Tag Archives: self-publishing

New Book Release: Under the Skin by Nick Hahn

Under the Skin book cover


Nick Hahn is the author of the recently released novel Under the Skin, a political thriller set in Uganda. As this interview demonstrates, he is passionate about both the issues confronting third-world countries today and the craft of writing. Check out Nick’s blog, Nickspeak, as well as this link to Under the Skin, now available on amazon.com.

CK: I know that you spent some time in Uganda. What took you there, and what experiences did you have that prompted you to write the book?

NH: I lived and worked in Uganda for several months in 2008. I was there on a consulting engagement, retained by a nonprofit consortium of three organizations evaluating the organic cotton supply chain from small farmers in the North near the Sudanese border to commercial yarn spinning factories in the South near Kampala, the capital of the country.

The consortium partners, Invisible Children, Inc., the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Edun Apparel LTD. were interested in sourcing a women’s apparel line in Uganda produced from 100 percent organic cotton. Edun, owned by Bono and Ali Hewson, collaborated with their consortium partners, both prominent NGOs, in an effort to support economic development for Uganda and add a measure of relief to poverty-stricken cotton farmers.

In my work I observed abuses of human rights, especially those of women, perpetrated by local authorities and self-centred politicians. Their refusal to acknowledge the disparity between the traditional role of women in tribal societies and advancements made by women in contemporary Western societies kept Ugandan women in a subservient role within the family. In Uganda, and much of Africa, women are forced to accept genital mutilation, prepubescent marriage to men many times their age, and abject slavery in their spousal roles.

My objective in writing this book is to build awareness of these abuses and do so within the context of fictional storytelling. I want my readers to be entertained, educated, and motivated. My hope is that some will be moved to action and make a difference within their own sphere of influence, whatever or wherever that may be.

Under The Skin is my first novel. The message is there but so is the emotion, tension, and entertainment.

CK: In the book, a young woman of very humble origins, Nabulunghi Kibugu (Nabby), becomes educated in a Western university and returns to her country to seize political power. We tend to think of East Africa as dominated by corrupt politicians and vicious warlords like Joseph Kony. In the Africa of today, how common are female leaders like Nabby? Would you say that African women are now emerging from the shadows of oppression? What are some examples of women in this part of the world who are making a difference?

NH: My lead character, Nabby Kibugu, is fictional but her story could easily be true. Today women of all races, religions, and ethnicities are making their presence known in the world. Educated and motivated, women in all fields including politics, education, arts, science, and business are making a difference. In Africa this is particularly prescient. The role of women there has changed dramatically with the emergence of Nobel Prize winners like Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Wangari Maathai, the first woman from Africa to receive a Nobel Prize. This advancement is still in the incubation stage. When we see progress growing from a base of zero, we tend to overcelebrate it. Africa, the Middle East, and Muslim countries around the world are still generations out of step.  I’ve lived and worked in most of these regions and have seen up close the devastating effect on women, whose lives are controlled by cultural and religious traditions created and enforced by men.  My hope is that through the medium of fictional storytelling I might add a small voice in opposition to these abuses and lend some weight to a movement toward equality with men, if not full parity. The real tragedy here is the loss of intelligence and intuition that women bring to problem solving; life for men would improve exponentially with educated and trained women in their midst.  My dream is that real-life Nabby Kibugus and Maggie Kincaids [Maggie is another character in the book] will emerge as thought leaders and role models, inspiring a new generation of women from the developing world.

CK: Nabby forms a powerful alliance with a wealthy American, Maggie Kincaid. The unlikely friendship that blossoms between the two young women is really at the heart of the novel, and the way they forge ahead in single-minded pursuit of their goal against overwhelming odds is quite incredible.  Who or what inspired these two fearless females?

NH: Maggie was inspired by Nabby’s true grit and determination to change her world. Nabby’s youth was destroyed by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when she was raped at age eleven. This experience exposed her strength in ways she wouldn’t have known otherwise. Her acceptance of the scholarship to St Andrews University and her successful career there made a lasting impression on Maggie and her wealthy parents in New York. When Maggie arrived in Uganda and became involved in Nabby’s political campaign, it changed her world from one of luxury and excess to one of purpose and resolve. Together these two young women changed more than a country’s leadership; they changed the course of each other’s lives.

My book is written primarily from a woman’s point of view. I can’t explain this except to say that I’ve been blessed in having strong women in my life, women who have inspired me with their strength and discipline. I believe that if women held positions of authority in all fields, but especially government, there would be less conflict in the world and the rights of women and men—human rights—would be recognized. Women understand the power of moral authority in society and know how to exercise it. They appreciate that passive resistance can be stronger than armed resistance, and that we should not be defined by race, religion, or territory.  One looks at political leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Camilla Vallejo of the University of Chile Student Federation, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund, the late Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of England, or Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and likely candidate for US president in 2016.  These women and others like them are changing their worlds in positive ways, both large and small. The title of my book, Under The Skin, drove much of my thinking. The notion that skin colour should make a difference in our perception of people and their worth to society strikes me as absurd. As shown in my novel, our hearts beat the same under the skin, regardless of our colour.

CK: The book really opened my eyes to the desperate struggles the Ugandan people face, and I’m sure it will for other readers as well. What do you hope people will take away from reading your book? Is there any particular message you want people to understand?

NH: The message is simple; we’re all members of the same race, the human race. For some unfathomable reason, men have insisted on defining themselves by race, religion, and ethnicity rather than the common spark of humanity that separates us from the beasts. That spark should be joining us, not dividing us. If we can put men on the moon, put the entire world’s knowledge base on a smartphone in the palm of our hand, and discover cures for “incurable” diseases, wouldn’t you think we could find better solutions to world problems than armed combat? Social, economic, and territorial conflict is real and requires thoughtful solutions, but not those found in the barrel of a gun or rooted in a dictator’s nepotism. I’m not suggesting that women have all the answers; I am suggesting they have more of the answers than history gives them credit for. My hope is that women like my character Nabby Kibugu, languishing in the backwater of some third-world country, will find their voice and aspire to education and training. We have no idea how many Nabbys are out there, waiting for another Maggie Kincaid to discover their genius.

CK: How long have you been writing? Who are the writers who inspire you and why?

NH: I started writing in high school. I had a disciplined English teacher at a strict Jesuit prep school in Cleveland, Ohio, who thought my writing showed promise and that I should pursue a career as an author. That was the age of the great American writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. They all inspired me, but I must confess that Hemingway was my hero. I loved his work and, truth be known, loved his macho lifestyle as a war correspondent, bullfight enthusiast, and deep-sea fisherman. Hemingway lived as he wrote. His stories were more than figments of his imagination; they were fictionalized memories of a man who lived his dream. It was his love affair with life that drove him to end his own. Once his health failed and he was no longer able to live as he wrote, he could no longer bear the alternative.

I carried this romanticized view of becoming an author into my college years at the University of Notre Dame. It was there that I skipped a beat, maybe more than one, if truth be known, and succumbed to the real world of earning a living and raising a family. My writing dreams went on the back burner as I pursued a business career for forty-eight years. Time and circumstance reignited my love of writing. I started by recording and publishing commercial audiobooks for Audible and soon realized what I had been missing. With a career behind me and a family on their own, I went back to where it all began. As T.S. Elliot reminds us, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

At heart I’m a writer, have always been a writer, and will continue to write as long as my physical and mental health allow me.

CK: Now that Under the Skin has been completed, what do you hope to write about next? Are there any particular issues you want to explore?  

NH: The issues that concern me are many, but there’s one in particular, and next on my writing agenda is human trafficking. This is one of the most deplorable evils in human society and one most of us know little about.  Many people aid and abet traffickers by hiring illegal aliens at substandard wages, procuring the services of underage prostitutes, and paying access fees to pornography websites. Human trafficking has an estimated annual turnover of $32 billion, with far more unaccounted for. My next book, Drone, addresses this issue through the eyes of a female undercover agent working for Interpol, the secretive international police organization. Again, the story is fiction, but the subject matter and circumstances our lead character confronts are true, and the message is clear. Drone, like Under The Skin, will entertain and frighten you and stimulate your emotions, but you won’t finish the book without gaining a new perspective on human trafficking and sexual slavery in the US and around the world. Like my first book, this one is being written from a woman’s point of view. The lead character, Cosita, will stimulate your conscience and move you to a heightened awareness of one of the world’s most misunderstood crimes and its degrading effect on women.  Drone is a story about another courageous woman and a friendship formed in a tempest of mutual need and respect.

CK: What has the process of completing your first novel been like, and what sort of advice do you have for writers? 

NH: I’ve never had a baby, Caroline, but the fourteen-month gestation period for this novel and the labour during the days preceding its release to the public gives me some idea of what that’s like. For me, as with mothers, it was a labour of love. I never wanted to let it go; every time I reviewed it, I saw areas needing improvement. It was like, “How could you have said it that way, dummy? You can write better than that.” And so it would go, day after day, until my editor convinced me I had a book and to let her smooth out the rough edges.

I have so much advice for new writers, I hardly know where to begin, so I guess I’ll just restate the obvious: begin. Put words on paper, i.e., your word processor, every day. Find your creative sweet spot, that time when ideas seem to flow effortlessly. Mine is early morning, but for others it’s evening or the middle of the night—whatever works for you. But do it. I might also suggest that you not read too many books on writing. At the end of the day, your storyline will carry your book, not your sentence structure or preoccupation with the beginning, the middle, and the end. I find that the words come to me scene after scene, but I must confess—and my editor reminds me—that I have problems with chronology and time sequence. I tend to worry less about that and let my editor fix it. I concentrate on the creative process of developing a story that first entertains, but for me, always with a message. As a first-time author with one published book to my credit, I don’t presume that my advice to writers will be all that impressive. Find your own style, your own story, and make sure you fall in love, deeply in love, with all your characters. They will become the most important people in your life for the duration of the book.

For me it’s all about narrative and dialogue. I want my readers to feel the emotion, the tension, the anxiety, all the demands of life wrapped up in the character’s role. I’m a storyteller first and a writer second, if that makes sense. There are passages and whole scenes in this book that bring tears to my eyes each time I read them. I welled up when I wrote those words, but they weren’t my words—they were Nabby’s and Maggie’s and those of other characters in the book. Maybe that’s the litmus test for a writer; maybe it’s about human emotion and finding the right words to express it. In Under the Skin, I found the right words.


Toronto Workshop for Self-Publishing Writers about Working with Editors

Well, I’m finally doing something I couldn’t have imagined a few months ago–I’m giving a two-hour workshop about editing. The folks from Writers and Editors Network (WEN), a group to which I belong, asked me to give the workshop. Though it’s hardly as terrifying as skydiving, I must admit that I had serious reservations when I was first approached. It wasn’t that I was afraid I couldn’t come up with enough material; it was simply the old fear of public speaking rearing its head. But as I’ve become immersed in preparing, a remarkable thing has happened: the terrified introvert within me, which normally looms so large, has dwindled, and my reservations have been replaced by excitement. That’s what happens when you enjoy what you do for a living and are eager to share what you’ve learned over the years.

So what are we going to do for two hours? The title of the workshop is Working with Editors: What Writers Need to Know. We’ll be exploring a number of topics, including how editing makes your manuscript more publishable, finding editors and choosing the best one for you, how editors charge, understanding the different types of editing and what they involve, determining what sort of editing your manuscript needs, and developing self-editing skills to save you time and money. Writers will develop a real understanding of the process of working with an editor, will learn to speak the language of editors, and will walk away knowing much more about how editors can help them create their best possible work. It promises to be a fun, interactive morning!

If you live in the Toronto area, I’d love you to come out. Here are all the pertinent details:

Working with Editors: What Writers Need to Know

A Writers and Editors Network (WEN) workshop presented by Caroline Kaiser

Saturday, April 27th, 10:00 a.m. to noon

Metro Hall, 55 John Street, Toronto, Room 304

$10 for WEN members, $20 for non-members

Preregistration is required by contacting mcappa@rogers.com. Prepayment is also required. Please send cheques to WEN, c/o Maurus Cappa, 251 McKee Avenue, Toronto, On, M2N 4E2.

Bring your red pen and your curiosity. Hope to see you there!

Seeing Editors as Allies, Not Enemies

I belong to an online writers’ and editors’ group, and when time allows, I entertain myself by catching up on the discussions in the forums. People generally behave themselves admirably, but the writers, most of whom are self-publishing, do lash out at editors from time to time. One day, I saw an author complaining that she’d been ripped off to the tune of three thousand dollars by an editor. Other forum participants were quick to become indignant that any editor would even dream of charging her such an amount to edit her book. What an outrage!

Feeling profoundly irritated, I wrote that it was ridiculous to consider the cost outrageous without knowing the facts–after all, the author hadn’t even mentioned what the word count was or told us anything about the nature of the book. Nor had we seen a sample of the writing. Without this information, no one could possibly know the extent of the editing required. And had anyone even considered the question of what the author actually received for her money? As she later revealed, the answer was nothing–she paid three thousand dollars to the “editor,” who never delivered any work at all. The unsuspecting  author had not been dealing with a professional editor–she’d fallen victim to a smooth-talking scam artist.

Apart from the author’s misfortune, what bothered me about this whole exchange was the readiness of the writers who were commenting to believe that editors are taking them for a ride. Apparently, some writers still don’t see the value in what editors have to offer. I suspect that those who feel this way have never actually had their own work edited, so they can’t even begin to understand the invaluable contributions an editor can make to a manuscript. As well, such writers fear criticism, as most of us do to one degree or another, but rather than being able to perceive it as helpful and constructive, they feel threatened by it. And so they insist on standing in their own way, and the book suffers as a result.

I still occasionally meet people who think that all editors do is correct typos; they confidently assert that they can do their own spell-check and grammar check, thank you very much–as if spelling and grammar were all there was to it. But editors are involved in shaping the entire manuscript, and they cover the broad strokes as well as the fine details. A good editor will diplomatically call attention to a plot that doesn’t even get off the runway, loose ends that dangle messily, a protagonist who bores readers to tears, or a character who talks like he’s a nineteenth-century British aristocrat instead of the twentieth-century American student he’s supposed to be. Furthermore, a good editor offers constructive advice for fixing these problems.

I believe that writers who don’t appreciate what editors can do for their work are in a small and ever-shrinking minority. But often the writers who need editorial help the most are the very ones who are most resistant to receiving it. It’s time that such resistant writers began to see editors as allies who can help them create their best possible work, not as enemies who will either take advantage of them or belittle them. All editors contend that every writer needs an editor, and most writers I know wholeheartedly agree with this contention. And as an editor who also writes, I know that I’ll need an experienced and eagle-eyed editor to help me with my book before I publish it; I wouldn’t dream of skipping this essential step. Even for the best writers, the choice is clear: if you’re putting your book out there for public consumption, hire a professional editor.

Updated Guide to Using Track Changes

When I first started working with self-publishing authors, I discovered that many of them weren’t all that familiar with how to use Track Changes in Word 2007 and 2010. They didn’t always know what to do when they received their edited copy, all marked up with an array of additions, deletions, and comment balloons. A few seemed too timid to ask me what to do, so I thought it would be best to create an easy-to-follow guide to initiate them into the process. My guide has undergone a few tweaks over the past few months, but I’m proud to say that today I’m finally rolling out what I think is the ultimate guide. Please take a moment to check out Learning Track Changes in MS Word 2007 and 2010: A Quick Guide for Authors.

This ultimate guide to Track Changes has received editorial input from none other than Arlene Prunkl of PenUltimate Editorial Services in Kelowna, B.C. Arlene is both a dear friend and an esteemed colleague who is now celebrating her tenth year as a professional editor. In 2011, Arlene was a finalist for the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence, which is the top editorial award in Canada. In reviewing my article, she made editorial suggestions that never would have occurred to me–proving that even editors need to be edited. I am truly grateful for Arlene’s contributions to this new version of my Track Changes guide, which she also features on her own website.

Writers and Editors Network (WEN) Seminars

A group I joined recently, the Writers and Editors Network (WEN) offers informative seminars that they call Writers’ Circle Special Sessions. This Saturday morning, they’re starting off the new year with a bang by presenting two dynamic speakers, Dave Cook and Hans von Maltzahn, both of whom I had the good fortune to meet at the WEN Christmas breakfast networking meeting.

Dave’s session is called Marketing Your Book. He is the author of several books, including the Fading History: Stories of Historical Interest series, and he attends some seventy-five events per year successfully selling his books. He’ll be discussing targeting your market, and he also plans to bring along his complete booth set-up for the shows he attends so you can see exactly how he promotes his work. Dave is a former Mississauga councillor who later ran for mayor in 2010, so I expect that he knows more than a thing or two about promotion!

Hans will be presenting a session called How to Create an E-book. This topic is something that he and I discussed at length during the Christmas meeting. It’s clear to me that he knows how to take the mystery out of this subject for the many writers who are just getting their feet wet in the self-publishing world and want basic information, such as how to obtain an ISBN. Hans is the author of The Black Sun Ascendant: An Assassin’s Tale. The book is the first in a trilogy of Black Sun books, and I understand that he’s hard at work on the second instalment.

I confess that I’m eagerly awaiting what these two speakers have to say. You can hear them this Saturday, January 7th, from 10 a.m. to noon at the Fairview Mall Library, 4th floor. The library is located at 35 Fairview Mall Drive in the Don Mills Road and Sheppard Avenue East area of Toronto. The cost is just $10 and includes coffee and cookies. If you plan to attend, please RSVP to Maurus Cappa at mcappa@rogers.com.