Thursday, December 31, 2015

2016 Resolutions

The New Year looms in front of us.  As such, there is a list of writing resolutions I want to accomplish before the 2016 calendar expires:

1.  Complete two more books and finish expanding a third.  I've already begun on the last part of that sentence by creating a new act for Schism.  I've taken Acts Three and Four, refocused them, and added a new Act that helps fill out the story.  I expect this to be done within the week.

The second part of this is a little more than it appears.  First, I'm about to start work on a new novel that, as yet, has no title.  We all know that the winners write the history books, but what if someone was so arrogant that he wrote the history in advance?  In other words, what if The Book of Revelations was revealed as little more than propaganda?  Suppose that the Devil didn't play by it and won Armageddon?  What would a post-Armageddon look like with Satan in charge?  Would there be resistance to that rule, and what might that entail?  I know that many will call me a heretic or something blasphemous for going down this road, but if my previous works didn't do that already, I doubt this one will put me over the top.

Lastly, my final work prior to publication will be a collection of short stories.  I've got seven ready, and I want 25-30 before I consider it final.  I think a short story collection will allow me to write several different ideas so I don't get stale.  It's also a different type of writing, so it lets me check other skills.  A good short story collection will let me put out something different for readers as well.

2.  Begin the publishing process.  Although my first book won't be out until May of 2017, I can start gathering things like the ISBNs and putting together the business aspects that will make the job easier once it gets moving.

3.  Sending out more email updates.  I'm terrible at this.  I have a list about 350 people long that have said they'll buy Akeldama, but I haven't written anything to them in quite a while.  I'm sure that those who even still remember me are wondering if the book is ever coming out.  Others have likely forgotten about their commitment altogether.  I need to fix that.  At the very least, I need to send something out every three months to remind people I'm still here.

4.  Get back to commenting on other blogs.  My current job has prevented me from staying as in touch as I would like.  However, that'll change in June and I'll have more time.  One of the ways I need to use that time is to re-engage on the blogosphere.  I used to be real good at both reading other blogs and engaging on them, but that has fallen off.  By June, I'll pick that back up.

Those are the areas I want to work on over the next year.  What are yours?

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Being Social

Social media has revolutionized our world.  As such, it has revolutionized writing in ways we all need to be cognizant of.  For starters, and most obviously, it has given authors a platform to speak directly to readers.  In the past, the way to interact with readers was slow at best - via the written letter.  Sure, there were the occasional events like a conference or book signing, but many folks sent their favorite writers letters.  I still remember being in 5th grade in writing to Donald Sobol(for those who don't know who he is, google him....he was BIG).  Most of my class got form letters back(like I said he was BIG), but I felt special because he included a rare personalized note on my form letter in red pen(he told me I was the first person to ever inquire about Encyclopedia Brown's IQ, but he couldn't tell me because it was a secret).  Lost in this excitement was that it took six weeks for our letters to get to him and for him to send most of us a form letter in return.

Now, however, most of us have Facebook and/or Twitter pages.  We can interact with the audience in real time.  Readers get to know us and our quirks, and we can seem more relatable.  Of course, this has drawbacks when writers very stupidly stray from talking about their work to talking about controversial subjects, but it has been an overall positive.  People are more drawn to those they find accessible, and these platforms definitely provide that.

The other big advantage of social media is that it provides a no cost advertising platform.  Facebook is free(it's never going to charge you to sign up, no matter what other folks may tell you), and so is Twitter.  Have a new novel or a book signing coming soon?  Put that information out and see what response you get.  You no longer have to take out half page ads in the New York Times to garner attention.  Obviously make sure you don't overdo it - I've seen people actually lose audience because they don't know when to give it a rest - but don't be afraid to test the waters.

Further, if you catch lightning in a bottle, these platforms let you gain momentum much more quickly.  One person liking you can lead to hundreds or thousands of others doing do.  In the olden day, back before all these fancy electronic gadgets(just kidding...I'm not that old), you had to find some even more elusive way to get others to take notice.  Social media, trap though it may be sometimes, can let fans fan you(yes, that was intentional...I know, I know...I'm a dork).

Just be careful with this stuff.  Used properly and with restraint, social media can be a fantastic platform for promotion.  Used poorly, without keeping your eye on the ball, and your career can sink more quickly than the Titanic.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Price Insanity

I've tried.  I've tried and tried to understand the pricing of ebooks by traditional publishers, and for the life of me, I can't.  Go onto Amazon and look at the price of almost any ebook published by one of the Big Five publishers and you'll start wondering what the hell they're thinking.

The impetus behind the pricing of most books is the cost to create them.  You have to buy paper, run a press, buy ink, bind them, etc.  With an ebook, however, you simply have to upload a file.  So why do traditional publishers still want to charge $12.99 or more for a book that has almost no overhead?  The only thing I can think of - the only thing - is that they want to protect their hardcover sales.

If that's what they want to do, I think they're failing miserably.  Sure, it might have an effect if something comes out that you really, really want to buy - maybe you've been dying for the newest Stephen King book or want to check out James Patterson's latest - but those are the exception to the rule.  Most people browse books they barely know but sound intrigued by.  By not reducing the prices of ebooks, they're losing market share and potential profits when people scoff at paying those prices.

Perhaps I shouldn't be even bringing this up.  After all, the less people want to buy traditional books, the more they'll give indie a chance.  Indie books are usually priced far more reasonably, around $5.99 or so, and give people less sticker shock.  Are the traditional houses really this stupid?

I think the answer is yes and no.  I don't think they're intentionally stupid, but that they have no regard for a changing market due to the perceived nature of their monopoly.  Let's be real - traditional publishing doesn't consider indie a real threat to their market.  Since there's less competition with the consolidation of so many houses, traditional publishing figures they have things locked up.  Of course they're still losing money and can't seem to find the formulas that once worked 25-35 years ago, but they figure that's a glitch rather than any flight from what they have to what indie offers.

Here's a newsflash to traditional houses(but one they won't listen to):  people are not going to pay the same for a downloaded version of a novel as they will the hardcover version.  Despite what you think, they're not stupid.  The public knows you don't have the same overhead, even if you still have to pay for editors, secretaries, and cover artists.  Words on a screen aren't perceived as valuable as a book in the hand, yet publishers refuse to accept this reality.  Maybe that's why traditional publishing is dying.  It may take a while, but even a 75 year old in a wheelchair can live another 20 years...they just won't necessarily be a fun 20.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Sorry, but a post on Christmas Eve seemed kind of crass and shallow.  I know I've said to avoid politics and religion, but this doesn't really qualify.  I just want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas.  May you enjoy the holiday with your family and loved ones.  Remember this day's special message:

"Peace on Earth, and goodwill towards all."

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Trimming Wild Growth

Books can become wild growths of kudzu if we let them.  Our heads are often full of so many great ideas that we just can't wait to put them on paper.  Sometimes these extra threads can add to a novel, but they can just as often distract.  We need to recognize when that starts to happen.

You should have a main plot, and possibly one or two smaller plot threads that tie back into the primary storyline.  Unfortunately, not every idea does this, and when we discover that, we need to cut it off.

If we're lucky, we do this early in the process.  Maybe we make that great idea a throwaway designed to highlight a character flaw or introduce someone new to the story.  However, I've seen story threads that just kind of cut off, leaving the reader wondering what happened.  Worse, I've followed story threads that keep going and going and going and going, maybe resolving by the end but having next to nothing to do with the main plot.  I've sometimes looked back in disgust and wondered, Why did the author take me on this meaningless journey?

If you decide to create a tangent, think hard in advance about why you did so and where you want it to go.  Was it a quirky idea you wanted to play with, or was it something you need so that you can resolve things in the end?  Extraneous bits of story might be fun for us to write, but they distract the reader and end up wasting time, both theirs and yours.  The reader gets miffed that you pulled them down an empty road, and you wasted valuable writing time on something that didn't matter.

Make it matter.  Make it all matter.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Too Much Research?

I've spoken before that I do more research for pieces of fiction than I ever did for school.  Keeping your writing grounded is necessary when you start touching on points that a large part of your audience knows, like the structure of the Catholic Church or the layout of the interstate highway system in the US.

However, you can take this too far.  Of course it's always great to know things, but in finding them out, we oftentimes feel an obligation to let everyone know as much as we do.  After all, what good is all that research if we can't share it with our audience?

Don't get caught in this trap.  Your research is to provide enough background and realism in your story for the reader to enjoy it, not for you to become a professor.  I found myself in this trap when writing The Onyx Cluster.  The main character goes forward in time, and he needs a great deal of energy to do this, to say nothing of the mechanics of time travel.  Therefore I did a lot of research on cyclotrons and curved space/time apertures.  It was very heady, and I felt so smart explaining how it was accomplished in the first chapter.

Then I caught myself and erased nearly the whole thing.

Time travel was a vehicle to get us into the story, but it wasn't the story itself.  I had to remember that the audience cares just enough to accept that time travel could really happen.  They don't care about how many coils the machines at the FermiLab have.  I went back to my work and deleted a great deal - nearly 3000 words - that would've made a great speculative science paper but did nothing to tell us about the post-apocalyptic future the main character encountered.  It hurt, but it was necessary.

Remember why you research.  It's not to come off as an erudite know-it-all.  If your readers wanted to read about the Battle of Cannae, they'd have bought a book about that, not your epic on the mysterious intrigue about replacing Hannibal with an inter-dimensional creature who wanted to alter Earth's history.

It's okay to be smart and learn in order to make your book better.  Just don't outsmart yourself.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Journaling

This post was originally going to be about how I like to write down blog ideas as I have them, for I'll otherwise forget.  However, upon further reflection, I think the scope of that post is too narrow, because I have ideas about more than just this blog all the time.

There are times during my job when I'm waiting for my boss to be available, or during a meeting, or any number of other times when an idea will come to my head.  Sometimes it's about this blog, but other times it's about a book I'm working on or a story idea I haven't even begun playing with yet.  And since I'm becoming a forgetful old troll in my later years, I don't always remember these ideas or points when I need them.

Therefore I've started carrying a small notepad with me at all times.  This is for those "AHA!" moments when something sparks inside of me.  I rarely have time in that moment to do anything, but I need the idea later.  So I jot it down.  Depending on the idea, maybe it's just a quick bullet to remind me what to talk about when I blog.  Perhaps it's a little more so that I can go back and really delve into it.  Whatever it is, it's designed to overcome the limitations of my memory.

Such a thing can have practical applications too.  For example, jotting down notes in a meeting can make you look more studious than you are.  Now I know that some of you are always studious, but I'm talking to the more realistic part of the populace out there who knows that you don't always take copious notes when someone is talking during a meeting.  This gives you a way to do so.  Of course don't sacrifice your job for this, but let's face it - sometimes the speaker is boring you to tears.  It's okay to admit that to yourself and find ways around it.  We can't all be interested in everything someone says all the time.

Find a way to have something to write on all the time, and make sure it's something you'll keep.  I wouldn't make it your "normal" outlining notebook, for it'll get crowded fast, but keeping something simple that has random ideas is a plus.  You'll be a more prolific writer for it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Planting Seeds

One of the hardest things to do in writing is to properly foreshadow events.  Sure, lots of writers try it, but it usually comes across as "PAY ATTENTION TO THIS - IT MEANS SOMETHING BIG WILL HAPPEN DOWN THE ROAD!!!!!"  It's got the subtlety of a jackhammer and often comes off as annoying and insecure.

Some will look at the last sentence and say, "Insecure?  How do you figure that?"  I figure that because most authors don't have enough trust in the audience to pick up on the things they write.  Many feel that if they don't lead the reader by the hand, the reader won't see it coming and won't know just how smart the author is.

The thing is that you've got to trust your audience to be as smart as you are.  Stop all the flashing neon signs and see if they can get it on their own.  Or see if they'll put it all together when you finally reveal the payoff.  Either way can be rewarding.

I often try to plant subtle seeds in my novels to foreshadow certain events.  Maybe I'll mention a tertiary character and not let folks know that the person is the focal point for the main character's angst.  Or I could leave out a certain character and only provide subtle clues that they even exist, but when the person is finally revealed, it sets the story in a whole new direction.  Whatever the seed, it's designed to get the reader delving deeper, looking for other clues that he or she missed that might be vital to the story.

It's a delicate balance because it's easy to either overdo or underdo.  You need to provide just enough that the reader will later say, "Aha!" without beating their head up over it.  Maybe throw in a character quirk once or twice, or mention an object's color, making it seem like a minor detail when it really means much more.

The fun thing as a writer is when I don't even realize I've planted that seed.  I've often said that I don't always know where my story is going.  As further plot points are revealed, they sometimes tie back into something I truly thought was a throwaway when I wrote it, only to later say, "It could be interesting if I put in X since that ties back into Y."  Of course you sometimes have to dress it up upon revision, but you still may plant seeds you don't even know about until later in the book when you more clearly develop your plot.

Plant those seeds, and plant them just under the surface.  You'll be amazed by the fruit they produce.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Giddy Over Comments

I love interacting with readers of my blog.  It lets me get into the mind of those who've taken time out of their day to read what I have to say, and it makes me feel good that maybe I've had an impact.  Honestly, I don't get many comments, but when I do, I find myself smiling from ear to ear.

I make an effort to respond to every comment I get, a policy that will continue for the foreseeable future.  Now I admit that I don't always respond in a timely manner.  Due to the nature of my job, I don't get to check this blog or my gmail account as often as I would like.  I've opened up my gmail after a two week absence to find several comments I never got to, and I feel awful when that happens.  Still, when it does, I jump back on and try to give an individualized response to each and every person.  After all, you took the time to comment, so why shouldn't I?

Am I perfect in this regard?  Unfortunately no.  There are a handful of comments that I never got to, either because I was unable to log on at that moment and forgot, or I was lazy.  It doesn't happen often, but being human, it does happen.  If this has affected you, please know that I wasn't intentionally blowing you off.  Life simply got in the way.

If you can spare an extra minute or two for a post you liked, or even one you hated, comment on it.  I want to know what you think.  Was what I wrote cheesy and over the top?  Did it inspire some new technique for you to try?  Did I offend you in some way?  Whatever the topic, I want to hear from you.  Either way, you will have made my day.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Mixing Genres

I've heard it said that a writer needs to pick a certain genre for his or her story and stick to it.  If it's horror, don't go too far down the romance aisle.  If it's a detective story, don't make it the centerpiece of a sci-fi universe.  I've often wondered just how true this advice is.

Of course readers want to know what they're buying.  Picking up The Firm when you're really looking for Twilight can be disheartening.  So your novel needs to fit into some category without  going too far into another.  Further, picking one genre helps figure out where to place your book in stores and online.  Readers can't find you if they don't know where to look.

That said, I think that the advice might be a bit too rigid.  After all, what we're after is a great story, and no great story fits neatly into one particular box.  I think the guts of the tale has to come first.  Yes, you should have an idea where you want it to go, which will lend itself to a certain genre, but you need to first focus on telling a good story.  If you get too caught up in "Gee, is this romance or humor," you'll drive yourself to paralysis.

When you've finished, ask your beta-readers what they think.  If you've found a good group of folks who are willing to give you honest feedback, they'll tell you if they thought the genre was clear enough to categorize, or if you've simply confused them.

In the pursuit of a good story, sometimes you're going to have to mix genre elements.  Don't be afraid of that.  Add in whatever is necessary to bring out your book.  If that means you break convention, then so be it, but limiting yourself will keep your novel from growing into what it might be - something special.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Writing Stinkers

Writers have egos of crystal.  We love our stories, but even more than that, we want other people to love our stories.  The joy we get from bringing out the imagination of others is one of the biggest reasons we became writers.

Unfortunately, although we may all have great ideas, we often don't have the talent or experience to write them in a way that doesn't suck.  Sometimes this holds us back.  We get so caught up in not wanting to stink that we never write.

Get this point early in your writing career - you're going to stink.  You're going to suck out loud.  You'll look back in five, ten, fifteen years and cringe at what you put on paper...and that's okay.  Just like we missed the basket the first time we played basketball or ran the curb the first time we drove a car, we have to go through periods of being awful in order to get good.

Stephen King is one of the masters of the writing world, but even he admits he used to write garbage.  He got rejection letter after rejection letter.  Those stinkers he wrote, though, gave him experience that enabled him to write better and produce the wonderful works of fiction we read today.  None of us - and I do mean none of us - has so much natural talent that we can produce a masterpiece on our first go.  Even when we're writing and thinking we're great, the first time or two we will produce horrible stuff.  I've spoken before of my first full length novel and how bad it was(and trust me...it stunk to high heaven).  At the time, I thought it was wonderful, but years of experience have helped show me just how bad it truly was.

The thing is that I never would've gotten better if I'd not written it.  I learned so many lessons I didn't even realize at the time that it made me a better writer.  Only by doing bad can we figure out how to do good.  So write, even if you know what you're writing is awful.  Let others look at it, putting your ego in check so they can tell you how bad it is.  Being able to be objective about it will let you do better next time(I know, I know...being objective is easy to say and hard to do, but it's essential).  Remember, even Rocky had lots of losses before he beat Apollo Creed.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

What Is Writer's Block?

Writer's block.  We've all heard the term.  In fact, most of us have used the term.  But what does it really mean?

Sometimes it's real.  It means that you're at a point in your story where the ideas aren't flowing as well as they once did.  You struggle to figure out the next sentence or get that dialogue just right.  However, sometimes it's simply laziness.  Why do I say that?  Because it's an excuse I've used on occasion myself.

Let's face it - writing is hard.  It's fun, rewarding, and gratifying, but it's also hard, especially if you want to do it right.  It can be frustrating when we're not at our best or when we can't figure out what to say next, but many of us often use writer's block as a reason to stop writing.  "I just need time," we'll say, or "I'll come back to it and be even better."  These are mealy mouthed bullshit reasons that don't let us push past it.

And pushing past writer's block is what we need to be doing.  If you find yourself staring at the computer screen without knowing what to say, just say anything.  Yes, it might be crap, and you might have to re-do it when you're done, but it's like using Drano - do everything you can to clear out the gunk so that real ideas can return.

So what if you write terribly in a writer's block period?  You're writing.  You're fiddling with what works and what doesn't, and your brain keeps processing stuff.  I've often compared writing to going to the gym - the more you don't do it, the easier it becomes to keep not doing it, and the harder it gets to get back into writing shape when you return.

Keep pushing.  Push past your laziness, your ego, and your blank screen until you clear out the garbage.  You could say you're just wasting time, but if you're not writing, is it any different?  After all, nothing is going on paper, so isn't that the same thing?  Or are we so worried about wasted effort that we shy away from it?  Who knows - you may find a gem in that confused mess of a mind.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Happy Endings

I'm big on realism in books.  I can suspend my disbelief, but only to a certain point.  If things get too fantastical, I call bullshit and go on to something else.

Unfortunately, this can have drawbacks, and one of those is the inclusion of happy endings.  Let's face it - we live in a world that can be crappy at times.  It kicks us in the crotch and laughs at us when we least expect it.  Incorporating this into works of fiction helps add gravitas to what we're writing and lets the audience feel more like the story could actually happen.  The problem is that this can also lend itself to endings that don't always feel good since realism often produces results that aren't happy.

As writers, it's okay to do this every once in a while, but we also need to remember that people read books to escape.  We want them to connect with our characters, but they connect because they care, and people usually want good things for people they care about.  Sure, we want to see them struggling in near-impossible scenarios, but only so that they can get out of those scenarios and let us cheer their triumph at the end.

This has caused me to go back and rework the ending of my most recent work, and this isn't the first one I've done that for.  However, the more I thought about it, the more I got that people would be pissed if they invested so much effort in the main character, and all that happened at the end was that he died or became crippled or turned into another bad guy.  Most would fling the book aside in disgust.  How do I know this?  Because it's what I do.

Recently, I've found myself getting mad at movies and books that try to be "deep" by having an ending that doesn't let us cheer.  In spite of appearances, I like seeing people happy and overcoming challenges, so when folks just get sucked down deeper into the muck, I get annoyed(this is one of my biggest criticisms of The Walking Dead). The reason to invest in a character is to see them happy at the end, and when we are denied that, it affects us as well since we often see the characters as extensions of ourselves.  Why keep reading about someone if unhappiness is all you ever find?

Go back and look at all that "deep" material you've been writing.  Is there a way to make it happy in the end?  I don't mean flowery and unrealistic, but some way for the main character to come out on top.  Remember, the greater the struggle, the greater the payoff should be.  If you can find triumph in the end, include it.  Think of your audience.  Even better, think of yourself and how you'd react to nothing but crappiness.

Life is hard enough as it is.  Give it a little ray of hope when you can.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Never Too Good To Outline

As I worked on The Onyx Cluster, I relearned a lesson I wish I could just get through my head - I'm never so good at this writing thing that I can just do it off the top of my head.  I need to outline so that I know where the story is going.

I was cruising along on my most recent work, having gotten the basic framework down months ago, when I started running out of material.  Sure, I knew the gist of what I wanted to say, but I was struggling to find ways to give it depth.  It took me all of five seconds to figure out that I was trying to write by the seat of my pants rather than just take the 20-30 minutes I would need to outline the next 5,000-6,000 words.

Outlining lets us slow things down and focus on where the story should go.  We can play around with ideas and scenes in a way we really can't do when we're at the computer typing.  Sure, we could decide to play around with those things while doing the nitty-gritty of writing, but that results in a great deal more time spent than just outlining since I can outline 5,000 potential new words in 20 minutes, but it takes me around two and a half hours, if I'm on a roll, to write 5,000 words.  What's worse, if I get through with those 5,000 words and they're shit, I've lost much more than time; the loss of time and shitty ideas have also killed my motivation.  However, while outlining, I can scribble, cross out, and totally rework ideas I find terrible, and I've lost maybe about three minutes.

So why does it take so much effort for me to go back to outlining?  I think it has to do with the basic flaw in most writers - we just want to write.  We love getting our stuff down on paper, and we feel that if we're doing something else, our juices aren't flowing properly.  We all need to understand that there's a difference between being an amateur hack and trying to be a professional.  Being a professional is so much deeper than just sitting down to write.  It means outlining, editing, re-writing, and so forth.  These are the unsexy things that differentiate between a hobbyist and someone who has a chance to do this for a living.

Although it might seem to take up more time to outline, I think it saves time in the end by allowing momentum to continue when we're actually writing since we don't have to stop and mentally outline in the moment.  We have a ready reference to go back to when we get stuck.  It takes effort to think about this, but when we do, we can produce work that is of greater quality, and that makes us better writers.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Origins

I was reading a blog post the other day, when something stood out.  The writer, Carla Douglas, said, "Editors also know that readers don’t care whether a book is traditionally published or self-published."  This got me wondering how true this really was.

I think a decade or more ago, this statement would've been rubbish.  Prior to the revolution in how indie books are in terms of comparative quality, as well as the ebook explosion, indie publishing really was the last resort of those who couldn't get published any other way.  The quality was low, and there was almost no way to get your work to the audience.

However, strange things started happening.  Independent outlets to publish through, like Lightning Source and Create Space, started pushing out work that looked and felt just traditionally published books.  And when distribution became a problem, Amazon came along and made indie books virtually indistinguishable from traditionally published books in digital markets.  Suddenly any schmoe with a computer and access to the internet could put his or her work out there.  So the only real question that remains is how much the origin of the book matters in the mind of the audience.

It doesn't seem to be as big a deal as it used to be.  Nowadays, many readers don't even seem to know that they've picked up an indie book versus a traditional one.  Sure, some may turn their nose up at an indie book if they know that's what it is, but there's almost an allure of some kind for the indie market today.

Regardless of the elitism of whether you like indie books or don't like indie books, I think most folks simply want to read a good story.  And since there's little distinction between the two markets these days, I'm not sure that origin matters, but I could be wrong.  What do you think?  Does the audience give a shit if a book was traditionally published or indie published?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Shiny Onyx

I'm proud to announce that I've completed the first draft of my 8th novel, The Onyx Cluster.  It comes in at a shade under 80,000 words, and it surprised me throughout.  I started thinking about this book more than a decade ago when I had a dream about an apocalyptic wasteland where the sun never shone.  It got me to thinking, "What would cause such a thing, and what horrors would await within."

Over time, The idea evolved into something resembling a horror/thriller.  However, where it really evolved was when I began writing it, for it turned from what I described above into more of a mystery/thriller to get the main character to figure out he was being played the whole time.  Halfway through the book, I introduced a character that was initially designed to be a vehicle for the main character, Dr. John Forsythe, to fight the bad guys leading the malevolent force known as The Onyx Cluster.  However, as the plot evolved, making that vehicle much more prominent intrigued me, so the story evolved further.

Those who aren't writers are now reading this and muttering about what an artsy-fartsy asshole I sound like.  "Just write the damn story!" they'll shout.  But fellow writers know that our stories often surprise us.  I get how arrogant this sounds, but I don't create the story so much as I put characters into certain situations and see where they lead me.  Almost any writer would back me up that we're usually just watching the story we see in our minds and transcribing it for others.

I'll put The Onyx Cluster down for a while, likely more than a year.  I'll need to look at it with fresh eyes to see what needs to be fleshed out and what needs to be discarded.  Not touching a novel for a long time after completion almost lets you read it as a newcomer, so spotting flaws and ways to improve it become markedly better.

Following this, I need to go back into Schism and expand it a little so that the story has more meat on the bones.  That will be my December project.  Afterwards, I've got an idea for another post-apocalyptic novel, but this one is slightly more heretical.  Then it'll be time to compile my short story collection.  By the end of June, I hope to have ten books ready to start publishing(with some editing still required for later works, of course).  All I can say is that I can't wait for May of 2017.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Who Are The Stories For?

Writers constantly struggle with a fundamental element of writing - who are the stories for?  Do you write them for yourself, or do you write them with an audience in mind?  Prior to putting anything on paper, you need to answer this question, for it will have a great deal of impact on your style, your tone, and even your storyline.

I chose a long time ago to write stories for me.  I did this because I'm not psychic.  In fact, I've discovered that my insight into other people's likes and dislikes is surprisingly small.  Perhaps someone more in tune with others and their thoughts can write something specifically tailored to an audience apart from themselves, but I can't.

So I write what I would enjoy reading.  If an idea intrigues me, I play around with it.  Sometimes it yields a great story, and sometimes it just withers.  However, it's always a story that I would be interested in.

Doing this means accepting that some of the people you thought would like your story just won't.  Advertisers spend years in school and training trying to divine what an audience or market wants.  Despite my degree in business, I'm not very good at this.  People are remarkably unpredictable, and my trying to figure them out so that I can write specifically towards them would be like my trying to put together a nuclear reactor made from Lincoln Logs.

That said, my reading tastes haven't strayed too far from the "normal" track of what most people read.  My biggest flaw is that I often find a lot of book to be too dumbed down for my taste.  This gets reflected in my writing through my attempts to be subtle and leave more to the imagination of the reader than others might.  Of course, this means that I have to think during my editing process, "Are people really going to think this is clever, or will they wonder why I left out so much?"

I think writing for yourself is the way to go because you can best enjoy writing that way.  Others may disagree and write to certain groups, but I'm not one of them.  If doing the latter is your strength, then go for it.  As for me, I know what I can and can't do, so I write what I would like to read.  How about you?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Putting It Out There

My blog hasn't posted the numbers recently that I would've liked.  There was a time when this site was drawing in over 400 readers a week, making it an exciting time.  I wondered, "Have I finally arrived?"  That has all come crashing down now that the site is averaging less than 100 readers a week(sometimes barely 50).  I got to thinking about this and came to only one conclusion - it's my fault.

Blog readers like to stay engaged, but with only so much time in a day, they'll move on to something else if they find it more interesting.  Because of this, you need to bring in new faces on a constant basis.  I used to be able to do that.  So what has changed?

Basically, time.

I used to advertise my blog all over the place.  Tying in with a previous post, I also used to post on other people's sites a lot more than I do now.  If someone found my comment insightful, and this site was linked, maybe they hopped on over to see what it was like.  I also posted on Facebook and writing message boards, imploring people to give my latest post a chance.

I don't do that anymore.  I want to, but my time has become very limited.  Therefore, logically, traffic has subsided.  I know that a possible fix to this is getting back out there, so that's the first step.  It's going to be halting and require more effort than I now employ, but I hope it will re-draw interest.  I'm not looking for numbers just for the sake of numbers, but I'd love to get more readers and more comments so that we can engage in great dialogue about writing.  In the end, we can all benefit from it.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Going The Distance

Most of us like books of substance.  I know I do. I want a tome that is hefty enough that I can count on it occupying a good deal of my time when I'm bored.  No, I'm not looking for the next War and Peace, but something that suggests it can go longer than a commercial break is always welcome.  Therefore this is kind of how I approach my novels when I write.  I never have all the details of what a story will say, but I have a basic idea, and I can usually project from that the approximate length I'll produce.

However, the story itself doesn't always cooperate.  On rare occasion, I'll go over what I thought I was going to do, but that is a once in five-to-eight year phenomenon rather than something I have to worry about a lot.  No, what usually happens is my story runs its course in less than what I was expecting, and almost always by about 15-20%.

Do I now have enough imagination?  Am I unable to properly structure the story?

The conclusion I've come to is that while I could possibly build it further, that "further" is usually boring stuff that isn't essential to the plot.  If I've learned anything over the years, it's to not include extraneous bullshit in a story.  I cut over 30,000 words from Salvation Day, and not all of it was the adverbs and adjectives that make you cringe.  I cut whole sections that, upon further reading, didn't do anything to make the story better.  I found I could lose them and not lose anything in pacing or plot relevance.  After that, I started approaching all my prose with a simple question - how will the book suffer if this part/idea isn't included.  If I can live without it, I do.

Yes, that sometimes means that the 90,000 word novel I had in mind comes out to only 70,000 words, but it's a faster paced work that keeps readers engaged.  Doing otherwise runs the risk of boring the audience, and a bored audience will put your book down.  If you're lucky, maybe they'll pick it up later.  If you're unlucky, you just made their blacklist.

Don't be afraid to come up short on word count.  Go back and see if anything you add will enhance or detract from what you wrote.  And if it detracts, don't even put it in.  In other words, let the story go the way the story should go.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Blurbs

Go into a bookstore and read the blurbs on the back covers of the books.  This is your introduction, and one of the most important things a writer can do to get others interested.  If you think writing it properly is unimportant, check out the blurbs below:

- A well to do couple decide to take in a young boy orphaned by his parents.  However, the boy grows disdainful of the comfort they provide and takes the chance to run off and be with others outside of normal society.  When he finds trouble, as he often does, he has to rely on more learned members of society to get him past a series of dangerous addictions.

- When the established government is attacked by a group of violent extremists, its leaders turn to a misunderstood man to protect the safety of its citizens.  Through the use of magical powers and a sense of justice, this man works to stop these terrorists before they can cause harm to both the people and property charged with enforcing the law.

- There's a violent predator on the loose.  It roams the Earth with a single fury and has been known to drag men to their deaths without remorse.  Only one man, broken by years of torment and struggling with disability, has the courage to seek out this monster and bring it down before it can harm others, but can he convince his men to do what must be done?

- The world has ended.  A deadly virus has bene unleashed on mankind, and only a few are strong enough to survive.  A small group huddles in a place that once promised dreams but now promises confrontation.  Their savior is on hand, and he rebuilds their community from the despair that once engulfed their lives.  However, another faction nearly a thousand miles away has different ideas.  Prodded by a gray haired witch, the opposing faction seeks to destroy anyone who won't bow to their version of God.  Can even their psychic savior protect them?

Okay, does anyone know which stories I'm describing above?  It's easy...when you think about it:
1.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
2.  Star Wars
3.  Moby Dick
4.  The Stand

See how easy it is to twist even a well known classic into something unrecognizable?  This is why the blurb is so important.  Unfortunately, with traditional publishing, this blurb isn't usually something the writer gets a say over.  Some editor or unpaid intern in a cubicle thumbs through the book and decides what to say.  The problem, of course, is that this is a big part of the advertising for a book.  A lot of readers read descriptions to see if it's something they might be interested in.  That description might get you in the door, or it might get a shrug while the reader moves on to the next novel.

If you go indie, then I strongly suggest that you spend as much time on your blurb as you would have for that beloved query letter. This is your chance to grab a reader by the collar and scream, "YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!"  If you shrug, figuring that you've created a story so compelling that people would be foolish to not read it, then you're setting yourself up for failure.  Blurbs get people into the story.  At that point, it's up to the story to keep them.  But if they don't open to the first page, your great story is worthless.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Keeping Up

I love to read posts from my fellow writers.  Every one of the blogs on the right hand side of this page are blogs I personally selected to advertise.  I think they're witty, insightful, and provide something different for writers to consider.  I love going through each one and picking out nuggets of wisdom.

Or at least I did love it.  Unfortunately, my current job takes an extraordinary amount of time, and that has prevented me from going as in depth on these sites as I used to.  I used to post a comment at least once a week, sometimes more often, on each site, if for no other reason than to keep the conversation going.  I knew that even if I couldn't keep up with the conversation in real time, someone would've kept it going so that I could catch up upon my return.

Reading and interacting are great with people of similar interests.  Note that I didn't say "of like mind" or "with similar backgrounds."  Diversity of ideas is the true measure of diversity, and I enjoy engaging with writers from all over the spectrum because each brings a unique take on how to approach whatever the topic is.

That's why I despair when I'm unable to do this as much as I would like.  Once this current job ends sometime next summer, and I get back on a more sane schedule, I look forward to getting back into it.  And if you're not into such things, you should try.  The posts themselves are great, but it's the interaction with the other readers and even the site owner that provides the greatest potential to broaden what you know.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Canonical Stories

Fan fiction is one of the biggest things out there.  I include in that not only things written on fan message boards or in that journal some teenage girl keeps hidden under her bed, but also things on the shelf in bookstores that are part of an already established universe.  Every universe that has had publishing success has these books, from Star Wars to Star Trek to Warhammer.  Just to go any Barnes & Noble and you'll find shelf after shelf filled with these tomes.

I confess that, with rare exception, I don't like these.  The reason is the lack of consistency between the books.  I get how hard it is to keep up with every nuance of every book out there in a particular universe, but as a fan, I find it exhausting to try and figure it out.  Are the Borg extinct in this book, or did they retreat into interstellar space like that other one said?  Was Luke ever married?  Seems so in one but not another.  This book says that Spock made Captain, but that one over there says he only ever wanted to be a science officer.

Like I said - exhausting.

This is why I prefer original stories all written by the same author.  One person is better able to keep up with his or her universe.  When I get into The Great War Series, I don't have to worry if one author or another is going to tweak details that they want changed but I find maddening.  A single point of filtration means that I get one person's vision, which is what I want since no two people are likely to have the same vision.

Some of you like these canonical stories, and that's great, but I'm not one of them.  I want to create an original universe, for I find it fun when I have to come up with everything involved.  Writing canon seems lazy to me, as if I'd be riding someone else's coattails.  Sorry, but I want to make my own coattails.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thievery

When we start out as writers, we're convinced we've stumbled on that one great idea for a story that is going to revolutionize the way people read books.  It's so good, in fact, that there are surely hordes of people out there who would steal our idea and claim it for their own if they get to it before we write it all down, or even after we right it down but it's not yet published, right?

Right?

So we guard our stuff more closely than the gold at Fort Knox.  Only a few trusted friends are allowed to see our work, and then only a few chapters at a time.  I was once so paranoid about my stuff getting out there before I was ready that the only way I would let others read any of it was by printing it out and then demanding those pages back afterwards.  You know...so that no one could run a few copies and steal it.

I should've just relaxed - no one was going to steal my stuff.  And no one is going to steal yours.

Let's assume for a moment that someone heard your idea and wanted to write a similar story - do you think they'd tell it the same way?  Would they get all the nuance you did?  Would their characters be the same?  Would it be anything close to your story?  Chances are almost certainly not.

So you've found a unique twist on vampires.  Even those who write for a living aren't going to hear about how you'll describe their dastardly plan for governmental infiltration or their ability to time travel and remake the Catholic Church and say, "Golly, I must write that myself."  What they're going to hear is, "Hey, there's another vampire story out there."

And should someone get a hold of your manuscript, you needn't worry.  It's protected the moment you wrote it down.  Should the thief avoid the numerous legal obstacles in his or her way to steal your manuscript word for word and then publish this SUPER GREAT IDEA(!!!!!) by an unknown author in a saturated market - a surefire recipe for financial success - once it came out that you wrote it, wouldn't the resulting controversy and publicity work to your favor?  Wouldn't that make it easier for you to sell your next work?

The overwhelming, vast majority of folks have better things to do than steal your manuscript, no matter how good it is.  I'm sure they'll enjoy it, but claiming it for themselves is highly unlikely.  Even other writers aren't going to take your stuff and gleefully exclaim, "It's mine...IT'S ALL MINE!  MUAHAHAHAHA!"  The biggest worry you're going to have is that your work will be a success and some other writer is going to say you stole their idea.  That'll throw you for a loop.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Why Pitching Sucks

I've made a full move over to indie publishing.  However, that doesn't mean I'm not still aware of the traditional world.  My email is filled with posts from numerous writing sites, many of which implore me to "hone the elevator pitch" or "prepare a query letter that will grab them."  Sometimes I read these, and sometimes I don't, but they always make me chuckle.

One of the things I despise about traditional publishing is the pitch you have to give someone(usually not even an editor, but rather a literary agent) to try and convince them in 30 seconds why your masterpiece is worth it.  And if you don't grab them in that 30 seconds because you chose to be a writer rather than a motivational speaker, it simply sucks to be you.

I can hold my own when talking to a crowd or a stranger, but not every writer can.  In fact, a lot of writers got into writing as a means to express themselves without having to talk to people on a regular basis.  They're very fluent and can move mountains with the written word, but their verbal communication skills are lacking.

However, that doesn't stop every writers' conference I've ever read about from trumpeting its "pitch slam."  These are basically traditional publishing's answer to speed dating - you spend a couple of minutes with an honest-to-God-literary-agent trying to sell them on your novel.  Fail to get more than a "ho hum," and they'll move on to the next speed dater faster than you can say Hitch.

Yet how does one describe the intricacies of a novel in 30 seconds to a minute?  Yes, you should be able to get a summary, but a summary is just that - a summary.  Do you have any idea how many books I've read the summary on, thought "no way," and then read a page or two and decided to keep going?  That's not to say you shouldn't have a good summary to entice readers, but the book should be so much more.  Conveying the meaning and passion of a book in two minutes is nigh impossible if you want to not sound like a crazy person.

This is another reason why indie is nice - you only have to sell yourself before you publish, and the market will decide if you've got talent rather than somebody who wanted to be a writer but didn't want to go through that nasty writing process.  You can work on your summary and get the opinion of others, deciding whether to use it or not as opposed to being directed to.  And you don't have to talk to people you don't want to.

After all, we're writers, right?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

When You're Dead, Stay Dead

Characters help drive our love of books.  We get to know them, care about them, and want to know what happens to them.  And when they die, we sometimes mourn.  However, like with all deaths that affect us, we grieve and then move on...right up until the writer brings back that dead character.

I'll be perfectly honest - I hate that.  There's little more jarring than when you've gone through something traumatic with a character, started moving on, and then they're back in your reading life again.  Aside from dealing with the emotions associated with reviving someone you thought was gone, you now have to deal with the sudden inconsistencies in the plot.

Bringing back a dead character was cool the first time or two it was done.  Now, on the other hand, it has gotten tedious.  How am I to approach a story like that?  Do I keep reading it in a serious way, or do I now treat it like the silly trash it is?  What other "surprises" should I be prepared for?  I'm not talking about when a character goes missing or their fate is uncertain since that kind of ambiguity is great for having someone reappear; I'm talking about a character takes five slugs to the chest or has his head ripped from his body.  You just don't recover from an injury like that.

This sometimes happens with heroes, but it seems to happen more and more with villains.  I get it - the villain gave the hero such a rough time that some of us want to re-live that tension, but can't we move on to new tension?  Isn't that the point of tension?  Writers should be competent enough to come up with characters who can create complicated plotlines without resorting to the same old characters time and time again.

Besides, moving a story along by keeping characters dead lets me keep a sense of reality, even in a fantastical universe.  People don't just suddenly spring back to life in the real world, so why should it happen in our fiction?  Yes, yes, I know it's a story, so anything can happen, but it removes a layer of immersion and reminds me it's a story with tricks like that.  I want to forget I'm reading fantasy and let it be my focus, something not easy to do when people keep coming back from the dead.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Value Of Ignorance

Most people think they're really smart.  They're wrong.  Don't worry - I count myself as part of this crowd.

We all read up on lots of things that aren't our field of expertise and then imagine that we're experts.  I've been known to spend my nights reading Wikipedia articles on black holes just because I find them fascinating, and it gives me a little more knowledge.  However, this knowledge is shallow at best - any competent physicist would laugh at me while he or she ran circles around my ignorance.  Still, none of this stops any of us from giving long soliloquys about ocean currents, survival techniques, or dance.  It lets us sound smart, and most folks really don't know enough to challenge us.

And that's a good thing from a writing perspective.

Think about it like this - have you ever watched a military movie with a professional Soldier?  Most Soldiers I know can't watch them because these movies are so out of touch with reality that they laugh the whole way, pointing out every error they find(which are legion).  Most people find this annoying since they just want to enjoy the show.  They have enough shallow understanding to enjoy what they see without having so much that the movie is unwatchable.

This is a gift to we writers.  Unless our chosen field is really nuclear physics, dance choreography, or Army battalion commander, we don't know the real intricacies of the subject, so we learn just enough to get by, and most readers give us a pass.  After all, it sure sounds like we know what we're talking about.  However, if truly probed, our knowledge base collapses.

We have to use the ignorance of the general public to get them to buy off on what we write.  Go esoteric enough, and most people won't question what you say.  In science fiction, does anyone really care enough to learn about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to know why the position and momentum of an object can't be simultaneously measured with a high degree of accuracy?  Or is it enough to use it in ways as some sort of techno-babble talking about the problems with your teleportation device?  It may sound laughable to a scientist, but it sure looks smart to those of us who read internet articles and like books.

Use the ignorance of the audience when you need to.  It can be in terms of geography(is that bridge really there in Dearborn?), politics(it sure would be neat if states could really nullify federal laws in their territory), or whatever else advances your plot.  Don't go so overboard that even the casual reader will look at you funny, but it's not always bad to cheat a bit on the details.  Remember, if it's stupid but works, then it's not stupid.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

An Independent Martian?

Due to my current living situation, I'm unable to see the movie The Martian.  It looks like smart science fiction that I might enjoy(but, damn, from The Martian to Saving Private Ryan to Interstellar, we sure spend a lot of time trying to retrieve Matt Damon).  I was even more excited to learn it was based on a book, so I've decided that I need to make that novel something to read over the upcoming Christmas holidays.

At first, I gave no thought to where it came from.  It simply looked like an interesting book to read.  Then I heard something that gave me pause - The Martian began as an indie novel!  Surely this couldn't be true, I thought.  Then I did some research, and it turns out to absolutely be true.

We've all heard about indie success stories, from JA Konrath to Hugh Howey to Amanda Hocking, the tales of indie authors who've made it big(by our standards) are part of what keeps us going.  However, so rarely does someone like Andy Weir just pop out of nowhere.  Originally published in 2011, his novel was picked up by Crown publishing and re-released in 2014.  Then it was noticed by Ridley Scott.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

This is another example, to me, of how the old canard of "well, if you couldn't get a real publishing contract, you went indie" is total bullshit.  Granted, Weir struck gold quite by accident, but that doesn't negate the fact that he first offered it on his own website as a free story until others begged him to put it on Amazon, which he did...for 99 cents(it's now $9 at Amazon; it looks like a blockbuster movie increases the price).  Weir never imagined it would go this big, but something in the story resonated, and he's the latest example of indie success(albeit one of the brightest).

Some will point to him, or a few of the others I mentioned, and say that they're rare, they won the lottery, you shouldn't count on that, blah blah blah; but they say the same thing about traditional publishing success.  Doesn't Weir provide inspiration that you can make it in the indie market?  Shouldn't we use that as motivation rather than writing it off?  I think Weir shows that it takes the right story at the right moment - why not try to find that moment yourself?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Effect, Not Fun

I've been known to do a few unconventional things in my writing.  I've added a question mark to the end of a word in parentheses to denote that its status is uncertain, and I've done a few paragraphs in a different font to convey a different tone.  These things are done for the effect I hope it produces.

It's hard, though, knowing when to do such things.  Don't get me wrong - I have fun doing them sometimes, but I wish more writers remembered these things are done to help set a mood, not just for the fun of the author.  I've had more than one writer tell me, "I had so much fun doing xxx."  When I ask the reason behind doing what they did, they usually come back to me with something along the lines of, "No reason.  It was just a blast."

I'm glad you had a blast,. but the reader needs more.  Ask yourself why you're writing unconventionally.  Writing is a hard medium to convey tone, so we can use techniques to help create feelings, but that's got to be the intention.  Stephen King did this amazingly well in The Shining.  When a character's thoughts and motivations were vital to the mood he wanted to set, but weren't part of the action at the time, he set up those thoughts and motivations in parentheses.  This broke up the writing to allow for readers to catch up without disturbing the flow.

I'm sure King had a good time messing with us in this way, but he kept his focus on where it should be - when the reader needed to feel something beyond what words could describe.  It wasn't just for grins.

This is something for us all to think through, and to think through carefully.  Words are horrible at setting a mood, yet that's what we have to do as storytellers, so how can we make it easier?  Jarring things a bit can help, so long as it's not overdone, and so long as the reader, rather than the writer, is the target audience.
(After all, how would you feel being left out of a private conversation?)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Stringing Me Along

We writers want people to love our work.  We live for the shower of affection that comes with someone saying, "That was some of the best stuff I've ever read!"  This is one of the reasons we share our work to begin with.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as into reading as we are.  I'm not going to say that I don't care what someone thinks about my work, but I understand that reading tastes are subjective, so if you don't like something I wrote, there's a chance someone else will.  However, don't string me along by telling me you've loved what I wrote and then not be able to prove it by telling me specifically why.

This happened to me recently.  I mentioned to a colleague that I've written several novels, and he asked to see the one that he said sounded like it was up his alley.  With the subtlety of a college freshman looking to score for the first time, I rushed out to print off a copy of the first few chapters, laid them on his desk, and silently sat back to wait to hear what he thought.

The silent part was hard.  I didn't want to come across as some love struck high-schooler who wanted to know if a second date was possible, so I didn't say a word.  However, somewhere around the two week mark, I started wondering if he even picked it up.

"Sure did," he said.  "It was great!"

Relief passed through me like a current, and I pressed him for details.  "What did you think worked?  Did the fight scene grab you, or was it the part afterwards where Seth was inducted into the Order of Mount Sion?"

"Um, well it was all pretty good," he replied.  "I didn't really have a favorite part."

Of course my antennae perked up at this point, so I threw out a trap.  "What did you think of the various vampire tribes having different abilities?"

"Oh, that was great.  Really made me think about the whole vampire lore."

At this point, I knew he was full of shit.  That's not to say that the vampires in Akeldama don't have different abilities based on tribe - they do - but that part was much later in my novel, and I didn't give him that.  We had a polite discussion about leading me on, and I reclaimed what I gave him.

Again, if what I wrote isn't for you, that's fine, but don't lie to me.  If you're not going to read it, just say so.  You won't hurt my feelings, and I'll have more respect for you in the end.  Not everybody likes to read, or their life gets busy.  It's okay to say "no thanks;" you don't need to act interested out of politeness.  By wasting my time with you, I lose out on others I could get to read my work.  Just like you, my time is precious as well, and I'd rather spend it with someone who might give me real feedback rather than just a pat on the head,

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Move It Along!

As I continued writing The Onyx Cluster, I started wondering about the meat of the book.  I had some vague notion of getting from A to B, but how do I bridge that gap?  Then it occurred to me that how I built the bridge wasn't as important as the understanding that it just needed to keep going until it got to the finish.

So many books I've read have what I call "filler" material.  This is stuff that adds pages to a book but doesn't advance the plot very much.  Even many of the so-called classics, like Moby Dick, are filled with this stuff.  Too many in the bookstore share this trait where I'll be reading it and wonder, "Why is the author telling me this stuff?  I don't see any relation to the plot."

For all the grief I give traditional publishing, one of the things they help sift through is some of the unnecessary garbage that holds down our work.  I get that some writers pour their hearts and souls into what they just wrote, but if it doesn't advance the plot, it gets annoying.  Here's a tip - if you have to add filler to your book to make it as thick as you think it should be, maybe your idea isn't as fleshed out as necessary.

I'm not talking about paring things down so far that you lose the feel of your work, but when you re-read, ask if it's truly necessary.  In Salvation Day, I eliminated several chapters that, while nice, did nothing to move the story forward.  Sure, the scenes fit in with the overall mood, but they didn't add anything new.  They felt like placeholders, sort of like in chess where you make a boring no-nothing move in the hopes that your opponent will do something that will make the next series of moves that much more meaningful.

Unfortunately, in writing, this jeopardizes your relationship with your audience.  It can lead to a droning atmosphere that will make them look past the actually important parts when you need them to.

So go back into your work and ask what things mean.  Do they push the story forward?  If not, then they're only stalling traffic, and you have to push them to the side of the road in order to make way for faster cars.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

In A Single Sentence...

I like to write complex novels.  Simple stories easily bore me, so I want what I write to capture the whole imagination of the reader.  That doesn't mean, however, that I can go so complex that I'm the only one who gets it.  You can write whatever you want, but if your audience can't understand it, then no one but you will read it.

Fortunately, there's an easy way to figure out if your story is too complex - try to condense its description into a single sentence.

Right now, many of you are screaming, "I CAN'T DO THAT!  IT'S AN INSULT TO ME TO SIMPLIFY MY WORK LIKE THAT!"  I get it - we're arteests who need complexity to flourish, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to boil it down to its essence.  A sampling:

A man tries to kill God - Salvation Day.

A second American Civil War - Schism.

A ghost story told from the point of view of the ghost - Wrongful Death.

A key trait of my work is that I can tell folks what it's about without having to sit them down in a comfy chair while I recite an hour long soliloquy.  In today's fast moving world, readers want to quickly know if what you've written might be something that'll interest them.  If it takes too long to understand, they'll move on.  God knows there's plenty in the world that'll meet their needs.

From authors much more accomplished than I, here are a few more:

Time travelers help the South win the Civil War - Guns of the South.

A boy wizard tries to stop the return of a malevolent sorcerer - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

A haunted hotel tries to absorb the psychic abilities of a young boy - The Shining.

Reducing a plot to a single sentence is the conundrum I find myself in with my current novel, The Onyx Cluster.  It's a complicated time travel novel about an arrogant scientist who accidentally travels to an apocalyptic wasteland.  Sure, this sentence gives a little bit, but the story has so much more that I know I can find a better description.  I think this is one of the keys to putting out a good story - finding a way to hook people in one sentence.  Remembering this will make your work better.  I only hope I can do the same now, otherwise I'm wasting a lot of time.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Similes And Metaphors

Description.  It can be a hard thing.  Since a writer's medium is descriptive rather than visual, we have to find ways to induce visualization within the minds of our readers.  Such a thing is hard enough when the mind of the reader is open, but it stretches towards impossible when either that person has a closed mind or the writer has a style that would put jittery cats to sleep.

So how do we best open the minds of our readers?  The easiest way is through the use of direct comparison using similes and metaphors because we've all either had experiences like the ones described, thus giving us reference, or because the description is so vivid that our mind automatically creates a link.

I can talk all day about wet pavement and the loss of friction on a roadway, but nothing matches quite like saying something is as slick as ice.  I could say that my character is a lowlife cheating scum who is always unfaithful, but that doesn't serve as well as saying he's a dog.  These descriptors do in a sentence what might take a whole paragraph otherwise.

However, a word of caution here - like with most things, don't overdo it.  You can end up turning your work into a joke if you rely too much on these literary devices.  Dan Rather has been the butt of many jokes for his constant overreach with crazy similes and metaphors.

Along those same lines, make your simile and metaphor use relatable to the general public.  Saying a woman's hair is as golden as the sun gives 99.9% of your audience a reference point they can understand, but saying that the dimples in her cheeks are like the indentation points on the outer rings of a used manifold assembly will go right over most people's heads.  You can perhaps get away with one of those outlandish descriptors once or twice in a loooooong novel, but no more than that.  People will quickly get irritated and put down your work.

Think of your simile and metaphor use like a serving of garlic or cinnamon - in careful doses, such things can make your work even better, but used too often, they overwhelm the flavor.  The point of them is to help readers appreciate the dish, not to make them the dish.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Advantages of Indie Publishing

Since I went over the drawbacks of indie publishing last week, I felt it only fair to revisit the good that indie publishing provides for writers.  I still think it's the wave of the future, and the future is now.

1.  You have control.  As I said last week, it's all on you.  Some folks don't like that, but I'm not one of them.  In indie, I get to decide things like my work schedule, my cover art, and my marketing strategy.  If something doesn't work, I can change it.  If I like something, I can try it.  I'm not reliant on anybody else having a greater say in my own work than me.

2.  You retain rights and profits.  I've heard story after story of authors fighting to get the rights back to their work after their publisher made the arbitrary decision to stop their print run.  As an indie writer, it's on you to decide if your work shows promise to continue to market, and you don't have to beg someone else's permission to use your own stuff.  Better than that is that all the money you make beyond overhead and startup costs is yours.  You needn't worry about royalty rates and checks every six months; you get to put all that profit right back into your bank account.

3.  Edits.  Any writer worth his or her salt wants to show the work to someone else for feedback.  If you don't do this, you're an idiot.  However, as an indie author, you get to decide if you want to incorporate feedback rather than yielding that decision to an editor in New York.  Perhaps there are things in there that I put in there on purpose.  Maybe they give it form and help shape the story I want to tell.  In traditional publishing, you have to accept the "suggested" edits of your literary agent, publishing editors, and publishing executives, or you find yourself with no prospects unless your name is King, Rowling, or Patterson.

4.  What's your best medium?  Again, back to the control thing.  Do you want to publish exclusively in ebook format?  How many copies do you want to print?  Is this Kindle exclusive, or do you want to branch out into Smashwords?  In indie, you get to make these decisions.

5.  Getting past the gate.  The biggest frustration for new authors is getting past the gatekeepers in publishing.  We all want our work out there, but traditional publishing acts as a gatekeeper that hems in new writers when it should be the market that does that.  With indie, you can publish and let readers decide if you've got the chops.

Suffice to say that I'm still big on the indie bandwagon.  With the contraction of the traditional publishing model and the expansion of technology that lets us bypass them, indie is how things are going to be done.  Unless you strike gold under a full moon, your chances for success are better in indie.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Muse - Energy

She sauntered around me, whispering into my ear and tousling my hair.  "It's all coming together, isn't it?" she cooed.

I tried keeping my eyes in the screen.  Even focusing on the work at hand, I couldn't control the smile that came to my lips.  Ever since that scare where I was afraid my Muse left me, it was a joy just to see her so revitalized.  Exhausting to be sure, but still a joy.

"Remember that time stream," she gently chided.  "If Forsythe doesn't place enough emphasis on it, the reader will never realize that that's where he's going to fail."

"I remember," I replied.

"Oh, and then look at how you're going to separate The New Order from The Restoration of the Republic."  A short pause.  "Then remember that victors right the history books and some things are only propaganda.  The Devil can use that to his advantage in the Megiddo Valley."

I stopped typing and looked up at her.  "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Just spinning out ideas, honey."

"Yeah, but those ideas are for other books.  I need to stay focused on this one."

"But it's just so much fun to have you back!" she declared.  "I thought for a while that we were done, but you've found me.  Now go find that hellhole in the backcountry where your assassin finds his way to the point where he can kill the dictator before it's too late."

I sighed...heavily.  My Muse hadn't had this much energy since my younger days.  Finishing a 225,000 word novel, and doing the bulk of it in less than two months, put such juice in her system that I wondered if she was even capable of a coherent thought.

"We can and will get to all those," I said.  "For the moment, though, we need to worry about our post-apocalyptic future under the control of the Onyx Cluster.  The rest of that will have to wait."

"But I don't want you to miss anything," she said with a giggle.

"I can't have all these competing ideas," I said.  "You keep doing this and you're going to overload me.  Kind of like overdosing on medication, too much of this stuff will make it so that none of it works."

She walked back over to the bed and sat down, her lower lip sticking out a little.  After a few seconds, she tucked it back in and said, "Fine, be that way.  Go ahead and have Forsythe look at the observatory.  He should find a few answers there."

"But shouldn't the phantoms be there?" I asked.

"No.  They're more interested in crowds as being a threat to the Cluster.  He doesn't yet know his importance, and they'll back off for now."

Convinced I pulled her back on track, I returned to my keyboard and belted out the next couple of hundred words.  It was good to have her healthy again, but chock full of such vitality made dealing with her a challenge...and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hooking

One of the biggest pieces of advice regarding writing that I've heard from...well...nearly everyone, is that you need to hook your readers early, preferably on the first page.  I was in a discussion on another website, and I got to thinking, What the hell does that really mean?

Too many writers, in my humble opinion, read this to mean they have to begin with some sort of gangbusters action.  Start with a battle!  A car chase!  A murder!  I, on the other hand, think this is often a horrible way to start a novel.  Sometimes starting off with action makes sense because it fits the overall pace of the story, but I usually wonder why I should give a shit about this football game/rape scene/courtroom drama.  I have no idea who the characters are, yet I'm supposed to be instantly drawn into caring about the outcome?  I don't even know who to root for yet.  What if I accidentally start pulling for the guy who eventually becomes the villain?

However, mature writers know that there's more to hooking people than just a truck explosion or torrid love scene.  You can hook a reader with the right catchphrase or dialogue.  Maybe you've found a unique way to describe a setting, and the mood overtakes the reader from the outset.  Whatever it is, it's more dependent on your talent as a writer than it is on whether enough gunshots are fired.

That said, whatever way you start your novel, you have to be able to grab a reader's attention early.  Especially in today's culture of instant gratification, people get bored quickly.  There are so many other outlets for the mind that getting someone to take the time to read what you wrote requires effort.  Most people will give a writer the first ten pages or the first chapter to grab their attention.  If the author hasn't captured that person's interest by that point, most readers will simply put the book down and look for something else(even "serious" readers will do this).  Some are even more harsh, looking at what comes out of the first page to see if they need to continue.  While I find this confining, it's still the reality of the world in which we live.

This is where beta-readers are so important.  A good beta-reader will be able to tell you if you got his or her attention.  If you didn't, ask why not.  Ask what you could've done to grab someone by the balls and not let go.  Sometimes the answer is nothing.  Maybe you have a bad idea, or maybe you have a good idea that doesn't translate well to books.  Whatever it may be, if readers don't read you, your work will be wasted, so move on.  However, there's usually something that can be done to spice it up, and our beta-readers, being as self-important as we writers are, will leap at the chance to tell you what you could've done to get their interest.

Remember, find a way to hook 'em.  Remember as well that such a thing can be more than a massive battle.  Just do something different and in a way that gets notice.  If you can pull people through that door, they'll find themselves walking willingly, even eagerly, before they know what hit them.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Drawbacks of Indie Publishing

For all the fanfare I give indie publishing, there are some drawbacks to going into this whole book thing without a traditional publisher.  It isn't for the feint of heart, and it's probably a good idea to review some of the potential pitfalls you'll encounter in indie publishing should you choose to go that route.

1.  There's no one to push you but the audience.  If you're a self starter, this isn't a big deal.  However, if you're the kind of person who needs someone standing over your shoulder telling you how much to write each day, then look elsewhere.  Indie is for self-starters.  You'll never succeed if you require supervision, for there is no one but you.

2.  You need a knowledge of how to run a business.  I've often said that writing is a business.  The main point, whether we like it or not, is to sell our work.  If you go with a traditional publisher, whichever house accepts you will take care of figuring out payment rates, doing cost analysis on the print price, and determining the legal hurdles you'll have to jump in order to bring your novel to market.  In indie, however, you need to research this stuff on your own.  Lots of writers go into traditional publishing precisely because they want to avoid all that boring business stuff.  If you don't want to be figuring out what your ideal profit point is, don't go into indie.

3.  Formatting and editing.  If you go to a traditional house, they'll put your book into a readable format.  Further, they'll have so many editors that their advice/recommendations will be coming out of your ears.  In indie publishing, you have to seek out editors and beta-readers.  No one is going to knock down your door and demand to read your novel so they can critique it and check the grammar.

4.  Cover art.  I personally like finding someone to do the cover art myself.  As the writer, I know what I want my cover to look like.  However, this can be a lot of extra work, so many writers prefer traditional houses that do that stuff for them.  If all you want to do is give a vague description of what you want your cover to look like while someone else coordinates it all, then seek out a traditional publishing house.

5.  Marketing.  Okay, this one isn't as prominent as it once was since most authors are expected to do a good deal of the marketing themselves.  However, there are things you won't have to worry about, like getting yourself into stores and putting them on Amazon.  Your publisher should do that  for you, just like they should get you an ISBN.  However, with indie, it's on your to find outlets for your work.  If you feel that'll distract you too much from writing, go traditional.

These are just a few things indie writers need to consider.  I personally feel the advantages outweigh the drawbacks, but that decision has to be up to each person.  If you're a self starter/control freak(like I am), then you may want to look into indie.  If that's all too much for you, try your damnedest to get a traditional publishing contract.

Next week, a refresher in indie advantages...

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Remembering

Whenever I get an idea for a blog post, I jot it down in the notebook I have sitting by my computer.  I do this so that when it comes time to write, I'm not scrounging for ideas.  Most of the time, I write down a title that lets me easily remember just what I wanted to talk about.  However, there are times when I look at what I scribbled and wonder, "What the hell was I thinking about?"

I recently came across that phenomenon when I looked at a title called "Dissociative Properties."  Pondering it, I started to wonder what I meant.  I know I could probably take such a thing and turn it into a halfway decent post, but I'm equally sure that it wouldn't be anywhere close to what I was thinking about when I wrote it down.

This isn't the first time this has happened.  No, it doesn't happen often, but it does occur.  Maybe it's just my age starting to creep in.  Am I really going to have to start writing a brief synopsis of what I was thinking about?  The whole point behind the quick note to myself was so that I could write down the idea and come back to it later.  If I have to start writing out in advance, it's going to defeat part of the purpose.

I know, I know...I'm whining.  I just can't, for the life of me, remember what I wanted to say in conjunction with that title.  Maybe I can ponder it for a while and it'll all come back to me.  Maybe not.  But don't laugh - you may see this one in a future post...

...or I might pretend I never wrote it at all, at which point you'll never get to see it, so there!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

How Off Kilter Can You Go?

There's a reason authors write the way we do - readers prefer it.  There's a set style that allows for a comfortable flow of information.  If we stray too far from that general structure, readers can quickly get irritated and put your book down in frustration.

But does that mean we can never deviate from the norm?  I think such an idea is restraining.  It shouldn't be done often, for that detracts from the effect, but if used sparingly, I think a little unconventional writing can enhance your story and get the reader even more into it.

The biggest reason to vary the way we write is to convey the right tone.  Written words are awful at getting across tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, etc.  That's why telling a story as opposed to writing one is always the preferable choice, for we can then make sure we convey the way we want it to be perceived.  We know where the proper emphasis needs to go and just how light or dark the tone should be.

Still, how to do this in our stories?

Let me again go back to one of my favorites, that master writer known as Stephen King.  King peppers his books with out of place ellipses and paragraph structures that look totally random, but when taken within the context of the novel, help set the right mood.

Most of us aren't as good as King, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.  Without experience, we'll never master this aspect of storytelling.  What I suggest is to start small - try sprinkling in italics or the occasional odd use of punctuation.  Then, give it to a beta-reader to read and see if they get your meaning.  If you have an honest beta-reader, that person will quickly let you know if you get annoying.  As you gain confidence and get more comfortable with what you want to do, you can spice up a story for publication with such things(please note that I said "spice up," not "overload with chili peppers and curry...a little bit goes a long way).

A large number of those "in the know" in traditional publishing warn against this, but I think it's because they've seen too many newbies overload their stuff with unconventional writing, so much so that it loses effect.  You want to dab a few spots into your work, not saturate it(I also believe that they're afraid of the new, which is why they shy away from it).  I won't tell you to throw caution to the wind, but if you look outside to see just how hard that wind is blowing, you might be surprised by what you can get away with, and that will make you a better writer.