Sunday, July 31, 2016

Always Remember Your Permissions

In our media saturated culture, we’re constantly bombarded with movie lines, song lyrics, and witty pictures of cats that look like Einstein.  We post these to our social media pages without thinking twice.  However, places we need to think twice are our novels and our blogs.

I spoke a long time ago about why I rarely post pictures to this blog anymore.  It’s real easy to search for a funny picture on the internet and give it a goofy caption, but without permission of the photographer, you can find yourself having to pay lots of money you don’t have since it could be a copyright violation.

Song lyrics are the same way.  Some books use jaunty lyrics or a sad refrain to help shape the story, but if you look on the acknowledgements page, you should find where the label in question gave permission to the author to do so.  Without said permission, the singer or record label could sue the pants off of the writer for use of copyrighted material without permission.  So don’t go quoting your favorite Stevie Wonder song or Rolling Stones hit unless you’ve contacted them to make sure it’s okay.  And if you’re lucky enough to do that, get their permission in writing.

The “in writing” part is important.  If you don’t have that, consider that you don’t have permission.  It doesn’t matter if Sylvia from the secretarial pool said it was okay over the phone – her boss, or her boss’ boss, can say that you never got sanctioned permission, and *BAM* - lawsuit.

Obviously I wish it wasn’t this way.  There are lots of great lines, lyrics, and pictures out there that can enhance our work, but the law is the law, and you violate it at your own risk.  Put yourself in the position of the artist whose work you’re using – how would you feel if they used it without your permission in a way your found objectionable?  Maybe it gets used in a way you don’t care about, but not only did you work hard to be original, you also have to protect your work since if you start to overlook it with some stuff, your own legal rights may be damaged when someone uses it in a way you don’t like.

Quote your favorite movie to your friends all you like.  Sing Aerosmith songs or Billy Joel songs in the car until your vocal cords give out.  Share that funny cat pic on social media and make your friends laugh.  Just be wary of doing so on your blog or in a book you’re writing.  The financial and legal pain that might come with it could derail your career before it gets off the ground.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Forgotten Threads

The beginning of any book is full of possibilities, for the story can spin off in any direction.  You get introduced to characters and learn their history, so the novel takes on a life of its own.  The danger in all of this, of course, is that you either find yourself pinned in a corner, or you put things in that you later find have no relevance to the story. 

However, you don’t always want to remove those things since they enhance what you’ve written.  Sure, excess threads and irrelevant parts are easily excised, but sometimes those parts are woven into other threads that are part of the whole book, so taking them out simply isn’t possible.  That’s when things get tricky, because readers often wonder where they go.

I’ve done this in my own work.  In Salvation Day, the main character has a pretty big fight with his boss(who is a complete prick).  The sequence is meant to show the indifference the protagonist encounters in the job, and how it sends him spinning into Satan’s arms, but I dropped the boss like a bad habit after the first hundred or so pages.  He played a pretty big part in that first bit, but after there’s no more use for him, he’s never seen again.  I recognize that this leaves a pretty big hole in those wondering whatever happened to that asshole, but there was no other place to bring him back(although maybe there’ll be a place in the sequel).

Unfortunately for me, that’s not the only example.  I have a couple of other loose threads in that book, as well as a few in other novels.  It just seems that when a thread loses its usefulness, I drop it and don’t provide much resolution since I see the main story as the reason people are reading the story.  However, a few beta-readers have asked me what happened to (insert thread here), so it got me thinking about how to resolve such things.  I want to give satisfaction, but I also don’t want to ramble and take away from the main plot.

I think this comes back to planning carefully and trying, hard though it may be, to having foresight about where your story goes.  Those that meticulously outline can better keep track of these things, but those of us who outline a little but fly more by the seat of our pants are the ones most at risk for this.  That doesn’t make it necessarily bad, but I’m sure it can be frustrating for our readers.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


As writers, we consider ourselves better educated than most, especially when it comes to our vocabularies.  We love to toss around large words that only a few will know in order to show how smart we are.  Sometimes this use of language is part of us and our everyday conversation, but often we’ll use a higher vocabulary just to be an erudite prick.

There’s a fine line between educated and elitist.  Elitism is fine if you revel in making people feel small, but when it comes to getting people to read our work, elitism tends to drive people away.  Few people read to begin with, and those that do like to think of themselves as educated also.  Showing off with verbose pomposity will make people desert you.

I’m not saying to dumb down your language, but rather to consider your audience.  You would speak differently to a group of Soldiers than you would to a group of lawyers, so writing to your target audience should be no different.  What’s their reading comprehension level?  In what style do they like to be spoken to?  Will they get your obscure reference, or will they scratch their heads while wondering what you mean?

Handy tip – if your readers are regularly scrambling for a dictionary, you aren’t doing your job, which is to communicate your story in a way that’s both enjoyable and easily understood by the audience.  Further, if you try to use big words that you don’t normally use in an attempt to sound like a big shot, your audience will see through it.  You’ll sounds like you’re searching, and your word choice will come off as forced.

Think about all of this in advance, and double check it again as you go back over your stuff.  If you think your readers will have questions about your word choice, chances are that they will.  Getting people to read your work is hard enough – don’t increase the level of difficulty.

Sunday, July 24, 2016


A recent article by a guy named Michael Kozlowski caught my eye.  Kozlowski makes the claim that a glut of indie writers has caused ebook sales to slump while pushing sales of traditionally published hardcover books to climb.  Kozlowski believes that most indie books are garbage, so readers are eschewing them to go back to the good old days when you went to a brick and mortar store to find great books.

Aside from inconvenient facts like how most location book stores carry only a fraction of titles, it’s true that lots of indie books suck.  However, what folks like Kozlowski forget is that most books in print suck.  Most of what you find it atrocious, and I don’t think it makes a difference if the work is traditionally or independently published.  Further, the reason that ebook sales aren’t doing as well with traditionally published works is that traditional publishers ignore the market and try to charge hardcover prices for ebooks.  People simply aren’t going to pay the same rate for an electronic file that they will for a hardcover.

In the comments, Kozlowski says that indie ebooks should be segregated from traditional ebooks since most of them are just so awful.  And yes, he means that every bit as condescending as it sounds.  What he fails to note is that most successful indie authors have a hardcore group of fans who eagerly await each title and are willing to buy it.  It may not be as sexy as James Patterson selling millions of copies, but it’s enough for indie writers to do things a lot of traditionally published writers can’t do, like make a living on their sales.

Saying ebook sales are slumping because of a glut is asinine.  Sales for higher priced works may be down, but the indie world is doing just fine online.  In essence, Kozlowski is arguing that consumers have too much choice, and that such a high volume of choice makes it impossible to find anything good.  This is like saying there are too many types of ketchup in the grocery store, so people avoid ketchup altogether.  Think about the absurdity of that statement for a moment.

Choice drives the market.  Yes, it takes some weeding through, but you can sample lots of varieties(as people tend to do at Amazon) in order to find out what you like best.  When has taking choice away ever been good for a consumer?

So take such wild claims with a grain of salt, and consider the agenda/bias of those making the claim.  It lets you put it into better context so you can know if what is being touted has merit, or if it’s nothing more than bullshit.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Character Or Story?

The classic conundrum any writer faces is whether to make the story or the characters the central focus of our work.  Do we want a fantastical adventure where our characters are merely along for the ride, or do we want great characters that find themselves in the middle of extraordinary events?

There are great examples of both sides of this coin throughout literary history.  In The Shining, Jack Torrence is built up as the everyman who succumbs to both ghosts and alcoholism to find himself in the middle of a ghost story at the Overlook Hotel.  At the other end of the spectrum, the saga of the Galactic Empire after the Battle of Endor involves dozens of characters who, although mostly familiar to us, are vehicles through which Timothy Zahn tells an epic space opera.

As always, most stories find a balance either way, but it really got me thinking and looking back at my own work.  Some of what I’ve written – Salvation Day, Wrongful Death – is extremely character based.  The story has no relevance without the main character.  Others – Homecoming, Schism – are meant to convey a story where the central characters are fungible.

To me, it comes down to what I want to tell, and even that can be dependent on the moment.  Did the character come to me first, or the story idea?  As it evolved, which became more prominent.  In my own experience, I’ve found it more likely for my characters to develop into a story than for my story to develop into my characters.  Maybe it’s just me.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Why Are Villains So Popular?

A villain is supposed to be…well…bad.  They’re the antagonist of any story, and they’re supposed to be made so that people will instinctively root against them and for the hero.  So why has it become in vogue for people to root for the bad guy?

Darth Vader, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Lord Voldemort, Negan - these are the supremely evil beings that were designed to give the hero a challenge, yet lots of people seem drawn to them.

I think the first point of this is what I identified above – in order to give a hero a challenge, we have to give that hero an opponent worthy of the quest.  And since most stories are told from the point of view of the hero, with all their initial weaknesses meant to be obstacles to overcome, the villain appears so strong at first.  In order to present the necessary challenge, we never give the villain’s weaknesses right off the bat, and people are naturally drawn to strength.  Think about it – every sports team has bandwagon fans who jump onboard as soon as that team starts to win.  Villains are no different since they’re winning at first and look to be invincible.

Also, since we rarely see things from the villain’s point of view, we’re never presented with the villain’s insecurities, so the bad guy looks supremely confident.  Confidence is also another natural draw, as people want to be led by someone who is sure he knows what he’s doing.  If we saw Darth Vader from the beginning as a whiny child throwing a tantrum, his appeal would’ve been immediately curtailed.

The few villains I’ve read about that didn’t draw people in were those I’ve seen through their own eyes, like Jake Featherston.  Jake Featherston was a Hitler knock off in Harry Turtledove’s Great War saga.  Unlike many villains, where we see little but their successes and rarely touch on true atrocity, Turtledove does an excellent job making us hate Featherston from the beginning.  We see how nasty he can really be – racist, anti-Semitic, petty, and cruel beyond belief – and we also see his insecurities over his rise to the top of a Confederacy that continued past 1865.  It allows us to get onboard the Good Guy Train without ever being drawn towards the bad.

Great villains can be iconic, but I don’t think we want people rooting for them.  Maybe this happens because people want “gritty,” but I think a lot of it stems from our own failure to understand human nature and create bad guys no one loves.

Sunday, July 17, 2016


While reading a series of posts regarding contract rights byKathryn Kris Rusch, I noted just how grabby of author rights traditional publishing houses have gotten.  They include clauses to have rights well beyond what they’re producing(the book), such as rights to compensation for any future mediums of production, or film rights down the road should your work ever be optioned.  The contracts have gotten so grabby that authors will have to get permission to reprint any of their work in any altered medium(like, say, a foreign language translation).

What does all this lead to?  It should serve as a reminder that publishing houses are not your friends.  I don’t mean this as some put down, but rather as a statement of professional fact.  Should you choose to go the traditional publishing route, the house you sign with is a business partner, not a buddy.  Yes, you might have friendly relationships with individual editors and agents, but they come and go all the time.  What remains is the publishing house, and that house is looking to make as much money as possible.  That you get published is merely a side benefit to you.

In a perfect world, this would be an equitable partnership where both parties treat each other fairly.  But if the world was perfect, I’d be 6’10”, 240lbs, with perfect teeth and playing QB for my favorite football team.  So let’s stay in the real world, and in the real world, traditional publishing houses believe they have authors, especially unpublished ones, over a barrel.  They know you want access to the market, so they use their superior bargaining position to demand all kinds of stuff they don’t need.

You have to be willing to walk away.  That’s right, even if it costs you a contract.  Otherwise, you can end up being indentured to the company and lose control of not only the book you’re currently shopping, but future works as well.  Don’t let them bully you – they need new writers as much as you need to get published.  Most writers don’t like gritty business stuff(that’s why many want to go traditional), but you have to unless you enjoy getting taken advantage of.

Remember, it’s a business relationship, not a friendship.  Treat it that way.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Too Perfect?

Heroes are (usually) the focal point of our stories.  We need a main character to battle the evil forces and come out victorious in the end, all while displaying to us the virtues we wish we had in our own lives.  However, in our quest to create the right hero, can we make our heroes too perfect?

I think this definitely used to be the case a few decades ago.  The dashing hero would rush in, flash his pearly whites, save the princess, and then tell the kids to make sure to take their vitamins and tell the truth.  While good advice, I think it was this kind of goodness excess that turned people off of some classic stories.

Yes, we want our heroes to persevere and overcome, maybe while showing a little more character than we possess ourselves, but a hero that’s too good can seem unrelatable to our audience.  Most people are basically good, yet deeply flawed.  We have an ideal we strive for, but when we read, we want to see ourselves in the role of hero if we only found that little something extra we wish we had.  Putting a hero on too high a pedestal makes it so that an audience can’t see them.

That’s why our heroes need flaws.  Maybe the cop who doggedly pursues the serial killer has a drinking problem.  Perhaps the pirate going after the corrupt naval captain is unable to commit to just one woman.  Possibly the chosen one destined to defeat the evil wizard is prone to bouts of anger.  Whatever it is, we want to be able to picture ourselves in that role, and since we all have flaws, we expect those we admire to have flaws too.

Of course, we can’t make the flaws too dire.  The hero who robs a bank to save his dying child might – might – be acceptable, but not if he kills the mother and baby huddled in the corner.  A hero should be just slightly better than we are, but only enough that we can see ourselves reaching that pinnacle.  The more perfect the hero, the fewer people he or she will appeal to.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Putting Yourself In A Corner

At the beginning of any writing project, the possibilities are endless.  You can take a story and spin it off in any direction you choose.  This, of course, is the daydreaming stage, which although fun, isn’t entirely why we went into this business.

We went into it to write.

Taking that daydreaming and putting something concrete on paper is what I find the most interesting.  My story can finally find voice!  Unfortunately, if you’re not careful, you can write yourself into a corner, and the further into the story you go, the greater the potential for that corner becomes.

The reason for this, obviously, is that having any semblance of consistency and sense in your work requires that things not change dramatically from the framework you’ve previously built.  If your hero is a swashbuckling pirate who chases women across the ocean, you can’t suddenly make the focal point to be the dwarf who plundered inland and decided to create his own empire.  Not only would it confuse people, but it would also make your book unmarketable since no one wants to be all that confused by what they read.

What this all means is that you have to be patient and focused with your book so that it goes in the direction you want it to.  This all sounds easy, but those who’ve spent any time writing understand that all it takes is one unnecessary tangent for things to spin out of control.  And they don’t spin out of control all at once – one minor thing leads to another minor thing…and before you know it, you’re 50 pages in and figure out that what you’ve written is garbage.

That’s when you have to make a choice, neither of which is pleasant.  You can continue down the road you’re on, changing your story and hoping it gets better, or you can go back to the point of divergence and scrap what you wrote past that.  Sometimes we cling to the first choice since we figure we’ve done all this work and don’t want it to go to waste.  Other times we curse and stomp around like a three year old when we know that we’ve wasted weeks writing what’s no longer any good.

I vote for stomping around and starting over.  I’ve made the mistake in the past of staying on bad material(Canidae), and it only means you’ll have that much more to re-write when you finally come to your senses.  Focus on your work.  Go back and re-read it to make sure it makes sense.  If you need to, write a little bit and then ask a beta reader to chime in.  It’ll be a pain in the ass, but it’ll keep you out of that corner.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Time Off

Okay, I’ve been violating my own rules.  The consistent readers of this blog – both of you – know that I often say that writing is like going to the gym.  Doing it every day creates a habit, while skipping a day makes it easier to skip the next day as well.  That said, I haven’t written anything except this blog since I completed After Armageddon.

In other words, I’ve been a lazy bastard.  And it’s been great.

I needed to refresh myself after completing three novels, one of which was the longest I’ve ever written, in the past year.  So I decided to take a break from writing.

I haven’t been a completely lazy turd.  Most of you know I just returned from a year overseas with work, and I’ve been getting acquainted with my new job.  I’ve also been spending time with my family and our new house.  And then there’s this blog, which helps me keep up at least stroking on the keys.  However, I haven’t started any new projects, despite an itch to do so.

Part of it is to not worry if I don’t reach a certain word count each day.  Part of it is that I want to devote maximum effort to bringing Akeldama into the public square.  Since it will be my first book out, and will be out in a little less than a year, I need to make sure I do everything I can to do it right, and a new book would distract me from that.

And you know what?  I’m okay with this.  I’ve written nine total novels in the past few years, and I need to get them out to see if I can do this for a living before I embark on a new time consuming crusade.  I intend to write the occasional short story when the urge hits me since I both need an outlet for my imagination and I will be bringing out a short story collection at some point after I’m established, but that’ll be the extent of it.  It’s time to move forward with publication rather than writing.

Plus, writing was becoming a chore, something I didn’t enjoy as much as I used to.  Therefore, a break will allow me to be reinvigorated whenever I get back into it.  We all need time off.

Thursday, July 7, 2016


I know what you’re thinking – oh goody, here comes another lecture about looking over your work.  Well…you’re right.

I encountered this recently when a reader of this blog discovered a mistake I made while writing a post.  The ironic thing was that this post was about not having enough time to catch all the mistakes in my work.  Had I been quicker on my feet, I’d have said that I was using irony at the end of my post to demonstrate my point, but truth is that I just didn’t catch it.

The reason for bringing this up is that so many of us rely on the normal spellchecking function of our computers and phones to catch mistakes.  And they’re great…when you misspell a word that has no other spelling.  However, oftentimes we’ll misspell something that’s actually the correct spelling of another word(just not the one we meant to use).  For example, in the above mentioned post, I meant to use the word “like.”  Unfortunately, what I wrote was the word “life.”  And I was lazy in not checking, so it slipped through into a post.

In a blog post, it’s nothing catastrophic.  Sure, it’s embarrassing, but it’s fixable.  Imagine your horror if something like that slipped through everything in a novel you’re working on.

This is why proofreading, and then getting someone to copyedit your work, is so important.  When you proofread, read your stuff out loud, no matter how silly you may feel.  It’s real easy to zip right past a mistake like that when you’re silently reading it to yourself, but it gets much more noticeable when you say the words.  Then go to copyediting(hard for a blog post, but a must for a novel).  Having another person take a look will allow them to see mistakes that will slip by you, especially if your computer didn’t catch it.

Yes, this all sounds silly, but it helps separate amateurs from professionals.  And don’t we all want to be professional.  I been, don’t me?
(See – I can still be silly with my points)

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


While reading a blog post the other night about how to generate conflict within your novel, it got me to thinking – what causes it?  Yes, I see conflict all the time when I turn on a TV show or read a novel, but I rarely go out in life looking for conflict.  I’m not talking about holding a different opinion that might stir debate, but real conflict where the stakes are high.

Therefore, after spending some time brainstorming, I’ve come up with a few things that I’ve found I keep in mind while trying to create a plot:
1.  Differing moral systems.  No villain ever thinks he or she is a bad person.  Only in kiddie tales is the bad guy gleefully rubbing his hands together while cackling, all while expounding on how evil his scheme is.  Instead, conflict is the result of value systems that are at odds with each other.  Maybe one side believes that people aren’t mature enough to handle responsibility, so they want to impose order that will safeguard society, while the other side thinks people should be able to do as they please unless that freedom inflicts physical harm.  These two belief systems are in direct conflict, and they can lead to tension for a story.

2.  Scarcity.  Believe it or not, most alien invasion novels are about scarcity.  Maybe Earth is one of the few worlds suited for life, so aliens need it to colonize.  Maybe there’s some resource(oil, water, glitter) that only exists here, and there’s not enough for everyone, so a survival mode takes over that seeks maximum benefit for its own side.  Perhaps aliens need humans for food because they don’t have enough.  Regardless of the reason, lack of resources will create a fight.

3.  Love.  Love causes all kinds of conflict, especially if it exists between two people competing for it over a third person.  As much as society has changed, we’re not at the point where most of us are willing to accept sharing our love interest with someone else.  Vying for affection, or trying to rub out a rival for that affection, underlies the conflict for many stories throughout history.

4.  Ambiguity.  Ambiguity can cause conflict because we act in absence of all the information.  This seems to be the basis of most crime dramas – no one knows exactly who killed the professor, so we have to try and fill in those blanks.  Sometimes we get it wrong, which can lead to even more conflict.

Whatever the reason, as you begin to outline the plot of your novel, think heavily about the underlying conflict.  Stories with depth have a backstory that demonstrates why the conflict exists, and that depth is felt by the audience.  So spend some time pondering why there’s conflict in your book – it’ll show in the final product.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Genre Vs. Business

Like many, some of my stuff doesn’t fit neatly into a genre box.  Just where do you place a supernatural thriller with a hint of mystery and a tinge of sci-fi?  Shouldn’t we be able to place our work into the public domain without narrowly confining it to a box that might not be perfect?

Sure…and while we’re at it, I’d also like to win the lottery.

As I’ve often reminded you, writing is a business.  That means that the point is not to make ourselves feel good by putting out piece of art that only snooty people will appreciate, but rather to sell stuff to the public, and that requires the public to be able to find it.  The reason for categories of genre is so that readers will know where to find things that appeal to their interests.

As writers, we can gripe all we want about trying to cram our work into something that might not quite be right, but we better figure it out.  This requires swallowing our pride and balancing the merits of our work against the requirements of business.

Look at your novel and decide which category it best fits into.  Is it predominantly science fiction?  Is it a crime novel?  The fit doesn’t have to be perfect, but you need to find where it has most of its elements and where your potential audience will look.  And what if it doesn’t fit into anything?  Well, unfortunately, you might have to go back and do a massive re-write(I can hear the screeching from arteests now, but no one will find and buy your books…if you’re fine not making a living from writing, go ahead, but most of us want to make this a career, and we have to eat more than our dreams).

Think of genre as business.  Some of us enjoy that aspect; some of us don’t.  Regardless, it’s a consideration that has to come into play when we write.  Figuring it out beforehand can save a lot of heartache, but we have to figure it out at some point regardless.