The Ezekiel Code (http://amzn.com/B002NGO4JC) was my first attempt at writing the great American novel. Normally, a debut novel by an unknown self-published writer doesn't attract much attention. Such a writer would be lucky to sell a hundred copies, total. So what was The Ezekiel Code about and, more importantly, how and why did it become a bestseller on amazon for over 57 weeks?
The seed that eventually grew to become The Ezekiel Code was actually planted many years prior to me having any notion of writing a novel.
Back in the late 60s I had decided to read the Bible from cover to cover. Having had an interest in the UFO phenomenon since the age of about 12, some of the passages in the Bible seemed somewhat similar to reports I'd read about UFO sightings. I first noticed it in the story of the Israelite's long journey through the desert. They followed a "pillar of cloud by day" and a "pillar of fire by night". That struck me as a rather curious phenomenon. Added to that was the Ark of the Covenant which functioned somehow to serve as a communication device between "God" and Moses. I wondered, could the Ark be some sort of a wireless communication technology so "God" (or whatever it was!) could talk to Moses from his "ship", the pillar of cloud by day, lit up at night?
Then, in the book of Numbers, this "cloud" that carried "God" actually landed on the ground. And, further on, there was Elijah who was "taken up" in a "whirlwind". It was becoming, as Alice would say, curiouser and curiouser. Then came the hammer that hit me on the head. Contrary to what you might be thinking at this point, that hammer didn't knock the sense out of me. I felt it knocked some sense into me.
The hammer was the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel’s descriptions of the object that came down from the sky, and with which Ezekiel interacted, seemed much too mechanical to be anything of an ethereal nature. His incredibly detailed descriptions seemed to me like the way someone of his time in history, with a priestly background and absolutely no knowledge of advanced technology (beyond a cart pulled by a donkey), would describe a technological craft.
Some years later I discovered a non-fiction book called The Spaceships of Ezekiel written by a former NASA contract engineer by the name of Joseph Blumrich. His son had noticed the same things about Ezekiel's descriptions that I had noticed and, knowing the nature of his father's work with NASA, he told his father about it. The elder Blumrich didn't believe it at first but the more he studied it the more he began to have second thoughts. The book (The Spaceships of Ezekiel) is his professional analysis of what it was that Ezekiel may actually have encountered. After reading that book, I was left with not a shred of doubt that Ezekiel had experienced what we now call a Close Encounter of the Third Kind.
Fast forward to sometime in the mid-1990s:
My friend, Julie, and I were sitting in an all-night diner at about 2 o'clock in the morning. I think maybe we had been to see a sci-fi movie earlier in the evening which is probably what sparked a conversation about UFOs. Once again, this idea about Ezekiel came to the forefront of my mind and I told Julie about it. I mentioned that the idea would make a great premise for a movie by someone like Spielberg or Lucas.
The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea but I knew I had no way of getting the idea to either of those guys. Then I thought, wait a minute. I can't make a movie but I can write. Why don't I write a novel based on this idea?
I was already half way through the writing of a different sci-fi novel at the time but this idea struck me as so extraordinary that I immediately shelved the other work and began sketching out ideas for this new book which, at the time, had a working title of Ezekiel's Wheels. So how and why did it change from Ezekiel's Wheels to The Ezekiel Code? That was a two-part process of an organic nature.
• Part-1 of the process:
At about the same time I started working on the book I was also well into the beginning stages of another little exploration that eventually began to take over my life. I had, quite by accident, stumbled onto the idea that our alphabet might be naturally or artificially "encoded" in some manner so as to correspond with our base-10 numbering system and that, somehow, the number 9 and the phenomenon of "synchronicity" were key to the whole thing. That, in itself, is a long story and a lengthy summary of the work is detailed here:
The bottom line is that this work was so ingrained into my consciousness that it almost naturally began to flow into my ideas about the plot of my novel. It provided a perfect plot device to propel the story. Not only did I recognize how well it would work, I also knew it was so original that it would be unique among anything else that was out there.
• Part-2 of the process:
I was not at all happy with the working title, Ezekiel's Wheels. It wasn't dramatic enough. It wasn't very catchy. Then one day, maybe around 2003/2004, I heard about a non-fiction book by one of the better known "alternative" researchers, Gregg Braden. His book was called The God Code. That reminded me of the title of Drosnin's best selling book, The Bible Code. And Julie had recently purchased a book called Healing Codes of the Biological Apocalypse (a book, by the way, in which the co- author had made the same discoveries about the English alphabet that I had made a few years earlier!). At the same time came Dan Brown’s phenomenal best-selling novel, The DaVinci Code. Well, I'm not blind. I started to recognize a pattern.
All of those books were best sellers in their respective categories. Clearly the public had a thirst for anything with the word "code" in the title. How fortuitous for me! My book definitely had the code element going for it so I latched onto the idea and changed the title to The Ezekiel Code. As soon as I made that change, all the little things that kept blocking my progress regarding the direction of the plot just fell away and the story began to write itself, sometimes so fast I could hardly keep up with it even though it did take me nearly 9 years to complete the darn thing!
So that, in a nut shell, is the story behind The Ezekiel Code. The book did really well. In fact, it was an amazon.com bestseller in three categories (often ranking high in the top 10) for over 57 weeks. The reviews, however, were mixed. About half the reviews were 4 and 5 stars and the other half were 1 and 2 stars. Some people loved it and some people, well, let’s just say they disliked it a lot. Why such a sharp divide? What was going on there? Well, listen up all you readers who are thinking about writing your first novel and delving into the world of indie publishing. There’s a lesson here. The success of a book isn’t always about how well it’s written. Sometimes it’s about the subject matter and the timing.
The Ezekiel Code didn’t become a bestseller because the writing was so incredibly good. Being a newbie at this novel writing stuff, I really thought the writing was great. But if that was true then why so many bad reviews? I was baffled. It was only months later, after licking my wounds inflicted by the slings and arrows of those negative reviews that I realized many of those reviewers were right. The writing, while certainly not awful, wasn’t really up to par with novels written by more seasoned authors. Two main criticisms came up:
(1) A few times I led the reader by inserting hints of what was coming instead of letting the reader have the fun of making the discovery for himself. At the end of one chapter, for example, the lead character, Zeke Banyon, was in his office, anxious to get home to his lover, Angela. Everything seemed to be going along really well for them. Nothing dramatic was expected. In the next chapter, however, Zeke arrives at his home and finds the house in a state of disarray, blood on the back door which had been broken into, and Angela was nowhere to be found. Quite a shocking and unexpected surprise, right? Well, sort of but not entirely, at least not for the reader. Why not entirely? Because of the last sentence of the previous chapter:
Back in his office, Banyon poured his last cup of coffee for the day and settled down to finish some paperwork. All the while, he kept thinking about Angela. He couldn’t wait to get home. I have a feeling this is going to be an extraordinary evening!
He had no idea how extraordinary it would turn out to be. But not in the way he imagined.
Two things happened here. (A) Not only did that last sentence give away the idea that something bad was about to happen, thus depriving the reader of the chance to experience the shocking turn of events for himself, but (B) that last sentence also interjected the voice of the author into the scene. When the author’s voice in interjected into the narrative it’s a bit like if you're watching a movie, you’re really into the scene, and suddenly you hear the voice of the director coming from somewhere off-camera, shouting “Okay, get ready. Something bad’s about to happen!” Wouldn't you just want to shoot that director?
(2) The other big criticism concerned the “info dumps”. An info dump is when the author dumps a large amount of information into the scene, thus interrupting the flow of the narrative. There is quite a bit of that in this book and it bugged some readers to no end. My only excuse for having done that is that the book could actually be classified as “experimental” in terms of style and construction. As I mentioned before, no other novel (that I’m aware of) has used gematria as a primary vehicle to drive the story. That presented me with the problem of having to impart a lot of information that I knew would be strange and unfamiliar to most readers. So not only are there sections where the “information dump” slows down the pace of the story, I also repeated some of it here and there throughout the story. I did that because there were so many unusual terms and concepts introduced to the reader and I thought repeating some of them occasionally (although mixed well into the character’s conversations) would help the reader recall what some of those things meant.
Apparently I was wrong. Well, not entirely wrong. There were actually some people who appreciated it because it kept them from having to search back through several chapters to find the information if, indeed, they did want to refresh their memory of some details. If I could do it all over again, I think I’d probably figure out a way to trim those “dumps” down to a minimum and include an addendum at the back of the book with expanded details for readers who might want to delve deeper into the information.
Now, getting back to what I said about subject matter being a selling point:
Remember The DaVinci Code? What was the big motivating factor underlying the phenomenal sales of that book? Was it the great writing? No. In fact, many readers thought the writing was just mediocre at best. I thought it was pretty good, myself. But I digress. The big reason behind the book’s success was its controversial subject matter. Jesus survived the crucifixion, married Mary Magdalene, sailed to France and had kids? What? Well, that’s sort of what motivated so many sales of The Ezekiel Code. It was both the controversial subject matter and the timing. Remember all the hoopla about 2012 being the end of the ancient Mayan calendar and the beginning of catastrophic earth changes? There was even a huge block-buster movie called "2012". You probably saw it. That whole doomsday scenario was my book’s big controversial selling point. Not to mention that the title (The Ezekiel Code) implied some connection between 2012 and the ancient Biblical prophet.
Even though I started writing the book back around 1997, I already knew about the coming end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012. I was pretty sure that was going to become a global cultural phenomenon so I made that the primary premise for the story.
Eventually, dozens of books about 2012 were coming out and filling the bookshelves. But they were all non-fiction. The Ezekiel Code, on the other hand, was one of the very few works of fiction, based on the 2012 phenomenon, that appeared on the market. With a few targeted (and creatively worded) promotional ads on a couple of popular 2012-related websites, and a lot of enticing Tweets on Twitter, it didn’t take long for The Ezekiel Code to start selling like crazy. It was released first in paperback and, a few months later, on Kindle. And, by the way, the Kindle edition (at $4.95) outsold the paperback about 10 to 1. (The current price for the Kindle edition is now just $2.99)
So, there you go. I could say more about what The Ezekiel Code experience taught me about writing a novel but I should save that for another article. I’ll just say the experience was worth it. After The Ezekiel Code, I spent a lot of time honing my craft and learning the writing ropes. I think it shows in my latest novel, Ash: Return Of The Beast, a supernatural serial-killer chiller drenched in occult lore and inspired by an actual mystery concerning the missing crematory ashes of Aleister "The Beast" Crowley, history's most notorious practitioner of the Dark Arts. The enthusiastic reviews, so far, are confirmation of my growth as a novelist. So I actually owe a debt of gratitude to those who criticized my first novel and who had the unmitigated gall to tell me what they didn't like about it.