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.