the chicks, and the money. That didn’t turn out so well, so I continued because I fell in love with using language to create worlds.

Do you have a writing process? If so can you please describe it?

I write 12 hours a day when writing a book. I’ve tried other methods but they don’t work for me. The only way I can write is in this sort of obsessive/compulsive manner.

Do you write every day? Yes.

Do you outline? If so, do you do so extensively, or just Chapter headings and a couple of sentences?

I’ve tried plotting, and doing outlines, but I nowadays simply write a few paragraphs of what the story is going to be, toss out a dozen or two single sentence chapter summaries, and get to it.

Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with that? Nope. I write about one novel every six to eight weeks, so I don’t allow myself that luxury. Sort of cornered rat syndrome. I’m the rat, and one of us is fighting for real.

Do you edit as you go or wait until you’ve finished?

I do a first draft, then go back and rewrite. Lately I call that my second draft, and then go back and polish it a third time.

Do you have alpha/beta readers?


Did you hire a professional editor?

Absolutely. You have to. I also have a copy editor who does a line edit after the editor is done, and a proofreader who checks it after the copy editor has done her thing. If you want to compete with the big dogs, you have to have these quality control mechanisms in place. If you don’t, it’s to your and your readers’ detriment, IMO.

Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?

Nope. Complete silence. Not much of a party at my place lately…

Before you start writing a new novel, what sort of thinking/planning do you do?

It always starts with an idea. Then I will turn it over and flesh it out on my daily hike, and once it’s fully formed, I move to writing mode. Not much hiking goes on then, unless I’m at a logjam, in which case I find an hour of free thinking clears it.

About Publishing

Did you submit your work to Agents?

Years ago I did, got one, and was assured I was brilliant. Then I got as close as it’s possible to get to a Big 6 deal, but was told that my shtick wasn’t what the market wanted at the moment. So I hung it up, figuring I’d do something more productive with my time.

What made you decide to go Indie? Was it a particular event or a gradual process?

It was Amazon’s revolutionary commission structure and the possibility it presented, coupled with the Kindle delivery system. I view the eReader as equivalently paradigm changing as the web has been to the newspaper biz. So I watched as guys like Locke hit, and decided to jump in.

Did you get your book cover professionally done or did it you do it yourself?

Always professionally done, by the same artist.

Do you have a marketing plan for the book or are you just winging it?

I’ve been winging it thus far, but on my latest, The Voynich Cypher, I’ve actually scheduled a whole host of interviews and blogs for a month. But it’s mostly seat of your pants.

How has the publishing side of what you have been doing going? (are you selling books?)

I’m selling a reasonable number now, and it appears to be ramping. In the first ten days of March, I sold over 3,000. Who knows if that’s sustainable, but it seems to be building, up from 750 or so in December. January I sold roughly 3000, same for Feb, so March is looking good so far. Can’t complain given that when I started in June, 2011, I think I earned $22 or so in revenue. Obviously, self-publishing can be humbling.

What do you think of the impact of free books on Amazon?

I think it’s a good promotional tool, but will lose its usefulness over time, as with all promo tools.

Do you think book are doomed to be free like most blog content?

I think the future will be some sort of ad based revenue stream. I can’t see Amazon and authors giving away all their content. There has to be a way to monetize it, or I’ll go back to fishing. The hours are certainly better.

Any advice that you would like to give to other newbies considering becoming Indie authors?

Write because you love it, not because you think you’ll hit. Odds overwhelmingly say you won’t. Write every day, and strive to improve. Read The Elements of Style. Over and over. Then chuck it. But not because you are ignorant of the rules. Simply because you wore out the book. And be true to your own voice. Don’t write what you think people will want to read. Write what you write, and then perhaps it will find an audience. Life is filled with mediocrity. Your writing is one of the few things that you don’t have to compromise on. Make it as brilliant as you can, and then when done, repeat, and do it better. Once you have a few books, run your little self-pubbing biz like a real business. Expect to invest in quality control and packaging, i.e. editing and covers. If you think you can do it yourself, you’re basically saying you have a startup business that you won’t be doing professional QC and packaging for. I can predict what that business’ chances of success are.

About You

Where did you grow up?

All over. The U.S., Europe, Mexico.

Where do you live now?

Mexico. For approaching a decade.

What would you like readers to know about you?

As little as possible. If they really knew me, they’d detest me even more than they probably do after this piece. Although I will say I have a lovely singing voice, have been known to have a drink or two, and hate clowns. That should suffice, I think.

What are you working on now?

I’m just finishing up my next book, Revenge of the Assassin, which is the sequel to King of Swords. It’s a continuation of that saga, which centers around the Mexican drug cartels and a super-assassin named El Rey – The King of Swords, after the tarot card he leaves as his signature at hits. Should be out by late April, I would think.

Do you have a pet, and if so, what kind?

Three dogs own me. All labs.

End of Interview:

You can Buy The Voynich Cypher at Amazon. Or Visit Russell’s Website.


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