Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Writing True Tension

Stephen King famously said, "Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings."  To many, he's telling writers to kill off the main characters, or at least some prominent ones, to make a better story.  King himself did this in The Stand when the novel hit a brick wall - he wrote a bomb going off in Boulder that killed most of the Colorado Free Zone leaders.

However, I feel what King was getting at was more complex.  What he's basically saying is that in order to have true tension, and thus have the reader on the edge of his or her seat and wondering what will happen next, you have to write outside of your comfort zone and give the bad guys a chance.

Most of us - I was going to say all of us, but there are some strange people out there - want to see good triumph in the end.  Even more, we want it known that good will triumph no matter what.  It's comforting as a writer to know that the hero always gets the girl and rides off into the sunset.  Unfortunately, it can bore the tears out of a reader.

I've become attached to two TV shows - Supernatural and Once Upon A Time.  The supernatural setting is good enough, but the best thing is that every so often, the villains score a victory.  The problem I've always had with Sleepy Hollow and Grimm is that I never have any doubt the good guys will win the episode.  That bores me, so I stop watching.

Creating genuine doubt is tough, but it makes for a much better story.  Kill off one of your most darling characters or burn down the childhood home.  Have your heroine carry the villain's child after being raped or create a storm that makes accomplishing the task the way it was planned impossible.  It makes readers wonder, Oh shit, how are they gonna fix this?

Maybe I just like to overthink things, but I prefer doubt until the end of a story.  Why?  Because it's more realistic like that, and we all know real life is never easy.  You want people to think that what you're writing could really happen(within the confines of the universe you created).  When a reader buys into your story like that, you can take that person on one heck of a ride.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Red Lines

I've spoken often of my growing affection for the indie publishing movement.  However, I've also said that if the right offer came around, I wouldn't rule out going traditional.  Even so, the freedom afforded in the indie movement would be hard to give up, and there are several things that I would consider red lines that I wouldn't ever cross.  Ever.

What might these be?  Well, I've done a lot of thinking and reading(Kristine Kathryn Rusch has done some great blogging on this).  Although this list might morph as time goes along, here are the general points that would force me to walk away:

1.  A Non-Compete Clause.  This is an agreement that publishers force onto newbies that means you can't publish another work in the same genre unless it goes through that particular publisher.  The idea is that you shouldn't compete with your publisher for the same audience - it's your publisher's job to market your work, and if you put out a similar book anytime in the near future, you're likely to pump that one up more than your publisher, who will lose business.  Unfortunately, publishers use this to crowd out the market and push other work they think will make more money.  It stifles writers who want to self-publish since they can't bring out any new work in a series, or anything remotely similar(it's amazing what publishers consider "similar") if they're tied into a contract with that clause.  So how then are you supposed to bring out new work if your publisher won't buy the next in your series or stops pushing what they've already bought?

Additionally, non-compete clauses are used to limit writers to the number of books they can put out in a given year.  The outdated theory behind this is that if a writer oversaturates the market, the public will grow annoyed and not buy more of the work.  That would mean that all the work of publishing will have been for naught.  Of course, this is stupid - when I find a writer I like, I immediately look for everything they've ever written, and I look forward to their next work.  Most writers don't have a New York Times Bestseller that nets enough to put food on the table all year long.  Bringing out multiple books in a year is the only way to eat and have this funny thing called shelter.  Nope, anything that limits what I can bring out would be a big no-no.

2.  Exclusivity/The Right of First Refusal.  On the surface, it sounds great - a publisher wants to look at more of your work, and they'll make the first offer.  However, what if they make no offer?  It's not a no - it's just silence.  Can you publish?  Can you work with another company?  If I go traditional, I would want to establish a relationship with the publisher and have them eager to buy my next novel, but the only way this works is if there is a time limit.  I will offer the right of first refusal for six months after the work is submitted.  At that point, the ability to shop around or self-publish would have to return to me.  This is another turd by which publishers keep newbies from getting more into the market - they may not believe in the work, but God forbid they pass and that book goes onto success with another publisher.

Sorry, but if you want first dibs, you make a choice within a reasonable timeframe or I get it all back.

3.  Final Say Over Edits.  This one is a toughie.  Most publishers want some say.  However, too many change so much of the book that it's no longer what the author originally envisioned.  I've ranted before that many agents and editors seem to want to be writers without having to actually do most of the work of writing.  I have no problem with suggestions, but I want final say over whether or not to include them.  There's a reason I wrote what I did, and it might not be the same thing the publishing house sees.  Some big-time authors like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and JK Rowling have this agreement, but they're big enough to enforce it.  Too many smaller writers give in because they're afraid the big, bad publisher might not publish them.  If you want to sell out, that's your business, but I'm fine with just not publishing through someone if they want to hack up my stuff without my consent.

4.  Warranties.  Warranties basically say that you're not plagiarizing or libeling anyone.  Sounds great until you remember we live in America and you can sue people for anything.  Publishers often settle claims just to get the headache off their back, even if the suit has no merit.  Then, the writer is usually on the hook for any and all financial damages.  That sucks, doesn't it?

Any warranty must include things like limiting author liability, either in terms of what the author says, or in terms of monetary damage(preferably both).  I would want to have say over any settlement, as well as a specific figure on any financial liability(the rest being absorbed by the publisher).

4.  Rights Reversion.  This is a biggie when the publisher decides to no longer push your work.  Most clauses will say something loopy like "if the book sells less than 100 copies in a year" or "if the book goes out of print," then the rights for publication revert to the writer.  However, there are a pair of problems in this day and age.  The first is that many publishers will snatch up 100 books at the end of the year - a minor business expense they can write off at tax time - and claim the book is still selling, so the writer must stay with them.  The second is that in the digital age, many publishers are claiming a book is never out of print.  Never mind they're not in any bookstores and the publisher isn't pushing them and has no plans to - they're still in print and you're shit out of luck.

The way to mitigate this is to demand something substantial, like making the 1000 or 2000 mark of sales, possibly after a certain time period, before rights reversion occurs.  This will both make a publisher wonder if the price is worth it and give the writer some green to live off of.  The typical copyright is the life of the author plus 70 years.  That's a loooooong time if your stuff isn't selling.

5.  Pay Periods.  Here's the stickiest wicket of all.  In the arcane system that is traditional publishing, royalties only go out every six months.  That's a helluva long time to wait before seeing any money from your work.  And since most royalty agreements are very convoluted, knowing you got what you deserve is tough.

In the age of Amazon and indie publishing, most self-published writers get paid each month.  That's kind of what we need to stay sane.  I would insist on every three months at the absolute worst.  Can't get my money through your bureaucracy in that amount of time?  Then you won't get my work.

I'm sure other red lines will come up, but this is the basic list for now.  Publishers use their superior bargaining position with newbie writers who are desperate to be published to force through contracts that are one-sided.  The indie movement is starting to level the field, but it requires writers to stand their ground and be willing to give up that "look at me!" contract and fawning attention they'll get...at first.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Wrongful Death - Chapter 1

It recently occurred to me that I've never shown you guys anything from my third novel, Wrongful Death.  Therefore, I decided to post the first chapter.  I hope you enjoy it.


            The last thing that went through my head was a chunk of concrete.  Of course, the windshield had done the same only a second earlier.  In the instant before the lights went out, I could almost hear mom nagging me about wearing my seatbelt.
            Standing, I tried to dust myself off.  I felt surprisingly fine and hadn't yet made the connection between my situation and the mangled piece of meat in the road.

            Tires squealed and rapidly faded into the distance.  I turned and stared into the setting sun just long enough to see the outline of something black disappear over the hill.  However, I quickly refocused my attention when another car screeched nearby.
            "Jen, call 911."
            I spun around to find a heavyset man in a gray sweater kneeling over something on the sidewalk.  He placed his hand on whatever it was and gently shook it before racing to his car and opening the trunk.
            In spite of the scene, I was more interested in what had happened to my car.  Yes, the Chevy Malibu was ugly and had gotten me a lot of grief over the past couple of years, but it was mine.  I'd finished paying Walt back for the loan he gave me, and now I had a POS I could call my own.
            My heart sank when the damage became apparent.  The front end was crumpled against the light pole, white smoke pouring from the engine.  The windshield had a hole in it, and the front left tire was turned in at an angle that I'm sure only Mr. Wells, my 9th grade geometry teacher, could have measured.
            "Whitaker Street, about half a mile south of the Cross Roads Shopping Center," jabbered a thin blond on a cell phone.  Another couple of cars had come up behind her and people were stepping out.
            "Why the hell are you blocking the road?" yelled a frumpled looking bald man.
            Before his wife could answer, the first car's owner said, "There's been an accident you jackass.  Someone's hurt and we're trying to get an ambulance."  The man slammed his trunk and raced back over to the sidewalk with a blanket in his arms.
            Someone's hurt? I thought.  God, I hope I didn't run over anyone when that douche forced me out of my lane.
            My pulse racing, I sprinted to the motionless figure to see if I could help.  A flitter of guilt passed through my mind as I also wondered what hitting someone else would mean for my future.
            Another person came out of a nearby house and ran towards the crowd.  "I called 911.  Someone should be here soon."
            "I also called them," said the first woman.
            I wanted to just fade away and hope no one noticed, but since it was my car that caused all of this - as well as whoever the guy was that ran off - I couldn't disappear.  Walt had at least pounded that into my skull.
            The man standing next to me tore the blanket with his teeth and ripped it into long strips before trying to tie them around several parts of the carcass.  Even Mr. Johnson's biology class from sophomore year hadn't prepared me for seeing this hunk of meat.
            "Anything I can do to help?" I tentatively asked.  The man ignored me and kept tying cloth strips onto the thing.
            I could tell just by the sight of it that there wasn't anything that could be done for the poor bastard.  His skin looked like ground up hamburger, occasionally punctured by shards of bone.  The guy's arm twisted itself around his back, and his face was buried in the concrete.  There was a pool of blood around what I think was his head, as well as more blood smeared on his legs and what was left of his University of North Carolina t-shirt.
            Sweet Jesus, I thought once things started to soak in.  That's my UNC t-shirt.
            Normally I'd have noticed the sirens wailing as they approached, but my mind was now blocking out almost everything but the grotesque body laying to my front.  Looking closer, I saw blood matting the hair.  Although red obscured the color, the style was unmistakably mine.
            "There's nothing you can do for that boy," someone in the crowd ventured.
            The man working on my body ignored them and kept trying to stem the flow from untold number of wounds.  I was glad he kept working, but the pit of my stomach dropped.  A sound escaped my mouth that would have made my buddies laugh if they'd ever heard it.
            I shrieked.
            In my mind, the sound shook the ground, but nobody reacted.  My heart felt like it was trying to beat its way out of my chest, as if it could will me back to life.  The small part of my brain that helped me get into UNC in the first place told me that my heart couldn't be beating any more than it could sing, but I didn't listen.
            "Help me turn him over," said the man.
            "I don't think we should move him," said someone else.
            "We're gonna have to if we want to get at the wounds on his face," said the man.  "Just help me."
            Two others knelt by my body while the first man put his goop covered hand under my head.  They gently rolled me over, but the sight of what used to be my face only confirmed that it was too late.
            The guy by my waist covered his eyes and turned around.  Someone in the crowd sounded like they were going to barf.  None of this was what you'd call comforting.
            An ambulance finally roared up.  Two guys in white raced out, one of them holding a yellow backboard.  They pushed their way through the crowd and started working on me, for all the good it would do.
            “Amazing, isn’t it?”
            I looked around to find the source of the new voice and saw a shimmering gray figure.  Wisps of smoke hid his feet, and it looked like this new arrival was hidden by curtains.
            “What?” I responded.
            “That people try to bring back to life that which is already gone,” said the figure.  “They know you’re dead, but their hearts won’t allow them to accept it yet.”
            I opened my mouth several times, but words wouldn't come.  I'd been hoping it was all a mistake, that I’d wake up at home or in the hospital and ready to laugh about this dream.  It couldn't be real.  I had plans – homecoming was this Friday and the gang and I planned a great night after the game.  I’d already “acquired” beer from the fridge in the garage.
            "Who are you?" I finally managed.
            "My name is Alexander, and I'm here to help your transition.  There is much to discuss."
            Shaking my head, I said, "No, this can't be happening.  Mom and Walt will flip out, and there's no way Kathy can make it till graduation without me.  Me and Tim are gonna be roommates next Fall, so what is he supposed to do?"
            "You have an inflated sense of your importance," Alexander said.  "They'll find a way to cope.  Yes, there will be grief, but life will continue, just as it always has.  You'll provide inspiration for some, and smiles down the road as memories become less painful.  You'll never fade completely from their hearts."
            "But those people can save me!" I yelled, jabbing my finger at the still working paramedics.
            Now I sensed pity from Alexander, even if I still couldn't see him very well.  "No, they can't.  It's not like you can just slip back into that meat suit.  Look at it - it's mangled.  If your soul managed to somehow reintegrate with it, you'd be a burden to those you claim to love.  It's not the way things are done."
            "But I'm only 18!"
            "Your death wasn't my call," Alexander said.  " That decision was made long before today and written into the annals of fate while you grew in your mother’s womb.  My job is simply to take you to the other side.”
            "I don't want to go."  Even in my own ears it sounded pouty.  I was glad Kathy never heard me whine like that.
            "This is the natural order.  Do you think you're the first one who was shocked at their death and didn't want to leave?  It happens all the time, especially among the young, but the cycle of life will be thrown out of balance if we were to accede to your request."
            Tears brimmed in my eyes.  I tried to hold them in - Walt drummed into me that a man doesn't cry unless he's missing a limb - but a couple spilled down my cheek anyway.  Alexander placed a shimmering hand on my shoulder, and I felt electricity pop into what would be muscles if I was alive.  A small whirring noise began to vibrate on the wind, a low hum that was growing louder.
            "We need to go," Alexander said, a note of impatience in his voice.  "You're not allowed to linger, and those who defy the natural order are forced to mindlessly wander Earth for decades, sometimes centuries, before being offered another chance to cross the Great Barrier."
            The paramedics were still working on me, but I knew what they were doing was mostly for show.  I was no longer in there.
            I still couldn't see Alexander's face.  The gray figure flickered for an instant before turning and walking to the middle of the road.  He held out a hand and traced a circle in the air.  The area inside the circle grew dim before exploding in a shower of light.  Once the light died, mist that shimmered silver at the edges appeared, and I felt a gentle tug.
            Alexander motioned for me to join him, and I briefly thought I felt a new presence as the hum grew louder around me, but it was overwhelmed by the portal.  I exhaled and slumped my shoulders a bit before trudging forward.  I didn't even bother glancing back at the crowd or the now empty shell they were gathered around.
            I felt like I was being pulled by the inside of my ribcage, but that was unnecessary.  This had to happen, so, bracing myself, I lowered my head and walked into the portal.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Johnny Carson once remarked that the longer it takes to tell a joke, the bigger the payoff has to be at the end.  The same applies to stories - the bigger the mystery, the better the result has to be for the person listening.

Too many forget this.  Both Lost and Twin Peaks were awful at it.  They spent so much time building the mystery, and they never seemed to resolve anything.  It was fun at first, but it eventually grated on audiences and wore out its welcome.

Eric Kripke of Supernatural put it best - you need to resolve issues within a reasonable amount of time so that the story can progress.  J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5 had the same attitude and refused to let an issue go beyond a season and a half in his show, for he knew the patience of the audience wasn't what he might like all the time.

I recently read the first draft of a novel for a friend of mine.  He built in a great backstory, as well as a mystery to the overall story.  I got into it...at first.  However, I kept waiting for the damn thing to resolve.  When it finally did, I was disappointed.  That's not to say that it wasn't clever - it was - it's just that it would've satisfied me had it occurred about 150 pages before it did.  By the time I reached the climax that revealed everything, the payoff was lacking.  I was actually kind of pissed that I waited so long for a small pop.

We need to keep this in mind as writers.  We all want people hunched over our work, eager to know what's coming next.  However, if we keep them on the hook too long, we can make them mad when our idea doesn't meet expectations.  You want your story and its resolution to blow the reader away, not make him or her shrug and/or get frustrated as they brashly declare they could've done better.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

What's the Future of Bookstores?

Everyone knows that Borders Books went out of business a couple of years back.  Barnes & Noble, for all its protestations to the contrary, hasn't been faring so well these days.  There are a few Books-A-Million left, but they're getting harder to find.  So what will remain in a few years?

Don't get me wrong - Amazon and the indie movement have revolutionized the book industry.  However, as I've written before, browsing online can only do so much for a reader's.  I love to look through the shelves and maybe sit in a café while sampling the latest works, deciding if buying is the right way to go.  Unfortunately, the ability to do this is getting harder.  I don't see it going away, but what does that mean the bookstore of the future will look like?

Hugh Howey has an idea.  His recent post on Bella's Bookshop is a virtual wish list for what a great bookstore would look like nowadays.  I must admit that it's fabulous, but I have to wonder how realistic it is.  The fantastical world Howey describes would require a tremendous investment of time and capital, as well as that rare individual to pull it off.  It describes everything from a set of shelves devoted exclusively to indie content, to an area for writers to churn out their latest works.  Put in a knowledgeable staff to answer questions, and you have bookstore Nirvana.

Not to be a cynic, but I don't think it works in the real world, or at least not on the scale we'd like.  Sure, there are stores like the ones described in Hugh's post, but they're rare, and they're certainly not set up to be in most towns the way Barnes & Noble was at the beginning.  For all our stomping up and down about it, true book lovers are rare, or at least rare enough that it takes a large metropolitan area to support a store like the one both Hugh and I would like to see.

That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't some things that we can push for.  The biggest thing I'd like to see is for more of our local shops to devote more space to indie works.  That should probably start out locally.  That way the store owner can get to know the writer better and become more familiar with his or her work.  The writer could then give the store some time to interact with readers and build a rapport.

Along the way, the store could bring in some work from outside the local area.  Of course, this would be based on the willingness of the writer to come in and support the store at least on occasion(what, you didn't think this would all be on the store, did you?).  A symbiotic relationship would emerge where stores and writers could help each other in the quest for sales.  Smaller stores in less populated areas have trouble bringing in bigger name talent to speak and interact, and indie writers could help bridge that gap.  This is not to say that those stores would eliminate bigger names and traditionally published works, but rather that indie works and interaction could augment what's already there.  These shops could network to "share" indie writers, and the pie would thus expand for everybody.

Yes, I'm a one step at a time kind of guy, which is why I think this is the avenue to go to first.  Hugh's idea, while appealing, is, to me, the end state, and one that must be gauged realistically.  I'm not sure that in anything less than a major metropolis a person such as Hugh desires exists, or at least not one that would be in business long since the population wouldn't support it.  It would take an extraordinary person to create what Hugh describes, but I think it would take a shrewd businessman to make the first leap into expanding further into the indie market.  Only time will tell.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Short Story - Final Exam

Inside the envelope was a name and an address – Larry Burrows, 407 Selwynn Avenue.  Dave carefully reviewed the information one more time before heading up the steps.  This Larry was 55 and balding, but unfortunately not fat enough to make things easy.  He shook his head at that; the company couldn’t give him a simple case for his final exam.
            The steps groaned a little as he went up.  The front door was solid oak and looked like it had a sturdy lock on it.  That mattered little today.
            Dave ran through the mental exercises he needed in order to get in, remembering the techniques the HR Director shared with them, and walked through the door.  The oak looked incredible as he passed through, and Dave phased himself back into reality once he got to the other side.
            Looking around, he took stock of the house.  Hard wood floors and some antique furniture attested to Larry being well off.  Someone’s laughter came from the back of the house and Dave followed the sound.
            He rounded the corner to see a tranquil scene straight out of a Rockwell painting – large turkey on the table, family gathered around, and kids playing on the floor with the dog.  Larry himself sat at the head of the table, a large carving knife in his right hand.  He looked right at Dave and paused.
            “Who the hell are you?” Larry asked.
            Nuts, Dave thought.  He forgotten to cloak himself and knew that the boys upstairs would dock him points for that one.  He quickly blended into the background and went silent as the rest of the family now followed Larry’s gaze to the empty space.
            “Who are you looking at, dear?” asked a plump woman who appeared to be Larry’s wife.
            Larry’s brow furrowed and he cocked his head.  “I could’ve sworn I just saw someone standing in the doorway.  Brown hair and a beard.  Looked like he had a black trench coat on.”
            “There’s no one there, dad,” said a stocky young man peering over the turkey.  “I think you’re a little tired from all of this.  Let’s just eat.”
            Larry shook his head and sawed into the bird.  Dave could see the juices run down the side of the turkey and onto the platter.  His mouth watered and he wondered what it would feel like to never eat again.  Sadly, that was one of the things that came with the job.
            Too bad there’s work to be done, he thought.  Closing his eyes to slits, he focused on the moment., on each tick of the clock.  Time gradually slowed and soon everyone was stopped.  Everyone but Larry.
            Larry looked around.  “What’s going on?  Guys, what are you doing?”
            “They can’t hear you.”
            Dave uncloaked himself as Larry spun to face him.  The scene was still; not even the steady hum of breath disturbed it.
            “Who are you?” Larry asked.
            Dave sighed.  He both loved this part and dreaded it.  He loved the power he had, but the initial breaking of the news was always hard.
            “You’ve died,” Dave said.
            “I’m sorry,” Dave replied.  “It’s your time.”
            “But I feel fine,” Larry stammered.
            “You won’t for long.  I was hoping you’d be a little heavier – a heart attack is easy.  Probably going to have to give you a brain aneurism.  Those are trickier, but it has to be done.”
            “I can’t be dead,” Larry protested.  “It’s Thanksgiving.  My family is here.  I need to spend time with my grandchildren and help my wife out with the mess.”
            “I wish I could help you.  I really do.  But I don’t get to decide these things.  Your name came up on our list, and it’s my job to retrieve you.  At least I hope it’s my job to retrieve you.”
            In response to Larry’s quizzical look, Dave replied, “I’m not technically an Angel of Death yet.  I’ve gone through the application process, but they haven’t hired me yet.  This is supposed to be my final exam.”
            Now Larry looked angry.  “You’re going to take me away from my wife and family, and I don’t even rate a full fledged specter of death, just some wannabe?”
            “There’s no need to be rude,” said Dave.  “I’ll be in the club soon enough, but I’ve got to conduct a retrieval first so the boys in Human Resources know that I’ve got the stomach for it.”
            “Isn’t there something I can do?” Larry asked.  “I can give you anything.  Just let me have a few more years.”
            Dave snorted.  “Do you think you’re the first person to try and bargain with Death?  Billions have done so throughout the ages and it never works.  Plus, do you really think I’m going to let you go and blow my shot at this job?”
            Larry’s shoulders slumped.  He calmly put down the knife he’d been holding and got up from the table.  As he did, his spirit shimmered briefly while it left his body.  Dave put his arm around Larry and they walked towards the door.
            Dave snapped his fingers and time started up again.  He didn’t look back, but he could hear a thump as Larry hit the table, then he heard Larry’s wife scream.  He shook his head and thought again about the parts of the job that would be hard.
            Dave relaxed on the couch in his apartment.  Larry had been easy enough to deposit.  Yes, he’d felt sorry for the man, but compassion wasn’t something he could allow himself the luxury of or there’d be no room for new souls on this planet.  Death helped keep things fresh and new.
            The day’s usual events played out on the TV.  The usual murders were interspersed with the usual crimes, with a smattering of the usual sports’ events tossed in.  Dave started to drift off when he noticed the air had gone silent.  The TV picture was still and he couldn’t even hear the hum of the air conditioner.
            He looked over at the table in his kitchen to see a pasty faced man in a long black trench coat.  Dave’s heart jumped and began beating furiously, willing him to extend his final moments.
            “Dave,” said the figure.  “It’s time to go.”
            “Th-there’s got to be some kind of mistake,” Dave stammered.  “I can’t be on the list.”
            “You are.  You know the deal – we don’t pick who gets on the list, we just bring them home.”
            “But I’ve applied for a position with the company.  How could they do this to me now?”
            The figure spread his arms.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know what to tell you.”
            Dave’s eyes darted back and forth.  Finally, he said, “I’ll bet it was that shrew in accounting who’s behind this.  She didn’t like me from the moment I got there – I could see it in her eyes.”
            “No one is ‘behind this,’” said the figure as he shook his head.  “The people at the company are professionals, and you know that.  We don’t let petty differences dictate when souls are chosen.”
            “But this isn’t fair!” Dave yelled.  “I’ve taken crap my whole life, and now that I’ve finally found a job that I can get do well, you want to pull me out?”
            “What was it you told Larry about bargaining?” asked the figure.  “Everyone has to die.”
            “You can’t do this.  I won’t let you!”  With energy that belied his age, Dave sprung from the couch and tore for the door, throwing it open and running into the hall.  He sprinted for the exit and ran out into the open air.
            However, the figure blocked his path.  “Now, Dave,” the figure chided.  “You of all people should know that you can’t outrun Death.  The rudimentary powers we’ve given you should have clued you into that.”
            Dave suddenly remembered – his powers!  He summoned all of his strength and shoved the figure across the parking lot.  He then closed his eyes and thought of a far off place, one where he could hide.  Maybe he could go to the bottom of the ocean, or trap himself inside a mountain.  He figured that surely they’d eventually tire of chasing him.
            He felt his body fade from the parking lot and then begin to re-phase back into reality.  He didn’t know exactly where he was, but he knew it had to be better than facing the specter of death at his own home.
            The area was dark.  Dave hadn’t figured on that and squinted into the blackness.  Finally, a light appeared and he heard a deep voice.
            “Hello Dave.  Welcome home.”
            “Mr. Broughton!” Dave exclaimed.  Mr. Gabriel Broughton was the head of the department.  “What are you doing here?  Did you put my name on the list?”
            “Yes, Dave, I did.”
            “But why?  I’d just passed my final exam and was ready to join the firm.”
            Dave could hear the resignation in Mr. Broughton’s voice.  “No, Dave, you didn’t pass – you failed.”
            “I don’t understand,” Dave replied.  “I brought in Larry Burrows.  He came willingly and I didn’t listen to his pathetic bargaining.  I showed I could be counted on.”
            “You showed you could be counted on in only one aspect, Dave.  However, a true Angel of Death knows that to understand death, you have to surrender to it.  Instead, you showed the same fear that most have, believing you had too much to lose.  You failed to set the example in giving yourself to Death, and so how could you ever expect others to truly follow you?
            “Even worse, you misused your powers in trying to hide.  That makes me wonder what else you’d be willing to do if circumstances weren’t in your favor.  No, you don’t have the character to be a member of the firm, so you must return to your life of nothing.”
            Dave’s head began to swirl and he suddenly found himself back on the couch in his apartment.  The TV blared the day’s events again, and when he tried to recall how to use the abilities he’d had, he couldn’t remember how.  The only thing echoing through his head was a warning.
            You’re free today, it said.  Remember, though, Death eventually comes to us all.  We’ll meet again.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Original Idea + Storytelling Ability = Good Book

Hollywood is out of ideas.  The stories I see are re-creations of old stories, or the 14th sequel on the one original idea some writer had 20 years ago.  Many books, unfortunately, are the same way, rehashing the same plot over and over again.  This provides a great opening for writers who can truly be original.

Unfortunately, an original idea isn't enough.  Bookshelves are rife with great ideas that never amounted to anything.  I've picked up plenty of books myself that appeared to have great potential, only to toss them aside in disgust because the storytelling wasn't up to par.  Without the ability to convey your idea in a way that makes it interesting to the reader, you may as well just stand up in a crowd and started yelling, "GROOP BLORK MAJENGCA GROB!  YEDDA YEDDA - WEEEEEEEE!"

This is why great books are so rare.  Lots of people have terrific ideas - everyone I meet is writing the next great novel - but their ability to convey that idea...well...it sucks.  Stories will meander and get needlessly complex, or they'll be presented by characters that are wooden and unbelievable.  Readers who got sucked in by a blurb on the back cover will throw down the novel and curse the day the author wasted their time because they couldn't make head or tail of what was being said.

Likewise, I know lots of people who can tell great stories.  We've all seen them - they stand around the water cooler going over last night's Laker game, or they're that goofy grandpa who can take you on a bombing run over North Vietnam.  Folks can become enraptured by such talk...until it turns into the 20th time they've heard the same story.  For all the charisma some can put into a great story, they can't seem to find an original idea.  Maddening.

As a writer, your job is to marry the two.  I feel confident in every novel I've written(Yes, that's arrogant, but I think you have to be a bit arrogant as a writer to think you have what it takes to capture someone's imagination).  That's because the ideas aren't ever present in the world, and I know how to tell them so people stay engaged.  That's not to say I hit on every single thing I've ever done - I've written a few stinkers that have since been discarded - but I never stop working on the craft of writing, and my imagination will go to some wild places if I let it.

And that's what you must do - let your imagination wander.  Follow it and copy down the events it takes you to.  Ask yourself, "Self, how does this stack up to writers I enjoy?"  If you can do those things, then perhaps others will find you just as interesting, and that's where storytelling goes from self aggrandizement to a magical place that people willingly go to with you.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Business Is Business

Everyone who reads this blog knows that I've become a big fan of the indie publishing movement.  In fact, that's how I plan to publish my first novel in May of 2016.  Since doing research into the various forms of publishing, I've grown to love the advantages indie publishing provides - I can keep more of the money I make, I can control my cover and content, and I get to decide which projects to take on.  And given the advances in just the last five years alone, indie has become a truly viable way to make a living as a writer(assuming your stuff sells).
(Let's raise our glasses to indie!)
However, that's not to say I wouldn't grab a traditional publishing deal if the right one came along.  Before you call me a soulless sellout who has no scruples, please remember that writing is a business first and foremost.  I love to write, but in the end, I hope to make money.  If the right deal came along where I could make much more than I projected with indie, I'd jump at it.  Still, the deal would have to be very sweet - I'd have to retain control to a large extent, and there are several red lines I would never allow to be crossed(such as exclusivity for what I write next).  If that proved impossible, I would stick to indie and sleep well at night doing so.

Of course, the only way this would happen would be to have success in indie first.  This isn't as crazy as it sounds.  With the momentum of indie, as well as the dearth of successful newbies on the horizon, indie is being viewed as a sort of "minor league" for traditional publishing.  Fifty Shades of Grey started out this way, and few would begrudge EL James the fortune she has created.  In the right circumstance, such a move would be in my best interest.

No, I haven't been offered any deals recently that brought this out.  I just had a few thoughts about the future that made this course apparent in the right condition.  Some will call me all kinds of names, and that's fine, but most will know that, as a businessman, you never close any door completely.  Where the benefit of indie comes in now is in allowing me to make the jump on my own terms rather than groveling to some New York big shot because I had no other choice.  And if it doesn't work out, then I can continue, happily, in indie and maintain control.  Either way, having fun and reaching an audience are the biggest considerations.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

No Post Tonight

Sorry, folks, but no post tonight.  I have a short story I'm working on, but it's not finished yet, and life got in the way.  I promise to return with more new posts next week on schedule.

Thanks for understanding.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Off The Wall

Sometimes, a change of pace in our novels is nice.  The same rote storytelling techniques can get our work lost in the morass of everybody else's, so changing things up can help you stand out.  I've done this with a couple of different things I've written.  Wrongful Death was the first thing I did like that when I decided to tell a ghost story from the point of view of the ghost.  I tried to break out of the box again with Homecoming, a novel written in a journal format.

However, this doesn't always work.  In fact, it rarely works.  The reason is that most readers need a grounding in something familiar.  The reason storytelling has stayed the same way for the better part of human history is that it works - it takes the reader on a logical journey where the tale progresses in a way easily understood.  Most folks get comfortable with this, and they tend to shy away from the overly out there stuff.

This is why writers need to tread carefully when choosing to do something unconventional.  Alternating between time periods, telling the story from the point of view of a death row inmate, or running a story as nothing but dream sequence may sound cool as you envision it, but you need to ask yourself if people will be able to understand it, or even more, if they'll want to.  The attention span of the average person isn't great, especially given so much more on the market that doesn't take as much to get into.

If you just want to write something off the wall for only you, then go for it.  However, if you want to write something bizarre and have other people read it, it had better be exceptional.  Don't be weird just for weirdness' sake - do it with a goal in mind.  In Wrongful Death, I wanted to be scary in a different way, and the style was necessary in order to maintain suspense.  In Homecoming, the history leading up to that point was extremely important, so it made sense to have it told by a historian.  If the style makes sense to the reader, they'll tolerate and even embrace what you're trying to do, but if it's just because you want to be an arteest, you'll quickly drive them away.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Keeping Up With The Times

I've said it many times, but it bears repeating as often as necessary - writing is a business.  Writers who don't understand this will fail.  Writing is fun, but to do it for a living, you need to treat it like a job.  A fun job to be sure, but still a job.

There are several things I'm doing in my own pursuit of my business.  Er...rather I should say several things I do when I can.  And that's the problem - too little time.  A while back, following the birth of my new daughter, I did a post about wild times beginning in the Meyer household.  Much to my surprise, those wild times haven't fully subsided, and I'm starting to wonder if they ever will.  New job(well, new as of last May) and new child, along with several other things out of left field, have kept me on the edge of frantic.  It can be exhausting, as several other writers I know can testify to.

Fortunately, my books aren't ready for publication yet(that will happen when I return to the US mainland sometime next year).  However, that doesn't mean I can't get ahead of the game now.  The first order of business is getting to be a better writer, as well as connecting with the community.  There are two ways to do this well.  The first is to read.  Read read read.  Pick up every book you can and read it.  Find stuff outside of your comfort zone but which people say is good and read it.  Find award winning stuff you've ignored and read it.  Find stuff you might never have read from the indie circuit and read it.  Once you're done, read it again.  As Stephen King said - if you don't have time to read, then you don't have time to write(well).

Yes, my reading has slackened off in recent months.  That's not to say it's gone away, just that it has diminished.  I used to be able to spend all day in a bookstore, but I'm now lucky to get into one once a month.  Luckily, there's Amazon, but even that's limiting if you can't get around to reading.  I still have a third of Hugh Howie's book I, Zombie, left, and I'm not sure when I'll finish it.  Yet there are so many still out there to get to.

A second way I stay up on things is through the blogs on the right side of this page.  The writers on it are very talented, and they provide both tips for improving and insights into the business.  In an ideal world, I'd open up my morning with them.  Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world, and I'm lucky to get to three or four in a day.  Usually I'll be able to do one or two at night as my wife and children are in bed.  I find myself reading fewer and commenting even less.

And these two tiny things are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to even the superficial part of the business.  There are still bookstore to contact, copywriting editors to interview, and targeting plans for giveaways to conduct.  These things are necessary, if challenging to find time for.  Here's hoping that times may eventually ease up.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Burning Idols - A Short Story

            Some speculate as to what might have happened had a single event in history occurred differently.  In my estimation, the drama I will chronicle in this tome is one of those events.  Had our greatest king made a different decision while in the grip of grief, who is to say whether our precious city would even still stand, let alone have become the preeminent power of its day.

            All children are taught of our triumph in the Greek war, or as it is more dramatically known, the War of a Thousand Ships.  The pair of brothers may have come for different reasons, one for his forlorn queen, one for conquest, but their goal was the same – the destruction of our city and the removal of our influence across the Aegean.

            My name is Hyram, and of all the stories I’ve told, this was our most dangerous hour.  Thanks be to the gods that wisdom prevailed over folly.


            Sand nestled between the toes of young Prince Paris as he watched the sun rise beyond the great city of Troy.  He turned to see a sight not in evidence in many years – the ocean was devoid of Greek ships and their warriors.  The only thing that remained was the idol before them.

            “What do you make of this?” King Priam asked of Herodotus, his chief counsel.

            Herodotus stroked his beard as he gazed into the eyes of the wooden beast.  “An offering to Poseidon,” he said after a moment.  “Something for the God of the Sea to admire and perhaps grant them favor on their return voyage.”

            Archeron, Priam’s chief military commander following the death of Prince Hector, guffawed.  “They need his protection after the shellacking we gave them.  With so many Greek dead, if they do not get safe passage home, they won’t have an army left to protect their cities.  Were some event to befall them, it might provide us great opportunity to finally remove the Greek threat once and for all.”

            “We’ve never waged an aggressive war,” Priam said.  “Yes, we’ve fought brutally against the foes of Troy, but only while attacked.  We haven’t crossed the sea to pursue our enemies.”

            “Yet we were attacked first here,” Archeron argued.  “We’ve taken war to those who showed the folly of striking first.  The cities of Greece struck first.  The only difference here is in the distance we have to travel for vengeance.”

            “This sounds premature, my old friend.  After all, we don’t know if their fleet will meet with disaster, so all of this is speculation.  The Greeks made the mistake of crossing the sea while knowing they couldn’t breach our walls.  What says we would breach their defenses, especially if their army lives to fight us on their own soil?”

            “Then we should send scout ships to their lands to find out.  Our spies can discover if they’re making new plans for war or if they’ve decided they’ve had enough.  But to sit here and rely on Agamemnon’s good will is folly, for they will rise again like the great cracken.”

            Priam stood idle for a moment as he pondered this course.  He looked over at his son – his only remaining son - and said, “Paris, you’ve been quiet.  In times such as these, I would normally have relied on your brother for counsel, but he has given fare to the Boatman, so it falls to you to take up his mantle.  What is your opinion on our next move?”

            Paris strode over to the giant wooden beast before them.  It was easily 50 feet tall, and as he put his hand on the coarse wood, he felt the spirit of Hector running through him.  He’d never been a warrior – that burden had fallen on his much more worthy brother – but a new sense of purpose flowed through him in these last few days, as if the fallen prince was whispering in his ear.  Paris knew that he was now the heir to the throne of Troy, and it buoyed him in ways he never imagined.

            “Father, Hector was a man of reason.  As such, I am striving to be a man of reason as well.”

            “You will wear your brother’s mantle well,” Priam said.  Hector was dead only ten days at the hands of Achilles, and his body returned barely a few days ago.  The King hadn’t yet had time to fully mourn, and his eyes still held tears for his son that wouldn’t fall.

            “Then as a man of reason,” Paris said, “it falls to me to ask the questions no one seems willing to ask.  Why have the Greeks fled?  They’ve suffered no catastrophic defeat in battle.  Why flee after spending ten years on our shores without impetus to do so?”

            “You forget the mighty plague that struck them,” Herodotus noted.  “The soldiers left behind showed unmistakable signs of it.  They knew Apollo cursed them for their arrogance and fled before he claimed the lot of them.”

            “So they managed to load and set sail in the middle of the night while afflicted with plague?  That makes no sense.  Even if they decided that the gods turned on them, an army struck down with plague would require more than a night to flee, yet they’ve vanished without so much as a rear guard in sight of our towers.”

            “What are you saying, my son?”

            “This is a trick of some kind, a ruse to get us to lower our guard.  I cannot believe they’d depart so quickly with no spoils.  They’re biding their time, waiting for us to become complacent before striking again.”

            “But then where have they gone?” Archeron asked.  “It would take more than a day’s travel to hide beyond the horizon, and they risk death on the fierce winds of the Aegean if they sit idle.”

            “Our shoreline possesses many hidden coves, most large enough to hide a significant portion of their fleet.  We don’t have regular patrols on this side of our city due to the security of our walls.  The Greeks could have taken advantage of the confidence we have in that security to wait and hope we would let slip our guard.”

            “But the idle of Poseidon,” Herodotus protested.  “This is their way of ensuring safe passage home.  Why leave it if they have no need?”

            “I don’t know,” Paris replied.  “Whatever its purpose, it’s not here for our benefit.”  He paused.  “We should burn it.  We must throw off the shackles they’ve tried strapping us with and they can watch their beloved offering go up in smoke.”

            The Trojans in attendance erupted in protest.  Everyone accused Paris of going mad and inviting the wrath of the gods, for only a fool would burn such an offering.

            The young prince waited for the uproar to die down before speaking again.  “Father, let your wisdom shine through your grief.  We must destroy this idol and double our guard against the Greeks, or we invite tragedy.  If Apollo truly protects us, he will go to Poseidon and argue on our behalf.  We risk wrath either way, but I’d rather risk it with the gods than on behalf of complacency."

            Priam walked up beside his son and looked at him.  The boy seemed to have gained years of confidence in the short time since his brother’s death.  Priam wanted to take this Greek idol inside the walls of Troy to mock his enemies.  However, he also heard Hector in Paris’ words, and he knew his eldest son would’ve said the same.

            Turning to his counsel, he said, “Paris is correct.  We shall burn this offering and take refuge behind our walls while we prepare for the brunt of Poseidon’s wrath, as well as that of any Greek who lingers.  We will double our patrols facing the sea and make certain the threat is no more.”

            He nodded to one of his guards and the soldier lit a torch.  Priam grabbed the torch and carried it to the base of the idol.  Although it took a minute to dry out the wood, it finally lit.  In seconds, fire crept up the legs and engulfed the statue.  Paris later swore he heard screams coming from inside the belly of the beast, but it was hard to discern over the crackling wood.


            We’ve fought several wars with the Greeks before overrunning their cities and burning them to ashes.  Troy now stands astride the Aegean like a colossus, and no power from here to the Alps in the west and Caucuses in the east challenges us.  We may never know if the Greeks truly intended a trap or not, and many of my colleagues argue that this was but a minor blip in a history of enmity with the Greeks that lasted over two centuries, but I’ve always been drawn to this account.  It feels like there is a hidden meaning inside and that we narrowly averted disaster.

            Perhaps we will never know.