Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas

What it says up there. And also Happy Holidays to everyone, and a bright New Year

Friday, December 21, 2012

Post Apocalypse

They were wrong. Not the Mayans, but the people who hung their beliefs on the notion that turning a page on a calendar (all right, a rock, but it's the same principle) meant the end of the world.

If you want to write, you need to be aware of the end of the world - or, more accurately, of milestones you must pass. 

Getting your first bad review is crushing. Especially if it's from some nameless person on However, it's not the end of the world. As Mr. Nelson put it, you can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself. Write the books you'd like to read.

Learning that your book has earned a pittance is crushing, but it's not the end of the world. Realize that writing a book is not the end-all. It's a step on a career. There's another one to be written, and one beyond that, and slowly your audience will build.

Getting a rejection letter from a publisher - especially one of those horrible form rejections - is crushing. You feel worthless. But it's not the end of the world. You failed to hit it off with ONE editor at ONE publisher. There are more fish in the sea, and these days more ways of publishing your work.

Having writer's block is crushing. You feel miserable. You'll never write again. Why go on? But it's not the end of the world. Writer's block is common and it's self-curing. What it generally means is that subconsciously you're working out problems in your story, and when that process is churned through, the words flow again.

Take heart. We're still here. The sun goes on shining, the sea rushes to shore. Hey, it's not the end of the world.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Critique Group: Da Rulez

Last time I mentioned critique groups. Let's run with that for a bit. I'm in one that works pretty well, mainly because we are all published writers who know the process and because we established a few simple rules early on. Here they are:

  1. Give us time. If we're going to critique a novel chapter or a short story, we need time to read it and think about it. We distribute our material by email, so it's fairly easy. Get the material to the others about a week ahead of your meeting.
  2. No hunting. This means no cheap shots. Once at a college writers' festival I was horrified to hear the guest writer, a big name, condescendingly tell a student who had submitted a story, "I could write a good story about this. You can't. This is crap." That's a cheap shot; it in no way helps the writer and is merely a put-down. No fair.
  3. Don't bring just a crowbar. Bring a hammer and nails. In other words, you're not there just to tear down, but to suggest ways of rebuilding, making the story workable and more readable. Offer constructive suggestions.
  4. But don't take my word for it. If one of us has a brilliant idea for improving a story, and the writer of the story says, "" then that is that. No one is obligated to take your advice. Don't get your feelings hurt.
  5. We read your words, not your mind. If five members of your writers' group all ask the same question or stumble over the same plot point, you're at fault. It's no use complaining, "But that's not what I meant." Your job is to find out how to write what you meant so you don't mislead your readers unintentionally.
  6. Don't pet a bad dog. Never lie; if you don't like a story, say so, if you can then explain what would have made you like it. "I really loved this" is not good criticism, though writers eat it up. Sure, praise good writing, but suggest ways that the whole piece can excel.
  7. What happens in Vegas.... Trust the other writers. Be friends with them. Don't hold grudges and don't be quick to get your feelings hurt. Once the stories are out of the way, socialize and have a good time.
  8. It's not you, it's not me, it's the story. I've collaborated before, and that was our prime rule: get rid of the egos. It's what's best for the story that counts. Think critically, think analytically, and give and take criticism honestly and without hurt feelings on either side. That's key.
There may be more...but I think these are the most important.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Hanging Out in Thunderstorms

Writing, he observed unoriginally, is a damned lonely business. But there are ways of compensating.

A friend of mine once said, "If your ambition is to be struck by lightning, hang out in thunderstorms. If you want to write, hang out with writers." The trick is to find ways of doing that.

One of the best is to join a writers' group - IF.

  • If you can find a reasonable number of reasonable, like-minded people. It takes exactly one jerk to ruin a critique/comment group for everyone. RULE 1: We're all in the same boat, so let's row in the same direction.
  • If all of you can both give and take criticism. Criticism is not acid; it hath not the power to etch your soul. Realize when you are giving it that your goal is to be constructive, to help someone else write the best work possible. Realize when you are receiving it that even the best criticism is only a suggestion. You don't have to take it if you don't want to.
  • If you really want to improve your writing rather than just hear fawning praise. You want to be as critical of your own work as you are of others'. I doubt if there is one piece of writing, including holy writ, that could not be tweaked and improved in at least small ways. When people have difficulty with something you've written, be willing and ready to tear it down and build again.
  • If it's not all work and no play. Socialize with the others. Learn what there is to know about markets and publishing. Celebrate others' accomplishments; commiserate on others' near-misses. Laugh with them. Be friends with them. They're writers like you. They understand you.
How to find writers in your area? They're thick on the ground. Ask around. Establish a special email account for contact. Post a note in the local library. When you find one, that one will know another and that one will know another.

But once you've got a core going, audition new members. Make sure they know Rule 1. Make sure they're congenial. Then meet regularly - every week, every two weeks, every month, whatever.

You know what? I'd bet that eventually you begin to look forward to those meetings. They make the lonely job of writing a little less so.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Getting It Right

I've just finished reading a very popular mystery novel (a hardboiled thriller, really). I didn't like it for many reasons: style, characterization, dialogue, and most of all a lack of verisimilitude.

Because to me it's important that a novel try to get things right. This one happened to be set in a state with which I am familiar (Georgia) during a time when I lived very close to the fictional location (1996).

Okay, bear with me. The fictional town is an hour south of Hapeville and an hour north of Macon and an hour east of Alabama and an hour and a half west of Augusta.

That is impossible.

The protagonist goes to meet someone flying in to the Atlanta airport, but discovers she's on the far side of a glass barrier that divides the corridor leading to the baggage-claim area.

There was no such glass barrier. Not then. Not ever.

The protagonist sets fire to the town's fire station and police station at four a.m. Nobody notices. If a town has a fire station and police station, someone's on duty 24/7. They will not be empty. I know of one very small town where at night there are only two police officers on duty. One is the dispatcher riding the phones. The other's out on patrol. They rotate the duty.

But someone's always there.

The language is wrong (the author is British). We don't say "I'll be there straightaway" or speak of how the highway tarmac is hot, or hyphenate "cheeseburger." 

All of these details yank my attention right out of the novel.

Here's the deal: Try to get it right. If you can't go there in person, talk to people who live there. It's actually pretty easy to do. I once got a delighted note from someone about how I had nailed a detail about a place I've never been to. The writer of the note said, "You noticed the same thing I did!"

But I didn't. The person I interviewed tossed in a great little detail, and I used it.

Try to get it right, folks. Just try to get it right.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


It's Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for family, for friends, for the ability to write and to publish, and especially for readers. 

We forget very easily that writing is not a one-way street. It's communication, and the reader does half the job, using imagination and experience to connect with the words on the page. As writers, we have to be clear and dynamic, specific and evocative. Readers owe us nothing but a little attention.

As readers, we owe the writer a chance; we need to read and pay attention and see what we can make of the words the writer has put down for us. At its best, reading is like a good game of catch, the writer throwing fastballs, curves, looping lobs, and change-ups.

And one of the greatest rewards a reader can experience is catching the meaning of a subtly expressed idea or emotion.

It's like a good hard solid smack right in the sweet spot of the old mitt.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Resting on Your Laurels? Hardly!

Resting on Your Laurels? Hardly!

Once you've finished and published a book, the temptation is to bask in the glory of being a Published Author.


If you want to be a writer, write. It's that simple, and that difficult. As you wind up one book, you should be thinking ahead to the next. I have more Jim Dallas novels in the pipeline - but first I want to write a couple of other, shorter things.

Friend of mine made something of a splash with his first novel. Hardcover, two printings, major press. He had the idea for a sequel, but he explained to me that his strategy was to wait until he had a paperback sale for the first novel before writing the second book.

So he waited...and waited...

Nearly ten years later, someone finally brought out his first novel in paperback. The hardcover publisher was no longer interested in the sequel. Everyone had forgotten about the original, and the paperback didn't sell nearly as well as the hardcover had.

So the writer's career stalled for years. Bad strategy. If he had turned in the manuscript when the hardcover publisher was saying, "Wow, this is going into a second printing - great for a first novel!" I think he would have sold the sequel.

And with two connected books out, a paperback sale would surely have come along.

When you have momentum going, don't lie back and take a rest. Your career will coast to a stop. Keep going. Write another book, and write it better than you did your first one (you should learn with every book).

That's the way careers are built.

Friday, November 9, 2012



I have just registered the copyright for the latest Jim Dallas novel, and it occurs to me that many new writers are unsure about the process.

It's not that hard. Here's the least you should know about copyright:

  1. Your work is automatically copyrighted in your name the instant you create it. You don't need to do a thing, not even put a copyright notice on your manuscript.
  2. Are you e-publishing your book or publishing as a print-on-demand book? If you are, skip 3 and go to 4.
  3. If you are submitting your work to a traditional publisher, don't add a copyright notice. The publisher takes care of that, and adding one makes you look a bit amateurish. The publisher will copyright the work in your name and you will own the copyright.
  4. If you are independently publishing your book, make sure you have a copyright notice just after the title page information: Copyright (Year), Your Name. For, let's say, Joe Bltfszptlk, that would be:     Copyright 2012, Joe Bltfszptlk    . You could also add a notice that you reserve all rights under the Berne Convention; that puts people on notice that you have claimed all rights and that no one can, say, make a movie of your book without paying you for the drama rights.
  5. After publishing the book, it's best to register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office (overseen by the Library of Congress). You will need an identifying book number (the ISBN number, or maybe the Amazon ASIN number (you buy the first from Bowker; Amazon supplies the second for free). Then you establish an account with the Copyright Office (free) and fill out an online form. You will need to upload a deposit copy of your book electronically (I do mine as .pdf files). Then you pay the fee (currently $35.00), and your rights in your work are copyrighted and registered.
  6. Note that you REGISTER the copyright AFTER publication, not before.

It's a little chore, but it's fairly easy. Takes fifteen minutes once you get into the routine. And I think it's worthwhile. We all dream of a Hollywood offer.....

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Nobody's Prefect

Nobody's Prefect

I think it's akin to a superstition. Or perhaps it's displaced anxiety. Whatever it is, it can be a new writer's nightmare: Striving for perfection.

One writer I knew agonized over format. The pages had to have exactly twenty-seven lines each, double-spaced, no more and no less. Yet there could be no "widow" lines (single lines of new paragraphs at the bottoms of pages) or "orphan" lines (last lines of paragraphs stranded by themselves at the top of a page).

Endless rewriting and tweaking to get just the right look.

And the headers - good Lord, the headers! Should the name be in the upper left corner, the title in the upper center, the page numbers in the upper right? Was boldfaced OK? Should the title be italicized? How many spaces after a comma? After a period? After a semicolon?

That way, as soneone observed, madness lies.

Face it: You will never achieve perfection. Your responsibility begins and ends with producing a professional-looking manuscript, formatted as close to the publisher's guidelines as you can manage. You're going to mys a typo here or there. Your spacing will be off somewhere.

Doesn't matter. You're not getting a grade. Neatness doesn't count, beyond the standard double-spaced text, twelve-point type, paragraphs indented, no extra blank lines between paragraphs, justified left margin, ragged right, one side of the paper only, black ink, and a standard font like Times or Bookman or some such.

Because the neatest formatting in the world won't save a crappy story. A great story will win the writer forgiveness for grievous errors in formatting.

So tell the story, and do it as well as you can. Don't waste your time striving for an unreachable star. That only counts in musicals.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Getting the Word Out

Getting the Word Out

Traditional publishers have something great going for them: distribution. They can get your book out in stores across the nation...well, the stores that still exist. Plus online, of course, with Barnes and Noble and Amazon and so on. The indie publisher doesn't have that.

However, if you're publishing a POD* or an ebook, the problem isn't exactly distribution. Customers come to you, or your POD publisher, for the books. No, your problem is letting people know the books even exist.

So what's the best publicity? Writers use Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, for one thing, networking to let people know. And Goodreads and other sites. However, it's slow going. We're still in the shakedown part of the cruise to e-publishing, and the fact is there is no really influential review site for e-books, at least not in the way the New York Times Book Review is influential in the traditional publishing scene.

It will come, somehow, in some shape or form. It's just not here yet. One way that the word can get out, I think, is by encouraging your readers to "tell two others." Word of mouth can't be beat for effectiveness and economy!

If only readers who read and like an author would do that - simply email two friends and say, "Hey, I think you'll like this book" - look how exponentially that could possibly grow. Maybe you should keep it in mind, and when you read a book you like, email two friends and recommend. I wonder what would happen.
POD="print on demand," of course. I know you knew that, but possibly someone else didn't.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Review: Looking for a Fun Fantasy Novel?

Return of the Warrior (Sleag's Quest, #1) by G.K. Hayes 

G.K.Hayes has published short stories in the horror and fantasy fields, and with Return of the Warrior he brings us a short novel, the first installment in a longer quest. It's a good read, especially for those who like the kind of high-adventure-cum-humor that Fritz Leiber used to give us in tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

Gren O'Doone left the Green Isle ages ago, when he was only fifteen, a conscript in an army that fought the wars leading to the establishment of the Three Kingdoms. It's not quite our world, but it has a nodding acquaintance with our reality. Gren's problem as he slips into middle age is that things are now a little boring, now that he's no longer a soldier but an innkeeper. And then one evening a tall stranger wrapped in animal skins comes in for a drink, and he turns out to be Sandovar Sleag, called "the Slayer," in search of local girl Lyndygell and her fatherless son. Only, it seems, a wizard-king is also on the lookout for them....

It's been many years and many pounds since Gren wielded a weapon, but he finds his boredom swept away as Sleag sets out to right a wrong and fight a foe who just may be unbeatable. There's a surface realism that nicely sets off the fantasy elements, but best of all, the characters are so well realized that they take on a life of their own. You can't help identifying with them. Check this one out!

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Busy-Ness of Writing

The Busy-Ness of Writing

There are times when writing and publishing can become time-devouring monsters. There's so much to do to see a book through the publication process that it's a wonder anybody working on it can get anything else done at all. 

If you're independently publishing, you have to see to the cover illustration, the interactive table of contents, the properly laid-out text of the book...not to mention reading through for typos. And you have to deal with converting the book to e-book format (or text, or print-on-demand). You have to assign an ISBN and register your copyright. Somewhere in there, too, you have to start working on the next one.

My advice: After you've been through the process once, sit down and write out the steps, noting the hardest one. Next time, pace yourself. Be careful to plan ahead and allow so many hours to each task. Little by little, you'll get it done, and sooner or later you'll wind up with a new book out there.

Mine, by the way, will be on Kindle on October 27 (tomorrow as I write this). Look for it, please!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Advice from a Cricket

Advice from a Cricket

You've probably never heard of Eddie Carroll, but odds are great that you've heard him. For nearly 40 years, Eddie was the voice of Disney's Jiminy Cricket (after the death of Cliff Edwards, who originated the role). He was a character actor, voiceover artist, and toured in a one-man show in which he acted the role of Jack Benny.

And despite the fact that he's not a household name, Eddie had a wonderfully rich and successful career. He used to give aspiring young voice artists a golden piece of advice that works for writers, too.

"Every day do three things to advance your career."

That's it. Every day, plot out a story. Do some writing. Blog or post on social media sites about your work. Review someone else's book. Get in touch with an editor or agent. Do some research. Write. Finish a story. Get someone to read a draft and discuss it with you. Write some more.

Keep at it. Three things a day add up.

Thanks, Eddie. Great advice.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

What's in a Name?

What's in a Name?
(More thoughts on naming characters)

So anyway, I've been thinking about the question of finding exactly the right name for a character. I mentioned Pansy O'Hara already.

How about Ormond Sacker? And his brilliant friend Sherrinford Holmes? I wonder if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have been such a success with those two. Holmes, probably. "My dear Holmes, this is fantastic!" "Not at all, Sacker."

No, I think Ormond wouldn't have cut it. 

Notoriously, John D. MacDonald had already written, if I recall correctly, three books in a series of Florida thrillers. If they went over, then he planned to continue the series. His beach-bum hero was Dallas McGee.

And as I have explained, on November 22, 1963, "Dallas" became too problematic. The story is that JDM then looked to U.S. Air Force bases for a good name and settled on Travis. It worked like a charm.

Philip Malory could be a detective, but it sounds as though he's from an English country-house mystery. When Raymond Chandler changed his moniker to Philip Marlowe, he scored a hit.

So where do you look for character names? "What to Name the Baby" books and websites help, especially if you have a particular ethnic background in mind. The last name, the family name, though...that can be tough.

Geographic origins are a possible source. Look at a large-scale map of, well, anywhere. You're apt to come up with place names that probably are derived from proper family names: Tackberry Corners. Christian Pass. Bolgeo, TN. Fredericksburg. Cantonville. Sometimes one will click.

Or literary inspiration. Chandler knew he wanted his detective to pay homage to the days of old when knighthood was in flower - Malory is from Sir Thomas Malory, author of Arthurian romances. Marlowe is from Christopher Marlowe, who was killed in either a brawl or a planned assassination (he was a spy).

John Bellairs loved to do that with his books. One features a magician named Prospero ("but not the one you're thinking about"). Another of his characters is Jonathan Van Olden Barnavelt, from the title of a play by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger ca. 1619. Another one: Anthony Monday is named for playwright Anthony Mundy, a contemporary of Shakespeare.

However, the name has to click. It just has to sound right, not almost right. Marion Wayne wouldn't be a great cowboy actor, but John Wayne might. Punchy. One-syllable names tend to have that kind of solid feel for a person of action. Freddie Porter isn't quite right for a successful businessman, nor is Fred, but maybe Frederic Porter would work - especially if he stuffily refuses to recognize any nickname.

Work at it until you're satisfied. As Old Possum told us, the naming of names really is a difficult matter.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Naming of Names

The Naming of Names

According to Old Possum T.S. Eliot, it's a difficult matter, not just one of your holiday games. And sometimes it's a struggle.

Coming up with names for your characters, that is. Ask fantasy novelists. Some of them apparently throw a dozen Scrabble tiles into a dice cup, give it a good shake, and then toss 'em and read 'em. And we get names like Wyzfhachtiz. Or Bazfazz. Or Mego.

But even if you're writing a realistic novel, sometimes the names come hard. Jim Dallas was pretty easy, though. Atlanta Bones was to feature a Florida adventurer/detective in the mold of the great John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee...who began life as Dallas McGee before the events in Dealey Plaza made JDM rethink the name.

Originally the protagonist of Atlanta Bones was going to be Dallas, no other name, but that got to feeling artificial. Jim is nice and short and fairly ordinary, so there you go.

Did you know that in the first draft of Gone With the Wind the heroine was Pansy O'Hara? Margaret Mitchell's editor hated the name and asked her to pick a more colorful one...hence Scarlett.

My rules for picking a name:

  • It ought to sound plausible.
  • Bad guys, especially, should have odd names so you won't offend too many people. So look for offbeat last names.
  • It ought to sound like a name someone actually would give his or her child. If the parents are Susie Mae and Jeb, the kid isn't likely to be Montmorency.
  • If you need to, you should be able to have a backstory. Sam Lyons is (or so he says) of Native American descent, and his name really is "Sam Two Lions." For business purposes, he made that Sam Lyons. However, I'm not sure Jim believes that. Not sure that I do, come right down to it.
  • Avoid the old-fashioned tag name (once all the rage), which is actually a kind of label, unless you're doing a funny bit or a period piece. Think of Charles Dickens's names for some of his characters: Mr. Gradgrind. Mr. M'Choakumchild. Mr. Smallweed. Or look at 18th-century plays: Mrs. Malaprop. Robert Acres (a landowner); Sir Lucius O'Trigger (he has a hair-trigger temper); Mrs. Squeamish...pace J.K. Rowling, it's not that funny a game any more.
  • Above all: If, in the process of writing, a better name occurs to you...change the original at once. Global search and replace is your friend.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ripped from the Headlines...

Ripped from the Headlines

Law and Order did it all the time on TV: take a story from the news, tweak it, and present it as fiction. Is that legit, or not?

Depends. If you have an original twist on the story, if your characters are clearly not the actual people involved, if your setting or the outcome are notably different, fair game. On the other hand, you can't use actual people as characters in your story. That opens the door to litigation.

To clarify: It's perfectly fine to let your characters mention a real character: "I mean, he's a popular singer, but he's no Justin Bieber, you know?" is okay. Having Mr. B. actually interact with your imaginary characters is a no-no.

Use your imagination if you're using elements of real life in your fiction. If you're writing a mystery thriller and you have in mind a real-life murder in which a husband drowned his wife, see how you can turn it around. Maybe the wife killed the husband. By, say, shoving him off a mountain trail instead of drowning him.

Or maybe, though the husband in real life was convicted of the killing, in your story a different husband is falsely convicted and instead someone else committed the murder. The butler. Or someone from his wife's past whom he doesn't even know. Or....

Law and Order knew its stuff. The show would sometimes have a disclaimer, something on the order of "Although there was an actual case bearing some resemblance to the story, this drama is an act of fiction and does not represent any real persons or events." They'd often even reference the real crime: If the detectives were on the trail of a serial killer,one might say, "This reminds me of the Son of Sam killings all those years ago."

Researching true stories is fine. It helps you get a sense of realism into your work. However, don't cross the line and begin using actual living people as your characters.

Ah...but historical, that's a different animal. More about that later.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Nine and Sixty Ways

The Nine and Sixty Ways

Not to harp on it too much, but sometimes I'm bemused by people who tell me definitely, "There are only eleven different plots." Sometimes it's nine. Sometimes it's seven. Sometimes it's three. One writer told me "There's only one plot: Joe gets his ass caught in a bear trap and has to get loose."

I don't know how many different variants of plot there are. I don't much care. In a poem called "In the Neolithic Age," Rudyard Kipling lets a would-be tribal poet (moved to violence by criticism of his work) learn the lesson "There are nine-and-sixty ways / Of constructing tribal lays, / And every single one of them is right."

What Mr. K. was saying is that each writer brings his or her own vision to the page, and within certain limits, anything goes. The limits? Comprehensibility. Cohesiveness. Communicative ability. The ability to touch a reader emotionally. If you can achieve these, your plot will serve.

Which means that your plot is a framework. It should hang together by cause and effect. You shouldn't bring in an enormous coincidence to wind things up (this is the deus ex machina ending, the "god from the machine," so called because some Greek tragic writers - I'm looking at you, Euripides - would wrap up messy plots by having an actor portraying a god lowered onto the stage by means of a machine, a windlass, and arbitrarily settle things: "He didn't kill the king, she did. Punish her, not him. Hmm. that makes him a widower. Okay, let's let him over there, she'll do. And, oh, yes, the kingdom is blessed now. 'Cause I'm a god, okay?").

Within the limits of being plausible and operating by cause and effect, the plot can work, can serve as the frame of your story. The timbers are the characters, their motivations, their personalities, their ability to be memorable and touching and strong.

However, a plot shouldn't have obvious holes in it (and when you get lost in your characters' lives, it's agonizingly easy to overlook a plot hole). Agatha Christie reportedly once read a mystery novel and observed that if the police had interviewed one character, someone they obviously would have questioned in real life, the mystery would have been solved in Chapter 1. She toyed with the idea and then wrote an entire novel, Why Didn't They Ask Evans? to give a plausible reason for such an oversight.

My advice? Don't worry about numbers and types of plot. Create a character. Get really interested in him or her. Give the character an enormous problem. Let the character try to solve it, only to wind up in deeper trouble.

Then go along for the ride.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The More Things Change...

The More Things Change....

Are we who we are because we were born that way, or did our environment shape us? That's the question of nature vs. nurture. We won't settle it here, but in writing it's important to find a story that lets your characters change in significant ways.

Because that's one reason we read stories: to learn how others act and react and what events shape and alter their lives. For that reason, find important stories to tell. Your characters should have something at stake, something to protect, and possibly something to lose - and the process should have an impact on the way they think and act.

It gets to be a problem with series books, of course. Unless you think of the entire series as revealing a very gradual process of growth and change, of loss and gain. Then it works like a charm.

Would A Christmas Carol be a classic if Scrooge had not changed? Don't think so. Would Pride and Prejudice be a classic if Mr. Darcy refused to unbend and Elizabeth refused to reconsider her initial judgments? Probably not. The best style in the world won't make up for characters who just refuse to change in any way.

So...ask yourself "How is my character wrong in his/her thinking and judgment and opinions? How will the character learn better?"

Pursue that. Readers like characters who are open to change. And the more difficult the process is, the more the readers like them.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Getting to Know You

Getting to Know You: Character Backstories

Writing teachers and critics talk about flat characters and round characters.  Writers should have some grasp of the concept, too.

A flat character is one without many characteristics, one that can be easily summed up in a word or phrase: "Nosy." "Gruff but lonely." "Intimidating." Flat characters rarely surprise the reader.

A round character is a complex one with many characteristics, often contradictory ones. Round characters seem more real, and they can keep the reader in suspense when faced with important decisions or actions because they are not predictable.

There's a place for flat characters. They can be very vivid and memorable, and they populate the background of a story nicely. Even important characters can be flat - many of Charles Dickens's important characters never surprise us at all but linger in the memory. Raymond Chandler's Moose Malloy is flat, and yet he's easily pictured and has a major impact on the story.

Round characters are more useful as major or very important secondary characters. However, they have to be complex. A character who is naturally timid but who holds a strong value, for example, can decide to stand his or her ground and be brave, just this once. We can sense internal conflicts and complications inside such a character.

Huckleberry Finn, who has been convinced by his whole society that his helping Jim, a runaway slave, is wrong must balance that conviction against his increasing friendship with and respect for Jim. At a crucial point, when Huck has to decide what's best for Jim, remaining a prisoner in the Deep South or being returned home to his despised life as a slave, sweats over the dilemma.

However, being complex, he recognizes a third, unthinkable choice: helping Jim break out and remain free. He sincerely believes if he does that, he is committing the unpardonable sin and will be sent to hell.

Against all his training and assumptions, he says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell." And the moment is believable because he is a round character.

In preparing to write a story, it helps to get inside the characters' minds and look at their biases, their beliefs, their agendas. What pushes their buttons? 

Try this: Make up a set of at least twenty questions. The early ones in the set should establish the basic appearance and surroundings of the character: hair and eye color, height and weight, place of birth, family, and so on.

The later ones delve into the character's mind: Biggest regret? Secret wish? Greatest fear? Most valued possession? Greatest need?

Out of those comes character. And out of character comes story.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Gleam in Your Eye

A Gleam in Your Eye: How Stories Get Started

Once at a book event I was chatting with an author whose name, I suppose, I should keep secret, though it was Stuart Woods. We were talking about agents and agencies and the tangled problem of sequel rights to a novel and what pernicious contract items writers should be wary of.

A nice lady hovered near us. Finally, she burst, out, "Oh, y'all are just talking about money. I thought authors would talk about truth and beauty."

And Mr. Woods said with great dignity, "Ma'am, money is truth and beauty."

However, another thing we chatted about was story germs. Those are the flickers of images - not even proper ideas - that stir an author's interest and make him or her wonder about the context in which they belong. Often exploring the context is the way you get into a story.

William Faulkner said that one day, unbidden, he saw a picture in his imagination: a little girl for some reason had climbed up a tree. Two boys beneath her were looking up and laughing because she was revealing her drawers, which were muddy.

Brooding about who the girl was and why she climbed up there, Faulkner eventually hatched the plot of The Sound and the Fury.

J.R.R. Tolkien began The Hobbit (and later by extension The Lord of the Rings) by picturing a burrow with a perfectly round door and idly scribbling "In a hole in the ground there lived a . . . " he paused and then wrote "Hobbit."

He wrote his masterpieces because he wanted to explore that hole and find out what the hell a "hobbit" was.

It isn't the way every writer gets started, but it can be a productive one. Daydream. Conjure up images. Look for the intriguing ones, the puzzling ones, the ones that make you wonder. A critical moment for me was when I pictured - as in a still photo - a man falling backward out of a window in a burning house.

He was falling shoulders-down, and he was on fire. And he was staring up at a woman in the broken-out window who was in an almost Sphinx-like pose, but who was enveloped in flame.

That became a central image in Atlanta Bones and one of the defining moments of Jim Dallas's life. 

In fact it existed before there was a Jim Dallas. 

Part of the reason I wrote the book was to find out who the man was, who the woman was, and what terrible event was in process.

That has netted me three complete books so far (two published, one on the way), with ten more lined up and knocking at the mind's door.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

How do you know when it's finished?

How Do You Know When It's Finished?

Lots of people ask me this: When you're writing a book, how do you know when it's finished?

I know partly because I plan out the final scenes ahead of time. When I get to them, the book is finished. Less flippantly, you know when you have done the job - when the character has changed in the way you think he or she should. When the plot has resolved. When the mystery has been cleared up. When the book has reached a point of joy or tragedy.

But I understand. Once you've done a first draft, gone back and revised and rewritten it, then done a third draft polishing up and editing and fixing the small stuff, and then gone back over once more just in case....

It gets hard to give the book up. You've lived with it for weeks and months. There's going to be a hole in your life now that it's done.

I heard a glurge* story on the radio once: A tourist is visiting the Vatican and gets separated from his group. He opens a door and discovers a monk leaning over a great bronze door, supported on sawhorses. The bronze shines like gold, and the monk is busy polishing it. He's down in the corner. Finally, he finishes, steps back, looks at his handiwork, smiles and nods.

Then he picks up his cloth and his bottle of polish, goes to the top of the door, and begins all over again. The tourist says, "Father, I'm sorry for interrupting, but this door is already perfect. You've got it gleaming like the sun, but you're polishing it again. How do you know when it's finished?"

And the monk says, "My son, I never finish with one. They just come and take it away."

There is such a thing as a self-defeating pursuit of perfection. You have to be both the monk and the ones who come and take the door away. When you have worked through the manuscript, get someone honest, someone you trust, to read it and give you suggestions. Then get out the cloth and the polish again. When that revision is over, get a second person to read the revised manuscript. You may need to shine up a few spots yet.

Then take the book away from yourself. Get it before the public if you're self-publishing, or to an agent or editor if you are going for traditional publication.

There will be a hole in your life, sure, but you know what?

You can fill it by beginning your next book.

Glurge: I don't know if this is widely used. On the discussion boards, a "glurge" story is one passed off as true, but one that is clearly a way of sneaking a moral lesson in. They can be saccharine. I think this one is useful, though.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Point of View 6

Here's the Hand-Off...

Let's say that you've decided to use close third-person narrative to tell your story. Except you want the freedom of changing viewpoint characters from time to time within the book. How in the world do you manage the transitions? How does one VP character trade off to the next?
There are many ways, some homely and straightforward. Some writers simply label passages with the names of the viewpoint characters, changing where indicated:

The wind blew cold, making him tuck his neck down and pull his head into the turtleneck of his sweater. The knife-edge of the wind nearly cut tears from his eyes.

There he was at last, Stephen, walking fast. Was he going to pass right by her without recognition?

Doesn't work for very short passages, but for scenes* or chapters* it can be quite unobtrusive. Other writers don't give character labels, but they do make some obvious reference early in a new viewpoint section so the reader doesn't feel lost.

What a crummy day. Stephen closed the apartment door behind him, wondering again what was wrong with Mary, anyway. 

Two things:

  1. You always have to be clear about the focus character yourself. With close third person, once you're in, you're in until you reach a natural transfer point to hand off the focus to another character;
  2. Your characters ought to have personal voices so that, even without a label, their habitual way of thinking, of phrasing, of seeing the world, identifies each point of view as distinctive and different from all the others.
*Scene - A scene is an arc of continuous action, narrated with attention to setting, character, action, dialogue, and detail. It may last only a paragraph or two, but more often scenes run about 500-1000 words.
*Chapter - A logical collection of scenes, length flexible. Sometimes a very brief chapter will be one scene long; more often, a chapter is from three to ten scenes long. Like a scene, a chapter should be something of a unit, making its own point and carrying the action forward to what seems like a natural point of rest before the next section picks it up again. It is possible to write an entire book consisting only of scenes, with no chapters. See most of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books as an example.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Point of View 5

Trust Me...or Not

Once a Name Author invited me to a lunch where a group of his friends were meeting. One of the other lunchers was a very successful writer of true-life borderline supernatural books: bigfoot, ufos, things like that. I arrived before he - let's call him Andy - showed up, and the others cautioned me, "We're going to have some fun with Andy. Don't tip him off."

So Andy showed up and, as writers will, they talked shop. One of them said, "Hey, I just got my first offer of a six-figure contract for a new novel."

Andy said, "I got six figures for my first book. I'm almost up to million-dollar advances now, but my accountant told me not to go any higher for tax purposes, so I'm taking most of the income as royalties."

Another said, "Man, when we flew in, the weather was rough. Our plane bounced around so much that the luggage compartments sprang open and the suitcases fell out."

Andy said, "Yeah, I was taking flying lessons a year ago and I was on my first solo when a tornado blew up and I had to fly through it. It ripped the landing gear off the plane and I had to make a belly landing....."

Everything anyone mentioned - and it grew outrageous - Andy had done better. I quickly decided that Andy was a compulsive liar, something everyone else in the group already knew. Put his books in a whole different light.

Even a first-person narrator is not always to be trusted. We embroider the truth, we bend the facts, and sometimes we lie. Narrators are the same. Christopher Priest's novel The Prestige has two first-person narrators, and both of them are unreliable. Neither tells the truth, and part of the reward of reading the book is trying to discern exactly where the truth may lie.

Pun intended.

Some narrators are unreliable because, like Andy, they lie to the reader. Others, like Huckleberry Finn, are naive and simply don't know the whole truth behind the stories they are narrating. An untrustworthy narrator can add a whole new dimension to a story. The catch, of course, is that at some point the reader has to know that the narrator speaks with a forked tongue.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Point of View 4

Point of View: Getting Really Close

Third-person point of view can be extremely versatile in narration. It can either be objective - a neutral narrative that does not look inside any of the characters to reveal their thoughts or feelings - or at the other extreme it can be close point of view.

Close point of view latches onto one viewpoint character and freely enters that one's mind and feelings. Traditional limited third-person still has a certain amount of distance:

Harold slumped in his chair, feeling despondent. What was the use, he thought. Mildred would never love him. He felt an urge to leave the library. What if Mildred came in right now and saw him? What could he say to her? He got up and quickly walked to the exit.

Move a little closer and give the thoughts and feelings more directly:

Harold slumped in his chair, his throat tight. What's the use? Mildred can never love me. He didn't want to stay in the library. She might come in at any moment and what would I say to her? He made for the exit.

Deftly done, the blend of direct feelings and interior monologue can draw a reader into a character's life.

But remember this in getting close: Don't stand outside the character. Or at least don't do it too much. When a narrator comments on a character, that immediately provides a bit of distance. If you don't want that distance, keep the narrative close. See things from the character's point of view.

Harold slumped down in the chair, his throat aching. What was the use, Mildred could never love him. Might as well get up and leave the library. What if she should come in? What to say to her? Useless....

Move in as close as you can for these kinds of effects. At its best, close third-person narration gets you both the freedom of third-person and also the immediacy of first-person point of view.

Hey, a twofer!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Point of view 3

Point of View: I Am a Camera

Okay, so omniscient third-person point of view lets us know what everyone is thinking and feeling; limited third-person point of view lets us know what one person is thinking and feeling (and we will eventually get into some variants and possibilities with these). First-person point of view is narration by a character within the story. It has its own rewards and penalties.

First-person point of view can give a story a sense of immediacy and verisimilitude. Daniel Defoe discovered that in Robinson Crusoe, when he presented the story as Crusoe's own reminiscences about his forty-year sojourn on a desert island, accompanied only by the native Friday, and that for only part of the stay.

Crusoe is a character you can believe in. He's able to survive, but only just. He is candid, telling us about his foolish mistakes and failures of judgment. He invites us to share in his anxieties, his accomplishments, and his triumphs. We believe him because he says, "I was there, and this is what happened." We trust that narrating voice.

However . . . with first-person narration throughout a book, the writer is pretty much stuck with that one character. We can only go where our narrator goes, only experience the things he or she experiences, and only be aware of his or her thoughts and feelings. It's an intimate point of view, but it prevents a certain sweep.

True, first-person is all but obligatory in some forms of writing. The hard-boiled detective story is almost always told by the detective character. Randy Wayne White did the first couple of Doc Ford books in different points of view (third-person) but seems to have settled in for first-person now. It fits like a good glove.

Of course Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler paved the way with the Continental Op and Philip Marlowe. Ross MacDonald polished it up with Lew Archer, and John D. MacDonald made the narrator - Travis McGee - at least as interesting as the puzzles he tries to solve.

Here's something: my first stab at Atlanta Bones was third-person limited, because I had some idea of balancing good guy/bad guy scenes, showing each trying to outmaneuver the other. 

I didn't like the result. Going back to the good old first-person point of view solved my problems of construction on that one very nicely.

Though I have written many third-person point of view stories, I think that for thrillers I'll stick with first-person. It just feels natural to me.

Although, as with third-person there are variants and furbelows that can enhance the experience. More about them later.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Point of View 2

Point of View: Limited Omniscience

So omniscient point of view is a third-person narration (He said, she said, he did, she did) that can tell us at any moment what any character thinks or feels.  It was once very popular, but is less so today.

Drawbacks include the fact that it can be confusing; that it can be infuriating (if the reader can know everything but the writer prevents the reader from doing that...); and that it sometimes hamstrings a writer who needs to hold back information for suspense but who can't conscientiously do that if we know what everyone's thinking.

And so someone invented "limited omniscient third-person point of view." Just rolls off the old tongue, doesn't it?

Basically, this means that the writer limits the narrative to what just one person is thinking or feeling at a time. Write a short scene in first person. Then go back and change all the I's to he or she. You now have a third-person limited scene.

Or think of the narrator as an invisible elf who rides around on ONE character's shoulder and who can peer inside that character to learn how the character thinks and feels about the situation. My gut feeling is that third-person limited narration is the most popular today among readers, but I have nothing to back that up.

What you gain: You have some of the immediacy of first-person narrative, but without the egotistical "I, I, I" effect. Readers can more readily identify with the one character whose inner life they share. You avoid the confusion of grasshopper omniscience, leaping from head to head in a confusing way.

There are limitations, of course. If you stick to one viewpoint character for an entire book, you have to limit the reader to what that character experiences. Unless . . . 

Tame that grasshopper. Let your narrator make the leap to another person for stretches of the book. But time the leaps. Change viewpoint character at the end of a chapter, or the end of a scene.

And as you're doing that, go back and read what I wrote about creating characters with individual voices. This limited omniscience can work well to round out a number of characters in your saga.

Provided they don't all sound and think the same.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Point of View 1

Point of View: Sitting in God's Chair

When it comes to writing fiction, point of view means the location of your narrator with respect to the story. If the narrator is a character within the story, he or she will use the first-person pronoun "I" and will interact with the other characters*: Dr. Watson in most of the Sherlock Holmes stories,  the nameless narrator of Rebecca, Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but NOT in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are all examples of first-person narrators. Naturally enough, this is first-person point of view.

However, probably a majority of fiction is told from the third-person point of view. Here the narrator is located outside the story--is not a character, in other words. We assume that the narrating voice is that of the author, and the narrator uses third-person pronouns, he, she, they, and so on, to refer to all the characters. The Harry Potter books are third-person, the 87th Precinct detective novels are third-person, and so on.

We are concerned right now with a variant called the third-person omniscient point of view. As "omniscience" hints, in this one the author knows and can tell everything about everybody. The narrator can reveal what any character thinks or feels at any point, even within the same sentence: "Rocco lied, hoping that O'Banion would believe him, while O'Banion struggled to keep a straight face as he nodded and murmured, 'I see, I see.'"

Well, why the heck not? I mean, the writer creates the characters. Why not tell what everybody is thinking all the time?

One big reason is that third-person omniscient point of view makes you job much harder. It defuses tension and removes mystery. And it's hard to keep straight. Errors occur. I noticed in one best-selling novel written in this point of view that one of the characters involved in a group discussion got up and left the room. Three paragraphs later the author gave his reaction to something another character had just said - but the guy in question was out of the room and couldn't have heard the remark. The writer just lost track.

Personally, I think that point-of-view confusion involving omniscience is responsible for Mario Puzo's having accidentally omitted the entire year of 1946 from The Godfather. I'm not kidding. After Don Vito is shot on Christmas Eve, 1945, we go directly to the big gang war of 1947, which starts a few days after the assassination attempt.

In the early days of the novel, first-person point of view dominated, though it was often serial first-person, with different narrators taking turns telling the story; this is mainly because many of the first English novels were epistolary stories, told through such devices as letters written by different characters (as is the case with a much later novel, Dracula). Then the omniscient point of view became popular. Thackeray and Dickens both wrote long novels in third-person omniscient point of view.

Today, well, I'd advise the newer writer to avoid tackling full omniscient point of view. There are other ways to tell a story, and we'll look at a few of them in later installments.

*It occurs to me that an exception is "S.S. Van Dyne," the putative author/narrator of the Philo Vance detective novels, popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Van Dyne is Vance's "Watson," but as far as I can remember he never says a word of dialogue and rarely if ever uses the word "I"--he's just sort of there, and now and then the other characters will refer to him, but he's at best a very ghostly presence as a first-person narrator.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"I did it my way"

I Did It My Way: On Following "Rules"

If Hal Holbrook is to be believed, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday celebration, Mark Twain is supposed to have advised, "I got to seventy by strictly adhering to a style of living that would kill anybody else . . . . If you can't get to seventy in the way most comfortable to you, my advice is don't go."

Something like that applies to advice on writing. Actually, I have only one ironclad rule for new writers:

If any writing rule rubs you the wrong way, ignore it. Including this one.

Because people are individuals, you see. When I advise, "Outline your work," that is because outlining has worked for me and many other writers.

It doesn't work for everyone. Some free spirits just . . . write, without knowing what's going to happen or who the characters are. I could not do that, but if it works for others, fine. Raymond Chandler notoriously never planned anything. When asked about plotting, he said, "When things get slow, I just have a guy with a gun come through the door and see what will happen."

When William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett were adapting Chandler's novel The Big Sleep for the movies, as a Hollywood story has it, the two hit a snag. They read the book cover to cover but could not solve their problem. So Faulkner supposedly called Chandler.

Faulkner asked, "Mr. Chandler we need to know who killed Owen Taylor, the chauffeur."

Chandler gave him a name, but Faulkner said, "No, sir, he was clear across town at the time and couldn't have done it." Chandler said he'd get the book and call back.

When he did, Chandler said, "I don't know who in the hell killed him. I thought I did, but I don't."

So in the movie, as in the novel, Taylor's murder is never cleared up. That does not make the novel or movie bad, but it does indicate that one can simply fly free of any planning or outlining and write a good stick.

So, if any advice I happen to give doesn't resonate with you, ignore it. You won't hurt my feelings.

And you just might write a good story.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Dialect Do's, Dialect Don't's

Last time I wrote about voice, an important component of characterization. This time I want to put down a few words on dialect.

Dialect, of course, is a regional way of using a language. It includes pronunciation and vocabulary. Pronunciation is the reason why in Maine they pahk the cah in the yahd and in Florida they park the car in the yard. Vocabulary is the reason why in New England it's a soda, in St. Paul it's a pop, and in Georgia it's a Coke, no matter what the brand.

Dialect is so colorful that it often tempts writers into ghastly error. "Aw, ah dun wen an dun at arredy, Mawmaw," he drawled.

Too much already. When you decide a character will speak in dialect, restrict yourself to a few key words to indicate pronunciation (it's fine to use regional vocabulary, though you may need to finesse a way to explain what the term means to speakers of general English).

Caribbean? Maybe a few "mon's" will help. But "Dat's fo' troo mon" is too much. "That's for true, mon," would work just as well. Work on the cadences and the lilt and not so much on distorted words.

Southern? First of all, there are all sorts of Southern: Piedmont, as spoken by the late Andy Griffith; Tidewater, in which "out" sounds like "oot"; Plantation, which is the one always faked by non-Southern actors. Be sure of your region. And there's no reason to spell "I" "Ah." Everybody knows already.

"That jes' ain't right, now," he drawled. "I mean, yeah, a man can git tangled up with the law sometimes, but to shoot a feller down f' nothin', now, that ain't right."

Be sure you know your dialect. Then think of it as a condiment, not a main dish. A little sprinkle helps to individualize characters and give them flavor; too much, and the reader tosses the whole dish into the garbage pail. Or trash can. Or waste bin.

Depends on where you're coming from, mon. Yaknowwaddimean?

Sunday, September 16, 2012



No names, but not long ago I read a novel by a heavy-tech science-fiction sort of author that bugged me. The writer elected to tell the story all in first person, but with multiple narrators, about eight in all. Each one took turns in telling his/her parts of the story.

But - here's the rub - they all sounded exactly alike.

That is, nothing in the style of Mr. A's narrative in the least distinguished it from Ms B's, and so on. The only way of knowing who was telling the story at any given point was to go back and see whose name was in italics at the beginning of the current section.

And these were not clones.

Everyone has a distinctive voice. Think of your phone ringing, and you answer without even checking the caller ID. If it's a friend of yours, chances are you don't need the speaker to introduce himself or herself. Three words and you know who it is, just from the voice.

That should be applicable to first-person narrative, too. The speaker should be immediately identifiable by diction and syntax and attitude - by voice. This isn't rocket surgery, folks.

Look at some first-person narrators who do have a distinctive voice: Huckleberry Finn. Jim Hawkins and Dr. Livesey in Treasure Island. Bertie Wooster in any Jeeves novel (but one; Bertie was left out of Ring for Jeeves, and it is not the usual sparkling nonsense). Philip Marlowe. Kinsey Millhone. Jane Eyre.

To pull off a convincing voice, you must imagine yourself into the skin of your character. On the most superficial level, you can use tricks of style: "I reckon I'd better start in to tell y'all about..." or "I was nurtured to be a gentlewoman, and, alas, that is what I have become."

But to create a really convincing speaker, you have to put on those shoes and walk around in them and see the world as that character does. You have to be an actor as well as a writer.

It all starts by being aware. Remember that your narrators must have their own identities; they cannot be carbon copies of each other; they must not be dull or be made so by a lack of differentiation.

A writer friend of mine once complained that I had a fairly colorful minor character in and out of only one scene in a novel. "What's his name?" my friend asked.

"I didn't give him a name," I said. I mean, he was in for maybe five hundred words of a ninety-thousand-word novel.

"Dammit," my friend thundered at me, "Everybody gets a name!"

He was right. If you want to engage readers at all, each and every one of your characters deserves a name.

And a voice.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Double Vision

Double Vision

One thing that (in my opinion anyway) a good writer must have is the ability to see the writing two ways simultaneously: as writer and as reader. You have to craft words and at the same time see them as though someone else crafted them.

Too much emphasis on crafting means the writer becomes precious, arrogant, overly assertive. This kind of writer is an editor's nightmare. Everything this writer produces is, in his or her not so humble opinion, Holy Writ. Not a word, not a comma may be changed. It's all perfect.

But too much emphasis on seeing the words fresh, as though written by someone else, means the writer will become frustrated, never achieving that perfect vision of the story a-dance in his or her head. This writer is over-critical, insecure, and discourages himself or herself in the long run.

So the balance is becoming bifocal. Part of your writing mind is the writer, planning and creating a balance of description, characterization, dialogue, action, and, oh yes, plot. The other part is the critical reader, constantly musing, "Is this the only way of getting this idea across? Would it work better as dialogue? Hmm. Is there a better, more precise word for what I mean? Hmm...."

It is a delicate act, to teeter between being too writerly and too readerly. Some people can't manage it and fall to one side or the other, which means they never can attain the success they wish for. Those writers who do are successful, for a given definition of "success." They publish and they are read.

Those who can hit and maintain the balance become great. And the secret to that  is - well, between you and me, I just wish I knew.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Reader Response

Sometimes I get reader responses to my books. Here's one of the latest:

"I'm in love with Jim Dallas!"

Sometimes I'm not sure how to take reader responses to my books....

Sunday, September 9, 2012

E-books for Sale

Lest we forget....Two of the Jim Dallas series of Florida thrillers are out and available now, Atlanta Bones and Cuban Dagger. If you're a mystery fan, give them a try. You can read a free sample of each either at or at And if you like them, I'm currently writing the third, Eden Feint

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Stick to the Schedule

Stick to the Schedule

Back from when I first started writing, I have the manuscripts of five novels that I'll never publish. First, they aren't very good. Second, while long, none of them is complete.

I ran out of steam two-thirds or more of the way through. Let them drift. Lost them.

So one thing I've learned is to establish a writing schedule. If you have trouble getting through a novel, don't fall into either of two bad traps:

  1. Decide you're going to go back and do revisions before writing any more;
  2. Decide to put the book away for a little while and then get back to it.
Problem with the first is that you're apt to get caught in an endless loop, seeking perfection with what you have before bringing the novel to a close. You can't be perfect, and neither can the book. It's vital to have a whole block of marble before you begin to chip away to release the statue inside.

And you have to have a whole book before you can meaningfully revise it.

Problem with the second is that we all procrastinate. Well, I don't, but I'm planning to do it tomorrow, maybe.

Seriously, it's so easy to let it slide, until it's slipped beyond your grasp. The novel becomes a stillbirth, dead before it lived.

Avoid this by creating your own schedule for writing. It does not have to be onerous, but you do have to be dedicated to it. Most writers I've talked to have a writing time - Every day at five a.m. or nine p.m. or whatever, they sit down and write for an hour, or two, or four, or eight. Adjust to your life. 

If you give writing one hour a day, every day, for a year, you'll have a novel.

I prefer, however, to have a target. On an absolutely perfect day, I've written as many as 10,000 words. That's very rare. 

My target is 1,000 words. Every day. Seven thousand words a week, minimum. I almost always do more, 1,500 or 2,000, but I have to stay at the keyboard until I've hit at least a thousand.

A thousand words a day. In twelve weeks, you'll have a draft of a nearly 100,000-word novel.

It may not be perfect, it may need cutting and fixing and trimming and editing, but it's there. It's your block of marble.

And now you can chip away until you've uncovered your Galatea.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Why E-Books?

Why e-Books?

I just got an e-mail from a reader who says, "both books are so good that I wonder why they didn't come out as paper books first."

Looks like Ken has some 'splainin' to do.

Okay, first point: when I finished Atlanta Bones, which I wrote on spec (i.e., with no publishing contract), I sent it in to my agent, who regretfully turned it down. "There's just not a market for this kind of suspense-adventure right now," he told me, and he does know the field.

But why isn't there a market?

The economy has a great deal to do with it. You might have noticed bookstores disappearing. Some wholesale, like the Borders and Waldenbooks chains. In hard times, people just don't buy as many books - especially when they have to fork out eight or ten bucks for a paperback.

Then, too, reading habits change. People are getting accustomed to reading on Kindles, Nooks, and iPads. E-books are beginning to outsell paper books.

I read recently some dismal news: the average nonfiction book by a new writer, published in paper, today sells fewer than 2,000 copies. E-book sales, on the other hand, are increasing.

But it's an unknown world for the big publishers . . . yes, still. Look at how many of them price an e-book at fifteen or twenty dollars or more. And then they will tell you that e-books don't sell.

To quote the gorilla who walked into the bar, "At these prices, I'm not surprised."

So I decided to take a chance. I'd self-publish the books, keep the prices reasonable, and see how they did. So far they're doing . . . okay. Enough to encourage me to continue writing them, at any rate.

After all, overhead costs are minimal for self-publishing. Each of the Jim Dallas novels, including the copyright registration, the ISBN numbers, and the cover art, cost less than seventy dollars to produce. Both have "earned out" and a little better.

And now, I hope, the readership will gradually grow as more novels appear. I don't have any sales stock in a warehouse. There's no overhead. So, faced with the prospect of no publication at all because there's no market for that kind of book or e-publication, I opted for the latter.

What writer wouldn't?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Two things not to do...

Two Things Not to Do

First, you should do your research. This is remarkably easy with the interwebz. In a twinkling I can find the name of a good restaurant in Aruba, or the best place to stab someone you wish to silence quickly. Gold, man.

But there are two things you should be extra-special careful about, especially if you are writing mysteries or thrillers. Cars and guns.

People flat-out love cars. They are protective of auto images in fiction, and if you make a mistake, they will WRITE IN AND LET YOU KNOW. If you can, run car details past a car nut, if you know one that won't get you involved in a long disquisition about the differences in Positraction and Equa-Lock.

I don't. I miss Tom Deitz, who passed away a few years ago and who would tell you in detail why such and such a car could not take off with a squeal of tires. But double-check your cars.

And double-double check your weaponry. I'm not much of a shooter myself, but I've got a relative who is retired from law-enforcement. When I was looking for a good sidearm for Jim Dallas, he said, "A cool one would be the old Colt .38 Official Police revolver. It's about the only series of revolver that has a safety."

He also explained that it's outmoded today because of the relatively wimpy caliber - but former cops love these things, and in the hands of a good marksman, they're as good as a 9-mm in stopping bad guys.

Okay, so I chose that one. But what he didn't tell me was that the Colt positive safety is not something you set. It merely has a block that prevents the hammer from striking the primer unless one pulls the trigger. 

So in Cuban Dagger I had some throwaway line about the safety being "on," when it's not something you turn on or off. A reader pointed out the mistake, and I have since corrected it. That's a case of knowing almost enough but not quite.

Moral: Quadruple-check your gun research. Because, like car fanciers, gun fanciers are knowledgeable and protective of their favorites.

But...they are armed.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A matter of style

A Matter of Style

Once someone asked me a question about writing that flummoxed me: "When do you put in the style?"

Short answer: I dunno. Longer one: Style isn't a spice that you sprinkle in somewhere in the course of a recipe. It's a normal outgrowth of your writing and your personality.

Oh, it can be conscious. As you write more, you become more aware of the words you use and how you put them together in sentences. If you have a reasonably good ear, you hear their rhythms. And then you begin to work on your style.

Because style is essentially word choice (diction) and syntax (sentence structure). You can choose plain, fancy, or esoteric words; you can put them together to create long or short sentences, simple or complex sentences, crystal-clear or subtly misleading sentences. Your call.

Style gives your writing voice and life. It's what makes your writing sound like you, or like your first-person character if you've created a narrator like Jim Dallas. And it's the words that light the fireworks in your reader's head, illuminating and sparkling the meaning you're putting on the page.

Read some varied writers and notice style. P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster is a blithering-idiot-savant of style, making diction choices from Edwardian public-school slang ("everything is oojah-cum-spiff"); he mangled half-remembered quotations ("Jeeves, many a morning rumpty-tumpty-tum te tum, only to so on and so forth, if you see what I mean.); and he created sentences that are glorious in their surprise and humor ("He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.").

Contrast that with a schoolfellow of Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler, who began The Big Sleep like this: "It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark-blue shirt, tie, and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, and sober, and I didn't care who knew it."

Master the language. Know that you don't always have to pile up adjectives to describe a scene. Write with strong nouns and verbs, the more precise the better. Vary the placement of modifiers just to see the effect - instead of "a pretty, tall blonde smiled at me," try "a blonde tall and pretty smiled at me." Decide what you like and keep it. Junk the rest.

Do a lot of reading. When you hit a sentence that fizzes and buzzes in your head, stop a minute and ask yourself how the writer did that. When you start noticing the word choices, the way sentences are built, and the music of the language, you've begun to discover just how to put in the style.