Thursday, March 29, 2012

On Hiatus

As I alluded to last week, this blog will unfortunately go without new material for a little while.  Hopefully not very long, but I can't give an exact time frame.

I am leaving today on a business trip to the Phlippines and won't exactly be staying at a five star hotel.  I expect to get a modicum of Internet access in about a week or so, but I don't know if I'll be able to access the blog to add more material - the reachback system we'll be using might have a great deal blocked, and this could be something I can't get to.  Even if I were to be able to get regular access, I expect to be busy enough to exclude prolific posting, although I'll try to get up once ort twice a week with something, if possible.

Don't worry - I'll be back soon enough.  Internet access or not, I'll be back at it by the 6th of May.  Until then, please browse around, check out the sites on the blogroll, or do whatever it is you do when you're not visiting me.  I hope you'll rejoin the fray upon my return.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Blog Awards and an Author Interview

First, I want to thank Vanessa Eccles for giving me a Liebster Blog award.  According to Vanessa, Liebster means "favorite" or "beloved," and the award is given to bloggers with under 200 followers which are considered "the best kept secrets."

Now the fun part.  I get to pass the award along to five other brilliant bloggers. Here are some of my favorites:
1.  My wife Sherry at her blog about Cystic Fibrosis - Truly Living With CF
2.  Kevin Hanrahan, featured below, at - Kevin Hanrahan
3.  Ron Mackay discusses his tours of the Middle East at - Ronald of Arabia
4.  High calorie recipes for folks with Cystic Fibrosis at - High Calorie Recipes
5.  Shanee Duke talks about southern living at - Living Life Southern Style

Winners, here are the rules to participate:
1.  Thank the person which nominated you in a post.
2.  Nominate up to five other blogs.
3.  Let them know via comment on their site.
4.  Post the award on your blog.

On to the next topic - today I have the true privilege to interview Kevin Hanrahan, an officer in the United States Army and author of the book, Paws On The Ground.

1.    Where did you get the inspiration from for Paws on the Ground?

I vividly remember the moment the idea of writing a book popped into my head. I was in Kabul. It was early November, 2010, and United States forces lost three military working dogs and two handlers in a single day.  We had a really bad few weeks where we were losing dogs or handlers almost every day. I read the reports and thought to myself, people need to know what these kids and their dogs are doing out here. These kids and their dogs are heroes.  At the time I was reading a lighthearted book about a vineyard in Tuscany and thought, I could do this. I can write a book. In fact I’m gonna write a book. Yes, it was as easy as that, and I just decided to do it. I actually posted a longer explanation on my website.

2.    How long did it take?  Take me through the process –  did you write every day,  did you outline first, etc.

In November of 2010, I brainstormed during my lunchtime elliptical machine workout in the tent we had for a gym in Kabul and developed an outline which looked like this:  
Intro 10K words
Training 25K words
Afghanistan 40K words
Ending 5K words
Total 80K words

I wrote this “comprehensive” outline in the back of my green Army issued notebook. I also used that notebook to write ideas during my travels around Afghanistan. I look at that outline now and wonder how the heck I wrote a comprehensive book with proper arc and plotting.
I established a daily and weekly writing goal for myself. My goal was 3,500 words a week, which would have had me finishing the novel prior to my re-deployment. In hindsight, it was a simple goal, but there were many weeks I wrote nothing because I was working. I like to think of that time as “field” research.
With an outline established, I went to work and started writing the next morning. As I did every day afterwards I woke at 5:00 AM, went to my office with my laptop, brewed coffee, and started to write. I wrote one thousand words the first morning and never looked back. I finished my first edit the day before I flew home to the states. It was May 5th, 2011.
3.    How would you describe your style to someone who has never read you before?
I’m a Soldier in the United States Army with real life experience, and I write about what I know. I write for the average person because that is who I am. My first novel is a character based commercial fiction….. think Rin Tin Tin meets the Hurt Locker. But if you closed your eyes it could easily be happening in Afghanistan today.
4.    What was your editing process like, and how close to your first draft did the original come?
My manuscript ended up being 146,000 words when I left Afghanistan. Yep, 60K over my goal length. It is crazy now to think about that. I was actually proud I could write something that long…of course I could never sell it!
My next draft, with the help of my writing coach and first editor, was 126,000 words. After being rejected by all the agents that asked for a submission, I moved on to a very experienced NY based editor.  But I already knew one of the major problems in the manuscript:  the length of the back story and pacing.

My new editor read the book and gave me a four page summarization on some areas to work on. I conducted a two month edit and cut the first 175 pages in the book, then added 10K words of more in depth writing to the heart of the story and reworked the new starting point in the novel.

Two weeks later, my editor told me to work on three more things, so I basically killed the opening for my female heroine, wrote a more compelling story line for her, and added another 10K of in depth writing. We then passed the first five chapters back and forth until we got them perfect.

So when it went back to the editor, it was sitting at 110K words. I expect it to be just under 100K when he is finished with his edit. He should be done by the end of March 2012.

5.    How much interest have you gotten and from who?  What kind of timeline to you see before we can pick up Paws on the Ground?

I had about 15 requests from submissions. Many were big time agents. I honestly had no clue who any of them were when I submitted to them. Of course the manuscript wasn’t ready and they all subsequently rejected me. I did find my editor through an agent and got some great guidance from several agents. I currently have a list of nine agents who have requested a submission (or resubmission) when the edit is completed. My hope is that once this book sells, it will be rushed to publication. I really don’t have enough experience though to predict a time line when it will hit the shelves. I’m giving you a preview though on my website with stories directly from the front lines.
6.    You’ve spoken about the people and dogs involved.  Is there any one person or animal in particular that stands out?
In Afghanistan there was one dog that really stood out to me. Archie, the chocolate lab, was an explosive-finding machine. When I saw him down in Kandahar I could see every rib on his body. The heat and constant patrolling really took a toll on him. He was back in Kandahar to rest and was just a sweetheart. I based one of the characters in my novel on this lovable 4- legged beast. Many of the explosive finds Archie had in Afghanistan are exactly the same ones that Paws of the Ground star Chica has in the book.

7.    Will Paws on the Ground be your only book, or do you have something else you’ll be working on once this one is finished?

I’ve already started the next novel in this series, but it may take a back burner to a new project. I’m currently hammering out details for collaboration with a successful and experienced author. I can’t say any more about that right now until our deal is finalized.

8.  Did you ever envision yourself as a writer?
I’ve always loved to write and create…..but envisioning myself as a writer…..not really. Now I can’t stop writing. Of course I never envisioned myself as an Army Officer either and I’m doing a pretty decent job at that.
9.    What kinds of books do you like to read?
History, Historical Fiction, suspense, crime, mysteries and some classics….to name a few. Have book, will read! I was an obsessive reader as a child. Now I have limits on my time.
10. What advice would you give aspiring authors?
Just write, don’t give up, and learn from others how to be successful. Nothing in life comes easy -  hard work, dedication and will are critical in any endeavor you pursue.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


I love stories that show imagination, those plot lines that stretch the boundaries of what we thought possible.  However, within that universe, the general story itself must be consistent.  No, I don't go around and nitpick every little detail to ensure it shows continuity from the previous incarnation, but those that are wildly off the mark draw my attention and have the potential to ruin my enjoyment.

We find comfort in the worlds that writers create.  We get wrapped up in our favorite characters, and while they provide an escape, they also provide a sense of security in an otherwise inconsistent world. As characters and worlds grow on us through the course of a novel or a series, we come to expect certain things.  Within an acceptable range, the people in our stories react and interact in a certain manner, and it adds to our buy-in.  The worlds created by a writer do the same thing - we envision ourselves on the steppes of Vallenia, riding along with the Tugar Horde, or picking our way through the Enchanted Forest with Hagrid.

However, when these things do something out of the ordinary, it throws us off and disrupts the flow.  A little surprise is exciting, but that surprise needs to make a certain amount of literary sense.  It would make no sense for Jack Ryan to suddenly be an Asian woman with a penchant for knitting or for Robert Neville to wake up in the middle of a bustling metropolis.  Such deviations make a story silly as opposed to wondrous.

This problem manifests itself the worst in sequels, usually by ignoring the story's history.  In the original Zorro - The Curse of Capistrano - Johnston McCulley was so inconsistent that it makes reading the anthology as anything but a series of independent tales pointless(Captain Roman dies at the end of the first story and Zorro is revealed to be Don Diego Vega, but the books afterwards, such as The Tales of Zorro, ignore this, leaving Roman alive and Zorro's identity still secret).  This can be maddening as we get invested in a novel, only to have later works supposedly set in the same world show wildly divergent themes, thus ruining what we thought the novel was about.

To a certain extent, this can be understandable - an author has to keep the history of his or her world in mind while writing, and they usually do this from memory(yes, some have elaborately detailed arcs that are meticulously written out on poster board, but that is rare).  However, maintaining a semblance of order is one of the things that keeps us as readers sane.  We want to be thrilled and challenged, but usually within a set of boundaries.  Writers that brazenly ignore these boundaries risk alienating their audience. A person might slam down a book, so mad that they vow to never read that author again.  When that happens too often, a writer might as well shout his or her stories into the wind, because that's about the only thing that will listen.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lost In Translation

We've all heard the refrain, The movie was ok, but I liked the book better.  Why is that?  Why do you almost never hear the reverse claiming that the movie, a visual medium, was more enthralling than words on a page.

To me, there are several factors at work.  The first is that in books, we have to use our own imagination.  We aren't blindly following some Hollywood director's vision of what should be, but rather forming our own version.  There's usually a reason the best books are those in which someone says, "I can totally see this as a movie!"  Sure, not all the time, but the visualization that we come up with is better suited to our individual tastes.  Plus, it helps us picture ourselves in the show, possibly as the main character, possibly as merely an observer, but we feel that much closer to the action.

Second, we usually read the book before we see the movie.  Think about it - the most rabid fans of Lord of the Rings, Twilight, The Hunger Games, etc, are the ones who devoured the books and then demanded more.  Those are the folks who camp out in front of movie theaters and spend endless hours talking about who should play the lead. And then when it finally comes out, the film seems a bit...anticlimactic.  I think this is due, again, to our own imaginations.  We've already seen the film in our minds and know just how it should play out, so when our preconceived notions hit the reality of what's on the screen, it rarely, if ever, matches up.  It's kind of like that birthday party you looked forward to as a kid - the anticipation was always greater than the end result seemed to justify.

Third, Hollywood simply can't do justice to most books in the 2 hours they have to tell the story.  Key elements that we all knew from the novel had to be cut, or not filmed altogether, so they could meet budgetary and time constraints.  The Harry Potter films are a perfect example of this.  The first three books could be fit(just barely) into the allotted time, and even then they a.) were a bit long, and b.) still left out a few fun book things.  I would've liked to see the garden de-gnoming that Harry and the Weasleys had to do at the Burrow, but it never made it into the film.  And by the time Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire rolled around, the books were just too large to get in the given time.  The director recognized this for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and split it into two movies, but this could have easily been done for any of the previous three.

Worse sometimes is that Hollywood will change things that then make no sense given the context of the novel.  The Shining by Stanley Kubrick made Jack Torrance the focus of the Overlook's desire, but in the book, the only reason the hotel drove Jack insane was so that he'd kill Danny, thus allowing the hotel to absorb Danny's psychic abilities.  The Running Man by Paul Michael Glaser made it so that Richards was loose in a mostly contained disaster area and getting the girl instead of having the entire world at his fingertips and killing Killian in the end by crashing a plane into him, thereby ruining the hopeless elements of the story.  I think this kind of license is what infuriates most people, because it's not even close to the story they thought they'd be getting.

For these reasons, books, at least in some form, will never die. We can spin a yarn more easily and with greater focus on the story than we can through film.  Yes, we are visual creatures, but only to the extent our imaginations are invoked. When our imagination is insulted, as a lot of movies tend to do, we grow jaded.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Slacking Off

I have something to admit - I've been slacking off.

Maybe you're asking yourself how that can possibly be.  Why, Russ blogs consistently three times a week!  He's always there for us to help provide the one unchanging part of our ever-changing world.  Quite simply, it comes down to trying to get my books published.

I haven't done diddly squat with them recently.

Yes, I've been blogging about writing, but I haven't done anything in the past little while to get my books in front of readers.  Oh sure, I started out like gangbusters back in August when I sent out eight initial queries for Salvation Day, but after I got rejected by most - I say most b/c three didn't even answer - I only sent out six more letters the following month.  Then two the next month.  And I haven't sent out a single query on Salvation Day since October.

I placated myself with empty words about it being hard since my novel was 140,000 words and most folks want you to keep them under 100,000.  Besides, Akeldama was now done and I would soon begin querying that.  This one was under 100,000 words, coming in right at 95,000, so this one would be my key to success.  I had reason to be joyful and excited again, so I sent out ten queries in the first week of January.

I soon got the same rejections and silence.  Since then, I've only sent out three more queries, and nothing in over a month.  I've made excuse after excuse about being busy, but that's really all they were - excuses.  I've had time, and I know it.  Instead of sitting down to read Guns of the South for the 50th time, I could've cobbled together my list of agents, researched them all, and personalized their queries.  Shit, who says I even have to stick to agents?  Thanks to several online and print sources, I know more than a few publishers who accept direct queries.

I just haven't done this.  I've been a lazy bastard who needs to get off of his rear and get back in the game.  Getting published is the ultimate goal.  Yes, writing short stories for contests is fun and will get my name out there if they place, but isn't that just another avenue to get someone to notice my novels?  What's the point if I'm not actively trying to get my stuff in the hands of agents or publishers?  Yes, I could make some high and mighty comment about getting better as a writer, and I certainly would, but that's not it.  It really isn't hard - I just haven't done the necessary work beyond my initial foray. Well, no more!

Unfortunately, I have a business trip to the Philippines in about two weeks and can't yet get started(yeah, probably just another excuse).  However, I will begin putting together my next stratagem this weekend for immediate use when I return(be warned - I don't know how much access I'll have to the Internet, so blogging may go dark for a little while...more on that next week). At that point, I'll start the next round of agent and publishers querying and won't stop until I either get a no from everyone, or I completely run out of prospects.  Oh, and in all of that, I'll keep writing my next novel.

That's not meant as a whine, but rather as a simple statement of who I am.  As Billy Crystal's character said in Throw Mama From the Train, "A writer writes, always."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mood Music

One of the most difficult things we face as writers is the creation of the mood.  We know exactly what we want the reader to feel when they become immersed in our story, but how do we translate that to the page in front of us.  I wish it was as simple as putting something in that says, "This is where you should begin to feel uneasy because the safety of the main character is at risk."  Unfortunately, doing so is a lot like dating - the more desperate you appear, the more you turn off the other party.

My novels usually rely on two things for the story - action and suspense.  I've never understood the romance genre and wouldn't have the first clue how to do it(not that I'm all that concerned about that...lots of folks can't create George Lucas...anyone find anything remotely romantic about the parts in Attack of the Clones that Lucas said set his heart aflutter?).  And although I like sci-fi, it's hard for me to get people to gape in wonder at the majesty of a far off alien world(that's why the world, for me, is just the backdrop of the story and note the focus of it).

But how do you properly do suspense?  Stephen King is a master of it, and I studied The Shining like a biblical scholar in an attempt to sort it out.  King's biggest key is in talking around things.  He builds to a slow boil and never really says everything at once.  Yes, sometimes King can be maddening by taking five pages to describe a toaster, but when he's at his finest, he gets you so enthralled that a spouse touching your shoulder to see if you're alright could send you skyrocketing into the ceiling.

You have to drop in bits and pieces, in my opinion, that are part of the overall arc, which takes patience most folks don't have, including most writers. We want the reader to simply get what we say, and we want to plow ahead.  But proper suspense takes time, which is why most folks are so bad at it.  It's like the difference between a guy who can slowly whisk to keep his main dish a quiche and not simply rev up the speed and say, "Fuck it - we're gonna have scrambled eggs."

Whereas suspense must be slowly built, action is usually the complete opposite.  It has to move from one moment to the next without repeating itself and not getting too bogged down in details.  You need to provide the background, but too much focus on it in an action scene will kill the breathless motion you're going for.  Good action needs to be so compelling that the reader doesn't even know he or she is turning the page. So great should the pace be that the story moves of its own volition.

In both action and suspense, the reader should feel like they are in the scene.  Their pulse should go up, and they should feel an intense urge to either join the fight or run from the demon.  And in a good book, a reader shouldn't even notice the transition from story to their reading to the reaction they're having.  I'd like to say I've mastered it, but we both know that's not true.  I'd venture that even King would say he has to work on it or it comes across as forced, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying. After all, Stephen King and Dan Brown had to start somewhere.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


When you go to a movie, see a show on TV, or read a book, what's the biggest thing you complain about.  For me, it's - "There's nothing new!"

This has driven me out of my mind for the past decade.  Look at the movies coming out of Hollywood.  There's Spiderman 3, Shrek 4, Bad Boys II, Men in Black II(soon to be MIB3), Iron Man 2, Austin Powers #3, and on, and on, and on.  The only original movies I've even heard about recently were mostly chick flicks that I wouldn't be caught dead going into(my wife can go and has gone to see that stuff with her friends...yes, I'm a Neanderthal).  I long for a new movie that isn't a sequel or offshoot of an already used idea(Puss in Boots, anyone?), but that would mean that Hollywood would need some courage and have to take a risk on an unproven idea. Since for all their pining about creative and artistic angst they do little more than recycle old ideas, we are unlikely to see another Scarface or The Sixth Sense anytime soon.

TV shows are the same way.  I don't think I've watched a new sitcom in over a decade. And for the love of God, how many CSIs do we really need?  Heroes was great when it first came on, but it quickly decided that it couldn't be too unpredictable and lose its main bad guy, thus ruining the tension.  I thought Jericho had potential, but it soon fell prey to every stereotype that crackpot conspiracy theorists ever came up with.  Supernatural is about my only refuge, but even that is just a weak spinoff from The X-Files(as is Fringe, The Warehouse, etc.).

Then we come to books.  One would think that this would be the medium where anything approaching originality would be welcomed, but I keep running across the same things on the shelves.  I'm a scifi and horror/paranormal fanatic, but too many themes are getting recycled in the same way, with only the names of the characters being original.  How many books about sparkly teen vampire romance do we need?  Does every zombie book have to follow the same formula about someone waking up from a coma after the zombie apocalypse has happened, and now the main character has to link up with the few survivors, with some conflict between the two strongest characters to follow?  And in scifi, it's usually based around: aliens find humans, cultural differences ensure misunderstanding or one side is evil, conflict follows.

Admittedly, there are a limited number of the types of monsters we can see, and human/alien stories only have a few themes to play off of.  However, there should be some variety in the stories.  How about some author tell the story of the zombie apocalypse from the point of view of the zombies?  Maybe a scifi novel could deal with the galactic aftermath of a genocidal war, with each side trying to play off of the other.  When it comes to vampires, do they all have to either be teen heart throbs or suave and sophisticated members of the elite?  Why can't some of them be brutal to other vampires, looking to topple members of their own race in order to try and live in peace with society, and how would society react to such coexistence?

I think the public is crying out for something fresh and different(Lord knows I am).  Movies and TV have been in the dumps since the early 90s, and I've previously discussed the horrid state of affairs when it comes to printed novels.  I think a lot of this could be solved by people taking chances on new ideas.  Yes, I know that a large number of them will suck big time, but if you sift through enough dirt, you will eventually find a piece of gold.  And if you locate just one, it could start a gold rush to usher in a new age of originality.  Are you willing to pan for it?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Fortress of Solitude

Each of us has a place of solace that we seek out when we want time to ourselves.  For writers, this place is extremely important, as it is the focus of our world.  As egomaniacal as this may sound, writers can't write just anywhere.  Okay, maybe we can get by for a limited period, but if we write for too long in an unfamiliar place, one of two things happens:
1.  The writing feels forced, and its low quality soon becomes apparent to those who read it; or,
2.  This unfamiliar place becomes our new Fortress of Solitude.

Writers are creatures of habit, whether we want to admit it or not.  As such, we feel safe pouring out the contents of our imagination only in a few places.  Mine is the office in my house, surrounded by the clutter of the computer, my games, my books, and various other assortments.
These things provide comfort and stability in an otherwise unstable world.  It provides me a secure bubble from which to write without distraction, so I can focus on the task at hand.  I know a few people who turn on the TV, radio, and put the buds in for their iPod so that they have to intentionally try to filter all of that mess out in order to write.  Others sit at the kitchen table with pitcher of Bloody Mary's and a bagel next to them.  Regardless of the setting, they all have one thing in common for the writer in question - familiarity.

I used to think this made me an uncreative person.  Shouldn't I be able to turn on the juice at will and bring forth the next classic novel?  It actually worried me for a bit until I realized that I wasn't the only one.  JK Rowling is famous for writing at a particular cafe in Britain(although she finished book #7 in a hotel).  Stephen King bolts himself in his basement until he has 1800 words for the day.  I figured that if such accomplished authors were as quirky as that, then I was in good company.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Writing Versus Words

Those of us who write have a special conceit - we think we can write better than most.  That may or may not be accurate.  However, there is one undeniable truth.

Most people can't write.

I don't mean that they can't properly spell words, but that most people are terrible writers.  I know, I know - I've broken another cardinal rule and criticized a large portion of the potential audience, but that doesn't make the arrogant point I'm discussing any less true.  There are people out there who couldn't write their name in the snow.  Some of what I come across makes me want to jab a sharp needle into my eyes just so that I'll feel a different kind of pain from the one being inflicted on me by whoever wrote that thing I wasted part of my life on.

Why do such things irritate us so much?  I think it's because writing is a form of communication, and communication, at least when spoken, is taken as a basic sign of intelligence.  Therefore, when someone is unable to make a cogent point, we assume them to be stupid.  That'll often translate into reading what someone has written as well.

I don't know about you, but when I read something, I imagine someone talking to me, so there is little more annoying as when I can't discern what the person is trying to say.  Even worse, that person usually isn't standing right in front of me so I can't ask them just what the heck they meant.  Instead, I'm left to try and read between the lines so I can glean some nugget of information, no matter how well they've covered it with confusing writing.

Think back to the things you read, be they memos from work, an essay your friend has asked you to proofread, or a comment on a message board you frequent.  What are your thoughts about them?  If you're being honest, you know you were thinking, "Geez, how did this person escape our public education system with even a high school diploma?"  That's because we want to correct it, to make it properly understood.  Such is the nature of a writer(and yes, it usually drives my friends insane).

Good writing requires two things - talent and practice.  The first is God given, and if you have none, then no amount of practice will help.  If this is the case, get a job that requires little but grunting and hand gestures.  However, most people have at least some talent(although some have much more than others), and that's where practice comes in.  Peyton Manning is a great QB with more natural talent at the position than just about anyone, but he also puts in a phenomenal amount of work in the off-season and during the week.  He studies the playbook, watches film, and throws to his receivers an average of around five hours a day.

That's what most people lack - dedication to getting better.  To master writing, a person must write.  After they write, they need to be critiqued and told where they messed up so they can improve.  Criticism is never easy - and let's face it, most of us writers have egos made from crystal - but you need to know where you screwed up.  Sometimes we can figure that out for ourselves.  We can look at our work and say, "Good God, that was terrible."  Unfortunately, most of us get so attached to our work that honest self-criticism is impossible.  I mean, come on...we know what we're trying to say, so why doesn't everyone else?

Good friends, honest friends, will know how to tell you that you suck without crushing your dreams.  They can gently guide you to better awareness of your weaknesses and how to compensate for them.  We need this to become better writers and be better understood by those we're trying to reach.  Some of us will take that route, while others will ignore it and turn out garbage time and time again, further frustrating those who have to be subjected to their scribblings.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Going Overboard

I've talked a lot about the need to strike a balance between providing enough description to capture the moment, but also holding off enough to let the reader's imagination work for them.  However, there is something that too many writer's are guilty of from time to time, including yours truly.

Excessive use of adverbs and adjectives.

Before you groan and roll your eyes, I swear I'm not turning into that old English teacher with the wooden ruler, standing at the chalkboard and ready to flay you alive for not remembering to eliminate a dangling participle.  But too many of us, in an attempt to convey just the right spirit, go way way way over the top when it comes to our descriptions.  Consider this:

Mike sprinted quickly to the smoky colored grey fence.  The early morning fog clung low to the ground, and he could barely make out any of the hazy shapes in the misty meadow.  He fingered the slick stock of the rifle as he drew it to his face and peered like a hunter down the sites.  Mike's meaty finger slowly eased back the trigger and the weapon kicked strong against his shoulder.  His target dropped quickly to the ground, and Mike knew he could happily smile again.

Notice anything?  I did - in my attempt to convey the mood, I used way too many adverbs, most of them redundant,  Let's try it again:

Mike sprinted to the smoky colored fence. The morning fog clung to the ground, and he could barely make out any of the figures in the misty meadow. He fingered the stock of the rifle as he drew it to his face and peered down the sites. Mike's meaty finger eased back the trigger and the weapon kicked against his shoulder. His target dropped, and Mike smiled.

What's the difference in the two?  I pruned the second one.  Sprinted quickly?  How else does one sprint.  And when you think of a smoky colored fence, does any color come to mind except grey?  Doesn't peering down the sites imply eyes like a hunter?  Wouldn't a target that dropped usually do so quickly?  And how could you smile in any way but happily?

To me, excessive use of descriptors shows one of two things - either the writer is inexperienced, or they're insecure.  The first fault can be overcome through countless hours of reading and writing.  During that process, you learn what works and what doesn't, as well as how to trust what you've said.  You eventually get that the reader knows that sprinting is done quickly and that a smile is always happy unless you go out of your way to convey a different meaning.  The second fault, insecurity, takes a lot more to overcome.  Those who are insecure don't trust the reader to get what they're saying unless it's explained in such minute detail that there's little left to the imagination.  In short, you are concluding your reader is a stupid child who must be talked down to, or they will just never get it.

During the editing process, I've been amazed at how many unnecessary adjectives and adverbs have come up.  I weed them out as much as I can, but I always find more on the next reading.  Why do we do that?  I think we're so attached to our story, and we so badly want people to get the message we want to convey, that we lose sight of the reader's imagination and intelligence.

Some are necessary, but most are throwaways that need to be gone when we're polishing our stories.  The best writers know how to do this - do you?

Sunday, March 4, 2012


One of the most important yet often overlooked parts of a book is the title.  A good title can grab a reader from the outset and make them curious enough to pick up the tome and browse through its pages.  A bad title, on the other hand, can instantly turn off a reader and make them think that there's nothing inside that could possibly interest them.

Imagine a book called Past Feelings, Future Grim.  Or maybe it could have simply been called The Wages of Greed.  Would any of those titles have drawn in readers as much as A Christmas Carol?  Or what if The Old Man and the Sea had instead been called A Fisherman's Shitty Life?  Maybe Twilight could have simply been called Sparkly.

Books with the God awful titles above would have likely never found their way into the literary lexicon because the titles alone would have turned people off.  To me, they say, "I'm boring or cheesy beyond belief, and you'd be better off spending your time getting a colonoscopy."

The writers I know - at least the good ones - agonize over their book's title.  It's got to be something that captures the spirit of the story and creates an instant emotional connection.  It should be the surface identity of the novel and entice people to delve further into its soul, the same way our own name does that with others.  And let's not forget that it'll be around for a very long time, since it's easier to change your own name than a book's title once it's out in the public sphere.

Of my three novels, only one - Akeldama - came easily.  I agonized over my first book, a sci-fi novel that will never see the light of day, for months.  I poured over several working titles with a friend before eventually deciding on On Freedom's Wings.  The book told the story about humanity breaking out of its self-confining box thanks to a warship called the TWH Freedom.  There were multiple layers to it, and I finally felt that I had something that captured the essence of the book in several ways.

With my second book, Salvation Day, I thought I'd never come up with a title.  Nothing resonated.  There were several dozen attempts, each as putrid as the one before.  How would I convey the sense of loss, grief, retribution, and redemption that were part of the story?  I didn't want something overly bold like Target:  Jehovah, but anything too understated wouldn't do it justice and might even seem mousy.  Then my wife - thank God for the creative woman in my life - said, "Well how about that thing Mike said in the last chapter about how they'd call the day God returned Salvation Day?  You could go with that."  I spun it around and around in my head and knew it was everything I needed it to be.

Akeldama came easily and out of nowhere(probably because I knew most of what was going to happen before I wrote it), but the current novel I'm working on is no closer to a title today than it was before I came up with the outline of the story.  I probably need to wait to finish it before I'll be able to come up with something appropriate.  Too many of my tales go off in unexpected directions, and any title that rears its ugly head before I finish probably won't fit by the time I'm done.

Still, I relish that eureka moment when  I think of something and can say, "Wow, that's an awesome title!  I know it'll work."  Those small victories are the things we writers cling to in the dark times when we wonder if people will enjoy our work.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Show and Tell

What makes the difference between a good story and a great one?  What causes you to keep going back to that old faithful book you know inside out?  For me, it's when I can truly visualize the work inside.

Consider the following passage:
Mike was hungry, so he sat down at the counter and ordered a cheeseburger.  His longtime friend Lou grilled up a nice fat patty, making small talk with him the whole time.  Finally, Mike picked up the burger, his mouth watering in anticipation.  He bit down and savored the flavor, and it was everything he'd hoped it would be.

Okay, so you might get a picture of a hungry guy who is having a nice lunch.  Now consider this:
Mike's insides gnawed at him the way they did years ago at fat camp.  He plopped down on the worn stool at the counter and snapped his fingers.  Lou, a cigarette dangling from his lips, didn't even need to hear the order - he layered two hunks of cheddar on the 1/4 lb patty as smoke rose from the grill.  Soon, Mike's prize sat before him, and he scooped it up with the glee of a ten year old who'd discovered his first Playboy.  When he bit into the burger, his tongue sang as a little bit of grease spilled down the side of Mike's mouth.  Sighing heavily, he knew life didn't get much better than this.
Yes, interpretation is subjective, but I think the second passage gives you a much more clear picture of just how much this burger meant to Mike.  Why?  Because the visual painted a much better picture of the emotions, as well as how eager Mike was to finally get what he wanted.  I pictured a man of passion who was nearly lustful for this heart attack inducing meal.

One of the biggest things I've always been told by fellow writers, and one of the hardest things to put into practice, is to show the story instead of trying to tell it.  Anyone - well...almost anyone - can look at a situation and describe what they see, but it takes a special talent to put the reader into the situation as well.  I don't know about you when you read it, but as I typed the above passage, my mouth watered just a little.  Come to think of it, I might just go get a burger right now.  Hang on - I'll be right back.

Miss me?  I certainly feel more satisfied.  Now, where was I?

Oh yes, showing instead of telling.  This is where the art of writing comes into the mix.  You can't go right for the heart and describe what's happening straight up.  You have to go around the issue somewhat and allow the reader to imagine just how hungry the main character is, or how angry, or how jealous...whatever you're trying to convey in the storyline.  You could say, "Jill was jealous," and the reader will yawn, and if you're lucky, might put the book down and return to it later.  If you're unlucky, they'll drop it and go on to something more interesting.  What you want is for the reader to feel that Jill is jealous and really get into what she's going to do about it.  Some of the best compliments I've ever gotten from those who've read my work is when they tell me they could envision it as a movie, because that's when I know I've gotten them to visualize the story instead of simply reading it.

I've spoken about my editing process, but during my final read-through, I'll always examine each passage, think about what I wanted the reader to feel, and see if I can better show them.  Sometimes telling is necessary, but it shouldn't be the default position.  When you can evoke emotion, be it happiness, sadness, or rage, you've really captured the spirit of your work.  And isn't that what we all want to do in the end?